Happy Anniversary and the Lessons that Come with it!

I’m hanging on like the last leaves of autumn

But I’m coming through like the first shoots of spring

I’m standing outside of

space and timeAnd I’m healing

Believing

“Last Leaves of Autumn” – Beth Orton

Today is Ryan’s and my 8th anniversary. In August we passed our 5th anniversary of living outside the U.S.A. This anniversary is a little strange because Ryan is on a job training event in Amsterdam, and I am home keeping house with Jaspy. Usually I am the one on a solo adventure and he is home with his video games and Jasper. Naturally, I have been feeling contemplative about anniversaries and solo travels and the meaning of fidelity in a marriage.

I should start with the declaration that I love being married. I am immensely lucky to be married to my best friend, but that is not my point here. I love the concept of marriage. I like the idea that Ryan and I will put effort in when times get hard or confusing. I like that more often than not things feel comfortable and natural. I like that we can speak our minds, that we can get a little bitchy from time to time but it passes without leaving scars, that we can even fight and neither one of us fears “it’s over.” There is such joy and depth to growing together. We are both so different than we were 8 years ago, and yet somehow our relationship has expanded around us, instead of constricting one or both of us. I love how we have so much fun, because we prioritize adventures and life experiences.

One of the reasons we get on so well is that while on the surface we don’t have much in common, such as taste in music, movies, food, etc., on a deeper level we have important things in common. We both have a disdain for Southern California culture, a powerful drive to travel and live overseas, and a commitment to support each other in our dreams, something Ryan has particularly excelled at in regards to me. We share a belief in our love for each other, and that our marriage symbolizes and provides structure for this love. We trust each other thoroughly. So while it is weird that Ryan is in Amsterdam on our anniversary, and I miss him dearly, it is also okay.

I sound more confident in these paragraphs above than I have often felt. These realizations about my relationship with Ryan have only come to me in recent months. For nearly three years I have been going on solo travels that have enriched my inner-life in so many ways. The places I have seen and the people I have spoken to have left indelible impressions in my soul. Ryan has been so generous to send me on these trips simply to satisfy my insatiable desire to travel. He never makes me feel bad for leaving him alone, or for the money these trips cost. He believes that by supporting my dreams we are both fulfilled, and that is the most precious gift he can ever give me. I can only hope that I am helping him fulfill his dreams too, though he is much quieter about his than I am about mine. He is much quieter than me in general!

Well, after months and months and half of Europe, my head was so full of experiences that I couldn’t share with Ryan. I would think of something that touched me deeply, such as autumn in Estonia, and it made me feel lonesome in a way I never felt before because my husband and best friend didn’t know what I was talking about. Conversations that were funny or intense fell flat when I repeated them to Ryan. My heart started churning with the guilt I was inflicting upon myself for missing so much time with Ryan, and the absolute confusion I felt because I longed to be home with Ryan but also to continue traveling solo. This turmoil created quite a crisis for me and I started losing my grip on reality, I even started doubting my marriage. It sounds silly now, but the feeling that I was having an affair, with traveling, took over me and I became very unhappy. When I was home I felt bored and depressed because I wanted to be “out in Europe,” but when I was out there I felt like Ryan was moving on here at home. I became jealous about our friends because I convinced myself that Ryan was the real friend and I was just “Ryan’s wife.” I felt like an outcast, like I was intruding when I was around, instead of naturally being part of the group. I remember one absurd night in Guimarães, when I called to talk and he was at dinner so he said he would talk to me later and I felt so rejected. I cried myself to sleep because I was so sure he was moving on, even as I was having a spectacular time in amazing Portugal.

DSC_3530Everything came crashing down this summer when I ran off to Turkey, weeks before Ryan, our friend and I were to go on an Ireland and England adventure. Turkey was amazing, I will write a post on it later, but it is important here because it is the country that forced me to slow down: I got traveler’s sickness. And it lasted for weeks and weeks. I had to come home early and our summer trip was derailed. I felt awful disappointing our friend by canceling the trip, but what hurt the most was how I felt like a failure as wife. There was no reason I had to go to Turkey right then. And because of my self-centeredness I cost us a trip together, one that he REALLY wanted to do, driving to Ireland was his desire, and I took that away from him. Ryan and our friend handled the situation gracefully and neither made me feel guilty at all. They are rational people and knew that I didn’t get sick on purpose and that I was miserable physically and emotionally.

