2017 – A Year to Remember

2017 review

I write this as I wing my way back to Cape Town having spent a soul feeding week in the African bush with my family.

My dad reminds me today would’ve been gran’s 100th birthday. I don’t believe in coincidences. I’m about to embark on an ambitious year – and this is another heart warming moment of synchronicity to experience.

2017 has been one heck of a year.

I love the opportunity of hindsight to explore the events of the previous year. To “connect the dots” as Steve Jobs once said.

Here are the six most impactful events of my year and what each of them taught me.

1. Starting my year in Jokulsarlon, Iceland

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I chose to spend New Years in Iceland, in a tiny village called Vik. I shared the most incredible NY eve of my life with two other intrepid travellers from France. Never in our wildest dreams could we have predicted we’d see the northern lights dance above our eyes as Icelanders set off fireworks lighting the snow covered mountains up in red. Nature and man combined to create a show I will always remember.

They suggested I visit the area further east called Jokulsarlon, Glacier Bay.

A drive that belongs in the National Geographic Hall of fame awaited me and my prize: a receding glacier that’s created a deep bay filled with icebergs effortlessly floating. Ice that breaks off is ushered out to sea where the Atlantic uses its creativity to place blocks of ice across the black sandy beach as if it is it’s private art gallery.

Here – some 15 906 kilometers away from home as near to the edge of the world I’ve been – I feel for the very first time a tremendous love of my home. Our home. Earth. What a gift this planet is for us. My heart was expanded standing mesmerised by the beauty around me. Being so alone and yet incredibly connected all in an instant.

What changed in me: alone and in the harshest conditions I’ve ever experienced, I felt a realisation that we are never lost; just temporarily unsure. All it takes is asking for help and we can immediately be back on track. That sometimes its in being lost that we get to experience incredible surroundings with heightened senses that we’ll look back on with fondness and appreciation.

2. Having to find a new place to stay

This would be my seventh year in my flat and around February/March I had a thought “at some point I’m going to have to find another place to stay”.

I had no idea a few weeks later my owners would message me to say they needed to move back in and I needed to be out by end of May.

The rental market in Cape Town, and specifically the Atlantic Sea Board, has become a nightmare. Rental prices have sky rocketed and availability of units has all but dried up like our water due to people preferring AirBnB instead.

A dear friend suggested I write down absolutely every detail of what I wanted in my new flat. I was incredibly specific. After two months of searching with no success, it appeared I may have to take friends up on their offer to put my stuff in storage and stay in their spare room.

I looked at my list often and held steadfast in my belief I would find a place that met ALL the requirements. I had some wobbles where I thought “maybe I should just be happy with a few?”

Two weeks before I need to be out the managing agents of my current building send me a text “813 will be available beginning of June – do you want it?”

This came moments before I left for a weekend away. I was desperate to see it soonest and had to be happy with arranging a viewing Monday night. It was dark and with belongings all boxed up I didn’t quite fully grasp how perfect the flat was. I did get a good feeling about it and immediately messaged to say I’ll take it.

Only once they’d cleaned carpets and repainted and I moved in did I fully grasp how much of my list it satisfied – one of my favourites being able to lay in my bed and see Lions Head (those who live in Cape Town will understand what a rarity that is)

What changed in me: my absolute faith and belief. I was tested for sure; but being tested is how we gauge where we are in life. That I’d be in my same building, six stories up (literally moving up in the world) with my flat directly opposite the lift to move my furniture into is almost too good to be true and yet – here I am.

It’s been another massive stride for me to completely accept that whatever we want, we can get. Which is especially important for point number 4 coming up.

3. Going through a retrenchment

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I was emailed by a head hunter barely an hour before our department was going to hear what changes were being made. Before that point, based on the importance of my role, I confidently assumed I was going to be safe. That email triggered an immediate awareness that not only was my role in the firing line – but that this was the end of my time at Distell. My gut was speaking loud and clear.

My role had become a ‘promotion’ and even as others confidently suggested there was no one else qualified to do the job; I just knew it wasn’t going to happen.

