Dutch Shoes

In Gulliver’s Travels, author Jonathon Swift’s character, Gulliver found himself a giant on the island of Lilliput in the South Indian Ocean which was inhabited by tiny people 1/12th the size of regular humans. As a tall woman, I’m often aware of my height when I travel. In certain countries I feel like Gulliver.

But there are other places in the world where I don’t stand out – places where the people grow tall and sturdy and our eyes meet on the same plane when passing on the street. I’m often asked if I’m Dutch when I travel so finding myself with a week to spare when transiting through Amsterdam this past month I decided to spend it among my tall peers. And to test the mettle of the height accepting Netherlands, I went shoe shopping. It’s one thing to grow your people taller, but do you offer them size appropriate footwear?

I once thought Paris would be my shoe nirvana. Its an epicenter of the fashion world. Tall, lithe women grace their streets and wear the most fashionable shoes going about their daily business. They bike in stiletto heels and sip wine at outdoor cafes in high leather boots. It was Frenchwomen who popularized the ballet flat as a global trend.  But when I walked into shoe stores in Paris, saleswomen would look at my feet, purse their lips and, with a note of pity in their voice, inform me that they never carry shoes in my size. Never. Jamias. One place pointed me to a store in the Republique district of the city with a backroom that had a single dusty shelf of black oxfords. The same thing happened in Switzerland. There the salesman eventually found a pair of bright pink Sketchers in my size. In Spain I was forced to buy men’s Nikes for an unexpected hiking trip.

Amsterdam would surely be different. The Dutch, who come from a Germanic ethnic group, became the tallest Europeans in the 1980s, a dramatic turnaround from their former status in the first half of the 19th century as the shortest Europeans. Smithsonian Magazine as well as other researchers claim the reason is natural selection. In theory I should be able to walk into a Dutch shoe store and inquire about shoes without the look of pity I got elsewhere. My first stop was a mild success. The saleswoman had some styles in my size but she recommended that I check out a store called Caland/Schoen that specialized in fashionable larger sizes for women and men.

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Caland/Schoen is shoe heaven for anyone who has experienced the look of pity from shoe salespeople; the look that says, “Your feet are gargantuan”. There was an entire room of shoes in my size. Snappy red ankle boots, breezy navy ballet flats, stylish multi-toned heels, flattering European styles and not a single dusty black oxford on the shelves. It’s a self service store if you choose to not ask for help. I gushed about the variety and sheer volume of shoes in my size and the friendly saleswoman left me alone for two hours happily trying on all sorts of styles. I bought a pair of stylish black veterschoen and had I had more room in my suitcase and on my credit card, I would have come home with much more.

The owner of Caland/Schoen, Anke Griffioen, is a woman with a taste for fashionable footwear who had difficulty finding shoes in her size. She opened up her first Caland/Shoen store in Rotterdam and eventually a second storefront in Amsterdam. Calend/Schoen also has an online store.

Amsterdam Store: Bilderdijkstraat 66 (trams 12, 13, 14)

Rotterdam Store: New Shortcuts 14

 

 

Solothurn, Switzerland: Mountain Paradise

Solothurn is a lovely, walled, medieval river town located in the northwest corner of Switzerland. I was lucky enough to do a home exchange there for 10 days trading my house on the western shores of Puget Sound in Washington with a teacher and his family who lived in the foothills of the Jura Mountains. You can read my Solothurn review in the travel website Solo Traveler

The Language of Fanspeak

It sang. It danced. It conveyed passion and despite its silence I knew exactly what it said. I was mesmerized. Enchanted. Curious.

It was my first Flamenco performance and I’d selected an intimately sized Seville venue frequented less by tourists and more by locals. The ensemble’s guitar playing, singing and dancing remain my favorite performance of the many I’ve seen since, but it was a single dance – the choreography of woman and fan that took my breath away.

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Fans originated in Egypt. It was the Japanese who invented the folding fan. Portugal imported the first fans to Spain who remains one of the few European countries that still manufactures them. You see them in shop windows in the touristy areas of Madrid and Barcelona but I waited to see learn more about them in southern Spain and in particular Seville and the surrounding Andalusian area where the fusion of Moors, Castilian settlers, Romani and Jewish cultures birthed the authentic form of Spanish Flamenco. I wanted to know how that fan spoke to me.

