Incredible Slow Motion Footage of a Large Hummingbird Charm

There are moments that we come upon while traveling that enchant us. They are the milliseconds that blend with minutes to leave us lost outside of time enraptured and mesmerized by the beauty of whatever the experience is we’ve stumbled upon. At times these stem from people, culture, food and music but I find more often than not they come from nature.  The hour or so I spent watching a massive charm of hummingbirds in southwestern Colorado about 30 miles outside of Dolores falls into this category.

In the following footage you’ll find several species of humming birds, captured at 240 FPS and recorded in slow motion. The roughly two minutes of real-time footage becomes 13 attention-stealing minutes of incredible sounds and sights as the hummingbirds sing to each other, spar, and feed.  The first few seconds are in regular speed to give you a frame of reference … enjoy!

To see more footage from my Colorado trip head to my YouTube channel and don’t forget to subscribe!

Footage was shot using a selfie stick and iPhone 6 at close range. Slight color enhancement was applied. Filmed just before dusk in mid-summer.

You Will Never Make Friends Sitting In A Dark Room By Yourself

Women Relaxing - Copenhagen, Denmark

It has been 22 months since I arrived at Copenhagen Airport lugging three over-sized suitcases and a backpack.  I arrived in Denmark with lots of assumptions and unknowns and very little concrete data.  The sum of my previous exposure to Denmark stemmed from meeting Danes abroad, reading about a quirky Utopian liberal paradise in the frozen north, and two glorious summer days spent in Denmark the year before. At the time I didn’t know the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic, though I had mastered the fact that Danes spoke Danish, Germans were Deutsche and the Dutch were from Holland.   I assumed that Copenhagen’s “difficult” housing market meant I’d have to look at 5 or 6 places and it might take a week to find somewhere – not that I’d spend four months searching, having to interview like I was applying for a job, to get a room. I also traded an extensive local social network in Arizona for Denmark, where I knew virtually no one.  When I arrived I intended to stay for two years, but told myself that if I didn’t like it or couldn’t cut it there would be no shame in packing my bags and heading back to the US where I had a deferred acceptance to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. waiting for me.

I remember the moment when I walked out of the airport, fighting with my bags, in search of a luggage locker to store two of the larger ones.  It felt like I’d just been smacked in the face with a fresh fish.  In part because of the light Danish rain that was falling, but mostly because that’s when it finally registered completely that I had conquered my fears, bypassed the temptation to self-sabotage myself, chosen a direction, closed my eyes and jumped…to a totally different continent.  It hit me then, completely, that I was now responsible for building the next stage of my life.  A two-year period, assuming I didn’t blow it, that would require me to re-orient myself from the corporate lifestyle I had grown accustomed to in favor of the lifestyle of a student.  That I would need to not only adjust to student life, but Danish student life, and the life of an expat. It was an incredible feeling…but it was also a fantastic amount of pressure. There was the pressure not to fail myself, my family, my friends, or my future.  It weighed on my mind heavily over the first few months as I fretted over how I would perform as a Danish MA student. I paused to ask myself if I was doing all I could to help myself succeed while doing a periodic gut-check to see if I was suffering from homesickness. To the first – I could have done more, but did well.  To the second – to this day I’ve never had a bad case of homesickness.

Spring in the Mirror

The First Few Months

The first few months were not easy. The Dorm offer I received from the University of Copenhagen’s affiliated housing program was dreadful: situated 40 minutes outside of town in a deeply residential area that was predominantly home  to other International Students. I refused it and casually searched for a more centralized housing option.  For the first month I had a place to stay because of an incredible referral that was a text-book illustration of Danish hospitality, and the power of my international social network. I looked for apartments but still didn’t completely understand how the Danish rental market worked. I resisted getting into a housing agreement because my Visa and Residence Permit was still being processed in what dragged along for a vexing and gut-knotting four plus month ordeal.  After a month staying with my first friend, he now had new renters moving in. He referred me to a friend of his who put me up for another two months.  I had arrived at the end of July. By late October my residence permit finally came through. Shortly thereafter I thought I’d found a place, only to find out six days in that my 42-year-old male roommate not only found me very attractive but was also extremely odd. It was very uncomfortable, but makes for a comical story. I moved out on the morning of the 7th day. When I told him that morning he cried. After a third month back with the friend who had been putting me up, I finally got frustrated by the apartment hunt and offered 200DK a month more than the asking price for a room. It worked. By December I had a furnished room at a reasonable price in an excellent location.  With a permanent address and my Visa/Residence Card, I was able to get my CPR number which is effectively the Danish version of a Drivers License and Social Security Card all rolled into one.  It meant I could finally register for a cellphone plan, get internet, and a bank account. In short, I could begin to settle.

