Urban Hiking – Day 1.5

It’s been over two years since Day 1 of my “Urban Hiking” series. I had thought it would become more of a normal thing. Now that I’ve completed half what was supposed to be day two, I have realized why there haven’t been more of these. I just hate playing tourist. Even toting my camera around this city elicited the feeling of being a parasite on this beautiful city.

So here’s what I have. It was a few hours worth of walking. I got some of the obligatory shots, but I couldn’t bring myself to pay for a ticket up the damn tower.

 

The past couple weeks

It’s now been two proper work weeks since I hit a new low, and I’m happy to say that the bounce back has been exceptional. This past week, I have gotten motivated by 6 am every morning and completed a solid workout each day. Though I sample different cafes every day, I’ve gotten in the habit of knocking out my writing quota before noon when I run back home to take the dog for a walk. The writing has been generally successful. Though I backed off my quota to only 1,000 words, I have hit that quota every day (except yesterday; I cut it short to prep for a phone interview) and often exceeded it by several hundred words. I’m rebuilding my good habits, and it feels amazing.

However, it didn’t come without a little help. Last week, Sam, the owner of the dog that I’ve been looking after for the past few weeks, returned from her vacation with the two friends who had traveled with her, Colline and Christy. Our first real meeting was at a fancy (but reasonably priced) traditional restaurant in downtown Krakow. There aren’t many cultures whose traditional dishes do not include meat, so my options were limited. Our host ordered a handful of dishes for all of us to share and courteously made sure to pick a couple meatless dishes. However, the appetizer was a giant pot of pig fat to spread on white bread. Already starving, I swiped a slice of bread and started munching.

But plain white bread just isn’t particularly satisfying, and hey, it’s a traditional dish. I had to at least try it. Reaching my knife across Christie’s plate to the overfilled bowl, I slipped out a sliver of the fat and mashed into a corner of my bread. It was surprisingly pleasant; it was basically bacon with a leanness of about 4%. The other diners went slowly on the bread, knowing that more massive plates of food were on their way, so I snagged another piece and munched it hungrily while wishing I had some peanut butter. But my deception did not go unnoticed.

“So are you vegetarian or not?” Colline asked from across the table. “How can you be a vegetarian and eat pig fat?” She stared sharply, unflinchingly, judging my inconsistency, calling my bluff.

“He didn’t. He’s just been eating the bread,” Sam tried to defend me, not having seen my theft of the knifeful of fat.

Colline didn’t buy it. She just stared knowingly.

I looked away, embarrassed. “You’re right. I’ve been absolutely terrible about it lately. Thank you for holding me accountable,” I accepted defeat as honorably as I could.

And at that moment, Colline earned my highest respect. Speaking up at that moment was not socially acceptable, it wasn’t congenial, and it certainly wasn’t nice. But it was exactly what I needed to hear. She’s a woman who asks tough questions, and apparently, it doesn’t go over well with everyone, but it’s a trait I’m actually trying to cultivate in myself. Over the course of the week, I faced a lot of these questions, and they shined a light on a broad swathe of things that I need to think more deeply about.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is my own character. There was a poster in my high school that read something along the lines of, “Reputation is what you do when people are looking; character is what you do when they’re not.” I’ve tried to convince myself that I don’t care what other people think of me, so my character is really the only thing that matters.

I realized last week that there is a kind of life that I like to lead. It may not be a life that will make me “successful”. It isn’t what people have told me I should do. It earns me the respect of many, but it also drives some people crazy. But it’s a life that I enjoy leading, a life of purpose, of worthwhile labor, continual self-improvement. There is no end goal, but only a process. Anyone who has read any of the self-help tomes that fly off the shelves or listened to any motivational speaker will have heard that chasing goal after goal is an endless rat race with no cheese at the end. I do have goals, but I recognize that getting to the goal isn’t the point. It’s the process of moving toward the goal that I enjoy. It’s a game like any other. You don’t run out onto a football field to get to the final whistle as quickly as possible. It’s the 90 minutes in between that draws you out there and the feeling of having done your best that lingers even after the match.

This past week has been a wonderful reintroduction to that feeling. Pursuing my goals of writing and fitness have rejuvenated that passion for improvement. I’m over halfway through my time in Poland, so I’m glad I’ve reached this point now. This was exactly the post-master’s break I needed.

I’ll try to keep up with posts, but I’m spending most of my writing energy on the book and on job hunting. Tomorrow I’m going to try to get my camera out. It’s been wrapped up in my room since I arrived. And I’ll try to keep sharing once I leave, but I’ll be sending home basically everything I can (including my computer and camera) because there will probably be a significant amount of trekking, camping, and hitchhiking as I work my way across Europe and back to the US over the next six weeks.

Thanks for reading.

