One of my students, my mentees, told me this deeply personal story once of how she got herself out of a crippling depression, the aftermath of a tropical disease she’d contracted, by being grateful.
At the suggestion of someone she trusted, she started a diary, in the depth of her depression, in which she had to write, every day, what she was grateful for. At first it was just lip service. She jotted down things that her brain told her she should be grateful for, that she knew on an intellectual level that she was grateful for. But the illness kept her from really feeling gratitude, or even from feeling any emotion towards the items she listed.
But after a while of doing this, every day, she started to feel a change. She was starting to actively look for things to write in her diary. It made her more aware of her days. And with noticing came feeling. Every day she could see more of a glimmer of maybe, one day, being able to say “I am grateful for …” and to feel it all the way in her body. And that is what happened. After weeks and weeks of persisting, she could feel gratitude again, and this opened the way to other feelings to come flooding back to her, to bring life back to her. At this point in her story we both had goosebumps and tears in our eyes.
I feel deep gratitude just now. I can always count off things I am grateful for, as you probably can, too. People in our past and our present, certain events or experiences, friendships and love and all those things that make our humdrum human existence that little bit more divine. I always know that I am grateful, but I don’t always feel it. And that’s okay, we can’t always feel everything at the same level of intensity or we’d burst.
But now I’m traveling, and I have so much time to reflect, time to let my mind drift and time to also focus intensely and acutely on the very moment I am living through. I am almost sure that that is the reason why I walk around with a glowing well of gratitude inside me, deep enough to want me to thank whoever is responsible for all the good luck, the kindness, the joy I am receiving.
Since I’m not quite sure who to thank, I’m putting my gratitude out there into the universe through my words, my art, and I hope that everything and everyone that conspired to make me be at this very point, will hear or feel them:
Thank you for everything you have given me, for everything you have enabled me to, for making me get through the dark times and for helping me learn from them, and for all the light, all the experiences and all the emotions that I was and am allowed to have. Thank you for my ability to trust, and to feel joy, and to feel sadness and empathy as well. Thank you from the profoundest part of my being. I promise to always do my best to give back.
I have a good sense of direction. And I’m really good at reading maps (thanks Dad!). But I still get lost. Maybe I don’t have a map for where I’m going. Or it’s out of my control where I end up. Or the directions I had where misleading, the distances longer than I anticipated, something has changed… There are any number of reasons why I get lost quite frequently and the truth is: it’s great.
No, I’m lying. It’s scary. It’s hot and exhausting and bothersome, sometimes it merely feels unsafe and sometimes it actually puts my life in danger and I usually don’t know if the blisters on my feet or the heatstroke will do me in first.
And yet… Every time I get lost, I end up making surprising connections and I experience the true and deep kindness of people, and that somehow makes it all seem worthwhile. Let me tell you about the time I got lost last week, to show you what I mean:
I’m at Lake Toba, in an almost pastoral setting. It is beautiful. I’m enjoying every minute. At the back of my mind, however, I know that I have not got enough cash with me and I’ve found out that all of the five ATMs on the island only take MasterCard – and guess what card I don’t possess… There are several things I try, none of which work out, before I realize that I will have to go to the next big city, about an hour away on the mainland, because I won’t be able to pay my bill. I look up a bank online that is supposed to carry Visa, write down the address, hop on the ferry and into the minibus on the other side and off we go.
When the driver recognizes neither the address nor the name of the bank, I get the premonition that it’s not going to be as straightforward as I thought it would be. He drops all other passengers at their various destination, then cruises – to my clueless eye completely randomly – through the city. After a while he just cannot be bothered anymore (I assume) and lets me off at an intersection where he assures me this bank can be found. I cannot see a bank anywhere, but at this point I’m just glad to get off. He rushes off into the mad traffic (the traffic is mad everywhere here to my West European sensibilities) and I look around. I’m in the rather poor, completely non-touristy part of a big city without any clue where I am in relation to anywhere else. I buy some water from a street vendor and set off in the direction I assume we came from – we did pass a big street with big buildings a while back, if only I can find that again…
I end up walking through a market where flip-flops are sold next to fresh fish and heaps of fruit, with ladies’ underwear on the other side, between mounds of cheap plastic toys, all sold from plastic sheets on the muddy ground (it’s been raining every afternoon). I wend my way between the sheets, the buyers and the motorbikes zig-zagging through the milling throng. I stick out like a sore thumb and everybody is aware of it. And while every self-proclaimed traveller (because the word “tourist” is soooo last century!) professes to want to go where no other tourists are, the disadvantages of being in an area that has no touristic infrastructures while you have a specific goal are pretty obvious. With every step I take, half a dozen people call out to me. It’s all completely harmless, the usual “Hello Miss!” – or “Hello Mister!” from the ones who then get laughed at by their friends for getting it wrong. Some ask where I come from, some my name. It’s just a patter, a way to show off their English. I know that most of them would be quite alarmed if I actually stopped and answered and asked them something. As I get out of the market, the sides of the street are filled with motorbike repair shops and I suddenly feel uncomfortable with the looks of my now predominantly male audience, who still keep up the patter, but are much more insistent. I keep up my best friendly-but-not-encouraging smile, nod, don’t make real eye contact and keep on moving, although at this point I could really do with some friendly shade and a place to sit down.
Just when I’m sure that this time it will be the heatstroke that will fell me and I’m starting to feel woozy, I come out into a huge intersection and I spot a large restaurant with three hostesses standing in front of it, dressed in gorgeous hijabs of gold print on blue. They look about fifteen, but smile encouragingly as I stumble up to them to ask if it is okay to just order a drink, or is this for eating only…? They usher me in, place me in front of the fan, bring me cold water and a fruit juice and giggle at me and each other with every sip I take. One of them slips me a piece of papaya from a large platter of desert dishes that she is serving to a private party in a separate room. When I start to feel human again, I remember that I have a map on my phone, and I get it out and try to identify where I should go. I ask if any of them speaks English. The cashier, a young, rotund lady with a forceful voice and dressed all in wonderfully bright red is brought to my table. I ask her how I can get to the main street (which, so Google assures me, has a bus station as well, because remember that I still need to get back even if I manage to find an ATM that will dispense cash to me? I certainly do).
She looks shocked. “Oh, is far!”
“How long to walk?”
“No walk! Is very far!”
“Is it possible to get a taxi to go there?”
