Kaffitar and Kids

A church in Iceland invited our church to come help them build a teen area in their main sanctuary. So a team of twelve traveled to Iceland bringing the lithium batteries for our power tools as carry-ons. The people in this church were not in need of food or clothing – just man (and woman) power.

We stayed in converted barracks from the airbase

We stayed in converted barracks from the airbase

Although we’d come to work, (more on that later), we had an opportunity to experience the island. An air-force base was constructed in Iceland around the time of World War II to protect the island’s neutrality – which really seems like a better way of ensuring Icelandic “neutrality” favored American and British interests. In 2006, the US vacated the base, turning it over to Iceland’s defense team. It’s now mostly abandoned except for a few barracks that have been turned into low-income housing or the “hotel” at which we stayed.

The vegetation in Iceland is short. You could see for miles because there were no trees, no shrubs, really nothing taller than spongy turf stretching to the horizon. At the end of the trip, we took the Golden Circle bus tour. Within eight hours we rode Icelandic horses, watched the Stokkur geyser, and walked over the Gulfoss waterfall. On the way, we noticed a batch of tall pine trees. After a week of seeing no vegetation reaching higher than our ankles, the tall trees dividing the horizon was jarring. Our tour guide explained that the trees were implants from immigrants who missed the pine trees of their native countries. The trees seemed to thrive in their little patches of like-minded trees, but there was an oddity to it, an out-of-place-ness. The trees seemed to me a little like the air force base. Who introduced this foreign presence? At least the trees stayed and made the place home.

A latte at Stokkur Geysir

A latte at Stokkur Geysir

The coffee was good. Even the mass produced Kaffitar had a nice, full flavor. And the latte at a beautiful café near the Stokkur was almost as memorable as the stark beauty of Iceland’s countryside. But I purposefully speed through these encounters. You can find better descriptions and pictures on the internet.

The PBS travel-guide Rick Steves gave a talk on Travel as a Political Act in which he points out that travel goes beyond mere tourism when we take time to get know the people of the places we visit. We, in turn, are changed and return home as better citizens of our home country, and better citizens of the world. This trip to Iceland was no different. Yes, I thrilled walking along Gulfoss. I felt like a character from Lord of the Rings riding all huddled up on amazingly furry, hobbit horses. I enjoyed the coffee and driving through the colorful town of Reykjavik. But that is not what changed me.

There's horse in these breakfast meats

There’s horse in these breakfast meats

The church we’d come to help was comprised predominantly of kids. Teens brought their little brothers and sisters to hang out every afternoon. It was a place they could go if their parents were out or working, serving as a sort of home away from home. They were, to a kid, friendly to us, telling us the best lamb hot dog spots in town, bringing “real” licorice for us to try, explaining how only rich people eat steak – everyone else eats fish fresh from the lake or ocean. (They also eat horse. I ate horse by mistake – I thought it was just really strong bologna).

There's horse in this picture too - so fluffy!

There’s horse in this picture too – so fluffy!

There was a thirteen-year-old boy there whose dad was an American pilot – who now lived in America. His English had a distinct American accent. The other kids expressed their jealousy that he got to visit America for a few months each summer. My guess is that the boy would have traded his American summers for a dad who lived nearby – or even on the same continent.

Jakob was the first to greet us. This fifteen-year-old sported a terrific blonde Mohawk and introduced himself as “Dr. Awesome.” Then there was Petra, with her shy smile, who told me she plans to be a teacher. There was Svandis, whose mom was a bride purchased from Nigeria; she Stemningsbilder fra Reykjavik. wants to be a fashion designer. There was Bjarndis; Svandis’s spunky little sister who’s aiming to play soccer in the Women’s World Cup.

