Egbert Makes the Right Choice

Earlier this week, I was thinking about the lessons I learned from my parents, and how they have influenced who I am today. When my brother and I were kids, my parents would take turns telling us bedtime stories.  My mom spun tales of Egbert, a young boy who was frequently presented with decisions that challenged his ethics, always neatly summed up with a moral lesson that urged us to do the right thing.

One of our favorites was a story about Egbert and his mom.  The mom asked him to run to the grocery store to buy several items for her. She gave him some money and said, “Now Egbert, be sure to bring me the change.” He nodded solemnly and ran off to the neighborhood corner store. He quickly found the items she needed and went to the cash register, where he was confronted with a tantalizing display of candy.  Quickly adding up how much money he needed, he saw he had just enough for his favorite candy bar.

“What kind of candy, mom?” my brother would interrupt. Our mom would answer by describing the delicious chocolate and caramel confection that was Egbert’s favorite.

My brother and I would exchange glances and nod sagely at each other. This would be a very difficult choice for the young Egbert.  He could probably get away with it. His mom would never, ever know. Yes, this was quite tempting. And from other stories told about the mischievous and inquisitive kid, we knew he sometimes made very poor errors in judgment. What would he do?

My mom would draw out the story, describing how Egbert could just imagine the luscious taste of that candy, and how much he wanted it. She would elucidate his thoughts about how he could hide the evidence of his indiscretion, how he could lie to his mother about how much the items cost, how easy it would be to cover up the whole event. And then – then she would talk about the guilt he would feel, share the words of his conscience, and how he knew it was wrong to steal and wrong to lie.

Finally, my mom would ask what we thought Egbert should do.

Oh boy.

My brother would add in a few questions to figure out whether Egbert could really get away with it. He spent more time calculating the pros and cons of the actions.

For me, the elder sister, I already knew the answer my mom wanted to hear.  She had made the situation black and white.

Egbert, of course, would make the decision to skip the candy bar, no matter how much he wanted it. He bought only the items his mom asked him to buy, and walked home, albeit a bit slowly, with a touch of despondence in his step that can only come from thwarted desires. His conscience felt good, but his stomach and taste buds longed to indulge in the velvety sweetness that only chocolate and caramel can provide.

When he got home, he summoned a smile for his mother, and obediently handed her the bag and the change. She took out the items and the receipt. She counted out the change.

My goodness! My brother and I suddenly realized the mom could CHECK. We had both overlooked this in our estimation of the risk to Egbert.  Wide-eyed with shock, we realized Egbert had been very close to making a horrible mistake.

His mom gave Egbert a hug and said, “Thank you for being such a good boy and getting those items for me! And as a reward, I want to give you the change.”

Egbert couldn’t believe his ears! He grabbed the change and raced off to the store to buy the candy bar.

My brother and I would smile, and my mom, just in case we didn’t ‘get’ the moral of the story, would clearly spell it out for us.  We would go to bed knowing that we would face temptation in life, and that good actions could sometimes be unexpectedly rewarded.

These lessons, illustrated through the trials and tribulations of our dear beloved Egbert, became guiding principles for life.  And these lessons can help us in business, as well:

  • Follow your conscience even when it doesn’t feel good.
  • And savor the unexpected pleasures of life.

What lessons did you learn early in life that help you with your business today?

A life of no regrets – courage from cancer

This weekend I got a call from a good friend of mine who asked if I regretted quitting my job and starting a business. She’s thinking of doing the same. I’ve talked to several friends of mine over the years who have considered this, as well, and I’ve realized something: having cancer was a blessing.

A life-threatening illness, major surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and a need for a long recovery time helped me become more courageous and authentic to who I really am. Snippets of memories spring forth. Interestingly, most of them have to do with looking different – and how getting out of my comfort zone opened up an entirely new world.

Cancer forced me to stand out. About a month before I lost my hair, I decided that I wouldn’t wear a wig.  For some reason, it felt like I would be pretending I had hair when I didn’t, and it felt very important to be honest with myself.  I went to work wearing maxi dresses and head scarves, like a white Erykah Badu. Internally, I was shaking. I didn’t look like “me” and I certainly didn’t look like anyone else in an office full of Fortune 500 executives. But I got compliments on my sense of style. One woman later found out I had been going through chemotherapy and specifically came up to me to say she just thought I was rocking a new look. I found it amazing that people thought I had that much courage to stand out in a crowd. I was just trying to stay true to myself.