“Taxi? No. Bus!”
“Where can I get the bus?”
“I show you.”
I pay my bill (without the papaya, which seems to have really been a gift). She strides out of the restaurant, yelling instructions over her shoulder at someone. I follow in her powerful wake. We cross the busy, bustling, four-laned road by the death-defying power of her hand, which she holds up in an almost careless gesture to the oncoming traffic while just walking right out into it. I hold my breath and try to stick as close to her as possible, and try to ignore the drafts of air in my back where the motorbikes pass directly behind me with inches to spare. She makes conversation all the time, with the bluntness and the disarming rolling ‘R’ I have come to expect from Indonesians.
“Where you come from?”
That I can say in her language: “Saya Jerman.”
“Ah! Jerman!” She nods wisely as if I have just made the whole situation clear to her. I wonder what she thinks of Germany and what expectations she has of Germans.
“Where your friend?” she asks, and I have to admit that I have no friends. I mean, I have no friends travelling with me (sorry everyone). She stops in her tracks. Or maybe it’s because we have reached the other side of the street. She looks up at me with a very earnest expression.
“Travel alone? That is beautiful.”
I’m utterly charmed by this response, which is not the one I expected nor one I have heard before. I wish fervently that I spoke her language so that I could ask her why she said this, what makes her think so, if maybe she longs to travel as well. Just then, she flags down a minibus, tells the driver where he is to let me off, admonishes him to take good care of me – at least that is what I’m inferring from her gestures and tone of voice – and we are off before I can even properly thank her.
The minibus is full of schoolgirls returning home from school. Different schools though. (They wear different uniforms, d’oh!) The inevitable happens: a lot of giggling, then two of them are pushed forward by their friends to ask me the usual questions – what is my name, where am I from, what is my purpose in visiting and it suddenly occurs to me to wonder if their English teachers are training them all up to be border officials. What is my favourite Indonesian food (vegetable curry), do I like Indonesia (yes, very much), what do I think of Indonesian people (everybody is very helpful and kind). All of that is interspersed with bouts of more giggling and intense discussions about how to say one or the other word in English. I can’t help but smile and laugh along with them. At some point they are all getting off.
My new fellow passengers are a middle-aged man in a smart shirt and a young woman in high-heels, who smile at me and nod and the man enters immediately into conversation. His English is not as good as that of the girls and when he asks me where I want to go, things are starting to become difficult, because I cannot give him an address. He starts consulting with the young woman and the driver and they make a number of suggestions of places that I might want to go to – the hospital? The police? A hotel? I try to explain, but the language barrier is insurmountable in this instance and they finally suggest – which is rather in the category of being forced – that I alight and go to the police, because they will be able to help me. Since I can see that the street has a definitely more urban look now, and they seem quite distressed by not being able to help me, I agree, nod, smile, thank everyone and walk into the police station.
At the police station they speak some English, but are rather nonplussed by my problem. There is an ATM right across the road. It doesn’t accept Visa, I can see that from here, but they must think me rather stupid in asking for a bank. They summon a small boy who is to escort me across the street to the ATM. I go along with it, smiling and thanking everyone, put the card into the machine, which spits it out again straight away, and I start walking along the street in the direction that looks marginally more promising. Neither do, to be honest, but I have to go somewhere. The street is big enough to have a sidewalk, even though half of the time I walk through people’s shops. I appreciate the shade from the awnings. I do not appreciate the growing awareness that I’m hungry and really hot and almost without cash and that I have no clue how to get back to my hotel, even if I can find a bank that will dispense me money. I fantasize for a moment about my luxurious double bed that looks right out through the huge windows onto the lake and the cool, fresh breezes that spring up in the late afternoon and ripple the surface of the water. But that delightful vision is one hour on the road and another on the ferry away.
Finally I see another bank. It also does not accept Visacards. But it has a security guy sitting out front, and two uniformed hosts opening the doors for the customers and organizing the parking for them. In short, it looks proper posh and I assume that someone in there will be able to speak English. The guardian of the door almost falls over himself as he ushers me to the counter. I address the young lady in the uniform on the other side of the counter in English and a ripple runs through her many colleagues, most of which are not with customers at the moment. A few seconds later I am looking at a gaggle of six or seven young women, all dressed in uniforms and listening to me very earnestly. When I have explained what I’m looking for, they go into a huddle and confer with each other for some minutes. Other employees call over suggestions from the other side of the room and then they seem to have a discussion about whether the information they are about to give me really is the best solution. I’m waiting with baited breath and a glimmer of hope in my chest. Another young woman, wearing a similar uniform but with different colours and who is standing on my side of the counter, offers her help. Her English is wonderful, even if she immediately apologizes for the fact that it’s not very good. She speaks to my helpers and they finally seem to agree. One of them writes down the name of a bank and the street where it can be found. I thank them a million times, and it’s coming from the bottom of my soul. The young woman who can speak English suggests that the doorman will find a minibus for me to bring me there. She and another colleague go out as well, they get into a car with a driver, but before they can pull out into the traffic, she gets out of the car again and approaches me to ask me if I would like her to drive me there. My knees almost go weak from relief. I reply that I would love that, and get in next to the driver and we are off.
The rest of the story is quickly told: the tip of the bank clerks was spot on, I felt like I was reunited with life itself, the lady from the bank had her driver go to a taxi service that she uses to go to Lake Toba, got out, negotiated a prize with the clerk, told me how much it was (exorbitant, but at that point I just really, really didn’t care), we exchanged phone numbers and facebook names, I thanked her about a hundred times but could have gladly done it another hundred times more, got in the car and was deposited at the ferry port an hour later. The ferry ride became a very wet venture as the afternoon storm broke while we were in the middle of the lake, but I didn’t care one bit. I was deposited at my hotel ten hours after I had left it, jumped off and felt like I was coming home.
And you know, I look back on this day and it seems interesting and colourful and full of good people and aplenty with human connection, but I also remember the helplessness, the thoughts of blaming myself for being so stupid and always ending up in these kind of situations where I need to be rescued, the headaches, the footaches, the thirst, the fear. It wasn’t fun while it happened. But I was rescued, and by a whole range of people – those who saw me as a person and not just an exotic stranger, those that gave me nourishment as an act of kindness, who made me laugh, who entered into my distress, who tried to help me at the expense of their own time, who conferred with friends to give me the best possible help, who gave up their own immediate plans to be of assistance to me. And that experience I would never, ever want to miss.
