The magic of a sunrise

12 08 2015

When stuck in the grip of jet-lag, I often wonder if humans are really fit for transcontinental air travel. Sitting in a large shiny metal tube for up to 10 or 12 or 15 hours, moving at close to the speed of sound, traversing vast distances at 6 miles above the earth’s surface with no regard for the landscapes, peoples and cultures below. I suppose it’s the most efficient way of getting from point A to point B, when point B happens to be about 5,000 miles away. But it’s tough on the body and the soul.

There are days and trips when jet-lag has no power over me. Exhausted by the emotions and the anticipation of the trip alone, I arrive home, sink into my own bed, thankful for the peace and quiet of not having a carpet of noise produced by four CFM56-5C4/P engines thrusting the metal tube across the sky. I sleep the sleep of the dead.

This morning, though, I didn’t do so well. Shifting one’s internal clock by nine time zones is truly brutal. My night was over at 430am and my brain went into overdrive, as it usually does when I have about 5 million things on my never-ending to-do list.  It was still dark outside, but a light sheen was starting to illuminate the sky just above the hills beyond my back terrace. And so after about an hour of lying in bed, tormenting myself with problems that need immediate solving, I thought I’d go outside and watch the sun rise.

Night turns into day.

Night turns into day.

There is no sense of urgency at 545am. Mist slowly rises from the meadows below and the crisp, fresh air sits still as time creeps from indigo to light. The slightest crescent of a moon climbs into the sky before disappearing as the sun prepares to burst over the horizon. I sit on my back terrace in the half-light, my cup of tea cools before I can drink it all. A curious grey fox trots up to the fence that separates me from the wilderness, we look at each other for a moment before he loses interest, turns around and trots away.

A solitary single-engine aircraft crosses the clear light blue canvas above me from east to west. Its pilot is probably thinking the same thing that I am or she wouldn’t have made the effort to get up in the middle of the night, prep her airplane and take off at dawn to watch the night turn into day. (Or maybe she has jet-lag too.)

Jet-lag is a tedious by-product of travel. But a sunrise is simply magic.

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Going places in an electric sports car

19 06 2015

About a million years ago, when I was young, naive, and full of optimism and potential, I was chosen for a prestigious fellowship that allowed me to spend a year in Germany, on someone else’s payroll. My alibi was that I was “working”, learning about and looking to advance the transatlantic relationship when I returned to North America. For the sponsoring foundation, nothing less than five stars was ever good enough, and the group had a standing annual invite to visit with the Chancellor and the President of the Federal Republic of Germany.

I was 23 and boy, was I going places.

Fast forward 20 years. I returned to North America two decades after they expected me to return, with a healthy dose of cynicism and significant life experience. I am no longer the bright-eyed bushy-tailed young upstart that I once was… I am now middle-aged and much wiser, and definitely more realistic about my abilities and my station in this world.

But every year the foundation that sponsored my initial expensive jaunt through Europe throws an alumni weekend party that rivals the fellowship itself. There is always crazy, fun stuff to do, interesting speakers, high-profile guests, fantastic food and appropriate adult beverages.

This year’s party included a tour and a test drive in a Tesla.

The factory in Freemont, CA.

The factory in Fremont, CA.

I won’t go into the background of where, what, when… you can research all that on the internet yourself. But one interesting factoid I would like to add: The brain behind this unbelievably fascinating and disruptive new technology is my alma mater’s most famous non-graduate. After two years of business school there (which actually coincided with my own time on the same campus) he said, “Ahhh…. toss it. I have better things to do with my life.”

And he did. And all I can say is… well… wow.

xxx

Hello there, Beautiful!

As you can tell from the photo, the Tesla Model S is a luxury ELECTRIC sports car, and it can go 0-60 miles per hour in just over 3 seconds. I tested that myself on a road where the speed limit was a paltry 35 mph. It seats seven (including two rear-facing child seats in the back trunk), it has every electronic gadget, bell and whistle you can think of… and many, many more that would never even occur to you. The engine has only 17 moving parts and uses no oil… so it never needs to be serviced. The battery pack is located in the floor of the vehicle so as not lose any interior space.

xxxx

The view from inside.

Looks pretty good on me, huh?

Looks pretty good on me, huh?

I posted this photo on my Facebook timeline with the caption: “Test drove my new car the other day.” To my great amusement, a whole slew of my friends actually believed I had purchased a vehicle which costs more to buy than the entire pre-tax salary I earned in 2014.

So I guess I still am going places. Just maybe not the places I thought. Evelynn Starr, 40-something super action heroine and Tesla driver. Nice.

But seriously though, I’m not sure how the esteemed German foundation will top this at next year’s alumni party.