I was right.

I was offered other roles but knew it would be disingenuous to myself and Distell to take them. I had lost faith in the company and didn’t feel any of the other roles suited my career progression. I’d just be taking it to have a job. I had a funny feeling something big was coming from this. I was terrified, especially at the fact that my future’s slate had been wiped clean.

I trusted it would be the best thing that ever happened to me – and I was right.

What changed in me: I started trusting to my gut and I also made a conscious move to start making decisions based out of love and not fear. Worrying about a pay-check and where money was going to come from was staying out of fear. I was done with that.

With uncertainty abounding I was a week from leaving when an idea dropped into my head that would (and subsequently already has) change my life.

4. Receiving the simplest idea

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Driving past Table Mountain the idea to hike up every day for a year was given to me and so 365 Ubuntu Climbs (Ubuntu is the spirit of humanity) was born.

Henry Ford said ‘whether you think you can or you can’t – you right’

I believe I am the luckiest traveller in the world, and that is why I saw the northern lights on New years eve. I have countless stories I can share about that. If you believe nothing good ever happens to you guess what…… nothing good ever will.

Taking the retrenchment with the faith and knowing that something amazing was going to come from it was rewarded a mere 8 days before my final day.

The idea set my soul on fire. Even when most people couldn’t grasp the enormity of what this meant, it didn’t waiver me from the endless possibilities it would create – both for me and others.

The idea was a simple one and using it as a platform to show people how easy it is to give by sponsoring me R1 a day would later develop into an audacious goal to use that money to positively empower 1 million people. Even as I sit here I can tell you that with each day that passes new ideas and exciting ways to achieve this goal flood my brain.

What changed in me: For the first time in my life, nothing but absolute self belief in achieving this feat existed in my psyche. This would be tested as the six month countdown began to such a degree that I almost allowed myself to get talked out of it from people who hardly know me. This taught me about how others can only see things from their perspective (which is based on their value system and experiences). They were looking at a piece of the puzzle telling me why that piece was a waste of time; while I was looking at the finished picture. It’s like arguing with a baker that egg, flour, milk, coco powder and villa essence mixed together will taste disgusting. Until they eat a slice of the cake created.

The greatest gift of all this year has been born from this idea. A deeper understanding of human behaviour, and not taking on others limited beliefs as my own. Just because you don’t believe you can do something doesn’t automatically mean that I can’t. In fact, I can see all the naysayers faces when everything I can see crystal clear in my mind comes into physical form.

It’s not about proving how right I am – it’s about following through on a simple idea that has the power to change a million peoples lives. Isn’t that something worth pursuing and being part of in 2018?

5. Speaking in front of 2000 people

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Once the 365 Ubuntu Climbs idea was given to me, I believed I could take this globally never mind to the rest of South Africa. I was introduced to a pioneer called JT Foxx, a man no stranger to naysayers and trolls, blazing trails across the world and giving people opportunities to elevate their success. A man who’s organisations credo is ‘powered by your success’.

He was hosting a Global event called ‘Money Wealth Business conference’ in Johannesburg on August 12th. People from as far as North America, Australia, Europe and Asia attended with the many local South Africans. It was the opportunity I’d asked for.

Not only had I spread my message to Johannesburg, but I now also had international supporters donating in support; even travelling from Switzerland to walk up with me.

What changed in me: I realised the power of following your heart and what you can accomplish when your soul’s been set on fire. What can feel like simple self development choices a year ago; like doing the “Courageous public speaking course” with Simon Ekin, could turn out to be instrumental later on. Like giving me the platform to speak in front of such a large audience. Passion speaks louder than being polished – and authenticity creates connection.

This has become the catalyst to show me how important to it is to have the courage to follow our hearts desire. That sometimes the worst thing we do to ourselves is over think things and the best gift we can give ourselves is to go for it. Take action. Move forward. That stumbling is better than standing still.

