United by Joy 

Today I found myself re-engaging with an old familiar routine – early-morning airline travel. I’m off to Germany again – but this time not to my apartment (which is no longer mine) but to a hotel for a week of business meetings. I managed a remarkable 21 day stint at home! Nearly a record for me. And when it came to packing-up, boy did I ever procrastinate!!!

Which is how I found myself waking up at 5 am, barely managing a quick coffee and a shower, before I madly packing my suitcase and backpack. I thought I’d done pretty well until we pulled up to the first turn and I realized I had forgotten my jeans – back to the house we went.

No harm no foul.

To make this journey fun, my husband and I pretended it was my first trip to Germany. Wow – it was going to be so amazing to visit a new place and finally practice all that German I’d been learning. Adding a humorous spin to the day certainly lifted my mood.

A quick farewell at the curb and I checked in my suitcase (I’m returning with gifts for the other expats and will also load up some clothes I left with a neighbor), passed through security and lined up in the old familiar cue of weary travelers at the Starbucks. Americano and banana in hand, I rode the people mover down to the gate. Last weekend, on my 39th bday, I was overly ambitious and rode two mountain bike trails with my husband. My back sure is making me pay. Let’s just say I’m feeling my age!

So, here I was as I boarded the United flight to Newark, New Jersey – sleepy, a bit melancholy about leaving home, with a sore back. I was so happy to be greeted by a smile and some humor from the flight atttendant – Berg. I quickly surmised that this man loves his job. Either that or he just decided to be positive today.

Every gesture was accompanied with a smile, humor and kindness in his eye. I found myself wondering, does he truly love his job? Or does he just chose to be happy? Did, in fact, something very terrible recently happen in his life and he’s chosen it won’t get him down? Maybe he in fact woke up in a bad mood but decided he wouldn’t share it with others? 

I don’t know what question is true, but I decided to be one of the few people who gave him the curtosy of watching the security briefing and silently chuckled at the extra silly mimes he interjected to the standard routine. After we were airborne, coffee was served up hot with an offering of Bailey’s to “spice it up”. I politely declined and resumed drawing in my notebook. Happy to be in the presence of a joyful person.

The flight was short – a mere hour and fifteen minutes – and as we began to descend I noticed Berg was meticulously folding a piece of paper. My first guess was he was assembling a paper airplane to throw at someone before we landed, a final, desperate gesture to improve the mood of grumpy, early Saturday-morning travelers. 

As the folding progressed, he tore off the bottom third of the page and was left with a neat square. He stayed busy with his hands and it quickly became obvious that he was practicing origami – a crease, a fold, followed by multiple firm swipes down the edge. Crease, fold, turn, the pattern continued. 

We landed and I became distracted by the act of gathering my things. I lost track of the origami and frankly forgot about it for a moment, until I deplaned. As I passed by Berg, I offered a smile of farewell. He smiled in return and firmly pressed a paper crane in to my hand.

As I bounced up the gangway to the terminal, with a smile plastered on my face, I was amazed at the power of a piece of paper in the hands of a creative, positive person. Remember that how you behave can either make someone’s day better or worse. Which do you choose?


Happy Tears 

This morning I woke up, looked out in the courtyard of Melrose Place and decided my favorite chair was just the place to enjoy a coffee. As I sat in the chair and kicked up my feet on the little brick ledge that borders the grass (that lovely green grass that has filled me with happiness for these two years), I felt tears begin to well in my eyes.

This is how I’ve begun my last full day living as an expat in Düsseldorf. There were times when I didn’t know if I could (or wanted) to survive the loneliness of living without my husband in a foreign place. And, while I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, I’m proud of both of us that we stayed the course. Because along the way, as we gave up so much, we gained much more.

I gained a group of friends who have become like family in another country where 2.5 years ago I could speak maybe 10 words of the native tongue. And sometimes the things we learn need to be pointed out to us by others. My aunt observed that because I threw myself out there in the world, I learned just how vulnerable and fragile a human life is and this has taught me empathy. Which is true!

As I prepared to go home people asked what I would miss and what I won’t miss and what I’ll be happy to return to in America. Besides my husband (who is part of the answer to all those questions, by the way), I found that mostly what I miss and what I won’t miss and what I look forward to are not things or places. It’s people and feelings and interesting local patterns that lead to unique traditions. 

I won’t go into answering these questions here, besides it’s getting hard to see the screen… but I will say that if you have the chance to immerse yourself in a new country for a time. I say, do it. But, remember that your happiness is in your hands. As I strolled through lovely Unterbilk last night snapping photos of my favorite places (oh so many) I was filled with gratitude that I fought through the tough times (with kind coaching from so many friends and family) so that my mind is fillled with happy memories of Düsseldorf.

