I didn’t freeze, per se, but I didn’t exactly know how to answer. “Intermediate.” Note the uncertain firmness and punctuation. I didn’t speak in uptone: “Intermediate?” My insides froze, but my outsides stayed smooth as ice, if you catch my snowdrift.
This sequence played again. And again. In Austria. In Germany. In Switzerland. In English… but with enough skepticism and distrust that I sometimes felt like I was answering in my fractured German.
“I’m not going to teach you the difference between pizza and french fries, because you shouldn’t do pizza.”
“stop dragging your poles on the ground”
“maybe we should practice slowing down and stopping”
“okay, let’s go down a black slope”
My brevity isn’t criticism. I reiterate that I’m grateful for Brian selflessly sharing his knowledge. I learned fast, I skied decently well, and I had fun.
Until recently, I’ve guided my life with a philosophy of foregoing expectations, rarely planning more than 4-6 months in advance. I like the freedom of being uncommitted and being ready to say “yes” when I want. At winter’s dawn, I had no intention to take multiple ski holidays this winter. To my surprise I doubled my lifetime ski experiences this winter.
When it comes to European skiing, the mountains set a higher standard, even compared to the top Tahoe terrain that I’ve experienced. The confidence check started in Kitzbühel, Austria, while vacationing with my parents for Christmas. After three decades of not skiing, they both said they might like to do it again. Knowing my own level of experience and the downhill sport’s physical challenge, I maintained quiet skepticism. (Just being honest, Mom and Dad. Love you!) Ultimately, the rents opted for a day of relaxation. I texted Brian feigning inconvenience for fear: “It’s pouring rain 😦 might not get to go”. When the clouds parted, I followed my smartphone map’s little blue dot to the nearest ski rental shop, rented gear, and scooted my clunky ski boots to ride the lift up the mountain. Remember: frozen inside but slick outside.
I remember pulling myself over the edge and quickly rediscovering the muscular control for guiding my skis downhill, the adrenal rush of racing atop blankets of snow, and the sensation of seeing the snow-pocked valley below with mountain air in my lungs. In those moments, I had the thought that my prior hesitation was unfounded. Downhill, ride a lift back up, repeat. The last lift brought me up the mountain then back down to home base, where I returned my equipment and gleefully expressed my pride to my very relaxed parents. I chose to worry, and there was nothing to worry about.
Fast forward to February, when I joined a company trip to Harz, a mountain (er – hilly) region in central Germany. The agenda for Saturday included the option to ski, and suddenly, I was co-coordinating ski equipment for 20 colleagues in broken English-German. By the time we reached the lift, I was ready to jump off and race downhill with screaming confidence. I was pleased with my shorter-than-usual pair of skis, and the bunny slope gave me newfound confidence in my skills on the slope.
Bear in mind, Harz pales in comparison to the Alps, but sometimes it’s also the small battles that win the war. The war? Yes, skiing was still a war for Stephen, until last weekend.
A dear ex-colleague invited some friends and me to visit his seasonal workplace, a large, decades-old cabin tucked into a mountain side in Mürren, Switzerland. Over the course of almost twelve hours, four trains, a bus, two gondolas, a cog train, and a short walk brought Robin, Peejay, Olivier, and me through the snow to our new digs: the epic, world renowned SUPPENALP. Okay, so Suppenalp isn’t well known, but it’s very well loved. Whether staying the night in their private rooms, sharing space in the dormitory, or stopping for a hearty meal, some families record multiple generations of annual summer and winter visits to this classic Alpine hütte. We met one guest who comes every year for the past thirty years, and assured us that it takes a special person to find their way to this place. All this makes Suppenalp certifiably epic for a few days of leisure or adventure in the mountains, but I digress…
Peejay learned to ski when he was four. Robin learned to ski in middle school. Olivier – I don’t know, but maybe he skied out out of his mother’s womb. Micha probably skies in his sleep; after all, he’s Swiss. Suffice to say, they’re all experienced sportsmen with great technique. I am proudly amateur enough to undecidedly state that I’m an intermediate skier, and thank the ski gods for patient friends. These guys were golden. When they weren’t effortlessly demonstrating their own great technique and enjoying the spacious runs, they offered tips on the fly and multiple short lessons to improve my posture and help me conserve energy. I skied slower while practicing – and I’ve needed speed control since day 0 – and they patiently awaited my arrival at the waypoints along the slopes, without a single complaint.
(Boys, if you’re reading this and you were talking smack about me in your native Dutch, also cool… helaas, pindakaas…) (Non-Dutchies: that means “unfortunately, peanut butter,” which is apparently Dutchies’ way of saying “oh, well!”)
