The Hungarian language

February 16, 2017 at 5:24 am (Uncategorized)

I’ll frustrate Agi here, as she’s the fluent speaker and I am merely the auditory observer, so apologies in advance for my potentially disagreeable opinions about her unusual and believed to be one-of-a-kind langue natale.

Before I was able to detect even so much as one word in a sentence, Hungarian sounds like a combination of Japanese, Hebrew, and Slavic languages.

The staccato fricatives are what make the Japanese sounds; the “-am” endings of many words sound like Hebrew plurals; and the “dj” (as in the French “je”) and “sh” sounds could easily be mistaken for Russian.

Put them all together and you’ve got one unusual language. Practically indecipherable.

From listening to Agi, her friends, and her family members speak to one another for more than a week – in conjunction with trying to decipher billboards, store names, street signs, and even newspaper headlines – I learned Hungarian has an enormous store of suffixes and prefixes. Studying longer words, I was able to pick out roots and figure out which letter combinations had been tacked on to the front and/or back of words.


Looking up those suffixes and prefixes in an English-Hungarian dictionary, however, made my head spin; without a very slow-moving language class, I’d never understand how – for example – to write a message as simple as “to so-and-so” or “from so-and-so.” I know this because I tried writing “To Elvira, From Jenn” when addressing an envelope to Agi’s mom. I failed.

But, learn one word in Hungarian and – unlike, say, doing so in French while in France – the Hungarians break into a wide smile and tell you your Hungarian is “yo” (good). Never has the use of one word – “koszonom” (thank you) – made me feel so competent. And I’d milk it, repeating it about 50 times in the course of a single transaction; the recipients of my credit card made me feel like I was the country’s visiting linguistics scholar.

Imagine when I strung together “nem, koszonom,” (no, thank you), or “nap, szep” (sun, pretty)! And, yet, communicating solely via nouns and adjectives only goes so far. I learned nary a verb, save for the expression, “I know” and “I don’t know” “tudom es nem tudom,” which includes one of the words that sounds like Hebrew’s todah, “thank you.”

In addition to shelves and shelves of books, Agi’s mom also had two dictionaries, one volume English-Hungarian, the other Hungarian-English. (Yes, two tomes were required where previously I’d seen only one edition necessary for dual-language dictionaries. Hungarian is special indeed.)

Thank God Elvira had these editions! She and I experienced a number of moments together where our professional translator – a.k.a. Agi – was unavailable (the nerve!). So instead of simply smiling stupidly and gesturing like windmills at one another to communicate things as simple as, “I’d love one egg,” and “This necklace was a gift from my grandmother,” we’d dive quite fiercely into the appropriate dictionary – turning pages at a furious clip – and point to the foreign words we wished we had on the tip of our useless tongues. In an effort to avoid attempting to pronounce the desired words, we’d rotate the dictionaries toward one another, pointing with gusto at the word or sense we hoped to communicate. (Still, we did plenty of gesticulating. And, on countless occasions, Agi filled in all the gaps.)


Elvira thus understood perfectly well when I desired an egg for breakfast. And after admiring my dainty “lepke” (butterfly) necklace, I was able to express “grandma,” “onyx,” and “gift”; she was very impressed and pleased I had such a beautiful item from a grandmother (she has five grandchildren). And she told me a bit about what magazine images, photographs, and art styles from other European countries influenced the myriad paintings she’d created over decades and that adorn every possible wall surface in her immaculately appointed one-story, two-bedroom home.

Picture the scene in the George Clooney film, “Up In the Air,” when he and his lover are seated at a table, facing one another, typing furiously on their laptops to schedule their next tryst. While we had no such immoral goals in mind, our furtive, simultaneous paging through hardcover books as thick as bricks felt like the desperation the actors had depicted.

On one occasion, I told Agi how excited I was to have been introduced to a verb. “To eat.” Turns out, Elvira hadn’t exactly taught me how to say “to eat”; rather, she’d shared the equivalent of “num-num,” like what a mommy would coo to her baby, perhaps at snack time. I’m quite sure she used that word with me, as my Hungarian fortitude mimics that of a baby.

In any case, Elvira is my new best friend. And she makes a mean fried egg (“tojas”). Cooked on a single burner, in a small sauté pan, with just a small sizzle of oil and a sprinkle of salt. “Finom” (so yummy).


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House of Terror/Terror Haz

February 13, 2017 at 10:15 pm (Uncategorized)

As a kid, I played Risk. I remember the 1970s game board depicted the Soviet Union and its many satellite nations. Hungary among them. The red landmass tentacled out from Mother Russia into what seemed like nearly all of Asia and Europe. Indeed, after its 1956 revolution, Hungary was a Communist country and remained so until the bell-weather year of 1989. [I have no idea what the Risk game board looks like today.]

Communism, we learned as kids in the U.S., was bad. It was a system completely against the American way of Democracy and free-market capitalism; it called religion “the opiate of the masses”; and it worked surreptitiously and via espionage to control nearly all aspects of said masses’ lives.

The theory went that the state existed for and thanks to peasants and laborers’ loyalty, via collective hard work in agriculture and industry. The absence of the masses’ loyalty spelled the destruction of the state. Their presence meant a better and better life for all.

In theory.

What we hadn’t necessarily learned as kids was the process by which the masses were controlled…and many of them even brutally killed. Many perished simply upon suspicion of being disloyal to authority. If the state says it is so, then it is.

