“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.