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Living in the ‘Pound: A Glimpse of Life on a Western Compound in Saudi Arabia

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Dogs are not welcome in Saudi Arabia. Foreigners are not welcome in general, but dogs are particularly unwelcome. In many countries, an imported animal must be kept in quarantine to prevent spreading unwanted diseases to the native herds; that’s what it’s like to live in Saudi Arabia as a westerner. The Saudis are kind and friendly, but to protect their social structure, they must be protected from the rabid influence of the immigrant workers that keep the economic wheels turning. The liberal social customs of imported workers could infect the poorly inoculated locals, leading to chaos and destruction- at least that would be the conclusion of an outside observer visiting the “western” compounds that house the many workers from around the world.

The truth is, as always, more complex. Many expats live within Saudi neighborhoods, and culture, with minimal difficulty. This living arrangement involves a very clear and non-negotiable arrangement, however; you must abide by Saudi traditions and customs. Women must be covered in public (including the abaya and something to cover her hair, such as a niqab or hijab), and they cannot drive. Well, actually this woman from British Airways can drive, but only on the runway:

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In fact, unmarried or unrelated men and women may not mix at all. This is supposed to include the workplace, although typically this just involves separate sections of the cafeteria or lecture hall. An interesting paradox is the “driver” culture; because women may not drive, there is a huge industry of professional drivers that chauffeur women and families to their destinations. The irony is that, of course, these men are not related nor married to the women they are spending time with. I guess we all rationalize away those things that might upset our worldview.

Life is different, however, on the compounds. Separated from Saudi culture by a bubble of reinforced concrete walls and barbed wire, inside you will find an oasis of progressive ideology, mixing of men and women, and even cinemas!

From the outside, you think you are entering a maximum security prison. Maybe you are.

Once inside, however, women can shed their abayas, men can wear shorts that go as far above the knees as they dare, and unrelated boys and girls can ride bikes, swim, and engage in whichever activities their home culture deems appropriate.

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Bikes, typically off-limits to Saudi girls, are everywhere on the larger compounds. They transport kids, teachers, even burgers! Bikes can even be used to pick up refreshments that are definitely not allowed. Hypothetically speaking, so I’ve heard.

When you choose your Scotch-like beverage based on the number of months it has been aged, rather than years, you know you are living in an alternate universe. Another sign that there is a little home-brewing going on is the bulk purchasing of grape juice at the local supermarkets:

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Another difference between the wealthy Gulf Coast Countries and the real world is the attitude toward laborers. In North America and Europe, a street sweeper is a machine. Here, it is typically a guy from Bangladesh who probably makes just enough money to pay off the agent that arranged his visa and (at best) send some home to feed his family.

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Once you venture outside of the compound, everyone has to conform to the local customs. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or meet amazing people.

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Camping and off-roading are one of the few activities that allow you to escape the gilded cage of compound life. Fortunately, there’s plenty of desert for everyone.

 

Sometimes, the desert comes to you. Our kids looked forward to the occasional sand storm, as this usually resulted in cancellation of school.

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My favorite photos from Arabia are mostly sunsets, perhaps representative of how hard and barren life in Saudi Arabia can be, and how that focuses one’s appreciation on beauty and peace that can’t be repressed.

After a while, aspects of Saudi culture that I found shocking or hilarious became normal. It has been revealing to scroll back through those memories and relive the initial emotions upon arriving for the first time.

 

I appreciate that my family and I were able to explore this part of the world while having a comfortable home that felt like “home”, replete with Girl Scouts, soccer, and lemonade stands.

My prediction for the future is that Saudi culture will change radically in the next few years; combined with the departure of many of the western workers, it is likely that the compounds will become enclaves for western-minded Saudis. I hope they enjoy the lemonade and Thin Mints.

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Not Another Nice Review! Or,”I loved Nice and I’m just jealous I couldn’t stay”

 

The French Riviera can never, ever live up to its reputation. Think about it; this is the only place that is really cool enough for James Bond to return to again and again. Perhaps nowhere else on earth is there such a convergence of style, wealth, and beauty. Dubai may surpass the Cote D’Azur in the wealth category, but is found woefully lacking in the style and beauty departments (although I do have a soft spot for gold-plated Lamborghinis). Paris certainly has style and wealth, but the sapphire blue oceans  of Nice were beautiful long before the birth of any artist in the Louvre. San Francisco? Hong Kong? They are crowded ant piles of humanity compared to the softly churning shores of the south of France.

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How do you visit a place that creates such lofty expectations? I recommend you find a way to write it off as a business expense and not take it so seriously. If you are the one paying exorbitant rates for a small, depressing hotel room, it is possible the charms of Nice will fail you. If, however, your employer is paying for your lodging, it is suddenly cozy, minimalist, and encourages you to get out and explore! Attitudes are everything.

