Coming to America: From Northern Germany to the “New World”

In the 19th and 20th century, millions of people were coming to America. They left Europe via the North German ports in search of a better life in the “New World”, mostly the USA.

sculpture called Die Auswanderer, emigrants, on emigrants coming to America
This sculpture called Die Auswanderer, emigrants, is standing on the shore of the river Weser. It remembers the seven million passing through the port of Bremerhaven. Actually, this statue by Frank Varga was donated by the German-American Memorial Association.

As a counterpart to the arrival halls in Ellis Island, several museums in German cities remember the adventurous journeys of the emigrants in transit.

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The Ski Instructor of Sri Lanka

I’m often asked how it is to travel by myself. If I’m not scared. If I don’t get lonely. If I’m not afraid that the sky may fall on my head tomorrow.

A Ski Instructor by himself in a snowy landscape
No, Sri Lanka looks nothing like this. Definitely not.
(Photo: Sondrekv, Påske, detail, cropped to 2:3, , CC0 1.0)

The answer has always been no – and meeting Sri Lanka’s only ski instructor was clearly another proof that travelling solo is a great chance to come across people that open up to you in a blink of an eye.

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Language Learning in Milan

I can remember neither the moment nor the occasion – but there was a point when I clearly saw my life’s biggest goal.

No, I don’t need to see a 1000 places, they can’t make me hear 1000 recordings, and I won’t read their 1001 books before I die.

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Class of 2016: my wonderful interesting, sophisticated, talented, and creative co-students
and our sweet teacher Claudia (kneeling in the middle).
In the back you see my class mate Ji Hun Yeo from South Korea who came to Italy to study – take a wild guess – lyrical singing. One time we had the great pleasure to get a mini-concerto.
Click here to enjoy it, too.

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Language Learning in Izmir

Since my two weeks educational vacation in Rome were of such a great personal gain, two years later it was time to get back on the language horse. After many hours in front of the computer screen talking in rudimentary Turkish to a learning program, I decided to give Turkey a shot.

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Nestled between palm trees and lamp posts: Izmir proudly presents the ‘Saat Kulesi’ – its major tourist attraction.

Remembering my schedule in Rome where I spent mornings at exhibitions and afternoons at school, my first choice was buoyant and artsy Istanbul. I intended to split my time exactly the same way I did at the Eternal city. But a quick look at the prices thwarted my plans. Language lessons in Istanbul costs triple of the one I found in Izmir. So Izmir it was.

Everything I knew about Izmir was that there is an Izmir. Anything I was able to find on the internet was not very appealing. Izmir was described as big and modern and tolerant – which are unquestionably nice attributes. But big and modern and tolerant alone is not necessarily very entertaining, and the only sight I saw over and over again was the ‘Saat Kulesi’, the clock tower. I was not sure if the clock tower would capture my imagination for two weeks.

Actually I wasn’t even lodged anywhere close to the clock tower at the center of Izmir. I’d arrived at Karşıyaka, a borough with lots of very new, for my European eye quite charmless neighborhoods. Practical apartment buildings, few people on the streets – there was a project-feel to it.

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There are certainly more animating places in the world than Izmir, but the one hour boat ride from Karşıyaka, where the Turkish Language Center is located, to the city center is quite idyllic.

Although my homestay in Rome had turned out to be a bit autistic, I gave it another try and chose to be hosted by a Turkish family. Since by then I had only spoken Turkish to a computer, I needed to be challenged to extended conversations badly.

I was lodged at a tiny lady’s big flat that she shared with her son who seemed to be in his early thirties. Single woman, adult child – Rome all over again. It’s not me repeating myself, life doesn’t surprise me enough.

First school day, first breakfast. “Yemek hazır!” I heard the tiny host mother calling from the kitchen next to my room. I was happy to understand right away the meaning: food is ready. What a head start, this stay promised to be a great linguistic success. When I got to the kitchen, there was a lovely omelet, there was a small basket with bread, tomato and cucumber slices on a saucer and one of these oriental glasses of tea. But there were no people. “You’re not eating?”, I scraped up my Turkish vocabulary. From her answer I understood that her son was still sleeping. And with that she went to the adjacent balcony, closed the glass door and lightened a cigarette.
I was hungry, school was waiting, I dug in. In front of me was a TV set blearing on a shelf behind the kitchen table. A young man, surprisingly hyper for this time of the day, informed the viewers about all sort of mostly very disturbing incidents.
No, wait, one story was really funny: It was about a man getting money at an ATM, and while he was waiting for his cash, the shop owner let down the rolling grill without realizing that someone was standing in front of the shop at the ATM. Only hours later the man, still trapped between the rolling grill and the ATM – isn’t that hilarious? – was released by the police. I found this incident priceless and would have loved to share a laugh with someone. But my guest mother was smoking on the balcony and my Turkish wasn’t good enough to explain this complex story, anyway.

