Christmas in Kyoto

Christmas in Kyoto did not sound promising but the flight was cheap. Having spent the last several Christmases huddled around the small wooden tables of the German Weihnachtsmarken, hands wrapped tightly around steaming ceramic mugs of glühwein, we expected Japan to be a bit of a disappointment in terms of holiday spirit.

There would be no Christmas markets selling roasted sausages or over-sized steins of altbier. There would be no outdoor festival tables to provide the inevitable camaraderie that accompanies the mass consumption of mulled wine in freezing temperatures. Communication would be near impossible as both my wife Lauren and I spoke very little Japanese and could not read kanji or katakana.  

Nonetheless, one evening as we approached the bottom of our second bottle of wine, we decided Kyoto would make for a fine introduction to Japanese culture, with the added bonus of seeing drunken Japanese “salary men” stumbling around in Santa hats.

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What If We Didn't Go Home?

“So, when exactly are you coming home?” my father asked.

“I don’t know, Dad. Our visas allow us to stay in Peru for at least three months, then we’re thinking of heading on to Argentina and Chile...”

The broken and sputtering magicJack connection at the South American Explorers Club in Cusco broadcasted about every third word of our conversation, but the message that traveled down the steep stone streets of the ancient Inca capital and across the continents to the lush green lawns of Newark, Delaware, the college town I’d grown up in and where my parents still live, was crystal clear: We weren’t coming “home”. 

The truth was, my husband, Hank, and I had no idea when, or if, we were going home. We didn’t even know what “home” meant anymore. We’d been winging it, temporarily inhabiting Mexico, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Peru: itinerant and loose in the world in a manner that both worried and intrigued family and friends back home.

We were four thousand miles from our homeland, eleven thousand feet above sea level, south of the Equator where summer is winter, and living in a fourth-floor walkup without heat. Yet, life felt sweet and rich and fortunate. 

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Finding Courage in a Foreign Language

by Wynne Brown

His email started out: "It's been a hard day." And ended, "I'm afraid the Costa Rica trip's no longer an option for me."

Mike and I have shared a warm platonic friendship for 40+ years and have wanted to travel together for decades. Last year we finally booked a trip to Costa Rica with the ecotravel company Naturalist Journeys since we'd both always wanted to see Resplendent Quetzals, Morpho butterflies, and—with luck—the exquisite lemon-yellow eyelash viper. 

We also wanted some independent exploration, so we'd arranged to stay in San José for two days before the group tour. 

Ah, yes, best-laid plans...

The week before our departure came Mike's message: "At 9:30 this morning, my right eye went crazy—I had big oil spill 'floaters' that were black with red edges (blood) moving across my eye, and my vision turned cloudy, as if I were looking through a gauze curtain..."

The diagnosis: His right vitreous humor had separated from his retina.

The treatment: Rest—and no airplane flights. 

The result: I'd be flying to Costa Rica without him and spending two days alone in San José. 

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An American Male on the Make in Italy

story and photography by Michael Housewright

I have studied, lived, and worked in Italy off and on for most of my adult life. My most enduring fantasy through the first fifteen years of Italy travel was to meet, and ultimately court, a beautiful Italian girl. I imagined I would charm her with my wit, interest in her culture, and mastery of her language. Unfortunately, I never possessed the knack for striking up an easy conversation with a woman I did not know and to whom I was clearly attracted. Being a straightforward person, I have always lacked the subtlety and easy rapport with women that men of romantic talent seemed to me to possess. However, my self awareness did not stop me from trying, and frequently failing in my efforts to woo. 

Attempts at humor, small talk, and questions about local customs all led to feigned laughter and awkward pauses when I approached Italian women in public settings. I thought I was supposed to be the exotic foreigner, mysterious and fetching. I felt more like the class clown rather than the quarterback. While sometimes funny, I felt I could never be taken seriously as a contender for an Italian woman’s affection. Perhaps I was not aggressive enough, not fashionable enough, or just not that cool. I basically had no game and I believed that maybe I never would.

Over those fifteen years my Italian language improved, I ditched my Nike basketball shoes for stylish European loafers, and above all, I made certain to always wear outstanding Italian sunglasses. Each stage of my transformation would yield a smidgen more self confidence self-confidence and over time an elevation in my skill set. 

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Santa Claus is Coming to School

by B.J. Stolbov 

As the only (old) white man with a (long) white beard in my rural Filipino community of Northern Luzon, I get the exceedingly great pleasure every December of being Santa Claus.

