All posts by Jammie

Change of Plans

Sooooooo, we’re not in India.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, so bear with me as I take a rather circuitous route to the explanation.

September and October were rather busy months for us, travel-wise. For my birthday, we took a little trip down to Milan, Italy, because hey, we were nearish (actual reason: I wanted to try real Italian gelato and pizza. Yes, a separate blog post is forthcoming.)

We flew back to Berlin for about 3 days, and then we headed out again, this time to Berrien Springs Michigan, U.S.A. for about a week as Bjorn had a speaking engagement at his alma mater over the weekend. I was excited as this trip was my first to the Midwest and I had the chance to see some really related relatives (Filipinos understand) and snuffle some very cute kids. (Post is coming, blah blah blah.)

We returned to Berlin, Germany, but only for 2 days. Then we were off to merry old England.

V is for visa problems
Now before we left Berlin, it had come to our attention that we needed visas to get into India. Between my American passport arrogance and Bjorn’s smugness in his Swedish one, we had blithely assumed that we would either get a visa waiver like we had in
Bangkok and Berlin, or could just pay a fee at the airport, like we did in Buenos Aires.

Nope. Turns out if you don’t have a visa, you can get deported. Some people said they were sure we could probably bribe our way through the airport. However, as we didn’t know the language or anyone there, I didn’t want to take the risk, especially after reading about the Indian prisons in “Shantaram,” which some well-meaning friends had loaned to me. And you know, all that stuff about bribing being illegal and immoral.

Instead of an hours-long layover in London, we decided to stick around and try to get our visas in England. Unfortunately, we lost the last leg of our round-the-world ticket as British Airways couldn’t seem to comprehend that we wanted to leave later, nor would they give us any credit for the flights we didn’t use (why British Airways, why??)

It was Oct. 2. We set about the task of getting our visas to India from England, only to discover that we had to mail our passports in and it would take 15 working days to get them, not including mail processing and delivery time. This proved to be a problem, as we were attending a wedding in the United States (in Georgia! My first time in the South!) and were planning to leave on Oct. 17.

We decided not to apply for the visas in England after all, as we didn’t want to chance mailing our passports in and then not having them for our trip to the States.

We spent a few pleasant weeks in England with Bjorn’s family, taking brisk walks which did nothing to mitigate the vast amounts of food we were consuming. Then we were off to Hotlanta! (Forthcoming post, yadda yadda yadda.)

After a spectacular time in the South that included copious amounts of Coca-Cola sodas and a wedding assistant marveling at my multiple plate, double-fisted eating style at the wedding buffet, we jetted back to England.

Looking for a shortcut
We had learned that it only took 6 days to get a visa to India from Bangkok, Thailand, so we bade a fond farewell to England and arrived in Bangkok around the end of October.

We went to the visa office the very next day, after spending two hours filling out forms online and another hour and a half spent in getting our visa photos and traveling to the office.

The very first thing we were asked: “Have you booked your hotel and flights already?”

Well, no. But we did have the numbers for the flights we would like to take and the details for the hotel we would book when we got our visas.

But it wasn’t good enough. We countered with, “If we book our flights and hotel tonight and come back tomorrow, can you guarantee that we will get the visas on the sixth working day?”

Well, no, she couldn’t. In fact, she couldn’t guarantee that we would get a visa at all.
If we did get one, she told us it might take up to 10 working days.

If we booked our flights and hotel with the 10-working days timeline In mind, it meant that Bjorn and I would only be in India for a week before we had to catch a flight back to Bangkok and England.

By this point, we were plenty fed up with all the hurdles and hassles, and couldn’t see how we would be able to find and do meaningful service projects in that amount of time. Why not stay in Bangkok where we had connections and could pick up where we left off on our previous service projects?

So we did.

The best-laid plans…
Our plan to live in four world cities that begin with “B” is ending up more like 3 1/2 cities (I have to give Bracknell, England, props as we did spend a good amount of time there), but one thing I’ve learned about international living and travel: You have to be determined enough to move, but flexible enough to stay.

