Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: Communicating When You Don't Speak the Local Language

View from our villa, Salina
Whenever we travel to another country, people ask us about the language barriers. Traveling to a country when you don't speak the language does present certain challenges, that's for sure, but they're usually not insurmountable. To start, be sure you have a good traveler's phrase book and/or dictionary. Knowing a few common phrases will go a long way.

(If you plan to take an extended trip, you may want to invest in a language course or Rosetta Stone software before you go.  There are also many new high tech gadgets you can look for such as translation apps. More on that in a future post).

Once you have a few words and phrases under your belt, use them whenever appropriate, and try to add more as you go. When you exhaust your skills, you can try asking if they speak English (or your native tongue). I've found that people often have a few words of English. Once you've exhausted your knowledge of each others languages, rely on gestures, facial expressions and the like. You'll find that people are amazingly adept at reading body language. I've had entire conversations in which neither one of us spoke a word of the other's language.

When we arrived on Salina last month, Domenic (not his real name), the caretaker of our villa, spoke no English. We arrived after just one full day in Italy, so we weren't exactly oriented to the language and place. However, we were still able to communicate enough to understand that he needed to shuttle us to our villa in two trips and that he would return for the second group in ten minutes. Of course, we also had an amusing conversation in which we thought he was trying to tell us something important about the police when he was actually talking about the cleaning fee for the villa. Yet, we still managed to figure this all out, with much laughing in between. Domenic wrote down a few words and gestured which helped us figure out our misunderstanding.

A few days later, when Domenic returned, I learned he had 2 kids with his first wife. They divorced. Now he has 3 kids with his second wife, the youngest being the baby we met when he picked us up. He intends not to have more children. Domenic also learned that my husband and I have two children and don't intend to have any more. When my family returned from their trip into town, they were surprised I had learned so much. Our secret... gestures! Seriously... Domenic made a motion like putting on a ring, put up 2 fingers and said "Bambino." Then he made a motion like removing the ring- I get it... divorce! Then he motioned in a way that made me realize he meant his wife, who we had met. He put up 3 fingers and said, "Bambino." Then, "Basta!"


I had another meaningful conversation with a man in Sicily. (I'll call him Lorenzo to protect his privacy).  Lorenzo was prepping the meal we were about to enjoy together. Lorenzo happens to speak English, so most of our conversation was in English. We were having the usual small talk when I asked if he had any children. He immediately said, "No." Then his face twisted a little, and in halting English he told me he had a child, but he died when he was one month old. I don't want to reveal any more personal information here, but we went on to talk about his experience for a while- the details of the death, how his partner responded to the situation, etc. But here's the part that stuck out for me... he was concerned that he couldn't find the English words to accurately describe his sorrow. My heart was breaking listening to him. He didn't need any words. I understood.

I was touched by Lorenzo's willingness to share such a personal story with me, a virtual stranger. He could have simply left his answer at "No" (As in, "No, I don't have any children"). I never would have known. But he chose to take a risk and share with me. As awful as his story was, that moment of personal connection is important to me. We crossed language and cultural barriers to get down to the  commonality of human experience. While I wish Lorenzo never had to suffer so, I feel fortunate that he shared it with me.

So, to my point. Yes, there are communication challenges. Yes, there are times when I just want to have an easy conversation in my primary language. That's natural. But I really do relish those times when I have to work to communicate across language and culture, as well. The key is to keep an open mind, speak slowly (NOT LOUDER!), and use facial expressions and gestures as much as possible. Think of it as a game of charades if that helps. And always, always pack your sense of humor so you can laugh when you're worried about the police and you really need to worry about scrubbing the toilet.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Attracting Monarchs (and Other Butterflies)

Many years ago, my husband and I tried to grow a wildflower meadow in our backyard. We wanted to limit the amount of lawn we needed to mow and attract more wildlife, especially butterflies. 

Unfortunately, we weren't very successful. So, when a few milkweed plants appeared in my front flower beds several years ago (maybe 5, now?), I let them grow. Each summer, my kids and I would check for monarchs but found no evidence. Each year, more plants would creep into my garden and I'd leave them. Then we'd go back watching for monarchs. Nothing. We had a large mass of milkweed but no monarchs.


Until this year, that is. They seem to have appeared suddenly- multiple butterflies flitting and dancing together.   

Sipping nectar from butterfly weed, purple cone flower,


 and other flowers.
Landing on the milkweed (laying eggs?). 

Photos taken 22 July 2012

My family is so excited. Now we'll look for eggs (they're really hard to see) and wait to see if any caterpillars emerge. No matter what happens, we enjoyed spending time watching them flit about on Sunday afternoon.

The lesson I learned is that you need patience when building a butterfly garden But "if you build it, they will come"... eventually. (I already knew this, of course, but it's hard to be patient sometimes, isn't it?).

If you want to start a butterfly garden, start small. Go to your local nursery to learn which plants are native to your area and plant one or two. You can add others over time to attract more and more butterflies.

