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Living Abroad

An American Werewolf in Romania

Before you head for FactCheck.org, I want to clear up any confusion the title may suggest. I’m an American, but when I’m not hiking through places on my bucket list, I live in Romania with my wife Monica. While I was hairy enough towards the end of my Appalachian Trail hike to look like a werewolf, I’m just too cute and mild-mannered to be a terrifying beast. But “cute, and mild-mannered couple spend the holidays with several amazing families in Romania and Austria” isn’t quite as click-worthy. Continue Reading…

Hiking, Living Abroad

On Topless of the World

I can still feel the cold gusts of mist blowing around us as we pose and play on the Mt. Katahdin sign. Brooklyn and Legs are wiping away celebratory tears. Willow is cracking an egg over her head in tribute to those fighting ovarian cancer. Soon, Red beard and PBS will start recklessly racing back down Katahdin’s treacherous crags. No more worries about an injury that would prevent them from reaching their goal. We did it. After roughly 6 months, we did it. We hiked 2189.2 miles of the Appalachian Mountains, all the way from Georgia to Maine.  I’m topless.

 

My mind and my body say this all happened yesterday. My feet and knees whine when I walk down stairs. When startled awake at night, or after one of those blissful after-breakfast naps (seriously, you gotta try ‘em), I’m still pleasantly surprised that the warm mass in my arms is Monica. She smells a lot better, and is much more form-fitting than the battle-scared clothes sac that served as my pillow and sleeping buddy for six months. I have a tortilla addiction, and zero interest in treating it.

 

This body and mind present a great argument, but I didn’t summit Katahdin yesterday. It was 6 weeks ago. It’s time to get back to work. No more breakfast-after-breakfast naps (another quality-of-life enhancer that doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves), and it’s time to stop calling Game of Thrones marathons “potential research.” I’m ready to start writing and sketching again!

 

In the real world again

 

“Are you coming to the gym with me again today?” Monica asks me.

“But… I’m in RECOVERY!”

Monica doesn’t stop putting stuff in her gym bag. “C’mon, it’ll be fun. Today’s a leg day!”

“But I just finished 6 MONTHS of leg days!”

“I know Love, and we’re all very proud of you. But, if you spend too much time recovering you’re going to turn into a bearded amoeba.”

 

To my credit, I usually follow her out the door. I knew that some (most) of the 53 lbs. I lost on the Trail would find its way back onto weird parts of my body, but it’s amazing to see the scale move nearly every day. After the creaking and groaning recedes into the background, it does feel great to be exercising again.

 

So, I’m out-of-shape. Not “bearded amoeba” out-of-shape, but I have some work to do. I’m realizing that this applies to writing and sketching as well. My writing/sketching joints are stiff from disuse. Facebook, or haunting/ridiculous News coverage lingers just a click away. Once I get past the distractions, when I can imagine myself sitting next to you around a shelter out in the woods, sharing my story and maybe a bag of Doritos, then it feels great to be writing again.

 

I’m going to continue to share our journey to Katahdin. There will be plenty of digressions, but I’d like to think that they are the side trails that add a little extra scenery to an already interesting experience. I hope that you will continue to follow along. Your comments and encouragement thus far have been invaluable. Please keep ‘em coming!

(almost) funny, Living Abroad

Goodbye cruel world

A guest post from Steelcharmer…

 

Don’t worry… I’m not planning to drape the back of my hand against my forehead and swoon melodramatically like bad actors do.

But you get it right? I’m leaving for 6 months of sleeping in the dirt, eating crap, and walking, and walking, and walking. So, goodbye indoor plumbing. Goodbye laptop and wifi and HBO OnDemand and (damn it’s harder to say than I’d expected) goodbye Jack Daniels. Goodbye wife who is probably already sleeping on my side on the bed. Yes, goodbye cruel world…hello cruel-er world.

