Lost in Translation

I’m sure I’m like everyone else when preparing to travel abroad. I too always have the typical concerns. Will I be able to communicate? Will I be able to read a menu? What will I do if I have to hail a cab or ask for directions? As a general rule and out of respect for local culture I always try to learn a few local words. It’s not only practical, but it’s polite. It can also be fun as you prepare for your trip.  As a Travel Agent, it’s one of the first things I advise people who are travelling abroad to do. Not only as a courtesy to the local people but because you never know when you’ll need help with directions or other practical questions. Sometimes it’s a fairly simple procedure. In Europe, you can hail a taxi, give the name of the hotel and be pretty sure that you’ll wind up at the correct destination. Since Europeans use a familiar alphabet and so many words have migrated into our own daily lexicon you should be able to handle a map or subway system with minimal issue. However, in some Eastern European countries, the language is more challenging than the more common “Romance Languages” of Western Europe. Romance languages have their origins based upon Latin and share similarities across multiple countries. We also share a familiar alphabet and have probably been introduced to the more common phrases at some time. Parlez vous Francais?  This previous exposure offers comfort and gives a starting frame of reference for figuring out pronunciation. Further, the Czech language is Slavic in origin and uses letter combinations that are foreign to an English speaker. Despite the challenge, I made the attempt to learn some words that would indicate that l had basic manners and that I cared enough to try. I went over armed with the confidence that I would be able to say “Hello” (dobry’ den), “please” (prosi’m) and “thank you” (dekuju).  I certainly wasn’t proficient enough to carry on a conversation, but a handful of prepared words could eventually get you most of the answers you needed. Usually, the person I was addressing would at this point switch to English. However, while at a banquet, I was surprised by what I considered to be the rudeness of some of the servers. As I stood in line waiting to be served I was attempting to determine what was in a particular dish. The young man behind the table waved his hand, shook his head as if to say “no” and then walked away from me. I was surprised given all the other positive encounters I had already experienced. I was ready to chalk it up as an aberration but then it happened again, and then again. No matter what I asked the answer was the same: “no”. It took me a while but I finally figured out that what they were trying to convey was that they didn’t speak any English. They weren’t saying no to me they were just saying that they didn’t understand. Lesson learned to not judge someone on a very narrow set of circumstances.

Visiting Asia can also be linguistically challenging.  The number one rule to remember is that very few taxi drivers speak or read English. The number two rule is to grab the hotel’s business card before you go off to see the sights. I’m not normally a rule breaker but for some reason I broke both rules in Korea. After a full day of wandering around I was tired, hungry and completely lost. Worst of all, I couldn’t remember the name of my hotel. Definitely a bad combination! I tried to stay calm and remember the name of the hotel. That didn’t go so well. I tried to ask for help from people on the street but wasn’t very successful at finding anyone who spoke English. I thought I hit pay dirt when I got the attention of two local students. They were more than willing to help, if only I could tell them where I needed to go. When I couldn’t, they very eagerly tore pages from a local phone book at a telephone booth and handed me the “Hotels” section. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t remember the name of the hotel and didn’t want to start calling hotel front desks to ask “excuse me, but am I staying with you?” Out of desperation, I headed to the nearest underground train station to see if I could find any English speaking people. I was just about to give up when I spotted someone who also looked like a visitor. It turned out that he was an Officer with the U.S. Army who was on leave and visited Korea regularly. I introduced myself and explained my predicament.  He wasn’t just an Officer, he was also a gentleman and was willing to help me. I was able to tell the Officer the general vicinity of my originating train station and he was able to offer the names of several hotels in that area. With tremendous relief, I recognized one of the named hotels. This kind sir hailed a cab on my behalf and told the driver where to take me, closed the cab door and I was off.  Lesson learned. Only after I was on my way back to the hotel did I realize that I neglected to thank the serviceman who had gone well above the regular call of duty. I fretted about that for the rest of my trip. But, sometimes fate hands you a second chance and this time it gave me the opportunity I had missed the first time. Seated aboard a very full flight we were waiting for a few extra passengers before pushing back from the gate. Coming down the aisle was the Officer who had helped me, this time in full uniform.  I waited until he had stored his carry on and was seated, and got up and took this second chance to say what I should have said the first time: “Thank you!”