The combination of visa and housing woes were partially compounded by a strange first semester as I re-integrated into the academic world. I can’t say that I felt like I was homeless for the majority of my first semester in Denmark, as that isn’t accurate, but I was in a transient state. It made settling nearly impossible and sucked up a lot of the energy I would have otherwise liked to have invested in meeting people and really hitting the ground running. Luckily my classmates were fantastic and we bonded quickly which did a lot to help offset the periods of fairly deep loneliness I felt during my first couple of months. This was a time where I worked to push my comfort zone and struggled to re-develop the skills needed to meet strangers and befriend them. During that time I grew a lot, despite it being fairly difficult and at times uncomfortable.  I would go to the local hostel bar and hangout with travelers, go to the movies alone, and at times head to the bars alone and force myself to meet random people. It worked, but was hard and draining. It was also made even more difficult by my lack of regular access to a Danish cell phone and the internet.  Things I needed a CPR for.

YGWA Conference 2013


During that first semester I participated in the Full Degree Mentor program.  My mentor was a Danish girl who introduced me to a local library where I could write my papers, talked with me about Danish lifestyle, and helped translate apartment listings and websites when I ran into issues. She was super busy but always available and helpful.  In retrospect I should have reached out to her far more often and felt less guilty about asking for general help and insights into social activities. At the time I felt somewhat awkward about being overly needy and like I didn’t want to bother her or intrude.  Over this past semester I had the chance to pay-it-forward and serve as a mentor for several incoming students. Now that I’ve spent time on the other side of the equation, I realize that I could have and should have gotten significantly more out of my mentor/mentee relationship – not because she failed me, but because I failed to realize the potential of the program. At the time I had trouble accepting that it was completely OK to ask simple questions and that as mentors we are not only there to help with small and big things alike, but also eager.   To make introductions, to facilitate meeting people, and to connect for coffee or social outings. At a certain level the mentor is often available and doesn’t know what you want or need help with until you ask.  To that end, what I got out of the mentor program was directly related to what I showed I needed.  I’m independent and self-directed. In this case, that go-it-alone approach undermined my success.  I’m a bit jealous of new students entering into the program because the mentor program is being significantly expanded and improved upon.  It will provide a lot of additional social and academic support – things that the early incarnation of the program lacked two years ago.  The new program also provides a lot of events which allow students to meet each other and connect – something that would have been an incredible asset for me when I was first adjusting to Copenhagen but which was lacking. I think these changes will make future Full Degree students’ experiences much smoother and significantly less stressful.

In tandem I also signed up for a professional mentor matching program which was run by the University of Copenhagen and operated university-wide.  The lion’s share of the programs were for Danes, but I made sure to dress in my suit and attended the information day.  The combination of my professional appearance and previous work experience as Research Director in the M&A industry led the Siemens representative to give me her e-mail and ask for my resume. I followed up, and based on her suggestion, listed Siemens as one of the three companies I applied for with a professional mentor.  Despite my inability to speak Danish, they chose to make an exception. I was later matched with their Communications Director in what has been a wonderful mentor/mentee relationship providing fantastic insights into the Danish workplace and professional landscape. Even though the program ended late last year we have continued to keep in touch.

The Hill - Copenhagen, Denmark

The Education

Earlier I mentioned that my first semester was strange.  In truth, I was terrified that the Danish University system would be brutally difficult.  That, despite graduating from Arizona State University’s Honors College and a solid academic background, I would be generally outclassed by my classmates – the best and brightest from everywhere from Denmark to China to Germany. What I found instead was a comfortable program that was still young and experiencing significant growing pains.  Created two years before as a new initiative, the program was full of challenges.  Challenges that were compounded by a number of significant administrative issues, including having one of our professors deported to Australia two weeks before our final exam was due.  These flaws generally impacted class morale across the program and left many of us frustrated.  The upside was that the Danish system is heavily paper oriented with the primary method of examination in most of my classes consisting of either a final 20-25 page research paper, or 10-15 page paper with a 30 minute oral defense.  The remainder of our course work was relatively easy to handle and played to my strengths.  As a native English speaker, I also enjoyed the advantage of writing in my mother tongue. Beyond that though, I realized why American universities, despite their many faults, are some of the best in the world. They prepared me, and drilled into me habits and protocols which have allowed me to excel within the Danish academic environment.  Where I initially thought that the program itself was  easy, I’ve come to realize that it was actually quite difficult by traditional standards. It played perfectly to my strengths, abilities and existing knowledge base.