There were times when I thought I would never get better, and even now I don’t always feel great. But this forced down time, gave my heart room to unwind the knot it had tied itself into. Slowly, I started realizing that the entire shared experience of living abroad and its unique relationship challenges had prepared Ryan and me to have a different style of marriage than what we had when we lived in the States. We not only can handle many short-term separations, but it is even good for us. Our intimacy is not based on being in the same room, but in the values and stories and years together that we share. I realized that I was the problem. Not Ryan. Not my marriage. Not even my solo travels. My fear of losing an illusory marriage was affecting the real marriage that Ryan and I have, and ours is so much richer and authentic than the “typical” one I was trying to emulate. I had forgotten that every marriage is different and we don’t have to compare ours to anyone else’s, or accept anyone’s judgments about ours.

Ryan insisted on me going to Ljubljana when I was starting to feel better. He knew how much I had been wanting to go to Slovenia so he made it happen. I was at the tail end of my illness and my confusion so I didn’t know why I had to go then. But, as always, Ryan knew best. It was while walking on a crisp-cold night through the beautifully lit pastel city on my way back to where I was staying that I had the epiphany about what my marriage is – that Ryan and I have always been okay and that I need to trust implicitly in what we have and in who we are, both as individuals and as a couple. I felt like the marriage Grinch. When all of these thoughts and realizations came together, all of my anxiety and depression lifted and my heart grew two sizes!

I love anniversaries. They mark the passage of time, but also create a space on the calendar and in our lives for reflection. Ryan didn’t feel the anxiety I felt, he didn’t need to have an epiphany. I could have just listened to him all along and then this post wouldn’t be so long! I am lucky I married my best friend, and that he is always here for me, even when I get lost inside myself. Happy 8th anniversary!

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UU and Me

Caitlin_blog

 Last weekend was my third European Unitarian Universalist (EUU) retreat, held in Köln (Cologne), Germany. They are held in the spring and in the fall and are just about the best weekends of the year. My first retreat was in the Spring of 2014, in Spa, Belgium. I had no idea what to expect. Everyone in my UU fellowship was talking about how fun they are and that we should go. I was nervous because not only did I not know very many people, but I was also brand new to UUism, and the very idea of a retreat brought images of stuffy meetings with bits of nature walks. But I took the plunge, and oh how wrong I was! I met some really amazing people. Now, I plan my travels around when the retreats are; they take priority.

 Oberwesel-2015 (18 of 58)

My second retreat was held in Oberwesel, Germany, in a hostel next to a medieval castle above the Rhine, it doesn’t get prettier than that. This one was great because I was no longer a new-comer and people were happy to see me back. And, this time Ryan came along (he got stuck working at the last minute for the Spa one), and it was so fun introducing him to the great people I met. He was able to hone his photography skills by photo-documenting the event, which suited him just fine.

 This Köln retreat was the best yet. The overarching theme was music, so most of the workshops were music related, and there were plenty of jam sessions when the activities were over. It was poignant for me because unfortunately I do not play an instrument. It wasn’t part of my childhood, other than a short run with a recorder in the third grade. I was happy when my sister took up the flute, and now my niece is learning piano. I hope she enjoys it because one day she will realize how special it is to have musical ability. I have a beautiful autoharp that Ryan gave me three years ago just sitting in my closet because I have been so intimidated by it. Now, I feel inspired to learn it. The retreat made me think about how music moves and unites us; how we are all touched by pieces, even if we don’t actively seek music out. It is part of our collective humanity, another thing that separates us from animals.