We Americans came focused on the building project. We had our power tools and list of objectives and, the first four days, worked late into the night to accomplish them and more. The kids sat, and watched, and helped where they could. Eventually we learned though. We started taking breaks in the afternoon to play Uno or shoot pool or race around breathless in “Viking Dodge-ball” (their term, not ours – and honestly, they improved our version of Dodge-ball by leaps and bounds).Kid in iceland

Yes, we were able to add a second story inside their main sanctuary, complete with stairs and drywall. Yes, we saw fascinating wonders in Iceland, geysers, glimpses of the Northern Lights, thermally heated water, glaciers, Icelandic horses, vast fields of snow (I’m from Tucson, Arizona, water and snow in any quantity amazes me). In the mostly abandoned air force base, we saw ways in which a power imbalance can introduce foreign structures in a culture that didn’t ask for it, but now has to deal with the marks that are left. In the pine trees, we saw imported culture trying to be inconspicuous. And in Viking Dodge-ball, we also saw how cultures can meld and produce an improved version of things. But mostly, I remember the stories of these kids – their backgrounds and dreams. And I was reminded that, at home and abroad, “getting the job done” must never replace “getting to know people.”


Steves, R. (2011 ) Travel as a Political Act. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXL3IrlslSs


Bicycle Stories

There is a family in our church who makes bicycles, mainly kids’ bikes. They search for bicycles that have been outgrown or left to disrepair, take them apart, lovingly sand down the frames and carefully repaint in vibrant colors. They straighten out the cranks and handlebars and from two or three broken-down bikes create a gleaming unique masterpiece, pink with luminous ribbon bedecked handlebars for a six-year-old princess or matte black with lime green pegs for the twelve-year-old daredevil. Each bike is more than a reassembling of cast away parts – it’s crafted as a new story, the means to explore the world for a particular child or teen.

My friend did not make this bike. But this bike looks like the sort of bike he makes.

My friend did not make this bike. But this bike looks like the sort of bike he makes.

I teach a sixth grade Sunday school class, and work in the third through sixth grade department. I’ve known the stories behind many of recipients of these free bikes.

There is Abi, which is short for Abigail and woe to those who mistakenly spell her name Abby. I happened to do that – once. She has a habit of leaning dangerously far back in her chair, defying the hard tile beneath her. She also has a habit of grabbing a peer’s arm and “hugging” it, refusing to let go for minutes (it seems like hours). Those who know her look up at me plaintively, as if to say “Abi’s connected herself to my arm again,” and I give some teacher advice like “Abi, remember, we don’t touch other students,” followed by “Abi, we don’t cling to people,” as she swings off the arm of her peer to latch on to me. This, I suppose, is preferable to the times she slaps unsuspecting kids in the face, or punches their arm.

But then I ask Abi what she is currently reading – she’s always reading. She tells me and if I’ve read it, we discuss. If I’ve not read it, I ask for her review. These conversations are lively and intelligent, filled with literary insight and practical commonsense beyond the world of most eleven-year-olds. And in these conversations, I hear snippets of another story. She tells me she’s tired. She and her sister sleep on the living room couch because their dad sold their bed. She’s hopeful he’ll use the money to buy her new shoes, as she peeks her toes out of the threadbare ends of her two-sizes-two-small converse, but figures they won’t because he had to buy the Corona for a party last weekend. “He can’t disappoint his buddies,” she delivers like a maxim she’s heard countless times before.

She got a blue bike that sparkles like the night sky and fades ever so slightly into purple near the headset. It has a purple banana seat, which she loves, “ooooh, so retro!” and matching purple hand grips and basket. Abi tells me the basket is for bringing books home from the local library as she dances around on one foot, excited that she’ll not be stuck re-reading the same book for days.

Again, my friend did not make this one...

Again, my friend did not make this one…

Then there’s Elijah. The first day I met him he raced into class and slid under the table, barking like a dog. His younger sister showed up to mournfully inform me that he’d not taken his medication that morning. My husband did a masterful job of talking him out from under the table to engage, mostly successfully, in the class. The following week, Elijah limped in, slumped in a chair and stared into space while picking at a scab on his hand. We had no luck pulling him out of his stupor, even with the bribery of ice cream. He’d taken his medicine that morning. I didn’t know his full story, but I wanted to tell him to not take his medicine before coming to our class. We liked him alert, even if it wasn’t under control.

