Advice For My Son While Travelling Abroad

     Recently, my college-age son and his girlfriend took a European vacation by themselves. Many parents would be hesitant to allow their young adult children to travel without them these days, although I set off at the age of 18 on my own and have never looked back. Both my kids had traveled through Europe and other foreign locals previously, as children and as teens, with family members and in school groups, but this trip was the first solo adventure. I sent son and his gf a series of emails to coach them along, help them get ready, which must have been helpful, because they shared them with the gf’s mom, who shared them with her friends, who shared them with their friends, etc. Below is my advice for college age kids travelling on their own for the first time:

First, do your research:
1)Decide where you are going, and for how long
2)Read travel guide books and online websites to get information about what to see and do, how to get around, currency, travel warnings, etc. I like Rick Steves but he’s kind of old-fart-y. Classics such as Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, etc are also great.
3)3-4 months before hand- apply for your passport if you do not already have one
4)book your flight- research deals , play around with dates
5)book your hotels
6)If you are under 26, consider getting a EurRail Pass or Hostel Pass
7)Develop a budget and plan your trip accordingly

What do I do if:
Q. I leave my passport, bag, ticket on the plane?
A. Do a passport check as soon as you get off the plane. Before you go anywhere. If something is missing, go to the nearest airline person and ask for help. If you do this right away, they can find whatever you left on the plane- but you have to do it before the trash is taken out and the plane leaves.

Q. My bag gets lost?
A. Always take ALL essentials with you in carry-one luggage on the plane- all papers (ID, tickets, passports, etc) meds, electronics, contacts/glasses, etc, plus an xtra pr underwear, toiletries, toothbrush. Best is if you can pack so light your only bag is carry-on. If you must check a bag - label it inside and outside with your full name, cell phone number (include international prefix for USA, which I think is 11 but not sure), home address, and the name of the first hotel you are going to stay at. If this gets lost, you go to the lost baggage desk, usually next to the luggage pick-up/carousel, and file a claim.

Q. I lose something important/get mugged/ something goes wrong?
A. First, go sit in a protected area for a moment - a cafe, a train station, park bench, museum snack bar, and calm down. Think for a moment what to do. Assess the situation, look around. Then ask for help - from someone nearby who works there. A clerk, cashier, desk  person, ticket-seller, guard, etc. Explain briefly what happened and ask for help. Speak in slow clear English , use good manners , start with a greeting and "can you help me?"

Q. Avoiding trouble:
A. Don't dress like an American; observe how college kids around you are dressed and adapt. (Generally, dark colors, black, navy, brown.) Don't speak loudly in English in public places (subways, trains, airports, train stations, museums, etc); instead, confer quietly w each other. Don't stand around in public and gawk at something, consult your map/book/phone, look lost, scared, or argue. (To do any of these things, sit down somewhere, out of the way, a cafe or bench off to the side.) Try to project a calm air of knowing what you are doing (even if you don't). If you get lost, pull over, consult a map, read a sign, ask for directions from someone one who works there, not a stranger. 

Q. Get along/get what you want:
A. Europeans are more polite, and more formal than Americans. Dress appropriately (no pajama bottoms). ALWAYS greet whoever you are about to talk to with the correct greeting, before you say ANYTHING else:"Buon giorno", "Bonjour", "Buena sera", etc. The ritual is important. Then ask , politely, if the person you are speaking to speaks English. 99% do. If not, use a phrase book and try to say what you need. Worse case, point, use hand gestures, broken words in their language, etc. If you try, smile, and are polite, they will help you.

I'm hoping you've both seen "Taken", bc while it is a rather melodramatic movie and considerably over blown, it does contain some good lessons:

1)Never let a stranger pick you up, chat you up, share a ride, lead you anywhere. No matter how friendly and chatty or innocent they seem or if they claim to know someone you know. Never go somewhere - to a club, a concert, a drink, meal or a meet-up with a stranger, or agree to meet a stranger there, later. Don't get in a car with anyone you don't know, or an empty train/bus, alleyway, or let them lure you around a corner. Don't let yourself be alone with anyone (1 or multiple people) you don't know really well. Stick to well-traveled, well-lit places, with lots of tourists and people around. Don't accept an offer of "help" that requires you to go anywhere....if someone asks you if you need help, say "no thanks"....only ask for help from people who work where you are - store owners, waiters, desk clerks, cashiers, police, mailmen, etc.

