"The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing —
to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from —
my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing,
all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back."

~C.S. Lewis


Thursday, August 16, 2012

Tales from Dover, the city of creepy old men

"Well, we know what to call Dover," Daniela whispered, eyebrow lifted. "The city of creepy old men!"

I laughed, but my focus was on the man with no hair who was stomping toward us on the sidewalk. He hadn't stopped staring at us for half a block, and as we were approaching him, his gaze never shifted. Dark eyes narrowed, he glared into our very souls as we fell silent and passed him just as we went by the fish and chips shop.

Fish and chips in the town square!
As soon as he passed, Daniela and I doubled over in a fit of hysterical giggles. "See! See!?" I shouted in a whisper as I smothered my laugh with my hand, "Point proven!"

Actually, by the end of our three days in Dover, we had started to keep track of how many creepy men we had discovered. We got up to at least six. I'm sure you'd like to meet them.

First was the man opposite the street from our hostel above the pub, and he had a cough. Generally I don't begrudge people for coughing (I am the one who introduced the joys of whooping cough into our family a few years back), but this man needed a doctor, and I don't know what kind. He'd see us and give a little cough. As we got closer, he'd cough harder. By the time we were passing him he'd be gagging and choking and hacking so hard I felt the urge to mentally rehearse my CPR training just in case he keeled over right then and there. If he was trying to extract some pity from us, it failed. We were creeped out instead.

Next was the Grecian Brit. Or the British Greek. Or the lying Brit? We didn't never did figure it out. As we wandered around the outskirts of Dover one morning, suddenly this man appeared by our side, smiling at us.

"Do you know where First Street is?"

Sorry, I admitted, we were only here for a few days and didn't know where that was. Oh, that was okay, he grinned, he'd find it eventually. So, where were we from? How long were we here? What were we studying? You're awfully weird, I thought, and resisted the urge to give him a fake name and fabricated story and answered with vague replies that got shorter and shorter as the conversation continued and his intentions became clear. I was going to be ending this conversation pretty quick if he didn't find something better to do.

He was from Greece, he told us. Oh, what part? I asked. Oh, just around, he answered. (Sure.) How long have you been away from your Parthenon homeland, Mr. Perfect British English and Perfect Caucasian Looks? Oh, a long time, for sure. Yeah, I bet.

Well, enough of the chit chat, we'd known each other for at least two minutes, time to get serious.

"So, do you want to go out for coffee?"

I nearly choked on my reply, I answered so fast. "Nope, no, actually, we're just leaving. Good bye!"

Oh, well, he fumbled, rather taken aback, good bye! And he marched off down a side street with all the confidence of... a native Brit.

Greece. Sure.

But surely in the morning all these strange men would be asleep, right, and I'd be safe? Wrong.

The town square with the large  screen that showed Olympics all day long.

I'm reading in the town square one morning and only there for five minutes before a skinny black man comes right up to me on the bench. I eye him warily. Don't talk to strangers, my mother said. Yeah, well, buddy, you count as a stranger.

"Miss? Miss? Can I talk to you?"

How about not, actually. However, conveying that was no problem, for, thankfully, after Israel, Austria, Germany, Spain, and France, if there was one thing I know how to do, it's to look utterly confused and pathetic when someone speaks to me in a foreign language.

And suddenly, English became a foreign language.

I looked at him, mouth a little agape, eyebrows together, mumbled incoherently, shook my head, shrugged, went back to my book, and tried to look as Norwegian as possible. He stared down at me for a bit longer, obviously totally confused at my response, weighing whether he should try again or if whether doing so would cause this foreigner to blurt out a whole string of words in an incoherent language.

Apparently I wasn't worth the risk, and he wandered off. Score.

Yet our list of men gets even better. Driven inside by the rain one evening, we found ourselves in the company of two rather old, rather stout men watching the Olympics in the pub. Surely they would be safe, we hoped. Just sit down, say hello, be quiet, and watch the gymnasts.


The one fellow was sitting just in that chair there, facing the screen.
Somehow, inexplicably, within seconds of our initial hello, we found ourselves being lectured to with great enthusiasm on everything from university pranks at King's College to the terrible state of the Dover ferry (who impounded the one fellow's car, and he had his "knickers in a twist" about it, very sad) to President Obama, nuclear war, the Republic of Congo, and, obviously, Josef Stalin's daughter (whom the one man knew personally, of course).

Olympics long forgotten, the one man plopped down on the couch next to Daniela (I had safely retreated across the room to a single chair), the other swiveled in his seat to better impress us with his knowledge, and the two hammered back and forth at each other for at least 20 minutes, each trying to out-do the other with his intelligence and wit.

After they had utterly run out of topics to speak on, they deemed it time for their exit, heaved themselves out of their chairs, impressed on us how terribly wonderful it was to meet us (scintillating conversation, yes?), let us know they were also staying in this hostel (what luck!), and, with a grin and a wink, said they'd see us later.

Sure you will. You'll see our backs as we run away.

But it still didn't end. The next night, a huge black man was in the pub, once again watching the Olympics. Forced to endure his presence while we cancelled Scotland's hostel reservations on the only computer in the facility (an ancient behemoth, with the words, "back to the future 1980s Internet experience" scrawled over the moniter), he evidently saw us as his new best friends. And what better way to treat best friends than to confide in them a secret?

"Hey!" he whispered. We looked at him. Hey what.

"That Frenchman over there? He's... weird, huh?"

Now, you'll meet the Frenchman later, and actually, this black man's assessment was rather correct, but he seemed so proud of his astute observation that we could do little but shrug and nod. Wrong move, for, now spurred on by our obvious deep interest in everything he had to say, he took great pleasure in trying to find out about us and our lives.

