Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe & beyond...join me!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

the man who inspired me not to fear the world... but to go

Yesterday, I talked to my dad on the phone and asked him how spontaneous a decision it was for him and my mom to move to Vancouver from Cologne back in 1965. They had met and married just the year before, and the whole story just seems very spontaneous to me. I heard him pause down the telephone line, processing my unexpected question about the long-gone past. Yet again I had yanked him out of his busy present, which currently involved stepmum and him entertaining my six-year-old nephew the morning after a sleepover at their house.

'No, it wasn't a spontaneous decision. We had to quit our jobs and there was paperwork to fill out,' he finally said. Okay, so that would take what three or four months maybe (in Germany one has to give a minimum of three months notice to quit a job, at least nowadays)? Maybe my parents had thought about it for 6 months, I don't know. I couldn't really get into more detail about it because of said nephew-entertaining.

Pa struttin his stuff back in the day
The point I'm trying to make is that my father has, as far as I can tell, always been fearless when it comes to travelling and learning about the world. He has traveled to many countries and has moved across the Atlantic a total of six times (six!) and for all of these times which I've been present for, he tackled these new experiences with seemingly very little trepidation. Often traveling was a necessity for him, but it always felt like he eked out the positives of each new place and then came back overflowing with stories for us. Like teaching in Cuba, or setting up house in Germany so that his kiddies would feel welcome, or managing a pipeline project off the coast of Nigeria or in Sudan or Kenya, or just road-tripping through Spain and France.

Don't get me wrong, he's not light-hearted or foolish, and for sure he's no reckless adventurist. He is a methodical planner, a learner, and an obsessive list-maker, as anyone in his life knows. (For example, he just told me that he and stepmum are coming to Germany in the fall - I'm sure I'll be receiving the excel spreadsheet with the itinerary details in the next couple of weeks - love ya, dad!!).

Pa and I...just hanging out
I guess it's not surprising then that travelling came early for me...real early. A few years after moving to Vancouver, they moved back to Germany separately (I'll skip the gory details) and then pregnant with me, they moved back to Canada, this time settling for good in Calgary. That is where I was born (yay! being Canadian seriously rocks).

I've always said that growing up this way, having all of my extended family on another continent had its advantages and disadvantages. Yes, my brother and I grew up with a big view of the world, experiencing other cultures, traditions and languages and knowing that there's nothing scary about them. But, of course, that also meant that we didn't have grandmas and grandpas, or cousins or aunts and uncles to hang out with. We mostly only saw them when we went back to Germany.

Flying was old-hat for me by this time ;)
For some reason, from both of their families (they each have 3 siblings) my parents were the only ones who moved away from home. They embraced the adventure of a new country, even though the language and culture were pretty much completely foreign to them. My dad has hilarious stories of their adjustment period, like the time he saw a rootbeer stand and got so excited for a good dark ale, that when he downed the glass he almost spit the entire thing out in disgust. For those of you who don't know, rootbeer doesn't taste anything like Bavarian beer.

Things weren't always rosy. My father, just like many many people, often had to travel and move as a result of pretty difficult decisions he had to make. As kids we caught on, of course, but I never saw fear in him, and I never saw worry about being in a new place. Mostly being away from us was, I think, the hardest part.

My first trip away from home and loving it
But, he brought us gifts! Always the one to focus on the positives, let me tell you about some of the things I remember him bringing back for me from his travels abroad. From a market in Egypt, he bought me a pair of rust-coloured, very pointy leather shoes. They were huge, because finding shoes that fit was (and still is) the bane of my existence. Man, were they odd. While teaching in Cuba he picked up the most intricately beautiful drawings of old Havana for me. In Abu Dhabi, he bought me a very heavy dog-collar-like silver necklace, which I'm sure cost too much for the fact that I don't think I ever wore it. It's the thought that counts! And when he returned from a gruelling, extended trip managing an off-shore oil platform in Nigeria, he brought back his smiling, weary face and a very full beard. That wasn't exactly for me, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

My father is a great storyteller...long, very detailed stories that often go off on all sorts of not-random tangents. He always has a point, and he remembers experiences and conversations he's had with people he's met in airport bars or with taxi drivers or, in some cases bodyguards, from trips dating back to the late sixties. It's an incredible gift he has. I have inherited his list-making obsession but not at all his ability to recall conversations. These details make his travel stories come to life no matter how long ago he lived them.