I had to look up how long I’ve been traveling for just now. It’s been three weeks and three days. It feels much longer, just as I’m sure it feels like nothing to everybody else. I know how fast a week can go by: it’s Sunday evening and you’re dreading the next day. Then Monday morning comes around and it’s not so bad, you catch up with your colleagues about the weekend, Tuesday goes by in a flash of busy-ness, Wednesday is over before you can blink, Thursday already feels like the end of the week and on Friday you leave early and suddenly you’re sleeping in and having coffee in your PJs on the couch again, and where did that week disappear to?!?
When I travel, every day is different. Each one is a precious, unique, multi-facetted jewel, a generous gift that cannot be lived again. I’m aware of every moment, every minute is experienced fully. My mind is constantly occupied – finding context, learning, taking stock, trying to press that experience into memory:
A yellow frangipani blossom on the hard-packed, cracked earth. An offering of petals on a banana leaf in a doorway. The way the sunlight filters through the foliage of a giant banyan tree. The smell of grilled meat, gasoline and dust. The bite of the freshly ground coffee on my tongue. The giggles of schoolgirls in brown-and-yellow uniforms after they call out a greeting in English. Coloured lights dancing in the wind. The lapping of waves on stone steps. The feeling of the breeze on my sweaty skin. The rustling of palm fronds and how it sounds like rain is dropping onto them. The cackle of a tiny, bulge-eyed gecko. Bumpy roads in an ancient minivan, pressed to my neighbour’s body as we sit five in one row. The lazy humming of the fans. The way the mirror-like surface of the lake stretches silently out around me as the sweet, warm water supports my drifting body and a dragonfly hovers over my face.
I’m hoping to store as many impressions in my active memory as possible. And I get up early. And I enjoy. And I look closely. And I talk. And I ask questions. Every day has fourty awake hours and the nights are for deep sleep and rest.
I’m not sure how this state of being awake, of experiencing fully, can be translated into everyday life – maybe it just cannot. Maybe this is why travelling is special, why it is important: You have more time. You are more aware of time. You use time more fully. And you return with pockets full of sparkling jewels that make your life shine more brightly.
Ich musste gerade nachschauen, wie lange ich bereits unterwegs bin. Es sind drei Wochen und drei Tage. Es fühlt sich viel länger an, genauso wie es sich für alle anderen wahrscheinlich nach gar nichts anfühlt. Ich weiß, wie schnell eine Woche vergehen kann: es ist Sonntag abend und du hast so was von keine Lust auf den nächsten Tag. Dann ist es Montag und es ist alles nicht so schlimm, du tauschst dich mit den Kolleg_innen über das Wochenende aus, Dienstag geht in Beschäftigt-sein vorbei, Mittwoch ist rum bevor du blinzeln kannst und Donnerstag fühlt sich bereits wie das Ende der Woche an. Am Freitag gehst du früher von der Arbeit und plötzlich schläfst du aus und trinkst deinen Kaffee wieder im Schlafanzug auf der Couch und wo ist diese Woche geblieben?!?
Wenn ich reise, ist jeder Tag anders. Jeder ist ein wertvolles, einzigartiges, vielseitiges Juwel, ein Geschenk das nicht wiederholt werden kann. Ich bin mit jedes Moments bewußt, jede Minute wird ganz erlebt und mein Kopf ist die ganze Zeit damit beschäftigt, Kontext zu finden, zu lernen, Bestandsaufnahmen zu machen, zu versuchen, jeden Moment in eine Erinnerung zu verwandeln:
Eine gelbe Frangipani-Blüte auf dem kompakten, rissigen Boden. Eine Opfergabe in Form von Blütenblättern auf einem Bananenblatt auf einer Türschwelle. Wie das Sonnenlicht durch das Blätterdach eines riesigen Banyan-Baumes fällt. Der Geruch nach gegrilltem Fleisch, Gas und Staub. Der Biss des frisch gemahlenen Kaffees auf meiner Zunge. Das Kichern von Schulmädchen in gelb-und-braunen Uniformen nachdem sie mir einen englischen Gruß zurufen. Bunte Lichter die im Wind tanzen. Das Lecken der Wellen an Steinstufen. Eine kühle Brise auf meiner schweißbedeckten Haut. Das Rascheln der Palmblätter und das es sich anhört, als ob Regentropfen auf sie fallen. Das Keckern eines winzigen Geckos. Holprige Straßen in einem uralten Kleinbus, an den Körper meiner Nachbarin gepresst weil wir zu fünft in einer Reihe sitzen. Das gemütliche Brummen der Ventilatoren. Wie die spiegelgleiche Oberfläche des Sees sich um mich herum erstreckt, während das warme, süße Wasser meinen treibenden Körper trägt und eine Libelle über meinem Gesicht schwebt.
Ich versuche, so viele Eindrücke wie möglich in aktive Erinnerungen zu verwandeln. Und ich stehe früh auf. Und ich genieße. Und ich schaue genau hin. Und ich rede. Und ich stelle Fragen. Jeder Tag hat vierzig wache Stunden. Und die Nächte sind für tiefen Schlaf und Erholung da.
Ich bin mir nicht sicher, wie sich dieser Zustand des Wachseins, des vollen Erlebens, in den Alltag übersetzen lässt – vielleicht geht es gar nicht. Vielleicht ist reisen deshalb etwas Besonderes, deshalb so wichtig: du hat mehr Zeit. Du bist dir der Zeit mehr bewusst. Du lebst voller. Und du kommst zurück mit deinen Taschen voller funkelnder Juwelen, die dein Leben heller leuchten lassen.
“Everything alright back there?” he asks, catching my eye in the rear-view mirror. Everybody else in the car turns to look at me. “Yes,” I say and I shake my head and try to swallow the lump in my throat. They are still giving me their attention, however, and suddenly the words break out of me and the tears flow across my smile.
Stef, my good friend and travel companion, and I had arrived in the USA only the evening before, landing in Chicago to be met first by a wall of humidity and then by Adam, who took us for our first American beer in a cozy, simple neighbourhood pub, which confused my sleep-deprived brain very much by reminding me strongly of an English pub – something about the dark wooden beams, the vinegar and brown sauce on each table, the variety of local beer on tap and the TV in the corner showing a sports game made the realisation that we’d just travelled across the Atlantic and been on the move for eighteen hours very hard. The food was different, however: instead of fish’n’chips there were burgers in every variety. Although the beer was good and the company fun, we were glad to fall onto the couch at an early hour and sleep, since the following morning already held the next adventure: a flight for the three of us to Denver.