I spent a couple hours at the Terror Haza – House of Terror – which is a museum established in 2002 with government funding. There, I learned about and witnessed footage of that process and the horror it wrought.

A worm's-eye view of the building's modern awning.

A worm’s-eye view of the building’s modern awning.

Starting in 1944, when Hungary’s metamorphosed Nazi Party – the frightening Arrow Cross Party – coalesced, it turned an otherwise beautiful and stately building on one of Hungary’s main thoroughfares into its headquarters. The crisply uniformed party leaders aptly named the multi-story building “House of Loyalty.”

No pictures are allowed within the museum (which struck me as a bit controlling, don’t you think?) so I don’t have images to help illustrate the exhibits I walked through very slowly. My mouth literally hung open in some of the dimly lit rooms.

For example, one is called “The Beating Room.” It is claustrophobic and has hanging on its back wall a few period whips and brown, Billy club-like sticks. A tape of dripping water plays in an endless loop the background. A large, circular drain is in the center of this room. This was where Party leaders and loyalists literally beat “confessions” out of their prisoners.

In other rooms, continuous-loop videos reel of survivors (subtitled in English) remembering atrocious crimes against them or family members. Thus not only the visual but also the auditory experience – of, for instance, being whisked away in the wee hours from homes, families, the world itself – are ubiquitous. Many survivors cry on tape as they recall parents spirited away in the black of night, never to be heard from again. Perhaps they were hanged (a basement room includes a gallows) or killed in other torturous ways inside Party headquarters.

One room, uplit in red, sticks with me still: It features an actual black sedan from Hungary’s Communist years, and along its walls, black, rotary-dial phones. A tape intermittently plays the telltale ring of such antiquated phones. I hung back in this room (after I’d figured out the point of the tape), wanting to see others’ reactions to the ringing phone. People looked about furtively and fearfully, and one young man even approached a phone and picked up the receiver, likely wondering if there was a person on the other end. What could it possibly have been like to have received “that call” at home?

Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians from every hamlet in the country died within the very tall walls of Party headquarters. I shiver still, reflecting on my time within a building once sinister and now a rich multi-media history lesson.

So sickened by the House of Terror (and the Communist propaganda machine that propagated the ongoing existence and growth of the erstwhile “House of Loyalty”), I decided to bypass visiting the Holocaust Museum during this Hungary adventure. The * Shoes on the Danube Bank – coupled with the House of Terror and also the ** Hospital in the Rock – about did me in. A few people told me I’d made a sound choice.

Before exiting the House of Terror, I of course went to the gift shop. I find these little houses of tchotchkes fascinating. Who the hell buys some of the objects? Better question: Who the hell selects them?

Appropriate objects included books in Hungarian, such as George Orwell’s “1984,” and a tome about Ronald Reagan. (Hungarians revere Reagan as the destroyer of Communism; Reagan’s statue in a Budapest public square rivals his steel likeness in downtown Rapid City, S.D., whose streets are adorned with a steel depiction of every United States president.)

Wanna revere Reagan in Hungarian?

Wanna revere Reagan in Hungarian?

Appropriate, too, was a German-language section larger than its English counterpart.

Inappropriate, however, were cigarette lighters – in both red and black – with the House of Terror’s logo emblazoned on them. Like, “Whew, I’m so relieved I made it through that exhibit of death, totalitarianism, and destruction alive. I need a smoke! Oh – looky here – I’ll flick my Bic with my commemorative House of Terror lighter!”

Walking the streets of a couple villages in Hungary and in Budapest itself, this American was reminded again and again that the locals simply don’t smile in acknowledgment of making eye contact (if eye contact is achieved at all). A cousin of Agi’s told me that many


Shoes on the Danube, on the Pest side of the city.

* Hungarians still feel the weight of their country’s Communist past. A past that’s not terribly distant. He said folks still haven’t shrugged the yoke of wondering who is spying on them. And what the consequences may be.


The juxtaposition of these items – gas mask and sweets – is just a tad strange, non? These are found, displayed as such, in the gift shop, of course.




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My Hungarian massage

February 9, 2017 at 10:49 am (Uncategorized)

I get a massage about four times a year. It’s such a luxury, and I treat massage as such; I indulge only rarely. But the runup to my 10-day trip to Budapest was so stressful that I thought perhaps I could squeeze in a Central European-style massage while abroad.

My dear friend Agi (who also is my tour guide and translator) and I are staying with her mother in a town quite close to where Agi grew up, in the town of Gardony. Any way you try to pronounce it, you’ll be wrong. It’s about 45 minutes outside of Budapest, and Agi won’t let me call it a village, but to this American, it has the feel of what I believe is a village. So there. So I also figured that any request for a massage would land me in a Budapest spa. I figured incorrectly.


This closeup of the village map includes where Agi’s mom’s house is, at No. 7.


Gardony, despite its very small size, seems to have everything, including, of course, about 5,000 individual churches, as many roosters, seriously mangy dogs, and bicycles, and at least one place to get a massage. I can’t call it a spa. I can’t call it a parlor. I can barely call it a storefront.



The slightly portly, rather short massage therapist (with a seriously horrid hairdo: fluffy bangs parted in the middle with the length at the back of her head wrestled into a ponytail) greeted me brightly as I entered her place of business. In enough English to instruct this dumb American how to prepare for my treatment, she told me to “leave my clothes everywhere” while sweeping her arms around her very small and brightly lit lobby. No incense here. No mood lighting. No tea or small bits of dried fruits and nuts to be found. Nor a robe.