ADDED LATER: Mass Audubon has a great post called "Don't Weed the Milkweed." I highly recommend you read it to learn more.

Have you planted a butterfly garden? Was it successful? What species of butterflies have you attracted?


Related Posts:
Life from Milkweed

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Travel Tuesdays: Top 10 Items to Pack When Traveling With Children.

I've blogged about travel with children before. One previous post focused on my Top 10 Tips while another more general post encouraged you to consider your family's travel needs before booking a trip.

Today I'll focus on the top items to pack.

  1. Snacks. Nuts, dried fruit, and pretzels are portable, nutritious, and filling. If you have a long plane or train trip, fresh fruit or carrot sticks help keep kids hydrated and satiated.
  2. Cooler back-pack. This is one of the best investments we've made. We pack it full of healthy snacks for the plane ride and carry it with us when we're out and about in our new location. It also helps us carry cold food back to our apartment/hotel when it's blazing hot out.
  3. Small packs of travel tissues. They can serve as napkins, tissues or toilet paper. Many parts of the world don't supply toilet paper as a matter of course. You'll be glad you have them!
  4. Hand sanitizer/wipes. I'm not encouraging you to be obsessive about using these. Washing your hands with warm soap and water is always the best option. But, let's face it... when you're on the road and your kids are suddenly, "starving," a sink may not be available.
  5. Sleep masks/ear plugs. This helps with sleeping on planes and trains. It also helps when changing time zones- you may need to catch a few zzzz's during the day when a city is noisy.
  6. Ziploc bags. They are infinitely useful for storing leftovers, packing snacks, packing leaky items, etc. 
  7. Items to help with popping ears on airplanes- gum or chewy foods for older kids, bottles, pacifiers, or lollipops for younger ones. (Breastfeeding is also helpful, but is often not possible because airlines require babies to be in a car seat or otherwise belted to an adult in an inconvenient position during take-offs/landings).
  8. First aid kit/ typical medicines children often need: acetaminophen, antibiotic cream, bandages, antihistamine, hydro cortisone. On our most recent trip, we brought quick dissolve Benadryl, and boy were we glad we had it when a need arose!
  9. Small flashlights/headlamps. These come in handy for so many reasons. There are lots of small, portable models available.
  10. A small journal, colored pencils, and double-sided tape. Have the kids record their experiences and tape in ticket stubs, etc. This isn't necessary, of course, but I encourage you to consider making journals part of all of your trips.
Clearly this list is not for folks planning to back-pack through Africa. This is a list for parents traveling with their children (though many of the items such as Ziploc bags are handy for back-packers, too!) But none of these items takes up much space and each of them will make your trip go more smoothly. 

I encourage you to carefully evaluate what you really need to pack and what you can leave behind. Most people pack way more clothing than they need. Leave some of the clothes behind and pack these items. You can always wash your clothes while you're away. (Quick tip: to easily wash undergarments... wear them in the shower, wash them, and hang them to dry). Or, if you find you really need an item you didn't pack, you can always buy one. In all of my travels, however, I've never had to buy a piece of clothing I "should" have packed.

For our last trip, my family of four went to Italy for 3 weeks. We checked a total of three bags, the heaviest weighing 43.21 lbs (19.6 kg). We carried 4 small carry-ons. One was the cooler back-pack full of snacks. The others held our cameras/electronics and items to occupy the kids (and us) during the flight. Oh, yes, and the carry-ons included toothbrushes/toothpaste and a change of undergarments for each of us....just in case! 

Despite our careful packing, I still could have left one or two of my shirts behind.

What items have you found invaluable when packing for family travel?

Related Posts:

Friday, July 20, 2012

Family Roots

Malfa, Salina (Sicily)
Seven members of my family crammed into the tiny office at the Municipal building in Malfa, a village on the Island of Salina, off Sicily. The woman at the desk didn't speak English and we don't speak Italian, but that didn't stop us from finding what we were seeking. She opened the giant ledger and flipped through the pages until ...there it was. We looked at each other aghast, smiling. My sister-in-law said, "I have goosebumps!" "Me, too," was my reply.

What had we found? The official record of my husband's great-grandparents' marriage in 1895. My kid's great, great-grandparents! We had planned our trip to that little island having no idea if we were even in the right place. My Father-in-law had pieced together bits of information from his genealogical research with the bits of memories of things his parents had told him when he was young. But we settled on Salina as the place to start looking without any certainty about the location. And there we were, after a five minute interaction with the clerk, with the document in front of us!

This trip was years in the making and had, in fact, been postponed last summer when we realized we needed to plan better for the cost. But it was important to us, so we figured out how to make it work.

My husband's great-grandparents immigrated to the US from the island of Salina, which is now part of Italy. My Father-in-law has always wanted to see where his grandparents were from. My husband, sister-in-law, brother-in-law and I did, too, so we embarked on a three generation vacation to walk in his ancestors' footsteps.

