On Saturday, the young waiter at the sidewalk café wanted to practice his English. This is common now in Seville, and at first he did well. Rich and I ordered a platter of scrambled eggs with asparagus, ham, and shrimp that was big enough to share. The waiter nodded, returned with two plates and a bread basket, then said, “You do not need forks, do you?
Instantly I pictured myself scooping up handfuls of scrambled egg and stuffing stray asparagus spears into my mouth with my fingers.
I stared at him blankly, he repeated the question about the forks, and then added something that I swear sounded like, “For the sex.” Huh? What exactly did he think we were doing with those eggs?
Glancing in the bread basket, I saw we already had forks, and pointed this out. He looked mortified and said, “No, no, I am very sorry, I meant knives. You do not need knives.” I agreed we did not. And decided not to press him further on the question of sex. Young people are so easily embarrassed.
The really astonishing thing about this conversation was that it was somebody else butchering the language. I’ve been on the other end of countless similar confusions over the years. How well I remember one Spanish class that went like this:
Teacher, holding up a flash card: “¿Que hace ella?” (What is she doing?)
Me, after a long pause: “¿Cepilla su pollo?” (Brushing her chicken?)
Rich, after a longer pause: “¿Camino su pelo?” (Walking her hair?)
Whenever I get lost in a welter of linguistic or cultural confusion — and yes, even after all these years, it happens — I pause a moment, recall that day in class, and picture a woman brushing her chicken. It makes me chuckle, if only to myself, and then I’m calm enough to marshal the known facts so I can get a handle on the moment. On Saturday I knew that A) this was a respectable, old-school Spanish eatery, B) nobody in Seville eats scrambled eggs with their fingers, and C) whatever else was about to happen, it was unlikely to involve sex. At least not right there at my café table.
Like that conversation with the waiter, I find much of the world feels nonsensical and cattywampus these days. How do we keep from feeling confused and bumfuzzled? The New York Times recently polled its readers about small rituals that help them keep their mental and emotional balance. One woman reads a Nancy Drew book for five minutes before bed. Another sits in a recliner, petting her cat, after dinner. There’s a reader who counts yellow doors, keeping a tally during daily walks. One couple spends a half hour each morning watching birds flutter around the backyard feeder. Everybody had some small daily ritual they considered vital for keeping their sanity.
Rich recently revealed he loves doing the dishes after every meal. “I don’t think of anything,” he says. “It’s very relaxing.” Being a supportive wife, I am naturally encouraging him to indulge in this habit frequently. Three times a day, in fact. For his own good, of course.
Unfortunately, our routines tend to go out the window when we travel. Rich doesn’t always have a kitchen full of dirty dishes available. It’s not practical to bring your cat everywhere or pack the backyard birdfeeder in your carry-on. We travelers have to get creative about coming up with alternatives. “We’re allowed to make up rituals,” said author Elizabeth Gilbert. “We’re here to find meaning, and meaning is the way we make sense out of chaos. Do whatever you need to do to transition safely from one point in your life to the next.”
Of course, there’s a fine line between ritual and superstition. Actress Jennifer Aniston, Duncan James of the boy band Blue, and Kit Harrington, who played Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, all tap the outside of the airplane before getting on board; each has their own specific number of raps, and Aniston always boards right foot first. Hey, whatever gets you through the flight.
One of my rituals is well known to my regular readers: the recombobulation coffee. The moment I step off a plane or train, I’m looking for a café where I can sit down, sip something, and regroup. There’s the practical side, such as making sure I have the address of my lodgings and enough local currency to get there. But it’s also a way of reminding myself the headlong rush of getting there is over. Now it’s time to be there; I try to tune into the moment and connect with my new surroundings.
I have another small ritual for settling into my room: I immediately place my Kindle and sleep mask next to the bed. I may not need nightly doses of Nancy Drew (although she and I are old and dear friends), but reading before sleep is a deeply ingrained habit. And how’s this for luck? I get to do it twice a day, as my most essential ritual is taking siestas. American friends tend to roll their eyes and suppress a snicker when I say this. But just ask the NASA astronauts, executives wanting to boost productivity, and the longest-living people on the planet about the value of resting each afternoon. It’s a lifesaver, and thankfully it can be done just about anywhere.
Whatever our personal rituals, they are vital to our happiness. Why? Scientists and spiritual teachers agree it’s because they offer a sense of predictability in a topsy-turvy world. They let us know we are exactly where we need to be, doing just what we need to be doing, at precisely that moment. We come away more grounded, relaxed, and confident, able to see things more clearly, from a broader perspective.
Harvard research shows that rituals alleviate the natural grief that comes with loss, including homesickness and the head-spinning, out-of-control, what-happened-to-my-reality sensations we sometimes experience in foreign places. Especially while having surreal conversations with strangers about eggs, forks, sex, and brushing chickens. Taking time to identify our own rituals, or create new ones to take with us on the road, can help us relax and reconnect with the sense of joy and adventure that caused us to travel in the first place.
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10/18/2022 05:37:15 pm
Even before we checked in to our VRBO at Hilton Head this week, Bob made a quick stop at the tiny grocery store nearby. He bought coffee and milk plus a small bunch of flowers for a touch of home. Of course, we always travel with graham crackers!