Now that I better understand the Danish academic landscape, I’ve come to realize just how varied the different programs and universities are. Where I initially thought that the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) was a subset within the University of Copenhagen (KU) just as the W.P. Carey School of Business is a college within Arizona State University, I now know that the two operate independently but still maintain the opportunity to take transferable courses.  I now also know that CBS tends to be very practically oriented while KU tends to be much more heavily focused on a theoretical and academic approach to a university education.  Both contrast against Roskilde University’s heavily humanistic approach, and differ from the Danish Technical University’s (DTU) hard science and math-based approach. If I had taken more time to learn about the different universities and had better understood the differences early on, I believe I would have been much better positioned to custom-craft my education and take full advantage of the highly flexible nature of the Danish university system.

Another key consideration that I wish I had known from the start is the difference in definitions and organizational structure. While the Danish University system is deceptively similar in many ways to the American university, there are basic differences in how material is classified and what material falls under what category.  When I applied for the Communication and Cognition program, I anticipated that the communication component would build heavily upon my bachelors degree which was focused in Human Communication with Mass Communication influences as well as some Journalism cross-over.  What I found instead was a program that was more heavily oriented towards communication theory and communication philosophy with an even greater emphasis on cognitive philosophy and cognitive theory mixed in with lightweight neuroscience.  Programs that I initially assumed would have fallen organically under the Communication category within my program were instead set up independently as different departments such as Film Studies, Media Studies, Rhetoric, IT and Cognition.  While not directly related to my studies, a poignant example of this is the difference between University of Copenhagen’s Theology Department and Religionsvidenskab or Religious Studies Lab and other specialized programs such as Arab Studies in the Cross Cultural and Regional studies program which are spread across three very different study areas.  An international looking to study religion and religion(s) might assume Theology would be the obvious landing place for them, but would quickly discover a program structured and designed for the education of Christian Clergy. These subtle organizational differences were deeply confusing initially.  Ultimately, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration, and misplaced discontent, if I had realized the need to do less narrow research and to take into consideration that these structural and definitional differences might exist.

One final academic takeaway is the difference between ECTS points, the Danish 7 point grade scale and their American alternatives.  While the US operates on a credit hour-based system with the average bachelors degree semester consisting of around 15 credit hours at 3 to 4 credit hours per course, the Danish system utilizes ECTS points which roughly equate to expected time investment for a given course.  At KU my courses have mostly fallen into a 7.5 or 15 ECTS point category depending on anticipated scope and involvement with a typical semester ECTS load of 30 ECTS (equiv. to 30 hours of work per week) viewed as normal and on track.    While somewhat difficult to translate across, the ECTS system is relatively straight forward and used across Europe.

On the other hand the Danish 7 point grade scale is an absolute disaster.  The Danish grading scale was re-structured several years ago in a process similar to the US’s switch to the + or – A, B, C, D, E/F system.  The Danish switch was made in an effort to simplify the old 13 point system while creating a new system that better translated to international systems such as the US’s.  In addition to widespread confusion about the new scale, it is extremely counter-intuitive.  While called the new 7 step scale, it actually ranges from -3 to 12.  To further muck things up the scale has gaps and the 7 steps are actually 12, 10, 7, 4, 02, 00, -3.  The scale officially translates differently to the ECTS based scale and the US grade scale.  This wouldn’t be an issue, except that there is massive confusion over what quality of work a 7, 10 and 12 equates to.  Danish transcripts utilize the ECTS conversion which maps a 12 to an A, a 10 to a B, and a 7 to a C.  The way the Danish professors grade, however, translates more accurately to the US version which maps a 12 to an A+ (near perfect/perfect), 10 to an A and A-, and a 7 to a B or B+.  Meanwhile at the bottom of the passing scale a 02 or “adequate” grade awarded in Denmark registers as an E on the ECTS scale (and the official transcripts) which signifies a fail or incomplete in the U.S. system. This despite a 02 actually reflecting a D, D+ or C- by US standards.  Given that most international employers and Universities aren’t regularly exposed to Danes and the Danish education system, I feel that this is likely a significant source of mis-communication.  I know that within our department, at least, it is only now after two years within the system that I’ve started to fully understand it.