With this tongue-in-cheek perspective, you are free to be enamored with the grace of Mediterranean living. Don’t be sad that you can’t afford to indulge in the sophistication of the casino at Monte Carlo; be thankful that your humble car isn’t one of the Bentleys and Rolls Royces being left out front for every commoner to spit upon.

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Speaking of cars, anyone who appreciates four-wheeled transportation should visit the private-but-available-to-the-public collection in Monaco. Whatever your generation, you will find the cars that once decorated your bedroom wall.

The next dream to be fulfilled is culinary. Oh, the food! I don’t know how I could recommend a particular restaurant, as every meal was amazing. The simple pasta and pizza from a street-side cafe, meticulously prepared meals by candlelight, even the Skittles in the airport tasted better. Perhaps most amazing is the wine. It shouldn’t surprise me, but these people know wine. The typical house wine tastes like a $100 special occasion opening.

The dessert above is made from Nougat. What is nougat? I didn’t know. Fortunately, because Nice is in Europe and the service is glacially slow, there was time to look it up on Google. It turns out that nougat comes from the nougat tree, and it can only be harvested during a certain season by an indigenous tribe. Since I read that on the internet, it is certainly true. Other less interesting sources claim that it is made from almonds, egg whites, and honey.

I would also recommend that you do not learn French before visiting Nice. I can’t imagine how boring it would be to order something and know what the server will bring 30-75 minutes later. Where is the fun in that? I prefer to look knowingly at the menu and use my mangled version of “This please”, Sa sil vou plais (imagine that with a southern drawl- Saw Seal View Play, ma’am. Mare sea.). They probably nodded knowingly, then served me whatever was leftover from the night before.

Such gastronomic perfection tends to weigh on you. Figuratively, and literally. To combat both, I recommend long walks. Europeans in urban areas typically live in small apartments, with parks serving as the shared outdoor space. You’ll find families with children, old men playing checkers, old women gossiping to and about each other, and love-struck couples showing their affection obliviously through it all. However, even the charm of this environment shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Especially after a few glasses of the above-mentioned house wine. If you can never hope to fully grasp the historical gravity and elegance of a place, you can just be silly and make fun of it…

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I was encouraged to find that, despite the cultural differences on each side of the Atlantic, there are some points of agreement. For instance, Speedos are not for wearing in public:

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I would also like to point out that most guys wearing Speedos on French beaches do not have the shape or hairlessness of this drawing.

In case of a fire in your tiny, overpriced hotel room, take this immediate action:

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Take your skinny self out of the room, which is probably on fire because you live on wine and cigarettes. Don’t use the elevator that is old enough to have surrendered to the Germans. Notify the reception desk, where they will pretend to not understand English. They will look at you with disdain until you try a few phrases in French, and then they will admit that they do in fact speak English and will eventually address your complaint; but it should be noted that none of the other tenants have complained, and perhaps you are just not sophisticated enough to appreciate the normal amount of smoke found in French hotels.

Nice, and the rest of the French Riviera, is one of those few places where common folks like us can breathe the same air, walk the same beach, and sit in the same traffic as the rich and famous. Other than that it’s fantastic 😉

 

Seattle- Home of Jetson Motors, With a Double Shot of Dreadlocks

Seattle really doesn’t know what it wants to be. The next San Francisco (there are only a few places dreadlock-wearing homeless white people can feel at ease), the reincarnation of our dearly departed Detroit (home to Boeing- the General Motors of the aviation industry), or a copycat London (pretentious yet approachable)?

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The space needle is the incontrovertible icon of the city. It boldly lays claim to a techno-future that few would have predicted for what was once a sleepy secondary port for logging and fishing. The needle is rigid and inhuman, and Seattle as a center for aviation and technology is well reflected thus.

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An interesting thing happened on the way to the Jetsons, it seems. The pacific northwest began to attract people who weren’t engineers; some of them didn’t even have real jobs! Artists, musicians, and other social deviants were drawn to the intersection of ocean and mountains. A friend of mine once told me that we go to the mountain to find God, and to the sea to find ourselves; there is a certain innate wisdom in seeking out places where the two are so close.

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Dale Chihuly is a great example of those who had an alternate vision for the future. His work is displayed at the base of the space needle, like alien wildflowers springing up around the base of some deserted  spaceship, waiting for a perpetually-distant  launch window.

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The hills of Seattle lead you to the ocean eventually. You can strive up the steep grades of self-discovery, but the ever-churning tides are waiting when you join the river of humanity flowing to the sea.