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It was in Ronda that I finally ventured into a small store artfully displaying handmade Spanish fans, still awestruck by the Seville performance. The owner and his wife were artists and their shop a loving tribute to the art form of hand fans.

I told him about the performance in Seville. “Fans,” he said, “communicate a language about relationships and were used by women back in the day to send messages. A good Flamenco dancer doesn’t just use the fan as a prop, she uses it as an extension of herself.”

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He tried to tell me how to do it, but I needed him to demonstrate. He willingly did. I learned the snap of a fan is all about the action of wrist and the first two fingers. That fan action can be fast and slow, each conveying a different message. That placement when open is important.

  • Open fan over the chest showing the design “Yes”
  • Open fan over the chest showing the back “No”
  • Open fan covering one of the cheeks “I like you”
  • Wave fan very fast: “I really like you”
  • Wave fan very slowly: “I am not interested”
  • Open fan covering your nose “I want to see you”
  • Open fan covering your chin “I want to talk to you”
  • Closed fan near the heart: “I love you”
  • Open fan placed over lips: “Kiss me”
  • Close fan waving; “I am thinking about it”
  • Hit close fan against hand “Leave me alone”
  • Open and close the fan: “I am upset”
  • Open fan waving energetically on one side “Don´t come now, other people around”

I bought a moderately priced gray and black fan signed by its Spanish artist that I use on hot days; flicking it back and forth in front of my face – the only practical use of a hand fan in 2016. So far, nobody has ever interpreted my fanspeak.

 

India: Waiting For The Train With A Cow

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This is a train station in India. Yes, that’s a cow in the foreground snoozing among sleeping passengers. My fellow board members from The India Project (I’ve posted about my work with them here, here and here) have been in the country over the past few weeks checking up on the families we support. Has the drought subsided? Mostly, but in Khajuraho where many of the families live the crops were destroyed and they have no other means of support. How are they coping medically? There were a variety of heat related medical issues and without our medical support families would have gone untreated. Are all the children back attending school after the holiday break? Yes. And with luck our first student will graduate from high school this year.

We back here in the states have been making decisions as updates have been coming in – authorizing rent for a family who was evicted from their home, medical coverage for one new baby and another on the way and struggling with ideas to help the adults become self-sufficient wage earners in an economy that discriminates against their caste and has little work for anyone who is illiterate.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our project and donating to our work, the link is here.

The in-India team sent this photo of their transportation around the country. India’s train system is almost entirely government owned. It’s the third largest rail system in the world serving 7500 stations. On any given day 20 million people are traveling by train; most of them in the class called General Compartment. There’s no air conditioning in those cars. Wooden benches. And they pack passengers in forcing them to sit in aisles and luggage racks if the benches are full. I suspect the cow isn’t traveling anywhere; the train station was just a good place to people watch.

 

Outwitting A Florida Tropical Storm

When you’re from the Seattle area, traveling in the rain is a given. In fact, bring it on. But Florida’s tropical storm warnings are enough to give even the hardiest Northwest visitor to the Sunshine State pause. They’re unpredictable. They have names; we don’t anthropomorphize our weather in Seattle. They’re discussed in unfamiliar terminology: “storm surge”, “category”, “sustained surface wind”. Also one term we did understand – “isolated tornadoes”.

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Our plan was to travel from the Tampa area to Key West via the Gulf Coast, but Tropical Storm Colin was approaching and the local TV weather forecasters regularly updated color coded Florida maps with any number of predicted paths, all having storm surges and sustained surface winds that may get to hurricane level. Announcements for Gulf Coast sandbag staging areas began to accompany the news. As did dire predictions that it was an early tropical storm season and things could be bad. Outside Floridians were going about their everyday business – heading to the beach, golfing, playing tennis as though disaster wasn’t about to strike. We did what any sane Pacific Northwesterner would do – headed to the store to stock up on water, batteries and supplies. There we found nonchalant Floridians buying ingredients for an evening dinner party.

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Were we overreacting? Should we go or should we not? We contacted the two hotels we’d booked for the trip. The clerk at the Everglade City Hotel in rural Everglade City seemed unaware a system named Colin was about to hit them (at least it was according to one of the myriad of color coded storm maps we now monitored by smartphone). She assured us their air boat tours (our only reason for spending the night there) wouldn’t be going out in the event of a weather related disaster. The Parrot Key Resort in Key West responded with their cancellation policy, “If Key West is within the shaded portion of a Category 1 hurricane or higher within 72 hours prior to arrival, we allow cancellation without penalty.” ?????????

