6 Months

ImageWe’ve been back from Europe for 6 months.  We moved back to NYC in August and hit the ground running.  Keogh started a new school, Wren started with the first of what has turned into 3 babysitters (it isn’t her they tell me).  And Jib and I started commuting back to Princeton during the week.  We hit the road 1 – 2 days per week, depending on the schedule.  And I am traveling for business approximately every other month.  All in all a workable schedule.

 

And everything, always, without fail, looks good on paper.  Leaving Europe was so bitter sweet that it actually hurt.  Half of me wanted to keep our simple life with our tiny apartment, the daily trips to the grocery, the biking everywhere, the kind friends and the beer!  And the other half was thrilled to get back to NYC and our families.  I’m not sure this feeling will ever change.  If only the planet were a little bit smaller.  So it has been a transition.  To put it nicely it has been a process.  To put it bluntly moving sucks.  Even when you are moving back to a place you love and to a neighborhood you know very well.  There is a canyon of difference between knowing your neighborhood and knowing your neighbors.  Apparently, after living in apartments for more than 20 years, our number came up and we now live above very difficult people.  And never ever allow a hurricane to strike in the middle of all this.  I didn’t know about disallowing hurricanes so in October when one hit I was really pushed over the edge.  

 

Hurricane Sandy destroyed our neighborhood.  Here is what we have right now.  Very few residential buildings have come back on line.  Even fewer restaurants or shops have been able to reopen.  Pretty much everything within 2 blocks is gone.  We pay thousands of dollars in rent every month for the privilege of living among, well, living among very little.  Our tiny building was reopened two weeks after the storm after much scrambling and quick renovating.  This only worked because we have no elevator and no basement.  Unfortunately our warm oasis draws the mice like flies.  And speaking of mice we have downstairs neighbors who bang on the ceiling, apparently to tell us to shut the hell up, even when the only noise happening is from the mice running around.  Seriously they recently “sent us a message” when we are all in bed and one of the kids on the floor above us happened to be having a melt down.  I’ve even been “sent a message” when I was ironing one night after 10 PM.  Yes, our neighbors have the hearing of aliens without the human radar.

 

All of this will be worked out in time, we know.  In the mean time we have decided to commit to a new-to-our-family tradition.  We will begin celebrating a Friday night family and friend gathering effective immediately.  We plan to have an electronic/screen-no-go zone in our apartment, meaning no screens of any kind from 5 PM until Saturday morning.  We also plan to invite at least one loud and heavy-footed guest per week.  In addition we will just go ahead and leave a cheese stick right out in the open for the mice.  A bit of an apology for the ever expanding surface areas covered in sticky boards.      

 

All this to say we plan to create more time, more moments, more laughs and more meals with all the folks we love.  Friday here we come!  

FUN Stuff . . .

Last night Jib and I watched the EuroCup semi-final between Italy and Germany at our favorite restaurant in the Beligian Quarter of Cologne, Ouzeria.  For the 15 people on the planet who don’t know yet, Germany lost.  We were heart broken, along with the 99.9% of the rest of Germany.  I’m pretty sure that I haven’t watched a Super Bowl in five or more years, but something about this European football thing grabs my heart and soul.  What can I say?  I’m now a football fan.  The funny make-up, the jerseys, the chanting, the kolsch!  It is just fun.  And we got to reminiscing about some other fun moments.  Check it out . . .

Day 3 or 4 in Cologne . . . the sign says it all!

Mini-train rides at the park with loved ones!

Our Sunday tradition, perfect French Toast prepared by Daddy. (Yes, that is our entire kitchen setup!)

Halloween at the Cologne Zoo with Lenny!

VIsits with Bebby (aka Debora). She is our Cologne babysitter and Wren’s most favorite play dough chef. We LOVE Bebby!

Keogh and Richard! Fantastic mentor and good friend to the entire Best family.

Castles and torture devices, with a side of waffles – Excellent!

Keogh’s kindergarten . . . Pillepup! A wonderful key to his successful German adventure. The staff, the friends, the fun furniture – all good!!!

Ahmad & Wrenny-Maus . . . EhrenKitz, Wren’s Tages-Familie. Her and our DREAM caregivers. We are trying to get them to move to New York.

And I could go on and on.  There have been so many wonderful moments and new connections here.  A sample will have to do for now!  What I really love about this little walk down memory lane is that so much of the good stuff has been simple.  Sandboxes, playgrounds, walks, time with friends, and laughter!  Memories need not be dramatic.  Indeed the intensely fun and personal moments make for such a beautiful little history.