Just a coat hook.

I didn’t want to act like my children do and literally scatter my discarded clothing “everywhere,” so I peeled off my multiple layers (it’s freezing here; there was a thin layer of ice on the ground this morning) and hung my three tops, jeans, thick socks, hat, wrap, and winter coat on a single, sturdy wooden hook. When I’d de-onioned myself to my final layer, I asked the masseuse – while looking around a tad wildly for a robe – “I take off this layer, too?” “Ever-ee-sink,” she said, by now looking a little impatient.

OK. I stripped down and noticed a few pair of Communist-era-looking sandals by my feet. I motioned to them. She nodded. So I slipped on a pair of silky plastic sandals and skimmed my way into an interior room, where exactly one thin towel was awaiting my pale body’s tense arrival.

She told me to/gestured that I should start on my back. I felt entirely exposed until she took that single towel – which had been ever so slightly warmed, perhaps, on the lowest-power fluff cycle – and covered my nethers up to my breasts. Oy vey. I tried to relax. She told me to “reelex ent enjoi.” So I used my extensive Hungarian vocabulary to reply, “Igen, koszonom.” (“Yes, thank you.” I think I could write a how-to guide on making it through a country on exactly two words. I’ve also learned “no.” That’s a helpful one, as well. So my guide would be for a three-word vocab.)

The massage table was simply that: a table. There was no head rest to use once it was time to “tern over, pl’ez.” So I spent the otherwise wonderful time the masseuse unknotted my back and upper arms putting serious strain on my neck. I kept reminding myself the statue of Stalin just outside Budapest had been torn down only in 1989. A massage table in any form may not have even existed under the Communist rule this country was ravaged by after its horrid WWII experience, let alone a head rest.

But the massage therapist had a solution to my kinked-neck problem. As the treatment wound down, she had me sit up…rather rapidly. I nearly fainted but then recovered in time to realize she’d situated me directly in front of a full-length mirror. I’ve mentioned the towel was small-ish. As she started to unkink my neck (her fault) I did everything I could to NOT look at my naked, seated self in the mirror. To no avail. So I futzed with the “towel” a bit: I pinioned it under my armpits and it thus just barely covered my breasts and abdomen. Thangod. But in that position, I could not fully relax my arms, and the masseuse was working my neck and deltoids in such a way that I was forced to let loose my muscles. But not enough to allow the (by-now-room-temperature) towel to drop into my lap. I’m nothing if not determined. I also don’t have Eastern-European-style breasts, so I was a little embarrassed to expose my genetically inferior self to my much more well-endowed counterpart.

The massage – which was more than an hour in length – cost exactly $20 and was awesome (even despite the strain required to keep a thin piece of textile from slipping past my “breasts”). A robe really would be a great investment for this masseuse.

I left the “storefront” and walked back to Agi’s mom’s house. My frigid amble took 5 minutes. This indeed is a village.

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The American Southwest attracts and repels the Director-Knudsen-Quinn families

July 8, 2016 at 8:56 pm (Uncategorized)

Dad is a planner. He likes to get things in place. Such as trips. A year in advance, at least. Such was the case with our family’s recent Caravan Tours trip through National Parks in the American Southwest. And what better year to go: 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the National Parks System, something entirely unique to America.


Roughly one year ago, Dad confirmed that Mom, my sister and I, and our families would embark on a trip via fancy tour bus that would originate in Phoenix and, over the course of a very full week, take us to and through the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Navajo Nation lands and Monument Valley, Lake Powell/Glen Canyon, and Bryce and Zion national parks, concluding, at last, at the Las Vegas airport, the departure point to more humane and comfortable climes.


The week prior to leaving on our trip, we were very busy with end-of-school-year events and celebrations, as Hayley completed 6th grade and Alyssa left middle school behind. Mom kept texting me about the weather in the Southwest; I kept ignoring her frantic missives, just knowing that the region’s 100+°F weather would subside by our arrival, a mere 2 ½-hour flight away from and in the same time zone as Portland (save for the Navajo Nation and Utah, which are an hour ahead of the West Coast).


I was SORELY wrong. Alyssa originated – and used – the following phrase ad nauseum during our trip: “Satan’s butt crack.” As in: “It is hotter here than in Satan’s butt crack!!!” She’s actually right. Particularly in the concrete jungles of the Lake Powell “Resort” (air quotes mine) and Las Vegas’ strip. (Satan was absolutely in evidence at the latter.)


The tour launched in a Phoenix airport hotel, where our guide, Pe-tah, assembled his 48 charges – our kids brought down the average age by about 70 years – and commenced yammering at us with his jolly good English accent with infinitesimal details about our forthcoming trip. We started to panic: Would the entire trip’s soundtrack be Pe-tah’s high-tea ramblings?


(His real name is Peter, but in the Queen’s English, it’s Pe-tah. By the end of our trip, we all had forgotten our initial consternation and concerns and had fallen deeply in love with this amazingly jovial, kind, funny, informative professional tour guide who decades ago made Texas – of all places – his home. So informative, in fact, was our guide, that his name by the end of the trip was Wiki-Peter.)


First stop: Grand Canyon, via Sedona (where I got a mild case of food poisoning, so I won’t focus much on that city with Red Rock vistas…and an alarming lack of quality TP).


