Presents Don’t Require Presence

When I’m eyeing the seats as the dishes incrementally fill the table, I know which chairs are claimed, not by the ones with a drink or any reshuffled napkin, but by the creased white paper with a name outside and a feast of words inside. On Christmas, we unwrap gifts; on Thanksgiving, we unwrap our hearts and unfold our minds by sharing what we’re thankful for.

Each place setting has a letter-size paper, printed with 1997 Microsoft clip art and marked with hand-written notes about what we appreciate. (Download your own here. Thanks, Dad!) At some point in my adolescence, I realized that the text box Dad designed with five lines didn’t limit me to expressing five points of gratitude. Thanksgiving’s unique trait is that our gratitude doesn’t have to fit in any box, and there’s no way to wrap it, pretty nor ugly. Gratitude persists. The focused tradition of reflecting, writing, then reading what we’re thankful for brings meaning to this time of year, not just at the dinner table.

The table has transformed over the years, sometimes longer, sometimes louder, and sometimes especially tasty. As if we’re on the next round of musical chairs, there’s no seat for me this year, and that’s okay. I’m staying abroad, and I’ll be making my own Thanksgiving feast, like I did with friends in Denmark in 2011.

I regularly answer questions like “how are you doing?” “are you settling in okay?” and “how is life in Germany?” I’m content, and – frankly – shocked with myself at the smoothness of my transition. I sprinted through an insane cornucopia of adventures with friends on my way out of Boston, jumped onto a plane, and landed feet first in Berlin. Certainly, after a honeymoon, there should be a phase of disbelief, confusion, and maybe the slightest regret. I miss Boston, I love my friends and family at home, and I would love to be celebrating Thanksgiving in Maine. I’m also entirely content with where I am now. I had to pinch myself today, because I haven’t felt homesick yet. This is real life, and it’s great.

I’ve long subscribed to my idea that “missing is a happy feeling, because it’s nice to have things and people to miss.” So, this year, I’m thankful to be missing the Thanksgiving that I’m accustomed to with my family. I have many happy memories of laughter and flavor and warmth, and memories cannot be missed. To my family, I do miss you, and I’m happy knowing that we can unwrap and share our gratitude without being together physically. Presents don’t require presence, at least on this holiday.

Just Hang On & Don’t Slow Down

155 kilometers didn’t seem so far. 96 miles is less than 110, which is what I rode five weeks ago, up Massachusett’s scenic north shore to the Maine border on a crisp fall day. So when my colleague Balázs invited me to join Rapha’s “transfer ride to the heart of the GDR,” and after three weeks of no road rides, I signed up.

(Let’s skim over the fact that the ride sold out last week, and I spontaneously nabbed the spot of the single cancellation when I coincidentally opened the invitation link again on Friday night. “Oh, you’re Stephen. You just signed up the other day,” they acknowledged at the check in table this morning.)

I knew what I was in for, distance-wise. The weather was more of a gamble: somewhere between 1 and 5°C, chance of rain, clouds… ideal for cycling, and I pieced together an early winter kit from assorted cycling, ski, and outdoor apparel. Distance. Weather. Speed? I could probably manage almost 100 miles in six hours. Curious where we went? Keep reading, and see our route on Strava.

 Rapha's Dirk Kaufmann delivers the morning pre-ride briefing. Rapha’s Dirk Kaufmann delivers the morning pre-ride briefing.

Six hours in the saddle requires significant readiness: carbohydrate intake, hydration, strength, flexibility… I should have eaten a bigger dinner and a bigger breakfast. I should have conditioned my energy levels a bit more, and maybe stretched with some yoga on Saturday. Instead, I learned a few lessons.

Lesson #1: No pictures doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

[Update – 15 Nov: Steffen – introduced below – is not only a master cyclist. He also captured the day on camera, so thanks to him for the photos that I’ve added.]

If we’d moved more slowly, I’d have spent all day photographing the picturesque fields and small towns that comprise the former German Democratic Republic, now known as Brandenburg, Instead, we’re stuck reliving the photographs from my memory. Potsdam’s stunningly symmetric castles rise from gardens and forests, and a late fall visit far supersedes the July heat wave that I suffered two years ago. Green and yellow fields have begun saying goodbye to summer, now illuminated by a burst of sunlight hanging low on the grey horizon, as the days grow shorter. Summer-style homes rest like polka dots on the edges of towns connected by well-paved one lane roads, while perfectly-laid cobblestones coat the streets and sidewalks. The same sunlight sheds contrast of the horizon against the forest, as stiff, tall tree trunks rise to the sky, only broken by the needled-branches that pierce the grey clouds and the road that carries us onward.

