Wherein I Come To You Hat in Hand, Literally
Christmas is a good time for reflecting on the blessings you have received in your life and to look for ways to share those blessings with people who may not be so fortunate. I know we all have our favorite churches and charities and annual 5 kilometer races that we give to every year. But this year, if you could see your way clear, would you consider supporting a lovely, wee girl?
She’s a little trooper and her web pages are here, Team Sydney and here, Sydney's Blog and here, Facebook .
So, I asked her if she wanted me to send her a fetching, little French beret to add a bit of penache to her newly bald dome and she said, “yes, please. In teal, if possible.” Her momma, my first cousin, told me that one of Sydney’s dreams is to someday travel to Paris, (a dream shared by many, Sydney!)
The family then informed me that they had set up a way to donate to Team Sydney. Why, I asked, what’s the problem? Is it the health insurance? It turns out that their insurance is not going to cover about 50,000 USD of the medical bills in the next twelve months. Travel, hotel, and babysitting expenses for the family will come to another 10,000 USD or so over the next year. My cousin’s husband is a hard-working guy, but 60K is a lot of money.
On the bright side, her prognosis is excellent and her spirit is as bubbly as usual. So, if you are looking for a way to give thanks this year for your own good fortune, consider sending a cool hat (teal) and/or a fat check to:
P.O. Box 352
Grace, Idaho 93241
Or, you can pay with Pay Pal here, Sydney's Blog . Just click on “Donate” and it will tell you how to proceed with your credit card.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you and wish you the happiest of holidays.
Xoxo, Trailing Spouse
Monday, November 26, 2012
Wherein We Get Swindled by a Berber
O, Glory Day, I have a whole afternoon, evening and following morning with nothing on my To Do list except write in my blog. My Christmas shopping for the relatives in the US is done, (thank you Dubai mall), the packages have been mailed, the second mortgage has been taken out to pay for the shipping charges, my French homework is caught up and my hair has been dyed. I even clipped my toenails, but that is probably more information than you needed to know about my To Do list.
We left off as I was leaving for Morocco, which is a country in Africa, in which we visited two cities, Casablanca and Marrakesh and drove cross-country between the two cities. If you are a pleasure traveler, (i.e. not on a business trip), do not waste your money on Casablanca. It is a very large, modern city sans character and it is hard to tell that you are even on The Dark Continent. I was picturing an exotic, romantic village selling Humphrey Bogart t-shirts, but I don’t think they have ever even heard of that movie. Or, if they have, their marketing people just suck. (Hey, all you recent marketing grads with no job prospects—there’s a huge opportunity just waiting to be cherry-picked in Casablanca). If you are on a business trip, however, Casablanca is great. It has a Starbucks and Wifi in the hotels, a lovely waterfront with good seafood restaurants and a ginormous mosque that you can stand in front of and get your picture taken in order to change your Facebook profile. It still has a long way to go, mind you. Casablanca’s no Paris, but it is comparable to say, Omaha. For Africa, Omaha is pretty good.
North Africa Guy was shocked and dismayed that we were planning on staying for three days in the medina. The medina is the ancient part of Marrakesh where all of the tourists go to haggle and barter and get their picture taken with camels, monkeys and cobras. The medina is, literally, a zoo. It is also dusty, dirty, hot, stinky and a haven for pickpockets, hence, the reason North Africa Guy was so hesitant to drop us off there for three days without his eagle eye upon us.
NAG: Are you sure, Mr. Big, that you want to stay in the medina? There are lovely hotels outside the walls in suburban Marrakesh where, I say in my most humble way, you might be more comfortable. Where there might be, say, clean running water and non-ptomaine-inducing meals to be had.
BIG: No, no, NAG, it’s quite alright. My beloved bride wants to absorb the true African flavor. That, and she wants to launch herself into the thick of things and out-haggle the locals over some rugs. Thanks anyway, though.
NAG: It’s your funeral.
At least that’s what I though he said, but he mumbled and I didn’t quite catch it. Maybe he said “it’s your decision” but I don’t think so.
