Accueil (Thursday, 2015 November 26)

November 29th, 2015

Starting about a month or so ago, I got a series of increasingly frantic emails, texts, and phone calls from Julie, one of the returned Volunteers that still lives in NYC. Apparently one of her friends from village, a young lady named Annette, won the Diversity Visa lottery and was coming here, to New York, and Julie had no idea what to do with her. What kind of paperwork was going to be necessary? Where was she going to sleep? What kind of work could she do?

Although the government issues visas, those visas aren’t backstopped by programs, services, or resources, even for fundamentals like learning English. You’re on your own for all of the above. Hopefully you have family or friends who know the lay of the land and can help you along. And if those friends or family are, like Julie, in the middle of moving house, then things become a bit more difficult. Julie apparently spoke to some of her "civilian" friends, and they discouraged her from all of this — she’ll take advantage of you, they said, or she’ll never leave. Maybe so. But we’re still Volunteers, and this is some prime Goal 3 kind of work. And if you think about it, Annette is kind of a Volunteer now too for some reverse-bizarro nega-Organization that lets people into the States. That means she’s family. We have to take care of her.

A plan has slowly coalesced around some of the returned Volunteers in the New York area. Julie (or maybe it was someone else?) found a Cameroonian woman who lives in the Bronx who came over just a few years ago with nobody here to help her but some other returned Volunteers. She now lives in an apartment with enough room to take in a few other Cameroonians. Julie’s trying to arrange for Annette to move there as of December 1st. In the meantime, she’s staying with us, sleeping on our couch and borrowing Rita’s old computer.

It’s been a weird experience so far having Annette — sort of like inheriting a slightly clueless 23-year-old daughter. I picked her up at the airport on Friday and it was the first time she’d ever been on an airplane. We’ve had to explain everything to her — how to ride the subway, how to buy vegetables at the supermarket, even how to flush the toilet. She’s an intelligent enough girl — she finished lycée and got her Bac, and even has a couple years of university under her belt — but is missing a lot of context. And then there is the occasional unfortunate incident like her not remembering how to work the intercom to let someone into the apartment, so going downstairs to let them in and thereby locking herself out.

It’s almost like she’s doing a reverse stage, and we’re (all of us in NYC) her famille d’accueil, her host family. (Accueillir means to welcome.) One fascinating thing has been to watch people come out of the woodwork — in just a week in America, Annette has had more guests at her parties than I have had at mine. Between this, and the above observation that she’s a reverse Volunteer, I keep leaping to conclusions that aren’t 100% correct. The main one recently has been about her maturity. Volunteers are always college graduates; Annette, though 23, hasn’t finished any degree. Indeed, I think of her as a good kid, which stands in stark contrast to the rest of us, who are generally hot messes. Nevertheless she’s seemed pretty cool for a Cameroonian, young and idealistic and essentially open to new ideas in a way that I can’t remember even in myself. (About homosexuality, which is illegal in Cameroon, she just said "Well, it’s up to them to manage their lives, and it’s up to me to manage mine.")

There’s a lot more to say about her stay with us, or indeed about the last year or two, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

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Cyclone (Tuesday, 2014 June 17)

June 18th, 2014

Last year Timothy came to visit me because his girlfriend was in the Mermaid Parade down on Coney Island. I am thinking now of standing on the fire escape here at Woodcrest and him telling me that I had quite an appetite for strong drink. Then, maybe the next day, we’re all standing outside in the sun and heat, running out of nigori sake or whatever we were drinking that morning, and watching the parade go by. In particular there’s a parade of muscle cars, some of which are fancy-looking antiques and one of which is just a loud car driven by the kind of person who knows how to make his tires squeal. After that car drives by, revving the engine like a beast only to stop short behind the next car, a guy in front of us says "Ha, and they have New Jersey plates, that’s perfect." Timothy, if you’re reading this, you asked if I "heard banjos" when I was in Brighton Beach. To answer your question, Brighton Beach is still civilization. For banjos, you have to go to Jersey, or at least Staten Island.

