Pancakes & packing – part 2

All of our stuff... packed!In addition to becoming better at clearing out a kitchen (as I posted about yesterday), moving frequently has also made me better at living minimalistically. All of our stuff (clothes, shoes, toiletries, electronics, reading materials, random housewares, my husband’s beloved road bike) fits into one bike case, two large duffle bags, and a couple smaller bags.

This is almost everything we own.

It all fits into a tiny alcove in our Munich flat and should easily cram into our rental car for the trip to Mannheim, our homebase for the next two months.

When I think of how much stuff used to fill our two-bedroom condo in Canada, I’m shocked (and impressed!) that we’ve condensed so much. We left a few pieces of meaningful furniture and some items we’ll need to stock an unfurnished apartment in a small storage locker, but otherwise we travel with pretty much everything!

We were at the absolute weight limit of our baggage allowance on the flight from Calgary to Frankfurt (and paid an extra bag) and have been paring down since. We moved from Frankfurt to Berlin via train and then between flats in Berlin by taxi; the physical difficulty of moving all our stuff spurred us to keep only essentials.

Sofie's luggageThere are no moving companies, no wheeled dollies, and no family & friends to lift cardboard boxes – just the two of us. And a dog who really can’t carry anything – although she has a fair amount of her own stuff!

Because we’re travelling by car rather than plane this time, we’re transporting Sofie’s stuff in her carrier (where she goes when we fly). Her bed and her black bag are all she needs 🙂

One of the upsides of minimalism is that packing is pretty quick. All our bags were filled in under an hour and there’s limited risk of accidentally leaving something behind!

We hit the road in a few minutes and are hoping for a smooth trip between Munich and Mannheim – and then more adventures as we explore Baden Würtemburg!

Road trip recovery

My dog, Sofie, curled up in the backseat of a car
Sofie happily snuggled in the backseat

The past month has been all about road-tripping. We’ve been through seven countries and driven more than 5,000km since the middle of September (my husband’s time in the car has been even longer and he’s hit an additional country!). While travelling has been fantastic (and Sofie loves being in a car!), hours in the passenger seat have taken a toll on me; my low back is sore, my hips are tight, and my shoulders are hunching.

I had a couple car-free days earlier this week and I knew yoga would help me feel better, but was feeling really lazy and unmotivated. Thank goodness for the wonder of YouTube!

Yoga with Adriene logoA quick search for ‘yoga for low back pain’ turned up a short sequence from Yoga With Adriene that looked promising.

15 minutes on the mat relieved a lot of the tension in my low back and prompted me to do another sequence with Adriene. Turns out she has a whole series of free online yoga practices!

I like Adriene’s relaxed, friendly, unscripted style. Her slight rambling and occasional diversions remind me of a good friend and overall Adriene seems approachable and very real. It’s also great to follow someone else’s sequence rather than thinking about what’s coming next!

While Sofie really looks forward to road trips (she’s small enough to stretch fully in a car!), I’m happy to have almost two weeks off before our next car adventure. Plenty of time to try a few more of Adriene’s sequences 🙂

Retreat ahead

Laura during Prana yoga teacher training
Serious concentration or bad red eye correction? Me in my Prana t-shirt on our last day of teacher training

This time next week I’ll be at Sklenářka in the Czech Republic on a week-long retreat. Seven days of yoga, vegetarian meals (eaten in silence!), workshops, and meditation in the middle of nature (meaning an isolated villa 130km east of Prague) with Shakti and Pepe from Prana Yoga College.

Much like tidying up before the cleaning lady arrives, I’ve been practicing more regularly in anticipation of the retreat’s daily yoga classes. My yoga practice has been pretty sporadic since moving to Munich, so this preparatory kick in the pants has been very welcome.

I suspect the retreat will bring some discomfort (whether physical, social, spiritual, or all three!), but hopefully my time on the mat beforehand will ward off the worst of the aches.

Many days, my practice involved a class from the Prana YouTube channel. I spent five weeks with Shakti and Pepe three years ago for my initial yoga teacher training, so these online classes feel a bit like returning to my yoga home.