Tomorrow I will go home and begin the next chapter. As my dad put it, “this was just a blip, you’ve got loads of adventures ahead”. But, what an incredible chapter it was! Filled with love and laughter and, yes, tears. Like now. But they’re happy tears and that’s totally ok with me.

Enough sappiness, I’m off for one last morning run through the Hafen. Have a great day my friends!



Today is move day. 

This morning I whirled through my apartment trying to get all the stuff set aside for the air shipment and to throw in my suitcases. I had a big pile of coins that I always meant to take to the bank, but I never did it. I tossed them in a ziploc bag and threw it in a duffel bag that I’ll leave with a friend for return trips. Thinking, I’ll take care of it sometime when I’m back for business.

The movers arrived early and I dashed to the store to buy them some cold drinks and stopped in the bakery for a sandwich and a coffee. As I hurriedly walked to the bakery, I passed by a gentlemen who is always sitting at the corner begging for coins. He has one leg and he travels there by crutches every morning. When I saw him, I knew what I needed to do. There was no question in my mind.

I went home and grabbed my bag of change and gave it to him. He smiled and made a sound of gratitude (I think maybe he can’t speak), looked me in the eye and shook my hand. 

I think that is one of the most fulfilling moments I have had all year. 

I walked by again later and he looked at me and put his hand to his heart and then pointed it to me. I’m blessed and he blessed me with his gratitude. 
Sometimes when we’re trying to take care of ourselves it’s worth it to stop and remember to take care of others. You will be rewarded in a way that can never be measured on this earth.