I’m getting off topic. Not too long after the cars go by, the parade starts, and before Jackie gets to go, the Brooklyn Cyclones mascot goes by. (He looks like a baseball with a duckbill and a baseball cap.) Timothy’s from out of town, so I’m explaining to him, "The Cyclones aren’t major league. They’re just below major leagues. Is there a name for that?" And the guy who made the quip about Jersey turns around and says "Triple A." So maybe the Cyclones are Triple A. (Although now that I’m looking it up, it seems like they’re Class A — Short Season.)

They don’t play at Barclay’s Stadium, in downtown Brooklyn, named after a major bank — they play at MCU Park, named after the Municipal Credit Union, open to all former employees of the City of New York. The park is in Coney Island, which, while once the gold standard for American amusement parks, is now one of the seediest neighborhoods in New York. So it’s a triple-A team playing at a triple-A stadium in a triple-A neighborhood. And when they sent me an email saying that they were observing Peace Corps Day with special seating available for anyone who used the discount code PEACE, I knew I had to go. Finally I would be able to relate to my father and his sister talking about the team’s dancing girls, the Beach Bums, walking around and shaking their bottoms. Best of all, I’d be able to heckle the Hudson Valley Renegades (?) while getting sufficiently drunk and being surrounded by other Volunteers.

We rolled up late, having had a chili dog and a Coney Island Lager at nearby Nathan’s, but as soon as I got there I knew I had made the right decision. The whole place reeked of Brooklyn spirit. Instead of ads for companies best described as "brands", the place was festooned with decorations for places like Astoria Federal Savings, New York Methodist Hospital, Midwood Ambulance Service, and Peter’s personal favorite, Send In The Clowns Entertainment Corp. A trained eye could look at the Beach Bums and easily discern the swarthy attitude of Canarsie, the tawny pride of Flatbush, or the self-important swagger of Midwood. There was a table for Peace Corps where they gave Volunteers a t-shirt with the Peace Corps logo on the front so you could broadcast your affiliation to the larger community, and it was easy to spot the section where your ticket was, even if you didn’t know exactly where to sit. Of course, PCVs don’t hurry right over to their assigned seats — instead we stood around the table and gossiped with the other (more experienced) Volunteers manning the table.

Apparently they’ve recently changed the application process? What used to take 8 hours to fill out now only takes 1, and instead of expressing a vague preference about where you want to go, you get to apply to an individual country. ("How can they do that?" Peter asked. "That’s not — they can’t do that! That’s not what Peace Corps is about! It’s about the cold hand of bureaucracy telling you what to do, and you doing it. With a smile.") Apparently if your application for a particular country isn’t competitive enough, they tell you to apply again when your application is more competitive.

To be honest, I’m with Peter on this one — if you know enough about a country or about Peace Corps to know where you want to go, you’re losing out on an opportunity for some serious cultural exchange. I had essentially no idea about anything about Cameroon before I landed there. My country selection process was almost exactly like my college selection process — random and undirected, just the way I like it. For some reason I think that worked out really well for me, although all evidence does seem to point to the contrary. It certainly does seem, though, like you’ll just get a bunch of people aiming for Beach Corps/Posh Corps posts like Jamaica or Ethiopia. But maybe it’ll sort itself out the way college seems to for so many Americans, or maybe they’ll recoup those frustrated failed volunteers and send them to slightly less posh places like Haiti and Mongolia.

The game itself was pretty forgettable, although we did beat the Renegades 5-1. More important were all the other bread and circuses that seem to surround a baseball game, even a triple-A one. For example, towards the middle of the game, a woman wearing what looked like business-casual went out and sang God Bless America, and then a little girl went out and sang Take Me Out To the Ball Game. They had a race with three hot dogs, Ketchup, Mustard, and Relish, and Ketchup won but only by playing dirty (he pushed Mustard over). The scoreboard was lit up with numbers (most of them zeroes), but I wasn’t wearing my glasses and really had no idea what most of them meant. Periodically the announcer would mention that such-and-such an event was sponsored by Kings Plaza Shopping Center, and then play a sound which was presumably meant to be some kind of theme music for Kings Plaza but was actually the Law and Order sound. Everything was chaotic and ridiculous but essentially harmless.

