Travel Oops: The ‘Tomato Sauce’ Tirade

The source of my ethnocentrism. Tomato sauce. © Amy Frazier

The source of my ethnocentrism. Tomato sauce. © Amy Frazier

Tomato sauce. That’s what made me go epically ethnocentric when I lived in Adelaide, Australia, for one year as an exchange teacher. I didn’t mean for it to happen, especially since, frankly, Oz is awesome, and I started thinking perhaps I was more Aussie than American. Plus, I’ve always tried to embrace various cultures, respect different customs and avoid going down Ethnocentric Avenue. After all, I once ate an entire portion of hideous headcheese in Paris for lord’s sake.

“We Gonna Rock Down to ‘Ethnocentric Avenue’”

Of course, culture shock is completely normal, and it’s to be expected that travelers will, in some way, compare the country they are visiting to their own. The international non-profit organization, Unite for Site, which relies on volunteers to help with global eye care health in remote villages, has a great explanation of culture shock:

No matter how open-minded or accepting, all travelers are susceptible to culture shock;  for their means of interacting effectively with society have been knocked out from under them. Even seasoned travelers are vulnerable to culture shock when traveling to an unfamiliar foreign country. What begins as discomfort and confusion subtly progresses to frustration, anxiety, irritability, loneliness, and withdrawal.

Unite for Site also warns about the dangers of ethnocentrism, which they define as “the unconscious presumption that there is one normal, single way of doing things, and that deviations from this universal order are wrong.”

An American roundabout. They actually make much more sense.

An American roundabout. They actually make much more sense.

The most adjusted travelers, in my opinion, also get ethnocentric about certain aspects of culture — usually over small things. At least that’s what happened in my case — when I had a tantrum over something trivial. It’s definitely a moment I cringe about now.

I actually thought I might lose it over driving through roundabouts, which terrified me every time they appeared in the road. Even my young kids knew this. “My mom hates roundabouts,” Eddie and Kasey would tell their new Australian friends.

While scary, roundabouts, I had to admit, were practical and more efficient than four way stops.

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Travel Oops: Seriously, Do I really like Nescafé?

The crystals before they work their magic. @Editor At Large

The crystals before they work their magic. @Editor At Large

Kiev, Ukraine, 2006, 8 a.m.

Dipping a teaspoon into the plastic jar and scooping out the sparkly, gravely grounds, I added them to a boiling cup of water and watched the particles dissolve into dark brown ribbons. It took about 30 seconds.

This was not right. The dark brown steaming liquid was ready in an instant as it promised — like a powdered NASA beverage. It was not coffee; it was — Nescafé.

Having arrived in Kiev late the night before, I was tired and desperate for some caffeine. I looked through the cupboards and fully stocked refrigerator of the apartment where I was staying and found nothing else resembling coffee. And this apartment was set up. The refrigerator housed what looked like two frosted glass sculptures full of Ukrainian vodka, international meats and cheeses that could have been part of a catering tray from a UN smorgasbord, fresh bread and bags of luscious red tomatoes. So how was there no bag of ground goodness in there?

©Commons Wikimedia.org

©Habib.mhenni Commons Wikimedia.org

And it wasn’t just the taste, I hated the idea of instant java — no grinding of beans; no brewing; no aroma wafting through the kitchen while you try to wake up; no holding of the cup to warm your hands.  Just dump some coffee flakes — I mean ‘crystals’ — into boiling water. It was almost like adding fish food to an aquarium. Where was the ritual in that? Drinking coffee is sacred in some countries. Was a coffeehouse close by? Surely Starbucks was somewhere in Ukraine’s cosmopolitan capital city.

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Travel Oops: Supersize Me with Some Kim Chee, Please!

© Stephanie Glaser

© Stephanie Glaser

Wandering through Seoul Market’s seaweed section, which is just as expansive and visually overloading as the cereal aisle of any Wal-Mart, I’m overwhelmed. Seaweed comes in jars, plastic bags, foil bags, freeze-dried bags, individually wrapped snack packs and family sized jumbo bags.

Seaweed snack packs — notice how I stacked on upside down. Oops....

Seaweed snack packs — notice how I stacked on upside down. Oops….

Seaweed that looks like kelp looms large in a long baguette like bag, and then there’s red seaweed, green seaweed, roasted seaweed, rectangular seaweed and small square seaweed. Asian writing appears on every bag, and although I can’t read the characters, it’s clear from their differing shapes that they identify seaweeds from not only Korea, but probably from Japan and China, too.

Clearly I’m a complete amateur Asian market shopper even in the US. Maybe trying another aisle will be less intense. The noodle shelves are no different: udon, soba, somen, bean thread cellophane, rice, wheat, thick, curly, transparent. Really, what should I expect? Roaming through the noodle section of a standard American grocery store could be mind blowing for someone who is not familiar with Italian pasta.

© Travel Channel

© Travel Channel

I had been so confident before entering the Colorado Springs store. After all, I had seen Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” episode in Korea where he samples fermented kim chee from recently unearthed clay urns. I eat Asian food whenever I can, but I guess I’ve not seen it much in the pre-preparation phase.