You’ve likely heard or read this before: Words do not do justice to the vista that is the Grand Canyon. Dated to 2 billions years ago, some of its rocks are simply alien. To learn that you’re peering down upon a substance that is 2 B I L L I O N years of age is not a concept one can fathom. And so, we joined the throngs of tourists just looking – and looking, and looking – down, way out, and across the Grand Canyon. All day long. I just couldn’t peel my eyes away from the natural phenomenon that outdates God and dirt. Its myriad colors continually shift throughout the day, as the sun, cloud cover, plant life, dry riverbed on one side/roaring Colorado River on the other, and soaring turkey vultures and California condors (and other birds) all conspired to change the view every time I gazed upon the maw.


Grand Canyon Mather's Peak at Sunset


Our tour offered us two days on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. At first we thought, Why are we here for that long? There’s not that much to do. But we were wrong: Just staring at the layers of red, cream, green, gray, even purple rocks that cascade down to a depth of 1 mile beneath the rim took up 48 hours of our time. (Could we have gone on a mule ride? You bet your ass we could’ve, but no one in our family opted for what – to me, at least – sounds like a back-cracking, dust-eating trip from hell.)


Speaking of hell, have I mentioned the heat? In all honesty, we spent many of our 48 hours at the Grand Canyon in our A/C-ified rooms, draped over our units like wet socks plucked from a failing clothes dryer.


Next stop: Lake Powell/Glen Canyon, via the Navajo Nation and Monument Valley


I experienced both trepidation and excitement at the idea of driving through Navajo Nation country. Would it be a voyeuristic journey? Would it be very educational? Would it be depressing as all get out? The drive through the Navajo Nation while comfortably seated in a top-of-the-line, climatized tour bus was all three.


We learned – or, in some cases re-learned – about the Long Walk, the forced death march the U.S. government foisted upon the Navajo, when it wanted the people who were there first off that land and onto another swath, 300 miles away. Thousands died along the way; it’s a miracle any survived.


I, too, would have died in Satan’s butt crack; the sweltering temperatures we experienced during our few stops on Navajo Nation land at least made the Navajo’s 1864 journey seem that much more impossible. When the survivors were released to what the Navajo believed was their sacred, ancestral land, they marched themselves right back to the lunar landscape we drove through in northeastern Arizona, skirting the Utah border.


I hated that we stopped in Cameron, a wasteland composed of a post office, a bridge over a dry river bed, a hotel, tumbleweed, telephone wires, and pissed off looking Navajo awaiting our arret at a labyrinthine shop filled with Native American kitsch. It felt like a movie scene, told from the point of view of the ticked off Navajo, eyeing us warily from the rooftop of the hotel (which they were): “Stupid, whitey tourists. Hope they overpay for some dumb piece of pottery that wasn’t even made by our people.”


I did wander my way into the back of the shop and came upon a woman squatting at a floor-to-ceiling loom, painstakingly creating a rug with internecine patterns. I learned it would take her about six months to complete her work; I’m not sure she’d ever earn back the equivalent of the time and tradition she put into it.


Icky Cameron Weaving woman


Back on the bus, we continued to Monument Valley.


We stopped for an authentic frybread lunch in Goulding’s Lodge, in Navajo Tribal Park. The food was OK, but the heat was not. It got hotter and the wind picked up. Given the heat, it was the kind of wind that offered no relief whatsoever; rather, it felt like getting buffeted over and over again by the wall of heat one experiences when opening the oven on Thanksgiving Day after the poor, defenseless bird has basted and baked at 450 degrees for about five hours.


Rather than finding respite on our climatized Mountain View bus, we first boarded a sturdy, windowless, roofless, jeep-like vehicle whose navigator was a Navajo gentleman who seemed very proud to show us his land, including the man-made hogans. They are igloo-like, one-room dwellings made from adobe that look truly unfit for human habitation. Our driver-guide gleefully pointed out all those we could see from the herky-jerky road, and I just hope he didn’t notice the look of utter horror we all had pasted to our sweaty faces upon learning families lived in them.


The valley—like so much on this trip—looked and felt alien, despite its fame within the lens of many a Western filmmaker. (“Stagecoach,” anyone? The place seemed more akin to “2001 Space Odyssey.”) At one promontory, our jeep came to a rough stop, and there our guide pointed out that while we were west of the Four Corners Monument, you could indeed see Colorado and New Mexico from our shaky foothold on the sandy Utah/Arizona border.


Monument Valley Navajo Nation flags Visible heat


All around us was either a sea of hot sand or huge shafts of eroding rock that jutted straight up from the desert floor. On some of the mesas, people (or aliens?) had planted flags. Their weak fabric whipping in the blast-furnace wind inspired not wonder or inspiration but defeat. It was incredible to be in that place, and we couldn’t wait to get the hell outta there ( “hell” is the operative word).


Our final resting place of the day (yes, it felt a little funereal by then) was the Lake Powell Resort, astride Glen Canyon. I don’t know what to say, other than it kinda sucked. Like the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon’s various rock layers and slot canyons changed colors throughout the day, depending on the placement of the merciless sun, which felt like it was mere spitting distance, not the 93 million miles that separate it from Earth. But unlike the Grand Canyon, we wanted to leave Satan’s butt crack and were thrilled when the bus pulled up at 7 a.m. on the morning of our second day there.


