The value of limitations

This is part 2 of my thoughts on ‘limitations’. If you haven’t read it, check out ‘Finding freedom in limitation

I’ve been having a lot of free time. Time is a variable of life I highly value, such as is the feeling of freedom that comes with having time.
I always thought I’d be the happiest having as much time as possible and planning it out to my liking. Working 9-5 has never appealed to me for that exact reason. I always thought that would limit my freedom and thus have found other ways. However, I did realize how not having much work, but instead relatively little and therefore, a lot of time to fill wasn’t making me happier either. Not only the pandemic but also previous experience made me realize that having too much free time decreases its perceived value to me. There is something so special about having an afternoon off once during the week. Have four afternoons off and suddenly, you’re struggling to fill them with something meaningful continuously. Instead, you have idle time that you’re fretting about ‘wasting’, when you should feel grateful for this time, knowing that others envy you for it.

Other areas of life can have the same effect. I remember when I first left home to live, actually travel and thus live on my own. I was backpacking Australia and was thrilled that, having escaped my parents’ eagle eyes, I could have ice cream for dinner if I wanted to. That turns out to be a fun game until you overeat on a whole liter of ice cream and start wishing you knew how to cook something more substantial. Making ice cream a treat and go out to have some with a friend has a much better ring than the former situation. Our world does offer an abundance of food to many of us, and we have simply gotten used to it and overindulge. The one country where it felt a little different for me was Japan. Super-size food has yet to set foot into this country. Yes, fast-food is becoming a thing, but regular food and items sold in the store come in surprisingly small quantities. It was hard to overeat there and you really valued what you had.

Remember when streaming wasn’t a thing and you had to wait a week until you could see the next episode of your favorite sitcom? That agony and excitement made watching TV something special and left me running to the TV not to miss a second. These days you can access whole shows with a simple click and watch them no matter what time of the day and until your eyes hurt from too much screen time.

Part of why we can become so overwhelmed these days is having too much of everything. Information overload is surely something I don’t have to get into in more detail.

In marketing, value is created by making things’ scarce’. ‘Only 1 seat left’, ‘only 5 more items available’. This practice makes us think more highly of the product or service. However, many things have become such a commodity that we do not appreciate them enough.
One of the principal propositions of being ‘happier and more content’ in life is to ‘notice the small things’. It can be harder to notice when we’re making the small things’ bigger’ while overindulging on them.

One of the best things about traveling for me was living with little possessions. The limitation actually gave me freedom. Having only a few clothes freed my mind from the tedious process of deciding what to wear that day. Having less luggage made me able to move to a new place in a heartbeat. Having fewer ties meant there was nothing much to organize when I wanted to move on. Having less space to store things (I had close to no space left in my backpack) meant that I simply decided not to buy anything unless I absolutely needed it. Again, it freed my mind of the arduous decision-making process of whether to purchase something or not.
In some places that I volunteered at, the internet was scarce or food supply. How you learn to appreciate these commodities afterward. After 6 weeks on a farm without Wi-Fi and grocery stores (we got food delivered once a week), heading to a coffee shop for a cappuccino and screen time was the treat of my week. Sleeping in a private room after weeks in a hostel almost brought tears of joy into my eyes. That German pretzel that I found at a bakery in a shopping mall in Quito in Ecuador is still etched in my memory (even now that I’m drowning in options of buying baked goods here in Germany).

You can even go as far as applying this to people. Despite being more connected than ever, loneliness has been on the rise (even before the pandemic). We have the whole world at our fingertips, but maybe it is precisely that overwhelming number that makes us connect less with just a few people.

I have continuously met people throughout my life who decided to live with less. Minimalism has gotten quite a bit of momentum over the years and I have ridden that wave since I started traveling. I am beginning to wonder, though, whether this should only apply to materialism or other areas in life as well.

Finding freedom in limitation

The pandemic has opposed a lot of limits to our everyday life. Many people have been feeling limited by the consequences. The word limit usually implies something negative. That there is a point after which we cannot progress. And progress is what gives people meaning in life. Progress means that there is always something new waiting for us. That no matter which situation we’re in, we will go on to a further stage with new challenges and delightful moments.

Our world has gotten fewer and fewer limits. You have unlimited choices of places to visit, people to meet, entertainment to consume, subjects to study. We are bombarded with information that wants our attention through every webinar, YouTube channel, podcast, self-published book, blog (like this one ;)), magazine, Netflix show…

The pandemic has shifted this situation a little. We became limited in where we could go, what we could purchase and who we could spend time with.

We started feeling a limit in our personal freedom.

Freedom has turned into my most significant value over the years. I’ve wanted to be free of anything and anyone ever since I set out into the world, ready to become an endless explorer. Traveling limitless across the globe, I felt like the world was my home, and there would be no limit to where I could be and what I could explore.
This sounded like a perfectly sound idea when I started. However, it didn’t make me as happy as I had anticipated. On the contrary, I became restless, feeling FOMO in ‘countries I haven’t visited yet’ and ‘languages I don’t speak yet.’ Chasing country after country, language after language, I never found rest. There was never an ‘I have made it’ moment – because there were no limits as to how much as I could explore
(sure there are limits to the language and countries, but that’d be far-fetched to say that I would get to that).

This realization left me depressed. It felt like running after a goal that moved further and further away, the more you chased after it. The more you see, the more you realize you haven’t seen. And the more languages you learn and speak and dive into the world of polyglots, the more you notice that you’re only scratching the tip of the iceberg.