I am a volunteer high school teacher. My first year here, I was asked to play Santa Claus at my high school’s Christmas assembly.  I excitedly volunteered.  Dressed in a red t-shirt and red jogging pants (the colors of our school), my black rubber swamp tromping boots (cleaned), a red cap with battery operated white blinking stars, my wire-rimmed glasses, and my long white beard, I, Santa Claus, appeared from the back of the stage of the school gymnasium to loud amplified blaring Christmas music. 

One thousand students went wild. This was my ultimate rock star Santa Claus moment. I strode across the stage waving, and then waded down into the roaring crowd.  Carrying a red bag filled with candy, I threw handfuls of candy everywhere.  It was almost a sugar frenzy riot. Everyone loves Santa Claus. No wonder he does this!  What a rush! I felt like Santa Claus. 

Next year, I was again invited to play Santa Claus.  But not only at my high school, where now, of course, everyone knew me; but also at an elementary school, where few, if any, of the kids knew me.  I cheerfully accepted.

I arrived at the elementary school dressed in regular clothes, with my Santa outfit hidden in my tightly folded red bag.  The principal of the school had made all the arrangements, agreeing with me that no one, except for a few teachers, would know that Santa Claus was coming to their school.  In the principal’s office, I changed into my Santa outfit. 

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A Very Thai Massage

Thailand is renowned for having some of the world’s best prostitutes.

It also has some of the scariest.

My first order of business upon arriving in Bangkok was an early morning trek to the Damnernsaduak Floating Market, a 90 minute drive south of town in light traffic, and one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been. 

The Damnernsaduak Floating Market is a series of canals lined by rickety wooden stalls selling all manner of goods, from tacky tourist items to local art and sculptures. You can purchase exotic spices and oils, native clothing, a vast array of fresh fruits, and even play with snakes.

When you arrive at Damnernsaduak you hire one of the long-tailed wooden boats to guide you through the markets. A 2-hour tour is around 300 Bhat (about $9), and the boatman will just float along past shops til one peaks your interest and you ask him to pull up alongside. There are also numerous merchants in other boats selling fresh fruits, meats, or cool drinks. They’ll pull up beside your boat to pour you hot tea, show off their fruits, or describe (always in a language I don’t understand) what their meat on the stick is and why you must buy it.

In the middle of the market is a non-descript shack that at first glance appears to be selling nothing. There are a couple of guys lounging in chairs enjoying a smoke. Upon closer inspection you discover that the men are draped in huge snakes, and are all too eager to show them off to interested tourists.

I can’t resist bad decisions like this, so of course I stopped.

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The Japanese Wave

by Maureen Elizabeth Magee


Since childhood, everything about Japan has enthralled me: food, traditional clothing, bonsai trees, ikebana floral arrangements and, of course, the people themselves. The poster in the window showed verdant, bucolic rice paddies being tended by women in traditional bonnets and straw hats. For dramatic relief, a snowcapped mountain hung in the background and the caption promised that I would “See the real Japan. Become immersed in the mysterious Orient by cycling the back roads of rural Shikoku – an island that outsiders rarely visit.”

It took about a nanosecond for me to walk into the travel agency and pay a deposit.

A few months later, in the baggage claim area of the Tokyo airport, a man met the luggage as it tumbled onto the carousel. Carefully setting suitcases upright, he snapped the tired handles to attention, briskly swished each piece with a white cloth, and then released it to rumble properly along, seeking its owner. He wore white gloves.

As my soft turquoise pack thumped limply to the bottom of the ramp, it exuded a cloud of Indonesian dust. The luggage man yanked it upright, but the bag sagged forward, weighted by its overstuffed outside pockets. He set it up again quickly and as he turned his attention to the oncoming pieces, mine slid onto its back with a slightly inebriated air.  Threading my way through the crowds to claim it, I could see him do a double take; the horizontal piece must have offended his sense of alignment. He sprang into double time, sprinting along the carousel edge to catch up to the limpid piece. Jerking it up sharply and with a stern little shake, he wedged it upright between two stoic suitcases standing on their own. As I pushed my way through the throng, I saw him look down at his white gloves and, with compressed lips, clap them together to get rid of the dust. When he saw me, however, (and for some reason he immediately identified me as the owner) his face smoothed over and he gave a low, dignified bow, which I’m sure, in his mind, I ill-deserved for having such badly behaved luggage.

Had I known at the time, I would have recognized that this one incident told me much about the Japanese psyche.

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Now Playing in Paris

by Dorty Nowak

Several years ago my husband and I moved to Paris.  Although I was an avid student of French culture and cuisine, my knowledge of the French language was minimal.  Freshman year in college I dropped out of French 101 because partying was much more fun than memorizing vocabulary, a decision I’ve regretted ever since.  Over the years I had accumulated several “French for Travelers” texts, some Berlitz tapes, and enough rudimentary vocabulary to get by on my occasional vacations in France. 

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