Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel – FAQs

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.  

Here are some of the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) I've received about my many years of business and personal travel.

Have you ever had an emergency landing or any in-flight trouble?

My first unscheduled landing was weather related. Even though it happened 30 years ago, I remember it well. I left Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (ORD) in a 20-seat commuter propeller plane. [Imagine if you will two adult elephants walking one behind the other, trunk to tail, with a newborn baby elephant way down below and between them. That's how my plane looked taxiing out to the runway between two wide-bodied jets!] I was headed for Bloomington, Indiana, a short hop to the south. Soon after takeoff, we ran into a serious electrical storm with lightening cracking around the wings. Well, in that little plane, we definitely were at the mercy of the elements, and we sure learned what turbulence was. Seconds later, the woman next to me was hanging on to my arm for dear life as though I had the power to save her. After what seemed like ages (but was probably no more than 5 minutes), we put down in Terra Haute, Indiana. There, we waited out the storm and then continued on to our scheduled destination. I can't say, however, that I "saw my life flash before my eyes" indicating I was going to die soon.

My second unscheduled landing was to refuel. I was on a Boeing 747 Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Washington DC and, as usual, the route for that flight went over the Atlantic Provinces of Canada and down over the New England states of the US. There was a widespread power failure in the greater New York City area over which we had to fly, and air traffic control was operating on a severely reduced basis. So we flew "figure eights" over Massachusetts to kill time. Eventually, we put down in Boston to refuel. Unfortunately, as no one was expecting us, it took a while for anyone to come out to where we were parked. And then it took another hour for a fuel truck with all the right attachments to service a 747, to arrive. And as Lufthansa had only one flight in/out of Boston each day, and that was nowhere near the time we arrived, they had no staff on site to help things along. As it happened, more than a few people were ticketed to fly on to Boston once they landed in Washington DC. Of course, they started making noises about wanting to get off and go straight home, but customs and immigration refused to allow it. Eventually, they did relent, but deplaning passengers could take only their carry-on luggage. Any checked luggage had to continue on the flight to Washington and be flown back later.

On a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Bangkok, Thailand, which followed along a mountain range, we'd just been served a meal with hot drinks when we hit some sort of air pocket. Well, we lost some altitude in double-quick time and the food and drinks went up in the air, but no one was hurt. I don't even recall the oxygen masks dropping down. [Each time I watch the animated safety video on a plane, it shows how calm everyone is when the masks drop down. I'm thinking that is highly unlikely for most people in a real emergency.]

Another time, I was taking off from Calgary in Alberta, Canada, in a Boeing 727. That plane has three engines, one on the top at the back, and one on each side of the body at the rear. There was a very strong crosswind and when we were about halfway down the runway there was a loud bang as the compressor on the top engine stalled. Well, that certainly got the passenger's attention. The pilot said there was nothing to worry about and that he'd simply taxi to the end of the runway and try again in the other direction. [From the reactions of some of the passengers near me, it seemed that they would rather have changed planes instead.]

Once on approach to Boston's Logan International (BOS) we came down through very heavy and low clouds, but all I could see below us was the sea. The pilot announced that, unfortunately, we'd missed the airport, so he was going to "go around and try that again".

In November 2009, I was on a Boeing 747 coming into the Ben-Gurion airport (TLV) of Tel Aviv, Israel. We were lower than 1,000 feet when the pilot decided to abort the landing. With a great roar, the four mighty engines sucked up at least a day's pay in fuel, and the giant plane climbed steeply. Whatever the reason, we circled back around the airport and landed on the second attempt. No explanation was given. However, I have to admit that it crossed my mind that the airport might be under a rocket attack.

Occasionally, when I'm half way across the Atlantic or Pacific I think about how far we are from the nearest emergency landing place. In a real emergency, I think the answer is "too far", so it's best not to dwell on that and/or to have a(nother) stiff drink.

During the volcanic eruption in Iceland in 2010, stories surfaced about past aircraft problems with volcanic ash. I was pleased to hear that some years ago a Boeing 747 managed to glide for quite some time and distance after all four engines died after taking in ash, and that the pilots managed to get them restarted.

In your travels, have you run into any serious political or other unrest?

No, but I've been close enough to the fringes to have had my curiosity satisfied.

When I landed in Bangkok in June of 1979, there had been a military coup, and the airport was full of very short soldiers with very large automatic weapons. It was a little unnerving for a young lad from the bush, but I didn't feel at all unsafe. Outside the airport, there was no evidence of any security concerns.

A couple of years later, I departed from Frankfurt, Germany, where I experienced some very thorough security. This was back when the Baader-Meinhof Group (Red Army Faction) was active in Germany. Heavily armed soldiers were all over the terminal, and German Shepherd dogs sniffed my luggage and me. Apparently, that was normal!

My first adventure trip was to the Amazon River in northern Peru. To outfit myself I went to a military surplus store and spent about $25 on some khaki shirts, trousers, and a webbing belt, and the shirts even came with some rank and insignia. At the end of my jungle trip we were taken to the airport by bus where we waited by a hanger. Several military helicopters swooped in and landed near us and a whole bunch of armed soldiers jumped out. There I was looking every bit like a mercenary or gunrunner, except for one standout feature, the bright red laces in my hiking boots! It turns out they weren't after me, they were headed out on "pirate patrol" on the Amazon. [While on the river, I also saw evidence of that in the form of navy patrol vessels.]

On my first full day in Santiago, Chile, I went to an afternoon movie and when I came out it was dusk. As I walked down a street, I could see a large group off in the distance chanting and coming towards me. So I went off to get a closer look. Apparently, something panicked them and they started running towards me. Unfortunately, the quickest way out of the street for me was to run towards them and then to a side street, so I did that, and they and I turned off at the same time. Safe, I thought! 30 seconds later, an armored car entered the intersection we'd just vacated and directed very high-pressure water cannons at many of the protesters knocking some of them over. Interesting thought I, and then I heard the sound of something metal rolling along the paved road and saw a teargas canister coming my way. Let's just say that I moved quite quickly down the side street. 200 meters down, I ran into a whole squad of riot police in full gear quietly smoking and talking. Back at my hotel, I was told that students protested regularly over the disappearance of people who had been arrested by the government, and that the whole episode was carefully choreographed. The next morning, I was awakened by a public address system right outside my hotel window where a speaker for some freedom political party was addressing a rally. I was sure that a SWAT team would be rappelling through my window any minute, but after 30 minutes, the protesters packed up and left.

Have you ever run afoul at security screenings?

When I moved from Australia to the US, my port-of-entry in Europe was Rome, Italy. In Hong Kong, I'd bought a new attaché case and it had an expandable bottom. The very arrogant customs agent in Rome was convinced it had some sort of hidden compartment. He tipped everything out on a desk and was disgusted not to find anything and he threw up his hands and walked away. I waited for some time not knowing what to do, but when he didn't come back, I packed up and left.

In July 1992, I'd been in Russia for a 2-week lecture tour. Coming back from Saint Petersburg on the train, I sent my main case onto Helsinki to be stored while I traveled around Finland by train for a week. I recovered my bag on the way to the airport and admitted that it had not been in my possession for the previous week while it was in storage. In normally tranquil Finland, that week security was "over the top" because the leaders of some 10 countries (including the US) were coming to town for a summit. So I was taken to a small cubicle. I had to take everything out of the case and it was X-rayed empty to make sure nothing was hidden in the frame.

Once, I flew into Frankfurt from Berlin where I'd already cleared security. Although I was still in a secure area when I arrived in Frankfurt, I had to go through another security checkpoint, and it was operated by a woman who had all the charm of an East German border guard. She gave me such a hard time I thought she didn't like me for some reason, but it appeared that she didn't like anybody that day (or perhaps any day)! And 200 meters along from that checkpoint, I was stopped at another one. Don't you just hate that when that happens?

Several times, I've been chosen at random just prior to boarding for a thorough check of my hand luggage, even when I've been ticketed in Business Class.

September 11, 2001, was a Tuesday, and my wife and I were ticketed to fly from Washington DC to Kona, Hawaii, on the following Saturday. We actually got out via a different airport on the Monday, flew to Chicago, Los Angeles (where we made a last minute change), and then Honolulu, Oahu, without our luggage. The next day we flew to the Big Island with only carry-on bags and our luggage arrived that afternoon. A week later, we departed from Kona airport, which is a sleepy place with palm-thatched roofs on small cabins, one of which houses security. They discovered a pair of stainless steel folding scissors in my wife's carry-on bag, after she's been through at least three lots of security the week before without their being detected.

Have you flown around the world?

I have flown around the world twice, but only once during the same trip. In the first case, I went from Australia to the US via Asia and Europe, but did not complete the circle until several years later when I flew across the Pacific from the US to Australia. My only around-the-world trip was flown in two weeks in 2008; it ranked only 11th by distance on my personal flight log as it was done in the upper half of the northern hemisphere. It was 18,692 miles (29,907 kms) and involved 57:45 hours travel time with 32:30 hours in the air. The route was Washington DC; Frankfurt, Germany; Milan, Italy; Frankfurt; Seoul, South Korea; Jeju Island, South Korea; Seoul; San Francisco; and Washington DC. It was a business trip and I wanted only two stopovers (Milan and Jeju), but to get a special fare, I needed at least three, so I stayed overnight at a hotel near Seoul airport. The good news is that I was in Business Class. [As a "practice run" for that trip, six days prior to starting it, I returned from a trip to Japan, 12 time zones in the opposite direction.] If one were planning to enjoy an around-the-world trip, one would take much longer, and one would almost certainly do it going west, to handle better the time changes.

In late 2011, I will do a similar trip, stopping off in Copenhagen, Denmark; Busan, South Korea; and Tokyo, Japan. However, I hope to spread out the flying over four weeks.

[In 2009, I visited the historic site of Petra in Jordan. While walking around the ruins I struck up a conversation with a retired man from Canada. He and a party of "well-heeled" tourists were on an all-First-Class National Geographic charter Boeing 757 that was going around the world in 30 days stopping off at major tourist attractions. The ticket price was around US$65,000/person, meals and accommodation included! How many tickets would you like?]

Is there anywhere you haven't been that you really want to go?

Yes. To start with, Slovenia and Croatia, the Pyramids of Egypt, Southern Spain and Morocco, Greece, Turkey, Bolivia, and New Zealand.

What's your favorite place?

I don't have one, really! I enjoy every place that I visit. You can have a bad time in some exotic location and a good time in a third-world slum; it all comes down to the attitude you have and the people that you meet.

What's it like in Business and First Class?

If I told you, I'd have to kill you! Well okay, as long as you promise not to tell anyone else.

As you might expect, it's much better than being in Economy Class especially if you need as much legroom as I do. Besides, the seats don't lay back far enough in Economy Class for me to get any reasonable sleep.

Being a frequent flyer, I get free domestic upgrades. Most domestic flights nowadays have only two classes of service, Economy and First, so I generally get to fly First Class without extra charge. (The domestic wide-body jet flights still have three classes.) Meals and drinks are sold up the back, but are complimentary up the front.

When flying international, the service is a significant step up from domestic, and most of my air travel now is international. My favorite plane used to be the Boeing 777, but now that United Airlines has converted its old fleet of 767s to lay-flat beds in Business Class, that is much nicer even though I'm still a bit long at one end to completely fit. You get a small suite with a large digital screen on a wall fixed in front of you, with movies, music, games, and language lessons all on-demand. Meals involve at least three main choices and are always excellent. You also get a bowl of warm nuts and a drink on takeoff and a hot towel before the meal. On one Airbus flight, my seat/bed had seven separate moving parts, so it took a while for me to get it "just right". Then I saved those positions in memory in case I sat up again to eat and wanted to restore that position again.

I intentionally flew international First Class just once, and it was a memorable experience. And I'm happy to say that no one paid for it; I cashed in many frequent flyer miles. It was a Boeing 777 non-stop from Chicago to Buenos Aires, Argentina. There were 12 First-Class suites each of which ran the length of four side windows. I was one of only two passengers and we each had a flight attendant dedicated to us the whole trip. On arrival, I was met by a personal escort and taken to the First-Class lounge to await my on-going flight to Montevideo, Uruguay. When that flight was called, First-Class passengers were asked to stay behind until the last moment when we went down a private ramp to a limousine that drove us the 200 meters to the plane, arriving just as the last passenger disappeared up the stairway. The plane door was closed as we sat down, and we were off. I guess, if you are paying for a First-Class ticket, time really is money! Needless to say that on the return trip I was infinitely wiser as I knew what to expect.

In 2010, I rode First Class from Frankfurt to Washington DC, and then in both directions from Washington DC to Tokyo. First Class passengers have their own airport lounge separate from Business Class passengers. In the Tokyo lounge, the first person I saw on entering was a former US Federal Senator who served as Secretary of Defense. Fortunately, he followed strict First-Class lounge protocol, and didn't make a fuss on seeing me!