“Alperose” in Colorado

19 05 2015

I have never crossed the Rocky Mountains on land, so therefore I have also never actually physically been in the Rocky Mountains prior to this trip. (I have skied in Lake Louise, but that’s in Canada, so it doesn’t count.) But every October I watch the World Cup ski races from Beaver Creek, which is, for all intents and purposes, Vail.

So when we planned an overnight pit stop in Vail, I was thrilled to finally be able to see what a Rocky Mountain ski resort actually looks like. And, well, it kind of looks like… a ski resort in the Alps, just lots bigger. Here we are in the center of the continental United States and I had no idea I had landed back in Europe. We have “Austria House” next door to a hotel called “Sonnenalp”, which houses a restaurant called “Swiss Chalet”. I have not seen this many Swiss flags since I left the Confoederatio Helvetica more than two years ago.

Ode to the Confoederatio Helvetica!

All this alpine glory (and I will be honest, Vail is beautiful… I wish I could afford to come here during ski season) made us truly hungry for the Old Country. So for dinner we stopped in at “Alpenrose” and chowed down on Wiener Schnitzel with Spätzle followed by warm and heavenly Apfelstrudel.

Oh boy... Yum!!!!

Oh boy… Yum!!!!

Many of you may simply associate the word “Alpenrose” with a bucolic high Alpine meadow, and the cute little flowers that are the definition of clean air, water, nature and… wholesomeness.

I, however, having spent 9 years living in Switzerland, tend to associate it with Swiss rock singer Polo Hofer whose 1982 song by the same name (sung in a Bernese Swiss German dialect, understandable only to those who have grown up speaking it, like my husband, who translated it for me) has become a de facto national anthem. It is played/sung/karaoke-ed at pretty much every festival/concert/birthday party/wedding/graduation/funeral in Switzerland.

It tells a fairly simple story, really: A summer love between a hiker and a lady-friend, set on one of those bucolic mountain meadows amid those cute little flowers. When the fall comes, it starts snowing and she takes off. And every time he looks up to those Alps, he remembers her and wishes it wasn’t so.

As we finished up our Apfelstrudel in Vail, I almost half expected to see Polo himself walk out of the kitchen crooning, “Alperooooooose chöme mir i Sinn…..! Alperooooooose sy das gsy denn…. Alperooooooose müesse das gsy sy….. Wo näbe üs im Höi gläge sy!”





Seeing “home” through a different lens

5 07 2012

It was Independence Day this week, the day when all red-blooded ‘Mericans – at home and abroad – celebrate with fireworks and barbecues and the red-white-and-blue. On July 4th 236 years ago a bunch of smart guys in wigs and knickerbockers told the Brits to go stuff it, and founded their own country.

Recycled t-shirt.

I am also one of those who celebrated with a slab of seared beef and a fine bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon. But I live overseas. No fireworks show on TV or outside my window, not even a sparkler within reach. But that makes me no less American. The U.S. is my home, Europe is where I am currently living.

Why? It just kind of happened that way. I finished my Master’s degree in 1992, just as the first George Bush was wreaking havoc on the economy. I couldn’t find a job at home so I took off and found a career elsewhere. But I have every intention of returning someday.

So for the past 20 years I have observed life in America from across the pond, sometimes with amusement and sometimes with disillusionment. Sometimes with envy and sometimes with sadness. Often, I wonder just how much it has changed in these years I have lived abroad, and if I will ever feel at home there again.

An squabble on Facebook overnight prompted me to think about this once again, intensely. A FB friend of mine, surely blinded by the sudden rediscovered patriotism that hits every American squarely in the gut as s/he watches fireworks over the Washington Mall and hears emotional renditions of the Star Spangled Banner, posted this comment:

Watching the DC July 4 show on TV. Every year it overwhelms me. I am honored and proud to be an American. Can someone explain to me why we are now trying to become Europe? We have fought long and hard for the freedoms and privileges of this beautiful, free country!

A wise woman friend of hers responded a short time later:

I don’t think I follow you. I think we’re just trying to secure an equal opportunity for a happy and healthy future for ALL our citizens, not just the wealthy ones.

It was July 5th by the time I saw these and added my own two cents:

Not quite following either… Last time I looked, Europe was also beautiful and free… Wouldn’t be living here if it wasn’t!

Upon which I got this slap in the face from the original poster:

The economics don’t work. And the resulting entitlement is disastrous. My immigrant grandparents would be disappointed.

And I’m thinking … “Lady, have you ever even been to Europe? Do you even know what the hell you are talking about? Could you locate Europe on a map? And your immigrant grandparents – they probably had really good reasons for leaving Europe during the Second World War… sooooo… what’s your point, exactly?”

This same FB friend already reproached me last week for celebrating the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare, writing something to the effect of: “Those of us who have to pay aren’t happy about this at all.”

Of course, this could just be a single slanted opinion from a single self-centered person. But I get the sneaky feeling that there are a whole bunch of folks in the U.S. who think this way.