Example Gamelan instruments from Wikimedia
Example Gamelan instruments from Wikimedia Commons

All of these thoughts were flowing through my mind at the special Gamelan workshop. Our group went to the  Museum of Anthropology after normal business hours and we were taught how to play a set of over 100 year old Indonesian Gamelan instruments. The Gamelan holders are cherry red with intricate dragons carved into them, and the bronze instruments sit balanced on top of them. We were shown how the tune and melodies are different than Western style music. It was thrilling to be playing xylophone-like gambangs, while others tapped drums, or played the metallophones, or hit the gongs. The room reverberated with this powerful, discordant, exotic music. I felt strong inside knowing I was producing the sound that was required of me by my fellow players. I finally understand how it would feel to be in a band. The Javanese speak of “rasa,” the feeling that pervades the players and the audience through the music itself, and from the act of playing it. This is what I tapped into and it was magical, especially with the Javanese shadow puppets behind us and the Indonesian costumes and art along the walls.

The other workshop I did was just as fascinating: Hebrew chanting. In this workshop we were taught Jewish Renewal chants. After struggling with the Hebrew pronunciations for a bit, our group got into the rhythm of each chant. We were taught the emotional stages of the chant: first you are frustrated because you are learning the words and melody, and they may not be intuitive, like Hebrew isn’t for me; then once you get that down (well enough anyway) you get to the boredom part where you know the chant but you are just saying it over and over again, not being touched by it; but if you persevere through that then you are awarded with a feeling of deep meditation. I have never been able to clear my mind for mediation, but this chanting seemed to come up from deep within me and I was, for the first time in my life, able to calm and center my mind. I did not expect this and I treasure the effect. I went into this workshop for intellectual stimulation, and came out feeling a level of relaxation that I never knew was possible. I think chanting will be a good way for me to train my mind, and maybe one day I will be able to mediate fully, with or without the chants. I am eager to find a chanting group online if I can’t find one in Wiesbaden. Chanting in a group as we did made me feel a connection to those around me. During one of our chants our guide had us look into each other’s eyes, it was a gentle but forceful reminder of our obligations to each other because of our shared humanity.

As thought provoking and inspirational as the workshops are, the most meaningful part of the retreat is the time spent with friends. Right now there is a solid group of “youngish” people, those in our mid 20s-mid 30s, who have been attending the recent retreats. We come from all over Western Europe, and when we get together again the time is filled with laughter (often drunken) and good times. It really feels like a family reunion, with people I have only met three times! The camaraderie is instant and real; people are really encouraging, and just glad to see you.

I was nervous joining the Unitarian Universalists because they were another religion, and I had spent years evolving beyond the guilt I felt about leaving traditional Christianity.  But UUs have proven to be kind, open-hearted, open-minded, intellectual and fun. There is an optimism that flows organically from the heart of UU and touches its members, touches me. It makes me feel that while so much in the world is broken, there are people who believe that heaven can be made on earth with a concerted effort and a whole lot of love. Sometimes it feels naïve when looking into the face of so much evil in the world, but when I look at the history Of UU I can see how their continued fight for social justice and awareness has helped bring about so much social change in America; then I get a new feeling. The effort is always worth it, even if it brings change slowly or incompletely. To me it is more honest, more human, to strive to create a better life for as many people as we can now, then to sit smugly back and hope that the next life will be paradise.

And we can do all this while drinking, dancing and singing!

Europe’s Surprising Little Secret: Ljubljana, Slovenia

Art Nouveau Dragon Bridge
Art Nouveau Dragon Bridge – The Dragon is the symbol of Ljubljana

I fell in love with Ljubljana immediately. Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is like a universe unto itself. Artists, architects and politicians have come together to create a city center that flows intuitively, one that is a complete picture of Central European elegance. Walks along the lovely Ljubljanica river reveal stately terraced mansions peeking out behind the weeping willows, and I could see people sipping coffee at riverside cafes or perusing the boutiques. The city center made me feel as though I were slipping through time: the meandering cobbled streets leading away from the river took me through the late middle ages, the many town squares brought me into the 18th century with sophisticated Baroque facades, and the Art Nouveau wonder that is the “Three Bridges” leads to the new town where pastel colored buildings with Nouveau designs converge with the modern and the ancient, bringing me back to the present. The recently pedestrianized old town further creates the feeling that when you are in Ljubljana, you are in Ljubljana.