The Flying Kick

About a month ago a very unexpected thing happened in my Krav Maga class and now that I’ve confirmed that I’ll live and I’m nearly recovered I’ll share this mostly humorous story with you.
Soon after New Years’s Eve here in Germany, also know as the black day when hundreds of women were attacked near train stations at New Year’s Eve celebrations, I was feeling concerned, frustrated and angry about the situation. I decided that it was high time I used my muscles and fitness for more than being fit and turn my body into a defensible fortress. To be a successful fortress you need a stout wall (check) with weapons and soldiers in the ready for defense (room for improvement). So, I opened my iPad and searched for self defense courses. This is a bit tough since, especially at that time, I knew very little German and wasn’t so adept at using website translators.
During my quest, I came across a Krav Maga studio. Now, I’d been considering training in Krav Maga for about a year but I hadn’t taken it up yet. I maintain many fitness type hobbies and sometimes it feels like I just don’t need one more – boot camp, yoga, hot yoga, bicycling, running, hiking, sometimes swimming. Although when I moved to Germany, I found the cold, wet, short days in winter to be a bit limiting for outdoor training and I’d switched nearly completely to a gym routine and some yoga. I figured I might as well give it a shot and see what I thought.
Krav Maga is hard, physically and mentally challenging, and incredibly awesome! Also, my instructors teach in German so my language teacher started to drill me on the parts of the body. The other students and instructors are nice enough to translate for me when needed. But, I love that I see a physical action and hear the instruction in German, before I get the English version. It’s really accelerating my ability to speak German. I train a couple of nights a week for an hour and a half. The class is a mix of jumping, push ups, defensive maneuvers, boxing, and here’s where the fun began a month ago, kicking…
The theme of the course varies from class to class and I like that it’s always a surprise. On April 29 the theme was boxing and kicking, all sorts of interesting kicks. Up to this point I hadn’t been properly trained to use the hips during a kick. I was progressing quickly, bringing quite a bit more power into the kick. My training partner even commented that I’d quickly become “the best girl kicker in the studio”, which of course caused me to “bring it” even more into training.
We were all warmed up and I was feeling good when Guenther said, “now we learn the flying kick”. Ok, he said something in German, but I’m pretty sure he said flying kick and I watched the demonstration and then I laughed. I instantly had a flash of the karate kid and his epic kick move at the end of the movie. Seriously, me, a women in her mid-thirties (I won’t say which side of mid) was going to execute a flying kick. I even thought, hmmm, maybe I should sit this one out. But, here’s the problem, I was the only girl at class that night, and like I said I was killing it. Endorphins were flooding my system, we’d been training for more than an hour and I was warmed up and still feeling strong.
So, I started to learn the flying kick. It actually came much more naturally than I expected. The objective is the push off with one leg and knee your attacker with your other leg, targeting the chest area. Thus, the flying element, the moment you lift off the ground and propel through the air toward your attacker. After learning the basic technique, I began to practice the move with increasing force until one time, when I began to enter the kick, pushing off on my left leg and I felt a pop on the back of my calf. I actually thought someone had thrown a racquetball or maybe one of the fake knives at me as a joke. Which would have been very strange because we’re serious about safety and people don’t joke around in class. It’s a very respectful environment.
I wasn’t immediately in pain, but I knew something might be wrong so I went to sit down and elevate my leg on a stack of blocking pads. After a few minutes it started to tighten up and hurt a little. Guenther applied some freezing spray to my calf, and I figured I better get home since I was done training for the night. Here’s when it got really interesting… I stood up and went to stand on my leg, the same one I’d been leaping off of moments before, and it wouldn’t hold any weight. Nothing. I could not walk.
Now, this has happened to me once in my life when I was training for a marathon and my knee basically froze up exactly halfway through a 10 mile run. That time I was with my husband and we found a nice lady to give us a ride home. This time was quite different. My husband was in North Carolina, my mode of transportation was a bike, and I suddenly realized I’d left my wallet at home. Oh, and it was 9:30 at night… I have to admit I haven’t felt quite that perplexed and alone in a very long time.
I started to assess my options. The good thing is I had my iPhone and the number of my fiend Tilghman. We’re both over here as expats away from our families and we’ve basically become family. I suddenly realized she’s my person here in Germany. I was so happy when she answered the phone and then together we went into problem solving mode. My classmates encouraged me to order an ambulance. In Germany everyone is entitled to care, with or without insurance, so they reassured me they’d pick me up even without ID. Ok, which number to call…but Guenther took care of ordering the ambulance.
The next thing was to figure out how to get my wallet which was locked in my apartment. Tilghman offered to pick it up and my neighbors had a key from watching my cat. So, I called Thomas and asked him to let in my friend Tilghman to grab my wallet. I’m so glad I’ve met my neighbors and they’re wonderful, helpful people.
This is when I was reminded that the next morning I needed to drive to Frankfurt to pick up my parents who were in Seattle waiting to catch a ten hour plane ride across the ocean. Now, how was that going to work if I couldn’t walk??? I decided to figure that out later. At this point I just needed to wait for the ambulance. My class-mates were kind enough to put all my gear in my bag for me. I commenced my self diagnosis quest on Google to figure out what had happened to my calf. I googled “I was jumping and it felt like a ball hit my calf”. I quickly found link after link on calf muscle tears. One of them was so kind to point out it was a “common injury in men in their 40s to 50s”. Now, that really made me feel so much better (insert sarcasm here).
At this point, I’ll admit, I started to feel pretty bad for myself and I was on the verge of tears. But I was at a fighting studio, no place to cry, and I fought to hold it together. I thought, what the heck am I doing at a Krav Maga studio in Germany, alone, injured and in pain. Of course these thoughts don’t help, so I pushed them away and kept googling. Guenther was kind enough to stay with me and after about 20 minutes the ambulance arrived.
The driver and his assistant walked in to assess the situation. The conversation began in German and when I responded in English the first question was…you guessed it… “Do you speak German?”. Followed by the warning, “otherwise this will be difficult”.

