¨A journey is like a marriage. The sure way to be wrong is to think you control it¨
My Favorite Travel Stories
Everyone has a repertoire of travel stories that they like to tell friends after a couple of glasses of wine. I would love to hear some of my fellow Fifty-Plus Nomad`s favorite stories.
Some of the standard stories that I have repeated so often that some friends know them by heart include the following:
- I can communicate in and understand two languages in the same conversation. At various times in my life, I was able to hold reasonably intelligent discussions in French, Spanish, Italian, and Russian. I have not had many chances to speak Russian for years. Thus, if I need to speak Russian, all the words come out at least for a couple of hours in French or Spanish, (Both of which I use frequently). I have had opportunities to talk to Russian language speakers who also speak Italian, French, and Spanish. We have played a little game where they talked to me in Russian, and I responded in their respective other languages. To our mutual surprise, we were able to hold long and reasonably fluent conversations. I can also easily watch a film in other Spanish with French subtitles or French with Spanish subtitles. (Strangely, I find this as easy as watching a film in Spanish or French with subtitle in their respective languages. Oddly, it is not that much more difficult for me to watch with subtitles in Spanish or English than ones with subtitles in English). I can also watch films in Russian with Spanish or French subtitles.
- I have eaten and enjoyed a lot of unusual dishes, including:
- Chapulines (grasshoppers) in Mexico (a bit too chewy for my taste but a decent replacement for peanuts in a bar).
- Salo in Russia. Sala is salted or highly fermented, aged pork (sometimes smoked) usually eaten with butter on brown bread. It is also often accompanied by vodka. (I love this dish, but most Americans I know find it too fatty for their taste).
- Balut in the Philippines is a developing bird embryo boiled and eaten from the shell. In my experience, most people suck embryonic juice, and some people eat the fetus. (The juice tastes to me like a good bouillon. I have never eaten the embryo).
- As a kid, I would encourage my parents to let me try any restaurant featuring an unfamiliar cuisine. Thankfully, my parents were usually game. If not, they would let me know why they did not want to stop, and I would accept their explanations. (I figured out younger than most kids that my parents were more inclined to indulge me if I was pleasant). As a result, by an early age, I was quite a foodie. I loved clams, turtle and abalone meat, escargot (snails), frog legs, duck, brain, foie gras, cow cheeks, eel, sturgeon, and blood sausages. (Some of which I would not eat either today because it is either illegal or expensive). Other than the liver, I have never eaten a dish that I did not like. (Unless the cook did not prepare the plate properly). I particularly enjoy finding cities or countries, like Peru, Spanish Basque province, and Denmark, where the food is unexpectedly good. I also enjoy dining in venues ranging from street-side kiosks to five-star restaurants.
- Every time I return from a trip, someone asks me ¨How was your trip¨? My response is always something like: ¨It was much more interesting, pleasant, safer, (or some other positive adjective) than I expected¨. For five years, I lived with my parents around three to four months a year. At first, my father always asked me what I thought of the trip. However, after a while, he got so used to this response that instead, he asked me: ¨ How was the trip better than you thought?¨ Looking back, it reveals something interesting about me. I do see people and places with rose-colored glasses. I always look for and find something exciting and fresh about every place I visit.
- ¨I am pregnant¨ is one of the few Japanese phrases that I remember. I have always been heavy-set. When I was in Japan as an exchange student in 1979, people would look at me and say ¨You are fat¨. I found this insulting at first. But then I read that being fat to the Japanese traditionally meant that you were wealthy and healthy. One day while reading Berlitz English-Japanese phrasebook, I came across ninshin shite imasu, which means I am pregnant. I would use this expression in response to the comments about my weight. When I tried it out, everyone laughed so hard that I decided to keep using it.
- When I was in Israel in 1984, the inflation was so high that stores had to close every day for two hours to change the prices and travel agents had lines around the block. At the time, people could buy fully refundable tickets in US dollars and cash them in for US dollars when needed.
- While living in a host family in Oaxaca, Mexico for three weeks, I became a devoted fan of a telenovela Amor en Custodia. (A telenovela is a Spanish-language soap opera, mostly made in Mexico). My host family watched the telenovela and I decided that it would be a good exercise in Spanish to watch it along with them. I asked the family to tell me the plot synopsis and after they did I watched the show every day for my entire stay (and even sometimes afterwards). One day, the family had to go somewhere and they came back while I was watching the show. As they entered, I said something to the TV set like ¨Victoria hy did you do that., you are such a slut.¨in response to one of the plot twists. The whole family laughed and gave me a gentle ribbing for days afterwards.