As I sat next to the window and watched the flat landscape below us pass by in colours of brown and gold and dust and sunshine, occassionally dotted with specks of cloud, I could feel the excitement and the anticipation rising. The excitement of the approaching adventure, of having time unroll before me in which everything is open, no plans laid out, no decisions made, not even any knowledge as to options, not even any ideas – just living in the now and deciding from moment to moment where the next step would lead us. The anticipation of seeing the Rocky Mountains, a name that contains a physical location as well as a whole range of emotions and mysteries as it is tied to my family by stories that have been polished and romantizised in the re-telling – of how my parents, the newly-wed couple, went camping there, of the bear they met, of the good people with whom they forged connections, and the photos that have been hanging on the walls of my childhood home telling their own stories. And then there is the anticipation of meeting two people – the woman whose music blog I have been reading for years and who I have admired for practically as long. And the musician she invited for a concert this night, whose music I have listened to almost daily for more than a year.
With the pilot announcing the approach to Denver and the ‘fasten-your-seatbelt’ sign blinking into life overhead, I leaned close to the window, camera in hand, trying to catch a glimpse of the mountains, with John Denver singing about coming home to a place he’d never been before into my ears. ‘Calm down’, I told myself, but my heart beat fast and my stomach had its own ideas as well. I told myself that I would never forgive it if I went overboard and made myself look like an idiot. It’s hard to contain something as forceful as the joy of being in a new place or the excitement of meeting new people. Maybe because they shouldn’t be contained. I know myself, however, so I put on the reigns. Nobody likes someone who makes herself the center of attention, however inadvertently.
At the gate we were met by Andrew, Adam’s friend. He had already told us that we would find him to be exceptionally kind and friendly and one of the best people he knew and a few minutes after meeting him, I knew that he’d spoken nothing but the truth: Andrew is this handsome, big-smiled guy with an aura of quiet capability who he made us feel welcome from the first moment. And while waiting for our luggage, the fifth person to join us on the ride to Colorado Springs appeared, a “sleeply-looking dude with a guitar” (original quote by Andrew) – Tyler, the musician I’d been looking forward to meet so much. I managed to appear almost normal and hellos and how-are-yous and names were exchanged back and forth and after a few minutes I was able to breath again: even though he is capable of writing some of the most beautiful lyrics I’ve come across, and can compose wonderful songs that touch my heart, he was also just a normal guy – friendly, good-looking, open, tired and hungry.
We finally got our bags and descended to the parking lot and climbed into the plush interior of the very American car that Andrew borrowed to transport us all. There are wide, cream-coloured leather seats, lots of leg room for everyone and enough space to stow two large backpacks and a guitar. The air that streamed through the open windows as we pulled away from the aiport was very warm, almost hot, but mercifully dry – no chance for humidity in this golden-brown land. Driving past the Demon Horse, its eyes lit up evilly in glittering red and I was awestruck by the accompanying story of how this huge statue of an angry, rearing blue horse, close to its completion, fell and crushed its creator underneath it. “What else can you expect from a demon horse?” I asked and marvelled at yet another manifestation of life being stranger than fiction.
Andrew has lived in Denver all his life and has a passion for it and for Colorado that is as touching as it is infectious. The next hours or so we spent being driven around the town, learning snippets of its history from this expert, being shown landmarks, getting insider tips of where to go for a good meal and hearing the local gossip. It’s hot, but we have the windows down all the same and an atmosphere of relaxed anticipation permeates the car. We’re on holiday together, we share a road trip, we feel good to be here and to be with each other. After a short stop at Andrew’s house, which reminded both Steff and me of the alternative community houses of the university towns where we studied and which we immediately loved for that reason, we drove to a place a couple of minutes away to buy road trip food. It’s a tiny corner restaurant with a few bar stools to sit on and the food is being prepared behind the counter. The man in charge of it looks comfortable in his surroundings. He doesn’t rush and he doesn’t pander to anyone. One dish at a time, prepared with diligence and attention – then he takes the order for the next one. It took a while, but when we were back in the car and digging in, we knew that it had been well worth the wait – the food is delicious: spicy, tangy and utterly satisfying.
Andrew navigated us south on this Saturday afternoon, our bellies filled, comfortable with each other, Andrew and Adam chatting quietly about mutual friends and music in the front, Tyler, half-asleep, reclining in the back, Steff and me in the middle row, each silent with our thoughts as we watched the landscape roll by. The mountains stretched out on our right, clouds clinging to the tops now, which only emphasized their height and the way in which they rise so abruptly from the gentle hills we’re driving through. The intense longing to be up there, to soar over the peaks, to glide across all this space overtook me. It was so fierce that it took my breath away and I gasped a little and turned my head to Stef, whose eyes were fixed on the mountains as well. “I’m almost crying,” I told her in a quiet voice and she looked at me and nodded. “I can see that,” she said. I tried to explain but couldn’t find the words. Andrew had heard us talk after our long silence.
“Everything alright back there?” he asks, catching my eye in the rear-view mirror. Everybody else in the car turns to look at me. “Yes,” I say and I shake my head and try to swallow the lump in my throat. They are still giving me their attention, however, and suddenly the words break out of me and the tears flow across my smile. “I love travelling,” I tell them. “I’ve always travelled. I love being on the move, seeing new things. But for two years I’ve done nothing – nothing. Just sat at my desk and pretended to be busy. And now I’m here and there is all this space and so much room and I feel like something inside me is cracking open and suddenly I can breathe again and I feel like my soul is too big to be contained in my body, like it’s two meters wide.” I run out of breath. I can’t explain the intensity of this moment any better, neither the happiness of it nor the physical pain in my chest, nor the sheer overwhelmingness of it all. When I look up from trying to wipe my eyes with my sleeve, four people are looking at me with smiles on their faces and in their eyes. They nod. They understood every word I said and all the words I didn’t say. I heave a relieved sigh and lean back in my seat, my eyes on the mountains again, smiling. I hope they also understand that their company is – that they are – a huge part of my happiness.
They and Colorado.
This is part 1 of a series recounting my travel experiences to the USA. You can find the following parts here.
