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.
I pieced together an early breakfast with the few remaining groceries I bought on my arrival to Eilat two nights beforehand. I pulled the drawstring on my backpack shut. I messaged my parents. They knew my plan to travel to Petra and on to Amman, and they knew there was no actual plan. My nerves hesitated. What other tasks can I justify doing to prolong the inevitable?
Just before 7:30 am, I tapped “Request Ride” on Israel’s ubiquitous GetTaxi mobile app. These would be my last moments with access to internet and the final possibility to rely on Google for the remainder of the day. Had I fully researched and prepared to cross the border and find a ride to Petra? Would I need special paperwork? Would there or would there not be a fee for a Jordanian visa? Utter fear of the unknown, and I uttered nothing other than “toda” – thank you – as my driver dropped me at the border, a dust-coated, sterile compilation of fences and small huts separating Eilat, Israel from Aqaba, Jordan.
One year ago this week, I left the barely comfortable land of Hebrew and hummus, walked across the border with only a backpack, and entered the equally hot and arid deserts of Jordan. The geopolitical boundary separated dark from light in my thoughts and emotions. I desired the experience of Petra without feeling like an outsider in my own sneakers. I sought the taste of Jordan without knowing a lick of Arabic: illiterate, unequipped, alone, cash-less, thirsty, both cold and hot. After six nights exploring Haifa in Israel’s north and the sun-kissed urbanity of Tel Aviv, my yet-to-begin two days and one night in Jordan already felt like an eternity.
The no-actual-plan plan for Jordan consisted of the following:
Winging it, based on advice from a friend of a friend in tourism. Cross the border. Hire a taxi to Petra. Find someplace to store my bag then there will be many private guides waiting for guests. After Petra, hire a taxi to Amman.
Source 1: “If you arrive in Jordan’s southern city of Aqaba by air on an international flight, by sea from Nuweiba in Egypt or by land from Eilat, you are entitled to a free visa as part of the free-trade agreement with the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Area (ASEZA).”
Source 2: “‘Visa on arrival’ is back at the Wadi Araba/Arava Crossing but it is not free of charge any more, it costs JD 60.”
As shown above, internet searches suggest – somewhat contradictorily – that visa fee policies can vary based on the day and current economic arrangements. I remain uncertain how I would have paid, since there was no ATM and I had not yet procured Jordanian dinar. Lucky for me, there was no fee. Following behind a young man and woman – couple? friends? could they help me if I needed assistance? don’t go too far! – I passed through several windows with paperwork and inked stamps marking my progress into Jordan. The border crossing surprised me with its ease; just like that, I reached the taxi and bus area.
I guess this is where I should ask for a ride to Petra? The young French couple and I negotiated in clear English with one of a few waiting drivers and we agreed to split the fare: 20 JD (28 USD) each for two hours of driving to Petra. We tossed our backpacks into the trunk of his 90s-model green sedan, and we hit the road into Aqaba and onward into the Rum Desert. (No, this is not rum dessert. Though that sounds more inviting than this scary adventure, the desert landscape offered an equally sweet, sensory-awakening experience.) With a weak air conditioning system, we alternated between the forced warm air through the vents and rolling down the windows. I felt surprisingly joyful and calm in the foreign, dry, desert landscape.
Through the windshield
The Wadi Rum Desert
Overlooking a desert valley on a roadstop to Petra
Along the road, we stopped at a roadside building for an unannounced bathroom break. Several vendors had wares and souvenirs spread throughout the open floor plan. I knew I would need protection from the heat and hesitated to try on a headscarf. Though there’s natural trepidation in the unknown, there’s also often delight in exploring local customs. Thanks to the salesman who showed me how to tie my scarf, I stayed cool in Petra – you know… I’m cool. I fit in.
After about ninety minutes of driving, our driver mentioned his brother also drove a taxi. We stopped at another roadside building with a scenic overlook of the desert valley, and suddenly our driver’s brother arrived with a slightly newer car. The brother would finish the drive to Petra – hmm… remember, Stephen, trust – so we switched our luggage into his trunk and hit the road for the final stretch.