Everyone there seemed really cool and I had a really great time. I did not have a great $7 beer in the stadium. Instead I planned ahead and had an even better flask of Absolut Vodka (this is not a product endorsement — it’s just what I had in the house). Afterwards, there was a fireworks show (which, like the man says, wipes my brain slate clean — it strikes me silent), and then we got to run the bases. And the best part was that it was only 20 minutes from home. Go Cyclones!

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Véhiculé (Saturday, 2013 August 10)

August 10th, 2013

Greetings from scenic Albany, where I find myself for a friend’s wedding. I went to college not too far from here and hated it. I figured Cameroon would soften my disgust for the place, because at least here there is running water and reliable power/Internet. It remains to be seen how I feel about it long-term, but when I got off the MegaBus and found my way to the once-hourly local bus, it seemed sufficiently fine.

Aside: When I was back in Bafia, having just received our bicycles, my host brother Hyacenthe remarked, "Woah, Ethan, you’re already vehiculated (véhiculé)?" The CDTA bus is what you take when you are not vehiculated. I guess I wasn’t in a great position to evaluate them when I was going to school, because there was only one or two such buses that I ever took, but this time I got on a bus at 10 PM and it was pretty much on time. I think they renumbered some or all of the routes, which is encouraging — it suggests someone at CDTA headquarters is thinking.

The bus dropped me off at Walmart Plaza. Walmart was still open, but the liquor store wasn’t. The hotel was a half hour or so away by foot. This part of the country isn’t designed so much for pedestrians. Sidewalks are often absent, and overall the whole place is a lumpy, rustic place, blue collar in ways that New York isn’t.

This morning I splashed around a little bit in the hotel pool (which is just large enough for me to traverse in five strokes), and tried some of the complementary breakfast — the scrambled eggs had butter, but I had some bacon, and they had hardboiled eggs, but no piment. Still, running water, right?

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Rêve (Monday, 2013 June 17)

June 18th, 2013

I had a dream last night that I was getting ready to start the school year all over again. Now that I’d sucked as a volunteer/teacher for two years, I was ready to buckle down and I was going to magically be better at it. I was going to concentrate on the things that mattered to me and I was going to do a good job. Most of all, I was convinced that now that the Terminale students had bombed the Bac last year, they were also going to be way more serious and interested in the things I was trying to get into their heads. I was excited, the same sort of excited optimism that I had at the beginning of my second year.

I woke up almost a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to be teaching again. But then I started to think about it and all the other more plausible disappointments came trickling back in…

Peace Corps volunteers have become a major linchpin in my life lately. Yaya blew through a couple months ago, and Charmayne a couple months before that. One is coming to visit this week, and Jenny "Spaghetti Omelette" Wang is coming to NY in July and we’re going to take a road trip to visit some others in Middle America. Maybe that’s why I had a Cameroonian dream. It’s not the first time — I had a confusing one with a Cameroonian saying something like "Pardon monsieur pour ne pas te donner du food" and me correcting him that "food" in French is "la nourriture" — and I’ve given up on trying to make sense of them. My life here has its own challenges, but at least it makes sense.

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Continuer (Sunday, 2013 March 17)

March 17th, 2013

A few months passed. Late October my parents started remodeling the bathroom. At first I was like, "Finally! I can show off my bucket bathing skills, since we won’t have a shower." But then I realized our backyard doesn’t have any place where you can bathe without being seen (no outdoor latrine), and that I had no desire to shower outside in NYC in late October. Just goes to show, even the "roughing it" skills we learn in Peace Corps don’t always translate well to a culture where the infrastructure doesn’t support them.