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Twenty Minutes

All it took was 20 minutes for me to fall in love with France.  That’s quicker than my daily drive to work and almost quicker than it takes for me to choose my dinner in a restaurant. My first impressions of France began while I was still in the air, circling, preparing to land. The ground below was green, very green. 20150511_032241So much so that it’s noticeable from above when you get your first glimpse of the country from an airplane window as you begin your descent into the airport. It’s been said that Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, however, this isn’t about Paris. Indeed, Paris is beautiful in many parts, and truthfully, a little ordinary in others. But, it wasn’t the city that caught my eye, instead it was a 20 minute detour due to a missed turn that captured my heart. I admit that I approached Paris as though expecting a quick fling. Much like a first date, you’re nervous about the introduction to the city, not knowing what to expect, wondering if you will click. But, the French countryside, well that was definitely more than a crush. The French people have a phrase for it: “le coup de foudre”, which translates to love at first sight.

I was about to set sail on a river cruise with Avalon Waterways aboard the Tapestry II but the recent rains resulted in higher water levels making it difficult to pass under the beautiful bridges of Paris. In order to navigate the river we would need to board a motor coach to drive to our first stop. We would then embark at the first port of call in Vernon-Les Andelys. Some might have seen the change in plans as disappointing but I now believe it was fortunate fate. The bus ride along the highway to our new starting point was just like any other highway: multiple lanes of traffic in each direction with very little to look at. You could almost call it boring. We were moving along at a fast pace, passing other vehicles and sometimes being passed. Perhaps this hypnotic tedium contributed to our driver missing the turnoff for our destination. One additional exit later, an alternate route was chosen and unknowingly, our luck had just changed and for the better as we unexpectedly found ourselves in the French countryside.20150511_032308

At times it seemed as though the full size motor coach, the travel industry’s fancy and professional name for “bus”, couldn’t possibly navigate the small roads of the ancient villages. The driver faced a modern day challenge as the curbs were lined with private cars and the twists and turns were tight and many. Surely l wasn’t the only one to hold my breath as inch by inch the driver slowly and carefully shimmied his way through the narrow roads. But then, as I exhaled, the village itself took my breath completely away. It was everything you would imagine a small European village to be. A town where the tallest structure is the church steeple and people with picnic hampers lounge on the grass. Winding roads, originally built for animal drawn carts, weave past 16th century chateaux whose placement was determined long before there were paved roads. Stone houses with tiled roofs and grand chimneys had wooden shutters that covered full length windows. Jumbles of colorful flowers spilled over ancient stone walls that were originally erected to delineate property lines. However, the current function of those walls seemed to be solely for the purpose of preventing the premature deaths of free roaming chickens by limiting their access to the road. Occasionally you come across a newer home whose design with its constructed antique appearance is such that it intentionally pays homage to its past. Some homes are trying for modern sustainability while retaining an aged patina and have found a way for solar panels to coexist in design harmony with an earlier time. The pace was comfortable and slow and the countryside seduced you into relaxing and setting down the burden of daily life. It invited you to have a sip of calvados, the apple wine and perhaps taste a bit of pastry as you spent some time getting to know each other. Villages are dotted with handmade signs advertising apple “cidre” and fresh eggs and are replete with open meadows inhabited by contented cows and happy horses. The narrow roads allowed a front row view into the daily lives of the local folk giving the appearance of an idyllic lifestyle or at least a page from a themed calendar featuring story book cottages. Slowly, almost at an escargot’s pace, the driver continued safely past automobiles parked on both sides of the narrow road, until we had successfully navigated our way. I was almost disappointed to arrive at our destination as I wanted more of this countryside charm. I didn’t yet realize that this wasn’t the end of the trip but just the beginning of our journey.20150511_032400

