Category Archives: Smart Travel

How to pay off $20,000 in debt AND save $80,000 by working in Korea

Save AND eat awesome Korean snacks... it's a good life
Quality of life, delectable snacks AND savings… Julie lives a good life in Korea…

Do your finances worry you?  Do you feel trapped?  Like you have to put up with a horrible lifestyle because you can’t afford to leave a job?  Do you not even have a job?

Meet my friend Julie Tillotson.  She recently told me the story of how she and her husband, Ben, pulled off what many in the United States and elsewhere consider financially impossible by thinking and acting internationally.  Her story should inspire us all to realize that there are always better options out there if we are willing to be adventurous.

Below are my interview questions and her answers:

 1) What was it that triggered your decision to move to South Korea?

Financial insecurity and restlessness.  Having repatriated to the US after completing university and getting married in the UK, Ben and I were searching for jobs and living with my parents (Thanks Mom and Dad!).  After filling out 60+ job applications, we only managed to get part-time temp jobs with zero benefits.  Wanting to be self-sufficient and passionately wanting to travel, EFL (English as a foreign language) jobs in Korea offered that and more: free plane tickets, free housing, medical insurance, pension and full time work experience.

2) How much do you make per year?

My salary has been between 20,000-35,000USD* per year depending on the job and exchange rates.

*These figures do not include housing, pension or other benefits that vary from job to job.

3) How much is it possible to save per month?

Between 800-1000USD on a reasonable starting salary, more if you are super motivated.

4) Please elaborate on the school and other debt that you were able to pay off as well as the money you were able to save.

Unfortunately, I had a credit card run up to 20,000USD from school bills and emergency use while unemployed. It took 11 months for us to pay it off by each contributing 800-1000USD per month.  Over the next 3 years we saved a total of 80,000USD.  We used the money to do MA degrees in the UK without needing student loans.

Julie and Ben
Julie and Ben

5) What is your advice to people that are considering going to Asia to find work and financial stability?

A. Research! Customs, culture, and work environment are always more different than most expect. Familiar concepts such as contracts, employee/employer relationships, and set work responsibilities can be shockingly different to the unprepared.

B. Documents first!  It’s up to you and only you to have your work visa documents in order.  With criminal background checks it can be a waiting game, so don’t delay!

C. Quality photography!  It’s standard procedure to include a photo for job applications in Asia.  Professional appearance is highly valued in Asia.

6) What are the main risks in making a move similar to yours?

Stress and illness.  An international move, unfamiliar job, culture shock and contact with new bacteria and virus’ is a recipe for catching colds and flu.

7) How long do you plan on staying in Korea? Why?

Two to five years.  My job, friends and a comfortable lifestyle keep me here for now.  However, the declining birthrate in Korea will hit universities with all-time low student enrollment within 5 years, so university jobs will likely become more competitive.

8) If you were trying to sell someone on doing what you have done in Korea, what would you say?

As far as money goes, imagine what you can accomplish without paying for rent, car payment or gas. Korea has a growing economy where English teachers are in demand. Seoul is safe, has great public transportation, and there is always something fun to see or do in spare time.

With dining like this, who needs persuasion?
With dining like this, who needs persuasion?

9) What do you dislike most about living abroad?

Long gaps in seeing family and long-time friends.

10) What are your top relocation tips?

Don’t make assumptions about your host culture, take time to wrap your brain around things that initially seem strange to you.

Do make additional friends outside your workplace through volunteering, church, sports and clubs.

Do learn about local fresh produce and ingredients and create beautiful healthy meals at home.

Julie Tillotson is an American who has been living in Seoul, South Korea with her husband, Ben for the past 9 years.  She currently works at Seokyeong University in the General Education program and loves exploring the city in her free time.



How to Travel With Someone You Love

Good times on a Bangkok bus...
Good times on a Bangkok bus…

Let me start this post off by saying this:  Traveling for a year with my wife, Jammie, has been the most exciting, enjoyable and fulfilling thing I have done in my life so far.  Despite anything I might say below in terms of cautionary advice, my core message is this:  Travel is one of the best things you can do with people you love.  It brings growth like no other experience.   I wholeheartedly recommend it.

That said, travel can make or break a relationship. We’ll be the first to admit that there were sensational highs and angry lows on the trail. We are a lot wiser relationally than we were a year ago.  Here’s what we learned:

Trust your partner’s travel strengths – Jammie and I each have some key things we are good at when it comes to travel.  She is great at budgeting.  I trust her and she keeps us from overspending.  It’s a little frustrating to be told that we can’t afford something like my pre-trip habit of doing most of my blogging from coffee shops (now I do most of it for free from home!).  But ultimately, Jammie’s skill in this area and my decision to trust her has kept us out of trouble.

