The Never-ending Weekend

It took five days to realize that my sabbatical had started. In the repetition of “I’m going to yoga teacher training in Portugal and then I’ll travel for another month,” I forgot about the week of downtime beforehand. I mean, I knew it was happening, but I forgot it was part of the whole experience. In fact, moments of downtime were infrequent. I balanced my time with the required reading assignments for the yoga course, “last” time meetings with friends, being outside, and preparing to sublet my apartment. With the pinnacle experience fast approaching, I almost didn’t realize that I’m one week into my 19 week vacation. My detachment from work started immediately, and I subsequently created a lot of fascinating experiences and emotions for myself.

I very consciously chose to start this journey on my birthday, and in retrospect, know this was the right choice. Everyone deserves to treat themselves to things that bring them joy. If I owned a company, I’d make birthdays mandatory paid holidays for each employee. I focused on enjoying myself, with a mix of things I love to do, places I enjoy, and new experiences. Perhaps most importantly, I woke up and made a conscious decision to have a good day. With a boost from the change to warm, sunny weather, I had a great day. With the exception of one minor moment of anxiety – which I suspect I know the root of – I felt pure joy on my birthday, the first day of my sabbatical.

Hanging out in my favorite park on my birthday evening

The subsequent day was less of an emotional high, because I was a bit stressed preparing for a birthday picnic. At midnight, chocolate ice cream batter – the third of three varieties – boiled over on the stovetop. I went to yoga before noon, and suddenly felt the day was disappearing, then at 4pm, I fell asleep on a hillside in the park while waiting 3 hours for my apartment key to be copied. I reacted to those stressors by just trudging through and pretending I was fine. I was. In the end, I had a clean stove and a spare key, and lost nothing but energy along the way. Two days of naturally sliding into afternoon nap time tell me that my body needed this break, so I’m grateful for the timing and ability to process time as it comes and goes.

Oops…

I gathered a small group of friends at a park nearby my house for a cozy sunset picnic. Twelve of us snacked and chatted until we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. (It was dark! I’m in one of my frequent sobriety phases, anyway.) Robin and Peejay’s homemade Dutch apple pie paired especially well with my homemade ice creams. I definitely want you to teach me that recipe, boys! Despite the stress that I created (in my head) in my preparation, the company of so many loving humans reminded me how much our friends enrich our lives.

Impressive Dutch apple pie, handmade with a number 28
Ciao, friends!
Quite an impressive birthday cake candle, nah?

By Friday, I needed a break from my break… okay, kidding! I just needed to get some stuff done and balance the relaxation time. At this point, especially with Germany’s four-day Easter weekend, I lost track of the calendar days. I see no purpose in prescribing attitudes and ways of thinking with certain weekdays. Forget Sunday scaries, Monday doldrums, and celebrating Friday or the weekend. Every day has the same potential. To free up the rest of the weekend, when friends would be free and the forecast called for ideal outdoor weather, I spent Friday morning packing many of the things in my apartment, making space for a friend who will stay there. I felt liberated to sort through physical possessions and realize how much I don’t need, despite the relatively little I own, compared to my American peers.

With the warmth and sunshine continuing to grace all of Berlin, I ran to Volkspark Friedrichshain and met Selene for a few hours of relaxation … but no nap! I spent Friday night at home, procrastinating my yoga readings, and readying my mind for Saturday’s epic canoe adventure.

Sunday was Easter, and by then, I was definitely confused about the weekday. I biked across the river into Kreuzberg, passing many open-air clubs, where the spirit of Berlin still sounded strong at 10am, and met Cinzia at a brunch buffet on the canal. We enjoyed several hours of sunlight glistening off the water, discussing our respective evolutions in life activities and mindsets. As I ready myself for this immersive travel adventure, she prepares for a new job and heavily invests in evolving her world perspectives with admirable reading habits. From there, we cycled across the street to relax in the sun at another park. Yes, there’s a pattern here. Berlin has many green spaces, and Germans embrace time outdoors in most seasons.

I spent Sunday afternoon at another friend’s rooftop terrace, a sort of Easter soirée meets the benevolence of Mother Nature and friendship. Five of us ventured to an open-air club in the evening, where we embraced the vibrations of the sunset late into the night.

