The world is our oyster

Published 10:01 pm Tuesday, July 31, 2012

I’ve met people who have traveled outside the United States and wish they hadn’t. Then there are people who have never left the state of North Carolina and don’t regret it. And I’m pretty sure there are people who’ve never set foot outside Beaufort County and are content.
These people amaze me for I love to travel — the farther the better — and believe it does broaden one, not by increasing one’s girth, but by expanding one’s life experiences.
Before my husband and I retired, we had lived from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again, visiting most of the states between and also Canada, Mexico and Australia, halfway around the world.
But it was following our retirement that we had the marvelous opportunity to visit India (three times), Kenya, Romania and Colombia with stopovers in England, Germany and Hungary.
My husband, with many years experience in the tire industry, became a volunteer for the International Executive Service Corps, an organization that sends people in various fields to developing nations to teach and train, usually for a period of three months. He was sought by tire manufacturers, companies retreading tires and once headed up a project at a (rubber) shoe factory, where it turned out manufacturing rubber shoes (and boots) isn’t that different from building tires. (Yes, one builds tires.)
The IESC volunteer has all expenses paid, but, of course, receives no remuneration for the work he or she does. And the volunteer’s spouse is encouraged to accompany him or her, and also look for nonpaying work. There was no way I was going to stay home.
I found an assortment of jobs everywhere but Romania: teacher’s aide, thrift-shop clerk, literacy tutor, sewing instructor, children’s hospital volunteer — and in Bogota, Colombia, I was a staff writer for an English-language newspaper — best job of all. News stories were translated from the Spanish for me, and it was my job to put them in “American” English. The biggest story I tackled was a speech by the country’s president — I’ve always wondered if I got it right.
But Romania is (perhaps was) a country that looks with suspicion on anyone who is willing to work for nothing; no job. It was even difficult to try to dispel the “ugly American” reputation we have in some countries for few Romanians spoke English; I don’t speak Romanian. In India, Kenya and Colombia, many people speak English — and we Americans seem to expect this wherever we travel.
However, I had a Romanian/English dictionary which provided words such as “please,” “thank you,” and menu items so I could order a meal and the one word for asking “how much?” when shopping.
We were staying in a hotel in the small, resort village of Baila Felix, noted for its hot springs. The cleaning woman would bounce into our room early each morning — some times when we were dressing. She wasn’t fazed, but we were.
We didn’t need the beds changed daily, but we did need privacy. I looked in my dictionary and found words that might say, “Do not disturb.” I made a sign and put it on the outside of our door; the next morning, no cleaning woman came bouncing in. But at 11 a.m., the phone rang and someone spoke to me in English: Would it be all right for the cleaning woman to come in our room now?
I raced down to the lobby and up to the front desk: “Someone here speaks English!” With that, a pretty, young woman popped up from behind the counter and said, “I do.” Mirella was the wife of the hotel manager, and while she wasn’t employed there, she was often found in the gift shop, patrolling the dining room or behind the front desk. She became my buddy, explaining all things Romanian I did not know or understand — like taking your own bag when you shop for groceries, carrying a bouquet with the blooms pointing down, how to get our dirty clothes washed when no one, not even Mirella, knew the word “laundry” and ordering from the dining room’s confusing menu (which seemed to feature pork in every entree).
With multitudes of ducks wandering the village streets, I inquired if the dining room ever served this delicious bird. With a gasp of indignation my waiter, Patrick, advised, “We do not eat our friends!” Patrick, or Pa-TREEK as everyone there pronounced it, knew just enough English to be confusing.
Despite the language problem, Romanians are great and I so appreciated Mirella, and even Patrick, for aiding and abetting this American in Baila Felix (not Paris). I thanked them profusely in English and Romanian: “Multsa mesk!” Or something close to that.