So I am asking myself today – what happened to the solidarity and the kindness and the helpful, open, optimistic and accepting attitude I always remember Americans by? What happened to the mutual support, the looking out for one another, the spontaneous neighborliness and the caring for strangers that I remember from growing up in a small community in the Northeast? What happened to them? Where did they go?

Maybe I just need to de-friend this person on FB. But when I finally do find a way to live and exist in the United States again, with some kind of financial security, when I find a job I can live off of, with guaranteed health insurance and a pension that I will work hard for, that will still be there when I retire, whenever and wherever that may be: is this the kind of selfishness and ignorance I’m going to have to deal with? Is everyone like this? Will I even recognize this place anymore? This place I’ve always called “home”?





Gigathlon 2012 by the numbers

2 07 2012

Our mountain-biker said it best, just after he crossed the finish line covered from head to toe in mud: “All you have to do is shut off your brain.”

Of course, he was talking about the biking leg of Gigathlon 2012, this past weekend’s athletic extravaganza in the Swiss midlands, and about how torrential downpours and impending darkness turned his route into a rather messy and slippery lottery.

Our mud-splattered mountain-biking hero after crossing the finish line.

(The second part of the sentence was: “Let go of the brakes, point the bike downhill and hope there is no tree in front of you.” Our swimmer responded: “That bit about the brain – that’s the crucial difference between men and women.”)

But what he said really was valid for all of us who made up the “Flying Five,” a rag-tag group of over-39 amateurs, tossed together by fate, self-discipline and the ambition to overcome physical and psychological limits. Our goal: to swim, cycle, skate, mountain-bike and run to the point of exhaustion, to complete the two-day endurance race 1) uninjured and 2) within the allotted time frame.

And we did both, crossing the finish line together at 11pm on Sunday evening, 40 1/2 hours after the starters’ gun went off. We had spent two days competing in extreme weather conditions – day one was hot and humid, day two blessed us with fog, rain and hail – and sleeping in a tent whipped by one of Switzerland’s most destructive overnight thunderstorms in years.

There were many times in the past couple of days when we all just shut off our brains.

Sunday morning, 730am: wet, wet, wet.

You read about my preparation for this year’s race a few weeks ago, and now I could give you a play-by-play like I did last year, with the highlights and low-lights, the dramatic moments of pain and agony and the equally dramatic moments of indescribable adrenaline-induced euphoria. Gigathlon 2012 had all that too, trust me. But this time I will just stick to the numbers; they also tell the story of our exceptionally active, life-affirming weekend.

First the team:

Hours, minutes and seconds the five of us were underway in competition:  30:27:37

Hours, minutes and seconds the winning team beat us by: 11:24:00

Rank at the end of day one (out of 1,000 “teams of five”): 756

Final rank after two days of competition: 723

Distance skated, swam, mountain-biked, run and cycled: 460km/287.5mi

Temperature on Saturday: 34 C/93.2 F

Thunderstorms experienced on Sunday: 3

Beers consumed on Saturday: 2

Beers consumed on Sunday: 8

Accidents: 0

And I know you people also want to hear about my personal statistics for the weekend, so here goes:

Distance skated: 92km/57.5mi

Hours slept on the campground (two nights): 6

Times I felt like quitting on Saturday: 4

Times I felt like quitting on Sunday: 0

Ball bearings trashed: 16

Accidents witnessed: 5

Pasta meals consumed: 3

Sports energy gel tubes consumed while skating: 3

Blisters: 4

Toenails lost: 1

Hours slept after getting home (one night): 11

**********************

Team Flying Five….. before…..

…. and after.

A HUGE, HUGE thank you to: Martina – our team captain and tough-as-nails cyclist, Raphaela – our running goddess, Beat – our meerkat-like mountain-biker, and Reto – our swimmer who rescued the team’s ranking on both days. You guys were a whole lot of fun to be around, even when the things got really, really tough. You were the reason I kept on going.

(Anyone up for Gigathlon 2013?)





Sir Bob rocks my world

7 06 2012

As a 42-year-old, there is not much that rocks my world anymore. I have seen quite a lot of it and become rather cynical about many things. But this week, my world was definitely rocked.

How often do you get the opportunity to meet a childhood hero? Okay, as a journalist I had more of an opportunity than most to experience powerful politicians, sports figures and movie stars, for example, in action, live, with my own eyes, in front of the lens of my camera.

But yesterday, I encountered someone whom I have looked up to and admired from afar for almost 27 years. That’s two thirds of my life.

Do you remember where you were on July 13th, 1985?

On July 13th, 1985, I was a teenager, and I woke up to a glorious summer Saturday in Vineland, New Jersey – about 30 miles south of Philadelphia – on which I would play in my first (and, it would turn out, my last) tennis tournament. I was swiftly smoked off the court, 6-0, 6-0. My mother had scheduled a yard sale; we were about move house yet again and she was on a mission to clear out useless clutter from our garage, our closets and our lives.