The pandemic has been a blessing to me in this regard. Knowing that moving around the globe is not encouraged and partly impossible has given me a feeling of inner peace. I am not necessarily in the country I was hoping to be, but that is not what makes this any less satisfying. I am feeling a limit in my vagabond lifestyle, and I sincerely appreciate the experience of it. I have spent more time inside reading and writing the last months than ever. Knowing that there was nowhere to go, no coffee shop to hang out it, no meetup to socialize with people at, no ‘store’ to check out, no ‘off-the-beaten-path destination’ to check out has been liberating. I found real freedom in that limitation. This limitation freed me from thinking I ‘should’ be at other places and wasn’t OK where I was. Instead, I looked at what was right in front of me and made the most of it. Sure, I felt lonely and bored at times. But somehow, overall, I was glad that I finally had something that put boundaries to my moving around.

I have noticed things that had been right close to me that I would have never noticed if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. My family and how similar we are. My friends whom I know from before I set out into the world and who still keep in touch. Living in an area that I used to call ‘my second home’ when I was a child. A job that gives me something valuable to occupy my time with. Less social obligations that make me turn back to connecting with my friends all over the world.

What has this limitation taught you? Have you been limited in a way that felt very frustrating, but that led you to discover something unexpected?

Progress is inevitable, and as we have seen, the scope of the pandemic’s limitation has been moving back and forth. I am trying to see the current restrictions as a sort of intervention to make me reflect on my current path and to see a more limited version of it, something I had always wholly been against.

As with every concept, there is always an opposite side to it. Maybe this is a suitable time to see what we can make out of the limits that have been ‘imposed’ onto us.

If you have ever done a guided meditation against anxiety, you will most likely have run across this sentence: You are OK, right where you are. This statement had always seemed quite vain to me. This year and the more the pandemic stays part of our life, the more I am finding some truth in this sentence. It isn’t speaking about an absolute limit but about the moment in time that we’re finding ourselves in. There might be a limit right now, but it is OK to be in it.

The dangers of long-term travel

The pandemic being at the center of our lives this year has been a harsh blow for the travel industry. I know many people who meant to set out into the world for the trip of their lifetime.

Having just returned to Germany from my ten years abroad, I’d have to lie if I were to say I had a problem with the lack of travel options this year. I’ve been feeling pretty exhausted from the constant moving and am happy to have a temporary home. With a lot of time on hand, I’ve been thinking about the travel lifestyle a lot. It had been my desired way of life for so many years, yet I have started to feel a little shift in my thinking.

Traveling and living abroad is always portrayed as a life in paradise. Digital nomad, working from a little beach hut? Van life, your home always with you? A backpack, a tent, you. Working at many international locations. Doesn’t that sound like a dream?

I would’ve highly agreed to all of that, and a part of me still does. However, I think there are some aspects that most people don’t talk about. 

I’m mainly referring to the perpetual expats here who continuously change locations.

Having been one myself, I have noticed some of the darker sides of traveling long-term.

  1. You lose a sense of belonging.

Where is my home? Where do I belong to? These are such fundamental questions in life, and most people will ponder this question at one or more points in life. Perpetual travelers will top the list for sure. Bumping from country to country every few months of years, going through the whole motions of adapting to a new culture through the highs and lows, you eventually wonder which place is the one that you really are ‘a part of’. 

2. ‘I am traveling to find myself’ (or not?)

The number one statement I’ve heard (and said myself). Without a doubt, through this constant moving, you will grow in many ways. But let me suggest that your growth will also stunt in others. Every new place you move to, you will start from scratch again. You will hustle to find a place to live, a job to make a living, friends to make life worth living, and simply make sense of life in the country as it is. This process always starts from zero. No matter how often you’ve moved, you’ll still have to run through the same motions all over again. And there comes the time when you decide that this is not the country you want to spend the rest of your life at and you move on to start this process all over again.. Having the chance for a new start can be rejuvenating, but you never cross a certain threshold of depth and commitment in your life.

3. Your career might suffer

Depending on what career path you’re in, being abroad for too long might backfire on your resume. International experience can really set you apart from other candidates, both in a positive and a negative way. Your language skills might be through the roof, but your employment history might look quite jumbled up. You most likely lack depth in any work field, which can play a greater importance the older you get. Employers might doubt your commitment to a position, knowing that, on average, you stayed at a job for just a year or two.

4. Your perception of achievement and experiencing new things might be skewed

I remember how ‘accomplished’ I felt in traveling. Checking off endless places, thousands of kilometers on your back, all the new people you met, cultures you’ve experienced… life felt moving fast. Being in the same place, with life not moving quite at that pace can feel dull and uninspiring. Learning to focus on the small things and appreciating the steadiness in which life can move can feel like a massive challenge upon returning to the ‘normal word’.

This also applies to going on short trips or vacations after long-term traveling.

Having seen some of the world’s top sights, you’re subconsciously raising the bar for what is worth seeing and can’t help but be underwhelmed by many places that might be worth seeing to people in the local area. You might feel underwhelmed by the options that present yourself back home. The one way to get around this is to focus on the people you’re with or on the relaxation/exercise factor that this trip gives you rather than the destination itself.

5. You’ll find it difficult to have long conversations that do not involve your life abroad and traveling

My sister had to tell me to shut up starting every sentence with ‘In Japan’ or ‘At Rupanco’ (a volunteering placement). You will feel so into this topic that you won’t notice that after a certain time, you’re annoying people by this. There are for sure moments where you can shine (tip: become a teacher and go off-topic sometimes – your students will love you for it), but after having heard what life is like in XYZ country for the 50th time, you will reach a limit in most people. 