I got comfortable being different. After gaining 15 pounds due to steroids and chemo-lowered metabolism, losing my eyebrows, eyelashes, hair and breaking out in a rash on my face, I didn’t really see the external me of “me.” I’d get glimpses if I looked in to my eyes, but I remember shopping in a store with a wall of mirrors and seeing someone in the reflection. I didn’t realize it was me. After two summer months of wearing hot scarves on my head, I was done caring.  Just three weeks after I finished chemo, my skin started to look better and I saw the beginning of hair growing on my head.  I ditched the scarves. I went to work with my scalp looking like I had a 5-o’clock shadow.  People told me they were envious that I had that much courage. In fact, someone on the street chased after me to tell me they loved my haircut, and a new mom fantasized over wanting the same hassle-free style.  I found it amazing that people thought I would make choices that were so extreme. I was just trying to be comfortable in my own skin.

I lived – to live. Throughout my entire life, I knew what I was ‘supposed to do’: get good grades, go to college, climb the corporate ladder, etc.  With an unexpected diagnosis came an un-nerving and un-precedented amount of freedom.  There is no manual written by Emily Post that arrives along with the words “you have cancer.” Suddenly I was living in a world without a structured set of rules. For about three days, I walked around feeling stunned, wondering how I would be capable of going through what I was facing. Then I found my voice.  Strangely, the day I found it, I was getting a medical test which involved placing a needle in my vein. I hate needles. The nurse had actually stuck me and was inserting the catheter when I just lost it. I saw that thing, and stood up and ran away. Literally. I ran around the room. She looked at me in shock and said “But we’ve already done the worst part! We just put the catheter around it now.” I let go of my hysteria long enough to get the test. But as soon as it was over, I started sobbing. How in the world could I handle chemotherapy if I couldn’t get past my phobia of needles? I walked out into the waiting area of the lab and my friend hugged me. Suddenly, my attention was caught by a news story: A plane had landed in the Hudson River. And I knew in that moment – people are capable of unimaginable things. And all I needed to do was to live that way.  I went through surgery, chemo and radiation – but I did it in my own way. That meant flying around the world to see friends and family, and spending quality time with those I loved. One of those times meant witnessing my cousin’s wedding in Serbia.  I was completely exhausted, but it’s a memory I wouldn’t trade for the world. People told me I was inspiring them because I loved life so much and had the courage to live it. I found it amazing that people thought I was inspiring. I was just trying to remind myself what I was living for.

By the end of the year, I had heard:

1. You have the courage to stand out in a crowd.

2. You make choices that are outside of the norm.

3. You live life on your own terms.

These statements struck me as odd.  Yet over time, I realized that’s who I was. And I had probably wanted to be that version of me throughout my entire life.  Breaking through old beliefs caused me to go forward on my own path – one that’s different than the path I was on before, and different than the path I would have framed as “expected.”  Yet, as I made the choices to change my life, I kept hearing from my friends and family “Oh.. that’s just so totally YOU.”

One of my favorite songs is “Non je ne regrette rien” (I regret nothing), popularly recorded by Edith Piaf.  The song includes the lyrics “Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait, ni le mal tout ca m’est bien egal.” These words, loosely translated as ‘neither the good that happened to me, nor the bad – to me it’s all equal’, are a summary of a life view that leads to no regrets.

When we can look at an event in life, whether we label it “good” or “bad”, as just a part of a bigger story, it makes room for the unexpected and unorthodox.  It takes faith – faith in yourself, faith in a Higher Power, faith in the goodness of the Universe. This belief, described in Romans 8:28: “all things work together for good for those who love God” has the power you need to live a life of no regrets.

For those of you who are reflecting whether to forge your own path, I encourage you. Be authentic to yourself. Be courageous. Believe.

Live your life.

And don’t forget – it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Be sure to look for lumps! 

Why I want to be self-employed

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Today I applied for an Amber grant for my business, and one of the application questions  was “why do you want to be self-employed?”

Wow. I’ve never answered that question before. I reflected on what I wanted to do, obviously, and I knew what was motivating me. But something about this question brought up an answer from the heart that I wasn’t really aware of before.

Here is my answer:

In January 2009, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. One year later, after I finished treatment, the uncle I was closest to called me to congratulate me and to encourage me to live life to the fullest.  He told me to take risks and he told me how much he loved me.

A few weeks later, he died suddenly. I was shocked by this second reminder of how short and precious life is. On the plane to his funeral I made the choice to live my best life. I knew that meant leaving a company with which I had spent the majority of my career.  But I wasn’t sure what to do instead.

