“Cleveland isn’t all smokestacks and slag heaps,” said the guidebook, in a desperate attempt to find something positive to report. This was 28 years ago, on the eve of our marriage, when a recruiting firm was trying to convince Rich to leave San Francisco for a job in Cleveland, a gritty industrial city defined by such terms as “Rust Belt” and “snowbelt.” and the unfortunate day when the city’s polluted main river caught on fire. (To make sure nobody ever forgot that incident, Randy Newman immortalized it in the song Burn On, which you may remember from the movie Major League.)
Rich loved the job, so we went to live in Cleveland at a time the city's very name was considered a punch line. And as it turned out, the guidebook was right; Cleveland wasn’t all smokestacks and slag heaps. We had a wonderful twenty years there in an old stone house surrounded by great friends and old woods, with a thriving Amish community on one side, and on the other a city offering fantastic social, cultural, and professional possibilities. I learned a lot about how easy it is to stereotype a place when you don’t really know it.
When Rich took early retirement and we began spending time in Seville, our friends knew long before we did that we’d be moving. As one put it, “Cleveland versus Seville? Was there ever any doubt?” Yes, there was doubt; it’s never easy to leave a place where you have been happy. But new adventures called us, and in 2004 we made the move to Seville.
Rich and I are now expatriates, from the Latin terms ex (out of) and patria (homeland), meaning someone who lives outside their native country. What it doesn’t mean is former patriots. (That would be expatriot, by the way.) We love our country. We spend four months a year in the US, visiting family and friends, and enjoying such luxuries as central heating, diverse ethnic foods, and speaking English. We pay our taxes without too much complaint. Sure, nobody likes writing checks to the government, but as I see it, taxes are one way that we, as citizens, collectively invest in our country’s future. And Rich and I always, always vote. Visiting Eastern bloc countries, where people were long denied that freedom (along with so many others) under totalitarian regimes, I heard a lot of stories about people fighting and dying for the right to voice their political beliefs. Makes it kind of hard to claim that mailing a ballot home from abroad is too much trouble.
And here’s good news for American expats: the federal government has just made it easier to cast your vote from abroad. The new Federal Post Card Application lets you register online and request your absentee ballot. But hurry! You’ll need to fill it out and send it back to them by January 31 in order to get your absentee ballots for the next election. Do it today!
One reason I care so much about voting is that I grew up hearing my grandmother talk about the time before “women’s suffrage” and the day in 1920 when she cast her first ballot. It’s not a very edifying story, actually. My grandparents, who rarely agreed on anything, naturally supported opposing candidates. My grandfather craftily offered a bribe – a mink coat – if my grandmother would vote his way. Ever practical, she felt mink had far more lasting value and agreed. But in the unfamiliar confines of the voting booth, she got so flustered that she marked the ballot for her candidate instead. However, she kept her head afterward and claimed she’d voted as my grandfather had asked. Delighted with his victory, he bought her a magnificent mink coat, which she wore for the next sixty years.
We all vote for different reasons, some more noble than others. Elections are just one way in which we, unlike so many people throughout history, get to exercise freedom of choice. As expats, we have opted to build new lives in new places. But just as leaving home for college didn’t mean we stopped loving our parents, living abroad doesn’t make us less loyal or patriotic. We love the places we hail from – smokestacks, slag heaps, and all.
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Been on an airplane lately? The one I flew on last week – a ten-hour jaunt from London to San Francisco – sounded like the hospital in one of those sci-fi movies about an outbreak of plague.
Everyone seemed to be sneezing, coughing, and blowing their nose. But was I worried about catching anything? Not at all, because I’d cleverly managed to pre-emptively contract a hideous cold before I embarked on the journey. The holidays in Seville, jolly as they are in so many ways, provide the perfect opportunity to spread germs via shared platters of party food and the local custom of kissing everyone you know on both cheeks every time you see them. This year’s bug features a legendary cough, the kind that goes on forever with increasingly horrifying violence, until people around you start backing away, wondering whether they should call an ambulance or an exorcist. Frankly, I was glad to get out of town for a while.
But with colds and flu at epidemic levels in the US and on the rise in Europe, you can’t count on outrunning health dangers. In fact, with about 3 billion people a year traveling, bringing their germs with them, it’s a safe bet your journeys will occasionally be disrupted by some form of illness.
Ideally you shouldn’t leave home while you’re ill, but the cost of changing non-refundable reservations and the pressure to show up at that family wedding or crucial business meeting make it difficult to abandon plans at the last minute. If you must hit the road in less-than-perfect health, be prepared. Consult a doctor or pharmacist to make sure you’re not in serious danger and discuss ways to stay as comfortable as possible. Here are some strategies I’ve found useful.