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The only thing that seemed to be clear was the date and time the storm would hit the Tampa area – the day we planned to drive south. We packed the car with our small stash of emergency supplies, re-routed our trip through central Florida instead of via the coast and left in the early morning before the storm arrived. It was dark and gloomy (also muggy and hot) for most of the drive. We had to pull off the road for two torrential downpours that so obscured vision it seemed unsafe to drive for all but the semi-trucks who added to the visibility issues.

The history of naming extreme weather events goes back to 1887. And this one never lived up to its reputation, which apparently happens a lot and is the reason Floridians carried on as though “Colin” (they get to a first name basis with their weather visitors immediately) was just dropping by for a cup of coffee.

 

 

 

Key West’s Gypsy Chickens

They’re everywhere strutting among the tourists and locals; crowing, pecking at bugs, and scratching in the landscape. Key West takes free range chickens literally. And in Mallory Square, their famous shopping and sunset attraction, the town’s 2000-3000 feral chickens fully appreciate that they’re protected by local ordinance.

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Given the community’s isolation early settlers brought domestic chickens with them for meat and eggs. In the 1860s when Cubans began moving to Key West, drawn by the tobacco and cigar industry that once dominated the town’s economy, they brought “Cubalayas”, their cockfighting chickens. As improved transportation infrastructure connected the Florida Keys to the rest of Florida, Key West residents no longer needed to raise their own chickens and many were released. By 1970 the town outlawed cockfighting and the Cubalayas were left to fend for themselves. The small lean chickens called Gypsy Chickens that currently wander the streets of Key West are the result of interbred domestic and Cubayala cockfighting fowl.

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They’re the subject of artists; the towns many art galleries feature chicken inspired paintings and sculpture. Chicken themed key chains and coasters can be found in tourist trinket shops. Even an entire business, Funky Chicken Store, features the local chickens. They’re valued for keeping the local cockroach and scorpion population under control. However, they also tear up gardens and crow in the early hours and periodically, fed-up residents try to convince the city council to amend the local ordinance and fines that forbids cruelty to the Gypsy Chickens.

Cruelty apparently doesn’t including humane trapping. Problem chicken can be trapped and taken to the Key West Wildlife Center. From there they get transported to farms in central and north Florida where their aggressive behavior is valued – they’re ideally suited to pest control.

 

 

Sanibel/Captiva Beaches: Turtle Baby Nursery

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I saw it on my morning Captiva Island beach walk. The two tracks formed a V shape from the water; evidence that a female loggerhead sea turtle had made her way to higher ground to lay her eggs (around 120 of them) during the night and returned to the sea before daylight.

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In Florida from May 1st to October 31st it’s loggerhead turtle nesting time on 18 miles of Sanibel and Captiva Island Gulf beachfront. The islands’ optimum subtropical weather provides a perfect nursery. Beaches are regularly patrolled for signs of turtle nests and then marked off. Disturbing the nests results in a hefty fine.

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After sixty days of incubation the hatchlings leave the nest making their way at night under a bright moon following the light to the water. Local ordinances encourage island residents to keep  exterior lighting dimmed and pointed away from the beach to not disturb the hatchlings’ sense of direction. If they survive to adulthood, a loggerhead has an average lifespan of 50 years.

Chinese Oil Interests Force Closure Of Indigenous Tribe’s Award-Winning Ecolodge

Huaorani EcoLodge lies deep within the Ecuadorian Amazon in Yasuni National Park. It’s owned and run by the Huaorani (also known as Waudani) people and its sustainability and cultural practices have won it a National Geographic World Legacy Award. The lodge was opened in August, 2007 in an effort to provide an income for the tribe, sustain and share their culture and protect the rain forest. It was a life changing experience to travel there with my son in 2010.

The only way in for visiting tourists is by boat along the Curaray and Napo Rivers or a small 4-seater plane that lands on a narrow grass landing strip in the isolated community of Quehueri’ono where you are taken by dugout canoe to the lodge. Either way you see both pristine rain forest and the wasteland wrought by global oil and timber companies – swaths of polluted land and rivers, the smell and noise of oil drills and hear the silence because the rain forest fauna have died off or left.