I’m looking at this bulging orange backpack, trying to come to terms with the fact that this will be my home until the NFL season starts back up again. I look at the half-drank gallon of milk in the fridge and wonder what it will smell like when I get back (because there is a very good chance my dad won’t throw it away before I get back). Will I smell worse? Will my food standards drop so much that I still drink it?

I know it won’t be all bad. There is a free moonshine sampling place in Gatlinburg, and a “naked day” sometime during summer. I’ll probably get rid of enough of my gut to reintroduce myself to the valuable real estate below my belly button (I’m talking about my feet you perverts), but there is going to be sooo much time and walking in between these distractions.

I also know that it’s important. Life has been a not very fun merry-go-round for several years. Keep revisiting the same disasters. Something needs to change. Maybe this will be it.

So, let’s do this thing. Let’s hike the Appalachian Trail. Let’s hike really fast so we can get back into bed with Monica before it gets cold in Bucharest again! (Wow. Some of you really are kinky. I’m not suggesting group sex when I say “WE can get into bed with Monica.” I’m using the royal “we.” And I’m almost positive she would never go for it.)

I heft my pack (I’m sure it will feel lighter once I get in better shape) and meet Dad at the truck so he can take me to the airport. Dad is great about being supportive, says things like “this will be a great adventure” and “you’re going to meet some great people.” Lots of platitudes with the word great in them. (I think he’s just happy to have his storage room back.)

Although I had to check my pack (no way it was going to fit in the overhead bins), I can’t believe they let me carry on my trekking poles. No water bottles or nail clippers allowed through security, but the two spears with handles are no problem.

Anyway, I barely get a chance to wedge myself into my window seat when an overweight mother plops down into the seat next to me. Of course she has a lap warmer that couldn’t be much more than a year old and it’s already cranky. The mother starts talking at me, something about hating to fly and problems with the family in Atlanta. She is almost as oblivious to the cues I’m sending her as she is to the squeaking coming from her irritable child. Nonetheless, when she pauses to catch her breath and pull something squeaky out of a bulging diaper bag to compete with her kid’s noise, I recognize this as yet another one of those character building moments I see in movies. I could put in my earbuds and try to ignore their existence for the next few hours, or, I could let her in on a social experiment with lots of potential that she should be interested in.

I begin to explain, using the smallest words I can. We have forgotten that as far as children (below a reasonable drinking age… say 14) are concerned, vocal cords are a privilege, not a right. To illustrate my point, the toddler gets really expressive as we lift off and cabin pressure drops enough to make its ears pop. Mom is absentmindedly bouncing it on her knees as much as the seats will allow, but she adopts this weird bug-eyed look. I assume that she’s having a hard time concentrating while her kid howls in her lap, so I start speaking louder.

I mention that the vocal cords (removed humanely, and under general anesthesia of course) would be stored in some embalming fluid like formalin and put in a decorative jar. Maybe she could put the jar on the mantel of her fireplace – like a motivational reminder? Taking the vocal cords out wouldn’t be too much of a problem, but there aren’t that many surgeons with the experience to reimplant them, so we may have to do something to hurry the technology along. She starts looking for the flight attendant to change seats.

Deep down, I suspect she sees the beauty of my idea even more profoundly than I do. After all, she has to live with that all day (and all night). Besides, I bet when circumcision was first suggested, there was probably some pushback. Now, even the medical students are snipping away the “extra” skin on newborns as practice. And most babies do fine with a pacifier dipped in sugar water (there is still some screaming, but again, this could be controlled with a combined vocal cord-ectomy/circumcision). After enduring an earful from the histrionic mother, the flight attendant tries to tell me to keep my comments to myself, and offers us both a complimentary drink. Since the mother has her hands full, I take hers too. After all, I’m the one that has to look like the bad guy here, even though my idea will make everyone’s life so much more pleasant. Who knows, it might even fix a lot of the problems with kids today. Make them model citizens.