Upon arriving in Wadi Musa, the town that serves as the entry into the archaeological site, we agreed that the brother would store our luggage for the day and that we should meet him in the parking lot at 4 pm to continue our travels. I would continue on to Amman after we dropped the French couple at their Bedouin camp nearby.
Trust in fellow humans is a paramount quality for travel. People are human everywhere, and they’ll take care of you.
Trusting that my luggage would be safe until 4 pm offered a fairly negotiated deal considering I had yet to pay the first driver or his brother for their driving. I never guessed that lack of cash would cause the most anxiety in this lonesome adventure. Imagine my concern when I’d taken two taxis and arrived in Wadi Musa still to find no working ATM. I paid for the Petra entrance fee and an additional private tour guide by credit card, then met a mid-30s bearded gentleman who was assigned as my guide to walk me through the canyons.
Walk and talk, we did! Mahmoud originates from a local Bedouin tribe, whose people lived in the caves (formerly tombs and temples) of Petra until 1985, when the UNESCO World Heritage site designation forced their move/removal. In fact, my guide was born in one of the caves in 1983 – see, mid-30s was a good guess! – and he started supporting tourism when he was five years old. While some kids sell wares and animal rides – I saw many of them, including one young girl who casually asked me to marry her as I strolled past! – Mahmoud went on to university in Amman and studied sustainable tourism. Today he develops private guided treks on Jordan’s desert trails. Petra has dealt with an influx of tourism since the 2007 designation (determined by a corporation, cough) as one of the “New 7 Wonders.” It’s no doubt why the rocks enamor us, but not all the locals wanted to win the honorable title. Seeing this site as their home and hearing the words of a native resident, I can imagine why.
Mahmoud explains the known history of the Treasury
A stone carved aquaduct along the canyons of Petra
My first glimpse of Petra’s famed Treasury
As we meandered through the sunlit canyons, Mahmoud explained the current philosophy of the ancient site’s construction and the known purposes of various features: the caves, facades, aqueducts, temples, amphitheaters, etc. For example,
more layers of carving above an entryway indicate a more prominent resident, because their edifice brings them closer to the heavenly gods.
Petra is an active archaeological site, with most funding and exploration coming from foreign universities and governments, and the researchers believe that the site is barely 80% excavated. This means that many structures remain buried several stories deep by sand that has blown through the area over many years.
Mahmoud shows the way
Small shops – and a nicely carved out restroom – dot the journey through Petra
A sense of scale
Mahmoud greeted various other guides and their animals as we walked and talked, transversing geology, history, culture, and the current state of affairs. Without any Jordanian cash, I offered to tip Mahmoud a small amount in American dollars, and he agreed to give me change in the local dinar.
After settling the tip and exchange, I hesitated to rent a horse named Whiskey from his cousin, Samson. Business stays in the family in Jordan, I guess. Samson aggressively pursued me, suggesting that I’d save two hours of walking by riding Whiskey to the highest canyon viewpoint instead, and I agreed to pay 20 JD to rent the horse. After negotiating the price with Samson, he walked alongside while I rode Whiskey to the back of the canyon, stopped for photographs and a snack, and returned to the main site. Whiskey flawlessly – er, I mean, he didn’t fall! – navigated narrow passageways and rock surfaces that were smooth yet steeply angled. I rode nervously, more like a mechanical bull.
Me and Whiskey
The “bodega” near the “GRAND CANYON / BEST VIEW” (not really, that’s just what the sign says)
Part of the path that Whiskey carried me along
Believe it or not, while I lacked cash, many of the outposts that sold small knickknacks, souvenirs, and snacks accepted credit cards through machines connected to satellites, and the bodega offering sandwiches and juices had WiFi! I paid 6 JD cash for a pomegranate-orange juice and a pita wrap with a small spread of hummus.
Upon return, Samson hustled me for a bigger tip! I had to be stern, knowing that I’d already negotiated a lower price than the original offer – he agreed to the price! – and that I didn’t have much cash. I needed to get water and a snack and to get back to meet my driver. He seemed upset that I didn’t offer a big tip for riding Whiskey. Did they take advantage of me? Did we make a fair deal? Did I take advantage of them? The concept of “fair” is perhaps an age-old question in establishing peace in the “Middle East”.
