It’s a little after 7:15 PM on Saturday, May 26. I’m trying to catch clear images of the green, yet cloudy countryside just outside Milan that is a constant blur before my eyes. I just departed Malpensa International Airport and I’m making my hectic way towards Milan’s Stazione Centrale. Sitting aboard the Malpensa Express Train, I’m a little anxious. Everything on this day has to go right for me to make it to my final destination by 9:30 PM.
A few hours ago, I kissed my wife goodbye as she left for the airport in Valencia a couple of hours before me to fly to Prague for a few days. I was now on my way to Bologna to meet up with friends and enjoy a few days of good conversation and comfort in what is practically another home for me. As I stare outside the window of the express train on this hazy, gray evening, I’m reminded of the landscape in the outskirts of the Midwest back in the US. Yet, I’m far away from that home. I will have traveled thousands of miles and through 3 countries, 4 cities, and across an ocean by the time I arrive back there in two short weeks.
For the next 31 days, I’ll constantly be on the move – a true test of adjusting to constant and rapid change. It’ll also be a test of truly being in the moment and maximizing the brief bits of time that I’ll share with dear friends and family. Home becomes something different when it becomes wherever you are.
Yes, it’s true that I can call many places around the world home – Spain, Thailand, Italy, California, Chicago, and pretty much wherever my backpack and carry-on luggage are at the moment. Now when I visit the places back in the US, they feel less like home and more like a vacation. It’s not a time to relax – per se – but more a time to take care of annual personal and business matters, make the rounds amongst friends and family, and, hopefully, have a few minutes to take it all in.
I arrive at the Milan Central station and dart from the express train towards my high-speed train to Bologna. Boarding the surprisingly crowded TrenItalia train, I am finally able to relax, knowing that I’ve made my final leg of this almost 11-hour journey from my apartment in Valencia to my 4-day stay in Bologna. It’ll be the first stop of a 2-week jaunt from Bologna to Munich then Berlin and a final quick stop in Lisbon. Each place will be notably different, though Berlin will be the only one that I’ve never visited before.
Thereafter, I’ll spend the final weeks of this crazy month of movement between Chicago and California, and along the way be informed that our apartment scheduled for one-month in Vancouver at the end of this month-long adventure will be cancelled. The sun sets on this late spring evening upon my 9:30 PM arrival into Bologna Central station and my month of constant movement and adjustment is just beginning.
Week 1 – Bologna, Prague, & Munich
Soon after I arrived at my friend Ricardo’s apartment in Bologna, we dropped my bags and headed out for a walk on the town. It was after 10 PM at this point and with all the planes, trains, and connections, I hadn’t had a proper meal all day. Now, I found myself walking along Bologna’s cobblestone streets on a warm, late spring evening hungry, yet strangely comfortable.
It had been a year since I was last here and yet it only felt like a few weeks. Throughout the year, I often keep in contact with my friends in Italy, so when I see them, it’s more like a continuation of our messages rather than an annual interaction. That first meal at La Montanara was perfect – a little white wine, some fresh Italian bread, and homemade pasta in a light regional sauce. It was a nice welcome back to Italia and a very welcomed meal after a hectic day of travel.
While I enjoyed a few days of comfort and conversation in a place that I can almost call home, my wife enjoyed a few days exploring one of the cities that was always high on her list – Prague. I’d been there before nearly 9 years ago and last year we decided to forego Prague on her 10-day birthday adventure through the region. So prior to us meeting up again in Germany, her 4-day trip to Prague was a nice way to check off one of her dream destinations, as well as spend a little extra time with her friend Bri, who had just visited us in Valencia a few days prior.
My remaining time in Bologna was purposely chill. Beyond a couple of late evening dinners and random weekend adventures with Ricardo, I spent most of my days just simply hitting all of my favorite spots around town – morning croissants and coffee while chatting with the students of the Madrelingua Italian school and afternoons bicycling around town with a mid-afternoon stop at my favorite park for cold beer while overlooking the lake.
As the years progress and I spend less and less time in Italy, I continue to be surprised at how much the language has become part of me. This was even clearer the night I had dinner with my dear friend and first Italian language instructor, Lucia. Since our first class together back in 2012, we’ve become good friends and stay in touch often. Earlier this year, I became quite concerned as her interactions online became more sparse and opaque. Yet, as I listened to her provide me the background on all of changes in her life in the past few weeks, I appreciated her using the opportunity to connect in-person to fill me in. There are just some things that are best left for real-world encounters rather than digital ones. Not to mention the fact that these annual experiences allow a language that once frustrated me to no end, become such a part of my soul that I can listen and interact without any significant barriers to friends tell me about the deepest parts of their life experience.
