Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How Vas the Vod-Ka?

This is a re-post from about a year ago, with a few minor updates. I've been thinking about Austria lately, and this is one of my favorite memories. And, I'm so thrilled for the upcoming Winter Olympics, I can hardly stand it ... so there's a bit of Olympic trivia at the end of the post. Enjoy! :-)

One of my favorite memories of my exchange student days in Austria involved a trip to Innsbruck, Austria.

Admittedly, I’d label the majority of Austrian towns as ‘gorgeous and amazing’, but - oh my - is Innsbruck ever cool. It’s situated right in the midst of the Austrian Alps, which makes for great hiking, especially when you’ve been blessed with stunningly beautiful weather.

We visited the Alpenzoo first. Situated 727 meters above sea level and nestled into the mountain, it is the highest zoo in the world. And, as its name would indicate, it is home to animals that originate from the alpine region, showing them in their natural habitat. The Alpenzoo, in and of itself, could be considered a hike for many.

After visiting the zoo, our group split into two and my dear friend, Rachel, and I decided to hike up into the Alps. It was my absolute favorite day in Europe … exhilarating and incredibly beautiful.

Halfway up the mountain, we were joined by Marco from Germany. We had no clue who he was, but he stayed with us for the remainder of the hike. He seemed nice enough, as did all our fellow-hikers that day. I guess back then crazy stalkers weren’t as prevalent on our minds. I’m still quite certain he was a bit enamored with Rachel!

We made it above the tree line and, after a few moments of sitting and taking in the beautiful view and brilliant blue sky, decided to commence the joint-pounding trek down the mountain!

Towards the end of our descent, we passed another hiker who was headed up the mountain. As he passed, he greeted us and asked, “How vas the vodka?”

You know how you respond when you don’t really know what someone has said, but you still want to reply in a friendly and jovial way? You kind of do a hearty laugh and throw your head back like you ‘get’ the joke or the funny comment even though you haven’t a clue as to what they actually said?

That’s what we did. And, I think we added something like, “Gut … sehr gut!”

We giggled as we tried to figure out what had possessed him to ask us about vodka. I mean, we knew these particular hills were alive with music, but not vodka-drinking hikers.

It wasn’t until a few laughter-filled minutes later, that it dawned on us what he had really asked.

“How was the walk up?”

To this day, Rachel and I still laugh about that story. And, it just goes to show that the hills are alive … with music, yes … but also with fresh air, exhilarating views, and very friendly German-speaking hikers. No vodka required.


Now for the trivia! Just so you can impress your friends and family with your vast knowledge of international Olympic trivia, here are a few interesting tidbits about Innsbruck:

  • The Olympic Winter Games were held in Innsbruck twice, first in 1964, then again in 1976. The 1976 Winter Olympics were the last games held in the German-speaking Alps (Austria, Germany, or Switzerland).
  • Along with St. Moritz (Switzerland) and Lake Placid, NY, Innsbruck is one of only three places which have hosted the Winter Games twice. (It also hosted the 1984 and 1988 Winter Paralympics.)
  • And … this excited me quite a lot … on December 12, 2008, Innsbruck was chosen as host of the first-ever Winter Youth Olympic Games to be held from January 13 to January 22, 2012.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When God Closes a Door ...

It was a very cold, snowy night in December. Our gas-powered fire was pretend-crackling and I had a million things to do before Christmas arrived. I was quickly flipping through the television channels in search of something entertaining to keep me awake while I accomplished my never-ending list of “to-do’s”.

I found "The Sound of Music" and was hopelessly drawn in. I got very little done for the rest of the evening, and went to bed way past the time I had hoped for.

Sure, I've seen it a dozen, maybe more, times (though never from start to finish). Yes, I know the story, but certain details sometimes need refreshing. Yes, the song lyrics have long been ingrained in my brain. Nevertheless, I still had to watch it.

Maybe because it is such a gentle, hopeful movie about the love of family, standing up for what you believe, and holding on to the hope that "when the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window..". But, I think it's also because it reminds me of my time as an exchange student in Austria, including a funny little incident involving a certain gazebo in Salzburg.

We traveled to Salzburg in November. My most vivid memory is that of hillsides crowded with trees in every shade of autumn you could possibly imagine, against a brilliant, clear-blue sky. It was like walking into a painting. It was gorgeous.

I also remember our long and comical search for the famed gazebo from 'The Sound of Music'. Just when we were about to give up looking, we found it. Locked! Hours of walking, and it was locked. I could see inside, but it wasn't the same. I wanted to be inside where they had filmed that touching scene between Maria and Captain von Trapp.

So, I did what any reasonable college student would do. I started pulling and yanking on the door. Not that I thought I would get in ... my roommate and I were laughing to the point of tears when she took this picture.

Nonetheless, I still do believe that when God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window ... just not the one to 'The Sound of Music' gazebo.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Success Redefined

My steps were finally coming a bit easier as my feet rhythmically pounded the old cobblestone streets of North Tacoma. Distractions were – thankfully – abundant, as I passed beautifully-restored historic homes; well-manicured gardens; and the towering trees that stood like sentinels along the street.

My first time running ten miles in one outing was going surprisingly well (I attempted to ignore the fact that I was only 1/3 of the way into the run!). My breathing was steady as I wound my way through the neighborhoods of North Tacoma, heading downhill to Ruston Way. There, one of my favorite diversions – expansive bodies of water – would come in the form of Commencement Bay. I would worry about getting back up the hill when the time came. For now, I was reveling in the fact that I was running rather effortlessly.