Nihilism

I was sitting on a bench in the park – a very nice thing to do – but I had some things that I wanted to accomplish. We have all wrestled with that lack of motivation to break out of a comfortable position to go do something slightly less pleasant, but my to do list wasn’t exactly demanding. I just wanted to review some Polish vocabulary and stop at the grocery store before going home. It should have been pretty simple, but I couldn’t make myself do it. It wasn’t the first time that my body wouldn’t respond to what I thought I was willing it to do. For the past few weeks, basically since I finished my thesis, I’ve been struggling mightily with mustering the motivation to do just about anything. I literally said it out loud: “Ok, I’m getting up…. now” and nothing happened. I just sat there, sometimes in a catatonic state, staring off into space like a lobotomy victim. Sometimes, this is a very relaxing state, but when I don’t feel like I’ve chosen to enter into it, it’s rather unsettling.

Several times over the last few weeks, my rational mind would decide to do something, and then the rest of my brain would just give my prefrontal cortex the finger and do exactly the opposite. Or in the case of what happened yesterday, just nothing.

I had sat down on the bench to continue reading Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek, in which he lays out a bunch of steps to help people design an ideal lifestyle. I actually really like a lot of his tips. I was trying to work through an exercise he calls “dreamlining” in which you’re supposed to outline a bunch of things you want to have, do, and become over the next 6-12 months, a pretty solid exercise for someone just about to jump into the job market and start a new life.

But I couldn’t come up with anything. I just didn’t give a shit. There was nothing I really wanted to have, do, or become. I was fine just existing. The end state of this whole quest for enlightenment or adherence to stoic values or whatever you want to call it is to accept what we have, want what we have, and be happy with our situation. So why should I pursue anything? Ferriss opens the book with a story of this multimillionaire and all his uber-rich friends who have everything a person could want but are totally miserable. So why should I pursue any of it? Why not just prolong the feeling of comfort as long as possible, and then when I’m forced to move, just accept my new situation and readjust?

And thus, I learned what nihilism feels like. So I turned the whole exercise around (I think Ferriss suggests this at some point in the book), and I decided to think about things that I DON’T want to have, do, or become. Of course, the mental exercise went equally nowhere. So, I took the advice of a close friend seriously: sometimes we have to hit a low to remind us of what we’re actually doing. I’ve already learned my lesson with alcohol (it’s been six days now since a pretty rough night, and the thought of alcohol still makes me a little nauseous), so went after everything else, especially my eternal vice: food.

On the way home, I decided to start with a big one for me: meat. Although I’ve eaten plenty of meat recently, it’s all been leftovers. I haven’t bought meat in quite a while. But I went full awkward and bought myself a nasty kebab roll at some overcrowded joint in the mall. I didn’t even try to order it in Polish; I was just the typical ignorant and hungry American tourist. While eating, I plugged in my headphones and remained in a state of multitask overload with cynical political commentary podcasts in my ears and mindless flipping through articles on my screen. After finishing the completely unsatisfying meat wrap, I had a few minutes before my train left, so I grabbed a hot dog for the ride. When I got home, I went to the store to dig up whatever junk I haven’t touched in months. I even made a trip to KFC for a box of wings and stopped off for an ice cream cone on the way back.

For the last 24 hours, I have done everything wrong. (well, damn near everything; I didn’t let the dog die). I just tossed my clothes on the floor haphazardly, allowed a pile of dishes to stack up in the sink, stayed up late watching movies after eating a frozen pizza and drinking half a liter of Coke, slept in, went to McDonald’s for breakfast, just threw my quarter-full paper cup of stale coffee on the ground on my way to get a Subway sandwich for brunch and picked up a chocolate chip cookie, a bag of Lays, and an energy drink on the way. I slouched all day, didn’t exercise, avoided as much human contact as possible, and I puked my guts out because my body had forgotten how to digest sausage (now thinking about it; it’s a miracle I could ever eat that garbage).

And all the while, I had my journal open on my desk with the headline “Things I hate about the ‘EASY’ life”. “Easy” being the undisciplined, reactive, and self-indulgent life controlled by the Sisyphean pursuit of dopamine hits. By the end of my experiment early this afternoon, I had twenty things on there about who I don’t want to be. Some examples:

1. Being monolingual.

2. Being impulsive and emotional

5. Being fat and weak.

7. Being immobilized by anxiety.

10. Being lonely.

13. Hearing about extremely successful people and accepting I can never be one of them.

15. Not being able to find my clothes. 

20. Feeling sick and tired because my diet is akin to fueling a jet engine with crude oil.

The past day has been the logical extreme of what would happen if I were to let my standards slip, and the person I was yesterday is someone whom I never ever EVER want to take even a step on the path toward becoming.

I know that the things I’m proud of – my ability to focus, my ability to learn, my physical fitness, my social aptitude, my reliability; all of which depend upon my discipline – take constant practice, and even these aspects of who I am are still far from where I want them to be.