Besides, there’s a Little India here. Maybe that will be close enough. (I’m kiiiiidding. Relax.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Service — The truth

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For the past few weeks, I have been enjoying the use of a thin, black vinyl raincoat. I never thought I would like an item of clothing this much, but it has provided a warm, dry shelter more times than I can count already, and it doesn’t look half bad on me, if I do say so myself. Besides being useful, stylish and indispensable, it was also wholly unexpected.

Here’s how I got it:

It was the last week of our donation sorting project at Stadt Mission. We had finished pairing and sorting the mountain of shoes the week before. As you may recall (but if you don’t, here’s a handy link), this project had not been one of my favorites. It was dirty, nasty, hot, isolated work and I was beyond relieved that we didn’t have to do it anymore. Instead, we were given the task of sorting coats that were to be given to the homeless and/or needy.

Surprisingly, the job was not so much about sorting as throwing away. Apparently, the organization receives so many donations that many of the coats had to be removed to make room for the new ones.  We were given very specific instructions. Coats with buttons (when you’re really cold/old/disabled, it is harder to button than zip), coats that didn’t look modern, and anything that had the slightest stain/rip/deformity was thrown into trash bags.

We must have filled at least 20 bags. At first it seemed like a huge waste of clothing. But the more I thought about it, the more I was touched by the thoughtfulness inherent to the instructions. Not only did they provide for the physical needs of the homeless/impoverished, but they also aimed at preserving their dignity.

During our break, the other workers called us into the main room for  drinks and snacks.  A rack of beautiful, real fur coats was in the room. I am defenseless against soft, furry objects and couldn’t help moving over to it to pet the sleeves.

One of the head volunteers (the donation sorting is run by a mother-daughter team) noticed and said, “As a goodbye and thank-you gift, we would like to give each of you one item of your choosing.” We could choose from anything they had down there. They literally had tons of stuff of every item imaginable. Not to mention those fur coats, which were worth at least 100 euros each (and that was the discount price they were to be sold at, not their original ones).

The offer was tempting but we balked. It just felt wrong. We had been doing this service project to help others, not ourselves.

We vigorously protested and hit upon the fool-proof argument that because of luggage restrictions, we couldn’t take anything. They kept pressing us to take something, at least one of the coats. We countered that as we were going to India, we wouldn’t need them.

Finally, the other head volunteer produced two new, black, weatherproof jackets. She pressed them upon us and we couldn’t say no to her (she is a Mom, after all). They were thin and light enough to refute our luggage concerns, and she said, we would need them.

She was right. Since we received our jackets about 3 weeks ago, the weather in Berlin has turned from sunny to rainy, from warm to chilly. That jacket has become my go-to outerwear item.

But I cherish that jacket not only because it protects me from the elements, but because it also serves as a reminder to me. When I see it, I don’t just see its color and shape, I see the kindness of the gift, that people wanted to take care of me despite my protests. I see that people were looking ahead into my future and trying to provide for my needs. I see that people literally fought to show their appreciation for me.

When I look at that jacket, I see the truth about service: When you serve others, you help yourself more than you know.

Self involved

In light of the above statement, some may conclude that service is inherently selfish; because you receive so many benefits from helping others, it is not truly selfless. From there it’s a hop, skip and an insanity jump to thinking  that you must make yourself miserable so that others can be happy.

I reject the notion that in order to perform real service you can not be as happy as the person you performed the service for, that you must make them happier than yourself. First of all, who can measure such a thing? If I am smiling and they are smiling, how do I know whose joy is greater?  If I am laughing and they are smiling, is it not condescending and incorrect to think that their joy is not as great as mine?

And why must there be a monopoly on the peak of happiness? Is it fair or even logical to think that because I or someone else is at the peak of happiness, no one else can be?

(Although if at the end of “helping someone” you are bubbly and cheerful and they are miserable and crying, or vice versa, I would say it’s a good bet real service did not occur. Real service does involve empathy.)