After school – there was only one more student, a preppy American – and the first of my almost daily trips to the ‘Saat Kulesi’ I came home and tried to get my host mother involved in some kind of conversation, but my effort remained unrequited. After a while I heard her calling “Yemek hazır!”. At the kitchen I found a plate with chicken and egg plant and a basket with bread and slices of watermelon on a saucer and a glass of water. But I didn’t find people. Since she was standing on the balcony smoking a cigarette and I heard a different TV program from the living room, I didn’t bother to ask whether someone would join me. I had company, anyway: on the TV was some Turkish soap opera on, and – what a happy coincident – a jolly family was about to have dinner. I joined them on my side of the screen.

For two weeks the hyperactive young man and this soap opera lot kept me company and became sort of my friends while my guest mother was sitting on the balcony and her son was watching another program in the living room.
The Turkish practice didn’t go like I had imagined, but I cannot say that I didn’t learn anything at all. Besides the familiar “Yemek hazır!”, I learned very quickly the words “yaralı” (wounded) and unfortunately also “ölü” (dead), which proves that the show (by then I understood that the program was called “çalar saat”, alarm clock in English and thus very suitable for a morning news program) informed their viewers of mostly sad incidents.
In order to understand more of what my dinner companions were laughing and bickering about, I’d needed at least two more weeks; still it was nice to see their familiar faces dinner after dinner after dinner.

Now some words about the stay in Izmir apart from my lodging situation: Indeed, there is not much of the touristy, exotic kind to see in Izmir but it’s a great gateway to other great places like the lovely beaches on Çeşme peninsula and not that lovely, but very close by beaches at Foça. For those who are into old rocks and lots of dust, a one hour train ride takes you back in time to the Ruins of Ephesus, and after two hours by bus you reach Bergama with the Antique Acropolis and the even more impressive Asklepieion.

So all in all and especially considering the purpose of my stay, I had a nice time, but after having spent two weeks there, I don’t need to go back to Izmir ever again.

byemyselftravels
I took the opportunity to finally see Pamukkale which was on my bucket list since about thirty years ago I’ve seen a fantasy movie where some creepy guy used to live all by himself on these surreal limestone terraces. Well, I don’t know what they did over those last thirty years, but today you are definitely not by yourself.

Did you enjoy this funny little story? Here you can read what happened at the other destinations:

The Language Learning Trilogy. Part 1: I don’t claim to be an “A” student…bye:myself in Rome

The Language Learning Trilogy. Part 2: I don’t claim to be an “A” student…bye:myself in Izmir


The Language Learning Trilogy. Part 3: I don’t claim to be an “A” student…bye:myself in Milan

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Language Learning in Rome

I love to learn foreign languages. Big problem: I hate joining learning groups, at least those around the corner where everybody is starting from scratch. But joining the native speakers in their homeland is of course a whole different story.

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So only one kilometer ahead lies the answer? I wish my life’s directions where always so easy to trace.

For various reasons, I have an easy time learning languages. The main reason is certainly that I grew up bilingual with German and Czech, and latter is a bitch; but all its peculiarities prepare you for many other languages. Anyway, the fact that I’m a fast learner in combination with my legendary impatience makes me a horrible, moaning, eye rolling class mate. I recognize this, thus I stay away from evening classes for my and their good. I stay at home and learn with self teaching books and CDs and computer programs like babbel.com. All this is fine and dandy, but like I explained in an earlier post, you cannot really gain command of a language listening to a CD and talking to a computer.

Luckily I have three passions that are perfectly combinable: languages, travelling, and art. So the consequence is obvious: Let’s travel to another country and learn the language right there.

