Category Archives: Travel

Speaking the language of bureaucracy in a foreign land

One of the most tiresome and tiring parts of moving to a new country is getting all the basic things done so you can legally function there: work permits, residency, tax registration, driving license, health care, etc. These are all things that citizens pick up as they become adults and take care of these things one at a time. When you’re settling in as a foreigner, you need to get them all done at more or less the same time. Meanwhile, you don’t speak the language, don’t know where to go, etc.

tax-consultant-1249530_640Often, expatriates get these things done for them, rather than have to do them themselves. In previous moves, we’ve had our employing schools take care of much of this type of thing, or at least provide good assistance. Other people often hire a “fixer” – someone who speaks the language, knows the process, and is willing to grease the wheels for a fee. Other foreigners in Portugal had suggested we hire someone like that. In particular, they said, Portuguese bureaucracy was difficult and government officials would speak no English.

We wound up without a fixer on the day we wanted to start our process. Bull-headed, I figured I’d soldier on and see what would happen. It was intimidating and scary, but I put on a brave face and headed out, figuring that if I failed miserably I could then get the fixer to help.

Surprisingly, it went very smoothly. Most of the people I’ve dealt with have spoken some English with me and all have been friendly and very helpful. Maybe I’ve got lucky (a few Portuguese friends have suggested as much), but I have another theory.

frustratedConsider this: Joe and Pete are queuing up to speak with Teresa, who works in the government licensing office. They’ve both arrived recently and are getting licensed to live and work here. Joe goes in first. He sits down and asks Teresa, “Do you speak English?” She shrugs and says “não.” He then pulls out his papers and pantomimes what he needs, speaking English with exaggerated slowness and loudness – just as he’d do with someone who doesn’t speak English in his native country. He might try a few phrases of the language but he persists with English, figuring that everyone learns it here in school since all the waiters and shopkeepers he’s met do. He walks away a great deal later, convinced that Teresa (and all the other bureaucrats here) are difficult and unfriendly.

okPete then comes up next. He begins by apologizing to Teresa in her language that he doesn’t speak the language well. He fumbles through various phrases that he’s prepared ahead of time, explaining that he’s just arrived and he needs his licensing. He has a phrasebook and translating app and does his best to use the local language to communicate. No doubt Teresa will find him an easier person to deal with. Certainly she will appreciate the fact that he’s trying to use the local language.

This morning, I’d gone to my third government office here. I did just as Pete did, with a notebook full of phrases in Portuguese that I’d prepared ahead of time. I apologized for my poor Portuguese, but soldiered on. I’ve done that in other offices, and people switched to English for me. Today, this “Teresa” in the city office only spoke Portuguese. But she was willing to mime, repeat things in more simple terms. slow down, etc. She put up with my fumbling and made the effort to understand what I was trying to say.

When my wife came in, “Teresa” said (in Portuguese) that it was great we were trying to learn Portuguese: that it was the language here and we had to leave English behind. She was laughing and complimenting us both on our efforts, and sent us on our way with our paperwork and smiles all around.

I am convinced that I’m finding the bureaucracy here easier than I’d thought mainly because I’m making a strong effort to speak in Portuguese. Sure, I’ve been lucky with the people I’ve met. It probably helps when I try to meet them at the beginning of the day when they’re fresh. I’m also lucky to have enough time to work on it without juggling job responsibilities or schedules. But it really seems to me that my efforts in the language are key in being treated well.


photo credits: all photos from Pixabay, licensed CC0/Public Domain

Taking the leap

It’s funny how easy it is to fall into a routine, even when doing interesting things. You do something adventurous, enjoy it and then want to do something adventurous again. What you did before worked, so you do something similar. That works again, so you do the same sort of thing the next time. You’re having an adventurous, exciting time of things …but you’re still getting into a bit of a rut.

That’s what I’ve done with my career in international teaching. I got a job teaching at an international school in Kenya. It was an exciting time, a wonderful experience. It was full of adventures and new opportunities, and I wanted to do more. So I went and got another job, this time in Indonesia. That was another terrific experience, so my wife and I got jobs in Zambia. Then the USA, which was a different type of adventure. Then Tanzania. Then Ethiopia.

Recently, we’d decided that it was time to move on from Ethiopia. We were enjoying the school and the country, made good friends and had good opportunities for our daughter, but we wanted more. We wanted a change. In some ways, Ethiopia had become routine and we wanted another adventure.

cliff-2213614_640But something different happened. This time, the routine didn’t work.