Pre-trip prep is stressful – There’s no way around it: pre-trip planning is a stressful process.  There are so many details, you are sure you’ve forgotten something and there is never enough time.  Shut up and get stuff done.  Don’t let the fatigue and pressure make you crack.  Jammie and I have done this right and we’ve done it wrong.  When we have let the pressure make us snap and get mad at each other, a lot of the magic of travel is lost.  So we’ve learned to anticipate the stress and deal with it better.

Share dreams on road trips – Long journeys are great for planning.  As mentioned in prior posts like this one, Jammie and I have a road trip to Reno that we take every year in order to make plans for our lives.  We made sure we took it this year too – right before Christmas.  We talked about 2014 and beyond and actually wrote down our plans  so that we could hold ourselves accountable.  I am not sure what it is about traveling that lends itself so well to planning but I suspect that, like a corporate retreat, travel takes you out of the environment of the daily grind and sparks your creativity on a different level.

Yelling is for kids – Travel is a lot of fun but it is also super stressful at times.  When something goes wrong with your plans (lost wallets; unexpected cancellations; no sleep due to yapping dogs; horrible weather, etc.) it is tempting to take things out on the nearest person.  Don’t do it.  Especially when that person is someone you love.   It never works.  Nothing is fixed.  Nothing feels better.  Learn to bite your tongue and get through the difficulty rather than stamping your little feet.

Sometimes you just have to laugh – Laughter works far better than yelling.  Recently, Jammie and I thought we had booked an amazing deal when we flew to Kuala Lumpur for a two-night visit from Bangkok.  Both the flight and hotel were included for a very reasonable price.  Well, the hotel turned out to be an unbelievable dump, complete with cockroaches, loud guests and completely non-existent insulation that ensured that we got play-by-play updates from the teenagers next door as they hooted and hollered about video game victories under their clueless dad’s non-supervision.  At times like these you can laugh or cry.  We laughed.  And then we left the room.

Be careful with finding accommodation – Let’s talk a little more about accommodation.  Don’t screw this one up.  Jammie and I found that accommodation basically colored our entire experience in the different cities we lived in.  We absolutely loved Berlin, for example, because we found a spacious, well-lit, highly functional artist’s apartment in a cool part of town.  It worked out great.  Our apartment in Buenos Aires, however, was cold, dark, damp, cramped and ridden with random maintenance issues that required constant attention.  We hated it with a passion.  It put a damper on our entire experience in what, to be fair, is one of the world’s most fascinating cities.

Find alone time – One of my favorite things to do in each of the locations we visited was to go on long walks (in Bangkok my average daily walk was over 10 miles).  Jammie, on the other hand, it not into urban hikes.  So my walks allowed Jammie to catch up on writing and personal projects while giving me some exercise and thinking time.  This allowed us alone time to process our thoughts and brainstorm solutions individually.  I frequently stopped in my tracks and entered ideas into my iPhone while on my walks because I recognized this alone time as the most creative part of my day.

Volunteer together – At first glance, the idea of sorting old shoes in an ill-lit Berlin basement sounded like a downer.  But it actually became a fun ritual for Jammie and I since we had chosen to help sort these shoes for the homeless.  Volunteering together felt great and ended up being really entertaining as we joked about the absolute un-sexiness of our service project.  Wherever and however we volunteered around the world, we always left feeling recharged.  It was great to be able to share that feeling with someone else.

Admit when you are lost – This holds in a strictly literal sense (you’ve just led you and your partner on a wild goose chase for a famous pastry shop that seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth) or metaphorically (you are at your wit’s end and have no idea how to face a challenge).  Either way, travel as a couple works better if you are straight up as soon as possible. Don’t try to be a hero, be honest when you don’t have a clue.

More tips to come! – As with any journey, you learn more the further you go so I’ll keep you in the loop on future thoughts.  For now though, let me end where I started: traveling with someone you love is one of the best things you can possibly do together.  Whether you are a new couple, starting out in your shared life or an established couple looking for adventure, do yourselves a favor and try it out!



Our Biggest Mistakes in 12 Months of Travel

Wearing this hat combo almost made the list...
Wearing this hat combo almost made the list…

It’s embarrassing to write a post like this.  As much as I like to focus on the positive in our year of travel and service, I would be lying if I said we did not make our share of major mistakes.  I thought that sharing them might help prevent CultureMutt readers from also making them so here are some of the biggies:

Travel Mistake # 1 – Buying a round-the-world ticket – At first it seemed like such a good idea: save money through buying a round-the-world ticket.  So we hunted down a well-priced offer and bought our tickets.  At first we congratulated ourselves on “thinking ahead” and “being bold”.  That was stupid.  We ended up losing thousands of dollars in the end because we had to abandon the last leg of our world trip: Mumbai (more on why later).  We now stay away from buying any long-haul tickets far in advance and, instead, buy them the day before our flight. Airlines often drop their prices right before the flight to sell empty seats.

