Monday, November 14, 2011

The Weird Photography Shoots of Belgium

What do Belgium and the state of Virginia have in common? They're the same size! Only Virginia is much bigger! Since my 2011 Euro agenda included four days in the former, I naturally felt compelled to see more than just the city of Brussels. My first suggestion was Antwerp because, well, let's be honest, that was the only other city in Belgium I had ever heard of. Susy, the first of the two friends I visited in Belgium suggested that perhaps Bruges, a quaint touristy town with pretty scenery, might be better.

Since France dominates my European points of reference, my constant compulsion is to compare everything ever in Europe to something French. After listening to the description of Bruges, I of course blurted out that it sounds like Annecy, a gorgeous touristy town northeast of Lyon. Unfortunately, no one in Belgium understands my damn French, so the conversation went like this:

Me: Bruges is like Annecy.
Belgium: What?
Me: An-nUh-cey.
Belgium: What?
Me: An-nEh-cey.
Belgium: What?
Me: Ant-sy?
Belgium: What?
Me: ::Sigh:: A town in France.
Belgium: What?...this isn't France.
Me: No kidding.
Belgium: ...What?

As I debated the merits of making my French understood in this droplet of a country, I was presented with another challenge in the Annecy/An-nUh-cey/An-nEh-cey/Ant-sy of Belgium: the jacket that I had used approximately two times decided to crap out on me.  Benetton's ten million dollar ads failed to report their ten cent zippers, and as a result, I had been reduced to slipping in and out of my jacket like a skirt. I do not mix well with skirts. We had an argument in 2004 and have not spoken since.

Between the pronunciation wars in my head and the jacket skirt around my waist, by the time we got to the city center of Bruges, not Ant-sy, I was starving. Fortunately, Susy and I have bonded over our common interests in human rights, global migration, and junk food. For those who eat together...should really encourage each other to see a cardiologist. Naturally, the first thing we did once we reached town was eat junk food.
As those of you who failed 'World Religions 101' know, Hindus eat a lot of beef. No dummies, that's the midwest, BUT, I am a poor example of a Hindu and devoured a burger in six seconds flat. Successfully covered in grease and guilty satisfaction, I started in on the healthier part of my meal (French fries) as we people-watched near a statue of some god or prince or duck or whatever. 

Like me, most of the people outside were there for a nice afternoon stroll or a sacrilegious snack. One man, however, was apparently there to set the world record for walking the most number of pointless circles around the god/prince/duck statue. Of course this man was Indian. Decked out in the official Indian tourist outfit of white New Balance tennis shoes, formless jeans, a rain jacket and beltbag, circling Indian tourist man shot at least 100 pictures of the same damn statue in less than 2 minutes. I'm 78 percent he was one of two things:

1. A Google maps employee
2. Crazy

(The 22 percent of doubt is based on a complicated algorithm involving quantum arbitrariness.) 

On the off chance circling Indian tourist was indeed the second of the two, we decided to let the windup toy proceed uninterrupted.

Seconds after the weirdness of circling Indian tourist disappeared, a second set of weirdness materialized in a far creepier form. Against the backdrop of buildings from the 12th century, little children enjoying waffles, and grandmothers returning from the Farmer's Market, a woman appeared in booty shorts, black stockings, 4-inch heels and enough cleavage to blindside Hugh Hefner. Her objective? Have a boy of about 13 take pictures of her in (what she thought were) seductive poses.
No matter how hard I tried to be distracted by my fries, conversations about human rights and junk food, or my jacket skirt, this woman managed to draw my attention using her gross powers. While listening to Susy describe her work in rural Thailand, the woman struck no less than five poses with her jaw unhinged in a very Anna Nicole Smith fashion. While fussing with my crapped up zipper, the woman struck no less than five poses while stretching and shaking her dry, crumpled hair. In case you were wondering, nothing is more awkward than an obese woman in booty shorts catwalking down 800-year cobblestones while trying to make deep eye contact with innocent bystanders. Oh wait, unless she's being photographed by a 13-year old boy.

Susy and I stood frozen in a masochistic wonder for at least 15 minutes before one of us made the suggestion we walk for five minutes and get more junk food. During our happy pit-stops on the boat tour of the city's canals, our visit to the city's most famous bar, and our visit to a waffle stand, chocolate shop, second waffle stand, and second chocolate shop, catwalker made random appearances with her 'photographer' in tow. As the tour guide explained the significance of the Bruges university, there she was stroking her chest in front of the library. As the bartender explained the 600-year old fermentation process, there she was splashing beer on her face. As we ate our first waffle, there she was slowly licking chocolate off a spoon.

By 8 o'clock or so, Susy and I decided we had had enough junk food (until dinner), so we picked ourselves off of the window sill we had been sitting on for the past two hours (sorry neighbor) and walked back to the bus station to catch the train to Brussels. Around that time of day, the buses come about every 60 seconds. New York could stand to learn a lesson from Bruges. But even with this knowledge, whenever I see my bus of need pulling away, I have a second compulsion that always wins: run for bloody murder. As I made my sprint down the cobblestone station, I stole a quick glance to my right to take one final look at this quaint Annecy of Belgium. And what did I see, you might ask? 

Indian tourist making maniacal circles...around catwalker. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A 3 AM Bus Adventure in Berlin

By the good graces of no rent situations and high hourly wage rates, I was able to throw together a nice lump of constantly devaluing dollars and haul myself over to Europe for a quick two-week vacation filled with junk food and friends. Of course as soon as a trip to Berlin even vaguely presented itself, I jumped on the chance. After successfully booking the wrong EasyJet flight from Brussels to Berlin, I unsuccessfully haggled with the Indian call center woman and ended up having to book another flight earlier that same day. More out of principle than anything else, I was absolutely determined not to miss my 6 AM return flight to Brussels. Damn you, EasyJet, and your ridiculous exchange policies!

My three days in Berlin were marked with grey, gross, and dreary weather, but if there is one city in the world where that atmosphere works, it's Berlin. Having caught up with old friends and made a few new ones, I forced myself to go to sleep at 8 PM on Wednesday night so I could awake at least semi-coherent and with refreshed contacts in the obnoxiously early AM hours to leave for the Schönefeld airport.

The first four hours of sleep went by with little disruption. Around midnight, however, I went into paranoid mode and woke up once every five minutes to make sure I hadn't missed my previously determined awake time of 3 AM. Instead of turning around and checking the clock like a normal person, my body decided to use jerking wannabe acrobatic movements. Fifteen sideways somersaults, four leg kicks, and seven epileptic-like seizure movements later, I decided that 2 AM is close enough to 3 AM and got up using a cannonball motion to hoist myself off the mattress.