- While in the same family, I watched ER and NCIS with Spanish subtitles. Since I had seen many of the episodes before, I decided to use the episodes to improve my Spanish justice and medical-related vocabulary. Everytime, I saw a word that I did not know, I would write down the word. I knew that the only way to really learn a word is through repition (preferably with some context). I decided to try to use these words in conversations with the family. After a couple of days, the family said ¨¨ Paul, you seem like a good guy but it is a bit weird that you talk so much about hospitals and police.¨I explained the reason why and every day they would begin the dinner time conversation by asking me for my latest medical or justicial related conversation.¨
Stories From My Experiences in Kaliningrad
My favorite stories come from my time as an English teacher in Kaliningrad, Russia, including the following. (Note: I was in Kaliningrad from 1994 to 1995. In the intervening 24 years, life in Russia has changed dramatically; I doubt these stories would happen in the same way today)
In the Classroom
- During my placement, I taught at a small business college called Kaliningrad Commercial College. The student body was 90% female of ages 17-19. (Most males of that age in Russia had to do army service). The students took courses in a variety of subjects including restaurant management (which, translated from Russian, is mass nutrition), pre-law, computers, and commerce. Teachers (who received only $60 pay per month) had to work additional jobs to make a living. As a result, the school was unable to maintain a stable schedule. Every day, I would find out what classes I would teach the next day. I had some groups of students for forty hours in a semester and others for six hours a semester. The school had a surprisingly advanced computer lab financed by a grant from Sweden. My classes had between 8 and 35 students each.
- On the first day of class, I asked the students what they like to do in their free time. One of my female students tested me by answering to “have sex.” Wanting to remain calm, I replied that most women prefer to “make love” since “having sex” referred to the physical act while “making love” was more romantic with champagne and roses. She replied, OK, I like to make love.
- Russians on the very first day of school have a special party to open the year. During this celebration, the teachers are introduced to the students. The headmistress of the school, introduced me by saying that “Paul is from America, he is single, and I hope he finds a wife here.” When I married one of her students nine months later, a radio program interviewed the headmistress. She advised potential students to come to her school because they might marry an American.
- For a month, I lived with one of the most interesting people I have ever met, Alexei Nikolaevich. About a month after I started teaching, I went into the small cafeteria in my dorm to order something to eat, and when I went to leave the restaurant, I found that I could not open the door. I looked around and noticed that one of my students (Nina, who later became my wife) was holding the door so that I could not leave. Nina, who I think was a little drunk at the time, told me that it was her birthday and that she wanted to introduce me to an old man, Alexei Nikolayevich. Alexei, who was born around the time of the Russian revolution.
- When I met Alexei, he was an old, blind gentleman. His father lived under house arrest for most of the first years after the Russian revolution when Alexei was a young man. His father talked to Alexei every day in a different language. One day he would speak English, the next French, the following day Russian, then German, and finally the local Siberian language. As a result, Alexei could speak many languages, nearly fluently. Since he had few opportunities to speak English to a native speaker, he could talk to me very fluently and intelligently. But he could only understand about 50% of what I said in response! Alexei became a math professor. He preferred social studies and languages to math but taught mathematics to avoid politics. Otherwise, he was afraid he could face the same problems as his father had with the Communist authorities.
- Some of my student responded to my class activities in a very entertaining manner. One time, I had my students try to act out a crime. In one scene the criminal had to appear in front of judge. The criminal pleaded that ¨he was a helpless victim of society. ¨ Oner student once told me he had a seance and conjured up the vision of Marilyn Monroe. Another student played Lenin and the student asked Lenin questions. When one student asked Lenin if he had a wife and children, the Lenin character replied something like ¨I do not have time for all those bourgeois concerns¨.
- During my first month teaching, I gave the students several short paragraphs to write. The best student in each class, invariably named Natasha, would turn in the paragraph on time. Her paper usually required several corrections. As time went on over the next month, I would get the rest of the students’ papers. As sure as clockwork, the papers got better and better as time went on. Usually, the best paper came from the worst student.
- After a couple of assignments, I asked the other teachers why this happened. They told me that during communist times it was essential that teachers could show the authorities that all their students mastered every topic (most students had 25 classes or more per semester) and the only way to do so was to allow one or two students to do all the work for the rest of the class. Those students would be paraded in front of the authorities during inspections to show how skilled everyone was. As a result, most students early on developed one or two subjects where they excelled and the rest of the time, they sort of slid by.
- Russian men and women acted different from each other in the classroom. Even though 90% of my students were female, my male students did most of the talking in the class. One day one of the other American volunteers, Kelly, invited me to visit her seventh-grade English class. All throughout the class the boys talked and fidgeted, and the girls remained still. The moment Kelly asked the class a question, every boy raised his hand to answer. Most of their answers were wrong. After one of the boys tried to answer the question, Kelly asked one of the girls if she knew the answer. Without fail, the girl student knew the answer.