Real service: The enigma within the paradox within the swirling vortex of confusion

I believe it is possible to do good things for bad reasons. By that I mean: doing things to help others because your end goal is really about helping yourself, whether to curry favor or to look good, etc. But in the end, that is not real service.

Real service is about taking the focus off yourself, and doing things because you are truly thinking about others’ needs and how to  help them. In doing so, you can’t help but improve yourself as well.

It’s a paradox that still manages to surprise me. I guess because it seems so oxymoronic.

The message of society today that is subtly and not-so-subtly enforced seems to be: If I put others before me, I will suffer. It’s dog-eat-dog. Everyone must be in it to win it — for themselves.

Most everyone says: Of course you should help others! But the real subtext is: Help others—but only to a point, don’t let them get ahead of you and definitely don’t do it if it causes you discomfort in any way.

But Jammie, some might say, isn’t it possible to do good things for the right reasons and just wear yourself out? To be so attentive to the needs of others that you neglect yourself and end up feeling and being worse off than before?

To that I say, if you were truly trying to serve others, you would know that a mentally and physically healthy you is in the best position to help others. If you are working yourself to death, I would suspect there are other motivations fueling you. Real service spurs you to grow and to improve.

Common good

Many, many people have told me they admire what Bjorn and I are doing and that they could not do it themselves. But the truth of the matter is that everyone can.

Real service is not all big projects in exotic, foreign locations but the quiet acts performed in the details of daily life.

Real service is empathy and action based on it.

At the heart of real service is doing for others what you would want done for you.

So I guess those people who say that service is not self-less are correct, in a way. Your self must be involved.  You must give yourself to others to perform real service. You must involve your love, your concern, your time.

But in return, you get more than you thought possible. While gaining happiness for yourself should not be the end goal, it is a hallmark of real service.

Truly, a life of service is the life best-lived.

Lost for words

Flat Natalie and I stand at the border of the "American Sector" in Berlin, Germany, but English is spoken throughout the city.
Flat Natalie and I stand at the border of the “American Sector” in Berlin, Germany, but English is spoken throughout the city.

In Bangkok, I learned how to say numbers, greetings, “Thank you,” “Yes/No,” “No meat,” “How much?” and the names of my favorite dishes in Thai (although if you asked me  to say them now, all you would get is a puzzled stare).

In Buenos Aires, my Spanish improved to the point where I could have very basic conversations with people (it especially helped if those people were under the age of 10).

In Berlin,  my German vocabulary has topped out at “How are you?” “Good-bye,” “Excuse me,” “Yes/No” and “Breakfast” (yes, I wake up too late most days to technically have this meal, but I just like saying “frustuck” (frouh-stook)).

While I firmly believe it is important to respect the language and customs of your host country, my desire to become a polyglot is still stuck at desire rather than actual polyglot-ness (maybe because I use words like polyglot-ness). Besides, I have heard that learning German is not the easiest of tasks. When I ask people who are actually enrolled in German classes what it’s like to learn the language, the answers have ranged from “hard” to “very hard” to “I want to die.”

Before this trip, I had hoped that simply being around a language would make it more familiar to me or easier to pick up. But I have discovered I am no sponge to foreign phrases or strange syllables. My language acquisition device only kicks in when necessary.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it turns out she’s also got a part-time job as the coat-check girl of language learning. By that I mean she’ll check in a few words at a time at an outrageous cost. She’ll begrudgingly hang them up in the closet of my mind, but doesn’t seem to notice or care when they fall to floor and become dusty and rumpled.  When I try to retrieve them, she makes me wait a long time and there’s no telling what may be missing  when she hands them over.

I feel kinda bad that I haven’t learned more German, but I’m impressed that I haven’t had to. I’d say it’s almost a guarantee that anyone under the age of 35 in Berlin will speak English fairly fluently, and most everyone else will have an inkling of what you’re saying.

