Thursday, February 2, 2017

Meeting people far away and nearby: Learning about different cultures


We are all alike

Having traveled internationally to several countries and met and interacted with people all over the world, one of the things that has really stuck with me is this:

Every single person on this earth is a person, just like me, and we all have similarities. I’ve seen moms taking care of their children in India, ladies walking their dogs in England, boys playing catch with their dad in Paris, and kids running and playing in Mexico. Just like people I see every day in the U.S.

I think traveling has been truly valuable for this and many lessons I've learned. But I don't always need to travel far away to find people from all different cultures who I can meet and learn from.

Meeting a Somali family

Several years ago, I took a multicultural communications class while attending college in St. Paul, Minnesota. Our professor divided our class into different groups to learn about specific cultures and religions. My group learned about the Islam religion. As part of our assignment, we were to meet and visit with a Somali Muslim family in their home and visit a mosque.

A classmate and I visited a Somali Muslim family in Minneapolis, in an area where many Somali immigrants lived. I remember the mother was very kind and welcoming. All of the family members were kind and hospitable. They didn’t all speak English really well, but we communicated pretty well.

We visited with them and learned more about their culture and religion. We learned so much from them, and we found it interesting to learn about them. They were happy to share with us, and they enjoyed our visit. The women gave us beautiful colorful scarves to wear, and they insisted we keep them as gifts when we left!

Later in the class, my classmates and I visited a mosque. We followed the rules we’d been given, and we covered our heads with scarves and removed our shoes. The people in the mosque welcomed us, and we left with a greater understanding of the Islam religion.

Learning from those different from us

Not everyone likes to travel, and not everyone can travel to different countries. But I think lessons can be learned even by meeting people from a religion or culture different from yours, right where you live.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Go Somewhere New

It’s a new year and a time for me to think of future travels and adventures. And to reflect on some of my past experiences.

Canterbury, England

I’ve been thinking about why I travel, why I love adventures and why I like to write and share about them. Some of the reasons I travel are to:
  •    Learn about other cultures 
  •   Enhance my knowledge about the history of a place
  •  Meet new people, often from other cultures -- this always reminds me we are all human and really more alike than not
  • Try new foods and drinks
  • Get outside my comfort zone to go somewhere or try something new
  • Get ideas for writing and future adventures
  • Expand my thinking and creativity by trying to stay out of the rut of going to the same old places I always go to -- and instead experiencing new adventures, big and small 
  • To see many beautiful landscapes, mountains, hills, oceans and cities throughout the world

I write and share photos about my experiences to process my experiences and to share with others who may not have the opportunity to go to these places, to give them a small taste of what it’s like. And I share about places that I think are interesting to give others ideas to keep in mind for their future adventures too. 

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

 Because going somewhere new is a great way to keep seeing and doing new things, to meet new people, to experience new places, to learn more, and to try new foods and drinks.

An Indian dinner in India
While I don’t always have time to go on many long trips in the course of a year, I often have time for some shorter trips with a couple big trips. Or time to take a weekend road trip to a town nearby. Or a couple hours to go to a new brewery, bookshop, museum, restaurant or café. 

Forager Brewery, Rochester, Minn.

These aren’t all big trips that take months of planning (although I do enjoy those too!). These are short adventures that I can do in my free time and days off. And I hope you’ll be inspired to go to some of these places too and find new places too!

So follow along, because I’ll be going somewhere new regularly this year and writing about it. And I challenge you as well, to go somewhere new.


Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking back on 2015 and the experience of hosting an international exchange student

This has been a busy year, and it has flown by! It would take far too long to write about all the highlights, so I will focus on the most interesting experience of my year.

This year I had the opportunity to host a Polish international high school exchange student, Ola. She stayed for the 2014-2015 school year, and she returned to Poland during the summer. 

Ola and I after she arrived in Minneapolis
Having traveled internationally a fair amount, I found it interesting to host someone from another country, bring her to a variety of events and show her the American culture. And I appreciated seeing her reactions and hearing her perspectives about the American culture.