At some point – maybe it was while we were skiing off piste through a foot / thirty centimeters of fresh powder (never tried that ’til now!), or maybe it was when I said yes to the steepest runs without hesitation (“I’m seriously up for anything – why not!”), or maybe it was on the Lauterbrunnen World Cup run, or maybe it was when the fog and snow rolled in on our second day – at some point, as I breezed down a slope, I had the thought “this is scary. I’m afraid.” and I realized that I ski with an entirely fearful mindset. Let’s be honest: how rational and safe does it sound to strap two sticks to your feet and skate sideways down a sheet of loose ice, weaving between other humans of equal (or better or sometimes questionable) capacity? It’s a scary concept, and I think our achievement in sports like this show the power of the mind and body to work in synergy with the world.
Having this thought brought pure joy, to know that I can embrace fear and that becoming aware of fear can also be a positive experience. Next time you find yourself doing something hard, trust yourself, trust those around you, and don’t let fear be a reason to change your course.
“What type of skier are you?” “Intermediate. Afraid. Trusting. Willing & Able.”
“After I studied abroad in Denmark, I knew that I wanted to live abroad again. I asked if there was an opportunity to transfer my work. They said, ‘yes.'”
“I moved around a lot while growing up, and I know that I’m stimulated by being in new environments.”
These are some of the truthful, common answers I’ve given over the past year and a half. In the back of my mind, I’ve tucked away a sustained curiosity, believing there’s a deeper meaning to my desire to move. I’ve asked myself: am I running away from something I fear or toward something I desire? People asked how long I was going for, and honestly, I never set a timeline. I don’t know the answers, but I’ve decided to ruminate and cut open my rationale.
Since my international move, I’ve discovered a previously misunderstood value of downtime and time alone. I didn’t spend time doing nothing, alone. Solitude is scary, right? I, like many of us, still distract myself from solitude with mindless scrolling on Instagram, Twitter, or whatever platform my subconscious can grasp to shield itself from silence. When was the last time you sat and patiently waited for a friend to arrive, that you rode a bus, train, or plane without picking up your phone, book, computer, a magazine? When was the last time you practiced being? (That’s not a typo.)
As my twin brother recently wrote to me: “How do you have time to contemplate all of this stuff?!” I have time, because I make time to be. [To be transparent, I also spend a lot of time distracted and avoiding the practice of being.] My German lifestyle has fewer priorities than my American lifestyle. Anecdotally, I think Germans create a notable amount of time and space in their lives for sitting with friends in conversation, walking in nature, vacationing, and being. Whether I’m German or not, I’m surrounded by their energy. There are few-to-no 24-hour grocery stores. Companies close for public holidays, not because they’re all religious, but because workism is not their religion. They embrace public parks, pools, and playgrounds, as well as bars, cafes, and restaurants.
In my go-getter American mindset, downtime used to be downright scary! There are numerous occasions where I’ve fallen into microdepression after silently spending hours at home alone. These are now balanced against the euphoria that I feel when I wake up rested, because I give myself the time to sleep. I feel the same balance when I leave work with no plan, no place to be, and no one to be late for; I am afraid and overjoyed by this freedom.
Being alone can be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. I’m learning not to push away or run from discomfort. Stress is not noise; in fact, it’s part of the signal, the communication that we’re meant to listen to. Pay attention to when and where there’s discomfort: physically and emotionally. I observe, recognize, and accept unoccupied quiet time, having no to-do list, and not speaking a word to anyone on a weekend morning. I am realizing that I don’t need anything other than myself to be me.
What is discomfort? Comfort comes from the Latin “confortare” (to strengthen) or com- and -fortis, with strength. Thus, discomfort is a weakening or perceived lack of strength. Our bodies protect us by struggling when we do not believe we are strong.
The mind is powerful, to create both strength and weakness, comfort and discomfort. Ever feel like your mind is racing with negativity? Humans are disposed to sense weakness, to see threats in our environment, and to avoid danger. Perhaps this is why we run from tasks that are hard and challenge our strength. Running from discomfort takes energy, too. If we can learn to control our minds and our reactions in the face of perceived danger, in moments of discomfort, and in stress, we save energy, a strategy that fuels our survival.
So, I ran to Germany. And in Germany, my mind tries to run away from the discomfort of solitude. I’m embracing this fact of life, not as something hard, but as something new.
A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; … if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.
