As we celebrate 16 years of marriage today, I consider a few of our turning points, the mindset that motivated them and some of the emerging lessons that guided us to the next step.
Sweet 16, of a total of 19 years that we’ve been together. (Yikes! Has it really been that long?!)
For me, anniversaries serve as prompts — cues to consider where we are, what brought us to this moment, where we aim to go.
As I look back and unpack a bit of our joint travel and life history, I’m drawn to a few key inflection points that, in the moment or in retrospect, marked the arc of our lives bending together. I think not only of the place or context, but also to my frame of mind at these intersections and ask: “What motivated that decision? How did that take us to the next stage?”
This is another way of answering the oft-asked: “How did you build your crazy life…as a couple?”
Truth is, the travel bug predates our latest journeys and the blog, and goes right to the beginning — to a chance encounter, to an unlikely confluence. It’s not always in a relationship that both people have the urge to travel to the extent we each did. Nor is there always in a relationship an implicit, shared understanding about what one another wishes to get out of life, and give back to the world.
My experience tells me that sometimes it’s there, in seed or in blossom, and sometimes it grows over time.
When I consider the signposts of our lives from the last 16 years, where we took a turn here or there, I find something else: I am grateful for what I have and realize how privileged we are to have had the choices we had. And, to have made some of the unorthodox decisions we did.
Deliberate decisions, yes, yet inadvertently laying down the tracks of an unconventional life story. No matter how our decisions might appear on the surface, they were never particularly easy — especially in the moment. I suppose if you wish to lead an adventurous life, in part or in whole, that’s what you do. You sometimes do what’s not easy and you eat the fear.
In partnership with The Ritz-Carlton we share six moments or inflection points, and how each built on the other to create the relationship and the life we share together today – not only with each other, but also with the world.
1. Chance: Northern California, Where it All Began
How did we meet? Completely by chance, on a driveway in Monterey, California. As much as we’d like to credit ourselves for all the bounty in life, we must give a nod to the role chance has played.
Our simple beginning and its limitations laid the groundwork. Time was short. When Dan and I met, I knew I would leave the country nine months later for the Peace Corps and a 27-month stint in Estonia.
Circumstances forced us to an awareness that moments are one-time, you grab them while you can.
During the weekends that followed, we jumped out of an airplane at over 15,000 feet, hiked together in Yosemite, and earned our scuba diving certifications in the uncomfortably cold waters of Monterey Bay. As we commuted between San Francisco and Monterey on weekends, we used the time to explore locally, as well as up and down the coast — drinks in Carmel, picnics in the Presidio, drives along Pebble Beach, oysters on the coast, wine tasting in Sonoma.
We squeezed every ounce of experience out of that time together. This was how we — and our approach to life — came into sharper view in those early days.
People often talk of really enjoying life in their Golden Years, as time slips by. Circumstances then forced us to an awareness, though, that moments are one-time. You grab them while you can. You appreciate them as they come.
2. Persistence: Norway, An Engagement That Almost Wasn’t…Three Times
It’s always good to have a backup plan. Or two. Or maybe even three.
That’s how we ended up on a 4,500-km road trip to the tippy-top of Norway way above the Arctic Circle, searching for the Arctic Sea. This was, I might add, after two failed proposal attempts, five boats, three flat tires, a few naked men, some drunk Swedes, and swarms of super-sized Finnish swamp mosquitos.
I should also note that I had absolutely no idea what was going on during all of this. I just thought Dan possessed a bucket list-like desire to see the Arctic Sea. I was game to join the crusade.
It was only when we finally reached a fishing village at the water’s edge — where, amidst the rocks Dan got down on one knee, ring in hand — that I began to wake up to what had been going on. But I was still a bit slow on the uptake; I just thought we were on another adventure.
“Are you serious?” I responded to his question.
Then I saw his face, white as a sheet.
Sometimes you must keep searching, going — even if it means driving to the ends of the earth — until you find just the right place to fit your occasion. And failure is sometimes worn down by the repeated attempt. If at first you don’t succeed, try again, if only for the story.