By the way, on average, an international Business-Class ticket costs about four times that for Economy, while that for a First Class runs 10–12 times. Start saving your pennies (or frequent-flyer miles)!

Have you had any unusual flying experiences?

Several come to mind. The first took place while I was at a primitive jungle camp on the Amazon in Peru. We were about to board a boat for the 6-hour trip back to base camp when an oil-company floatplane touched down on the river next to us. After some discussion with the pilot, our guide announced that the pilot was flying to the same place we were headed and that he could take several people with him if we wanted to go, for about $30 each. The trip would take less than an hour. I volunteered as did one other guy, and we were off bouncing along the water trying to get enough takeoff speed. All the controls were in English, which the pilot didn't speak, and a few things seemed to be tied together with string, but, hey, it was an adventure. Being in a floatplane, we had to follow the waterways so we could land in an emergency. It was only when the pilot took short cuts over the jungle that I worried a bit.

I flew from Caracas, Venezuela, in a Boeing 727-100, which is like a VW Beetle with a V8 engine! I was headed for Canaima near the base of Angel Falls, the world's tallest waterfall. However, instead of stopping at the airport the pilot raced up the valley giving the passengers—first on the one side and then on the other—a bird's eye view of the 1,000-meter falls "just out the window". It was not your typical jet flight and most tourist destinations would charge you $100+ to do that in a small plane.

In central Maine, I went out in a small plane on a snow survey; that is, to measure how much snow was on the ground. We took off on wheels, but lowered skis to land on frozen lakes. At least one of the lakes had frozen during high winds resulting in ice that was far from flat, which made for a very rough landing. Note that you have no brakes when landing on skis.

Going the Extra Mile (or Not)

Sometimes things don't go right despite the best planning. I have been fortunate in my travels and hosting experiences; few bad trips or guests come to mind, and those that do were often the result of poor communication or over-optimistic expectations. I can recall four situations although none of them was a problem for me. In three of the cases, I had the means to solve the problem and I did. In the fourth case, the guest annoyed me to the point I no longer wanted to help her and was happy when she departed.

The first involved two young German students. They planned to go to Florida by driving a car there for a moving company that was relocating someone. There, they would buy a car and travel around the US. What they didn't know was that they might have to wait a week or more in Washington DC before a "moving job" came along. As they couldn't afford to hang around—and no job was forthcoming—they didn't know what to do. I suggested that they buy a car locally and drive that to Florida. So, I spent a day with them locating a dealer that sold cars for less than $2,000, getting them insurance, registration, emergency roadside service membership, and travel maps. They had made no provision for insurance—which for single men under the age of 25 cost them 45% as much again as they'd paid for the car! On the 4th day, we waved goodbye and they drove right across country (via Mexico despite my warning that they not go that way) and back again, all in 3 months. They had one roadside emergency (for which they got free service) and one repair in Mexico, and at the end of their trip, they sold the car for the same price they'd paid.

The second case involved a nice woman from Sweden. She'd been in the US for 4 months attending some training program during which she'd decided to extend her stay afterwards for personal travel. She'd made the change with the airline over the phone, but had not understood that the change was tentative and that if she didn't go to a local agent's office to present the ticket and get the change authorized the change would be voided. Several months later, when she got to my place and we called to confirm her ticket we learned that with her special fare the change she thought she had would now cost a lot of money as it was high season. Not only was that a shock to her, but she didn't have the money. Anyway, I took her to the airport during a slow time of the day. We got a very nice and understanding agent who went off to speak to her (also understanding) manager. While they couldn't waive the whole fee, they did offer to reduce it significantly. I spoke to my guest and explained to her that the ticketing endorsement process that she's failed to do was a common requirement and that they were being more than reasonable, so she should take the offer. When she raised the issue of the remaining money needed, I asked her if she was an honest and honorable person and she replied that she was. Then I offered to lend her the money. Some four months later, she sent me a bank draft for the full amount. The vast majority of people can be trusted!

The third case involved a Dutch woman at the Montevideo international airport in Uruguay. She had no traveler's checks or cash, just a cash machine card. Unfortunately, she couldn't get the cash machine to work, and its being entirely in Spanish didn't help. As I arrived, she was in tears with no Plan B and feeling very sorry for herself after a long flight from Europe. I too failed to get money from the machine, but I did have US$100 in $20 bills, so I went to the airport bank. Unfortunately, the bills had been printed/cut off-center, and the bank said they looked like forgeries and refused to change them. I pleaded for a bit and, finally, they relented and changed $20. With the proceeds, I bought two bus tickets to the city center, and took my newly acquired Dutch friend with me. There, I found a cheap hotel and paid for two rooms. I found a moneychanger who happily changed the remainder of my "funny looking" bills and my friend found a cash machine that worked. With that, she was able to pay me back, along with 50% interest! (I'm joking of course; I only charged her 30%.)

The final case involved a teacher from France who was with us for 10 days as part of a teacher-hosting program. The basic program had them in country for 30 days, but gave them an option of arriving earlier and/or staying afterwards for an extended trip. However, to do so they must declare that up-front; being high season, they would not be able to change the trip once it started. Well little Miss Know-it-All claimed to be very well traveled, knew the airline policies, and was certain she could change her ticket at any time without penalty. However, when she tried to do from my house she was quoted a change fee of more than $1,000 and from that point on everything and anything American was associated with the Devil and she was the victim of discrimination (she was a black African originally from Senegal). As it happened, she couldn't afford the fee or didn't want to pay it and had to leave several days earlier than she'd planned. We'd organized a reception party for her with a group of our friends. As it turned out, she couldn't attend as she'd already departed and I must say her presence was not missed one bit.


In conclusion, let me say that I have never lost any luggage for more than a few days. When I think of the huge numbers of planes, routes, and passengers all "in play" around the world at any one time, I truly am amazed that anything gets delivered to the right place at all let alone on time. It really is a logistics problem to be appreciated; yet most people only notice it when it breaks down. As such, I always say "Thanks" to agents and crew as I board or deplane. The vast majority of them really are doing the best they possibly can, and a kind word gets more assistance than does abuse.

What is Normal - Part 3: Money

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

When I was eight or nine, based on an ad in a kids magazine I sent off for a starter set of coins for a collection. Some of them were rather exotic and they all came from faraway places. Although I have only a few of those original coins now, I do have a large set of coins and banknotes that I have collected during the past 30+ years on my visits to 50-odd regions of the world. In more than a few cases, the country I was visiting was in the process of changing its currency, in which case, I often got a set of the old and the new. In the case of banknotes—sometimes called bills or notes—I limit them to amounts worth less than US$10. I also have a habit of looking at my change and I often spot an uncommon special-issue coin or banknote. After many years of having my collection stored in plastic bags and boxes, I finally got around to mounting it into sheets of plastic holders and 3-ring binders.

As we shall see below, not all monetary systems are created equal. Remember, normal is relative—things can and do vary dramatically from one country to the next.

How Well do You Know Your Money?

Most people take money for granted; they work, they earn money, and they save and/or spend it. [I've heard two theories regarding spending vs. saving: "Money is made round to go 'round", and "Money is made flat to put in a stack."] Many people don't notice or know the names of the people and scenes depicted on the currency that they use every day. [Attention Americans: Which US banknotes feature people who were not presidents? On the penny, does Lincoln face left or right? No peeking now!]

Here are some questions for you regarding your own currency system, and money, in general:

  • Who are the faces on each of your coins?
  • Who are the faces, or what are the scenes, on each of your banknotes?
  • Some coins contain Latin inscriptions. If you have any such coins, what do the inscriptions mean? (For example, US coins have e pluribus unum.)
  • Why does my name (Rex) appear in some (typically older British Commonwealth) coins? And when might it start appearing again on new coins?
  • Are living people ever shown on coins or banknotes?
  • In some cultures, coins have heads and tails sides. What are the formal names for those?
  • Do different denominations of banknotes have different colors and/or sizes?
  • What anti-counterfeiting measures, if any, do your banknotes contain?
  • Why is the same person on contemporary coins from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Fiji?
  • Where in North America is the Euro legal tender?

See later below for some answers and comments.

Currencies and Their Symbols

Most of us deal with one currency, our own local one, be it $, £, ¥, or €, for example. However, if we read articles that involve multiple currencies we might need more than local currency symbols. Let's take the case of Australia, Bahamas, Bermuda, Canada, Hong Kong, and the US, all of which use their own local dollar currency. How can we distinguish between them? Each currency has a 3-letter code of which the first two letters ordinarily correspond to the host country's code. The third letter denotes the currency. Together, they make up the 3-letter international currency code standard, ISO 4217. For example, the dollar currencies mentioned above have the following respective 3-letter names: AUD, BSD, BMD, CAD, HKD, and USD. Non-dollar currencies use the same naming scheme; for example, Chinese Yuan (CNY), Danish kroner (DKK), Japanese yen (JPY), South African rand (ZAR), Swiss franc (CHF), and UK pound (GBP). [Yes, the GB designation ignores Northern Ireland.] One exception to this naming scheme is the Euro, which has the 3-letter name EUR; it is not associated with any one country. Of course, if we read historic information about countries that have since adopted the Euro we'll see their previous currency codes; for example, Austrian shilling (ATS), French franc (FRF), German deutschmark (DEM), and Spanish peseta (ESP).

The most commonly traded currencies all have symbols, most of which are readily recognizable. However, if you have to write an amount in an electronic document and you have no way to enter the corresponding symbol, you can use the generic currency sign ¤, assuming your software supports it. It's a small circle with four short lines radiating out at 90-degree angles, as shown. Computer keyboards for some European languages actually have a key for this symbol.

Currency symbols can be misleading. For example, "When is a $ not a dollar?" Not only is that symbol used for dollar currencies, it is also used by peso currencies in numerous Latin American countries. [When Mexico issued its New Peso 20-odd years ago, it used the local notation N$.] The Japanese yen and Chinese Yuan share the ¥ symbol. The UK pound and some other pound currencies share the symbol £ with some lira currencies.

Currency Divisions and Denominations

To many people, currency is made up of two different units of which one larger unit is made up of 100 smaller units. The UK decimal pound, dollar currencies, and the Euro are examples. However, some currencies have three units.

Before decimal currency was introduced in numerous British Commonwealth countries (including my own, Australia), they used a pound, which was made up of 20 shillings, each of which was made up of 12 pence. This pounds, shillings, and pence system was often written as £sd, or lsd, from the Latin words librae, solidi, and denarii. Although many countries used a dollar for their decimal currency, the UK kept the pound, but instead of its having 20 shillings, or 240 old pence, it had 100 new pence.

In 2009, I visited Jordan, whose currency is the dinar (JOD), which is divided into 100 qirsh (or piastres) or 1,000 fils. It's a decimal system, but it has three units. However, it appears that fils are fading from use, as one cannot buy anything with such small-valued coins.

The currency of China is the Yuan, which, domestically, is referred to as Renminbi. 1 Yuan is 10 Jiao, and 1 Jiao is 10 Fen. Again, it appears that the smallest unit is fading from use.

So are there any currencies that have only one unit. Yes, and probably the best known is the Japanese Yen (JPY). Prior to the Euro, Italy had a single-unit currency, the Italian lira (ITL). Italy was my first port of call in Europe, and I remember well buying a pair of shoes there for 30,000 lira, which sounded like a lot of money.

For the most part, coin denominations are unsurprising, such as 1, 5, 10, and 50; however, a few things warrant a mention:

  • Dollar currencies in North America and the Caribbean use a 25-cent coin while those in Asia and Australasia use a 20-cent coin.
  • Some dollar (and other decimal) currencies have a 2-cent coin.
  • Various old-time pound currencies, in which the third unit was the penny, had a halfpenny (pronounced ha'penny), and a quarter penny (called a farthing).
  • Some coins have their own names separate from their value; for example, in the US, a 1-cent coin is called a penny, a 5-cent coin is a nickel, a 10-cent coin is a dime, and a 25-cent coin is a quarter. To some old-timers, a quarter is also 2 bits. Some old British Commonwealth currencies had quid, crown, half-crown, sovereign, guinea, and florin.

Millionaire for a Day

According to Wikipedia, inflation "is a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time Inflation". As we have seen—and some of you might have experienced first-hand—there is inflation and there is INFLATION! While in western countries we talk about annual inflation in the order of 2–5% per year, the inflation rate in Zimbabwe in 2008 was 98% per day, which meant that prices doubled every 24.7 hours! [I'm reminded of a cartoon I once saw in which a shopper recalled how she used to take a purse full of cash to buy a cart full of groceries, but, these days, she spends a cart full of cash on a purse full of groceries!]

As inflation ramped up in Argentina in the 1980's, the government introduced the austral, which was equal to 10,000 pesos. But then came hyperinflation, during which prices climbed more than 100% some months, and 10,000; 50,000; and 500,000 australes banknotes were issued. I happened to be there in 1991, just before they introduced the new peso at a rate of 10,000 australes. When I changed money at the land border with Chile after having crossed the Patagonia, I got a bunch of those "big bills". For a day, I was a millionaire, although the buying power of my stake was pretty low. One interesting byproduct of that was there were no coins. To use a pay phone, I had to go to a kiosk to buy a metal slug that I then inserted into the phone.