Monday… another holiday! I finished packing my bag, read at the park, saw more friends… Tuesday: rinse and repeat, plus some errands, since retail stores finally re-opened. And Wednesday, today, I arrived in Portugal after an only mildly hectic morning of last minute things at home. (Read mildly hectic as: calm, cool, and collected on the outside, but mentally panicking and physically rushing…)

In the constant flux between nothing and everything, relaxation and productivity, being and doing, I gained awareness about my competing calm and chaotic minds. I like the calm one better. I think I won’t have another to-do list for months, and I’m ready to focus on my being, to slow down time, to be where I am, and not to worry about where I’m not nor what I’m not getting “done.”

Lacy, Adam, and Lorelay Explore the Spreewald

Judging by my kitchen windowsill now adorned with a stuffed pink flamingo, blue bunny ears, two books, grow-it-yourself flowers in a wooden box, and countless types of Easter chocolate, I could have insisted more forcefully that I didn’t want birthday gifts. I’d written to the group before our picnic: “Oh! And, really don’t need/want object presents… I have a lot of material goods. Your presence is a present!” Most importantly, my friends did bring their loving company when we celebrated my existence this past week. Two of them thoughtfully made plans to continue the adventure and invited me for a canoe trip in the nearby Spreewald on Saturday.

Under a clear, blue sky, I walked down the street to meet Robin and Peejay at their place shortly after nine. The boys reserved a carshare for the day, through BMW’s DriveNow service, and “Lacy,” our spunky black convertible basked in the warm spring air, ready for our departure.

With the top down, we zoomed along the autobahn, escaping the city-state of Berlin into the backwoods of post-DDR Brandenburg. The crisp wind massaged our pale, winter skin, and the waves of the radio tuned out the sounds of spring nearby. Robin earned an A+ for his driving, even at the top speed of 190 kph (~120 mph). While trains are a preference for many travelers, Germany’s famous no-speed-limit highways are also a real means of transportation for inter-city transit. Germans take their cars, their roads, and their driving seriously.

After an hour of laughter, sing-a-longs, and feeling spoiled by the Easter weekend weather, grumpy, commanding attendants greeted us at the village parking lot and demonstrated excellence in German customer service (the lowest of low standards, from what I’ve seen in the world) at the peak of Easter weekend.

I knew where we were traveling but didn’t bother to do any research beforehand. The quaint town of Lübbenau seems to be known for its little waterways, its pickles, and for its ability to advertise said waterways and pickles. Wikipedia seems to verify my impression. Wooden market stands offered the local varieties of gurken in the touristic town center, and on the nearby riverbanks, the captains prepared their tour boats, called punts (in English). I’ve never been to Venice, but I’d say that Robin’s mom was right to wish us fun in the “Venice of Germany”.

We meandered around the islands and bridges and rented a two-person and a one-person wooden canoe from Bootshaus Kaupen. The attendant – this one was actually friendly and helpful – directed us where we could explore and how to enter and exit the canoe, and we entered the river “highway” with the other canoes, kayaks, and punts.

Robin solo-navigated with his sturdy steed, Adam, while I took the front of Lorelay and Peejay steered from the back. We canoed about 200 meters then tied our boats to the edge of a family restaurant/café. We changed into our swimwear, enjoyed some warm beverages in the sunlight, and applied sunscreen, all the while enjoying the sight of the other tourists (mostly locals, we presumed) passing by as they lounged and drank beer (at 11 am!) in their punts.

Back in our canoes, no more than a kilometer passed before we were out of the village and surrounded by scenic forests and meadows. The trees’ greenery is coming to life this month, and the contrast of their tall, dark trunks reflected beautifully as we glided across the water. I explained my mild fear of small water craft while we navigated the meandering waterways. Again, I find conscious fear to be a great source of motivation. As we approached the next village, Leipe, we paddled into a lock, which was graciously operated by some local volunteers. What a sensation to slowly rise up with the force of water while sitting still!