I know this idea is still in its infancy, but it’s got potential. And given our current political climate, now is the perfect time to try our some of our more progressive social experiments. If nothing else, I’m sure the beneficiaries (the children of course) won’t voice any criticisms.

Living Abroad

From Romania with love… (kinda)

See you later Bucharest (or “pe curand” in Romanian).  While your traffic may not reach the same decibel levels and anxiety-inducing road rage as Istanbul, you’re well on your way to achieving another notch on your belt as the “Paris of the East.”

Pe curand Sector 5, seat of the Palace of the Parliament, the second largest (after the Pentagon), but most expensive, administrative building in the world. Our apartment also happens to be in Sector 5, but is slightly smaller and a lot less expensive.

Palace of the Parliament

Not our apartment

 

Castle Bran

I’m on my way up to Castle Bran, the fabled birthplace of vampires and the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”

 

See you later Romania. You may have succeeded in keeping your herds of elusive vampires out of my grasp thus far, but I’ll be back! (I just Googled groups of vampires because “herds” didn’t seem like the right word. Looks like there isn’t really a consensus on what a group of vampires is called, but “brood”, “clan” and “pack” make the top three. I thought they would adopt the same brand as crows, who call themselves a “murder” for group get-togethers, but I guess there are still lingering bat-
crow tensions that need to be worked out.)

 

Benefits of Living in Romania

My relationship with Romania has become a bit strained over the past few years. We started off, Romania and I, the way most Rom-Coms do. I took dreamy strolls through the abundant and surprisingly tidy Bucharest parks. I marveled at her generosity as I bought a week’s worth of groceries for two with the equivalent of a $50 bill and had change left over for dinner at a restaurant. A quaint train ride out of Bucharest delivered me into the Carpathian Mountains where I could hike the numerous trails leading to mountaintop cafes, exchanging friendly Buna Ziua’s with other hikers along the way. Just off the trail, I occasionally witnessed honest-to-goodness shepherds as they ensured no lamb was left behind.

Romanian shepard

 

The challenges of living in Romania

The luster of new romance faded as Monica and I began a multi-month quest to get married, a process that involved an endless series of bureaucratic roadblocks, and concluded with a 10-minute tribunal manned by three dour-faced, sash-wearing judges who were still reluctant to sign off until we humbly presented them a bottle of champagne. The city noise got louder. Shopping for meat other than pork or an aptly-named fish called “crap” became a scavenger hunt. The trains out of town were never on time, and I began to notice the stale, smoggy smell of big city.

Monica was very aware of the growing rift between Romania and I. I think she worried that I would never come back from the Appalachian Trail. She packed my last few weeks before returning to the States with several brief and intimate gatherings partly to allow me the chance to brag about my upcoming adventure into the exotic Appalachian Mountains. She also she wanted me to remember that Romania was more than traffic that seemed like Dodge-Ball in tiny metal cages, corruption that permeated all levels of society, and overworked, unhappy people chasing a tenuous Bucharest promise of prosperity.

 

A typical evening with a wonderful Romanian family

We started by accepting an invitation to have dinner with Dragos and his family. Dragos was our first landlord. Unlike the stereotypical landlord, he was quick to respond with his bag of tools when a light bulb needed to be changed, or to preemptively replace the plumbing before leaks occurred. Exchanging rent became an excuse to get together for drinks, where I would vent frustrations about navigating the city, or learning what was undoubtedly the most difficult language to master, while he laughingly pointed me back in the right direction.

Dragos and his family moved into our old apartment shortly after we moved out. He guided me through our old digs. Gone was the snug kitchen that held the wobbly 2-burner stove I’d cooked so many slightly scorched meals on, and in its place was a gourmet kitchen with all the latest gadgets and appliances. By the time we stepped on the new hardwood floor in the hallways, I felt like I’d just bumped into an ex-girlfriend that got really hot right after I dumped her.

