Thank You For Calling

I used to be elitist. I refused to download Facebook messenger, and I bookmarked the “secret” URL to check Facebook messages on their mobile webpage. I deleted Snapchat because it felt useless. And for a period of time, despite my being so visually-oriented, I disconnected from Instagram. I could be reached by text message, phone call, or email, and I would respond.

I remain convinced that we have too many ways to contact each other. Too many, because it can be disabling to the point of giving up to decide whether and how to contact someone. Have you felt that fear of thinking of a friend but not knowing when or how to reach them at the “right” moment? Despite the overwhelming selection of contact methods, I shed that attitude.

You can use standard mobile phone call and message features to call me or to text me on my American phone number or my German phone number. You can call or text me on WhatsApp with my American number. You can iMessage me at two phone numbers or via my email address. You can email me through work or personal. You can call or message me on Google Hangouts or Skype. You can contact me via FaceTime Audio or FaceTime Video. You can send me a message on Facebook Messenger. You can even call me with Facebook Messenger, though I think the audio quality is poor. You can send me a chat on Snapchat, and you can call me with audio or video on Snapchat. You can direct message me on Instagram. Or on Twitter. Or you can ring my doorbell.

Wondering how the whole phone thing works for me abroad? Is it going to cost you money to call me? Nope! At the moment, I have two working phones, and all of my messages are routed to one of them. I have an app called T-Mobile Digits installed on my primary iPhone, which uses a German SIM on the O2 network. I also have my American T-Mobile SIM at home in a secondary phone, and it has coverage through the T-Mobile Simple Global plan. While I could get by easily with just one, having the two SIM configuration ensures that calls, texts, Snapchats, emails, and other forms of communication reach me, usually on my primary phone. I’m most likely to answer a phone call to my American phone number when I’m on WiFi, but I can receive and place FaceTime calls at any time, on four different devices.

Contact me wherever, whenever. At this point, I don’t care. The world is (too) connected. If you want to reach me, I want to hear from you. Some friends and family know me to call at weird hours, when you would assume I’m sleeping. (Lately I have a very healthy relationship with sleep, but Berlin also has weird hours of nightlife and I am flexible.) Please don’t assume it’s a bad time. If I’m not available, I simply won’t answer. I’ll respond when I am available. If you are thinking of me or want to hear from me, I want to hear from you, too. And I will thank you for calling.

Still Here & Holidays

When I blogged in Denmark, I aimed to write a post every or every other week, and I succeeded. That’s the life of a student, I guess. You deal with assignments, and it’s easy to assign yourself one extra piece of prose, especially when the rest are optional engineering problem sets.

Fast forward six years, as a working man, the pace of life is a little different. I have plenty of writing and communication to do at work. With traveling and spending time with loved ones at Christmas, I don’t prioritize blogging, though it’s good for me. So, I figured I’d list a few discoveries through my life in Berlin at the holidays.

  1. Christmas pickles probably aren’t really German. Several years ago, my mom bought me and my siblings each a pickle-shaped ornament. Other than looking like a pickle, it’s a normal, beautiful ornament. Oh, and it was complete with a story about the tradition of German Christmas pickles. The parents hide it in the tree and the first kid to find it gets an extra gift. Years ago, I mentioned this to a German friend. He gave me a puzzled look, and a quick Google search led me to believe this is a fabricated tradition. I can confirm that it is perpetuated in Germany. You will find Christmas pickle ornaments in the German Christmas markets – Weinachtsmarkt or Cristkindlmarkt – but most Germans do not know about this German “tradition.”
  2. New Years Eve is not for the faint-of-fireworks. Berliners have permission to ignite fireworks on New Years Eve and New Years Day. Stores – including grocery stores – sell the pyrotechnics a few days beforehand, then the people light them off as much as they please. New Years Eve was on a Sunday. I heard the first firework on Friday evening. They were steadily lit starting midday Sunday. At midnight on my balcony, the sky was illuminated in every direction. I went for a run on Monday afternoon, still saw or heard several going off and the sidewalks were littered with debris. One site suggests that the tradition of fireworks on New Years Eve goes back to the medieval ages, when they wanted to ward off evil spirits. Assuming this is true, with the number of fireworks in Berlin, it will be a long time before Trump’s spirit reaches Germany. 😉 (His behavior is understood to be both childish and inhumane by the general populous that I’ve witnessed.)
  3. Christmas trees are for the curbs. In the days following Christmas, especially after Epiphany / Three Kings’ Day “Dreikönigstag,” everyone tosses their pine trees to the streets. Eventually, the trees disappear. I guess they get picked up by the city. (I’m not sure why, but I also noticed that my own Christmas tree lasted longer without needles dropping, even once it was on the street without water.)

Now that you’ve enjoyed my memories from last month, please enjoy some semi-related photos of my life in the Christmas season:

Dentist: Sorry, Me: ‘Saguh

It’s not a riddle.

I don’t know the answer.

I do know that it doesn’t matter whether they talk when you can’t understand the dentist. Give it a shot; go to a dentist who’s primary language is different from yours, or maybe put earplugs in next time you have a cleaning. It’s kind of… cathartic. Like, a tooth massage. Is that a thing?

As I’m sure you’ll understand by the end of this post, I don’t have any images to demonstrate this story, so enjoy this x-ray of my mouth from several years ago:

 The hygienist told me that I did a good job after this X-ray, so please endorse me for that skill on LinkedIn. The hygienist told me that I did a good job after this X-ray, so please endorse me for that skill on LinkedIn.