Rhein River Contemplation

I am sitting at the Rhein River this morning.  Here is my view:

Rhein River Contemplation

 

I would sincerely like to say that I have done this dozens of times since living in Germany.  But that isn’t true.  This is the VERY FIRST time that I have just come to the river to sit and contemplate, alone.  I planned my whole year to be one long contemplation!  Nonetheless I have spent countless hours taking care of Keogh and Wren, food shopping, checking emails, responding to and creating my own business responsibilities, talking on the phone, going to the post office, etc.  You see living in Europe is 99% like living in the US.  Its just that that 1% is one wild, adventurous, cool, exhausting and expanding ride.  Like today, sitting at the Rhein in Germany!  And writing, just sitting and writing.  This would be an expanding part.

 

Doing things like food shopping and going to the post office have their own element of adventure.  I mean postal employees all over the world have the same code of behavior that entails only providing information one knows enough to ask for.  And asking for postal information in German is a minefield of possibly incorrect (in)formalities, horrible grammar and painful pronunciations.  But it is incredibly satisfying when I get the information I was looking for.  Same goes for food shopping.  I mean how many Americans could ask for Agave at their local Rewe (think Associated, ShopRite, Stop n’ Shop, etc.)?  Now do it with a 22 month old single handedly dismantling the produce section and a 5 year old so intensely “reading” his comic book that he is walking out the front door of the grocery, into traffic, and not hearing his MaMa calling his name.  Pretty impressive that I get anything understood, right?

Wren jumping in a fountain while friends and lunch await us. Yes, she got soaked and no I didn’t have a change of clothes.

 

Keogh caught in his own moment of contemplation. The kid is deep. And handsome too, right?

And today I’m alone at the Rhein.  The weather is perfect.  A bicycle cab just rode by with a blissful bride and groom.  A couple is fighting down the bench from me.  I have head phones on but I can tell.  Folks are roller blading, jogging and riding bikes.  I’m sitting on what was once a dock and is now a leisure promenade.  I’m just north of the “crane” buildings.  Three buildings built in L-shapes suggesting large shipping cranes that overlook the river.  I love them.  The couple just kissed and made up.  Life is good.

Crane Buildings

 

The wheels are turning.  The water is pleasantly rippling by.  And my mind is working.  I sold a business about 18 months ago.  A business that my Mom and then me owned for nearly 25 years.  I spent my entire professional career growing that company.  And today I find myself reflecting on the fact that it is no longer mine.  That is not to say I wasn’t ready to let it go.  I was ready.  And I am not feeling regret.  What I am realizing is that my brain is fast while my heart slow.  Understanding and feeling are two totally different things.  I learned so much at that company about myself, my family, running a business, managing and leading people.  I made so many many mistakes.  And I had many many victories.  There are countless memories.  The many young women who bought homes because of their employment with my company.  A woman, then a young 40 something fairly newly employed with the company, who came to me in tears with her first paycheck as a stylist because it was the most she had ever earned in one check in her entire life.  The immigrant woman who came to the US with exactly $118 in her very thin pocket and five years later gave me a ride in her wildly expensive brand new car.  The young woman who would literally pass out when she had to speak in public and now presents (really she informs, teaches, and entertains these days!) to dozens of people.  And the countless men and women who grew and became more than they ever dreamed because of this little company.  Now don’t get me wrong there were plenty of haters and drop-outs and plain old bad shit that went on.  And the net outcome – I am sitting in Europe, writing a blog entry at the Rhein, raising a family and thinking about all the good things I’ve been a part of.  I am living a dream.  Perhaps it was all worth it?

Hair Timeline

Nothing like hair length, hairline, hair color, just hair (or no hair) to give one a sense of a year passing.  I recently reconnected with two friends (Chris & Greg) from a very long time ago.  Indeed we had not seen each other in 27 years.  There are some things that I write and I think, no, that cannot be correct.  27 years as a last reference is one of those things.  This is because I believe that I am still 29 years old.  I thought this would change to like 37 when I turned 40, but no, I still think of myself as 29.  Needless to say the last time I saw these friends I was not 2 years old, so my personal utopian age perception was rocked to it’s core.  The one thing that duly killed my personal lie was the length of Greg’s hair!  The last time I saw him he had a classic young guy’s haircut.  And this time he had a pony tail as thick as my calf with length that fell somewhere around his mid back.  One does not grow hair like that at a quick pace.  This hair took time and patience and more time.  Maybe it didn’t take 27 years, but I bet it took starting and stopping and deciding and recommitting.  All that easily takes 27 years.  I’ve been known to quote the “Numbers don’t lie.” line.  What I should be saying is that ‘Hair doesn’t lie!’  Even the best hairdresser knows that time will always tell.