El Mansour and it was owned by a fabulously gay Brit with an eye for decorating. Really, it was heaven.
Did I listen to this man who has lived here all his life, probably since the time that he, himself, was an urchin-monkey-boy? Of course not. I am too stupid to do such a rational thing. My reasoning was thus: I am on a mission to buy a bunch of cool rugs for pennies on the dollar and a guide is not going steer me to the good places. A guide is going to steer me toward his family and friends, ergo, not into bargain land.
C’mon, Mr. Big. Put down that cup of tea and let’s get a move on. Time’s a-wastin’. Now, if there was ever a time in 26 years of marriage that Mr. Big shoulda put his damn foot down, now was the time. But he missed that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and off we went without a guide. We had a map. We had a few francs and a few euros. We had a general idea of where we were headed. And, after about 8 minutes and 400 meters, we had a new friend.
Well, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, so I was a little skeptical. This squirrely little guy did have three things going for him:
1. He was speaking in French, so he knew we were Swiss. (No. They ALL speak French.)
2. He did work at our hotel. (No. He was a street spy.)
3. He dangled the carrot of some exotic market THAT NO ONE ELSE KNOWS ABOUT in front of me. (Please. I may want to revisit my comment about the turnip truck, because, apparently, I DID just fall off of it and it has left me in the dust.)
I offered some token resistance to the Squirrel to the tune of “no, but thank you anyway, and, before I totally blow you off, can you tell me a little bit more about this secret market?” kind of thing and, at that point, he knew he had a fish on the line. What can I say? I followed the Squirrel down a side street toward what I was sure was going to be some fabulous, hidden, Berber rug market. I mean, it would be worth it to just meet a real Berber, right?
Okay, it was a rug shop. But it was a three story rug shop being run by a 400 pound man of dubious Berber descent wearing white robes and a gold pointy hat and gold pointy slippers. Y’all! It was Ali Baba! And the legends are true: Ali Baba does have piles and piles and piles of beautiful carpets. I was BEDAZZLED. It was sick. (At this point, it is important to remember that we still think our new “friend”, Squirrel, is legit and works at our hotel and that he is doing this out of the kindness of his heart. This sentiment, however, was about to come to an abrupt end.)
I realize this story is going on too long, but I’m trying to set the stage, here. So, we’ve got Ali Baba, the Big Kahuna, sitting on a bench with me with his hands resting on his giant belly and his pointy, gold feet peeking out from under his robe. Squirrel has disappeared completely. Instead, we have Ali Baba’s henchmen unfurling carpets out in front of me one after the other after the other and we have poor Mr. Big pacing around the edges of this brick and mud building praying that the Navy Seals are going to swoop in and save him.
The negotiations started getting down to brass tacks. I was enamored with Ali’s carpets made out of goat skin. I had never seen such a thing. Ali even had one of his henchmen take out a Bic lighter and TRY TO LIGHT THE CARPET ON FIRE to show me how resilient his Berger goats were and, though my chalet might burn to the ground one day, my goat skin rug would still be lying there, intact, on top of the ashes. I was like, dude, I’ll take two. What else you got?
And then. And then. It came time to pay for three rugs that I eventually decided upon at a price that I THOUGHT was awesome. Granted, it wasn’t pennies on the dollar, but I was pretty proud of myself for haggling Ol’ Ali down by 80%. Yes, pretty durned proud. I pulled out my credit card. (Hey, it’s a STORE, right?)
Ali Baba: Madame, don’t you have cash?
Me: Well, I have some cash, but not enough. Don’t you take Visa? It’s a Swiss Visa, after all.
Ali Baba: How much cash do you have, exactly?
Me: I have x amount of euros and x amount of Swiss francs. (It wasn’t a lot, not nearly enough to cover the price of the rugs.)
Ali Baba (while trying to peer into my wallet, no lie): I will take all your non-Moroccan cash and, perhaps, your husband could go to the bank machine and get the rest?
Me (starting to get a little bit uncomfortable): No, I don’t think so. I think I am done here.