The Largest Tuborg in Copenhagen

Social Reflections

A lot of people fail at prolonged study abroad/exchange/expat life. Ultimately, one of the primary reasons is an inability to successfully socialize and adapt to their new living place.  This post is titled, “You Will Never Make Friends Sitting In a Dark Room By Yourself” because at the end of the day the benefits from study abroad are more experiential than academic.  The lion’s share of the experience, the learning, and the incredible moments I’ve had over the past 22 months comes from hands-on learning and growth.  It has been a wonderful learning opportunity  for me and a time for fantastic introspection and self development. I would have missed out on the vast majority of that if I confined myself exclusively to my studies and severely limited my social involvement or confined it solely to expats.

It took me about 8 months to start to feel settled. The first three months were the hardest and it progressively got easier from there.  BUT, those first three months would have been significantly better had I socialized differently.  In many ways, outside of networking and socializing with the people from my program (about 90% of which were international students) most of my interactions with other people were 1-offs. The common advice given to most new arrivals is to join an association or to pick up a sport.  I find watching sports to be painfully boring and outside of ballroom and salsa dancing, have a general dislike for playing most sports bred by years of dealing with fantastically bad coaches.  To make matters worse, outside of Risk and Monopoly ,I find board games and card games similarly dry and painfully uninteresting.  It generally takes friends to make friends while going drinking, and many of my other interests – travel, photography, space, philosophy, and topics such as business and politics aren’t the type of thing that are easy for casual socializing.  My solution? To push myself periodically to get out of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, that’s draining, stressful, and daunting. So, far more often I stayed home, logged on Facebook late at night and chatted with my friends back in the US.  While this helped me offset the feeling of loneliness, it did little to help me properly integrate or connect with people here in Denmark. The fact that my housing, cell phone and internet access were all a mess for the first 5 months made it worse, but did not need to be anywhere near as prohibitive as I let them be.

What I should have been doing was attending faculty Friday Bars, signing up for Couchsurfing meetups, finding and attending groups on, and tapping into a wealth of fantastic expat (and non) networking groups and events through Facebook.  It took me almost a year to start to get introduced to things like Science and Cocktails – a bi-monthly meetup which is free, and provides a wonderful evening drinking old-fashioned cocktails overflowing with dry ice, served up by Danes in lab-coats  – all while listening to brilliant scientific minds give a casual introduction to things like CERN or Super Volcanoes.

I also should have been working to organize things instead of allowing myself to wait and hope for invitations to events. Over the past year I’ve learned and realized something I already knew but wasn’t acting upon. As an international, the way you make local friends is by inviting locals (in this case Danes) to interesting events. It’s something I’m still horrible about.  The other realization I’ve had is that while it’s great to make social friends while drinking, if you want to convert those into more general day-to-day friendships you need to diversify when you do things.  That means other activities during the week – catching concerts, going to shows, or getting together for dinner or a coffee on a semi-regular basis.  Also, yes, sports do help.  After an initial series of salsa evenings that left me with a less than complimentary view of the local Copenhagen Salsa scene I took a four-month break and gave up on it as a local way to network.  Luckily five months in a friend dragged me out to a new place.  The new venue was everything I thought Copenhagen was initially lacking.  Through it, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and connect with a lot of wonderful people – both Danes,and Internationals.  Many are students, but many are also business professionals.  Over the last year I’ve also gotten more involved in the local University culture – the highlight of which was joining the Youth Goodwill Ambassador Corps. A group of wonderfully motivated and like-minded international students. The program has created great connections, while also introducing me to fantastic opportunities such as the recent chance to meet HRH, Prince Joachim of Denmark.

Which leads to the next point.  Students are great, but to build long-lasting connections to a place you need to diversify who you’re connecting with. Students, especially international students and expats, are in transient stages in their lives. The average professional expat stays in Denmark for 3-5 years.  The majority of the international students in Copenhagen are on Erasmus or semester exchanges which means they are in Denmark for four to six months. These relationships can be excellent and I’ve developed a truly global network of great friends as a result, BUT for someone in my position doing a two-year program it has meant that a huge chunk of my social network leaves within two to three months of our friendship’s maturing.

