Saturday, October 31, 2015

When in Rome...

"When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Perhaps one should not assume the Romans speak English.

I have been travelling out of the U.S. since I was 13 years old.

I have managed to visit 26 countries, several of these I've been to several times.

I've tried lots of different food, seen many wondrous things, had some amazing adventures, and at least tried to say "please and thank you" in the native language.

I realize that my eastern N.C. accent gets in the way, but I try to be congenial and adapt to "their" lifestyles.  After all, I am a US ambassador when I leave home.

The last time I checked my passport, it didn't say "stupid," but perhaps other travelers should have that special box checked...

1. "I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local convenience store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts."
2. "It's lazy of the local shopkeepers in Puerto Vallarta to close in the afternoons. I often needed to buy things during 'siesta' time -- this should be banned."
3. "On my holiday to Goa in India , I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don't like spicy food."
4. "We booked an excursion to a water park but no-one told us we had to bring our own swimsuits and towels. We assumed it would be included in the price"
5. "The beach was too sandy. We had to clean everything when we returned to our room."
6. "We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as white but it was more yellow."
7. "They should not allow topless sunbathing on the beach. It was very distracting for my husband who just wanted to relax."
8. "No-one told us there would be fish in the water. The children were scared."
9. "Although the brochure said that there was a fully equipped kitchen, there was no egg-slicer in the drawers."
10. "We went on holiday to Spain and had a problem with the taxi drivers as they were all Spanish."
11. "The roads were uneven and bumpy, so we could not read the local guide book during the bus ride to the resort. Because of this, we were unaware of many things that would have made our holiday more fun."
12. "It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England . It took the Americans only three hours to get home. This seems unfair."
13. "I compared the size of our one-bedroom suite to our friends' three-bedroom and ours was significantly smaller."
14. "The brochure stated: 'No hairdressers at the resort'. We're trainee hairdressers and we think they knew and made us wait longer for service."
15. "When we were in Spain there were too many Spanish people there. The receptionist spoke Spanish, the food was Spanish. No one told us that there would be so many foreigners."
16. "We had to line up outside to catch the boat and there was no air-conditioning."
17. "It is your duty as a tour operator to advise us of noisy or unruly guests before we travel."
18. "I was bitten by a mosquito. The brochure did not mention mosquitoes."
19. "My fiancé and I requested twin-beds when we booked, but instead we were placed in a room with a king bed. We now hold you responsible and want to be re-reimbursed for the fact that I became pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked."

A friend of mine sent me this list. I couldn't decide if it was worth laughing over or just to shake my head. You decide.

May all your travels be filled with fun and adventure. Bon Voyage. Email me at

Thursday, August 6, 2015

When Mama Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Got Internet

I've been frustrated with the internet connection for about 9 years. 
That would be the amount of time we have lived in our house. 

Scott realized my pain when the internet went off and he asked me what I did to it...

I said, "Nothing. I'm tired of you thinking I've lost my mind, or don't know what I'm doing..."

"No, you've just lost your mind."

No respect. 

It's hard to work when the internet goes "Poof" all the time. 
We installed a new wireless router, a new WiFi extender and one would think things would be great. 

I finally had it with Time Warner and not getting the tech support from the family males. So I took matters in my hands and got results. 

I told the tech that if it goes "Poof" one more time, I want the cables dug up and replaced. He made a note of that and we will see how long I'm happy. 

In the mean time, Scott is happier than he was an hour ago, and my new Time Warner friend, Anthony have the start of a beautiful relationship. 

May all your internet days be fully wired. I'd love to hear from you. Email me at

Monday, June 15, 2015

Don't Slam My Barbecue

Anyone knowing me, knows how much I love North Carolina. I love the beach, the mountains, and the rolling hills of the Piedmont. I love the good-natured people, the food, and the different accents (although mine is rather embarrassing). 

There is so much to do here and if you are a fisherman, golfer, basketball nut or love the outdoors, your'e in the right place. We love regional music, whether it's banjos and fiddles, shagging to beach music, or contemporary religious music.

Unfortunately, I take exception to the things I hold dear. Fortunately, I know how to tell you off in such a genteel, Southern manner that you'd probably sit up and ask for more. Case in point, I read a columnist's article on his visit to N.C. and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. If you'd care to read it, it is listed here: .

And because I can't keep my mouth shut, I wrote the columnist a reply, which is copied below. Hopefully he will sit up and beg for more. 

Dear John,
Thank you for visiting my home state, North Carolina. I would love you to come back so I may continue to educate you on the finer points of living in the Tar Heel state. You are absolutely right about barbecue; wars were started with less ferocity than defending one’s choice in sauces.

I’m from eastern N.C. and we DO love our vinegar-based sauce, but on occasion we sway to the dark side and use a ketchup-based one. Since there are three geographical regions to my state, there are more than three ways to barbecue; I invite you to travel along the Barbecue Trail from the East, through the Piedmont to the Mountains. Although we judge our B’B’Q in several categories like taste, kind of sauce, wet or dry rub, texture and presentation, it is no less important as a JD Powers’ Ratings and Awards, or the Miss America pageant. And then there are the sides, desserts and sweet tea.

