Obrigado, Lisboa

I left Berlin in a rush and arrived in Lisbon in a calm state of mind. That’s me in a nutshell: balancing chaos and calm.

After a delayed arrival – no worries! calm mind – I took the metro to my Airbnb and then meandered into the city, where I knew no Portuguese. I didn’t have any problem, but I like to know simple things like “ola” (hello), “fala ingles?” (do you speak English?), and “obrigado” (thank you). Almost everyone speaks English, so once I learned these quick phrases, all parties seemed comfortable in the rest of my interactions.

I wrote this much (above) on April 26, then abandoned the draft post while I began my yoga teacher training. Rather than try to recall thoughts from a month ago, I’ll close with some notes out of my notebook and photos of Lisboa.

  • Beautiful buildings. City blends well into the landscape.
  • Not much nature. Monsanto was beautiful.
  • Friendly people. Wonder if they’re hiding a struggle. My tour guide described post-Fascism fear of authority and recommended a book, Dancing Bear.
  • Tons of sunlight. Fast rainstorms.
  • Affordable, but not cheap. Suffering economically.
  • Wonder if they can preserve their culture while welcoming tourists:
  • — overemphasis of pasteis de nata
  • — farce of selling tinned fish
  • — tiles are functional (insulating) as much as decorative

Wednesday

  • Train from airport
  • Walked through Bairro Alto, Baija, and Chiado neighborhoods
  • Rainstorm
  • Smoothie made by pedaling a bicycle
  • Rainbow and concert rehearsal almost made me cry
  • Walked along coast in the sunlight
  • Into Bairro Alto for dinner, bacalhao (salted cod)

Thursday

  • Run in Parque du Eduardo to Monsanto
  • Breakfast at the mill
  • Walked to Santa Catarinha Miradouro and into Santos, another fast rainstorm
  • Read my yoga anatomy book on a park bench, annoyed by a senile homeless person
  • Walked to Praça de Camoes for Sandemann’s walking tour
    Important dates: 1 Nov 1755, an earthquake killed 2/3 of the population (est. 90k people), mostly Arabs and Jews survived in the Alfama neighborhood; 25 April 1974, peaceful revolution ends dictatorship, my tour was the holiday they celebrated 45 years of freedom
  • My tour guide, Pascal, took me to a tiny restaurant where he knows the owners, Davíd and Bella. Great food, some from their farm. They struggle to stay open. She’s illiterate. It’s not a well-known place.
  • Walked to Alfama. Beautiful live music at the miraduoros, ice cream, poked into shops in Chiado and read my yoga book at a pastelaria
  • More live music in the streets by a university “fraternity”

The Never-ending Weekend

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

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

Hanging out in my favorite park on my birthday evening

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

Oops…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.