I was also in Mexico when they divided their peso currency ($) by 100 to get the new peso (N$).

Another well-known inflationary event took place in the Germany's Weimar Republic between 1921 and 1923. I have a 10 million Mark banknote from 1923.

The Euro

If you have traveled to Europe in recent years, you'll almost certainly have encountered the Euro. At a glance, the banknotes from each country look the same, and they are, except that the series number prefix does indicate the country in which each one was printed. The coins are another matter altogether. The design on the front of each coin is the same across all countries, although there are now two different sets. (A quick look at the older set shows that Norway is missing from Scandinavia leaving a suggestive image of manhood formed by Sweden and Finland.) Those countries that adopted the Euro after the second design was introduced only use that new one while the early adopters have both. The backside of each country's coins was chosen by various means within each country. For example, Ireland chose the harp for all eight denominations, Greece chose eight different images, and some other countries chose one image for the 1-, 2-, and 5-cent, another for the 10-, 20-, and 50-cent, and a third for the 1- and 2-Euro. (See the European Central Bank's web site for the details of each coin and banknote set.)

In 2009, I was at the Vatican City [preparing for sainthood, as you might expect!], which has its own set of Euro coins; however, they are not in circulation. Like stamps, they make for a big money spinner from the tourists. When I went to a souvenir store to ask about getting a set, I was politely informed that sets started at €130, which for eight coins having a face value of €3.88 seemed like a sin! Needless to say, I do not have any of those.

As inflation has eroded the value of many small coins, some countries round all financial amounts to the nearest multiple of 5. [In the case of Australia, this resulted in its removing its 1- and 2-cent coins from circulation.] In the case of Finland, although 1- and 2-cent coins were minted [you can buy them from coin shops] they are not in circulation. Now, the 1- and 2-cent coins are legal tender in all countries that support the Euro. So, must a Finnish merchant accept five 1-cent coins from Germany or France, for example, as payment for a 5-cent bill? I don't know.

France has several overseas departments all of which are formally part of that country. As such, they use the Euro. These include Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, French Guiana in South America, and Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Although numerous former French colonies used a franc currency that was tied to the French Franc (FRF), they do not now use the Euro. Instead, they use the Central African CFA franc (XAF), the West African CFA franc (XOF), or the French Pacific Franc (XPF), among others, which are tied to the Euro.

Uncommon but Valid Denominations

When I arrived in the US in 1979, a dollar coin had been introduced and there was a big promotion to get people to use it. However, as the new coin was almost the same size and thickness as the quarter (25 cents), this Susan B. Anthony coin never took off. A few years ago, a larger and different colored dollar coin featuring Sacajawea was introduced, but it too languishes. [In my humble opinion, so long as the $1 bill is kept in circulation no dollar coin will become mainstream in the US. Note that a US$1 bill wears out—and gets shredded—in less than a year while an equivalent coin will last many years.]

The US also has a 50-cent coin and a $2 bill; however, they are almost "as rare as hen's teeth". In fact, many Americans don't even know they exist. The main problem is that cash drawers do not have extra places to put these two denominations, so when they are received in payment, the cashier puts them in the space under the cash drawer.

More than 25 years ago, when I made my first trip to Disneyland I got Disney dollars, $1 bills with Mickey's face on them. Interestingly, in recent years here in the US, there has been a surge in the creation and use of private currency that is only accepted within some small geographical area only. Apparently, this was to encourage inhabitants to spend locally.

Privately Issued Currency

The first time I came across an instance of a non-governmental name on currency was in 1979 in Hong Kong. Back then, equivalent sets of banknotes were issued containing the names The Chartered Bank and The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. [The latter's abbreviated name is HSBC, which is now a well-known worldwide bank.] When I went back to Hong Kong in 2005, it had become a Special Administrative Region of China, and an extra set of banknotes labeled Bank of China (Hong Kong) was in circulation.

The next instance was in Scotland where I found banknotes issued by The Royal Bank of Scotland Limited, Bank of Scotland, and Clydesdale Bank PLC. According to Wikipedia, there have been eight issuers of banknotes in Northern Ireland.

Just Where Can I Use a Given Currency?

Except for the Eurozone, for the most part, each country has its own currency, which is accepted throughout its territories. However, some currencies are used legally (and sometimes not so legally) outside their home country. The US$ is probably the most common. It is legal tender in Bermuda, the Dutch Antilles, East Timor, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Panama, among others.

Numerous towns in countries bordering the Eurozone also take Euros.

In 1992, I went to Russia. During my two weeks there, I never did change money legally. Given the steady increase in inflation back then, everyone was eager to change Rubles into hard currency (GBP, USD, or DEM) as a hedge. So whenever I needed Rubles, I didn't have to look far.

Special, Unusual, and Interesting Coins and Banknotes

Just when you thought you'd seen everything, along comes some new style of coin or banknote. Here are a few I've encountered:

  • 50-cent banknote (BSD)
  • $3 banknote (BSD)
  • 3 Ruble coin (RUR)
  • Square coins with rounded corners (ANG, BSD)
  • Coins with holes (DKK, JPY, NOK)
  • A 12-edged coin (the current 50-cent piece from Australia; believe it or not there is a World Record for the number of these that can be stood on edge one on top of another)
  • Coins having two pieces each made from a different metal (EUR, GBP, MXP)
  • Aluminum money so light coins can blow away out of one's hand (INR)
  • Bi-lingual banknotes (CAD, CHF, FIM)
  • Plastic banknotes (AUD). Yes, they do shrink when ironed!

And, of course, there are plenty of special-issue coins.

Overseas travel and currency exchange

How much is my currency worth abroad? There are many web sites that can give you up-to-the-minute rates of exchange for all the mainstream currencies. However, there are some things to understand before you lock in on a rate:

  • Traveler's checks are bought at a lower rate than that at which they are sold.
  • If you buy traveler's checks a long time in advance of your trip, the exchange rate could become more or less favorable before you use them.
  • Credit card companies often charge a 3% currency transaction fee when you are traveling abroad and using a currency different to that from home. This fee appears on your statement separate from the item bought, and might even be posted days later. Watch out!
  • Some hotels give you the option of paying your bill with your credit card in the local currency or in your home currency (at least for EUR, GBP, and USD). Understand what charges you credit card company tacks on before you do the comparison. (It's probably a moneymaking racket for the hotel.)
  • Too many people tell themselves that foreign money is confusing, thereby making it a self-fulfilling prophesy. Come up with a reasonable approximation of the local currency unit and don't hold out wads of cash to vendors and tell them to take what they need. Their needs might be quite a bit more than the transaction price.

Why do rates change? From time to time, national banks revalue their currency based on a number of factors that I won't go into here. Suffice it to say that a big swing can make your vacation abroad significantly cheaper or more expensive. (In recent years, I've stopping thinking about the cost when I use the EUR, GBP, and JPY.) In the 31 years I've been gone from Australia, the AUD went from USD 1.25 down to USD 0.65, and back up to USD 1.02.

Can I have a bank account in another country? Check with your tax agency. Most require you to declare foreign accounts, the account country might also need you to file a tax return in its country, and it might withhold taxes on any interest earned.

Can I have a bank account in the US recorded using another currency? I don't believe so. However, some countries do allow such accounts.

Based on personal experience, I have one warning to Americans in particular about using cash machines abroad, if they use a PIN containing letters instead of digits. US phones have had letters on them as well as numbers for a long time, and this trend naturally moved to keypads. However, this is not the case in many (most?) other countries. So, there I was in Alsace, France, wanting to get money from a cash machine; my PIN was alphanumeric, but the machine had only digits. As a result, I now have a list of the translation from letters to digits stored in my pocket computer. I can attest that it is very frustrating to have all the things that you need to get your cash, yet not be able to get at your cash!

Formatting Currency Amounts

Give 10 different cultures the task of developing a system of formatting numbers and currency amounts, and you may well get 10 different results. As part of my work in developing international standards for computer programming languages, here are some of the formatting differences I've had to deal with:

  • The radix point for some is the period (.) while that for others is the comma (,), as in USD 1.56 vs. EUR 1,56.
  • The "thousands" separator for some is the period (.) while that for others is the comma (,), as in USD 1,234 vs. EUR 1.234. The Swiss actually use a single quote, and, I believe, the French sometimes use non-breaking spaces. Now, I ask you, is that normal?
  • Note the quotes in "thousands" above. Some currencies group digits in other than blocks of three.
  • For some, the local currency symbol or international currency name is written as a prefix, while for others, it's written as a suffix.
  • As to how positive and negative signs/amounts or Debit/Credit indicators are printed varies widely.

The Envelope Please

Answers to the quiz:

  • Who are the faces on each of your coins? That depends on your currency, but they probably are past presidents, royalty, or national heroes.
  • Who are the faces, or what are the scenes, on each of your banknotes? Again, that depends on your currency, but they probably are past presidents, royalty, or national heroes. In many cases, they look like they suffered from constipation or very much needed to pass gas to release some pressure. In the case of the "politically correct" Euro, they were deliberately chosen to be abstract and not actual places.
  • Some coins contain Latin inscriptions. If you have any such coins, what do the inscriptions mean? (For example, US coins have e pluribus unum), which means, "Give us your poor, your tired, and your hungry", or in Chicago, "Give us your money, all of it!" (Actually, it means, "Out of many, one".)
  • Why does my name (Rex) appear in some (typically older British Commonwealth) coins? And when might it start appearing again on new coins? Rex is the Latin word for king (hence the name of this blog). In Latin and romance languages, adjectives follow the nouns to which they apply, so King George is written George Rex. As the Latin word for queen is Regina, contemporary British Commonwealth coins carry Elizabeth Regina. Standby for Charles Rex (maybe) and William Rex (fur shur dude).
  • Are living people ever shown on coins or banknotes? Yes. Usually they are reigning monarchs or not-so-benevolent dictators.
  • In some cultures, coins have heads and tails sides. What are the formal names for those? For coins, the front/heads side is the obverse, and the back/tails side is the reverse. These terms can also be used with banknotes, flags, and medals, among other things.
  • Do different denominations of banknotes have different colors and/or sizes? That depends on your currency. US banknotes used to all be the same size and color; however, now other colors are being added with each new re-design. Australian dollar (and numerous other currency) banknotes increase in width and/or length with each increasing denomination. Most currencies use different colors on different denominations
  • What anti-counterfeiting measures, if any, do your banknotes contain? They probably have one of more of the following: special paper, ink, serial numbers, watermarks, metallic threads, and holograms.
  • Why is the same person on contemporary coins from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Fiji? Because she's the Queen of England (and the British Commonwealth) and you're not!
  • Where in North America is the Euro legal tender? Formerly an overseas department of France, the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon—that are just off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada—are now an overseas collectivity.


On average, I make 4–6 international trips a year. As a result, I often have leftover currency from a previous trip. In fact, for emergency purposes, in my computer bag I keep about USD 20-worth of banknotes in each of the following currencies: US dollars, UK pounds, Japanese yen, Swiss francs, and Euros.

From 1999–2008, the US stopped making "standard" quarters. Instead, it issued 50 state quarters, 10 per year, in the order of each state's joining the union. Now if you have all 50 (I'm still missing a couple), you may think you have a full set, but quarters were also issued for each of the federal territories. And to make it more challenging, US coins are branded P or D depending on whether they were made at the Philadelphia or Denver mints, respectively. So a full set is 50 Ps and 50 Ds! And now we've got special-issue nickels and dollars.

If you are looking for a unique gift for that hard-to-shop-for friend, see if your national mint (or private coin shop) sells packets of shredded banknotes that have been taken out of circulation. You might also be able to buy uncut sheets of banknotes. (For example, the US Mint sells sheets of sixteen $1 bills. Hmm, I wonder what my creditors would say if I tried to pay them with such sheets?)

People around the world know that the US Secret Service is charged with protecting current and former US leaders and their families. You know, those men and women always talking into their lapel in movies! Nowadays, this service is part of the Department of Homeland Security; however, when the service was created in 1865, it was part of the Treasury Department, where its initial responsibility was to deal with crimes relating to that department, such as counterfeiting. It still plays that role today. It wasn't until 1901 that the service started protecting presidents (by which time three presidents had been assassinated).


Waiting My Turn

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Recently, I was sitting in the waiting room of an embassy in order to get a visa, and I started thinking about all those times I'd stood in line or taken a number and waited my turn. After 15 minutes, I had recalled quite a number of such occasions, and I decided to describe some of them in this essay.