Around the same time, I was due to start my job, so I really wanted to have regular access to a shower for the week or so that my parents were due to not have a bathroom. Accordingly, I started putting in motion the move to a new apartment. I thought I had timed everything correctly, with me moving in at the beginning of November, and the management company telling me I could pick up the keys a few days early, but hadn’t counted on the super needing more time to change the locks. Oh, and then there was Hurricane Sandy. We lost power (and therefore heat, which has an electric ignition) at my parents’ house for a couple of days (long enough to run out of charge on all my electronics), which I definitely hadn’t expected to happen in the First World. Me and Rita played cards by candlelight. My first day of work, our new office was still nonfunctional, so our office manager had people over in her apartment and we worked there. Subway service was inoperative, and buses were swamped. Flatbush Avenue has this longstanding phenomenon of "dollar vans", which are sort of analagous to taxis in Cameroon. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to take them. They were doing a brisk business. I decided to walk it, which was tiring but not unreasonable. Thenceforth I took my bike.

And then things settled down, slowly but surely. Mass transit started working again normally. The subtle terror of lines at gas stations and what that might portend faded gradually as gas started flowing back into Greater New York. I started a job that I’m good at. Eventually I went on isoniazid for my tuberculosis, then off it again when there was a national shortage, but now I’m back on it. There’s the occasional oddity here in "White Man Country" (to use the Anglophone phrase), like discovering that traffic buttons don’t really do anything and neither do elevator "door close" buttons in normal operation, but by and large I am living the good life. I eat a lot of meat — in Cameroonian terms, I’ve become even more "healthy" — and I drink a fair amount of delicious things (at least, when I’m not on my isoniazid). I play board games (of which I now have almost 100) and I see my friends and even other Volunteers like Peter Paskowsky pretty regularly.

I always strive to be not like other people, but of course (as previously) I’m not too far off from Volunteer-normal. I’ve had to struggle to understand and accept that things that don’t matter to me are nevertheless taken quite seriously by people I care about, and that I need to respect that. A good example is wearing shoes — it feels like most everyone I know has a standing policy that you take your shoes off immediately as soon as you have one foot inside the door, despite the fact that nobody’s gonna track any mud in from their apartment building corridor. It isn’t rainy season, after all! I guess I’ve made a peace with it because I know I’ve got my own quirky neuroses too (like the occasional French word or "When I was in Africa…" story), and I figure if people can put up with mine, I ought to put up with theirs too. None of us are really objectively right — we’re all just screwed up in slightly different ways.

Lately I’ve read The Magician King by Lev Grossman, which I enjoyed, but not as much as the original The Magicians, partly because of some of the deeply disturbing scenes at the end, Bone Dance by Emma Bull, which I loved, and Redshirts by John Scalzi which was also quite enjoyable.

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Suite (Wednesday, 2012 September 18)

September 19th, 2012

[This one goes out to all the UPS drivers out there that are not delivering my computers. It’d be nice if you guys could, you know, deliver them. Sure, it’s an unreal wish-fulfillment fantasy, but hey! Speaking of unreal wish-fulfillment fantasies, here’s the last installment of the fiction.]

I know I didn’t talk much about the Mission’s evacuation program but I really don’t know much about how it worked. They had picked us up and now we were heading back to Capital City in a wheeled ground transport that I didn’t know the Sumi name for. It was squat but high up, and wide and long like someone had put couches on stilts and wheels. I was sitting in the back on one side of two Missionaries. They looked shell-shocked, like I did. One was crying. Utkeu’s laser pistol was stowed — the drivers hadn’t asked about personal armaments so I wasn’t saying anything.

As far as I could tell from the curt answers the Zhenae drivers gave me, the revolution started in a city near Sunken Grace (one of the major economic centers of Zhen). Word had gotten out that Planetary Counsel had written their report on the election results, which the local population found objectionable on the grounds that the votes hadn’t been counted. These townsfolk proceeded to their local Town Counsel to express their disappointment. Local authorities, including the local branch of the Arms, rebutted their views with rigor and force. Of the townsfolk who survived, some were wearing black armbands. Riots spread from there to the equatorial regions, and by personal communication to the Plateau and the Outer Islands. All government establishments were at risk. Most Missionaries worked at government establishments. You get the idea.

