Live Better: How I Seek Inspiration

Antalya Near Sunset

A few years ago I made an internal decision:  I was happy dedicating myself to my career and to “growing up” but that I was unwilling to simply blindly conform to what society told me I was supposed to do.  Perhaps the most extreme case is the push to find the perfect girl, get married, toss up a white picket fence and to get a dog all by the age of 25.  On a smaller level, the messages were clear – act your age.  Which is to say, don’t jump into puddles. Grow up. Leave behind your pre-pubescent sense of humor.  Frankly, it’s bullhonkey.  Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have merit.  I have friends who have done the white picket fence route and love it.  It’s also important to learn how to carry yourself and when splashing through puddles or laughing at dog farts is acceptable.

My philosophy over the last few years has been to look to young children and old men for inspiration.  These two groups operate by their own set of rules and seem to have a rich appreciation for life that most young and middle-aged adults have forgotten.  Children have the wide eyed innocence and curiosity of youth, two things that most of us lose as we grow older.  Old men have a vast mixture of experience, wisdom, and perspective which can only come through a lifetime of experiences.

Want to live well?  Observe what these two groups do and then try it. You may not like it, but if you’re like me – chances are it will open your eyes to a wealth of different experiences which you’d otherwise miss out on.

Just what do I mean?  Here are a few examples:

Child With Balloon - Bergen, Norway

My Inner Child

Today while walking home in a light snow storm I was hunkered down, frowning, and feeling slightly bitter. As I impatiently stood at a stop light debating jaywalking I paused and watch a young kid who was far more entertained than annoyed.  Instead of standing there cold and vexed he turned full into the blustering snow flakes and tried to catch them on his tongue.   It looked ridiculous and childish – but let’s be honest, which was actually more ridiculous?  Him standing there, tongue out, in the middle of a snow storm that he was enjoying thoroughly – or me, standing there muttering to myself.  I almost missed the moment completely.  Inspired, and with a chuckle – I decided to abandon my sour sulking and to follow suit.  Together we stood waiting for the light to turn, faces uplifted, mouths open, and giant smiles on our faces.  My mood changed immediately, and that one small act has re-framed the rest of my afternoon.

As I mentioned above.  I still jump into puddles.  That’s right, I’m 27, 193 cm tall (6’4″), about 190 pounds and if you catch me on a rainy evening , you’ll see me splashing around in puddles like a kid.  It drives some of my friends crazy.  Others, after a brief hesitation, will join me. There’s something liberating about it.  Something empowering, and energizing. There’s a reason that street scene has come to define Singing in the Rain.  More than the specific act though, I think it ties into taking stock of small moments which can be turned into enjoyable experiences.  It’s the small things that can add the most to our day-to-day lives.  When rushing from meeting to meeting armed with a brief case, and shielded behind a suit and tie that’s easy to forget.

Be curious. Kids and their questions can be borderline obnoxious at times.  As an expat, I find that re-visiting a child’s curiosity is a huge asset.  Why do things work the way they do?  Am I confident enough to ask about things I don’t understand?  Why do words mean what the mean?  Re-discover your inner curiosity.  Touch things, ask questions, taste things, smell things, and truly explore the world around you. As “Why” not “Why should I?”.

The City of Edinburgh

My Inner Old Man

One of the first experiments I ran was also one of my most successful.   I was aware that most older men knew how to, and enjoyed traditional dances.  At the time, this was in major conflict with my generation’s views on things like the Waltz or Foxtrot.  As a result, and out of an aspiration towards the ideal of the Renaissance Man, I signed up for a Ballroom/Latin/Swing course at my local University.  My friends thought I was either crazy, or was subtly coming out of the closet.  This was back in 2004 and pre-dated the widespread resurgence of traditional dances that Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance have helped bring to fruition. I’ll never forget the first day of class. I had no idea what to expect, and was second guessing my decision.  Then I ended up in a class where there were six girls for ever guy and learning life skills that have been instrumental in helping me become a better business man, public speaker, and more confident socialite.  On top of all those perks, the dancing itself has been a wonderful boon to my routine, and I still dance on a weekly basis more than 9 years later.

