Fear = Control – a tale of transformation

What’s to fear? Fire breathing dragons at a market in Budapest.

Since we’ve been home from Europe, I’ve been talking to people a lot about travel. A few times now, I called myself a travel evangelist. Since I discovered Norwegian Air’s low cost flights, I feel like we can go anywhere.

It’s not just the cheap flights that make travel feel possible. A year ago, when my husband told me that he wants to travel to Italy together, I told him we’d need five years to save enough money. It wasn’t possible in my mind. I really didn’t believe that we could put together the money to go. My mind started to spool out the sequence of things we’d have to accomplish to save up, plan, purchase, get away from work and actually go and I just shut down. Not possible. I felt bad for not believing in his vision, but I simply didn’t.

 

Things have changed for me over the past year or so, and I’m still trying to put my finger on what it is that shifted to allow for these adventures we’ve been having. Going to Europe isn’t the first. Last summer we took off for two weeks on a rambling excursion through Washington state that culminated with watching the solar eclipse right under the line of totality. I’ve since done my biggest solo backpacking trip of 40 miles on the Rogue River Trail. Vinnie spent three and a half months working for a World Cup snowboard racer, bringing his total number of days in Europe in a four-month period to 90.

Something cracked open and let a bunch of light in on what I believe is possible. It definitely started with going to Washington. Initially, we were simply talking about going up to see my sister for her 40th birthday. Then I saw some incredible photos of Mount Rainier National Park, and my imagination caught fire. I wanted to go there to hike those trails and see those glaciers. So we decided to go. This wasn’t difficult in the monetary sense as we’d be driving, staying with my sister and then camping in the national park. This made the trip feel doable. Once we realized that the total eclipse was happening towards the end of our trip, we added on a few more days so that we could stay far enough north to get the big view. Suddenly, we had a two-week trip planned. Well, perhaps planned isn’t quite accurate.

What I’m coming to learn is that planning is not the way forward. It may be that intention is a better word. We had the intention to go to certain places and to see certain things. We had a time frame, which had some flexibility in it. We had a car full of supplies, maps, water and a willingness to hit the road together.

I should note here that Vinnie and I have incredibly different styles to life and travel. We’ve adopted the name Patty Perfect Planner for the part of my personality that really wants to be in control: dates and locations set out, destinations settled for each night, possibly lodging arranged, costs for attractions researched and a final trip budget number firmly in mind. Vinnie, on the other hand, is the Master of Chaos. By which I mean he wants none of the things on Patty’s list – he’s completely open to let the road take him where it will. He’s camped outside for whole seasons and he’s perfectly willing to end up sleeping in the car, calling beer and beef jerky a sufficient dinner and heading out the next day to do it all over again. We’re so different that we find plenty of opportunities to laugh at ourselves. The Travel Tales of Patty Perfect Planner and the Master of Chaos could be coming to a blog near you soon so you can laugh too.

Our romp through Washington was good training for our trip to Europe. I planned out the first part of our trip, then relinquished control to Vinnie for the second part so we could see the eclipse. Not having an itinerary made my stomach ache, but he assured me that he’d take care of it and I should just enjoy the view out the window. And I did. But it’s funny and odd how relaxing takes concentration for me. Letting go can be a bitch.

I’ve called him the Master of Chaos for a number of years now, but on this trip to Europe, I started to appreciate and accept his approach – and even to find some joy in it. At one point, when we didn’t know which country we were going to be in by the end of the day, he was oozing excitement. This is how travel should be, he said, we’re just making it up. And I have to say, thanks in part to a few super handy apps on my phone, it worked out well for me too. Places and people drew our attention, and rather than worry about sticking to an itinerary and having to change bookings, we just rolled with it.

These experiences are reshaping my interior life. The voice of Patty Perfect Planner has faded significantly, although she still pipes up when things go a bit or a lot sideways. Patty certainly had her moments when we missed our flight out of Prague, but she wasn’t as forceful in her worry and fear as she has been in the past. I even laughed as we sat in the plastic molded chairs at the airport as the truth settled in: we missed our flight.

Patty Perfect Planner and the Master of Chaos enjoying a backpacking trip in the rain.

