Friday, July 27, 2012

Dancing to the Jailhouse Rock

A friend is moving to China in three weeks. She got her letter of invitation last night and put her two weeks' notice in this morning. I can see the excitement welling up. The fear of moving to a foreign country can be staggering, but at this point, Brittany is ready to just get on the plane and go.

Her grandma isn't quite as excited as she is. I can understand the hesitation her grandma is feeling. China is a big country with a lot of people. A lot can go wrong when one is on the other side of the globe. I also had a grandparent who was concerned for my safety when I went to China.

I was sitting with Grandpa George and Grandma Kathy drinking coffee and telling them about the ministry I was going to take part in. I was getting ready to spend a month in China to teach middle schoolers English. With different laws that China has, that is risky business. Grandma was excited for me. She was happy that I was able to go out and see the world, and she knew that I would be home in 6 weeks to tell them all about it.

Not so the case with Grandpa. I tried to reassure him by telling him the organization I was going with had a really good setup with the Chinese government, that the people who were sending me were going to take care of me and that I would be safe. But he had recently read stories about Christians in China being incarcerated for their faith, being left in jail for years and being submitted to torture. I appreciated his concern, but I knew that it was unlikely for me to be in any great danger.

Grandma was ruthless, though.

"Oh George, he's going to be fine. Don't scare him with your stories."

Then came the chiding. I didn't like seeing Grandpa teased when he was worried about me, but when Grandma started singing Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock," I couldn't help join in.

Grandma and I still have a special liking for that song as we remember Grandpa.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Red River Fortunes

Where I work, I speak with people on the phone. Many of them are elderly people who need an ear to listen. This afternoon I spoke with a man who was born in 1917 who asked, after we took care of the issues he was calling about, if he could tell me a story.

I had told him that I am located in Minneapolis, and that was what sparked his memory. His wife, he told me, was from Fergus Falls. He has always lived in New England.

The story:

When I was in between college and graduate school, I worked for the US Department of Agriculture climbing up elm trees, big tall trees, with ropes.

One weekend, a few of the guys and I decided we were going to go into New York City for the World Fair. We were in east Pennsylvania at the time. We all piled into a guy's truck and set off.

We didn't think about getting hotel reservations, which was stupid. The entire city was packed full. No where to sleep. Then I remembered the bowery. Do you know what the bowery is? It's a room for bums. You can get a place for 25 cents per night. We were told to keep our money in our socks, so we did.

That night we decided to go out for a few beers and a walk around the street vendors. We saw a place advertising for fortunes, so we stopped in. Ya know, everyone who is into fortunes has to be pretty gullible, and I was being an ass that night, so I told the lady her fortune before she told me mine.

I don't remember what I told her, but she told me that I was going to marry a girl from the Red River Valley. I thought to myself, I don't know anyone from Texas, so I'm free!

Well, about five years later, I meet this girl named Ellen from northern Minnesota. We started going together and things were getting pretty serious between us. I was getting ready to pop the question, but I had a moral dilemma that I had to clear up. I told her the story about the fortune teller.

I said, "Ellen, dear, I'd like to marry you, but five years ago a fortune teller told me I was going to marry a girl from the Red River Valley. You're not from Texas, so I don't know if I can marry you."

"Joe, you dummy. Don't you know that the Red River runs right through Fergus Falls? I'm that girl your fortune teller was talking about!"

They were married for 68 years before Ellen passed.

Border Patrol

This coming Monday my beautiful wife and I will be celebrating one year of wedded bliss.

Our wedding was at the Chocolate Chip Cookie Church in Embarrass, MN. The weather was perfect except for the torrential downpour that lasted 10 minutes that morning. The skies cleared up to a balmy 85 degree day of sheer joy.

After the wedding we rented a cabin in Thunder Bay, Canada, on Dog Lake. Everyday we went canoeing on the lake and hiking in the hills around the resort. We picked raspberries and took pictures of wildlife. There were deer squirrels and a ton of vultures. Something must have died. We drove into town one night, which was about 20 miles from the resort. The roads were not well maintained, so it took almost 45 minutes to get there. On the way back to the campgrounds, there was a sign that said, "Dog Lake Resort, 3 miles ahead. The longest three miles you've ever driven!"

And they were the longest 3 miles we had ever driven. The road was narrow and windy. It was hilly. When we came around a curve there was a beautiful view of the lake. It was very distracting. Oncoming traffic was a beast to get around, though there were very few cars out there. The warning sign at the head of the driveway made the trek that much more enjoyable.

When we were coming back into the States, the border patrol officer was taking his job very seriously.

"Where were you?" Thunder Bay.
"What were you doing?" Camping at a resort.
"Are you related?" We just got married last week.
"Where do you live?" Minneapolis.
"What part of Minneapolis?" Northeast. Do you know where that is? (We didn't ask him that.)

The entire time this guy was eyeing our passports as if something was amiss. Then he brought my passport to his nose and sniffed it.

"Smells like marijuana."

At this point, I had to bite my cheek to keep from laughing.