Nelson Mandela – who’s 100th birthday would’ve been in 2018 — said “it always seems impossible until its done”

My question is: Why couldn’t you be that person?

6. Traveling (again) to America over my birthday

JT Foxx hosted the Mega Success event at Disneyland in November and I’d have the opportunity for more coaching at his house afterwards. With no travel in 2018 I took the plunge and dipped into my bond to pay for the ticket. Something most people would frown upon as careless; but my gut said there was opportunities waiting for me I’d never otherwise get staying behind in Cape Town.

Ten months after arriving back to the day from my European vacation, I boarded a plane on my 38th Birthday bound for the US for the second time in my life.

Thanks to an amazing human being, Jessie Stuart, I was able to extend my trip by a week and stay with her in San Francisco. She’s an incredible human being that does fantastic work with Pencils of Promise, a non-profit dedicated to building schools in the poorest countries around the world. Her passion and enthusiasm for life, travel and focusing on what we can do instead of what’s wrong – is what we need more of in this world. Throw in the opportunity to travel with one of my best friends Lisa and without stepping foot off the plane, I already knew what a transformative three weeks these would be.

What Changed in me: my openness to listen to people with varying opinions to my own expanded. Life is about evaluating all the available information at our disposal and making our own informed decisions. Too often we follow one set of principles blindly or as gospel (religion, politicians, self help gurus, business giants, health experts) instead of understanding there is no one right way; but there is a right way for us – listening to our intuition and developing a deeper trust in our own decision making.

Success, much like happiness, is not a destination but rather a result of what we do and how we live our lives. Chase excellence, and success will follow. Chase fulfilment in everything that you do and happiness will abound.

We’ll never live in the absence of fear, of pain, of doubt, of difficulty.

But we can choose to push through bravely with love in our heart; with an understanding that pain can create drive to improve our lives; doubt is is just a made up ; difficulty is essential to develop appreciation and gratitude.

Stop hoping trying and wishing and start doing.

2018 will be a success because I will work and act in a way that I will create it. I won’t try I just will. Thoughts are nothing without actions. I am climbing Table Mountain every day in 2018 as living proof that powerful ideas while powerful – are meaningless without doing something with them.

If you had challenges in 2017 – be grateful for them.

My wish for you in 2018 is not just to feel inspired; but to feel inspired enough to act.

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2017 – Building on 2016’s Lessons

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December is an interesting time of year for me. Within a week you have Christmas: a time to take stock and be appreciative of family, friends and your life as it is; and New Year: a time to reflect on another year passed, plan towards what you want and get excited about what lies ahead.

I feel being overseas gave me an advantage over both and to be alone in Iceland allows a rare opportunity to have an inordinate amount of time to think. Surrounded by immeasurable beauty, it’s wonderful to get lost in my own thoughts evaluating my life. Where I’ve come from; how I’ve changed and what my intentions for my future are. I’m struck by the deepest sense of calm and connection in that week and I’m filled with appreciation.

Pure contentment.

Absolute admiration for this life we have and the experiences we can create.

My 2017 begins with this incredible sunrise.

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I was originally going to spend today writing and have a ‘quiet one’. With new information, however, I’m on my way again with another two and a half hours’ drive. Every turn around the next approaching mountain brings a new feast for my eyes. Iceland is like an experienced waiter; constantly bringing a new dish just as your current one is finished, complemented with a fresh glass of wine to create a taste sensation.

My eyes are twinkling with delight.

Just take a look at this terrifyingly beautiful glacier that looks like a sweeping tidal wave cascading over and between the peaks; frozen in time, their rich blue demonstrating their purity. I wish the scale could be truly conveyed in this picture.

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I’ve been blessed with many memorable New Year’s days; such varied and notable experiences like being with my family high in the Swiss Alps (also surrounded by snow) and dancing in the summer heat of Franschoek surrounded by happy smiles, authentic human beings and nature.

Today I get to add to this list: Jökulsárlón – Glacier Bay.