Keogh started our Euro-Adventure with a buzz cut.  Wren started as a bald diva.  10 months later . . .

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Us

Our year here in Europe is beginning to wrap up.  And another adventure will soon begin for us back in NYC.  Cologne is truly a small gem of a city.  Our life here is simple.  And I have learned that there is a great deal to be said for simple.  So as we begin to think about returning to the US I am aiming to keep it simple.  I will try to focus on thinking clearly, keeping my heart in a place of love, and my body in place of health.   Because this time with my family has given me many many many reasons to do so.

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Home Away From Home

Just this week the New York Times highlighted Cologne, Germany in it’s Travel section in  the 36 hour column.  Our little city was in the spot light!  We actually live in the section that the article refers to as E-Feld.  We found this new reference funny and we’ve adopted it with a half joking and half proud manner.  We figured we would love our little neighborhood, but we had no idea how cool we’d be by living here!  Check out the article here.

Some or our personal E-Feld photos:

E-Feld doorway.

View down E-Feld's now world famous Kornerstrasse (our street).

Broken Ankle

The weather for the last 4 months or so has been rainy and/or sun-less about 85% of the time.  It actually didn’t bum us out as badly as we thought it might.  Indeed, it made the week the weather changed feel like we won the lottery.  This change finally came last week.  It was an absolutely perfect spring day.  Birds singing, flowers blooming, and people smiling for no good reason.  Indeed the sun was so alluring that Jib crossed the street during his run to catch the rays directly on his face.  This might also explain why the tree that uses it’s roots to ripple the sidewalk on that side of the street is so big and mighty.  The sun!  Alas, the bump in the walk caused Jib to turn his ankle at a very ugly angle and he went down.  Hard.  The ankle was broken.

Off we ventured to the private clinic with the deluxe coffee machine and windowed patient areas overlooking a lovely park.  We’ve learned that private insurance in Germany is actually quite something.  MRI, X-ray, PT, massage therapist, surgeon, orthopedist, cafe, pharmacy, whatever you can think of is housed in one beautiful 8 story building thankfully minutes from our home.  Indeed the radiology results showed up on the doc’s desktop long before we could get the elevator from level 2 to 3.  Turns out that a person really does feel much better in a gorgeous space with kind and highly qualified professionals looking after his medical need. So all was well and good in medical paradise.  Then reality set in.  We don’t drive here.  We live in a 4th floor walk-up.  There is no grocery delivery service.  We only own single kid bike seats, no child wagon.  A person cannot carry anything that won’t fit in his mouth while using two crutches and putting zero weight on one foot.  Even a tiny apartment feels like an abyss when the cell rings and it isn’t in reaching distance to the patient.  A deep European bath tub shower cannot be navigated on one foot.  I could go on.

And then the foot began to swell.  A lot.  So the doctor put Jib to bed and told him to elevate.  Here is the email that he sent to his colleagues:

The good news is that the break seems to be healing fine.  The bad news is that I am having pretty major swelling issues.  Even I could not send a picture of my foot in its current state.  The image of a slightly deflated football will suffice.  Spent the morning at the doctors and was told that I MUST keep my foot above my heart for the next week.  I think now would be a good time for everyone to try and work for 20 minutes with one foot at (or ideally above) heart level.  It will soon become clear that while this may offer certain comedic opportunities (for example, I can use my mouse with my nose at the moment) it is neither practical nor comfortable in the slightest.  I will also understand if you forgo the experiment and simply take my word for it – it sucks. This to say that I will be less available than usual for the rest of the week.  I do plan on being at my computer every hour or so to check email because I don’t think there is any way I can remain in bed all day.  I will talk to most of you tomorrow at the staff meeting if my foot is small enough to fit out the bedroom door.

As you can see he is keeping his humor.  Me?  Oh I am on a short fuse going nowhere good.  I regroup about 14 times a day.   I am sincerely thankful that it isn’t worse.  And it is hard.

Nothing wrong that a little pizza can't help.