We boarded the ship and were soon on our way. Smoothly and slowly, we made our way up the Seine (pronounced Sen). Local cottages gave way to grander homes perched high upon the riverbanks, set amidst the rolling green hills that lined the banks. Occasionally, a friendly land owner would wave and those of us on deck would wave back. I envy their lifestyle, perhaps they envied me mine, however temporary it was.

Did I fall in love? Absolutment! But, France was more than just a whirlwind romance or a brief fling for me. I believe that it was the prelude to a long lasting relationship – definitely an affair of the heart. “Jusqu’a ce que nous reverrons” – until we meet again.

Mad about Macarons

macaron-whoopie-pie-workshopThe French know food. Their contributions to the culinary world are countless and they’ve succeeded at taking dining to an art form. Many of their well-known dishes have found their way on to American menus and no doubt you are familiar with Bouef Bourgonion (beef in wine), French Onion Soup (onions in wine), and Coq au Vin (chicken in wine). Despite their obvious love of wine,   the French chefs really step up their game when it comes to desserts. In a nation with so many fashionably svelte people it’s a wonder that this country gave birth to Eclairs, crème brulee, Crepes Suzette and Chocolate Mousse. Their secret is that they enjoy small tastes of rich items and unfortunately, I prefer large tastes of rich items. I was already familiar with most of these dishes but I hadn’t yet been properly introduced to the Macaron, a cookie that is uniquely French. The first time I saw a Macaron was in the arrivals hall of the Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris. Bright and colorful, hundreds of the little cookies were on display in equally colorful push wagons. It was an excellent marketing decision as, no doubt, they were a quick and easy gift to pick up to and from wherever you were travelling.
Perhaps you’re a Macaron novice, as I had previously been, or just have never been properly introduced. First, let’s cover the basics: Macarons are not macaroons. Even the name is pronounced differently. I offer this basic primer: Macaroon sort of rhymes with balloon. Macaron sounds like macaroni if you were to eliminate the “i” at the end. The spelling is similar but the cookies themselves couldn’t be any more different from each other. Macaroons are largely based upon coconut as the main ingredient and are often dipped in chocolate. The chewy treat is a free form cookie with the batter being dropped from a spoon onto a baking sheet. I love macaroons.  Macarons are served as a sandwich style cookie with two colorful almond flavored merengue discs surrounding colorful sweet whipped cream. I prefer dense, chewy cookies so I had no interest in trying a Macaron. I have never been fond of whipped cream, hard to believe but true, so I had even less interest in this national treasure in cookie form.  I was convinced that I wouldn’t like Macarons so I didn’t try one.
My second introduction to the Macaron was during my cruise on the Seine River. Avalon Waterways arranged for a Michelin starred chef to come aboard our ship, the Tapestry II and give a demonstration on creating classic French desserts, tasting included. This was definitely a fun afternoon and I gleefully sampled everything, except the Macarons. They looked beautiful and yet I still wasn’t convinced, and wouldn’t allow myself to be swayed from my anti-Macaron conviction so I didn’t try one.
My third opportunity to welcome the little French cookie into my life came as I watched my travel companion purchase several gift boxes of Macarons at what I thought was an insane price. However, after visiting several shops hoping for a better rate I realized that this was one pricey little cookie. No matter which store we entered the price was always the same at e1.80 per treat. I’ll convert that for you: it’s the equivalent of $2.00 U.S. per cookie for what is actually a rather small cookie. You can practically buy an entire box of Nilla wafers for that cost. I began to wonder if there was some French patisserie syndicate that was guilty of price fixing. I was ready to consider that “strike 3” against the arrogant little confection and was smug in my self-righteousness. I planned to spend my last day in Paris searching for the perfect gifts in the local markets, for several people, most importantly, my staff. It’s always challenging when one of us is out of the office for an extended period of time and I like to show my gratitude. Nothing says “hey, thanks for covering for me” like sweet treats. Instead, I spent the last day in bed with the flu. Fortunately, I had already purchased a box of incredibly rich butter cookies but I wanted something additional. Suddenly I became that person shopping at the airport for a last minute gift and I headed straight for the Macaron cart. I was warmly welcomed back to my office, less likely due to being missed and more likely because I was bearing gifts. We started with the butter cookies which immediately elevated my status to that of “favorite boss”. Then, I pulled out the oh so French Macarons and became a legend. As everyone oo la la’d at the colorful confections, I decided the time was right and chose a red cookie. The texture was better than I expected. Slightly crisp on the outside, light and airy inside. You arrive at the creamy, whipped buttercream center before finishing with another colorful disc.  It was just like a little slice of French heaven on earth. We quickly finished the box and wanted more and the irony of all those missed Macaron eating opportunities deflated me like a chilled soufflé.
If you won’t be getting to Paris in the near future and are curious about these marvelous little confections, I’ll share a secret. You don’t have to go all the way to Paris, although I encourage you to do so. It’s as close as 1946 Campus Drive (Route 9), Hyde Park.  If you didn’t recognize the address it’s for the Culinary Institute of America.  Authentic Macarons are as close as the Apple Pie Bakery. You walk in, stand on line, look at the different flavor options in the display case and choose. You might wonder why anyone would pay $2.20 USD per cookie, but then you taste one and you know. If you’d like to try out your cookie-baking skills visit our facebook page to see the video and recipe for making authentic Macarons. Bon Apetit.
Photo source: http://asi.cpp.edu/campuscrop/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/macaron-whoopie-pie-workshop.jpg