This time last year I found myself in a small Turkish pipe shop.  Prices were rock bottom and my curiosity was piqued.  Tobacco pipes have been an integral part of our cultural portrayal of many of history’s greatest thinkers, and philosophers. It was anything but an accident that pipes also played a powerful descriptive role when J.R.R. Tolkien set to crafting his characters, particularly Gandalf, in the Lord of the Rings.  These days, if you see a pipe smoker on the street, he’s likely in his 70s or 80s.  Personally, I’ve never chewed, am not a pot smoker, and have only tried two cigarettes in my life – both of which I found quite unpleasant. I have, however, been known to pick up and enjoy a periodic cigar. So, when I decided to experiment with a pipe stuffed with vanilla tobacco on a quiet Turkish beach my expectations were quite low.  What I discovered was an enjoyable activity that, yes, may not be great for my heath, but which truly was conducive to relaxing, musing, and pleasantly enjoying the moment.  In many ways, I found smoking my pipe to be a more active version of the controlled breathing many do as part of their meditations.  Instead of tossing the pipe as I expected, I’ve kept it and typically smoke it a few times a month.  As you might imagine, this still gets me extremely weird looks from people my age who are either surprised to see someone their age smoking an “old man’s pipe” or who wrongly assume that I must be using it to smoke pot or hash.  Little do the know or appreciate just how enjoyable spending a relaxing afternoon on a park bench, watching bicyclists bike by, enjoying my pipe and lost in my own musings can actually be.

Another favorite has been my discovery of Scotch.  My first introductions to Scotch were, shall we say, uninspiring.  As with most undergrads it came in the form of cheap Scotch and Whiskey downed unceremoniously from overflowing shot-glasses or, in other regrettable situations, the form of the Four Horsemen (a dastardly mixed shot, 1 part bourbon, 1 part Tennessee whiskey, 1 part Scotch, and 1 part Irish whiskey).  After my first few introductions to Scotch’s sharp bite, I wrote it off completely.  It was only later, when chatting with several elderly gentlemen in Scotland that I was introduced to Scotch properly.  It was amazing the difference properly enjoying a glass of Scotch made;  the sweet honey’d accents, and potent peaty-smokey flavors of highland and lowland Scotch enjoyed casually in a relaxed environment.  As with the pipe, it was as much about how to enjoy the activity as it was about the substance of the activity itself.   It might have taken me years, decades even, to re-discover Scotch and to learn how to properly enjoy it if I’d listened to and conformed with my peers.  Even now, I’ll still encounter a periodic snarky comment when someone overhears me order a Balvenie Doublewood on the rocks.  After all, I’m not doing what I’m supposed to – not drinking what or acting as I should.

Men At Play in Antalya

Find Your Inspirations

These six examples are just limited samples which I hope helps more concretely convey the lifestyle approach I’m suggesting, and how it can be applied.  I have no doubt that the same is equally relevant for women.  I’m also sure that there are many activities that old women engage in, which I could draw wonderful inspiration from.

At the end of the day though, I encourage you to re-frame your lives and to ask yourselves what opportunities are available that you’re neglecting, overlooking or missing out on?  Either because they’re not activities that you feel are “appropriate” for your age group, or because you’ve never considered them.  When was the last time you watched a proper musical?  Went to the symphony?  Played Backgammon? Made airplane noises while throwing paper airplanes at friends?

So, start tomorrow – when you leave your house keep your eyes open.  Re-discovery your inner child and be inspired.  Find a puddle and jump in it. Then, ask yourself what your grandfather enjoyed, what he did, and why?  Seek out and explore the foods, drinks, and activities you wouldn’t normally do and don’t forget that it’s as much about the process as it is about the result.

I think you’ll find that the results are life changing.

Denmark – Shame on You

The Streets of Copenhagen

There are moments when dealing with bureaucratic nonsense that leave you so stupefied you have trouble believing that what you’re seeing and experiencing is real and not some complex miscommunication.  After all, no person/organization/group or agency could be that daft, right?  You want to believe that some semblance of common sense must, at some point, enter into the equation.  Or so one would think.  Of course, as experience perpetually reminds us – there are a wealth of areas out there where common sense and good taste were banished decades ago.