Elijah got a lime green BMX with matte black rims, cranks, seat-post and handlebars. He received it on a day he’d taken his medicine, but the bike managed to bring a flicker to his eye.

This year we have Carlos. Our Sunday school promoted one month ago, so I don’t know much of his story yet. In the four Sundays since promotion, he’s given me a different name to call him each week. There’s been Bruce (presumably in honor of Batman, given that he wears a Batman shirt every Sunday). There’s been Joe and Frederico. Last week’s alias was Homer (Simpson, I presume). Carlos is loud and talks out of turn. In the middle of class, he’s jumped to his feet and screamed, just to watch the other kids react. And he asks amazing questions, questions that show he’s thinking about things.

Walmart pink bike

Another bike my friend did not make…

Each of the kids in our class has, not just one story, but many. In The Danger of a Single Story, author Chimamanda Adichie warns against defining an individual or a culture based on just one of their stories (2009). I don’t want to use one story to pigeonhole my students. Abi is more than the girl who ignores personal space, Elijah is more than his medication, Carlos is more than Batman. In The Rhetoric of Empire, Spurr warns against “idealizing” another person or group of people. We can be guilty of labeling another person as “that poor kid sleeping on her couch,” or “that kid who has to have his meds,” or “the practical jokester,” and we miss something so much greater – we miss getting to know the person.

I asked the father of the family who pieces together unwanted bikes for kids why he and his own children invest so much time into the process. “When you’re a kid, you just want that new bike for Christmas – it’s like the pinnacle of excitement in childhood. It’s freedom to get out of the house. It’s a ticket to the library or the park. It’s like a childhood gateway into all sorts of things.”

Perhaps it’s a chance to write another story about yourself.



Adichie, C. N. (2009). The Danger of a Single Story. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story


Spurr, D. (1993). The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Tea, Not Coffee

I learned to drink coffee in college over late night Bible studies. I learned to drink tea in a pastor’s house in Glasgow, Scotland.

Shortly after graduating college, a friend and I spent a month traveling Britain. Already an inveterate coffee drinker, I didn’t mind drinking tea there. Their tea tasted better than ours. I don’t think this particular belief is based on a cultural presupposition – I think this is actually true.

So, it was over tea and not coffee that I found myself answering some odd questions about life in the American Southwest. We’d visited a church one Sunday morning on our trip, made friends with the Pastor’s son – a boy about our age – and got invited over to the Pastor’s house for roast, red potatoes and tea.

“Do you have a horse?” The man, about the age of my father, leaned his elbows on the table, his bright, friendly eyes shining.

“No, but I rode a horse once.” I offered.

“Do your friends have horses?”

I looked quizzically at my traveling companion. She raised her eyebrows and answered no.

“Oh, well, do you wear cowboy hats when you are in Tucson?”

“Um, no..” I answered and my friend gestured towards one of the shelves of books that lined the living room. It was weighed down by Zane Grey novels. We understood his questions.

I have never read a Zane Grey book, but I understand they are romanticized stories about the American Southwest.

I have never read a Zane Grey book, but I understand they are romanticized stories about the American Southwest.

We then spent some time explaining that we didn’t own boots, most everyone we knew had a car and the streets were paved. Yes, there are “cowboys” in Tucson, we explained, but those are far and away outnumbered by non-cowboys. His preconceived notion of us as travelers from Tucson, Arizona was based on fictional books about our region.

Certainly, my friend and I didn’t need Zane Grey to set us apart as the “other” on this trip. We wore shorts and sunglasses, we tipped more than appropriate and we couldn’t wait to visit the first international Baskin Robbins we saw. (The pastor’s son snarled his nose at this, explaining that the Scots preferred better, much cheaper local options).