First, I took a break.  During this break, I kept getting requests to help people launch businesses. I didn’t realize at the time that I was carving out my future.  But when I look back, I see that I have always been surrounded by family members who had small businesses. And even while I was working as a sales and marketing professional at a Fortune 500 company, I volunteered to mentor entrepreneurs who were starting new ventures.

But although I started thinking about launching my own initiative, I still resisted the idea of running my own business. I felt totally passionate about what I was doing to help people launch their businesses, but it just seemed a little “out there” for me to do it myself. Certainly the traditional career path had its appeal from a financial and insurance coverage standpoint.

Then, as a final twist of fate, my aunt was diagnosed with late-stage, incurable lung cancer.  I had the freedom to pick up and move in with her for three months, which allowed her to stay in her own home for a greater amount of time.  This was an incredible experience which blessed and enriched me in so many ways.

During this time, I made the decision that I needed to be self-employed to have balance in my life, to live according to my priorities, and to have the right level of energy for bringing the best of myself to this world and the experience we call life.

I feel grateful every day that I was able to make this choice.

My company, IOLITE Global Consulting, is the result of this choice. The company is named for the beautiful gemstone iolite (eye-o-light), which legend describes as guiding Norwegian sailors across the seas to new lands. We are a marketing and commercialization consulting company focused on launching or re-launching brands and businesses.

Simply put, our work is about helping businesses grow. We listen, we strategize, we create, we write – then we implement, adapt, and measure results. This may look like a brand book, go-to-market strategy, launch plan, communications plan or a recommendation for pricing, promotion and distribution strategies. But it’s more than that, too. We will pick up the phone to pitch a story to a reporter, spend time listening to the challenges of an entrepreneur, or dive in to coach on pragmatic things like costing, or how to shift your self-identity to view yourself as a business owner. We’ve even gotten involved in refining product design to help bring a product to market that meets the needs of customers. We do this because we are iolite – the guiding stone for new and growing ventures.

I have walked a crooked path to arrive at my destiny as an entrepreneur.  However the glimmer of this path was imprinted years before. As a child, I watched my grandfather, of Norwegian descent, cut and polish stones that he would sell in his rock shop.  I imagine he would have been the expert that could have cut the stone iolite in the exact way needed to help those Norwegian sailors find their way.  He had a knack for revealing the absolute brilliance in a stone – for transforming it from an unpolished stone into a shining piece of art. It is this path I aspire to walk. And it is that last conversation with my uncle that gave me the courage to start walking it.

End of semester

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As as student, I never thought about life from the perspective of the teacher. I thought about how many assignments I had and how to manage deadlines. The only time I thought about things from the professor’s viewpoint was when I was trying to ascertain what content might be important from the professor’s perspective so I could study the right topics for the test.

Now I see the world through the eyes of a teacher. Each week I stand in front of 30-ish pairs of bright eyes and young faces, bringing topics forward for discussion. And at the end of the semester, as I create the final exam, I reflect on “what concepts were really important?” and “what did I emphasize during class”?

Of course, I remember what it was like to be a student: worried about a grade, concerned about being able to make all the deadlines, spending sleepless nights cramming for a test.

But as I reflect further, I also remember the feeling of being excited as one of my professors pulled back the curtain to expose how something worked – like the day I learned about slotting fees in grocery stores. I was shocked that there were deals made to influence which products would be seen at eye level.

I remember having my curiosity sparked by the introduction of a theory, or the telling of a real-life story. One of my professors escaped China with a $200 bill bought on the black market, not realizing until he arrived in the United States that it was a fake bill that doesn’t even exist in the U.S.  But someone let him rent an apartment with it anyway. He used the story to frame a teaching around economic trade theory, I believe. It made me more aware of politics and cultural influences. And it made me more aware of the good and the bad in this world.

When I was a junior, I was given the opportunity by the University of Minnesota to take a semester off and work on Capitol Hill for the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, a Congressman from my home state of Minnesota. I saw economics and politics in action, and loved every minute.  I became fanatically passionate about issues such as use of bovine growth hormones, and wrote papers about the architecture in Washington DC and how it was built for defense against the British.

When I returned to school, I finished my Econ coursework by writing an opinion about the European Union and whether they should adopt the Euro (I argued “no”), and developing a theory about how the United States welfare system should be overhauled (I suggested building a plan that enabled people who were working to continue to receive a subsidy if they were still under the poverty level, and to increase emphasis on skills training).