I had a lot of time, because our transport was taking us all the way back to the Mission in Capital City. This let me start to process what I’d seen happen to Utkeu, one of my closest friends on Zhen. I know he had been disappointed in me. In a sense, I’d killed him. He’d given me the benefit of his wisdom, tried to dissuade me from the course I’d already been on, and I’d blown him off. My hubris had gotten him killed. I’d made a mistake. He’d paid for it. I had survived, through no fault of my own. He was gone and he was never coming back.

What about everyone else? I didn’t know what had happened to my friend who had tried to seduce me at the club. Was she OK? I’m glad she hadn’t been there with me when I’d had to leave. She would have been on her own.

As for Jamie, I hadn’t heard from her, but I was willing to bet that she was someplace safe, maybe even already at the Mission, or even off-planet already after finding a way to get out early. I worried, in a completely platonic way, about Morgan.

We trickled in over the next day or so. The last Missionaries pulled into the secure compound in the early afternoon, and we all shuffled to the biggest conference room we could find for a debriefing. The logistics were pretty straightforward; we were going to private shuttle to the Starport in groups and from there lift off back home. Anyone could ask for a transfer to a different planet, but me, Jamie, and Morgan, making eye contact in the back, would not be exercising that option. Our possessions would eventually be dug out of our residences and sent to us.

Missionaries who were evacuated were considered to have finished their service, like an honorable discharge. We’d gotten, therefore, the best of both worlds. We’d finished our service, but without having to actually finish our service. It was all playing out like Jamie had planned. We’d hit the jackpot.

We weren’t allowed out of the compound to go drinking; some Missionaries were staying at the hotel next door, but they were only allowed to go in groups of four. I was alone in a corner behind one of the administrative buildings when Morgan found me.

"We did it," she said.

"Yeah, we’re regular heroes."

She smiled vaguely, choosing not to be drawn in. Instead she sat next to me.

"I wanted," I said. And then I had to stop for a second. "I’m having buyer’s regret. I’m not sure this is the right revolution."

She gave a quiet laugh, almost a sigh. "We did our best. I think time will tell."

"Did they attack your school?"

"No, things are different on the Islands… a little more respect for teachers or something. They just took the Arms House and more or less left us alone."

"That’s good."

"Where are you gonna go next?"

"Not sure yet. You?"

"Back to school, I think. Maybe I’ll really learn how to teach."

"Listen," I said. "I guess I’m still learning how to grow up, how to put other people’s feelings into consideration. I’m sorry about everything."

"It’s fine. Now I can finally get away from you." She smiled and stood up, stretched. "Maybe I’ll see you on Earth."

"Maybe," I said. But as she walked away, I thought, maybe not.

A plan was already forming in my head. I’d gotten this whole planet into a mess because I wanted to go home. I’d thought I knew what God had wanted, and one of my closest friends was dead because of it. Maybe I could turn this around, try to act selflessly for once.

My bag was already packed. I left a note, then climbed over the wall.

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Correction (Sunday, 2012 September 9)

September 10th, 2012

Here are updated versions of the books I wrote incorporating typo fixes and minor grammatical changes that were in the printed version.

Uploaded: html.html (XML document text, 153.0 KiB)
Uploaded: html.rst (HTML document, UTF-8 Unicode text, with very long lines, 118.0 KiB)
Uploaded: 3e – systèmes de numération.odt (OpenDocument Text, 48.0 KiB)
Uploaded: 3e – systèmes de numération.doc (Composite Document File V2 Document, Little Endian, Os: Windows, Version 1.0, Code page: -535, Revision Number: 44, Total Editing Time: 02:59:00, Create Time/Date: Sun Jul 15 19:09:44 2012, Last Saved Time/Date: Wed Sep 5 14:33:19 2012, 277.0 KiB)
Uploaded: 3e – systèmes de numération.pdf (PDF document, version 1.4, 173.0 KiB)

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En partant (Friday, 2012 August 24)

August 24th, 2012

En partant is something like "in leaving", used to describe the context of an action, like "In leaving Cameroon, I stopped and visited my host family in Bafia". I found some random crap I wrote after we got home from the bar. I originally intended to clean it up and post it as a full blog post but I think it’s kind of nice in its abbreviated scatteredness. Here it is:

Sluts!

