Ethnocentricity: ONE

I have talked about ethnocentricity (where one believes one’s culture is superior to those of others) in my classes repeatedly, maybe ad nauseam. Having witnessed the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi last night, I realized that I could talk until I am blue in the face, but some “people” (and especially Americans) will NEVER learn.

I thought the opening ceremony was great, excellent, and IMHO the best of all Winter Olympics (I believe the honor for Summer Olympics goes to China and I cannot imagine any country surpassing the opening in Beijing a few years ago). There was, however, a snafu as one snowflake did not transform into one of the Olympic rings. Opening ceremonies at previous Olympics have experienced problems too. The one in Sydney, which was rectified after a significant amount of time, comes to mind. So does the one in Vancouver (I believe?) where one pillar did not surface. And, it was not the end of the world

But what happened after the opening last night? All one could read in the US was the mishap with the snowflakes. In fact, one entrepreneur went so far as to print t-shirts.

All of this made me think about the horrendous Games that were staged in  Atlanta (1996). It was so bad that the President of the IOC did not say in his closing address (as the custom is) that it was the best games ever. It was so bad that any US city will never be awarded the Summer Olympics again (look what happened to Chicago’s bid a few years ago). Yet, nowhere did I read in the media about all the screw-ups, too many to mention (one that stands out was the bus drivers that were recruited from outside Atlanta to transport spectators to the various venues, who did not know the city and could not get the spectators there on time).

We, as Americans, suffer from such superiority complexes that ONLY we can do anything right. No other country in this world can succeed. It’s us and only us who knows what to do. And y’all still want to know why people don’t like us? Look at the incident in Sochi where an American athlete was stuck in his bathroom after having taken a shower. He had to break down the door as he could not bide his time and yell for help. What a powerful nation we are! … more to come …

Sokol the Driver

I took a train from Rome to Bari where I hopped onto an overnight ferry to Durres, Albania. I did not care for what I saw in Durres and decided to get a cab and ask him to take me to the bus stop from where I intended to get a bus to Sarande. Sarande, I was told is an unbelievably beautiful coastal town in the southern part of Albania.

Well, got off the ferry, my passport was checked and looked for a cab. Oh my, what a mess as the driver mistook my wanting to go to Sarande as looking for a RESTAURANT! Eventually we were dropped of at this “bus stop” and it was Ecuador all over again!! And then I spotted the lady who was in the line in front of us the previous night waiting to board the ferry! Once again we “communicated” via hand gestures, smiles and whatever (amazing how one does not necessarily have to speak the same language as another, but can communicate!)

Then Sokol was there. Our driver. Sokol operated his taxi van the way they do in Ecuador. Along the route there were numerous “stops.” These stops are not marked in any shape or form, but people are waiting there. Sokol would slow down and yell “Sarande” and if someone raised a hand, he would stop and we would have another passenger. This went on for the entire 5-hour ride for the 246 km (150 miles!) distance! Yep, you do the math … 5 hours for 150 miles? You got it, the roads were/are TERRIBLE! Sokol  completed it in 5 hours and it was a nightmare (Coming back on a bus, it took 7 hours).

As bad as the roads were, and as crazy as Sokol’s driving was, the trip was hilarious thanks to Sokol. Whether he was poking fun at the cops that were around every few kilometers, or greeting others, his sense of humor is second to none. Thanks Sokol!

Silvio

I visited the Vatican the first time in 2007 and it was one of the most impressionable sights I have ever seen. I went on a tour of the Vatican, like most tourists do. I did not care for our guide as I got the impression that her heart was not into this. Nevertheless, it was an experience that I would remember for the rest of my life.

On our way to Ohrid in 2013, my young colleague who was accompanying me told me that he had never been to Rome! That was all I needed to know, as Rome is my favorite European city. I am gaga about the place and, for a guy who does not care about big cities, Rome must indeed have a lot to offer. Of course we had to go to the Vatican, and we did.

My, oh my, how things had changed over 6 years! Before we arrived at St Peter’s we were plagued by “agents” recruiting for their guides. “Skip the lines” was the most common line. The further away from St Peter’s, the more expensive the tours were. We ignored them and walked to St Peter’s when there was “something” about one of the “agents.” She gave us the “student” discount and we agreed.