Slovenia 2015 (2 of 5)

Ljubljana Castle looks down over all of this from its haughty position on the hill above the town. I took a brisk walk up the steep but autumnal path to see this castle that has participated in much of Slovenia’s history: from its days as a Roman fort, to a Habsburg holding, to a barracks, a squatter town, a political prison, and finally, to the cultural center that it is today. It has been reconstructed to appear mostly as it did in the 15th century, but with modern amenities. It houses a castle history museum, a Slovenian history museum (which I must say I found a bit lacking in depth), and an exquisite puppet exhibit. Puppetry was huge in Slovenia in the 1930s. I tried to go to a “Faust” puppet show but alas, they were all sold out. The intricate puppets are on display along with samples of how they move and the types of shows that they used to be involved in. Not only did they entertain children, but puppetry was a great tool for social and political commentary, as the puppeteer could hide behind the mask of his art.

Slovenia 2015 (3 of 5)

One person I spoke to said that while the mayor cleaned up the city and made it shiny for tourists, it was done at the expense of Slovenians; that they don’t feel welcome in the same way before it was overhauled and pedestrianized; that they don’t feel like the city is theirs anymore. I felt this undertone even before I had this conversation. To borrow a phrase from Dostoevsky, Ljubljana is an “intentional city.” Ljubljana’s center is like a jewel. It is very clean-cut and has a sheen over it; even the graffiti seems to fit in by design. There was only one tag that felt like a “real” piece of rebellious graffiti because it was so obviously out of place on the beautifully appointed Cooperative Bank. The architect used Slovenian folk motifs in the building’s design and the black scrawl at the bottom is jarring in its incongruity with the rest of this part of town. It brought my mind back to the 21st century and the problems Europe faces today. All of the mayor’s deliberate conceptions of the city have paid off, for tourists at least, for it is one of the most beautiful, charming and comfortable cities I have had the pleasure to visit, and I would love to live there.

I did a walking tour of the city and found myself agreeing with the tour guide that while the architects who created the castle in its current state did a great job, they sacrificed some of its “castleliness to its cultural-centerness.” I agree with the guide, I like a castle to be a castle, even if it is refurbished. However, I found this trait all over Ljubljana: major parts of the city are being, or have been, recreated to honor history, but not to be trapped by it. At times it may create a sense of loss of authenticity, like with the castle; however, at other times this reimagining of painful places can be an empowering way to understand the past, while using the creative forces of art to pave the way forward. Nowhere is this more true than in Metelkova Mesto.

Slovenia 2015 (4 of 5)Metelkova Mesto was the Yugoslav’s People’s Army barracks. After Slovenia left Yugoslavia in 1991, the barracks were abandoned. Then artists and musicians moved in and they have transformed the area from its nightmarish quality to one of hipster relevance. The area is covered in brightly colored street art, mosaics, and sculptures, and is filled with art galleries, bars, and clubs. The old prison has even been lovingly converted into the Hostel Celica. My first visit was during the day so it was very quiet. As I traipsed along taking photos I felt deeply touched by the people who came together and gave this neighborhood its new identity. It must have taken a lot of time and cooperation. Artists and intellectuals have been routinely persecuted in Communist countries so to see the very area where people would have been imprisoned recreated as an artist’s haven made me cry.

Slovenia 2015 (5 of 5)Hostel Celica is the focal point of Metelkova’s history. I was able to go on a tour of the hostel although I didn’t stay there. Artists came together and redesigned a lot of the former prison cells to be hostel rooms. Each has a theme, and all have the original cell doors. The rooms are tiny and have the amount of furniture that would have been available to prisoners. The common area has a welcoming sense of community: there is a prayer room with icons for various religions, an art gallery, various themed dining rooms and a bar. In the basement you can see the realities the former prison: dark dank solitary confinement cells. It was strange to come back up to the optimistic party place that is the Hostel Celica.