We weren’t ready to just take a job anywhere. We had something specific in mind. We wanted to live in Portugal. And there were no jobs available for us at the time. And the school we wanted to enroll our daughter in was full.

Suddenly, we were jolted out of our routine. What we’d planned for didn’t work out. It wasn’t going to be like our previous adventures. We were dismayed and upset. We were sad for our daughter and worried for ourselves. What could we do?

We decided to take the leap.

base-jump-1600668_640We are going anyway. We are moving to the place we want to live in, without jobs for the moment. We’re going to take our daughter, and find an alternative to the school we wanted. We’re going to make it work.

It’s funny what happens when you take a leap like that.

All of a sudden, we started thinking of fresh ideas and new ways of planning. We didn’t have new opportunities presented to us, but we started thinking up new opportunities that we could make happen for ourselves.

No teaching jobs? We could start a business. Or do part-time tutoring instead of teaching. Maybe teach online. We’ll have time to do all sorts of things – even do creative things like photography or painting or…

Rather than settle for a school routine for our child, we could homeschool her. Instead of being tied to a school calendar, we could plan trips to see family whenever we like (or whenever there are discount airfares). Our daughter can do as much sport as she likes, and travel for tournaments around the country and around the continent.

Once we made the leap out of the routine, suddenly there were a myriad of possibilities for us to explore and our minds were open to completely new ideas.
It’s an exciting time for us – scary and uncertain, to be sure. But the possibilities and potential opportunities are also exhilarating!

Life is like the monkey bars: you have to let go to move forward.
Leah Busque

An American Welcome

The queue snaked around the cavernous hall, following the serpentine path cordoned off to keep the crowds in an ordered line. Every now and then we shuffled forward a few paces and then stopped again. The clock ticked slowly. A television screen repeated a “Welcome to America” video. I looked down at the four passports in my hand: two blue, two maroon. My daughter and I, US citizens, were waiting in the entry queue with my wife and her mother, both Irish.

In front and behind us stood hundreds of visitors to the US: a family from Italy, an older couple from Germany, a group of young travelers from Brazil, a large group from Korea, a family from Lebanon, etc. The English flight crew from a British Airways flight waited in a separate queue. All of us were waiting on one immigration official. The clock ticked slowly.

welcomematI looked down the hall. There were over 40 counters. One was staffed in the visitors section. Six were staffed in the citizens section. Two large groups of citizens and permanent residents came through the hall and were processed while we waited.

After an hour and a half, the attendant personnel started sending visitors to the citizens section, as there were no more citizens coming through the hall. Our queue started moving faster and my family was eventually standing in front of an immigration officer. He looked at our two US passports briefly and then moved to the two Irish ones. He ignored the ESTA pre-approval printouts we had and asked my wife to put her hand on the fingerprint scanner. He barked at her when she moved her hand away, thinking her prints had been read: “Don’t move until I tell you to!” He then read her prints and then asked her to look into the camera. A minute after, my wife politely asked if he had done with her prints. He then asked my mother-in-law to come to the front. He scolded her for having dry fingertips which couldn’t be read by the scanner. He offered no assistance to her or gave her anything other than curt orders.

Two hours after entering the hall, we left and entered America. My mother-in-law asked if her expression had given away what she thought of the whole experience. We were all pretty fed up at the unpleasant experience and compared it to the welcome we’d received in other countries during our travels. We were white, English-speaking, Christian and half of us were US citizens. If our experience was that unpleasant, what must it be like for different groups?

The immigration officials are responsible for US border control, but they are also the first experience visitors get of the country. Wouldn’t it be good for America’s reputation if they presented a friendlier face and treated visitors like guests rather than criminals?

Sigh. God bless America…

Featured photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash. Welcome mat by Montco13 on Pixabay.

The pleasures and challenges of online learning

The internet and world-wide-web have revolutionised so many aspects of society, it’s no wonder that they have changed how people learn. (It’s only surprising that it hasn’t changed more already.) Online learning has provided so many opportunities for people all over the world, that it has become extremely easy and often free to learn just about anything. This can happen in very informal ways, but also in more traditional formal classes delivered online.