Y’all. The price of the rugs miraculously dropped by 50% in an instant and, in a peculiar juxtaposition, also fell my my blood pressure, common sense and any remaining futile resistance. At that point, I looked at Mr. Big and said, “Honey, it is time for you to go to the ATM”, and lo and behold, Squirrel appeared in the doorway with, you guessed it, A SCOOTER, on which he was going to whisk Mr. Big away to take him to the ATM, which he did and we paid fully in cash and I got my rugs.
Okay, these people, these pseudo-Berbers, were not subtle. As soon as Ali Baba had the cash in hand, he started doling out PORTIONS to all his henchmen and Squirrel, The Finder, right in front of us. What a racket. But, really, I didn’t care because I had my goat skin rugs and I was happy. Mr. Big, whose eyes were rattling around in his skull over all these happenings that were astronomically outside his comfort zone, and who had still not recovered from his scooter ride where he spent the entire time trying not to come into physical contact with Squirrel’s back, grabbed my elbow and said, “we need to get the hell out of here before A) we die, or, B)you buy any more rugs of questionable skin content.”
Squirrel disappeared as soon as he had his commission in hand, never to be seen or heard from again, abandoning Mr. Big and I to find our own way through the lab rat maze out onto the main square where the hits just never stopped coming. It’s a well-known fact that all of the activity in Djamaa-El Fna, which is pronounced like “c-e-n-t-r-a-l s-q-u-a-r-e”, is the number one tourist rip-off on the planet. Should you really, really want your picture taken with a monkey or a camel or a cobra, well, it is going to cost you. If you even get within 10 feet from these hucksters, they are going to try to take your money.
Luckily for me, all of these Moroccans speak French. Well, I lit into him like I was his mother and he had just tracked dirt into the house. He thought, just from looking at my husband’s clothes, that he had snared some naïve American tourists. No, sir. I have just been swindled by a Berber and I am now wise to your ways. You need to get that stupid snake off of my husband’s neck before I make somebody bleed (which is the most horrible thing I know how to say in French.) Needless to say, I got my pictures of the snake charmer and his cobra with no further ado.
Monday, October 15, 2012
My Name is Bond. Jane Bond.
This month has been ridiculous. We took a little 5-day vacation to Morocco in North Africa, which I will tell you about in the next post, but, before I go into that craziness, I have to catch y’all up on what occurred in just the last two weeks. Five days ago, my niece, who lives right outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, had a baby, which makes me a Great Aunt. Somehow, that sounds older than GoGo, the charming name that my grandchildren call me.
Me: Mr. Big! She just had the baby! You are now a Great Uncle! Look, look, here is her picture on Facebook!
Mr. Big: I’m a what?
Mr. Big: Is that really such a thing? Great Uncle? I think you are making that up.
Unfortunately for Mr. Big, no one in his family ever lives long enough to attain the status of Great Uncle. He has really bad genes, ergo, he had never even heard of the term. How sad is that? In my family, we have awesome genes, (plus, we procreate early and often), and we have gazillions of family photos of 5 generations and, occasionally, six. Generations. It’s true. Nothing kills us. Nothing. My relatives live, routinely, into their hundreds. If you die before you are 100 in my family, you are letting down the side. We say things like “oh, such a pity. Cut short in her prime at 91. So sad.”
So, I became a Great Aunt to a little princess named Harper and my little sister became a Grandmother, which just cracks me up. You just wait, all you young people reading this. It is a very big deal—these are real milestones, not unlike turning 21 or getting arrested for the first time or buying your first house or whatever. You think your rites of passage are all behind you? Think again. Someday you will achieve “Great” status and it is a mind-blowing thing. And, if you are very lucky and you are borne of good genes, you will achieve “Great, Great” status and then you are really cooking with gas.
Please try to picture my husband at a Gaga venue. Oh, wait, first try to picture a bunch of Swiss people at a Gaga venue. Yawn. Gaga kept yelling at the audience to “get off your &^%$ing asses! This is not a $#@%ing funeral!” The Swiss don’t dance much and the only singing they do in public is to the accompaniment of alpenhorns and cow bells, so it was just hysterical watching them force themselves into having a good time.