With veeeery few exceptions in Manhattan, I hate the bus in every city, in every country, in every situation. Having been born with the directional sense of a pencil and the attention span of a 6-month old baby, I will inevitably get lost after being on said apparatus for 30 seconds. As such, finding a decent route to the airport at 3 AM on a weekday in Berlin literally took an hour and a half. The first five routes would get me to the airport in less than 40 minutes, but required knowing where the hell I am going...on the bus. The next three routes listed S-Bahn rides that would take me 2+ hours to go less than 4 miles. Finally, after a series of silent prayers to Subway God, a route popped up that entailed an idiot-proof bus ride and two trains and would get me to the airport in an hour. Totally doable.

There were two reasons the bus ride portion of the trip was idiot-proof: the pickup point was less than 500 feet from the apartment and I would have to ride the bus all the way to the end of the line, so unless I managed to wedge a portion of my body in the bus such that only a blowtorch and an angry construction worker could free me, there would be no way to miss my stop. Unfortunately, this plan was German idiot-proof., Mala idiot-proof is much harder to attain.

After waiting out in the cold for 20 minutes with a burly looking Turkish woman and her 10 bags of dog food (who the hell gets dog food at 3 AM?), I boarded the bus. I knew in my head that all I needed to do was get on and wait for the livid bus driver to curse at me in German to disembark, but for some reason, I also made note of the final bus stop: Hermannstrasse.

The German Hopstop equivalent told me I would be on the bus for about 25 minutes. Around minute 13, I heard the driver announce "Hermannplatz." Now for those of you who can hear, read, write, or see Roman letters, you can understand that Hermannstrasse does not equal Hermannplatz. You can also see that 13 minutes does not equal 25. Finally, you could have seen that there were still a lot of people on the bus at Hermannplatz. I could do all of these things too. So what did I do at Hermannplatz?

I got off the f*cking bus.

As soon as I stepped off, I knew what I had done was beyond the limitations of idiot-proof. As soon as I stepped off, I knew I should step back on. As soon as I stepped off, I debated a few seconds too long whether it was worth looking like an idiot to the bus driver who would certainly recognize the Indian girl who can't speak German. Guess what, it was totally worth looking like an idiot. So what did I do?

I did not get back on the f*cking bus.

Watching the bus drive away, I made the harrowing discovery that the next one would not come for another 20 minutes, which meant I would miss the S-Bahn, which meant I would be stuck somewhere in south Berlin nowhere near the airport. Unlike the bus stop by my friend's apartment, this bus stop did not come complete with a taxi every 15 seconds. Completely at a loss for what to do, I did a two-step dance number (seriously...I don't know why) and crossed the street. Then I crossed back, and then I danced again (seriously...I still don't know why). Finally, I decided to look up and inspect my surroundings.

As though it was sitting in a gilded frame, I made eye contact with the most brilliant sign in the world. "Schönefeld." It appeared I landed along the bus route to the airport. To celebrate, a German guy came up to me and proceeded to have this stupid conversation:

"Do you speak German?"
      "Why would you ask me that in English in Germany?"
"Are you going to Schönefeld?"
"You have to cross the street. Come, I will show you."
      "You'll show me how to cross the street?"
"Don't step in front of that moving car."

Anyway, after being 'escorted,' I whipped out the iPod touch I sort of stole from my mother and pulled up the U/S-Bahn metro map I downloaded. Somehow, someway, I just happened to get off at a U-Bahn stop of one of the few trains that run that early in the morning. And where does this line, the U7, go? Straight to a bus with a very strategic final stop: the Schönefeld airport.

Five minutes later, I was on the next U7. Fifteen minutes after that, I was on the bus to the airport. This time I made sure I was literally the last person to get down. And no, I did not get a body part wedged inside. By 5:20, I was at the gate. And yes, I did indeed make the flight. Also yes, the next day in Brussels was one of the best days all vacation. The end. Genau!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Creepiest Part of Queens

For those of you who follow this blog with any consistency (thanks mom...), you may remember that during my 2005 study abroad semester in Switzerland, I learned the indestructible nature of Swiss bubble bath bubbles. I was also obsessed with trying to make people believe I'm European. I attribute this to the fact that the overwhelming exposure I had had to Americans was...I'll stop there.

After an internship in New Orleans, living in France, and having been in New York for a few months, I finally started to realize that Americans can be waaaay cooler than Europeans. Indeed, Europeans are not equipped with a microchip at birth bestowing cultural awareness, the ability to wear clothes that fit, and understanding the merits of portion control, as I originally thought. There are actually a ton of cool people (MY definition of cool) everywhere in the world, and I am very thankful that many of them, North Americans, Europeans, Africans, Latin Americans, and (maybe 10) Asians alike, ended up as my classmates in grad school.

One random weekend, 9 of my classmates, and my friend Daniel and I decided to go to Jackson Heights and get Indian food. I organized the dinner, and told everyone to meet by the subway station around 7. Wanting to make this an authentic Indian experience, I showed up at 8:30. Since I hadn't actually picked out a restaurant, we ended up wandering around until we finally found a place that would take 11 people at the last minute on a Saturday night. I'm such a good host!

Regardless, my New York friends are the perfect combination of smart and hilarious, so we passed the perfect night of exchanging witty jokes, astute observations, and taking way too long how to figure out how to split the check. (Splitting the check properly is hard for everyone, smart and stupid.)

Happy times in Queens

For those of you who have ever been to Jackson Heights, you may know of this one store that sells 10-year old CDs, 20-year old videotapes, and the prize above all other prizes: the Indian workout DVD. This said Indian workout DVD is prominently showcased on the TV sitting above the entrance of the store. In fact, the same 90 second segment has been on a constant loop every day from 10 AM - 10 PM for at least the past three years. Naturally, we danced to the beat before getting back on the train. I'm such a good Indian!

Heavy Indian food tends to put people in a food coma. Since it was a cold weekend in February and most Queens stations are above ground, that ride back to Manhattan was one of the rare instances where being on the subway was actually a desirable alternative. But it was only 11 PM on a Saturday night, so after a few nonsensical remarks, Daniel and I decided to explore one of the no-man's lands of New York City: Roosevelt Island. Trying to make a dramatic exit, we waited as long as possible to awkwardly hurl ourselves through the doors. Sadly, the doors bounced back open for at least 30 seconds afterward, so we just looked stupid.

Anyway, Roosevelt Island is a thin strip of land in between Manhattan and Queens. There is only one subway stop to the island, which provides the only public transportation to get on or off after hours or on the weekends. Roosevelt Island is also the creepiest part of Queens.