Why are these papers so clearly imprinted in my mind? Because the professors made me think. They engaged me. They inspired me. And because my experience with learning it made it stick.

Now I teach a marketing course at a great university. Sometimes I still feel like I should be that kid in the classroom with my eyes wide open (or sometimes half shut). But I show up in my ‘professor garb’ with a set of slides and real life examples and I hope that I am leaving the same legacy. I hope I make them think.

And to all of my students taking their final tonight – bonne chance. Never stop learning. And do good in the world.

Halfway to the moon

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 from the archives – an edited version was published in the Minnesota Women’s Press magazine – this is my favorite essay from the previous blog-

In the past five weeks, I have slept in 11 different beds. This is a remarkable fact that perhaps makes me sound like an employee of Madam Heidi Fleiss but is much, much more innocent than that. I traveled to Minnesota, Dallas, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Paris and back to Minnesota with several stops in Philadelphia along the way.

I’ve been living out of a suitcase since Thanksgiving.

I’m tired.

However, I’m grateful.

When I began this year 2009, I was in Beirut, Lebanon. While I was there, I realized something was wrong with my health. A week later, I stopped in Paris to see friends and shop the soldes. I found a lump in my breast. A few days after that, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

It was a year where I traveled more than 60,000 miles. I celebrated New Year’s Eve in Beirut and Valentine’s Day in Paris. I spent a weekend in Washington D.C. Work took me to Orlando. Weeks later, my mom and I were in Sydney, Australia. In late July, I joined my family in Serbia for my cousin’s wedding. I celebrated my birthday in Paris. I flew to Minnesota for my cousin’s second wedding, the “U.S.” version. In September and October, I traveled again for work. In November, I spent Thanksgiving with my family in St. Paul, and started the rest of my 5 weeks of travel—San Francisco, Las Vegas, Paris again, and spent Christmas in Minnesota.

When I got diagnosed with cancer at the being of the year, I wanted to make sure I had memories in 2009 that were beyond breast cancer. I didn’t want to look back and only remember the fear of the unknown, the pain, the surgery, and the endless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. I knew I wanted the year to be more than that. It was.

I flew 60,000 miles.

Interspersed between my travels were caretaking visits, overnights, coffees, check-ins, knitted scarves and love from my family and friends.

If I added the miles of those who visited me or journeyed with me we would be halfway to the moon.

And that’s just how I want this year to be remembered.

Mail call

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-from the archives-

For the last several weeks, I have been eagerly anticipating delivery of my MAC Cosmetics Professional discount card in the mail.  This has caused me to actually pay attention to mail delivery, its frequency and content.  Normally, I just toss it all in a pile and open it once a week or so.  I find that my mail is mostly dull, full of bills and unnecessary credit card offers, and by opening it less frequently, I minimize my boredom and make fewer trips to the recycling bin.

Before this, I could honestly tell you that I thought I received mail every day, except Sundays.  But waiting for the delivery of this card has completely opened my eyes.  The US Postal Service has stopped delivering mail to my street.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration.

In reality, I believe that my zip code is part of a clandestine test marketing schema to ascertain whether anyone complains about mail delivery cutbacks.   I believe that the USPS has started to deliver mail three times per week.  On the fourth day they just dump some flyers containing coupons in your mailbox.  Specifically, those newspaper-y ones that are really thick that look like you have lots of mail but you don’t.  Instead, you just have something that seems impossible to grab, and when you lift it out of the mailbox it falls apart and you suddenly have 75 pages of newspaper that you are trying to bring in the house with one hand while simultaneously carrying a purse and computer bag over the same shoulder, while shutting off the beeping house alarm with the other hand, using your hip to keep the screen door open, and one foot to keep the cats inside the house.  The other foot is needed for balance, but somehow ends up having to take on the role of dragging the newspaper-y advertisements into the house before the kitties decide you’ve brought them a new form of litter.  Yes, these are the papers that take up a lot of space in your mailbox, so you think you have lots of things to open.

And after you throw them away, you worry that maybe your MAC Cosmetics Professional discount card got stuck in between the pages, so you feel compelled to go through the advertisements to double check.  And perhaps you discover a discount coupon that is quite useful (e.g. $3 off of L’Oreal products) but reminds you that what you really want is being held hostage at the USPS.  This seems to happen on Thursdays.

Clearly this card has caught my attention. I’m EXCITED about this.  I love make-up. I just need access to the stupid card and life will be perfect.

