life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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It is Darmstadt

I joined my husband this week for an academic foray into Germany, where he will be presenting at a conference for the Society of Philosophy and Technology on Friday. I am hoping that I will be able to sneak in to film his presentation, but in the interim I get to wander around the city of Darmstadt.

 

Darmstadt is a new place for me, and it took a while for the name to imprint itself into my memory. I have been studying with an Anusara teacher who lives and teachers in Amesfoort in the Netherlands, and my brain decided to combine these two foreign places.

 

Where are we going again? Darmsfoort? I asked my husband every couple of days.

 

No. Darmstadt, he would patiently reply.

 

Ohhhhhhh, yeahhhhhh.

 

It took me a while to figure out where the foort was coming from. Even when I figure it, it still took me a few minutes to make the switch in my mind before speaking the words out loud.

 

Sometimes, I wonder how they gave me a PhD, but that is a story for another time.

 

We left our two cats this morning to a quiet house, their food and water bowls filled to the brim in anticipation of our absence. We decided to splurge and pay a few extra euros each to take the train instead of the tram, then metro, and then bus to get to the airport. When possible, it is starting to feel reasonable to pay a little more for ease.

 

We made it to the 94 tram with a few seconds to spare after running up the hill when the transit app said we had only two minutes.

 

What’s a trip without having to run? I said.

 

True.

 

We took the tram a few stops to the train and headed for the airport. The entire trip to the airport in Brussels and then on the bus from Frankfurt to Darmstadt (got it this time!) took far longer than the mere 40-minute flight. It’s still remarkable to me that you can fly to another country in so little time.

 

We walked from the bus to the hotel. On the way, we saw many people riding bicycles, including one young woman on a monocycle.

 

That does not look easeful, I said to my husband.

 

When we arrived, my husband asked the gentleman at the front desk if he spoke English.

 

No!

 

Awkward silence.

 

Ha ha, just kidding.

 

Exhale.

 

You have a reservation?

 

Yes. Lewis.

 

Ah, Mr. Lewis. You are here for five nights.

 

Yes.

 

But what are you going to do in Darmstadt for five nights?

 

I am here for a conference, so the question is what is my wife going to do for five nights?

 

Great.

 

It wasn’t until the end of our conversation that he said, Wilkommen. Welcome.

 

This does not bode well for Darmstadt, I said after we had stepped into the elevator and headed up to the third floor.

 

No, it doesn’t.

 

It took a few attempts to figure out how to get the door open, and once inside I went straight for the air conditioner.

 

I can’t figure it out, I said. The heat and fatigue from travel (any amount of travel seems to exhaust me these days) was making me cranky.

 

It was my husband who figured out that you have to put the card key into a little slot by the door in order to turn on the lights or air.

 

That is brilliant, I said later after I had rested and had a snack (I have the metabolism of a squirrel, so I need to eat snacks on a regular basis to keep from being called Cranky Britches by my husband).

 

You can save so much energy by not running the air when you aren’t in your room.

 

Yeah, and this way no one can forget to turn the lights off either.

 

Score points for Darmstadt and Germany!

 

We went for a walk around the town.

 

We pondered over German words, stickers, and graffiti.

 

What does bembel with care mean? My husband asked.

 

I don’t know. I was just wondering the same thing.

 

We found the answer at the grocery store.

 

 

It was fun being in a new place. We took photos to share with family and friends. My favorite was the sign that read, Schmuck for sale inside, which I promptly shared with my Jewish mother. I marveled at how many places had vegetarian and vegan options.

 

 

We stopped for a drink at a place a friend from the town where I grew up had recommended. Over drinks, my husband looked up places where we might go for dinner.

 

There’s an American-esque burger joint with good reviews, my husband said.

 

But you are a vegetarian?

 

He showed me the review, and I laughed out loud.

 

Best in town….but, well….it is Darmstadt.

 

We finally settled on a little Mexican place right near the hotel. We hadn’t eaten Mexican food since leaving Arizona last summer, and the thought of cilantro-laden salsa and tortilla chips was beyond enticing.

 

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Our bellies sated, we headed back to the hotel for some whisky, stapel-chips, and dinkel doppel keks. All in all, it was a nice start to our little adventure across the border.

