The best moments in life are often unlooked-for. My wife (who happens to be the best unlooked-for thing to have interrupted my life) wrote a beautiful post a while back on this topic, under the title of “Irish Roads.” I would encourage you to read it now.
For those of you who didn’t heed my advice, an Irish Road, for our purposes at least, is a path of life that holds unexpected twists and turns. You have to go slowly, in order to take it all in, appreciate it for what it is, and make the most of it. And, if you are paying attention, you just might find some things you weren’t looking for.
This requires a certain level of awareness, both mental and physical, that few, except perhaps experienced meditators, achieve on a normal basis. There are countless sounds, sights, smells, tastes, textures, events, stories, nonverbal communications, and emotions, which are both around us and within us every minute, but rarely make it past our subconscious. A whole new world, practically, can open up to us when we simply observe what is happening in the present, rather than judging select pieces of it based on our views from the past or our expectations for the future. As my grandma would say, “Try looking with your eyes open.” Good advice.
I’m bad at Irish roads. I’m a checklist-and-plan-as-much-as-can-be-fit-in-and-run-full-speed-ahead-and-fix-anything-that-doesn’t-go-according-to-plan sort of person. Sometimes that might be a good thing; it can help me get worthwhile things done. But most of the time it is a recipe for frustration.
My recent travels have tended towards the usual route that I’ve found consistent with my style. But a day spent in Munich – which turned out to be probably the best day of my trip – reminded me of the value of Irish Roads.
Before I get into that, however, it’s worth noting that Munich reminded me of a related important life hack: it’s ok to prioritize things besides career and activities. Now, Germans are, from what I can tell, deservedly reputed for their hard work, and they don’t shy away from it when it’s time. But they also know how and when to not work, which can be an equally important skill. Walking around the city, it seemed to me that nearly everyone I encountered was simply happy to be alive, to be present. People walked in a relaxed manner, much different from the hectic streets of New York. The park, rather than the business district, seems to be the place to be. I talked with a guy not much older than myself who said he gets 45 days off a year (plus 20 “flex days,” so the potential for 65 total), and he said that’s pretty typical. Hold it there! Won’t everyone get lazy and society fall apart with those sorts of norms? Hardly. Munichians [is that a word? Who cares, it’s fun to say] may not have the largest houses and 3 SUVs per family and the newest screen TVs. But, as a whole, they live very comfortably, if not more so than their American Dream counterparts; they may just value other things. Time with family and friends in parks. Traveling. Learning. Maybe they simply recognize that the best things in life money can’t buy.
But back to my story. I was in Munich in the first place largely on accident. I saw it only as a cheap place to fly to before catching a train to my desired destination. And it didn’t look like it would offer much more than that at first. When my flight arrived, the night sky was cold and drizzly. Already heavily sleep-deprived, I was immediately stuck in a stationary passport control line for at least an hour. After sufficient trouble finding the metro station and getting a ticket, I rode into the city – which turned out to be almost an hour away – and was dumped on the streets, in order to dwell on the fact that I might be staying there, since my supposed couchsurfing host had cancelled last-minute (and of course, I had no internet). I finally found a new host, who was at the pub with friends and didn’t want to leave yet; when we did, we missed the metro, and would have to wait a long time for another, and … you get the picture. I was lying on the ground of an unknown metro station at 1:30 am, while trying to get a few minutes of sleep and hoping security guards wouldn’t decide to kick me out, but mostly just wondering: “What the HECK am I doing here?”
And somewhere in that confused state, my mind thought, “Huh, this is fine I guess, let’s just make the most of it and not think too much of it.” I may have been thinking of some memorable quote I read somewhere in some philosophy book at some time (precisely), which basically said “what is there about this moment that cannot be borne?” Basically, I realized, all that was happening was I was lying on the ground of a random metro station at 1:30 am. And … that wasn’t a problem. It just, was. Ok, cool.
I think that mindset was just what I needed for the following day in Munich. I asked my host what do to in the city, and he recommended an ice cream shop, so I went there and got some really good ice cream (along with a sample of Gorgonzola cheese ice cream, which I would NEVER recommend to anyone living or dead for whom I even remotely cared). I read and sunbathed in the main park, and asked people there what they would recommend. I went to a museum of ancient art, but hardly had time to be disappointed that despite my cross-city hike they had just closed, when a guy my age approached me. He said he was on his way across the street to another museum with ancient sculptures and that I was free to join him. Turns out, not only was his English good, but we had a lot in common, and I felt we were friends even though we only knew each other for an hour. He was heading to an undiscovered-by-tourists university gallery to draw pictures to build his portfolio (specifically, to draw human hands – talk about a challenge), so he could apply to art school. How cool is that?
Being a bit of an artist myself, I got out my paper and pencil and drew as well. One of my favorite pastimes, in a perfect setting, with a great friend, and all completely unplanned. When that museum closed, my new friend had to go to a dance class (how cool is that?). And before he left, he was talking about the interconnectedness of all art forms – dancing, writing, drawing, acting, etc. – and how they all help us understand the human experience and what makes for a good story, and how material from one art form can provide inspiration for another, and I’m like, WHO IS THIS PERSON! I then wandered the streets some more, discovering a palace and two mammoth cathedrals I had no idea existed, and realizing that everything about Munich is exactly the way you expect a European city should be. As in, Munich read the Idiots Guide to How to Be a European City before being built. Take a picture of any random street, and it could make the cover of a Rick Steves book. The meal I had under the shadow of one of the cathedrals also fit the bill (it included roast duck and sauerkraut). Top off the day with a visit to a German Bath, and you’re feeling pretty good.
Until you miss your train to Füssen, that is, but eventually you find another route, and take it in stride. Or try to at least. That’s my message in writing this story, for myself as much as for my readers. Learn to expect the unexpected, and you will not be disappointed. Which is great.
All this isn’t to say that we should be passive, solely floating along the tides wherever they take us, and never planning anything. If I had stayed hunkered down on the floor of the underground, I wouldn’t have experienced the cool things I did in Munich. I had to be willing to explore, to try new things, to ask questions, and to initiate conversations with strangers (i.e. “Do you speak English?” – I always have to purposefully unlearn the habit of starting conversations that way after returning to the States, or else things just get a little awkward). And, most of all, I had to buy a plane ticket there in the first place.
So buy your ticket. Put yourself out on a limb. Try something new. And when the Irish Roads come – and they will come – treat them as opportunities to be appreciated.
It’s all what we make it.