 

Dragos and familyWe caught up with Monica and Dragos’ wife Alexandra in my old office, which had been turned into a Disney-themed baby’s room for the 3-month old Andrei. I walked in to see a cooing Andrei reach out with his little hand to play with the tips of Monica’s copper hair. I almost had to brace myself against the wave of maternal “wouldn’t it be great if…” that was undoubtedly floating around in Monica’s mind.

Air-raid sirens sounded, emergency lights strobed in alternating reds and whites. I prepared to launch myself towards the nearest exit (as a frequent-flier, I embraced the logic behind the “secure your own air-mask before assisting others” philosophy), but noticed that they were still casually chatting about Andrei’s sleep schedule and diet.

 

“Does anyone else want a drink?” I asked without waiting for an answer before heading back to the estrogen-free confines of the kitchen. Everyone else picked up on my subtle cues and shifted the conversation back to me and my upcoming adventure, and me. But Andre must have been too distracted to be a team player. Instead of wailing like a banshee or dirtying a diaper, he curled up in the arms of whomever happened to be holding him at the time, looking cute and content.

 

Eventually, we broke into teams. The men slaved away over hot appliances in the kitchen where they belonged, while the women remained in the living room doing whatever it is that women do when we weren’t around. But we kept the alcohol with us so we won.

 

Enjoy the Transylvanian countryside

Next, we were off to visit Monica’s best friend Alexa (my “Sora mea din alt domn” – which loosely translates as “my sister from another mister”) in Arad, the former capitol of Transylvania (no vampires there either, I’ve checked). After a brief stay in the city, the duo of schemers had arranged for Alexa’s father Traian to provide some Romanian outdoor-survival lessons. The plan was to fish at an isolated lake until we caught lunch, then grill it over a campfire. I’d already caught one fish in my life, so I didn’t need the refresher. Traian tried not to look disappointed as the women crouched on either side of him, impatiently waiting for fish that never took the bait, while I dug out an earthen lounger so I could sketch on my iPad.

 

Fishing near Arad

 

Fortunately, Alexa brought pork steaks, and onions, and loaves of bread just in case. Determined not to abandon the spirit of adventure, Traian skewered the pork steaks and showed me how to start a fire without the aid of lighter fluid. Once the flames stopped dancing, he threw onions right into the coals while we roasted our meat. The whole feast was delicious… I don’t know how well raw meat and vegetables will hold up in my pack after several days, but I think it might be worth exploring.

 

Back at her father’s house, he was quick to show me an 8kg pike that he’d recently caught in the same lake we (they) tried to fish in, probably as a means of proving that it was our inexperience rather than a lack of fish that would have left us hungry were it not for Alexa’s backup plan. WAlexa and Jackiee ended our visit drinking homemade tuica (which is a plum moonshine that tastes like turpentine, with extra alcohol) while Alexa played with Jackie, an extremely affectionate German Shepard that refused to give up puppyhood (her father has decreed that Jackie will start training when he is a year old, but I have my doubts as the dog seems to have everyone firmly under his control).

 

Gheorghita, our homeless Romanian ambassador

I couldn’t say farewell to Romania without speaking with Gheorghita again. She has become a steadfast acquaintance. I would like to call her a friend, but she’s not on Facebook, so I don’t really know what the rules are. I’ve seen her nearly every time I pass by on my way to one of the three markets I have to visit in order to prepare our exotic meals (like hummus and stir fry). She stands vigil on the same busy street corner, a diligent representative of Romanian preventative medicine, ready to shower blessings for health, prosperity and love upon you and your family in exchange for a small donation. Our conversations are more limited than I’d like, not because she isn’t friendly, but because I still don’t have a firm grasp on the Romanian language. She says she is 74, but doesn’t look a day over 70. She’s not homeless, and I can imagine (but have never seen) her grandson dropping her off each morning in a twisted inversion of a parent dropping their child off at school after sharing an encouraging word and supportive wave.