On the opposite end, you might have completely missed what’s been going on ‘at home,’ regarding the news, politics, cultural changes etc and find it hard to hold conversations about current issues. I’ve found that as a visitor to a foreign country, people don’t expect you to know what’s happening right now, but in your home country, this ‘rule’ does not apply. Most people will expect you to be somewhat up-to-date (and really, you can completely miss out on this information if you’re not actively keeping up with it from a distance). The way I currently perceive Germany is the way I remember it from 11 years ago when I left. Whatever has changed in society in those years has completely passed by me.

6. You are missing out on years in the lives of those close to you

I was always aware of this one, but once you’re back for a while, it still hits you. It starts with seeing your friends at a different stage in life than when you had left them. Many will be married with kids by the time you finish yet another round-the-world-trip. Your parents will age. Other people will move on in life, not having space for you anymore. People might not even be alive anymore by the time you return. I would book this under the category ‘compromise you know you’re taking,’ yet it is one not to overlook

Do I regret the years I’ve spent abroad? Absolutely not! All I’m hoping was to add to the rosy image of long-term traveling and show a side that’s not talked about very much. I’m not sure how this world will be affected by the pandemic’s long-term effects, but I’m hoping that people can see that every lifestyle has its pros and cons and is also not for everyone forever. I, for once, am grateful not to be traveling in these times, and I am trying to make the most of being in my home country.

One question you should never ask a German

Or how I committed a cultural faux-pas in my own country.

Over 10 years out of the country, I have focused a lot on other cultures. I always tried to ‘assimilate’ well enough but of course I was not prone to making mistakes or embarrassing myself a little because I was not from there and didn’t totally understand the culture.

I learned that this can also backfire in your own country.

The other day I was teaching an English conversation class. 

Hoping to tackle a somewhat light-hearted topic I chose to focus on ‘culture’ and how a native sees his/her country vs. an outsider.

Little did I know that asking some, seemingly simple questions, would stir up so many emotions.
The question that turned the whole conversation sour was:

What makes you proud to be from your country?

In my head, I thought people would mention the good response and results during the pandemic, the fact that the country is organized, the high standard of living etc.…

However, the answers were not the problem.

It was the question.

The word proud and ‘your country’ do not belong in one sentence for most Germans.                     

And I, the German (and clearly not so German in this situation) had not realized the controversy and uncomfortable feelings this would bring up.

What is the first historical event linked to Germany, and how do Germans feel about that? I don’t think I need to go into details here (WW2 is the hint).

And how are students in school taught to think about it? 

I honestly don’t remember the details of the content in our history class. However, I left high school with the underlying sentiment that I should feel very guilty about our history and that Germans shouldn’t praise their country (the only exception maybe being during the world cup). One might LIKE something in the country but never say that they would be ‘proud’. And apparently I wasn’t the only one who carries that thought with them. Most Germans I have met would react the same way.

I’m writing this for two reasons:

One, to show how you should not only be mindful about other cultures but also your own and

Two to point out that if you run into a German, you might want to steer away from this phrasing and topic in general. Somehow I often got asked about WW2 as soon as I said that I was from Germany while traveling. That, to me was very strange as that is nothing that is ever used as a conversation topic among people here. Anyway, I know that this can seem like a harmless question to ask what you’re proud of regarding your country, but here’s a little heads-up about cultural tactfulness

How to satisfy your craving for traveling in Covid times

Traveling the world has probably been crossed out of the bucket list of most people this year.

As I’ve written before, I’m more than happy to stay where I am at this point, but I can only imagine that this is not what everyone is feeling.

So what can you do when you can’t travel much but are missing these times?

Sometimes the solutions are the most obvious things that can easily be forgotten.

It’s a good thing to think about the why of your travels. What was the reason you wanted to travel? Was it the sights, the culture, learning another language? 

Depending on what you had wanted to get, you can focus on one of the aspects below.

How much do you know about your home country? If you’re like me, you know all the cities and famous sights of Australia, Colombia, Thailand…., but have no idea what your own country has to offer. It always seemed so ‘boring’ and ‘unglamorous’ right? Maybe it’s time to change this perception. Head out and explore your local area. I had never paid much attention to the beautiful destinations that are just a few hours away from my hometown, thinking only mountains halfway across the world would be stunning and make me jump in awe. I was truly wrong here and have found some places that were just as exciting as others thousands of kilometers away. 

Danube valley, just 1.5h from where I now live and also from where I grew up.

The same goes for all these ‘adventurous activities’. Bungee jumping in New Zealand, Skydiving in South-Africa, rock-climbing in Canada? Look around in your area. Many activities that seem so special when we are abroad, actually exist ‘at home’ as well 😉

Learn how to cook dishes from another country

I know I could have written down ‘get Chinese take-out’ and be done with it. With many of us stuck at home and having rediscovered our dormant cooking skills, it might be time to step up to the next level. I had been feeling very ‘homesick’ for some good Japanese food the other day and realized how long it had been since I last had attempted to make anything. So I planned out my meal (rice and miso-glazed eggplant with ginger/soy-sauce tofu on the side), and even before I started cooking, I was flooded with memories of my time in Japan. It wasn’t so much as emotional nostalgia but rather these fond memories. That was a day that I somehow managed to travel to another place for a little. 

Even if you haven’t been to the country which food you want to cook, the process of looking up recipes etc can put you into the right mood.

Find other resources of foreign countries.