While I absolutely love Denmark, and the Copenhagen area, there are aspects of the Danish system that not only drive me up a wall, but for which the Danish government should be deeply embarrassed and ashamed.  In the past I’ve discussed issues related to student housing for internationals in Copenhagen, about the general apathy and incompetence of the Visa Department, about the incompetence of the Danish banks when it comes to certified checks, and how half of the stores in Denmark only accept Visa cards from Danish banks.  Today though, let’s talk packages, customs, and fees.

Last week I received a package notification slip which in and of itself was a small miracle.  You see, the Danish Post is generally incompetent. For a country the size of Arizona they seem to have a surprising level of difficulty getting packages delivered on time, or to the right location.  If your package is coming from overseas…well…good luck.  It’s destined to spend more time sitting in warehouses and lost in customs than total time in transit.

I wasn’t completely sure what the slip was for, but assumed it had to do with a product sample a US-based company had sent me to review on VirtualWayfarer. By the time I reached the post office and queued up in a long line, I had a few minutes to puzzle over the package/customs slip I’d received in the mail.  It listed some 199 DKK ($35) in fees and taxes for the package.  Knowing that the complimentary sample I’d been sent was only priced at $28 USD or 150 DKK, I was more than a little puzzled about what it might be.  Had they decided to send additional samples?  Had a mistake been made?  Had someone sent a care package from the US that I didn’t know about?

After reaching the counter, I handed over the slip and proof of identification.  The post office employee then spent the next 5 minutes searching the shelves for the package before finally finding the smushed and partially abused USPS flat rate envelope.  I confirmed that it was, in fact, the product sample which included a very visible customs declaration form  highlighting the $28 value of the item.  The package was also wrapped in the red customs tape which I’ve come to associate with some sort of VAT tax or fee.

To my surprise, I was then informed that I’d need to pay 199DKK in VAT and unavoidable fees if I wanted to pick up the package. While paying a VAT tax on the item might make sense and wouldn’t overly aggravate me – paying a 160 DKK combined fee and VAT on that fee (yup, Denmark charges taxes on fees and taxes) is ridiculous.  Annoyed, I insisted that there must be some sort of mistake.  After all, it would take a profound level of mean-spirited corruption and/or general incompetence to create a fee and tax system that would result in taxes and fees that were 130% of the cost of the actual item being sent, right?

The clerk shrugged. I rephrased my complaint.  He shrugged again. Then he told me if I didn’t want to pay the fees, I could refuse the package and have it returned to the sender. The default answer I’ve gotten from the postal folks every time I’ve mentioned the issue.  I asked him what the point was of having someone send an order or a package if you didn’t intend to actually pick it up. It generally presupposes that if you’re receiving a package that you might, you know, need that package, right? He shrugged again. Then gave me a number to call, but told me they wouldn’t do anything.

He was right.  The lady I reached when calling Post Danmark quickly explained that it was a flat, tiered fee.  I asked what the fee was for? Apparently an unavoidable import tax and VAT.  I asked if paying the VAT when shipping the package would make it possible to avoid the fee, and if the fee was a punishment designed to discourage people from paying at pickup.  Her answer?  Nope.  The fee is unavoidable and VAT etc. can only be paid when the package is received. Flabbergasted, I asked her how they could justify charging a fee that was well in excess of the original price of an item.  She didn’t care – the fee was the fee.

This isn’t just a Post Danmark and Danish Customs issue, it’s a regulatory and governmental issue.  The fact that things like this are allowed and built into the system is not only idiotic, but it ought to be criminal given the profoundly exploitative nature of it.

What possible, viable, or credible justification can there be for charging 130% fee in excess of the original purchase price AND cost of shipping on an item that is not available in any way/shape/or form in Denmark or from a Danish company?

In expressing my frustration and outrage over the incident to friends, they’ve all noted similar experiences. In short, it’s just viewed as part of the system. To me, it looks like a legal alternative to the types of bribery and extortion you’d find in many 3rd-world countries.

So, again I say Denmark, shame on you.