Not Dirty

Cologne is a city of around 1 million.  I’ve been here for 6 months now.  I have seen exactly ONE mouse.  I have not seen any rats or roaches.  I lived in NY for nearly 15 years and not a day went by that I didn’t see a rat or a roach at least once.  In my first apartment I unfortunately saw roaches in extremely unpleasant places like my bathroom.  I only once saw a rat indoors. It nearly ran over Jib’s face in a movie theatre.  His head was leaning on the wall, he was asleep (yep, during the moving) until he was awakened by the scratching of claw sound vibrating along the curtain covered wall and the world cup wave of folks standing and screaming as the rodent quickly and safely sprinted it’s way to freedom in balcony seating.  (For the record you will never under any circumstances find Jib against a wall in a dark public space.)

Anyway – no rats and no roaches in my neck of Cologne.  And outside of cigarette butts I have yet to see even one person randomly drop trash anywhere outside.  I have noticed an avalanche of beer bottles.  And sometimes in the public parks the garbage bins get to be overflowing.  I mean it isn’t perfect.  But the lack of pests intrigued me.  So I decided to undertake a little garbage removal research.

Here is what I learned:

Refuse is a sacred medium here.  Everything has it’s place and do not under any circumstances screw with the system.  Do not put your bins out on Tuesday if they are stamped for Wednesday.  And by the way YOU, simple resident, do not put your bins out.  The refuse professionals enter both public and private buildings and place the bins neatly in front of the buildings.  Here is how it works.  On our street, two guys in florescent orange jump suits, work ahead of the truck.  The truck is managed by a driver and at least two other dudes.  The forward team prepare all the bins for pull up by the truck.  The driver is like the best big machine operator you’ve ever seen in your life.  And the back field team get the bins hooked up and turned around at the truck in the most efficient modern dance move you can imagine.  Then the forward team sweeps through again and get this PUTS THE BINS BACK!   The forward team also carry pick up sticks with little grabbers on the ends so that they can busy themselves with random refuse while waiting for the truck to catch up.  These professionals often smile at my children and pleasantly say things like “Guten Tag!” or “Einen schonen Tag noch!”  or “Guten Morgen!”.  No miserable staring or rude body language.  This is not to say they are overly friendly or some sort of super skilled social miracle.  All I’m saying is that the garbage is gone with a smile and professional undertaking that is impressive.  Don’t know where the garbage goes to, but that is research best left for another post.

Cologne has it’s fare share of graffiti and other issues but I do find it nearly spotless in the rodent and refuse areas.  This may also have to do with the intensively competitive and effective dumpster diving that goes on.  Do not, under any circumstances, leave your bedside lamp on the sidewalk.  The maximum amount of time you have to retrieve it is 35 seconds.  So my completely unscientific observations continue.  From choreographed garbage collection to Olympic level sidewalk pickers somehow it all works together to make for one very tidy little city.

5 Things about German Language Class

The intensive language class started the second week of October.  The class began with me, Pablo and Carlos.  Pablo is from Spain.  Carlos is from Cuba.  Pablo spoke a little english and Carlos spoke none.  Instead he wore these pants:

Pablo came to Germany to find work.  His career path is in the restaurant business.  His best days were when we talked about food.  He also did well at the restaurant role play.

Later Angie from Morocco joined my class.  And then I moved into a class with four young women.  My last group totally excelled and made me feel like a loser because they remembered all the crap that I kept forgetting.

1.  German is hard.

Germans who find out that I’m studying German shake their head and sigh because there is absolutely no way as adults that they would want to learn all the crazy articles and masculine, feminine or neutral identifications.  So I began realizing that it may be impossible for me to learn German.  I will admit that I thought I’d have a basic working knowledge after a few months of immersion.  I was naive.  I liked it that way.  Reality is a bummer sometimes.

2. Learning German is fun.

I will never know German.  I get frustrated and I feel very dumb sometimes.  But really, it’s just fun to learn something new.  I never imagined myself back in a classroom, listening to presentations, accepting handouts, and doing homework again.  And liking it.  So reality is also excellent sometimes.

3. Teachers really do make all the difference.

I recently read a research summary about education by Eric A. Hanushek orginally published in Education Week (April 6, 2011).  His research shows that a good teacher can dramatically improve a student’s performance.  And from my little perspective of the world – he is more than right.  My teachers were very good.  They improved my performance and earned my audience.  So even knowing that I will never actually learn German I still want to attend.  Insula Language School for Deutch and Spanish (www.insulakoeln.com) rocks.

