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.





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?)





Back to work!

12 02 2012

So last Thursday I started a new job.

Fortunately, it’s a really great job, with a lot of good benefits and an interesting, wide-ranging scope, and I really hope that I can keep it for a while. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal the name of my employer here because, well, I’m just a little paranoid about these things.

It’s a corporate job, and one which finds itself at the crossroads where doing good business meets doing good for society and the environment. It’s in the relatively new, wide-open field of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Companies are finally figuring out that it helps to consider the ethical consequences of their actions, rather than steering directly to maximum profit and ignoring the world around them, or the problems they may be creating.

Taking responsibility.

CSR is a controversial place. Some (neanderthal) corporate executives complain that it’s an expensive waste of money with zero return on investment. Some (dogmatic) non-profit organizations on the other hand complain that companies are engaging themselves in areas in which they have no expertise – and are going to screw it up anyway. Or that their efforts are not sincere. Or that they are interested only in the public relations benefits (also known as “greenwash”).

I’m very aware of the quandary CSR practitioners find themselves in. Nevertheless, I think there’s a lot to be said for the efforts that are being made. And after all, no single company or person can save the world. My employer has a huge interest in the subject, with a correspondingly significant budget as well.

For me, it’s something completely new. So new that in addition to my (full time) job I will also be attending university courses part-time for the next seven months to get a theoretical grounding in the basics. And that’s another challenge – going back to school almost exactly 20 years after I completed my last degree.

(What do I take with me? A pencil case? Or just a laptop?)

This will be my third career. When I got my Master’s degree two decades ago, I read that this was the direction in which society would be moving: While our grandparents’ generation generally stayed at one employer for many years, members of my parents’ generation changed jobs two, three and maybe even four times during the course of their working lives. My generation would change careers that many times.

Et voilà. Here I am.

This new job is waaaaaayyyyyy outside my comfort zone. In, like, Siberia as far as I am concerned. But judging by the winter we are having, I just also may very well be in Siberia right now. Nothing to be afraid of though, just a matter of dressing warm enough, right?

I know I’m smart (kinda), I know I have my head screwed on right (most of the time, at least), and I know that I have mastered incredibly difficult professional situations before – perhaps not with the greatest panache and elegance, but you don’t get points for style here.

Stay tuned, if you’re interested. This is going to be fun.





I Amsterdam

13 01 2012

So my big brother, S., and I decided to give ourselves (or each other) a Christmas gift: We went to Amsterdam for a long weekend.

It has been more than 15 years since I was last in the city, but it made an impression enough to make it on my “Top 10” list. (Along with, in no particular order:  San Francisco, Berlin, Helsinki, Sydney, Philadelphia Vancouver, Singapore, Toronto and Boston.)

In the meantime, the city has given itself a very catchy advertising slogan: “I amsterdam”.

Nice.

And here I thought “Be Berlin” was pretty cool.

S. is on the meatmarket again, after a failed 10-year relationship-that-turned-into-marriage, which is in its final throes. (The entire Starr family will throw a three-day celebration when all THAT is done and dusted. Stay tuned.)

And what better place to test your self-marketing skills than Amsterdam.

He has been a few times, and on his last visit he discovered a special, secret, by-invitation-and-with-reservation-only bar. It was the highlight of his trip, at which he took the opportunity to tweak his flirting skills. So of course the experience had to be repeated, with his kid sister. (Even though the mere presence of something that looked like a “date” – me – would be insurance enough against scoring any action at all.)

The club is located in an inconspicuous row house on a non-descript street, tucked between a sex shop and kebab kiosk. I walked by it twice without realizing anything was there – to his amusement. The windows are blacked out, and all that distinguishes it from any other abandoned storefront is a single tiny doorbell.

We arrived fashionably late for our 930pm reservation. The staff remembered my big bro and greeted him very warmly, like he was a regular, or an old friend. The two bartenders, already hard at work, stopped to chat with us and offered a round of bourbon on the house. And the Singapore Slings were truly the best I have had in a very long time.

I think this was what was left of the second sling. But it could have been the third.

I have rediscovered evenings out ever since Europe went smoke-free. Thankfully, I no longer come home from a restaurant or a bar smelling like I washed my hair in cigarette ash. So my still-smoker-brother had to occasionally abandon me step outside to get his nicotine fix.

During one of these absences, a man sidled up to a beautiful tall Dutch woman standing at the bar next to me and I overheard his feeble pickup line: “I noticed you since the moment you walked in the door.”

Obviously, a raw beginner. Or someone trying to get back on his dating feet after a looooooooooonnng time. Kind of like my brother. Too bad he wasn’t around to witness the poor fellow crash and burn.

Her eyes opened wide and she said something to the effect of, “Uh, gee, I think I have to go now,” high-tailing it back to her date, a balding banker-type in a monogrammed shirt sucking down his fourth cocktail.

I categorized the performance in the column: “Most spectacular strikeout”.

When my brother returned and I told him the story, he didn’t understand what the big deal was.

Damn…. I’m just hoping his pickup lines are way better than that.





Thanksgiving on the wrong side of the pond

23 11 2011

It’s Thanksgiving week and I am, once again, for yet another Thanksgiving, stuck in Europe. I came here after finishing my Master’s degree expecting to be away from the U.S. for one or two Thanksgivings. I have been away for nineteen, and counting.

Here in Europe, there is no such thing as Thanksgiving, and I must say it is the one day of the year I am physically sick with longing and blind with homesickness. And my European friends, all lovely people for whom I am eternally thankful, just don’t understand.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of all time because there are no expectations attached to it. There is no gift-giving and therefore no disappointment and no fake joy. The joy is (usually) real, and it’s all about just having a great meal together. Food that reminds me of where I come from and who I am. Food that reminds me of my good fortune in this life, so far. Comfort food.

When my father was still alive, he would come visit me at the end of the year. Every September we would have the same phone conversation – should he come at Thanksgiving? Or four weeks later, for Christmas? We always decided on Christmas because then he could hang around for New Year’s Eve too. And he loved being part of a traditional European Christmas over here… it reminded him of his childhood in Germany, a long time ago.

We would turn our Christmas dinner into an “end-of-year” dinner, so that we could celebrate all the holidays we had missed and the ones that were to come in the first part of the new year as well. The centerpiece of our culinary extravaganza was his Thanksgiving turkey. He had been the Master Of The Bird at home since as far back as I can remember, and was always eager to commandeer my mini-kitchen for a whole day, along with all of its tools and appliances.

I would pre-order the turkey from a local supermarket and he would directly import the stuffing and the cranberries in his suitcase.

The Bird, 2002 edition.

Since the amount of food on the table was usually far greater than the two of us could possibly consume in any useful period of time, and the standard European freezer is the size of a shoebox, I invited friends and colleagues over to partake in the gluttonous, succulent feast. Our rallying cry was always: “EAT MORE!” One year we had guests from six different countries, including Palestine, the U.K. and Germany, to name just a few. It was a real United Nations around the table in my little Berlin apartment.

Those were good times with my father, and old and new friends. Those evenings are past and long gone, now, but no one can take the memories away from us.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.  Be thankful, and eat well.