After making our failed dramatic exit, Daniel and I got on the giant escalator that takes you up to ground level. As though people knew that we weren't residents of the island, nearly every person silently turned to stare at us as we made our way up. Once at the top, I noticed a teenage boy who was mechanically spinning his yo-yo. Right as we passed by the boy, he whipped his head up and made eye contact, giving me the most horrid deadpan look.

We started down one of the walkways going towards the south end of the island. A few minutes in, we heard a macabre whistling noise. If Daniel and I were cats, we'd both have used our nine lives before the age of two, so we continued down the path. Coming up to a giant brick structure, we peered around the building and saw five men, each electronic wheelchair bound, each making giant loops around each other. Not a single man uttered a sound, allowing the macabre whistling of their chairs to echo through the entire complex. They seemed completely unaware of where they were going or why they were doing what they were doing.

Completely creeped out, but lacking any real judgment in the situation, we kept walking down the path. Eventually, we found one the strangest landmarks I have ever seen. Jutting out onto the river, half of a fake metal ship sticks out from the bank of Roosevelt Island, almost as if implying a ship was once wrecked on the spot. By this point, Daniel had been complaining about the terrors of his job for at least 20 minutes. Maybe it was the job angst, maybe it was the creepiness of the island, but for whatever reason, Daniel began pretending to throw himself overboard the fake ship. At least I hope he was pretending.

Creepy times in Queens

In the midst of Daniel's overboard throwing, a pickup truck came driving down the road. Then it came down to the path. Then it came down to the ship. And then it blocked us in. For a solid 60 seconds, the massive pickup truck's lights shone directly in our faces. Then without rhyme nor reason, it backed up, and turned around.

That did it. As soon as the truck was out of sight, we half-ran, half-cursed heavy Indian food all the way back to the station. Avoiding possessed trucks, circling wheelchairs, zombie teenagers, and robotic people, we got the f*ck out of Roosevelt Island. This time, our dramatic jump between the train and the platform was totally genuine.

In conclusion, stay away from Roosevelt Island. Right? Nope! I've been back like 5 times.
Curiosity works in mysterious ways.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How to Deal with a French Cereal Addiction

For those of you who know me, you know that I love trying different types of food (well...minus Rat), learning about regional cuisines, and cooking. When I eat out at a new restaurant, I usually do my research to find out what the restaurant specializes in serving, and I am definitely one of those people who will give you half of my entree if you give me half of yours. But, I am also a sad creature of habit. If the restaurant we are going to is one I often frequent or if I am eating for a more utilitarian purpose than for pleasure, chances are that I have a set dish, and I will not wane from this selection. In fact, I have been eating the same sandwich from Subway for nearly 10 years. Out of my last 200 breakfasts, at least 150 have been two eggs topped with feta, basil, tomato and garlic powder alongside two pieces of sourdough toast with butter and strawberry jam.

Rightly so, one of my first tasks after moving to Lyon was to figure out what set of food I would buy from the grocery store on a regular basis. The first rule of France is that their dairy rules the world. Thus, my composition of food generally tended to consist of milk, butter, yogurt, crème fraiche, and chocolate. At one point, I had to determine if I could afford to get my own studio. It was then that I realized nearly half of my weekly shopping was spent in dairy products.

Part of the reason my dairy expenses got to be so high was the beacon of all breakfast lovers: Choc'o Pétales. Marketed for kids, but inevitably in my basket, Choc'o Pétales is quite possibly the most satisfying cereal known to mankind. Not too light, not too heavy, just the right amount of chocolate flavor and sugar in the form of small morsels of crunchiness. At nearly 5 euro a box, this satisfying snack quickly depleted by bank account, as I tore through a box almost every 3 days.

The last month I was in Lyon, I awoke in my studio (yeah, I ended up getting one despite the dairy expense) to find that I was out of Choc'o Pétales. Most people would probably just eat something else for breakfast, but as a relentless creature of breakfast habit, the only thing I could think to do was throw on some clothes and go buy a another box. Unfortunately, it was Sunday, which as you might know, is the day of the week Europe dies. In other words, almost nothing is open.

But I was a woman on a mission. And by mission, I mean addiction. Yes, I was a Choc'o Pétales addict. Nothing stops an addict trying to cure their craving. First, I tried my street. Then I tried the avenue connected to my street. Then I tried five of the adjacent streets to that avenue. Then I took the metro to another neighborhood. Then I realized I was four kilometers from home. And then, finally, I found a grocery store that was open. With total trepidation, I walked to the aisle with the dry goods, and spotted one lone box of Choc'o Pétales. As I ran to the shelves to grab my prize, I was intercepted by, I kid you not, a cute little girl with a stuffed animal. She tapped me on the waist and in a very not-French sweet manner, asked if I could hand her the box of Choc'o Pétales.

Oh the moral dilemma. Give up the fruits of my labor to an innocent little girl, or be the heinous Choc'o Pétales addict I had grown to become? After she blinked, smiled and politely asked me again, I knew I had to surrender the last box. If I was in America, I would have asked the grocer if they had more boxes in storage, as customer service in America goes like this:

The customer is always right. Work with the customer to find a solution that fits everyone's needs.

But in France, it goes like this:

What the f*ck do you want? I'm taking a coffee break.

So I left the grocery store in defeat. Not knowing what to do next, I stood on the sidewalk debating whether to try and find another grocery store. As I made the decision to concede, I heard the little girl coming out of the store with her mother. The mother did the typical Lyonnais listing aloud of the groceries she just purchased, "Oranges, milk, brie, spinach, onions, soup" until she got to the bottom of the bag. "Choc'o Pétales!" She screamed! Turning to her daughter, she continued, "I told you no more Choc'o Pétales, Marine! This is all you eat! You're becoming addicted!"

And then a beautiful thing happened. The little girl's mother threw the box of Choc'o Petales in the trash can. As the girl and her mother walked away, I inched my way over. For the first time ever, I was grateful that Europe dies on Sunday, for nearly no one was on the street as I opened the giant lid and pulled out my grand prize.

Finally back at my apartment, I had a glorious day of eating my free box of Choc'o Pétales and watching Will and Grace. La vie est belle! Sometimes.

Oh, and for those of you who are curious, I got off my Choc'o Pétales addiction quickly once I came back to the States. It turns out cereal with crappy American milk is not nearly as appealing.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

How to Cancel a Gym Membership in France

From ages 4 - 18, I spent the bulk of my time...oh, how to say this in a sensitive manner...fat. My grandmother, who is from an impoverished area of Chennai, India, had spent much of the 60s and 70s in America discovering all of the ways we package sugar after she immigrated to the States. She passed this knowledge down to me during my many childhood visits. Unfortunately, without the lesson of moderation, I went from a typical skin and bones Indian girl to a rather round Indian teenager.