I have one big advantage – I live in Germany, and here we have this wonderful thing called “Bildungsurlaub” – freely translated: educational leave. And even better: it’s paid educational leave. Every employee has the right to take a class for one week per year resp. two weeks every other year. While your employer has to pay your salary, you have to pay the course, and that is certainly one of the reasons why not everybody does it. You can pick from a wide range of courses, only the school has to be certified and the class you choose has to last at least six hours per day.

Who wants to learn conflict management or macramé back home?
I booked myself into a two weeks intensive course at Scuola Leonardo da Vinci in Rome. Supposedly it was the same school where Elizabeth Gilbert (you know: eat pray love yawn) used to take Italian lessons. However, this is the only similarity we have.

It’s so fun when at almost fifty you become an exchange student with a guest mother and some sort of curfew (“please arrive at your first evening before 10 p.m.”).
I had the choice between living with a family, sharing an apartment with other students, or staying at a hotel; this was arranged to my liking by the school.
I chose the family stay since I thought that would be a great opportunity to practice what I learned in the morning. Well, my intention was good, but reality proved me wrong. The lady where I was lodged was – quirky, to say the least. She lived in a rather big apartment with her daughter who was in her thirties and rarely at home. The lady was quite the opposite: she always stayed at home, mostly rummaging in her bed room. I haven’t seen her in anything other than her pajamas. Ever.

I was accommodated in a narrow room – probably foreseen to be a maid’s chamber – facing an eight-lane arterial road. It was a Roman eight-lane arterial road, hence full of Vespas and other bikes. The first night while I was laying on the narrow bed foreseen to be a very skinny maid’s bedstead, it dawned on me that bikes make up for being much smaller than cars by being waaay louder. With earplugs in my ears, listening to a slightly muffled sound of millions of Vespas, I recapitulated the film “Roman Holiday” where Audrey Hepburn was charmingly riding one of these bikes from hell, and over this I fell asleep.
From then on I did sleep despite the eight-lane arterial road, but I was worried the noise, that I kept hearing subconsciously, might be bad for my vegetative nerve system; and I’m well aware that when my American friend Molly reads this, she’ll be all “omg, you’re so German”.

The first morning at the apartment’s kitchen, I ran into Cendrine, a pregnant French teacher, living on La Réunion, spending her holidays in Europe. One week Italian lesson in Rome was part of her trip. The quirky lady accommodated her on a cot in the living room. Poor pregnant Cendrine.
So I had no real Italian family to talk to, but a French room mate. Why not improve my French after all?!?

It was high school all over again: I had a – however weird – guest mother, I had a best school mate, I had class and I had homework. Since I spent 90 per cent of my leisure time at galleries and museums (remember? my third passion!), I often did my homework a couple of minutes before class or during the break. Like I said: high school all over again.

In class I met all these interesting people. There was the retired American teacher who learned Italian to understand operas. She had her husband in tow, a retired gynecologist working voluntarily for a breast cancer organization in Bangladesh. There were two sweet Dutch girls studying art, learning Italian to become tour guides, and there was the sophisticated British journalist following her husband around the world – just relocating from Mexico City to Rome. And of course darling nurse Rosa from Barcelona, at that time living in London, now saving lives in Liberia or wherever they need her.

Meeting all these people from different parts of the world learning the language for various reasons was so pleasantly different from the housewives back home learning Italian for ordering a pizza and vino, per favore, on their next vacation in Rimini.
And with my every day visits to surreally precious places, my life was just perfect. Life long learning forever!

I went to the Villa Farnesina with Raphael’s fresco “Amor and Psyche”, the Palazzo Spada with Francesco Borromini’s truly amazing trompe-l’oeil, the Galleria Borghese hosting all the artistic treasures, Musei Capitolini with the abundant collection of historical statues, and of course the Musei Vaticani with all the wonderful works the catholic church has acquired with your money, Mr. and Mrs. Catholic, so thank you very much for supporting the arts; maybe not always all voluntarily.
By the way, here is a quick tip how to avoid standing in the midst of tourist masses while admiring the indeed admirable sistine chapel: be at the museum’s gate short before they open (9 a.m.), and once you enter the building, just pace to the chapel. Don’t get distracted by all the pretty stuff on the way, you can look at it later while the chapel fills up with the others who haven’t read this fantastic advices on my blog. Pace, and you’ll share the place for a short time with maybe a handful of people.

