Sunday, May 7, 2017

A year of learning.

It’s been quite a while since we’ve talked, dear friends. I suppose there are always reasons and excuses for my blog silence. But in the end, I have to make sure you all know that I strive to not stress myself out because of a need to conform to expectations of my audience. I am so grateful to know that you are out there, reading this, whoever you may be. But my blog is a safe space for me to express the things that I suppose could also land in a diary – but in a much more structured and articulate way.

What has been going on in my life lately? Well. What a question. The last year has been one of the most developmental parts of my (semi-) adult life. I have learned, grown, changed and finally feel like I have found a place where I am happy. (I’m not talking about a physical place, more of a temporal one.) Before we get into the long story of my journey to this place, let me catch you up on where I currently am and what has inspired me to write this post.

Currently, I’m in a train (omg what a surprise) returning home from a long, successful AFS weekend. It was the Constanze – the national training event for volunteers. For me, however, it was the third of three seminars in the AFS Leadership Fellows course that I participated in. We had spent the past year learning about the possibilities within leadership as well as the ways that we as individuals prefer to lead. It was a group of incredibly inspirational people from whom there was so much to learn! The weekend was full of intense yet educational discussion and friendly snuggles – of course.

It is after weekends like this that I sit and reflect on what I have learned, who I am and what I strive for. And a few of those things are exactly what I want to share with you now. I have had so many experiences to reflect on in the last year.

A new semester:
As usual, the winter semester was in full swing by the middle of October. I was feeling strong and motivated. I was inspired by my friends and enjoyed going to class. There was so much energy in me and so much excitement to be one step closer to my degree. But as the weeks drew on, the fog around me began to grow. I felt like things were going downhill but I couldn’t identify why. I don’t think it was ever caused by one individual factor. By the time the New Year rolled around, I was exhausted from school. I was frustrated, resentful and unhappy – all of which led to a pretty darn miserable time. I had much less time for the boat and was very focused on achieving my academic goals with flying colors – not realistic when combined with all the other influencing factors.
Every semester ends in a stressful and strained few weeks of exams. And this semester was no different. I did not achieve my goals and pass all the exams I wanted to. Instead, I felt like I was surviving and struggling to do the bare minimum.

Although February always tended to be my favorite month (good skiing snow, birthdays of so many friends, spring on the horizon), it was tainted by illness. One stomach bug after cold after period kept me tied to my bed. Even now, I can feel my body struggling because of this phase of pure weakness – by which I mean that I spent so much time recovering that my body grew weaker. The end of the month brought with it the biggest change in the last three years: I moved to Berlin.
There are cities around the world with these incredible reputations of culture and vibrancy. Which is good for those of us who thrive on the bustle of the city. But I do not. I still struggle with the sheer masses of population around me. Both the variety and the commonalities overwhelm me simply because there is no escape. The power of this city is always present. But I began my time in this new subletting the room of a roommate of a friend. I had never seen the place and didn’t know the rest of the people I was living with before the day I moved in. Tired, stressed and vulnerable I started a new life.

My safe space:
As time moved on, I began to carve out my hole in the city. My little world surrounded by the energy of so many dreamers. Mid March I moved into my very own apartment: one room, bath, balcony and built-in kitchen. It takes me 15 minutes to get to work and I feel safe at home. Both emotionally and physically. The first days in my own apartment were a relief but it wasn’t until this last week that I have really begun to thrive. My apartment gives me the space to be alone and be my best me. But my work is the space where my mind can thrive and work in collaboration. I have fallen in love with my job and although there is so much to learn, I finally feel at home. I am challenged and supported; I am learning and teaching; I am creating something exciting that I am not doing out of a sense of responsibility but out of a pure desire to do so.

And what have I learned? I have learned that I am myself and no one else. And the most important part of that is that I am the only one who has any say on if I ever change who I am. There will always be people around you who judge or critique you. But do you? There will be people who want you to change. But do you want to? You are the only one who can live your life and are the only one who needs to be happy with the way that you live it. We are not on this world to hurt others but also not necessarily to support others. I believe that by being our best selves we can come together to create the best world for each of us.

If there is one thing I hope I never forget, it is that I am so thankful for the experience I have with the billions of people with whom I share this earth. But in the end, my own mind is the one that I fall asleep next to. And we must get along.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Word Choice

A thought just fluttered through my mind. It was profound. At least to me.