Travel Mistake # 2 – The Buenos Aires apartment – There are limits to perks of “artsy”.  Joy at finding a quaint, polished-red-brick-interior, low-ceiling artist cove in San Telmo (one of the trendiest Buenos Aires neighborhoods) turned to absolute misery as soon as colder weather arrived and the place turned out to be an ice box.  It was unbearable.  Plus the bathroom was a nightmare (leaking toilet and unreliable hot water supply) and the WiFi sucked.  The lesson?  Don’t rent the first place you visit on Craigslist no matter how fun it looks.

Travel Mistake # 3 – Not Being Touristy Enough – In our zeal to “live like locals” and shun tourist traps we actually got complacent about going out to see the local sights.  This became obvious when visiting friends starting asking us to go places in various cities that we didn’t even know existed.  We were great at meeting locals and getting involved in the community, less so at seeing all the monuments.  We would be more proactive in this department if we were starting over.

Travel Mistake # 4 – Eating Badly – One of the most tempting things about traveling is sampling all the exotic food.  Well, we definitely did a lot of sampling (I got food poisoning twice).  There wasn’t enough balance in our meals.  To be fair, our worst excesses of bad eating were in Bangkok at the start of the trip where we didn’t have a kitchen and therefore ate out almost all the time.  Not smart.  We ended up consuming way too much fat, salt and sugar as a result.  We knew we had to improve on this so we insisted on having kitchens in Buenos Aires and Berlin.  Things got better but the temptation to buy a quick, super-cheap cake slice was often too much to resist.

Travel Mistake # 5 – Skimping on Research – Let’s get back to the Mumbai mess.  On top of being putt off by multiple negative news stories about violence toward women, we simply waited too long to do our homework on how to get into India.  By the time we realized that we needed to apply for an actual visa, it was too late… Our pre-purchased flight was scheduled to leave before we could reasonably have expected to receive our papers.  So we lost the tickets (there were no refunds).  Needless to say we felt more than a little sheepish.  We learned to make the best of the situation though and headed back to Thailand to work on the details for our 2014 experiment (12 months in Bangkok).

Alright, now that we’ve been vulnerable with you, what are some of your travel mistakes?  Feel free to share what not to do in the comments:)

A final word… Anyone can tell you that mistakes when traveling are inevitable.  If we hadn’t made the above mistakes we would have made others.  The key is to prepare for a trip and then GO.  Don’t let fear of mistakes and imagined disaster keep you from the life-enhancing experience of seeing more of the world.  The biggest mistake is staying at home.






How We Paid for 12 Months of World Travel

This is NOT how we did it!
This is NOT how we did it!

“How could you afford to travel for an entire year?”  I’ve heard this question asked in a hundred different ways this year.

I held off on answering partly because I wasn’t sure if our plans would work.  We are not wealthy people.  I secretly feared that we would have to come back early. Luckily, things worked out more or less to plan. Here are the main takeaways:

Plan your prison break carefully – I’ve said this a lot but it bears repeating: we planned our leap well in advance.  We decided that cutting back on expenses was totally worth the effort it if it meant that we would be able to quit our jobs and have the freedom to do exactly what we wanted to do.

So we saved money by living in a one-bedroom, rented apartment instead of giving in to peer pressure and buying a house.  We cut back drastically on eating out and entertainment.  We drove older cars with no payments. We canceled subscriptions.  I bought most of my shoes at thrift stores (good thing too, as I had a thing for cowboy boots and they only cost $20 at Goodwill instead of $200 new).  We competed to see who could contribute more of their pay check to the travel fund. No cost saving measure seemed too much when compared to the absolute liberation that awaited.

Relocation not constant travel – Rather than opting for constant travel, our goal was to experience real life in different countries around the world.  So we opted for a series of 3-month relocations instead of country hopping every week.  This is critical.  It saved us a lot of money.  It was also more enjoyable than the stress of constantly being on the move.  By choosing the 3-month relocation model, we actually felt part of the various communities we lived in, we were able to make friends, lend a helping hand to various meaningful charities and have a deeper understanding of the place we visited.  It also meant that we could live in these exotic world cities for an average of $1000/month.  That was very little compared to what we were spending at home.

Sell all your stuff – I sold my car and most of our furniture within the span of a week right before we left Chico, the Northern Californian town we lived in prior to our trip.  I didn’t make a killing but we made enough to pay for our rent, groceries and entertainment for the first few months of our adventure.  Not bad for a ’99 Jetta and furniture we had paid less than $500 for in the first place!

Make friends - In each of the countries we visited we either made new friends or reconnected with friends that we already had.  Apart from the awesome social value of having friends to hang out with, these amazing people were generous with their time, networks and ideas.  The result?  We were hooked up with safe, affordable living accommodations, we were shown where to shop and eat out to save money and were (frequently) directly or indirectly offered income-generating opportunities.  This made a big difference financially.