As you can see, I wear a small wire inside my bottom jaw. The bottom retainer or “lingual bar” is an appliance that’s commonly installed after wearing braces, to maintain alignment in the front teeth. It’s permanently installed with an adhesive composite binding the ends of the wire to the incisors. (Can you tell that I sometimes write about dentistry for work?) After ten years, mine fell off on Saturday, and I spent the weekend rubbing the tip of my tongue against two studs of glue, just like that feeling when you lose a tooth and you stick your tongue through the new window in your smile.

In an effort to not undo years of expensive orthodontics, I decided to get it fixed quickly. I called the insurance, and the nice woman on the phone told me I needed to be referred by a doctor for it to be covered by insurance.

“Okay, can you schedule me a doctor’s appointment?”

“Just go on our website.”

I didn’t find a doctor appointment on the website. I didn’t try, because it didn’t make sense to me. Instead, I found a dentist office that’s within the 0.71 km commute between my home and my apartment. So on Wednesday morning, on my way to work, I stopped to ask about the possibility of re-attaching my wire.

After the receptionist made a few trips to the dentist in the back room, the short answer was: yes, we can do it now, but it’s not covered, unless you have private insurance. I don’t – I have public insurance, supposedly one of the best, by a company called TK – but I wanted this done. (By the way, I got a letter in the mail last week from TK, saying they were lowering the insurance rates… you don’t read that every day!) The dentist also gave me the option to have an aligner made, which I could wear at night, instead of re-installing the lingual bar.

Next thing I knew, I was in the chair, with swabs holding my tongue and cheeks while the dentist polished my teeth, applied a small amount of etching acid, added the bonding composite, and voila – reattached my bar. All the while, the hygienist responded to her guiding instructions and handed her tools. I had no clue what they were talking about, and I didn’t care. At one point, a tool fell into my lap and she said “sorry.” With four hands and two tools in my mouth, I tried to respond, and remembered that this was a monologue, not a dialogue.

Sometimes, we should just listen, and it can be therapeutic.

You can call me crazy for enjoying the harsh sounds of the German language while laid back in a dentist chair in a sterile white room.

She told me to call her when I need a cleaning. I probably will.

I told her to call me when she needs a 3D printer, and that’s why I was late to work on Wednesday. I was selling printers with my mouth wide open.

Please Correct Me

“Hi, I’m Stephen, I’m from the United States, and I’m here to learn Danish.”

I expected this to sound normal in a country like Denmark, where they speak, well… Danish. Contrary to my presumption, my introduction followed a dozen peers who all stated their home country and proclaimed that they wanted to improve their English. As the sole native speaker in my group of international friends, I become the de facto corrector. (PSA: I’m always willing to proofread! I enjoy it.) Sometimes in classwork, sometimes in social conversations, people wanted to know where they could sound more natural in their writing and speech. They also wanted to know the English word for… everything, and there are a lot of English words that have slightly different meanings in different contexts. What makes people “tall” but objects “high”? And shouldn’t “son” and “sun” be pronounced differently? What about “none” and “nun”? “Run” and “ron”? I’m sorry! That’s hard to explain and even harder to understand.

Danish threw me off equally, because “mad” means food but sounds like “mel.” I can hear but not remember or pronounce the difference between “øl” *beer*, “ud” *outside*, and “uld” *wool*, and that matters when you’re at a bar. Listen on Google to hear for yourself. And imagine the joy on my friend’s father’s face when I thought we were saying skål jul (Cheers, Christmas?) and he was saying god jul (Merry Christmas).

“Hej, jeg hedder Stephen. Jeg komme fra USA, og jeg talle lidt dansk.”

I did learn Danish from an evening course and from living with a group of Danes, who became my friends and my coaches. In fact, I abandoned the course and kept the books, because I learned faster at home. Mette carefully mouthed each sound when teaching me new Danish words and when helping me read from children’s books. She was invested in my learning, and I realize now how valuable that was for me to grasp the basics of a rarely-spoken language in just four months.

From those early international friendships six years ago, I maintained a rule that I simply need to understand the meaning. That is the purpose of communication. I will correct you, but it’s not my first priority. If I hear a mistake that would sound awkward or might be laughed at in another context, I offer a simple correction. I will point out funny things about the English language, which give you an advantage in building your vocabulary and your lingual muscles. I pay extra attention to one of my co-workers, who’s a phenomenal writer but not a native English speaker, because I know his work depends on his language abilities.

It’s back to square one, “einz” as we say in Deutschland. “Hallo, ich heisse Stephen. Ich komme aus USA, und ich lerne Deutsch.”

That’s the new me. I’m learning German, and I’m doing okay. It’s been seven weeks, and I can count past ten… to one thousand, actually! I took five weeks of the A1 level in the course offered at my office, and now we’re on a break. I’m using Duolingo almost daily and picking up new vocabulary. I know, though, that I’m missing the speaking practice. And yet, again, I find myself with friends and co-workers who are willing to be coaches and correctors. During an English conversation, they point out the equivalent German word or phrase. In the middle of a workout led in German, they make sure I understood that ‘halbzeit’ means ‘halfway’. They send me corrections when I botch a German caption on an Instagram post. They tell me “no one spells tschüß with the ß anymore, just write tschüss.” When I recount my pride in asking for help in a pharmacy, they remind me to use “haben Sie” – the formal – instead of “hast du” – the informal you.

This is merely to say thank you, tusind tak, and now dankeschön for letting me correct you and for correcting me. I’m learning. Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch.

Bitte korrigieren Sie mich.

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.