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I haven’t actually gasped out loud many times in my life. This is one of them. As a result of global warming this glacier has retreated nearly 4 km creating a lagoon filled with docile icebergs. It’s not that wide but its damage is not visible from the shore – it’s 250m deep!

Glaciers, icebergs and fragments of ice keep my soul captivated every second.

A stroll down to the beach (also black), brings a contrast to these sleeping giants: chunks of ice litter the shore as the sea declines its gifts.

Time is the sculptor; the beach is the gallery and the ocean the curator meticulously placing them across the dark sand for our delight. I could spend hours here in summer; but conscious of the time and not wanting to drive in the dark I reluctantly trudge off taking it all in one more time.

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This is the start of my year.

A thought from the beach starts to echo in my mind:

Without emotion and experiences, essentially each day is the same. If we can control how we react to our surroundings we have the power to shape our days so that there are far more good ones than bad. The only reason we say a day (or year for that matter) is “good” or “bad” is because of the lens through which we look at it – a lens which is ultimately created by the experiences we have.

As if the day isn’t to be outdone, I get to drive back and see the stage from the other side with another masterful sunset as my companion.

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This fortuitous man has the pleasure of being ‘introduced’ by one of my Austrian hosts K to three Icelanders: I, H and S. Incredibly, S had just recently spent three months travelling around South Africa. I consider this a real treat to be able to chat to them about their homeland and get an understanding of their culture, as well as experience their love of their island. Nothing better than feeling the passion that shines through people’s eyes as they talk fondly about their home.

By the end it’s settled: I’m coming back in summer and they are coming to Cape Town in 2018.

I look forward to both.

Slightly apprehensive about the 29 hours journey heading home having never done this length before, I wake up at 03:30am. Not being a morning person I’ve realised certain things are easy to get up early for and travel is definitely one of them.

I needn’t have worried; it was surprisingly breezy (barring an almost faux pas in Copenhagen resulting in me reaching the plane just in time to board). Perhaps it’s because I have twenty one days of experiences to reflect on. The special people I’ve met. The breathtaking beauty of three previously unexplored countries. Or calculating the distances I’ve travelled.. In the end I cover 26 643km by air; 1 832km by road and 84km by foot.

With so much time alone to reflect on my travels together with the varied array of experiences I have had means I get some incredibly valuable insights.

This is what I’ve learnt (or reaffirm in some cases):

  1. Positivity. A simple smile, hello and “how was your day” can kick start some of the great conversations of your life. Don’t be shy to take the first step with this. Small gestures can transform your experiences; you don’t need to make huge changes or seek out the best guru.
  2. Be still. Being completely alone in silence and solitude (no one in sight) is an invigorating feeling. I love this – the other day a friend of mine typed alone as All-one. When we get in touch with our true inner essence we experience our connection to everyone and everything. We are, in fact, never alone because we are All-One.
  3. Road trips. There’s nothing quite like them! Make sure you have a decent soundtrack to match – music can play such a key role in your experiences; especially if you are alone.
  4. Be open to asking, all knowledge is learnt. We’re not supposed to figure everything out on our own. Getting help and asking for it should be normal but most of us don’t do it. Don’t be afraid to ask. We can’t know everything.
  5. Duality of life. Everything can be a double-edged sword depending on your circumstance or view point. Snow is great to ski on but scary as hell when you need to drive on it. Learn to be cognisant of the bad side of the coin; but focus on and appreciate the good.
  6. No excuses. Don’t let ‘oh it’s so expensive’ stop you from exploring your home. You’ll figure it out. I ate 1 meal a day for 4 days in Iceland (maybe that’s why I’m actually 1kg lighter after my holiday). No one ever regrets the experiences they have.
  7. Travel alone at least once in your lifetime. Many may find this vastly outside of their comfort zone, but you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to meet interesting people along the way and experience adventures you might never have had if you were travelling with someone.
  8. Human beings. Culture, language, geographic location actually mean nothing. We truly are all the same. Embrace that. Start thinking of Earth as your home and not just the country you live in.
  9. Real connection. True connection could be the next revolution. Looking people in the eyes; seeing smiles; hearing laughter and different accents; hugging people – this is true connection and what feeds your soul. Technology has its place; creating deep meaningful connections is not one of them.
  10. People watching. Being alone means you have no one to talk to. Avoid your iPad or phone and watch people instead. Learn to sit in your discomfort and that being alone can be really fun. Watch how people interact, recognise your own behaviours in others and get an outside perspective on what you are like. It’s also interesting to see how differently we behave in the presence of beauty: some quietly admire the view; others try find their special pose in pictures to be forever remembered; others methodically try to achieve the perfect scenic shot with no humans in frame.
  11. Appreciation. Iceland could change in no time at all from a wonderland to a harsh intimidating and unforgiving place that I sometimes battled in; when this was the case it made me think of how tough it must be for those with disabilities. Difficult suddenly becomes near impossible. Twenty minutes for you could be an hour for the same task for someone else. Be grateful for the blessings you have.