Before you get on a plane, take an inventory of symptoms and stock up on over-the-counter remedies. The most crucial for colds are an oral decongestant and a nasal spray to unblock sinuses and ears, which can become excruciatingly painful with changes in air pressure. If you have a scratchy throat, bring cough drops and ask the flight attendant for hot water and salt so you can gargle. In case of gastrointestinal woes, you may want something like Imodium to keep down the number of mad dashes to the restroom. If your tummy is too tender even for that, try an anti-nausea suppository. The old standbys of Coca-Cola and mint tea will help alleviate milder cases.
Dress for survival. Wear loose, comfortable clothing in multiple layers; many illnesses make your internal temperature fluctuate unexpectedly. Wrap up in a shawl or heavy scarf, being careful to keep a sore throat warm, and don’t be afraid to ask for an extra blanket as soon as you board the plane.
Eat light and (sorry about this) skip the alcohol. Heavy meals before or during a flight often add to your discomfort, and alcohol exacerbates the dehydration inherent in plane travel. Guzzle water, stick to the vegetarian or chicken dishes, and promise yourself a great meal once you land.
Need help upon arrival? Consult a pharmacist at the airport or train station. They are more likely to speak English, be familiar with travelers’ woes, and know of a doctor to consult if necessary. Your hotel staff may also have a doctor on call. Keep your dictionary handy and write out a few key phrases if you don’t speak the language.
Sometimes you don’t even need words. Two weeks ago I was chatting with a friend in Seville when I suddenly had a fit of explosive coughing that wouldn’t stop. My friend and the café's barista were startled, then alarmed, as I staggered outside, doubled over with coughing, then stumbled across the street into a pharmacy. There the staff took one look at me and handed me an industrial strength cough syrup, which I slugged down with the desperation of someone coming out of a hundred miles’ crawl through the desert.
One of the things I love about Seville is the way people live more communally. Sure, it means I’m likely to get the latest version of the cold/flu every winter, but it also means that people are standing by, ready to pour me a slug of just the right cough syrup in my hour of need.
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“It’s all about expectations,” our Oxford Airbnb host said on Monday, as he led the way up several flights of stairs. I caught glimpses of rooms crammed floor to ceiling with books and toys, including a vintage Howdy Doody puppet – a relic, our host explained, of his daughter’s short-lived flirtation with the art of ventriloquism. “I got a long, irate letter from one guest,” he added, opening the door to our spotless room, with its sloped ceilings, embroidered white bedding, and faded Oriental rug. “She complained the house was too cluttered – not here, but in the rooms below, where we live. And she was very upset that I hadn’t introduced her to my family.” He shrugged philosophically. “Most of the people who stay here tell me it’s their first time. Maybe she just didn’t know what to expect.”
Airbnb is very new, and we’re all still getting up to speed. What started in 2008 with a few guys charging a few bucks for air mattresses on the floors of their San Francisco apartments has grown to more than 34,000 listings in 190 countries and a total of 25 million customers so far. Rentals now include entire apartments, houses, even castles, as well as rooms in private homes. Part of the appeal is the cost savings; in Oxford, Rich and I paid £80 ($93) for the attic suite with private bath and breakfast, far less than the price of nearby hotels. After we’d settled in, our host grabbed a flashlight and walked us through the rain to a favorite pub, regaling us with bits of neighborhood history along the way. You don’t get that kind of service at the Holiday Inn!
I love getting away from cookie-cutter hotels and having the quirky (and more affordable) Airbnb experience. Rich and I have rented dozens of Airbnb places, ranging from pretty good to spectacular; only one was completely unacceptable. Fortunately, Airbnb holds the money through the first 24 hours of your stay, so we left at once and got a full, prompt refund – and learned our lesson about researching more thoroughly. The clues were there; we’d just had so many positive experiences that we got lazy and overlooked them.
If you’re thinking of giving them a try, start by downloading Airbnb's free app. You can book from the website, but the app offers navigational conveniences and makes you a part of the online community. You and your hosts can learn a little about each other in advance and post evaluations of one another afterwards. This goes a long way toward ensuring decent behavior on all sides.
Before you start, use Google Maps for an overview of your destination; in many cities, Wikitravel will help you target the best districts. Your Airbnb app has search filters – such as price, location, type of accommodation, and number of beds and bedrooms – that help you compile a Wish List of potentially suitable sites.