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Belgium or Bust

This past spring, my husband and I watched the first two seasons of the book turned film series Outlander. We had a running joke about the characters, most of who seemed to move between love, hate, and an intense enmity in quick succession.

Whenever we saw a scene with laughing that turns into sword fighting in the blink of an eye, we turned to each and say, I love you. I hate you. I will kill you!

The decision to turn our lives upside down to move to Europe for the next four years has inspired our own version of emotional turmoil, reminiscent of the Outlander series. There has been a lot of laughter, tears, and intermittent fits of screaming and expletives, and emotions seem to shift from zero to a hundred pretty quickly.

Waaaaaait a second. Hold up, you might be thinking right about now. Belgium? Where did this come from?

I realize that I have known for some time that the landscape has become Belgium, but in the tumultuous transition I have been experiencing these past few months, I have neglected to communicate the details to you.

So, please allow me to take a step back here and provide some context.

My husband and I got married in November 2015, not quite a year ago. Instead of traditional gifts, we asked for monetary contributions to help fund a honeymoon to France. We wanted to spend a few weeks taking a tour around the country by way of reconnaissance in case my husband’s sabbatical proposal to spend a year there would come through.

We are Francophiles. Independent of each other, we have been studying French and traveling to France for decades. Our mutual love of the French language was discovered within the first few minutes of our first meeting (or so a friend who was sitting near us has told us). The entire encounter is a bit of a blur to me now; something about love at first sight and time standing still, fireworks, and the like.

My husband (let’s call him R) has been sequestered in Prescott, Arizona for nearly 20 years. Now that his daughter is in college and his son has graduated and is pursuing a master’s degree, he is free to revisit the dream of his younger self to become an expat and live abroad.

Belgium was not the original destination my husband started musing over several months ago. It began with France. Well, to be honest, it began about ten years ago with the very tentative idea to pursue his own research and earn a PhD.

When I have an idea to pursue something, I typically dive right in. I am rather capricious that way. My husband is an Aquarius and tends to wallow in possible pursuits. He has also raised two children as a single parent, which can hinder a person’s ability to prioritize their individual desires. Kids come first.

I am in awe of anyone who follows the doctoral path while simultaneously trying to raise children and be part of a family. I may have worked full-time while working toward my own PhD, but the only other beings I was beholden to were my cats. They were pretty understanding of my need to spend hours at a computer, so long as they could take up residence on my lap.

Knowing the reality of what it means to pursue a PhD, part of me has been cringing ever since my husband made the decision to dive in full tilt into looking for the right PhD program. My husband, the Aquarian wallower, does nothing lightly. He began researching program, first in France and then around the world. He began researching the area of study he hoped to pursue.

R is a research librarian, and before long there were books piles on every available surface of our home. As he began to make connections with faculty in France, his research became more focused. Eventually, he found a global network of academics in the field of media ecology and honed in on a professor at a university in Brussels.

And so Brussels became yet another possibility in the growing number of places we might go. Metz, Nancy, Paris, Lille, Brussels. There was a program in Eugene, Oregon, but we had missed the scholarship deadline, and another in Toronto.

In this political climate, Canada was sounding pretty good, but I already had the taste of fresh croissant in my mind. I am not going to Canada, I snipped.

Having spent my life as what I now refer to as the path of the modern wandering Jew, I am fairly accustomed to putting down shallow roots everywhere I go because I know I will likely be coaxing those roots out of their cozy abode after only a short stay.

Wandering is one thing. I am used to it. With each change to the season, I can feel a deep desire to travel beginning to bubble up to the surface.

Limbo is another thing altogether. I have experienced limbo a lot in my life, and I don’t do well with it. I am not a patient person by nature, and the waiting game is not my cup of tea. So, I tried not to get too wrapped up in each possible new place we might go.

I want to be able to say that I did an ok job of staying sane and supportive during all of the limbo, but I believe in being honest. It has not been the best of times. It hasn’t been the worst, either, but I have not been the most grounded and mellow person these past several months.

I wonder if it makes a difference if I am the one to make the choice to move into a state of limbo rather than being on another person’s limbo ride, where I have less control over the journey and destination?