I’m in Bafia right now, drunk as I normally am. Got home with Astride, who was an annoying disruption in stage but is now a valuable ally, having demonstrated her value as a Volunteer-monger.

Being here in the Alemi’s house is nice to an extent but also a little weird — there are echoes of that same strange terror that came from being here two years ago, thousands of miles from home.

I’m here with Boris, of course; that changes things to some extent.

Power’s out.

Nobody’s hitting on me, to my everlasting disappointment.

I’m no longer a volunteer, so I didn’t wear my moto helmet, but I brushed my teeth and took my Doxy, so one for one?

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Pharmacie (Tuesday, 2012 August 21)

August 21st, 2012

America is wonderful. I can eat salad every day and root beer every night. My Internet connection is ten times (!) faster than what I had in village. Last night I had some sake. It wasn’t as good as I remembered it. (Maybe it was just a shitty sake.)

But perhaps not all is roses in the Land of the Free. Lately I’ve been trying to sort out my last Peace-Corps-related medical crap, which is as usual complicated and tedious. Here’s the essential backstory, from a Moroccan volunteer’s blog: we are fully covered during service, and after service Peace Corps gives us a month of After Corps insurance, and on our last week of service we go through medical exams to tell the difference. Only, you’re doing these exams on your way out of the country, so how can Peace Corps continue to treat you? For that we have the notorious Form 127C, yet-another Peace Corps-specific thing. Form 127C is officially the "Authorization for Payment of Medical/Dental Services". You can think of it as a purchase order, granting the holder the ability to seek pre-authorized treatment which Peace Corps will pick up the bill for, sort of like a medical blank check. I received two such 127Cs, one for my "terminal malaria prophylaxis", which is the last prophylaxis I will have to take in order to hopefully flush the last of the malaria from my system, and one for my positive tuberculosis test.

The official party line <http://www.peacecorps.gov/resources/returned/benefits/healthben/medical/> regarding form 127C is that 127C is only to be used for evaluation, not treatment. If you became ill as a result of service, 127C lets you get a diagnosis and a treatment plan, but to actually follow the treatment you get to file a Federal Employee Compensation Act (FECA) claim. However, both of my 127Cs are written "to include the cost of medication".

Even using the 127C is kind of a mess too. Which doctors take it? How do they use it? Remember that we’re talking about the cooperation of three different agencies here.

  • Peace Corps, i.e. the United States Federal Government.
  • This weird AfterCorps insurance thing.
  • The medical providers themselves.

The AfterCorps web site says that in order to use the 127C you have to find a doctor in their network, or more precisely networks, because they’re affiliated with ChoiceCare in most of the U.S. but they’re PHCS which is now called Multiplan in New York and New Jersey. Those doctors still won’t know what to do with the 127C, but maybe they’ll accept your AfterCorps insurance "card", which is really a folded-over sheet of paper, and maybe they’ll try to bill Peace Corps for your co-pay, or however it’s supposed to work. Honestly, I’m still not sure that’s right.

But then you have these prescriptions for these medications. I went to two different pharmacies looking for Primaquine 15 mg (the "terminal prophylaxis" thing) and neither one could find it in that dosage. But I lucked out with the nice gentleman at the Rite Aid at the Junction, who was nice enough to look it up online and apparently the 26.3 mg tablet that all the pharmacies have available only contain the 15 mg of Primaquine that I needed, plus phosphate salts or something. Look, I’m not a scientist. But I got stuck because my "insurance" didn’t go through, and indeed, the AfterCorps affiliate BeneScript that fills prescriptions didn’t even have me on file. And the pharmacist was not taking a 127C form.

So today I called AfterCorps/Peace Corps and got a friendly lady to explain all this to me. The 127C thing is not affiliated with insurance. The 127C works for prescriptions on a "pay and claim" basis, meaning I don’t try to get it covered under any insurance; I just buy the medicine and get it reimbursed later. This will be all kinds of fun with the 6-month course of medicine for TB. The doctor’s visit is also not affiliated with insurance, but we give them insurance information with the hope that they try to bill Multiplan, who will then pass the buck onto Peace Corps. It’s all very complicated. The question of why BeneScript doesn’t know who I am at all is concerning but it is a question for a later time.