Identify all possible revenue streams (even small ones) – In stark contrast with the traditional rat race model where you work your tail off for one company or organization (which then has a lot of power to control you), we learned that freedom on our travel year had a lot to do with diversifying income streams.  We decided that we were not going to hitch our wagon to one single employer (even if we were offered an opportunity to do remote work).  Instead we worked hard on identifying and growing multiple income streams.  We ended up with the following kinds of work:  blog ad revenue, various freelance writing gigs, consulting and other jobs that we picked up on the way.  This meant a lot more freedom and the ability to walk away from organizations we did not like.

Don’t buy crap - We stayed away from buying tourist trinkets for at least two solid reasons:  1)  They were a waste of money  2)  They took up too much space in our luggage.  This tactic alone freed up cash to pay for more important things like groceries.  In the end, we found a very low cost way to bring back souvenirs for friends and family: right before Christmas we bought non-perishable snacks from a few of the countries we visited and gave them as Christmas presents.  That was a lot more cost effective (and tasty) than buying random, made-in-China plates with “Kuala Lumpur” stamped on them…

Buy cheap tickets – Despite a few big mistakes in this area (like buying a round-the-world ticket and having to abandon the final, Mumbai leg), we eventually learned a lot about buying cheap air tickets and saving money that way.  The winning formula ended up being this: 1)  Buy your long-haul tickets on a reliable, third party discount site like Priceline  2)  Buy your short-haul flights from low cost carriers like EasyJet / Ryanair or Air Asia in Europe and Asia respectively and 2)  For long-haul flights, buy the day before your flight (you save BIG by doing this because the airline realizes it will make nothing on empty seats)  3)  Buy tickets leaving Tuesday – Thursday because these are less popular travel days and therefore cheaper.

Live like a local – We decided that there was nothing ritzy about going into debt by trying to live above our means and living above local standards.  So we lived in fairly humble living conditions, never stayed in expensive hotels and almost never splurged on over-priced restaurants that catered to wealthy expats.  As mentioned above, we learned that if we lived like locals we not only saved money but we also got a much more authentic feel for what life was like in the countries we visited.  For example:  we both wanted to see great tango performed in Buenos Aires but instead of dropping $100 on an over-produced tourist show, we accepted an invite from a friend to a fundraiser milonga (community tango dance) held at a local vocational school.  The experience was great and we got to help support a worthy cause.

Always have a safety cushion  – We did not want to lose our new-found freedom by having to return early to the US or having to return hat in hand, asking for donations.  So we decided that, regardless of the fact that we had saved up quite a bit for the trip, we were going to leave a healthy financial cushion for future expenses.  This allowed us to travel with more peace of mind and also allowed us to be more selective when crafting our professional plans for 2014 and beyond.

What are your travel budgeting tips? - We have learned so much from listening to the advice of others.  How have you budgeted for world travel in the past?  What has worked?  What hasn’t?  Leave a comment and give the CultureMutt community your best advice.



Change of Plans

Sooooooo, we’re not in India.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, so bear with me as I take a rather circuitous route to the explanation.

September and October were rather busy months for us, travel-wise. For my birthday, we took a little trip down to Milan, Italy, because hey, we were nearish (actual reason: I wanted to try real Italian gelato and pizza. Yes, a separate blog post is forthcoming.)

We flew back to Berlin for about 3 days, and then we headed out again, this time to Berrien Springs Michigan, U.S.A. for about a week as Bjorn had a speaking engagement at his alma mater over the weekend. I was excited as this trip was my first to the Midwest and I had the chance to see some really related relatives (Filipinos understand) and snuffle some very cute kids. (Post is coming, blah blah blah.)

We returned to Berlin, Germany, but only for 2 days. Then we were off to merry old England.

V is for visa problems
Now before we left Berlin, it had come to our attention that we needed visas to get into India. Between my American passport arrogance and Bjorn’s smugness in his Swedish one, we had blithely assumed that we would either get a visa waiver like we had in
Bangkok and Berlin, or could just pay a fee at the airport, like we did in Buenos Aires.

Nope. Turns out if you don’t have a visa, you can get deported. Some people said they were sure we could probably bribe our way through the airport. However, as we didn’t know the language or anyone there, I didn’t want to take the risk, especially after reading about the Indian prisons in “Shantaram,” which some well-meaning friends had loaned to me. And you know, all that stuff about bribing being illegal and immoral.

Instead of an hours-long layover in London, we decided to stick around and try to get our visas in England. Unfortunately, we lost the last leg of our round-the-world ticket as British Airways couldn’t seem to comprehend that we wanted to leave later, nor would they give us any credit for the flights we didn’t use (why British Airways, why??)

It was Oct. 2. We set about the task of getting our visas to India from England, only to discover that we had to mail our passports in and it would take 15 working days to get them, not including mail processing and delivery time. This proved to be a problem, as we were attending a wedding in the United States (in Georgia! My first time in the South!) and were planning to leave on Oct. 17.