After the first school week was over, Cendrine had to return to France before heading home to La Réunion, I planned a trip to Naples and Pompeii, and the guest mother left for her weekend home at the seaside. She left and never came back, I’ve never seen her again. Since her daughter was still at the apartment from time to time and didn’t seem to be in distress, I don’t think that anything happened to her. Her disappearance only proved my point that she was…special.

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A break from the break: weekend in Naples, the epitome of Italy.

The second week was at least as exhilarating as the first one, I just got into the groove of this perfect life between learning and getting inspired and meeting interesting people and hunting art in Villas and Palazzi and eating the best pizza ever at this hole in the wall-pizzeria at Trastevere and spending nights listening to Vespas. The whole experience was so enriching! I wasn’t ready to go home. I was hooked to learning. Forever.

But ready or not – after two weeks at the Pleasurerome, I had to go back to the routine that allows me to try out what a perfect life would feel like.

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The world upside down: Dropping out of the daily routines allows new and different views at life.
(Sala delle Colonne at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna the work “Passi” by Alfredo Pirri: a pavement of broken mirrors)

Did you enjoy this funny little story? Here you can read what happened at the other destinations:

The Language Learning Trilogy. Part 1: I don’t claim to be an “A” student…bye:myself in Rome

The Language Learning Trilogy. Part 2: I don’t claim to be an “A” student…bye:myself in Izmir

The Language Learning Trilogy. Part 3: I don’t claim to be an “A” student…bye:myself in Milan



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location location location

Who doesn’t want to stay at a nice, comfortable hotel at an exceptionally low price? I do! Very often these accommodations are located in – euphemistically speaking – remote locations. The Spanish call it “en el culo del diablo” – in the devil’s butt. And believe me, I’ve had my share!
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If you want to stay at a really good price at the same hotel like four American presidents did before you, you cannot look in Manhattan, you have to go to Jersey City.


Ferry me across the water – do, boatman, do

My personal hotel lottery began in the early 1990s when I went for the first time – of course bye:myself – to the United States of America. I did not go to New York, I did not go to Los Angeles and neither to Miami. I did the hardcore tour of the deep, old South. Taking the Greyhound bus from South Carolina via Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi to Louisiana. This was in a time before this crazy new thing called Internet – essentially short after dinosaurs quit roaming the earth. Hence I bought a booklet with Greyhound vouchers to be used within 30 days and combed trough a hotel catalogue (book! paper!) where details like the distance to the city center were quoted, but I wasn’t familiar with the US and thought, if the distance is five miles, there will be a perfectly functioning system of public transport, so what the heck. And of course the hotel would be located in a busy, busy area – nobody builds a hotel in the middle of nowhere, right? Wrong! Maybe the ‘motel’ in the name should have given me a hint, but I was such a US novice then. It dawned on me that things might be slightly different from what I was used to in Europe when the cab driver from the airport dropped me off at a small motel next to the freeway – but unfortunately next to nothing else. Oh no, that’s not true, there was a “Wendy’s” in the middle of a huge parking lot across the motel on the other side of the freeway.

Since the next day it was raining, I didn’t have to solve the problem how to get to the center of Charleston from there. I stayed in bed watching TV – now here comes the pleasant bit of the story: I discovered what HBO is and that Oprah Winfrey is also a very talented actress because there was “The women of brewster place” on, a fantastic film after Gloria Naylor’s fantastic debut novel. So go and see the film and read the book; and you don’t even need to stay at an isolated motel run by Norman Bates for that.

After the movie was over, I walked over to “Wendy’s” and got a bunch of burgers and laid on the bed, cried a little bit (because of my situation, not because of the film, although the film is extremely sad and disturbing – I’m telling you: watch it!) and watched anxiously the weather channel (also a new trinket to my European wealth of experience) for the rest of the day.

Contradicting the weather channel’s prognosis, the next day it cleared up so that I was able to leave the motel and go downtown. Being European, to me going means walking. Especially since the lady at the motel told me that sometimes she did see a bus passing by, but she had no idea when, how often and where it’s going. So I did this unbelievably European thing – I walked along the freeway towards Charleston. Everything went well after I stopped feeling funny because everybody passing by looked at me as if I was somehow funny. Everything went well till I came to this stupid bridge crossing a stupid wide river. This bridge has been constructed exclusively for cars. There was no way crossing it walking without getting hit by a car or falling over the below knee high railing. I had walked for over an hour, the city was right across the bridge, I could almost touch it – but no, no crossing. I turned and saw a big fancy hotel. Okie dokie – I walked back there and asked at the reception to call me a cab to carry me across the bridge – making the cab driver sort of a ferryman. And yes, I did feel moronic.