I enjoyed bringing her to visit many places around Minnesota, as well as a few other places in the United States. During the time Ola was here:

Ola at the Mall of America
Ola and I at Gooseberry Falls
  • We visited the Mall of America (several times!).
  • We attended the Minnesota State Fair and tried many "fair foods." 
  • We carved pumpkins at Halloween.
  • We drove up to Duluth in northern Minnesota. We drove along the North Shore of Lake Superior, a scenic drive along one of the Great Lakes (check out the North Shore Visitor to read more!). And we made a few stops along the way at Split Rock Lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls and more. We couldn't miss having pies at Betty's Pies in Two Harbors, which had a wide variety of awesome homemade pies!
  • We visited friends at their lake house "up north" in northern Minnesota a couple times.
  • We drove to Lake City, a  charming small town not far away, to see Lake Pepin and the scenic bluffs in the area.
  • I hosted an American Thanksgiving dinner with friends and family to give Ola the “American Thanksgiving” experience, complete with lots of food and great company.
  • We went to an excellent production of “The Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie Theater and visited a holiday market in downtown Minneapolis.
  • We visited family near St. Cloud over Christmas. We even found a town nearby with a Polish name!
  • We escaped the frozen tundra of Minnesota to visit sunny Florida in February.
  • Ola and I in Diagon Alley
    • We explored Universal Studios (the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was Ola's favorite! It really looks like I had imagined. The train ride between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade was awesome, and the other rides were worth checking out too. I also enjoyed the butter beer!)
    • We visited Walt Disney World – spending a day in the Magic Kingdom and a day in Epcot, where we visited many “countries” (Ola was disappointed there wasn’t a Poland). We ate at an Italian restaurant in the "Italy" area. And Ola tried her first funnel cake in Epcot.
    • We took a drive to visit Cocoa Beach and see the ocean along the east coast of Florida, although we thought it was a bit cool to swim. Cocoa Beach also had a lovely downtown area with a wide variety of shops that we enjoyed walking around.
Downtown Chicago
  • Ola had wanted to visit Chicago while she was here. I took some time off during her spring break from school so we could go to Chicago. We grabbed the train in Winona, and ventured down to Chicago. Staying in a downtown hotel, just blocks from Lake Michigan and near Michigan Avenue, it was a perfect location to explore the city. I always think seeing the city by foot when possible is the best way to see it, and our location allowed us to walk most places. We had many fun experiences including:
  • The Bean in Chicago
    • Eating Chicago style pizza at Giordano’s (an experience not to be missed!)
    • Visiting the Bean (and taking many photos)!
    • Meeting up with a friend of mine and her exchange student for some of the adventures
    • Getting a birds’ eye view of Chicago from the Willis Tower
    • Checking out Navy Pier
    • Shopping on Michigan Avenue 
    • Exploring the Art Institute of Chicago
    • Walking around a Polish neighborhood in Chicago, which had Polish bakeries, restaurants and shops. Ola found many Polish items in a Polish sausage shop, and the workers even spoke Polish!

Ola outside Kurowski Sausage Shop in Chicago
  • And so much more! We had many adventures throughout the year. And Ola had the experience of attending an American high school, which I think she really enjoyed. She participated in a couple sports, went to football and basketball games, attended homecoming and prom dances, and even participated in the high school graduation ceremony.
    Ola and I before the graduation ceremony
While the time Ola was here flew by, I was thankful for the experience to host her. It was a memorable and great experience. She became like a member of my family while she was here. I consider her my “Polish daughter” now. 

Ola and I on her last day in Minnesota
I haven't visited Poland yet, but I look forward to visiting Ola in Poland someday. And I hope she’ll show me around to all the historical and cultural sites in Poland when I come visit!

Happy new year!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas Reflections

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and enjoyed the holidays with family and friends. I used to write a Christmas letter every year for my family when I was young – my mom had a long list of people she sent Christmas cards to, and for many years my job was to write the annual Christmas letter. I haven’t written a Christmas letter in a while. Instead of a letter this year, I've written a post with a few reflections I've had this Christmas.

Christmas tree

Christmastime and a foot injury
Christmastime, as usual, has been a busy time. I unfortunately injured my foot just before the holiday season kicked off, which has caused some changes in my holiday plans in the past month or so. For example, I needed to find ways to walk and drive less than I normally would in my everyday life.

