It has been three years this month since I’ve packed two bags and left home to move to another continent. I was alone, I did not speak the language, and I had no friends or relatives waiting for me at an airport or anywhere else for that matter. I did however have a job that was waiting for me there and I was absolutely ecstatic to have an opportunity to go on adventures that inescapably come with a life in a foreign country. Actually, the truth is, I had no clue what I was getting myself into and it was terrifying! Fortunately, once I actually stepped out of the airport, I quickly forgot my fears because there were too many other things demanding more immediate attention. Where would I live? What would I eat? How do I get to work? Will I have any friends? Needless to say, figuring out answers to these and many other questions is an adventure in itself.
As if moving to another country wasn’t enough, life decided to shower me with more adventures and sent me traveling all across Europe, sometimes with friends and colleagues, but mostly alone. Within the first six months of life abroad, I spent about a month and half in hotels in various parts of UK and France, and that was just the beginning. Over the course of two years and two months that I lived in Munich, I’ve traveled to more places than I have ever dreamed of visiting, each trip shaping me in big and small ways, making me the person I am today. Many of these experiences are captured on this blog but equally many aren’t. During the first year that I lived in Germany, I was absorbing (greedily) everything around me without any intentions to capture these memories somewhere outside of my mind. By the time I realized how important it was to preserve these experiences in words and not just photographs, many of amazing moments could no longer be accurately recollected with all the juiciness and freshness they deserved.
Now that I have moved back across the ocean to United States and settled into a new chapter of my life, sometimes I find myself craving that familiar sensation that comes with exploring new cities, meeting new people, trying new food, hearing different languages, and most of all, not knowing what is waiting around a corner. I find that being in an unfamiliar setting, far away from home, surrounded by strangers, is when I am keenly aware of being alive. It’s the feeling that can only be achieved when I am removed from my routine and when I have no real plan for what comes tomorrow. This is when all of my senses are at their sharpest, tuned in to survival mode, forcing me to live in the present moment. Beware though that extended exploring can also be very exhausting both physically and emotionally so even for someone who enjoys traveling immensely, its important to find the right balance.
I leave you with some thoughtful quotes and also with some of my favorite moments from the adventures that did not make it to my blog but which nevertheless deserve to be celebrated because they all played part in making me the person I am today.
“Please be a traveller, not a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what’s right in front of you. Those are the keys to understanding this amazing world we live in.” – Andrew Zimmern
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsch
“If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of feet.” – Rachel Wolchin
London & Northampton
My first ever business trip started with London. To be precise, this is where I flew in, followed by a one and half hour train ride to Northampton, a bleak little town that under no circumstances should be confused with the Hamptons of New York’s Long Island. In my naivety of inexperienced business traveler, I lugged a giant suitcase with a mere two-week supply of clothing from Heathrow to Euston station which involved unforeseen amount of staircases in a claustrophobic labyrinth called The Tube. (In case you’re curious, I did not learn from my mistake and dragged even a larger suitcase on my next trip to France, which sent airpot scales in panic as they showed 35kg instead of allotted 23kg). Northampton had a generally depressing look and feel about it, exacerbated by isolation of the hotel we stayed in, which was surrounded by highways and empty spaces. Its only redeeming quality was a little pasture with little horses (perhaps they were ponies?) that liked to eat whole apples (along with your hand if you were not careful) and a little pond with serene countryside views.
However one of my most favorite moments on this trip were evening trips to local pubs where I learned about “quiz nights” filled with British trivia, which my american colleagues and I failed miserably, tried my very first fish pie, which despite lack of green vegetables (peas don’t count) and an abundance of potatoes, butter, cheese, I loved instantly, and got to taste an unbearably pungent, cloudy apple cider on tap (like most americans, I used to think that an apple cider was just another word for an apple juice). There was something unexplainably comforting to walk into these dim, shabby-looking pubs on chilly September nights, order a fish pie, a cider, and occasionally a brownie, and just sit back and chat with nearby folk who seemed eager to meet the foreigners that we were.