We also use dry rubs and debate the merits on slow cooking vs. indirect heat; these are just as important conversation starters as asking about the weather, or “How is your mama?” We also compare cooking techniques and taste in using charcoal or gas, and the kind of hardwoods for the smokers.

By the way, anyone who knows about grilling would NEVER use pine wood. It’s perfect for lumber and turpentine, but the sap keeps it from even being used in a campfire. Heaven forbid, we only use hardwoods like Hickory or Pecan or Cherry for that great smoky flavor and long-lasting heat. Again, that’s a regional preference.

Then there are the exceptionally serious B’B’Qers that win championships, sauce licensures, and mega bucks…I’m sure you will want to continue your education into the finer points of B’B’Q, so I suggest the book Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.

On the topic of moonshine and tobacco, I cannot respond because I’m a Southern Baptist. No, I don’t roll in the aisles, and I take exception to slurs that intimate slow speech, race relations unless you are comparing Nascar competitions, and lack of education. However, I am grateful that sports are ranked #3 in our state, behind God and Barbecue. 

If you have ever attended a Duke University’s football game, you might find it interesting that their stadium banners boast “highest grade point average in the ACC”, “highest number of athletes graduating as academic scholars in the ACC,” “highest number of graduates that immediately enter the professional world, in the ACC,” and in case you didn't know, Duke recently won the NCAA Championship in BASKETBALL.   

I invite you to my dining room or picnic table, to sample Southern hospitality and great cuisine. North Carolinians love visitors and love showing off our beautiful state. After all, people like it so much here that it ranks #3 for people retiring to another state in the U.S. 

So, come on down.

Yours truly,

Helen Aitken  

May your days be filled with sweet tea, good friends and great Barbecue. I'd love to hear from you, please email me at

Friday, April 24, 2015

Greek statues

If you ask me what my favorite thing it, I will quickly say, "I love to travel." I also love sharing travel stories with people who love to travel.

I was at a meeting the other night and spoke to my very senior friend, Mary. In the conversation, I told her that I was going to Greece next month. Mary spoke of it fondly and indicated that it was one of her very favorite places to go.

The last time she was there, she had persuaded her husband, Paul to go on a cruise to the big islands and then take a shore trip to Athens, Delphi and back. During all the visits to the museums, Mary took photographs of statues. She indicated that her favorite one was of a young charioteer from a museum in Delphi. At the end of her trip, someone approached her and said that she wasn’t supposed to use her flash when taking photos because it could damage the antiquities.

Mary just knew that she would get into trouble, so she offered to give the person her roll of film, not wanting to get caught with it. The woman said she would not take it, but asked Mary not to use her flash again. Mary agreed.

Mary and Paul developed the roll of film when they got home, and they sat down together to look at the photos. Paul was surprised at the photographs, then remarked, “You only photographed statues of naked men.”

Mary smiled.

May all your days be filled with travel stories. I'd love to hear from you. Email me at

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Christening the new oven

I guess it will take forever to learn how to use this stove. Every time I brush up against it the cooktop comes one. Thankfully I took advice and don't have anything on it. 

Today I'm baking a cake from scratch with my mother's 7 minute icing that takes 20 minutes to make, and fresh coconut for my sister's birthday. I only cut myself once cutting away the coconut from the husk and the inner husk. Cutting myself is a ritual, not wanted but always the case.
Scott volunteered to help me open up the coconuts last night- he used the screwdriver and hammer method while I just attacked it with a hammer and turned it in my hand. We saved the coconut water for the top of the cake before the coconut goes on. Joanne will put on some ceramic bunnies my mother made for Easter time and this cake should look like the one she would make for Joanne's birthday. I hope.

I turned on the oven for the first time and the house is full of smoke. Does this mean I broke it already? Will Joanne's scratch cake taste and smell like smoke? Will I have to resort to cooking another one using a box mix? Only time will tell.

And then, will Joanne appreciate that I spent an hour trying to find two coconuts from the Dominican Republic, 3 hours fixing the coconut, an hour making and baking the cake, 20 minutes for the icing and about another 30 minutes for the decorating? Then there is the big mess in the kitchen.

Back up plan, if nothing turns out, I'll go to Food Lion and buy one. If this happens, Scott will say, "Why didn't you do that in the first place?"

I never win.

May all your days be full of birthday cake. I'll let you see the final product if and when it comes together. I'd love to hear from you, email me at

Monday, April 13, 2015

Lionfish in North Carolina May Signal Climate Change

Just thought you would like to see my latest article in All At Sea Southeast magazine. It's not funny but enlightening.