A boy and his donkey exit a cave
Two camels await guest riders in Petra
The next interaction more deeply strained my concerns and nerves. After speed walking and photographing (see above) my way from the colonnade through the main canyon areas – gah, golden hour sunlight, why must I abandon you just to meet a taxi driver!? – I opted to take a horse for the remaining mile to the entrance. Mahmoud had shown me that my entrance ticket included a one-way horse ride for the first or last portion of the main Petra pathway. A gentleman approached me offering a ride, and in a hurry, I figured why not. Along the way, he picked up the reigns of a second horse and verbally acknowledged that I had two horses. You can imagine my surprise when, after the five minute ride, I tipped him 2 JD (almost 3 USD!) and he started harassing me for more cash! He suggested I pay extra for the second horse, which I never touched. A ride that was included in my ticket with a tip that I felt was reasonable… you may have nice horses, but I’m not an American cash cow. Petra is beautiful, but you’re not the rock carvings and you have no cash machines.
Who determines what is a fair, middle compromise amongst a politically and culturally diverse and de-centralized set of communities, languages, and cultural norms? What is culture? Simply my thoughts: culture is the spoken and understood identity of a place or group of people. It’s the combined sensory experiences – unconscious and conscious behaviors, sounds, flavors, scents, rituals and habits – the perception when you close your eyes and hear a name or place. I have to imagine that my negotiation and tips could be truly wrong in their eyes and that their willingness to shame me would also be acceptable. This is their world, not mine. This is Easter, and I’m dressed as a Halloween ghost. The misfit has a right to be scared, even when they wear the scary costume as a guest to a not-scary party.
I could go on, and maybe I will write more in another post. The abbreviated summary:
Instead of the brother driving me to Amman, I rode for four hours with their cousin and then paid him for all three taxi legs. Do business and money both stay in the family? The “taxi” cars became progressively nicer, while the English fluency of my drivers grew worse. (Dear cousin, “your” and “my” are not to be confused, especially when calling my friend Lauren to arrange where to meet in Amman. No, driver man, it’s my friend, not your friend. I was tired. We managed.) I was cold and sleepy, but afraid to snooze in the car with a stranger, so my headscarf became a blanket.
I saw men walking arm-in-arm on the streets of Amman, and this was certainly not the culture I expected in Jordan, a country dominated by Islam which forbids homosexuality. Most likely, they weren’t gay. Women fraternize with women, men fraternize with men, and this is an everyday way to accompany your friends out in public.
Amman was as hot as Israel, but I couldn’t distinguish signage for a toilet from a cafe, as everything was Arabic-only.
Taxi drivers especially tried to charge higher prices with Lauren, despite her living in Amman, knowing the fair rates, and speaking some Arabic.
A day in Petra and a day in Amman gave me many of these experiences, ones strange and eye-opening to me and perhaps everyday life for Jordanians. Plentiful observations and sights in Jordan, yet my arrival in Amman sticks out.
My emotional tank stood empty from the nerves of travel and the excitement of seeing Petra. My stomach sat pruned, with little cash and barely enough time to see Petra. Pulling up to a shopping mall to see Lauren relieved both of us. I dropped my bag in her shared apartment at the language school, and we promptly left to find dinner. She apologized that she only knew a few places where she felt safe and comfortable to walk in the neighborhood. It was cheap, too. 3 JD for both of us, cheap. I told her not to apologize:unun
“it’s hard to step outside your comfort zone when your comfort zone is not all that comfortable.”
The words thoughtlessly rolled out of my tired brain, maybe from the deepest canyon of my empty stomach, and the words resounded with the chimes of every call to prayer we heard the following day in Amman. I can hardly imagine Lauren’s experiences over six months. To be a single, white woman in a culture that actively discredits femininity is to be the face painted witch at that Easter brunch. My ghost’s white sheet innocently veils my ignorance, while her masked skin suggests she wants to be accepted like any painted egg, yet we’re all scared of what we don’t know.