As I’ve started to practice noticing what’s happening in my life, I’ve started to see the correlation between fear and wanting to be in control. It’s so very natural to want to have a firm grip on any situation that is new, unknown, uncomfortable. Traveling with Vinnie is helping me to see that new doesn’t have to be scary and big adventures don’t have to be planned. Control is not all it’s made out to be – it squeezes the air out of place, squashes spontaneity and dulls the colors of everything around me. Control doesn’t leave room for genuine, in-the-moment living. Control is a future condition and it robs me of the present.

In the first 24 hours that we were home from our 27-day trip to Europe, we were already pricing airfare to return. When we saw how incredibly cheap tickets to London are in the fall, I couldn’t stop laughing. When we were preparing for this trip, a few people said they were so excited for us to take this trip of a lifetime. Trip of a lifetime? I’m thinking of it now as simply the first trip this year. Why would we settle for doing this once?

One of the biggest benefits to the this trip has been acknowledging that I can let go of control: that I don’t have to have it all figured out in advance, that I can’t possibly anticipate what might happen, that whatever happens, we can, indeed, handle it. With this has come the blossoming of my imagination for travel, for my expanding belief of what is possible. I don’t know if we’ll get back to Europe this September, and in some ways it doesn’t matter. What matters most is that I believe we can do it – if not this year then next – and that now I know we can travel well together without a plan, free to wander and enjoy.

The gift of travel: giving voice to fear

Flexible and having fun.

My notebook from Europe is messy. It’s stuffed with admission tickets, postcards, photos, receipts from purchases and passes from various public transportation successes. That’s a bit how my mind feels as well, now that we’ve been home from Europe for 17 days. Those 17 days stretch like a wide gulf, filled with lumpy mud and briefs moments of sunshine, between my life as a traveler and my efforts to re-engage with all the trapings of my pre-trip life.

When I flip through my notebook to try to organize the experience in my mind, those tickets and slips fall out of the book, scattering on the floor. That’s a bit how reconnecting to my life feels – things are slipping through my fingers, time warps and the strong pull of wanting to travel again, right now colors so much of my thinking. These new experiences have more texture than the worn grooves of my daily life.

A bit of research before heading out in Scotland.

Travel was great in those ways you’d expect, like seeing amazing places, meeting great people and living terrific experiences with my husband. But the real gift of travel was its transformative effect on who I am. I left worrying that the Patty Perfect Planner part of me – the part that wants control and assurances and things to go just so – would have a white-knuckled grip on this trip. She’d insist on daily itineraries, holed up in cafes frantically searching for the next thing to do or place to stay, she’d come unglued without a map and lose her shit when things didn’t go according to plan. I’ve lived with Patty for years, and I have to say that I have a healthy fear of her. Once she builds up a head of steam, she’s tough to wrestle back into a corner.

After a few days on the ground Patty faded into the quiet background of my mind. She dropped away. We started in London, where we could get our travel legs where the signs were in English. Then we moved on to Scotland, where the people speak English but I could only understand about 40% of what they said (they’ve quite the accent, if you’ve never heard it). It felt like learning to swim in the shallow end of the pool before heading to the deeper waters of Central Europe. By the time we settled in at our second hostel in Prague, Patty wasn’t on my mind at all.

Now that we’re home and settling back into life, I’m experiencing that part of my personality differently. Traveling helped me learn that planning is only necessary for us to a certain, minimal degree. Neither of us need an itinerary, we’re happy with intentions. Along with quieting Patty down, traveling demonstrated time and again that Vinnie and I can handle things going sideways: we adjust well together, we function as a team, we each have our own strengths and skills.

What that translates into it this: my fear of the unknown diminished. With that lessening of fear, my need to control things lessened as well. I could live in the moment, I could laugh at unexpected turns. I didn’t need to be in control. When we missed our flight home from Prague, I laughed. And in the tiring hours afterward of coming up with our response, we laughed some more as we found options that suited us (which means we ended up camping in the rain – but that’s another story).

Pre-trip planning: we left this map at home.

So I’ve arrived home with this developing understanding that fear = need for control. I’m cataloging what I consider my various ways of trying to control, which include extensive planning (read: spreadsheets), saying no, diving into details without first imagining possibilities, and pushing an activity into the future based on meeting some (generally arbitrary) conditions. I’m keeping an eye out for these responses and when I notice them, I ask myself: what are you afraid of? Fear is a bitch, but it’s one best acknowledged rather than stuffed down. I’m coming to realize that hiding from fear just amplifies it.