Over the past years, I’ve taken a variety of formal classes. I’ve learned Portuguese (um pouco!), how the brain works, Java programming techniques, online assessment tools, how to teach the IB Diploma Computer Science course, and many more. I’ve taken courses accredited by universities and international organizations as well as courses taught by private tutors. Some I’ve paid for and many have been free.

For me, the advantage of taking online courses is that I can learn wherever I am and whenever I have time. It’s an obvious advantage to online learning, and one that’s touted by online course providers. It also can lead to some serious challenges when you have a traveling lifestyle!

A perfect case in point happened to me this summer. I signed up for an online course offered through Thinkport (I recommend their courses – very well organized and useful). I needed a few credits to renew my Maryland teaching certificate, so I signed up for the summer course on Blended Learning. I’m experienced in that, so I thought it wouldn’t be too challenging and I could easily complete it in the summer, but I also knew that I could benefit from new ideas, formal training and communication with other teachers.

I started the course while on holiday in the US, and it was easy to work in the readings, discussions and projects while relaxing in my parents’ house in El Paso, Texas. However, we’d booked an Alaska cruise to celebrate my 50th birthday (and that’s another blog post or two!) and the course required log-ins and activity every few days. So I needed to make sure I had connectivity while cruising so that I could do readings and post to the discussions. It made for some interesting early mornings, watching the mountains and whales glide by from the “Crow’s Nest” cafe while I read about keeping students engaged while online! We then left the US and headed home to Ethiopia, first spending a week in Kenya with family in our beach house. Again, I found myself watching the water while reading and posting – this time from our beach house’s roof deck looking out over the Indian Ocean. (I’m an earlybird, so I saw a lot of sunrises over the ocean while doing coursework!)

The biggest challenge came, ironically enough, when we returned home. Despite being stationary and having all my resources around me, it became even more difficult to meet deadlines. School was starting and I had to prepare my classes, as well as set up our new student information system and oversee the distribution of student laptops to all the Middle School and High School students! It was during this time that I actually missed deadlines and lost points. My instructor was kind enough to give me some leeway, but I almost took it as a badge of honour that I put my students’ learning before my own and allowed my work and learning to suffer to make sure theirs got off to a good start for the year.

With all the challenges I faced over that course, and with the slightly diminished grade due to the opening of the school year, I’m valuing the completion of this course more than many of the others I’ve done. I’m looking forward to keeping that course certificate and framing it. It’ll be a reminder of the process and what I’ve learned about blended learning – both from the content and from the process!

The joy of a small bright dot of light

There it is!

The anticipation is part of the excitement: who will see it first? where? when? We stand up on our beach house’s roof deck, scanning the night sky, enjoying the breeze and the sound of the surf and the fading light of the setting sun illuminating the palm trees around us. Waiting for the predicted time, looking around, anticipating.

Then someone spots it: a small dot near the horizon. Everyone looks, points, calls “I see it!” We watch as it travels across the sky, getting brighter as it moves. We talk about what it means, and we recall previous times we’ve seen it. It fades as it moves towards the far horizon and we move off to enjoy the rest of the evening. It never fails to put a smile on my face.

For years, we’ve been spotting the ISS (the International Space Station) from our holiday home on the Kenyan coast. Whenever we’re there, I check to see if it will be visible and get the family to take some time to watch it fly overhead. I’ll usually look up who’s on the station crew at the time and any tidbits of information about experiments, spacewalks, etc.

There’s a great feeling of being connected. We’re on the edge of water and land, spending our days walking along that edge and going back and forth from the sea to the land. We’re standing on Earth and looking up at the stars, seeing other human beings traveling in a massive achievement of human engineering and technology. The fact that we can see it from where we stand is just terrific – no binoculars or telescope needed. It has also become something of a tradition: every holiday we make a plan for a space station viewing on our roof deck.

In one sense, it’s an unexciting non-event: a dot of light crossing the sky. In another, however, it’s a connection between us and one of the greatest achievements of the human species. What an event to enjoy on a beach holiday!

image credit: Stephen Rahn – Flickr, licensed CC-BY-NC

The problem is NOT the computer

We were checking in to board the plane, and the woman at the check-in desk told me our seat assignments. “That’s not right!” I said. “We’re a family of three, traveling with a child. You cannot give us three separate seats.” The woman apologized, but said that the plane was full and she could not give us three seats – or even two seats – together. I argued and became insistent that we be given seats together, and she brought in her manager. The manager was able to do some rearranging and gave us two seats together for one parent and the child, and another seat nearby. I thanked her for accommodating us and said that the airline policy should be that families – especially with children – should always be seated together. That’s when she said it:

“The computer assigns the seats. That’s the problem.”