Normandy’s Landing Beaches

“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have
striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The
hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.
In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on
other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war
machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of
Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well
equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.
” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower

June 6, 1944 – D-Day codename: Operation Neptune. On this day a coordinated effort of the allies began their quest to free Europe from the Nazi stronghold. A key part of the total initiative called Operation Overlord, the fight to free France began as American troops arrived at the beaches which were given the code names of Omaha and Utah, while British landed at Gold and Sword and the Canadians at Juno.

My recent river cruise with Avalon Waterways aboard the Tapestry II travelled from Paris and featured a visit to Caudebec, an area best known for its intact medieval town and especially its proximity to Arromanches and the D-Day Normandy Landing Beaches. As part of the cruise package I was offered a choice of excursions at each destination and at the port of Caudebec I chose to visit the American Landing Beaches. Even though I had no relatives who served in the war, I wanted to honor the memory of those who did serve and those who perished and to show appreciation for their gift of freedom.  The Avalon Tapestry II ship hosted travelers of many nationalities and the excursions were thoughtfully arranged to allow the American travelers to visit Utah and Omaha beaches while our fellow Canadian and British guests would be taken to pay their respects at the Juno and Sword beaches. The journey started with a 2 hour bus ride filled with friendly banter about home towns, yesterday’s adventures and the breakfast served earlier that morning that included chocolate chip pancakes. During the drive, our guide offered insight into the history of the attack and the significance of the areas we would be visiting. Approaching from the East, our first glimpse was of the British beaches. We wouldn’t be stopping but as a point of interest the driver slowed the bus so we could get a quick look.  In lieu of a traditional sign, the locals had chosen to mark the passage entry with a visual impression featuring silhouettes of soldiers as though there were no words to describe the horror of that day. Lacking facial definition the images represented every son, brother, husband and father that fought for freedom. The bus grew uncharacteristically quiet, except for the clicking of cameras.  We arrived at the American sites a short time later and started our visit with the D-Day museum which is perched above Utah Beach. As our group waited for our assigned admission time I watched a carousel filled with colorful animals circling round and round. The children either giggle or cry as they go up and down, and it often seems to be more for the parent’s enjoyment. You find carousels in many spots in France but in no other area did it seem so out of place. I headed down to the beach and made my way to the water. It’s an ordinary looking beach that bore witness to extraordinary events. Large and wide with firmly packed sand, the beach attracted families and strolling couples and an occasional dog or two. One particularly romantic man carved out in the sand a rather large heart complete with Cupid’s arrow using nothing but the heel of his bare foot. The object of his affection was no nowhere to be seen as he walked away alone. A group of Beach kiters were spinning and chasing each other in contraptions that looked like canoes on wheels but were powered by the wind harnessed in their sails.  They seemed oblivious to the blood that was spilled and the thousands of young lives lost 70 years ago. My first thought was “isn’t this disrespectful?” No, indeed, this freedom and carefree joy is exactly what the soldiers were fighting for.  We entered the museum at our assigned time and as you would expect, the building is filled with authentic artifacts and preserved photographs and recordings. These items serve as evidence and depict in stark black and white the brutality of the war and the youth of those who were fighting, many of whom never survived past the point where water met the sand. After we viewed a film that detailed the complex plans for the attack, as others were purchasing souvenirs I returned to the beach to collect some sand and shells.