Travel Visas

In 1979, after seven weeks of travel through Asia and Europe, I arrived in London. The next day, I fronted up at the US Embassy to get my 1-year work visa with the very naïve attitude that I would be "in and out" in double-quick time. [Measured in geological time, I was!] After a considerable wait in line, I got to the end of a corridor, which opened out into a huge room populated by many hundreds of people waiting in lines that snaked back and forth across the wide room. I discovered that my little line was now at the very end of another very long line. Hours later, my paperwork was accepted and I was told to come back in four days, which was about three days longer than I'd expected. [That was my very first time getting a visa in person; 31 years and a million and a half air miles later, I'm much wiser.]

In 1991, I received an invitation from a professor at a university in St. Petersburg, Russia, inviting me to go there and present a series of lectures over a 2-week period. After some dialog via email, I accepted his kind offer and decided to combine it with a holiday and to take my wife and son the following summer. I contacted the Russian embassy in Washington DC to see how to go about getting visas. They said I needed a letter of invitation on letterhead from the sponsoring organization. Less than a week after I conveyed that information to the university by email, I received a letter in the post from New York (where it had been hand-carried by someone on a flight from Russia) written in both Russian and English. I went to the embassy with my filled-out application form, photo, and letter. There were quite a few counters, but only one was open, so I got in the long line. When it was my turn, the officer took my papers and told me to sit and wait while the papers were examined. Sometime later, I was informed that everything regarding my application was okay, but where were the invitations for my wife and son? I explained that while I wanted a business visa, my wife and son would be going as tourists, but the officer insisted they still needed invitations. Two weeks later, I returned with said invitations, and was promptly issued three business visas. Yes, my 8-year-old son was apparently going there on business.

[By the way, I had to pay my own way to get to Russia, but the university provided me with housing and a translator/guide, and paid me an honorarium (which turned out to be 9 Rubles, less than US$10 at the then rate of exchange). Also, like the then just-passed Soviet days, we were issued loose-leaf visas that were handed in when we left the country, which meant that we had no permanent record of having been there. I was actually in country a day or two when I noticed on the visa, text that said I had to report to my local area authorities to let them know my movements; however, that was another Soviet-era holdover, and I ignored it.]

I've traveled to South Korea twice now, and both times, I got a visa from the Washington DC embassy after the usual waiting in line and having them send me my passport by mail a week later. The Korean embassy on-line website rules are clear; I needed to have a visa, yet few of my colleagues got one and they were admitted. And when I went through immigration each time in Seoul, no one seemed interested in checking if I had one. It was all quite odd.

My most recent experience was at the Chinese Embassy. On arrival, I took a number and sat, and to pass the time I made notes about this blog essay. Rather than come back and go through the whole process later in the week (the embassy required in-person pickup) I decided to pay for same-day service. I had arrived at 10 am, to discover than only those applicants with a number issued by 12:30 pm could get their visa on the same day. An hour went by then two, and I feared I'd been waiting for nothing when all of a sudden, a whole series of numbers that were called went unanswered, and I was at the counter lodging my application. I was told to be back at 2:30 pm sharp, and I was, to find a shiny new visa.

Waiting in Airports

Almost all of my flights have run pretty close to schedule and I've never lost permanently any checked luggage. However, I have had some delays at airports. Fortunately, none had any truly serious implications and all have made me appreciate the success that occurs most often. You know, if you don't have bad times, you really can't appreciate the good times either!

I was flying from Linate, the old airport near downtown Milan, Italy. It's located in a low-lying area prone to fog, which contributes significantly to flight delays. And I fell victim. I was connecting in Frankfurt, Germany, and soon after we touched down at FRA, we taxied past the very plane on which I was to go home to the US. However, FRA truly is a huge airport, and by the time we got to our gate in a completely separate terminal and I then got to my departure gate, my connecting flight had been gone 20 minutes. After a long wait in line, the airline took responsibility and checked me into the airport hotel. [I didn't mind getting home a day late, but my next trip was to Australia—in three days—so I didn't want to miss more than one day. As it happened, I slept through my alarm the following morning and nearly missed my make-up flight. Don't you hate that when that happens?]

After a grueling pair of flights from Washington DC to Sydney, Australia, via Los Angeles, I spent eight not-so-wonderful hours in an airport business lounge waiting for a flight to Singapore. And although that flight departed on time, the audio and video equipment was not working, which was a major embarrassment to the Asian airline staff. As a small token of appreciation for our understanding, they handed each boarding passenger a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. I thanked them for the nuts and then promptly crashed for four hours of sleep. I awoke to find a flight attendant hovering near me waiting to get my attention. Using her flight manifest, she confirmed I was who she thought I was, and then asked me to follow her to the galley for a private chat. There, she apologized for the lack of facilities en-route and that as a distinguished Star Alliance customer I was entitled to more compensation than a box of chocolates, and she gave me a $75 voucher to spend in-flight from the duty-free catalog. [On the return flight, I remembered the voucher and looked in the catalog to find something I might actually use, a 4GB computer memory stick, and for exactly $75, don't you know! However, when I ordered that the flight attendant came to apologize that due to currency exchange rate fluctuations the price had increased. It was would now cost $76 instead! I cheerfully paid the dollar difference.]

Many years ago, when my son was still quite small, we had an unexpected 8-hour delay, due to fog and low clouds. Being regular travelers, we always had a Plan B (even for Plan B), and we put that into action. We took out our Uno card game and started playing on a large table in the waiting area. Soon after, kids started noticing us having fun and they wandered over to take a look. Now the game requires no knowledge of any particular language, and soon, I was like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, leading a whole bevy of kids from different countries, cultures, and languages enthusiastically calling out "Reverse", "Skip You", and "Draw Four". [To this day, I continue to be astounded by the high percentage of parents who don't take activities for their kids when a wait of any kind is possible, be it at an airport, a train station, on a flight or train trip, waiting at the Doctor's office, and so on.]

Probably the worse delay-related event I witnessed at an airport happened on the way home from Puerto Rico one Christmas. We had to change planes in Orlando, Florida, and our airline—which had gone bankrupt some months earlier—had been taken over by a cruise line, which, it appeared, knew nothing about running an airline. Everything about the process from start to finish was quite chaotic. There is nothing like a disenchanted crowd to increase the stupidity level of some people. Once a series of delays and extended delays was announced, the natives got very restless, and policemen riding mountain bikes around the terminal arrived to "deal" with the situation. A super-aggressive woman traveling with several kids was arrested in front of us and her kids were taken away and placed in protective custody. Right about then, I steered my family out of the boarding gate area to the main check-in desk where we could reschedule our flight for the next day. Although we were second in line, the woman in front of us (who was stranded for the same reason) was so abusive to the gate agent that when her business was completed the agent went into the back room and didn't come out again for 15 minutes. The passenger's husband (who was minding their three kids nearby) was so embarrassed by his wife's actions that he apologized profusely. My son could not believe his eyes and ears that night.

At this point, I'm reminded of the story about the self-important person whose flight was cancelled as he waited in the boarding area. A gate agent announced if everyone would form several lines at the counter they would be placed on the next available flight. This insecure VIP-wannabe pushed his way to the front demanding he get special treatment, but the woman agent asked him politely to "Please get in line". He responding by saying, "Do you know who I am?" The agent calmly picked up the PA microphone and announced to the waiting throng, "There is a man up front here who doesn't know who he is. If anyone can identify him, please come to the counter." The angry passenger replied, "F**k you lady!" to which she calmly replied, "Sir, you'll have to get in line for that too!"

Security Checkpoints

In the late 70's, I landed at Bangkok's international airport. As martial law was in force, there were uniformed and heavily armed soldiers throughout the terminal. While I cannot honestly say there were lines, I'm pretty sure that if there were, I was quietly lining up in them with all the other also-very-quiet international tourists.

Several years later, I had my first trip to Germany at the height of the activities of the Baader-Meinhof Group, an offshoot of the Red Army Faction, which according to Wikipedia was "one of Germany's most violent left wing groups". On my departure, I had to put my checked luggage through a full X-ray scanner, which was a rather new idea at that time. German shepherd guard dogs also gave me a good sniffing over while heavily armed Federal Police scanned the crowd with watchful eyes. It certainly was no time for levity.

Perhaps the most extreme case I've experienced with airport security was at Helsinki International in 1992. My family and I had been in Russia for two weeks, and when we got back into Finland on the train, we sent one large case on to Helsinki to be stored at the main train station while we toured the country on a 1-week rail pass. On our day of departure from Helsinki, we retrieved our case from storage and went to the airport. When asked if our luggage had been out of our control since it was packed, I answered in the affirmative and explained it had been in storage at the train station. That triggered the Mother of all Searches. The three of us were herded to a cubicle big enough for one person, and were directed to empty the large case, which was then X-rayed empty several times. The staff was not at all friendly, and seemed disappointed not to find anything suspicious. Sometime later, we re-packed that case, and checked it in. We then settled in to the lounge at the check-in gate; however, when the in-bound flight arrived we were removed from the boarding area to an imaginary separate area, so we could have no contact with the passengers deplaning. It really was quite silly. The reason for all this was there was a G7 (or some such number) summit about to start in Helsinki, and world leaders were flying in to attend.

Customs and Immigration

My first memorable experience was in Bombay (now called Mumbai), India, at about 1 am, which is when many international flights arrive. [As a result, they depart again around 3am.] After we deplaned, we seemed to go from one line to another exchanging a token of one color for one of another as we moved. At the end, we finally got our luggage, but not before one customs agent came across a nice pen I had and, clearly, he wanted it. When I played dumb, he offered me a drippy cheap Indian ballpoint pen in exchange, and in the interest of getting processed sooner rather than later I accepted reluctantly. As best as we could tell, the whole multi-line thing was simply to give people employment. There certainly was no obvious practical value to it.

At the very next stop, Rome, Italy, we had the most arrogant customs inspector. I had purchased a new briefcase in Hong Kong, and it had straps that allowed it to be expanded several inches, and the inspector figured it had some sort of false bottom. So rather roughly, he tipped out the contents on a table and searched the case for a secret compartment. When he found none, he threw up his hands in disgust and walked away. We didn't know where he was going, but after waiting a while and his not returning, we simply packed up and left.

I wrote in the April 2010 installment (The Road to US Citizenship), 'I flew back to the US [from Peru] with a Peruvian airline, and came in through Miami, Florida, at around 6 am. There were three immigration agents, two handling American citizens and one handling the 150+ foreigners, me included. Once the handful of Americans had been processed, the two agents started chatting to each other. Eventually, they decided to help their colleague with his long line. But instead of taking the next person in line, one of them waved to me, where I stood about 50 people back in the line, and beckoned me to approach his desk. I told him that I was neither a citizen nor a permanent resident and he leaned over and spoke quietly in my ear saying, "I didn't think you looked like you belonged in that line!" Welcome to the US of A, the land of equality. Apparently, some people are more equal than are others!'

US Citizenship

Thirty days after I applied for US citizenship, I fronted up to a Federal Government facility to be fingerprinted. There were several hundred of us in line, and we were seated. As people were served off one of the lines of chairs, the rest of the line shuffled down to the end of their row or around to the next row. It was the only time I ever recall being in a seated line, and it worked remarkably well. The really amazing thing is that we all knew in advance that we'd have a 1–2-hour wait, yet very few people brought anything to do. And to top it off, mobile phones were banned. You had either to lock them in your car, or leave them at the desk when checking in. It was a very sorry looking, bored, fidgety group.

The White Man Cometh

My son was born in Washington DC, a federal territory of the Unites States. [For the purposes of this story, it is important to know that the majority of DC's population is black, and that my family is white.] Three months later, to get him a passport, we had to go to the District's "Births, Deaths, Marriages, etc." agency for a birth certificate. As he was born in the US of parents who were Australian citizens living legally in the US, he was entitled to dual citizenship, so we planned to apply for both US and Australian passports. As it happened, the Australian application required something special, a birth certificate that stated explicitly that it had been a live birth.

I recall clearly the day we went to get the two certificates, one for the US State Department, and one for the Australian embassy. It was a typical hot and humid summer's day and there was no air conditioning in the waiting room. There were a number of counters, but only one was open. And it looked like people had been waiting "forever" to get served. (As is often the case, you turn in your paperwork, then sit, and wait to get the results some time later.) We got to the front of the line without much of a wait, and expected to have to sit for a good while afterwards while the paperwork was processed. However, the person at the counter had never seen a request for a live-birth certificate before, so she called her supervisor. Well, the supervisor knew exactly what was needed and promptly opened up a second counter, processed our application completely in double-quick time, and then closed the counter again. For about 10 milliseconds, we were very happy, until we turned around to see the faces on the room full of black people who had not heard anything about our "special circumstance". As far as they were concerned, once again the white man had gotten special treatment. It was a very humbling experience.