When we were in Europe and I was worried (that’s my cop-out word for “holy shit, I’m super scared this isn’t going to work out right now!”), I’d say it out loud. I’d give it a voice. Saying it out loud let it float away. It let Vinnie know why I was getting bunched up, and it helped my gut relax. It’s a practice that I’m trying to keep up now that we’re home because I want Patty to stay in the background so that this new voice of wonder and possibility can speak up.

Travel cracked open my interior life, it let new things into the conversation. It nourished that voice of hope and belief that so often gets drowned out. This is the gift I want to hold on to and to carry forward in these days of sinking back into my life and imagining our next adventure.

Making time for life sized adventures

Up on the plateau at Sacramento Riverbend.

This past weekend I went out for a little life-sized adventure to a place that is becoming a spring ritual for me. Following a community service event, I slung my backpack over my shoulders and headed out for a quick overnight trip. The hike is short – in fact, everyone else day hikes the area, while I tote 20 pounds of gear and food down the trail. I do it because I love to sleep outside and the snow in the mountains won’t melt for another 2 months.

I spent the late afternoon, after 6 hours sitting in lecture halls, hiking through grass and wildflowers in the blue oak savanna of Sacramento Riverbend. This time I took the high route, a longer walk than the riverside trail, full of sweeping views and small water pockets. I settled in for the night in the very same small camp site that I’ve stayed in 8 times in the last 3 years. It’s a place so well known to me that I don’t have to think much to prepare for another visit. The cloudy sky made for a delightful sunset, the crickets sang and on occasion I heard the cackle of wild turkeys. In the morning I made a simple breakfast with coffee, then under cloudy skies, hiked out to the car. It was quiet, simple, soothing and easy. A short little trip that fit just so into my calendar.

When I got home, I spent some time reading Alastair Humphreys, a British adventurer who rode his bike 46,000 miles around the world, walked across India, and was named the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012. Interestingly, he supports not only Grand Adventures, but also Micro Adventures (the titles of two of his books).

In the introduction to Grand Adventures, he shares that through his blog he asked people what kept them from heading out on the trips they dreamed of. From 2,000 responses he collected a list that includes things I would expect: time, money, having an adventure companion, getting time off work, fear, being lazy, lack of knowledge, putting together the trip kit or logistics. All understandable stuff.

Now here’s the interesting part. He follows up the list with this: “I found it fascinating that no one person mentioned the worry of falling down a crevasse or getting eaten by a tiger. The greatest obstacles to people’s adventures all lie before the journey even begins. In other words, getting to the start line is the hardest part.”

Getting to the start line is the hardest part.

That’s so true, whether I’m considering a big adventure or a short trip. It’s so easy to talk myself into believing that packing for a trip, figuring out a shuttle and having enough time just won’t work. It’s kept me from having adventures that I spent too much time dreaming about and not enough time living.

That’s why I make it a point to take a life-sized adventure as much as I can. I have a list of places that are under an hour’s drive away and a quick packing list so that I don’t have to think when the urge to sleep outside arises. I just pick a place from my list, load a pack and head out the door. This spring, as I wait for the snow in the mountains to melt, I’m looking for places in the lowlands where I can get outside and pitch a tent. As I find new places, I add them to my list, knowing that come next February, I’m going to be itching to sleep outside again.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve been to Riverbend 8 times in the past three years, or that I’ve hiked the trail so frequently that I can find my way to that campsite in the dark. Every night under the sky is fresh and new, each sunset its own creation, every day break its own unique meditation. Each spring, whether I’m under a blue sky or clouds, I enjoy the wildflowers, the mud on the trail, the quiet unfolding of oak trees unfurling their leaves.

Keepers of keys

Old Town Bridge Tower at night.

We didn’t expect to climb to the top of the Old Town Bridge Tower in Prague. It was one of those attractions that we looked at but walked past, heading across the bridge to Mala Strana. Unexepectly, we found ourselves with a delightful, unique opportunity: come to the top of the tower at night, after we’ve closed, offered by our friend and guide Mirek. So while he closed up for the night, we climbed the old tower stairs to the top where we had an amazing view of the city.