Every time I put on my Brazilian music playlist, I’m taken back to the times when I was drinking caipirinha, spending my time at the beach, making loads of friends and practicing my Portuguese. Music has such a big power to take you back to when you were listening to it. 

The same goes for movies and books. Find a French film, a Colombian telenovela, a book written by a Japanese author, and dive into this world. 

Find native speakers of that foreign language to practice with. The small town I moved to (60,000 inhabitants) has a Facebook group of ‘Brazilians living in X city’. Can it get any more random than that? With the pandemic regulations loosening in many countries, you might have the chance to find ‘language meetings’, i.e. language cafés, tandems, … Happening again. Times like these can truly make you feel like you’re in a different world. You can always check couchsurfing, italki or other international forums and language learning platforms for native speakers in your country

Hit up your international friends over video chat!

I’m also incredibly grateful for technology these days. The number of Zoom meetings that I’ve been having with friends all over the world has been astonishing. It never hurts to text an old friend, maybe someone you met and you got along with well but haven’t spoken to in a while. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can reestablish a connection.

Last but not least: if the corona restrictions allow it, invite a friend from another city to come to visit you. I love showing my area to visitors as it’ll make me appreciate it so much more and look at it with new eyes. And don’t worry if you think there’s nothing majorly noteworthy. Sometimes the smallest places can bring out the right atmosphere if you share it with a person who is usually not there with you. The other day I visited my sister, and we went to a small Saturday market. It was one of my highlights to simply see where she goes to every week and which she enjoys so much. We got some yummy fruit and made breakfast on the balcony – true holiday feelings 🙂  

staycation ❤

Every time someone comes to visit me at the gorgeous Lake Constance, I’m reminded what a beautiful region I live in. Other people had warned me before that I would quickly forget about the lake’s existence and shockingly they were right! Visitors will be able to make you appreciate your own surroundings again more.

I know that this is not the same as traveling but I think it’s a good time to understand which aspects of traveling is important to us. Maybe it’s all of them but maybe we’re actually just wanting to add something to our life that will shake up the routine a bit!

Back in Germany for 6 months – an update

The other day I stared at the calendar in disbelief – I’ve been back in Germany for almost half a year! Something inside of me couldn’t believe it. I was trying to think back of the last six months and most of it seems like a blur. Sure, if you asked me to tell you what I did and I thought about it, I would be able to name events. But in a way, nothing too exciting or unique happened.

I’m living in a new city with a new job. However, as I’ve been moving a lot over the past ten years, this is yet just another move. I put on a record in moving three times over four months (finding permanent affordable housing here is pretty damn hard).

I’m working in the same field as I have over the past year – teaching and translation, and I am spending COVID just as everyone else – mainly from home.

Until now, I do not miss traveling. I am still entirely saturated with my travels. I do not feel the urge to head out and explore my surroundings that much either. I used to explore any new city extensively on my own, visiting any small adjacent towns, hiking areas I could find, any patch of green that Google Maps indicated. However, the only time I head out to do this currently (as far as it is possible) is when I have visitors and occasionally with friends. 

Many people are dying to travel more again and are voicing their excitement about the borders opening. And I feel happy for them. One of my friends recently decided to travel again for a more extended time, and, seeing her excitement, I felt so happy for her. A year ago, I would have made the same plans, yet now I am content with watching other people go out to take on the world.

Instead, I spend a lot of time reading and learning languages. Time has passed so quickly over the past months and part of me enjoyed the quiet time during self-isolation. Here in Germany, most places are open again and the sheer crowds of people are somewhat overwhelming me. Luckily I live in a tiny village outside the city and can mostly avoid the buzz. My view goes out to roses growing around my window, a tractor in the courtyard, and an artist’s atelier. 

Having my own apartment has been the most exciting thing that’s probably happened to me since I moved to Germany! It’s hard to describe the feeling of having your own space after 14 months of traveling and two months of living with your parents – well, it’s more than awesome! Knowing that you won’t wake up to yet another stranger in your room (hostel dorms I don’t miss you) or the schedule of your parents trying to merge with yours, I love having a place that doesn’t depend on others. 

Other than that, it’s been a time ‘reconnecting’ more with my family. The excitement I’ve felt from them, knowing that I’m going to stay here for a little longer, has been heart-warming. On the other hand, different opinions and lifestyles are confronting each other much more than before when an ocean between us had been a rather steady boundary. Yet again, there are lessons to be learned.

As usual, life goes on even now that everything seemed to have come to a halt.

Stay safe and healthy everyone! ❤

When drama shakes you and moves you into a different direction / travel reflection #5

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

This blog post is contemplating on my 2018 end-of-the-year reflections and part 5 of my travel insights series.

At first, I wondered whether it was worth writing about it in the middle of 2020 – and then I realized, our current situation with so much time for self-reflection and change, definitely relates to this (sorry, not sorry to mention this in yet another post).

So at that time, I was in northern Brazil, thinking about how turbulent the year had been but also how incredibly grateful I was for how life turned out. I published a very vulnerable post on Facebook (part of it will be the bold sentences below) and I really wanted to reflect back on it. Here we go.

2018 * Taught me how ‘dramatic/bad’ events & experiences can make you grow the most and give out a kick in the a** to make a change ;)

Many of us want to change something in our lives, I believe. We might to even be aware of it, because when you’re comfortable and life just happens to you, why would you change it? 

Most people change when s*** hits the fan. Somehow when things are taken from you and your comfortable bubble bursts, you have no other choice but to start over or choose a different approach. 