- When I first went to Russia, our group of volunteers sat in on a class taught by a local English teacher. She spent the whole time gently chiding her students. We all thought she was too harsh. However, we often found ourselves criticizing our students at some point during our teaching. My turn took place about three months into my assignment. It was a cold; dreary day and I was just beginning to get a bit of a culture shock. I had one class where the students did not seem to respond to anything I did. Exasperated, I finally said, “I am tired of teaching you. I will get the school director to talk to you unless you shape up.” The next time the students met with me, they were all energetic and pleasant. I thought it was weird that after so little prompting they changed so much.
- A couple of days later I asked them what they wanted to learn from the class. They replied that they would like to learn about holidays in the USA and Russia. So, I started a lesson. It seemed to be going well so I asked them to write a paragraph about the holidays to be read aloud two weeks later. I realized this was a mistake when all but the best two or three students started reading paragraphs from textbooks. (They wrote them out so that it was not obvious.)
- Many of these students did not read the text first. As a result, they read paragraphs that were written before the fall of communism. (Nearly all the textbooks were old). So, several students started reading texts about the joys of celebrations on collective farms and how young people throughout the Soviet Union wanted to act just like “Uncle Lenin.” I listened to these texts and decided to let it go and use this as a reading aloud exercise. (This is good for pronunciation development). However, the brighter students in the class all started to have fun with these texts. During the reading the brighter students would make comments in Russian like “I didn’t know that we still have Pioneers in Russia” and “I am surprised that you still love Lenin so much.” The students reading the paragraphs at first looked amazed and then asked, “Is that what I read?” To which, the other students said, yes, and then they sat down with embarrassed looks on their faces.
- For two months before my classes in Kaliningrad, I took Russian language classes in Saint Petersburg. My first teacher was an old lady who was still a bit stuck in Soviet times. One day, she asked me as an exercise, what would you do if a genie told you he would grant you one wish but that whatever you asked for your neighbor would get twice as much as you? ¨. I responded that I would ask for the end of war. She said that is not a very Russian answer. A true Russian would ask to have one of his eyes gauged out so that his neighbor would have no eyes. I thought this was an odd answer, so I asked the same question to my students, their replies were much more normal: they wanted things like a big house or a rich boyfriend, etc.
Life Outside of the Classroom
- Kaliningrad is a small enclave of Russia on the Baltic Sea sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. At the time I was in Kaliningrad it had only been open to foreigners for four years after the fall of the Soviet Union. In Soviet times, it was a closed military base. (Kaliningrad is Russia´s only warm water port). I was there as a volunteer through World Teach. There were anywhere from 8 to 25 volunteers nd eight Mormon missionaries. Those were evidently the only Americans there at the time.
- The city before the war was part of Prussia (called Konigsberg). It was quite a beautiful city before the war. Little bits and pieces of its former glory remain today. (You can see what it used to look like by visiting the reconstructed old town in Gdansk, Poland -named Danzig before the war)- which used to be a sister city of Konigsberg). When I was there, Kaliningrad was mostly drab Soviet area concrete apartment blocks. Recently I watched a travel video on YouTube about Kaliningrad. It appears so much more modern and European than 1994 Kaliningrad.
- One day I was talking to one of my students who worked as a waitress in a restaurant for businessmen. She told me that she hated her job because her customers were always grabbing her in inappropriate places. A couple of days later I told this story to one of the American volunteers who had been in Russia for two years and spoke nearly fluent Russian. She told me that young Russian girls were often groped. Then she said that most ads for employees even requested employees “without complexes,” which, according to the volunteer, was code for “willing to sleep with the boss.”
- A couple of months after I stopped teaching I got a part time job teaching English to a young computer guru who worked for this very wealthy man. We met for his classes in one of the nicest apartments in the city. I noticed after a while that the apartment looked unlived in and asked the student about it. He told me that Russian businesses often kept apartments around the city where men could take their mistresses and that it was necessary to maintain such an apartment to attract clients
- I was in Russia on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. I turned on a popular TV talk show, called Mbi (Us) hosted by Vladimir Posner. He interviewed many young people who said that they wished that the Germans had won the war because Germany was so wealthy, and Russia today is so poor. Most of them had no idea that Hitler would have made them into slaves and when the elders in the audience expressed this sentiment, the young people just shrugged their shoulders. I felt sorry for the older people in the audience. Russia in many ways saved the world from the worst dictator in history. Millions of people died in the war and the young peoples’ reactions flew in the face of the tremendous sacrifice made by Russian people.
- However, I cannot be sanctimonious about the anniversary either. On the anniversary, my girlfriend Nina and I got in a little spat in front of an older woman who was selling fruit. The vendor said, “How can you act this way on such an important day. Do you realize how much we suffered in the war?” Justifiably chastised, I demurred and stopped arguing with Nina.