People told me five days in Ljubljana was way too long. I whole-heartedly disagree. This little city is like an onion. Peel its layers and you will continue to find new artistic scenes, beautiful parks, nifty neighborhoods, interesting museums, amazing food… I can’t wait to go back and discover more of its secrets.

‘Tis the Season to Eat Pumpkin!

Autumn, the most fleeting of Europe’s seasons, is my favorite. The sun is warm and the light is soft, strikingly different than the glaring summer’s heat. The days are still long enough to go for evening walks in the vineyards below my house, where the harvest is underway. I usually feel the most productive this time of year. I feel inspired by the new season, by the pressing feeling that the year is almost at its end, when in reality there is almost a quarter of a year left. There is a sense of urgency that spring and summer lack, and which winter suffocates.

CastlyNature accommodates the mood too. It is unfortunate that so many people travel to Europe in the summer where everywhere is hot and crowded. I know that people travel when their jobs and budgets allow, but early autumn, before the trees are barren, is stunning. Nothing makes a castle look more audacious than viewing it with the splendor of a golden and crimson forest surrounding it. The crisp air with brilliant blue skies further highlights the explosion of colors as you drive down the autobahn. We know the dark winter is approaching, so we all soak up the last bit of warmth and sun that we can, before we have to start our vitamin D supplementation.

Late summer and early fall are fantastic times to be in Germany. I love every day that I get to live in Germany, but this season impresses upon me the most how blessed we are. Wine festivals are at their height, harvest festivals bring on the fall flavors of pumpkin and Federweißer (a fermented freshly pressed grape juice, which is possibly the best tasting beverage in the world), and apple picking festivals abound, in case the other cultural festivals are not enough. Of course there is the famous Oktoberfest, the world’s largest Volksfest, which started in Munich in 1810. We have never been to Oktoberfest, having always been charmed by the many fests in our area of Wiesbaden and Frankfurt. We have never felt the need to go to an expensive and commercialized event.

Just last weekend we visited Wiesbaden’s pumpkin festival where we were greeted with smiling hay bales, gourds of all shapes and sizes, and most importantly, pumpkin wine! The weather was perfect and it was refreshing to see families gathered around the food booths and the children playing in the hay or watching the sheep.

Wiesbaden Kurbis Festival September 2015 (4 of 7)

In fact, one of my favorite things about German culture is how they are devoted to family time. There are numerous holidays, many more than in the U.S.A. Let’s take a look at the holiday calendar:

  • Winter: Christmas Day, St. Stephen’s Day, New Year’s Day, Epiphany,
  • Spring: Good Friday, Easter, Easter Monday, Labor Day, Ascension Day,   Whit Monday, Corpus Christi Day
  • Summer: Assumption Day
  • Autumn: Day of German Unity, Reformation Day, All Saints Day, Repentance Day

Add the fact that almost everything is closed on Sundays and that is a heck of a lot of time off. If you forget to go shopping you can run into trouble! Thankfully now we know, our first spring was a little rough on the cupboard.

My point is that Germans make time for leisure and family bonding. They use it. Not only do they get these wonderful holidays, they also get heaps of vacation time, at least 21 days. I always see families riding bikes together, or hiking in the woods along with their dogs. Everyone has a dog, and they go everywhere with them. I have gotten so used to seeing dogs in restaurants, and elsewhere in public, that I hardly notice them anymore. The festivals are always packed with good-natured people eating bratwurst and drinking beer out of gigantic steins while their children play together. I am sure many Germans have stressful jobs but it appears that they are very good at separating work time from play time. Something I know Americans could benefit from. For example, when dining out no one has their cell phone on the table. They are actually spending time with the people they are with instead of fiddling around with their smartphones.

Living in Germany has taught me to be slower, to not cram too many things into one day. Not having a real job contributes to this too. It has taught me to eat at home, the meat and produce is so fresh and such a good price. It has taught me the joy of seasonal food; I wait in anticipation for spargel (white asparagus) season in the spring, apricots and cherries in the summer, pumpkins and squash in the fall, and of course Glüwein at the Christmas markets. It has taught me to enjoy seasons and what they each have to offer. I come from California where I never knew the pleasures that a variety of weather and a changing environment can bring, not to mention the inconveniences (ice: scary, hot: annoying because there is no air conditioning anywhere!).

