I have few television vices. One of them is House Hunters International. I also like the regular House Hunters, but the international edition is usually a lot more entertaining. Moreover, it often triggers memories of various trips I’ve taken to countries featured on the show, or to countries that merely resemble them. There really isn’t much difference among different members of the first-, second- and third-world country sets when you get right down to it.
Here are some highlights:
The Millennial Ass Bar-B-Que. We went to Scotland to celebrate the millennium. Or, rather, we went there to get away from crowds. One, because we don’t like them. Two, because there were such dire predictions of an apocalypse when the clock struck 2000 that we figured better safe than sorry. We rented a house in a town called Applecross. It had the narrowest bathroom I’d ever been in. It was about the width of our kitchen pantry.
The owners had put in a wall towel-warmer. These are de rigueur in the UK. Unfortunately, it was opposite the sink. It also could not be turned off. I would frequently exit the tub and then, while drying myself off and admiring myself in the mirror, back into the towel warmer, singeing my rear end in the process. Finally, after a week, I’d conditioned myself not to do this. But by then it was time to leave.
We had sherry with the owners, who were a little odd, but nice enough. The highlight that evening was spotting a real pine marten on their porch, and then the debate on the drive home about whether the woman cut her own hair. As for New Year’s, we stepped outside into the pitch black garden and had champagne to the sounds of braying sheep. Then went back inside and watched the London Wheel not work like it was supposed to.
The Moscow Pensioner Survival Extravaganza. In the late 1990s my father and stepmother were finishing out their journalism careers in Russia. They invited us over and, well, it was Russia. I didn’t exactly want to go there. But how could I pass up the opportunity to do so? So, after four (count them: four) trips to the Russian Embassy in Manhattan, we finally secured the necessary paperwork to get into that Godforsaken country.
The first thing I noticed when we got there was that none of the cars had hubcaps. Everything in Russia that isn’t nailed down gets stolen, including hubcaps. Also, the whole country is a hazard zone. Gaping holes in sidewalks, pieces of metal jutting out of unexpected places, buildings (inhabited ones) that look like the abandoned house in The Blair Witch Project — it was a total mess.
But the best feature was the incredibly wide avenues. These were built to accomodate phalanxes of tanks three and four wide. They had stoplights that gave pedestrians about 20 seconds to get across at least 50 meters of crosswalk, behind which sat crazed Lada drivers, half of them drunk on bootleg vodka, ready to take off like it was Nascar. Among them were ancient pensioner women, all in black and barely able to walk. They’d get the green light, start madly hobbling — and barely make it.
We went to see Lenin too. He was preserved under what looked like a McDonald’s fry warmer. He looked like a stuffed sausage. It was hard not to gawk, but it seemed rude to linger for more than about five seconds, much as I wanted to stay. I could write lots more about Russia. But I’ll move on.
The Grand Cayman Tourist Trap and Burn-O-Rama. In 1993 I got the bright idea that we should learn to scuba dive. I did research and learned that Grand Cayman was a good place to get your PADI license — then go on to Cayman Brac (a strip of an island with incredible coral reefs) for the good diving. We went to Grand Cayman and spent a week in intensive training in a pool and, by some miracle, both passed the open water tests. Then we had a day to kill before moving on to Brac.
First, Jonathan got a sunburn in about five minutes walking across a parking lot without having put on suntan lotion. The sun is really strong down there. (Something about the equator and the sun in September; I don’t know, I didn’t really pay attention in those classes.) Then we decided to take an “island tour.” This consisted of us driving around with a guy in minivan and stopping at anyplace where he thought we’d spend money. Finally, frustrated, we said, “Look. We’re not going to buy anything. Show us something interesting.” So we went to the turtle farm and then to the volcanic rock formations.
The Unfortunate Yachting Trip. A few years ago we went to Switzerland for two weeks to hike. Then, the following week, we met up with Jonathan’s brother and his husband (Yeah, you can do that sort of thing in the UK! They are so much more advanced than we are. They have candy machines in the subway too, which probably explains a lot about British teeth.) for a pleasure cruise down Holland’s canals in their yacht. Mind you, it’s not a big yacht. But any boat seems big in those canals. And any yacht is, by definition, expensive.
Jonathan and I have no sailing experience. Rob and Phil showed us how to tie some basic knots, how to use “bumpers” (those floatie things that hang off the side of the boat — they look a bit like Lenin, come to think of it), and what the long pointy sticks were for (repelling the boat away from destructive objects, like big walls). And we were off! This was one of the most stressful trips of my life — a week spent trying not to destroy someone else’s investment. One day we went through 13 locks. I drank heavily every evening to recover. There was nothing else to do in the evenings but sit on the boat and stare at each other through a haze of exhaustion. Highlights were Gouda, Anne Frank’s hideout and, well, drinking a lot in the evenings.