There are a few areas of life that I have always drawn back from: the artistic ones. Things like music, painting, creating, even cooking. I spent time playing cello, making jewelry and doing a few doodles, but to be honest, creativity scared me. Now that I am an adult (or something) I can confidently say that I was scared of being judged on the results of my creativity. Art class never seemed like a place to explore and be free. It was a competition. At least, that was the message I somehow received. And so, as the years went on, I stopped being creative. I stopped doodling on my notebooks and I stopped trying to join the choir and I stopped playing cello in groups. Why? Because I was scared. Of not being good enough.

Now the basic fear of judgement is one that every person experiences and learns to handle eventually. I, too, have worked to decrease its impact on my life. And I'm pretty happy with my progress. But maybe there is a way to make this easier for the young people in our lives.

My, how talented you are! Wow, you have such a gift. You are so lucky to be so good at this.

This is what we tell people. This is what we tell people who are creative. Our words, although meant as compliments, portray a kind of uncontrollable power that has given this person: their ability to be creative. We are pushing the idea that you are born being able to sing, paint, or play. You either are good at being creative or... you didn't receive that gift at birth.

What this means to me and my mind is that the hard work that creative people put into their creations is seen as meaningless. Or rather, it is forgotten. We assume that painting is a skill you either have or do not, not one that you train for. We don't congratulate people on the hard work and the endless hours that they have given. We congratulate people on having been lucky enough to receive a gift from fate. And how disrespectful is that? I know, it's not on purpose. We don't always mean what we say. But an opera singer should be praised for the work that they do to get to where they are just as much as an doctor.

I admit, I believe that some skills come easier to some people. That's just the way things are. But need that shape our perception of their hard work? No creator has gotten to where they are without hard work, for which every person deserves praise.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Homesickness: Top Ten

The top ten things that make me homesick to think about (in no particular order):

1. Food. Most specifically, the favorite restaurants that my friends, family, and I regularly visit in Anchorage. The Spenard Roadhouse, Middle Way, Kaladis... I miss a delicious burger, medium-rare, with exciting combinations (like bacon blue cheese) that you just don't find here. Mmm, bacon jam! The pizzas on the menu at Moose's Tooth have ingredients that make my mouth water and that show a level of culinary creativity that I am just plain missing here. What is not to like about 20+ syrups to choose from to make a latte or Italian soda more interesting? OH. And frozen yoghurt at the airport. 

2. Swimming laps in the West High pool. After so many years of swim practice, the West pool has a special place in my heart and remains the most meditative place. I miss the 5am bike ride through the snow to empty parking lot and the morning greetings between the other lap swim regulars. Admittedly, I prefer to drive to the pool these days, but the feeling of counting strokes, breaths, and flip turns is positively delightful.

3. Driving down Minnesota Drive late a night with the local radio on. Wherever I may be headed, I love to enjoy the feeling of my car under me while the few cars on the road dance with each other between the lanes. And after a week I know every song by heart and can sing along, with no one around to hear it. 

4. Geographical formations. One year, a friend was visiting me in Alaska and when we turned from our neighborhood onto Northern Lights going East she gasped. The mountains feel like protective giants watching over the city. I miss rolling my bike out the door an pushing up and down the hills of the coastal trail. I miss seeing the boundary where the city slipped into the ocean in the '64 earthquake and feeling the intense power of the earth. I miss looking out across massive glaciers and admiring their everlasting patience.

5. Quilts. My mom is a quilter. Have you ever seen one of those beautiful, colorful quilts that makes you think of curling up in a little cabin in the woods? Well I was lucky enough to have a mama who made me one when I was just a little kiddo. And then she made me like 3 more. And then there were the ones for the living room, ones for the TV room, ones for the guests, ones for my parents' bedroom, ones for friends, ones for teachers, ones for the cabin. I have no clue how many quilts we have or how many have been made in our house (we sometimes had quilting parties). That feeling of curling up under a warm blanket on a cool winter evening is so much more wonderful when you are curling up under a blanket of love and care. And it's pretty.

6. Orienteering. My second-favorite sport involves maps, compasses, mud, and bug spray. Every Wednesday of the summer season the Arctic Orienteering Club holds orienteering meets. They hangs flags in obscure corners of the forest just so that you can sprint through the underbrush and wade through wetlands in a race with 30 people you may never see during the event to try and find those hidden flags. Navigation has always excited me, and although it's pretty cool to plot courses for our ship, I really miss trying to interpret which 3-yard hill could be that one green patch on the map while running through nature.

