When I was a little girl, I used to save up my allowance for family excursions to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where I proceeded to purchase such dazzling exotica as hand-painted fans, little plaster statues of animals, and shiny bits of jewelry. Little did I know that all these years later, my skill for finding gimcrack treasures would be put to good use in Seville’s endless collection of Chinese discount bazaars.
It all started with a casual remark to Rich. “You know how nobody can ever remember the right order for the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas?’” I said. “What if we got some props, things we could use as visual aids to show which verse comes next. Might be fun for the 25th when everyone comes to lunch.”
Rich, who was deep into the mountain of paperwork he was collecting for the renewal of our Spanish residency permits, said something like, “Mmmph.” Which I took to be assent. And I was off and running.
If you didn’t grow up in America, where this song blasts out of shopping mall loudspeakers throughout the holidays, you may not know that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an old English carol in the form of a cumulative chant, that is, a song where each verse is built on top of the last. It starts like this:
On the first day of Christmas
my true love sent to me
a partridge in a pear tree.
On the second day of Christmas
my true love sent to me
two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.
On the third day of Christmas
my true love sent to me
three French hens,
two turtle doves
and a partridge in a pear tree.
You get the idea. The twelve days mark the interval between Christmas and the feast of the Three Kings, and by the time that happy day rolls around, the singer’s true love has acquired 364 gifts. I don’t know if anyone tabulated the cost in 1780 when the song was first published, but today buying all those presents and hiring drummers and pipers and so on would run you a hefty $155,407.18. I was hoping to come in considerably under that budget, say somewhere in the tens of euros. Hence the visits to Seville's wildly popular Chinese discount bazaars.
One of the great things about being abroad for the holidays is that it requires a whole new level of resourcefulness. Back home in the USA, I would simply have mail ordered a boxed set of 12-days-of-Xmas ornaments or visited a single crafts shop for everything needed to make my own. Here I had to pick through jumbles of dusty objects on obscure shelves in the dim recesses of a dozen stores; it wasn’t a shopping trip, it was a quest. Each time I found something — even those that are, frankly, pretty strange and hideous — it felt like a triumph.
What we wound up with is not a perfectly matched set of theme-appropriate decorative objects. It’s a crazy cornucopia of toys, housewares, and knickknacks, some of which are so outlandish they make my childhood purchases in San Francisco’s Chinatown seem downright sensible. But I can say this with certainty: no one has a “Twelve Days of Christmas” set like ours. And so long as keep the wine flowing freely, I am sure our friends will love them.
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My globetrotting friend Liz recently showed up on my doorstep bearing a packet of Weasel Coffee as a hostess gift.
“They say Vietnamese weasels eat the coffee beans,” she shouted to me over the hubbub of arriving guests clustering around the front door. “And then the beans pass through the animals’ digestive tracts, which adds to the flavor.”
“How delightful,” I replied automatically, hoping like hell I had misunderstood her completely.
Later I picked up the packet, which features a picture of a squirrel eating coffee beans, and read, “And in particular, we choose not only the quality of coffee beans, delicious but also in the process of digestion in the stomach of the ferret.” Being a professional wordsmith, I at once zeroed in on the inconsistency. Had the coffee beans in my hands passed through the digestive tract of a weasel, a squirrel, or a ferret? Enquiring minds wanted to know, in case I ever needed to file a report with, say, Disease Control officials.
I have since learned that the digestive apparatus in question actually belongs to the civet, a nocturnal tree-climber with the body of a cat, the face of a raccoon, and a fondness for raw coffee beans. In 19th century Vietnam, when laborers on the new French coffee plantations were strictly forbidden to sample the harvest, crafty workers began going through civet dung in the nearby forest and extracting partially digested coffee beans. These they cleaned, roasted, brewed, and prized for their singularly robust flavor (!). Shrewd 20th century promoters transformed this unappetizing java into a high-end cult product, selling the brew for $30 a cup and the beans at $500 a kilo. The market is now flooded with cheap knockoffs that have never seen the inside of a civet, and I feel fairly sure my own Weasel Coffee is free of any mammal’s digestive enzymes. It hardly matters, as I have no intention of drinking it. But I am thoroughly enjoying passing the packet around to amaze and amuse my friends.
Liz’s Weasel Coffee got me thinking about all the other weird and whacky gifts that are on offer these days, apparently with tremendous appeal to the masses.
For instance, who wouldn’t want to recreate scenes from grisly horror movies in the privacy of your own bathroom? “Packaged in an authentic looking IV bag found in hospitals,” the copy reads, “the cherry scented Blood Bath Shower Gel will have your bathroom looking like a scene from Psycho in no time! You might just want to warn your housemates before you hang the bag of ‘blood’ ominously from your shower rail.” I think that’s sound advice, don’t you?