Glen Canyon slot canyon


Penultimate stop: Bryce and Zion national parks


Under Peter’s watchful eye and exacting watch, we had a mere 45 minutes at Bryce. Mom, Dad and I agreed after the trip concluded that we would have preferred having at least twice that amount of time at this park. Still hotter than hell, the canyon has a very unique beauty we’d wanted to take in more than we could. It is filled with what are called hoodoos; they are thin-ish non-cylindrical towers of sedimentary rock that look straight out of Dr. Seuss.


Hoodoos galore


These natural structures are so unstable, park literature says the place is literally disintegrating by the minute. It goes on to say that for visitors to the park at night, the silence yields the sound of rocks constantly breaking away from the hoodoos and tumbling to the canyon floor. Yes, we felt a tad rickety on the short hike we were allowed to take before Peter’s searing gaze reminded us our brief time at yet another lunar landscape had concluded.


And so on we trundled to Zion National Park, 30 winding miles away. One would think that such a short distance would yield a park similar to Bryce, but the truth is quite the opposite. At the Grand Canyon and at Bryce, tourists gawp straight down; Zion, however, is the converse. Its big-horn sheep stare straight down at us – hundreds of feet down sheer rock faces. Being inside the rock walls, whose hues vary from yellow to orange to red, offers much less time in direct sun and thus more hours throughout the day of relative comfort.


The highlight by far – and Alyssa’s highlight from the entire trip – was the Riverside Walk through the park’s Narrows. I have no idea the temperature of the water that lazes over slippery rocks through a portion of Zion, but hiking through it for a few miles felt like taking a leisurely bath, so soothing was the cool water in contrast to the hot, dry afternoon.


The Narrows' Riverside Walk


Heather Hansen, my friend and author of my companion book during our trip – “Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears” – said that after she visited myriad National Parks while reporting her tome that celebrates the National Parks’ centennial, the Narrows’ Riverside Walk proved a highlight for her, too. (Get this book and read it! It’s a joyous ride through history and National Parks you may never see for yourself.)


The final stop: Vegas


Gawdalmighty, I will never, ever return to Sin City. First, it was about 115 degrees; walking from our hotel, Treasure Island, to the Bellagio felt like walking into a flaming pizza oven. It is a distance of under 1.5 miles; we barely made it. Our slow pace afforded us far too many glimpses of showgirls, drunk folks (at 11 a.m.), and hawkers of every variety passing out what looked like business cards to every Tom, Dick, and Harry (not women and not kids) who sulked past. They littered the ground like the aftermath of a tickertape parade and appeared mainly to be glossy advertisements for sleazy girls available at any hour of the day, as well as for adult beverages, also available at any hour of the day. Guess those two go well together in icky, degenerate Vegas. Dave thinks Vegas is great; he likes to gamble and, given his prowess with numbers, is a card shark. His winnings covered our hotel room, in which the girls and I spent an inordinate amount of time (and where we were at least sheltered from the heat if not from the other yucky stuff Vegas oozes).


condoms Hot AF in Vegas gamblin' man help for gamblers


Am I a prude? Probably. But whether a true prude or not, walking around anywhere in Vegas with children in tow feels criminal. Holing up in the hotel was a better option. So I guess that made me a fugitive.


We left the next morning at 4 a.m.; it already was 86 degrees and everyone we passed clearly had not slept the night before. As we got into our taxi and it pulled away from Treasure Island, a young woman was holding back her own long hair as she puked into a trash can.


I simply could not wait to be Leaving Las Vegas.









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Blog part IV

May 24, 2016 at 4:57 am (Uncategorized)

I’d mentioned way back in Blog part I that we last were in London in ’09. That was the year Dave’s sabbatical took us to Lille, France, where we spent one month in the home of the Millescamps family, while they stayed in ours in Portland. At the end of our joint exchange, we had 48 hours in which to meet. During that very short period of time, we became fast friends.


My one blog reader will recall we’d enjoyed an East Coast vacation in 2011 with the Millescamps family but hadn’t seen them since. We stay in close contact, however, and so the Millescamps – now living on an expat assignment with Goodyear Tires in Ghana – knew of our trip to England. Gilles – the family patriarch – needed to take a quick planning trip to his hometown of Lille and made the effort to come meet us during two of our four days in London. Reconnecting with him was an incredible treat. He’d not been to London, either, since 2009; it was very apt we’d have the chance to meet and play there again.


Cheers, London.





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Blog part III

May 24, 2016 at 4:53 am (Uncategorized)

A few Facebook posts of mine revealed we were in London, and I had a few of my many FB friend (har!) ask what it was like having children along for the ride. When I was a kid and my folks used to return from a parents-only trip, they’d always say, “Everything about it was perfect, except you girls should have been there.” I never really understood that sentiment until I became a parent and our girls became sentient beings able to deal with crowds, some sleep-deprivation, foreign customs, foreign languages, tons of cigarette smoke, and uncertain victuals. Trips are made better with our children. Did we enjoy any alone time? Nope. Any intimacy? Nope-nope. Yup. Did they whine a bit? You bet. Were we on their schedule (for the most part)? Uh-huh.


Case in point: We went to the British Museum. It’s very possible tourists have died there, never to have been discovered again. The place is enormous beyond description; the items it holds due to plunder and pillage are truly an impressive lot. We enticed the girls to a place with “Museum” in its name by telling them we’d see actual mummies.


The first day we ventured to the museum, the bobbies had cordoned off the area and there were people scaling the enormous columns out front. They were dressed like lumberjacks, helmets and all, who scale trees to saw off top limbs. Turns out they were Greenpeace folks, demonstrating against BP’s sponsorship of the museum’s special exhibit, Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds. One kind bobby who dared answer questions of eager tourists with mummies on the brain said he didn’t know when the museum would next open, as they had to “negotiate” with the activists. Alyssa, at least, deemed that experience better than any damn museum.