2)Never give a stranger (does not include people who have a legitimate reasons: hotel desk clerks, airline personnel) your personal information : hotel, phone #, where you are going, staying, your names, your plans, etc. Don't let anyone you don't know overhear you give this info to anyone else.

3)Never, ever leave a young girl, your girlfriend, alone. No one is much interested in young men but there IS human trafficking in young pretty girls.

4)Be observant and aware - look at people around you. Look at who is also looking at people around you. 

5)Don't make yourself vulnerable to mugging, pick-pockets, etc. Hide your money, phones, and passport in interior pockets, zipped up. When walking through crowded areas, try to stay away physically a few feet from others- fall back, let others pass. Better to be last, and keep an eye on the crowd, than first, and get your pocket picked. Avoid small children, women with babies, beggars who come up to you and try to give you something, sell you something, show you something. Europe is plagued with bands of gypsy pick-pockets; I'm not making this stuff up.

6)Blend in and you will be left alone. Wear dark clothes, avoid American brands, speak softly to each other. Don't flash your stuff. Keep jewelry to a minimum and phones tucked away. Your grandmother got mugged once or twice in Italy and London, bc she wears a lot of gold jewelry, talks loudly, and doesn't observe the people around her. Avoid white tennis shoes like death.

7)If persistent street merchants won't leave you alone, and you have tried shouting "NO!" loudly and firmly to no avail....go inside a shop. Do not let them put anything into your hands - they will try to claim you bought it/ stole it /broke it. Keep your hands in your pockets.

8)Decide in advance what you are going to do, where you are going to go and how, before you get out onto the street. If you get lost, pull over, sit down, figure it out.

9)If you get angry and have a fight - and you will, everyone does – follow "gentleman's rules": Never separate out in public. Stay together, get back to the hotel, or an art museum cafe, then you can scream and argue or separate and stew. 

10)Feeling stressed? Worried about running out of money? Small towns are less stressful, easier to get around, safer (in terms of crime), and CHEAPER than big cities - hotels and food.  Wherever possible, opt to stay in a small town.

11)Dress like a local. Do a google search of how the people dress where you are going

T- 7 days last minute check list ....

1)Make sure you have your passports, check the expiration dates
2)Print out copies of your flight e-tickets
3)Guestimate how much you will have to spend and develop a budget. X amount of money / y number of days. Force yourself to stick to it. If you go over your budget one day on your trip, you live under it the next day.
4)Using the guidebooks or travel websites, contact the first hotel you plan to stay in....call or email them, get a reservation......and ask them the easiest way to get there from the airport, how to do it, how much money you need to have for a cab, train, bus, etc to get there. This is the most difficult thing, bc you are jet-lagged and hungry, dirty, tired and confused. If you can make this part of your trip easy and familiar, everything else will go smoothly.
5)a)Go to your bank, transfer all your money into the currency of wherever you are going. The days of travelers checks are over. Contact your bank and tell them you are travelling to “x” and ask them to allow charges from there. This will still probably, in my experience, get screwed up. So have the 1-800 emergency number ready.
b)Inform your phone carrier where you will be travelling . You can buy inexpensive travel packages (data, minutes) from them.
6)Decide what electronics you will bring, and figure out adaptors, etc you will need for them
a)refillable water bottle (better, with a clip)
b)warm rain coat that covers your torso /trunk if it is winter (or even if not and you are going someplace cold. I once went to Stonehenge in July; it was 38 degrees and raining).
c)strongly suggested- money belt or neck wallet
d)hat, gloves, muffler if winter. Sunhat if summer
e)at least 2 pairs of comfortable walking shoes, water/snow proof
f)small foldable umbrella, packable raincoat
g)pants, jeans, leggings, shorts - 2 to 3
h)shirts in layers you can put on, take off - t-shirts, long-sleeve shirts, hoodies/sweatshirts/sweaters
i)strongly suggested- thermal underwear if winter
j)all meds, Rxs, contacts, glasses, etc
k)socks, pj's, and underwear as needed

j)I highly rec a small thin but fluffy blanket or throw- you can use it on the plane, in the airport, and as an extra layer on your bed if you are cold, bunch it up as a pillow, as a shawl, etc


Truly Hideous Gifts #1

First off, I want to start by saying that any gift, expensive or cheap, beautiful or ugly, is a wonderful gift when the intentions of the giver are genuine and the item is given with truly heartfelt love. I have received many gifts over the years that made me cry with joy - unintelligible pictures drawn by students, a cassette from an old answering machine that my then 3 year old recorded  with his voice saying "I can't afford to give you anything, so I am giving you this tape of me saying 'I Love You' " .