Lesson #2: Germans have hospitality within their hardiness.

Heroes and angels in Germany will teach you to ride fast(er). Steffen Weigold, the ride coordinator who just quit his gig with the Tour de France, called me a machine at the end of the ride. Let’s be clear: he’s the real engine, because he rode alongside and physically pushed me several times when I fell behind the pack. Altogether, the guys (and also the gals!) that joined today’s group ride epitomized German sport. They brought steady energy, humor, quality equipment, and timeliness to the road. I guess I expected a bunch of hard-asses, but they had a soft spot that highlighted team camaraderie in a pack of strangers.

So about the pack: it’s important. Like, don’t let go of the pack. I’ve drafted friends on rides throughout Boston, but more for fun than out of necessity. I’d never ridden in a group numbering 40-plus, and maybe Steffen’s superhuman sixth sense detected this when he told us to stay close in the morning briefing. I forgot. Maybe I never knew? Now I know. Even before I hungrily dragged behind mid-morning, when Steffen saw me riding a few meters behind the others, he pointed out that the gaps between riders accumulate and make the group very spread. Before long, you’re riding on your own, and at that point, you might as well be in the front, taking the wind for everyone. You want to stay in the slip stream.

Lesson #3: Choose a strategy.

I did want to stay in the slip stream, but I couldn’t … at first. I especially struggled with miles 30-50. We escaped the stop-and-go of the city perimeter and then zipped along open fields that stretched between the various lakes (sees) west of Berlin. The dikes that separate the farm fields catch wind easily, and I couldn’t find the energy to hug the wheel of the riders in front of me. That’s when Steffen found me first. I knew I was struggling, he knew I was struggling, and I knew I could make it. Steffen was my first saviour, and the second sacrament came in the form of the CLIF bar and energy gel that I downed on our quick stop after traversing open fields of the Brandenburger Osthavelniedrung.

When we stopped to fix a flat shortly after, I took the liberty to remove my gloves, untie both pair of shorts (two for warmth), and listen to nature’s calling at the edge of the road. Of course, I had time… Wrong! The support van had the tire replaced within two minutes. Suddenly, after catching up, I was gloveless and not ready to move with everyone else. Steffen found me, and pointed out: “you had three minutes and now you lost it.”

 Pictured from left to right: everyone else, me Pictured from left to right: everyone else, me

“You have to be smart, or you have to be strong.” As he rode beside me, instructing me in the ways of the group ride, he gave my lower back a big push, and I pedaled my way into the group.

Lesson #4: It’s true, the slip stream is faster.

Dodging between the pack and my own wind and winded-breath at the back, I met the third saviour, Jan. You know Jan Schur, the 1988 Olympic gold medalist? Yea, Jan was a special guest on this ride, and he was hanging around at the back of the pack, with another struggling rider riding his slip stream. He waved me in, too, and shouted something at me in German. As I’m becoming comfortable with blatant I-don’t-know-what-you-said-to-me statements and expressions, I came clean:

“I don’t speak German.”

“Just hang on.”

Ah, yes, just hang on behind the Olympian, and you’ll make it to lunch. And I did.

I downed two sandwiches, a bunch of snacks, and the first Coca-Cola I’ve had in years. Our van driver, Dirk, mentioned that if I needed to rest, even for 10 minutes, I could snag a ride with him, then rejoin the group. After learning my lessons this morning, I trusted myself. Be smart. Be strong. Ride the slip stream.

For the second half of the ride, I held on to the pack, only falling behind once, due to the resistance of a very poorly graded gravel road. As my speed slipped and the others zipped past, I concluded that Germans choose one of three options for roads and paths: pave asphalt and cement to be as smooth as butter, level every paver to be as-good-as pavement, or power through bumps and cobblestones as if they were no different than roads. Take note of the infrastructure and endurance, America.

Otherwise, I kept up, chatting with Balázs and hugging the wheels of my fellow riders. We pedaled into Bad Belzig just before 4 pm, precisely 6 hours and 53 seconds of ride time after we started. The coordinators’ planned estimate? From their email: “We are aiming to ride the 155km and 1000m of elevation in 6 hours.” Sigh… German punctuality.

As we waited for the warm soup and cold beer to flow from the hotel restaurant bar that would host our dinner, Steffen delivered one final lesson.

Lesson #5: Attitude makes a difference.