I’m back. Four weeks of travelling are behind me. So much has happened that I have a hard time believing that it hasn’t been four months. The facts are against that theory though, the calendar insists that it’s really only been four weeks.
Four weeks full of friendship – old ones renewed and new ones made. Four weeks full of beauty and taking photos and fun and kindness and laughter and space and breathing and writing and exploring.So much of it that I have a hard time knowing how to share it, where to start, what to choose – there are myriads of aspects, experiences, thoughts I could share. And I have a great desire to share them. I feel the pressure, the need to write it all down while it’s fresh, not only in my travel diary, but form my personal rambles into something more coherent, something meaningful, to reflect the meaning this trip has had for me.
I think I’ll concentrate on the physical places and use them as the gravitational center to collect my thoughts around, to make it unfold for you like it unfolded for me. Will you stay with me while I attempt this? I promise you photos. I promise to give my best to make you chuckle. For that, you’ll have to bear with me while I turn this blog into a collection of travel essays for a short time.
I think I’ll tempt you with a photo right now…
just checking in. In case you’re wondering: no, I haven’t gone AWOL again. I’m having the most awesome and wonderful time on an epic trip to the USA. I spent one week in Colorado, road-tripping the Rocky Mountains with one of my closest friends, and we both LOVED it! I would show you photos, but the friend we’re staying with at the moment uses a Macbook without a card reader and I can’t connect my camera any other way. So you’ll just have to believe me if I tell you that Colorado is BE-AU-TI-FUL and that I’m constantly close to tears these days just from being so overwhelmed by beauty and the feeling of freedom.
Apart from the diary I’m keeping and that I brought from home, I bought an exercise book here and am filling it with writing of the creative, rather than the personal, kind. I’ve even written a poem again this week, something that used to come so easily and that has hasn’t happened in a looooooong while. It’s kind of immature and simple, all about a falling star that I saw, so I won’t share it here, but just the feeling of being able to come up with words that grab me enough to want to shape them and make them better… wow, I haven’t had that in a long time. A very long time.
Morale of this story: Happiness, good people and travelling do amazing things for creativity. At least, they do for mine.
I’ll be back when I’ve figured out a way to share some of my photos. Maybe a couple of hundred. I’m not sure I can do anything below that.
Love you guys! Be back soon, hopefully with something more fulfilling than these vague promises. Just wanted to tell you that the Rockies rock very much indeed and so does being happy.
I’m preoccupied with my upcoming trip to the USA. Every time I think about New York, the first song that comes to my mind is Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel. It’s been on my mind all day.
Before he starts singing (around 2.40), he tells the story of the song, which is absolutely worth listening to because because a – he’s wonderful and I could listen to him talking for days and days and b – his voice is straight-on sex.
Also this one, the first version of the song:
I have the Poetry Foundation‘s Daily Poem brought into my feedreader every day. There’s a number of things I like about this, the most obvious being that it delivers a fresh new poem to me every day that more often than not I really like and enjoy. Another feature I like is that I can save my favourite poems – I’ll just log in with my e-mail and I can save every poem I want to keep. And even though I have a lot of them saved by now, I still know exactly which one’s which and what I felt with each one and so on.
So this morning when I read the title of the Daily Poem in my feedreader my heart gave a glad little skip and I could smell the salty tang of the ocean and the harbour, hear the voices of a city waking up, could feel the exhilarated tiredness, the itching eyes, the smiles tugging at the corners of the mouth through the yawns, the glad-eyed blinking in the sunlight after a night talked through with a friend. I just love poetry for being able to make me feel all that! The poem was one that I’d saved as a favourite some time ago and reading it again was like meeting an old friend. I really like it and here it is, just for you:
BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
This is pretty much representative of my state of mind at the moment. Add a few whooping noises, some folksy sing-along-clap-your-hands music and a couple of wild dance moves and you’ve got it.
I hear you scratching your heads and whispering to each other. “Wasn’t she kinda maudlin lately? Whining about living at home and complaining about being lost-lost-lost and all that stuff?” Yes, you’re right! But then the end of the month arrived and I suddenly realized how very, very little time there is until I take off on my trip the the USA and now I’m all sparkling and giddy and full of last-minute things to do!
Organize presents is a big one. I’m staying with a couple of friends at different times throughout the trip, some of which I’ve met face-to-face, others that I haven’t yet met in person, some of which have travelled a lot, others that have never been to Germany or even Europe. So of course I need presents. Representative of Germany, but not laden with clichés. Personal, but not too specific so that I run the risk of them not liking it. I think I’m doing a good job so far, I’ve got most of them sorted. Yes, photo-books are included, as is one of my favourite German movies, a cooking book, some literature and quite a bit of music. Now I only need a handful of very small favour-like presents that I can give to new friends and spontaneous hosts on the road and then I’m good.
I love giving presents. You might have gathered that already.
Then there’s the packing list. I’m travelling with a very good friend for most of the trip and we’ve both decided to take as few things as humanely possible. Or maybe that should be as womanly possible. (Why do women always, always pack so much more than men?!?) Anyway, we want to buy clothes and stuff over there, so I sent my friend the list of things I propose to pack into my backpack and asked her to take everything down that she thinks I don’t need. She hasn’t got back to me yet, so maybe you guys could cast your eyes over this and give me some feedback:
clothes: underclothing (3x), socks (3x), hiking boots, normal shoes (1x), jeans (1x), shorts (1x), shirts (2x), jumper/hoodie (1)
bathroom stuff: comb, hairclips, etc., medium-sized towel (1x), toothbrush, 1 miniature version of: toothpaste, shower gel, shampoo
technical stuff: camera, second battery for camera, charger, external drive (with all my photos and music, for sharing), phone, phone charger, mp3-player, USB cable for the player, adapter (because we all really need different electricity systems… makes so much sense!) …. MAYBE: camcorder
arbitrary and/or important things: passport, credit card, travel diary, pen, sunglasses, train ticket, plane ticket, host presents, wedding present, pen knife, aspirin, my sunshine-yellow sarong, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road – most of which goes into a large across-the-shoulders-bag
So, anything important missing? Anything I can leave safely behind? I think I’m pretty good with this list. 🙂
Also, when did we get to a point where the technical equipment that we deem necessary far outweighs all the rest in volume and complexity?