But....you knew there was a 'but', didn't you? ....for some reason there exists in our culture a drive to give people gifts - any gift - especially around the holiday season. To give gifts to people who don't expect them or want them or know what to do with them when you give them. To give everyone a gift. Magazines, news / media, pinterest and other sources are full of "cheap gifts you can make" articles. My question is, why must you give everyone a gift ? Many people who provide you with service year round - the doorman, your hair-dresser, the dog-walker, favorite bartender, dentist, manicurist, the baby-sitter, the maid, the mailman, the garbageman - would all rather have a thank you note, a day off with pay, and /or cash or a gift card in the amount of a nice tip or any other amount you can afford. Family members and close friends love things that have special meaning, stuff that they collect/want, or items that suggest some aspect of your relationship or shared experiences.

What I don't understand are crappy "do it yourself" gifts that are useless and ugly- gifts that only exist for the sake of having some gift, any gift, to give. Why do people think gifts should be some crafty hideous useless thing you have made that serves no purpose and accomplishes nothing, except to take up space, collect dust, make the giver feel they have accomplished something by checking one more name off their list? You can really tell how you rate with folk by the sort of gift they give you (and I'm not talking about money or giftcards here- I'm talking about effort, or thoughtfulness put into the selection of gift) . I had a student once who's mom gave each teacher at the holidays a tin full of home-made cookies. That was delightful. I will always eat cookies (or if not, someone in my family will.) I'm really not a fan of the sort of things like "Snowman Poop" (pictured above) or the equally ubiquitous "Dog Food for People", that are supposedly a cleaver way to check someone off your gift list with a minimum of effort and expense: attach a gross paper label to a sandwich bag of marshmallows. Really? How about you just give me the bag of marshmallows without the label, which I find more offensive than cute or funny? How about just skip the marshmallows, and give that $2.00 divided by however many of these you made , let's say 50c worth, to charity, or someone else who likes marshmallows? This one goes into the category of "ugly, cheap, lazy, offensive, and worthless".
When I see slightly more artisanal efforts like this Christmas tree made of corks from wine bottles, all I can really think is : 1)You drank all those bottles of wine, and all I got were the corks? Give me a bottle of wine, and let's call it even. 2)Cute for 5 minutes, but where am I going to put it - store it - how will I keep the dust off of it, and .....you drank all that wine and didn't share? Why do I want your old corks? I'd rather have the wine. So this one goes in the category of "cute but irritating and useless".
I've acquired a bunch of these over the years ....I don't even know what to call them......wine bottle clothing ? People generally pop one on when they give you a gift of a bottle of wine or liquor. Whoever convinced people to do this in the first place was brilliant and is surely laughing all the way to the bank, because now everyone feels pressured to compete. "My wine bottle dress is prettier than yours". But what purpose do they serve? Instead of wrapping paper ? What do you do with them, afterwards - dress your cat? The cat isn't going to tolerate that. Yet you can't bring yourself to throw it away - it's so cute. Either someone spent real money on it, or someone spent a lot of time making it. The only real solution is to re-gift it. But if a gift is given that serves no real purpose other than to be re-gifted, is that really a gift? Just give me the wine . If you feel the need to dress it up, put a bow on it. Or not. Another candidate for the "useless and irritating" category. I'm trying to de-clutter, not add clutter, and I have a box of these at home - can't give them away fast enough.
Lots of folk put together clever or useful baskets, tins, boxes, or bags - collections of useful items, often with a theme. You can buy these or make them - fruit baskets, gourmet foods, as well as other specialty categories: New baby survival kit (gas drops, thermometer, pacifier, diapers, bath tub thermometer, nasal suction bulb, wash clothes, snuggies, booties, diapers, copy of Dr. Spock's baby book, etc.) . You just broke up with a jerk kit ( chocolate, wine, voodoo doll with pins, box of tissue). You just graduated from college kit (bottle of champagne, cigar, $20 bill, a copy of "The Graduate" DVD). But the basket pictured above appears to contain sweatpants, hot cocoa, house shoes, and other items I can't quite figure out - toilet paper? Snuggies? I guess it's supposed to be the "stay in and watch tv" kit....but does anyone really need a kit for that? Should we be encouraging this behavior, is it a treat? given the obesity epidemic? One re-occurring theme throughout many of this is the gift of hot coca in pre-mixed packets. I am not sure why. If I want hot cocoa, I will buy it. What if, culturally, the socially acceptable item to give everyone was mustard? Or sardines? You see how weird this is? If you are going to give someone mustard, you don't just go to the grocery store and buy plain yellow mustard; you give them artisanal, gourmet, imported mustard, in a variety of flavors. So why just buy a box of generic hot cocoa mix and hand that out? Why not ramen? Cup of soup? Taco seasoning? A can of soda?

