10 Things I learned in Germany During My Recent Period of Self-Imposed Exile

Hamburg central station.

1. Tom Kha Gai is a delicious Asian soup.

And Hamburg has a lot of it.

2. Germans put radios in their kitchen.

I thought it was just my roommate, but then he told me most do and said, “Wait, you guys don’t?”

3. German adjective declension is beautiful.

We think English is superior for barely having cases. But cases are beautiful! Adjective and noun and gender agreement! Genitive! Accusative! Dative! Instrumentative! Vocative! The more the merrier!

4. Europe isn’t that expensive. In fact, other than London, Paris and Scandinavia, it’s a lot cheaper than Seattle.  My room in Hamburg cost USD $430 a month and was cozy and in a nice neighborhood (and I was overpaying!). Try finding that in Seattle. You’ll either be renting a bathroom or a dumpster.

5. Germany has surf.

Bad surf, but it has surf.

6. Denmark has good surf.

Really good surf.

7. American bread is garbage.

8. American public transportation is garbage.

9. Loneliness is underrated.

Or overrated. I’m still not sure on that one.

10. Germans love the present perfect.

I actually sort of already knew this. When Germans speak English they won’t ask you, “What did you say?” but “What have you said?” This is because Germans use the present perfect 90% of the time and the simple past 10%. In English, it’s the exact opposite.

Which is kind of interesting.

Ach du Scheiße!

You Can Always Leave


“Welcome to the Washington State ferries…”

It’s  sunny and I’m on the late-departing 6:20pm boat from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. An announcement talks about donning life jackets and also how “smoking and vaping are prohibited.”  This is disappointing, as I hoped to vape the entire ride, sitting on the top deck becoming more or less cocooned in smoke.

It will have to wait.

The sea is angry outside. There are whitecaps. My left foot feels raw from traipsing around Greenlake all afternoon. I’m back in Seattle trying to lead a normal, independent, employed, stay-in-one-place kind of life. So far, so good. After so much gallivanting I’m starting to see the grass isn’t actually greener. If anything, it’s mottled, under-watered, dying in patches. And here’s the thing about staying in one place, or at least the thing I tell myself every night before going to bed, sitting with a cup of herbal tea, poring over maps of Namibia and the lesser-explored reaches the Congolese rain forest: You can still leave. The difference with largely staying in one place is that when you do leave you have someplace to come back to.

People talk about quitting their jobs and selling everything they own to “travel the world” (see: Southeast Asia) like it’s the ultimate expression of bravery and “living your life.” I’ve done this. A few years back I went to Chile with 300 dollars and, after wandering the touristy part of Puerto Montt for a few hours, got a job at a small hotel, and then later a job making pizzas at a high-end Italian restaurant overlooking a lake. Was it romantic? Absolutely. Between the two jobs I went to the beach for five days with 37 dollars and survived on nothing but mediocre waves, hard bread, longaniza sausage, cheap boxed wine, and nightly camp fires. At night, after putting out the fire, I’d lay in my tent listening to the sound of the ocean, mere paces away, and the wind blowing through the branches of the pine trees around me. Alone in southern Chile. Very romantic.

But there’s a key truth about the whole experience, and that lies in the first word of the second to last sentence. When you’re always traveling your friendships often last about as long as the days on your visa in any given country, or as long as you’re in a particular city or hostel. Which is why, to quote the possibly-goth Kiwi temptress Lourde, I now “crave a different kind of buzz.” This buzz involves having an apartment, getting a job, and paying rent. It doesn’t sound very glamorous. Indeed, it’s not. But there’s something to be said for the quiet life, for seeing your friends, for slow walks around the lake.  It’s not glamorous, but it can be fulfilling. The people who champion throwing caution to the wind, quitting your job and hitting the road often further justify it by saying, “You can always go back.” Which is true, but there’s also the flip side, something the people working 9-5 can take comfort in, the people who have a comfortable routine, the people who dream of faraway destinations, trekking through a desert, climbing a mountain, mingling with exotic cultures, sleeping in bus stations, wondering what the next town will bring, the next day, the next curve of the road — in short, what I might now become after adventuring for the past five years. And that thing they can take comfort in is this: You can always leave.


Ferry Thoughts


This morning I plan to write as much as I can on the ferry ride and then post it, lightly-edited. Over-editing can be just as detrimental as under-editing. Most of the time, when you write anything, it looks worse when you look at it later. It’s rare this is not the case. Every once in awhile you forget about something you wrote and stumble upon it a few weeks or a few months or a few years later and think, Wow, this is actually kind of good. But those times are rare.