Before steam started coming out of my ears, I swallowed hard, counted to 10 (in binary) and then calmly and patiently explained to the woman that the problem was not the computer.

Perhaps nothing reveals the great need for Computer Science to be taught to every student in school than this very common misunderstanding. People in every job and every walk of life use computers every day. And many of them fail to understand fundamentally how computers work.

Computers do not do things magically, and they don’t operate on their own (yet). Computers do exactly what they are told by human beings, and how they accomplish those tasks is also controlled by human beings. That is called programming.

In this case, the airline (or their programmers) instructed the computer (their servers) to assign seats to passengers once they book a ticket (or when they check in or whenever). Seemingly, those instructions (program) prioritized business travelers, frequent flyers, people who checked-in early, etc. There seemed to be no provisions within the program for families or children.

The solution to the problem is very simple: adjust the program to ensure that children traveling with families are always given seats next to their parents (or at least one parent). Sure, this might interfere with frequent flyers choosing their ideal seats, but the program can be written to maximize the choices for prioritized customers without sacrificing at least two adjacent seats for every child traveling with family.

The problem does not come from the computer. The computer is only doing what it has been told to do by the airline’s programmers. The problem comes from the programmers not being told to prioritize children by the airline.

Too often people blame “the computer” when things do not go well. It’s more than just “blaming the messenger” – it shows that people really do not properly understand how computers work. It’s a mystery to them, so they can blame computers for mistakes .(And also presumably to praise computers for serendipitous good fortune – “Congratulations! The computer has selected you to be upgraded!”) If people truly understood that computers were programmed by human beings to produce the results they come up with, then they would not only be better able to explain problems but also feel empowered to fix those problems. Imagine the manager’s response if she had really understood the way computers work: “I’m sorry for the trouble. The computer system has obviously been programmed poorly to not take into account children traveling with their families. I will make a recommendation to my superiors that the program be revised so this problem doesn’t happen again.”

Aside: I know I’m whining a bit about my own situation. However, I’ve been on airplanes where air hostesses were scrambling to rearrange passengers after boarding to try to unite families who had been separated by “the computer.” It’s a problem that affects many airline customers as well as many airline employees. I could write about the dismissive treatment of passengers by airlines, but I’ll have to wait until I can do so calmly!


photo credit: andreas160578 from Pixabay (CC0/public domain)

Blending in

One of the most amusing experiences of our trip to Croatia and Slovenia was how often we’d get mistaken for a local. The typical experience went something like this:

Me/Helen: “Dobar dan!”

Waiter/Ticket Agent/Person on the street/etc: “Moj lebdeći brod je pun jegulja.”

Me/Helen: “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Hrvatska!”

This happened time and time again. All we learned was how to say hello and thank you, but every time we started out with “dobar dan” people assumed we were Croatian. Then when we said “hvala” they laughed and said we really were Croatian!

It was a fascinating experience. We haven’t encountered this in other countries, despite learning some local vocabulary. Most likely there’s a fair bit of tourism in Croatia but from people who make no effort to learn any Croatian. It just reinforces the fact that taking some time to learn some of the local language, culture, etc. makes traveling not only easier but also more rewarding!

Not like at home

Words can’t really do justice to the experience. Deep, blood-red color. Thick, plump, juicy. They were the most arresting tomatoes I’ve ever seen in my life. And they smelled strong, fragrant, earthy. And the taste

Our hostess, Pelmina, explained that she’d bought the tomatoes at a local market on the island of Krk, at the market in Baška. That’s just how they grow there. She served them with a little olive oil (made from her own olives) and some herbs from her garden. Simple. Delicious.

DSCN9918We bought some more on the island of Cres at a local market. These were also amazing, although not quite as deep a red or as amazing a taste. There must be something in the Krk soil…

That’s one of the beauties of traveling: of tasting (and seeing, smelling, hearing…) things that are so different from what you’re used to. It reminds you that other people’s experiences are quite different from your own. And that yours can be different, too, if you take the time and go.

Follow your ears

footballWe’d just landed in the capital city of a country we’ve never visited before. It was the start of a grand adventure, a holiday full of firsts and new experiences.

