Milestones

“Go all the way with it. Do not back off. For once, go all the goddam way with what matters.” Hemingway

One year ago I did just that, I landed in Dusseldorf and made a commitment to go all the way after a career that continues to amaze me every single day. Today marks the conclusion of my first year as an expat in Dusseldorf.

As a project leader I spend a lot of time building project plans that include milestones. Points where we check progress and trigger new activities or stop the project all together. Now feels like a fitting time to account for what I have learned in the past year and what I’d like to accomplish next year.

The first thing I learned is that I can live alone, but I’d really prefer not to. Life is richer, fuller, more rewarding when traveled with the right companion. This time apart has confirmed that my husband is my best friend and I’m deeply grateful he gave me wings to fly and takes care of our nest back home. A place where I regularly rest and refresh myself. He also frequently accompanies me on European adventures and we are building some amazing memories together. The countdown is on for the day when we live together again under the same roof.

Now that I am living alone, I’ve more often sought out the companionship of ladies. This experience has taught me the value of all the wonderful women in my life. I have to admit I’ve always found it a bit challenging to make and grow female friendships. I can’t really tell you why, except for the fact that I tend to favor hobbies that are generally more interesting to men: working on cars, racing cars, competitive bicycling, motorcycle riding, chainsaw wielding, metal working, you get the idea. Also, I’m not a mother and this feels like an experience that naturally glues many women together. It has taken me perhaps decades longer than for most, but I now enjoy the simple act of conversing with wise, witty, creative, smart women (you know who you are). The funny thing is that when I start to finally click with a new gal pal, we often find ourselves commenting on how hard it was to connect with other women, which is probably why we were just right for each other. I’m beyond grateful that my friends in the US are leaving space for me in their life for the day when I return.

I have also learned that my neighbors in Germany are some of the most kind, generous, caring, observant, happy and honest people that I have ever known. They have become my family and we take care of each other. My one-eyed rescue cat rules the apartment complex and roams from home to home. Proud king Tony has quickly become the mascot of the building. My German friends and neighbors (one in the same) have made Germany a home that is a comfortable harbor for me during my time in Europe.

I have also discovered the benefits of solitude. This year has given me ample time to consider who I am, and maybe more importantly, who I want to be. In those moments when homesickness was overwhelming, I often reflected on how I got to where I am. I was also forced to reach out for help to sometimes pull me out of a slump. In those moments I learned something huge. It’s ok to be vulnerable. People want to help. I deeply appreciate the support that so many have provided me over the past year.

I confirmed that I love to travel and that I also appreciate anchor points in my life. I spent time exploring 14 countries (Hungary, Turkey, France, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, US, Germany, England, Brazil, Sweden) and thoroughly enjoyed every single one. There is kindness and goodness, amazing food and scenery in every corner of the world. The important thing is to approach every day looking for the good in others. Then you will find it.

During these travels I made so many fun discoveries – such as, did you know São Paulo is famous for pizza and Italian food? This little surprise delighted me to no end. Then there was the day I walked nearly 25 kilometers from the top to bottom of Barcelona and I didn’t even think twice about the distance until my legs literally started to ache. The next day I discovered they have a wonderful metro system. Now I have no limits on how far I’ll try to walk and I have developed a much quicker walking pace, but I still can’t keep up with most of the Europeans.

I learned that all those rumors about Parisians disliking Americans are in fact not true as I passed a delightful evening having dinner at Lipp practically sharing a table with an Argentinian family while the waiter stopped in to chat every time he had a break.

As I strolled near the Black Sea in Turkey I helped an ice cream vendor to learn the rest of the phrase “I scream you scream we all scream for ice cream”. Then I sat for a bit with a local fellow, we enjoyed Turkish tea together while he asked me countless questions about America. Afterwards he wouldn’t let me pay for the tea, even as the entire region suffered one of the lowest tourism economies in decades.

This is how we build bridges between cultures, by getting out there in the world, meeting people and sitting down for a conversation: ask questions, talk and LISTEN. Listen with an open mind and stop all this comparing that we as humans naturally do. Accept that his truth is his and mine is mine and, curiously, we can still talk with each other.

I have had the chance to see history unfolding before me as the immigrant crisis has built in Europe. We are living through a very real struggle to adapt and welcome new cultures, while holding on to European values of equality and balance. The tension at times has been palpable, but I also see the generosity of spirit and compassion for a suffering world. I have mourned the loss of life in France and the affronts on women in Germany. The marks of terrorism now live on my soul. Quite honestly, I had a couple of near misses that shook me up a bit and in those moments I learned that I’m a lot tougher than I thought I was. I’m the type of person that looks a challenge in the eye and wants to tackle it. I have a strong drive to win. So, I decided to start training in Krav Maga and make my body stronger.