Snow Covered Copenhagen

Snow Covered Copenhagen

How do you take a picturesque city with beautifully colored buildings, elegant canals, and wide pedestrian streets and make it even more picture perfect?   You add snow.  At least, that seems to be the approach Copenhagen takes a couple of times a year.   Despite its northern location, Copenhagen’s close proximity to the sea and placement along the Gulf Stream keeps it surprisingly warm and snow free for most of the year.   Over the last week, however, a cold spell hit the country dumping more than 20cm of snow across parts of Denmark.  While it also meant that temperatures plunged below 0 Celsius, the result has been worth it!

Eager to enjoy the city before the snow melted or got too dirty, I bundled up and headed out into the cold to capture these photos and shoot the above video.  As I walked the city center the snow periodically alternated between large light snowflakes and small slow-falling flakes that were few and far between.  Combined with the colors of the streets, the warm yellow glow of the street lamps, and the overhead lighting of the holiday lights that decorate many of the larger pedestrian streets, the snow left me feeling as though I’d been transported into a magical snow-globe. Pinch me, I am really here.

Snow Covered Copenhagen

Despite the cold I still found the streets crowed with tourists wandering the city and locals out doing their shopping. A few of the buskers had suited up and decided to brave the cold, casting the haunting notes of clarinet, accordion, and violin drifting across streets that date back to the 1400s and 1500s. In other areas the rich smells of freshly made crepes (pancakes as the Danes call them) and caramelized almonds offer a feast for the senses that leave passerby’s stomachs rumbling.

Snow Covered Copenhagen

Despite the snow and black ice most Danes still bundle up, layer on their scarves, and then hop on their bikes. It’s an amazing sight to see and definitely more than a little inspiring. I guess it makes sense, if I’m silly enough to enjoy walking around in the snow, biking in it isn’t all that different…right?

Piled Bikes in Snow

Still, not everyone is up for a snowy bike ride home, especially after a night out at the bars, which contributes no doubt to the piles of snow-covered bikes that line the city’s streets. This dogpile was especially messy. Apparently a few bikes had been double-parked during the weekend and then fallen over, knocking the others into a giant confused and snow-covered jumble.

Copenhagen Christmas Market

Copenhagen takes its holiday decorations seriously and has beautiful heart-shaped lights that hang over most of the larger streets. It also has a collection of wonderful Christmas markets. The one located near Christiansborg Slot at Amagertorv is one of my favorites! You can also find other markets in nearby squares and along Nyhavn.

Copenhagen Christmas Market

The market stalls in Amagertorv are solidly built, have beautiful facades, and a wonderful traditional holiday feel to them. They’re a mixture of random goods, warm-weather gear, food, and of course, Gløgg/Mulled Wine.

Copenhagen Christmas Market

I found Danes and tourists alike huddled together, hands wrapped around smoking cups of Gløgg, eying hot dogs and other delicious meats as they cooked in nearby stalls on circular suspended grills.

Copenhagen Christmas Market

The market even boasted a tiny Santa ride for little kids. Little more than a giant train set, the ride made a very tight circle around the Christmas Market’s central Christmas tree. What the ride lacked in size, it made up for with ornately decorated cars and a vibrantly decorated tree.

Snow Covered Roses

Another thing that always surprises me is the flower stalls. Despite the cold weather, there are several small street stands that stay open year round. In the photo above you can see the wide variety of roses and flowers they offer, all beautifully covered by a soft layer of snow.

Snow and Flowers in Copenhagen

Beyond cut flowers, they also offer live flowers waiting to be planted. Perfect holiday gifts which are somehow perfectly resistant to the cold weather and damp kiss of half-frozen snow.

Danish Bakery

I finished my stroll with a quick walk past a traditional Danish bakery with its windows full of stacked fresh bread, deserts and delicious Danish treats.

Danish Bakery

Cold, and ready to retreat back to the warmth of my apartment, I found myself playfully walking through the snow…a light near-skip to my step. There’s something about Copenhagen that always leaves me charmed. The more time I spend here, the more I fall in love. It is an amazing place and an incredible feeling. If you get the chance, don’t just assume that Copenhagen is a summer city. It has a lot to offer no matter what time of year it is!