Just four days after arriving in Bologna, I found myself flying high above the Austrian Alps aboard an Air Dolomiti regional jet. My shortest trip to Italy ever had ended and now I was headed to Munich to start our week of German adventures – 3 days in Munich and 4 days in Berlin. I’d been to Munich before in 2009 to attend Oktoberfest. Though it wasn’t the time for that annual event, I was excited to relive some of my memories from that trip as I showed off the city to my wife for her first time. She’d later return the favor in Berlin in just a few short days.
I love Munich and I love southern Germany. It’s noticeably different than the cities in the north – in landscape, ambience, and cuisine. With just two short full days in Munich, I was determined to hit all of my favorite food and beer spots, as well as some of my favorite landmarks around town. This included having lunch at the famous Hofbrauhaus, drinking as much beer and eating as many pretzels as possible around town, all the while enjoying long strolls through the city’s old town, its quaint little neighborhoods, and its huge Olympiapark (Olympic Park).
My first week “on the road” was comfortable and filling. Not only was I full of good food, beer, and wine, but also of warm experiences with friends in Italy and for the most part, relaxing moments moving about Munich.
Grabbing a bite to eat at the Munich train station before we boarded our 4.5-hour train ride up to Berlin, I was beaming with excitement about finally exploring one of the cities that had always intrigued me. Thankfully, my curiosity with Berlin was not for the same reasons that I love Munich. For if it was, I would have even more underwhelmed than I was during my brief 4 days in the Germany capital.
Week 2 – Berlin & Lisbon
From the moment I arrived in Berlin, I was uncomfortable. It happens. The 4.5-hour train ride felt surprisingly quick and comfortable (even though the espresso machine was inoperable during the entire train ride). Yet, the arrival at the Berlin main train station was a microcosm of my entire experience in this big, brash, gritty city.
The city is huge and spread out. Even for someone like me, who has traveled to many a big city in the world and loves public transit systems, Berlin was a beast. I was reminded of my first time in Paris. It took a few extra minutes (or maybe even hours or days) to get my bearings. Perhaps, I was also taken aback because all of my experience in Germany up until this point was in the south – Stuttgart, Tubingen, and Munich. The city where I had just arrived did not feel like “Germany” to me. Instead, it felt as much German as Milan is Italian – in my eyes – which is to say, not very much.
It also didn’t help that the Airbnb apartment we stayed during our time in Berlin was not in a neighborhood that suited our taste. The apartment itself was tight, cramped, and cluttered. As our friend Jessica noted, it’s like shacking up in a friend of friend’s house, whom you never met. There was barely any space for our things and we never felt comfortable moving things to make our own space. Hence, those four days in the apartment felt cramped and cluttered.
And for me, Berlin overall felt cramped and cluttered. Had I never been to Germany before, I’m sure I would have had a better impression of the city. It’s like someone who has been to Tuscany or Rome and then visits Milan. It just doesn’t feel like Italy and for me, Berlin just felt like a big city with a lot of people who happen to speak German. Before I exit stage right from harping on Berlin, I’ll just say this – in my four days in the city, I never once had a decent cup of coffee nor an amazing meal. Again, I’ve been spoiled by the culinary and coffee delights of southern Germany.
Now that I’ve crapped on Berlin for as much as I can, I will say that I was determined to make the most of the experience. In an effort to adjust to the change and maximize my time in one of the 20th century’s most fascinating cities, I set out to explore the historical gems of the town. I’ve studied 20th century history throughout my spare time and enjoy reading books about the various geopolitical conflicts of the era (e.g. “1968” and “La Revoluion Divertida” mentioned in my recent Valencia post). So being able to literally bring those stories to life by walking the streets and visiting the buildings were much of that history was made, more than made up for the culinary and coffee spoils.
I spent my days reliving memories of Jessie Owens shocking the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics by visiting the Olympic Stadium. I learned about the deep state horrors of the Stasi (secret police) walking through the museum housed in their former East German headquarters. I walked past the Reichstag (German Parliament) and along the famous Bundesstraße past the Russian Soldiers (Soviet War) Memorial and towards the famous Brandenburg gate. From there I visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an eerie yet much-needed reminder of the horrors of hatred and fascism. Strolling along Wilhemstraße, I learned about the German influence in African colonization and events that were held along that same street a century ago that affected the continent’s entire 20th century history.