The old South – you can go with the wind, but you can hardly walk where you wanna go.

From this first experience with the American freeways and motels and distances and bridges I was much more careful choosing further accommodations (which didn’t save me from experiencing a very similar situation at Elvis’ birthplace Tupelo because uncrossable bridges sometimes can be found even downtown…).


Dawning of a new (booking) era

Now one might think that getting lost in the middle of nowhere was over with the wonderful invention of the internet and google maps and tripadvisor. Hold your horses – this was just a small step and a little help, but I still managed to end up in remote, inhospitable, unfriendly areas on a regular basis. I choose the word ‘areas’ because calling it neighborhoods would require neighbors, and often there aren’t any.
I’m not talking about booking middle class hotels in New Jersey which cost a fractional amount of what you pay for a disgusting, tiny dump in Manhattan – only because they are on the ‘wrong’ side of Hudson River. You clench your teeth and commute every day with the working crowd from and to Jersey City to save a lot of money. That’s a weighing of interests, that’s a choice.

I’m talking about those ‘even better deals’ than the rooms downtown that you initially considered. Yes, the review on tripadvisor warned you that the place is far from everything, but these people are always so picky and sensitive. When you check it on google maps, it’s only 7 km (approx. 5 mi) and there is a subway and a bus going there. On the map, it looks just round the corner, and the price for the room is really convincing, so what the heck.

Funny enough, once you’re there, 7 km all of a sudden become quite far and the bus doesn’t go as often as expected. It’s also irritating when it leaves the urban area and, after passing some factories, rolls along meadows and fields. This happened to me in Munich, a city with 1.5 million inhabitants where you shouldn’t be close to any meadows and fields.


Unintentional fusion dinner in Rome

And it happened to me in Rome, where the hotel was conveniently located at the final stop of the subway in the midst of a mall. Cool, it had four stars and was very cheap, let’s go. Only they didn’t tell you on the internet that you cannot walk from the last subway stop because it’s on a channeling island and you would risk your life crossing one of the freeways. So I had to wait for a bus to take me to the very next stop which was literally across the road.

The wait was fun, though, because obviously there are many Russian immigrants living in that area and there was some sort of colorful Russian flee market taking place.
Then when I got to the – indeed very four star worthy – hotel, the mall next to it turned out to be specialized in household supplies and things of that sort. No boutiques, no drug stores, and most importantly no food court. After a long day sightseeing in Rome, after a very long trip down the entire subway route, after the wait on the Russian traffic island, I definitely didn’t feel like going back downtown for a bite. That evening I had dinner at IKEA. I had Swedish meatballs. It’s like they say: “When in Rome,…”


Hidden treasures in Verona

But this is still harmless compared to Verona, where I also found an Holiday Inn not too far from the center – unbeatable price including breakfast buffet. It was already a challenge to find the right bus, because nobody had heard of the hotel or the place – although it was just on the outskirts of Verona, but people are so oblivious to details. Anyway, finally I found a guy who not only new which bus to take, but who also had to take it and even got off at the respective stop. Turned out he worked at this Holiday Inn. That was a blessing because although the hotel was not far from the stop, we had to walk through some underpass and turn at corners and walk between construction sites (and I learned that ‘Bella Italia’ is just another dusty place when it comes to construction sites) – never ever would I have found the place without him! Although the building itself was very posh, it was standing on a traffic island next to the highway. This place was built for guests who are driving, who reach there from Julia’s home in Verona within ten minutes by car.

I strongly object to this kind of discrimination of me being a declared non-driver.


Sheeps on the highway in Cagliari

Another driver’s only hotel seemed to be the place in Cagliari, Sardinia’s picturesque capital. Same procedure here: revues on tripadvisor do criticize the distance but mention at the same time a bus, so it cannot be so bad; and the price was unbeatable here, too.

