My Privileged Diet

“Is this normal for you?” I asked my Italian-Danish friend at the counter of Social Foodies, a Danish shop that partners with African farmers to create quality food and sustain value in both communities. Why ask? Regardless of normality, ice cream before lunch is one decision I unapologetically support.

We tasted flavors like havtorn (sea-buckthorn/berry) and meandered through the coastal neighborhood to reach the beach, where small children enjoyed the seaweed strewn shoreline and their parents observed casually. As we dodged kids ferrying wet sand and toys and tiptoed over ripples of seaweed, I wondered for how many people was this just another day and how many families came to the beach because of the pseudo-holiday. The Danish government is required to call an election no later than four years after the previous, and this year, they chose to coincide with the national Constitution Day.

“So what’s the political state in Denmark these days?” I asked Nicola, back at home, between bites of fresh pasta and vegetables, facing each other with sunlight fully illuminating our skin and the peaceful ambiance of his rose garden below.

He explained that the immigration debate receded and climate is the critical topic of debate. A total of eleven parties nominated candidates and campaigned in this election, and the winners would be responsible for forming a coalition with their peers after the election. The liberal parties claimed that we are not doing enough to protect the environment and live sustainably. The parties that side with the conservative coalition took the position that the world is in tact and governmental policies have done enough to support and protect the planet. I wondered what affect this warm, sunshiny day would have on last-minute voters: yes, the planet is fine; no, this is abnormal. The next day, I learned that less than 5% of Denmark’s land is “wild,” the way it would be untouched by humankind. I wonder whether the myths of nostalgia or future distort voters’ perception.

I journeyed into the city by train, and spent the afternoon exploring the progressive cuisine and wares of Torvehallerne: ice cream made from bananas, oats, and dates; natural organic skincare products; potato-rosemary Skyr; vegan sandwiches; a real butcher, next to a knife sharpener and vendor; juices and health shots of many varieties; and a surprising amount of plastic packaging.

I stopped to write at Paludan Bogen, my favorite cafe. In the midst of reflective writing exercises, I recognized a burning desire to swim. I set that mini-goal for myself and stopped at Svanemølle Strand on the train journey homeward. I found the beachfront full of cheerful, attractive Danish families enjoying their half-day holiday. I wondered if the weather would decrease voter turn out. (The numbers showed 84.6% of registered voters participated, whereas in 2015, 85.9% cast their ballots.) The frigid water temperature quickly deterred any desire to do serious swimming, but I enjoyed a quick dip and an hour of reading in the sunlight.

Back at home, Nicola and Jonas arrived with a small batch of fresh produce to host friends for an election dinner and watch party. We cooked together and set the table in the garden. Promptly at 8:00, we needed to be in the living room to watch the first results from the exit polls. The news anchor announced the preliminary results with sophisticated graphics and live video broadcasts interspersed from each party’s election. In spite of not knowing enough Danish to understand the full broadcast, I was impressed about how well all three Danes and the two non-Danish residents explained the positions of each party and their opinions on whether their results were favorable. We watched the broadcast, with progressive updates as actual votes returned from the polls, for about two hours before people filtered out and decided to go home. The conservative, anti-immigration parties lost about half their support compared to the previous election, and the so-called “red bloc” saw gains. Fortunately for everyone, the openly racist, homophobic candidate didn’t earn the 2% of votes that are required to gain seats in parliament.

In the subsequent two days, I spent my afternoon at Respond, a conference hosted by the Danish engineering association, featuring talks and exhibitions about engineering a more sustainable future, including perspectives on food security, environmental stewardship, and management of plastic and toxic waste. The first speaker I heard asked how many audience members work for companies that have clear commitments to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. I didn’t raise my hand; I don’t even know what the SDGs include, and I felt a pang of guilt that these important global needs aren’t a part of my conscience or dialogue. Two days later, I saw the SDGs advertised in the Vejle city center and again in a poster in my other friends’ home office. Get it together, Stephen. What can you do to contribute? I’m making a point to learn about the SDGs and figure out where I can incorporate them in my lifestyle and being. I side with the leftist Danes who believe that we – the humans who live and work on this earth today – need to live and work far differently, so that the planet will be a healthier ecosystem for all species to live and work in the future.