In 2018, I felt a lot of ‘drama’ and it changed my life in ways I hadn’t expected. I went from a life that felt stable and maybe long(er)-term to backpacking around South-America, something I had never planned, yet even rejected a few months before!

That was what it looked like on the outside. On the inside, I battled the overwhelming stress I was feeling, the hopelessness, frustration and disappointment in myself and outer circumstances. 

I quickly learned that it wasn’t the circumstances I could be angry at. I couldn’t change them. They had already happened. However, what I could work on was my own attitude towards life. There are things we can improve and things we cannot. 

Accepting what we cannot change and changing what we can, namely, our beliefs, is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in life. I had heard bits and pieces of it before but somehow this time it stuck. 

It has been tremendous work and it’s not been great at times. I felt like falling back to almost zero many times, but it has also taught me that I will be able to get back on track. Just like life itself.

*2018 has challenged my beliefs about life as an adult

I used to think life as an adult meant the end of fun. The end of being careless, free. The end of any dreams. Work, work, work, And I’ve been in times of life where I felt this more. The pressure to check the boxes, adults are encouraged to: a good career, partner/family, a house with a garden, a retirement plan….

And then I went traveling and ditched all those concerns and felt free!!

Well… that was not the point I was hinting at. 

I learned that I don’t have to be this way even before I went on that trip which has contributed to a lot of my future steps and the way I think about this now. At that time, I decided to get some support and talked to a life coach for a few sessions. And I learned to understand what life meant to me. If freedom is one of my biggest values, then I have to hold onto it. There is a choice and I just had to stay true to myself. This also means that there is nothing wrong with choosing ‘safety and security’ as values in life. The problem is when your attitude doesn’t reflect that ‘choice.’ Just knowing this helped to feel ‘freedom.’ It doesn’t have to be ditching everything and heading out into the jungle. There are outside circumstances you might not be able to change. How you think of your situation is what can help you feel freer. As Viktor Frankl wrote in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

And well… I’m still working on it. I stopped traveling and am now navigating my life and attitude between ‘regular’life here in Germany and my own ideas about how life should be lived. And in days when I feel frustrated about rules and regulations and how situations ‘are not fair,’ I try to remind myself of the above quote.

*2018 Made me realize that there isn’t any savior in this world to take me by my hand and save me – that my only savior will ever be me (same as my worst enemy who’ll also always be me)

* …Yet also gave me the courage to look for people, resources and a community who share their insights about personal development and nudge me to work on my own and to share my experiences regarding this. This includes people who are very different in their way of thinking and who keep reminding me to see the world from all different perspectives

*… Has made me realize my inner voice is worth more than 100 outer voices

The last one that I would get tattooed on me (with an emphasis on would). Yes, people can give you valuable advice. Yes, there are rules to follow, taxes to pay, hands to wash. On the other hand, no one lives inside your body. No one knows what’s genuinely going on inside your head (despite us wanting people to really understand you – I think that’s a utopian thought) and even your rational mind might not always be the best to listen to. Listening to yourself is something so much deeper than these motivational quotes can let you know. However, there’s not much more to be said other than you have to understand what that piece of advice means 😉 Intuition is one keyword to lead you on the way.

It is hard to follow your own voice. It’s crazy hard in a world where we are bombarded with information, messages, and advice so that we don’t even know anymore what our own opinion is and what we took upon from someone else. Everyone seems to have an idea about other people’s lives. We want others to act in a way we would, not remembering that we are not the other person and will never fully understand what they are going through. 

Also, think back to when your mother told you to eat your veggies because they would be good for your health. Did you understand at that time what that meant? Maybe once you got older, you heard that message again, or your body told you it’s time to get serious about your nutrition. Maybe this time, you understood the meaning. It might be months after you heard it the last time. But somewhere your body and mind suddenly had learned the lesson. Not because someone threatened you but because you were free in deciding about this matter. 

People had told me hundreds of times about the benefits of meditation. And it took me almost 10 years until I figured out for myself that I saw a benefit in it. People had talked about teaching English for years and I thought I would never ever work in that field. Fast-forward and I’ve been working as a teacher for longer than people told me about that profession before I started. 

and 2020?

Well so far it’s teaching me that my thoughts about 2018 were pointing the right way and that I can still dive so much deeper into this world. It has also shown me that I can work on these thoughts even when I’m not traveling, but from the comfort of my home. I am grateful that the current circumstances have given me the time I cherish so much for reflections like these ❤

A personal development book read ≠ a personal development book understood

Note: I’m taking a little break from my travel insights series – it’ll be back next week.

These days many of us have more time for reading.
And if you had the urge to not only tidy up your house but also your mind, you might have picked up this personal development book or motivational guide your friends have raved about (The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle anyone?!)

This is a post about reading inspirational and motivational books in the personal development category, something I’ve obviously binged over the last years 😉

Over the last months, when working with free apps, I have gotten a lot of ads from an app called ‘Blinkist.’ It claims to get you reading ‘4 books a day’ as it provides you with summaries of them. These books are in the non-fiction spectrum, of course (why would you want a summary of a novel?!)
That on its own sounds fine to me, yet it got me thinking about the purpose of reading.

I’m just ‘wild-guessing’ here that Blinkist assumes we don’t have enough time to read a book, so we need a summary (except that they probably hadn’t anticipated the current situation – let’s leave this aside for this post though!) Fair enough, many non-fiction books have long-winded intros, too many personal stories for my taste and self-promotion for the author. So, yes, give me the handy details!