After seeing myself a little too jiggly on camera, I decided to make a life change, and have been an avid gym goer since the era of blob-dom. Even though I spent my first few months in France...oh, how to say this in a sensitive manner...poor, I joined a gym in Lyon, and lived off of eggs for three months to cover the cost.

Florian, the guy who signed me up, treated me like a celebrity because he saw I was born near Los Angeles. The rest of the staff, however, failed to acknowledge my existence. Sadly, this is what I prefer. But, the weight room smelled like a dead animal, the rest of the patrons looked at me like vermin because I wore brightly colored shorts on occasion, and the equipment itself was outdated. And even with the student discount, it was overpriced. Still, at the time, this was the best choice for gyms in the city of Lyon, so I stuck with it the entire time I lived there.

Seeing as buying a SIM card in France took more paperwork than opening up a small business in America, I decided to ask about closing my membership a full three weeks before I left the country. This took some dancing (I accidentally ended up in a Jazzercise class), but after four days, I finally found my trusted Florian, and asked him how to close my account. The conversation went like this:

(Translated for your convenience)

Me: Hi Florian! I am leaving France in a few weeks, so I need to close my account here.
Florian: Why are you closing your account?
Me: Uh...I'm leaving the country.
Florian: Why?
Me: What? Because...wait. No, I just...I want to close my account.
Florian: Is there something wrong with the gym?
Me: No! Well, that's not the reason I am closing my account.
Florian: What if you come back to Lyon and want a gym membership?
Me: Yeah, I'll deal with that when it happens.
Florian: Hmm. Okay, well I will need a letter of explanation along with proof you are leaving for good.
Me: Proof I am leaving?
Florian: Yes, like a copy of your plane ticket, or a letter from your employer. Like that.
Me: (In English) Geez. At the last gym I belonged to, I told the guy I wanted to quit the gym because the cardio equipment smelled like potato salad. That was enough.
Florian: What?
Me: Nothing. ::sigh::

A week later, and I hadn't been able to catch Florian to present my "proof." Stupidly, I decided to try my luck with another employee. After she carefully eyed how poorly dressed I was for their gym, and spent a little too long eying my arm fat, she looked at the letter, threw her arms up in the air, and exclaimed how insufficient that was. Apparently, writing down my flight numbers in the letter and showing a copy of my e-ticket wasn't enough proof. "We need to see a copy of your boarding pass," she explained. I tried reminding her that paper boarding passes died at the invention of the internet, but she wouldn't hear it, and told me "try again."

Great. I felt stupid asking my boss for a letter to cancel my gym membership, so I tried handing the same letter to two other employees. One told me that the gym has never had to cancel a membership before, so he wasn't sure whether my letter was good enough. Another one told me she wasn't sure a one way ticket constituted "proof." To this, all I had to say was, "Where the hell is Florian?"

Finally, two days before I was set to leave France, Florian magically appeared at the gym. I hid behind the giant stair climber machine until I was sure he was alone, and carefully approached.

(Also translated for your convenience)

Me: Florian! (I half whispered.)
Florian: Oh, Ms. Los Angeles, hello!
Me: Hey, so I have that letter to close my account.
Florian: (Takes sheet) Hmm...I don't know. We usually need a boarding pass.
Me: ::sigh:: I can't get that until tomorrow! It has to be less than 24 hours before take-off...
Florian: Oh, well I'm sorry, this is not enough proof.

So I paused. I knew I would have to lie. But which one!?

This one:

Me: Oh really? That's too bad...I'm flying to Los Angeles (LIE!) after I get to New York. I was hoping you could come visit me sometime (LIE!)...
Florian: You still live in Los Angeles?
Me: Yes! (LIE!)
Florian: Oh, well you know, I know you, so I will just go ahead and close this account for you.

Florian clicked the mouse like twice, and out spat a membership cancellation confirmation. As he handed it to me, he said:

Florian: So where do you live in Los Angeles?
Me: Oh, um...Hollywood? (LIE!)
Florian: Ah okay! Okay okay, I will come visit you then! I will email you soon, okay?
Me: Okay! I look forward to that! (LIE!)

You would think I darted out of there after that conversation. But no, I stayed to work out. That damn place was so overpriced, I wasn't about to get cheated out of my money!

Oh, and Florian never emailed me. Thank God.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Very Special Dinner in Togo

My senior year of college, I worked with a group of grad and undergrad students to go over to Lomé, Togo and partner with a small microfinance institution (MFI) for the summer. Somehow, I was convinced into being a bridesmaid ( in a frilly blue dress) for a friend's wedding, and thus ended up in Togo a few weeks after everyone else. Their misadventures had already resulted in the one guy in our group being attacked by giant mosquitoes, or contracting some weird tropical disease, or having to fight off bearded pirates, or something equally horrible that I can't quite remember. But, in the spirit of exploration, halfway through my stay in Togo, we decided to pack up for a week and hit the road on an escapade up north.

For anyone who has had the...pleasure...of road tripping through a economically developing country, you know each has its own unique set of (often pretend) restrictions. In Togo, soldiers posted throughout the country enjoyed building make-shift barriers on the road, and charging people fees to cross. "Just like a visa," one soldier told me. I asked the soldier if he knew that visas are for people who cross into a different country, which he didn't. I believe he now calls them "regional crossing fees" or something equally meaningless. But no matter, the founder of the MFI/our tour guide successfully got us more than halfway up the country to our first stop.

"La Lutte Traditionnelle" is the national sport of Togo, and is vehemently described as being absolute and unique to the country. I later found out this is also said in Senegal. And Madagascar. And Côte D'Ivoire. And...well, it seems every African country colonized by France, Belgium, or a combination of the two.

La Lutte basically involves two or more men walking into a flattened out field, and trying to wrestle each other to the ground. A referee walks around surveying their progress. Sometimes the ref throws a guy out when his shoulder touches the ground, sometimes the ref throws out a guy when his head touches the ground. Sometimes it's when two men have been deadlocked for 15 minutes, sometimes it's when a guy is wearing blue shorts, and sometimes it's when the ref decides he's hungry and wants to take a break. Though everyone in the audience looks intently in unison, cheers in unison, and says "C'est pas vrai!" (It can't be true!) in unison, to this day, no one can give me a clear set of rules of La Lutte.

Our first stop of the trip coincided with the national championship of the sport. Apparently our visit was big news, so the founder of the MFI/our tour guide scored us prime seats in the blazing hot sun, where we sat for the next two days and watched the matches. Though I was constantly shocked at the peak physical condition of what seemed like every person in the country, the lack of rule knowledge resulted in me falling asleep more than anything else.