The jury is still out, but I will keep you posted.

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Je ne sais rien

December 13, 2015 ~ Phoenix, Arizona

I begin this piece from a hotel near the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Early the following morning, my new husband and I will rise in the dark to begin an only slightly belated honeymoon, thanks to the generous donation of miles and financial hugs from many friends and family. This will be my second honeymoon for my second marriage, and I head into it with heart open and vulnerable.

December 19, 2015 ~ Bordeaux, France

This evening, I write from a loft in Bordeaux, where my husband and I will stay until Tuesday morning. Already, we have spent several days in France. We have covered many miles and seen some things of great beauty and others I would un-see if I could.

 

At the airport Charles de Gaulle, we waited with baited breath for my checked luggage to appear on the baggage carousel. Bags and ukulele in hand, we headed for the train.

 

Maybe, we should find a bathroom before we get on the train? I suggested.

 

You just went ten minutes ago, came the reply, accompanied by a look of exasperation.

 

It was twenty minutes ago! I pleaded. The look I received was enough for me not to insist. Instead, I harrumphed inside and furrowed my brows for a long time. I swear, people with large bladders will never understand how us tiny-bladdered people live. Sometimes, it is minute to minute. There just isn’t enough room in my body for all of these organs plus a bladder. The second I empty it, there is plenty of liquid just waiting to rush in to take the place of what was once there.

 

December 15, 2015 ~ Gare de Lyon

Can you tell us where to find the Hertz location de voitures? I ask a third person.

Oui. Vous tournez a droite, et continue.

Merci.

 

We had already attempted the right turn and straight ahead option a couple of times. Apparently, turning right gives one many options in this particularly spacious station. Finally, we find the tiny car rental office. To get our car takes what feels like ages. Many French people come and go while we wait. We are offered insanely high insurance rates, which we refuse, and I hope we have made the right choice.

 

Traveling in France already feels so different from previous visits and longer stays. We have intelligent mobile phones that bring the United States with us and tell us where we are at all times.

 

Except when underground.

 

Settled into our burgundy Renault rental car with soft black interior, we quickly realize with increasing angst that there is no cell service underground. How will we figure out which way to go once we leave the garage?

 

Desperately, I try to plug in the address for the friend we will be visiting in Bretagne, the rainy northwest corner of the country.

 

Nothing.

 

I open our Michelin guide to France, take one look at it, and fold it back up. There is no way in hell I have slept enough to try to figure out how to get around this crazy city, known for its predictably unpredictable drivers.

 

My husband turns right, turns once more to the right, and then thankfully pulls over and parks in a no parking zone.

 

We sit and fidget with the phone. Technology is wonderful when it works, but when you have been traveling for more than 24 hours and it doesn’t, it can be painful. Not that we were really complaining. A GPS not working is clearly a ridiculously decadent problem to encounter, especially with the current state of the world.

 

Finally, GPS up and raring to go, address plugged in, we pulled into the realm of Parisian vehicles. And we survived, arriving in Quimper well into the evening, 42 hours of travel after leaving our Phoenix hotel at 3am the previous morning.

 

December 15, 2015 continued ~ Loin de l’Arizone/Far from Phoenix

We spent two fairly wet but lovely days visiting with French friends who are like family. We wandered the streets of the Centre Ville, walked along the river Odet, drank a lot of wine, ate a lot of bread, cheese, and the most delicious olives in all the world, and talked for hours with dear friends.

 

Visiting Quimper and La Bretagne is like returning home, and I felt full of joy and sad to leave. Being there was also bittersweet. I was reminded of friends with whom have lost contact, an ex-husband in Wisconsin, and the many years that had passed since I lived there, ten and a bit to be nearly exact.

 

I have sometimes envied people I know who have settled in one place and who have a community of friends. I have moved so many times that I have had the opportunity to meet remarkable people, people who are full of life and love; but I often feel as though I have no friends at all when I am sitting at home on my couch. They all seem far away, both in body and spirit.

 

But then, when I imagine living in one place for years and years, I feel a sense of being imprisoned. I wonder if this desire to keep moving stems from the belief that I can somehow grow older more slowly if I just keep moving.

