Tuesday, January 30, 2007

First step in the pet hand off: get rid of parasites

She doesn't know this, but I've dubbed my friend Karen the Queen of Pet Preparation. The last few times she’s left town and we’ve taken care of her dog, Shelby, she has bestowed upon us loving care packages.

Not for us. For Shelby.

Consider the one for over Christmas: dog treats/cookies, toys that you put dog treats/cookies into, blankets, dog brush, hard dog bowl, soft dog bowl for travel, dog food, pig ears (those were holiday presents), and another soft chew toy.

Wow! And that was just for four days.

So I’m trying to live up to the QPP’s example and am scheduling in time among the all the trip errands and packing to make sure Sammy (shown here, eating snow) is stocked with enough food to feed a pack of his fellow hunting dogs. Not that there are packs of hunting dogs in Asheville, because soon he will (literally) shed his country coat, replacing it with an oh-so-fine city dog attitude. I just hope it doesn’t include rolling in cat turds. Or patchouli.

But even before the dog treats and food and brushes and pig ears comes the first step in preparing your animal to be taken care of by unsuspecting friends and family.

For Sammy, it's getting rid of Giardia.

That’s right, just days before we leave town for more than a week, he comes down with Giardia. I could elaborate here on all the signs and symptoms he's been sharing with us, but in case you’re eating lunch and reading this, I won’t.

“I can’t guarantee Giardia is what’s causing his diarrhea,” Sammy’s vet said yesterday as he trembled in the corner of the examination room. “But 50 percent of the time, in dogs, it is.”

Take me to Vegas, because I like those odds. So we’re shoving medicine down his throat like there’s no tomorrow. And by yesterday afternoon, everything was back to normal.

I think. And I hope. So don’t worry, Stacy; don’t worry, Russ! Sammy is a prince of a dog! So good! And diarrhea free! (I write, fingers crossed.)

Monday, January 29, 2007

Picturing where you live

For Asheville/Buncombe County Flickr lovers (I am one, I admit), there's a "Day in the Life of Ashvegas" project in the works.

Check it out here. And there's a meet-up planned for Feb. 17 at Asheville Brewing on Coxe Avenue at 4 p.m.

“I like your socks” and other witty foreign phrases (Or, can I have some coffee, please?)

When given the choice between French and Spanish at the age of 16, I selected French. Latin was my first choice -- my reasoning was I could rock the SAT even more with some choice word roots tucked in my pocket -- but my high school cancelled the classes. So I showed up to the official language of the United Nations, the Universal Postal Union and the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, figuring I could rock an embassy tour while mailing precisely-weighed letters anywhere with my savvy French fluidity.

And what happened? For two years, a boy named Win passed me notes during classes taught by the cheerleading coach. Those slips of multi-folded paper held witty gems like “I like your socks.” (They were green with gold and red checks. I remember these things.) But he was cute and had red hair and a letter jacket. I know I sound like I was raised in the 1950s, but my high school was in its own time warp.

But eventually the notes turned into, "Does your friend Shannon like me?" So all I learned from French class and French club was that escargot deserves its own special place in culinary hell. And funky socks were, then and now, just a waste of time, oui?

Since then, somehow, I’ve gotten it stuck in my head – and mouth – that I can’t learn a foreign language. I stumble over the words like I have a mouth full of pebbles, my brain searches around for the words I’ve crammed in my head on the plane. All I could manage in Spain was jamón serrano and café con leche. This makes sense, if you think about it, because, all you need to know when you travel is how to order pork dishes and coffee, really.

So, in preparation our upcoming trip (starting, counting today, in four days), here is my own last-minute international guide to finding coffee houses and ordering coffee drinks of your choice. If you don't drink coffee here, you will there once jet lag, hotel angst and hours of walking set in.

Café con leche (Spanish, coffee with milk)
Café au lait (French, "coffee on milk," literally)
Caffè Hag (Italian, decaffinated coffee. Listen here to "a coffee" in Italian. Note to self: Do not order cappuccino after 11 a.m.)
Kaffi Mokka (Icelandic, a mocha)
Принесіть чашку кави (Ukrainian, "May I have a cup of coffee")
Bunna bet (Amharic, a coffee shop)
Hēi kāfēi (Mandarin Chinese, black coffee)
Milchkaffee (German, "milk coffee," literally)

And check out all the coffee-flavored Pepsi products sold around the world, listed here. Who knew?
  • Pepsi Cafechino: Pepsi with a touch of coffee only sold in India.
  • Pepsi Cappuccino: Cappuccino flavored sold in Eastern Europe.
  • Pepsi Kaffe: coffee flavored Pepsi sold in Mexico, Central and South American countries.
  • Pepsi Cafe Da: Coffee flavored Pepsi sold in Vietnam.
  • Pepsi Max Cappucino: Only available in France, Finland, Norway, Ireland and the UK.
  • Pepsi Tarik: Similar to Coca-Cola Blāk, it's a mix between coffee and cola. Currently, it's only available in Malaysia and Singapore.


Friday, January 26, 2007

How do you find a good place to stay? Guess.