Toward the end of fall, activities and tourist places start closing. There is a true winding down of the year. Then one day you go outside and find you are freezing, the clouds occluding any possibility of the sun’s warmth, the trees are impoverished without their leaves, and it is midnight dark by 5:00 in the evening.

Wiesbaden Kurbis Festival September 2015 (6 of 7)

The Intersection of Desire and Fear

My name is Caitlin and I am an American expat “living the dream” in Germany. Europe was on my horizon for as long as I can remember, and I never thought I would get here. It was always too far away, too expensive. Now that I am here by the grace of my husband’s talents and his willingness to leave behind all we knew and our loved ones in California, I am doing my best to see and experience everything I can.

I travel with my husband when he can get away from work. There is so much joy in our shared trips. Our bond deepens every time we view new landscapes, survive currency issues (like when I accidentally bought a $50 hat in Iceland thinking  I paid $5), and hold hands while walking down a bustling city avenue.  We are lucky because we are very travel compatible. We like to do most of the same things. I have learned patience while he uses his camera to capture the beauty around us, and he has learned to withstand my darting off to look at all things shiny. Our next trip is to Malta over Thanksgiving weekend and I cannot wait to see what photos he takes of that living museum.

Our situation prevents me from having a normal job. This leaves me with an immense amount of free time, which at times feels like a curse. The tedious feeling of waiting for the weekend to do anything fun has often led me into depressions, which can spiral out of control, as any expat knows. The sense of isolation can be all encompassing.

It helped when I finally realized that I can go to places, even if Ryan cannot. Nearly 3 years of this thinking have led me to the soul-deepening experiences of solo travel. Going it alone, even for such short trips, has taught me that I can be alone and not be lonesome. It has also showed me how to embrace loneliness when it does creep up on me, instead of fighting it. It has taught me how to make instant connections and have meaningful conversations with people I may never see again.  It has taught me that fear is okay, that it doesn’t have to stop me from seeing what I want to. I have also learned that getting lost is actually not that scary. If I turn down a scary street I just turn around and walk the other way. I have learned so much about myself and I am thankful for that. But what I am really after is learning about other people and attempting to see their worlds from their perspectives. I have learned to listen and not to argue points. The single most important thing I have learned is that everyone has a voice, there is no such thing as an “obscure country.”

I know it is naïve to think that the few days to a week I spend in a country means that I “understand” the people, their culture and their history. Even if I had a lifetime in each place I visit I could never learn enough about what a group of people know, and how that collective knowledge evolves their culture, for cultures are dynamic, never static.

I will never fully grasp what living under the Soviets did to the Baltic nations (even combining the different cultures and ethnicities under the general term “Baltic” minimizes their stories); what living isolated in tiny, forlorn Iceland would really be like with its six months of darkness, frigid temperatures, and its magnificent unique beauty; how many civilizations have actually lived upon Rome and influenced its cosmopolitan development; what could cause such despairing violence in the Balkans (another part of Europe that is too easily discussed as if it is one people, one place, and  the damning nickname “the powder keg of Europe,” completely erases compassion for their situation along with the historical realities of the responsibility of the interfering Great Powers); why the Swiss create such amazing chocolate delicacies; why the people of Liechtenstein tolerate a prince who occasionally threatens to abandon them for his Austrian property if they don’t pass the laws he wants; why some countries have resisted the pull of the homogenizing European Union while others join to varying degrees of success; and I will never understand why one country oppresses another and how the oppressed human spirit is resilient and always arises anew. THAT IS WHY I TRAVEL. To see it for myself. To hear it for myself through my conversations with people, locals and fellow travelers alike. It is my attempt to understand even an infinitesimal amount of human culture and history.

Maybe I should have been blogging all along. But I was intimidated about it and felt like my travel stories weren’t adventures like other people’s. But they are my stories and I want to treasure their value to me. I hope that people will be moved by my observations, or entertained by my tales as I recount nearly three years of travel, with the hopes of more in the future.