Fortunately, there were distractions. The first was around hour two, when a small army of soldiers came rushing out of a van, and for 90 minutes, proceeded to set up a velvet covered umbrella on a giant velvet covered box. A few minutes later, distraction two followed in the form of a helicopter touching down less than 200 feet away from the center of the field, and almost knocking a small contingent of women unconscious. A man in a suit emerged, and everyone began applauding. "It's the president!" Someone shouted. "President of what?" I asked one of the people in our group. "Of the country, you idiot," she replied.

And so the President of Togo sauntered by our group, paused for a few pictures, and eventually working his way on the velvet covered box under the velvet umbrella. After ten minutes of enthusiastic cheering, he fell asleep. So I did.

Typical post-La Lutte celebrations include drinking warm beer, covering players in white powder, singing, and jumping up and down all night. After I woke up, our group thus took the obligatory pictures of said celebration, and even joined in for a little jumping up and down. It appeared the team with the red shorts won. Or maybe they lost. I don't think anyone knew, so everyone just assumed they won, and all was merry. So was I, but I was also starving. It was dinner time.

It was explained that a dinner had been arranged especially for us, as we were the guests of honor (I guess minus the president?) at the championships. Upon hearing this, I imagined we would be escorted to a banquet hall and be seated with high political powers of the country. We were instead escorted to a plastic table with six plastic chairs - just enough for our group. Normally, it was at our discretion to eat whatever we felt comfortable with. Tonight, however, one thing was made clear. Out of respect, we were to eat whatever was given to us.

We poured ourselves glasses of warm beer and warm water, and sat in a half sun-baked silence. Two women came sweeping towards us, each holding three bowls of food. As they put the bowls down in front of us, I was hit with a terrible feeling of repulsive pleasure. Kind of like when you're a hard-core liberal, and you realize the person you've spent all night flirting with is a staunch conservative who thinks "Liberia" means "liberty" in Spanish, and you have to decide whether it's worth sacrificing part of your soul for like five minutes of fun. Like that.

Inside of each bowl was a small, inexplicably gray, cooked animal floating in a pool of broth, onions, peppers and tomato. The problem was that though the meat could not be identified, it smelled delicious. Since it had been made clear that not eating was not an option, we each carefully took a small bite of food. It smelled delicious, and it tasted delicious! For those five minutes of fun, I forgot about the little gray body, and ate in relative happiness. Then it happened.

The guy in our group who had been attacked by poisonous bears or whatever said he knew what the meat was. Out of a morbid curiosity, we asked him to tell us.


He said. That's all I needed to hear. We all knew he was right. The five minutes of fun had been summarily ruined, and I could feel that terrible sensation of total grossness wash over me as though I had been dunked in a pool of paint. Like cockroaches, rats are one of the world's true vermin, in that they eat anything, live in the least hygienic conditions possible, and probably carry every disease known to the human race. And I had just eaten one for dinner. Yum!

I managed to contain myself for approximately 60 seconds before making a mad dash from the table and relieving my body of its despicable contents. Somehow the rest of the group managed to eat their way through the beast of vermin, but I'm pretty sure at least one other group member broke later that night.

The next morning, the founder of the MFI/our tour guide asked how dinner went. I quite literally couldn't stomach a response, and instead took my seat to watch day two of La Lutte. It turns out that the unregulated repetitive motions of the sport are the perfect cure to a getting over the fact that you just ate rat. I say this because, well, I fell asleep. In fact, I very fortunately maintained a semi-conscious state for the rest of the trip. I only truly processed the fact that I ate rat after coming back to the States, and tried to eat a slightly gray hamburger in the JFK airport. It cost $16 + tax and tip.

And that, my friends, was a very special dinner in Togo.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Berlin, Meet Virginia

By February of 2008, my living situation in France had gotten a bit out of control, as two of my French roommates, officially known as the "Couple from Hell," had made it a point in their lives to drive me insane. A woman I had been tutoring for a few months told me that the French police don't get involved in a crime until someone is killed, so lease or no lease, I should get the hell out of that apartment.

Since I had one of my five, two week vacations (Hallelujah French work schedule!) coming up, I decided to reconnect with Luis, whom I had met in the epitome of geek land: a Model UN Conference. Luis was doing some kind of Masters that involved speaking every romance language and living all over Western Europe. At the time, he was in Berlin, a city I always wanted to visit, so I figured a quick trip to finish off my last days in the apartment of crazy was in order. (After I got back from Berlin, I literally ran out of the apartment holding all of my stuff, not telling my roommates where I was going or that I wouldn't be coming back. But that's another story.)

Despite my ability to utter random German words out of context, such as Schwein, I possess little to no ability to speak the German language, and was thus very relieved to find out that every single one of Luis's friends I met in Berlin could speak perfect English. In fact, I thought about asking them a few lingering English grammar questions I had, like where, to use commas and, stuff.

One of the nights I was there, Luis had a party to go to, so I tagged along. Unfortunately, it involved karaoke, which is both a word I can never remember how to spell (thank you Google dictionary) and an activity I will forever suck at doing. Nevertheless, I grabbed a beer and made the sad discovery that despite being the only person in the room who was born and raised in America, I have the American song repertoire of a Tibetan monk. And no, I'm not talking about your Uncle Joe who ran off to join the cause because New Jersey "just wasn't doing it." I'm talking about an actual Tibetan monk.

One of Luis's friends, however, had a seemingly thorough knowledge of bad American pop good, in fact, that she seemed oddly familiar. On top of her knowledge of bad American pop songs, she had that vaguely goth style of dress about her. Strangely, it's this vaguely goth style of dress that seems to be the only style of clothing I have seen everywhere from Hicksville Virginia, to big city Europe, to scared tourist in Indian airport terminal. She was somewhere in between this and this. That's not very useful, is it?

Anyway, the point is that I was thoroughly confused about where this girl was from. At this point in my life, I had already been through the wine tasting fiasco, so I stayed easy on the alcohol, and approached with caution. As I was carefully inching up to her karoake karaoke area, another girl came up to me and asked where I'm from. I started in on explaining the patterns of Indian immigration and the evils of imperialism, when when the other other girl put up her hand and said, "No no, not your ethnic origin," (Go German girl! Perfectly phrased!), "I meant where in the States did you grow up?" Want to know my amazingly articulate response? It went like this: "Oh. Virginia."

Thankfully, that was enough. The vaguely goth girl turned around and said to me, "Oh! I went to Virginia once." Still not useful. Maybe she was from Connecticut and was making a swipe at Virginia. To signal I needed more information, I proceeded to awkwardly stare at the TV for 30 seconds. Finally, the vaguely goth girl elaborated, "I had a boyfriend from the States a few years ago, when he studied abroad here in Berlin. He went to William and Mary. I visited him once there...only place I've seen in the States."

