I didn’t freeze, per se, but I didn’t exactly know how to answer. “Intermediate.” Note the uncertain firmness and punctuation. I didn’t speak in uptone: “Intermediate?” My insides froze, but my outsides stayed smooth as ice, if you catch my snowdrift.
This sequence played again. And again. In Austria. In Germany. In Switzerland. In English… but with enough skepticism and distrust that I sometimes felt like I was answering in my fractured German.
“I’m not going to teach you the difference between pizza and french fries, because you shouldn’t do pizza.”
“stop dragging your poles on the ground”
“maybe we should practice slowing down and stopping”
“okay, let’s go down a black slope”
My brevity isn’t criticism. I reiterate that I’m grateful for Brian selflessly sharing his knowledge. I learned fast, I skied decently well, and I had fun.
Until recently, I’ve guided my life with a philosophy of foregoing expectations, rarely planning more than 4-6 months in advance. I like the freedom of being uncommitted and being ready to say “yes” when I want. At winter’s dawn, I had no intention to take multiple ski holidays this winter. To my surprise I doubled my lifetime ski experiences this winter.
When it comes to European skiing, the mountains set a higher standard, even compared to the top Tahoe terrain that I’ve experienced. The confidence check started in Kitzbühel, Austria, while vacationing with my parents for Christmas. After three decades of not skiing, they both said they might like to do it again. Knowing my own level of experience and the downhill sport’s physical challenge, I maintained quiet skepticism. (Just being honest, Mom and Dad. Love you!) Ultimately, the rents opted for a day of relaxation. I texted Brian feigning inconvenience for fear: “It’s pouring rain 😦 might not get to go”. When the clouds parted, I followed my smartphone map’s little blue dot to the nearest ski rental shop, rented gear, and scooted my clunky ski boots to ride the lift up the mountain. Remember: frozen inside but slick outside.
I remember pulling myself over the edge and quickly rediscovering the muscular control for guiding my skis downhill, the adrenal rush of racing atop blankets of snow, and the sensation of seeing the snow-pocked valley below with mountain air in my lungs. In those moments, I had the thought that my prior hesitation was unfounded. Downhill, ride a lift back up, repeat. The last lift brought me up the mountain then back down to home base, where I returned my equipment and gleefully expressed my pride to my very relaxed parents. I chose to worry, and there was nothing to worry about.
Fast forward to February, when I joined a company trip to Harz, a mountain (er – hilly) region in central Germany. The agenda for Saturday included the option to ski, and suddenly, I was co-coordinating ski equipment for 20 colleagues in broken English-German. By the time we reached the lift, I was ready to jump off and race downhill with screaming confidence. I was pleased with my shorter-than-usual pair of skis, and the bunny slope gave me newfound confidence in my skills on the slope.
Bear in mind, Harz pales in comparison to the Alps, but sometimes it’s also the small battles that win the war. The war? Yes, skiing was still a war for Stephen, until last weekend.
A dear ex-colleague invited some friends and me to visit his seasonal workplace, a large, decades-old cabin tucked into a mountain side in Mürren, Switzerland. Over the course of almost twelve hours, four trains, a bus, two gondolas, a cog train, and a short walk brought Robin, Peejay, Olivier, and me through the snow to our new digs: the epic, world renowned SUPPENALP. Okay, so Suppenalp isn’t well known, but it’s very well loved. Whether staying the night in their private rooms, sharing space in the dormitory, or stopping for a hearty meal, some families record multiple generations of annual summer and winter visits to this classic Alpine hütte. We met one guest who comes every year for the past thirty years, and assured us that it takes a special person to find their way to this place. All this makes Suppenalp certifiably epic for a few days of leisure or adventure in the mountains, but I digress…
Peejay learned to ski when he was four. Robin learned to ski in middle school. Olivier – I don’t know, but maybe he skied out out of his mother’s womb. Micha probably skies in his sleep; after all, he’s Swiss. Suffice to say, they’re all experienced sportsmen with great technique. I am proudly amateur enough to undecidedly state that I’m an intermediate skier, and thank the ski gods for patient friends. These guys were golden. When they weren’t effortlessly demonstrating their own great technique and enjoying the spacious runs, they offered tips on the fly and multiple short lessons to improve my posture and help me conserve energy. I skied slower while practicing – and I’ve needed speed control since day 0 – and they patiently awaited my arrival at the waypoints along the slopes, without a single complaint.
(Boys, if you’re reading this and you were talking smack about me in your native Dutch, also cool… helaas, pindakaas…) (Non-Dutchies: that means “unfortunately, peanut butter,” which is apparently Dutchies’ way of saying “oh, well!”)