Foreign Languages and Customs

I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1992, only a couple of years after things there had opened up. Although most things could be bought at free markets or on the street, the government controlled some staple things like bread and sugar. To buy these, one needed to go to one of a number of special outlets. So off we went, but we had our guide and translator, which was absolutely necessary. First, one had to get in a line to pay and get a chit for the purchased item. Then one had to get in a line at a counter to get the item. To try and avoid the cashiers selling things the store had run out of the cashiers were constantly calling out what they were selling, so the servers could keep track of what was popular. A similar thing occurred when I went to a department store to spend my 9-Rouble speaking fee on fine chocolates for the administrative staff that had supported my lecture series. Being an up-scale store, there were no lines, and I could go to the chocolate counter and see the items I wanted and their price, but I didn't know the Russian to go to the cashier way over on the other side of the floor to buy them. It's the only time in my international travels that I couldn't simply point at an item, hold out some cash, and have the salesperson take what they needed. Of course, the way they were doing it made no sense whatsoever; it simply was a holdover from the old Soviet days.

In the spring of 2009, I was at the main post office in Prague, Czech Republic, wanting to buy some postcard stamps. I waited for some time trying to figure out the line system when a helpful local took pity on me and led me to a machine that dispensed numbered tickets. It really is easy when you know how. So don't you know, I was in a train station in Tokyo, Japan, and there were two quite separate lines both needing tickets to enter. However, as I couldn't read the writing that explained the difference between the lines, I stood there with a puzzled look. And it worked; very soon, a young Japanese man approached me, bowed, and asked in heavily accented English if he could help me. And help me he did.

Bypassing the Lines

If you are a regular traveler, you might have enjoyed the perks of frequent travelership. In my case, my airline gives me a priority line at check in and at boarding. And my local airport gives me priority security processing (as do many others for First-and Business-Class Passengers). And having membership of the airline's business lounge, I get to wait in comfort, only going to the gate at the last possible minute. My rental car company provides express delivery where the airport bus drops me at my car, which is running with air conditioner or heater on, as appropriate. The US Immigration service even has express lanes for passengers re-entering the country from abroad. But, of course, all things come at some sort of price, be it an annual fee or membership in a travel club.

One facility that has been around now in my area for several years is self-service checkout at some supermarkets and a large hardware chain. Basically, it's an honor system. The customer swipes each item's barcode over a reader, pays by credit card, gets a printed receipt, and bags the purchases, all without staff intervention. Although the process is wide open to theft, it's encouraging that companies are willing to take that risk, and it must be paying off or they wouldn't continue with it. As for me, I try not to be in a hurry when I'm shopping, and I prefer the social dialog with the staff.

Unusual Lines

One such line comes to mind, people waiting to visit a toilet. Now this was no ordinary toilet, and the people were lined up to look at it, not use it. After a day of meetings in the beautiful city of Montreux, Switzerland, at the eastern end of Lake Geneva, a group of us took the funicular railway high up a mountain to a café for some drinks. Someone used the toilet there and, soon, the word spread about this state-of-the-art potty, so the techies amongst us just had to go and take a look. Well, it was quite a performance. At the end of one's business one pushed a button and watched the system go through its paces. The seat retracted into the body where it was washed and sterilized. The bowl flushed, it was washed, and the seat slid back out for the next person. Although my story might lose something in the translation, I must say it was worth the wait to see.

There's a famous Monty Python sketch in which a department store's customer service/complaints counter has a long line of people waiting to return or exchange things. One man has a defective flamethrower, which, from time to time, shoots flames all over the place. I'd say that was definitely an unusual line.

The Shortest lines

If you have to have a line, better it be shorter than not. Two kinds of short-line scenarios come to mind: using a small airport and flying international First Class. And I have had the privilege of doing both on a number of occasions. The international airports on the Dutch Caribbean islands of Saba and St. Eustacius are 1-room huts. They take informality to a whole new level. You know, the guy who loads your baggage, stamps your passport, and issues your ticket, well he also gets in and flies your plane!

I flew in a jet aircraft from Helsinki, Finland, to Ivalo 200 kms north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. Only a couple flights a day departed and arrived and the terminal was a small log cabin. The plane carried its own retracting stairs, which were lowered as the cabin door opened. We were on the ground and reunited with our luggage within minutes. And to top it off a reindeer with a full rack of antlers wandered out of the woods to welcome us to Lapland. He sniffed around a bit and then went back into the trees.

As for the international First Class experience, my first time with that truly was outstanding and has yet to be repeated even though I've travelled First Class a number of times since. I was one of only two First Class passengers in an overnight flight from Chicago to Buenos Aires, Argentina. On arrival, I was met by a customer service agent who greeted me by name and took me to the First Class lounge to wait for my connecting flight to Montevideo, Uruguay. Sometime later, they announced Economy Class boarding and then Business Class boarding. Just when I thought the plane was going to leave without me (I could see it boarding 200 yards out on the tarmac), they collected us First Class passengers, took us down a ramp to a waiting limousine, which drove us to the stairs leading to the plane. The chauffer was careful to arrive only when all the other passengers had boarded, so we could go straight up the stairs without delay. As soon as we were seated, the doors were closed, and the plane took off. Now that's what I call not waiting! [And, don't tell anyone, but I was flying on a free ticket.]

If I understand correctly, when one has one's own private jet the lines are non-existent; however, I have yet to have that experience.


If you have never seen Mel Brooks' wild-west movie, "Blazing Saddles", I highly recommend it. The scene that is relevant to this essay is the one in which a gang of crooks is riding across the desert and they came across a tollbooth and have to form a line to pay and then pass through. As to why they simply didn't ride around the booth—there was no fence either side—is beyond me, but it was wickedly funny to watch.

I am also reminded of a joke about the Australian Prime Minister in the early 70s. He claimed to have a solution to shortening the unemployment lines. When asked what it was he said that the people should all just stand closer together.

Finally, I don't understand all the fuss with respect to lining up for services; my recommendation is simple, tallest-to-shortest is fine with me. And I'm not just saying that because I'm 6'4" tall either (although that does help). Happy waiting now, y'hear, and for Heaven's sake take something along for you and your family members to do.

What is Normal? – Part 2: Writing Systems

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


In the first installment, I introduced the general topic and posed some questions to get you in the "What is Normal" mindset. In this part, I'll deal with writing systems. These days, as most of my travel is international the most obvious deviation from my normal routine is being surrounded by written communication in a foreign language, and sometimes with a writing system quite different from my own. [Should that be "different to my own"? British and American English vary.]

I started writing this article in a hotel in Stockholm, Sweden. [And I proofread it in a hotel in Helsinki, Finland, three months later.] Prior to that time, I had been to Sweden once, for three hours one winter's afternoon in Helsingborg after a short ferry ride from Elsinore, Denmark. I know absolutely no Swedish, and have had very little exposure to Swedish people or culture. [I do have some CDs by ABBA and I'm familiar with the Swedish Chef from The Muppets TV show. So that probably qualifies me to be an armchair expert on Sweden on the talk-show circuit.]

From the moment I stepped off the plane at the airport, I saw Swedish writing all around me. Fortunately, some important signs were in English, but as Swedish is a Germanic language—and I have some basic competency in that—I could also understand or figure out some basics. And the fact that quite a few signs used international symbols for things like toilets, money changing, train station, luggage lockers, and such made it all straight forward (unlike when I arrived in Israel [Hebrew] and Jordan [Arabic] last November).

I've been interested in natural languages for many years, and have made a stab at Spanish, German, and Japanese. And I've picked up some basic vocabulary in a few other languages as well. Then I got into formal computer languages, and that led me to formal grammars. Along the way, I worked on specifications for computing environments to support different linguistic and cultural customs. And some years after I started writing for publication, I even managed to get a decent grasp on my first language, English. So let's just say that I'm an occasionally enthusiastic self-taught amateur linguist.


To be literate one must be able to read, write, and comprehend what one has read or written. And in the general understanding, this is extended to include numeracy, the ability to understand numbers and basic arithmetic. So when you hear that a person is illiterate that typically means they lack these capabilities. However, they may well be able to speak and comprehend, and even have an extended vocabulary. In short, they aren't stupid! [Unfortunately, here in the US, we've had more than a few instances of professional athletes graduating from a 4-year university and still being illiterate. "How can that happen", you may well ask.]

Fluency has to do with one's command of a language. I've seen references to the idea that being fluent in a language means knowing the basic grammar and having a vocabulary of 2,000 root words. Over the years, I've done my share of learning word lists in several languages, and each time after having learned 10 new ones, I've felt pretty good, until I realized that that was just the tip of the iceberg. While I may know the words for bird and flower, for example, I'm quickly reminded that doesn't help me distinguish a crow from a sparrow, or a rose from a tulip. As a wag once said, "Those foreigners have different words for everything!"

When I started high school in 1965, only the students in the "A" stream (of which I was one) could take a foreign language, and we had to choose from Latin, Latin, or Latin. Yes my friends, Latin was the only choice, apparently because some Education Department bureaucrats had decided South Australia was most vulnerable to attack from the Romans! And boys like me who didn't care for Latin had to take Agricultural Science instead, while the girls' alternative was Drawing. Speaking of Latin, you may have heard of the famous quote attributed to Julius Caesar, Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered); well, the modern-day version is Veni, vidi, Visa (I came, I saw, I shopped).

Here in Fairfax County, Virginia, to graduate high school in the public school system students are required to take one foreign language for three years, or two languages each for two years. Most schools offer Spanish, French, and German. The high school my son attended also offered Japanese, Russian, and Latin. And most American Liberal Arts 4-year colleges require students to take two semesters of a foreign language or to show proof of fluency to get an exemption.

In 1986, an excellent TV series called The Story of English was aired here in the US. It showed the evolution and distribution of the language as the British Empire expanded around the world. One aspect that I found most amusing was that in more than a few interviews subtitles were added so viewers had a chance of actually understanding what was being said. They may have been speaking in their normal form of English, but it certainly wasn't mine.

Let's move on now to how the written word is actually written.

Alphabet Soup

Simply stated, an alphabet is a set of letters each of which is represented by a distinct symbol. [For the purpose of sorting words alphabetically, the set of letters can have one or more orders; that is, collating sequences.] As I'm writing this in English, I'll use that language to start my discussion. English has 26 letters, which come in two flavors, lower- and uppercase. [Follow the lowercase link to see why they have these names. In Australia, I learned them as small and capital letters, respectively.] Not all alphabets have more than one case. And not all letters in one case have a corresponding letter in the other case (the lowercase ß in German being one such example). And to make it a bit more interesting there is an artificial third case, title case (or letter case). This comes into play when typesetting headings and titles in publications.

For most people using an alphabet, they think of it as the alphabet, not as an alphabet. However, numerous alphabets are in use. For example, the Greek alphabet has 24 letters and two cases. The Classical Latin alphabet had 23 letters (that from modern English without J, V, and W, and with U written as V) and two cases. [Nowadays, Latin alphabet is used for any alphabet derived directly from Latin, so the English, Swedish, and Spanish alphabets, for example, are Latin alphabets.] The modern Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters and two cases. [Initially, the EU had two official alphabets, Latin and Greek, and if you look at any Euro paper money, you will see the words "EURO" (Latin) and "ΕΥΡΩ" (Greek) printed on them. However, now that Bulgaria has been admitted, Cyrillic has been added as the third official alphabet.]

In English, each vowel and consonant has a different symbol; however, the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets have letters for consonants only. They use other devices to indicate vowel sounds.

Uppercase letters in English are used sparingly, such as at the start of the first word in a sentence, to start proper names, and to write acronyms. However, in German, every noun is written with a leading uppercase letter.

Some alphabets use what look like multiple letters to make a single letter. For example, Spanish has the letters ch and ll. And yes, they do occur in both cases, and if these letters start the first word of a sentence, only the first in each pair is capitalized. Spanish also has rr, but that is really two r's, not a single letter. In Dutch, ij is sometimes considered a single letter; I've certainly seen it as a separate key on a typewriter keyboard.

In the good old days, once we had mastered printing, we moved on to cursive writing. And we were told of the importance of penmanship. However, for many of us, as we grew older, our cursive needed no encryption to keep its meaning secret. Our handwriting bordered on the illegible. The interesting thing now is that with the proliferation of keyboards and keyboard-like interfaces, all electronic communication uses printed letters. As such, does the teaching of cursive still have a place in modern education?

Western European languages have mostly evolved from the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian) or the Germanic languages. As I have a basic grasp of Spanish and German, and a smattering of words in French, I manage to read quite a few signs as I travel through Europe and its former colonies. And having also studied Japanese for a while, I tend not to get bothered by seemingly strange or arbitrary rules. After all, perhaps English is the strange language!

Now what about all those dots, bars, and squiggles that we see written above or below various letters in European alphabets? Take French (please!). It has the same 26 letters as English. However, it adds diacritical marks to aid in pronunciation. These are the acute (´), grave (`), circumflex (ˆ), dieresis (¨), and the cedilla (¸). The main combinations are: à, â, ç, é, è, ê, ë, î, ï, ô, û, ù, ü, and ÿ. The English word facade comes from the French façade; the cedilla clearly tells the reader to pronounce the letter c as an s, but as English has no such marks, that hint has been lost. You simply have to know that is how it's pronounced.