The beauty overwhelmed me, and my unfounded fears kept me grounded. If Israel felt foreign, Jordan felt extraterrestrial. We call this tapestry the Middle East, but the only middle I can find is that people are people. There are common genes where there is not common ground. These aren’t bad people or bad hosts. They’re different people. They welcomed and chauffeured me. Different is neither good nor bad; it’s different.
To see more of my two days in Jordan and perhaps a more celebratory perspective of Jordan, read Beit Sitti: My Grandma’s Kitchen or watch the two videos, from my Instagram daily stories, below (coming soon!)
Some days we invest, and sometimes we cash out, reaping the benefits of our expenses. I invested in Thailand, in both financial and emotional meanings, and the rewards immediately flooded my lungs and my soul with freshness.
I arrived on Koh Tao via ferry on Monday morning, after a weekend traveling from Berlin and exploring the heart of Koh Samui (avoiding the heavily tourist-trafficked beaches). I strolled directly down the street to Ocean Sound Dive + Yoga after checking into my hotel. Yoga and dive were two of my three vacation objectives, and I immediately wanted to dedicate my energy to my intent.
In the course of five days, I spent about nine hours practicing yoga and more than thirteen hours in my SCUBA course, including almost four hours underwater. Both rituals emphasize specific breathing. SCUBA divers should breathe normally, but the sensation feels unnatural at first, with the body’s tendency to hold its breath underwater. Yoga practitioners emphasize an ujjayi breath, where we slightly constrict the throat while inhaling and exhaling. With proper, conscious attention, the ujjayi breath creates a deeper breath and a sound that coincidentally resembles ocean waves or the noise pattern of breathing through tanked air (or Darth Vader’s breath!). In both practices, it’s inhale, exhale, repeat. And in these special surroundings, the breath brings simultaneous relaxation and alertness. The investment of each inhale is rewarded immediately and sustained through the exhale.
In my observation of Thailand’s islands, stepping inside a shop, restaurant, or most businesses is more metaphor than reality. A dozen pair of Havaiana flip flops rest on the doorstep, gently removed as patrons enter, and otherwise there’s little distinction between indoors and outside. The ocean air is everywhere. Researchers have found that ocean air contains healthy negative ions associated with positive emotional feelings. These ions augment the body’s oxygen absorption and balance serotonin levels, and may be the explanation for the serenity and joy that some people find visiting the ocean, waterfalls, taking a shower, or rolling down a car window. Inhale, exhale, repeat. Invest, reap rewards, repeat.
In the right environment, breathing can stimulate an enlightened emotional state. For me this past week, I boosted my spirits underwater and on the mat at Ocean Sound Dive + Yoga.
When I moved from Boston to Berlin in October, I set an intention to stay in Berlin for awhile, not to escape for weekends in other cities. I’ve moved enough times that I know the necessity of being grounded in a new home, and with the move being permanent – or at least indefinite – planting my roots matters. In past homes, I liked to escape at least one weekend a month, so I grew antsy sitting still, but the time passed quickly. The commitment graduated into Christmas, when I did return to the US to be with my family, and then I spent New Years in Berlin. Come February, my mental roots feel firmly placed here.
Of course, stability means it’s time for a change of pace. My work arranged a group trip to Spain to experience their carnival in Cádiz and Málaga. About four-dozen co-workers flew to Málaga, then traveled by bus across the rolling landscapes of Andalucia’s southern coast. Our bus poked in and out of view of the coast as we gazed at the countryside, speckled with rocks and white-washed resort towns.
Those of us who arrived in Málaga on Friday night convened around 1 a.m. with the early arrivals in an international karaoke club in the city center. I didn’t see any karaoke personally, but by default, our presence made it an international club.
We danced, and I met the man I’d like to be when I’m eighty-four years old. His hair wiry, Einstein hair and his thick-rimmed glasses frames suggest nothing of his free flowing and rhythmic spirit. Thanks, hombre .
After a very late bed time, we stumbled into breakfast at our hotel. The buffet catered most varieties of food, including the Spanish’s infamous tomato puree and olive oil offered for toast. Simple and delectable. Me gusta lo.