Other sites such as the Topography of Terror (a museum detailing the events that led to the rise of Nazi Germany), the not surprisingly, overly-commercialized Checkpoint Charlie, the East Side Gallery, and Tempelhof Airport (the site of both Hitler’s first major rally, as well as the Berlin Airlift), rounded out my historical itinerary.
Beyond those usual sites, I hoped to discover the Berlin that so many people rave about. Walking through the popular neighborhoods of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, I could see why this city might be attractive to some. The beer gardens, hipster cafes, and boutique shops, set within tree-lined, colorfully designed streets.
Yet, the friction that I felt in Berlin was just too much overcome in such a short period of time. And I’m not even sure if spending more time in the city would have made it much different for me. I simply enjoyed it for what it was and was happily ready to move on to our final European destination for this season – Lisbon, Portugal.
Thank god that we visited Lisbon a year earlier during a perfect week of weather because our two quick days in Lisbon this year were anything but perfect weather. It was unseasonably cold, wet, and gray. We’d hope to revisit the city and survey it as a potential month-long destination in our future travels. Yet, this trip confirmed that Lisbon, while on a good day is absolutely one of the most beautiful cities we have ever visited, it’s just not the best place for a long-term stay based on how we like to exist in cities.
Our favorite café from a year ago was already closed down and it had just opened the year before. So we set out to explore the rest of the emerging café scene in the city, which is something that is very important to our way of life. We spend most of our working days bouncing between cafes to enjoy good coffee, good atmosphere, and dive into work. Yet, things in Lisbon are spread out and, though it is a fairly walkable city, those walks can be exhausting given all of the hills and cobblestone streets – especially on cold, damp days.
Even though we were tired, frustrated, and cold during our one full day in the city, our lunch at our favorite restaurant more than made up for all of it. We visited Restaurant Mili just off the main square and lo and behold, the owner remembered us from our two visits last year! He remembered where we were from and exactly what we ordered the year before. It was amazing and humbling. We have reached a point where we can travel to many places on the globe and be recognized and remembered for the experiences we have shared with folks, if only for brief moments in time. As I said earlier, home becomes something different when it becomes wherever you are.
Week 3 – Chicago
Now it’s around 5pm (Central Time) on June 8th and I’m high above Flint, Michigan aboard a Southwest Airlines inbound to Chicago Midway airport. I started the morning in Lisbon, had Dunkin Donuts for lunch at Boston’s Logan Airport, and now I’m making my way to my real “hometown” just in time to have dinner and watch Game 4 of the NBA Finals with my dad.
Staring down towards Flint, I’m flooded with thoughts about their recent water crisis and all the various social and geopolitical problems that are flooding the US media. I’m relieved to not have been interrogated upon my re-entry at Boston Logan, which sometimes happens after I’ve visited countries like Mexico, Colombia, or Costa Rica. Or like couple of times after being out of the country for 10+ months:
- What do you do?
- Why were you gone for 10 months?
- Who’s your employer? “Me!”
I get asked more questions entering the US sometimes (as a citizen) than I do entering other countries as a foreigner. It’s annoying. But now as we turn towards the northwest about 4,000 ft above my home in the south Chicago suburbs, I can relax and ready myself for a week of totally unplanned encounters with family and friends who I’ve known more than half of my life.
Like every visit to Chicago, most of my time is completely unscheduled. I simply arrive and start messaging folks to see who’s available and when. Everyone is basically 20 minutes away and it’s normal in the Midwest to simply show up to someone’s house and “hang out” for hours, without any intentions. And this is what I truly love about being back at home…no expectations and no formalities.
During my annual visit home, I enjoyed dinners and backyard BBQs with friends and their kids, impromptu meetups at restaurants (simply because I was in the area), and even a last minute surprise of spending a couple of days with my cousin, Angela, who is like a little sister to me. I also got the chance to treat my parents to a couple of meals out, while they cooked some of my favorite meals during our quality moments spent in the home.
Working with my dad to help set up a few things at my mom’s new residence was a nice life moment that I’ll retain for sometime. It hearkens back to my childhood when I’d help him install ceiling fans and lights in our house, or do some light work on his airplane. As my parents age, I cherish these moments even more. Sitting around on a lazy afternoon and laughing with my mom or spending an evening sitting at the kitchen table chatting with my dad while watching the NBA Finals…there are just some moments that are best left for real-world encounters rather than digital ones. And my annual trips home (over the last 20+ years) have given me a treasure chest full of memorable moments.