My privilege is having the choice to spend time on a beach with clean water and warm sunshine. My privilege is eating and cooking with fruits and vegetables that are imported from throughout the world and paying prices as if they came from the local farm; bananas don’t grow in North America or Europe, and apples don’t grow in June. My privilege is eating homemade venison meatballs on Saturday evening, from a deer that my friend shot on Tuesday. My privilege is paying less – financially – to fly from Berlin to Copenhagen than to take a train. My privilege is affording what I want to eat, and not limiting myself to a budget of starch and beans. My privilege is having the freedom to not eat everything on my plate if I feel full, while knowing that 1/3 of all food production goes to the trash. My privilege is having the financial security to spend multiple months traveling and living, without earning a paycheck, knowing there are people that can’t afford to miss a single hour of work, even when they’re sick.

Inconvenience costs now; convenience costs later.

“Is this normal for me?” Yes, my normalcy is full of privilege, and I believe it won’t last forever. I refuse to be unapologetically privileged. I’m committed to understanding my privilege and making decisions that allow more of the world to eat ice cream at 10:30 am, or at all.

Life on Pause

I’m on the brink. Literally on the border. My train from Copenhagen to Stockholm stopped at a non-central station just across the border. 10:55. The train host alternates announcements in Swedish and English. The police shot a man in Malmö central train station, and now the bomb squad is searching the station and surrounding area. We don’t have any further information. So our train is waiting to pass through. Symbolism? I’m in this period where I’m pausing, watching the construction cranes nearby and the wind blow, while I get my bearings. Other people are working, building, moving; I’m contemplating, holding steady. I’ll grant myself “permission” to continue my working life when the time comes.

For now, I am where I am, on a non-moving train passing between foreign countries. It’s the tail end of five days in Denmark. The universe pauses my movement, reminding me to embrace the privilege of returning to a country I learned to love eight years ago. I’m grateful. Tusindtak, Danmark. A thousand thank yous.

You’re welcome to leave the train for fresh air on the platform. 11:07 am. After a brief hesitation, I leave my stuff in my seat and go outside. I film myself doing a few minutes of yoga on the train platform. What a special place to breathe, to move, and to wake my mind from the previous trains’ slumber.

I arrived on one-way flight early last Wednesday morning. It’s a quick 50-minute flight from Berlin. I’m becoming more conscious of the carbon impact of flying, and I’ve chosen to take as many other legs as possible by… train. I also wanted to slow down. I’m not in a hurry. I guess today that includes a full pause.

I didn’t have plans for Copenhagen. A generous Italian friend from my study abroad days agreed to host me in the beautiful suburban apartment that he now owns with his Danish boyfriend. I caught the train from the airport to their place, and then sat at the kitchen table with Nicola while he took a work call and ran wastewater runoff simulations. The thrilling life of a wastewater engineer, eh. Meanwhile, I discovered that the Danish national engineering association would be hosting an event focused on “how science and technology can be used to develop new solutions to global challenges,” so I put the Respond Festival on my to-do list for Thursday and Friday.

Nicola and I stepped out to walk to the nearby coast and — pause.

Sometimes, we have to take a few steps backward. I’m in the middle of writing about Denmark while leaving Denmark. 12:18. The train has been canceled. Please disembark and make other arrangements or contact the customer service. It’s an odd feeling: to be just out of reach of something familiar and into the unknown. A million options circulated in my head: go back to Copenhagen and fly, wait here until the trains resume, cancel the Stockholm portion altogether, find a bus to Stockholm…

I milled around the deserted city square with a hundred or so other passengers, all with canceled journeys and little information. Some spoke Swedish and wanted to get home. Some spoke English and wanted to go anywhere. Some I didn’t have any idea what they spoke, thought, or where they wanted to be. Our shared oblivion brought me peace of mind. We all wanted to be on our way to somewhere else, but what could we do? This wasn’t anyone’s fault, and none of us have control. I watched the departure schedule flash a train to Copenhagen every 20 minutes, each marked delayed or canceled for the next few hours. I went down the escalator, affirmed that the trains were still not boarding. I rode back up, affirmed that the departures were flashing more delays and cancellations. I went down again. The train host said we could go to Malmö Central and wait until they allow passengers in to talk to the customer service desk. It’s easy to feel confused when there’s no answer. Everyone was equally in limbo. I thanked her.