There was a half full moon hovering over the tower, hanging above its spires. Some of the tower’s decorative elements denote the moon cycle, but we failed to notice them as we fixed our eyes on the sky and the skyline. The Vltava River stretched out below, the lights and revelers on Charles Bridge arching across the dark water. Prague Castle lit up the horizon line, the churches of Mala Strana below providing light in the foreground. As we leaned back to take in the view, upstream on the river glowing red lanterns were released into the sky.

As we climbed the tower’s spiral staircase with Mirek he shared with us the reason for its clockwise turn upward: right-handed sword-wielding defenders has a better stroke on their way down the stairs than if it had curled the other way. Quite the thing to think about, but after all, the foundation stone for the tower was laid on 9 July 1357 for the purpose of protecting the cities and the bridge. One of the inscriptions on the exterior of the bridge reads (in Latin) “Be told, be told and watch out; he who touches me, dies“.

It was a treat to visit the tower with Mirek, who pointed out the different kinds of stones in its stairwell. He shared with us the best view (of course, of the castle) and gave us more history. As a final treat, he put the great big, old and authentic key to the tower in Vinnie’s hand and asked him if he wanted to lock the door on the way out. Of course he did! So as we left, Vinnie turned the key in the lock, followed by a final check from Mirek to make sure that the old lock fit in place just the way it liked.

 

A few days later we laid eyes on another set of castle keys after we made the climb up to Karlstejn Castle, just a short train ride outside of Prague. As we crossed the river and walked up the cobbled streets of the town below, Vinnie made the comment that this was a proper castle. Indeed, it had all the feel of a defensive keep: it soared above town, perched on an outcrop of rock that made it’s sides impossibly steep. Tucked away in a narrow canyon, you couldn’t really see it from out in the valley, unless you knew to look. Our tour guide told us that when the holy relics were taken from Prague Castle to be hidden at Karlstejn, the Swedish army passed by twice before they found the castle.

Karlstejn isn’t an imperial palace like Prague Castle, and what it lacks in ornamentation, it makes up with pure burliness. In some places it’s walls are 7 meters thick and this is castle has outer and interior walls, so an attacker would still have to fight hard once they’d breached the first gate. This castle is yet another project of Charles IV, who was the king of Bohemia and also the Holy Roman Emporer.  A series of towers provided the stronghold for both the Bohemian and Holy Roman treasurers, with the relics housed in the tallest town, the Chapel of St. Cross. During the summer months, the tour actually goes to the tower, but not so in March.

As we climbed from the courtyard to the hall of the knights, our guide unlocked the door behind us, then locked it when we had all entered the hall. So it went as we wound our way through the castle, always locked into the room we were viewing. The man carried a big ring of keys, a collection made up of keys much like the one Vinnie held at the Tower Bridge.

Painted wood ceiling panels.

Even on this somewhat warm day, inside the castle it was cold. Finally, when we reached the throne room, we warmed up a bit and our guide told us why. The throne room had wood paneling – deep wood panels, at least six inches thick. It was carved in geometric patterns, but all that wood provided insulation that made that one room noticeably warmer.

We had a terrific time getting out of the city to see this castle. The next time we come to Europe, we’ll be looking for castles that are off the beaten path where we can have more of this kind of experience.

 

Views from Old Town Bridge Tower

 

Sites from Karlstejn Castle

 

 

 

Breathing in history

When I was a kid I loved history. As an adult, my relationship to it grew distant: it was a a thing to enjoy in books. In the three hours we spent with our guide Mirek in New Town Prague, I walked with history in a way that I never have before. Mirek is a 29 year old Czech man who loves history and music. At the National Theater he explained how the people of his country spent 40 years raising money to build the Theater so that they’d have a place to play their own music and perform their own theater, rather than the works required by the state.

As we continued deeper into Nove Mesto (New Town), Mirek told us of changes in architechural styles over the centuries and the shift to a preference to functional, and less decorative, buildings. We didn’t go far before a structure jumped out at me, mostly for being so out of place. Here was an old brick church, darker than the surrounding buildings. It stood well off the stree.  up on a foundation of nearly black bricks, its walls and window arches soaring above the sidewalk, traffic and trams. Capped with a steep red roof and a narrow spire, it was an outlier in this part of town where other buildings were only a few hundred years old. As we walked, it held my attention – so much so that I was late in seeing the church on our side of the street until we were at its foot.