Earlier in the morning, he’d already told me that believing I could do it would give me energy; I’m not sure what prompted the remark, because I did believe I could do it, and I thought I looked happy, despite my struggle. I was happy, just tired.

I reduced the morning struggle to my lack of fuel, and eventually realized that I also had a tendency to lose the pack when ascending hills or coming out of curves. Hills are just harder, especially when you are barely keeping up. Corners make me nervous, probably due to scraping every facet of my knee while racing around the cul-de-sac as a kid. Steffen saw it, too.

“I can see you improved. Now you have to have more confidence, and don’t slow down on the curves,” he said, as we settled in for a well-deserved pint of beer in a dimly lit castle hotel somewhere in a forest west of Germany.

Other than being a bike apparel company, I’m not sure what Rapha means, where it comes from, or how I ended up riding through the German countryside with a group of very in-shape cyclists. Despite this, I am surely glad that I hung on, and I know what Rapha means to me, thanks to Steffen and Jan.

Awakening The Bundesmachine

In Germany, the census is ongoing. Each resident registers (Anmeldung) with their local Burgeramt, and when you move or leave the country you Unmeldung with the same Burgeramt. It’s required to do within 14 days of arriving, though the soonest available appointment is about six months away. I needed my Anmeldung in order to receive packages from DHL, and so I followed the advice of the online expat community: just show up really early in the morning, no appointment.

A few minutes after 7 a.m., with one hopeful eye on Google Maps and one skeptical eye on the buildings around me, I entered a rustic courtyard, a former industrial complex, home of the supposed Burgeramt in my new neighborhood, Prenzlauer Berg. Eager to be in line as soon as possible, and always willing to ask for directions, I asked about the “Anmeldung” from two women who were smoking on a stone portico. “Haus 6, the highest one”. I found Haus 6, including its three entrances, each flanked by construction fencing and gravel entryways. Okay, I guess I’m the first to arrive. I’ll wait outside, since they don’t open until eight.

A few minutes later, a plain-clothed woman entered, so naturally I followed her a few seconds later, then navigated the clean but old, white and well-lit basement. I found a staircase that took me into the hallway of bureaucracy, and I followed some signs (you know the kind that office personnel design in their default word processor format, print, then tape to the wall…) to the Burgeramt down the hallway.

Again, I asked about the “Anmeldung” from a guy standing in the hallway. “I am 1, you are 2.” Okay, so I’ll stand behind this guy for the next forty five minutes. “Where am I from?” he asked me. I answered, “the United States, then he told me he was from Macedonia. The queue steadily grew as I worked on reviewing and editing documents for work. This brought a sense of relief and productivity, knowing that I was justified in the timing of my arrival and my plan to bring work with me.

At 7:59 – mind you, we had daylight savings last weekend, and the clock was already updated … German efficiency – a woman came and unlocked the door. Mr “1” aka Macedonia and I entered the office, going to the desks on the right and left of the kiosk. I asked about the “Anmeldung,” not knowing whether this was actually the start of the process. She said something in German. I showed my paper application (maybe that’s what she asked for?). She nodded and printed a full A4 paper with a queue number (something like 115717). Little victories taste especially sweet when you’re navigating foreign bureaucracy without breakfast.

I sat in the waiting area for about 30 seconds, then my number popped onto the tv screen, directing 115717 to door 4B. Another victory, or at least progress. I went to door 4B, where there was one woman at a row of 3 desks. The door had been shut, and I didn’t know whether to leave it open, since I was the first customer, so I asked.

“Open or closed?”

“Schließe.”

“Open or closed?”

I alternated swinging the door open and closed.

“Schließe,” she says with slightly more conviction.

“Open or closed?”

“Schließe!”

Jesus, I’m going to get myself kicked out before I can process the paperwork. I decide to close the door and go to the chair in front of her desk.

I hand my two papers across the desk, hoping that my Google Translate skills have led to properly completed fields. I handed her my passport when she asks for the “reisepass,” and wondered whether she would need any of my other assortment of personal files. (Pro tip: bring everything you can (flight tickets proving arrival, letters from work saying you’re supposed to be in the country, a copy of you health insurance) because you never know what they might ask for.)

I watched her chicken peck across the keyboard as her head dodged between my papers and her screen, with my body’s every finger and nerve crossed in anticipation. Did I do this right? Am I done with this Anmeldung thing? Eventually, she moved to the photocopier, scanned my passport, and printed a document, and I felt the relief of knowing that I was managing to give all the right information and get my Anmeldung within a week of arriving.