We decided not to apply for the visas in England after all, as we didn’t want to chance mailing our passports in and then not having them for our trip to the States.

We spent a few pleasant weeks in England with Bjorn’s family, taking brisk walks which did nothing to mitigate the vast amounts of food we were consuming. Then we were off to Hotlanta! (Forthcoming post, yadda yadda yadda.)

After a spectacular time in the South that included copious amounts of Coca-Cola sodas and a wedding assistant marveling at my multiple plate, double-fisted eating style at the wedding buffet, we jetted back to England.

Looking for a shortcut
We had learned that it only took 6 days to get a visa to India from Bangkok, Thailand, so we bade a fond farewell to England and arrived in Bangkok around the end of October.

We went to the visa office the very next day, after spending two hours filling out forms online and another hour and a half spent in getting our visa photos and traveling to the office.

The very first thing we were asked: “Have you booked your hotel and flights already?”

Well, no. But we did have the numbers for the flights we would like to take and the details for the hotel we would book when we got our visas.

But it wasn’t good enough. We countered with, “If we book our flights and hotel tonight and come back tomorrow, can you guarantee that we will get the visas on the sixth working day?”

Well, no, she couldn’t. In fact, she couldn’t guarantee that we would get a visa at all.
If we did get one, she told us it might take up to 10 working days.

If we booked our flights and hotel with the 10-working days timeline In mind, it meant that Bjorn and I would only be in India for a week before we had to catch a flight back to Bangkok and England.

By this point, we were plenty fed up with all the hurdles and hassles, and couldn’t see how we would be able to find and do meaningful service projects in that amount of time. Why not stay in Bangkok where we had connections and could pick up where we left off on our previous service projects?

So we did.

The best-laid plans…
Our plan to live in four world cities that begin with “B” is ending up more like 3 1/2 cities (I have to give Bracknell, England, props as we did spend a good amount of time there), but one thing I’ve learned about international living and travel: You have to be determined enough to move, but flexible enough to stay.

Besides, there’s a Little India here. Maybe that will be close enough. (I’m kiiiiidding. Relax.)

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“Missionary” needs a facelift

Above is the video of my favorite public speaking gig so far this year – the September 27 University Vespers at my alma mater, Andrews University, for Homecoming, 2013. About 700 students, alumni, faculty, staff and community members attended. I dedicated this speech to giving the idea of missionary work (which so often elicits negative reactions) a facelift.

The speech was actually an extension of one of the biggest goals of our trip around the world this year: to rethink how we can best live lives of international service. For Jammie and I, faith and service are very closely linked so we were also very keen on experimenting with how to live out our faith more tangibly through acts of service.

CultureMutt readers are a diverse bunch so whether or not you come from a Christian background, I would love your comments on how you think faith communities should reinvent the approach they take to sharing their messages around the world.

For now, here’s why I think the term “missionary” needs a facelift:

“Missionary” sounds oppressive.  Historically, missionaries were often backed by the military might of oppressive colonial powers. Religion was often forced on unwilling converts.  Today, centuries later, the bad taste is still in the mouths of many.  In many cases, those that go out as missionaries have more material wealth and education than those they are trying to reach.  This often results in an unhealthy dynamic where people convert to the beliefs of these missionaries more in order to gain access to these resources rather than because they are sincerely convicted of a religious ideology.

“Missionary” sounds kooky.  I grew up as the child of missionaries. We lived with other missionaries, a good portion of which were straight-up weird.  You got the feeling that they were working abroad, less for noble, save-the-world motives and more because their cult-like dress sense, odd social behaviors and blanket rejection of anything in pop culture that brings a smile, simply would not fit in back home.

“Missionary” sounds out-of-touch.  So often missionaries are only effective in distant lands but would be of no effect back home.  Often they are able to leverage their status as expats (typically from more developed countries) to gain a platform abroad and in the process, much of what they transmit ends up being thinly-veiled Western cultural ideas as opposed to any genuinely helpful spiritual insights.

“Missionary” sounds fundamentalist.  I’m not sure why it is true but so often, people that opt to work as missionaries have an extremely narrow definition of faith.  They cling to dogma for dear life and are rarely able to see the big picture.  The faith that gets transmitted is therefore very narrow and close-minded.  It is not a generous, accepting faith but rather an unhealthy VIP list for spiritual gold diggers who think they are the only ones headed for sublime bliss in the afterlife.

Being a missionary need entail none of the above.  Alright, here’s where I’ll get on my soap box:  It’s time for a new generation to redefine what it means to be a missionary.  There is nothing wrong with sharing authentic faith.  It’s actually a good thing. There is nothing wrong with telling your friends about the ideas, stories and truths that have had a life-changing effect on you.  There is a way to be an enthusiastic believer without stooping to the unfortunate depths of many a missionary gone before.