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You need permission to visit as you are entering the protected reserve (the largest in Ecuador) of 4000 indigenous people who have been fighting the encroachment of modern life and ongoing destruction of their land.

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Despite years of lobbying by Hauorani leader, Moi Enomenga, in front of Ecuadorian and international organizations; despite the Hauorani having been awarded legal title to Yasuni National Park and despite its status as a UN Biosphere Reserve, their land continues to be impacted by the environmental destruction of global oil and timber interests.

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Today I learned that Huaorani EcoLodge has been forced to suspend operations because of nearby seismic exploration by a Chinese oil company. The Huaorani have asked to negotiate with Ecuadorian authorities to minimize the damage to the lodge and the business that provides income to the tribe. There has been no response and so they’re working with partners resorting to that most modern medium of appeal – a Change.org petition.

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I was forever changed after leaving the Ecuadorian Amazon. I wonder every time I’m at a gas pump (which is far less these days) what was destroyed so that I might have the convenience of driving? I wonder how much longer the indigenous protectors of the rain forests worldwide can continue to be the front line in a battle to save themselves and an invaluable ecosystem? I wonder if I will be able to fulfill the vow I made when saying goodbye on that air landing strip of grass in Quehueri’ono- that I would return again to Huaorani EcoLodge?

 

 

 

The Agua of Valencia

It was a Mother’s Day Vulcan mind meld! As promised in my previous blog post,  I started to write about Agua de Valencia, the specialty cocktail of Valencia, Spain. However, fellow blogger Fork on the Road (aka Glenn Kaufmann) beat me to it with a Mother’s Day post on the same topic. We took an evening tapas tour of Valencia compliments of the city tourism bureau that ended with Agua de Valencia at what became my favorite haunt, Cafe De Las Horas.  During our tour Glenn suggested I try another specialty of Valencia called horchata, a refreshing drink made from tiger nuts. His Fork on the Road informative blog about both drinks is posted here. He’s a food blogger focused on the story behind the food. Me, I’m an eclectic travel blogger who was enamored about the ambiance of the place and if I would ever be able reproduce the nectar known as Agua de Valencia once I got home.

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My first foray into the cafe was late at night with a tour guide and Fork On the Road. When trying to find it on my own during the day, it was hard to believe this nondescript exterior housed the magical interior of my first Agua de Valencia experience.

But once inside, Wowzer! There was the crystal bar chandelier and painted blue ceiling with gold stars that I remembered from my first Agua de Valencia night. But it was my second time that had me noticing all of the art deco lighting, the bouquet of fresh cut flowers and the play of light off the well-stocked bar.

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On my third venture in I studied the marble, the historic art on the walls and the lush red coat of paint everywhere. Fork On the Road describes it as a bordello-like atmosphere. Maybe so. I just know I was charmed by its baroque over the top attitude enough to return multiple times during my month’s stay. Literally translated Cafe de las Horas means Coffee Hour, but I never came for the coffee. It was their Agua de Valencia that brought me back every time.

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I asked the bartender for the recipe and he said good bartenders each have a slight variation in their ingredients, but an authentic recipe with advice could be found at SpanishWines.com. Here it is:

Recipe for Agua de Valencia

  • 200ml Orange Juice
  • 50ml Gin
  • 50ml Vodka
  • 700ml Cava (or Champagne)
  • Pinch of sugar

Method:

  • Into a pitcher jug, pour one glass of orange juice – best if it is freshly squeezed orange juice.
  • Add a bottle of semi-dry Cava (or Champagne if you do not have Cava).
  • Add a shot and a half of both vodka and gin.
  • Add the sugar according to taste.
  • Refrigerate before serving.
  • Serve in the jug, and then pour into glasses to drink. Enjoy!

If you are planning on making this drink then you may want to consider these pieces of advice. Do not use orange liquors such as Cointreau to make the drink as it is the fresh orange juice that gives the drink its aromatic qualities. Also, try to use oranges grown in the Valencia region as this will make the drink more authentic.