Ultimately, time and money are the two biggest challenges I’ve run into.  As my two year program winds down and I reflect on my time here in Denmark there’s a lot more I could have done (there always is) and that I could have done better. I got a lot out of my time at the University of Copenhagen but the reality is that I could have gotten more heavily involved, attended more social events, and connected in a much more extensive way with the Danish students. I also have a lot of wonderful casual friends/acquaintances that I am confident would be fantastic friends if I just had, or made, the time to be more pro-active in spending time with them.  Nothing simple, nothing complicated, just inviting them for coffee, a drink, or to catch a show a few times a month. I know this, and yet it is challenging. In part because I still find myself slipping back into that dark room, content to chat with friends 3,000 miles away on lazy evenings.  Beyond that though, there is a second room that is deceptive.  The friends I’ve made through my program and which I hang out with regularly are fantastic. So much so that it is easy and comfortable for me to spend all my time with them, or working on my personal projects (eg: this blog). The reality is, however, that crutch also prevents me from properly responding to and realizing the invitations that potential friends and casual acquaintances send my way. It is also expensive to socialize. Even when the time for a coffee with a different friend is available, the $5-10 required for a coffee or beer  adds up quickly.

Relaxing in the Park - Copenhagen

Will I Stay?

As I work on completing my thesis and winding down my MA program I am incredibly happy with my choice to come to Denmark.  While this post focuses predominantly on things I’ve learned or could have improved upon and want to share with other potential study abroad students, I have fallen in love with Copenhagen. The people are spectacular, the history fascinating, the culture engaging, and the city deeply charming.  Denmark, and Copenhagen more specifically, is doing a lot of things right. While it has its moments of tomfoolery common sense is present here in a way I always found deeply lacking in Arizona.

I am currently in the process of transitioning from academic life back into the professional world.  As I do so I am working towards a skilled worker visa and full-time position in Denmark.  As I make that transition, I am reminded of the absolute power of a vibrant social network and the pivotal role it plays in launching a successful career.  While this is a period for reflection, I also plan to take the lessons I’ve learned over the last 2 years and work to more aggressively implement and act upon them moving forward, particularly if I find myself presented with the opportunity to stay in Denmark for several more years. I feel as though I am well on my way down the path toward comfortable integration.  Moving forward it is just a matter of continuing to overcome bad habits while building upon good ones.

This post is part of a series of pieces I have written reflecting upon my time in Denmark, Danish culture and Study Abroad.  Please consider searching the archives for previous posts related to Denmark.

Dining Manners and Etiquette – How To Use Your Knife and Fork Abroad

Table in Copenhagen

I just spent the evening ruining a perfectly good hamburger while trying to re-learn how to use my knife and fork. In an effort to immerse myself more completely during my time in Europe and Scandinavia I’m starting to try and eat like a European.  Unfortunately, that means awkwardly using my knife and fork, throwing a chunk of my traditional American table manners out the window, and desecrating – yes I said desecrating – hamburgers.

If you’re planning a trip to Europe and are from the US one key (but subtle) difference to prepare for is how you cut and eat your food.  For those of you raised to eat in the European/Continental style this won’t be an issue for you.  If, like me, you were raised using the American style you’re in for a bit of an adventure and this post is for you.

First, let’s get back to basics.  Just what are the American and Euro/Continental styles that I’m talking about?  They’re two different approaches for using your knife and fork during a meal.  While you’ll encounter other cultural differences in the way a table is set and what is considered polite the use of your knife and fork is one of the most blatant cultural faux paus Americans make while dining abroad. Let’s take a look at the styles via wikipedia:

The American style

In the American style, also called the zig-zag method, the knife is initially held in the right hand and the fork in the left. Holding food to the plate with the fork tines-down, a single bite-sized piece is cut with the knife. The knife is then set down on the plate, the fork transferred from the left hand to the right hand, and the food is brought to the mouth for consumption. The fork is then transferred back to the left hand and the knife is picked up with the right.  In contrast to the European hidden handle grip, in the American style the fork is held much like a spoon or pen once it is transferred to the right hand to convey food to the mouth.

The European style

The European style, also called the continental style, is to hold the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right. Once a bite-sized piece of food has been cut, it is conducted straight to the mouth by the left hand. The tines remain pointing down. The knife and fork are both held with the handle running along the palm and extending out to be held by thumb and forefinger. This style is sometimes called “hidden handle” because the palm conceals the handle.

While seemingly a fairly subtle difference, it’s amazing how challenging it is to use one’s fork in a different hand and fashion than you’re accustomed to.  Perhaps it’s just indicative of my complete lack of ambidexterity, but I’m better at writing my name with my left hand than I am at using it to pilot my fork.  I fear that at times I look less like a well mannered diner, and more like a bumbling fool trying far too hard not to dump a fork full of food into my lap.