 

Lately, I am beginning to realize that this may be the case, and I am growing ever aware that it is as far from the truth as anything may be.

 

It was more than ten years ago that I wandered the streets of Quimper. A lifetime has passed since that time, one that has encompassed a Master’s degree, a marriage, a doctorate, a divorce, and a second marriage.

 

December 18, 2015 ~ Loin de la Bretagne/Far from Quimper

Five hours after leaving the familiarity of Quimper, we joined a line of cars attempting to slowly enter the center of the city of Bordeaux.

 

We knew that Bordeaux would present us with the challenge of parking, but we didn’t think about being tired, hungry, and super cranky while attempting to find parking.

 

Had we spent only one night in this strange city, I would not have fond memories to recall. Nightmarish parking, super expensive shops downtown, and fatigue combined to flood my body with a feeling of being completely out of place and out of my element.

 

What was I doing here? What was I doing with my life? Why would I want to travel when I could be comfortable, snuggling with my cats and dog in my home in the desert.

 

After a good night’s sleep, I felt restored. We woke up early to rescue our car from possible ticketing or towing and walked in the dark, following the signals of our GPS to find our way.

 

As we approached the car, I saw a woman and a man in the distance. I couldn’t tell if they were arguing or if she was laughing. The man wore a green jacket with a hood pulled over his head.

 

When I heard him call out, Donne moi le monnaie, I knew something was not right.

 

Give me the money, he had said, as if this were a movie.

 

It seemed that she gave him her wallet, but he was not satisfied and tugged at her purse.

 

Mais, non! I heard her respond. But he did not stop.

 

Arrete! I called out. Stop!

 

But he didn’t stop.

 

We walked toward them, but it was too late.

 

I was in a daze as I attempted to provide directions from the GPS while we drove away from the center of the city of Bordeaux.

 

Don’t let me out of your sight, I told my husband as we left the scene behind.


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What can you possibly learn from me?

When I first began writing, I shared some of my pieces with a mentor whom I admired greatly. He was a published author and enjoyed a kind of celebrity status in our small community in Alaska.

I approached him tenuously at a Halloween party. He was standing just outside the door to of our friend’s garage, the lights, music, and warmth from the party wafting their way out to us.

It was cold and dark, standard fare for December in Southeast Alaska.

“What did you think,” I asked timidly?

“It was really good,” he responded. “I think you could be a great travel writer.”

Travel writer, I thought, horrified? The response made it sound like my writing was fluff for someone to read while passing the time at an airport.

But I just thanked him and feigned excitement by his pronouncement.

He continued musing over my fate.

“I mean really,” he continued. I was reading something by a young woman in Homer (the title escapes me now). Why should I read her book? What could she possibly have to teach someone like me?

The last word stung.

ME

It was spoken with such complacence, as if he had already learned life’s most important lessons and had more to teach the world can he could possibly need to learn, especially from a young woman. The way he described her, it was as if she was completely insignificant in the world, a simpleton who had no business writing at all and was particularly brazen to dare to publish her thoughts in a book that she expected a white, middle-aged man to read.

It was as if he had read her book merely to mock at her naiveté.

As with most situations where a witty comeback was required, I wished my sibling was by my side. Whenever they recounted a heated interaction to me, I would exclaim in response, “but did you really say that?”

“Of course I did!”

Oh, how I wished they were here to help with my defense.

Instead, I just nodded and waited for another person to work their way into the dialogue so I could slip out into the darkness, unnoticed.

I had no response. I did not know what I could teach him or any other man his age.

Hours later (or was it days?), an answer began formulating in my mind.

Perhaps, I had nothing to teach them because they were not open to hearing what I had to say? I did not write with them in mind. They were not my audience.

Women my age and younger, perhaps older, too, were the individuals I was writing to. I had no problem writing to men, but they had to be willing to give me a chance.

What I wanted to say was that while I may be considered young to many, I had experienced a great storm in my life. I had moved through the storm and was just wending my way to the other side.

I wanted to tell those who would listen that the storm, while painful, was not as difficult to enter or navigate as they might think.

I wanted to give them the courage and permission they might need to do what I had done.

I wanted to say all this and more. And I will. This is just my beginning.

It could be yours as well.

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