I flew back from Italy to Seattle via London using miles on British Airways. I was excited for my BA flight. I’d heard it was a nice, luxurious airline. But it was the definition of average. It could’ve been American or Delta and you wouldn’t have known the difference except for when they served something called “cottled cream” which was essentially a sort of sweet creme fraiche with a hard top. It was delicious. They served it with a scone and strawberry jam for “afternoon tea” while I watched a movie with Zac Efron about two brothers who have to impress their families by bringing respectable dates to a wedding. There’s something about watching movies on planes. They can’t be good movies. Or wait:They can be good movies, but they can’t be slow movies. Or deep movies. Your movie preferences change when you get on a plane. Suppose, only anything truly amazing, or fast-paced, or raunchy, can hold your attention. Airplanes are relatively uncomfortable environments, which means it’s easier to lose interest and think about how uncomfortable you are, or how hungry you are, or how bad you have to go to the bathroom, or how many hours it is until you land. Which is why a long and slow but legitimately good movie might be a struggle, but why I can watch Pitch Perfect and laugh until I cry.

We’re in the middle of Puget Sound now. My friend H will be picking me up on the other side. I’m excited to go surfing. I don’t know when the next time I’ll go will be, since as of next week I might be dangerously employed.

As is usually the case, the last few months seem like a blur. Just a few months ago I was in Valdivia, Chile, and it was summer. I bought cherries on the street and got in an argument over how much they cost. I got my haircut short. I went surfing on a beach down a country road and met a Spanish guy who had driven his Corolla down from Oregon. And then I was in Hamburg living with a guy named Phillip and I had a routine. I had no friends but I had a routine. I’d get up every morning and go to my German class, and then afterword I’d get Tom Kha Gai at one of Hamburg’s many Asian eateries, and then I’d go to Thalia and read, and then Balzac coffee, and then for a walk, etc etc. And I knew at the time that although I was wretchedly lonely I would somehow look back on that time fondly. I wasn’t sure why, I’d just been in enough situations like that in the past to know that while you meet not feel ultra happy in the moment, deep down you’re a kind of content, and in the end being content is more important than being happy. Plus, there’s something to be said for routine. Or at least healthy routine. Routine takes your actions, whether good or bad, and compounds them, day after day. You won’t do anything great without solid routine. And bad routine can ruin you fast.

Now we’ve entered Elliott Bay, whose spelling I’ve never been quite sure of. There’s a man to my right reading the New Yorker, a woman to my right putting her makeup on. The man across from me is on his phone. I’m on my phone. There are two techie guys across from me having some sort of phone conference, and they’re speaking with gravity about something that sounds trivial.
We slow down, and people put on their coats on. I grab my surfboard and head to the front of the boat so I can be one of the first people off. The writing is over. Time to surf.

An Ode to Wendy

la foto

“Often I sit, and I yearn.” – Kramer

Wendy and I are no more. If you followed my blog last year you’ll recall Wendy as the ’95 Honda Civic I drove from Seattle to Panama and then put on a boat for South America. I grew quite attached to that car. Wendy and I were kindred spirits. We laughed together, we played together, and we even got a ticket for making an illegal left turn together.

I have so many poignant memories of my time spent with Wendy. Driving up to the Valle de Anton in Panama, at night, in the rain, smoking a cigarette with the window cracked just enough to let the smoke out, squinting into the darkness. Crossing the border into Guatemala, also in the rain, the merciless rain, thanking God for my waterproof backpack, and thanking God I made it across and had the pleasure of driving some of the most potholed streets in Central America.

Every morning when I woke up, wherever I was, Wendy was outside. At night when I went to bed she lay securely outside, or inside, dreaming of whatever adventures might befall us the next day. On the entire trip we had to go to the mechanic only once, so that Wendy could get a new muffler, after which she purred like a contented ocelot. You could put any oil in Wendy — 5w-30, 10w-30, 20w-50 — she didn’t care. All she wanted was the open road under her feet, the breeze in her midnight blue hair.

Of course, Wendy and I shared hard moments, too. While driving the pampas of Argentina a family of choique (birds that look like small ostriches) darted across the highway and though I tried to swerve, Wendy decided that one of the birds’ lives needed to come to an end.  I pulled to the side of the road and got out of the car, put a plastic bag over my hand, walked back, and dragged the dead bird’s body off the road. When I got back to the car I said to the two hitchhikers I was carrying, “I feel bad.”

Maybe I did the wrong thing selling Wendy. I can already tell that trip was one of the most important in my life, and a good deal of it had to do with my time spent in the automobile. We developed a relationship.  I spent more time with Wendy than with anyone else on the entire trip.

Now, I’m back in Seattle, and when I want to get to Bellevue to do an interpreting assignment, for example, I don’t open the door to my 4-speed goddess; I take the bus. Which disappointing. I miss her. Where once was Wendy, there’s now a void.

But, time heals all, and I can take comfort in the fact that maybe one day I’ll go back, not necessarily to retrieve her (though that would be wonderful), but at least to say “hi.” To see how she’s doing in Tierra del Fuego. To see if she speaks Spanish. To see how the new muffler is holding up, if she still burns oil and, most importantly, to see if she still remembers.