This is a fire hydrant in Prague.

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/dscn0172-scale0.25.jpg

This is a church at a square in Prague called Náměstí míru. The Use-It map promised us hot dogs at this square, but we couldn’t find them.

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/dscn0176-scale0.25.jpg http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/dscn0180-scale0.25.jpg

Swiss money is pretty! [Edit: it’s actually Czech money.]

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/dscn0204-scale0.25.jpg

Aggressive dog in Geneva wants a piece of your goose.

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/dscn0218-scale0.25.jpg

Not depicted: there’s no "open container" law in Europe.

http://cameroon.betacantrips.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/dscn0226-scale0.25.jpg

New universal condiment.

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Victory lap (Saturday, 2012 August 18)

August 19th, 2012

I’m writing this from a plane again, a flight from Venice to New York marking the last leg of my trip back home, a 12-day romp that has seen me in Prague, Geneva (hi Jenny Wang!), Interlaken, Venice, and even a day trip to Florence. It has been a lot of fun, a first-world travel experience with all that goes along with it. It ends unambiguously now on this Delta flight to JFK, where the summer heat and delicate language negotiations have been replaced with clear and unapologetic American English and the corresponding American-intensity air conditioning (none of this European pussy-footing around). Certain challenges are over, or at least in remission, but new ones, like the fact that I’m shivering and can’t seem to stop talking in Volunteer Camfranglais, are just beginning.

I can’t seem to shake the feeling that my experiences and my hard-earned wisdom are worth something, so here are some highlights from my trip.

  • Prague was a lot of fun, not least due to the amazing efforts of Use It, which is apparently a bunch of groups in a bunch of European cities that publish free "travel advice for young travelers". They created a great map/highlights reel that became the tour guide. I feel like I saw all the most fun things in Prague after four days, but there’s still a ton of stuff more in that map that would probably keep me entertained for even longer if I wanted. I don’t know if you’re reading this, but you guys rock. (Anyone want to help me do one for New York?)
  • Czech is hard! But the people in Prague were super sweet.
  • I brought a lot of cash. Based on certain back-of-the-envelope calculations trying to accommodate for prices of meals and museums and so forth, I brought roughly $500 USD turned into CZK, CHF, and EUR, for three-and-a-half or four days in each country. I worried that this wouldn’t be enough for Switzerland or Italy, but in the end I had way more currency than I needed in the Czech Republic (used the rest to pay for my hotel room). Even in the other two countries it turned out I had more money than I needed; I’m such a cheapskate that when I see ordinary, "budget" restaurants that seem unfairly expensive, I just go to supermarkets to eat cheaper. Not to say I was thrifty — train tickets in Switzerland and Italy are expensive, but at least you can buy them with a credit card.
  • The Swiss railway (SBB/CFF/FFS) has a weird pricing scheme where all the prices they quote on their site are for holders of a "half-fare" card, which you can buy (as of this writing) at 110 CHF. You have to do a certain amount of rail travel (i.e. 220 CHF) for this to make sense financially. So you’ll be paying twice all the prices on their site. Thanks guys..
  • Interlaken is very, very beautiful, and their local beer, Rugenbrau, is unbelievable. The Holter Kunn (spelling?) funicular is great and they have an "after work" special — at 4:55, you pay a 15 CHF round trip, with a drink at the top.
  • Geneva is expensive and lame and is apparently unworthy of a Use It. Skip!
  • Venice is kind of like a weird theme park and it’s hard to believe that real people actually live there. Florence has a "garden" but it’s up a really, really steep hill. If you take first class on TrenItalia they will even give you a glass of wine!

A couple of people have mentioned that thank God, they can finally stop following this blog. I wouldn’t be so sure; I still have a few things left to post, not least of which is the final chapters of the fiction.

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