She signed and stamped it. My impulse was to pick up the paper, run down the hall, paper in hand raised overhead, shouting about my victory at 8:10 a.m. You know… schools-out-for-the-summer style. Instead, I calmly glanced over the paper and pointed out that my name wasn’t “Steohen,” so she reprinted, signed, and stamped it. I’m glad I didn’t follow my impulse.

I picked up my backpack, returned down the hallway, past the mosaic of printed paper office signage and directional arrows, and gently stepped into the compound’s courtyard in search of my bike. With the brisk morning air, I felt the relief of a rusted engine that awakens with fresh oil. I crawled through the basement catacombs, across the narrow bridge of foreign language paperwork, and into a world of properly registered residents.

At 7:59, when that door opened, I knew this system would work.

Herr Morris Volk

I bought a bike. A Dutch bike, from a Dutch guy. A stolen bike, supposedly. So, theoretically, a stolen Dutch bike from a Dutch thief. In Berlin.

Ja, walking is healthy, but it’s slow. Within a few days of my immigration, there was a longing to ride, even short distances around the city. In due time – three days – a cycle-savvy colleague invited me to “Fahrradflohmarkt Saisonabschluss“. (Want to speak German? Just put a potato in your mouth and say angry words.) It means “the season’s last bike market”… bike flea market season close… duh. Bargaining at markets not being my forte, on Saturday, I stepped out of my comfort zone, adventuring to Neukölln past some of the grunge and grime of Berlin’s weekend club scene.

I heightened my anxiety along the way, withdrawing some big bucks from my checking account and depositing the Euros into my new German account via a grocery store cashier. As an online bank, that’s how N26 operates: I started on their website and confirmed my identity over a video chat via an app on my phone, then scanned a custom-generated bar code from my phone at the grocery checkout to deposit the cash with the cashier. Let’s all say “Hallo” to personal finances in 2017.

With the bank account settled, I walked a few blocks to the bike market, meanwhile imagined haggling for used bikes with a potato in my mouth and Euros in my wallet. Instead, I scouted around the hundreds of cycles lined up throughout the neighborhood park, found a bike that I thought looked good, then dodged back and forth between bikes until someone asked if I needed help. (I’m usually fair game to ask for help, but I had no clue who was working which areas of the market.)

Enter tall bald guy with a slight pot belly. (The Dutch guy.)

He offered to help me, responding to my passive curiosity by recounting details about this bike: the second most popular brand in Holland, with a lock and lights, both wheels have new tires and were recently replaced, and it’s probably about 15 years old. I lent him my drivers license while I tested out the bike on the street, then returned to confirm my purchase. Should I have haggled? Probably? Would you haggle with a two meter tall German-sounding Hulk-looking Dutchman?

He wrote a receipt, which I can use to purchase bike insurance (yes, that’s commonplace), and introduced himself as Mr. Volk.

I now exit the scene, riding blissfully into the bike lane, grinning with pride on the return ride to my Airbnb.

End Act I.

I spent the afternoon packing my luggage and eagerly transporting bags to my new apartment with several back-and-forth 20 minute commutes on the street metro.

Pride is: realizing that you’ve managed to establish a bank account, keys to an apartment, and keys to a bike in the same day.

Skepticism is: wondering if that’s too much accomplishment to be true.

After moving all the bags, I returned to retrieve my bike from the apartment courtyard. As I skillfully leaned to unlock the back wheel, feeling giddy about having this kind of lock, I wondered whether I had the wrong bike. Surely my new fahrrad didn’t have a flat tire.

5:55 pm on a Saturday is not ideal timing to shop in a city with no commerce on Sunday. In a dash to either fix my flat or wait, Google Maps routed me to a bike shop about two blocks away. I arrived at Bike A-way ready to bow and plea for pre-closing assistance or to shed my honor and take the flat home. Alas, Morris and his counterpart agreed to exchange my tube, and in return, I would listen to his envy for the guy who schemes and brings stolen foreign bikes to Berlin under the cover of night and takes away Morris’ business. With an entirely friendly demeanor, Morris made it clear that I would’ve paid more for my bike if I bought it legitimately, and while he knew that I didn’t know better, he would’ve preferred my business in his shop. Don’t worry though, Mr. Volk, Morris has a plan to come after you in the spring!

That’s how I managed to establish a bank account, keys to an apartment, and keys to a bike in the same day. It came with a lesson in inter-European bike politics from an angsty Delaware expat. For some etymological relevance, ‘angst’ was introduced to English by the Dutch or German, so when you want to complain about the guy who stole your business, say it with a potato in your mouth.

End Act II.