Fortunately, it wasn't too hard to keep it vague. I actually still don't know if he ever figured out what country we were from, for not 10 minutes after Daniela had explained she was from Austria and not Australia and they didn't have kangaroos and it wasn't an island (and I was conveniently ignoring him at the computer), he grinned at her.

"So! You're from Australia!"

Despite my attempts to be entirely distanced from this conversation, at that comment, I burst out laughing, tried to smother it in a cough, and ended up sounding like a hyena with the flu. At my breach of propriety, he realized his mistake and backpedaled, but it was enough to make us ready to exit the premises.

So I cleared my Internet history (who knew if one of these creepy men was a stalker as well), and, in the silent communication of one girl to another, I got up, smiled at Daniela, told our nice man good bye, and started to march out of the pub.

At which point Australia Man leaped off the couch, bid a hasty good bye to everyone in the room, and came following right after us toward the back door.

"Hey, so you're going out with the girls?" Stalin's daughter's friend called.

No, he most certainly is not, I spit out in my head. Daniela had the same sentiment and turned sweetly to me. "Actually, should we go upstairs instead?"

Why, yes, Daniela, marvelous idea. Let's go.

And up we went, leaving Australia Man at the bottom of the stairs to go out on the town alone. I'm sure he managed somehow.

Finally, our last creepy man was the perpetually drunk Frenchman who lived down the hall from us. He was more interested in Daniela than myself, as, fortunately for me, on our first encounter he had deemed me a complete idiot. He had spent the balance of the evening trying to convince Australia Man to show him around Dover, the pub owner to go into business with him, the two Republic-of-Congo experts to discuss religion, and Daniela that she was from Australia. Apparently rather exhausted by this herculean endeavor, he had little patience for me when we bumped into each other on the stairs.
The stairs to our attic room (almost like the ones I met Frenchman on)

"Sooo," he slurred, "You're from Aussstria?" He thought he was talking to Daniela.

I wasn't interested in discussing anything at all with him, actually, so I kept on climbing the stairs and ignored him.

"Are yooou from Austria?" he called again. Obviously I was just a little hard of hearing.

Sighing, I turned. Fake smile. "No, actually, I'm from America."

Though probably saddened I was not his new friend Daniela, he nevertheless seemed overjoyed at the prospect of a thrilling discussion of American politics.

"Ooh! Wehll! I hhhave a few commplllahints for yoou," he nodded.

He had what? I was having a difficult time following.


Stupid girl. Well, Americans, you know. He repeated himself.

"Iii have a feew complaints fooor you!"

Oh. Got it. Complaints. Right.

"Okay..." I raised an eyebrow.

He puffed up. "Why Vieeeetnaaam andnooot Syyria?"

What? He couldn't possibly be asking me about Vietnam. Did I look like I knew anything about the foundational politics behind the Vietnam War and the relative merits of Vietnam versus Syria as it related to France and international politics? No, that couldn't be it.


Gosh, I was a stupid girl. He rolled his eyes and raised his voice, maybe that would help me understand.

"Why Vieetnam and not Syria!?"

You've got to be kidding, he was asking me about Vietnam.

I raised my hands helplessly. "I don't know, that was before my time."

He rolled his eyes. Typical clueless American. "Ooohhhyeahh, before yourr time!"

Yes. That's what I said, good job. This conversation was really rollin' now.

Unfortunately, disappointed by my inexcusable lack of knowledge regarding American politics, he didn't think so and started to drag himself through the door back to the pub when he stopped. He squinted up at me.

"Amm I just tooo smart for yoou?"

I gaped open-mouthed down at him from the top of the steps before I choked on my own laughter.

"Yes, that's it. Yes, yes, you are."

Right. He smiled, victorious over the stupid American, and wandered back into the pub while I crumpled in a fit of giggles in the hallway off the stairs.

You sure do meet some interesting people in Dover.

Monday, August 13, 2012

15 things you didn't need to know about Israel and Europe

I've learned many wonderful lessons on my trip to Israel in Europe, but sometimes, there's just a limit to the useful information a person can handle. Therefore, here are 15 things you totally didn't need to know about Israel and Europe...
  1. Fish eyes cooked in Israel don't really taste like anything. And they're kind of crunchy.
  2. But rabbit cooked in Spain tastes like chicken crossed with pork.
  3. And Italian mochas made in Scotland taste like motor oil.
  4. You can just barely hold your breath driving through the tunnel under the Mount of Olives.
  5. The flashing light display on the Eiffel Tower after dark repeats itself every two seconds.
  6. Sticking your hand into nettles is just as stupid an idea in Austria as it is in America.
  7. When you don't know French and the boys in Paris try to flirt, they fail rather miserably.
  8. You're hotter and more sweaty after you swim in the Dead Sea than before.
  9. The smaller the wastebasket in an Israeli bathroom, the more upscale the facility is.
  10. Apple pie in Barcelona isn't pie and barely has any apples.
  11. You find single shoes by the side of the highway in Europe as well as in America (what is with that?).
  12. If you can say hello, good bye, and thank you in a language, look confident, and smile and nod knowingly, in most situations you can pass as a native speaker.
  13. The best way to bargain in Jerusalem is to walk into a store with all your textbooks and wearing your backpack, and then try to back out out of the store repeatedly while protesting, "I'm a student! I'm a student! I have no money!"
  14. If an Arab man asks you if you're single, the answer is NO.
  15. If you look completely pathetic and say, "What? What? What?" to the French rail conductor when he tries to talk to you in unintelligable English, he'll give you a great price on your ticket.
Don't you feel smarter now?

It took me quite some time watching the Eiffel Tower to estimate the flashing pattern repeated itself every two seconds, but obviously it was such a critical piece of information, I couldn't give up... To see for yourself, click here.