Life on Pause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Beit Sitti: My Grandma’s Kitchen

While visiting Lauren in Amman for merely a day, she planned delicious cooking class for dinner at a private home-turned-business. Maria teaches Jordanian culinary classes from Beit Sitti, which translates as “my grandma’s house.” It’s her grandma’s house, where she learned to cook, and she pays that knowledge forward in partnership with local women.

 We charred the eggplant - known as 'aubergine' in Europe / the rest of the world's English - directly over the flame, then removed the charred skin and diced the flesh directly into the hummus for baba ganoush (also known as 'moutabal'). Seeing the end result - even photos - makes my mouth water.
We charred the eggplant – known as ‘aubergine’ in Europe / the rest of the world’s English – directly over the flame, then removed the charred skin and diced the flesh directly into the hummus for baba ganoush (also known as ‘moutabal’). Seeing the end result – even photos – makes my mouth water.

 We prepared the  freakeh , an ancient Middle Eastern grain, over the fire, and added a smokey flavor by sizzling some charcoal in oil, using a foil lining inside the pot. The host chefs slow cooked the chicken for three hours before our arrival; their seasoning advice includes: two half onions, salt, pepper, vinegar, ginger, and all spice.
We prepared the freakeh , an ancient Middle Eastern grain, over the fire, and added a smokey flavor by sizzling some charcoal in oil, using a foil lining inside the pot. The host chefs slow cooked the chicken for three hours before our arrival; their seasoning advice includes: two half onions, salt, pepper, vinegar, ginger, and all spice.

 Going beyond the freakeh, chicken, and moutabal, two other dishes completed the dinner plate, with a side of pita (also homemade, mixed by yours truly). We prepped the 'galayet bandora' from perfectly ripened tomatoes on the outdoor stovetop, and the cucumber yogurt salad was just that plus yum.
Going beyond the freakeh, chicken, and moutabal, two other dishes completed the dinner plate, with a side of pita (also homemade, mixed by yours truly). We prepped the ‘galayet bandora’ from perfectly ripened tomatoes on the outdoor stovetop, and the cucumber yogurt salad was just that plus yum.

Were you worried that I forgot dessert? I would never! Knafeh (‘kuh-nuh-fuh’) rounds out every great meal in the Middle East, and you’ll find fresh platters as large as your bed in some markets. The knafeh “dough” – seen in the foreground – is thinner than angel hair pasta. After it soaked in water overnight, we strained the akkawi cheese repeatedly under running water to reduce the saltiness. Tradition serves knafeh warm from the oven, drizzled with sugar water.