Scrooge, the Grinch and me

23 12 2010

It’s Christmas and I’m not really inspired to write anything witty or, well, inspirational. Sorry. If anything, the spirit of this season-that-will-not-end has made me more cynical and bitter the longer it lasts.

I have been assaulted by Christmas decorations in stores since two weeks before Halloween. Every day I am subjected to multiple renditions of “Come, they told me, parumpapumpum …” and stupid advertising for giving the gift of liposucton or car insurance or 60-inch flat-screen televisions, sung by artificially jolly voices to the tune of “Deck the Halls” or “Let it Snow”. That is waterboarding for the soul and should be declared inhumane. Where are the activists from Amnesty International when you really need them?

This is Florida, people, THERE IS NO SNOW! THIS HELL WILL NOT FREEZE OVER! E-V-E-R! Even if all you Floridians have to get out your fleece gloves and wool caps when the temperature drops to below 65 degrees F (+18 degrees C).

So I’m the Grinch this year. Teaming up with Scrooge… and all the other literary figures that plot to steal/destroy/pillage Christmas. Fine – take it away… make it disappear.

And yes, dear happy parents, if I would have kids, it might be different – even if just for their sake. But remember, kids are often most underestimated by the adults closest to them. Your children will also figure out pretty quickly what is real and what is play-acting. And I’m not just talking about Santa Claus here.

During this festive season of communal commercial cheer (ka-ching!), it takes a lot to actually admit you are miserable. So I’m laying it out here for all to read. I can’t stand Christmas. And this year, I’m particularly sad, frustrated and upset. For myself and for those close to me who have to fight battles no one should be placed in the position to fight, especially not at Christmas. I’m angry at the injustice of it all.

If you also feel this way, its okay, you’re allowed to be grumpy this time of year, even if the rest of the world tells you you’re not. Please don’t be a pressure cooker and keep it all inside.

Just, if you do plan, against better judgment, to spend the holidays hanging around people you’re related to but barely know, it would probably be helpful if you concentrate on fileting the turkey and not each other – by avoiding emotionally loaded topics like politics, religion, unfulfilled expectations, lifestyle choices or hair color.

For me, I’m just hoping the next couple of days will pass quickly so that we can get back to normal and go on living our lives. 2011 seems like a happy number to me – those two 1’s at the end signify to me the best of the best. Number One followed by…Number One!

Somewhere between now and then I promise to climb out of this bottomless pit of grief, self-pity and sadness, and I shall return to inspire you.

Wishing you a peaceful weekend, in whatever form it may take. I will be at an Orlando theme park, escaping reality.

Swiss winter fun

19 11 2010

Now that the first snowflakes have fallen in the lowlands of Switzerland, many of my Swiss friends are making plans for the six months of the year when a grey fog the consistency of cream soup descends upon Zurich. What do they do? Head to higher ground of course. Where the sun shines and the danger lurks.

While I too look forward to enjoying good couple of crisp, clear days above the fog-line in the picturesque mountains during this, my sixth winter here, I now know where I’m capable of holding my own, and where I should just not bother to try. Having grown up in the tropical sunshine of Southeast Asia, I will never be a snow bunny, no matter how much money I spend on the accessories.

Nice try, Evelynn.

Analog to Swiss Summer Fun a few months ago, here are a few of the astounding and crazy things that the locals enjoy paying good money to do during the winter. For more information on any of these, or to create your own wild winter adventure, check out the Swiss Tourism Website.

Alpine skiing – A world cup race on TV is kindergarten compared to what Swiss skiers are capable of on their slopes. No wonder helmet sales are up by something like 500 percent every year.

Cross-country skiing – The skis are much thinner and exponentially more unstable requiring exponentially more strength and coordination to stay upright. And Swiss people don’t just go out for a Sunday ski-stroll. Nonononono. When Swiss people strap on their cross-country skis, they end up doing things like this.

Igloo-building – And here I thought this was just for semi-nomadic native peoples in northern latitudes. No, the Swiss have a thing for building igloos, too. A winter weekend in the mountains is not complete unless you spend part of it constructing your own accommodation and then sleeping in it. Believe me, this is nothing for claustrophobics or folks who chill easily.


Please don't try this at home unless you're an architect.

Ski jöring – For the truly insane. Instructions: Attach skis to feet, attach self to galloping horse.

HA! Yeah, right!

Tobogganing (winter version) – Nothing against some harmless sledding down the slope behind your house. But we are talking serious, professional-grade tobogganing here, on near-frozen tracks many kilometers long, almost vertically down the sides of mountains, while sitting on rickety, unsteerable wooden sleds invented in 1883. This sport is generally done late at night (i.e. in the dark), helmetless, and only after an illegal amount of alcohol has been ingested.