We followed her to our guide. It is said that first impressions are lasting ones. If that is the case, I should have walked away. The guide had just bitten into a sandwich when we arrived, so picture this: A man with his mouth full, getting up when it became evident that he was limping!! Oh lawd, I thought, how the heck is a man with his handicap going to get us through this tour? (I later learned that he was NOT handicapped, rather the limp resulted from a motorcycle accident the previous week!) He introduced himself as Silvio and told us that we would be leaving within the next 30 minutes.

In our group was an Indian couple with two little girls (yep, I know how to attract the snot noses, don’t I?) and he involved them immediately (“What is the color of the prince’s white horse?”) as he must have known what a pain kids could be.

Compared to the guide a year ago, it was obvious that Silvio put his heart and soul into his work. He was not only interesting, but also very knowledgeable (and he kept the kid engaged in order for her not to become a nuisance). I really enjoyed Silvio and I do believe the feeling was mutual. We had several conversations “off the cuff” and during one of these, he told me about this incredible restaurant that served (my favorite) spaghetti carbonara that he visits every evening.

Silvio gave me the card of the owner of the restaurant (“it’s only a 10-minute cab ride from your hotel) and I said we would meet him there that evening (I wish I knew what was going through his mind at that moment … maybe, “yeah, I have heard that one before?”)

Silvio was an incredible guide and did an incredible job. We did not meet again and on the way to our hotel, I said to my colleague that I would like to go to the restaurant and buy one of the bottles of wine that Silvio was swooning about (rather than giving him a tip for a job well done). Did not take much persuasion. The lady at reception showed us how easy (and much cheaper) it would have been to take the train compared to a cab.

When we got off the train, I asked for directions! (YES, I am one of those men who refuse to wander around in circles). The lady was very helpful and pointed to where the street was (she did not take into consideration that the street dead-ended and we were one block too far to the right!) Nevertheless, we found the street (after numerous inquiries!) and saw from a distance that Silvio was sitting on the patio.

I wish y’all could have seen his face! (“OMG, they did come!” may have been what went through his mind?). Silvio told us that the owner was having a birthday party for his girlfriend and for 10 euros we could enjoy the buffet as well as a glass of prosecco (but, I thought, what about my spaghetti carbonara?) We paid our “dues” and the food was out of the world. Silvio introduced us to the owner who introduced us to this one who introduced us to … and in no time, we knew all the people present (remember, regular customers stopped by and instead of ordering a a la carte, they too, paid 10 euros for the buffet).

I ordered one of the bottles of wine that Silvio swooned about (30 euros) and he was right … it was out of this world. In the mean time a lady stopped by and said that the chef was making our spaghetti carbonara (free of charge) and I realized that our wine was kaput. I ordered the next bottle, a step closer to heaven, at 45 euros and that did not last long either. I realized that the time had come to say our goodbyes, when Silvio asked if we had time for another bottle, his treat. Of course, we did.

When I realized that there were about 20 minutes left before the last train departed, we said our goodbyes. Great day. Great evening. Great food. Great wine. Great guide. Great city!

It’s a small world!

I was sitting outside my hostel in Zurich (expensive as hell!) enjoying a glass of wine, when I saw these two guys approaching, sitting down and “enjoying” what I thought was a meal from hell (meal from hell in a hostel expensive as hell!) Being around the block a few times, I sensed what was going on.

Two young guys on a budget absolutely stunned by the expensiveness of Zurich, in particular, and Switzerland in general. I started talking to them. Yes, they bought their dinner (sandwiches) from a gas station. Pity I said, not far from there was a good grocery store where one could buy some pretty good stuff at more affordable prices (trust me, NOTHING is reasonable in Switzerland … I mean, I bought a Swiss army knife at the hostel, which was stolen in Pittsburgh, and then I replaced it for LESS from Rollier’s Hardware in Mt Lebanon!!) Nevertheless, we started talking and we bemoaned the expensiveness of Zurich and what a serious dent it made in the budget of budget-conscious travelers, like those of ourselves. We had a good time, said our goodbyes (yeah, I thought, two nice guys whom I will never see again).

I can’t remember what their next stop was; I moved onto Salzburg where I intended to spend the summer – only to be informed by the Frau that she did not have any accommodation for me and I moved onto Ljubljana, Slovenia. I stayed at the Alibi Hostel in Ljub, checking out Piran on the internet where I planned to move to, when two guys walked in.