Like its neighbor across the street, Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral was above street level and we climbed stairs into its courtyard. Here, Mirek wove his story into the time of World War II, talking about the Czech national heroes who fought to save their people by assisinating the “Butcher of Prague.” I’d read Madeline Albright’s book Prague Winter last year, and details started to come back to me. Yes, two men were inserted into the country, they hid through a network of supporters, they rode bikes to the road where they attacked Reinhard Heydrich (he died a week later from his wounds).

“They had to run, they had to hide,” I said to Mirek. “Didn’t they hide in a church?”

“Yes. This one.”

Suddenly the street noise dropped away. There were red poppies laid at the base of the cross in the enclave and two dark black columns standing seven feet tall in the courtyard where red candles, fresh tulips and a wreath were laid. Our small group stood listening to Mirek tell the tale of these men who hid in the church as Nazis blanketed the area looking for them, offering large amounts of money and safety to anyone who would give information. The two black columns, inscribed from top to bottom with names, is the list of all of the people the Nazis questioned and killed in their search for Czech’s national heroes.

To hear Mirek tell it was moving – here was a young man who’s grandparents lived through the war, a man who came from Sudentland, an area of the country that figured heavily in the story of Nazi occupied Czech. Bits and pieces of reading that had been recreational for me came crashing together with the story being told to me by a man with personal history. Standing in the courtyard the story was challenging enough, now we were going inside.

We’ve been in quite a few churches here in Prague, but this felt doubly silent and sacred. Here was a place where patriots had fought: 7 Czech soldiers against 800 Nazi troops. Four of the men were in the gallery, and my eyes lifted not to the ceiling frescoes, but to the narrow place from which I could imagine no escape, even though I tried. The four men fought, firing their weapons. Those who weren’t killed in the fighting took the poison pill they carried, choosing death over surrender. The four in the gallery eliminated, the Nazis sought the other three, knowing from their informant that they were hiding in the basement crypt.

The rug near the alter was rolled at the edge as Mirek approached, like a lip curled up. Even before he touched it, it spoke of much use. Pulling it back, he revealed the floor hatch that lead to the basement. Finally the Nazis would find this hatch. We had to go outside to enter, a dark door providing access to a small, simple, powerful interpretive site. The story is laid out in panels along the wall of the entry room: the loss of Sudentland through diplomacy, the sudden Nazi occupation of Prague, the training of Czech troops by Allied Forces. While there were many people involved in Operation Anthropoid, the two who stormed the car of Heydrich throwing in a hand grenade that would lead to his death days later, were featured in the story. The journey of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis was traced up to the fateful time.

The brief tunnel into the catacomb room is closed off by a swinging metal door that latches in a way that feels final. First in, you see the tiny opening in the ceiling, where there once was a ladder, that the three men used to access and hide in the room. For days, people had brought them food as they huddled hungry and cold, wondering if there would be a way forward for them. When the Nazis found the room they also found a window to the street outside, which they used to pump water into the room, filling it chest deep. I remembered reading Prague Winter, hoping as I read the story that they would find a way out, that they could escape and flee. One of the people on our tour asked as much. Mirek replied, 800 soldiers outside surrounding the building. Prague occupied by Nazis. Where would they go?

The story does not end with their miraculous escape. It ends with their deaths, with their bodies behind paraded in the street by Nazis. Busts of the seven men quietly fill the small subterranean room, red poppies commemorating the soldiers. It was impossible to know, and impossible not to wonder, if any of the people visiting this site were descendants of these soldiers or the people who died as the Nazis sought them out.

Out under the blue sky, the sounds of trams and traffic bringing me back to the present, Mirek shared how proud the Czech people are of these men and the people who helped them. They showed that Czech would fight.

We continued our walk through New Town, other challenging topics coming up as we went. Mirek shared them all in a way that presented the history of his country and clearly showed his love for it. Later, I asked Mirek how it feels for him to tell these stories that are so fresh from his country’s past. He said it is an honor to be a person his age in this time who cares about history and who can share it. A friend told him, Mirek, you are meant to drink beer and tell the story of the Czech people. That, he said, was a good compliment. As we walked and talked, history lived and breathed for me in the best and hardest way it can.