We continued to Omaha Beach and the vulnerability of the allied soldiers was immediately evident. The high cliffs perched above the beach gave the opposition a vantage point that they maximized. Stone and cement military bunkers had been constructed by the German force that provided their fighters protection as well as the ability to watch the shores around the clock. Touring the ruins gave a clear understanding as to why the allied casualties were so heavy. Several in our group declined to enter the structures, I assume, due to either claustrophobia or heavy emotion and I understand both.

The final leg of our journey brought us to Colleville sur mer to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. You’ve probably seen the photos of this cemetery with the perfectly spaced crosses marking the graves of American soldiers. Row upon row, close to ninety four hundred white marble crosses mark the graves of those Americans who lost their lives during the war.  To honor the dead a ceremony is held that includes raising the American flag while visitors sing the National Anthem. Both pride and tears were abundant. Participants are then given roses to place on the grave of their choice and the ceremony is repeated every 60 minutes to include all new visitors. As I walked through the headstones I was most touched by the occasional grave that bore a Star of David. They are few amongst the many crosses and all the more notable when you remember that at the peak of the Holocaust 6ooo Jews were being gassed daily. There is a custom that visitors to a Jewish grave often observe: that of leaving a stone on the grave or headstone. The history of this tradition offers several theories, most logically to indicate that someone had paid a visit. I noticed that none of the Jewish graves bore any evidence of visitors while many of the graves of Christians were graced with a rose. I had already placed my rose shortly after I entered the cemetery so I searched for a stone of any size or kind but found none.  I did find small pine cones and decided that intent was paramount and made a choice to honor and simultaneously break with tradition and placed that pine cone atop a Star of David.   Today, the sacrifices of those soldiers on that day on those beaches which bore witness to extraordinary events are once again ordinary. This ordinariness, this living a life free of tyranny is a gift, often taken for granted. This is the victory that the soldiers fought for and paid for with their lives. It was their gift to future generations and one that we should be grateful for each and every day.