So, picture the scene, I’m sitting in the lobby of the sports studio with my leg propped up on a chair, in a lot of pain, sweaty and unable to walk, and I’m expected to muster all my command of German to get some help. Surprisingly, I pulled it together, switched on the German side of my brain and described what happened in my best attempt at Danglish (Deutsch + English). I confirmed that “Ich Kann nicht Laufen”. At which time they brought in the German version of a wheelchair. Quite a funny contraption. I hopped over to the chair on my right leg and carefully settled in. Then they secured the five point harness, I’m not kidding, and we proceeded to the ambulance. I flash back now on much more pleasant occasions when I wore a five point harness – riding shotgun in a stock car on the Nascar track in Vegas, for instance. This was not such an occasion. Just for posterity, I asked Guenther to take a picture, because this was too comical to miss.
I was lifted into the ambulance and then strapped in for the five minute journey to the hospital in my neighborhood. I often walk or jog by this place, particularly because there is a fine collection of yarn bombing on the parking poles. Now, I had the chance to go inside. But first, I had the exhilarating experience of trying to text my friend the name of the hospital. Sounds simple, not so much when you’re typing on an English phone in German. Autocorrect is not helpful. After 5 attempts I got it right and off we went.
A few minutes into the ride the seriousness of my situation and the uncertainty around the seriousness of my injury started to hit me. I also remembered again that I needed to pick up my parents at the Frankfurt airport in the morning. And, I’ll admit it, I started to cry. The attendant became concerned, was I hurt? No, I responded, I’m just being a crazy girl. To which there was much relief and laughter. The forms were completed and then we arrived at the emergency room.
By now, I was really speaking almost exclusively in German, explaining my living situation and that I was originally from California, to which I got the typical question: “can you surf?”. For a moment I was distracted from my situation as I responded that yes, I can surf and ironically, I’d learned to surf in Surf City, North Carolina. I don’t know if they got it, but it made me happy to remember learning to surf.
As we chatted about surfing and California, the check in guy walked down the hall, looking for all the world like a California surfer dude. Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up. He confirmed that California was awesome and I was instantly cool in his book. No insurance card, no problem, just wait in the lobby and we’ll get you a doctor. I settled in for what I expected to be an hour or two of waiting. A guy in athletic gear hopped by on one foot, he had severed his Achilles’ tendon. Yikes! That gave me some perspective.
After about ten minutes I was called in to the examining room. Mercifully, the doctor was fluent in English. He had also trained some in Krav Maga at the same studio as me. I described to him what happened and he was a bit puzzled by my lack of obvious physical swelling to accompany the severe pain. So he sent me off for an ultrasound. By this time, Tilghman had joined me with my wallet. That was a relief. We laughed together at the absurdity of my situation. It also turned out to be handy to have a wheelchair pusher because they sent us out to navigate the empty halls ourself. The sweet ultrasound technician asked me the innocent question, “why are you in Germany”, which at that moment became a philosophical debate in my head as I lay in an emergency room…in Germany…with a useless leg. Hey, what doesn’t kill you, you know the rest…
Nothing was found obviously damaged and I was pretty much told that I should be able to walk out. No crutches, no brace, no muscle relaxers. This was old school! With the confirmation that there didn’t appear to be serious damage, I tenderly put weight on my foot. Slowly, carefully, with great pain, I was able to hobble. Clutching my prescriptions for pain meds and ibuprofen we went off in search of a 24 hour pharmacy. Mercifully we found one that was open. I borrowed Tilghman’s wanderen pole to hobble up to the window and buy my meds and some ice packs. Yeah, we’re back the ice shortage challenge. Instant ice was not possible, I had to tough it out for the night.
All the sudden I was hungry, not surprising considering it was 11 pm at night. So, where else to go but McDonald’s?! Just what we needed at that time of the night. Bonus: they have a drive thru, no walking required. Now, I’m nearly recovered and I’m pretty sure that what I had was a type 2 calf muscle tear. I took away from this a strong desire to restart my yoga practice, warm up and stretch to be a little more careful with my aging muscles. I hope to be up and kicking again soon.

American style road trip through northern Germany and Scandinavia

American style road trip through northern Germany and Scandinavia

Less than 48 hours ago my apartment became quiet and empty again (except for my funny Tony cat) as my parents and husband headed back stateside. We had just completed a fantastic, 2000 kilometer road trip. This trip included one or more towns or cities a day, so I’ll cover it in a few blog posts. I’m a bit torn about which order to take, part of me wants to start at the end and then go backwards, like those cool movies (Memento comes to mind)… On the other hand, running through chronologically will illustrate how we took a nice loop with new scenery and beers (very important) to experience every day.

The perfume of blooming canola fields filled our car as we drove through the back roads of Denmark.

To begin, I’ll give you a run-down of our general route. Our journey began and ended in Dusseldorf, Germany. Along the way we stopped in Bremen, Lubeck and Wismar, Germany. Then we drove to Rostock and boarded the ferry to Gedser, Denmark. We drove from Gedser in a counterclockwise direction through the countryside and along the coast to Copenhagen via the islands of Bogo and Mon before entering Sealand. From Copenhagen we drove across a toll bridge (I’ll tell you more about that later….) to Malmö, Sweden. The next day we drove back to Copenhagen, then from there we drove up the Danish riviera to the northeast tip of Denmark. Then we headed southwest toward Soro in the lakes region. From Soro we took a slow coastal route toward Faaborg for a stay at a castle in the countryside and then our final night was spent in a 400+ year old hotel in Ribe – the oldest town in Denmark. Our return route took us on a lovely diversion through the island of Romo, before we jumped on the autobahn in Germany. We made one stop for a bucket list quest to eat a hamburger in Hamburg, washed the car in torrential rain, and eventually made it home.

Our reward for walking 994 steps down to admire Mon Flynts.

I’ll add a general map of our route later. Now you have the over-view and I’ll go into details of the trip in future posts. Along the way we preferentially drove country roads and stopped at huge and quaint (sometimes more impressive) churches). We stayed at a variety of hotels from modern establishments to a castle built in 1200, a 300 year old and then a 400 year old hotel, and most suprising of all, a really nice hostel in Copenhagen.