Spanish also uses the acute accent mark on its vowels, as in á, é, í, ó, and ú. Once again, these are not new letters, but marks to tell you where to put the emphasis when pronouncing them. In the absence of these marks, the stress goes on the penultimate syllable. These marks can also be used to give the same-spelled word different meanings. For example, sábana means bed sheet while sabana means savannah. Spanish also uses the dieresis, but only on ü. On the other hand, the word señor (meaning a formal version of mister) is widely known by speakers of other languages; however, ñ is a letter in its own right, not an n with a diacritic. Once again, when it was taken into English, the tilde atop it was lost. However, when English took on the word canyon from the Spanish cañon the letter y was added to retain the original pronunciation.

And what about them there umlauts in German, as in ä, ö, and ü? There is some dispute about whether they are separate letters or simply diacritical marks. In any event, they certainly indicate the pronunciation. My family name is Jaeschke, which when written in German is Jäschke, with the a-umlaut having the e sound in egg. [When I went to register the internet domain name www.Jaeschke.com, a German with the a-umlaut version of the name already owned it, so I went with www.RexJaeschke.com instead. Currently, domain names and email addresses have to be written using the English alphabet, so the German ä gets written as ae.]

Occasionally, in English-language typesetting you will see the dieresis (¨) used with English words. This mark is placed over the second of a pair of adjacent vowels to indicate that those vowels should be pronounced as separate sounds rather than as a diphthong. The most common word having this is naïve. Another one is the word Noël, which means Christmas.

The Norwegians and Danes have 29 letters in their alphabets, with the 26 English ones followed by Æ/æ, Ø/ø, and Å/å. [Two uses of these letters in English publications come to mind: Æsop's Fables and encyclopædia.] However, the Swedes like to be different, so their set of 29 letters ends in Å/å, Ä/ä, and Ö/ö. Finnish looks like Swedish with the W/w missing, but its roots are completely different, so the visual similarity is misleading.

Diacritical marks turn out to be very useful, and I can see why people have difficulty in pronouncing many words in English, which has no equivalent visual pronunciation guide. One letter pattern in English that has numerous sounds is ough. There is ow in bough, uu in through, oo in though, au in thought, u in enough, and o in cough (and probably others).

Regarding pronunciation in English, look at the front of a good dictionary to see the list of pronunciation symbols and their sounds. For example, man is pronounced măn and plane is pronounced plān. (The ˘ is a breve and the ˉ is a macron.) There is a whole phonetic alphabet used to describe how letters in other alphabets are pronounced.

Even the sounds of the same letter in the same language can vary from one country to the next. The classic example in English is the letter z, which in the US is pronounced zee while the rest of the world says zed. Of course, with the American version of Sesame Street being exported around the world, that is changing. [By the way, Big Bird is not always yellow. For example, in The Netherlands, he is blue.] Also, the way in which small children are taught their letter values varies between countries. For example, I first learned the short sounds a, b, c, etc. rather than the long names aye, bee, cee, and so on. That is, "the a and the t make at in bat"; not the "aye and the bee make at in bat", which would obviously be quite unhelpful.

Each time I travel to a country that uses an alphabet that is somewhat new to me, I look at a local computer keyboard. At a glance, everything is the same, but on closer inspection, quite a lot is different. As many European keyboards have more than 26 letters and/or keys for diacritical marks, the layout is different and some keys serve more than two purposes. The key sequence I have the most trouble finding and using is that to generate the @ symbol when sending email. And what's that ¤ key for?

At one time, I studied a world atlas in Greek for several hours trying to see what I could figure out about that language. Having taken math and physics classes for some years, I knew most of the Greek letters, but still it was a challenge. Legend has it that Saint Cyril—for whom the Cyrillic alphabet was named—and his brother developed that alphabet from Greek and took it into Bulgaria from where it spread through the eastern Slavic countries on up to Russia. So if you look at the history of those areas you can see where certain influences were made, by the alphabets used in those areas. One unusual example of this is the Serbo-Croatian language. The eastern practitioners wrote it using the Cyrillic alphabet while the western ones wrote it using a Latin alphabet. As a result, you have two groups of people speaking the same language, but neither can read it in the other's written form.

I freely admit to having had almost no interest in history during my school years. [After all, as someone once said, "History is nothing but one damned thing after another."] However, having traveled to some of the places I learned about (the Tower of London, Runnymede, and the Waterloo Battlefield, for example) I started to relate to more and more of it. And now I actually like the subject, and I see its influence on language evolution and distribution.

One thing about other languages that can be confusing is their use of a letter that you have in your own language, but with the two having completely different sounds. One example is the Russian letter C, which is pronounced like the English S (except on Wednesdays between 10 and 11 am, and in leap years). And to make it interesting, the Russian P is like the English R. If you look in photos or films covering the Cold War, the Soviet missiles and space rockets always have the letters CCCP painted on the side. These stand for "Союз Советских Социалистических Республик", which—as I'm sure you all know—in English means, "Soyuz Sovyetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik". Now "Soyuz" is Russian for "Union", so CCCP in Russian became "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" (USSR) in English. [Speaking of the Cold War, there is a story about how the US spent $1 million to develop a ballpoint pen that would write in space. The Soviets simply took a pencil!]

Putting the Em·PHA·sis on the Correct Syl·LA·ble

In Part 1, I wrote, "… my Japanese friend Misato would say that not only doesn't she have any lowercase letters—poor Misa—she doesn't have any letters at all or even an alphabet!" So what does she have? As well as Kanji (which we'll discuss later) she has two syllabarieshiragana and katakana—which together, are referred to as kana.

Where an alphabet has symbols for letters, a syllabary has symbols for syllables. Typically, a syllabary symbol has a vowel sound proceeded by an optional consonant. Some examples in Japanese are ah, kah, sah, go, zo, do, kyu, shu, and ryu. [Note that Tokyo really has only two syllables, to·kyo, not the three that Westerners insist on using, to·ki·yo.] Hiragana and katakana each have 100+ symbols with almost complete overlap. And just about any word can be written in either. Having two systems seems redundant to me, and students of Japanese must learn them both. Loan words from foreign languages are always written in katakana. Hiragana is used to write particles, a curious language element that does not exist in English.

Speaking of loan words, Japanese words all end in a vowel sound or n. So loan words have to fit this model and the syllabic pattern. For example, hotel becomes ho·te·ru, taxi becomes ta·ku·shi, and cheese become chi·zu. [While bread is also an imported idea, it came via the Portuguese, so it finished up as pan, which not only fits the Japanese model, but also comes from the Latin panis.] Rather than invent new words whose meaning is equivalent to foreign words, Japanese takes them literally with slight tweaks to "make them fit". My favorite is a·i·su·ku·ri·mu, icecream. Although these extra vowels allow the words to fit the spelling model when written in Romaji, they are unvoiced, so when spoken, the words sound very much like their English counterparts.

More than 10 years ago, one of my textbooks was translated to Japanese. As my first and last names were of foreign origin, they had to be written in katakana. However, there is no direct way to do that without adding some extra vowels to fit the required syllabic pattern. Here is the cover of that book:

[The same book was also translated to Russian, in which case, my name was written as Рекс Жешке.]

When one starts learning a language, one is told to learn to read and write as well as to speak and listen. In general, that makes sense, but when I started looking at Japanese, the idea of learning 200 kana seemed way too much work. [And that's without learning any of the thousands of Kanji characters!]

Other languages use a syllabary, but the Japanese ones are the most widely used.

Early versions of telex and telegram services were limited to as few as 32 symbols, which for most westerners was sufficient for a single-case version of their alphabets. So, did the Japanese have access to these services?

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (Or is it?)

It turns out that alphabets and syllabaries are latecomers in the written language stakes. At the beginning of the written word, we had pictograms, which used symbols that resembled the physical object for which they stood. [Even today, the Chinese and Japanese symbol for entrance is a mouth.] Of course, we have since invented many words that have no obvious physical representation, although pain might be symbolized by a picture of a dentist! Ideograms were also developed and they are symbols representing an idea or concept.

The best known of these kinds of writing systems are the hieroglyphics from Ancient Egypt and the characters used in Chinese, and which were adapted by Japanese (Kanji).

When I was dabbling in Japanese, I did try to learn the Kanji for basic numbers, and I had some success. So even though I could tell how much I was paying when buying from street food stalls, I still had no idea what I was buying. And to make it interesting, many vendors used a combination of Arabic and Japanese digits. For example, 100 would be written with a Kanji 1 followed by two Arabic zeros.

Although I've asked numerous native speakers how they know how to pronounce what I affectionately call "chicken scratchings", I am still none the wiser. In fact, I think they simply have to remember each character. As to how they look up words in a dictionary is a complete mystery to me. And to make it a wee bit challenging, ideogram-based languages seem to have no concept of inter-word spacing, little or no punctuation, and no upper- or lowercase.

To survive in present-day Japan, a student must master the hiragana and katakana syllabaries, have a good grasp of the Kanji ideograms (some with multiple meanings or readings), and then be able to at least read and understand a good deal of English. Many advertising billboards and TV commercials use all four writing systems together! And as for how one enters these kinds of characters on a keyboard simply is fascinating.

Writing Direction

If you are old enough to remember typewriters, you'll recall that large arm on the right that you had to push to the left to return the carriage to the left side and down to start a new line. Of course, with computers this has come to be known as—surprise—a carriage return.

Standards for computer programming languages support the concept of one or more characters that cause a display cursor or printer to advance to the first position of the next line. Of course, for Westerners, that means, "go back to the left side and down". That is, their writing systems are written left-to-right, top-to-bottom. I have no idea why those languages are written that way, but I know of no superior property it provides, so it is no surprise that some writing systems (such as Hebrew and Arabic) go right-to-left, top-to-bottom, and others (such as Chinese and Japanese) go top-to-bottom, right-to-left. I am not aware of any that go bottom-to-top, although that could be perfectly normal, right?

Most writers of Western languages are right-handed, which allows them to read easily what they have written as they write. Not so for lefties, like my son. In many cases, this forces left-handers to hold the pen at a very strange angle. [Speaking of lefties, back in the good old days (the Middle Ages) many people believed that those who wrote with their left hand were possessed by the Devil, and so they were considered evil. The word sinister comes from the Latin word of the same name, and means left-handed. Dextrous comes from the Latin dexteritas, from dexter, which means on the right.]

A few years ago, I made my first visit to the new British Library in London where I discovered its treasure room. [Among other things, it contains the first folio of Shakespeare's complete works, some very ornate Korans, and the lyrics of a well-known Beatle's song scribbled on an airline napkin. I highly recommend a visit if you have the opportunity.] Off in one corner was a room with computer terminals that provided access to a digitized version of one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. Now Leonardo (or "Yo Leo", as his close friends addressed him) was never accused of being normal. In this notebook, he wrote left-handed, from right to left, and back to front. That is, you need to look at a mirror image of the writing to see it in its "normal" perspective.


We've barely scratched the surface of this topic. For example, we haven't talked about sorting order in word lists, punctuation, grammar, or even the spoken word, which is a completely new topic of its own. But, of course, we have to leave something for future installments.

I'll leave you with the following anecdote from my travels in South East Asia in July 1979. I was in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve, had just been released there. The Malaysians loved movies and the ticket price was cheap, so each showing was packed. However, Malaysia has four official languages: Bahasia Malay, Chinese, Indian, and English. Although the soundtrack was in English, that was not the first language of most patrons, so they read one of the three sets of subtitles that covered the bottom half of the screen. At the same time, they were talking loudly amongst themselves making it difficult for those few of us trying to listen. For them that was normal.

Travel – Fly Me to the Moon

© 2009–2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In the first 10 years of my adult life, I flew on a private or commercial plane fewer than ten times. However, I made up for it in the next 30 years when I added another 1,100 flights; that's a flight every 10 days!

This article describes my flight log and provides some flying-related information. So put your seatbacks in a comfortable position, put your feet up, and come "Fly the Friendly Skies" with me.

My Flight Log

During a vacation in the Caribbean over the Christmas/New Year break of 2008/2009, I dreamed up an idea to use up some of my then copious free time. I would attempt to create a complete record of my commercial flights, the first of which I took in 1971 while living in Adelaide, Australia.

After having set up a spreadsheet and tracking down all the flight details from business and personal records and cancelled passports, I finished that task, and a summary of the results is shown below. I had to make some intelligent guesses for a few things (see "Estimates" below), but I believe that the result is very close to what actually transpired.

The period over which this travel occurred was June 1971 through December 2009 (38 years, 6 months); however, except for four flights all other travel was done between June 1979 and December 2009 (30 years, 6 months), so the latter time frame is used in statistics below.

Some Terminology

A flight is one take-off and its subsequent landing. [What goes up must come down, right?]

A trip is one or more flights taken together as a group with a single purpose, but not necessarily taken on the same day or connecting directly one from the other. (For example, a trip might last weeks and have several flights each on a different day.)

Flying time is the time from pushback from the gate on departure to pull up at the gate on arrival.