I spent several December evenings with my foot propped up on pillows, an ice pack on my foot and Christmas movies playing on TV. I also had the opportunity to attend some lovely Christmas events with friends, which helped me to get in the Christmas spirit.
  Christmas tea

I usually enjoy decorating for Christmas – I have many indoor and outdoor decorations, a Christmas village, ornaments I’ve kept for years, and other holiday items. But this year, I kept it simple. I put up my Christmas tree (with some help from a relative) with the lights and ornaments. I bought a poinsettia that’s displayed on my table and displayed a few other decorations around my home. Decorating my home really helped me get in a Christmas spirit and keep a positive attitude through my foot injury.

While I normally enjoy the outdoor decorations, this year I didn’t place them outside. Instead, I’m enjoying my neighborhood’s Christmas lights and the Christmas lights I see when I drive around the city. There’s something about twinkling Christmas lights on dark December nights that makes me smile. When I was young, my family would go on Christmas light tours around the city, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing the variety of Christmas lights and decorations.

Throughout the time my foot has been injured, I’ve been purposeful about trying to keep a good attitude, to adjust to what I could do while it was harder to get around, and to watch movies, listen to music and read books that were positive and uplifting. While it’s hard to be patient as my foot heals, keeping a good attitude throughout it has helped me deal with it.

Also, being injured made me realize how much decorations, flowers and other items lift my spirits. And visits from friends and their offers to run to get groceries and other necessities really helped as well, especially early on when my foot was quite sore and walking very far was difficult. Knowing I had a support system and someone I could call or text if I needed something definitely helped.  

Soon after I was injured, I bought a colorful bouquet of flowers and displayed them on the table – a small thing that helped make my day better. Doing this, along with all of these other things such as decorating and having friends I could reach out to, helped me stay positive through the experience of having an injured foot. Now my foot is beginning to heal, and I’m thankful my injury wasn’t more serious.

Fall bouquet

Being purposeful about keeping good spirits in spite of an injury and incorporating decorations and flowers in my house reminded me of a time many years ago when my dad was in the hospital for several days during the Christmas season. My mom brought some Christmas decorations to his room and placed a door hanger decoration on his door with the “12 Days of Christmas” as a theme. It had a pocket for each day that included a little gift to my dad from her. Decorations like that really helped make the hospital room seem brighter and more cheerful, and I’m sure it helped my dad’s spirits.

Now I’m reminded of people who are in situations such as being ill or being unable to leave their home often. Little things, like a Christmas decoration, flowers, or even reaching out to someone with a call or text, can really help. I plan to watch for and think of ways in the future I can do something small for someone in a situation like that could lift their spirits.

Merry Christmas to you all! I wish you all a happy new year.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Summer's Drive Along the River in Wisconsin - Wine, Pizza and Ice Cream!

Sometimes I forget that Wisconsin is just a short one-hour drive or so from my home, and it offers all sorts of interesting places to see and visit.

I met a friend at Elmaro Vineyard in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, this weekend. We ordered a wine tasting and tried several local wines, many of which were quite good. Then we sat out on the patio, which offered a lovely view of the vineyard and surrounding area.

Since we were near the Great River Road, and we heard there were some other vineyards nearby, we decided to drive north on the Great River Road along the Mississippi River, driving through some small towns along the way. The Great River Road Wine Trail offers information about many vineyards in the area.

We stopped briefly at a winery in Fountain City, Wisconsin. Then we followed signs for another vineyard, Danzinger Vineyards, located high in the hills near Alma, Wisconsin. After tasting a couple local wines, we took a look at the beautiful view from the vineyard.

                                                    View from Danzinger Vineyards

Nearby, I’d seen a sign for Buena Vista Park, which I had heard had beautiful panoramic views of the Mississippi River. We followed the signs and arrived at the park. And then we found the lookout over the river… It’s an amazing view! Stop by there and check it out if you get a chance.

Nelson, Wisconsin, was just a short drive away. We drove by the Nelson Cheese Factory, known in the area for its great ice cream and cheese.

Then we drove along some country roads outside of Nelson, heading towards the Stone Barn in Nelson. I’d read online the Stone Barn served fresh pizzas made in a wood-fired brick oven and that the pizzas were made using local ingredients. I wondered if anyone else knew about this place, as we drove further into the Wisconsin countryside, but there were many people there when we arrived!