So, back to the conspiracy being conducted by the US Postal Service.  I know for a fact that a friend of mine mailed a letter to me over a week ago.  Maybe a bit less than a week. I guess I really don’t know this as a “fact” per se. But, in any case, I’m waiting for a letter. And I sent away for a magazine subscription to Allure and I haven’t gotten that, either.

I did, however, receive a book in the mail.  It was from my father.  The book is about a horse.  My dad had enclosed a note that simply said “Per your request”.  Curious, I opened the book. The pages are yellowed and some are dog-eared.  And on the inside front cover, a very young me had written in childish cursive “Property of Erika.  If found, return to owner”.

I’m not sure when he mailed it. Judging from the yellow pages, it could have been quite awhile ago.  LOL. But at least I have something to read while I wait for the mail.

Whenever it comes…

Finally, La Tour Eiffel is toured

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– from the archives – living in Paris – a visit from Debbie

My first trip to Paris did not foreshadow, in any way, my future connection to the capital of France.  I came to a cold, windy, rainy city in early November, after I had just vacationed in sunny, beautiful Barcelona.  We hadn’t planned our Parisian vacation very well, and all I knew was that I needed to see the Eiffel Tower and the Champs Elysses.  So four of us started our Parisian adventure by going to see the Tower.  We arrived alongside six or seven hundred of our closest friends, waited in a long line for tickets that would let us go to the summit, and crammed ourselves in an elevator to go to the first level.  We disembarked, and looked out.  It looked gray.  We jammed ourselves back into the elevator and went to the second level.  Still gray, but we found a place to buy gaufres (Belgian waffles) with nutella and whipcream.  After a debate regarding whether to go to the top or not, we decided to go. Part of this debate took place in front of the elevator, during the 30 minute wait.  I could tell that many other groups were having the same conversation.  I could interpret the gestures – men pointing down to the ground, women staring fixedly ahead, children pulling at the hands of their parents, people looking up wondering where in the hell was the elevator, energetic youngsters searching for stairs – even though I couldn’t understand the words.  Finally, the elevator arrived and we were able to shove ourselves inside.  We made it to the very top, about two hours after we had started our journey.  We looked out.  It looked gray.  Worse, it had started to rain.
After this experience, I heard several other similar stories, so I know I wasn’t alone in feeling like once I had “checked the box” on seeing the Eiffel Tower, I never needed to go back.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I was back in Paris on a whim.  A friend wanted to celebrate her birthday and four of us decided to go abroad.  We found a good deal to Paris over Bastille Day.  Three of us had been to Paris before, and one – my friend Deb – had not.  We negotiated experiences over a dinner to plan the trip (imagine! a dinner to plan a trip!) and debated the La Tour Eiffel destination.  I conceded to go on a bus tour of Paris (I know these are very practical ways to see a city, and I’ve done them many times, but I always feel like SUCH a tourist), but flatly refused to go up the Eiffel Tower again.  I offered to go to the Champ-de-Mars, and go so far as to look under the Tower, but on a three day trip, I said, I did not want to spend 2-3 hours with hoards of tourists on a hot July day.  Two of my friends agreed, and Deb lost her dream of going to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Until yesterday.
I give her a lot of credit for her ability to bide her time and negotiate over the course of several years.  She has a very subtle style, so much so that it’s almost unnoticeable.
It started by her buying a ticket to see me in Paris, and casually asking what we should do.  I offered a few ideas, skipping over the issue of whether to visit the tall metal sculpture near the center of the city.
Then, she checked in to make sure I was okay.  Evidently the American press had been eagerly covering a risk of attack in Paris, and that the red zone included top tourist desinations such as the Eiffel Tower.  We were joking around on instant messaging.  I sent “You don’t have to worry about me being anywhere nearby there” at the same time she sent “Now you’ll never let me go there”.  We laughed at each other’s jokes, but I knew that the dream was still somewhere in the back of her mind.  Or probably at the very front.
So when she arrived yesterday and asked me to show her where we were on a map, I wasn’t too surprised to see her eyes drift longingly to the 7eme arrondissement on other side of the Seine.  Unfortunately it was a cloudy gray morning.  I suggested that we go to a few museums, because it’s an easier thing to do when it’s a bit gray, but also because when you are fighting jet lag, it’s good to be visually engaged and it’s an activity that’s not too tiring.  I sensed a bit of disappointment, but she didn’t say anything.  We started our day with a pause for coffee on Rue Montorgueil, then made our way over to the Rodin Museum.  Next we decided to stop for a late lunch in the 7th district.  Her eyes widened when I pointed to the Eiffel Tower looming in the background as we walked to lunch.  I could hear the wheels turning in her brain, but it was kind of raining and grayish, and it wouldn’t have been a good time to go.  After eating, we went to the Musee des Arts Premiers (Musee Quai Branly) and saw a very interesting exhibit titled “Baba Bling”.  When we walked out, the weather had cleared, and we were only two blocks away from the Tower.  Qu’elle chance! It was her moment.
We hustled over to the monument, saw that the ticket lines were not long at all, and hurridely queued.  Right after we got in line, we saw bunches of tourists meandering towards the ticket office.  Perfect, we beat the rush and bought our tickets in less than 10 minutes.  We boarded the first elevator that arrived – we were the last ones on board, and there was still a bit of room to breathe!  We went right to the second floor and exited to a magnificent view of Paris.  It was dark, the sky was clear, and we had a wonderful view of the sparkling lights of Paris.  After taking some photos, we decided to walk down the steps to the bottom, and captured some creative shots along the way.  The evening was perfect, and I realized that sometimes it’s just timing that makes an experience good or bad.  If you’re going to visit the Eiffel Tower, go on a clear evening in the late fall, and you will have an amazing view of Paris.  And, if it’s something you’ve kind of avoided doing for a friend, you’ll also have a nice clear conscience.

