A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

A coworker put out a call on our office intranet recently asking about people’s favorite souvenirs from abroad. This was my contribution to that question… I liked it, so I thought I’d cross post it here. (By the way, I love that in French, “souvenirs” means “memories.”)


When I was little, my parents did a lot of traveling due to my dad’s job with Northwest Airlines. They brought many cool souvenirs back for me– I remember a wooden cow from Denmark (I think) and a big stuffed panda bear from South Korea (no, not China, strangely). The souvenir I remember the most, though, was a book from Japan, written in Japanese, in the traditional style (back to front and bottom to top). My mom used to “read” it to us by looking at the pictures and making up a story to go with it. It was something about a man who drops a rice cake into a hole in the ground inhabited by some sort of gnomes. To this day, I have no idea  what the story was really about, but I still remember it very clearly.

As an adult, a friend of mine who works in the children’s publishing industry got me interested in collecting children’s books, often gifting me with picture books for birthday or Christmas. Integrating the hobby with my love of travel, I began buying children’s books as souvenirs when I visit other countries (and anywhere, really). This began way before I had any children on the way, and I did worry for awhile that I’d never have anyone to read them to… but I still bought them, because if nothing else, I enjoy them myself. I love going to a bookstore and looking through the fun, colorful books, trying to pick out something with an inkling of the country’s culture. When I’m in a country where English isn’t the majority language, I typically look for books in the local language.

My collection has grown to be rather significant over the years, so it’s impossible to pick just one favorite. Instead, I narrowed it down to four:

1. A book of Russian fairy tales… in Russian. I love the intricate illustrations and the way the Cyrillic script looks. Even with some knowledge of Russian, I can barely read any of it, but that doesn’t really matter.

2. Les chose cassées d’Octavio (Octavio‘s Broken Things). A story about a boy who can fix anything with glue, nails, wire, etc, but who has to learn how to mend the sad heart of the girl next door.

3. Grandma Joins the All Blacks. From New Zealand, obviously.

4. An Strae Beagán (A Bit Lost). I thought it was originally written in Irish, but I recently saw it at a bookstore here and learned that it was apparently written in English by an Irish author and translated into Irish… kind of a bummer, but still a cool book. It’s about a little owl who gets lost and can’t find his mother, so a friendly fox takes him around to all the different forest animals and asks, “Is this your mommy?” Each time, the owl replies in the negative, and describes an aspect of his mother not met by the current animal. “That’s not my mommy; my mommy has big eyes!” So the fox takes him to see a frog. It goes on like this until the owlet does indeed find his mother. And then they all eat cookies. Happy endings for all.

My collection to date includes books in French, Spanish, Russian, Irish, Danish, Japanese, Hmong, Catalan, and of course English (hailing from France, Red Balloon Bookstore, Moscow, Ireland, Copenhagen, Midway Books on Snelling and University, Hmongtown Market in St Paul, Barcelona, and Australia/New Zealand/the US, respectively). Looking for books has taught me some things, as well– for example, I wasn’t able to find a book in Swahili in Tanzania, or in Spanish on Cozumel. I didn’t look that hard in Tanzania– perhaps in Arusha City I’d have found something– but my spouse and I spent a lot of time wandering around Cozumel’s main (only) town, San Miguel, looking for a bookstore. It didn’t exist. All of the librerías we learned about from the phone book or natives were actually paper supply stores. We did visit an actual bookstore in a larger town, but the only books in Spanish were obviously translated from English, and completely devoid of Mexican culture. (Which, admittedly, does say something about the world in and of itself….)

The average children’s picture book contains about 500-1000 words. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and while I love to take pictures while abroad, I think it’s worthwhile to bring words home, too.

New Zealand: Part II, Business

After my spouse left for the airport, I got ready and then got on the bus with the students for the drive down to Rotorua. It was fun; nice bus ride. That afternoon, 2 more orientation sessions. My colleague A learned the All Blacks haka with one group of students while B and I observed an orientation session with another group, then we all went down to Blue Lake for a barbeque. It was chilly, but some students went in the water. Yikes!  Then we had dinner, drinks at the hostel, and tried to rationalize not going to the volunteer day on Saturday.

We didn’t go to the volunteer day.  B and A (colleagues from my university) and M and S (colleagues from our partner organization) went to a spa to soak in the hot springs and have massages. I didn’t want to soak in the hot springs because it was possible that I was pregnant (I’ve since found out that I’m not), so I just wandered around all morning and explored the town.

Later, S and M had meetings and A was doing his own thing, so B and I tried to do something. Actually, we tried to do several things, and struck out every time! First we wanted to go to the Kapa Haka competition which was happening right by our hotel, but we went there and it was sold out. Then we went to see about the Rotorua Museum and it cost too much. Then we decided to go to Te Puia and the lady at the hotel desk told us it was a pleasant, 20-30 minute walk. Um, no. It was a 45 minute walk along one long, boring road. Ha! We laughed about it When we got there, entry was $46, and I had to be back at the hotel in about 2 hours to call my spouse, so I took a bus back and B went in.

That night we all (read: staff and students) went to Tamaki Maori Village (basically a simulation/show of a Maori village). My favorite part was the welcome ceremony (not my video)! They warned us not to laugh, but I wouldn’t have wanted to laugh anyway– it was fierce and beautiful, but definitely not funny! The village and the show and the food were pretty good, too, but not as cool as the welcoming ceremony. The bus ride back, however, was hilarious! B and I sat together and joked about this thing that looked like a button to turn on purple lights. The party bus button! He’s like, “Go ahead, push it! No one will know!” I’m like, “Yeah, until the disco ball comes down!” Also, the bus driver was trying to get people to lead songs. We (all) sang parts of “All You Need is Love,” “The Wheels on the Bus” (to which the driver provided a real ‘honk honk honk’), “All Star,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” (while the bus driver drove round-and-round a roundabout). Hilarious!

New Zealand: Part I, Vacation

I got back last night from my 2-week trip to New Zealand. I have this weird sensation of simultaneously feeling like the trip went really fast, but that I’ve been gone forever. This always happens to me when I travel, but it’s still a strange sensation!

The first part of the trip was vacation, then work. My spouse came with me for the vacation part. Sadly, we lost 24 hours of our vacation time in NZ due to flight delays in Minneapolis and Dallas, which kind of sucked. But we ended up spending an afternoon in LA with a friend of mien who lives there, so that was okay.

On Monday morning, we arrived in Auckland at long last. We had lunch, checked in to our hotel, then caught the ferry to Devonport, a small island outside of Auckland. It was a very nice ferry ride and a nice little town. We were pretty tired, though, so we had dinner in the room and went to bed early. Tuesday we walked around the entire city of Auckland. We found this cool park where it looked like parts of demolished buildings had been used to create art (either that, or the rest of the buildings are underneath the grass at the park…?). We couldn’t find any explanation of the art at the park… I still need to google that! We also visited the Auckland Museum, which had a lot of cool Maori/Pacific Islander historical and cultural artifacts. Very cool museum! We tried to go out to dinner for Valentine’s Day, but of course everywhere was super expensive, so we just ate at the hotel.