After looking at all the options on the menu — and there were a lot of options! — we  chose a pizza topped with chorizo sausage, fresh cilantro and other toppings. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect this large of a pizza! The crust was thin and crisp, in the classic Italian style. The pizza was made to order, and it tasted fresh with excellent flavor.

We sat out on the patio, surrounded by walls made of stone that used to be part of the original stone barn.

I stopped inside to get a peek at the wood-fired stone oven. Something about pizza made in this oven just made it taste so good!

They also offered several types of ice cream, and we decided to try some ice cream for dessert. Yum! That topped the day off well!

After visiting several river towns in Wisconsin and coming across some interesting and unique places, it made me curious about what other places I may discover driving through other small towns in Minnesota, Wisconsin and other states. Has anyone else come across some “secret gems” in small towns you’ve driven through around the U.S. or world? What are some places that you remember?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Cayman Islands Highlights

After visiting the Cayman Islands a little over a year ago, I highly recommend it, especially as a respite from the cold winters like we often have in Minnesota.

Grand Cayman offers so much for everyone, from beaches to snorkeling to helicopter rides over the beach to swimming with dolphins to visiting turtle farms.

If you have a week or so to visit Grand Cayman, consider these activities and attractions. I hope you enjoy the Cayman Islands as much as I did!

Helicopter Ride

This was on my bucket list. I was excited to get to go on a helicopter ride and check this one off my bucket list! Me and my friends paid for a short ride, about 45 minutes or so, over the ocean. But it was totally worth it.

The helicopter gently rose in the air, and it was so smooth I hardly realized we were so high in the air so quickly. The pilot guided the helicopter along Seven Mile Beach, and we looked down on hotels, the beach and, best of all, the ocean with clear waters, offering us views of coral and sea life from high up in the air. A little tour of Grand Cayman from the air was an awesome way to spend some time. Check out Cayman Islands Helicopters for helicopter ride options.


I had never been snorkeling, but I wanted to try it in Grand Cayman, as Grand Cayman is known for its snorkeling and scuba diving. Grand Cayman has many scuba diving operators and snorkeling operators to choose from. Some resorts even offer resort courses. If you go snorkeling, don’t miss Stingray City, where you can pet and feed stingrays.

I’d recommend Captain Marvin’s for snorkeling. The staff on our boat were very helpful to newbie snorkelers like me, pointing out and explaining the sea life to me and giving tips about how to use the snorkel tube and mask. It turned out to be a really fun experience! Here’s more about my snorkeling experience.

Night kayaking

Kayaking at night in a bioluminescent bay, with water that seemed to glow when we glided our paddles through the water, was awesome. Night kayaking in the bioluminescent bay is only offered certain nights, but it’s an experience not to be missed. We went kayaking with Cayman Kayaks. Read more about my experience kayaking in the bioluminescent bay.

Swim with the dolphins

I know this sounds a bit touristy. But, check out Dolphin Discovery. It’s well worth the money to go, especially if you’re a fan of dolphins, like me. Before this, I'd only see dolphins in Sea World or a couple times from boats in the ocean. 

At Dolphin Discovery, we interacted with the dolphins, pet the dolphins, swam with them and watched them do flips and jumps and tricks. What a fun experience! And we left with many memorable photos of our adventure.

Pet a turtle

At the Turtle Farm, you can see turtles of all sizes, from huge sea turtles to tiny turtles. You can even hold small turtles. If you go to Dolphin Discovery, ask about special discounts for the Turtle Farm.

Eat and drink by the ocean

For any island vacation, take the opportunity to eat at restaurants with views of the ocean. Try the fresh seafood. Have a specialty drink, like a refreshing fruit drink with a bit of the Cayman Tortuga rum in it.

One of the best restaurants I tried was Calypso Grill, which had an interesting décor, excellent service and fresh food. If you go, sit out on the patio along the water.

Sit in a hammock with a view of palm trees and the sea

Living in the northern United States, I don’t get to do this often. I thoroughly enjoyed lounging in a hammock with a book, with a view of the sea.

*Some photos courtesy of Marissa Fitzgibbons and Rachel Thomas.