Creative convergence

I started a creative writing course in September and our first assignment was to write a 500-word story with only one primary character and one primary setting—not a heck of a lot of space to develop anything. Thankfully walking the dog (or more accurately standing around while she wanders slowly from sniff to sniff) gives me lots of time to mull over story ideas. That slow-paced dog walking was the genesis of the fictionalised episode I created for the assignment and have included below.

Imagine my surprise when my cousin Kelsey posted a similarly-themed photo on Instagram the day after the assignment was due. Eerily appropriate. And I’m delighted that Kelsey has given me permission to use that image to accompany the story here.

That creative convergence is just one of the wonderful things that has arisen from this creative writing course. The course is giving me confidence in my writing ability, making me think about the mechanics of storytelling, and encouraging me to push my creativity—I certainly wouldn’t have plotted out an Instagram influencer-inspired spin on Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ otherwise! 😆Nor would I have actually read Kipling—I’m very much out of practice with the whole required reading part of schoolwork.

My plan is to post more of my creative writing here and to actively pursue publication in the year to come. If you have any feedback or suggestions, please send them along! And I hope you enjoy both the writing and imagery Kelsey and I have created.


Natural habitat

Heron standing in the mist
Into the Mist
Photo courtesy Kelsey Kushneryk © 2019

I stand watching the long-legged bird at the water’s edge, running through the possible names for it in English, German, French, Danish. Heron. Der Reiher. La grue. Crane. Kranen. I’m uncertain whether this sharply-pointed beak belongs to a heron or a crane, but the voice of my bird-watching mother in my brain pushes me to settle on ‘grey heron.’

Whatever its scientific classification or common name, I feel a kinship with this gangly silvery-toned bird. Ardea cinerea, or something very close to it, is common both in the dyke-bound suburb of Vancouver where I was born and in the outskirts of San Francisco where I first lived outside my home country. It waded into the boggy heath of a former tank training ground near my flat outside Munich, stalked the shores of lakes I hiked around on weekends in Southern Alberta, tromped through the snow of my local park during the sole winter I lived in Brussels, and paraded along the moat of a medieval fortress I passed by on my way to work in Copenhagen. Now it lands along the banks of the square-edged, man-made lake within a stone’s throw of the Swiss Alps, in this place I currently attempt to call home.

The grey heron has been a constant everywhere I’ve lived, whereas the feeling of belonging, the sense of being settled, has been far less reliable. There’s some intangible alchemy that made Calgary feel like home, but California not. A magical calibration that allowed life in Denmark to slot into place, but keeps Zürich unwieldy, unpleasant, unwelcoming. Maybe my migratory adaptation stops short of the 37th parallel.

To the right I catch a glimpse of movement through the low-lying morning fog. Barking a hello or perhaps a warning, a dog lopes towards the water, encroaching on the grey heron’s territory. With a screech, the stationary bird frees its massive wings and rises into the air. There is something prehistoric, primordial about its flight. The pterodactyl-like quality of its movement speaking to the timelessness of this bird, its elegant ability to adapt.

The heron’s movements are graceful, but its distinct “Frarnk” call leaves no doubt as to its displeasure at being moved on. Through that single, universal sound the bird conveys everything necessary. Would I possess that same eloquence in any of the languages that flit through my mind?

The heron will blithely move on to its next perch. It will not question whether it belongs in its new location, but rather fixate on practicalities—finding food, avoiding dogs, staying alive. My worries are vapid in comparison, decidedly human.

I have to believe that both the grey heron and I will comfortably resettle. That unfamiliarity and foreign languages do not create an insurmountable barrier. Both this ubiquitous feathered creature and I will find stillness and contentment—and a landing place near to the water.

An original story by Laura Matheson © 2019

A very personal library

Escalators in Copenhagen's central libraryWhen I first moved from Canada to Europe in 2013, one of the hardest tasks was to dramatically reduce my personal library. Over the course of many years and two university degrees, I had collected over 400 books and I knew it was unreasonable to move or store them all. Print books take up a lot space and are a pain to ship!

I gifted many titles to friends, donated the rest and said farewell to all but a handful of print books. My collection shifted to digital format (thank goodness for iBooks!) and I resolved to stay out of bookstores in case the temptation to rebuild my collection was too strong.

Despite having millions of books available electronically, there’s something special about turning physical pages and getting a library card was at the top of my to-do list after moving to Copenhagen in September 2016. Before I had even received my yellow health card (a must for anyone settling in Denmark!), I was at the main library on Krystalgade bumbling through the process of setting up a library account.

Library card in hand, I wandered the many floors at the main library enjoying the range of materials, marvelling at the intermixed languages in the non-fiction section (Danish, Swedish, German, English, French – all side by side!) and trying to determine how the subjects were organised. As a life-long lover of libraries, I often visit public libraries when travelling and I’m fascinated by the differing classification systems – I still don’t understand the Danish scheme!