Other things I need/want to do include cleaning the house before I leave (or at least my room, my office and so on), finishing the wedding present, comparing some prices on tablet computers so I can maybe see about getting one over there for cheaper, finding out about a good and affordable pre-paid phone number for one month, contacting a number of people to confirm dates, meet up with a number of people to say goodbye to (like my pregnant friend, who will have her baby just a few days after I return, which means I’m leaving her alone for the last stretch of her pregnancy, which I feel slightly guilty about, but to my defense, I didn’t know she was pregnant when I organized this trip!).
And I’m not going to look at anything to do with my job (or non-job) situation, I’m not going to make any decisions and I’m not going to think up any new plans or ideas. Time enough for that when I get back. And the best bit about that is that when someone on the road asks me what I do, I won’t say “Talk to you.” or “Breathing.” in a half-annoyed, half-patronizing way as I usually do, but I’ll just be able to say: “Live.” At this point, I’m so free that I can go in any direction whatsoever. I’m totally flexible, open for any suggestions. Let’s see what the world has to offer.
Some time after midnight, the night of a scorching day. The air feels heavy and moist against my skin. It smells of ozone, of pale rye fields and fields of golden wheat, of grass and moon and of electricity. I read of JJ Cale’s death today and I’m listening to his music on my headphones out there in the dark, in the garden, with the moon rising white and silent between the firs. Its light casts my shadow on the garden wall, a black ghost woman in a swirling, twirling dress, arms above her head, hips moving in a rhythm as old as time, as fresh as each breath of air.
She dips and sways, she rocks and jumps. She’s going crazy in a frenzy of summer, seduction and sadness. I want to be her, even as I realize that I am. Her stark profile as she dances in the moonlight to music only she can hear stays with me as I return to the safety of the sleeping house.
I’m jumping right back into blogging after being AWOL. I didn’t mean to do it and then I saw the daily prompt and I just knew I had to… It asks: If you had the opportunity to live a nomadic life, traveling from place to place, would you do it? Do you need a home base? What makes a place “home” to you?
Before I write another word, I just HAVE to include this:
I love that song, don’t you? Such a carefree summer sound! And while I think it’s charming and lovely and romantic, I don’t think that “home is wherever I’m with you”, although I can’t say if it wouldn’t be if I had a “you” to be home with. I doubt it… Different topic. Moving on.
As those of you who have stuck around here for a while may remember, I’m living in my childhood home at the moment. With my parents. I’m thirty-one. Yes, it’s very sad. It’s 100% due to financial reasons and that’s all there is to say about that part of it. The thing is, however, that while I don’t appreciate moving back in with my parents while my younger siblings are out there forging their ways in the world, I don’t appreciate being “back home” for a lot more reasons – the biggest is that I’ve never felt at home here.
Don’t get me wrong – I love our house, I love the garden, I don’t have anything against the neighbourhood and the surrounding nature is beautiful and only one street away, but I never felt like I had roots here. My family does. On the maternal side. They’ve been living, if not in this town, at least in this valley, for several generations.
Growing up here, I always wanted to be away. I had the worst case imaginable of that teenage disease called everybody’s-somewhere-having-fun-without-me-and-I’m-stuck-in-this-hole. I compensated with reading. A lot. Incessantly. Reading was my ticket out, into the world, into the lives of other people, into fantasy. And towards the end of school, all I could think of was travelling. I read travel guides, travel literature and pored over maps. Freedom! that’s what I wanted. Don’t ask me what I meant by that. I still don’t know for sure.
After more than a decade of travelling, studying, living in different towns and in different places in those towns and then travelling some more and then studying some more, I’m stranded back at my parents’ place. I have been for over a year now. I’m sort of okay with being in the house. I’m not really okay with being in town. I always feel uncomfortable meeting acquaintances in town. I feel like telling them: “I’m only here because I failed, it’s not a choice!”
Does that make me arrogant? Probably. Maybe.
So if I don’t feel like this is my home, then what is “home” to me? Maybe Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are right, because in some way it’s definitely tied up with my family. But I also have this talent, and for that I’m just eternally grateful and feel like I’m the luckiest girl imaginable, and that is that I can feel home almost anywhere. I just need a little corner where I can have a plant or two, put my favourite postcards on the wall and light a candle and where I have the freedom to come and go as I please. That’s all it needs. The other option is to be with friends or with hosts of any other kind. I never need the invitation “please, make yourself at home” – I always do, anyway. And no, that does not mean that I will put my feet on your table or start fights if you invite me over. What it means is that when I’m thirsty, I won’t wait for you to offer me something to drink – I’ll go and get myself a glass of water. And if I don’t know where the glasses are, I’ll open one kitchen cabinet after another until I find one. I make myself part of the family. And there we go again, it’s to do with family. Whether that’s blood relations or friends or people I’ve just met who are kind and hospitable – it doesn’t matter. It’s all family. It’s all home.
To answer the question, yes, I would adore a nomadic life. Although I would like to have a home base. Or four. Just places that are my own, where I can stash my books (but nothing much else, please), but that I’d be able to leave for months on end. That’s my dream, actually.
And as for my home town... After more than a year of living here as an adult, I’ve started, a while back, to be okay with it. To accept that I have roots here, even if I don’t feel them very strongly. I’ve sort of become interested in the history of the place. I still don’t like meeting acquaintances in town and being seen by them, but I don’t feel the need to rush around and tell everyone that I’m supposed to be somewhere else anymore.
Although of course I am. (No, no, mustn’t say that, mustn’t say that…)
So what do we learn from that, kids? Sometimes you have to be forced to look your past in the face before you can move on.
Or something like that.
P.S. And because I’m really consequent in my actions, I’m going down to the park now with my Mum to take part in the annual light festival, where at least half the town will be gathered to enjoy the summer evening with lots of alcohol and pretty candles. You’ll get some photos tomorrow. And if we meet any acquaintances, I’ll just have to grit my teeth and smile.
… catching up with friends.
So hello there.
(Is there anybody out there?)
I’m trying to re-establish contact.
I’ve been inching my way back into the blogsphere lately. Very slowly. I’ve started reading and commenting and liking again. I feel I’ve reached the point where the scales have tipped from information-overload and social-media-burnout towards the side of missing the friendliness and the fun and the conversations and the banter and the kindness of my fellow bloggers.
Or, in short: feeling lonely and left out is trumping the murky self-pity and existential self-questioning that’s been going on over here.