Start the facelift in the comment section!  There are going to be different takes on this one but to me personally, missionary work should be about what I call “savvy, global do-gooding”.  It should not be about forcing ideology but more about an open discussion about how to improve the world around us, fused with practical acts of service that actually help our fellow human beings.  I am convinced that, at the very least, this is where all so-called missionaries should start.

I would love your input and ideas.  Leave a comment below on what you think modern missionaries should be doing.  Be as open or as controversial as you like, this is about conversation, not about one right answer.



Lost for words

Flat Natalie and I stand at the border of the "American Sector" in Berlin, Germany, but English is spoken throughout the city.
Flat Natalie and I stand at the border of the “American Sector” in Berlin, Germany, but English is spoken throughout the city.

In Bangkok, I learned how to say numbers, greetings, “Thank you,” “Yes/No,” “No meat,” “How much?” and the names of my favorite dishes in Thai (although if you asked me  to say them now, all you would get is a puzzled stare).

In Buenos Aires, my Spanish improved to the point where I could have very basic conversations with people (it especially helped if those people were under the age of 10).

In Berlin,  my German vocabulary has topped out at “How are you?” “Good-bye,” “Excuse me,” “Yes/No” and “Breakfast” (yes, I wake up too late most days to technically have this meal, but I just like saying “frustuck” (frouh-stook)).

While I firmly believe it is important to respect the language and customs of your host country, my desire to become a polyglot is still stuck at desire rather than actual polyglot-ness (maybe because I use words like polyglot-ness). Besides, I have heard that learning German is not the easiest of tasks. When I ask people who are actually enrolled in German classes what it’s like to learn the language, the answers have ranged from “hard” to “very hard” to “I want to die.”

Before this trip, I had hoped that simply being around a language would make it more familiar to me or easier to pick up. But I have discovered I am no sponge to foreign phrases or strange syllables. My language acquisition device only kicks in when necessary.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it turns out she’s also got a part-time job as the coat-check girl of language learning. By that I mean she’ll check in a few words at a time at an outrageous cost. She’ll begrudgingly hang them up in the closet of my mind, but doesn’t seem to notice or care when they fall to floor and become dusty and rumpled.  When I try to retrieve them, she makes me wait a long time and there’s no telling what may be missing  when she hands them over.

I feel kinda bad that I haven’t learned more German, but I’m impressed that I haven’t had to. I’d say it’s almost a guarantee that anyone under the age of 35 in Berlin will speak English fairly fluently, and most everyone else will have an inkling of what you’re saying.

In fact, I have found that in Berlin the most reliable indicator of English proficiency is someone saying, “My English is not good.” These words tend to preface intense, deep conversations on topics from  psychology to politics; they crop up again when the speaker is trying to remember words like “oscillate” or “synergistic.”

Plus, sometimes you don’t need words at all to communicate.

Late one night, I stepped into a kebab place for a doner (meat shaved from a vertical spit and served on flatbread). I wanted to know what type of meat was being used, but the man facing me across the counter was an older gentleman who didn’t speak English. No one was around to help translate. After I said, “Hallo,” I was at a loss for words.

I frowned.

He frowned.

Stepping closer to the counter, I pointed at the rotating meat and said loudly, “Mooooo or bawk-bawk-bawk?” (Complete with arm-flapping movements, I might add.)

He tucked his hands into his armpits and literally bent over laughing. He straightened up, shook his head and said, still laughing a little,  “Moooo.”

He then proceeded to shave one of the largest piles of meat I have ever seen onto my flatbread.

And it was, as they say around here, sehr gut.







Dwarfed by history at the Cotswolds

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A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Cotswolds in England. I was told it was an area of exquisite beauty, with wonderful historic homes, babbling waterways and views of unparalleled loveliness. So of course the first thing I saw was the hordes of tourists, spilling out of the shops and jamming the sidewalks at Bourton-on-the-Water, a village in the Cotswolds.

But no matter. The crowds actually added liveliness to the scene rather than detracting any pleasure. All was picturesque and pleasing; the streets full of cobblestones, the shallow river with ducks, dogs and the occasional small child. Plus, it was a fine English day of cool breezes and warm sunshine.

And then I stepped into the Twilight Zone. Or, as it is otherwise known, the Model Village. The Model Village is a 1:9 replica of Bourton-on-the-Water. At first, I was delighted by the accurate layout and signage of the scaled-down village. I was charmed by the extra touches: If you pressed your ear against the miniature churches’ windows, you could actually hear choir music. I thrilled at feeling like Gulliver, tromping through a tiny town. Then I saw IT and I was quickly brought down to size.

IT was a model of the Model Village — with another model of the model of the Model Village within! (Yes, you read that right.) It was a surreal moment, like looking at a reflection of yourself within two mirrors that are reflecting each other. I was tempted to think about the nature of reality, my place in the universe and physical dimensions vs. time, but fortunately I was hauled from the brink of that dismal abyss of pseudo-philosophical existential inquiry by another pressing issue: I felt a bit peckish.