Securely courageous: notes on transition

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My friend Rana sent me this quote:

“It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new.  But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful.  There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power” – Alan Cohen

Many of my friends are in the midst of significant change, as I am.  All of us have felt the desire to hang on to what we know, and what feels comfortable and secure to us.  Yet, it’s true that “there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful”.

Unfortunately, while we learn time and time again that there is no actual security to life, we seem to seek a way to make life static at its best moments.  Yet, at any moment, on any day, life can turn us in a different direction.  Perhaps in a direction we welcome, perhaps not, but those turns of life are difficult to embrace without courage or trust in ourselves. Living a life which no longer has specific meaning, in order to surround ourselves with what feels comfortable and secure, is a sad thing indeed.  Yet, often, it’s hardest to say goodbye to things that used to have meaning, but changed because we can’t really say goodbye to what we are missing.  Instead, we invest energy in an attempt to regain what we lost, and in attempt to go back to the preserved moment in our memory when we were happiest.

At the helm of change, we anticipate, grow and challenge ourselves.  Rather than seeking to hold on to a life that is static, perhaps we should instead live as though we are a river.  We should bend and twist according to the environment, responding to its changes with a combination of power and acceptance.  Perhaps we should believe there is a certain comfort, even security, in knowing we have the power to adjust and change. As Mr. Cohen said, “for in movement there is life”.  But, I would also say, in life, there is always movement.  I wish you all a feeling of security through change, happiness through adventure, and wisdom for the journey.

Lisbon

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– from the archives – while on the subject of Iris… these are excerpts about our trip to Lisbon a few years ago –

Iris and I have been friends for a long time.  We met sixteen years ago when we both lived in Minnesota.  She drove the car I wanted, dated the guy I thought was cute, got the first promotion at work, always dressed fashionably and is beautiful.  It was hard to like her.  But then, we both transferred to Philadelphia, and we became roommates.  She helped me transform, and encouraged me to abandon the velcro-strapped Teva sandals I loved (even though I could walk on hot asphalt and in sand and in water without needing to change shoes…). We became co-conspirators and adventurers, roommates, then neighbors, and friends.  But in all these years, we’ve never traveled together.

A few months ago, we decided to take a trip.  We picked Lisbon as our destination, and now, finally, we were about to begin our vacation!

Friday morning, 11:30 am. The flight to Lisbon is in nine hours.
My friend Iris calls and says with conviction, “You’re going to have to hold the plane”.
She is coming from Las Vegas, and has just learned that her flight is delayed.  Instead of a lazy two-hour layover, the airline has informed her that she will arrive five minutes too late.
“Okay…” I answer, wondering what to do.  I am in a meeting at work, and look over at my colleagues.  I tell them what is happening.
“You can’t hold a plane”, one says.
“I know”, I responded. But absent-mindedly, I picture myself staging tears at the ticket counter, sobbing that I can’t fly alone.  Unfortunately, I have not yet mastered the skill of fake tears (I did try this once to get out of an apartment lease, and despite being accompanied by this same Iris, I was unsuccessful and mostly ended up coughing to cover up my laughter).  But, it may be worth another try.