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Leaving Seattle is bittersweet, unless you also happen to live in a vibrant, green place flush with energy and optimism. The dream of Seattle is out of reach for most people, but it provides an optimistic lens to view the world. 2016-05-03 15.21.32

The future may not look like Seattle, and Seattle may not be able to write its own future, but at least there is a vision of what tomorrow could be.

Crazy Kathmandu

At an altitude of 21,000 feet, you typically have a sense of omniscience; you can look down upon the world with power, confidence and knowledge. This false sense of superiority is laid bare by the Himalayas. From this lofty position, you are barely a peer to the foothills surrounding the true giants. The stark, jagged ridges and vast glaciers do not look like a world humans should inhabit.

Visiting Nepal is a visit to two places; crushing poverty that exists in the shadow of the most majestic of mountains. Kathmandu, the capital, is reminiscent of rural China or sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, the Nepali people have a well-deserved reputation for kindness and authenticity. As a westerner, you wonder what it must be like to work in the streets of the city, where the average yearly income is $500 USD, and see the rows of stores selling trekking gear that costs many times that.

Most visitors to Nepal are seeking the mountains (my friend Curtis would say that they are there to find God, even if they don’t know it). There are countless trekking companies to choose from, but if you don’t have weeks to sacrifice to your pilgrimage, there are a few short-cuts to catching a revelation of the mighty Himalayas. The most direct method is to book a “Mountain Flight” from the main airport. I hopped on board a reasonably modern twin turbo-prop from Yeti airlines, and resisted any comments about the abominable service; it was actually quite nice.

2016-07-03 04.51.59While there was some nod towards security at the airport, you can tell that regulations are a little less strict here. We were allowed to come forward to the cockpit for photos during the flight! The helpful flight attendant pointed out the highest peaks as we cruised past. Mount Everest, or Sagarmatha “Goddess of the Sky”, sits behind the others, an inner sanctum of ice and altitude.

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The second way to view the mountains from Kathmandu is to drive up to a small hill (just 6000 ft above sea level) and watch the sun rise over the peaks. Of course, this involves driving up the side of a mountain in a developing country in the dark:

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In North America, you would have a trail-rated off-road SUV, with 33 inch tires, a winch, and a half dozen extra lights to conquer the wild. We took this:

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Cute, isn’t it? We scraped the bottom of the car on a few large rocks, but our little burro never got stuck.

Once we reached the summit, we climbed an observation tower. Like other adventures outside of the US and Europe, the lack of safety equipment takes me back to my childhood, when riding in the back of a pickup truck was a perfectly normal means of transportation.

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The cloud that had obscured the sky for days suddenly lifted, and the tour guide urged me to shoot before the mood of the skies changed again.

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He told me that for two months they had seen nothing but fog, and he was almost as excited as I was to see the painted skies over the mountain tops. Within just a few minutes, the clouds remembered their monsoon duties, diffusing the glow of the sunrise until it disappeared again.

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Descending in the gray enlightenment of day, we could finally see the land we had sped through in the pre-dawn darkness. Terraced fields of corn and barley, subsistence farms, and empty power lines that only intermittently provide anything other than a blemish on the otherwise simple beauty of the valley.

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We stopped on the side of the road, where a man was making condensed buffalo and cow milk, a common breakfast among the rural Nepalese. His grandfather had taught him the trade, and it looks like the method hasn’t changed in centuries.

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Back in Kathmandu, we toured the many Buddhist and Hindu temples. Tragically, many of them were damaged during the massive earthquake of 2015, and those still standing are often supported by struts. The architecture is beautiful, and the intricate craftsmanship is fascinating.

 

One of the benefits of having a devout Buddhist as a tour guide is that in his drive to convert you, you have access to the inner workings of the temples. Leather shoes are not cool (wearing something made of cow parts here is like wearing kitten- and puppy-fur slippers in the US). We always toured religious sites barefoot, in a clockwise fashion, casually rolling the prayer drums as we passed by.

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The first temple we visited, Swayambhunath or the Monkey Temple, is known for two things. The first is the series of 365 steps required to reach the site, one for each day of the year. The second is, as you might guess, the monkeys. They confidently strolled among the monks and tourists, and looked as if they owned the place.

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There is an easy way to determine if you are in a local market or one targeting tourists; if the wares all appear authentically Nepali, or the T-shirts have slogans about Everest, Nepal, Trekking, Bob Marley or smoking hashish, you are in the tourist bazaar. If the vendors are selling “Name Brand” jeans, flat brim hats, or T-shirts with Nike/Adidas/ fill-in-your-brand-or-rock-band-here, you are in the local market. Ironic.