4.  Valleys, Mountains, Canyons and Peaks

I’m a happy learner.  I’m smart and I’m focused.  I’m on time and aside from the zillion times my babysitter gets sick I’m always present.  And just like back in college, this isn’t so for everyone.  Not everyone is happy, most people are late and there are vast differences in people’s abilities.  This is a private school (read it costs money) and still people consistently show up late, get distracted or otherwise become unengaged.  And they PAY for it.  I’ve begun to deeply understand that learning is an ever changing landscape, and different for everyone.

5. Quitting

I quit German class.  One day Jonathan looked at me and said, “What the hell Sash, you don’t have to get a 4.0.”  I was fitting a 30+ hour commitment into my week and becoming so focused on that I stopped having fun in most other areas of my life.  Then I began working on a project for a real job and decided to train for a half marathon.  Now I realize I will never, ever, really learn German.  But I will love being in Germany.  I will do good work.  And I’ll be more fit than I’ve been in a very long time.  Oh and I had time to go to Paris!  Sometimes quitting is ok.

Sasha @ the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Beate Brownfield.

My Brother Taught Me About Risk

I think a lot about how I became an entrepreneur.  I didn’t create a small business in high school.  I don’t believe I ever ran a lemonade stand.  And I’m sure I didn’t consciously decide to become an entrepreneur.  Nonetheless an entrepreneur I am.  And the toughest part of my job is the risk factor.  It touches every conceivable area of an organization and I have gotten insanely good at tolerating and managing risk.

My knack for risk started a long time ago.  It began around the time I became conscious of “other”.  I recently learned that this happens around age 5 or 6.  That is when I knew something was different.  I understood that my brother was not like other brothers.  I later labeled this “developmentally disabled”.  I came up with my own label because no doctor back in the 70’s could explain what was up with my brother.

Stacy is stuck.  Developmentally he moves between the ages of 8 and 14.  He can read, but he doesn’t comprehend much.  He can drive anything with 4 wheels, but he can’t navigate a map.  He can fill out a credit card application, but he can’t understand that he has to pay for what he charges.   He is the most egocentric being I have ever known.  Living with Stacy has always been risky.

When we were kids I had piggy bank.  He broke into it and stole the money on a regular basis.  He loved to take things apart and he rarely put things back together correctly.  This led to many near death situations for us.  Bike wheels flew off mid trek.  Tire swings gave out just as a little girl caught air at the very top of a swing.  Etc.  Life with Stacy taught me about risk.

Some stuff I learned:

1. Stacy is wired differently.  The most micro slip of the genetic wand makes a whole hell of a difference.  Genetics are risky.

2. Stacy (and I) survived childhood.  Bad stuff happened.  Be ready, be calm, just don’t be too disappointed.

3. It is really very very difficult to start a fire against a suburban evergreen tree.  Stacy tried many times.  It helps me to know that although bad stuff happens, it’s actually rather difficult to make seriously bad stuff happen.

4. Will, single minded focus, bordering on obsession will take you far.  My brother can’t really kick a ball (poor motor skill coordination), his reading comprehension is minimal (he takes tests orally), and he believes that a gas tank measuring half full means it is empty.  And yet he has a commercial drivers license.  He can literally drive anything.  It’s risky, he doesn’t necessarily drive in a straight line or follow a speed limit and he can’t pay his own car insurance.  But to him the risk was zero.  He wanted to drive.  He drove.

5. Stacy can talk about himself in literally endless circles of what amounts to absolute nonsense to me.   It’s quite easy to love someone you don’t like very much.  It isn’t risky to love.  It is risky to live with someone day to day.  The mundane is riddled with peril and opportunity.

I need all of these lessons to be an entrepreneur.  Collectively the smallest decisions can ruin a business, bad stuff happens regularly, seriously bad stuff doesn’t happen regularly, conscious design is the most powerful and risky leadership tool I’ll ever have, and it is okay to dislike some aspects of one’s organization but you can’t skip the easy part – you have to love it.  And when you stop loving it, the risk goes up exponentially.

Stacy is currently on what I call a bad run.  He co-signed a significant loan for his girlfriend, he opened up at least 6 new credit card accounts and he has allowed a total stranger to move into his home.  He has managed to put himself at risk in just about every area of his life in less time than it takes to write a business plan.  And the lesson today?  Risk is relative, personal and managed well can produce great reward (love, cool new gadgets, new friends who take care of your animals while your away).  Being an entrepreneur is low risk.  Being a sister, well that is one of life’s ultimate risks.

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