I wanted to stay in Denmark longer, and I booked the trip to Stockholm in order to volunteer at a conference on the future of food. I couldn’t control the timing of such an interesting opportunity, and saying yes to this open door felt right. The conference guide advised us to wear black pants, which I didn’t pack. Time to go shopping!? I wandered into the posh mall across the street from Malmö’s Hyllie train station and spotted everyone’s favorite Swedish brand, H&M. Nothing like trying on new clothes with a backpack full of clothes in tow. After scouring the racks, I purchased a pair that fit and felt properly European. 13:55. I needed to charge my phone. I wanted to eat my Danish kanelsnegl cinnamon bun — and I wanted more deeply to eat it when I wasn’t aimlessly confused. I also needed to figure out where I was going and how to get there. I stopped at the mall information kiosk, and the middle-age blonde Swedish woman was very helpful to advise me where I could charge my phone and that if I crossed the city square, there were buses to the Copenhagen airport, just 30 minutes away. Aha!

After a few minutes of charging while looking at flight and train options, I crossed the square to find the parking lot mixed with Denmark’s public DSB buses and charter buses displaying the DSB ticker. Ah…. relief. The charter bus driver gleefully welcomed me. I plopped my bags in a seat, noted the electrical outlet under the window, and exhaled every vertebrae into the seat. Wow, I spotted a sign. They even have free Wi-Fi on this bus. The woman in the row behind me confirmed that the journey was free and would take about 30 minutes. This all felt like a good sign. I gleefully ate my kanelsnegl.

As the bus departed, I continued to search flight and train options on a half-dozen browser tabs in my phone. 14:37. Balancing time – when could I surely reach the airport? – cost – would the train company refund me? reimburse other bookings? including flights? – and security – when could anyone safely travel through Malmö again by train? – I opted for a 7pm flight from Copenhagen. Ugh, I don’t want to fly, but I need to get there. The bus arrived at the Swedish border, and two police officers boarded to quickly inspect every passenger’s passport. The bus continued and crossed the bridge that I’d filmed in reverse just three hours before. After three failed attempts — I’m sure my bank is thoroughly confused by my travel activity and last minute expenses in unfamiliar locations — I booked the flight from my phone, and noted that I had four hours to cancel without penalty.

I smiled, perhaps inside and outside, as I walked back into the airport terminal where I’d arrived last Wednesday morning. I didn’t expect to be back here so soon. I spotted the Swedish train kiosk and browsed the touchscreen for additional trains. The 16:36 departure glitched. Canceled? Unknown? The 18:36 departure was bookable but would mean a midnight arrival. Meh. I wandered further into the terminal to find the Norwegian Air flights, meanwhile looking at train options on my phone. Oooh, an overnight train with a sleeper car option. And it’s cheaper than flying.

Standing in front of the Norwegian Air check-in counter, I fumbled through their two-factor authentication log-in system, and yes, I canceled my flight. I didn’t want to fly anyway! 15:32. I immediately booked the sleeper train and bought myself six hours of free time in Copenhagen… what a dream. I could go anywhere. With two clicks, I bought a ticket into the city center on my phone, grabbed a seat at the front of the driverless metro, and ventured toward my favorite cafe, Paludan Bogen.

And here I am. Delayed. Paused. Relaxed. At home. 17:29.

Nicola and I stepped out to walk to the nearby coast and — pause. We went for ice cream last Wednesday morning, and that’s what I’ll probably do again soon.

A Letter From My Future Self

In the opening days of yoga teacher training, our lead teachers instructed me to write a letter to myself. I would read it at the end of the training in three weeks. What did I hope to accomplish? Did I show up every day – why? What would I congratulate my future self for? An achievement? A feeling? A way of being? I thought, wrote quickly, folded the paper several times, and – hurried by their encouragement of me being last – tossed my wishes for myself in a bowl with the others.