Schopenhauer, “The World as Will and Idea,” 1818
While I’m hardly alone in Berlin, I spend more time alone now than I have before. So, if this is true, I ran away to learn to love freedom, and that’s really not comfortable to admit.
A year ago, I hesitated to capture my “2017” and to send a letter to friends and family, as is customary and I like to do at least once a year. I repeated the same cycle this year: why am I writing an end-of-year letter if I don’t support the notion of the year as everyone’s best cycle? I do it, because I like it, not because I’m obligated. (End-of-year letter coming soon.)
Is a month four weeks or 30/31 days? When does the morning end? Who decides when summer begins? What determines lunch time? Why do calendar years matter?
That “bad week,” that “bad day,” that “not my year,” could end sooner. That “good week,” that “good day,” that “breakout year” (ha! Don’t read the news…) can also continue long past its deadline. Days, weeks, months, seasons, and years help us define the way we live and work. We structure the phases of the world around us categorically, so that we can work and speak similarly. When candles insufficiently measured and tracked time, humans invented clocks and calendars to mark the moments. The fact that they help us means they can also hurt. Each of us has a separate experience of the world. Defining a personal relationship with time puts us in control of our attitude and our energy. Clocks revolve, and humans evolve, too.
me, December 2017
People keep asking me “what are you doing for New Year’s Eve?”
Like with most questions that seem straightforward, my answer is complex. I thought about finding a group of friends, maybe going somewhere to celebrate. Friends in Berlin have invited me to join their celebrations. I’ve decided to abstain. I want a normal night of rest. What I really want is to go someplace in nature, escape to a coast, a mountaintop, an overlook, and just be for a few hours, then return to the everyday routine. I didn’t find or create that opportunity for myself yet. I feel silly to celebrate midnight, an opportunity we have with every turn of the Earth, yet we arbitrarily relish only once every 365 opportunities. So, as of now, I’m going to go to bed Monday and wake up Tuesday at my normal times.
We have created a social construct that pretends the new calendar year presents a unique reset button, and that life is suddenly renewed with the turn of the clock and the drop of a ball. Yes, we made it. 2018 is over. 2019 is imminent. Can time so precariously dictate our attitudes? Does happiness come from within us or from the world around us, from a calendar and clock?
Here’s my prediction: at the end of 2019, we’re going to chalk it up to a wash and say “thank God, 2020 is here! Now we can start transforming ourselves.” Why bother, if we know it’s going to be regrettable?
My aim is to wash myself of that attitude and receive every present moment as the opportunity to check in, to choose my attitude, to reflect on my congruity with my world, to exercise self awareness. The difference between January 1 and September 19 is a simple thought. Both are equal opportunities to start, to end, to continue. We – as individuals – come to an intersection and have a chance to pause, to turn, to continue without stopping when we choose to reach that point. This is my captain – me – speaking to my craft and my crew and my cargo – also me: do what suits me. Go or stay when and where I feel compelled. Be who I am.
Here’s my invitation – to you and to myself:
if life is trending positive, keep going.
if you want something different out of life, make it what you want.
if you aren’t sure what’s going on in life, cool. Take time to be an explorer.
We can’t all start shining on New Year’s Day. If you’re glowing already, why not continue? And if you want to glow, start when you’re ready.
also me, December 2017
Here’s to this moment and the next, separated only by our minds.
I gently giggled when the woman in front of me proudly announced to the German border police: “I’m here with my son to see the Christmas markets.” Doesn’t she know that Germans aren’t so forward or friendly?
“Oh, really,” he smiled. “Do you not have the same markets and shopping in the US?”
“No, we don’t,” she responded. “We’ve been planning this trip for five years.”
While Mom told me that mothers have eyes in the back of their head, it was this mother’s smile that I could see from behind.
The elderly couple in front of me shuffled their feet toward the counter next.
“Das ist meine Frau, und wir sind hier für die Weinachtsmarktes.” (This is my wife, and we’re here for the Christmas markets.) They continued the conversation, split between the husband’s German and his wife’s broken English.
With my turn to show my passport, I wondered if I needed to announce to the border agent that I was merely returning to work after spending Thanksgiving in the States and I was not entering Germany for the Christmas markets like everyone else (apparently). This pattern gave me pause: maybe I shouldn’t take for granted the multitude of Christmas celebrations while I live in Germany. I generally feel that outside of work I live a cozy life with minimal rush to explore the quintessential cultural and touristic sites, and I like the fact that foreign discoveries fold into my day-to-day rather than separated as distinct experiences.