My obsession with fountains started early
So, my brother and I grew up travelling back and forth to Germany, which sometimes included a hop, skip and a jump to countries like Switzerland and Italy. Eventually we started travelling on our own, and never once did we hear either of our parents say, 'oh but that's so dangerous', which unfortunately I hear so many parents say nowadays. The world is not, in my opinion, a different place now. You know, there were bad people back then too, doing all sorts of random bad things. I remember the Lockerbie plane bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 (a route almost everyone I know has flown since then). When I was seven a terrorist bombed the Munich Oktoberfest killing 13 innocent people (Munich is my father's hometown and we had been to the Oktoberfest the year before). A bomb exploded in a market square while my dad was working in Tunis, and he often needed to ride in an armoured car to and from his office in Nairobi. That is just the world we live in...have always lived in. It won't change much, because the world is made up of people and people are the same everywhere. That is what I have learned growing up internationally. All of the millions of groups of people in every corner of the world are inherently similar. There are good and bad folks: peace-loving and hateful, extreme and apathetic and empathetic, nice and not-so-nice. It doesn't matter if you're in Paris or Mexico City, Seoul or Saskatoon.

The difference nowadays, in my opinion, is just that we hear about the bad things on a 24-hour news cycle so that we cannot get away them. They stick in our heads. Every person, even much-too-young kids, have a smartphone and see every detail of every bad thing that's happening...constantly. I hear from friends in North America that 'Europe's getting to be really dangerous', while we in Europe are bombarded with each new week's mass gun murder in the U.S. The horrific events that happen are all true, but unfortunately bombings and killings and random acts of bad have always been happening. As Jo Cox's husband just pointed out on the one-year anniversary of her murder on the streets of London, there are these few absolutely devastating acts of evil that happen, but at the very same time there are hundreds and thousands of really good, loving and caring acts that occur. These events are just not run on a 24-hour news cycle, if even mentioned at all.

My father was actually much more interested and encouraging of our travels abroad than say, when I told him I was moving to Saskatchewan...the wide-open prairies east of Alberta. A few years later I decided to move to Germany, and now that excited him! Even though I would be a 9-hour flight away, instead of a mere 9-hour car ride, he was inspired and envious and full of joy about all of the wonderful things I would be experiencing and learning living in Europe. It is true, it has been a very rich few years, but the prairies also had a lot to offer...just sayin.

Memorably, my brother and I visited our father quite a few times, either together or individually. One trip I took was to Corpus Christi, Texas to spend a week with him as he managed a project there for a six months. It was hot and humid on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, but we would spend the evenings, after he got off work, exploring the great seafood restaurants and talking for hours.

Our views of the world were not always the same; of course our experiences have been very different.  With my father, you are more often than not listening and talking about the interesting state of the world, which ever corner of the world doesn't matter. He is an incredibly well-read person...always reading about 11 books at the same time; ranging from small-town crime novels set in the Alps, to  Freakonomics, to Margaret McMillan's The War That Ended Peace. He is always learning...and that is possibly the greatest gift that he's given to my brother and me. Our father always said there's money for books.

When I was working in refugee settlement about ten years ago, we clashed often. At the time, I was meeting many people from across war-torn parts of the world and trying to assist them in making Alberta their home. They had fled Southern Sudan or Afghanistan or Colombia or Iraq. At one point I was having many frustrating conversations with the Canadian Embassy in Nairobi trying to process applications for refugees from that region. My father had had many dealings with that same embassy over the years, while working as an expat there, and obviously his experienced had been very different to the hundreds of refugees flooding that office. He and I would get into heated discussions about white privilege pretty much anytime the subject of my work would come up. But, in the end he encouraged me to just go. I really should have taken the opportunity to visit Kenya, but I didn't. I'm sure I would've been able to prove my point to him better...and with pics!

Years before, when my brother was getting ready for his many-month trip to Ghana to visit a friend who was working there, the three of us sat together and I lamented the fact that I was not going anywhere interesting but had to stay and work. My dad said, 'Why not go?' I didn't have the time or money to go to Africa, but we ended up finding the 'half-way' point between Ghana and Calgary: France! My brother and I ended up spending to this day the best two weeks of travelling I've ever experienced. We created our own French language using all of the vocabulary we could think of and sounding absolutely atrocious, my brother regaled me with very interesting (but completely made-up) historical facts about wherever we happened to be walking, we narrated the opera we were watching from our standing seats of the top floor of the Nice Opera House, because we didn't understand a word of the Italian opera with French subtitles (needless to say, our interpretation was filled with humour and clever bits). We nutella crepe-ed every morning, washed down our standard meal of baguette and cheese with red wine on every park bench or sandy beach we could find, shared a bed in most hostel-y places cause we had no money, and my brother would randomly head off in search of vegetables to ward off scurvy. He's just the most relaxed and hilarious travel companion.

Standing on the train platform in Gare Nord, as we parted ways after two weeks training up and down France, we bawled our eyes out - he was heading off to Africa and I was returning home. That really was an all-round perfect travelling experience. And we had mostly followed all of our father's many tips of where to visit along the Cote d'Azure and Provence.

Pub night...whenever we're together!
One lasting tradition of our evolving family is that wherever two or more of us meet, it's pub time! We always have traveling stories to tell cause it's in our blood and I can't wait for the next we just need to find pubs with a daycare attached.

Thanks for the travels Pa. Happy Father's Day.
Love from Germany,
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