Months before, I had walked out of a meeting with The Leukemia Society’s (now The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society) Team in Training, excited and anxious that I had just committed to not only running a marathon, but raising money for this remarkable organization as well.

Raising the money twisted my stomach more than the thought of training for and running the marathon. So, I did what all good sisters do … immediately called my sister to rope her into signing up as well. Misery loves company, right?

“Heidi,” I started, “I have a proposition for you.”

“What,” she said as a skeptical statement rather than a question.

She thought I was going to ask her to go skydiving, so – initially – raising thousands of dollars and running a marathon felt like a more sane alternative. She agreed to join me.

Our final destination would be The Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska, a race that takes place each June.

Shortly after committing to the marathon, an unexpected opportunity arose and I accepted a position with a company in Seattle, leaving behind an organization I had considered home since college. For six weeks, I spent the early morning and late evening hours commuting from Tacoma. Weekends were spent looking for a place to call home in Seattle. Marathon training was squeezed into the brief moments in between.

The donations that had come so abundantly at the beginning of my fundraising effort, began to taper. At the ‘go/no-go’ point, I was still over a thousand dollars away from my goal. I decided to continue, which committed me to either raising the remainder of funds or paying them myself prior to the deadline. My sister had raised a bit less, and was not able to commit to going forward. My heart sunk with the news that she would not be accompanying me to Alaska.

After moving to Seattle, I had only three weeks to focus on training and a stunningly beautiful place to do it. Alki Beach became my training ground, and the crisp, blue waters and sweeping views of the Puget Sound were not only a beautiful distraction, but calmed my growing nerves.

Likely the result of a somewhat haphazard training schedule over the recent months, knees that had never known pain now strained with every bend. At one point, my joints rebelled in such a way that – after bending to open a lower filing cabinet drawer – I could not return to a standing position without physically pulling myself up.

One week before boarding the plane, exhaustion, then aching, settled into my body. As the week progressed, a fever and racking cough joined the unwelcome party. Two days prior to take-off, a doctor told me I had bronchitis, then gave me two simple orders: Do not get on a plane; and do not run a marathon. He solidifed those orders with a threat of pneumonia if I did not comply.

I returned home where the tears were inescapable. This was not the ending I had imagined or the outcome toward which I had labored. As the tears blurred my vision and overflowed onto my cheeks, I dialed my mother’s number. It was clear, from my barely audible voice, that I was both sick and upset. I had failed on multiple counts. As mothers do so well, she suggested otherwise. It took me some time, though, to arrive at the same conclusion.

It is true that my desire to challenge myself physically and mentally had triggered this marathon-running endeavor in the beginning. What continually emboldened me, however, was that I was doing it to raise money for the Leukemia Society. The individuals they serve tolerate excruciating treatments in order to heal; and, if they could endure that, then I could go outside, in the dark and the rain, and run.

I had envisioned handing over the entire sum to which I had committed to The Leukemia Society. In the end, I was not able to raise the full amount required by the organization. I came close. I raised far more money than I could have ever donated personally in such a short period of time. Those funds would do great things.

I had envisioned crossing the finish line in Alaska. In the end, I did not run a marathon. But, I had learned my limits, including that of knees that would need to be rehabbed and treated with much more respect than I had given them in the past. I had affirmed my love of exercise and how physically and mentally strong it made me feel. And, I had challenged and pushed my body further than ever before.

I had not failed. Success simply looked different from the picture I had originally envisioned.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Generation Gap

We had just purchased our beloved morning mochas and lattes at a local coffee shop in the small, coastal town of Manzanita. My husband and kids were waiting outside, as my dear friend and I exited the building, steaming drinks in hand. We were chatting as I held open the door for both of us, then quickly glanced behind me to see if anyone else was coming before letting the door close.

Just as my hand let go, I noticed a man – possibly in his late 70s or early 80s – walking up the ramp to the door. I grabbed the door to re-open it, saying to him in a cheery tone, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you coming!”

He smiled in a peculiar way and shared a hearty “Thank You”, as we exchanged responsibility for holding the door open. But, he didn’t proceed through into the warm coffee shop.

He turned to me, as he was still holding the door wide open, and said, “You know, I really appreciate you opening the door for me. Not many people from your generation do that anymore. It’s terrible … “ and then, still holding the door open, he launched into a speech about his experiences with people - apparently from my generation - who had failed to impress him in the ways of manners and etiquette.

I stood, smiling and nodding. And, then watched as – halfway through his diatribe – he let go of the door without looking … just as my friend’s husband was walking through the open door, hands and arms piled full with his drink, his son’s drink, and a coat. He quickly caught the door with his elbow before his piping hot coffee became a part of his wardrobe.

The man – still ranting about the lack of manners belonging to us Generation Xers (if that’s the generation he pegged me for) – was completely oblivious to what he had just done.

My husband, friend, and I – all having heard the rant – fought to keep our laughter at the irony of it all at bay until the man was in the building, and we were alone outside.

I’m inclined to be of the opinion that a lack of manners does not necessarily ‘belong’ to a certain generation. I’ve witnessed politeness and courteousness, or a lack thereof, across all age groups. I’ve observed 5-year olds holding the door open for those coming behind them; 65-year olds doing the opposite; and vice versa.

My very unscientific conclusion is that manners maybe have less to do with the generation you happen to be born into, and more to do with what you have been taught by example, what you have observed, and trying to be aware of and involved in your surroundings.

So, I will continue sharing a friendly smile, and maybe a ‘hello’, with passersby, waving a ‘thank you’ to those who stop their car to let me cross the street, and holding the door open for those coming behind me. And, I’ll expect my children to do the same on behalf of Generation Z.

Photo: October Sunset in Manzanita