Then there are the U Star Novels, in which you — yes, you! — become the protagonist in a smutty novel. You provide names and other personal details about yourself and your love interest, and the computer plugs them into steamy sexcapades set in exotic locales. “The books include everything imaginable, from eye colour and hair colour even your favourite kind of underwear and nipple colour!” says the promo. The Lovin-O-Meter let’s you choose the level of eroticism from “sensual” — “perfect for everyone, even your Gran!” — to the ones that come with warnings in all caps and recommendations not to leave them about where others can find them. Again, good advice, especially if the partner you specified in the novel isn’t your own.
Want gifts with a holiday theme? Well, obviously you can hardly go wrong with a pack of bacon-flavored candy canes or a Merry Zombie Christmas mug, but for a more stylish alternative you might want to consider Faux Real’s Ugly Holiday Sweater T-Shirt. These t-shirts are cleverly designed to simulate the hideously gaudy sweaters you get from clueless relatives at Christmas or Hanukkah and are forced to wear at family gatherings. “Brothers Jeff, Scott, and Ben Gray," explains the website, "developed these T-shirts when they noticed ugly holiday sweater parties popping up everywhere.” Really? How come I haven’t been invited to any? Have you? It’s so hard keeping up with all of today’s holiday trends.
Of course, appropriate gift wrap provides the perfect finishing touch to any present. Public-spirited designers have been busy coming up with holiday gift wrap that appeals to modern sensibilities, such as Yoda in a Santa hat, reversible Hanukkah/Christmas wrap for the conflicted, and (keeping the X in Xmas) Santa enacting some of the naughtier chapters of the U Star Novels. So far I haven’t found civet-theme holiday paper, but obviously it’s just a matter of time. As for me, I’m sticking with the classics.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I don't accept sponsorships of any kind. Any products mentioned in my posts are included because I thought you might enjoy reading about them.
What weird and whacky gifts have you received, given, or heard about? Send me details!
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One of the things I love about Spain is that nobody can agree on anything — and everyone seems fine with that. Take tapas, for instance, those delicious small plates of food that are so popular here in Seville (and just about everywhere these days). The word comes from tapar, “to cover,” but does it refer to setting a slice of bread over a wine glass to keep out flies and dust? Covering a glass of inferior wine with a slab of strong, salty cheese to mask the taste and boost your thirst? Reducing public inebriation by ensuring that you eat whenever you imbibe? In America, a cultural icon this important would be the subject of a definitive study and a host of fact-checking websites. Here in Seville, it’s an issue that only seems to come up when you’re actually in a tapas bar, which is not a setting conducive to serious critical analysis.
One thing we can say for sure about tapas: the small plates encourage us to eat modest portions in a leisurely manner. It’s an easy form of portion control that’s built into the Mediterranean diet — yes, that diet, the one innumerable studies have shown can help us live longer, healthier lives with less chance of developing dementia. To say nothing of letting us enjoy much, much better food along the way.
So why isn’t everyone benefitting from this blissful union of traditional wisdom and modern science?
For a start, today’s super-sized dinner plates are tricking us into eating ever-larger portions at every meal. No, I’m not suggesting that inanimate objects have learned how to exert mind control over humans (not yet, anyway), but the very size of these plates triggers something in us known as the Delboeuf illusion. It’s a simple equation: the bigger the surface, the smaller stuff looks sitting on it. Here’s the classic visual experiment involving two black dots of equal size.
The bigger the white circle, the smaller the black dot appears. How does that translate to your supper?
A bigger plate gives us a strong visual cue that the portion is too small to satisfy our hunger, triggering thoughts of bolstering our meager meal with a nice big helping of mashed potatoes smothered in gravy. Such cues are remarkably difficult to resist, as changes in our eating habits attest.
Since 1960 American dinner plates have become 36 percent larger; from being 7 to 9 inches across they’ve expanded to about 11 to 12 inches. During that same period the average bodyweight in the US rose 17%, from 140 to 164 pounds for women and from 166 to 194 pounds for men. Of course, there are many social, cultural, psychological, and economic factors affecting your avoirdupois. But if your portions get bigger, and your calorie intake gets bigger, there’s a pretty good chance your waistline will follow the trend.
The typical European dinner plate is still no more than 9 inches across, and a tapa plate tends to be between 7 and 8 inches. My friend Steve, who exports hand-painted Spanish ceramics from Andalucía to the US, recently told me, “When I first started, my biggest problem was getting the artisans to make cups and plates that were big enough to sell in the States. A 12-ounce mug? Unheard of here. They drink their coffee in tiny espresso portions, not our giant lattes. And dinner plates are only 9 inches, tops.” Steve has successfully convinced his Spanish suppliers to create jumbo crockery, making American consumers happier, if not slimmer.