Naturally, good quality alcohol will make the drink taste better, and Cava is always preferable to Champagne as it is truly Spanish. The sugar is optional, and if you prefer a drier cocktail instead of a sweet one, then you can always use dry Cava or Brut. It is also a good idea to prepare this Spanish drink in advance as it is best served very cold which means time in the fridge. You should mix the drink in the pitcher with a spoon, but when serving the drink, you should try and remove the spoon from the jug without disturbing the mixture too much.

The Urge To Speak My Mother Tongue

I’d been in Valencia, Spain solo for two weeks when it struck me that I hadn’t had a full blown, uninhibited-by-the-constraints-of- my-mediocre-Spanish conversation in 14 days. I was living solo in an apartment in a city that was in the midst of Fallas, their exuberant March three weeks family and friend oriented festival which would be followed immediately by a family and friend oriented Easter. I needed to let loose a torrent of pent up English mother tongue words. But where to find English conversation in a city that speaks Valencia (a version of Catalan spoken in parts of Spain) and Spanish? I asked The Google. And then I asked The Facebook.

INTERCAMBIO EVENTS. Intercambio, which literally means exchange in Spanish are informal language and cultural events sponsored by schools, bookstores, coffee shops and pubs that allow participants to practice a language. It turned out there were many public intercambio English events in Valencia inviting English speakers to come converse over beers and coffee with Spanish speakers wanting to improve their conversational English.

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My first intercambio was at the Ubik Cafe , a coffee shop, wine bar, restaurant, bookstore in the charming Rusafa neighborhood. The evening was advertised as Singing in English and that’s exactly what it was. A local expat musician distributed sheet music of Beatles tunes and led the audience of Spanish and English speakers through a lively and social sing-along concert. On Monday evenings, Ubik sponsors a more traditional intercambio facilitated by a local language school where multiple language skills can be practiced including English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. I was unable to attend because while I was singing in English, a local told me about another intercambio venue:

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Valencia’s Portland Ale House is owned by two guys from Oregon fell who in love with Valencia and brought craft beer brewing and sensibilities to the city. The owners came from a land only three hours south of my home turf. I would not only be able to talk English, I could talk U.S.A. Pacific Northwest English! The pub was decorated in comforting memorabilia – a University of Oregon banner, Northwest Airline antique signs and black and white photos of Oregon. After the owner greeted me, I was seated at the intercambio table and given coupons for any combination of three free drinks and pizza as payment for my time as a conversation partner. I was joined by another English speaking partner (from Seattle no less!) and six locals – all young professionals wanting to practice English. The evening was a combination of informal table conversation and pub trivia contests where our intercambio table competed with the pub’s regular crowd. It was a trivia question that prompted another suggestion from one of the locals:

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IRISH PUBS An Irish friend once told me you can find an Irish pub in every moderate sized city in the world. Irish pubs are generally staffed by friendly Irish bartenders, televise soccer and rugby and are frequented by English speaking tourists and expats. There are at least five Irish pubs in Valencia but I only checked out one to see if it satisfied my need for an English chat. It did. Finnegans of Dublin was conveniently located on my daily walking route back to my apartment. The second time I dropped by for a beer after exploring all day, the bartender recognized me and introduced me to a group of London tourists who were there to watch a soccer match. I joined them and two soccer games later left saturated with English conversation.

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LOCAL TOUR GUIDES  The Valencia tour site Discovering Valencia offers a variety of guided tours with English speaking guides. I took the evening tapas and wine tasting tour with their lively and knowledgeable guide, Irma Mariscal and, as it turned out, another travel blogger from the U.S. That not only gave me an evening of speaking English but I also learned a lot about the protocol and culture of tapas, the history of Valencia and I discovered wonderful restaurants that I returned to during the rest of my stay.

I stayed in Valencia for a month with the intent of improving my Spanish by living there as an immersion into the language. My Spanish did improve. In fact, the rare English conversation I heard while out and about was so unusual it would nearly stop me in my tracks. By the end of my trip I thought I was hearing more English street conversation. It turned out the conversations were still in Spanish, but I understood more of it. Still, I found I needed the occasional relief of hearing and speaking unfettered English. As a solo traveler without the companionship of fellow English speakers, I needed to seek out those opportunities. And by doing that I also sang, played pub trivia, cheered a televised soccer match and sampled the cuisine and wine of Valencia.

Next post: Agua de Valencia.