Then I spit out my drink. Seriously. Do not give me liquid substances in public. For those of you who do not know, and I imagine that's 99% of you, William and Mary is a small liberal arts college in Williamsburg, VA. Jon Stewart went there to explore what he called "The Jewish mecca of Eastern Virginia." Suddenly, the poor choice of pop songs, vaguely goth dress, and impeccable mid-Atlantic US accent became clear: this girl was part German, part college freshman.

William and Mary isn't your typical state school. If this girl had visited my Alma mater, Virginia Tech, I would have told you this is exactly what she saw, and be done with it. But I guess even the social misfits of William and Mary are capable of saying stupid crap, so here is a selection of quotes she told me she heard during her two week stay:

1. "Like ooooh my 11 AM class! Who gets UP that early?"
2. "Where's the party? Who's the party!? Can anyone find me the paaaarty!?" ::Boy collapses::
3. Boy 1: "Come on, let's go watch the soccer game." Boy 2: "Is that the one with sticks?"
4. "So I was like, I know I'm like hot, but like I don't know why I keep gaining weight!" ::Turns to cashier:: "Yeah, I'd like double whopper with a large order of fries and a chocolate milkshake. No wait, Diet Coke."

In conclusion: higher education, lowered expectations.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Even the Bubbles in Switzerland are of Better Quality

For the 2005 fall semester, I studied abroad in the gorgeous, breathtaking, mesmerizing, and incredibly boring country of Switzerland. I say boring because...well, it is. Anybody who has lived there and in any any major city outside of Switzerland knows this is true, so stop pretending to be angry. Your display of bias and emotion is sooo un-Swiss. To be fair, I still find it amazing that in a country where the only thing that can be bought for less than one Swiss franc is a bar of chocolate, no one is fat!

Anyway, the majority of my fellow study-abroaders used much of their time and money for the most common American study abroad in Europe activity: live in a constant state of drunkenness. I, however, chose to engage in the second most common American study abroad in Europe activity: pretend I'm European. In the nearly six years of reflection since, I have seen enough idiot Europeans to be happy with just being one of those cool Americans who understands that Andorra is not in Africa.

Since my primary interest at the time was showing my fellow Europeans how Europeany I was, when the opportunity came to stay in the house of a friend of a friend in Geneva, I couldn't resist. My friend said that his friends would just put the keys to the house in the mailbox for me. So I put on my best French jeans, coolest Italian shoes, new Swiss watch, and favorite German shirt, carefully hid my annoyingly blue US passport, and Europeanly walked to the train station while Americanly scarfing down 50 grams of chocolate. Old habits die hard.

Riding the trains in Switzerland is always hilarious. The Swiss Italians in the south HATE the rest of the country for their total neglectfulness. Still, the Italians recognize the merits of having more than 30 seconds in between a train arriving and departing at the station, as well as having a postal system that has been updated since the 19th century. They therefore choose to stay in Switzerland, but refuse to show any national pride. In fact, most wave the Italian flag on the front of their Swiss homes. The Swiss Germans, on the other hand, loooove their country. They don't bother learning the other national languages, and instead all speak English and fly the Swiss flag everywhere. This in turn confuses German tourists (from Germany), because Swiss German sounds like gibberish to them, and flying a flag reminds them of a dark-haired fellow with a mustache from World War II who talked about...well, you know. The Swiss French just don't give a damn, and tend to fly flags that represent a bank, the UN, or perhaps even Andorra. This national culture via flags is clearly seen from train rides in Switzerland.

Finally having arrived at my destination in the part of the country where they don't give a damn, I walked to the correct maze of city houses, and realized I had no idea where the hell the mailboxes were. Slightly panicked, I ate another 50 grams of chocolate, while Europeanly walking around the block. I eventually found them tucked away in a corner. Thankfully, they were clearly labeled. Not thankfully, it required a code to open. This being before the time of smart phones, I had no way to check my email to see if my friend sent me the combination. This being Switzerland, sending a text or calling would require 7,204,587 francs, and so I had insufficient credit.

Completely annoyed, I went back to the train station area, and got a room in a hotel close by. After I paid the full non-refundable price, I sat down at their computer station, checked my email, and found the combination sitting in the top of my inbox. Brilliant. When Europeans get frustrated, they blame Portugal or take a bubble bath. Sometimes both. Portugal seemed out of grasp, so I went to the closest Manor (department store) and bought myself another 200 grams of chocolate, a bottle of red wine, and Swiss bubble bath.

The French instructions on the bubble bath said to use with caution, but French instructions also sometimes say this about sugar. That so, I poured half of the bottle in the tub, turned away for two seconds, and then turned back around. In those two seconds, the Swiss bubble bath managed to cover nearly half of the surfaces in the bathroom. I didn't have the heart clean up the mess, so I piled the bubbles in one corner, and went to bed thinking they would be gone by morning.

WRONG. Apparently even the bubbles in Switzerland are of better quality than in America. American bubbles would have moaned for three hours about being in a socialized country, then passed out from drinking too much beer. But these damn Swiss bubbles stood tall and attentive 9 hours after being summoned from the bottle.

Still too tired to clean up the mess, I found the sink, brushed my teeth, and went sightseeing for the morning. The bubbles had to be gone by check out, right? WRONG. Two hours of trying to dissolve the bastards later, and I had only managed to make a small dent in the seemingly indestructible pile of fluff I had created.

I heard a knock at the door. It was the concierge making sure I would check out in time. Not knowing what to do, I tried throwing some of the bubbles out of the window, putting as many as possible in the trash can, and covering the rest. After surveying my work, I decided to cancel the credit card I had used to book the hotel room. The bathroom was a total disaster.

Since I hadn't responded to the knocking in awhile, the hotel employee used his key to let himself into the room. I tried slamming the bathroom door shut, but it was too late. He saw the mess, walked into the room, and started laughing hysterically. He turned back at me and said (translated for your convenience), "Not Swiss, huh?" "Uh, what?" I said. "You're not Swiss, are you?" He asked again. " How did you know?" I replied. He said, "You used too much bubble bath! I'm from Morocco. The first night I got here, I poured the entire f-ing bottle in!" My face fell with relief. I told him I'm American...a very sorry American. "Don't worry," he said, "The maids can clean it up. We get a lot of tourists here."

And so the bubble saga ended. The cool Moroccan even let me store my stuff the rest of the day, and let me hang out on the hotel couch until my 5 AM train ride that morning. 40 hours after I gave life to the millions of indestructible Swiss bubbles, I sat on the train, Europeanly gazing at flags while Americanly eating more chocolate.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Subway Proposition

For the impact the city has had on my life the past three years, I don't write enough about New York.
Here goes.