On the other hand, isn’t the whole purpose of reading to devote time and dive into a topic slowly?
And what’s even more important: If this app makes us read several books a week, does it mean that we then also learn several times as much as if we read one book a week?
I have devoured self-help books with awesome-sounding principles, clapped my hands in excitement, and having ‘aha’-moments, only to finish the book to never think about it again, my head already in the next book that would ‘improve’ my life even more.
With every book I read, I put a mental checkmark behind an imaginary ‘essential books to read to make your life better.’
Did my life change 180 degrees, just like the book felt it had after I finished reading it?

It took me a long time to see reading these sorts of books as ‘exercise books’ or ‘courses.’
I realized how I’d only learn anything if I actually stopped, contemplated what the author had written, and suggested I do, and then try to experience or apply it!

This is the only way to see whether you actually agree with the author’s suggestion and opinion. Because sometimes things don’t work for you and that’s ok and why I guess, there are so many self-help books out there.
The book itself won’t make a change for you though! You are the person who has to do the work and look out for ways to experience what the author wrote about. Otherwise, you’ll complain and think, ‘what a nice idea, but it doesn’t help.’ Or you just continue reading, patting yourself on the back for ‘working on yourself,’ yet not really getting anything out of it. And yes, I’ve patted myself on the back so much….

I’ve just finished reading the book ‘The Willpower Effect’ by Kelly McGonigal, a book that presents the science behind motivation and willpower and how mindfulness comes into play as well. I absolutely loved its insights and you know why? Because the book confirmed some things, I had recently learned about my struggles of instant gratification through social media, food cravings, short attention span, … I had already experienced many of the points the book presented in its scientific explanations, so instead of having new strategies to hear about, I got a confirmation that I’m on the right track 🙂

Anyway, reading the above book prompted me to think about this topic and I hope it’ll make you ponder a little about how you are tackling reading this sort of genre.

On a final note, I noticed how at times, points in a book didn’t make sense to me. I would glance at them, shrug my shoulder and continue reading. Only months or years later would I experience something, that would give me a ‘eureka moment’. Just with many circumstances that happen in life, the real reason behind them can unravel much later. Patience is a virtue 😉 Happy quarantine reading!

On doing nothing vs. being productive – Travel (and Corona ) Insights Series #4

Somewhere along the coast of the state in Bahia, crashing waves, beaches framed by palm trees, and sunsets that were postcard-worthy, my third workaway volunteering placement was challenging myself on different levels than I expected. I was contacted by a host of a small bed and breakfast right by the coast, telling me he needed help asap. At the time, I was traveling in the area around Rio the Janeiro and I ended up taking a (very rare) flight up to this area, to be there as fast as I could. This was a place I would not return to; however, looking at my insights, I can see that I learned a valuable lesson from it.

I also feel that these reflections come at a good moment and there are so many parallels I can draw towards our current situation with COVID….

Here are the two posts I wrote in December 2018 about this place:

So how’s my trip been, recently?
A good week of traveling left me feeling out of sync with the routine I have been trying to establish over the last months (yoga, meditation, online work&study)
(…) Going to the next volunteer place, I was hoping for some tranquility and stability, which yet hasn’t been that easy to find. It made me question how I could use my skills in this place and how I could create a schedule/routine in a place that is way too flexible for me. Bad internet was just the tip of the iceberg and left me feeling unproductive, having time on hands and nothing to fill it with.

So I’ve been looking for the positive in all this.
Trying to connect more with myself than the internet, realizing that I can find a lot of answers by just listening to my inner voice.

Accepting that sometimes in order to move forward, you might have to take a step or two back. That progress isn’t linear but will have ups and downs.

That it’s not all about what I do and achieve. But about being and how I show up in life. How I take these challenging moments and what I make from them.

After all, this is what I wanted to get from this trip: Growing as a person ❤️
And I am grateful to have some beautiful scenery to make me realize how grateful I can be for my life at this very moment.

Leaving workaway (volunteer placement) #3 in Brazil.
This placement has been one of the most challenging ones I’ve been. As a volunteer I’ve felt out of place and not fitting into the organization because it was hard to be of help and to know how to do things the way it was expected (but not communicated).
(…) I was on the verge of quitting. But somehow I decided to go through with it. Week 2 brought some improvement and the fact that I was able to work some shifts in the kitchen and practice my Portuguese with their magnificent cozinheira made a big difference.
(…) Luckily being there with other volunteers helped, because even though we were not similar in most ways and sometimes being with them felt challenging, I still found companions who stuck together with me through this situation for better and worse. I managed to channel my focus on the beautiful beaches, the amazing breakfast and lunch our cozinheira produced, practicing my Portuguese with the staff and my yoga spot under a palm tree and flowers

In some way, my situation over there was a little bit like these days, with the exception of the quality of the Internet. I did not have to follow social distancing at that volunteer placement, but I was stuck in a remote place with nowhere to go except for the beach (no grocery store or restaurant within walking distance, just an accumulation of beach huts and resorts)—it kind of feels like where I am living right now. The only thing to do was and is to go for a walk or to stay indoors.

And you know what? That is what I’ve been wanting for the last months and also during my travels. I was already travel-fatigued after 2 months of traveling at the point that I wrote the above. This might come as a surprise to many of you, however, I had never set out on this trip to bump around from place to place. I envisioned myself at a few volunteering placements, having some peace and quiet and staying in one place without doing much sightseeing. One way or the other, I did get lured into the backpacking lifestyle and partly liked, partly hated it…. I’m saying this so that you might understand that life being at a slow place and me not being able to go anywhere is just what I need right now. I talked with other friends who are leading a similar lifestyle to mine and they admitted to finding themselves in the same position. That when you have the opportunity you go, go, go because it would be a waste not to! Even though deep down, all you want to do is curl up in a comfortable bed, read a book, sleep, or binge-watch Netflix.