Furthermore, and may God strike me dead if I’m lyin’, but the ticket-takers hand out earplugs to everyone as they enter the concert. It’s true. I saved mine. Concerts are too loud for delicate Swiss ears, hence ear plugs. I wonder if Gaga knows they did that?
What else? Well, I went back to French school after the summer break. They put me in an advanced class with a bunch of people who already speak French. I think I’m going to quit. Seriously. After the first session, I went to my teacher and told her that she was sorely mistaken if she thought I belonged in that class. She was very reassuring and tried to tell me that that was, indeed, where I belonged.
Ooh, I promise you, Teach. I do not belong here. These people can speak for 15 minutes in French, non-stop. These people are not trying to translate every word from another language before they say it. They are just, uh, talking. I cannot do that. I do not know what I have done to mislead you, Teach, but trust me. You need to GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE. These people are scary good!
So, I was going last and the new girl was going to second to last. I was COMPLETELY not paying attention to what anybody else was saying because I was silently practicing what I was going to say when my turn came around. New girl starts talking and about half way through her dissertation, I hear the word “Iran” which catapults me right out of my fugue state. Wait, what? You are from Iran, new girl? Then, of course, I was kicking myself for not paying better attention. Was she new here in Switzerland? Why was she here? Good God, she could be anything! A journalist, the ambassador’s daughter, a spy, a housewife, a spy posing as a housewife, anything. Anything at all.
My mind was awhirl. Am I giving away state secrets if I talk about the dysfunctionality of America’s school system? Keep in mind that I am the only American in the room. In fact, I am the only person in the room with English as a mother tongue. I quickly change the course of my oral dissertation and tell the class, in French, bien sur, that the only problem with the American school system is in trying to assure that ALL students, regardless of their background, ability or gender, are afforded an equal opportunity to pursue the highest degree of education that they want to achieve. In fact, that the American school system is second to none.
Monday, September 17, 2012
Buying a Completely Inappropriate Gift for the Grandkids
We did our whirlwind trip to Russia in only five days. Hopefully, for those of you going there on vacation, you will have much longer to enjoy the sights, absorb the culture, eat the food, etc. I took up the whole last blog post on just one Russian bar, so let me clue you in on the rest of the trip. Now, this is going to go fast, so pay attention.
My number one priority was visiting Anastasia’s Summer Palace, Tsarskoe Selo, (OK, it really wasn’t HERS, you know that, right? It was her dad’s and he was a Tsar, so she like, got to use it. She was, as we say in America about all the Euro royals, a Member of the Lucky Sperm Club). My husband, bless his heart, had no opinion on the itinerary for the day, (for once), so we trundled down to the concierge to find out the best way to go to the palace which lies about 15 miles outside of St. Petersburg.
Russian money is one of those currencies that make your head hurt to do the conversion rate. So, even though 10,000 rubles might only equal 15 cents, it still sounds like a lot. It was certainly enough to make the blood drain out of Mr. Big’s face, I can tell you that. Off we tripped to check out the tour buses. Turned out, there was only one tour bus per day to the Summer Palace that conducted the tour in English, so we had four hours on our hands to kill before the tour left. Hello, shopping.
Funny story. One time, about a hundred years ago, Charming Daughter and I were in an antique store in Asheville, North Carolina and stumbled upon a set of Russian nesting dolls with all of the Russian leaders on them. I mean, the biggest one was Gorbachev, Breshnev was in there, and back through time through Stalin and, finally, the teeniest one was Lenin. Well, to find this set in North Carolina was just, um, shocking, really. Like, WHO IN GOD’S NAME, had this decorative item on their mantle? Ever since then, she and I have had an inside joke about “voold you laak zum Vruusian nestink dolls?” And then we crack up. Every time. I know, I know, inside jokes are so boring.