Yes, there was a bus, but it took us there only halfway and then the driver explained us desultorily the way mentioning lots of rights and lefts. So after first going into the wrong direction for a while we realized that we had to turn back and followed the road that lead between run down car repair shops and wrecking yards behind high, barbed wire garnished fences. The German shepherds’ fiercly barking and jumping against the fences gave the walk a more lively but not necessarily lovely twist. You wonder how a hotel in such a sinister surrounding lures guests in? It’s easy: They are coming from the other side where the highway is. They don’t see any of this B-film scenario.
As expected, the hotel was nice, we had a good night sleep.
The next morning I got up early. As I looked outside the window I saw a shepherd with a flock of sheep crossing the highway leading them towards a small forest.
This scenario was so surreal and said everything you need to know about the development of Sardinia; and the pristine location of this hotel.

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When you wake up next to sheep in a big city, there’s something wrong with your accommodation.


Begging for bread in Olbia

The cake takes the booking at a really sophisticated resort in Olbia at the Costa Smeralda in the East of Sardinia where all the celebrities go. We had rented a summer apartment on the much less snobby West coast, but had to spend one last night in Olbia before our flight. I’d found a room at this resort for like one third of the regular price and hit the button – mine! It’s posh, so of course it’s far from where local and ordinary people go. The last public bus goes there around six in the evening – dropping off and picking up mainly the employees – and that’s it.
After we’d spend the afternoon at the elegant pool and on our verandah, around seven we felt like grabbing a bite. A look at the hotel’s menu made us more hesitant but unfortunately not less hungry. Let’s go for a walk, there will be something, this is Italy, there’s food everywhere. Ya – nope, there wasn’t. There was actually nothing at all. Dust. Rocks. One road. We walked and walked and then there was a construction site where nobody was constructing at this time of the day. But next to the construction site was a small wooden shack. No sign, but the door was open and there were three men playing cards and drinking something. Behind a counter stood a haggard lady. Needless to say that our entrance caused a short pause in what these people where doing; actually I had the feeling that not too many tourists from the sophisticated resort come to this place. “Ciao, do you have anything to eat?” The lady looked a bit puzzled and shook her head no. “Nothing at all?” “The only food I have is the left over bread from lunch.” In Italy, as in many Southern countries, you get slices of white bread with your meal. I looked at my travel companion, remembering the souvenirs in my suitcase at the sophisticated resort: Sardinian farmer’s sausage and a big chunk of Pecorino – sounds like a perfect panino, now we would only need the pane. “Would you be so kind to sell us the bread?” She hesitated, probably she thought we tried to play tricks on her. “You really want the leftover bread from lunch?” We nodded frantically. “Va bene, but you don’t need to pay for it, I can just give it to you”, she said putting the slightly dry slices in a paper bag. Oh my gosh, I had seldom felt so embarrassed – getting left over bread for free at a wooden shack in the…culo del diablo. We thanked her profusely, being particularly thankful for never seeing these people again in our lives.
The picnic on the verandah of the sophisticated resort was very pleasant – and quite Italian.


Conclusion

I know I could have avoided getting to know all these places by not being so cheap when it comes to hotels. But I refuse to pay a lot of money for resting there a couple of hours on the one hand, on the other hand I appreciate a good bargain; and I’m not driving – so that makes things a little more knotty.
On the other hand, I will never write a post about the many, many average hotels in average places I stayed at.

booking ahead vs. walking in

Booking ahead or just walking in – what’s more advisable?
As I mentioned on various occasions, doing research on the Internet, reading guide books, sketching routes, making reservations sometimes months before my trip to me is a big and important part of the fun. This way your brain does already all the travelling before you – just like a scout.

But planning and booking ahead is not only an extra portion of fun, it can also save you lots of time and money.

Travelling in style: Getting ready for a domestic flight in Belize from Punta Gorda to Placencia. 

 

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getting your hair cut around the world

Since I’ve been blogging I’m amazed how difficult it became to have a personal unique selling point. Before I didn’t know there even were people who had visited every country in the world. Now I’ve learned that this isn’t unique at all. You have to add more unique to it – like being the first female traveller who visited…or even the first female traveller under 30 visiting…or visiting without taking a plane (which I find really, really praiseworthy, though). Anyway, for a couple of years now I’ve got the travel habit to go a local hair dresser. This might give me the chance to become the first female traveller who got her hair cut in every country in the world. Far over 30.