Check out the photos, descriptions, and reviews carefully, and pay close attention to what isn’t specified. Does it mention heat or air conditioning? Is there a photo of the bathroom? There nearly always is, so if it’s omitted, that could be a red flag. Are there pets in the house? I like cats and knew one came with our Munich apartment, but I was unnerved by the cranky animal glowering at me every second. Guests tend to be generous in their comments, so read between the lines and take “It was OK” as a criticism. One review said, “I loved this place so much that I didn’t even mind stepping over the homeless guy in the stairwell at night.” We took that one off our Wish List in a hurry!
When you’ve narrowed it down, contact several hosts to confirm availability and ask questions, such as the standard taxi fare from the airport or station (overcharging is notorious in some cities). A prompt response and clear information puts them at the top of the list. Now you’re ready to book!
Airbnb is leading a new wave of informal rentals that includes Roomorama and Wimdu, budget-conscious communities such as Couchsurfing and Warmshowers, and rustic, romantic getaways from Glamping Hub. The range of accommodations is dazzling, and the right choice can enhance your stay with small, offbeat pleasures.
In Oxford, for instance, our bathroom's hot water had to be actively managed via a unique system involving a dial and pull cord. Just washing my hands provided a challenge to memory, brain function, and eye-hand coordination, adding a touch of adventure to an otherwise mundane task. And isn’t that what travel is all about?
All products and services referred to in this post are included solely because I believe you might find them interesting and useful in planning your own adventures. Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I do not accept sponsorships of any kind.
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To me, the idea of running out of books is only slightly less frightening than running out of food or air. My greatest packing challenge used to be figuring out how many books I could jam into my luggage for long trips. If I used up my supply, I’d find myself scrounging desperately in hotel lobbies and second-hand bookstores for something – anything! – in English. Encountering a fellow traveler, I would ask, “So ... reading anything interesting?” A not-so-subtle hint that I’d love their leftovers.
Like most people, I had no interest in e-readers when they first appeared. I wanted to hold a book, carry it around in my arms like a lapdog, mark my place with a train ticket or sprig of rosemary that would spark fond memories. Then my husband bought me a Kindle and five minutes into the first book, I was hooked. I realized that I’d been like the people in 1450 who said, “You call that a book? Why, if it’s not hand-lettered by monks on parchment and bound in calfskin...” Come to think of it, their ancestors probably said, “Ink on parchment? Why, if it’s not painted by the shaman on the cave wall...” I realized that it’s the content not the format that matters.
For a voracious reader like me, buying e-books can get costly. Lately I’ve been checking out how to download good reading material for free, from anywhere in the world.
Public libraries now let you borrow e-books over the Internet. All you need is a library card to access thousands of e-books – plus movies, audio books, and other digital material. Of the various delivery options, I like going through Amazon, so I can easily send a copy over to our other Kindle if it’s something Rich would like, too. There is a due date, usually two weeks, after which your borrowed books disappear.
Amazon offers more than 71,000 free Kindle books in the US and 58,000 in the UK. Yes, many are amateur efforts you’ll want to delete after the first paragraph, if not sooner, but you’ll also find New York Times bestsellers, Lonely Planet guides, classics, and fresh new voices worth knowing. Want still more? Amazon's Kindle Unlimited charges a monthly fee for unrestricted access to 700,000 e-books. It costs about as much as one full-price e-book: $9.99 in the US, £7.99 in the UK. And not all Amazon titles are included; you’ll still pay top price for recent bestsellers. Other e-book retailers also list massive numbers of freebies. Nook fans, for instance, will be glad to know that Barnes & Noble offers a whopping 1,871,000 free titles.
Free books are available on many non-retail websites, too, such as the Internet’s largest book club, Goodreads. But again, the hottest bestsellers, such as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter: the Prequel, are only samples to whet your appetite, in hopes you’ll buy the whole book at full price from the company that now owns Goodreads; yep, that would be Amazon.
All sorts of websites give away free e-books, usually so they can add your email address to their mailing list. Much as I try to avoid increasing my email volume, I do occasionally sign up for free e-books on subjects that interest me (knowing I can easily unsubscribe later). For instance, I’ve downloaded several books from Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer, where I often turn for savvy advice about book production and marketing. Indy authors, take note: his current giveaway is 10 Things You Need to Know About Self-Publishing.
A few years ago, I took Joel’s advice and developed a giveaway for my own website, which many of you have downloaded: 101 Ways to Enjoy Living Abroad: Essential Tips for Easing the Transition to Expat Life. It will be free on this site for one more week only; after January 16 you’ll have to purchase it on Amazon. If you think there's any chance you might want to move abroad some day, this is one free book you'll definitely want for your e-library!
This blog is a promotion-free zone!
As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog (or anywhere else). I only write about things that interest me and that I believe might prove useful for you all to know about. Whew! I wanted to clear that up before we went any further. Thanks for listening.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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