On to Cádiz for the real adventure. Our bus journeyed westward. Some slept. Some read. We all stared out the windows, mesmerized by the sunlight, which doesn’t exist in Berlin’s winter months. When the driver stopped at a roadside shop for a break, we spilled out both doors, resting like crumbs in a crack, not out of fatigue, but merely in gratitude for the opportunity to bask in warm sunlight. As we rolled toward our afternoon lunch and winery tour, Paola and I killed John with our discussion of various pastries and baked goods. I’m sorry the banana wasn’t enough, John, but when I have a chance to talk about new types of cake, I’m committed.
Eventually, we reached our destination: a winery tour at La Gitana in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, north of Cádiz. “Winery” may be a bit too generic, as this region specializes in sherries, and this winery vints primarily manzanilla. Perhaps due to some hunger and difficulty interpreting the presenter’s Spanish accent, distinguishing the beverages names and meanings created significant discussion. Mostly, I could conclude four facts from our tour:
El vento, the wind, creates the right conditions for a unique sherry in this region.
I like amontillado (from the cask!) Honey wine is also good, though I don’t think that’s what it’s called.
The vanenciador uses a vanencia to scoop and pour wine from the barrel into glasses. It’s a nifty device that looks like it requires training but supposedly doesn’t.
I like jamón. The other plates – tuna sandwiches and tomato soup, bocadillos de atún y sopa de tomate – filled my stomach, but the Spanish ham is the real money maker slash mouth-waterer. Yum!
From the winery, we walked through town to the coast. With a few glasses of wine in my veins, I found the adrenaline to strip to my underwear and sprint into the ocean. Everyone else looked and laughed, until eventually Michael joined the swim team. We basked on the beach and sipped cold and warm drinks with the locals on the patio of a beachfront café. The afternoon faded into a dusk that felt like it would never end. We aren’t so familiar with sunsets after 5 p.m.
After a stop for some essentials – beer, water, toilet paper – we continued on to our accommodations at “the camping” (as my Spanish colleague called it in English). We were the sole occupants of a small village of bungalows. Each slept 5 people, with running hot water and a small kitchen – the bare essentials for a house, efficiently designed without an inch of wasted space.
We convened next to their kitchen in a large banquet tent, where wine and beer flowed as the tapas incrementally filled our plates and stomaches. Dinner graduated into conversation and dancing in our bungalow neighborhood, and a large group followed the crystal clear sky’s stars and constellations to the beach, where we listened to the waves crash, and eight of us were brave enough to attempt a post-midnight swim. Nature refreshed my spirit and sobered my soul that night.
Each bungalow has its own porch with patio furniture, and the objects told the story of our night when we woke up. My bungalow became the last survivor, with the most chairs and empty bottles. We’ll never know whether the yukelele music softened before the bird’s started chirping.
In spite of the varying amounts of sleep, most of us made it to the banquet tent for desayuno, a classic breakfast of sandwiches, with the option for jamón Serrano, mantequilla (butter), and/or queso (cheese). The Spanish speakers amongst us spoke for the others, letting countless cups of cáfe con leche (coffee with milk) flood the table.
As the tent filled, our plot thickened. We had creatures, like a bird, a dinosaur, a lobster, and a rat, mixed with future-disco-people, a devil, an Indian-Arabian knight, hippies, ballerinas, flamenco dancers… every variety of costume under the sun. My first impression of carnival is that it’s Halloween, where any type of dress can become a costume. The circus brigade boarded our bus into Cádiz. In the thirty-minute ride along the peninsula, I added more characters into our mix, as I became a makeup artist and painted some of my colleague’s faces.
Our first stop in Cádiz was the world’s slowest lunch – no offense, I know it’s Spanish style! – in a beachside restaurant. The tapas came in most varieties, except the Spanish struggle to understand a vegetarian diet. (They served crumbled jamón on the vegetarians’ tomato soup yesterday.) Luckily, I have a flexible diet, which included a plateful of cake, thanks to the fact that everyone else left the table by the time dessert arrived.