In fact, I have found that in Berlin the most reliable indicator of English proficiency is someone saying, “My English is not good.” These words tend to preface intense, deep conversations on topics from  psychology to politics; they crop up again when the speaker is trying to remember words like “oscillate” or “synergistic.”

Plus, sometimes you don’t need words at all to communicate.

Late one night, I stepped into a kebab place for a doner (meat shaved from a vertical spit and served on flatbread). I wanted to know what type of meat was being used, but the man facing me across the counter was an older gentleman who didn’t speak English. No one was around to help translate. After I said, “Hallo,” I was at a loss for words.

I frowned.

He frowned.

Stepping closer to the counter, I pointed at the rotating meat and said loudly, “Mooooo or bawk-bawk-bawk?” (Complete with arm-flapping movements, I might add.)

He tucked his hands into his armpits and literally bent over laughing. He straightened up, shook his head and said, still laughing a little,  “Moooo.”

He then proceeded to shave one of the largest piles of meat I have ever seen onto my flatbread.

And it was, as they say around here, sehr gut.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dwarfed by history at the Cotswolds

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Cotswolds in England. I was told it was an area of exquisite beauty, with wonderful historic homes, babbling waterways and views of unparalleled loveliness. So of course the first thing I saw was the hordes of tourists, spilling out of the shops and jamming the sidewalks at Bourton-on-the-Water, a village in the Cotswolds.

But no matter. The crowds actually added liveliness to the scene rather than detracting any pleasure. All was picturesque and pleasing; the streets full of cobblestones, the shallow river with ducks, dogs and the occasional small child. Plus, it was a fine English day of cool breezes and warm sunshine.

And then I stepped into the Twilight Zone. Or, as it is otherwise known, the Model Village. The Model Village is a 1:9 replica of Bourton-on-the-Water. At first, I was delighted by the accurate layout and signage of the scaled-down village. I was charmed by the extra touches: If you pressed your ear against the miniature churches’ windows, you could actually hear choir music. I thrilled at feeling like Gulliver, tromping through a tiny town. Then I saw IT and I was quickly brought down to size.

IT was a model of the Model Village — with another model of the model of the Model Village within! (Yes, you read that right.) It was a surreal moment, like looking at a reflection of yourself within two mirrors that are reflecting each other. I was tempted to think about the nature of reality, my place in the universe and physical dimensions vs. time, but fortunately I was hauled from the brink of that dismal abyss of pseudo-philosophical existential inquiry by another pressing issue: I felt a bit peckish.

After a leisurely, delicious picnic lunch along the banks of the river in dappled sunlight (eat your heart out, Jane Austen!), we decided to take a stroll over to some other villages in the Cotswolds. As we tramped along a trail beside a field of tall golden grass, we encountered some surprising denizens: llamas, calmly chewing clumps of sod in the front yard of a farm. More surprises were in store for us, as a little farther down the trail we encountered two rather fat, friendly MINIATURE PONIES that greedily ate grass from our hands.

Man, I heart this place so much.

After an especially lovely stretch of trail along a babbling brook which passed beneath a cathedral of trees, we emerged in the Slaughters, or more particularly, Lower Slaughter. Far from being a scene of bloodied animal parts or foolish young folk running amok with handheld video recorders and chainsaws, Lower Slaughter is a quaint village of undeniable charm. Slaughter, according to the thecotwoldsguide.com, comes from the old English word “Slohtre,” “which has nothing to do with killing things and means, simply, ‘Muddy place.'”

Besides being idyllic, the village is home to Lower Slaughter Manor, a grand home of beauteous proportions that has been turned into a hotel. Local lore has it that the poet John Milton wrote his epic “Paradise Lost” while in a Slaughter house (har har), and I mistakenly thought it was at the Lower Slaughter Manor House. However, Eyford House in Upper Slaughter is the actual/alleged site. I did not know this at the time; as a survivor of UCLA’s English 10 series and author of “Baal and Asherah: Bad-Ass Demons of “Paradise Lost,” (I was inordinately proud of the acronym B.A.D. that was formed in that title, as well as the use of “Bad-Ass” in an official college essay—ah, such are the follies of youth), I still swooned in ignorant bliss in front of the Lower Slaughter Manor House.