But something else happened that day… not too far away, in fact, just down the road in Philadelphia. Something that had global reach and global consequences.

Do you remember Bob Geldof? (Now “Sir Bob” to us mortals.) The guy who rallied his musician friends and family to fight poverty, drought and famine in Africa. His “Do they know it’s Christmas” LP was the very first piece of vinyl I purchased with my own money. Same guy who organized simultaneous blockbuster charity concerts in Philly and London on July 13th, 1985: Live Aid.

Remember?

I met Sir Bob Geldof yesterday, live and up close.

Almost 30 years on, he is now over 60, looking a little the worse for wear, but still rallying the masses with personal, passionate, inspirational messages, delivered extemporaneously, and unconventionally. A scandal here and a bit of outrage there always accompanied him on his journey.

But that never stopped him from his goal of changing the world, a single opinion at a time. With much noise, and little subtlety.

Last night he spoke to an international group of 200 high-level corporate executives from the chocolate industry, government officials and NGO representatives at a five-star Swiss mountain resort. At the industry’s invitation, he spoke about its responsibility to the regions of Africa, Asia and South America from which it sources its cocoa, and where its farmers eek out a precarious existence at the mercy of the weather and the global terminal markets. He spoke about deprivation and dependence, the need for ecological as well as social sustainability for communities ravaged by natural and man-made disasters, AIDS and hopelessness. He spoke about taboo topics like human trafficking, child labor, deforestation, abject poverty and exploitation.

He held up a mirror to the industry, and told all of those important folks in the room exactly what he thought of it. While he acknowledged that all of us are, generally, good people (probably), there are a lot of things our companies continue to do that are absolutely disgraceful. And that in the future, something must change.

We always blame it on “the system” when really, “the system” is every individual.

And the future, well, the future is now.

Geldof was in fine form, using the F-word a good dozen times in 45 minutes. I sat in the cheap seats and enjoyed every minute.

After his speech and a photo op, the event’s organizers invited him to join them for dinner. He declined, adding: “I just want to go get drunk now.”

Just a regular Irishman.

Rock on, Sir Bob. You are my hero.





The mighty race called Gigathlon

29 05 2012

Today in a month is the first day of Gigathlon 2012. For those of you who remember my heroic efforts at last year’s event, you will shake your heads and cry for me. For those of you who do not, here are the stories from before and after.

Gigathlon is a Swiss invention, and encompasses every hobby-athlete’s worst nightmare: five disciplines (swimming, running, mountain-biking, road cycling and inline skating), performed on two days (including two nights sleeping in a tent on a campground), in the midst of mountains. There are three categories: single (the serious nutsos), couple (similar nutso-potential, divided by two) and team of five (mostly sane, mostly rational individuals). I am a team-player and as you know, I skate.

Final equipment check before hitting the road

Gigathlon 2012 is, at first glance, a somewhat tamer version of last year’s event, where as a team, we climbed 2,500 more altitude-meters (8,000 feet) than Mount Everest is high. This summer’s event takes place in the Swiss midlands (as opposed to the Alps) and is, at least as far as the inline skater is concerned, seemingly civilized. It’s like they took last year’s two skate-legs and ironed them flat. But what the routes are lacking in altitude difference they make up in lateral distance. If I make it safe through the two days, I will have skated nearly 100 kilometers (60 miles) in less than 36 hours.

Take a moment to think about that because I don’t really want to.

My team this year comprises three women (road cyclist, runner and moi) and two men (mountain-biker and swimmer). We call ourselves the “Flying Five” and our bib number is 1984 (a very good year, for me at least). Our average age is, I’ll say, late-30ish. It just got bumped up a notch yesterday because I turned 42.

Last summer the skaters had the privilege of kicking off the event on both race days, giving me a wake-up call at 0-dark-30 two days in a row. While 4,000 other gigathletes were still snoring in their tents on the campground, visions of energy drinks dancing in their heads, we 1,000 or so skaters were busy tightening wheels by flashlight, strapping on protective equipment, lining up in front of the porta-potties and limbering up sore and aching muscles.

(Let’s just say I ain’t no great fan of camping.)

In this year’s race, “Urban Saturday” for me will begin at 4am. Again. Grrr. And off I go, for 52 kilometers (32.5 miles).

Yellow = skater, blue = swimmer, black = mountain-biker, red = road cyclist, green = runner.

At least I get to sleep in on Sunday, when I am the third of the five relay athletes in my team. I shall certainly be celebrating, on “Celebrating Sunday,” for another mere 40 more kilometers (25 miles).  Piece of cake.

Follow the yellow brick road…

The Flying Five aim to finish the race uninjured, and within the time limit (ie. daylight). I have taken Monday off from work, just in case we need a little longer than planned.