This was an incredible journey. A real blessing to see old friends and make new ones. My travel bug has definitely grown with the feeding it got in 21 days – I look forward to the next adventure. But the best gift I’ve been given is a running start in 2017 and I’m truly excited about the milestones for this year. Writing two more books and preparing a Ted Talk just to mention a few.

I’d like to take a moment to thank you all for your support and taking time out of your days and lives to read my thoughts and experiences. My wish for all of you is that you find fulfilment in your daily life. Whatever fulfilment means to you; and perhaps that’s something to think deeply about? Learn to experience magic every day. I feel blessed that one of my ways to experience this is taking a blank page and transforming it into pieces like this. I love writing and I’m truly grateful for this gift each day.

Let’s see what richness 2017 brings for us to share.

Live with passion.

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Iceland: A New Year’s to Remember

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“Why on earth do you want to go to Iceland?”

A fairly stock standard response when most heard about my plans.

Iceland – A New Year to remember

Truth be told, I hadn’t done any research on the country. My soul purpose was to see the Northern Lights and continue my dream of visiting new places. I had no idea about all the treasures this island stores with a population of around three hundred thousand that covers 103 000 square kilometres – that’s roughly the size of Ohio in the US.

Listening to my gut was the best thing I’ve ever done. By now you would’ve read my introduction into Iceland and the changes in weather. I had decided that, as I was travelling alone in the country, I wanted to spend New Year’s Eve and the first day of 2017 in a remote part and not be in the capital Reykjavik; even though it’s known as one of the best cities to celebrate NYE.

I spent it in Vik: Population 291.

What to do in a place so remote?

The 31st of December begins with me enjoying sunrise (11am I should add) on Reynisfjara beach – the famous Black Beach. Jet black sand; cylindrical rock formations that make me think of a church organ; sub-zero winds blow snow across the beach and a jagged coastline is battered with angry waves fighting against the wind. What dramatic company I’m in as we welcome the sun into a relatively clear sky. After three days of cloudy weather this feels like a royal treat.

I find a sheltered spot with some rocks that look like a futuristic design using various heights to create a natural seat for me. The sun on my frozen face, I close my eyes and simply smile at being in such a magnificent setting. I feel invigorated by the solitude, not having to speak and simply sitting in the ‘stillness’ thinking about the 14 000 kilometres I’ve travelled to be in this exact spot. What an age we live in to be able to do these distances in such short spaces of time.

I’m also struck with an appreciation of ‘home’. Planet Earth. Our home. How we all benefit from an invention like flight. Or the cure of some disease no matter where we choose to live.

The beach is full of tourists trying to strike unique poses and take their special photo of this memorable place; so I decide to walk further up the beach in the relentless wind towards the arch, Dyrhólaey, on the far side of the bay. It’s wonderful to be the only person on the beach and leave only my tracks on the snow-covered sand. The video below gives you an idea of what it’s like to walk there – as though some crazed explorer discovering new lands.