Around an acute corner from the most perfect cottage imaginable lies the Old Mill. The Old Mill is apparently home to a tea room, museum and gift shop, but all I was interested in was the homemade organic ice cream sold there. I had the Butter Crunch flavor which tasted like Butter Pecan to me, only with toffee chips and minus the pecans. Very tasty, fairly creamy but not heavy, and the perfect end to a wonderful day.

 

 

What it’s really like to travel on Ryanair

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’d heard the stories about budget airlines in Europe: how sometimes it costs less to fly than take the train, how you could pay fares so low you were basically only paying for the cost of fuel. My inner cheapskate was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to take advantage of the low fares and begin jetting all over Europe.

And then I discovered why the fares were so low.

Bjorn and I recently traveled to England from Berlin on Ryanair to visit his parents and celebrate his dad’s birthday. My in-laws wisely reminded us to check the luggage requirements before we left. Feelings of unease began to creep up as I read through them. For starters, they charge you to check-in bags. OK, fair enough. But you pay from $33 (25 euros) – $134 (100 euros) to check in one, 33 lb. bag during  high season.

But I quelled the jitters as we were just going for a long weekend and using carry-on luggage. Then  I saw the requirements for the carry-on luggage:

– Strictly one item of cabin baggage per passenger. That means only one piece of luggage can be in your hands.  Handbags/briefcases/ laptops/shop purchases/cameras etc had to carried within the carry-on. They thoughtfully and generously added that infants were not seen as cabin baggage. (Although maybe they meant that babies couldn’t have cabin baggage. Or maybe they meant babies could have MORE than one item of cabin baggage. You never know, babies do seem to travel with a lot of accessories. Boy,  that’s some imprecise  wording. But I digress.)
-The cabin baggage can weigh at most 22 lbs (10 kg).
-The dimensions of the bag can not exceed 55 cm x 40 cm x 20 cm (21.7 in. x 15.7 in. x 7.9 in.). As our Internet connection was down, I racked my mind trying to remember how many centimeters are in an inch and  tried to do the conversions in my head, but I only ended up developing a throbbing pain behind my right ear. I gave up and packed all my stuff into a large, squishy, reusable shopping bag, reasoning that if it proved to be too big, I could (hopefully) crumple it down to a more appropriate size.

As we approached our gate at the airport, we were greeted by the sight of a line that looked like it spanned the length of a football field. Oh, I thought, they must be in line to board the plane already.

But no. It was just the line to get into gate area’s waiting lounge. When we finally made it in, my eyes couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing at first. Why were there so many people in here? Surely they couldn’t all fit into one plane. And why were most of them standing? I estimated there was seating for less than half of the passengers of that flight. People were standing, sitting on the floor, wedged tightly into corners. It didn’t resemble an airport lounge so much as a crammed cattle pen.

Bjorn and I squeezed ourselves into a space between 3 banks of seats. They announced our plane was here. I expected everyone to get into orderly lines and file onto the plane according to their boarding groups. Silly me.  Everyone sprang up out of their seats (if they had one) and flung themselves out the doors, of course. It was pandemonium, contained (barely) by the walls of the room and the narrowness of the exit.

Fortunately, Bjorn and I happened to be seated near the exit and managed to get two seats next to each other on the plane. And that’s about the only thing we got on that flight.

Ryanair gives out nothing for free to its passengers, not even the paper for your boarding pass (you must print it out yourself). No snacks, no coffee/tea/soda, not even water.

