None of us had realized that it was the Fourth of July. Days in Ghana sort of blur together. Schedules don’t really exist. Calendars weren’t of use to the people we lived and worked with. If a day or event was important, they just new when it would occur.
I received a beat-up package about a week before from my mother. She was always good about sending me little cards and things while I was away in other countries. Smart woman, she knew to ship them prior to my leaving so they would get there on time.
This package contained Independence Day themed goodies – patriotic nail stickers and temporary tattoos, American flag pencils, playing cards, sucker candies and Pop Rocks. Everything was red, white and blue. I handed out the pencils to some of the village kids I didn’t know that well. But the stickers, I gave to the special ones.
I placed a silver star on Nora’s cheek. She adored it.
Alfred and Dennis wanted one too. They put a flag on my nose. Ironic, being that I’d do anything to be an ex-patriot.
But the Pop Rocks took the cake.
“How do you eat them?” Nora asked.
“Here, I’ll put some in your hand,” I began. “Then you just put them in your mouth and wait.”
“And wait?” Alfred asked.
Their mouths gaped open at the same time. The area was filled with the crackling sounds of the explosive candies in the parched mouths of the village children. It was so new and foreign to them, I couldn’t imagine what was going on in their heads. But they all smiled and laughed.
It was cool to watch.
Our table was set when we returned from the village. Audrey had taken time out to cook us “something special” for the Fourth of July. I honestly had no idea what it could be, and at first I didn’t really care – Audrey showed very little interest in Ghana and its people and I couldn’t see her whipping up some special ethnic feast. But maybe she’d surprise me.
“First, I found these hot dogs and hamburger meat at the market,” she pointed to a plate of shiny, slim meat sticks and mottled-looking browned beef. “They came from a can, but I think they’ll taste fine. There’s also ketchup that I picked up in Accra last week.”
We began to smile.
“Then, I found some actual potatoes at the market, and made some mashed potatoes,” she went on.
“I also made some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but here’s the real treat…” she opened up our stock pot to reveal a bright orange culmination of noodles and powdered cheese.
“Macaroni and cheese!”
We all laughed and screamed. None of us had seen familiar foods like this for over a month.
“And then there’s also Kool-Aid packets for you guys!”
More shouts of joy. Audrey had really pulled it off.
She later revealed that the Kraft macaroni and cheese and Kool-Aid packets had been brought from home. “I wasn’t sure how the food was going to be here,” she explained. “I figured I’d bring some easily packaged things, just in case I got homesick.”
We later had the village boys bring us back a box of celebratory booze. Exploitation, I know.
But maybe you’ll feel better knowing it was only Smirnoff Ice.
I’m not a very politically active person. I have never voted in my entire life. Politics is just too big of a commitment for me; I will state my educated views, but that’s about it. Yet, if there is an opportunity for me to extend my civic duty that doesn’t require too much effort on my part, sure, I’ll play the patriot.
Proposition 8 was a hot button issue in South Carolina the fall of 2007. Charleston is one of the more liberal cities in the state, and the university-town atmosphere fueled a debate of “to vote or not to vote” for this issue. I was a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance at the time – my coworker was the moderator, my best friend had just come out to me. It just felt like the right group to join.
Members of the GSA were getting ready to canvas the city, pass out buttons, fliers, etc. One of the things they provided as a passive aggressive approach to gaining voter approval was a plastic sign you could pitch on your front lawn or place in your window. I picked one up for my apartment. There. I did my part.
Walking home from the meeting, sign clenched within my armpit, I passed a familiar College of Charleston character. He was of the hippie persuasion, had an odd name – like Allister or Timothy, or something. He was one of those people that you see around campus and can recognize, mostly because he doesn’t fit in with the majority of WASPy attendants CofC is known for.
Charlemagne, or whatever his name was, had wiry brown hair and an extensive beard set into a ponytail with an elastic hair tie. He wore a stained brown shirt, green cargo pants, and Birkenstocks. He called out to me.
“Hey,” he began. “Where do you think you’re going with that sign?”
I was puzzled. I had actually just assumed that Patricio was a hippie and upheld liberal values. Was he a secret conservative in disguise? I became defensive.
“I’m taking it back to my house,” I bluntly replied. If he was going to start shit with me for befriending gays, this was going to get ugly.
“And what do you plan on doing with it?” his words were like a lawyer’s – threatening, gruff and intimidating.
“I’m going to put it on my front lawn so that people can read the message!” I shot back. I could feel the color rising in my cheeks. My heart beat at a rapid pace. If this Jet was hunting for a battle of cultural sensitivities, he was rumbling with the wrong Shark.
Ulysses was taken aback, as though someone had pushed or startled him. I braced myself for the cat-call.
Caught unawares, he simply replied, “Oh.”
“Well that’s great then,” he threw a fist into the air. “Thanks for spreading the word!”
My blood pressure slowed, and I smiled at him. “No problem,” and we carried on, walking in opposite directions.