At some point – maybe it was while we were skiing off piste through a foot / thirty centimeters of fresh powder (never tried that ’til now!), or maybe it was when I said yes to the steepest runs without hesitation (“I’m seriously up for anything – why not!”), or maybe it was on the Lauterbrunnen World Cup run, or maybe it was when the fog and snow rolled in on our second day – at some point, as I breezed down a slope, I had the thought “this is scary. I’m afraid.” and I realized that I ski with an entirely fearful mindset. Let’s be honest: how rational and safe does it sound to strap two sticks to your feet and skate sideways down a sheet of loose ice, weaving between other humans of equal (or better or sometimes questionable) capacity? It’s a scary concept, and I think our achievement in sports like this show the power of the mind and body to work in synergy with the world.
Having this thought brought pure joy, to know that I can embrace fear and that becoming aware of fear can also be a positive experience. Next time you find yourself doing something hard, trust yourself, trust those around you, and don’t let fear be a reason to change your course.
“What type of skier are you?” “Intermediate. Afraid. Trusting. Willing & Able.”
“After I studied abroad in Denmark, I knew that I wanted to live abroad again. I asked if there was an opportunity to transfer my work. They said, ‘yes.'”
“I moved around a lot while growing up, and I know that I’m stimulated by being in new environments.”
These are some of the truthful, common answers I’ve given over the past year and a half. In the back of my mind, I’ve tucked away a sustained curiosity, believing there’s a deeper meaning to my desire to move. I’ve asked myself: am I running away from something I fear or toward something I desire? People asked how long I was going for, and honestly, I never set a timeline. I don’t know the answers, but I’ve decided to ruminate and cut open my rationale.
Since my international move, I’ve discovered a previously misunderstood value of downtime and time alone. I didn’t spend time doing nothing, alone. Solitude is scary, right? I, like many of us, still distract myself from solitude with mindless scrolling on Instagram, Twitter, or whatever platform my subconscious can grasp to shield itself from silence. When was the last time you sat and patiently waited for a friend to arrive, that you rode a bus, train, or plane without picking up your phone, book, computer, a magazine? When was the last time you practiced being? (That’s not a typo.)
As my twin brother recently wrote to me: “How do you have time to contemplate all of this stuff?!” I have time, because I make time to be. [To be transparent, I also spend a lot of time distracted and avoiding the practice of being.] My German lifestyle has fewer priorities than my American lifestyle. Anecdotally, I think Germans create a notable amount of time and space in their lives for sitting with friends in conversation, walking in nature, vacationing, and being. Whether I’m German or not, I’m surrounded by their energy. There are few-to-no 24-hour grocery stores. Companies close for public holidays, not because they’re all religious, but because workism is not their religion. They embrace public parks, pools, and playgrounds, as well as bars, cafes, and restaurants.
In my go-getter American mindset, downtime used to be downright scary! There are numerous occasions where I’ve fallen into microdepression after silently spending hours at home alone. These are now balanced against the euphoria that I feel when I wake up rested, because I give myself the time to sleep. I feel the same balance when I leave work with no plan, no place to be, and no one to be late for; I am afraid and overjoyed by this freedom.
Being alone can be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. I’m learning not to push away or run from discomfort. Stress is not noise; in fact, it’s part of the signal, the communication that we’re meant to listen to. Pay attention to when and where there’s discomfort: physically and emotionally. I observe, recognize, and accept unoccupied quiet time, having no to-do list, and not speaking a word to anyone on a weekend morning. I am realizing that I don’t need anything other than myself to be me.
What is discomfort? Comfort comes from the Latin “confortare” (to strengthen) or com- and -fortis, with strength. Thus, discomfort is a weakening or perceived lack of strength. Our bodies protect us by struggling when we do not believe we are strong.
The mind is powerful, to create both strength and weakness, comfort and discomfort. Ever feel like your mind is racing with negativity? Humans are disposed to sense weakness, to see threats in our environment, and to avoid danger. Perhaps this is why we run from tasks that are hard and challenge our strength. Running from discomfort takes energy, too. If we can learn to control our minds and our reactions in the face of perceived danger, in moments of discomfort, and in stress, we save energy, a strategy that fuels our survival.
So, I ran to Germany. And in Germany, my mind tries to run away from the discomfort of solitude. I’m embracing this fact of life, not as something hard, but as something new.
A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; … if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.
Schopenhauer, “The World as Will and Idea,” 1818
While I’m hardly alone in Berlin, I spend more time alone now than I have before. So, if this is true, I ran away to learn to love freedom, and that’s really not comfortable to admit.