In DissemiNation, The Location of Culture  Homi Bhabha notes that the image projected as national culture is a façade for the variety of evolving cultures that shift and merge underneath. In this case, our pastor-friend saw my friend and me through the projected lens of a fiction writer romanticizing the frontier experience of the American Southwest.

For my part, I was guilty of assuming that things we did in America were universal. Iyengar, in The Art of Choosing addresses this phenomena. She illustrates how the “right to choose” is something most Americans take for granted, but is not necessarily permitted or even welcomed in other cultures.

But my “otherness” was entirely unintentional. In Travel Writing and Gender Susan Bassnet explored how women travelers in the 19th century had to forge their own identity, often doing so through describing exotic adventures or coming up with alternate identities. I didn’t have to do that. My otherness was simply being a naïve college-aged American kid in Britain.

This was not me. I think the craziest thing I did that trip was to take a stroll by myself in a Glasgow suburb in the middle of the day.

This was not me. I think the craziest thing I did that trip was to take a stroll by myself in a Glasgow suburb in the middle of the day.

This made me wonder how Britons, in general, view Americans. In 2009, Londoner Geoff Dyerdec wrote about his perception of Britons. “The first thing I ever heard about Americans was that they all carried guns.” Perhaps he’d read Zane Grey too.

In his article, he captures some interesting contradictions behind the understanding of Americans, “the archetypal American abroad is perceived as loud and crass even though actually existing American tourists are distinguished by the way they address bus drivers and bartenders as “sir” and are effusive in their thanks when any small service is rendered. We look on with some confusion at these encounters because, on the one hand, the Americans seem a bit country-bumpkinish, and, on the other, good manners are a form of sophistication” (Dyerdec, 2009).

He even comments on the reason he thinks Americans are loud. “Americans have no fear of being overheard. Civic life in Britain is predicated on the idea that everyone just about conceals his loathing of everyone else. To open your mouth is to risk offending someone. So we mutter and mumble as if surrounded by informers or, more exactly, as if they are living in our heads. In America the right to free speech is exercised freely and cordially. The basic assumption is that nothing you say will offend anyone else because, deep down, everyone is agreed on the premise that America is better than anyplace else” (emphasis mine, Dyerdec, 2009). Perhaps this a nice British way of saying that Americans are pretty arrogant, so they don’t mind speaking their minds – loudly.

In The Rhetoric of Empire Spur talks about language as being a signifier of colonial rule. Is our American loudness just continuing proof that we threw off British rule years ago? Dyerdec humorously describes this from a perspective across the pond, “the grounds for all our feelings of superiority have been steadily whittled away. It turns out that the qualities that make us indubitably British — that is, the ones that we don’t share with or have not imported from America — are no longer conducive to Greatness” (2009).

And maybe that’s what traveling (being the “other”) or watching the “other” is about. To have the layers of culture pared back a bit, so we are able to see our quirkiness from a different angle, to learn about ourselves as much as about the “other.”

Maybe this is where he got the idea that we all ride horses...

Maybe this is where he got the idea that we all ride horses…


Bassnett, S. (2002). Travel Writing and Gender. In P. Hulme and T. Youngs (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing (225-241). Cambridge University Press.

Bhabha, H. (1994). DissemiNation, The Location of Culture (pp. 139-170). New York, NY: Routledge.

Dyerdec, G. (December 31, 2009). My American Friends. The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/books/review/Dyer-t.html?_r=0

Iyengar, S. (July 2010). The Art of Choosing. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_on_the_art_of_choosing?quote=785

Spurr, D. (1993). The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Cultural Coffee Maps

A Practical Coffee Map

I am particularly gifted at getting lost. So when we visit a new town, I have to map things out. Of course, “mapping things out” is really “figuring out how to get to the best coffee shops in town.” There is a trick to it. I have a handy (free) app that I rely on when visiting new places. It is called “Closest Cup.” Opening the app brings up a list of the closest coffee shops. The listing is linked to the business’s website and location in google maps. Wherever I am, a few minutes of scrolling through my “Closest Cup” app and even I can find locally roasted fair-trade coffee nearby without getting lost.

