This summer, I finally made good on a thing I’ve been considering for much of the past decade. I schemed with my widely-distributed network of friends, examined my pandemic-induced sense of falling and failing and detachedness and isolation, considered my untethered lifestyle, consulted my supportive and completely remote team at work, and was encouraged by some enthusiastic (and possibly slightly envious) friends at home… I spent 3 months travelling (and working) elsewhere. The emphasis on elsewhere meant that the where needed to be as far away from here as possible given the circumstances.
I set out to see some places in Europe I hadn’t been, and at the same time visit the friends I hadn’t seen in ages. The trip culminated with a stay at a friend’s house and morphed into some subsequent weeks of working remotely from there. Since a large part of my immediate team is in India, the fact that I was in a much closer time zone meant we could have more meaningful meetings and collaborate earlier in their day. Since I was working a different shift, it meant I had time in the mornings to explore Aachen and its surrounds before beginning my day (on India time) and continuing as the US started theirs.
I started the adventure with two weeks off. I visited a friend in Amsterdam and explored a wee bit of Holland in a haze of pandemic-fueled anxiety. I went to Belgium, again visiting a long-time dear friend/co-adventurer to see different aspects of life and leisure there. When my time off was ending, I travelled to Berlin with the intent of meeting a friend there, and again seeing the city through her eyes. We used our yoga to minimise the disappointment that bubbled up when that visit didn’t turn out at all as expected.
As I travelled and saw those I hadn’t seen in eons, I was feeling more welcome away than I was at home, which was part of the impetus to get out of Dodge in the first place. To dodge Dodge, as it were.
From Berlin I went to Aachen, where my experiment in working remotely began in earnest; it’s here where the unintended extension of my trip unfolded. It went something like this: I simply wasn’t ready to go home yet.
A friend who was watching my flat back home told me that it looked as though I had been kidnapped, time stopped, a used coffee mug forgotten in the sink (I wouldn’t discover this until I returned home and the seasons had turned). And maybe I had been, in a way; kidnapped that is: the thought of returning was more paralysing than the thought of staying, even without adequate outerwear, shoes, pants or (especially) a place to spend the next 8 weeks.
And so I undertook the task of finding temporary lodgings that wouldn’t a) break the bank or b) be too far from the immediate surrounds which were growing on me. I was stressed out and my options were waning as my impending departure date grew closer. My stabs in the dark of finding a place to stay somehow corroborated my poor aim and kicked me in the gut for good measure. Yet against all odds, and as I ran out of options, a personal philosophy reared its head: things work out, just not the way you expected. 48 hours before I was scheduled to fly, it was a near-stranger that came to my rescue. A friend of a friend with a house to lend, asking very little but kindness in return for his generosity. I am still beyond grateful.
These weeks, turned months, abroad meant I lived out of a suitcase and slept on a borrowed bed, cooked in a borrowed kitchen, foraged salad and berries and herbs in a borrowed garden, and woke each day on borrowed time.
I started writing this post weeks ago from the terrace of that borrowed house…in a country where I had only a smattering of friends, a handful of useful words and phrases in the local language, and a suitcase full of chocolate and other consumables that I’d intended to bring home with me weeks prior when my return ticket was supposed to return me to the States. Staying, ironically, felt a bit like I was running away.
To me, Corona-time has felt like a swirling mass of social anxiety, where the rules change by the day and any social awkwardness is put under an electron microscope: my every cell felt on-edge these past months, on the verge of Something Very Bad about to happen. Heeding that, I’d been cautious to exceedingly careful with interpersonal contact. Still, the weeks of travelling and staying with friends were more “peopling” than I’d had in nearly 2 years. I’d been awkward and amateurish with friends, near-terrified of public spaces (especially in Holland, where I’m still not convinced they think COVID is even a thing), and more reclusive than one normally would be on a semi-extended holiday abroad. All the while, I was thankful that Germany seemed much more organised against this mad bug.
And so, on the terrace as I was writing, a silly quote from my college freshman roommate swam into my mind: wherever you go, there you are. Me, in a borrowed house a few blocks from the Aachen Tierpark, where the he-wolf lost his mate and now howls at night trying to find her. Indeed. Here I am.