This was an activity at my company’s “Rookie Camp,” a sort of basic training for new employees I attended a few years ago. It was scheduled for 11 p.m. and the toboggan run was a sheet of ice. After narrowly missing a large fir tree in the first turn, and then flying out of control, twisting a knee and landing on my butt in the snow in the second turn, I decided my long-term health was more important than any dumb rite of passage. So I walked the rest of the way, all the while keeping eyes in the back of my head and diving for cover numerous times to avoid others who careened down behind me. At the base, hours later, I found out that one member of the group lost control of his sled, flew off the side of the mountain and ended up in the hospital with a concussion and a gash over his eye.

Peanuts, my Swiss colleagues said. Anything less than a crushed vertebrae gets no sympathy.

Anyone’s Adventure

7 10 2010

There we were on a summer afternoon, an odd couple if there ever was one. Me, the pilot, in shorts and a t-shirt, riding left seat as usual, hands on the controls and concentrating on my cockpit. Snugly nestled into the seat at my right, my first-time passenger, in high-heeled wedge sandals and designer fashion, skeptically eyeing the dials on the instrument panel in front of her. On this day, she was a kind of virgin of the sky, on her first true aviation adventure.

I like taking up first-timers in light aircraft. Especially the veteran air travelers who have often used large airplanes to get from A to B, but never imagined doing this kind of thing for fun. These folks spend their lives at the back of the bus: herded like cattle from one terminal to the next, into long steel transportation tubes, the age of elegance in air travel long gone with the wind. (Unless you fly First Class on Emirates’ new A380. Which no normal person can afford anyway.)

They all have a decidedly lateral perspective on aviation.


Their view.


When they take a seat up front for the first time they gasp at the possibilities that unfold before them. Suddenly seeing the world out of the wide front windshield rather than out a porthole on the side is an entirely new experience that leaves many speechless. Due to anguish or excitement, I haven’t yet figured out.


My view.


In the past, the most complex tasks they had when flying were 1) to decide what they wanted for lunch and 2) figure out the entertainment system. (OK, that’s pretty complex…) When I give them the chance to drive the plane for a little while, they hang on to the yoke with a death grip. It’s funny – a few of them are naturals at flying straight and level. And others are hopeless. There is no in-between.

A first-timer asks fresh questions like: “Why does it feel like we are going so slow?” (As a tailwind propels us and the airspeed indicator shows a whopping 120 knots or 210 km/h.) Or they comment on things about which I have become blasé. “I’ve never seen the world like this before,” they say in awe as we cruise over landmarks they know only from the horizontal.

Those moments remind me how privileged I am.

Mountains are the great attraction of flying in Switzerland. I did my training in a region where the highest peak was maybe 1,500 feet (450 meters) above sea level. You could see the weather come for miles, and the words “downdraft,” “density altitude” and “paraglider” belonged to a foreign language. Exploring the Alps from above brought a new, thrilling dimension to my hobby, along with about a million more things to think about when at the controls of a single-engine piston aircraft.


Our view.


Even when earthbound, my thoughts are often airborne. Whenever my brain registers the hum of an engine overhead, I am programmed to look up. I always wonder what the view is like today from that cockpit. How are the weather conditions? Where is the pilot going and where did she come from? Is she up with first-timers? Or alone for a personal spin? Distancing herself from a worry, and trying to find a solution?

The fog that descends on Zurich for much of the autumn will probably keep me grounded for the next few weeks, but I look forward to taking off on a crisp, clear, sunny winter day when everything sparkles – the snow, the air outside the cockpit and my breath. And maybe I can convince another first-timer to come with me on a fairy-tale adventure like that, so that s/he can discover that other-worldly feeling of true freedom.

Water, water everywhere.

27 09 2010

So it rained. And it rained. And then it rained some more. And then God said, “I don’t think they are wet enough down there in Berlin, so I will let it rain even more.” And it did. And after a day and a half of a nonstop downpour of varying intensity, a few of the 50,000 marathoners thought perhaps it might be time to buy a kayak.

The adverse weather conditions were the real story of this year’s Berlin Marathon. Cloudy but dry until two hours before the skaters started out on Saturday afternoon, the city was a lake by the time they finished.

Yours truly is not a wimp or a quitter, but she has great respect for the elements and the injuries wet streets can cause those underway on eight slick rubber wheels. Any fight you pick with asphalt, you will lose, guaranteed. Any fight you pick with wet asphalt, well, consider yourself a goner. So when it came time to make the big decision – to start or not to start – there really was only one sensible answer: Nope, uh-uh, no way José. Not today, my friends.

However, when it comes to marathons, common sense takes its leave. We all worked too hard and waited too long for this to just not show up on race day.

So here I was in the starting area along with 6,000 skater-colleagues, against better judgment, waiting for the gun. With the streets disguised as rivers, a personal best time was simply out of the question. The conditions demanded a careful, concentrated technique, not unlike walking on eggshells.

Us (skaters) in the rain.