During the trekking season of spring and fall, many tourists are trustafarians from western countries, putting their parents’ money to good use by eating pizza and drinking beer in a place much more exotic than the usual places they eat pizza and drink beer. A majority of the tourists during the summer monsoon season are from India or China, so the local merchants target their audience accordingly.

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Despite the earthquake that disrupted what little infrastructure existed in Nepal, the people I met seem to have a sense of calm and satisfaction with life that is uncommon in the west. Some of us might feel that having a damaged temple is a great tragedy, but this guy knows it is still a great place to take a nap until the rain passes.

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Amidst the chaos and ruin, people seemed to be going about their lives, as others have done for millennia.

 

Overall, Nepal is a beautiful land of beautiful people, both filled with peace. I don’t think anyone could visit and not be moved by both.

Here’s a gallery of other images and observations from Nepal:

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Momos- tasty dumplings that are a local favorite. I tried the fried buffalo momos and they were delicious:2016-07-02 15.58.54

Hint of the hippie days before hashish was made illegal and all of the hippies deported at the request of the US State Department in 1973. Nixon was such a buzz kill!2016-07-03 05.05.56

This discerning goat peruses the market for the finest ingredients:2016-07-04 05.38.35

Looking for a crosswalk in Kathmandu:

 

 

 

Bahrain- The Forgotten Middle Gulf Coast Country

The Gulf Coast Countries are a glamorous family. Dubai is the beautiful but narcissistic one, most likely to “accidentally” post inappropriate images of itself on social media. Abu Dhabi is the older brother who works at a hedge fund and never has time to drive his new Ferrari. Kuwait is the rich uncle who has been divorced 3 times but likes to lecture you on your moral character. Oman is the laid back cousin that spends the summers surfing, gets a job as a ski instructor every winter, and everyone in the family is either insanely jealous or judgmental of their choices. Saudi Arabia is the matriarch that rules the family from their 1970’s-era shag carpet living room. Yemen is that step child that ended up in rehab and no one ever mentions anymore.  And then there’s Bahrain…

 

Bahrain is that awkward child that never gets into enough trouble to be noticed, but isn’t quite successful enough to be the hot topic at the family reunion. Let’s start with the skyline of Manama, the capital (and only city- its a small island):

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Adequately attractive. Of course, we all know there’s no Burj Khalifa here; why can’t you be more like Dubai? You’ll never get married to a respectable trade organization with that look…

I mean their architecture is cool and all, but are Boat-Plane-Buildings still in fashion this year? Who wears that?

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Being in the middle of the family has its advantages, though. A standing engagement with the US Navy’s Fifth fleet means there’s never a dull Friday night, even if you’d rather be invited to the parties that the Lebanese girls always talk about. There’s also a little crush on the neighbor boy Iran, which infuriates the parents, and results in Bahrain getting grounded occasionally.

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Like most forgotten middle children, there’s more to Bahrain than not being the others. Spending enough time with the Navy will inevitably result in a tattoo and maybe even a story or two; just don’t tell mom and dad! You can even get a haircut at a place that is evidently endorsed by Justin Bieber!

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Other bad habits that Bahrain brought home include a certain Tex-Mex chain:

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…and an authentic Texas BBQ joint, complete with huge chunks of cow and a cover band that sings about momma, pickup trucks, trains, and going to jail.

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There is a rebellious side to Bahrain, and you wonder when it’s going to quit its day job and join a Jihadi punk band. 2016-05-06 20.15.14When the little old ladies sit around the quilting circle, do they ask each other “I don’t know Martha, which color should I use for the grenade? Should it match the armored personnel carrier?”

Stay tuned, I think the next few seasons of Keeping up with the Bahrainians could get interesting!

 

Austin Ain’t What It Used To Be

Austin is a place that never really existed. It is a fantasy land, the Shangri-La for musicians, hippies, partiers, and other folks your mother wouldn’t want you to marry. Ask any Austin native, and they’ll all tell you how great it used to be ten, twenty, forty years ago.   This answer is especially pervasive among the people who moved there a few years ago; they can just feel the vibe slipping away.

I think Austin is alive and well, because that’s what people want it to be. As long as Austin-ites strive to “Keep Austin Weird” (that’s a real movement actually), they will succeed. If you’ve never visited, but are among the 93% of hipsters who can’t decide between Austin and Portland, allow me to give you an introduction.

First of all, if you have any preconceived notions about Texas, Texans, and all things Tex-ish, you will find Austin to be a land of contradictions. For example, at Zilker Park, I found a coal-rolling lifted Bro truck (likely with a confederate flag bumper sticker), an Alfa Romeo, and a certain hippie chick who likes to ride bikes with me.