Of course, as with any time we are in the midst of a big change, sometimes I found myself grasping for happiness. So, I started to research the topic. I found, not surprisingly, that happiness is a choice. It’s a decision we can choose to make every single day. Some days it has to be taken more deliberately than others. But the bottom line is that on those days when I choose a positive outlook, I am more positive. Happy things come to me. I will always fight to have happy moments in my life.

Ironically, all of this rambling led me to a strange realization. I can be quite a chameleon. When I moved to Germany I brought a little clothing, but I figured I’d buy most clothes here so I could pass for a local, and it worked. Most of the time people think I’m a German, even if I’m traveling abroad in Europe. But, in fact, I am quite happy to tell people I meet that I am an American. I’m also fully aware that I move about in the world as an ambassador of America. A responsibility that I do not take lightly. I have an entirely new appreciation for our society and the freedoms that we enjoy. Which leads me to another thing I have learned. I believe that every American should travel abroad if only to appreciate what we have in our country.

This last year I reconfirmed that my natural state is one of movement. I’m the type of person who is always looking to the next horizon. This will never change in me. But I also have learned that I can be comfortable being still. I can enjoy the beauty of a moment, taking it in with all my senses until it is the right time to move again.

Since I’m in a phase where I’m on my own, it’s completely on me to take care of my health. I now realize that in the beginning I really didn’t know how to do this and I went from sickness to sickness for the first 6 or so months in Germany. A pretty common experience for expats. I finally learned some amazing sickness prevention strategies that actually seem to work – the doctor was right that tea and rest can ward off most things! I’ve also developed some better eating habits that are enhancing my quality of life and giving me better energy levels.

During those short days of winter, when I had a lot of time on my hands, I was surprised to find that I returned to the hobbies of my youth: drawing, writing and hiking. It felt like an old dimension of me was pulled from the closet, dusted off and brought into the light. I found myself wondering why I had strayed from these hobbies. Of course the answer lies where it always does – busy-ness, distraction, losing ourselves in the routines of daily life. Given a blank slate, I was finally freed up to break old habits and reclaim my free time.

This year I am committed to finding my authentic self and unashamedly claiming my identity with passion and vigor. I accept the challenge: For once, I will go all the goddam way with what matters. Maybe it’s time to pull that old Hemingway novel off the shelf. After all, the days are getting shorter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Long-Haul Flight Must-Haves List

imageI have some visitors who will make the LONG hop across the pond soon. Since I’m such a seasoned long distance traveled now they asked for some advise. Here are the things I carry on flights that are over 8 hours in duration. I’m curious – what do you bring? What can you not travel without?

1. Noise cancelling headphones and an iPhone loaded with music (I’m currently stuck on Coldplays new album).
2. A book
3. A magazine
4. A pen (I also bring colored pencils and a notebook because I like to draw)
5. Hand sanitizer wipes (sometimes I like to wipe down the tray and my general seating area – I’ve read it’s loaded with germs)
6. Hand sanitizing liquid (in case the bathroom sink is broken – I’ve had it happen before)
7. A little packet of tissues
8. A handkerchief
9. A few pieces of fruit, some nuts, and granola bars
10. A bottle of water
11. Ear plugs and an eye cover
12. Wear clothes you can layer because a lot of times it gets really cold
13. You might want nose spray and eye drops in case the dry air bothers you. (Sleeping pills are optional, I don’t take them anymore)
14. A little bottle of hand lotion, toothpaste and a toothbrush and floss (I go batty if something is stuck in my teeth).
15. I don’t use those donut pillows for the neck but some people like them.
16. You might consider wearing yoga pants or compression socks. I wear some hot yoga pants that have breathable panels on the side. They’re great!
17. I bring a pair of cuddly sleeping socks and some flip flops to wear on the plane.

Wow, no wonder my backpack is so heavy… 🙂

18. Oh and the most important item: patience.
19. A sense of humor is optional, but it goes a long way to making the journey better!

Which brings me to the picture…what does a slug have to do with long-haul air travel? Can you guess the connection?

Enjoy! Remember the time will pass no matter what, so it’s a good idea just to settle in, relax and enjoy the ride.

Life sans Google maps

Life sans Google maps

I love my smartphone just as much as the next gal, but every once in a while I just need a day without maps and apps. Today was that day.

A friend was in town from the US and I asked him what he’d like to do for the day: drive to castle, take the train to Cologne, go for a hike, maybe a bike ride on the Rhein. He said I’ve never gone for a bike ride on the Rhein, so that’s what we selected. I was happy to have a simple low-key day on tap.

I knew I could get to our destination without a map and that getting back an alternate route would be fun to figure out. With the Rhein to our left we headed north. I had no doubt the biking would be fun (if I could live on two wheels I would!) but what really surprised me was all the streets we turned on that I someone have missed in my first year in Dusseldorf. Not to mention all the beautiful parks and green ways I had somehow never encountered.

I take a few learnings from this: habits are quick to form and hard to break, electronic maps inadvertently limit travel creativity, and there are a ton more green spaces in town that I realized!