Now I’ve flown budget airlines before, notably Southwest Airlines in the United States (although it probably isn’t fair to put Ryanair and Southwest in the same class. Southwest is indubitably better than even the larger commercial airlines like United, Delta or American Airlines.) On Southwest flights, funny/cheerful flight attendants hand out free snacks (peanuts or pretzels, but sometimes both!) and drinks. Pro tip: If asking for water, you can ask for an entire can. It’s better than scrabbling after a flimsy cup that always seems determined to fly out of my hands. Plus, you don’t have to leave your seat tray down so you can have a place to put said cup. You can just stuff the can into the seat pocket in front of you.

Ryanair doesn’t even give you a seat pocket. No, seriously. The first thing I noticed was the smooth, plastic back of the chair in front of me. No barf bags, no magazines that are little more than pages for ads, no place to surreptitiously stuff your trash. They don’t even have buttons to recline the chair (although I must say I was grateful for that feature.)

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Their tagline is the “Low Fares Airline” not  “You’ll love the way we fly.” They don’t claim to be “doing what they do best” or that theirs is “the way to fly.”

To be fair, both of our flights were on time, we got to all our destinations safely and at the end of the day, that’s what really matters.

So Ryanair, despite your shortcomings, I may be seeing you again. After all, I love to fly and it shows.

-Photos by Bjorn Karlman

 

 

A park where you can rest in peace — literally

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When I was little, my siblings and I played this game in a park, “Hot Lava Tag,” where you couldn’t touch the grass (it was the hot lava), and to evade the person who was “It,” you had to hop around on shiny, flat, rectangular stones set into the ground.

Well, that “park” turned out to be the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, those shiny flat stones — gravestone markers; and when our mother found out what we’d been doing, our bottoms learned some hard truths about showing respect to the dead.

But now I’ve found a place in Berlin where you can play AND pay respect. Leise Park was created on the site of the former St. Marien-St. Nicolai cemetery in Prenzlauer Berg. Some of the grave markers and headstones were left intact in the park. Park benches, hammocks and even some playground equipment (!) were put in.

The Visit Berlin site says that seeing the grave stones “doesn’t put you off at all,” but I am here to tell you it is a little weird to see headstones and a family playing jumprope within 10 feet of each other.

But the atmosphere is not creepy or spooky at all. Families and tons of kids gather here. The park rings with high, young voices whooping and galloping about. Single denizens come, too. Although it’s not a large park, it’s still possible to find a quiet corner or two to read a book.

I laughed at the idea of taking naps in a hammock close to a headstone, but I think I have found my new favorite urban/rural juxtaposition. I am fascinated by the entire space. Like much of Berlin, it is green, green, green. (Fun fact: Berlin has more than 2,500 parks and gardens and almost a fifth of the city is covered in trees, according to visitberlin.de)

Main dirt paths branch off into smaller trails, some barely more than indentations among the tall, overgrown plants. Like I said, it’s not a large park, but the meandering, small trails make it feel bigger than it is. And walking these trails can be quite the adventure. Next time I go, I will know to wear pants and not a skirt. Many of the park’s plants have been left to their own devices and grow in wild abandon; this is not the place to see well-manicured topiaries or prize-winning rose bushes.

If, however, you feel like spreading a blanket and having a picnic, or enjoy running around in your swimsuit while wielding a water gun, this just might be the place for you.

 

Service — The Bad

Bjorn holds up some shoes that need their mates during our shoe-sorting service project in Berlin. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)
Bjorn holds up some shoes that need their mates during our shoe-sorting service project in Berlin. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)

Let me preface this post by saying that no service project that aims to truly help people is bad — unless by “helping people” that means helping self-interested parties to wider profit margins by taking advantage of free labor from naive volunteers that work like dogs.  That sort of service project is not just bad,  it’s ugly.

I believe they are also sometimes called internships (ba-dum-pum!)

Seriously though, I have found a surefire way to sour any service project: Take the focus off of others and turn it on yourself. I can almost guarantee that thinking about the self makes any service project less fun, less satisfying,  more intolerable and more likely to make you lose it in an embarrassing, foaming-at-the-mouth bit of frenzy.