7. Solitude. Anchorage is a city, but Alaska is a vast wilderness. There is something fascinating about traveling for miles and not seeing another soul. I love planning where you will get gas because eventually you will be two far from a gas station to think twice. I love walking over tundra in the foothills of Denali and seeing no man-made trails around. I love the internal quiet that comes over you when you realize the sheer expanse of nature around you.

8. Coffee. When I watch someone make a shot of espresso I try to gauge how many pounds of pressure they are using to press down the grounds. I watch the shot glass filling and try to see the three layers of important stuff. I love how Alaska is home to so many little drive-through coffee shacks that I can make pro/con lists and collect punch cards from my favorites. And although I really like my plain-old coffee or simple latte, I love seeing the seasonal creations and crazy names. Besides, coffee is yummy. AND there's something about coffee in Germany that is... just different. And don't you dare say something about how 'well that's because coffee much stronger in Germany' or whatever. Cuz no. Coffee is more complicated than that. And deserves more respect than that.

9. Fashion. Well, Alaskan fashion. Alaskans are not know for good fashion sense. Rather... the opposite. However, we have a few things down: colorful skirt/tights/clogs combinations; winter skirts (yeeeah!); hand-made, local jewelry; winter sandals (as long as there's no fresh snow, why not?); mukluks, kuspuks, Alaska Grown, State-Fair-products and everything Alaskan.

10. Winter. Yeah, this one makes sense, right? sheesh. Alaskans. Did you know that when the first snow comes I tend to run outside and dance around? I have run out of class, AFS events and peaceful evenings in my apartment to do this. Snow makes me feel cozy inside. The crisp winter air is a fresh reminder of how beauty hides everywhere we look. Have you ever looked outside your window in the dark of winter and seen the brightness that snow shares with the world despite the darkness around it. Have you ever seen the vast white wilderness around you sparkle before your eyes? Ugh. I love squeaky snow under my boots, I love frost on my eyelashes, I love the sight of undisturbed fresh show on the street. And I really miss putting on my skis, V2ing across the stadium and feeling like I am flying...


Five Year Anniversary

Today I am sitting in the train. It is a typical regional train. Red outside, blue checkered seats, grey floor. It is almost empty as it rolls through the hillside, passing the occasional river and many many fields. This area is a place I call home. This train goes to Dresden and is one I have taken many times before. Today is no different except that it is the anniversary of the start of my exchange year.

Five years ago I met with 91 other AFS students heading to Germany.

The arrival. 
We all wore the same blue shirts, and each person had a number to make roll-call easier. The blue mass squeezed through check in and security. We all plopped down at our gate, a group full of total strangers yet instant friends. On the plane we were seated alphabetically. Thankfully, this put me next to the one person I actually knew in the whole group. As well as near the only other Alaskan. We were nervous.
The plane landed in Frankfurt we started cheering and clapping. And boy, were we nervous. Some kids had spent the trip crying, others were shaking, but all seemed affected by this intense energy that swarmed around us: we were moving abroad.

Someone asked what 'baggage claim' was in German and we were suddenly struck with the fear of being completely lost in a foreign airport in a foreign language. But the AFS volunteers ferried us to our bags and then to the meeting hall where we waited for our trains. I remember wondering what 'Hbf' stood for. It was on my name tag: Dresden Hbf. When the time came to catch my train my group was taken down through the maze of escalators to the fancy fast trains. Here, I made my second friend. Among the 10 of us waiting on the track, there was one other tall, light-haired and awkwardly pale girl who was also dying in the heat. Somehow we knew we had something in common - a home in a place with snow.

Four hours later, excited and exhausted, our group stepped off the train in Dresden Hbf. My new friend had asked our chaperone how you say 'it was nice to meet you' in German. That was the first sentence either of us learned. My host parents picked me up. On the drive to my new home they asked questions and I answered as best I could with the ten words of German that I remembered. I was completely terrified as we sped down the Autobahn at 140kmh. I had never driven that fast. 