This group of lionfish (Pterois volitans) are actively foraging for small prey fish species. A NOAA diver is using video to help quantify and document the fish community off North Carolina. Credit: NOAA
This group of lionfish (Pterois volitans) are actively foraging for small prey fish species. A NOAA diver is using video to help quantify and document the fish community off North Carolina. Credit: NOAA

Lionfish in North Carolina May Signal Climate Change

North Carolina reefs are important to study because they occur in a temperate-tropical transition zone and act as a boundary for temperate and tropical species, regulated by the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream. In this north/south migration area, food is available and reproduction occurs. Theoretically, when the seasons change, the migrations should reverse. However, water temperatures have changed in favor of the lionfish ability to establish new territories.Lionfish look beautiful in an aquarium, however they can prove deadly to humans as well as ecosystems. Since being released into the waters off Florida in the 1980s, this colorful fish has expanded throughout the Caribbean and is now making its way up the eastern seaboard. With no known predator, lionfish have begun to outnumber or replace native fish species. Warm water, especially in winter, has allowed this fish to migrate as far north as North Carolina. Climate change, due to global warming, may be the reason.
The University of North Carolina Wilmington and NOAA compared 40 fish species communities at different temperatures and depths during summer and winter months. Results of the data collected during a six-year period were published in the September 2014 issue of Marine Ecology Progress Series. The findings report declining native fish populations, alien species successfully competing for food and habitat, and warmer waters extending the natural range of all fish. Large numbers of lionfish, along with tropical reef fish, angelfish, and wrasses, are now the “ecological indicators” signaling major environmental changes.
The study found lionfish, being temperature dependent, like waters warmer than 57°F, as waters cooler than 58°F will drive them away. In winter, they were most abundant at 64°F. Further, as seafloor depths increased from 87-150 feet, temperatures rose and the lionfish population increased at least tenfold. It also predicted as the nearshore communities experience warmer temperatures, more lionfish would appear.
“Lionfish may prove to be one of the greatest threats of this century to tropical Atlantic reefs,” wrote NOAA ecologist, James Morris, Ph.D., in NOAA news online. “As the first reef fish invasive species to this region, lionfish have clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of Atlantic reefs to marine invasions.” Reefs do not repair easily or quickly, therefore if the lionfish destroy them, it may take decades before they fully recover, if at all.
North Carolina estuaries are also in jeopardy of climate change and alien invasions. This system of marshes, mudflats, oyster reefs, seagrass and mixed grasses lies between the shoreline and its barrier islands. Here, water transitions between salt, fresh, and brackish waters. The estuaries provide safe havens for many animal varieties and each specie has a preference. Estuaries also provide nursery areas and feeding grounds, so changes in water temperature and encroaching tropical populations could be devastating. Invading fish will disturb habitats, compete for food, and eventually disrupt recreational and commercial fishing.
Once alien species are established, getting rid of them becomes difficult if not impossible. For lionfish, the eradication process is ambitious, inventive and ongoing. To protect and conserve delicate environments, there are paid and volunteer removals, fishing derbies, catch-and-eat tournaments, and commercial removals for restaurant menus, fish food, aquarium use, or jewelry. This vigil may be the only way to reduce the lionfish’s impact, but it doesn’t seem enough.
It’s unknown how warming waters will eventually affect offshore reefs or estuarine populations. If the transition zone moves northward, the problems seen in North Carolina will move to Virginia and Maryland to the Chesapeake Bay, the largest, most productive estuarine system in the U.S. In the meantime, researchers continue to monitor lionfish, other tropical species and native fish populations, identify environmental changes and try to predict the impact on species and habitats in the future.

Helen Aitken is a writer and photographer from eastern N.C. who loves classic wooden boats, “backyard” boat makers, coastal areas, and contributes regularly to All At Sea Southeast magazine. Visit her website at

Monday, April 6, 2015

To Cook or Not to Cook, that is the Question.

A little over 3 years ago, my downdraft oven died.  It was also a downdraft oven and for 7 years using it, it worked well. 
It was only 20 years old.
Perhaps you don't know this, but I'm not a great cook. Technically, I can follow a recipe because in my mind, it's Chemistry and if I think like a chemist, things usually come out alright. 
For years, Scott wondered why my measuring cups were beakers and Erlenmeyer flasks.
So we bought a counter top convection oven that would bake pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches and the occasional casserole in the smallest of casserole dishes. Actually I cooked as well in that thing than in the big oven, so the family survived.
Realistically, I thought it would be easy to replace the range, but when I was ready to buy the bazillion dollar unit, Jenn-Air lost its mind. It had the worst reputation for needing repairs and held the patent so that other companies couldn't create their own. 
We waited, and waited, and thought about remodeling the whole kitchen just to get a range in our peninsula. The dollar signs got larger and larger, but what could we do?
We went through 6 contractors who couldn't make my simple dream come true.
Then slowly the old burners burned out one by one. The last burner sparked, flamed and died in November, 2014. 
So I went to Home Depot and purchased the beautiful range just before Thanksgiving, and, it only took 6 months for someone to get it installed.
Now, we have a high-tech range with a sophisticated computerized system that qualifies me for manning the space shuttle when I learn it.
The bonus is that the process for reworking the vent and the kitchen might begin this month with company #7.
The downside is that I have to get rid of all my copper cookware and those with ridges on the bottom and hope that I don't drop anything on the cooktop.

Scott said he wanted to see the oven used all the time and I said, "Let the burning of food begin."

May all your days be filled with dreaming of new appliances and cooking spectacular dinners. I'll dream too. Email me at