After a leisurely, delicious picnic lunch along the banks of the river in dappled sunlight (eat your heart out, Jane Austen!), we decided to take a stroll over to some other villages in the Cotswolds. As we tramped along a trail beside a field of tall golden grass, we encountered some surprising denizens: llamas, calmly chewing clumps of sod in the front yard of a farm. More surprises were in store for us, as a little farther down the trail we encountered two rather fat, friendly MINIATURE PONIES that greedily ate grass from our hands.

Man, I heart this place so much.

After an especially lovely stretch of trail along a babbling brook which passed beneath a cathedral of trees, we emerged in the Slaughters, or more particularly, Lower Slaughter. Far from being a scene of bloodied animal parts or foolish young folk running amok with handheld video recorders and chainsaws, Lower Slaughter is a quaint village of undeniable charm. Slaughter, according to the, comes from the old English word “Slohtre,” “which has nothing to do with killing things and means, simply, ‘Muddy place.'”

Besides being idyllic, the village is home to Lower Slaughter Manor, a grand home of beauteous proportions that has been turned into a hotel. Local lore has it that the poet John Milton wrote his epic “Paradise Lost” while in a Slaughter house (har har), and I mistakenly thought it was at the Lower Slaughter Manor House. However, Eyford House in Upper Slaughter is the actual/alleged site. I did not know this at the time; as a survivor of UCLA’s English 10 series and author of “Baal and Asherah: Bad-Ass Demons of “Paradise Lost,” (I was inordinately proud of the acronym B.A.D. that was formed in that title, as well as the use of “Bad-Ass” in an official college essay—ah, such are the follies of youth), I still swooned in ignorant bliss in front of the Lower Slaughter Manor House.

Around an acute corner from the most perfect cottage imaginable lies the Old Mill. The Old Mill is apparently home to a tea room, museum and gift shop, but all I was interested in was the homemade organic ice cream sold there. I had the Butter Crunch flavor which tasted like Butter Pecan to me, only with toffee chips and minus the pecans. Very tasty, fairly creamy but not heavy, and the perfect end to a wonderful day.



Retirement is fool’s gold, live your life now!

London, nothing quite compares...
London, nothing quite compares…

One of the things Jammie and I decided to do nine months ago was to try to create a life where we experienced the benefits of retirement right now.  Most people, ourselves included, put world travel, high-quality time with those you love and pursuing hobbies, in a “things to do in retirement” bucket.  Here’s why we decided that was a bad idea:

1) Retirement is fool’s gold.

Thinking that retirement is a good reason to neglect your family and your health for 40 years is just a very terrible way to live.  In fact, if you follow most of corporate America and live this way there won’t be much family or health left to enjoy by the time you get that $35 pen engraved with a swirly font, thanking you for your “years of service”.  Don’t buy into the “fool’s gold” of retirement that tells people that it is good to put off the best in life until the end.  This is fundamentally bankrupt.  Reject it now while you have the time.

2) Retirement is too far away.

I think there is a lot to be said for delayed gratification, being content in life and learning to wait.  It is good to be patient. That said, you can definitely make decisions NOW that set you up to taste some of the things that are typically associated with retirement (long-term travel, freedom from a cubicle and living in a way where you call your own shots) in far less time.  CultureMutt is about finding solutions for what we call savvy, global do-gooding.  In our posts we want to give you the inspiration and the tools to plan for and make the jump into a more exciting, fulfilling life of service SOON rather than in some distant retirement.

3). Who knows how you’ll feel when you retire.

I was talking to a retired attorney friend this week via Skype.  He has been a mentor of mine for years.  “I’m so happy you decided to travel now instead of waiting for retirement when you may not have the energy.  That took a lot of foresight!” he said.

I thanked him for the encouragement but on a deeper level I thank the writers and bloggers that convinced me by their ideas and their personal lives, that this kind of life is possible in the here and now.

I’ve had too many friends and family members fall into ill health around retirement age to buy into those posters of smiley seniors frolicking in the sun.  I hope that will be me at 70 but just in case I’m playing dominos at a care facility instead, I’m traveling now.

4). You could die

OK, we’re not going to spend a bunch of time on this very depressing thought.  But who cares if you reach the top of the totem pole in some corporate hell hole if the first day of retirement results in a heart attack?  The stats about retired executives that die within five years or retirement are alarming.  Don’t be that statistic.

5).  Ditching the rat race could be your best financial decision so far.

At the risk of repeating everything I said a couple posts ago about the very healthy financial realities that could be yours if you quit an unfulfilling job to travel and/or follow your passion, let me just state again, with all my heart, that I am SO glad I did not let fear of financial ruin stop me from leaving the office worker life.  The long-term risk of failure in life if you stay in a crap job are FAR greater than the possible temporary financial setbacks of letting passion sculpt your future career.  Nobody is saying it won’t be hard work to create your ideal life.  At first, at least, this kind of independent work is harder than the traditional 9-5 life. But the hard work that you put into doing something your are passionate about and love, is so much more meaningful, exciting and fulfilling than being a slave to a broken system.