Last week, I was coming in from JFK (Airport) to my friend's apartment in the Lower East Side. This subway ride is one of the few I enjoy, because the J train is always clean (by NYC standards), most of the ride is above ground, and I always get plenty of room to sit down and pass out. In fact, most J train rides from the airport are usually much more comfortable than the plane trip that got me there.

When the J train pulled up to the station, I walked on determined to relish the next 50 minutes, as this was definitely the only subway ride that week that would not be filled with the stresses of fighting rats for the food I bought at the deli, pretending to not notice obnoxious couples making out in the middle of the car, or fighting aggressive homeless people for even the smallest piece of pole to hold on to. So you understand my annoyance when a pudgy little Indian man in a wrinkled suit and his overzealous father walked onto the train and proceeded to awkwardly stare at me for the next two minutes.

Despite the fact that there are more than a billion Indians on planet earth, most are still absolutely dumbfounded when they see another Indian walking on the street anywhere outside of the motherland. Those of us who grew up in a country heavily populated with white people tend to hide this amazement well. Those who grew up in the motherland...not so much. Typical signs of amazement include intense staring, waving, pointing, grunting, the Indian head nod, and complete paralysis. I was hoping this might be the cause of said excessive staring. It was not.

After five minutes of ruined subway ride, I finally looked over at the little man and his father. Man might be too generous of a term - this kid was somewhere in between puberty and my little's brother's age. I suppose this is part of the reason why his overzealous, now bouncing father said to me, "What are your qualifications, Madame?"

"What are your qualifications" is Indian for any of the following:

- How educated are you?
- How much money do you make?
- How much money is your family worth?
- If I gagged you, tied you up, threw you in my car, and wrote to your parents for ransom, how much would they pay, and would any of the payment be made in gold?

Asking this question is also step one in figuring out suitable matches for your child in an arranged marriage. The other steps are:

2. Listen to the answer in step one
3. Say yes or no

It appeared this little Indian...boy and his father were riding around in expanse of the New York City subway system to find a potential suitor to marry. At this point, I had two options: engage in this conversation to any capacity or appear to be crazy. Crazy it was!

To answer the question, "What are your qualifications, Madame?" I simply looked at the little boy's father, and very poignantly said, "Schwein!" This of course means "pig" in German. I spent the next ten minutes drooling in my sleep, dramatically twitching, kicking my bag, and making weird noises...basically anything to seem as undesirable as possible.

Convinced I had done my part in playing insane, I looked back at the little Indian boy and his father, who WAS STILL LOOKING AT ME. The father blinked a few times, then very carefully asked, "What are your qualifications, Madame?" Somehow my Schwein-filled, drooling, twitching, kicking self was still desirable enough for this man to pursue me for his son. Since I already had half of the car believing I was some kind of schizophrenic, I couldn't continue with crazy. So I looked back at the father and said, "I dropped out of high school. I work as a bartender."

The father and his son got off at the next stop.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I Wish I could Travel by Submarine

I have been on more flights than I can count. (Meaning I lost track, not that I am only capable of counting to around 130.) This experience has led me to one conclusion: I wish I could travel by submarine.

Though social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Four Square expound more detail about our lives than anyone should ever need to know, Google Analytics has not yet bridged the gap to computing trends of my aerial life. If it could, I’m sure it would look something like this:

- Crying baby within three seats of you on 23 percent of flights
- Creepy Indian stares at you for more than 10 seconds on 78 percent of flights
- 1465 peanuts, 128 cookies, 23 pounds of genetically modified chicken, 45 ounces of alcohol consumed
- Seat located right over plane turbine on 56 percent of flights
- 32 in-flight movies that would not be worth the time in any other situation
- Obese, hypertensive man sitting next to you on 83 percent of flights

For any of you who have the sad fortune of partaking in short domestic flights, I’m sure you’d find this last statistic particularly harrowing. In some Indian crowds, my stature is considered Amazonian in nature. For the vast majority of the Western world, I’m average at best. Average-statured people tend to fit comfortably in current domestic airplane seats, unless of course they try to move or breathe. The rest of the world, including the obese hypertensives, find sitting in domestic airplane seats a challenge. Sure, the airline requires some to buy the seat on either side of them to accommodate extra…luggage, but us average-statures know this is rarely enforced, and in fact, on 83 percent of flights, I am next to one of them.

Obese, hypertensive man is usually a nice person. In fact, he might actually have a good reason for why his body weight went so astray. But in the moment when I realize that I will once again be sitting next to an obese, hypertensive, I. don’t. care. All I can focus on is whether there is a conceivable exit strategy to avoid another set of the most uncomfortable 60-120 minutes of my life. I’m sure Google Analytics will be tell me this is not possible 71 percent of the time.

Usually domestic flights are the only time I am truly distraught over the prospect of this particular set of people. There are so many other fascinating people to worry about on international flights: droolers, snorers, alcoholics, and tourists with the insatiable desire to tell you about the exotic lands they are coming from (usually the Eiffel Tower or something lame in London). However, on my last Dubai to New York flight, I began to worry about the obese, hypertensives once more, as volcanic ash decided to make a European Air Traffic Control nightmare from hell.

As the co-pilot and head flight attendant began to explain the trajectory, I knew this would be the worst flight ever. Emirates has a policy of only hiring gorgeous people who speak 4+ languages and have very soothing voices, but even their models couldn’t bring me comfort at the prospect of being on one single plane for 16 straight hours. We’d basically have to go against the air stream, fly through the entire Mediterranean Sea, cross half of Morocco, fly across the Atlantic Ocean, and travel up from North Carolina to New York.

I looked over at the seat next to me. Empty. Ha. Like that would ever happen. My obese, hypertensive was probably just running late. Right on schedule, I felt someone walk up behind me and wait for me to get out so they could get in to the aisle. In a painstakingly slow fashion, I got up, turned around, and saw…a short skinny guy!

It turns out this wasn’t the worst flight ever. The beautiful flight attendants of Emirates and the quietest, short, skinny guy ever made the 16 hours relatively comfortable. Sure, it was a bit odd that short skinny guy would use indecipherable hand motions when he wanted to get up or drink something, but I’m not complaining.