A screenshot of Closest Cup when in Denver, CO

A screenshot of Closest Cup when in Denver, CO

Last weekend, my husband, daughter and I traveled to Denver, Colorado for the first time. Of course, I had to map my trip. Maps can be works of art that show what’s important to the maker. Even one of the earliest “scientific” maps – the Mercator Projection – wrongly distorts Europe’s land mass near the North Pole, making it look much larger than it really is in relation to the other countries, (Seager). I suppose one map of my life would be a street map with little coffee mug icons where the best cafés sit. “Closest Cup” may be my life-map.

Denver has good coffee. I visited four quality cafes in the three days we were there. The coffee highlight of the trip was a visit to Steam, which was listed as one of the “Top 25 Coffee Shops in the World,” if such hyperbolic lists are even faintly realistic.

While my husband was at a trade show (he was there for work, so my daughter and I roamed the town during the afternoon) Carissa and I hopped in the rental car, opened the “Closest Cup” map and had Siri talk us through the drive.

Steam is located in a suburb outside of Denver in a tiny Victorian-style house with white clapboards, a wooden floor, and crowning on the top of the walls. To the back sits a cute patio reminiscent of an English Garden with white scrolled metal chairs, round tables and, unexpectedly, the exposed fuselage of a small plane. Industrial elements inside the Victorian style abode – exposed air ducts, metal tables and iron chandeliers – gave the place a cool retro-yet-modern feel.

Very cool lighting

Very cool lighting

A plane fuselage in the patio... seems logical

A plane fuselage in the patio… seems logical

I opened the door, anticipating one of the “Top 25 Coffee Shops in the World,” and four baristas in white shirts and pants with black aprons stared me up and down before turning back to their conversation. The twenty or so patrons in the room, all in skinny jeans, fashionable flannel and horn-rimmed glasses did the same.

A splendid latte from Steam in Denver, CO

A splendid latte from Steam in Denver, CO



This is not what was supposed to happen. According to Spurr, I was supposed to be the visitor feasting my eyes upon my new surroundings, (1993) Instead what I encountered was the gaze of two dozen unimpressed hipsters.

Despite the odds, I had to fulfill my quest: I ordered a latte from the black-aproned barista.

The truly delightful beverage was made on a magnificent, shiny Marzocco. The latte art was crisp; it looked like he’d used a brown sharpie on white paper. And it tasted very good – great foam with a deep, smooth espresso. In fact, it reminded me of my favorite Tucson haunt: Presta Coffee. Except that I am not an outsider at Presta.

A Different Kind of Coffee Map

Last night I happened across a PBS documentary, Colombia: Capital & Coffee from the series In the Americas with David Yetman. The host was touring Zona Cafetera, the geographical source of most Columbian coffee. Each coffee farm had its own specialty; each coffee farm owner his or her own personality.

The piece ended with a segment on a great carnival held each year to crown the “Coffee Queen.” Each coffee-growing region sent a beauty queen, a float and local dancers and costumes to parade through the streets. There were groups dressed as butterflies celebrating the butterflies that migrate to their coffee plants at the start of the season. There was a group from an area where former slaves settled; they danced with giant puppets representing death, the devil, and a witch, who were being fended off by a man on a makeshift horse, (Yetman).

This parade was a living, moving map. It didn’t show the spatial relations of each area, but it told at a glance the culture and celebration of each area.

I wondered if the ethos of coffee shops reflect their area like the floats and dancers in Columbia’s coffee parade? Denver’s Steam can celebrate its hipster-ness and Tucson’s Presta its laid-back southwestern-ness while we travelers get to mark them on our mental maps, savoring a taste of each.


Seager, J. Maps. Retrieved from http://chnm.gmu.edu/worldhistorysources/unpacking/mapsq4.html

Spurr, D. (1993). The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Duke University Press

Yetman, D. (2015). Columbia: Capital & Coffee from In the Americas with David Yetman.