I still feel that I don’t have much to say. Or rather, I have a lot to say about why I have nothing to say. No, don’t run away! I don’t mean to put you asleep, so I’m most definitely refraining from that.
I’ll give you a jolly nice picture of summer as seen over here instead, okay?
I’m sorry I disappeared. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for your stories, experiences and wonderful writing.
I’m fighting with myself.
On the one hand, I’m making progress. On the other, a lot of things are falling through the cracks.
I’m neglecting friends – not answering e-mails in a reasonable time frame, not calling. I hardly read any fiction at all. I’m struggling to keep my blog halfway alive and to read my friends’ blogs. All this is bad, because I love my friends, I don’t ever not read and I love my blog and the connections into the real world and the world of blogging it is bringing me.
On the other hand, I have, for the first time in a long, long time (roughly two years) a kind of plan of what I’m doing. I’m organized about my writing, I have a plan, a real plan, with different steps and goals and dates when these goals need to be reached. I also have a plan for “surviving” or “becoming independent” – meaning, how to survive financially. I’m building connections and I have a goal that I’m working towards. And these things are good. I feel focused and like I know what I’m doing – which has not been the case for …. oh, such a long, long time…
So – what’s right or wrong? How to find a balance? I don’t know. I’m putting it out there. Maybe someone else has an idea of how to do this thing called life. Anyone?
I’m off for another week of working with young people. Looking forward to it very much! It’s so much fun, even if by Friday night, I’ll only be fit to be used as a wet rag. It’s exhausting, this mentoring. But so, so interesting as well. I’ve got a really tough activity planned for this week, an ethical dilemma scenario and some other nifty things.
I also wanted to say sorry that I’m such a useless blogging friend lately and not keeping up to date with all my friends. I miss your blogs and your voices and your smart observations and when I’m back from this week (no internet where we’re going to be!), I’m so looking forward to catching up. Finally.
A special shout-out goes to Zen, Anna, Julie, Monica, Gloria, Marsha, Lynne and Patricia – you are wonderful and kind and fun and great and I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate you. Thank you for being my loyal friends and dropping by even when I’m semi-AWOL recently. I love you!!!
So apparently the amount of flowers one receives for a birthday is related to the number on the birthday cage, for women at least. It seems the older a woman becomes, the more flowers she receives.
That, at least, is a very nice development. I used to buy my own flowers for my birthdays, because I always wanted to have lots of them and nobody ever gave me any. On Monday, I received five beautiful bouquets, plus some gorgeous yellow tulips cut from my friends’ garden. And presents on top of that!
I do enjoy my birthdays, I really do.
If you look closely at the presents, you’ll see a DVD set of Downtown Abbey (freshly sent from the UK from my youngest sister) – to judge my reaction to that, check out my post about my brain on obsession. Then there’s a postcard from my parents, all the way from Australia. A crumple-up street map of New York from a friend. “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga from my uncle (who has formed the rather startling habit of pressing random hardcover books into my hands every time I see him ever since he realized that I’m serious about that whole crazy idea of writing a book). A book with one hundred really cute ideas for crochet projects that my sister gave me – I’m only able to do very simple crocheting, but maybe this’ll help me learn something new. Oh, and let’s not forget the ubiquitous alcoholic offerings – among the sparkling wines and red wine and the self-made raspberry liqueur there is an actual bottle of real Champagne.
So yeah… between the flowers, the presents, my siblings, both the two present and the two who weren’t here, the beautiful, beautiful weather and a very spontaneous BBQ with family and friends in the evening, I had a great day, as birthdays ought to be. 🙂
A friend gave me a book a while ago with the words: “You need this. Read it.” I thanked her, then put it on the window sill in my office (aka The Graveyard of Random Notes and Lists of Things to be Done), where it continued to live for the next eight or ten weeks. A couple of days ago I finally picked it up. And I must say – she was right. I needed that book and it’s coming at a perfect time as well. Thank you Ilona!
The book in question is “Wishcraft: How to get what you really want” by Barbara Sher. I was sceptical at first. I had a period in my life where I got self-help books by the dozen out of the library and usually didn’t manage to read past the first five pages before I gave up in disgust. They always seemed to be written for other people, not for me. People who cared about career, how to manage a family, how to earn a lot of money. None of which applies to my life. However, Barbara Sher had me by the first page.
Her tone is so warm, so human, so down-to-earth that I immediately felt welcomed. And when I read on and realized that this book is not someone lecturing me on what I ought to have and ought to do to be a valuable member of society, but rather a book written by someone who tells me that everybody has genius inside them and reservoirs of talent and passion, whatever that passion may be! – and then goes on giving me exercise upon exercise for finding out what my passion is and what’s keeping me for living it and how to go about dealing with the things that stand in the way… then, I think, I have found a new friend. That’s what it feels like. Someone who encourages me, shows me my strengths, believes in me.
I think that I already had a pretty good understanding of who I am and what my strengths are and in which direction my passions lie. That’s not to say the exercises weren’t useful to me – far from it, I found it very useful to really sit down with pen and paper and make lists and think things through, but what I mean, is that there hadn’t been any huge surprises (so far).
However, this morning as I was sitting in the weak spring sunshine that came through the living room window, I did get a surprise. The exercise was to list twenty things that bring me joy. No explanations, no qualifications and the only rule was to get to twenty. So I did. I wrote down things like: reading, developing characters, cuddling with the dog, hiking, swimming, sitting in the sun, taking photos, being with friends, … When I’d got to twenty, I looked into the book again and the next part of the exercise was to make a table and to note for each item the answers to questions like: When did I do this last? Is it cheap or expensive? Do I do it alone or with others? Is it indoors or outdoors? Is it intellectual, physical, spiritual? … and to add as many questions as I wanted.
I started doing it, but noticed very soon that the answers were mostly the same. The majority of things I like are cheap to free, outdoors, physical and intellectual or physical and spiritual at the same time (like hiking… for me, that’s both physical and spiritual), it’s done alone, I usually do it spontaneously and it doesn’t require a lot of planning…. and all of them I haven’t done in a quite a while.
And that brought me up short. So apparently there are all these activities that I enjoy and that make me feel good, most of which don’t cost me anything and can be done by myself without a lot of planning – and I’m not doing them??? Wow. Wait a minute. In other words, I’m forgoing a number of sources for happiness and contentment for no discernible reason except that I didn’t think about it or am too lazy to get up from my desk. What an eye-opener.