When weekends came around, we eagerly abandoned the English countryside and headed to London where we promptly parted ways to experience the city on our own terms. To be honest, I don’t remember much about that weekend except that I walked everywhere to avoid unfriendly and dirty tube, ate vey expensive food (not meant to imply anything about quality of that food), visited first floor of the British Museum and a portion of the National Gallery, unable to fully explore either due to time constraints, saw all of the landmarks that comprise top ten must-see list, and got fed up with tourists who seemed to be everywhere. By Sunday noon, I was almost delirious from endless lines and crowds and noise, so I cut my London trip short by escaping to St. Albans, a small town just outside of London, which apparently is famous for delicious waffles. The sleepy quiet town was a welcome respite after the crowded city and seemed well worth a short train ride. That is, until I made my way to the Waffle House. The entire population of this town appeared to have lined up at 1pm to get their waffles so I stood for almost an hour, waiting to get a seat (mind you, this is also in days when I did not carry a cell phone with an internet or a book, so my sole entertainment was watching other people). The wait was well rewarded though with a whole grain Belgian waffle made to order, topped with hummus, avocado, rucola and olives. If you’re ever in London, do make a point to visit St. Albans and eat those waffles (they have plenty of sweet choices too). After your meal, go for a stroll through the nearby Roman ruins and be sure to admire an enormous St. Albans Abbey before leaving the town.
French Riviera (Côte d’Azur)
This has been one of my two favorite business trips (Israel is another favorite). Three weeks in the south of France (just on the outskirts of Nice), hotel on a beach with unobstructed view of the Mediterranean sea, delicacies from Galeries Lafayette for dinner just a pleasant walk away, and two full weekends to explore the area. Can you believe it? I couldn’t. Everyday after work, I would go either for an occasional jog but more often a walk on the promenade stretching along one of the most expensive coasts in the world, watching locals enjoy their wine and meals in tiny brasseries with abundance of fresh seafood sold at heart-stopping prices. When it got completely dark, I would sit alone on one of rocky piers, surrounded by crashing waves, moon and stars, feeling exuberant and wondering how did I end up in this luxurious place so far away from home and so…out of this world!
Sadly, life being imperfect and all, I got ‘rewarded’ with hopelessly rainy weekends during the entire three-week stay. It was almost painful to wake up on Monday mornings to find spotless blue skies which would promptly cover up in thick clouds come Friday afternoon and pour buckets of water until Sunday evening. Another surprise that awaited me on Saturday morning when I showed up rather eagerly at a local train station to start my exploring of nearby area is a common feature of French culture – strikes. The station was devoid of any sign of life and it looked rather permanent as far as the weekends concerned. My enthusiasm undeterred, I wandered in search of alternative transport until I stumbled upon a deserted bus stop. As a side comment, I had no phone, no map, no compass, and absolutely no french language skills. I did however have determination and a sense of adventure which were eventually rewarded with a bus pulling up to my stop with ‘NICE’ written across. So I got on the bus, squeezed amongst french people, and submitted myself to the unknown. That “unknown”, coincidentally, took me that day not just to the center of Nice, but also to Monaco, where I visited an amazing Oceanographic Museum (which I found by following random people who had maps and big cameras), and to Menton, a very old, small town almost on a border with Italy, where in order to find city centre, I had to constantly keep track of which side the sea was on (since there were no tourists to follow and all I knew is that I traveled somewhere east). After finding my way back to hotel that day, I realized that I discovered something I did not know I had in me – a sense of adventure and longing for exploring on my own.
Coming from snow-covered Munich for a weekend in January, I was bathing in endless sunshine and warmth, noting with amusement that most locals were featuring consistnetly dark, bleak clothing despite spring-like weather. I remember walking through the famous La Boqueria (fresh market) and getting yelled at by a vendor for taking a photo of her produce display. At this market, I also feasted on a plate of freshly-caught and grilled seafood (I was not a full vegetarian yet) with crisp white wine for brunch. The trip had also memorable dinners at unassuming places serving big pots of delicious mussels and tapas with brie, apple and anchovies, all of which had to wait until 9pm at night to be served. The highlight of the trip was a visit to Sagrada Familia which is unlike any church I have ever seen, resembling perhaps a futuristic vision of a place of worship where Gothic architecture took a walk through a forest. Walking down inside one of the four Basilica’s towers was by far the most dizzying experience of my life!
To be continued!