For example:

Bjorn and I decided to check out donation sorting. A service organization needed help with organizing goods that were given to them. The goods were either given to the homeless/impoverished or sold in their second-hand stores which cycled the profits from the sales into more programs helping the needy.

I pictured myself holding up items of clothing and commenting on their cuteness and/or tittering over their excessive ugliness with the other volunteers. All would be lightness and gaiety. Oh, the times we would have!

When we showed up at the appointed meeting spot, we were led downstairs into the basement. We were shown through a rabbit-warren of rooms until we reached one that was piled floor-to-ceiling with dusty, stuffed, plastic garbage bags in the front. In one corner, boxes upon boxes overflowed with old shoes.

We were told the shoes needed to be matched, then the pairs separated into three categories: shoes for the needy; shoes that could be sold in the second-hand stores; and shoes that needed to be thrown away. Plus, they needed to be sorted for size and gender.

We were kindly offered drinks and a radio. Then we were left there. By ourselves.

It was eerily quiet. The walls were made of concrete blocks and the one tiny window near the ceiling was taped over with plastic. A lone, naked bulb cast light for the entire room. Although we were underground, the room felt like it was growing warmer.

About 15 minutes later, someone came to check on us. “How are you doing?” she asked.

“It’s sorta hot in here,” I said, steam fogging up my glasses, beads of sweat dripping from my hairline.

“Yeah,” she said sympathetically, “the heating system for the entire building runs through this room.”

Jammie sorts shoes during a service project in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)
Jammie sorts shoes during a service project in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Bjorn Karlman)

The heat got worse. And so did my mood. Sorting shoes is a dirty, nasty, time-consuming process. First, we dumped a box of shoes onto the ground. Then we picked through them, looking for matching pairs. When we found one, and if the insides of the shoes looked OK, we put it in a box of the right size and gender. Labels had to be made by hand and taped onto the boxes. Many times, the shoes did not have their size printed on them, so we went from box to box, comparing them. Within minutes, my hands were filthy and curiously (also sickeningly) sticky.

Bitter thoughts crept in. This is just poor people management, I fumed. Why would they have newbie volunteers doing the worst jobs? They should start new volunteers on easy and fun jobs to get them hooked. Then, once those volunteers are committed, the organization can ask them to take on harder tasks. Better yet, why not have the people they actually pay (we found out a person at the donation center gets paid part-time) do the dirty work??

Longingly, I thought about places that do volunteering right, like the Feather River Hospital in Paradise, Calif. Volunteers there commit to only four hours a week (we were working a six-hour shift in one day), eat for free in the cafeteria, have a volunteer banquet held for them four times a year and some of their volunteer activities seem to require doing little more than smiling at people.

Still ruminating furiously over my perceived ill treatment, I turned an eye on Bjorn. He was humming happily, glancing over at the movie playing on his iPhone and doing much, MUCH less work than me, I thought.

Bjorn seemed to sense the change in the winds. He is an extremely perceptive man, with acute social and emotional intelligence. Plus, he may have noticed that I was glaring at him with enough intensity to rival Superman’s heat vision, mouth in a straight line, breathing heavily through my nose.

He deftly suggested we take our lunch break.

The change in environment and the food (of course, the food) helped to calm me down. Plus, it gave me time to reflect on some things:

1.) Just because all true service projects are good, does not mean that all are a good fit. It is wise to know yourself, your capabilities — and to set boundaries in accordance.

2.) Even with the above being said, you should still try new things and stretch yourself. I would not have learned the above if I had not tried this service project.

3.) Like I said at the beginning, focusing on self — how you’re feeling as opposed to how to help others — will make any service project, no matter how fun, a grizzly chore. After we got back from break, I began envisioning the people that would receive the shoes I had just matched. I imagined the comfort and protection the shoes would give, and how happy the people would be to have them. I started to smile again.

4.) Even if you absolutely hate the project, joy can still be found in a job well done. As I looked at the stacks of boxes around us, the order being created out of the chaos, I felt the  warm glow of satisfaction.