The next kiosk had something that we did buy, however. MRS. DOMESTIC SON, if Grand One is reading this, please make her stop! Grand One and Grand Two like to play chess. They are actually quite good. Right before my eyes was a wooden chess set wherein the chess pieces were Russia vs. America army people. The queens were carrying tiny briefcases with the word “bomb” written in Russian on them. (Why the American queen’s suitcase had Russian writing on it is anybody’s guess. Probably because the person who painted it did not speak English). OMG, I must own this so-not-politically-correct-memorabilia. So I do. Natch.
After negotiating with the vendor by using my FINGERS because she was pretending to speak zero English, I’m pretty sure I paid upwards of 6,000 US dollars for the chess set. It was either six thousand or six hundred or six. Pick one. Anyway, Domestic Son will have to hide it if he ever has any Eastern European friends over for coffee. It’s that bad. I love it.
The four-hour train ride between the two cities is educational because you get to see the countryside, which was quite enlightening. Unlike my chess set, I’m going to try to be politically correct here. The villages in the Russian countryside are not quaint. The houses look to consist of tar paper and galvanized tin. In four hours, covering about 500 miles, I saw MAYBE eight paved roads. It looks to be a hardscrabble life out there in the country on dirt roads in depressing housing conditions. Hopefully, those conditions are on the rise for the Russian people. But only after they finish paying for the gilding on 782 more window frames at the Summer Palace.
Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Where We Chill Out with Some New Russian Mobster Friends
I remember trying to picture myself with multiple palaces at my disposal like Anastasia. She had a palace for every season but (according to Danielle Steel, that renowned historian) her favorite was the family’s Summer Palace, Tsarkoe Selo. Now, I didn’t have a clue how to even say that but I just knew that I wanted to go there one day. One day when I was no longer petrified of Russians.
So, obviously, it’s time to go see my Summer Palace, right? Before Russia starts getting too westernized and loses all its’ “russian-ness”. Oh, ho, ho, there’s no chance of that happening any time soon! First of all, Americans still have to get a visa to travel to Russia which is giant pain in the buttocks. After you’ve taken care of that issue you are given another slip of paper on the airplane. You have to write down exactly where you will be every day that you are in Mother Russia. You will be expected to keep this with you on your person at all times and hand it over to anybody who asks. (We were asked twice. Once, I couldn’t find mine which caused quite a stir and pictures of gulags in Siberia began running through my head.)
Speaking of the plane, here is a rule of thumb: if the passengers all clap when the plane lands, that is the signal that you are arriving in a not-quite-fully-developed nation. They are clapping because they have arrived ALIVE and that can never be good. If you go, don’t be discouraged by the drive from the St. Petersburg airport into the city center. It’s kind of. . .grim. It didn’t help that, in spite of the fact that it was the middle of summer, the people were wearing coats and boots because it was only 50 degrees F outside.
Late the next afternoon, we stopped back in for apertifs and that was when we noticed something very strange. One of the big guys from the night before was back. I just thought, OK, he’s a regular. But this afternoon, he was with, well, there is no nice way to put it really, he was being entertained by two ladies of the evening. (Technically, in this case, I guess I would have to call them ladies of the afternoon.) And his bodyguard. Oh, excuse me. ONE of his bodyguards. His OTHER bodyguard was still standing inside the front door of the restaurant where I had mistaken him for the maître d’hotel. But that couldn’t be right, could it, since the REAL maître d’hotel was actually standing right there next to me showing me to my seat?
Mr. Big: No shit, Sherlock. Did you think those two chicks were that guy’s daughters?
Me: Well, actually, yes, initially. But the two guys with guns in the vestibule who won’t stop staring at us are what really tipped me off.
Mr. Big: This guy sitting next to me with the phone is quite scary.
Me: I know. Isn’t this fabulous? Quick, order another drink. And man up and order vodka this time, would you? You can’t sit in a mob bar and drink pink wine. Puh-leeze.
Taleon Imperial Hotel The Mob bar is, of course, nowhere to be found on the internet. Just go out of the hotel, turn right and go about three doors down. If you have to go through two sets of bullet-proof glass doors, you are in the right place. Tell them Trailing Spouse said “hey”.