Our first surprise was when we pulled up to the castle ruins in Kaiserwerth. I knew they existed, because a friend had posted a picture on Facebook, but I’d never experienced then myself. It was a nice place to quickly explore and my guest was pleased to see a castle (always a novelty for Americans, this one included).

We smiled at the description of the King who was a doer of good deeds (or some other sort of fame). I also thought it was cool that the stones came from Drachenfels – a castle ruin south on the Rhein that I visited last winter.

We stopped for a delicious lunch of fresh pfifferlinge (seasonal mushrooms) at the Alte Rheinfahre brauhaus – a lovely patio area overlooking the Rhein.

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Then hopped a ride on the ferry (right next to the brauhaus) to the opposite bank. The ferry was loaded with bicyclists, walkers, a moped and one car, yes one car,  this is a Sunday in Germany – people walk and bike. Our journey continued north and we got off the beaten path for a while to seek out a route closer to the river – not to be found, but we did discover a nice Rhein beach area. We looked north, saw a bridge, and decided that was our next destination.

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I should spend a minute to describe what “off the beaten path” means in Germany. In Germany this means that we turned off the nice path on the top of the levee, which is covered in smoothly fitted carefully laid paving stones (ok sometimes crushed gravel), onto a dirt path and then through some grass between the fields toward the river banks. You would think you’d be all alone out there, but no, look up and you’ll see a dog roaming about 30 feet from his owner, off to the left you’ll see a couple strolling together hand in hand, and to the right a crowd of people trekking with hiking poles. It’s pretty darned cool!

We made our way back to the bike path and soon entered the industrial port area of Krefeld. We paused to admire a beautiful bridge over the port area.

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I was happy to learn that my guest loves industrial buildings so we took our time making our way toward the bridge and then back over the Rhein. Now here’s where I made a funny observation. When I first moved to Germany I once took the same route (literally) on my road bike and it felt very far and epic, if you know what I mean. Now I found that very funny as I’ve begun to bike commute once a week nearly every week and it’s 25 Km each way. This journey round trip was maybe 40 Km. It’s interesting to see how time can alter our perspective of the same experience repeated. What things have you experienced twice and felt completely different each time?

We headed back south along the Rhein and as we entered the city we noticed the gates to a big park were flung open. I had never explored this park (turned out to be Nord Park) so we rode inside. We headed south and east taking in the flower beds, well-tended gravel paths and many fountains. A lovely park, there are others in the city which I love more, they are more wild and green, but it was nice to explore.

At this point we looked for an exit to the park and I found myself suddenly in unknown territory. I didn’t recognize the street names or the buildings and I was itching to refer to google maps. Although, somewhere along the way that morning I sort of unconsciously decided that it was going to be a no map day, and I was committed to the challenge. I let the sun be my guide! We turned right (southwest) and continued toward the city center.

Anyone who’s lived in Germany has experienced the huge crowds that occur on a sunny day. This was just such a day, and I knew that a return ride through the alstadt would not be fun. We’d be dodging people or walking awkwardly, so we took an alternate path that ran parallel to the Rhein a couple of blocks in. This is when I discovered the beauty of a google maps free day. Just north of tonhalle, we turned left onto a bike path through some grassy hills. Before this moment, I didn’t even know it existed! The path fed us into an ancient cemetery (also a new find for me) and the first thing we saw was the most beautiful grave marker. The grave marker itself is not what originally caught my eye. Instead it was the thick ropy trunk of a plant twisting its way around to the top which was crowned by a burst of green vegetation. The plant was full size, but had the feeling of a Japanese bonsai – carefully trained into twisted curves.

I snapped a photo and then I began to admire the actual grave marker. On one side was an anchor surrounded by a snake biting hit rattler tail (perhaps he was a sailor). The next side contained two hands shaking in greeting or friendship (a friend of many or an ambassador?). The third side was embossed with a fountain pen (a writer?), while the final symbol stopped me in my tracks (I know this is very cliche, but this site moved me). The symbol was a bumble bee with a skeleton carved into the thorax. Bumble bees bring life, literally, every grain of pollen they carry to a receiving stigma is the beginning of life. This bumble bee combined with a skelton – such a simple representation of life and death. I was mesmerized.

I wanted to spend more time exploring but we both were becoming a little hungry, so we continued south on back roads paralleling the alstadt. We found yet another park I had yet to discover and then popped out on the northern end of Konigsallee. The rest of the route I knew well and held no surprises.

As we pedaled toward home and a delicious dinner at my neighborhood brauhaus I marveled at all the new places I’d encountered by just following the next nice looking path and never referring to a map. A nice reminder to take a chance to break free everyone once in a while and explore a place you think you know to see what new discoveries you’ll find just one block over from your habitual route.

Schoenes Wochenender friends!

What happens for you if you go to a city map free? Is it better, worse, scary, exciting? I’d love to hear about your experiences.