River Queen

For a very long time I’ve harbored a secret. It’s a terrible secret for a travel agent to have and one that’s a bit embarrassing and has been difficult to keep. I Can’t Cruise! I suffer from motion sickness in many forms: from riding in the back seat of a car, to riding sideways on public transportation, to the most challenging movement, that of being on a boat. This means that I haven’t been able to successfully participate in one of today’s most popular forms of travel, cruising. I have tried several times to cruise aboard ocean liners without much success. I once did an overnight stay on a big fancy ship and lasted until about 11pm when I finally succumbed to the gentle but steady swaying of the floating resort. I suppose I should confess that the ship was docked the entire time but that would seem even more pathetic. I have travelled on inter island ferries with the help of medication and have gotten queasy just floating on a blow up raft in the Caribbean Sea. If that wasn’t enough of a deterrent, I’m also not the type of traveler who likes ships or hotels with 5000 people as fellow guests because I don’t prescribe to the theory that bigger is always better. Remember that sage adage of how good things come in small packages? I prefer the intimacy of a boat with 200 passengers. When I first dipped my toe into the cruise world it was with a 3000 passenger ship, now considered a small, or “classic ship” with today’s marketing spin. I found the food ordinary, the fellow travelers sometimes badly behaved and quite frankly the whole experience made me sick to my stomach. I mean that literally, I spent the majority of my time aboard feeling nauseous. It didn’t help that my cabin had neither a window nor a balcony. Large ships on a sea or ocean have way too much motion for me to feel comfortable. Yet, I’ve also harbored (pun intended) a wish. I’ve always wanted to try a European River Cruise. I was intrigued from the very first time I booked them for other travelers. There was something very appealing about the limited amount of fellow passengers who are more focused on the daily easy access to interesting ports of call, local food and wines and maybe even a regional on board presentation. A recent successful foray onto the Hudson River led me to believe that I would be able to handle the gentler motion of a smaller waterway. So, I decided to educate myself on the charm of river cruising and a major river cruise company, Avalon Waterways, offered the ability to study online. I quickly signed up and dove right in (pun intended again). I took multiple courses, I studied with vigor and was required to test my newly acquired knowledge. I’m always nervous about taking tests and this was one test that I really wanted to ace and came close with a score of 96. However, if experience is the best teacher then surely sailing on a river cruise boat would provide the best education. As the final part of my course I would actually sail aboard a river cruise. I know, it’s a tough job and somebody’s got to do it, right? I was excited and when I started telling anyone who would listen, that I was finally going to fulfill a long time wish and take a river cruise, the response was almost invariably the same; “aren’t you a little young to be taking a river cruise?” Well, first, thanks for thinking that I’m young. I feel young and I’m sure that there are those who will tell you that I act young, and possibly not in a good way. But, how young do you have to think and feel to appreciate fellow travelers with similar interests, having daily visits to interesting ports of call such as Rouen, home to Monet’s Giverny, excellent local food and wines and curbside access to small regional towns? The intimate ambiance, the gourmet dining and the international clientele is cruising elevated to an art form. The ship I boarded, the Tranquility II was so new that she practically still had champagne dripping from her bow from her christening. I can also assure you that I definitely was not the youngest person aboard. It’s true that instead of the excitement of casino gaming we had a local expert historian, Nigel Stewart build our anticipation for the next day’s excursion to the D-Day Landing Beaches. Mr. Stewart not only gave riveting insight as preparation for the emotional visit but he was very accessible post talk to answer questions and share personal experiences. Instead of a big Broadway style show we had an incredibly talented pianist throughout the cruise interspersed with a local musical group who came aboard in Caudebec. Perhaps my favorite show of all was when one of the country’s top pastry chefs came aboard and introduced us to some of the more popular French sweet treats. The watching was fun but the tasting was better. Even the usually dreaded crew talent portion of the cruise was a smashing success. While true that I may have been the only one dreading it, I found myself laughing out loud and for all the right reasons and it was funny enough to keep me awake and engaged. Truthfully, I was often too tired from the day’s excursions to engage in the evening activities. Even the two (count ‘em) cups of Latte Macchiato from the very fancy self-serve coffee/beverage machines paired with two accompanying (count ‘em again) freshly baked chocolate chip cookies couldn’t keep me awake. It was a satisfying kind of tired that comes from a day well spent. I remain pleased with my test score of 96 on my test but Avalon Waterways definitely scored 100 and with thousands of miles of winding rivers I look forward to where the next journey will take me.