Even before my 24 hours was up, I was totally cured of my inability to act. As soon as I decided I was going to get up and do something, I did it. When the time was up, I gave myself a five-second countdown and immediately got my act together, cleaned the apartment, got outside, and got productive. Physically, I’m still recovering from the gastrointestinal abuse (and an illness, which is mostly gone), but I think I’m back on track. I will spend much of the rest of the evening laying out some positive character traits that I’m working to cultivate, but I now have an excessively clear picture of whom I don’t want to be. And without an externally mandated assignment, that is exactly the fire I need to have under my ass.

That night in Bergen

A post that I had jotted in my journal while in Bergen. Despite the anxiety, the view made the night worth every slowly passing hour of the storm.


 

When I awoke, the wind had picked up and night had fallen. The unexpected darkness startled me, and the whipping of the tent flap jolted me awake. I sat up as high as my low tent would allow and tried to look at the anchors holding the delicate shelter up. I couldn’t see much, but it didn’t seem to be blowing away. The extended flap that formed a small stoop for my boots outside the inner net shuddered in violent convulsions under the spell of the mountain wind.

I unzipped the mesh and reached my bare hand out into the cold – a stinging contrast to the muggy sleeping bag – to pull on the tab where the stake held the rain sheet down. It was solidly taught, and the next point near my feet appeared fixed as well. My nerves calmed slightly, but the atmosphere was decidedly less comfortable than the lingering daylight and lightly pattering drizzle under which I had fallen asleep.

It had now turned into a proper rain. The flapping of the tent had not given me much pause while the prolonged dusk illuminated my cramped dwelling, but the change in lighting made me, for the first time today, truly uncomfortable. I checked my watch. It was just past 2 am. I had been lying there for eight hours, but I’d only gotten a few hours of sleep.

Looking around the tent, still illuminated under the gray sky covering the city at the bottom of the mountain, I realized that I was in no condition to respond to any crisis should my shelter decide to give in to the persistent winds. My clothes were strewn about, waiting to be soaked through if a flap of the tent were suddenly to pull away from the soggy soil.

For a few moments, I laid immobile, wishing I could fall back to sleep and wait out the storm in blissful unconsciousness only to awake to a cloudless morning. But my reason burst my bubble of pollyannish dreaming. I knew that the rains would continue well in the morning, and if the wind continued to batter this little tent, I ought to have a fighting chance at putting it back together without ruining what few small comforts I had left.

Pulling myself up to my elbows, I started gathering the clothes I had changed out of. If the tent gave in, I didn’t want to be in my warm, dry, woolen sleeping clothes. As I contemplated exactly how I would manage the costume changes, a bodily awareness struck me. My stomach growled from the prolonged undernourishment, exacerbated by the full day of humping my heavy pack over hill and dale in my vain attempt to escape civilization. Accepting my body’s protestation that I would want to have a bit of fuel should I need to react, I dug out the giant slice of dry, seedy bread wrapped in a plastic bag.

Pulling the slice only an inch from the bag so as not to drop crumbs in my open sleeping bag, I tried to eat slowly and enjoy one of the last bits of food I had. The crust was dry and crumbly, but the sunflower seeds baked into it still crunched with a delicious toasty flavor. I munched unhurriedly, but without pause. Though I wanted to enjoy the small meal, every gust that pulled at the tent flaps could be the one to ruin my day.

Once I had slowly chewed the last bit and picked out all the sunflower seeds that had fallen into the bag, I crumpled it and stuffed it away to protect some other belonging later.

Finding my compression shorts that I had worn during my climb, I unzipped my sleeping bag and started to pull off my pants with grunting contortions. I removed them successfully and worked quickly to get on the next pair. The cold and damp air that drifted in wrapped my bare legs in a chilling embrace that shook my remnant of sleep. Twisting and rolling as much as I could in the space that didn’t even allow me to stand on all fours, I laboriously pulled on leggings, utility pants, rain pants, a base shirt, a technical shirt, and finally my coat.

Ready again to face the outside, I rolled and stowed the clothes I had just changed out of into their respective plastic bags. I stuffed them into my pack, which had already gotten damp from my movements in the tent that had pushed it out from under the fly sheet. It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do. I gathered up the remainder of items that had become strewn around the tent. As I inventoried everything, I planned an emergency evacuation and realized I was missing my mittens. Digging around the edges of the tent, I found one. It was a little damp but ok. The other eluded me until I dug behind my pack, precisely where a puddle had formed. It was soaked through with freezing rain water. I tossed it to a dry part of the tent in frustration, but there was little I could do to dry it in the situation at hand.

With my bag packed with all but my sleeping bag and mat, it seemed I was ready as I could be for a cave in. The strengthening gusts made me nervous, but all I could do was hope that my work in driving the stakes and the craftsmanship of tent’s designers and creators would suffice.

I zipped myself back into my sleeping bag, laid my head down, and hoped. I hoped the fatal gust wouldn’t come, but I waited for it in nervous expectation.