Therefore this time in many ways has brought me what I needed without having to justify my actions… until I got to this stage now and which I will write about below.

Let me say that I realize that I’m in a position where I don’t have to take care of 4 kids and a husband who are suddenly all at home 24/7 and which would not even make me think about what I wrote below. Everyone’s life is different and some people might not have any extra time on hand. The idea I’m presenting below might still resonate and you might be able to take in an aspect on what this extraordinary situation does to our life.

The dilemma doesn’t only refer to me but also to what I heard my friends talk about or the messages of the posts I could see on social media.
At the beginning of the self-isolation phase, I noticed people being either happy about having so much free time or wondering what the hell to make out of it.

During the past weeks, however, I’ve seen more and more people (including me) struggle to be unproductive and associate this as something concerning and unnerving. Many of us, including me, have tried to find something useful to do, so as in not to ‘waste’ this time given to us. It made me feel almost stressed. I was trying so hard to set up a full-day program that I felt more worn-out and unsatisfied that during a regular week in my life. I was battling procrastination, instant gratification, wanting to do ‘more’ and not knowing where to start. Starting on five different ‘projects,’ then losing motivation. I felt all over the place and not at peace.

So, eventually, I had to guide myself back into spending my day with moments where I would deliberately do nothing – and that was (and still is) really really hard to do.

In my definition, that means being present but not thinking about what to do next. Not running through your imaginary to-do list. Not trying to compare me with other people’s efforts and achievements during quarantine times. Not having every single minute of my day filled, trying to achieve something.
Instead, being present and only present in that one moment (also outside of my daily meditation, which had been a ‘thoughts-overloaded’ ordeal for a bit)
Doing nothing is pretty much impossible (we are always breathing, right?!).

So I was looking for these ‘pockets’ in my day where I could drop everything for a bit and either didn’t carry out any conscious action or did something (in my eyes) ‘unproductive.’

I managed to tone down my multi-tasking and started going for walks without my phone, which was difficult but also incredibly liberating! I started looking at the trees and how all the buds were turning into leaves and flowers. I suddenly felt such an intense eye for detail, even more than I already thought I had. I smelled the spring air, the pebbles of the beach underneath my feet and took it in just by myself without taking pictures to post later.
I also put my phone away while I was eating and stared at the plants on my terrace instead. There was so much peace suddenly within me.
I started feeling annoyed by all the clutter in my life – digital non-sense that I was devoting my day to.
Also, sometimes, I would just lay on the couch and be there. This brought me some more meditative moments in life, not just when I’d deliberately sit down but just when getting on with my day.

And then there were days when I just lay in bed, read a good book and binge-watched Netflix (A Coisa Mais Linda, my go-to series for listening to Portuguese and getting those Rio vibes back). I had not done that in years and letting go of the productive me for a day was so fulfilling. It made me recover energy that I felt I had lost and gave me the motivation to, e.g., write on this blog the day after.

I also eventually realized that I did neither have to nor want to renounce my daily routine completely.
My personal life has seen constant changes over the past two years. It would have been easy to feel like the ground was pulled away from underneath my feet. Keeping my routine (which is merely about 2 hours of my day) has helped me frame my day with an official ‘start’ and ‘closure.’ My routine had helped me stay on track when I didn’t have much to do and felt like wasting my life away. It had also helped me in days when everything seemed overwhelming and I didn’t know where my head was. Knowing that I have a structure, the one that stays no matter what happens during the day, has helped me find some feeling ‘safe and secure.’

In my opinion, the challenge is not to ‘over plan’ the free time of my day but to leave enough time for unexpected circumstances happening, ‘pockets’ of nothingness and moments of spontaneous creativity and flow.

Yoga and it’s relation to meditation and the power of home-made food / Travel Insights Series #3

This is part 3 of my reflection series on the travel insights I had during my 14 month trip through South-America and how I am applying them being back in ‘normal life’. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

The second place I went on to volunteer at was another farm in Brazil close to Sao Paulo. This farm, however, was focusing on using their vast space to host events rather than focus on agriculture (they had some staff for it, but kept it on a minuscule scale). The dwellings belonging to the farm were beautifully restored. Scattered all around the property, they included a swimming pool, a bar, and a chapel that hosted weddings. Our task as volunteers was to help with housekeeping and running the events – catering, ticketing, setting spaces

Due to the variety of our assignments, we had no fixed schedule, which made it difficult to be ‘off’ work, never knowing when you’d be expected to help again. We were in a rather remote area as well with nowhere to go. A fantastic plus was having a restaurant-sized kitchen at our disposal to e.g., make yogurt, etc. (see more below). I spent a good two weeks at this farm, leaving all together with some new friends I had made and others who I am still in touch with to this day.

Again, I will show you a part of my post and then write my reflection and how I am taking this into my current life.

