Lacy, Adam, and Lorelay Explore the Spreewald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 Posts I Might Never Write

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

– Me, paraphrasing Dad’s advice

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

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

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

Here, I Am.

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

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

What’s going to happen?

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

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

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

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

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

And for the 3+ months after The Sacred Fig?

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

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

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

a poem I wrote some years ago

How great it is to be alive.

To walk. To breath. To smile.

Humans are blessed to interact.

“Social animals.” Yet we

socialize so little. We worry.

We work.

We don’t play.

Be more playful.

Play keeps me alive.

Body. Brain.

Play means: letting joy overtake

Desire over require —

Meant to inspire laughter.

Smiles cause fire in the soul

A gentle candle, with an oxygen boost

Breath. By play. By conversation.

Enriched.

What if enriched adults became kids?

Loss of innocence means loss of any sense

of play.

Don’t play with your food.”

“Plays well with others.”

Well, with others. To exist.

To be well.

To walk. To smile.

How great it is to be alive.

What type of skier are you?

I didn’t freeze, per se, but I didn’t exactly know how to answer.
“Intermediate.” Note the uncertain firmness and punctuation. I didn’t speak in uptone: “Intermediate?”
My insides froze, but my outsides stayed smooth as ice, if you catch my snowdrift.

This sequence played again. And again. In Austria. In Germany. In Switzerland. In English… but with enough skepticism and distrust that I sometimes felt like I was answering in my fractured German.

I learned to ski three years ago, in a very spoiled way, and I’m graciously indebted to my brother for teaching me. Brian learned to ski before me, embraced the sport, then volunteered to spend three days of his own ski trip in Tahoe to teach me. It was an early birthday gift, one that keeps giving. My lesson consisted of (abbreviated version – there was also one-on-one coaching and patience involved):

  • “here’s how to stand”
  • “I’m not going to teach you the difference between pizza and french fries, because you shouldn’t do pizza.”
  • “stop dragging your poles on the ground”
  • “maybe we should practice slowing down and stopping”
  • “okay, let’s go down a black slope”

My brevity isn’t criticism. I reiterate that I’m grateful for Brian selflessly sharing his knowledge. I learned fast, I skied decently well, and I had fun.


Until recently, I’ve guided my life with a philosophy of foregoing expectations, rarely planning more than 4-6 months in advance. I like the freedom of being uncommitted and being ready to say “yes” when I want. At winter’s dawn, I had no intention to take multiple ski holidays this winter. To my surprise I doubled my lifetime ski experiences this winter.

When it comes to European skiing, the mountains set a higher standard, even compared to the top Tahoe terrain that I’ve experienced. The confidence check started in Kitzbühel, Austria, while vacationing with my parents for Christmas. After three decades of not skiing, they both said they might like to do it again. Knowing my own level of experience and the downhill sport’s physical challenge, I maintained quiet skepticism. (Just being honest, Mom and Dad. Love you!) Ultimately, the rents opted for a day of relaxation. I texted Brian feigning inconvenience for fear: “It’s pouring rain 😦 might not get to go”. When the clouds parted, I followed my smartphone map’s little blue dot to the nearest ski rental shop, rented gear, and scooted my clunky ski boots to ride the lift up the mountain. Remember: frozen inside but slick outside.

The next text: “You would LOVE it here. I mustered the courage to go to the rental shop and buy a ticket by myself etc. it was worth it!”

I remember pulling myself over the edge and quickly rediscovering the muscular control for guiding my skis downhill, the adrenal rush of racing atop blankets of snow, and the sensation of seeing the snow-pocked valley below with mountain air in my lungs. In those moments, I had the thought that my prior hesitation was unfounded. Downhill, ride a lift back up, repeat. The last lift brought me up the mountain then back down to home base, where I returned my equipment and gleefully expressed my pride to my very relaxed parents. I chose to worry, and there was nothing to worry about.

Fast forward to February, when I joined a company trip to Harz, a mountain (er – hilly) region in central Germany. The agenda for Saturday included the option to ski, and suddenly, I was co-coordinating ski equipment for 20 colleagues in broken English-German. By the time we reached the lift, I was ready to jump off and race downhill with screaming confidence. I was pleased with my shorter-than-usual pair of skis, and the bunny slope gave me newfound confidence in my skills on the slope.

Bear in mind, Harz pales in comparison to the Alps, but sometimes it’s also the small battles that win the war. The war? Yes, skiing was still a war for Stephen, until last weekend.

A dear ex-colleague invited some friends and me to visit his seasonal workplace, a large, decades-old cabin tucked into a mountain side in Mürren, Switzerland. Over the course of almost twelve hours, four trains, a bus, two gondolas, a cog train, and a short walk brought Robin, Peejay, Olivier, and me through the snow to our new digs: the epic, world renowned SUPPENALP. Okay, so Suppenalp isn’t well known, but it’s very well loved. Whether staying the night in their private rooms, sharing space in the dormitory, or stopping for a hearty meal, some families record multiple generations of annual summer and winter visits to this classic Alpine hütte. We met one guest who comes every year for the past thirty years, and assured us that it takes a special person to find their way to this place. All this makes Suppenalp certifiably epic for a few days of leisure or adventure in the mountains, but I digress…

Peejay learned to ski when he was four. Robin learned to ski in middle school. Olivier – I don’t know, but maybe he skied out out of his mother’s womb. Micha probably skies in his sleep; after all, he’s Swiss. Suffice to say, they’re all experienced sportsmen with great technique. I am proudly amateur enough to undecidedly state that I’m an intermediate skier, and thank the ski gods for patient friends. These guys were golden. When they weren’t effortlessly demonstrating their own great technique and enjoying the spacious runs, they offered tips on the fly and multiple short lessons to improve my posture and help me conserve energy. I skied slower while practicing – and I’ve needed speed control since day 0 – and they patiently awaited my arrival at the waypoints along the slopes, without a single complaint.

(Boys, if you’re reading this and you were talking smack about me in your native Dutch, also cool… helaas, pindakaas…) (Non-Dutchies: that means “unfortunately, peanut butter,” which is apparently Dutchies’ way of saying “oh, well!”)

dedicated to Robin, Peejay, and Olivier for their patience and wisdom in building my strength as a skier, and Micha (not pictured) for inspiring this adventure and being inspiring in general

At some point – maybe it was while we were skiing off piste through a foot / thirty centimeters of fresh powder (never tried that ’til now!), or maybe it was when I said yes to the steepest runs without hesitation (“I’m seriously up for anything – why not!”), or maybe it was on the Lauterbrunnen World Cup run, or maybe it was when the fog and snow rolled in on our second day – at some point, as I breezed down a slope, I had the thought “this is scary. I’m afraid.” and I realized that I ski with an entirely fearful mindset. Let’s be honest: how rational and safe does it sound to strap two sticks to your feet and skate sideways down a sheet of loose ice, weaving between other humans of equal (or better or sometimes questionable) capacity? It’s a scary concept, and I think our achievement in sports like this show the power of the mind and body to work in synergy with the world.

Having this thought brought pure joy, to know that I can embrace fear and that becoming aware of fear can also be a positive experience. Next time you find yourself doing something hard, trust yourself, trust those around you, and don’t let fear be a reason to change your course.

“What type of skier are you?”
“Intermediate. Afraid. Trusting. Willing & Able.”

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.