Yes, you have guessed it, it was the same two from Zurich: Scott and Nico. I could not believe my eyes; I mean what were the odds? They checked in, we were in the same room, and we went out for a beer or two. They left early the next morning, in my half-dazed state of morning-has-broken, I took a pic of the two of them and bid them adieu. It was a terrible pic. I emailed them and requested another. Well, here it is: Scott to the left and Nico. Two good guys. Hopefully we will meet again during future travels!

Here’s to good times guys, hope our paths will cross again!

Man’s best friend(s)

I saw him the first time I was sitting on the square in Piran. He had style. He had “tude,” I liked him. He held his head up high and had a F.U attitude. I called him; he did not even bother to look in my direction. I thought: screw you buddy, and moved on. Low and behold, I saw him later that day when I was sitting in my “office” at Bonazza. This time I had someone who caught his attention, while I took a pic of him. I would see a lot of him over the next few weeks, and dubbed him: Patrol Buddy, as it seemed that he was the cop who patrolled Piran.

Over the next few weeks, I would see more and more of him, call him and he would glance in my direction, but never long enough to get a full frontal (OMG, that sounds like a porn movie!). I tried, and tried to get a “full” pic of him, but to no avail. I saw him several times during my stay in Piran, as well as many others that HAD to be his off-spring. I was told that his owner was an old man who could not speak English. Daniel, from Bonazza, did not care for him. “He comes here and pisses everywhere,” yet Daniel always made sure there was a bucket full of water when he was around!

I tried to get better acquainted, but that FU attitude drove me crazy. He knew he was studly and showed this wherever he went in Piran. I sometimes got the idea he deliberately ignored me. Time heals all wounds, they say, and I tried to tell him buzz off, but it was not that easy as he was always around. Everywhere. Ubiquitous.

And then one day I saw HER! It was love at first sight, at least from my side. I could not take my eyes off her. She was brown, she was clumsy, she was GORGEOUS! I was in love. Like a love-sick puppy!! I went up to the man who was playing with her and said: “Is this a Vizsla?” “Yes” he replied, very impressed. Check out this breed at http://www.google.com/search?q=vizsla&hl=en&sa=X&biw=1200&bih=578&prmd=ivns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&ei=Vh5LTuqDGcPFgAfKgYVz&ved=0CEIQsAQ

It’s a magnificent breed. It’s a Hungarian breed. Sensitive. Do not like to be scolded, in fact they “cry” when being reprimanded. I was watching her play with other dogs one day and they got too boisterous, and low and behold, she retracted to her owner. From where I was sitting in my office, I got really ticked off. How dare they treat my girl that way?

Her name was Marilyn and we took an instant liking to each other. I saw her almost every day, although she was not as prominent as Patrol Buddy. Sitting at Bonazza on my last day she stopped by. I immediately grabbed the camera, but she was acting up. Oh well, she could, because she’s gorgeous and she is, after all, Hungarian like Ms Zsa Zsa Gabor!

Bye Lizzie, hi Swart Meraai.

I realized one day that she had served her purpose. That her days were numbered and she needed to be replaced and kicked to the curbside. Without a “thank you” after all she had done for me, after everything that we had been through. She never complained while performing the one thankless task after the other. Filling her up, sometimes with heavy stuff, many times to the brim. In my defense I can say that I always treated her well, never dragged her, she was always carried on my back … or as they say in the home country: I “abba-ed” her (without a blanket, tho!)

How do I know she was indeed a she? I don’t know, I DECIDED that. How come you never gave her a name? How come you never christened her? I don’t know. Simple as that. I remember WHERE I found her, but not the exact date. It was during the 2008/09 academic year. Wal-mart at Waterworks. She was not expensive, no more than 20 bucks. I liked her the moment I saw her. I think it was the color. And she was so spacious, extra compartments. Especially the one for TP. The ideal space for my passport, always within reach. She performed her first task that very first day, carrying my groceries. That was also the first time that I “abba-ed” her. She felt comfortable on my back, at home. It was the first of many trips. On buses and trains she would always be complacent, within reach to offer me whatever I wanted: a drink, a snack, a meal … always serving, never complaining (even on that hotazhell train ride from Bar to Belgrade!)

She ALWAYS flew in the cabin with me and was NEVER checked to fly with so many others … I mean, I had no idea where those strangers came from, and by this time I had developed a close relationship with her and started to care about her! On a typical day she would carry the Tupperware container with the cutting board, serrated knife, salt and pepper shakers, cork screw, and tablecloth (a man has to do things in style, right?) Next to this, in the main compartment, there would be a bottle wine, whatever foods I deemed necessary for later the day during one of so many picnic sessions, as well as the container for the wine (please note that it is not practical to use a glass!) And so many other items (deodorant, toothbrush, etc. etc) that one may need.