Having been here almost two hours, I decide to take a drive further south to a place called Kirkjubæjarklaustur; about forty five minutes away. The wind is howling and with snow still on the road, the first fifteen minutes are definitely the hairiest. That overturned car I mentioned in my previous post is a glaring reminder twenty minutes later as I pass by. Reinforces how any lapse in concentration can lead to problems out here.

The drive is incredible with everything looking dazzling in white. Iceland looks like one big present wrapped in snow. I’d later see it in a different light when the snow had been all but blown away.

This village is even smaller than Vik – 120 people – and thoughts of having a late lunch here quickly fade. Nothing’s open. This small town will forever live in my memory though; because it’s unbelievably my first time filling my car with petrol myself (we have petrol attendants in South Africa).

The firsts on my list having turned 37 in November are racking up quickly – loving it!

The village feels eerily abandoned with no signs of life so I stop at another waterfall and enjoy more quiet solitude; just running water to keep me company.

The roads are almost apocalyptically quiet. This gives me an opportunity to stop on a straight stretch to get a picture I’ve always dreamed of taking myself. Seeing no cars for miles in each direction I’m safe in the middle, my car parked in a picnicking section.

I need to have this framed.

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A quiet road is like a quiet mind; rare and perfect for the soul

A phenomenal end to a memorable year

This 136km drive may have been ‘less’ than my previous day, but the sunset driving back is worth its weight in gold. A truly beautiful way to end off 2016.

Back in Vik and safe to take photos I capture the wonderful sight of the first evening star with the thin sliver of the moon as it begins its waxing phase back to full glory. How incredible that as we start a new year, so too is the moon in its beginning phase.

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Finally getting a chance to eat, the waiter gives me the best news ever: “Are you ready to see the Northern Lights tonight?”

As if this trip and day couldn’t get any better.

Aurora Borealis: on New Year’s eve.

You can’t script this stuff.

Yep, it’s been confirmed. I’m definitely the luckiest traveller on the planet. I’m able to ask this same question to J and M when I get back to the hostel. Amazing what smiles it can generate from strangers. A wonderful surprise to end up making two new friends, on a night I expected to spend alone, as we chat and share our Iceland stories with a good few laughs in-between.

I laughed a lot this holiday. That stands out for me as one of the highlights.

Then, before we can even think about where we would go to watch them – they make an unexpected appearance. I pop my head outside and see what looks like a normal white light in the sky. As if low clouds are being lit from the next town. I’m not even sure this is them. Until they turn green and start dancing across the sky. Scrambling for the camera my dear friend had leant me just for this – I start snapping away. Man do I wish I had a tripod but, nonetheless, I succeed in getting some beautiful moments captured to remind me of this night.

We walk up the hill away from the lights of the village, and sit in the snow just staring up; admiring one of earth’s exclusive spectacles. The reason I’d booked my trip is above me, and I can’t be happier. A moment shared with two travellers I now consider friends. Some early fireworks means we get to see the snow covered mountains light up red after the explosions while the Northern Lights silently wave above. Then just as quickly as they arrive they fade into the darkness, just the spattering of stars dancing in the sky.

There are some things you can’t completely comprehend reading about in books or seeing in pictures; you simply have to experience yourself. This is one of them.

The show isn’t over though. Fireworks from what seems like every house in Vik start just before midnight and feel like there’s no end in sight. “The big ones are being banned next year – so I’m sure people are going to go large”. The comment from the car rental guy could not have been more spot on. Actually, looking back now this guy gave me some real pearls! I later hear that Reykjavik’s sky that evening was a war zone for a time. We have no timer so don’t count down midnight – J pops the cork at 00:00 and they generously share their champagne.

What a way to see in 2017.

And this is just the start!

An Austrian Christmas

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I could never have predicted how special this Christmas in Austria was going to be.

Spending Christmas with your family overseas is entirely different to spending Christmas with another family overseas.

I spent a week with dear friends in London first, who generously hosted me in their spare bedroom (naming rights have already begun to call it Andrew’s Room) It was an inspiring week in my old home for two years back in 2013. I challenged myself to find new experiences every day; one of which included Stonehenge on winter Solstice. How’s that for timing!