Look between the fence posts; protesters up high.

After a couple days, we did return to the British Museum – a literal oasis of peace on this day – and made our way to the mummies. As we’d entered the free museum (donation suggested), Dave smartly grabbed a brochure highlighting the institution’s top-10 relics. He engaged both girls in helping him find the items that take the tourist through nearly the entire place. And we did hit the mummies, but that exhibit only was our 9th out of 10 total. Hayley declared 90 percent is still an “A” grade and so we all left, satisfied.


This makes Hebrew look simple.

porcelain collection

This piece is one of 1700 in one man’s Chinese porcelain collection, all of which are on display in a single room.

checking list

90% = A 

As the trip wound down, Dave asked me if I could live in a huge city like this. I could not. The activities to do here are endless and we took advantage of many: The British Museum, the London Eye, the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, Prince of Wales Theatre, The Globe, Harrods, the changing of the guard/Buckingham Palace, Parliament Square, the Tate Modern, Greenwhich, Warner Bros Studio Tour, the Making of Harry Potter, going to a pub with the kids in tow… And there remains a lifetime of things left to do, see, experience, taste. It’s exciting and filled with incredible history and educational opportunities.


But the crowds! And the pushing! And the bustling! And the cars on the wrong side of the street! No, I couldn’t live in a place like this; it’s like what many say about New York: It’s a great place to visit. Full stop.

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Blog part II

May 24, 2016 at 4:33 am (Uncategorized)

Here, whether in the countryside or in London, I constantly remind myself we’re in an English-speaking country, whereas in other European cities, I always have to remember English is not their first language. Sure, American and British English share a common foundation. But other than that, they truly are two languages apart. Here are a few phrases to give you just a taste:


Way out = Exit

Cheers = Excuse me; Thank you; Glad I could help you; F-off (they’re cunning, these Brits…)

Pardon = What the hell did you just say?

Fancy a…? = Would you like a…?

Franked = Pre-stamped mail

Right = OK then.


Beyond expressions and short phrases that differ from one another, when speaking in full sentences with British folks, one needs a pronunciation guide to understand one another. They said “Wha’?” every time I opened my mouth, and I said “What?” nearly every time they opened theirs.


Example: On my first morning run in London, I tried finding Hyde Park. I stopped what looked like a kind, sensitive guy, walking a very tiny, yappy dog (his look, down to the dog, made me think momentarily I was in France). Turns out he was very kind indeed but, damn, spoke only British English. “How do I get to Hyde Park from here?” “Right, you now are on Juke Street. You’ll stop at Oxford, and turn right.” I ran around in circles for a little while, searching for “Juke Street.” Then a street sign caught my eye: Duke Street. I paused. I’d been on the proper street all along; “D” comes out like “J.” I’d found the right street. I’d found the right street!!


On another occasion, I asked a bellhop the name of the neighborhood in which we found ourselves. “You’re in Maw’bahre,” he told me. I asked him once to repeat himself, as that sounded more like an African town than a local neighborhood. “Maw’bahre.” “Thank you,” I said politely, like the dumb American lass I am. I hadn’t a clue what he said, so I went searching for signage. Indeed, we were in Marble Arch, just like the lad had said. Oy.


At the Tate Modern, I saw – no, experienced – an arresting piece by Cildo Meireles called Babel 2001 . It is a tower comprised of about 800 radios – from the 1920s to the present – many of which are tuned to a just-barely-audible frequency so that the ear detects speech but cannot make out one single word being broadcast. In this very vibrant city, everything – walking the streets, cramming into the Tube, enjoying a gin in a pub, browsing a store whose contents are too expensive to consider purchasing, dallying in a museum, attempting to order an ice cream from a street cars – feels like it’s being done from within a Tower of Babel. I came across languages I could not identify and others that were more abundant than either American or even British English: French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Polish, Hebrew, German, Dutch, something from Scandinavia…


Even if the volume were turned off here, it doesn’t just sound like a Tower of Babel; it looks like one, too.


Orthodox Jews, Muslim men and women in all manner of garb, guys looking like they just walked off some soccer field in Northern Ireland, women in heels navigating narrow escalators with slats more narrow than their spikes, piercings and tats galore, hairdos in literally every shade of the rainbow, and more man-buns than Alyssa hopes to see in her lifetime.


[One very interesting cultural moment: While waiting for Alyssa near the dressing rooms at a Forever 21 (they, and H&Ms in Europe, have better variety and prices than in the U.S.), a heavily made up Muslim woman covered in black from head to toe exited one of the rooms. In her hand was a very slinky, black, faux leather halter top. I must admit to having been shocked at what seemed to be incredible incongruity between her outward appearance and clothing selection. But I later considered: This woman doesn’t sleep in her modest, billowing outerwear! And judging by her beauty, it’s likely she’d wow her companion with her suggestive Forever 21 purchase at home. I’d just not had any experience like this at home. Nor will I any time soon; the Muslim population of London is staggering to the uninitiated.]