And my daughter was dying to see a football game.

Croatia was playing its opening game of the Euro 2016 tournament, and seeing them play while in Zagreb was her main priority this Sunday afternoon. We agreed to fit the game in to some touring of the city’s sights, figuring it would also be a novel holiday experience.

So we asked the hotel concierge where would be a good place to watch the game. He said the hotel had a TV and we could watch the game there. As we seemed to be about the only guests in the hotel, we figured we could find someplace with a livelier atmosphere.

We took a taxi to the old town center. The driver didn’t speak much English, but we could all agree on “Croatia,” “Turkey,” and “football.” He said that any bar would show the game, but didn’t think that was right for our daughter. He left us with a prediction: “3-0!”

So we wandered the old city streets, empty except for small numbers of tourists. Zagreb was particularly quiet even for a Sunday afternoon.

Then we heard the noise.

There was a kind of roaring sound, which seemed to come from a big hotel. Was someone showing the game with the TV turned up all the way? We headed down some stairs towards the main square, while the sound got louder.

zagrebgame - 1“I see it,” Nadia said as we reached the end of a narrow alleyway. There, in the main town square, Trg bana Josipa Jelačića, an enormous screen was showing the game while a huge crowd of people wearing the red and white check of the Republika Hrvastka cheered, blew horns and drank beer.

We got her an ice cream and enjoyed the revelry for a while. It was exciting to be swept up with the locals and tourists, enjoying the game. We were there when The Goal was scored, resulting in even louder horns, lit flares, and lots of dancing and leaping about. We then decided to retreat to a quieter nearby venue which suited our 12-year-old better.

Lesson learned: it’s not always suitable to rely on “experts” available to tourists. Sometimes you have to just follow your nose. Or ears.

When in Rome

Like all parents, I think my daughter is pretty smart. But she showed extreme astuteness when we asked her what were the things she enjoyed the most about our trip to Rome. She thought for a bit and said, “Ice cream, good restaurants, and having fun with our friends.”

streetShe enjoyed the museums, the statues, the grandiose architecture. Rome has those and to spare. It was fun wandering around the city and stumbling across some Egyptian stele or an antique collonade-fronted building. But the Trevi Fountain convinced me that these Big Name sights weren’t the most impressive thing. The fountain, one of Rome’s Famous Sights, was closed for restoration. Workers were cleaning the marble and making the plumbing efficient …and hordes of tourists stood outside the fences, snapping pictures. We quickly moved on, and found ourselves wandering through quiet streets with plenty of ordinary architecture and street life to take in. (And some extraordinary street life: on one street, a woman was busking by singing an absolutely gorgeous rendition of Ave Maria.)

GelatoWe walked around St Peter’s square, but what was on her mind was ice cream. Rome is known for its gelato and there are enough shops in the city to fill a guidebook. (Now, there’s an idea!) Each one has a wide variety of flavors: from the tried-and-true stracciatella to more exotic varieties. Getting a cup and a spoon means several types of pleasures: there’s the obvious one of enjoying a sweet treat. But more than that: you sit and you watch the world go by. You listen to the chatter of other people. You engage multiple senses with flavors, smells, sounds as well as sights. Whether it’s a gelateria, or a cafe, or just a park bench, it’s always worthwhile to stop and look around.

And a restaurant can serve the same purposes as well. Sitting at an outside table in an Italian restaurant and enjoying a meal while the world goes by is a great attraction. However, we found that so many of these places are occupied solely by tourists, and we found it far more enjoyable to find a spot that did not have an English menu (and certainly lacked a tout standing outside in the street urging passers-by to come in!) and was filled with people speaking Italian. It meant more fumbling with ordering, but it definitely made for more memorable meals and a more enjoyable experience.

lunchFinally, our friends made the trip the best thing ever. They weren’t our tour guides through the highlights of Rome: they were our charming and delightful hosts. We had fun with them in their apartment in the north of the city, and on outings to supermarkets, local restaurants, church, train stations and more. Apart from just being incredibly welcoming and fun people, they helped us to feel less like we were tourists in Rome and more like we were living there.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, goes the old saying. And it applies well to travel. If you focus less on the Big Sights and more on the smaller domestic pleasures, it can make the visit more enjoyable and give you a better taste of what life is like in that place. You won’t tick off all the items on the standard tourist checklist, but you’ll feel connected to the place by more than a photograph.