San Lorenzo Church
When we boarded the ferry to Salina, we had no idea what we would discover. We just knew we wanted to see the island (we thought) they had left behind when they came to America. Of course, we'd also spend time together as a family and do some sight-seeing. The fact that we located the marriage documents so easily was amazing. We also visited the church where they were married and secured copies of the church record of their marriage and their proof of baptism. We were amazed by how quick and easy everything was. If not for the pesky language barrier, we would have had the church documents in even less time. Luckily, a kind American college student working in Malfa for the summer helped translate for us.

On the ferry ride to Salina, another passenger had told us the island is "magical." I thought that was a lovely way to describe it. I won't say that finding these documents was magical, but it sure was wonderful. And our desire to trace family roots brought us to a place that is lovely indeed.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower


Today features my friend and guest blogger, Peter Arenstam. Peter's new book, The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower, is just out from History Press.

At first blush, themes touched on in Michelle’s blog and those of my new book, The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower, would seem to have no common ground. Michelle’s passion is teaching kids about nature, expanding their horizons so that they come to know the world and its cultures beyond their own. "Muck about. Meet the locals. Expand your world." Three phrases, commands almost, that also very succinctly sum up the well-known pilgrim story as told through the eyes of the mastiff Grace, the main character of my book.

The pilgrims were very much “mucking about” in several senses of the word. Most of the passengers who boarded Mayflower in 1620 for the now famous voyage were traveling neophytes. The had little experience will sailing ships, dealing with the endless details of purchasing supplies for a new colony, and the machinations of business men and their dealings. Leaders like Cushman, Martin, Bradford, and Carver were certainly mucking about. They would get bogged down, have to slog through and ultimately get a little dirty learning the ways of the business world.

Having safely made the ocean crossing, the pilgrims were still very much mucking about. They spent nearly a month, in a very literal sense, tromping about the wilds of Cape Cod looking for a settlement location. With an intended destination of the mouth of the Hudson River, the pilgrims were very much out of their comfort zone. They explored by foot through streams, over dunes, and across low tide mud flats. They explored by shallop, (an open rowing and sailing boat), across Cape Cod Bay and ultimately into what is now Plymouth in the midst of a snowstorm.

Although their primary focus was on finding a place to settle, they gathered information about the natural world. They mention the abundance of whales and fish in the bay. They find caches of seed corn, evidence of a healthy growing environment. They marvel at the flowing fresh water streams and the oaks, pines, juniper, sassafras, and other sweet woods growing right down to the sea itself. The kind of observations any budding observer of the natural world would be proud to record.

“Meet the locals,” the pilgrims did indeed. The first encounter of the pilgrims with the native populations was not as friendly as the image of Indians teaching pilgrims to plant corn with fish we all learned in grade school would suggest. Several times prior to 1620, other Europeans had touched at Cape Cod. Their visits resulted in the kidnapping of over twenty Natives from the Nauset area alone. When the pilgrims arrived, these events were no doubt still fresh in the minds of the local population. Very early one morning the pilgrim exploration party was awoken by shouts of natives followed by arrows flying into the pilgrim encampment. Pilgrim men shot off their muskets, shouted their own war cries and hurried away in the shallop with no injuries recorded on either side. It is truly a testament to the individuals on both sides that a treaty was later hammered out that provided peace to the early colony, at least for the first fifty years or so.

There can be no question that the pilgrims expanded their horizons. For many of the passengers, the voyage to North America was a voyage to a new world. They had to leave behind the comforts of family, familiar surroundings and the security of knowing what to expect from each new day. In New Plimoth, every day brought new experiences, new understanding of their surroundings and the realizations that without continuing to learn and grow their very existence would be in jeopardy. These are lessons, Michelle’s blog, Polliwog on Safari, continues to teach today.

Peter Arenstam was born on a farm in western Massachusetts and grew up near the ocean in Plymouth. He works at the living history museum Plimoth Plantation where he cares for the reproduction ship Mayflower II. He is author of the four book series, Nicholas, A Massachusetts Tale, published by Mitten Press, and co-author of National Geographic's, Mayflower 1620: A New Look at a Pilgrim Voyage. His most recent book, The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower, published by The History Press, was just released. Peter is currently pursuing an MFA in writing for children at Simmons College in Boston, MA.

From Michelle: The Mighty Mastiff of the Mayflower is perfectly suited to readers in grades 3-5. For those who live in Massachusetts, it dovetails nicely with grade 3 Social Studies curriculum. Beautiful full-color illustrations by Karen Busch Holman bring Peter's wonderful words to life.

For those who live in eastern Massachusetts or may be vacationing in Plymouth, "America's Hometown," please come to Peter's book launch party. It's being held July 28th, at Mayflower II in Plymouth, MA from 1-3 pm. I'll be there with my kids. How about you?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wordless Wednesday: Indian Pipes (fungi)

ADDED 13 July 2012: Rebecca from "Rebecca in the Woods" corrected me. This is not a fungus. See the comments for more information.

Photos taken 10 June 2012