Now it was time to head to Austria for Christmas. M had ‘hijacked’ my holiday and insisted I join her family for Christmas; this had all been arranged before meeting me let alone get to know me properly. A gesture I will struggle to repay this lifetime.

The magic starts just boarding Austrian airlines as you are greeted with classical music playing over the pa. It may have been 10a.m, but we were on holiday and so nothing but an Austrian Beer on board would do as the three of us winged our way to Vienna.

I had great anticipation for this part of my European vacation, I’ve never been to Wien (Vienna) or Styria (beautiful countryside about ninety minutes south of Vienna in the hills) so to do this with an Austrian family was going to be a treat beyond belief.

It didn’t take long. K collected us and bounced towards us in hello. It was a gloriously happy welcome – my first experience on Austrian soul and I was already smiling.

For those of you who have travelled, you will appreciate how wonderful it feels to be relaxed about not to think where you are going and how you are going to get there (transport wise) — especially when driving. Even more so when you are now driving on the opposite side of the road.

A short trip into Vienna and my next memorable moment was upon me, G2’s head out the flat window waving with her beaming smile I would become fond of. We were at the parents flat where the mother had prepared Wiener Schnitzels for lunch together with potato salad.

They were the best schnitzels I’ve ever eaten.

So I ate five!

The laughter came unexpectedly as each one of the family spoke a Zulu word to me – I was NOT expecting that! C is doing an amazing job of cross-mojinating Austria and South Africa. Essentially, they were warming me up for all the laughs we would share together during the course of my stay. My abs have never been harder.

K’s flat is wonderfully placed about a twenty minute walk from the city centre. The first night I was treated to a Christmas market in the Museum Quarter. Having Swiss heritage, I am no stranger to Glühwein, but my southern hemisphere brain (a cold wine lover), had forgotten that this is not a wine made warm for the fun of it. With the temperature dropping to -4 degrees and my gloves being in my main suitcase I quickly realised why the wine is heated. Switching to beer at one point I could barely hold the cup for three minutes before switching hands to eagerly shove the other deep in a pocket.

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Interestingly, this faux pas on my part meant I noticed an interesting Austrian custom: they take their glove off to shake your hand hello or goodbye. Loved that.

One thing I appreciate about most Europeans is their ability to speak multiple languages. Vienna was no different with most people being able to chat to me in English. I look forward to the day my French and German is good enough to chat to people in their native language.

The next day was spent walking around Vienna sight seeing loads of buildings and monuments steeped in history and culture. Sights from the historic city centre including St Stephan’s cathedral & Hofburg to Belvedere. I was even blindfolded to get a true breath taking moment, enchanted by Schönbrunn Palace (my blog title picture)lit up at night with the Christmas market buzzing below. Centuries have passed since all this was built; humbling to think about what has come and what has gone. You get a true sense of how old Europe is in Vienna. Makes me realise how, in comparison, South Africa is just an early teen sitting with its grandfather.

It wasn’t all walking, we even had a drink in the smallest pub in Vienna.

December in the Northern hemisphere is poles apart

That night we ended up at one of M’s friends’ local pub and I thoroughly enjoyed chatting to him. It highlighted to me the value of travelling and how it opens your mind and broadens your perspective. Makes for deeper richer conversations. My favourite thing about him was that he asked me about South Africa and our challenges – he didn’t just give me his opinion having travelled there three times already. Most people do it the other way around.

Walking back through the city at night you see how many Christmas lights exist. It’s something we don’t get in South Africa. It’s a magical experience to be walking all wrapped up with scarves and jackets; the cold air nipping at the skin on your face and your eyes constantly reflecting Christmas lights. They don’t just feel the Christmas spirit – they embody it.

I’m not sure I went two hours without hearing Christmas carols or songs of some sort either. For the first time in years I was completely overflowing with the festive spirit.

This was all just building me up to two experiences that will live with me forever.