Shakti’s consistent instructions (lots of reminders to breathe!) and Pepe’s subtle accompaniment are reassuringly familiar. There are no jolting surprises in the flow of poses – I know what asanas to expect and understand the sequencing. The setting is familiar as I spent many hours there during teacher training and in the months afterwards. There’s even a barely-on-screen cameo from Milo, Shakti and Pepe’s little dog who was so much like Sofie!

While I’m a bit anxious about the retreat, I feel certain that the comfort I’ve felt following the online classes will continue in person. I may not know what to expect in terms of the facilities or other students, but I do know Shakti and Pepe! And I know what to expect from their teaching.

I’m hoping that sense of yogic home-coming continues through the retreat with its silent meals, unfamiliar location, and bug-filled wilderness. And that seven days with Shakti and Pepe energizes my yoga practice long after!

Off-season travels

Crowds at VersaillesSummer is just around the corner and spring has brought with it warmer weather, longer days, brighter sunshine… and far more tourists. I already miss the off-season.

When we were in Paris in April, it was clear that tourist season had started. A morning at the Musée d’Orsay and a trip to Versailles confirmed it (see photo on the right).

I know that Paris is pretty much always busy and that the Easter holidays probably pumped up the number of visitors, but I found myself bemoaning the crowds.

From November through April, we enjoyed exploring new places with very few other travellers – lower prices, less waiting, more available tables. No jostling with tour groups, no line-ups for museums, no concerns about squeezing onto a train, no problems finding parking.

Of course, the tradeoff is generally colder, rainy-er weather but it’s hard to complain about the temperature outside while gaping at the Ghent Altarpiece in an almost deserted room, leisurely strolling through the Rijksmuseum, or joining vinters for a private tasting. Hailstorms and the necessity of mittens are concessions I’m generally willing to make.

But throughout the summer, there will be no mittens and lots of other travellers.

One of our goals with our grown-up gap year is to explore as much as possible and that means joining the throngs of tourists visiting Europe during high-season. I’m hoping we’ll be able to find a few places that aren’t so hectic in summer (like Strasbourg outside of Christmas-market time, the Alps without the skiing crowds), but I know I’ll be waiting for the colder weather of fall to help the crowds to dissipate!

Vive le hors-saison!

Unforeseen fearlessness

Laura in plank at the in orbit exhibitBy nature I am not fearless. I am a worrier, a planner, a nail-biting worst-case-scenario imaginer.

But somehow, suspended more than 25 metres (82 feet or around five stories) above a marble floor on steel mesh, I became unflinchingly brave.

We went to K21 last week specifically to see in orbit – an interactive exhibit by Tomás Saraceno. K21 is one of the three venues of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (or state art collection) in Düsseldorf and in orbit is the largest piece they’ve ever displayed.

It’s made up of three interconnected levels of steel mesh, interspersed with giant inflated spheres and suspended under the glass roof of the Ständehaus building. Saraceno was inspired by spiderwebs and spent years studying how different species create different patterns.

in orbit is huge and strange and amazing from all perspectives – particularly from within.

Visitors can don coveralls and climb into the structure; becoming part of the exhibit, altering the tension on the steel wires, and interacting with each other and those watching.

While waiting to get into the coveralls, I was impatient. During the very short safety briefing, I started to get a bit anxious. And then walking up the scaffolding (which felt less than rock solid), the butterflies started. As I trepidatiously put a first foot on the mesh, my heart was pounding. Looking down and seeing the polished stone floor five floors below, I began to think this was a bad idea.

I quickly dropped my bum onto the mesh out a self-preserving instinct that increased physical contact would mean increased safety. The path of least resistance led to a steep down-slope and before I knew it I was sliding down the mesh as though it was snow and I was on a toboggan.

Two images of Laura at the in orbit exhibitThat slide brought on a childlike sense of elation and my nervousness evaporated. While part of my brain still screamed “Stop!” when I moved from overlapping layers of mesh to a single stratum, I got quite comfortable being suspended.