- Russia (when I was there at least) had a double pricing structure for foreigners and residents. While this pricing system is common in many countries, it is nowhere near as prevalent and unfair as Russia. It cost 20-40 times as much for a foreigner as for a Russian. The fees for Russians were among the lowest in the world. For foreigners, these fees were among the planet’s highest fees. This discrepancy angered me to no end. One day I went with Nina to a church in the Kremlin. She paid 40 cents and I was charged $7.50. I blew up at the little old lady ticket taker. I told her that this was not fair. I had lived there for a year, made a Russian wage, etc. She would not budge. Nina looked at me and said, “Paul, calm down, there is nothing you can do about it. t may be unfair, but you are making a fool of yourself.” I thought about it for a few minutes and realized that she was right. After that day I tried to negotiate with vendors and accepted whatever they said. Most of the time I paid the Russian fee. Yet, I will never get angry at the double standard again.
- During my stay, many people made money buying things at this huge outdoor market in Warsaw, Poland and selling them in Kaliningrad. (Many vendors from other parts of Russia also came to Kaliningrad to buy things from these vendors). Most of the vendors carried a large amount of money with them. As a result, rings of thieves in Poland would hijack the buses. To keep the vendors safe, the Polish police offered to protect the passengers for a fee of about $5 each. The police officers wrote down our passport numbers and names for their files. When I presented my passport, the officials told me I did not have to pay. The women sitting next to me complained and said ¨Why does he get special treatment; he has more money than we do. The official replied, ¨He is Americans. We like Americans¨. I was extremely uncomfortable until I heard the same conversation taking place about a Lithuanian later.
- One day I had a nice cashmere coat that I wanted to have cleaned at a dry cleaner. The dry cleaner would not let me give them the coat for dry cleaning until I had the buttons removed. (I hired someone to take off and sew on the buttons). I also had to handwrite and sign in Russian a long disclaimer in case they damaged the coat before they let me bring in the coat. (Other than all this bureaucracy, the coat came back clean and all in one piece).
- Most of the goods in the grocery store were behind the counter. Each item had a price tag on the shelf., and I had to go to a cashier and tell her the price of the item and pay. Then I would take the receipt to the counter and the clerk (usually dour) would give me the item. This was a daily struggle at first. It was hard for me to remember and then say the number correctly. At the time, Russia had very high inflation and the prices were very complex and precise (like 4091 rubles). (Note: In Soviet times, prices were precise because there was no profit, and accountants would calculate the cost of the item and charge that exact price to the customer)
Stories: A Little Knowledge Sometimes Pays Off in Unexpected Ways
Sometimes knowledge pays off in surprising ways, including:
- My Geography degree allowed me to get a master’s degree in Public Administration for next to nothing. On one of the first days of my master’s degree Program, I met a young woman who had a degree in Geography from Guyana. She told me that the school had just started a new Geography Department and needed Teaching Assistants. She informed me that as a teaching assistant I would receive free tuition and a generous monthly stipend. I called, and the department told me to come to visit them and have an interview. I dressed in a suit, prepared my resume, and practiced for my interview. When I got to the interview, the professors took one look at my resume and said: ¨Oh, you have a bachelor’s degree from Macalester College. That is a good college. When can you start working? ¨The most uncomplicated interview I have ever had.
- I know where Timbuktu is and why it was a prominent place. In US English, we say that someone is going to Timbuktu to indicate a distant, out of the way location. Almost no one knows anything about Timbuktu. In my first year in college, I saw this extra credit question on a test in my Human Geography class: Where is Timbuktu and why is it important? I was the first student who knew the answer. The answer: Timbuktu is in Mali. It was one of the most important cities in the gold trade in the 13th century. The gold trade made the King of Mali (from Timbuktu) Mansu Musa so rich that he paid for the construction of hundreds of mosques in cities from Timbuktu to Mecca.
Some Travel Stories Posts
- Maggie and the Mexican Hot Sheets MotelRoberta Rich wrote this article about staying in love motels in Mexico during her annual drive from Vancouver to Colima, Mexico. She stayed in these motels because they were the only places she could find that allowed dogs.
- 10 of My Favorite Travel Stories From Around the WorldThis blog contains some of Paul Heller’s, the Founder of Fifty-Plus Nomad, favorite stories about his ten or so years of traveling worldwide.
- Yaizu, Japan and Gatchina, Russia: My 2 Most Magical Travel ExperiencesTwo of the best moments of my life occurred while traveling. The first was the overwhelming kindness of Japanese people that I met spending summer 1979 as a fourteen-year-old exchange student in Yaizu, Japan. The second was an unexpended exclusive visit and dinner at the Czarist summer palace in Gatchina, Russia, in 1995.