Our stomachs stopped us for lunch in Leipe at a riverside restaurant, Froschkönig (Frog King), where we enjoyed more sunshine. Lunch tasted like fried and pickled herring, bratwurst, different preparations of potatoes (mashed, roasted, boiled), sauerkraut, cucumbers in dill and cream sauce, a real beer for Robin, a Radler (half beer, half lemonade) for Peejay, and an alcohol-free beer for me. That’s a sample of east German cuisine, if I say so! (With a side serving of more excellence in German customer service…)

After lunch, we ventured further off the beaten path, well out of the way of the larger tourist boats. Sunlight trickled through the canopy above, and mosquitoes quietly buzzed on the riverbanks, sometimes to our chagrin and their demise. At times, we practiced paddling stronger, with Peejay setting pace in front and me playing steering wheel in the back. My past trauma with canoes, kayaks, and electronics triggers my fear of rocking the boat, but I like to challenge my instincts. We had the river mostly to ourselves, and playfully pulled ahead of Robin or played hide and seek from behind.

At the height of the afternoon, we came across a second, unattended lock. I imagined we would lift the canoes and carry them to the other side, but Peejay didn’t skip a beat in exiting our canoe and figuring out how to operate the lock. “He probably learned it in high school,” Robin said, quite casually. “We have a lot of locks in the Netherlands.” I guess I was the only one impressed by this…?

As the evening arrived, we rejoined the parade of touristic punt boats and passed through the adjoining town of Lehde before reaching Lübbenau. Although we were traveling on water, it felt like a casual Saturday drive through suburbia, with families working in their gardens, preparing barbecues, doing work on the house, etc.

In Lübbenau, we returned Adam and Lorelay to the boat house, then changed clothes and walked back to the town center. A day without ice cream wouldn’t be a day with Stephen, and you guessed it… Robin and I snagged some scoops at a local shop. Ordering in German – proud moment! – I sampled their strawberry sorbet first. While I’m not usually a fan of strawberry-flavored “things,” some signage and my knowledge of the German strawberry quality led me to the truth: it was delicious and paired nicely with the cherry-yogurt ice cream. Peejay ate two fresh gurkens, and I’m still working on forgiving him for skipping ice cream.

We returned to Lacy, waiting patiently by herself in the parking lot, and took the scenic route home. While it’s less than 100 km, we enjoyed two hours of back roads, flowering fields of green, forests silhouetted against the setting sun, and even a hot air balloon flying overhead. With Lacy’s top back on, we grabbed some giant authentic Italian pizzas in our neighborhood, then walked homeward with full stomachs, sunkissed arms, and warm hearts.

One thing that I take away from this thoughtful gift-adventure is that adventure is often waiting just outside our “comfort” zone. In the almost two years that I’ve spent in Berlin, I never knew or thought to explore the Spreewald. Canoeing the waterways was an easy, relaxing, and fun day trip that I’d recommend to most friends. Thanks for the memories, boys.

9 Posts I Might Never Write

“There’s not much use in thinking about things. You just see the decision, make a choice, and act.”

– Me, paraphrasing Dad’s advice

And then there’s me in reality. I think about writing posts far more often than I write them, but thinking doesn’t get the job done. Adrenaline often fuels my creative word brain. I ideate a topic at a time (cycling to work, washing dishes, running to the park where I’m sitting now under a tree…) separately from actually writing. I write down the idea, and I never make time to formulate more than the one line. So, I’m going to free my brain by releasing all the posts I might never write or publish.

  • The German trash and recycling system – there are four bins at home: paper/cardboard, bio/compost, packaging, and other waste (actual trash). Glass goes in special pods that are placed on sidewalks throughout the city. I wonder if the people who sort the packaging get mad at me when I discard something that doesn’t qualify, because I have no clue what qualifies.
  • Thailand – I went there. It was a great solo vacation. I wrote one little post about diving, and then I made an excuse that my job kept me too busy to write more. I also intended to finish producing a video, but I don’t “finish” it. What is “finished” for a self-ideated project, anyway? Let’s call it done!
  • Cases, Gender, etc in German grammar – there are 4 cases, 3 genders, and a/an or the… knowing which article to use when speaking or writing German feels like rolling dice.
  • I experience substantial euphoria when I’m SCUBA diving, and last year I started exploring underwater photography with a Paralenz dive camera. I dove in Thailand, Malta, and Seattle.
  • Berries. Fresh, juicy ones, picked right off the bush in random places: under a bridge in Seattle, next to a lake/beach in Berlin, in the fjord rainforests of Alaska…
  • Love. Yes, that’s actually an idea I wrote down.
  • 101 things to know about Berlin. This post is actually in progress.
  • A review of Christmas Eve dinner at Tennerhof. I even have a draft – with no content – titled “Christmas, Traditionally”
  • How I skipped winter by baking croissants

Now you know what’s on my mind, and now it’s off my mind. Thanks for reading. Now go enjoy some fresh air!