Friday evening, 6:45 pm.
I arrive at the airport a little less than two hours early. I really must try to follow those arrival time rules. However, I breeze through security and immediately check the arrival time of Iris’ flight from Vegas.  The landing time has been adjusted to 8:50, and the Lisbon flight is leaving at 8:25pm.
Decision time: Do I fall apart at in front of the gate agent?
As I approach the desk, I wisely decide to remain calm.  Instead, I tried to change my flight until the following day.  No go.  Evidently, there are a lot of people with missed connections, and the next day’s flight is already oversold.
I board the plane, hoping that Iris’ flight will land early, or that we’ll have an unexpected delay.  I’ve got a great view of the gangway from where I sit, and can watch people boarding.  No Iris.  It’s 8:10. They usually close the doors fifteen minutes early.  A few stragglers race up panting and out of breath.  Still no Iris.  The doors lock.
I’m on my way to Lisbon alone. I promptly fall asleep.

[Hours later]

The flight attendant wakes me up. “Ma’am, you’re in an exit row”.

I crack my eyes open and quickly fall back asleep. She shakes my shoulder. “You have to be awake while we land”.

Interesting. I hadn’t known that was a policy.  But there seem to be a lot of airline policies, so it’s not a shocker that there would be one for this.

I made myself stay awake until we landed.  Groggily, I deplane with my hand luggage, get my passport stamped and find the nearest coffee spot. I order “cafe com laite” (coffee with milk), pronouncing it incorrectly, but getting the right result.

On the way out, I stopped by the tourist information center at the airport to ask about taking a taxi to the hotel.  They told me that the fares are by zone and gave me the option of pre-paying the taxi for 21 euro, which is the maximum fare for the zone to central Lisbon.  Figuring I would take my chances, I opted to see what the meter would show and jumped in a cab.  Unfortunately, I forgot to watch the meter.  The driver took the scenic route and asked for 22 euro. I offered 21 and he took it.  (The following day Iris took at cab who charged her 13 euro, and when we took a taxi back to the airport it was only 8).  So, to those of you planning a visit to Lisbon, just watch the meter.

I check into Hotel Lisboa and learn the room is immediately available.  Fantastic!  The hotel is modern, clean, and well equipped.  The room is good-sized and has that quirky european electricity control thing that requires you to put your key in a slot on the wall in order to turn on the lights.  I first saw this in Barcelona and didn’t figure it out until I talked with the front desk.  But now I’ve mastered it, and it actually helps me keep track of my key. Bonus.

Figuring I could get a lay of the land before Iris arrived, I get a map from the front desk and decided to explore.  I window-shop my way down Avenida Liberdad, the Portuguese version of the Champs-Elysses, walk through Rossio Square, and wander through some side streets that led to the waterfront.

Lisbon in late spring smells like men’s cologne.  Multi-story flats stacked side by side line the winding streets.  Many of them have stunning hand-painted tiles across their fronts, and the penthouse level of every one had a deck full of beautiful flowers.  The sidewalks are made from small square stones placed in mosaic fashion and make a fluid pattern.  This day, lots of people were out walking and eating ice cream.  Contrasting this idyllic picture was a significant amount of grafitti and missing stones in the sidewalks. But somehow that just made the city friendlier and more approachable.

From the waterfront, I hike up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a castle built by the Moors in the 11th century which offers the best views of Lisbon.  On the way, I meet a kind Lisboan who showed me around the castle grounds and the way back to Rossio Square.  While chatting, I learn that unemployment levels are very high and that the city does not have the funds to keep the sidewalks in top condition.  I assume that this went for the grafitti as well.

After stopping for a few provisions, I leave my volunteer tour guide and head back to the hotel.  From my room I could hear shouting, chanting and blowing horns.  I couldn’t resist – I went out to investigate and stumbled upon a protest.  Thousands of people were marching down Avenida Liberdad with banners and signs and chanting slogans.  From what I could tell, they were protesting a little bit of everything – wages, women’s rights – all mainly against the government.  It was the first time I’ve attended a protest in a foreign country.  This day was unfolding in an unusual way.