It is extremely popular to make and hand out cute little jars decorated in holiday themes filled with cocoa ingredients. While I appreciate the effort that goes into making these things, just like the wine bottle dresses, these are pretty much useless. I don't like any of the ingredients, and if I did , I also don't like the idea of someone using their bare fingers to take cocoa and marshmallows out of the bag, and put these items into the little jars. I don't like the fact that the plastic hats and scarves will just find their way, ultimately, into a landfill. I try to re-gift things like this, but have a hard time finding anyone who will take them. Even my kids only want the first one or so....It gets to a point where there are just too many of these being given about and there is a glut in the marketplace. What starts as a crafty unique idea becomes unwanted, via overproduction. As a teacher, I get about 3-7 of these a year. Right now, there are a dozen old ones sitting in my pantry, gathering dust.

Really, the issue boils down to feeling a need to give someone you don't know at all a small token of esteem, during the holiday season. Many of us aging baby-boomers are on special diets and can't consume all the sugary sweets that get passed around. People feel cash is crass or that a handmade gift is more meaningful, but it depends on the gift. Handmade food - yes! Handmade ugly useless dust catchers, no thanks. My grandmother used to say each year, "I don't need any more lotions, potions, perfumes, soaps, bubble-baths, ointments, doo-dads, or knick-nacks." Yes, it made it difficult to shop for her. In my extended family, has everyone makes a list, and we just buy each other what is off everyone's list. Sounds cold, but you know what? Everyone is happy that way. If you have a special talent like knitting or crocheting, by all means, make something lovely and share it. My son's gf last year knitted him a muffler. How wonderful! I have had students in wood shop carve me pens, or twist metal bars into pot rack hooks, any number of odd but useful items. I love them ! If you are a looking to give something to someone you don't really know, such as your child's teacher, I'd give out a gift card to Starbucks, Walmart, Staples, Target or similar. The teacher can then buy someone for one's self (cup of coffee) or supplies for their class. Even $5 is not too little. I know you love to craft things, Ok then. Craft a pencil cup holder, a hot pad, knit a scarf, a classroom helper chart, make some beaded jewelry. Even a painted macaroni necklace. I will wear it.


That Bible Verse You Quoted....I Don't Think it Means What You Think it Means

From the New International Bible

I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt ......and I am surrounded on all sides by people calling themselves a Christian of various stripes. Day and night, from old and young, at home and at work, everywhere I go I get told things by random people I come in contact with - people who are guests in my home, random people in line at the grocery store, people I meet at social events, in restaurants, at my job or my husband's work...... where I live, it is considered totally OK for these folk to share with me, spontaneously out of no where, and apropos of nothing, whatever their version of Christianity tells them to think or do about pretty much any topic that enters their head.

I regularly have students mis-quote the Bible in class discussions, make outrageously inaccurate comments, or not be able to understand simple Biblical allusions, symbols and motifs in literature . When asked where they got their ideas, they often say, "from my youth minister." When I ask them what Bible verse or which particular branch of the faith their idea comes from, they do not know. Many who claim to attend church regularly do not know any of the familiar tales children in western cultures are often told as bedtime stories, or that suggest the toys they have played with. If I ask my students if they study their own faith in Sunday school, CCD, catechism class, Hebrew school or some other structured learning situation, they tell me they don't participate in any of those. They get dropped off at "youth group" meetings so their parents can have some free babysitting.