Travellers – even when they only get their hair cut like everybody else at the salon –
are always also a special attraction for the local customers.

In Havanna I walked into a salon because the owner had plastered the shop windows with her cutting an Asian gentleman’s hair obviously on the sidewalk surrounded by a big crowd of people. After we agreed on a price of 5 CUC (which is about five times what her Cuban customers have to pay), she put a cape over my shoulders and got out a pair of scissors that looked like some sort of hedge trimmer. As she began trimming, I asked who this gentlemen on the pictures was and she said: “Obama!” Yes, Mr. Obama has been to Havanna about a week before I got there, but no matter what the republicans say about him, I know for sure that Mr. Obama is not Asian. “Oh, nononono”, stood the trimming lady corrected, “Ban Ki Moon!” Aaah, now we’re talking. So the woman used the hedge trimmer already on Ban Ki Moon – wow, I’m definitely in with the in crowd.

Much more spectacular was my haircut in Đà Lạt in Viet Nam. I walked into the most humble shop in a street full of hair salons. Two chairs in front of a mirror and some sort of stretcher with a sink at the end – 50 square feet of modesty. Xin chào, I’m your next customer and your answer to tonight’s question “How was work today?”. A skinny lady and a chubby girl and their customer stopped doing what they were doing and looked at me irritated. “Can you cut my hair?” I asked this question using my fingers to simulate cutting scissors. “Ya.” “How much is it?” I asked this question using my fingers to simulate rubbing money. The lady hesitated, exchanged a conspiratorial glance with the chubby girl, then quoted a figure which was probably three times higher than the regular price. Equivalent of 4 $. “Ok, fine. Do you have pictures?” I asked this question without simulating anything. Going to the hairdresser, notably one that doesn’t understand what you are saying, is always a bit hazardous, thus I didn’t want to give my luck any extra push. I wanted to point at pictures. The women exchanged a glance – this time a confused one – and then looked quizzically back at me. “Pictures. Pictures!” They had no clue what I was talking about. There – a pile of fashion magazines! I grabbed one and pointed at a picture of a lady whose hairdo was not a good example of what I wanted. “Pictures. Pictures!” Aaah, the chubby girl got it. Ignoring the old fashioned paper in my hand, she got a tablet from a sideboard and opened a page with probably thousands of hairstyles on Asian ladies. I scrolled a little up and down and pointed at one. “Like this – okay?” Nodding and gesturing. I was supposed to lay down on the stretcher?! Oh-key. Laying on my back while the chubby girl washed my hair, I had the choice between looking at the ceiling  (boring), at the girl’s face  (awkward), or closing my eyes. I picked the latter. Everything I felt her doing seemed to be the usual procedure: after rubbing my scalp with shampoo, the girl rinsed my hair and poured some sort of slimy, nice smelling conditioner on.

And then she started to wash my face with lukewarm water; not the usual procedure at all. It’s difficult to ask questions while getting your face washed. So I wondered and held still. After the washing, she rinsed my hair again. I hesitantly opened my eyes. So that was it? I tried to roll on one side to get up, but the girl gestured by pressing me gently back on the stretcher that we’re still not done. After she smeared some other conditioner on my hair so that it squeaked while she was rubbing it in, she slapped something on my cheeks that turned out to be some sort of peeling and began to rub my face with it.
Slowly it dawned on me: This was not this European ‘we cut, you blow dry – and then get lost’. This was obviously an entire treatment package supposed to make me feel good. I tried hard to relax and enjoy all the slapping and rubbing – which I hadn’t come here for, after all, but it’s a bit of a challange to relax and feel good when someone does inadvertantly things to you – even when it’s good things.
Next came a neck massage – very enjoyable, more washing – less enjoyable; and then she started to blow dry my hair.
Um – wait a minute…how about the hair cutting I initially came here for?! More fingers simulating cutting scissors. She nodded yes and kept on blowing. I was confused.

When my hair was almost dry, I was allowed to roll off the stretcher, and with a towel wrapped around my head and another one stuffed between my neck and the plastic cape I was seated in front of the mirror where the tiny lady wetted my freshly dried hair and quickly cut it in the exact fashion the picture has shown. My hair looked great. And it felt soft and silky like never before.

Today I arrived in Bogotá. 

Tomorrow I have a hair dresser’s appointment.