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Riding towards downtown, you definitely find evidence that you are not in Dallas or the plains of West Texas. You would not find this in Lubbock:

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I don’t really know what that sign means, but because it looks like Homer Simpson it made me smile. Here’s another positive-ch’i, karma-sending, let’s-buy-some-weed-and-not-go-to-class sign:

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As cheesy and hippie as it is, I really like the message. I do want to live a great story. Not one of those greek tragedies, or a Stephen King novel, or a young adult romance-thriller where all of the parents are absent or stupid, but an authentic, good story.

Next to Zilker Park is the botanical garden; there is a nice Japanese garden, and if you like to do yoga while discussing crystals or auras you shouldn’t have any trouble finding someone of like mind. I liked the small peaceful statue of St. Francis, with the warm sun on his back and a hopeful pile of wishing coins at his feet.

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If you think the local menu must always include either beef, Tex-Mex, or both, you are actually right. However, don’t be surprised to find exciting tangents from that arc. At Kerbey Lane Cafe, I found this concoction:

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It is the Austin-weird version of eggs Benedict. You will see the buttermilk biscuit (just like momma used to make), fried chicken, an egg, and instead of Hollandaise…. Queso! Other than the egg, there’s nothing Benedict about it, but it was tasty. Of course it was served by a spunky tattooed girl with blue hair and various piercings; her parents may be appalled, but at least she has a job!

Those who feel the real Austin has been lost will be quick to point out the sprawling suburbs, the influx of tech industry yuppies who don’t know  Willie from Waylon, the Republicans popping up like Blue Bonnets in every neighborhood… But the weird vibe is alive and well. Just ask our neighbor:

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The Award for Best Short Film by a 10 Year Old Goes To…

Sometimes, you have to leave your ten year old son alone while you do something else. Usually, you give him your iPhone to keep him occupied. Upon returning, it’s always fun to review the photos to see what type of shenanigans he has documented. The last time I checked, I found the coolest video I’ve seen in a long time; seriously, somewhere at NYU there’s a film student who is considering plagiarizing this as their senior thesis project. The way the tension builds, the cinematography, the unexpected plot twists, the indomitable human spirit; not bad for a single take! Enjoy…

In Search of Art

A desert mirage is a dance of distorted light and a willingly altered perspective; the shimmering waves in the distance look liquid, and believing it makes it so.  Finding art is like that; the critical mind only sees desert and desolation, but if you look for the fantastical oasis, it will be there.

This is a collection of random and spontaneous photos that represent the art that is always in the background, or otherwise hiding in plain sight. You can find it on your commute:

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Or even as a backdrop for the escalator at the mall:

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This one is hard to guess:

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Obviously, it’s the multi-colored soap on the windshield at a car wash.

Sometimes the context is everything:

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Some of the coolest moments are at home. With office supplies:

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Mother’s Day is a good excuse to find art, just don’t go to Hallmark..

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In fact, my favorite artists are all right at home. Not only are they talented, their work is affordable!

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You might find something inspiring at school, with some local flavor:

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Sometimes you have to get lost in the hills,

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or take a moment at work to engage the other side of your brain.

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This is a foreign world, but one very close to home. (40x Gram stain)

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

There’s a reason “lost in translation” is more than a movie, its a cliche. Phrases that make sense to a native speaker may not impart the message they intended. The fun starts when you make your own interpretations; this is a collection of some of my favorites.

In Norway, motorcycles are not allowed to jump over cars. Not on this street anyway.

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IMG_4853 This cafe sells ridiculously huge hot dogs. Are they the biggest in the world? Probably.

This is something I found at the market while looking for gloves for doggy clean-up duty. Not sure what their intended use is, and I didn’t want to take any chances that the check-out guys would make fun of me, so I didn’t buy them.

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I think this next one is a travel brochure for spring break in Mexico:

 

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Reminds me of college.

Speaking of liver damage, this was an unfortunately ironic sign in the New Orleans airport:

IMG_2502New Orleans is probably also #1 in tattoo removal and nicotine patches. At least in Turkey they warn you when things are bad for your health (this is a carton of cigarettes):

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On the topic of nannyish signs, we were protected from all types of dangerous behavior while staying at a hotel in Oman:

IMG_4129I can see how you might hurt yourself with hand sanitizer. But a phone? And the restroom?

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My wife the risk-taker.

And really, is this some type of tourist-eating Venus flytrap?

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And lastly, on the juvenile side, here a few of my kids’ favorites.IMG_5107IMG_4331IMG_4297They particularly like the “historical diarrhea” sign. Gets a laugh every time.