Lancelot had judged me because I wore a polo shirt with Bermuda shorts and looked like the conservative sorori-whores that shared the same block as me. He wouldn’t put it past those types to dispose of such a sign promoting values they did not share. He was just keeping trying to keep the peace.
What Hugo – actually, I think that may have been his name, Hugo – what Hugo apparently did not remember was that three years prior, I had seen him naked. He was a nude model for one of my studio art classes. But I suppose he didn’t recognize me without my charcoals.
There’s a rumor floating about the world, that nowadays, everyone speaks at least a little English.
That’s simply not true.
So I reasoned that those working in the central tourist districts must speak English. After all, their main clientele was garish, English-speaking tourists. Surely they could understand the fact that I needed a blow dryer for my unruly American hair.
I started at Tesco because it was a known, international brand. A huge department store located in the middle of a central tourist district in Prague, they catered to the needs of foreigners. I was able to find peanut butter there before; surely they would have other Westernized items.
I’m always polite when asking locals for directions or help. Never do I just come out and say “Hey where’s the chocolate milk in this place?” That is rude. No, I start of slow and cautiously, always asking, in the native tongue, “Do you speak English?”
‘Twas the blunt reply provided to me by the majority of the workers at Národní Třída’s megolith of a Tesco. Even the young workers, who must have had English-training in school, could not help me out. I saw a youngish-looking woman stocking shampoo on a shelf.
“Mluvite anglicky?” I asked.
She looked nervous. “Ne…a little,” she struggled.
An attempt to ask where blow dryers could be found was made.
“Nerozumim,” she replied. “I don’t understand…”
I resorted to desperate, flailing hand gestures. “Uh, blow dryer,” I pretended to hold the hilt of the blow dryer in one hand, the other hand whirling around my head to signify wind.
“Oh, baby?” she asked, showing me some baby products.
“Ne, dekuji,” I sullenly respond as I trudged into another department.
I was so angry, so frustrated at the fact that these Czechs, in this “supposedly” cosmopolitan city, out of a whole department store, none could help me find what I “so desperately” needed. Eventually I stumbled upon the electrics department, when a sparkly young lad who spoke near-perfect English was able to help me purchase a hot iron hair straightener.
That’s when I sighed and regretted my previous feelings towards the Czechs. It wasn’t their fault they couldn’t speak English, it was my fault that I couldn’t speak Czech.
Žilina is a city in Slovakia.
I lived in Žilina for a few months while volunteering at the Stanica arts center. It was a place my school had visited for cross-cultural comparison reasons, and I ended up falling in love with it. There is such a lively youth scene, and the events that go on at Stanica are unlike any other arts space I’ve ever seen. What’s more impressive is that the program is incredibly successful, and fully funded. You don’t see stuff like that in the US.
I had an awesome flat while in Žilina, and lots of fun, new Slovak friends to hang out with. I got to try halušky, which is like the Slovak version of macaroni and cheese, and drink Kofola along with some great Slovak beer. My views included the Tatra mountains in the distance, which were the first snow-peaked mountains I ever saw.
Žilina is a hidden gem within Slovakia. Not many tourists go there because it’s A) not advertised widely and B) it’s about two and a half hours from the capital of Bratislava, which is basically the only place people go in Slovakia (well, maybe Kosice too). But there is so much to experience in Žilina and I would recommend it to any traveler looking for a change to Eastern Europe. I love Žilina and always will!
London is the capital of England.
The first time I went to London, I was a senior in high school. It was the first time I had ever traveled outside of the country. It was my first trans-atlantic flight. We were getting ready to put on a production of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona and to our good fortune, we were also seeing it performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon. They took us on a tour of the Globe Theater and we also went to Camden Market. I stood in front of the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, and I almost peed my pants laughing at my friends when we visited the hokey London Dungeon. I had a crush on my tour director – he turned out to be gay. I missed it a lot when I came back to the United States.
The second time I went to London was the summer after my freshman year of college. I’d broken up with my boyfriend and was looking for a bit of fun. It was a study abroad trip and I took classes on British history. I learned about every king and queen of England (and some Scottish ones too), from Alfred the Great until Queen Elizabeth II. We visited a lot of castles, a lot of churches, a lot of cafes and a lot of gift shops. We drank a lot of Strongbow cider, at the pub, and in Millennium Park (after the pubs closed). I went on a few dates with a drug dealer from Croydon and an engineering student who brought me Goldfish crackers from his recent trip to Canada. I missed it even more when I came back to the United States.
The third time I went to London was right after the last time I studied abroad. I had a stopover in the city before embarking on a bus tour of Europe with Contiki. I went back to my favorite fish and chip shop. I walked along the Thames near my old university. It was colder now, and there were Christmas markets. I met my best friend, Dana, who was studying in Buckinghamshire. We took a ride on the London Eye, and I remember feeling how ridiculous it was to pay almost $30 to stand in this pod, overlooking the city at night, when I’d seen the entire city from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral nearly three years prior for only $4. We found a winter carnival and I remember riding on the Tube and thinking about how small it was compared to Prague’s massive, boxy metro cars.
My best friend is going to be living in London this summer. I think I might go and live with her too.