Retirement is NOT the answer.  More than ever, we have choices and we can opt to live our ideal lives now.  Keep reading CultureMutt and we will do our best to keep inspiring you and showing you practical tips on how to take the leap, follow your passion and serve the world around you.



What it’s really like to travel on Ryanair

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I’d heard the stories about budget airlines in Europe: how sometimes it costs less to fly than take the train, how you could pay fares so low you were basically only paying for the cost of fuel. My inner cheapskate was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to take advantage of the low fares and begin jetting all over Europe.

And then I discovered why the fares were so low.

Bjorn and I recently traveled to England from Berlin on Ryanair to visit his parents and celebrate his dad’s birthday. My in-laws wisely reminded us to check the luggage requirements before we left. Feelings of unease began to creep up as I read through them. For starters, they charge you to check-in bags. OK, fair enough. But you pay from $33 (25 euros) – $134 (100 euros) to check in one, 33 lb. bag during  high season.

But I quelled the jitters as we were just going for a long weekend and using carry-on luggage. Then  I saw the requirements for the carry-on luggage:

– Strictly one item of cabin baggage per passenger. That means only one piece of luggage can be in your hands.  Handbags/briefcases/ laptops/shop purchases/cameras etc had to carried within the carry-on. They thoughtfully and generously added that infants were not seen as cabin baggage. (Although maybe they meant that babies couldn’t have cabin baggage. Or maybe they meant babies could have MORE than one item of cabin baggage. You never know, babies do seem to travel with a lot of accessories. Boy,  that’s some imprecise  wording. But I digress.)
-The cabin baggage can weigh at most 22 lbs (10 kg).
-The dimensions of the bag can not exceed 55 cm x 40 cm x 20 cm (21.7 in. x 15.7 in. x 7.9 in.). As our Internet connection was down, I racked my mind trying to remember how many centimeters are in an inch and  tried to do the conversions in my head, but I only ended up developing a throbbing pain behind my right ear. I gave up and packed all my stuff into a large, squishy, reusable shopping bag, reasoning that if it proved to be too big, I could (hopefully) crumple it down to a more appropriate size.

As we approached our gate at the airport, we were greeted by the sight of a line that looked like it spanned the length of a football field. Oh, I thought, they must be in line to board the plane already.

But no. It was just the line to get into gate area’s waiting lounge. When we finally made it in, my eyes couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing at first. Why were there so many people in here? Surely they couldn’t all fit into one plane. And why were most of them standing? I estimated there was seating for less than half of the passengers of that flight. People were standing, sitting on the floor, wedged tightly into corners. It didn’t resemble an airport lounge so much as a crammed cattle pen.

Bjorn and I squeezed ourselves into a space between 3 banks of seats. They announced our plane was here. I expected everyone to get into orderly lines and file onto the plane according to their boarding groups. Silly me.  Everyone sprang up out of their seats (if they had one) and flung themselves out the doors, of course. It was pandemonium, contained (barely) by the walls of the room and the narrowness of the exit.

Fortunately, Bjorn and I happened to be seated near the exit and managed to get two seats next to each other on the plane. And that’s about the only thing we got on that flight.

Ryanair gives out nothing for free to its passengers, not even the paper for your boarding pass (you must print it out yourself). No snacks, no coffee/tea/soda, not even water.

Now I’ve flown budget airlines before, notably Southwest Airlines in the United States (although it probably isn’t fair to put Ryanair and Southwest in the same class. Southwest is indubitably better than even the larger commercial airlines like United, Delta or American Airlines.) On Southwest flights, funny/cheerful flight attendants hand out free snacks (peanuts or pretzels, but sometimes both!) and drinks. Pro tip: If asking for water, you can ask for an entire can. It’s better than scrabbling after a flimsy cup that always seems determined to fly out of my hands. Plus, you don’t have to leave your seat tray down so you can have a place to put said cup. You can just stuff the can into the seat pocket in front of you.

Ryanair doesn’t even give you a seat pocket. No, seriously. The first thing I noticed was the smooth, plastic back of the chair in front of me. No barf bags, no magazines that are little more than pages for ads, no place to surreptitiously stuff your trash. They don’t even have buttons to recline the chair (although I must say I was grateful for that feature.)

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Their tagline is the “Low Fares Airline” not  “You’ll love the way we fly.” They don’t claim to be “doing what they do best” or that theirs is “the way to fly.”

To be fair, both of our flights were on time, we got to all our destinations safely and at the end of the day, that’s what really matters.

So Ryanair, despite your shortcomings, I may be seeing you again. After all, I love to fly and it shows.

-Photos by Bjorn Karlman