I’ve since become familiar with Østerbro’s two local libraries, attended author talks at the Black Diamond and discovered that my yellow health card is also my library card – no need for one more thing in my wallet! I’m impressed by how much Danes care about the written word, as demonstrated by the striking architecture of the Black Diamond, the wealth of the library’s collections and the ability for users to access local libraries after-hours.

I am also delighted by the ‘Hygge only’ zone at the main library: a sign directs visitors to use the space for reading or chatting – no phones or computers. ‘Hygge’ is one aspect where I notice that Denmark has a surprisingly different culture from Canada or Germany (where I lived in 2013-14). I’ve jumped into Danish culture by studying Danish, watching Olympic curling on DR, experiencing May Day at Fælledparken, making pilgrimages to H.C. Anderson’s hometown and the Dybbøl windmill, overindulging at Julefrokost celebrations and cycling just about everywhere and I’m still uncovering all that Denmark has to offer.

In spite of warnings about the Danes’ frosty nature towards strangers, I’ve been welcomed warmly by people at the two yoga studios where I teach. I have Danish and expat friends, can order pastries and engage in small talk in Danish, but it’s really the library system that makes me feel like I belong. Spotting titles I used to own on the shelves of my local library in Østerbro cements the feeling that Copenhagen is home and satisfies my desire to read ‘real’ books – without the need to build a personal library again!

What jet lag feels like

For the last few days, lying down has felt like being swallowed up. I sink as if my body is resting on moss, compressing the springy fauna and becoming part of the forest floor. My brain surrenders to the fog of jet lag and gives my body no choice but to resign itself to sleep.

Photograph of Laura in corpse pose on a mossy forest floorHaving returned to Copenhagen from the west coast of Canada a few days ago, I’m still adjusting to the nine hour time shift and the long, sleepless trip home. I have never been able to fall asleep on planes or in stiff gate-side seats, which means the two long flights and aimless hours at airports did not leave me feeling rested!

I remember travelling in the opposite direction (from Europe to Canada’s west coast) some years ago and going to a restorative yoga class the evening I landed. I managed to keep conscious throughout most of the practice, but the moss rose up and claimed my wakefulness during savasana. I managed to re-awaken with the rest of the class after savasana, but the teacher (who is also a friend) whispered to me afterwards that a few gentle snores escaped!

Sometimes sleep is exactly what is required and it can’t be fought! Perhaps, I need to make time for a restorative practice before long.

But, for now, life will not wait for the jet lag to pass and I’m left to battle the tiredness – although I hope it will only be for a few more days. Thankfully, jet lag doesn’t last forever.

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!

Small complaints; big picture happiness

Forest looking like a watercolour painting
Photo credit: VinothChandar via Compfight cc

Yesterday was one of those days where all the little things were a bit off. I woke up feeling discontented and uneasy. What I thought would be an easy shopping expedition proved fruitless. One of our bikes blew a tire, necessitating a long walk on what may have been the hottest day of the year and resulting in seriously sore feet. Doing laundry was needlessly complicated and involved way too much to-ing and fro-ing.

It was a day filled with small complaints that made it easy to forget that two major things went right: we successfully registered ourselves in Munich and got some very good news from Vancouver.

The Anmeldung process was even easier the second time around (and our first ‘permanent’ address registration was pretty simple), although the system is a little different in Munich than in the rest of Germany. No questions at all from the government clerk, just a few words exchanged in German and an official stamp. The hardest part was the over-heated 45 minute wait and managing that nervous feeling that something would go wrong.

Then later in the day, very good news came from my parents that made me feel like my decision to return to Germany earlier this week was the right one.

With all of my small complaints, it was easy for me to feel as though yesterday was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day… but it wasn’t. It was a great day.

That’s the joy of perspective. Looking close up at all the little things, I was unhappy. Looking at the big picture, I was exactly the opposite.

‘Permanent’, really?

Paper pop-up house
Photo credit: elod beregszaszi via Compfight cc

We had our first experience with German bureaucracy today and it was surprisingly (and delightfully!) free of confusing questions and difficult forms. The most challenging part was actually getting to our appointment!

As we’ll be in Berlin for a little over three months, we needed to file an Anmeldung or residence registration.

Whenever anyone in German changes permanent residences, they have to register with the local authorities. The registration requirement applies to German citizens and foreigners and the information is used for taxation and census purposes… and maybe even mail delivery. Most of the information is in German, so it’s hard for me to really understand!

Given that there’s no such a process in Canada and English-language information is sparse, it seemed a little strange. Further research revealed that resident registration is pretty common in the EU and, thankfully, the process wasn’t that hard.