After some time digesting in the sun and shooting group photos on the beach, we meandered along the beach, toward the palatial facade of the old city center at the end of the peninsula. Confused by the crowd flowing in the opposite direction, we were reassured when asking for advice. People were going to see the start of the parade, which would start in an hour and last three hours. We continued on our path, squeezed into and through the village streets, and were spat into the center where beer flowed and floats of identically-costumed Spaniards sang about politics. I guess that’s the specialty that Cádiz offers for its carnival?
After a few hours in the heavy crowds, we returned to walk along the coast and enjoyed dusk and sunset at a beachside bar and restaurant. Tempted by the urgency of the celebration, most of us filtered back into the city streets to watch the parade finish, then followed (er, I danced…) the crowd of people to the “party,” which meant standing in the streets and alleys to drink and eat. Though many of us had never been to carnival, we were surprised to not see much music or a “pulsing” fiesta atmosphere. Still, I see the spirit of the people in their celebration, and I am grateful to have played a part. We returned to the camping at 11 p.m. and enjoyed another night of music and cheers on our bungalow porches.
Monday morning brought the same sequence of sandwiches and broken Spanish, without the costumes and with more sleep deprivation. It’s like “yum!” but without the exclamation point, just “yum.” After breakfast, we boarded a much quieter bus for the return to Málaga, where we had a fantastic sit-down lunch. Some of the fish were grilled on the fire on the beach directly in front of the restaurant. The other fish… tasted just as good 🙂 as did the second plate of flan that I graciously ate for someone else.
With evening flights lined up, tired bodies, and an impending return to Berlin, we again found ourselves lounging in the sand. I walked along the beach, with my barefoot feet rubbing chilly water, feeling both spiritually restored and physically exhausted. I guess that’s what you get when you leave Berlin’s winter for a weekend getaway on the coast of Spain.
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.
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
“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.
A good piece of chocolate is smooth in texture, with a complex profile that tickles its way across the tongue as the crystal structure melts and the warmth untempers the cacao butter. The nuttiness folds into the floral aromas, and the richness massages the soul.
A good “bye” is smooth, too, and it embodies complexity. Uprooting myself has been a soul massage of its own kind, because multiple emotions awaken. “It’s bittersweet,” Mom said. “It’s like chocolate.” When I leave home, whether physically moving or stepping outside of my comfort zone/home, there’s a simultaneous unwrapping of sadness, excitement, and appreciation.
Everyone in the States asked, “how long are you going for?” They said it’s not goodbye. “It’s ‘see you later,’ because you’re coming back.” Yes, I’ll be back to visit. But beyond visiting, I’m not sure when. It’s not a matter of being opposed to Boston. (I love Boston.) It’s the principle of my non-singular sense of home. For now, as of Sunday, I live in Berlin, and that’s the only plan for now. Where would I come back to? Am I a boomerang or a frisbee? What are you?
To clarify my tone, I’m okay with you asking. I needed to clarify my answer. If I were a billboard, I’d read “it never hurts to ask.” Or if you prefer my therapist’s version: you have a right to ask; they have a right to say ‘no.’ So please understand, you should ask. If you ask. I won’t say, “no, I’m not going back,” but I don’t have a plan or end-game.
I do have a reason. This original ask was a long time in the making. I studied and lived in Denmark six years ago, and upon my stateside return and consequential reverse culture shock, I knew I’d be back in Europe someday. Years ago, I gently scribbled “live abroad again” onto my list of long-term goals. That list is now complete, and it’s time to ask more questions, to challenge myself in new ways, and to listen for the answers that reveal themselves when I see a new world.
So the question it all started with: well, it wasn’t quite a question. (I’m subconsciously averse to asking for things that have the potential to receive a “no” response.) My ask was a offer, instead. After a year of contemplation, in May, I told my boss that I was open to relocating to our Berlin office, if the opportunity felt right or necessary for the company. A month later, the timing was right. Sebastian told me that he thought it made sense for me to move, and my insides suddenly felt the potential of my new reality. I was visiting Berlin at the time. “Oh my god. My next trip may be a one-way ticket.” (Spoiler: it was. I arrived Sunday.)