Christmas eve

In Austria, just as it is in Switzerland which I experienced as a child, the main celebration with family is Christmas eve. Usually the tree is only decorated that day by everyone but G2 had already sorted that. A real tree. Incredible ornaments and to top it all off – real candles. Small differences that make a world of difference.

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Before the evening wonder, I was treated to a scenic drive up the hills by G1. The city was not too visible as mist from the Danube slithered its way through Vienna, but I still got a beautiful sense of the city below. There was still some snow on the hills as we stopped for a beer to enjoy the sunset over Schneeberg next to a church, built in honour of King Jan (John) III Sobieski of Poland for his assistance in defeating the Turks. Like I said earlier – history at every turn.

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We even made a quick stop to Klosterneuburg Monastery. The finishing touch to a wonderful afternoon being driven around learning even more about one of the world’s most liveable cities

Thankfully I had been warned so I was prepared for this part; everyone dresses smartly for the occasion. With dinner nearly ready, presents are exchanged before you eat and I was honoured to be able to share in a family’s love and appreciation for one another. The love covered them as though a gift wrapped in shimmering paper under the tree.

This was my Christmas present this year.

True to their generous spirit, I was handed presents too to which I will treasure – especially my beautiful pen and my orthodox prayer bracelet. This was the next best way to spend Christmas without my own family. I honestly felt like I was part of theirs.

My new Austrian family.

The goose was exceptional and had been hand selected from G2s sisters farm in Styria. Í ate so much I’m sure they thought I was pregnant. I felt like what the Roman emperors must have felt like during their feasts.

Happy Head, Happy Heart, Happy Stomach. My physical holy trinity.

Christmas day service

We attended a service in a church over three hundred years old; a truly impressive building with lavish decorations; sculptures and paintings galore – even Christmas trees inside!

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Although the entire service was in German, the choir and orchestra made me feel like I was privileged to be attending a show in one of the oldest theatres. It was a treat with every song that they sang and played.

The standout moment though, was the finale. The very definition of saving the best till last. The hard wooden bench seemed to turn to a lazy boy recliner as Silent Night started.

I have no words.

I was reminded of the prisoners in Shawshank redemption standing mesmerised as Andy Dufresne played an opera song over the pa. Appropriately, that Song is by Mozart – Canzonetta Sull’aria.

At first, two voices alone. Seamlessly joined by everyone in the choir moments later only to sing alone again in an instant; this left my hair standing at attention and my heart overflowing in the moment.

There is no amount of money in the world that can buy that experience.

They say the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. I believe the same is true for culture. Having the opportunity to live as an Austrian for a week has given “once in a lifetime’’ true meaning.

Standouts of this experience

The beauty about travelling is the insights it gives you, here are some of my observations

  1. We really are all the same. Language, culture, geographic location may differ; but everyone connects, has dreams and worries about aspects of life common to all of us.
  2. Subtle differences. While on the surface things may look the same, it’s the small finer details where things change and that can dramatically change an experience; remember that in your own life because you may be looking to make a dramatic change, when all you need is a subtle one
  3. Hospitality. Never underestimate how the power your generosity of spirit will positively impact someone else’s life. What may appear small to you could just make a world of difference to them (being picked up at the airport as an example)
  4. Special ingredient to thrive. The one thing that stood the most for me in a city that’s rated as one of the happiest places to live – is respect. I’m not sure if it’s because as a nation they have experienced countless wars and difficulties that this is so prevalent; almost like an adult in their 40’s that’s been through the highs and lows of relationships appreciates a working relationship more. Respect for one another; for your city; for where you have come from (even the bad parts of your history)
  5. Humour is so important. Even with limited understanding language wise, we can all still laugh together. If you choose to look for humour in moments and can laugh at yourself perhaps you could enjoy yourself even more so than you are right now?

 

When I arrived, it was with two people very special to me.

When I left, I had five I was carrying close.

This is the beauty of life. If you are open to it, you can have experiences that most people only dream about.

This was most certainly one for me. Thank you – my new Austrian Family.