“Mom, where’s the ice cream?” my son Eddie approaches me after having cased the somewhat cramped market out. He’s clearly not intimidated. Sensing my paralysis, he leaves and I hear him talk to the shop keeper behind the counter. I peek over and see the woman show him a refrigerated case. Ice cream, that’s definitely doable. I leave the noodle aisle.

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Priceless Products and Packaging

durian pancakes

 Priceless Products and Packaging is a new feature on Travel Oops that celebrates interesting products and packaging from around the world. Wandering up and down the aisles of grocery stores or markets is always enlightening when you’re visiting another country. The text included on the packaging and in marketing campaigns often reflects characteristics and values of a nation. Translations are the best because, understandably, sometimes the meaning is inadvertently lost or tweaked slightly.

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Travel Oops: How about a Skippy Burger on the Barbie?

author: Ramiroja

Shrimp? author: Ramiroja

“Maybe we should get some shrimp,” I suggested to Kurt as we cruised through the aisles of Coles, one of Australia’s main grocery stores. “You know Aussies really like their ‘shrimp on the barbie.’” I repeated a well-known fact in the US about Australians and their barbecue bounty.

Kurt and I were preparing to host our first “legit” Australian barbecue. To say barbecuing is popular in Australia is a pretty flimsy assessment. BBQs in Australia are like Baptist churches in the Bible Belt of the US. They are a given, well attended and the followers are devout.

We knew barbecue was big time. In fact, only living in Adelaide a few weeks, we had already been invited to two events.

© www.appliancist.com

© www.appliancist.com

The grills, alone, are impressive precision-engineered machines and major household appliances. Some look like they could power a small aircraft. Certainly the control panel of the one we used confused a rookie Yank like me as I attempted to adjust settings during a trial run.

Consequently, we searched Coles for the right meats, sides and even condiments. “I don’t see any shrimp at all — just these prawns,” I called out to Kurt. “Yikes, and look at how expensive they are.” I could certainly understand exorbitant prices for seafood in a land locked area, but we were ten minutes from the ocean.  Nixing the idea of shrimp, we considered other options.

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Avoid the Oops — The Hangover and Getting Really Drunk on a Plane

flight attendantsThe journey has begun. The anticipation is there. It won’t be long before you arrive in an exciting new location or an old favorite. Speaking of arrival, here comes the drink cart.  Even better — the alcohol is free!

It’s a perfect time to celebrate, so why not have another and another and maybe another after that? You’re not driving. Plus, your flight is fourteen hours; you have a lot of time to kill. So, it’s tempting to get the party started and to keep drinking.

© Stephanie Glaser

© Stephanie Glaser

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating and drinking in moderation on a flight. And perhaps you know what you’re potentially in for, having already experienced hangover hell and feeling like complete crap at one point or another.

But remember, you may not have experienced this while in a confined space where you don’t have quick access to fresh air, toilets or even your own pillow.

Not to mention you may have to endure this state for several more hours with crying kids and grumpy passengers who are over the flight.

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Travel Oops — Should I add McDonald’s to the Guidebook?

© Stephanie Glaser 1989

© Stephanie Glaser 1989

No more creating copy about high-speed railways, long-span suspension bridges, retrofitted freeways or any other engineering miracles. I was going to be a travel writer. For nearly three years, I had worked as an editor in the public affairs office for the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley, and I longed to write about other subjects. I would, however, gladly examine engineering feats along the lines of windmills, dikes and bicycles.

berkeley guide

Hired to write insights about Europe — the Netherlands in particular — for the 1996 edition of the Berkeley Guides, a budget Fodor’s travel guide series produced by students at Berkeley, I had found a dream job. Although not a Berkeley student, I was a copywriter and editor.

Plus, I had studied in Leiden, Holland, for a year while in college. Ultimately, I could serve as a cultural anthropologist.

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Travel Oops: “I have a Million Dollar Idea” — Milo Lids

I had a million dollar idea once — and this was no “pet rock” or “Snuggie.” My million dollar idea was Milo lids. A really good idea, or so I thought…

One day, when my grammar lesson was tanking at the school where I was an exchange teacher, I asked my Australian year 8 students what their favorite food was or what I should be sure to try while I was in Australia for the next year.

The unanimous answer, of course, was Vegemite, Australia’s favourite concentrated yeast extract spread. Aussie kids are pretty much weaned off the breast and on to Vegemite. I had tried it and wasn’t quite there yet with what tasted like congealed soy sauce paste.

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The Travel Ahh…Going to the Market

La Boqueria Market in Barcelona, Spain. Visiting markets is a big part of absorbing culture. One of the oldest markets in Spain, La Boqueria, offers full on sensory details. I loved hearing the buzz of everyone talking, ordering, as well as the shuffling and unloading of goods. And, of course, the mix of smells from fish to bread to fresh produce is a trademark of any market. The colors, even the variations of the whites, grays and pinks of the seafood, feed your eyes, indeed. However, the best is the reward of buying something fresh like a warm churro and enjoying it while taking a stroll down La Rambla.

© Stephanie Glaser