Hvedholm castle near Faaborg, Denmark

Next installment I’ll describe our journey through northern Germany.

Romo – the enchanted land of Danish horses and ponies.

The city of lights

The city of lights

I have to say that until I visited Budapest, Paris was my favorite city in Europe. Why, you may ask…oh, let me count the ways. The endless parks, the beautiful architecture at every turn, the incredible ethnic diversity, the macaroons, the brasseries with their elaborate paintings and high ceilings, the feeling of pride in every Parisian you meet.

My first visit to Paris I went alone and it turned out to be a delightful experience in self-discovery. I left early one morning, I think about 5 am and walked to my local train stop. Caught the train for a fourty minute ride to Cologne and then caught my Thally’s train to Paris. Because I still can’t seem to break out of college student mode, I had booked the cheap seats and I’m not sure what I expected, but it was much less than I found. The seats were wide and accommodating, upholstered in rich, red velvet. I have to admit I felt like a queen. I settled in for the 2 hour ride to the main train station in Paris. About half-way there I walked to the cafe train car and bought a nice little coffee. The whole experience was delightful.

When we arrived in Paris I walked off the train to be treated to some amazing architecture at the station. This was just a preview of what was to come. I found the metro ticket machine and watched to see what everyone else was doing. It appeared that most people were buying a bunch of tickets, so it seemed like this was a good idea. Blessedly, the machine had an option to proceed in English. I purchased a discount pack of 20 tickets, which meant every ride was 1.20 euros. Pretty good deal. I didn’t know how often I’d ride the metro but figured it was better to be prepared. Then I hopped the metro to my hotel.

On this first stay, I had a hotel near the arch de triomphe – it was a nice place but the neighborhood felt sterile and it was a long ways from the area I wound up spending most of my time, which was La Marais. So, on my return, I booked an older hotel in La Marais.

I have been extremely fortunate on my two trips to Paris to visit the city when the weather is beautiful. I found myself roaming the streets, parks and lovely neighborhoods for hours on end. Just taking in the sites of the city. If I was thirsty I would stop for refreshment. If I was hungry I would find a cafe to grab a croissant or macaroon.

One morning I decided I wanted to see the sun rise from Sacre Cour so I headed in that direction on the metro. It’s a long walk and I was wrongly informed that it was a boring walk. (On my next trip Chas and I walked to Sacre Cour and it was fascinating – I highly recommend taking the walk). Sacre Cour is gorgeous and I decided to splurge and pay to climb to the top. I jumped in line behind a lady around my age with short, curly hair and a friendly expression. We soon were talking and I learned she was a lawyer from Marseille in town for work and visiting her aunt who has a flat in Paris.

So, here’s the thing, traveling alone is sometimes nice – you can come and go as you please, there’s no time schedule, negotiations, compromise. But, being alone can be, well, lonely. Not surprising since its part of the word. It’s a strange feeling to be roaming a European city, which is full of people, but at the same time feel moments of such acute loneliness. There is great joy in sharing an experience with a person.

This is then how it came to be that I traveled Paris for the day with a French woman from Marseille. After coming down from the top of Sacre Cour (which does have magnificent views of the city and Eifel tower) we sat at a lovely cafe and had a croissant and cafe while we compared notes on where we wanted to travel next. She actually had a book. I, strangely enough, don’t go for travel books anymore. I do a little googling online, poll my Facebook friends, and then go where my feet and eyes are drawn in the city.

High on my list was the catacombs – she’d never been so we noted this as our last stop. We had one constraint which was to meet her friend and her friend’s daughter and father near the Eifel tower, which is how I found myself inside a funny little vehicle that was a combo bicycle/motorcycle/rickshaw getting to know a French lady and her 8 year old daughter and father – a lifelong Parisian. We took a whirlwind tour of the sites while we chatted in a mash up of French and English. I failed to note that on our way to the Eifel tower we passed a fenced off grassy area in the middle of the city where a flock of wooly sheep were grazing. What a delightful surprise!

I’m going to jump ahead a bit here to the catacombs. After waiting in line for an hour we entered the caves. This turned into one of the most emotionally moving experiences of my life. There are so many bones lovingly, carefully piled under the earth. I think most people find it creepy, but I found it deeply spiritual and a testament to human connection. I walked out feeling a bit shell-shocked. Then I did like every tourist and went to find a magnet. I selected one that said “keep calm and remember you will die”.

In a sad, strange turn of events, the Paris attacks happened exactly one week after my first visit to Paris. Many people did die while enjoying the lovely charm of this city. I was deeply moved by this experience.