In September of 2011, we left our home in Evergreen, Colorado to move to a new home in Bratislava, Slovakia. A six-month work assignment grew to a year, then two. It morphed into two years in Budapest, Hungary.
Then I came home.
We kept going.
Moved to France.
Moved back home.
Our grandson battled cancer and survived.
Cancer. Covid. We all survived.
I won’t recount these ten years; it’s captured in this blog. Still, a bit of reflection seems in order. Hopefully, this handful of life lessons will suffice.
One of my first—and fondest—memories of Bratislava was the ubiquitous presence of Skittle-colored blankets piled in cafés or restaurants around town. My favorites were in coffee shops on the old town square. At first, it was hard to embrace this custom, to wrap myself a well-worn blanket which had wrapped untold strangers before me.
Then one day, as my Slovak girlfriend cuddled into a lime-green blanket while we huddled over coffee one blustery fall day, I tried it. Witness the birth of one of my favorite Central European rituals—to sit cocooned in a blanket of dubious lineage while reading a good book on a centuries old square.
It’s a quirky custom that I miss on days like today. It’s 52 degrees in Paris as I write this. Shortly, I’ll dress in head-to-toe black: A poofy vest, cotton sweater, warm pants, fuzzy socks. In the absence of a lime-green blanket, I’ll swaddle myself in a buttery croissant. Alas, I’ll get by.
Lesson one: Wrap yourself in the local culture—literally and figuratively. It’s why we travel, right? Not to watch, but to participate. Simply put: Do it all.
Perhaps a few weeks into our time in Slovakia, we found a music shop and went inside. There we met Igor. He offered us a coffee; we said yes. Little did we know that a lifetime friendship would form which would grow to encapsulate both of our families. We travelled with them. They travelled with us.
Next spring, we plan to return to Bratislava. I can’t wait to see Igor and Vlasta. To check out the renovation of the Albrecht Home. To see how much their grandson has grown.
As I look back over the last ten years, what I remember most are the people: pub patrons and publicans, peripatetic Americans, pig killers, pétanque players, neighbors, the photography obsessed, and the fashion obsessed. Many of them have remained in our lives. We love them all.
Lesson two: Make friends along the way. Local friends will educate you. Compatriots will moor you. (Who else better understands the significance of a shared Thanksgiving meal than a fellow American?) If chosen well, they all will enrich you. Cast a wide net.
The benefit of a wandering life is also it’s greatest challenge. Moving is intoxicating. Moving is debilitating. When your physical home becomes amorphous, you have to build your foundation with a new set of skills. From the pragmatic knowledge of how to navigate planes, trains and buses to the rote drudgery of finding a temporary home and minimally kitting it out, it takes a wholly different skill set to manage—and embrace—this type of nomadic existence.
When we received a phone call shortly after midnight in Paris that our three-year-old grandson was seriously ill, my muscle memory took over. By morning, we had two plane tickets home and a house to live in once we got there. Months later, when we needed to move immediately and indefinitely to Philadelphia for further treatments, these skills kicked in again.
For a long time, I had worried that this itinerant life wafted between self-absorbed and silly. I had never considered that these skills were mission critical until these skills, in fact, became mission critical.
Lesson 3: Learn to deal with change and adapt. Remember that the most frustrating issues of daily life in a new country are little more than niggling inconveniences. The ability to deploy at a moments notice is a real and valuable skill.
Now, we have downsized to a 350-square-foot apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia. A bump out behind a bungalow is our indefinite base. Everything we own is stashed in the basement in a few boxes—mostly photographs, Christmas ornaments, and camping things.
Once upon a time, we lived in a big house with all the stuffings and I loved it. I love this more.
Lesson 4: Physically distilling our possessions to the minimum has been thrilling. If you get your buzz through travel—or through other object-free pursuits—consider it.
Recently, a young woman shared a poem that was one of her father’s favorites. Her father was a gem, a member of our fraternity of swimming parents. Three years ago, he died suddenly in his late 60s. Had I been the author of this poem, it would have sufficed for this blog post.
It’s called Ithaka by C. P. Cavafy, and I’ll quote a section of it here.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
So you’re old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Lesson 5: Life isn’t a destination; you’ve gotta love the journey.
This post is for everyone we’ve met along the way. You’ve made us rich.