Now that traveling across an ocean feels just as impossible as landing oneself on the moon, I am taking out my old photo albums and remembering trips from years gone by.
You can learn many things on a trip abroad. But they are seldom the things you were hoping for or even expecting to learn.
One thing I learned, after a four-star trip around England, is what a waste of money all the expensive restaurants were. Oh, the chefs had worked hard, producing Continental delicacies, and everything seemed quite lovely. But as soon as our ferry landed in Belgium, and we had inhaled our first batch of pommes frites, something was crystal clear to my husband and me. “Why did we waste all that time in England!” I moaned, stuffing my face. “Not to mention all the money!” my husband agreed.
Something I knew I was dying for in England was a sink that would let you mix hot and cold water together in one spigot. For no clear reason, and whether in a fancy London hotel, a castle in Scotland or a cottage in Wales — everywhere made you choose whether you would rinse soap off each hand with ice or with fire.
After two weeks of “Why? Why? Why make us do this?” — finally, I was thrilled to find a McDonald’s in Edinburgh, Scotland, whose Ladies’ Room sported just one spigot.
“At last!” I cried, heaving a sigh of homesick relief.
But strangely, relief was still out of reach. There was something odd about the water there, too — too hot on one side of the single stream, too cold on the other.
Upon closer examination (which involved delicately shoving my face most of the way into the sink), I saw that there were still two separate channels delivering water — only side by side, inside what looked like a single fixture. “Just like two nostrils in a nose!” I explained to my husband as we returned to our car. “Who would do such a thing? And why? Why would anyone go to all that trouble just to leave it still uncomfortable?”
Finally, we found someone who explained that the hot and cold water supplies were under different pressures, so that if they were allowed to mix at any point, one of them would try to force its way up the other. Sounds unlawful to say the least.
But at least I had learned something, even if I still hated the result. There was never any explanation for their cooking, however.
A trip to Japan taught me the importance of language and math skills. Neither I nor the friend I was traveling with spoke Japanese, so when it was my turn to book the next place, I asked the hotel concierge for help.
Picking a quaint-looking “ryokan,” or inn, from one of my guidebooks, I asked him to make the call.
Halfway through the call, my helper covered the phone’s mouthpiece and asked me a question: One night would be so-and-so many yen; was that acceptable?
I did the math in my head, and came up with the answer: $50 American dollars a night. In 1978 that was not a crazy price. Was he afraid I had picked somewhere too cheap? Still, the picture looked good. So I said, “Yes, that’s perfect,” and he made the booking.
The place was beautiful, all sliding screens and dark polished wood, with a hostess all our own who somehow conveyed — without a word of English — that we were supposed to change out of street clothes and shoes, in the foyer of our private suite, before dinner. She pantomimed how every bit of the beautifully served meal was edible, even the flower decorations, and showed us how to maneuver our chopsticks to capture it all.
Then we changed into special slippers and robes for the steaming hot immersion bath that was all our own. After opening out an amazingly comfortable futon bed for us, she disappeared.
The next morning, we finally saw the bill. “Five HUNDRED dollars?” my friend managed to squeak. “For one night?” What could I say?
That’s when I learned that mental division is not in my skill set!