After making an appointment online, we printed out the necessary form at an Internet cafe; my husband translated the entirely German document into workable English and we filled it out; we researched how to get to the office via the S-Bahn and set an alarm for Monday morning.

There are lots of Einwohnermeldeamt (Residents’ Registration Office) throughout Berlin and the first appointment we could get turned out to be further away than we thought – essentially on the outskirts of the city. Our trip out to the Berlin suburbs was further complicated by construction and part way through the trip we gave up on transit and hopped in a taxi. Thankfully, the taxi driver knew exactly where we were going because we really didn’t!

After almost an hour and a half in transit, the actual appointment was pleasantly anti-climactic. It was entirely in German (I nodded along while my husband earnestly communicated in halting and hard-fought German) and took under 10 minutes.

We left with a stamped piece of paper bearing our names and ‘permanent’ address in Berlin, which will facilitate getting library cards, bank accounts, and maybe even jobs! Although we have no real plans to look for work in the near future – there’s too much to see!

We’re moving to our new neighbourhood later this week and will be there until the middle of February. The flat we’re in feels transitory and we’re still living out of bags, so it will be nice to get a little more settled. Although February will bring a new city and new ‘permanent’ residence, so we shouldn’t get too comfortable!

On a side note, how incredible is this pop-up house! The artist has lots of other astonishing pieces on this Flickr stream and at the Popupology website – the Budapest Opera House is my favourite. There are also ‘how-tos’ for creating paper pop-ups, although I suspect they’re a little too intricate for beginners – or at least my clumsy scissor skills 🙂

Travel while you’re young

Scenes of Germany and OktoberfestIn the last month I’ve noticed a lot of net chatter in favour of travelling while you’re young (most notably this piece from Huffington Post). Or maybe I’ve been more predisposed to notice these kinds of articles as we’re preparing for our own travels – although we just barely count as young!

My husband and I have entertained the idea of living in Europe since about 2004, when we less-than-seriously looked into getting UK visas. After spending time in England, France, and Germany last fall and my husband’s Eastern European adventure with my brother in the spring, we decided we were serious about living in another country.

Outside of a short stint in California, I’ve lived in Canada my whole life. While I love my country and I know living in another country will be challenging, I want to become immersed in a new way of life. I yearn for the empathy that comes with understanding how others live, the depth of cultural appreciation that cannot be gained simply as a tourist, and the insight that will come from recognizing all the ways cultures are alike and distinct.

After spending about a year applying for positions in Europe and getting no nibbles, my husband and I began evaluating options for moving overseas without jobs in place. We discovered this summer that we both qualified for visas under the German/Canadian Youth Mobility Agreement and the French/Canadian Youth Exchange Agreement – although we had to apply by mid-August when my husband turned 36.

The short timeline mobilized us and we applied for German visas a few days before my husband’s 36th birthday. When our visas were granted in just two days we took this as a sign that we were in for smooth sailing. Within a week we had signed the paperwork to list our condo, told our families and close friends, and begun the process of whittling down our possessions. Unfortunately, our hopes for a smooth transition out of our condo were scuttled by building re-piping work (five weeks of construction in our unit!) that meant we took our place off the market.

The construction is coming to a close, our condo is listed again, and now we’re hoping for a quick sale. We have just a few weeks left in Vancouver as our flight from Calgary to Frankfurt is November 4, with our year-long German live/work visas starting the day we arrive.

We decided to fly out of Calgary to get an Air Canada-operated flight (our dog, Sofie, is just the right size to fly in the cabin with Air Canada, but too big for most other airlines) and to spend a few days with my husband’s family. Tickets are booked, Sofie’s started the process to get certified for travel, and we’re counting down the days until our German adventure gets underway!

We picked Germany over France pretty much by flipping a coin. I was in favour of France, my husband was leaning towards Germany, but neither of us were opposed to either. Perhaps it was the beer and pretzels that cemented Germany as the front-runner!

We’re planning to start our German year with a couple months in Berlin and hope to travel to parts of Northern Germany (Hamburg, Hannover & the North Coast), along with Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic while we’re Berlin-based. Maybe we’ll even brave Scandinavia in the winter!

We’d like to be further south in the spring and summer to explore into France, Italy, Switzerland, and that area and to allow my husband the chance to do some cycling trips through the Alps. We’re being pretty loose with the planning and being open to wherever the experience takes us.

Ideally, we hope to stay in Europe for at least a couple years, but we know that life (and visas!) could take us in unpredictable directions.

One of the things I’m most looking forward to is moving outside my comfort zone by being exposed to a German way of thinking and shaking up the routines I’ve settled into in Canada. I want to re-learn how to do things I take for granted now (like grocery shopping or taking public transit) and expand my horizons.

We’re looking for adventure and the opportunity to re-invent our day-to-day lives; embracing the idea of traveling when you’re young… and when you’re not so young, too!