As for me, I’m sticking with European-sized plates and portions. “Studies show that people are more satisfied with less food when they are served on 8-inch salad plates instead of on 12-inch dinner plates,” says nutritionist Dr. Penny Klatell. “For an average size adult who eats a typical dinner of 800 calories, the smaller portions that would result from using a smaller plate would lead to a weight loss of around 18 pounds a year.” Now that's food for thought.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I don't accept sponsorships of any kind. Any products mentioned in my posts are personal favorites I included because I thought you might enjoy them.
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“Why not write about how you handle money?” a reader suggests. “Credit cards? Rail pass? Cash and what kind of cash?”
“Uh, oh,” I said to Rich. “I think you’d better take this one.”
After 29 years of marriage, we’ve worked out a division of labor. I’m the wordsmith who acquires travel phrases in every language, learns foreign alphabets such as Cyrillic and Georgian (кирилица and ქართული), and fills in the gaps with pantomime skills honed by decades of playing charades at family reunions. Rich is the numbers guy who estimates costs and tabulates trip expenses which, astonishingly, usually match the budgeted amount almost to the penny. I, who have a hard time figuring the tip on my bar tab, find Rich’s math abilities impressive and deeply mystifying.
“The first thing people need to know is that there are ATMs just about everywhere,” he said. “Carrying large amounts of cash isn’t necessary.” There are more than 2.2 million ATMs (automated teller machines) worldwide, one for every 3000 people on the planet. While you won’t find them in very small, remote villages, they are common in towns and cities around the world. There’s even one in Antarctica, although it’s only serviced once every two years, so you may not want to rely on it for frequent withdrawals.
“To get the best exchange rate, go to an ATM at a bank,” Rich said. “Cash machines and money exchanges in airports and train stations don’t usually give you favorable rates, so get minimal amounts there — just enough to cover a coffee and transportation to your lodgings. Then find a bank with an ATM. Never, ever exchange money with a stranger who approaches you on the street, no matter what rate is offered; you will come out the loser every time.”
Rich then went into a long, complicated explanation about how currency exchanges are calculated, why we mere mortals never get quite the full, quoted rate (apparently that’s reserved for financial institutions moving large sums around the globe), and what commissions are charged for currency conversion and cash withdrawals. Every step shaves a sliver off the amount you’ll receive, but the bottom line, Rich says, is this: you’ll probably want to extract cash using your credit card. For a start, this lets you use the exchange rate offered by your card issuer, not some random bank you stumble upon. Some credit cards designed for travelers don’t charge for conversion, which helps as well. Most importantly, if your credit card is stolen or your data hacked, your credit card company is required to reimburse you for your losses. “I carry two credit cards and a debit card,” Rich explained. “If one’s stolen or hacked, I have backup. I only use my debit card if the current exchange rate is particularly favorable.”
How much do we take out? “I usually carry the equivalent of $100 to $200 in local currency,” Rich said. “And then in my money belt, I keep a hundred each in US dollars and euros for emergencies.”
You’ll have fewer emergencies if you use ATMs that are inside a bank with security cameras and guards. When that’s not an option, use outside cash machines with caution. Savvy thieves can discreetly install a skimmer on the ATM to read your data and extract your funds. Be on the alert for anything peculiar about the machine, such as different plastic over the card slot or a keypad that doesn't fit perfectly.
“Have we covered everything?” I asked. “Cash, credit cards, debit cards…Oh yes, rail passes.” As Rich drew a breath to launch into his favorite subject — he can go on about this topic for hours; just ask any of our friends — I added hastily, “Come to think of it, I talked about that in my post On a Slow Train Through Transylvania.”
Rich looked deflated for a moment, then brightened. “There’s the digital wallet,” he said. Lately he’s been researching this all-in-one method of using our smartphones for everything: purchases, reservations, boarding passes, insurance, ID. “Apple CEO Tim Cook says that in a few years, money will be obsolete. In another generation, kids won’t even know what cash looks like.”
That prediction may come true in cutting-edge cities like San Francisco, London, and Barcelona. But in the world’s remoter rural regions, I suspect it will take more than a few years for local farmers to start swiping iPhones to buy a scythe or sell a pig. So the bottom line answer to my reader’s question is this: for most destinations, a mix of cash, plastic, and smartphone technology is probably best for now — and for the foreseeable future.
Do you have travel questions? Let me know!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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