Here, I Am.

I haven’t “quit” my job in the normal sense, but unofficially, I have. I agreed with my various bosses that I need time off. I thought about 8 or 12 weeks – a generous leave by US standards – and they said I should take more… From my “last” day of work tomorrow, I have four-and-a-half months of freedom. I keep saying, in a half-joking tone, that I haven’t had this much free time since before pre-school.

I couldn’t be more excited and scared. I guess both joy and fear are signs to keep going.

What’s going to happen?

I have about a week of down/prep time in Berlin. Next week I fly to Lisbon, Portugal and continue on to a 25-day yoga teacher training at a coastal farm called Cocoon.

Yoga teacher training? Are you gonna start teaching yoga, Stephen?

The intent is to ground myself in a practice that I know brings stability to my mind and body. I’ve practiced yoga for more than six years and consistently had a desire for a deeper yogic experience. I put yoga teacher training at the top of a psuedo-bucket list called “what are you waiting for?”… and after all, what am I waiting for? No time like the present!

Funny side story about my first experience with yoga, pictured below: March 2013 – I traveled to the beach with three friends. A guy was doing yoga on the sand, and I decided to follow along. He returned the next day. I repeated. I went to thank him after two hours of practice, and we talked. He was an architectural designer and split his time between New York and Russia, but was visiting his mom in Florida. He said something about the importance of following the rhythm of the breath. Suddenly, my insides felt empty, and I regretfully admitted that I didn’t pay attention to my breath at all in those first two “classes.”

I am following my instinct to know this is right for me in this moment. True story: I clicked an online business school advertisement (ha!) while browsing the web in my crazy state of what-am-I-doing-with-my-life, and I wrote a candid, borderline-distraught email to one of the business school alum: Matt Corker, a writer, yoga instructor, and people/leadership consultant. At Matt’s invitation, and sensing the too-good-to-be-true, serendipitous nature, I snagged a cancelled spot in The Sacred Fig’s yoga teacher training a few weeks ago. In the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying the pre-assigned reading and mentally gearing up for this adventure. (I admit that I am also struggling with a brain that I have habitually conditioned against focusing on reading books! … working on that… and open to advice!)

And for the 3+ months after The Sacred Fig?

Mostly to be determined… depending on my state of mind after a few weeks away from work, I will make the decisions as they come. I’m trusting my consciousness. I’ll likely stay in Portugal and Spain for late May and June, then I have a return flight from Sevilla, Spain to Berlin after a friend’s wedding. I think that I might walk the northern route of the Camino de Santiago. I may also explore Portugal more, including scuba diving, or find something else that I feel called to do with my time. These moments are about being present, seeing and accepting new perspectives, and awakening my sleeping self. I have about 9 weeks that I haven’t committed to doing anything in June/July/August, and this empty calendar is the pinnacle of the fear! WOOHOO! As I heard from an interview with Meera Lee Patel this weekend, it’s refreshing to realize that I’ve survived 100% of the scariest moments in my past so far.

Leading up to the “start” of this sabbatical I am thoughtfully developing a sense of direction and intent. Right now, here’s what I know:

  • I want to practice awareness of my calm mind and be conscious in chaotic environments. I’m drawn to chaos but I also fight it. I’m going to ground myself in the present.
  • I don’t think that there is an “answer” to find in this process. Rather than answers, I’m focused on understanding what questions are important for me to explore now and in the future. Many family, friends, and especially strangers have gifted me with thought-provoking questions. I recognize some prompts as ones that I’ve avoided answering. Now, I’m allowing myself to receive the questions with curiosity about where they lead me… hopefully to more questions!
  • I know – especially from my unstructured weekends – that it will be challenging to not have a prescribed routine, a to-do list, a schedule, etc… those false constructions that create superficial validation for me. I accept this challenge and want to be mindful of balancing a hunger for productivity with the reality that being – and doing so consciously – is the most meaningful way I can spend my time. Work (doing) is a distraction from life (being). I am pursuing a different awareness of my preferred balance. I will practice shifting from a commitment to being serious to a commitment to play.
  • I have many, many, many books that I’d like to read. (And I want to write one… topic TBD…). Stay tuned for an eventual publication.