Ground time is the time taken getting to an airport before departure of a flight, getting from an airport after arrival of a flight without a connection, waiting at an airport between connecting flights, and moving from one airport in a city to another between connecting flights.

Travel time for a flight (or trip) is the sum of the flying time and ground time for that flight (or trip).


Not surprisingly, I didn't have all the flight information available, so in some cases I had to come up with a best estimate. Specifically, for my first five years in the US, I submitted all my expense/travel reports to my employer and my copies were long ago tossed away.

In some cases, I knew the city from which I departed or into which I arrived, but I didn't know the airport. For example, the Washington DC area has three major airports and I've used all of them from time to time. However, the flight distances and times to one or the other would only vary by 20–50 miles and a few minutes flying time, which are insignificant.

For a handful of flights, I know where I started and finished, but not if I connected along the way and if so where I connected. The difference in times would be insignificant, but it might mean the airport usage count is a little off.

For all flights taken prior to 2008, I used an on-line database to find the direct flight distance between any two airports. Of course, when I actually took the flight the distance flown might have varied a bit. In a few cases, I had to estimate the distance from a map as some out-of-the-way airports weren't listed in the database. From 2008 onwards, I have the actual distance flown.

For all flights taken prior to 2008, I used some basic math to figure out the flying time based on the distance and type of aircraft. Ground time involved some guesswork, but I pretty well know how long I take to get to/from airports and many of the flights were repeated numerous times. From 2008 onwards, I have the actual flight times.

Some of the travel days and months are guesses; for example, I know I took a certain trip, but I couldn't pin it down with respect to the actual date.


For more than a few flights, I don't know the airline or airplane type. I also didn't track my seat number or the class of service, but most of my trips were in Economy Class with more than a few in Business Class and a handful in First Class. I did not track which trips were taken using free or discounted tickets due to Frequent Flyer program participation. I also did not distinguish between business and personal flights although each flight I recorded does have a "purpose" field. In any event, I often extended business trips to include personal days or even weeks. I did not track the price of any tickets.

The Big Numbers

  1. Total distance travelled was 1,545,515 miles (2,472,824 kms). (907,700 of these miles have been with United Airlines since they started their Frequent Flyer Program, so I'm well on my way to joining their Million Mile Club.)
  2. Total travel time spent was 6,899 hours. This is 862 8-hour days, or 3 years and 4 months, full-time based on a 40-hour workweek, made up from the following two components (which are just about equal): Flying time 3,628 hours, which is 453 8-hour days, or 1 year and 9 months. Ground time 3,271 hours, which is 409 8-hour days, or 1 year and 7 months.
  3. Number of countries (or distinct regions) flown into or out of was 42 (Argentina, Australia, Bahamas, Belgium, Bermuda, Canada, Czech Republic, Chile, Costa Rica, Denmark, Fiji, Finland, France, French Polynesia [Tahiti], Germany, Guatemala, Hong Kong [now a Special Administrative Area of China], Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Korea [South], Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, Netherlands Antilles [Northern Group: Saba, St. Eustatius, and St. Martin], New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Puerto Rico, Singapore, Switzerland, Thailand, US Virgin Islands, United Kingdom [Greater London airports only], United States [including Hawaii and Alaska], Uruguay, and Venezuela). [I have been to the following other countries or distinct regions, but got there by car, bus, train, or ferry: Austria, Estonia, Lichtenstein, Macau (then a Portuguese territory; now a Special Administrative Area of China), Russia, Scotland, Sweden, and Wales. I have not been to any country in Africa.]
  4. Number of airports into or out of was 146 (60 in the U.S., in 34 states)
  5. Number of airlines used was 42 (based in 24 countries)


  1. Total number of flights was 1,134.
  2. Average distance/flight was 1,363 miles (2,181 kms).
  3. Average flying time/flight was 3:12 hours.
  4. With 1,130 flights in 30 years, 6 months, I averaged a flight every 10 days.
  5. Busiest year (most flights) was in 1984 when I had 106 flights, in 27 trips, for 31,310 miles (50,096 kms).
  6. Busiest year (most distance) was in 2007 when I had 41 flights, in 15 trips, for 109,657 miles (175,451 kms).
  7. Shortest flight by flying time was 15 minutes; 31 miles (50 kms), San Francisco, California, to San Jose, California; and 19 miles (30 kms), St. Eustatius, Dutch Antilles, to Saba, Dutch Antilles.
  8. Shortest flight by distance was 19 miles, 15 minutes, St. Eustatius, Dutch Antilles, to Saba, Dutch Antilles.
  9. Longest flight by flying time was 15:24 hours, 7,787 miles (12,459 kms), Chicago to Hong Kong (there were six movies shown, with snacks between each). We flew north and south only, over the pole then over Russia and China.
  10. Longest flight by distance was 7,920 miles (12,672 kms), 13:30 hours, Melbourne, Australia, to Los Angeles.


  1. Total number of trips was 328.
  2. Average number of flights/trip was 3.5
  3. Fewest flights in a trip was 1.
  4. Most flights in a trip was 12. Two trips tied for this. June/July 1979, a one-way trip, when I moved from Adelaide, Australia, to Washington DC. The complete itinerary was Adelaide, Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Bombay, Rome, Geneva, Paris, London, New York, and Washington DC That trip involved 12 airlines and 15 airports in 11 countries. (In two cities [London and New York], I departed from airports other than those at which I arrived.) June/July 1985 when I took a vacation to Australia, stopping off on the way out and back. The complete itinerary was Washington DC, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Fiji, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Alice Springs, Adelaide, Melbourne, Tahiti, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. Next best were two trips with 10 flights each: October/November 1991, when I took a vacation in Chile and Argentina that involved hiking in the Patagonia. The complete itinerary was Washington DC, Miami, Santiago, Puerto Mott, Punta Arenas, <by road across South America>, Rio Gallegos, Comodoro, Bahia Blanca, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Miami, Washington DC. July/August 1997 when I took a vacation to Australia. The complete itinerary was Washington DC, Los Angeles, Auckland, Melbourne, Adelaide, Darwin, Ayers Rock, Adelaide, Sydney, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.
  5. Average distance/trip was 4,712 miles (7,539 kms).
  6. Average travel time/trip was 21:00 hours with the average flying time/trip being 11:00 hours, and the average ground/trip was 10:00 hours.
  7. Longest trip by travel time was 89:45 hours, 24,282 miles (38,851 kms) the second of the 12-flight trips above.
  8. The longest trips by distance were 28,266 miles (45,226 kms), 84 hours travel time with 56 hours in the air involving Washington DC, Los Angeles, Sydney, Singapore, Sydney, Gold Coast/Coolangatta, Sydney, San Francisco, and Washington DC. 24,642 miles (39,427 kms), 84 hours travel time with 55 hours in the air involving Washington DC, Los Angeles, Auckland, Melbourne, Adelaide, Darwin, Ayers Rock, Adelaide, Sydney, Los Angeles, and Washington DC.
  9. The longest time taken to complete a trip was 7 weeks.


The country with the most flight arrivals and departures was USA (885 of each), Australia (44 of each), Germany (39 of each), and United Kingdom (19 of each), Canada (17 of each), and Japan (14 of each). (These involve travel between airports within the same country as well as to/from that country.)


  1. Airport with the most flight departures was Washington Dulles International (222) [which is no surprise as I've lived 15 minutes away from it for more than 28 years]; Boston (193); Washington National (101); Bangor (87); Chicago (47), Seattle (36), Frankfurt (34), San Francisco (29).
  2. Region with the most flight departures was Washington DC (BWI, DCA, IAD) with 325.
  3. Airport with most flight arrivals was Washington Dulles International (222); Boston (193); Bangor (87); Washington National (76); Chicago (46), Seattle (36), Frankfurt (34), San Francisco (28).
  4. Region with the most flight arrivals was Washington DC (BWI, DCA, IAD) with 325.
  5. Most common flight was Washington National (DCA) to Boston (88 in each direction), Boston to Bangor (86 in each direction)


  1. Ever since United Airlines put a major hub at my local airport (IAD), they and their Star Alliance partners have been my preferred carrier. I've had 387 flights with United alone.
  2. Prior to United, I was a regular passenger with Delta Airlines as they were the only carrier servicing a route I took frequently. I've had 363 flights with them.
  3. After that, the numbers drop off dramatically. The next best is Lufthansa with 35 flights.


I have never lost any luggage permanently, and I have had luggage go astray only three or four times, which is quite remarkable.

Unlike many frequent fliers, who want to avoid waiting for luggage on arrival I do not try to pack everything into one carry-on bag. In fact, the number of times I've flown without checked baggage would be only two or three. I like to take my time; "It's the journey, not the destination."

Not being a wearer of suits or jackets, I very rarely travel with a garment bag. And when I do, I have to find a way to remind myself that I have an extra piece of luggage hanging in a closet up front.

In March 1988, when I first traveled with a video camera bag, I was not used to having an extra piece of hand luggage. I accidentally left it behind on a mobile lounge that took me to a plane in Florida. Fortunately, I recovered it and all the video it contained from my just-completed vacation.

On more than a few trips, I've traveled with only a backpack.

Runway Designations

I usually sit in a window seat and I like to watch out the window while taxiing on and to or from a runway. Along the way there are signs marked something like 31R/13L, 21R/3L, or 4/22. And if you have listened to air traffic control on an audio headset, you might hear pilots and controllers use these numbers, which designate runways.

To explain their meaning I'll use my local airport, Washington Dulles International (IAD). IAD currently has four runways. Three of them run in a north/south direction and going from west to east they are designated 1L/19R, 1C/19C, and 1R/19L, respectively. The fourth runway runs northwest/southeast and is designated 12/30.

Airport runway numbering uses an international standard. As you may recall from your geometry days there are 360° in a circle, with degrees numbered from due north going in a clockwise direction. Every runway points in a direction—called its heading—that is rounded to the nearest multiple of 10°, so Runway 09 points due east (90°), Runway 18 points due south (180°), Runway 27 points due west (270°), and Runway 36 points due north (360°, not zero). That is, "the runway number is one tenth of the runway centerline's magnetic azimuth, measured clockwise from the magnetic declination." But you already knew that, right?

Of course, a runway can be used in both directions, so when landing from the south on a runway that goes due north, the designation would be Runway 36. When landing on that same runway from the north, the designation would be Runway 18. Runways tend to be built in straight lines, which is very convenient for landing planes! [I just hate it when there's a sharp right turn midway along a runway!] As the angle of a straight line is 180, the two designators for any given runway differ by 180/10, which is 18.

So why do some runways have a letter suffix and others not? Many airports have two or more parallel runways, in which case these all have the same number. To keep them separate when taking-off or landing, the one on the left has an L suffix, the one on the right an R suffix, and the one in between left and right has a C suffix (for Center). IAD has 1L/19R, 1C/19C, and 1R/19L, but the left-most runway is quite new. Prior to that, what is now 1C/19C was called 1L/19R, but with the addition of another runway to the left, what was left became center (except on Thursdays with a full moon in leap years). So when you read a news story about a plane landing on the wrong runway it's likely it landed on L instead of R, or vice versa, as they are going in the same direction and might only be several hundred yards apart. Of course, you know that some airports just absolutely have to have more than three runways in parallel. In such cases, those beyond three are artificially "moved" 10° so they have a different designator. Of course, a runway designator without a letter suffix has no runways parallel to it at that airport.

The designation of a runway can change over time because the magnetic poles drift slowly on the Earth's surface causing the magnetic bearing to change. (Don't you just hate that when that happens?)

English is the language of international aviation and when a runway designator is spoken, all digits and letters are said individually, as in "runway zero six left" and "runway one four right", although a leading zero might be omitted.

The Spelling or Phonetic Alphabet

In this system, each of the 26 English letters is assigned a code word so that combinations of letters can be pronounced and understood by radio or phone, especially when safety is an issue. Here are the code words used in commercial aviation:
































The average distance from the surface of the earth to the moon is about 235,000 miles (376,000 km), so I've flown more than the equivalent of three round trips to the moon (or 60 times around the earth at the equator).

Can I have your attention please? We are on approach to Kitty Hawk International Airport, and this is our first time landing a commercial flight. Please stow all your belongings, fasten your seatbelt, put your tray table in its upright position, and say a few "Hail Marys." If we all make it down safely, we look forward to seeing you again very soon. Thank you for flying Wright Brothers Airways.

This is Romeo Echo X-ray signing off.

Travel: Home Stays

© 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

It has been my experience that people who travel for pleasure fall into two main camps: tourists and travelers. Tourists tend to have less time and less frequent trips and they don't want to spend time on organizing lots of logistics themselves. They want the security of having their itinerary locked-in in advance. They stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, and go on guided tours. Many want the romance of an international encounter but at arm's length from the locals. Travelers, on the other hand, often take long and frequent trips. They want to "make things up as they go" and might not have any accommodation or travel tickets booked at the destination. They stay with host families. They buy food at bakeries and supermarkets and they picnic in scenic places. They wander the back streets in search of the unexpected opportunity, photo, or personal encounter. To be sure, many people have a leg in both camps and one approach does not fit all circumstances or personalities. Both have their place and their adherents. As for me, I prefer to be a traveler as much as possible.