Is it something the average traveller should worry about?  Not in most situations, however, if you’re studying or working abroad sound table manners can be the difference between getting a job or a follow up invitation to future events.  It’s something to be aware of, and if you’re feeling adventurous to try and adopt.  It’s a small thing, but it is something that people notice.  Good luck and bon appétit!

Have a story to share about table manners or a tip to add?  Please share it in a comment below.  

January 20th 2009 – Today Was A Good Day

Today is January 20th, 2009 and it was a good day.  It was one of those days that stands out in your memory as history marches forward.  As the paintbrush of time colors in the tapestry of life, what once struck us as broad strokes of the brush fade into subtle outlines. I have no doubts that this day – these memories – will survive the test of time.  As I reflect upon this day in history I know that these past 24 hours will forever stand as a cornerstone in the annals of American history.  Further, though it is perhaps far less significant to the world at large, today has held incredible significance for me personally and not just because of the presidential inauguration of Barack H. Obama.

Leann Rimes – The Star Spangled Banner

Like many Americans today was special for me.  It was the first time in my life that the candidate I had chosen, researched, fought for and supported was elected as President of the United States.   It is an amazing affirmation of a political system that, despite its problems, is one of the world’s modern marvels.  Today, the majority will of over 300 million US citizens was carried out in a peaceful transition of power between two camps of astoundingly different ideologies and principles…All framed by the backdrop of one of the worlds most powerful military and economic powers.   What an amazing thing.

The Necessity

I believe that this transition – this wide stroke of the brush – marks the true beginning of the 21st century.  For the last 8 years we have been in flux.  As a nation we have been lost, forced to adjust. We have been trudging forward while adhering to outdated philosophies and principles. While other parts of the world began to embrace the 21st century the United States stood confused and unsure of its own identity.  The cost has been a devastating economic collapse, a widespread assault on intellectualism and major adjustments across the global political landscape.

I realize that President Obama and his team will not accomplish all that is expected of them.  I also realize that the true depths of his moral fiber and vision are untested. Yet I refuse to give up on the belief that he holds the potential to truly be the man we believe him to be. His track record suggests that he harbors the inner potential to truly lead the United States into the 21st century and his platform offers a framework to help America take those steps.

President Obama’s speech today was not flashy. It did not provide great quotes to be regurgitated across the annals of time – but it wasn’t meant to. Today’s speech spoke to the intellectuals among the American people and the world at large.  It was a speech that said, “I am here now and I will do everything within my power to do what is necessary.”  It was the speech of a humble man with noble character reaching out to his fellows with sleeves rolled up, back bent with the weight of a world that can be.  It was a speech that spoke to those of us who have been laboring furiously to keep America strong, to keep America true and to keep America supreme.  For me it was a dream come true. It was a speech that re-committed America to true Science. It was a speech that re-committed America to protecting the world that sustains us. It was a speech that re-committed America to the constitution and our roots. It was a speech that re-committed America to education, peace, and prosperity. Equally as significant, it condemned the actions over the past 8 years that pulled us towards catastrophe.   Above all, it was a speech that committed America to change – no matter how difficult that change may be – and  embraced the needs and dynamics of the 21st century.


Perhaps it’s my perception of the world as a Millennial. Perhaps it’s the result of my travel or upbringing.  I find myself in an odd conundrum. While today marks an incredible moment in American history and has turned the tide of hundreds of years of blood, tears and agony, I find myself somewhat detached. I’ve never seen a segregated world. I’ve never lived in an America powered by slavery.  Born in 1985, the world I know and have seen is one of hope and opportunity.

I have no illusions as to the presence of stereotypes within myself but I revel in the fact that those are just that…idle stereotypes easily displaced and overcome.  My world is one that offers but a glance to race while focusing its scrutiny on the individual regardless of their sex or ethnicity.  As the world and America celebrate an historic moment that rightfully has profound meaning to those who at one time attended segregated schools and faced the most insidious forms of hatred, I find myself looking forward.  I pause today in profound gratitude to all those who have made this day possible, but equally it’s significance is somewhat reduced for me. For me this is not about the election of America’s first Black President, but rather about what I hope will be one of America’s greatest Presidents.