3. Adventure: Pienza, A Tuscan Wedding
Prior to even imagining a wedding, we’d had it in our minds to backpack around Europe for four or five months after I completed my Peace Corps service in Estonia.
Neither of us wanted a big, traditional American-style wedding so an idea emerged: why not get married in Europe along the way?
So, Italy – and Tuscany specifically — seemed to be a perfect match for what was important to us: a gorgeous, engaging destination; beautiful and romantic turns coursing with remarkable food and wine. Even if absolutely everything went wrong logistically, as it would sometimes feel along the way, we figured that Italy in all its charms would somehow save the day. (Spoiler: it did.)
…that’s how life stories are built. They are not assembled by the finely tuned itinerary, the perfect anything. They are defined by the messes along the way, the joy amidst the storm…
We alerted our family and close friends of our plans and advised them: “take a vacation in Italy, and stop by our wedding along the way.”
After backpacking our way through Eastern Europe, we landed in the Val D’Orcia region of Tuscany in late September. We made heaps of changes last minute to wedding plans and accommodation, but our ceremony did indeed take place in Pienza as planned.
It was all wickedly romantic. Unpredictable, too. But that’s how life stories are built. They are not assembled by the finely tuned itinerary, the perfect anything. They are defined by the messes along the way, the joy amidst the storm, and made better by the perspective and knowledge in the moment that a hash of plans and unexpected turns are what constitute life as we know it.
I won’t claim to have been entirely Zen-like in the moment. But there was a part of me – Dan, too – that said, even as the first batch of DIY wedding flowers were discovered to be Italian funeral flowers by the agriturismo owner’s wife who promptly threw them in the trash, “This is the way it’s supposed to work out.”
Full of turns, memorable, different.
And when we – and our guests – think back on this experience, it’s all the messy stuff, most of which was unplanned and unexpected and overturned, that we remember and still laugh about most.
4. Exploration: Prague, Living and Working Abroad…Together
The pre-wedding backpacking trip around Europe planted the seed of yet another idea: move to Europe sometime before the end of the following year. I had been fortunate to live abroad several times in my life, but for Dan this would be a first.
And we would set off together this time.
Looking back, our instincts were way ahead of their time, and at a moment when figuring life plans seemed more back of the napkin kind of stuff, rather than available in an ebook or online course.
You can’t explore the new without separating yourself from the old. You can’t grab hold of the unfamiliar with both hands, until you’ve freed them from the familiar.
After I finished graduate school we embarked on what we now refer to as a “research trip” –- an on-the-ground tour of seven selected cities (Prague, Czech Republic; Bratislava, Slovakia; Budapest, Hungary, Vilnius, Lithuania; Krakow, Poland; Zagreb, Croatia; and Ljubljana, Slovenia) that we’d visited as tourists, but now would consider as prospective residents. We considered factors such as job opportunities, visas, cost of living, and more.
The choice was difficult, but in the end it was clear: Prague. We returned to San Francisco, sold our cars and downsized to a few boxes. Just before Christmas, we arrived in the Czech Republic on a stunningly cold winter day with three bags each, no jobs and the slight inkling that we’d done something unhinged.
Our friends and family thought we were nuts, the Czechs we met thought so, too. “Why would you leave a perfectly good set of circumstances to come here?” was the reasonable essence of their query.
Our answer? Because that’s what curiosity compels you to do. For me, this behavior is the embodiment of exploration. You can’t explore the new without separating yourself from the old. You can’t grab hold of the unfamiliar with both hands until you’ve freed them from the familiar.
Admiring Prague Castle from the edge of the Charles Bridge, we would often ask each other in disbelief: “Can you believe we actually live here?”
Within a few months of our move to Prague, we both found jobs and created full lives there, professionally and personally. Instead of staying for two years as originally planned, we lived there for five.
But the curiosity itch surfaced, this time to explore the rest of the world on a creative sabbatical. And we decided it must be scratched.