I climbed the ‘walls,’ attempted a couple yoga poses, flopped onto the pillows, ‘swam’ on my belly, marveled at the huge blown-up spheres, clambered along the wires, reveled in the novelty of walking on air… all while I grinned madly.

I could not anticipate my fearlessness before stepping onto the mesh, but there it was. Brave, adventurous, blithely embracing the amazingness of the moment.

Chalked doors

Four images of chalk (or chalk-like stickers) on doorsOn my first walk through our new neighbourhood I noticed black stickers with chalk writing on a number of doors. I paid closer attention on subsequent walks and started noticing actual chalk on doorways as well.

Algebra on door frames? A complicated census system? A formula for garbage pick-up?

Given that Lent had just begun and I hadn’t noticed anything like this before, I theorized that the markings had something to do with Easter. A bit of research revealed that I was right about their religious nature, but wrong about the occasion.

The chalk markings are a traditional Catholic house blessing in Germany done around Epiphany (6 January) every year. The digits represent the year to come (2014 in the picture at top left) and the letters stand for either the Latin blessing Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ bless this house) or names of the three wise men (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar). The mathematical operators have folkloric meaning as well: the multiplication sign or asterisk (*) is for the Star of Bethlehem and the plus symbols (+++) represent the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

While the majority of doorways in our neighbourhood are unmarked, there are sizable number that have been chalked and some even have long lists from previous years. It’s clear that Neuss is more Catholic (or at least more into chalk and blessings!) than Berlin as there’s a whole set of traditions around Epiphany that we didn’t see any trace of in Germany’s more secular capital.

Learning about local traditions like this is one of the reasons that my husband and I wanted to live in different regions of Germany. Exploring a different country from a less-tourist perspective was a motivating factor for starting this adventure and it’s fantastic when those explorations lead to a little more understanding of local customs.

And with Easter just around the corner, who knows what other new-to-us traditions will pop up!

Spring while it lasts

Ice cream in DusseldorfSpring weather is unpredictable everywhere. Thursday was all bright sunshine and warmth. Yesterday I got caught in a hailstorm on my way back from yoga and then the sun set on nearly cloudless skies. Today is cloudy with a cold wind. And who knows what Spring has in store tomorrow!

We ‘sprung’ at the chance to enjoy the fantastic weather and spent Thursday afternoon in Düsseldorf. It’s easy to like a city when the weather’s good – it helps that there were lots of ice cream parlours and a plethora of breweries, too!

We walked along the Rhineuferpromenade (river-side pedestrian/bike path) from Altstadt (the old town) with its narrow cobbled streets and many shops to Mediahafen (a former harbour that’s now filled with restaurants, shops, and modern architecture). Sofie stalked pigeons, we shed layers of clothing, and very much enjoyed meandering along the Rhine.

We stopped at two different breweries and sampled their variants of Altbier (old beer) – a dark brew served in 200mL glasses so it’s always cold! And ended up having ice cream for lunch 🙂

Laura and Sofie pose in front of a Dusseldorf canal

Lots of locals (and some tourists, as well) were out enjoying the sun, ice cream, and beer, which made for excellent people watching. Düsseldorf is known for being fashionable and there were many stylish dressers who did not disappoint. The overall dapper-ness was, however, kept in check by the disproportionate number of leather vests and badly highlighted hair!

The proximity of so many cities with different conventions, style, architecture, and cuisine (and beer!) gives us some incredible opportunities for short trips. Since arriving in Neuss, we’ve sipped Kölsch (the local beer) in Köln; walked Europe’s largest outdoor market in Liège, Belgium; bought ‘cheap’ gas in Luxembourg; driven through the East Cantons, Belgium’s German region; and celebrated the first official day of Spring in Düsseldorf.

We plan on ‘springing’ on travel opportunities as much as possible. Given that there’s a train station about five minutes away that connects us to many other interesting cities in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, we’ve got no excuse!