"Do you have anything to say about that?"

"Are you a drug dog? I couldn't tell with your lack of snout."

I didn't say that, either. I told him that I wear pachouli oil sometimes, but that's all I could think of.

"Ok. Drive safe."

And we were off, thankful for the security our country enforces on the borders.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

L'oeil du Faucon

Yesterday's post jogged my memory about an incident that happened while in France. It has little to do with food, but more to do with the incredible generosity many people have towards travelers.

My friends and I had stepped off a ferry from Dover, England onto Calais, France. We had taken the last boat into France, expecting everything to still be open. Sadly, everything was closed. Cafes, train and bus stations, even hotel lobbies were locked up. And no one would speak English. There weren't a lot of people around in the first place, but everyone we approached looked the other way and said, "Non!"

We started wandering in the city. It was about 10 o'clock at night. Dark. We were supposed to meet the people we were staying with that night in Versaille, which was still several hours away via train. Finally we saw a couple walking towards us. I mustered up what little French I knew at the time and asked if they spoke English.

"A little" the guy said with a thick accent.

We borrowed his mobile and called the people who were waiting for us. Our to-be hosts asked where we were going to stay that night. The hotels were closed. There were no hostels. We were going to camp in the park. We didn't really have another choice.

But the guy who owned the phone heard our plans. When Laura hung up he told us that there were gangs and drug dealers roaming the city at night. He said that if we fell asleep with our backpacks, we would wake up in the morning without them. We would be robbed, and most likely knived before dawn.

So what should we do?

"Come back to our place with us" he said. "We don't have much, but there's a couch that folds out. It's a little dirty, but it's safer than the park."

So we walked to the couple's flat. It's true, they didn't have much. They had a dog and two white rats. They had oulets in the walls, but no lights. They kept the computer plugged in so we could listen to music. Their fridge had some bread and a bit of alcohol. There was a bathroom, but there wasn't a door on it. Everyone just had to look the other way when someone was using the facilities. The entire place was littered with cigarette butts.

We stayed up extremely late talking as much as we could. He had better English than she did, but they both tried. We did too. Laura had better French than the rest of us, so we stuck to the basics. Listen to music and smile at each other. Nodding to indicate that the band currently playing is good.

We found out that they were not renting the space, which is probably a good thing considering it wouldn't have meet the lowliest codes. They knew the guy who owned the building, and he was letting them squat while he renovated it. Neither of them worked. They had finished high school and were trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

The next morning they were both gone. They left the dog and rats, but they had shipped out. They must have gotten up early. It was about 9 when we rolled out of bed to an empty apartment. We were still rubbing the sleep out of our eyes when the door opened. They had gone out to get croissants and orange juice for breakfast. I couldn't figure out how, but they scrounged enough to buy it for us.

Then they asked how we were planning on getting to the train station. We were on a backpacking trip, so we assumed we would walk.

"Non non non! It is too far. You cannot walk. We have a car. We will drive you."

Their car didn't start. They went to the street and flagged someone down so they could get a jump. It took about half an hour, but they finally got the thing running, and we were off to the station.

As we were saying our goodbyes, we offered our friends money. They would have none of it. Before we left, the guy came up to me and gave me a small polished stone with a line in the middle.

He said, "This is called 'l'oeil du faucon.' Keep it with you and it will bring you luck on your travels."

I still have that stone today.

Traveling can be stressful at times, but my favorite part is meeting the people who will go above and beyond what is asked of them. We asked to borrow a cell phone. We got a place to sleep, breakfast, a ride to the station and a token of friendship. The world has genuinely good people in it. Finding them isn't hard.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Locust and Honeycomb

I went on a trip while I was in high school to West Virginia. The team talked about all the weird things that are eaten all over the world, and one of the leaders told a delectable recipe for one such dish.

When I came home, my two young sisters and I went for a walk down our country road in the heat of summer. We stopped along the road near a hay field and each of us caught a grasshopper to bring home as pets.

Upon our arrival at home, we promptly threw our new found friends in hot water to their demise. We boiled them in soy sauce and rolled them in wasabi sauce. We then put them in the oven to get that unmistakable grasshopper crunch. That evening we added our delicacy to our tacos. For the first time, my sisters and I appreciated cuisine from around the world at the comfort of our own table.

I could go into other weird things I've eaten. Most of them were consumed in China. I've eaten cow stomach, chicken heads (beaks, combs and eyes) and my personal favorite, cat. Not really my favorite. Actually, it was rather upsetting.

In France, though I was a professing vegetarian (due mostly to my experiences in China), I did what every world traveler should do at least once: point at something random on the menu and grin. What was brought to me was thinly sliced slabs of raw, salted ham. I got about half way through it before I had to stop. My traveling companions were laughing their fool heads off with each grimacing bite.

This is the part where we indulge in other stories of what we have eaten. I've heard adventures of the menu from many of my friends. Please share more. What have you eaten that you would rather forget? Or maybe it wasn't as bad as you expected? Cow stomach, though chewy, isn't that bad!