My Brother

As I sat watching President Obama sworn into office my younger brother, an individual who I am incredibly close to, was somewhere in the skies over Europe.  At the age of 21 he has undertaken an adventure that leaves me awed.  He left the U.S. on the evening of the 19th and began the long trip across the Atlantic to London before continuing down toward Italy where he will begin an internship with the US Consulate. The connection between a new president and my brother’s impending period of service truly strengthened my investment and pride in the all that the US is and has to offer. The resulting feeling isn’t something words will convey – all I can say is that the feeling was powerful, unique, and complex. Today marks the start of a major phase of growth in his life and no doubt, through all that he will share, my own.

Food, Reflections & Capitalism

At 5:00PM I left my office in Scottsdale where I work as a Mergers and Acquisitions Analyst. I paused briefly at the market to pick up groceries and then again to purchase a cigar. By 5:30 I was home and after a brief pause set to cooking a special celebratory, albeit experimental, dinner.

Sleeves rolled up I set to it – angel hair rice noodles, two beautiful portabello mushrooms, 1 package of enoki mushrooms, half a yellow onion, 1 pound of peeled fresh shrimp, 6 saved shrimp heads, 4 chopped and diced cloves of garlic, half a lemon, a hearty mix of spices, salt, pepper, olive oil, butter and 1/3 of a bottle of canola oil. Soon I had a bubbling frying pan full of noodles and delicious smelling food. Somehow, some way, the meal turned out perfectly and resulted in an incredible, steaming plate of a pasta/seafood delight.

After dinner and ready to relax I picked up the CAO Criollo Cigar I’d purchased earlier, poured a sipping glass of Effen Black Cherry Vodka on the rocks and made my way outside into Scottsdale’s beautiful, partly cloudy, 75 degree evening.  The CAO Criollo was perfect: mild and slow burning with just the right hint of taste.  As I sat on the steps of my apartment complex I reflected on the day, the year and all that had transpired.  As I sat there watching the stars slowly brighten across the sky I considered my various entrepreneurial projects and decided to finish the evening out with the addition of a new one – the attempted sale of several domain names I purchased back in August.

Truly I live a blessed life.  One lived in the greatest country in the world.  Today was a good day.

An American in Europe

As I prepared to leave for Europe a lot of people had questions about the trip. After “Have you seen the movie Hostel? Aren’t you scared!”…the second most common question had to do with how I felt and what I expected given the current political and social tensions between the US and Europe.

We have all heard the travel horror stories brought back by Americans traveling abroad. Recounting the abuse, horrible service and even occasional fight that they got into while traveling overseas because of cultural tension. For many people those stories have led to increased levels of anxiety when traveling and even, in some cases, discouraged people from taking the trip at all. It’s an issue often discussed, but despite that I still feel like I may have something to contribute.

For me, it has never really been an issue. It might be due to the extensive traveling I’ve already done or tied to my personality as a mediator – either way I’ve often found it to be a null issue. My experiences in 2004 when I participated in a study abroad trip to the British Isles were largely similar to my experiences during my most recent 3 month trip throughout Europe.

It’s an odd paradox, on one hand I noticed an enormous American cultural presence in Europe, especially countries like Croatia and Greece. On the other hand there is without a doubt a certain animosity and disgust which has infiltrated these cultures leaving their populations with mixed, sometimes hypocritical stances. Most of the Europeans I encountered made an important distinction between the politics of the current administration and the American people. Despite that however, there was also general disbelief and a sense of incredulity that the American people would/could allow the administration to continue without at least some level of endorsement. It’s a subject that people are eager to discuss with travelers, in part because it’s such a universal issue that it’s an easy conversation piece. For that reason, before undertaking a trip, the biggest piece of advice I can suggest is not to pretend you’re Canadian or dress differently, but rather spend some time and educate yourself about the current political situation.

For me, the political issue was actually more of a boon than a negative. It’s no secret that I have major issues with the current administration or that I’m extremely patriotic. I’ve opposed the Bush administration since the 2000 election. I spend a lot of time researching my position and keeping up with current events, especially those that CNN and FOX might otherwise skip over. To that end, when I encountered people who wanted to discuss politics or who were eager to make derogatory statements about the U.S., I was more than willing to engage with them. In most situations the discussion quickly turned into an educational lecture and even in the situations where we disagreed, by offering detailed explanations for my stance and acknowledging failings where they existed, just about every conversation ended on a positive note. I really want to take a moment to clarify as well that in these discussions I was not attacking the U.S. – quite to the contrary. However, I also wasn’t blindly defending everything we do.