I can now happily report my flight statistics as such:

- Crying baby within three seats of you on 25 percent of flights
- Creepy Indian stares at you for more than 10 seconds on 80 percent of flights
- 1465 peanuts, 140 cookies, 25 pounds of genetically modified chicken, 50 ounces of alcohol consumed
- Seat located right over plane turbine on 59 percent of flights
- 37 in-flight movies that would not be worth the time in any other situation
- Obese, hypertensive man sitting next to you on 82 percent of flights

But I still wish I could travel by submarine.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Sophistication of Wine Tasting en France

There are two kinds of people in this world: me and everyone else. Unfortunately, this distinction does not narrow down the latter category by any significant amount, so many Americans seem to draw a line between the "Average" and the "Sophisticated." The "Sophisticated" group enjoy finer things of life, such as the theater, dark clothes, gym memberships, and WINE. Some "Averages" also try to partake in the joys of wine, though the "Sophisticated" tend to pair their wine with aged cheese, pretentious topics of conversation, and corkscrews that cost more than the GDP of many countries.

For many years, in an attempt to place myself with the "Sophisticated," I would partake in wine tasting parties, while overusing words such as "crostini," "aroma," "palate," and "delightful." Though I tend to ride comfortably between the "Average" and "Sophisticated" of America, when it came time to prove my wine abilities in a tasting in France, I was prepared to take the plunge into the land of sophistication with no intentions of turning back.

The Rhone region in which the city of Lyon (where I lived) sits, is home to a type of French wine known as Beaujolais. Most of the small, private wineries in the area debut their Beaujolais wine in the late fall in "caveaus" (large underground cellars), where the wine is aged in barrels. Veeeeery Sophisticated!

Nearly all of the French roommates I had in France were, how to say this in a sensitive manner...f**king crazy. Before I discovered the dormant crazy in the second set, I managed to secure a ride to a Beaujolais caveau, owned by a family friend of one of my roommates, at the debut of their wine season.

Did I mention Americans think of wine tasting as a "Sophisticated" endeavor? Well, French people think of wine tasting as a "Everybody" endeavor. That is to say, rich or poor, black or white, "Average" or "Sophisticated," EVERYONE in France goes to wine tastings. I was not prepared for that fact.

For starters, I was the ONLY brown person that had ever been in this particular Beaujolais caveau. I had chosen to wear a black sweater, dark jeans, and black shoes. Combined with the dim lighting, the very pale selection of French people had trouble separating rock formations with my person, and made it a habit of bumping into me as I drank copious amounts of free wine. Second, most of the people in caveau looked as though they had just come from a long day of shopping at Wal-Mart. Granted, they were still better dressed than actual regular patrons of Wal-Mart, but I attribute this to the lack of obese people. French women really don't get fat.

Needless to say, I was uncomfortable. Somewhere between my fourth and fifth glass of Sophistication, a man heavily bumped into me, and my dormant crazy began to unfurl. He turned around to see what he had hit, and was shocked to see it was an angry brown person brimming with Sophisticated insults. Unfortunately, none of my Sophisticated French words made an appearance, and I instead noticed this poor country Frenchman was wearing...A YANKEES HAT!

After I sloppily set down my glass of red Sophistication, I said in my best slurred French (translated for your convenience): "Why are you wearing a YANKEES hat!? Do you like BASEBAAAALL!? Do you have ANY idea of the cultural significance that hat bears? Do you!?" Then I started to growl. Seriously. For some reason, I assumed a threatening posture, and I started to growl. My roommates were having a fantastic time letting me go about my Sophisticated business, but at this point, decided it was best to stop my Sophisticated drinking, and feed me cheese.

Half an hour later, I was sober enough to realize that I am quite good at growling, but unfortunately, had discovered that in public. Monsieur Yankee casquette had mercifully disappeared, so I bumped my way over to the sales table, and bought three bottles in the hopes that all would be forgotten. As I got out my money to pay for the bottles, the cashier and daughter of the winery owner leaned over to me and said (also translated for your convenience), "You must come back next year! This was the most fun beaujolais debut we've ever had, thanks to you! They are usually so...average."

So there you have it. In my attempt to be a "Sophisticated," I was inadvertently thrown in with the "Average," only to end up thoroughly entertaining. Riding the fence once more. You're welcome.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Santo Domingo Cab Rides: $10/mile

In a picturesque world, Christmas is a time for family joy, gift giving, carol singing, and general merriment. In the real world, my friends tell me it is the cause of most alcohol-related diseases in the Western Hemisphere. As a passive (read: lazy) Hindu, I have used this holiday season for precisely two purposes. Namely, watching overly aggressive soccer moms beat each other down at the local shopping mall, and catching up on 12-months worth of television.

Despite this productive use of time, my parents decided that we, as a family, should venture a relaxing vacation to get to know each other better. After a brainstorming session, we listed the collective requirements:

1. Must have beach access (dad)
2. Must be far away from beach (me)
3. Must be English speaking (mom)
4. Spanish speaking would be cool (brother)
5. Round-trip travel time must be less than 5 days (dad)
6. Let's go away for the month (mom)
7. What? (me)
8. Are we out of peanut butter? (brother)

Out of annoyance and a general desire to not hear us speak any more (yay family bonding!), my mother decided that the Dominican Republic would be our best bet. I volunteered to buy the tickets, but as my net worth is about $12, ended up calling the travel agent and impersonating my parents, and put us down for non-refundable tickets to Santo Domingo.

Christmas morning, millions of children around the country awoke to the joys of a winter wonderland, for it had been and continued to snow for 13 straight hours. My family, on the other hand, began our exploration of alcohol-related diseases. Our flight to Atlanta got canceled. After much deliberation, we decided to rent a car and make the long drive to Atlanta to catch the flight to Santo, which was unaffected. Then we decided not to go.

Finally, after a long drive overnight, we made it to Atlanta (we decided to go after all). Family bonding was great! I even saw my parents a few times! One such occasion was dinner the second night. A friend of a friend recommended a Spanish restaurant. So, we saddled up, paid twice as much as we should have for a cab ride there, and ate a fantastic paella in thankfully dim light that disguised how under dressed we all were.

On the way out, I noticed there was bowl containing free candy for all diners. Naturally, this kept me distracted for a solid fifteen minutes. Successfully covered in processed sugar, I came outside to see my brother, father, and some confused looking Dominican guy arguing about the cost of the cab ride home. Between my brother's intermediate Spanish and my sugar-coated French, we deduced the cost of the ride home contained the number "5," though the exact placement of this "5" was unknown. My brother thought the placement of the "5" meant the cost breakdown equaled to about $10/mile. Having lived in New York for more than two years, I knew this was a rip off, because if the cost of ANYTHING is more than it is in New York, you are getting screwed.

After another ten minutes of hand gestures, angry sighs, and gum drops, my father had the genius idea of giving confused Dominican guy a sheet of paper to write down the price. As it turned out, high school Spanish in the States failed again, and the placement of the "5" meant the cab ride would cost half of what it did on the way to the restaurant. So, we piled in the cab, all did a silent gasp as we saw a gun in the cup holder, and went back to the hotel. I believe this is why we average one family vacation every four years.