This week was not my first attempt to replace Lizzie (yes I decided to call her Lizzie as no one deserves to depart this world without being properly and aptly named). A few months ago I attempted replacing her via the internet. When the new “one” arrived, I looked at it and thought: “OMG you are huge and rugged and immediately christened her Wille Willemien.” I never developed a bond with WW like I had with Lizzie, but I thought lets give her a try and off to Shur and Save in Bloomfield we went. I thought, OK girl, you are huge lets find out how strong you are. I packed her with groceries and by the time I came home, she succumbed under the hard work and pressure … like a real sissy! I was livid. Informed the company where I bought her and sent two pics to show her pitiful condition and demanded a refund … which I got once I returned the hopeless creature (the disgraced company paid the postage). I postponed looking for a replacement until this week. I have tried everything under the sun to see if I could not put Lizzie back to work, but to no avail. So many vital parts have simply conked in. Thus, when I encountered a student in the café this week and saw hers, I inquired as to where she acquired her piece. “Dunham’s” she replied, “and tell them you have a Giant Eagle card to qualify for a discount.”

I trekked to North Highland to catch the 71B going to Waterworks (not every bus goes this route). Started off at Wal-Mart. Nothing. Then off to Dunham’s. Some were so expensive, one would have had to take out a second mortgage to pay for it. They came in all shapes and sizes and then I saw her. She cost nearly three times what Lizzie cost, despite the discount. This time I named her. Aptly.

Swart Meraai after the police cars in the 60s in the homeland. She went on her first trip to my new digs for this fall. She went to her first bar. An Irish one for that. She sat quietly on the bar stool next to me. I did not overload her. A raisin loaf that I bought at the Potomac bakery and my coat as it warmed up. Later, on Smithfield, I added milk and OJ.

Here’s to Lizzie (left). Thanks for the memories … I won’t forget you and will not kick you to the curbside; you will always have a place in my home, even if it’s in the attic!

Here’s to Swart Meraai (right). I look forward to working with you and having great times with you.

When a man wants eggs …

I had a hilarious experience while I was in Mostar. I stayed at Kiki’s place where I had a kitchenette at my disposal. Seeing that I had been gone for nearly two months and desperately wanted home cooked food, I planned a hearty breakfast for the next morning. Two doors from Kiki’s place was a supermarket, where I found everything I needed except the most important ingredient: EGGS! And there was no ways I was going to have breakfast without eggs. It was small, cozy place. I asked the cashier in English about eggs and, yes you guessed it, she could not speak English and I could not, and still don’t, speak Bosnian!

I was determined to have my eggs. I placed my hands under my armpits and made the gestures when we call someone a chicken, while making those noises. Everyone in the store burst out (yes, I did ask the other customers if there was anyone speaking English, but to no avail) in laughter and the cashier returned with a chicken! I looked at her, shook my head and said no, while motioning with my hand away from my butt and pointing to the ground … like a hen laying an egg. By this time everyone in the store was hysterical, but I got my eggs, and had a great breakfast the next morning!

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Pebble vs sandy beaches

When I was a little boy, I asked my mother why beaches in Europe were full of pebbles compared to the sandy beaches that I grew up with in South Africa. Whenever my mother did not have an answer, she would give you a blunt response, such as: “Those are European beaches and ours are South African beaches.” Not being contend with the answer, I would continue with something like: “Sure must be very uncomfortable, I mean, compared to our sandy beaches here in South Africa?” Depending on her mood, the next answer probably would have been: “Don’t know, I have never been.” At this stage, I would know whether I dare to ask another question as the lady has made it clear that she did not know and, in a more subtle way, expressed her unwillingness to discuss the matter any further.

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See those pebbles on the beach? They continue into the swim area under the water and are even bigger!

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Pebble beaches or not, just look at the beauty of this ... it is prevalent throughout all of Croatia!

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Trust me, don't even attempt this (tanning on a pebble beach) unless you have a back and butt of steel!