We felt kinda ordinary, in our Nikes and jeans. But we needn’t have felt ordinary for long, however, considering the huge number of professional photos snapped of us. Hell, we felt famous. It’s true what is said of London: There are cameras EVERYWHERE. On every street corner, in every Underground stairwell, in every alleyway, in every store we ventured in to. I often feared while having a private moment in a public restroom (“toilet” in British English) that my moment perhaps wasn’t so private. There were even CCTV signs on rustic, historic buildings in the countryside; I’m certain the sheep there were tagged not just for their abundant wool but for the fact they likely had cameras hiding in their fluff.


sheep needing a sheer



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A blog in four parts

May 24, 2016 at 4:27 am (Uncategorized)

Blog part I:

There is so much about Europe that’s better than America. Its café (or pub) culture. Its narrow, winding streets. Its architecture.

But its wi-fi sucks.

Example: Dave loves to be an expert in the latest app, particularly those that promote efficiency. And what’s more efficient in an unfamiliar place than a cell-phone based GPS system? As we left an evening production of the uproariously funny “Book of Mormon” at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Dave kept swearing under his breath as he became increasingly frustrated with his non-connecting GPS. He was trying to locate either the closest Tube station or Uber car for our commute home. We’d shuffle behind him for a block like ducklings and then stop behind him, waiting for him to swear while staring angrily down at his phone which wasn’t connecting to any helpful satellite. This went on for a few blocks, until Alyssa looked around and said, “There are taxis everywhere!” Dave pretended to ignore her entreaty. Until Alyssa stepped to the curb, put out her hand like some lifelong New Yorker, and yelled, “Taxi!” Exactly one nanosecond later, a taxi pulled up along side us and in we jumped. In five minutes, we were home; by then, Dave’s blood pressure seemed to have returned to normal.

Usually, when we’re away on an exciting trip, I like posting an entry a day. But that wasn’t to be on this journey. Rather, the attempt to find consistently running wi-fi has been a bit like attending a terrific party with grand hors d’oeuvres, none of which I can eat. (This one has gluten. Damn. This one has gooey gruyere. Damn. This one has prosciutto. Damn-damn.) In other words: You know sustenance is out there, but none is for you.

The last time the Knudsens were in England, it was in 2009, and we were here for less than two days, the memory of which is fogged by a jet-lag haze. And we’d stayed with friends in Watford, a small community on London’s outskirts. So we saw little and experienced less. Prior to that family trip, I had the fortune to visit London with my parents and sister; at that time, I was around the age Hayley and Alyssa are now (they’re 12 and 14, respectively).

That was a loooooong time ago, so this trip feels like the first time. And like the first time with many things, it’s awkward and a little uncomfortable, but I’m getting the hang of it.

However, one thing I do remember of London from my early teens – and praise god for – are the warnings, painted in white on the streets, telling you, “Look Right,” or “Look Left.” Were it not for those signs, I’d be dead. The English really have their way of doing things, and driving “on the wrong side” – on the left – is one of them. But the Brits lack consistency (which could be an English trait; I don’t yet have a conclusion on that one).

For example, in stairwells in the Underground/Tube, you’re supposed to stick to the right (and “mind the gap,” of course), though sometimes the signage says to stay left. While boating, you’re supposed to stick to the right. And when walking (or jogging) down the sidewalk, stay right. Considering I have a hard time finding my way out of a paper bag, I’m utterly confused along these London streets; it’s a miracle I’m writing this today, having found my way – all by myself! – on my morning runs from the Marylebone area of this Manhattan-like city to Hyde and Regents parks and back. (OK, OK, I did ask for directions the first time – of three different people.)

Something I’d not had the chance to do when here with my folks in the mid-80s is staying in and experiencing the English countryside. Yet on this trip, it was our first stop and where we spent four of eight days before spending the latter half in the London flat of very generous friends.

leftmiddle right

We arrived at Heathrow on a Saturday and drove north straightaway to the Hanbury Manor-cum-Marriott Hotel in Hertfordshire and spent one day there; our next stop, via Cambridge, was the village of Sandy. After two nights in a farm cottage there, we made our way to London (again via Cambridge, of which we couldn’t get enough).

Having recently wrapped up “Downton Abbey,” yet continuing to mourn the serial’s conclusion, I got a terrific fix from our countryside locales. Indeed, well prior to the Marriott’s purchase of the Hanbury Manor, it was a single family home. With grounds. And a nearby village. And acres and acres of rolling, unmanicured fields in about fifty shades of green. The theme song to “Downton Abbey” kept running through my head on a continuous loop chain, and I swear I saw Isis and the Dowager Countess. We did see the head cook, Mrs. Patmore – of that I’m certain.

Dave was incredibly brave to have rented a car; he remained its sole driver. Every time he got behind the wheel, he’d mutter to himself, “Stay left. Stay left.” It worked in nearly every instance, except one, where he hadn’t yet mastered how – and when – to yield to oncoming traffic on increasingly narrow roads through village after village. At one harrowing “give way” (yield, in American English), Dave finally just pulled over as far as he could to the left and let the car idle. The oncoming car did nothing of the sort; rather, it continued driving right on toward us. Until Mrs. Patmore herself was alongside Dave and rolled down her window. She scowled while her male counterpart in the passenger seat opened his quite toothless mouth, preparing to chew us out. Dave beat him to it, saying in clear American, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” To which Mrs. Patmore’s cavernous-mouth companion said in a lovely cockney: “Bleh. The’re American. They don’ know what the’ do’in.”

And on we trolleyed. Guffawing our asses off, poor bloke.