At this point, I was getting pretty hungry, so I walked to Adego de Arturo for dinner.  The restaurant was traditional to Lisbon, with both outdoor and indoor seating.  They had an adorable faux-brick bar, flanked by arched recessed shelves filled with bottles of Portuguese wine.  I ordered a glass of red wine and looked at the menu.  The waiter brought over some bread, butter, cheeses and olives. This was typical – at every restaurant, the wait staff will bring appetizers to the table.  If you eat any of it, you are charged for it (usually 1-2 euro for bread and butter).  If you don’t eat it, they just take it away when they bring your food.  I sampled the serra, a soft cheese with a sharp aftertaste, with freshly baked cracked wheat bread.  For dinner, I tried Balcalhau a Braz, salted cod mixed with scrambled eggs and hash brown style potatoes with parsley sprinkled on top.  It was delicious.  For dessert, I had abacaxci (pineapple) soaked in port.

The sun was beginning to set when I traipsed back to the hotel, exhausted and full. I turned on the TV and watched the annual EuroVision song contest.  I fell asleep to people crooning in foreign languages.

I woke up and quickly jumped out of bed, realizing that Iris should be arriving at any moment.  In fact, I heard a car door slam, looked out the window, and saw that her cab had arrived.  I raced out the door to run downstairs and give her a hug.

And thus began the real vacation.

And the realization that, while it’s perhaps best to be prepared with a tour book, or map, or arrive the full two hours in advance of a flight, life can still be amazing and fun when left to chance.

 

The visit from sleeping beauty

– from the archives – written while living in Paris –

Honest to God, I’ve never watched someone sleep so much in my life.  My friend Iris is here in Paris, all the way from Las Vegas, which has a 9 hour time difference.  I should have been tipped off to her exhaustion when she walked into my apartment and asked, “Where is the bedroom?”

Evidently I have a 200 square foot apartment, and not the promised 600 square foot apartment.  I was never good at geometry. Or geography.  I’m pretty terrible at anything that starts with “geo”.  But I’m really good with a clock.

So here is our schedule so far this week:

Saturday night: Iris falls asleep at 9:30.  (In her defense she had been up for 36 hours).
Sunday afternoon: Iris wakes up after a 14-hour snooze.
Sunday afternoon (later): Iris falls asleep at the movies. (In her defense, it was rainy and cold that day, and the movie theater was dark)
Sunday evening: After being awake for almost 8 hours, she heads to bed.
Monday afternoon: After just sleeping 12 hours, she groans and wonders whether I could bring her some tea. (I do). I’m thinking it’s a little extreme to sleep so much, but also that she’s making up for all the lost hours and still adjusting to the time zone.
Monday evening: Iris is revved up in Montmartre, drinking champagne and coffee.  She wants to walk home after dinner with some friends.  I start thinking “okay, good, she’s adjusted to the time zone now”.  She makes plans to do a day trip to Versailles.  I’ve got a meeting and can’t go along.
Tuesday morning:  I wake up early, expecting Iris will soon follow.  9am: She stirs. I open the shades. 10am: She rolls over. I turn on the TV. 11am: I hear a sigh. I turn on the lights. Noon: She gets up, after a restful 12 hour nap, and tells me she feels awake for the first time since she’s been here.  I roll my eyes and make her tea.
Tuesday night:  We decided to go home early.  Iris’ recollection is that it was rainy and cold.  (Seriously, it’s Paris, it’s almost always rainy and a bit cold, so she’s probably right).  Along the way, she theorizes that now we’ll able to get up early and do some touring in Paris.  I suggest we go out for breakfast and grab croissants.  She suggests that I go get them and bring them back.  I counter with a different idea.  There is a little cafe near my place that has a great ambience and tons of cute bankers that stop for breakfast before work, and I’ve always wanted to go.  She agrees and we decide to wake up early.
Wednesday morning:  One of us wakes up early (me, obviously).  Iris gets up to get some water around 8:30 and mumbles “What time is it? Oh, it’s so early, I’m going to go back to sleep”.  9am, 10am, 11am… 11:30am…I wake her up and tell her she’s slept another 12 hours.
“We missed the bankers at breakfast”, she says.
“Yep”. I reply.
“Well,” she ponders “maybe we can catch them at lunch”.

And that’s how this week has been going.🙂

Post-script:

Just wanted to provide an update that Iris did wake up, and once she woke up there was no stopping her!

We found time to drink champagne on the top floor of Printemps department store, to drink champagne at Le Meurice hotel for Thanksgiving with friends Nicole and Bristol, and to drink champagne during a river cruise down the Seine.

Of course, it’s easy to find time to drink champagne.

Believe it or not, we managed to fit in some actual activities – a museum, a church, a graveyard, a trip to the Hammam, dinners out, a jazz club… lots of stuff!

Her secret was coffee. 🙂

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