With the next chapter in sight, I quickly contemplated the adventures I’d yet to experience in Boston, and my pen birthed my “Boston bucket list” onto paper. My teal notebook listed favorite tastes (what I call “flavorites”) to rediscover, mixed with new challenges to reach the summits and the depths of my home.
While I didn’t complete the admittedly ambitious Pemi Loop in the White Mountains, in a portion of the route, I was privileged to experience one of the most visually rich and adrenaline-laden nights of my life. “Do you want to go for a hike, instead of driving home this afternoon?” With a close friend and his bro-tographer (get it? brother who’s a photographer), I stargazed on the Bond Cliffs, and we descended at 2 a.m. to drive and reach work in Boston by 9. If you ask me whether it was worth it, I’ll give two words – “Summit: achieved” – we’ll let this picture speak its thousand:
In the midst of the impending move, I took an August vacation and rediscovered the joy of SCUBA diving while in the Gulf of Eilat, off Israel’s Red Sea coast. Suddenly, my longtime “would be nice” desire to dive in Boston became a priority for my last few months.
I’ve realized in the urgency of moving that there are many things I want to do, and that the doing requires only a little more energy than the wanting.
Do you have a place or an experience at your fingertips that you’ve long contemplated trying? A person you want to get to know? What are you waiting for? It can’t hurt to ask. It never hurts to try.
Come October, with the move closing in, I called a few local dive shops. “Any chance you have openings for diving this weekend?” Neither Neil nor I had recent cold water diving experience, nor had we ever dove in Boston. Like in all life experiences, we started where we could. Within a week of my proposition to Neil, on the afternoon after my Flour “internship,” we explored the brisk, foggy waters off Grave’s Light in Boston Harbor, spotting a sea lion, lobsters, crabs, fish, and corrals of many colors. Depth: dived. (Yes, that’s the past tense verb of SCUBA diving.)
The other pursuits started as questions, too:
From my co-worker, Caitlin: “Can we find time to ride to Walden Pond together before you move?” We regularly discussed my pre-work summer morning rides. Nothing like a crisp fall Friday morning to kick that kickstand. Ride: completed.
To Sebastian: “Do you still want to bike to Maine? October 7th?” And just like that, after a few training rides to test our endurance, we were dining on lobster rolls in Kittery, Maine, with our wheels locked outside to roll us home. Century: cycled.
To the woman who I met at a farm stand two years ago: “Even though you told me to call in August, do you have any openings for cranberry bog tours this Sunday?” “We have one opening, because someone canceled.” Appointment: scheduled.
And to many a friend: “Do you want to wake up at 7:30 on Sunday to drive to Acushnet, Massachusetts (where’s that?) to go on a cranberry bog tour?” Bog: toured.
All because a question.
All this – sorting and packing my belongings into suitcases and boxes, saying goodbye to every friend, exhausting my pursuit of adventure across Boston, cleaning out my desk and briefly pausing work, documenting my existence and asking for permission to exist someplace else with a Visa, beginning the search for a new physical home, stretching the geographic canvas on which my friendships unfurl – because a question.
Thanks to the urgency of moving, I’ve solidified my sense of home in Boston, by making more memories and more friendships. Multiple send-offs across friendships spanning many years have given me cause to experience appreciation unlike anything I’ve experienced before, challenging my emotions further when the time for goodbye came.
“Why am I letting go of something so good?” I asked Kyndal when we said our goodbyes last week. The answer comes in reflecting on what I’ve created. In March 2014, Boston was nothing more than a place that I’d visited, and I knew I liked it. Now, it’s home, and home is especially hard to leave when it’s a space you create. When you move, you willingly remove yourself from your home, your creation. In the physical sense, you decide what material goods matter and which are now someone else’s. The old physical home disappears. As Mom reminded me, “once you leave, coming home won’t be the same again, because home changes.” After this, home becomes a memory.
Today, Berlin is nothing more than a place that I’ve visited, that I know I like.
After this, Berlin’s memories will start to become a home.
All because I believe I can make something even better.
All “because the best miles are yet to come.” (Shout out to the gas station sign that I spotted on my last ride to Walden Pond.)