Nevertheless, I found out this summer. Not only was it hot, it was so hot that one simply had to wade into the blue-green water of the Adriatic. OMG, was it cold, it was exceptionally COLD. But, the coldness of the water was nothing compared to the pain that one endured walking from the place where the towel was dropped to the water. It was excruciating! Yet, there was an even BIGGER problem … the attempt to get out of the water. It was futile. I could not get out (yes there are even bigger pebbles, sometimes pebble rocks, in the swimming area under the water!) I would look to my left, to my right, to determine whether anyone has witnessed my embarrassing attempt to emerge from the water.

After several attempts, I managed. Once I reached the “beach,” there was still the painful trek to my towel. Once I got there, I thought: “OK, lets get some rays.” You should have felt what affect the pebbles have on one’s butt!

And then it came to me. The solution. Swim with sandals! KISS, right? And thereafter everything was hanky dory. I plan to revisit Hvar island next year with friends and we will be renting a cottage with its own private beach. I have already warned them: It maybe postcard perfect, but the water is freezing cold and one swims with sandals. And of course, sandals or not, tanning on a pebble beach does not work, get out of there.

The Croatians tell me they have sandy beaches too, although in the minority. I will be looking for those during future visits!

Great people from 2010

In Rijeka it was Ivan. This guy who needed a few credits to graduate from college (and he was working on it) was a walking encyclopedia. I learned so much from him. I ordered a pizza one night (we bought beer at the hostel) and together with a guy from Scotland, we had a whale of a time.

In Zadar it was Pasta (I forget his nick name). He graduated from law school and was working at the hostel! We need to be so grateful for this country of ours. He was one of the nicest people I have met. Also met his girlfriend who reminded me of Nancy Kerrigan.

P5080033P5110077On the train to the Passion Play in Oberammergau, it was Susan (England) and Pam (Australia) who met several years ago and have become traveling companions! In Oberammergau, I met Meagane, and her mom, Elizabeth, who at 81 said to me: “I figured I had to see the play this time around, as this is probably going to be my last shot!” (Passion Play is only staged every 10 years). At lunch it was John and his wife Jenny who live outside Munich … Jenny is originally from South Africa … and their friend Maria, who was from Greece, but lives in South Africa! I met Rachel, Tasmania in Pula. We had dinner that night and were talking about the ‘strange” lady in our room. Well, in Trogir I met the two Kathleens … you guessed it, one of them was the “strange” one from Pula. She had eaten something in Pula that made her sick, hence the

P5110074P6040402“strange” behavior. I have never felt such an ass in my life, but she laughed it away!Scott and Nicola were from Canada and we met on the bus from Trogir to Split. They own a restaurant and stay in apartments on their vacation.

These are only some of the wonderful people I meet every time I travel I know I will never see them again, never hear from them, but who cares? We had great times … 1f only I can get into taking pics of these people!

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The Baby Whisperer

Ask people who know me and they’ll tell you that I do NOT like kids. I think parents are the sorriest excuse for parents and they let loose in the world today monsters without any manners, discipline, or regard for others. And I attract these monsters like flies. I have walked into an empty restaurant, sat at a table of my choice, only to be surrounded by snot noses in no time! I have told a woman that she has failed as a mother, but in my defense, I have also complimented a woman on the good manners and behavior of her two boys.

So, what has this got to do with traveling to Europe? A lot. Once on the plane back, a young couple from Austria had their daughter baby with them and the child screamed and screamed. The mother, with the aid of the hostesses, did everything in their power to calm the kid down, but to no avail. Of course, they were sitting across from me (story of my life). I got up and said to the mother: “Give me the child.” Within a nano second she stopped crying and was cooing and gawd knows what other pleasant sounds she was making.

This past summer I had just finished my lunch in an outdoor restaurant in Rovinj, Croatia, when a couple walked in with their screaming little girl. P5260240Whatever they did, did not work. The mother could not eat her lunch. You guessed it, I got up and said: “Give me the kid.” In no time she was quiet. The father checked me out like I was going to kidnap his little girl. I removed her socks, and her sweater … for Pete’s sakes it was so damn hot out there. Unbeknownst to me, a gentleman that witnessed this spectacle took a lot of pics of the two of us. When I returned her to her parents, I said: “The two of you are walking around with shorts and sandals, yet your daughter is dressed for a blizzard!”

To the right you will see Luisja (sans socks), and her dad (mom’s in the background),  from Hungary on vacation with her folks. I bumped into them again later that afternoon. We exchanged pleasantries; I looked down at Luisja’s feet and low and behold: she had those damn socks on again! Parents simply never learn, do they?