Our most memorable experience of the English countryside was at the wedding of a dear friend, which was the reason we’d flown across the pond in the first place. The bride and her fiancé had selected an out-of-the-way venue called South Farm in Shingay-cum-Wendy for their fairytale-like event. Guests arrived at 2 p.m.; I believe the last of the intimate group left at 11 p.m. It was hard to leave such an enchanting spot. Sheep grazed on open land. Wisteria drooped from eaves much like Lady Mary Grantham’s gowns drooped over her slight frame. The couple exchanged their emotional, personalized vows beneath a wooden gazebo. Nearby, a cock crowed and its hens pecked; a lactating brown sow with about seven spotted piglets muddied themselves, keeping clear of the gobbling turkey. Throughout the ceremony and then reception (complete with dinner for every dietary restriction; a bicycle replete with ice cream choices; and a flower-petal-laden, three-tiered cake), the sun set in a nearly clear sky upon acres and acres of both cultivated farmland and untamed, gently rolling land.



sheep needing a sheer

Uniquely country.


The bride is American, the groom Spanish, the officiant a very proper English. The entire experience, magical.

Much like Cambridge. We took the advice of a university student (who was a chatty staffer at South Farm) and tried our hand at punting. Actually, the only brave souls to try it were Dave and Alyssa. Hayley and I braced ourselves in the wide wooden, flat-bottom boat for either of them to punt themselves (via a long, hefty wooden stick…think Venice) right into the River Cam, but neither did. Much like I’ve yet to meet my maker on the grill of a London vehicle, their remaining dry was nothing short of a miracle.

We drifted past Trinity College, King’s College, University of Cambridge itself, each gothic structure more imposing, stunning, and envy-inducing than the next. While rolling along, we came across a few students studying on the banks of the river; we yelled to them, wanting to know at which of the town’s colleges they were studying and in what disciplines. One young woman was as smitten with her student experience (in the sciences) as we were as tourists: Beaming, she informed us she is a Trinity student and did a little jig with her torso indicating her thrill with the locale. And who could blame her. I wanted to head straight for one of myriad libraries (including one connected to the iconic Bridge of Sighs), don tweed, and crack a book by Dickens or Darwin or D.H. Lawrence.

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Part III: 2Bs

March 9, 2016 at 1:23 am (Uncategorized)

Have you noticed that derivations of the word “bitch” showed up in my past two posts? This one includes that word, too, though more subtly than in posts I and II.

People kindly ask me what I’m doing these days. These are the folks who know that I have a master’s in journalism and worked in both newsrooms and freelanced for years. These folks know, too, that I had part-time jobs in development in higher education and that I no longer hold those posts.

“So, where are you working these days?”

Here’s my exciting answer: I’ve started a business. With fellow Portland-based writer Merridawn Duckler, I’ve put out a digital shingle and created the LLC 2B Writing Company. Sounds kinda Shakespearean, doesn’t it? ( exists but isn’t fully fleshed out. It will be soon, though, so don’t hesitate to visit often. As for the operating digital part of the business’ shingle, email to

What do we do? Merridawn is more the poet and creative-writing expert; I’m more the reporter/journalist; and we both edit with red pen in hand and great results in mind. We both have years of PR/publicity experience, too, and already have had the chance to put some of these business bullet points to the test with initial clients (who are both brave and satisfied).

About the more-subtle use of the accurate word for a female dog, well, when you really think about it, what might 2Bs actually stand for? (Pause) You’re correct: Good ‘ole Will has very little to do with it.





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Post II: bitchin’ language trip

March 8, 2016 at 11:59 pm (Uncategorized)

Alyssa and eight other students in her 8th-grade French language class are abroad through the middle of this month. The Spanish-language students are in Granada, Spain, and the Mandarin-language students are in Nanjing, China. The French-language students are not in France or even Quebec, Canada. They are in the Caribbean, on the island of Martinique, an “overseas region” of France. Way back when, the French just wanted the island’s sugar, timber, and rum. Today, folks in cold climates just want its sun. So I’ll admit that it sounded like a bit more of a vacation than the seeming foreign-language immersion trips the French students’ Spanish- and Mandarin-learning counterparts would be embarking on.

A close reading of the students’ itinerary for their 10 days on the Lesser Antilles’ island of Martinique, however, reads like an incredible journey into the past, with a number of educational opportunities that point to the U.S.’s own slave history. The students will visit the site of a now-dormant volcano that in 1902 wreaked havoc on a city then known as the “Paris of the Caribbean” (St Pierre); they will visit a museum dedicated to the growing and harvesting of bananas; and they will visit, too, a museum about slavery and cocoa production.

I will admit, though, that my sense that this immersion trip would be an amazing cultural — as well as linguistic — experience waned a bit after Alyssa posted a photo from a weekend trajet with her host mom and her daughter. Upon arriving on a Thursday in Fort-de-France, Martinique, Alyssa had informed us via a brief text that she would spend the weekend “at a hotel” with her host family (whose daughter we’d hosted in late-January and who is a simply wonderful girl).

That seemed pretty generous of the host family, considering their apartment already is in the tropics and near — I’m just certain — a large swath of sand. At the end of Alyssa’s “hotel stay,” she posted to Instagram some photos from her ping-ponging, pool-swimming, feral-cat collecting, yummy-food eating, paddle-boarding experiences … at Club Med. Instagram has this feature (both good and bad) whereby any posted photo notes where said photo was shot. Her photos were tagged “Club Medi, Les Boucaniers,” The Buccaneers. Dave and I about fell over. Yeah, guess that’s some hotel.

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