The reflection.
My exchange year has three important anniversaries. The beginning, the new family, and the end. Although the last two are much more emotional anniversaries for me, this first one brings with it the weight of the decision I had made. At 16 I packed my bag and hugged my family goodbye. Two years later I did it again. Am I crazy? Why would I get up and leave?
People regularly ask me about how it is, living abroad. The expat lifestyle isn't for everyone and it sure is scary if you've never done it. Many people say 'it is too much'. It is too much stress, too hard, you miss too much, and it is not worth it. Especially at a young age. Around me are hundreds of young people who long to be abroad but who think (or are told) that they are too young, that they will miss something important, that they can always go later on.

I say they are wrong.

Going abroad changed my life.

The growth.
Yeah yeah, going abroad changed my life. We've all heard that before. There's a foreign language, there is a different culture of hobbies and activities, there are different family traditions and a different school structure. Wohoo. What's so life-changing about that?!? Perhaps I can explain. 

Five years ago, in 2011, I had just finished up my sophomore year of school. That year, I taught a class in a subject I knew nothing about, managed the school coffee shop, had my first positive relationship, worked out at least 4 hours a day, and was kicking butt in the 100yard backstroke. Those were the things that everyone could see. But what I remember? I was afraid everyone at school thought I was a self-centered bitch because of my role at the coffee shop. I was afraid that everyone in the class I taught could see that I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't know if my friends really liked me and if they did, I couldn't comprehend why. I hated the walk from the locker room to the water because everyone could see the stretch-marks dancing across my thighs.

I was not self-confident, at least not on the inside. I put up a facade to the outside world in an attempt to hide the reality in my mind. I doubted myself and compared myself relentlessly to the unrealistic standards I perceived. I had trouble trusting anyone - adults, friends, myself. All in all, I guess some of it was just a teenager surrounded by other teenagers. But honestly? It hurt. And it felt a lot more difficult than it was supposed to.

Enter the exchange year. What is better for a person stuck in solitude and self-doubt than a year in a completely alien world? Uhm... well, that's not always how it works. It's kind of a hit or miss situation. If the person learns the right coping tools, they can blossom as the overcome these challenges. And I did. 

In Germany I learned to accept who I was. I explored new things and tested my personal boundaries. I learned to trust in the world around me, and more importantly, in myself. I was self-sufficient on a practical level before I went abroad. But now I was self-sufficient on an emotional level, too. 

The message.
Going abroad is the hardest fucking thing in the world. Seriously. This phase of difficulty is intense in the beginning and begins to wane into manageable moments as time passes. Each person experiences it differently and it is influenced by the person's surroundings. But the skills that a person develops in the journey to survive are innumerable, irreplaceable, and invaluable. I'm not even sure I know how to describe to you just what people learn while abroad... You're going to have to try it yourself. 
And here's what is most important to me: 

Going abroad is beneficial at any point in your life. But in those teenage years you are full of inner turmoil, taking in and processing information and a heightened rate, and still forming your sense of self. And that is what makes all the difference. It multiplies the benefits of going abroad by so much. soooo so much. 

Going abroad changed my life. And it still is changing my life.

P.S. Okay, I wrote this a few weeks ago, just getting around to posting it now. My anniversary is September 10th, for those of you interested. And also, I understand that going abroad isn't right for everyone. I completely agree. But I don't have much faith in your ability to judge for whom time abroad is beneficial. I don't have faith in my ability, either. Because that is something that we simply cannot judge. Only time can tell.


Friday, July 29, 2016


On a ship, especially a traditional sailing ship, there is a lot of work to be done by hand. It is a place where most people's pockets are predictable. A pocket knife, a flashlight, an extra piece of string. In some cases a lip balm, hand cream and sunscreen.

A less universally applicable tool, the Marlspieker (Marlinspike) can also be found on the belt of many working sailers. Especially on mine. This tool is simple, either of metal or wood. It is commonly used to pry open wire or ropes for a splice, to open knots or to give the user a better grip when tightening knots.
Recently I learned that there are many variations of this tool, each with a different purpose and each with a different name 

As an Alaskan, I already had a nice selection of pocket knives. But a few months ago, a dear friend gave me a wonderful gift: a handmade Fitten, (fid, in English) which a young sailor of his called a Knotenaufmachstäbchen (little knot open stick... or something.) It is practical for everything and is probably my favorite tool, aside from my pocket knife. 

Here is a picture of the finished product. My very own :) it is well-loved and has been very handy in a number of situations. It is also very practical for vampire slaying. I couldn't have received a more perfect gift. Thank you, T.