 

Romanian preventative medicine

 

As she offered an Orthodox Christian blessing on my upcoming journey, I had the chance to reflect on the things I would be leaving behind for the next 6 months. It’s true that Romania and I are on the outs right now, and I wonder whether absence will make this heart grow fonder (as Francis Davidson penned in 1602). Regardless, I sure have met some amazing people during my time here.

Disclaimer: The people and events portrayed in these sketches look much better in real life, and I’m very grateful they gave me permission to show them off anyway.

 

Living Abroad, Personal Essay

What is an (Almost) Unsalvageable life?

What is an Almost Unsalvageable life

I rarely drink in public anymore. To be fair, I don’t do much of anything around large groups of people. I don’t drink in public because I prefer to do my drinking in places where crowd control won’t be an issue, but also because I seem to get cornered by strangers that need to unload a secret or issue they’ve been struggling with. As they tell me about losing their job, accidentally running over their dog with the car, and/or cheating on their husband, my nervous visual search for an emergency exit must look like everyone else’s empathy and attentive listening.

 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t care. Sometimes, we make such shameful messes that bar-stool confessions to strangers seems like a reasonable first step on the road to redemption. I get that. I really do. I’m quickly draining the dregs of my Jack and Coke to scurry to the exit because I can’t do anything meaningful to help, aside from listening. I wish I were still the guy that had life all figured out and could share its secrets. I wish I had a spray-bottle of life’s “stain-remover” that we could use to clean up messes. But I don’t.

 

For this reason (and several others), this post is particularly difficult for me to craft. I’m about to be the guy that unloads a pile of issues that I’ve been struggling with. There will be some surprises. However, you deserve to know what you’re getting into. So, I’m sorry in advance. The next round is on me…

 

I turned my otherwise idyllic life into a big pile of steaming mess in 2010.

 

A 13-year marriage ended in divorce. My ex-wife assumed sole custody of our adopted daughter. I medically retired from an 18-year military career as an Air Force surgeon/scientist. There was nearly complete alienation from friends and family. Not much sleep.

 

I was depressed. Very depressed.

 

I wasn’t much good at committing suicide (fortunately), but good enough to earn three ICU stays after each attempt. Persistent efforts from psychiatrists, psychologists and pastors to counsel me back from the precipice fell on deaf ears. Cocktails of antidepressants, anxiolytics, and even antipsychotics didn’t have much effect (aside from drastic swings in my sleep patterns and weight). Twelve sessions of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) left me with a profound distrust of uncapped batteries and electrical outlets. And depression.

 

I lived in limbo for two years. Unable to commit suicide, but too miserable to live.

 

Between periods of profound malaise, I experimented with life-threatening adventures in the hopes that fate would finish what I couldn’t. I tried parachuting, canyoneering, and even eating Taco Bell regularly. It was delicious fun, but I kept surviving. In fact, it was during some of these outdoor adventures that I made a surprising discovery. I enjoyed being outside. In nature. I could think more clearly. And, thank you sweet baby Jesus, I could get a full nights sleep again.

 

I eventually found that it wasn’t the thrill-seeking behavior that provided a reprieve from my crippling depressive symptoms; it was the directed movement surrounded by living things. I didn’t need a helmet (or Mylanta) any longer to regain the necessary focus and motivation to start putting my life back together.

 

Hiking is now my medication of choice. And I’m not the only one. It’s a thing now – it’s called Ecotherapy. It seems to be working for me: I’ve been able to venture out of my dad’s storage room (AKA “the cave”) long enough to travel most of Europe; I’ve convinced an amazingly patient woman that I’m stable enough to marry; and I haven’t had a severe depressive episode in three years.

 

My life is still a big pile of steaming mess, but its getting better. I think I’m ready to take on the challenge of a long distance hike, to feel like I have a purpose again, and to connect with people in a meaningful way…

 

Thank you very much for sticking it out with me (and I don’t blame you if you had the urge to run for the exit). I guess this means you’re either incredibly patient, it’s a slow news week, or (hopefully) you’re my kind of people.