Many of my trips have involved stays with strangers, most of whom I had contacted in advance—but maybe only one or two days before—through one organization or another. Some hosts were people I met while on the road and others were "friends of friends". Some of my travel diary readers have commented on how exciting it must be to arrive in some far-off place with an as-yet unknown "friend" waiting to meet me and to share hospitality and a cross section of their life and community. And yes, it generally is exciting. Inevitably, I am asked how I organize a home stay and whether I have encountered any problems. And since I also host travelers, I am asked about that too.

What follows are some of my experiences, both as a host and as a traveler. I also offer some advice for anyone considering hosting or traveling in this manner.

Europeans Tête-à-Tête with the Philistine Americans

My first experience in hosting via an organization came through American Host Program (AHP), a group that, unfortunately, is now defunct. During the Cold War, a teacher couple from California was traveling in Europe. They were disturbed at the negative view that many people had of those arrogant war-mongering Americans ("What? Us warmongers?"), so they decided to do something about it. They invited teachers and librarians to come to the US for 30 days and to stay 10 days with each of three families or 15 days with each of two families. Guests had to have reasonable English skills so they could have a prolonged and meaningful exchange with a small cross section of the real America (you know, with people like me, immigrants!). Hosts provided accommodation and meals and were asked to be ambassadors for their country. To be sure, it was a big commitment for both parties, but it was only once a year and it was a great opportunity to have a meaningful exchange and to make lasting friendships.

From 1988 through 2000 Jenny and I hosted 12 sets of guests, 10 of whom were on their own (seven women and three men) and two who brought spouses. They were from Austria (1), Finland (1), France (2), Germany (7), and Sweden (1). Three were born and raised in the former East Germany. As well as hosting them, I have stayed with or visited eight of them at least once and one of them, Astrid, numerous times. She has also visited me again. I keep in touch with four former guests via my trusty and cheap Skype internet phone software.

Peace, Brother!

Seventeen years ago, I read an article in the travel section of the Washington Post newspaper about a couple traveling in Wales with their 3-year-old daughter and staying with host families. The host organization was Servas International. Soon after, Jenny and I joined as both hosts and travelers and three years later, we also became interviewers for new members. [As it happened, our first Servas trip as a family was to Wales where we stayed with three completely different hosts.] Servas has members in more than 60 countries and is a peace-based organization intended to facilitate dialog between people from different countries, regions, or cultures. [I host and stay with members from other parts of the US as well as other countries. After all, the US can be viewed as 50 different countries.]

Most Servas hosts provide accommodations and meals for two days and nights. The rule is that a traveler doesn't just "use" a host for an overnight stay or wear out their welcome over a longer period, although hosts and travelers can agree to other terms. For example, a veterinary surgeon in Mexico offered a month's stay provided guests helped him in his practice. Some hosts offer longer stays if you buy language lessons from them. One man offered a long stay if you worked some hours each day helping him renovate his large villa.

There are also Day Hosts, people who cannot—or chose not to—have people stay overnight; perhaps they live in student dormitories or are priests or nuns. They like to meet guests for coffee or a meal, to take them on a walking tour, or to practice their English. Day Hosts are great! They allow for meaningful contact with little commitment. In either case, travelers arrange directly with hosts based on entries in host books, each of which covers a single- or multiple-country region. Membership runs for a year at a time and each country charges an annual membership fee.

I've stayed with hosts in Costa Rica, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Uruguay, the US, and Wales. [As I write this, I am staying with the second of two hosts in Normandy, France, where I'm spending a 7-day holiday after a business meeting in Paris. The experience has been fantastic, despite the inclement weather, and I'm already planning a return trip; thank you Jean-Claude, Brigitte, and Martine.]

Given the "competition" from internet-based hosting organizations, Servas is looking at going online in some form or another. However, one of its strengths is that membership requires personal references and an interview.

Servas conducts an international conference every few years. Some countries host annual conferences and some local chapters hold regular events. In the Washington DC area, we have a summer picnic and a Christmas party, with occasional functions through the year as members chose to organize them. The idea for these is to allow local members to meet each other in addition to the people from out of town who they host.

Bring out the Best China

My first internet-based hosting experience was with Hospitality Club in 2005. I was planning a vacation to Hong Kong yet there were no overnight Servas hosts there—only Day Hosts. As it happened, Hospitality Club only had Day Hosts too, but I made contact with a number of members living there, and an expatriate American and two young Chinese businesswomen each agreed to meet me. The American took me on a walking tour of the financial district and had a meal with me at an Irish pub where his wife joined us. One Chinese woman took me to a banquet with her extended family. The other took me to a neighborhood restaurant and brought two friends who wanted to practice their English and to pepper me with questions about travel.

Can I Surf Your Couch?

In mid-2008, I was staying with a Servas host in Philadelphia and he introduced me to CouchSurfing (thanks Todd). This internet-based organization is very popular. There are members in pretty much every corner of the planet. Although I have yet to stay with a host—I tried to in Rome, Italy, in May 2009, but without success—I have hosted quite a few members, mostly domestic travelers within the US. One of them finished up living with us for five weeks while he worked on the Obama Presidential campaign, a cause dear to our hearts.

The Second Viking Invasion

Some friends of ours were involved in a Danish program that needed extra hosts one year. Jenny and I were "pressed into service" and discovered that that year's group was made up of retirees from the island of Fyn who were amateur folk dancers. They were traveling around the eastern US having a holiday and performing. We hosted the leader and his wife and had a great experience. (I have stayed with them twice since and met their extended family.) In subsequent years, we hosted other adult groups as well as members of several Danish national youth gymnastics teams.

Konnichiwa and Domo Arigato

In 1999, I read in our local newspaper about a hosting opportunity. A company nearby provided business English lessons and customer service training to employees of foreign companies. Most students were from Japan and their companies sent them for 2–12 weeks. Over the 3-year period before the school's closing Jenny and I hosted 14 Japanese men and woman, most of whom stayed with us for two weeks. The school gave us $120/week towards the cost of meals and we were asked to spend at least an hour a day speaking English with our guests and helping them to use the skills they were learning. We had some great experiences and I visited several of our guests back in Japan. On one memorable occasional at a dinner party we hosted I prompted Harusa to "sing us a song", and without fluster she broke into a Japanese girl-scout campfire song.

Don't Wait for a Knock at Your Door

You don't need to be a member of a hosting organization to host, however; you just need to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. For example, while staying in a youth hostel in New York City I gave my contact information to a German traveler called Frank who was headed toward Washington DC. I invited him to stay, and he did. (Separately, I had also invited a Chinese professor called Frank to stay, so when someone called Frank phoned Jenny to be picked up at the station she looked for Chinese Frank when it was German Frank waiting!) Whenever I meet interesting people on my travels, I hand them a business card. I do so more to keep in touch on a personal level than for possible business connections.

Once, I was waiting at the Toronto airport for a flight that had been delayed by the first snowstorm of the season. I got talking to a young Brazilian mother who was flying home to Rio with her 5-year-old son. We were together more than an hour before our flight was called. We didn't sit together in-flight but I saw her at the airport on arrival. By then she had missed her connection to Brazil and was going to have to spend the night until the next flight 24 hours later. Although she was prepared to deal with that, I told her that in 15 minutes, my wife would pick me up, and we could host the two of them. She hesitated for all of five seconds before accepting. The next day, she gave me a music CD by well-known Brazilian singer and songwriter Tom Jobim. Although it wasn't something I would have bought for myself, I came to really like it and 10 years later I still play it regularly, thinking often about that fortuitous meeting.

I remember well a very nice random act of kindness bestowed on Jenny and me when we traveled to Brussels with our 3-year-old son. We'd ridden a public bus to the Waterloo battlefield and were eating our picnic lunch at the top of the huge earthen memorial. There our son played with a girl about his own age so we got to meet her parents, a Canadian couple posted to their embassy in Brussels for several years. They invited us to ride back to the city with them and to spend the afternoon and an evening meal at their house, after which they'd drop us back at our hotel. We cheerfully accepted and had a very nice time.

Opportunities are all around us; we simply have to recognize and take advantage of them.

Some Host and Traveler Considerations

There are many things for a potential host or traveler to consider. Based on personal experience, these are the main ones I cover when interviewing new members for Servas:

  1. Home Access: Should the host give the guest a house key? Some hosts require that a guest leave when the host does—possible early in the morning—which means that the guest typically cannot get back in until the host is back home. In general, this is very inconvenient for the guest. Traveling can be hard work and some days you just want to lie in bed, read a book, and write postcards, do laundry, or rest.
  2. Food: Discuss any food restrictions and allergies. Hosts or travelers may be vegetarian or vegan. Don't be shy as a host about asking guests to contribute food or, if you are a guest, to bring food or offer to buy food. Remember, the host is already providing accommodation without charge.
  3. Generosity: Hosts are well advised to not say "Make yourself at home" since they have no idea what the guest's home life is like.
  4. Helping Out: Good guests offer to prepare food, cook, clean, and help with other household chores without needing to be asked.
  5. Phone use: Understand the rules about phone use and the cost of calls.
  6. Smoking: Do not violate any smoking rules of the host. [I have heard of a case in which the host said, "You may smoke in my house, but if you do you may not exhale!"]
  7. Appropriate Expectations: If a guest wants a choice of food, that's called a restaurant. If they want an en suite bathroom or a private bedroom, that's called a hotel.
  8. Computer stuff: Is internet access available and, if so, what are the costs and limits? Travelers often take many digital photos, which fill up memory cards. Offering guests to burn pictures on a CD-ROM or DVD is very thoughtful, but don't be shy about charging for the media you use.
  9. Space: Give everyone his or her space. Don't s/mother your guests but don't ignore them either. Don't over plan.
  10. Convenience: Discuss things that might be needed unexpectedly such as umbrellas, hats, gloves, water bottles, and picnic equipment.
  11. Interaction: Unless it has been pre-arranged otherwise, be prepared to spend some quality time with each other and to have a meaningful exchange. A host stay should be more like a good bed and breakfast experience rather than a cheap hotel visit.


What's the Worst that can Happen?

So what are the risks of inviting strangers into your home? Should you be worried about them stealing all your stuff or running up large telephone bills with international calls? What if they are escaped mental patients who killed their families with an axe?

After 20 years of hosting, I am very happy to report that I have had none of the problems most people think might occur. And, apart from some family photos, home movies, and personal effects, household goods are replaceable. It's just stuff, right? My experience has been that if you are that much in love with your stuff you probably aren't a real traveler. [I met a man who complained he had no shoes until he met a man who had no feet!] As for the escaped mental patient, if he stays at my place he'll simply think I'm a fellow patient. We'd probably get along just fine.

The worst I can report is a lack of synergy, punctuality, or sensitivity. (Fortunately, not all were with the same guest!) In the latter case, Jenny and I hosted a young Russian man who lived three hours away on the mid-Atlantic coast. He was using the program to stay with families on weekends to get to meet Americans and to learn about their culture. However, a few hours after we met him we decided that we needed to have a serious talk with him about his approach. When he didn't understand something or didn't agree with it he expressed very strong opinions about it even saying things like "Why do Americans do such stupid things?" and "We had much better ways of doing that back in Russia." The next day we told him that sooner or later he was going to stay with someone less understanding that us, and they would simply tell him to go back home if he was going to be that ignorant and arrogant, and rightly so. While his intent was good, his execution was seriously flawed.

In this internet age, I have computers and gadgets throughout the house with protected wifi access. However, because my internal network is not secured from one machine to the other (to allow Jenny and me to share files), I don't give open access to my computer systems. If guests have their own laptop, they can "plug in" without breaching my security. Take sensible precautions and you should be fine.

As far as staying with strangers, I have never felt any environment was unsafe or unhealthy. I've had a couple of experiences that made me wonder why the hosts bothered, however.


As with many other aspects of life, problems in hosting can arise from a lack of communication and unreasonable expectations. Most can be avoided with a little planning and some common sense. As a host, ask yourself what you'd reasonably expect as a traveler, and as a traveler ask yourself what you'd reasonably expect as a host. While it's not necessary to be a traveler to be a good host or vice versa, experiencing it from both sides certainly can help. I've had many great experiences from hosting and from being hosted, and I have made some long-term friends. I've really gotten to appreciate that "normal" is relative to the experience of each person even within the same country or region.

Is hosting or traveling for you? Are you more interested in the journey than the destination? Are you more interested in the cultural aspects than the sights? Do you want the challenge of being an unofficial ambassador for your country even if you disagree with your country's policies? (One Mexican host held me personally accountable for much of the illegal immigrant policy that was being enforced in California!)

You never know what new friendship, experience, or adventure is waiting for you around the corner. But don't sit at home and dream about it, go make it happen. Create your own luck. Oh, and beware of hosts and travelers who list "axe murder" under their personal interests!