Needless to say, I’m going to make a conscious effort to include them into my present life. No use putting things off. Tomorrow morning, instead of talking the dog on our usual round, I’ll pack him into the car and drive somewhere new (up the hill on the other side of the valley, I think) and go for a really long walk. I’ll take my camera and instead of thinking of it as a necessary task that has to be performed, I’ll think of it as something that I have chosen voluntarily.
There, Barbara Sher – lesson learned, and I’m only in chapter 3.
If you want, try this exercise. Let us know what you found out. Even better, get the book and do all the other exercises. It’s fun and – who knows? – you might learn something new about yourself.
Yep. Those are flights.
(Please cover your ears while I do an inappropriate amount of squealing. You may also close your eyes during my dance moves.)
I have bought the tickets and alerted all my friends – I’m flying to the USA in the summer, travelling in the north-east for four weeks! Given my financial situation (read: the fact that I’m skint) this does not seem like an obvious choice of travel destination. The obvious choice would probably be to go camping in the garden.
However, my hand was slightly forced by the fact that one of my best friends is getting married in New York State and she and I would never forgive me if I hadn’t at least given it a serious thought. And once I had given it a serious thought or two (actually, I’ve thought about it from November till three days ago…), I found that it was possible after all. And since the plane tickets are the most expensive part, I decided to hang around and do some sightseeing. 🙂
I’m excited beyond everything and have mountains of travel literature (alright, six guide books and a couple of maps) lying in my office space so I can daydream and plan! To understand my excitement you’ll have to know that I LOVE travelling – I never feel more alive than when I explore a new place. Also, I’ll be meeting a good friend in Chicago (for the first time – how exciting in itself!) and attend my beautiful friend’s wedding, where quite a number of our mutual good friends will be as well. Plus, we (those friends and me) will do some travelling/road-tripping for a week after the wedding. PLUS, another best friend, that I asked on a sudden inspiration to accompany me, has just bought her tickets, on the same planes, in the seat next to me.
Is there any part of this that does not sound delicious, wonderful and amazing!?!?! My cup of joy is not overflowing – it’s bubbling and dancing. 🙂
Alright, over to you – I’m calling all the travel experts and those who know the area (the area being Chicago, New York and anything in between that’s accessible by public transport):
Any travel tips? Any must-see destinations? Any tips on saving money? Cheap bus lines? Good eating places, cheap places to stay (camping?)? Any hiking, exploring, nature-worshipping that I absolute cannot miss? Also: any music tips?
It’s April. How did this happen?
Time goes by so fast and so quick at the same time. On the first of April 2012, I lugged 80 kilos of baggage halfway across Europe, taking the train from London to Brussels and from there to Cologne and then a succession of smaller trains to my hometown in southern Germany and finally being stranded in the nearest bigger city with no more trains going that day and my sisters waiting to collect me and my miscellaneous belongings in the car. In short, I moved back home to my parents’ place after trying and failing to find paid employment in London.
Temporarily, of course. No way was I going to stay with my parents for longer than necessary. It’s not something that can be recommended once you’ve grown up and lived by yourself for more than ten years. I sent applications to all the corners of the world. I also applied for unemployment money, because obviously, this, also, was going to be temporary. Something to help me over until I could land one of those elusive things called ‘job’. I remember how resentful I felt about the whole situation and how my mother was so happy to have me back and so worried for me and my future at the same time. We went for a long walk, that first weekend I was back, and everything looked so spring-pretty and fresh and full of flowering trees and buzzing bees and chirping birds, and I felt so unhappy and sullen and depressed and tired.
Now it is a year later, and I find myself contemplating the time that has passed. The last year has seen my 30th birthday being celebrated quietly and unassumingly with a beer in a random pub in the old part of Heidelberg with a good friend. It has witnessed me bashing out the first and (so far) only full draft of a novel. I spent a lot of time photographing things like flowers, stones, leaves of grass and clouds. I started teaching myself Spanish and how to draw, continued practicing my guitar, learned some design principles and set up three websites without any prior knowledge of how it’s done. I bought all manner of art supplies and dabbled with acrylic paints and stamps and pictures and glues and papers, just for the fun of it. I spent a lot of time walking the dog and talking to myself. I started reading a lot of fascinating and beautiful and funny blogs and made some great connections in the blogosphere. I attended the wedding of two dear friends and explored a bit of beautiful English coastline with my youngest sister. I cleaned the house an approximate number of 5 million times, cooked countless meals, spent time with my siblings, my grandmother and my parents. I envied my parents flying off to a trip around the world lasting seven months – the envy is gone, the pride in them and the joy at their happiness remains. I’ve had about 356 sparkling new ideas – for stories, for projects both arty and written, for events and things to do with my life. Recently, this year has seen me being hired as a mentor and actually be paid for actual work that I’m actually really good at.
I think the last year can be likened to a small lake somewhere in the forest. It’s been very quiet, almost hidden and reclusive, very introspective and contemplative. A calm surface. When I zero in on the details and draw closer to watch the single drops of water, though, I can see all the microcosm of life that is pulsing away and multiplying and growing and changing underneath. I can feel the quality of the water slowly changing. It’s starting to move and I think there might soon be a little brook that will connect the lake with a river. I’m not sure where I will be in one year’s time and I’m not making any plans, but I’m hoping for this: expansion, connection, new paths where the water will flow freely.
I have been absent for a while, both from blogging myself as well as from reading your blogs and I must say that I miss it! I’m sorry if you felt or feel that I have abandoned you. I haven’t. I just couldn’t bring myself to get in touch.
There is no reasonable explanation for why this happened – maybe it just suddenly appeared too much. Or maybe I needed a bit of a time-out. I think the problem is mainly that if I follow someone, I want to read all their stuff and not miss anything, which sometimes means that unread posts pop up faster than I can keep up. Maybe I need to learn to be okay with not reading every single post.
Another problem seems to be that I feel like I have nothing to say. Now, some people might argue that I never have, but I hope that sometimes I have made you guys laugh or think or introduced you to a new song or just contributed to your pleasure and entertainment in some way. I’d really like to go on doing that, but I feel like I’m unorganized in my own mind. I want to straighten things out and make them clearer to myself.
For now, all I want to say is that I miss you – the banter, the jokes, the encouragement, the support, the community.
See you soon!
Hugs to all, wordsurfer