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My Turn: Our travel agenda


"Only ignoramuses stay home,” my mother said when I was growing up. “And you don’t want to be an ignoramus, right?”

We must have supposed we didn’t, although generally my brother and I were content to stay put and play with our friends. But, the next thing you knew, we were packed and out the door.

“It’s the way you learn,” mother said. “Pay attention.” We learned to look closely, to be surprised and to cope with the unexpected. For example, when the car broke down on route to in New Jersey, we made dams in a stream behind the garage. When we finally made it to D.C., we exited the Capitol with no idea how to find our car in a vast circular parking lot. We learned about rotundas on that trip. When our reservations were denied in a fancy inn in Virginia, we learned about anti-Semitism and our mother’s ability to stand up to injustice. And we learned to keep on traveling.

On a recent trip to Spain, here are some things we learned:

To turn on lights, you put your room key in the designated slot on the wall. When you leave, and take the key, it turns off the lights and saves electricity.

To open the doors on trains, push a button. If you don’t push said button, the door doesn’t open and then you scramble to another door and almost miss your stop.

Their “banos” (toilets) have duel action buttons. One for soft flush and one for power flush. You can flush both at the same time, if it’s a heavy duty business.

To expect a strike. You can actually purchase strike insurance. On the other hand, you probably won’t, so be prepared for a change in schedule now and then.

Get used to dogs. In Spain, they go everywhere — cafes, restaurants, hotels, trains, beaches, parks … and yet sidewalks stay clean (mostly).

To love a siesta.

To enter restaurants with an open mind. They may provide more than a meal. We encountered a hula dance, a song fest, new friends and foods we had never met before.

To take evening strolls and join the multi-generational activities at central squares. The elderly played bocce and dominos, the children ran around playground structures, their parents sipped Rioja (wine), courting couples smooched on benches and los touristas (that’s us) soaked up the warm atmosphere.

To depend on the kindness of strangers.

One story among many:

I needed to purchase stamps and had found my way to a Tabac. That morning I learned that you get stamps from the same small shops that sell cigarettes, although I had forgotten the Spanish word for stamps and didn’t know which stamps were needed to send postcards to the US. Once in the Tabac, I pulled out the cards, gestured to the right hand corner and shrugged, as in “help, please.”

“America?” I said and shrugged again. The proprietress looked confused. “Les Etats-Unis?” I said with ancient school-learned French that still lurked in the recess of my brain.

“Ah. U.S.,” someone behind me said. “Obama.”

“Obama,” I chorused. And we all smiled. By then a line had formed behind me and everyone on the line was curious. The shop woman found her stamps and counted my cards. “Siete,” she said in slow-mo, waiting for me to repeat. “Siete,” I repeated. Then I was offered more words and even phrases to repeat again and again until I had it right. The five people waiting for their transactions, were prepared to digress, and to continue my Spanish education. Slowly, as I affixed each stamp, I uttered the necessary words, each time with a kind adjustment to my accent. Until finally, all the postcards were ready to be mailed. But where? I dramatized dropping them in a mailbox and then added the “help-me-shrug.” My Tabac companions understood, producing a flurry of rapid directions. I made out a single word “yellow.”

“Yellow?” I asked? They nodded with approval. Still looking hopelessly confused, they gestured me to follow. “Aqui, Aqui,” they said. The proprietress left her counter. The other customers left their line. They all accompanied me out the door and down the street until we were standing before a yellow behemoth I never would have taken as a mailbox. But my guides pulled down a lever and urged me forward. With hesitation, I dropped a stamped postcard into its craw and watched it disappear. My actions received unanimous acclaim. Then another card and another until all seven cards had been swallowed by the yellow mouth. When all were posted, there were broad smiles and cheers of “bravo, bravo.”

“Gracias,” I said. “Mucho gracias,” as my cheeks, right and left, were kissed. And finally, to cement the deal, my bottom lightly smacked. And I could hear my mother’s words loud and clear, “See, what did I tell you?”

Ruth Charney lives in Greenfield.

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