When I don't sleep well, I'm a horrible, grumpy person. Just ask the multitude of people who have worked with me in times of insomnia. So finding a good place to stay when traveling is at the top of my list. That, and dressing like a sexy European (see below).

So how do you find a good hotel when you’re traveling to another location for the first time? I’ve taken friends and relative’s advice – with mixed success. One’s “quiet and homey” and “convenient” is another’s dump and strip club.

Today I talked with a guy planning a two-day trip to Rome, tacked onto his trip to Sicily. He wanted to know where we were staying on our upcoming trip. We swapped notes, but, really, we don't have a magical formula on how or where we decide to stay. But I get great joy and hours of entertainment out of reading the online hotel reviews on sites like Expedia.

Like these, all reveiws of the same not-so-Roman-Holiday hotel:

The exterior, pool and entrance are all lovely. However, the rooms are an entirely different story as they clearly haven’t been renovated in 30 years. Worn, dirty looking carpet, dark musty curtains. Desk staff less than friendly. I travel a bunch in europe (weekly for my job) and this has been one of the worst.

And this one, written by someone too upset to use capitals:

not impressed
hotel beds have a very uncofortable matresses

Oh, and this one, clearly written by someone highly upset about his/her stay here and who obviously just wanted a tour bus to cart them around town:

If possible, skip this hotel
We stayed at this hotel while we were in Italy for our honeymoon. While the hotel is clean enough, the room was old and the hotel was very far away from the airport. It had cost us over 50 euros to take the taxi to the hotel. Although there are busses that goes to the hotel, one would need to be familiar with the Rome metro system in order to find this place. Even if one does know their way around with the bus system, it would still be hard to find the hotel as it is tucked away from the major bus route. My other complaint about this hotel is that the front desk offers absolutely no help with us getting around the city. When asked, they gave us a barely visible map that has been over copied and does not really show the location of bus routes or the hotel for that matter. We had to find our way out of the hotel and out to the bus stops. Then we had to ask numerous people to finally figure out how to get to the tourist sites. Our room was not particularly comfortable either. Our reservation specifically asked for a non-smoking room, but we were given a smoking room regardless. Our room stunk of cigarette. We did notice that there were rooms with the no smoking signs, but when asked, we were told that all they had for us was the smoking room. Needless to say, I would not want to stay at this hotel again.

OK. So so we're not staying at this hotel. We get it!

I also read the guidebooks. Then, accounting for the fact that most Americans I meet overseas are wearing velour or bejeweled track suits, I do the opposite.

That doesn’t mean I’ve had any real success, because, really, the maybe velour = great value and super accommodations. Take, for example, the place we stayed on the outskirts of Prague. It was really close to the subway, filled with Russians (How did I know they were Russian? Tall fur hats and long fur coats, of course.) and had the Prague-ean (is that a word) version of Westin’s Heavenly Bed. Awesome. Then we stayed at a place highly recommended in the center of Madrid where a street performer sang all day and all night. Under our window. I don’t think she slept. Neither did we.

Pat saw this picture and said, "That's the prison we stayed in at Bilbao." Yes, indeed.

So here’s what we prioritize our hotel choices on:

Price: We go for the moderate prices that include breakfast. Spending a little bit more on hotels is OK by me. I can scrimp on food, and if I have a good breakfast I can usually get by on coffee and something light until dinner.

Location: We are walkers. Boy, do we walk. We figure out the must-see sights and stay within a mile or two from those sights. Too close and you get nothing but tourists. Too far away and you spend all your time figuring out the transportation system and getting lost and, well, that can be fun, too. By in large, though, we stay away from the center of cities and opt, instead, for a neighborhood.

Size: The hotel in Prague was huge and was great. The hotel in Bilbao, Spain was huge and looked and felt like a warmed over Holiday Inn. There are no guarantees, but when we can, we try to go smaller. That way we the chances are higher that we’ll meet some cool people, too.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

four-layer cold

Used to be I could tell how cold it was outside by how many flannels and T-shirts and thermal tops Pat wore under his jacket to work. He's slid into being more manager now than worker, but the thought still applies, especially today when I wore a T-shirt, long-sleeve shirt, fleece and jacket to walk the dog down the mountain. My armpits were the only warm parts. Funny how you can be freezing nearly all over, yet your deodorant is still put to the test.

On New Year's Eve in 2002, Pat and I layered up like Alpine ski instructors and walked the streets of Vienna, a short stop we made on a Prague, Vienna, Venice trip. We made jokes as we walked along the Danube, down to Burggarten and Heldenplatz. Putting on our best Austrian accents, we'd repeat "I'm freezn' my ballsnoffen" and other such nonsense as if the heat of our laughter would prevent us from frostbite. It was funny to us; it was also in the single digits. The two are most likely related. Later, we'd peel off the layers -- thermal underwear, wool socks, shirts, shirts and more shirts, coats, hats and gloves -- and try to get warm in our hotel room.