About a third of the way into the race, my skates felt like sponges that had absorbed five extra kilos in water-weight. Each. That’s when the wind picked up and it really started raining.

The first 20 kilometers (13 miles) took me an hour, and just as I was doing the math for the rest of the race the asphalt jumped up to bite me – I lost my grip on a crooked tar seam and went flying.

A split-second later I slithered face-down along the wet, oil-slick streets. The only spectators for my belly-flop were an old guy out walking his dachshund and a few other skaters who swerved to avoid this picture of misery, thanking God it didn’t happen to them.

Sitting on my butt in the middle of the roadway, I checked to see if all body parts were still intact. One knee hurt like I had cracked a kneecap, and I felt a tingling sensation on an elbow. The five-inch bloody gash was kinda gross, but harmless, and for some reason I felt no pain there. I gingerly got up and flicked two dead leaves off the front of my blue-and-pink spandex suit. The white layer of skin I left on the street soon dissolved in the rain. Already soaked through to my underwear from water coming from the sky, I had now also bathed in water on the ground.

Regaining my stride and once again picking up good speed, I skated over the half-marathon mats and a mantra formed on my lips. I shouted out: “You will not get me, you lousy, wretched, flooded streets!! YOU WILL NOT GET ME!”

Fellow skaters glanced over in horror and distanced themselves from this obviously distraught maniac. By kilometer 32 (only 10 more to go – this is way too easy!!!)  I was grinning like I’d escaped from the funny farm. Shortly thereafter, skidding around a corner, I hit the deck again, this time a little harder, with an audience of a few hundred. Dignity, au revior! But what the hell. No one gives up four kilometers from the finish line.

Don’t ask me who won, or in what time, I have no idea. And because I freed myself of the pressure to clock a personal best, I enjoyed every one of those 42,195 meters in the driving rain. It was simply lovely – a confirmation of why I do this. An added bonus: I felt great and barely broke a sweat. Even though I was longer in transit than ever before (more than two hours) it felt like a Sunday walk in the park. It was a chance to believe in myself again.

And yes, you guessed it. The wounds will heal and there is always a next year, too. I will certainly be back for more.

Them (runners) in the rain.

Be Berlin

24 09 2010

So I’m here, wow! Berlin in the autumn. Always a very cool place to be, no matter what the weather or occasion. The city’s marketing slogan – Be Berlin – helps make it almost feel like home again: I will spend the weekend getting reacquainted with the metropole I left six years ago, and getting nostalgic.

It’s been nearly 21 years since the Berlin Wall fell, and we are just a week shy of a united Germany’s 20th birthday. I still get the shivers when I walk through the Brandenburg Gate, more than a decade and a half after my first crossing from west to east – as a young and open-mouthed Cold War capitalist kid in awe of what all this really meant. For so many years the gate had stood beyond a threatening concrete wall and a bunch of mean looking communist soldiers with their fingers on the trigger. The wall and the soldiers are long gone, communism has been replaced by a free market, and I skate through the gate at least once a year. Who would have thought? And that feeling – like this is history in the making – it’s still there every time.

The Brandenburg Gate at sunset on marathon day.

The marathon route is a great sightseeing tour of what is currently probably the most hip and exciting city in the world. It is flat and it is fast. We start with Victory column in our sights, fly past all of the new and old architecture that houses the German seat of government, head down to the colorful culture of Kreuzberg, sweep through Schöneberg past the place where John F. Kennedy proclaimed himself a Berliner, hook around through the rich part of town and back past the consumer temples at SonyCenter into East Berlin again to speed to a finish along the beautifully restored museums of Unter den Linden.

The crowning moment comes last, as it should, when our legs are about to give way and our brains are producing endorphins like it’s the end of the world. The Brandenburg Gate comes into view at the end of a long tunnel – black having crept into our peripheral vision – and that last kilometer is the longest kilometer since the beginning of time. Once through the arch and with the fuel tank on empty, we sprint to the finish line on fumes and adrenaline alone. The cheering crowd gives us just enough energy to smile for the cameras.

Weep now. There will be no time for that tomorrow.

A year ago I was nursing a physical injury, and just watching the 50,000 athletes take to the streets inflicted an emotional one, too. I couldn’t bring myself go to the finish area to see the triumphant gladiators sail to a personal best or celebrate the wonder of just being alive. It was just too painful not to be one of them.

This year (barring a freak accident or food poisoning in the next 36 hours) I am back among the living, breathing mob of ascetics and health nuts, sadomasochists and fitness freaks, all seemingly immune to pain and fear of failure, every single one of them outfitted with a God-given will of iron.

Aside from the iron will, none of the rest of those words apply here. I am just another amateur, one of thousands, millions even, who’s found a way to feel free and stay healthy as I move into the prime of my life (40 is the new 30, remember?). I don’t do running, I skate. And that is what I will do tomorrow, rain or shine, through the streets of Berlin.

And I will own those streets. I will be Berlin.