We closed the last practice – as always – with savasana, corpse pose, the final resting posture of yoga. I lie on my back, arms at my sides, palms upward, legs resting wherever they fell. My neighbor sniffled, and I jealously imagined tears trickling from her eyes. My breath rose, held, fell, and slowed. I lay in complete relaxation, and my thoughts wandered until my mind settled in the dreamlike abyss.

Anton’s voice brought me to. I wiggled my fingers, toes, and lips. I rolled into a cross-legged seat and opened my eyes, surprised to see this letter resting at the top of my mat:

Dear Stephen,

You never could have imagined this three or four months ago, but wow, you are free and opened yourself to honesty and exploration of yourself, the human body, the emotions and intellect, and these strangers that became close friends.

Remember when Anton asked who thought they would soar without faltering? You found those places where weakness felt like the only form of strength, and you let it be, exist, and happen. On the night of the altar, you spoke about the potential for everything that is simultaneous with nothing, the balance of calm and chaos in your life. You’ve seen those counterparts compete and come together, balancing yourself in new ways. Physical, emotional, spiritual.

You played big. You impressed yourself, without wondering about what others think. You dreamt this day would come, and you, yes you, made it happen. Congratulations on making this happen.

And maybe you learned to say a few more things in five words,

❤ Stephen

I sat awestruck. My past mindset brought my potential to fruition. I conceived the reality that I desired for myself. I put it the work. I trusted the process. I’m grateful.

Why did I move to Berlin?

“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.

Copenhagen… ❤️

I found some pieces of my heart in Denmark, scattered in every nook and cranny of Denmark’s celebratory air, in the cross-hairs of the two white stripes that adorn a field of red. The Dannebrog wavers on flagpoles against blue skies, spotted with clouds. She hangs neatly from a wooden stick, resting gently on the edge of a basket filled with freshly pressed waffles. A frosted-white cake, ready to be cut, each slice marked by paper banners on wooden toothpicks; the sugary canvas is a LEGO-sized memorial to the pride of a nation.

Danes love their flag, and not in a nationalistic sense. Whereas American patriotism has become a visual marker for conservative elitism, and Germans reserve their flag for occasional stately affairs and national sports events, Denmark has elevated their simple red and white banner to a symbol of intimate celebration. The Danish flag welcomes friends and family at the airport for their homecoming; peppers gardens and tabletops during birthday celebrations; stands gently on castles and seaside overlooks; drapes the compassionate hearts of her people, gently bundling them together with a strong white ribbon.

You can brag now. Thanks, Mom.

It’s 6:22 am. Steam billows over the top of my blueberry-adorned Maine coffee mug on the ledge of my balcony, the Earl Grey tea inside half-consumed. Gradually cooling to being drinkable, the tea pries my eyes open. The sun continues rising, shedding a plain of warm yellow light onto my face, forcing my eyes to squint. Car tires simmer on the street below, coming and going like ocean waves. Street trams and ambulance sirens join the symphony. The sputter of a motorcycle’s exhaust, now gone.

Ten years ago, all of my five alarm clocks would still be waiting to sound, waiting for my hand to begrudgingly reach and disarm. Thud. The floor interrupts the fall and finally triggers my brain awake. I crave more sleep, but time is up. A paper, two exams, a newspaper assignment… all due today. I dress myself, stagger across the chilly tile floor, and tap Mom awake.

“Will you proofread my essay,” I say, somewhere between a request and a statement. I needed her vote of confidence.

Despite knowing that I stood above my peers in schoolwork, I cringe. I’ve read that if you don’t cringe when you look at your past, you’re not improving. Advice that seems mildly wise – can cringing be good? – feels fully validating to acknowledge my parenting. Mom bragged about me, and I told her to stop. I needed comments that made me feel better, not stories that impressed adults. Change one comma. The essay is great. My heart slows.

Twenty-seven feels weird. I’m youthful but adult-like. I’m free to make my own choices, yet I still share them in search of agreement. I have my place in the world, and the world has many more places to offer me. I became, and I am becoming.

I smile when I look in the mirror, and it’s because I’m proud of who I see. Two brown eyes stare back, pried open by warm tea and forced closed by warm sunlight, ready to face the day. It’s 6:49 am. My mind spills off the balcony, thinking of my bike below. I know each day is mine.

You raised me, and I’m still growing up. You can brag now. Thanks, Mom.