Without getting too sidetracked – I’ll give you an example of a potentially touchy issue that still, when properly discussed, left my European companions nodding thoughtfully. On the issue of Imperialism I’m a firm believer that the U.S. is unique in a historical context. When one compares all of the previous world superpowers e.g. the Ottoman, Roman, British etc. empires to the U.S. there is a distinct difference in behavior. Where it’s predecessors expanded their empires by conquest and domination until over extended they collapsed, the U.S. has (after a brief period of expansion) been content to merely meddle in foreign governments, with no major attempts to bring new territory into the Union. As you can imagine, this stance wasn’t always incredibly well recieved, but when explained and presented in a detailed way it was accepted without animosity or ill will.

In the last few years it seems as though there has been a movement in the U.S. which has left many Americans ashamed to declare themselves as Americans while abroad. An image that has partially been reinforced by other english-speaking traveler’s efforts to declare themselves as non-Americans. Most of the Canadian backpackers and some of the Australian and New Zealanders I met were sporting the infamous Canadian/Aussie/Kiwi flag badge on their packs. For some it’s a simple declaration of country and their pride there in. For most, however, it was intended as a blaring “Don’t mistake me for an American”. To be honest, these really started to bug me after a while. In most of the culturally insensitive situations I witnessed it wasn’t Americans that were acting stupid – but rather those same Canadians/Aussies/Kiwis who when caught, questioned or even observed…suddenly claimed they were American or were automatically assumed to be.

Don’t get me wrong, Americans abroad can be culturally insensitive, arrogant travelers but even there we’re not nearly as bad as our reputation. Ironically enough, the group I observed to be the worst/most disliked were the Italians. I was shocked at the level of dislike some of the locals/tourist establishments/bars etc. held toward them. I also noticed a big difference between the three different types of American travelers I encountered. The first and most common was of course my fellow backpackers, the 2nd group were students studying abroad and traveling and the 3rd group consisted of elderly/retirees. The vast majority of the American backpackers I met were incredibly culturally sensitive, friendly and open. The students I encountered were usually slightly less adjusted but still far from the classic stereotypical American. The least adjusted were typically the retirees. These individuals usually stuck out like sore thumbs, could be heard in loud accented voices complaining about small cultural differences and fit the classic American stereotypes the best.

In fact, on multiple occasions I had fellow backpackers comment on the fact that the Americans they had met on the road were nothing like what they had expected. That they were often some of the most friendly, social travelers. At the same time though, it was also usually pretty obvious when there were a lot of Americans around. With our distinctive accents and loud behavior we are without a doubt pretty easily identified.

I mentioned earlier that I didn’t make any secret of the fact that I was American. That said, my standard dress however, was not distinctly American. In fact, towards the end in Greece I found it interesting that most of the restaurant street promoters and other sales people I encountered initially seemed to think I was German, french or Italian. Despite wearing faded bluejeans, a polo, my North Face vest and Marmot jacket…I think my old newsy-style hat and scarf are what confused them…especially toward the end when I grew a small goatee/mustache.

Though I usually corrected their misperception pretty quickly, I usually didn’t notice a significant change in their behavior or treatment. American or German they were equally eager to engage and talk to me.

Before I let my thoughts wander too much further I’ll leave you with several general tips:

  • Do your research. Six hours spent researching US/Global politics will go a long way toward diffusing any political discussion you get into. Especially if you can ask them about their native political situation and issues.
  • Don’t be afraid to be yourself, but consider the culture. Girls: if it’s a more conservative culture don’t wander the streets in a miniskirt and haltertop unless you want to be whistled at and treated like a whore. Guys: if you’re interested in blending in trade the baseball cap out for a different type of hat. Don’t be afraid to toss on a scarf and leave the Abercrombie and Hollister shirts at home.
  • Ask people questions about their culture/what they would suggest and then be willing to try it. I regularly gave my waiter a price range and then asked him/her to pick a cultural plate for me and to surprise me with it.
  • Remind yourself constantly that you’re not in the states and that part of the benefit is that things are different. Even if you prefer the way we do it, acknowledge the merits of how they do things.
  • Keep in mind that most Europeans speak English. Be aware of your surroundings.
  • Don’t shout or raise your voice while using baby talk with foreign speakers. If they don’t understand you immediately slow down your statement and try to use hand/facial motions to make your point. Remember 85% of conversation is non-verbal.

Other thoughts or tips? Post them here.