I have been told about the "good news" repeatedly and asked about my own beliefs by my husband's secretary at work, soccer moms at sporting events, co-workers, a dentist, neighbors and friends. Christian muzak plays in the waiting rooms all over town. Co-workers, shops and businesses regularly feature religious art (never the "good" kind, either, say, Italian Renaissance reproductions from Michelangelo, Raphael, or Leonardo ...oh no....people around here just think those guys are teenage mutant ninja turtles) and sayings on the walls of their offices, classrooms, and shops. Inspirational posters, flyers, art, commercials and ads saturate the media. A co-worker once called me the devil and an "un-godly woman" because I did not attend HER church. A marriage therapist once told me that my problem was that I needed to follow the Christian rules for being a wife. I have been penalized at work for not belonging to one of the three power churches in town. Because I live on a main street, my home is subject to a continual parade of would-be proselytizers......frequently on Saturday mornings, large vans park out front, a dozen or more people spill out, then they start canvassing the neighborhood, ringing doorbells (upsetting the dogs, rousing my household from sleep or pulling folk, dripping, out of the shower) as they go. Sometimes I will have a door-bell ringer every 5 minutes, a dozen or more all morning, as they work their way back to the van. (I did put up a small sign that says " No salesmen, no missionaries" with a blessing in 5 different languages/faiths, but people still either think I am rude, or want to talk to me about the sign.)

The thing is, I have lived in other parts of the country and other parts of the world, and I know this is not "normal" behavior in other cultures. When I lived, taught and worked in the northeast, diversity in all forms was the norm, and people would get belligerent about protecting the rights of those who were different. I once taught school in Maryland, and we had Buddhist monks and Orthodox Jews from nearby temples come volunteer at our school, which was made up of students from a diverse array of faiths. No one tried to convince others of their beliefs, although they felt free to share them, and we celebrated 6 different festivals in December, including Kwanzaa.  

The other thing is, I was raised Presbyterian. I attended Sunday school where we studied the Bible - every August we'd start at Genesis, and every May we'd finish at Revelations. We'd parse each chapter and verse, read and discuss the various meanings and translations, the history of what happened, as well as the history of it being written down.  I did this for 18 years of my life, in gradually increasing complexity, year after year. As a young adult, I decided to become an Episcopalian, and went through the confirmation class for that branch of the faith (in addition to my childhood Presbyterian confirmation class.) In college, I was an ancient history major, specializing in near east religions. I read Latin, Biblical Greek and a little Hebrew, took classes in history, archaeology, anthropology, comparative religions, mythology, art history, philosophy, and studied it all in-depth. I traveled through the countries involved, and participated in archaeological digs in several of them. Read from the original texts, in the original languages. Guided by scholars as diverse as a Benedictine monk, a Coptic priest, and studied with American, Italian and Israeli professors. 

So I just don't "get it" when someone tries to tell me about their version of Christianity, without really ever having studied it, then wants to pass a judgement on someone who doesn't agree with what they think they know. I know this isn't just a problem peculiar to where I live - it is a problem worldwide, with people from many faiths. 

What does any of this have to do with the photo at the top? I was browsing pinterest the other day , and one of my feeds pinned this, so it was in my feed. Initially, I passed over it, then something in it caught my eye and I thought to myself, "hmmmm.....that really doesn't sound like what I remember of 1st Thessalonians." So I looked it up. The actual verse is underneath. And now I am even more curious : is this catchy pink meme someone's attempt to spin a meditation off the original verse, and say more about the topic? Or did the creator, and the millions who pinned it, think it was the actual verse that is listed? This is what happens when books disappear, when learning is not linked to a definite source that can not be changed. If the original source was removed or destroyed, no one would ever know how or that  it was changed. I'm not a believer in the inerrancy of the Bible, but I do believe one should know what one is talking about, if one is going to refer it. Many claim to have "the true version of...." but do they, really? The hubris at thinking your perspective is better than anyone else's astounds me. We have so many problems in the world today - people claiming a religious text as their source to justify abuse of people of differing faiths, beliefs, genders, orientations, practices is so perverse - but if you are going to do it, at least get the damn verse correct, people !


Family History - Pt 3