5. Inspiration: Thailand, A First Stop on our Round-the-World Journey
With the digital nomad world as fully developed as it is these days, there’s a part of me that feels slightly cliché by saying that Thailand started it all.
But, Thailand pretty much started it all.
The inspiration for our round-the-world journey and creative sabbatical began there about two years prior to our departure from Prague. Not only did this first trip to Asia together introduce us to street food eating in Bangkok and a thoroughly relaxing and rejuvenating beach on the island of Koh Pha Ngan, but it illuminated how we could make long-term travel a reality. A $10 per night bungalow and $1-2 street food meals delivered a joy and satisfaction that opened our eyes that we could make our dream of traveling around the world a real possibility.
Neither of us wanted to look back in 10 or 20 years on this decision point with regret.
We found ways to adjust our spending habits in order to save money. The goal: to travel the world together for 12-18 months and develop skills that could transition us each into new or expanded professions, and into the next stage of our lives together.
But, it’s one thing to talk about something and another to actually do it. We asked: “What if we put this off? What if we don’t do this?” Neither of us wanted to look back in 10 or 20 years on this decision point with regret.
And so in December 2006, two years after our first fateful Thailand trip, we handed in our resignation letters, sold everything — save a few items to cram into our backpacks — and departed with two one-way tickets to Bangkok.
A few days after landing, we found ourselves in the same $10 bungalow right on Haad Yao beach, Koh Pha Ngan that started it all. We had done it.
At that time we had no idea what might happen or how our careers might be affected by taking this break. What we did know is that even if things didn’t work out quite as we’d expected, we wouldn’t look back at our decision regretfully.
During that time in Thailand, we picked up our first freelance writing work. The idea of extending our journey into new and expanded professions and lifestyle was born.
6. Balance: Berlin, Our Current Base To Explore the World
After nearly seven years of a nomadic life, we’d made a decision to shift again and signed for a flat in Berlin and pursued residency in Germany.
This may sound like an easy shift, but let me tell you that change – whether it points in the direction towards or away from the “norm” – can actually be quite difficult.
Although we could have continued our previous nomadic lifestyle — flush with its captivating continual movement, refreshing uncertainty and seeming glamour — we’d felt a bit Energizer Bunny-ish. You know, the one who keeps going and going, without reflection on where he’s going and why he might be doing it. Not only did we require some stability — if only a reliable place to process our travels and what they taught us — but we were also missing a community, in the flesh, in our lives.
The question we’re often asked: why Berlin?
The simple answer is: we enjoy it. Berlin had drawn us long before we decided to make it our base. If you’ve ever visited, you’ll know that Berlin features a certain vibe or atmosphere – at once entrepreneurial, creative, energetic, irreverent.
Although we still have the travel bug and a persistent curiosity itch for discovery, new destinations, and continual learning, Berlin grounds us in a way that allows us the space, time and distance to better process it all and to properly unpack each trip and experience. Each time we return, we also look forward to the descent into a place at once more familiar yet never fully explored, into a place where we’ll spend time catching up with friends and with ourselves. Together, this enables us to explore other professional challenges and projects — all while knowing that the rest of the world is accessible, ready for our exploration.
This is our current balance, and it is a good place to be. During our time in Berlin, we’ve expanded our capabilities as thinkers, writers, speakers, and consultants, and among the self-appointed stewards of the mindful and the “travel as a force for good” in the world.
And so, when The Ritz-Carlton, Berlin kindly offered to host us for a few cocktails to celebrate our 16th wedding anniversary, we used the occasion not only to take stock, but to reflect on what brought us to this point and to imagine what will take us forward.
As broadly as our first steps around the world may have opened our minds, we now feel an even wider appreciation both of what we’ve accomplished as well as what remains. In a moment of honesty, I can also tell you that when I consider our mission and the cascading decisions that lie ahead, I’m both apprehensive and exhilarated.
But this is — has been, will be — the essence of life.
Arnd, the lead mixologist and designer of this concept, created a special cocktail for me based on the perfume I was wearing at the time (reminds me of Paris). Remarkable.