It makes packing light and dressing as a sexy European extremely difficult.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mexico, with a passport

NPR had a good story about new passport requirements for people crossing our northern and southern borders. The change for air travelers started Tuesday. But what struck me about this was, and it's no new news, how much this change -- which doesn't take effect for those crossing by land or sea until next year -- is going to impact people going to either Mexico or Canada for cheaper drugs. And, let's me be honest, cheap cigs and booze. I know that's why I went to Tijuana when I was 16: to smoke and drink. That and to haggle for a chess set (CHESS SET???) for my parents who let me go on this cross-country camping trip and who didn't know their rook from their pawn (neither do I, really). They would have been happy just to know I didn't drink the water. Or the tequila. And, seriously, I didn't even want to. Now, at 34, bring me some cheap tequila and cheaper water any day of the week.

So, here are the new rules, from the State Department. The changes also apply to travel to the Caribbean, Bermuda and Panama. (Though when I went to the British Virgin Islands in 2005, we practically had to sing The Star-Spangled Banner to be let back into the U.S. at St. John's and then tattoo the Pledge of Allegiance on our thigh to be let into the mainland U.S. For not being a "foreign country," the security certainly made you feel differently -- hoarse and permanently marked.)

I quote, from the State Department's Web site:
  1. Beginning January 23, 2007, ALL persons, including U.S. citizens, traveling by air between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda will be required to present a valid passport, Air NEXUS card, or U.S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner Document, or an Alien Registration Card, Form I-551, if applicable.
  2. As early as January 1, 2008, ALL persons, including U.S. citizens, traveling between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda by land or sea (including ferries), may be required to present a valid passport or other documents as determined by the Department of Homeland Security. While recent legislative changes permit a later deadline, the Departments of State and Homeland Security are working to meet all requirements as soon as possible. Ample advance notice will be provided to enable the public to obtain passports or passport cards for land/sea entries.

Monday, January 22, 2007

crossing the fence

In the dark, when I close my eyes and try to sleep, here's where I go: the green pasture and knotted woods past this rusty gate, held by a fence where tufts of cow and deer hair used to get caught on the barbed stars, where the sycamore stands. When I'm back in Davie County and I can, I go here. I park the car next to the road, unwrap this rusty chain and the lock that doesn't work, push the fence across the grass. Every time it's different. The cedars, once just babies, are too tall to be our Christmas trees anymore. Brambles mess the sycamore's trunk. The grass is high and sharp. The old bathtub holds rainwater where the little herd of cows (mostly just pets with wholly uncreative pet names like Blackie and Brownie and Firecracker, who we got on the Fourth of July) drank. It's where Dad let me stand on the red tractor and steer as he worked the pedals. It's where my sister ran away and used poison ivy for toilet paper when she was about six years old. It's where Ed's yellow Mustang stopped for some sloppy teenage kissing. And it's where rows of chairs held my family when Pat and I married. This swatch of empty land that almost brushes against the Yadkin River is home.

At a little more than 266 square miles, Davie is the smallest county in North Carolina. Though the county boasts one of the highest speed limits on the interstate splitting the state lengthwise, ask anyone who drives Interstate 40 through that part of the rural Piedmont with any regularity. You'll likely hear a story of a dedicated Highway Patrol officer pulling someone over for speeding there. Farmington is just a blip in the county's northern part. Crossroads divide it, the Methodist church on one site, the Baptist on the other. The farm sits a mile from the community's only blinking caution light. The house where I grew up is just a stone's throw from that light, a half-mile from the farm itself. With the sound of engines bouncing off the hills, the Farmington Dragway is Farmington's only real modern claim to fame. And it is, in my estimation, the only reason it shows up on North Carolina maps, though more and more packs of brightly dressed bicyclists spin north down the relative flatness of Farmington Road toward Yadkin County.

Still, just like my ties there, the unincorporated community struggles to keep together. The woman who last owned the community's only working gas station and store died several years ago, and they closed. In high school, my one goal in life was to leave behind those crossroads, and, by default, the community that helped raise me. I, in clichéd teenage fashion, couldn't wait to leave that two-story, century-old house that's showing its age mercilessly today. There's little reason to stop there anymore, so it's not without irony (to me anyway) that the Chamber of Commerce now writes that "once people are here, they don't want to leave," even though lots of people feel passionately about the place -- my sister, who still lives in the house where we grew up and who works tirelessly to build some sort of community there, included.

This year, I'm traveling. Rome, Tokyo, Sydney, Budapest. Much of this blog will be about those travels. But walking the streets of a city where you know no one and don't speak the language or know where you are or know what to do next, that uncertainty is easy, temporary, fun, exciting. And even with its pastoral imagery, my home is messy, complicated, difficult, hard.

But I find more and more leading me back to Farmington and those green pastures. Maybe it's because a half mile from the house, my mother and father are buried on a hill under an oak tree, next to a different set of barbed wire holding in another pasture full of cattle. It's where the sycamore stands. It's where my little niece sings Christmas songs and plays with Play-dough, and where my sister and brother-in-law cook awe-inspiring meals.

For years, I've ignored exploring it, so this blog will be about that, too, because walking the roads and fields of my own home pushes against being a tourist, exposes the strings of memory that hold me in place, whether or not I know it or want it or believe it.

And that is exploring, really.