Left farm no. 2. It’s been a place full of new experiences and challenges of adapting to an ever-changing schedule and environment. Yet I’ve shared it with great people in our small green volunteer house, which quickly became home 🙂 and which I will miss ❤️

I learnt how to make yogurt and cheese (and vegan ice cream out of bananas ❤️), indulged in popcorn over movie nights, shared many fun conversations and connected with people. It’s awesome what each of us can contribute to a community of travelers: recipes and homemade food, haircuts, embroidery, handmade bracelets, songs, guitar play, life stories,…

So many ‘product’ can be made from scratch, for example yogurt, bread, cheese…! I wish we would still learn more about this. However, being in a country such as Germany where a lot more products are available at a low price, I understand why people wouldn’t spend their time making things from scratch all the time. I remember making natural yogurt in Brazil and Peru because unsweetened yogurt was hard to come by and expensive. Here in Germany, you can buy organic yogurt for a little over one dollar for 500 grams, so no, I do not have to make it myself anymore….

It isn’t only about the price either. There is a lot of satisfaction in creating a meal or food in general. You can see the result immediately, instead of having to wait for a while, which is the case in most scenarios in life. I have met people who loved kneading bread dough, or who could spend hours on some peculiar task such as decorating a cake. Call it meditative creation 😉

I had the chance to practice my Portuguese at the farm’s festival, selling coupons as the cashier and making drinks at the bar – finally putting into practice what I’ve been working on over the past months! Shows again that the best way to learn a language is by simply speaking with whatever you have!

I experienced beautiful and experimental concerts – small artists who are given space to express themselves in beautiful surroundings.

It shows that a remote place doesn’t have to be lonely or boring – get a few people together, and the whole place will change its atmosphere.

This place also taught me that it isn’t necessarily about being in a ‘vibrant area,’ but that people can enrich your life – you don’t need a buzzing concert to create a great atmosphere. Everywhere in the world, you will be able to find people that you will connect to, as long as you stay open for new experiences. Everyone you meet can teach you something, and has a story to share as long as you create a space that is conducive to do so! I am feeling grateful to have read this old post of mine, as I started thinking in a very narrow mindset once back in Germany, thinking I would have a hard time meeting people who I would be able to connect with (and of course and thank God I was wrong in that).

I learned how yoga is not only exercise but how it can deeply connect you with yourself and be a way of meditation in itself.

Over the last months, I haven’t been practicing yoga as much as I thought I would. I have focused on some higher intensity home workouts as I felt that was more beneficial to me during the winter with me not being active outside much. However, I have found my meditation practice to increase whenever my yoga practice decreases, as if one is trying to make up for the lack of the other. I definitely see the connection that the two have. Yoga is much more than exercise and has so many more facets to it than is known to most people. I feel as if I’ve only dipped my toe into the beginning of this vast ocean an hope that I will continue to explore it!

I learned how feeling into an uncomfortable feeling instead of trying to suppress it through food/drinks/distraction will help make it ease away.

Feeling into uncomfortable feelings instead of suppressing them with food – well, this one is one that I am totally aware of and still majorly struggle with!

Food seems like a lazy way to ease a bad feeling. It’s like knowing you should make a salad or a wholesome meal, but you reach for some processed snack instead, just for the ease of it…. I have found moments in these past weeks where I found myself reaching for food because I was upset/bored etc. first questioned myself in WHY I really wanted to make that feeling go away. Sitting with it for a while, noticing it, feeling into it, is not exactly bliss but it eventually eases and that’s when you start feeling more whole again (and proud of yourself for going through the struggle). Most people I know struggle with meditation and I thoroughly think that the struggle is the moment that we can learn from as long as we’re willing to go through it.

I learned how challenging yet necessary it is for me to set boundaries (in this case, about my own time and work vs. being available all the time).

This place for me was one that taught me that disorganization could cost you so much time, even when you have quite some at hand.

I often think about how to maximize what I get out of my time. Sometimes you waste time by being disorganized, misplacing things, starting one task without finishing it, jumping over to the next. I also get reminded that when you have a job that is not 9-5 but in which you are expected to be available outside of that timeframe in case necessary, you need to make sure to set your own boundaries: replying to emails at times that you don’t think are interfering with your own private time, i.e., not during weekends or late at night. By setting your own boundaries, you are protecting yourself from being ‘always on call.’

And my stay reminded me again and again how age is just a number and how it differs from the age we actually radiate! You can learn so much from people younger and older than you, and it is great to see that the older you get, the younger your soul can seem. ☀️

Again, I knew this, and I encourage other people to try it! I have fantastic friends that are twice my age and friends that are over a decade younger than me. I have learned from both sides and seen a maturity in certain aspects well beyond the years in my younger friends and a sort of ‘playfulness’ in people you’d think of as much more serious!

One of my friends once gave me the quote’ strangers are simply friends you haven’t met yet,’ and from my own good experience, I often think back of this quote fondly!

On a practical note….
I experienced that electricity is not a given and how to adapt to a day or night without it. Internet at home can be such a luxury (every time it rained, our internet at home went off – so quite often :P).

I’m constantly on the verge of hating how connected we are thanks to the internet and at the same time deeply grateful for it. Another point I’m trying to figure out how to handle it within life. These days I think the benefits of a good internet connection are again even more highlighted than at other times.

However, I am feeling the danger of always updating the news, which is seemingly changing every couple of hours. There is, even more, a need now to use the internet responsibly.

I also experienced how nature can turn a tiny creek at the back of our house into a raging stream after just a couple of hours of rain 😛
Arriving in a city after three weeks on the farm was surprisingly disappointing. Nothing I had missed, not even the coffee shops. All I wanted to see was some green nature…
Quickly found the next remote place ….update soon. Hint: I’m finally at the beach 😉

And this is what the post will be about – volunteering in a different setting.

The last point again is one that made me most happy to have experienced. I’m even less materialistic than before my trip and am finding less and less value in the convenience and consumerism of larger cities.