Though Chicago is far from a “travel experience” for me, my friends Brian and Taryn treated me to a random surprise one evening, in of all places – Gary, Indiana. We headed out in the family van to a Taco Tuesday event in a local park – per se. For anyone that knows Gary, Indiana, hanging out in a park on a warm summer evening, isn’t the most relaxing thing to do at times. Yet, this wasn’t a normal park. It was Marquette Park – one of Gary’s gems. The tacos left a bit to be desired but the evening setting was surprisingly beautiful. Who knew that the lakefront areas in Gary, Indiana had such beauty?
After all of the friction that I felt in Berlin and during those cold, damp days in Lisbon, that first week back in the States was perfectly relaxing. It was good downtime before my 10 days of endless, scheduled activities and travel in California. These experiences continuously reminded me how important it is to simply enjoy the moments as they are, when they are, for what they are. Most of these people I interact via text messages throughout the year, but my time spent with them face-to-face each year for just a few days is beyond priceless.
Week 4 – California
Now it’s around 11:30pm on Friday, June 15th and I’m again aboard a Southwest Airlines B737. Yet this time, I’m inbound to San Jose, California and just like my last three weeks of travel, we are approaching fast. As a pilot, you have a sense of motion and speed that’s hard to describe, but you just know when things just aren’t quite right. Not to mention, I’ve flown this same approach path numerous times both as a passenger and a pilot. I know the route almost better than I know myself.
As we neared the airport, my sense told me that this landing was a little fast and a bit awkward. Touching down, I could tell we landed in a crosswind and landed on the left main wheel – totally normal. Yet, from inside the plane it seemed as though just after touch down the plane almost tipped on its left side – enough to the point that literally everything slowed down in my mind and I thought the wing might strike the ground and the plane would flip over. The first thing I did as we taxied off the runway was locate the windsock. I wanted to see how strong this wind was for myself. Yet, the windsock was barely erect and was pointed in the opposite direction. Strange!
I really thought about asking the pilots what happened on that landing but I was so tired and just wanted to get home, that I simply said, “Goodnight!” as I exited the plane. Walking outside of the terminal towards the rental car station, it became a bit clearer. The air was chilly and the wind was whipping around strong in all directions. The wind was a fitting symbol of my entire time in California – fast and going in all directions.
Unlike Chicago, life in California is much more structured. Everyone seems to be on a schedule and meet ups are a lot more coordinated and planned. For those 10 days, nearly every 2-3 hours of my day (beyond sleeping and showering) was booked. It is the only way I can cover so much ground, connect with friends and family, and handle personal and business matters, in such a short time. Given the limited time to engage with each person, I’m truly tested in these experiences to be as present as possible. There’s no time to think about the next thing or even check phone messages, only time to enjoy the precious 20 minutes to 2-3 hours with each person or group.
1200 miles and 10 days later, after visiting friends, family, and handling personal/business matters from San Jose up to Santa Rosa down to Santa Barbara and out to Fresno, I was beyond exhausted. I was ready to leave again and set out for calmer, more relaxed days abroad. I was full of rich experiences, memorable moments, and tons of stimulating conversations. All of which feed my soul and help me reset and center myself – especially after so much time spent abroad dealing with friction and taming internal voices/doubts. Yet, my life is not in California at this time. And it wasn’t even in Vancouver – our next destination.
On the Road Again…
Leaving home is always bittersweet. There’s never enough time to spend with everyone. Yet, I am fortunate to have so many people that wish to make the time to share some quality moments with me. Each year, it gets easier and harder at the same time – it’s the duality of life itself.
Approaching into Vancouver as the sun was setting over the mountains, I recalled the many trips that we had taken to the city and how we wished we would be spending the next month there. Fate had a different plan in store and instead, we were only going to be on the ground for a little less than 5 hours. We’d wake up two days later in Taipei, Taiwan – visiting a city that has been high on our list but difficult to get to due to scheduling.
We had no real expectations for Taipei because we hadn’t had anytime to really think about it in these last four weeks. Just days after we left Spain, we were informed that we’d have to forego living in Vancouver and choose a different destination (due to maintenance issues within the apartment we had booked). This was the epitome of adjusting to rapid change and we were up for the challenge. After these 31 days of constant movement and rapid adjustments, we were up for anything – because sometimes home becomes wherever you are.
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.