Karen K McCann
10/18/2022 06:45:23 pm
Coffee, milk, flowers, and graham crackers: the four building blocks of life! And a great way to make Hilton Head, or anywhere, feel like home. Enjoy your time there, Dorothy and Bob!
10/18/2022 05:44:19 pm
Your posts always give me a smile, Karen. I photograph every door that catches me eye twice. I like the idea of your man washing all those dishes too!
Karen K McCann
10/18/2022 06:47:45 pm
That's a great criteria, Patricia, shooting every door that catches your eye twice. I love photographing doors. Here in Seville we have some great ones, but for some reason, despite all the yellow trim, there are practically no yellow doors. I'll have to find out why. And yes, I am so thrilled that Rich likes doing dishes. Now there's a hobby I will encourage in any way I can!
10/18/2022 06:19:45 pm
We have that recombobulation coffee at the airport--before we pick up our luggage. I've been using that word ever since I read it in your blog. Now I'm on to catywampus and bumfuzzled. All three words sound just like what they mean. New words aside, your blogs are always full of lots of interesting things. Yes, they're fun! Something a lot of us need more of. Thank you!
Karen K McCann
10/19/2022 07:18:44 pm
So glad you liked the post, Nancy, and that you're into these wonderful words. They add a lot of zip to the language, don't they? And as you say, they sound like what they mean, so it's easy to get the hang of using them. Enjoy!
10/18/2022 08:47:41 pm
Your post made me think back to travel rituals. The most important to me was to immediately plunge into the country. Once we landed and got checked in to our hotel or rental apartment, I had to go for a walk in the neighborhood —look in the store windows, read (or try to) the signs, make note of how the natives reacted to a stranger, absorb the smells (unless diesel fuel predominated), try to spot a likely neighborhood cafe or restaurant. I guess it was landing, then grounding.
Karen K McCann
10/21/2022 09:36:18 am
"Landing, then grounding" is a great way to put it. Walking the neighborhood is certainly the best way to connect with any new location. You pick up so many clues about the culture and have the chance to sniff out the restaurants you may want to go back to. That's a perfect travel ritual!
10/18/2022 11:59:46 pm
Never underestimate the rejuvenating powers of reading twice a day. I've always read at night before bed, ever since I was a child. Nothing has changed except now I use a salt lamp (because I'm a little woo) and read on a Kindle instead of a paperback (because you can't beat 3000 books on your lap all at once). But now I also take a daily "siesta." This started after my gallbladder surgery last year, and now I find that a daily break to lie down and read is essential to...well...EVERYONE'S good health. Sorta like that first cup of coffee in the morning.
Karen K McCann
10/21/2022 09:40:14 am
I so agree that taking a break with a good book is not only beneficial to our own health but also makes us much nicer people to live with. As you say, like the first cup of coffee in the AM. Having a Kindle with zillions of books in it is such a treasure, and one of the reasons I can now take longer trips. In the old days my suitcase sometimes held ten paperbacks; I'll be yours did too. Aren't you glad we don't have to lug all that around any more, Shéa?
10/19/2022 01:16:33 am
At last, someone else has the same response to this notice — "This door is alarmed!" — that I do.
Karen K McCann
10/21/2022 09:42:23 am
I know just what you mean, Dru. I thought that sign was hilarious and others are like, "Huh? No, yeah, I get it, but so what?" Great to have someone share my delight in this one.
10/19/2022 04:52:45 pm
Karen K McCann
10/21/2022 09:43:30 am
Yes, that's an image that really sticks with you, isn't it, Pete? I've been chuckling over that one for years.
10/20/2022 09:53:18 am
I loved this post! I shared it with everyone in my family, to get us thinking. And yesterday on the beach here in France (where we will spend our winters instead of in Canada), I brought a book that had been sitting all alone on my nightstand for the past few years - The Little Book of Lykke by Meik Wiking. They are bite-sized nuggets about what makes people happy around the world. And I decided it would be my ritual of choice, going forward - to read one every day. Thanks Karen for the nudge!
Karen K McCann
10/21/2022 09:55:05 am
What a wonderful ritual, Sandra! I can picture you (even though I have no idea what you actually look like) reading The Little Book of Lykke on the beach, smiling to yourself. I loved another book by that author, The Little Book of Hygge, and have added this one to my list. One of my favorite morning readings is the poetry of Billy Collins, who is known as "America's favorite poet" for his funny, wise commentaries on modern life. You might like him! If you want a sample, check out my post about the Barking Dog Solo. https://www.enjoylivingabroad.com/my-blog/barking-dog-solo-and-other-survival-songs-we-need-right-now
Oh languages are such fun. No matter what country I end up in these days, if the language is not English I start speaking Finnish :) my Finnish partner is highly amused by this!
Karen K McCann
10/21/2022 09:57:42 am
I'll bet you get lots of interesting reactions when you break out into Finnish, Heather! A great way to break the ice. And I love your ritual of emptying your things into drawers. It's funny how much more settled that makes you feel, even if you're only there for a night. That's good travel wisdom.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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