While it’s not the best known in Germany by any measure – I’m looking at you, Nürnberg – Berlin hosts dozens of Christmas markets. Some last the duration of advent, others only weekends, and still others pop up just for one weekend. Many of the markets in the center of town – Alexanderplatz has two – host a kitschy flavor of Christmas with vendors that repeat a similar mix of Christmas decoration, alternating with stalls selling glühwein, savory bites including sausages, and sweet treats like Lebkuchen (a gingerbread-esque cookie). Some specialty markets focus on local artisans and designers, and these events are more sensible places to shop for legitimate Christmas gifts. And then you have your one-of-a-kind markets that cultivate a special nostalgia for Christmases past.
Enter: Weinachtsmarkt am Jagdschloss, the “Christmasmarket in the hunting palace”
While glühwein warms the heart regardless of quality, you’re unlikely to be blown away by the actual market – the things to buy. Knowing full well that the best way to experience the Christmas markets is to make plans with friends, one colleague mentioned a market in the forest that would only take place this weekend. Weiwei and I browsed a few markets together last year, so I suggested that for this year’s date we should be atypical and leave the city center.
Grunewald is the “green forest” (literal translation) in the lakes region bordering Berlin’s west side (not West Berlin ;). When the weather is warm enough, I favor cycling the journey along Berlin’s central promenades and into the forest, yet I didn’t know the forest played host to a castle or a Christmas Market.
See for yourself: this Sunday afternoon adventure was a one-of-a-kind part of the Christmas season. Combined with the commercial nature of many markets, Berlin is a rather grungy city, so finding a warm, cozy atmosphere in a Christmas market was a truly special discovery.
We enjoyed a variety of snacks: a fish cake, caramel cheesecake, glühwein (the quintessential mulled wine), freshly roasted chestnuts, and bratwurst. Actors entertained the kids with a live rendition of Hansel & Gretel. Does it get more German fairy tale than watching the Brothers Grimm in the forest? When dusk fell and the sky faded to black, we stepped into the central house, where the state maintains a museum of antique hunting art and trophies from the time when the property was a Prussian hunting lodge.
After a few hours, with our stomachs full, we followed a cloaked man carrying a lantern back to the bus, on to the train, and returned to the bustle of the concrete jungle. Next time I hear an American announce to the German border police that they came for the Christmas markets, the sparkle in my eye will mark a new appreciation for this special tradition.
The whirlwind swirled to a halt. Just a few tasks on my Boston to-do list stood undone, then un-doable. In late October, my earth froze, signaling me: pack your bags and head south. The ground, the air, the last fresh-cut flowers for the kitchen, no more groceries, the sell-off of unused belongings. Instead of going south, I ventured east. With the flash of my ride to the airport, handing my key to my roommate, I suddenly had nothing to do in Boston and everything to do in Berlin.
My belongings, boxed and ready to ship from Formlabs
The second to last sunset, from the office roofdeck
My bags, waiting for my ride to the airport
Nine boxes on their way. Five bags and me, in the back of a Mercedes van from Tegel airport to an Airbnb in Friedrichshain. Berlin welcomed me with silence on a Sunday morning, and the frost of those quiet moments has yet to melt away.
I never imagined how moving to a foreign country – truthfully, one that didn’t feel so foreign – would make me more comfortable with myself. I imagined the opposite. One of my goals was to become more familiar with needing someone else’s (a government’s) permission to exist. I lived with privilege and comfort for enough of my life to know that I didn’t know any better. I sought a better awareness of the world. I moved at a time when I thought I knew myself: extroverted, adventurous, thoughtful…
My arrival stamp
Bags on the way from the airport
Viewing the apartment where I settled for the first 7 months
Surprise! The past year has afforded more “me” time than the previous decade. “Me” time has developed my self awareness. I’ve found strange comfort in the loneliness of evenings and weekends by myself. I didn’t used to be so “good” at spending time by myself. My life in America overflowed with busy-ness and preoccupation, always jumping from one plan to the next, rarely with time to respond to the fleeting greeting: “how are you?”
How am I? I am relaxed, in bliss, comfortable with nothing and curious about everything. I am joyful about living by myself in a space that challenges my confidence. I am sometimes afraid to speak German. I am sad that many of my family and friends are elsewhere. I am inspired by the free, loving nature of the people of Berlin. I am angry that if I were an immigrant in the United States, I would be seen as less valuable. I wonder if I should feel like a different person in my different homes. I feel everything when I create time for nothing.
Sometimes change is an empty canvas. Sometimes change is the same art in a new frame. Sometimes it’s a cloudy day, and sometimes change brings clear, blue skies. Change can be chaos, and change can bring calm.