There’s the Tierpark and also a Bauernhof nearby, giving the air a certain je ne sais quoi when the wind shifts, and the greenery makes one feel like the heart of the city is several kilometres, not blocks, away. I’m working remotely with a laptop and a portable monitor and headset so the neighbours don’t think I’m completely mad. But dodging reality while creating something of a parallel reality is a little weird. Because at the end of the day, regardless of time zone, it’s still me at the end of the Teams meeting or email thread or WhatsApp call, avoiding dealing with the Bathroom Project and the batshit crazies where I’m from, and the local news cycles and the Physical Therapist and the Dentist and the Gynecologist and probably more ists than I’m aware exist.
Wherever you go, there you are. On a terrace, near the zoo, 1000-year-old churchbells ringing out periodically. It’s not bad, here, except that the mad ramblings in my brain are along for the ride as well.
These borrowed or stolen weeks of working and wandering were wonderful, if I’m honest: mornings before work there was time for a walk to the farmers market and chai from the coffee truck, all manner of local goods on offer: cheese and ridiculously fresh produce and local baked goods and regional specialties. Other days I’d walk in the nearby Nadelwäld, following the Eselsweig into the trees, watching the fog lift off the fields, horses grazing in their paddocks without a care.
I met additional friends of friends, coffee friends and friend-friends, the latter with whom I’d go hiking and apple picking and farmers marketing and walking in the days and weeks to come. I think I romanticized the simple-ness of it all, because much of my existence for those weeks was really just about walking and going to the market and the forest and working and making supper and crashing so I could do it all over again the net day. It didn’t suck.
And as the weeks unfolded, I revelled in the quality of life, the simplicity and wholeness: I didn’t drive, I barely even rode a bicycle. Rather, walking the cobbled streets daily, I passed centuries-old city walls and the even-older cathedral. I rinsed my hands in the city’s warm and sulfuric mineral spring fountains, bought yogurt in glass jars and Eier by the half-dozen from a guy with a cart at the farmers market. I picked lettuce and herbs from the garden, made applesauce from the apples we picked on the weekend, and brewed tea with the sage and rosemary and mint.
One morning, a few days before I was to fly out, I was walking through the pine forest with a heavy heart. The morning was also heavy with what felt like change in the air. In an instant, a low fog materialised and weaved its way through the pines, momentarily grabbing my ankles and stopping me in my tracks. The birdsong, the horses whinnying in the distance, the needle-muffled footsteps… it occurred to me not for the first time in recent days, that these small moments are precious. These Nadelwälder would never be the same as in this precise moment. Me either.
Being a guest in others’ lives made me think deep about the long-lost art of hosting. In French, the verb accueillir (to host) also means to receive or greet or welcome. In German, it might be Gastfreundschaft zeigen…the word freund rings clear. Of all the things I learnt on this trip, the strongest lesson was how to receive and be humbled by an outpouring of graciousness by so many who really didn’t have to do a thing. It was a profound contrast to the 18 months of compounded inquiet and trepidation I had escaped, no idea if traces of that would remain when I returned.
So that was the middle part of the story. I took one more sojourn at the end of my stay: I went back to Turkey, unexpectedly solo, and experienced more warmth (human and atmospheric) than I could ever imagine. With that, I left Europe with a renewed faith in the goodness of strangers, realising at the same time how much I needed the independence of that last adventure…Aachen’s hot springs somehow still pulsing in my veins.
My yoga practice has taught me about balance, and the eternal tug-of-war with the concept of enough. This trip taught me lessons in receiving rather than always giving, in letting the Universe set a trajectory rather than charting a course, in seeing what transpires rather than injecting will into an outcome…
Lessons learnt from 3 months in limbo:
- Bring the warm coat…it will come in handy!
- Friends come out of the woodwork and surprise you when you least expect it (and need it most)
- Don’t get attached to an expectation; we are part of a machine that is in continuous motion
- Make the most of, and work with, what you’ve got…
- …You can make do with much less than you think you need
- Friendship is neither transactional nor always balanced, but it is reciprocal
- Being an introvert in a pandemic comes with its own echelons of social anxiety that the rest of the world doesn’t quite get (and you’re not required to explain)
- There are more strangers with warm hearts than with ill intentions
- Show up: physically and intentionally
- Be deliberate: with words, integrity, intention, respect, vulnerability, action, generosity
- Accept acts of kindness and pay it forward
Thank you, Germany (and Holland and Belgium and Turkey)… I will be back.