The second time we sorted shoes, it went much, much better. It went so well that we are almost done. We probably have only one more shift left before the project is done. I can’t say that I’m going to miss this project, yet I am glad we decided to stick it out.

But I’m pretty sure I’ll never look at a pair of shoes the same again.

Bjorn stands in front of stacks of boxes of sorted shoes after the first day of our service project in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)
Bjorn stands in front of stacks of boxes of sorted shoes after the first day of our service project in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Jammie Karlman)

Service — The Good

Today marks the start of a new chapter in Culturemutt history. My wife, Jammie, joins me as a blogger on the site. Her posts will focus more on our travels and our day-to-day activities. Take it away, Jammie!

Jammie helps set up a room in preparation for an Alzheimer Tanzcafe in Berlin, Germany. (Bjorn Karlman photo)
Jammie helps set up a room in preparation for an Alzheimer Tanzcafe in Berlin, Germany. (Bjorn Karlman photo)

Sometimes, you find a volunteer project that you thoroughly enjoy. It fits your tastes and energies exactly. The work you do instantly brings a smile to your face and to the people you are serving. In fact, it doesn’t feel like work at all. This kind of project is  gratifying on so many levels; in tangible and not-so-tangible ways, you know the project is a true benefit to others.

For me, that project was partying. With old people.

Bjorn and I helped out at an Alzheimer Tanzcafe (literally, dance cafe) recently in Berlin, Germany. It really did feel like we were getting ready for a party. We pushed tables together, put out chairs, laid out flatware. Bottles of mineral water were placed, napkins folded fancy, flower bouquets positioned.

The guests started to arrive. Most came in wheelchairs or with walkers. Many had caretakers or family members with them. Some didn’t have dementia or Alzheimer’s, but had other, varying disabilities. A few were not so old.

We went around the room with the other volunteers, shaking hands and greeting the  guests. Then we sat down at a table. Other volunteers came around, serving coffee and huge pieces of peach cheesecake. It was drier and more clumpy than the cheesecake I am used to in the U.S., but still very tasty.

We chatted amiably with the others at our table. Sometimes there were language obstacles, but it’s amazing what a cheerful smile and large hand gestures can do.

And then the magic happened.

The musician at the Alzheimer Tanzcafe also played the saxophone. (Bjorn Karlman photo)
The musician at the Alzheimer Tanzcafe also played the saxophone. (Bjorn Karlman photo)

The hired musician at the back of the room began playing old-school music on his huge synthesizer. Volunteers started asking people to dance. The coordinator pointed out a woman that I should approach.

I walked over to her with some hesitation. She sat unsmiling, her face a wreath of wrinkles, eyes staring blankly but resolutely past me, even when I was near. What if she didn’t want to dance with me? What if she refused? Now I know what a junior high boy feels like, I thought. I pasted a big smile on my face, bowed and held out my hand to her.

She put her hand in mine and immediately stood up. She led me to the dance floor and automatically and nimbly began dancing a waltz with me. She grabbed one of my hands and held the wrist of my other one. It was awkward.

As we made our way around the room, I realized I knew the tune; it was the “Blue Danube Waltz.” I begin to sing along with it, “La lala la la…”  She smiled, dropped my wrist and held me closer. She sang along with me.

The moment felt surreal: Here I was, waltzing to the “Blue Danube,” in Germany, with a woman. It was awesome.

My next dance partner held me close — real close. He, too, had sat with an emotionless mask on his face, but as soon as we got on the dance floor, he crushed me to his chest and began moving around in expert and complicated dance steps. I struggled to not step on his toes and maintain some space between us. I tried to crane my head back for more air, but he held me in a vise grip.

I said to Bjorn afterward, “I bet that guy was a player back in the day.”

Bjorn said, “Who, the tango guy?”

Ah, the tango!  Of course that’s what he had been doing. It all made sense now; the tango is a very close, intimate dance. I felt foolish and a little guilty for thinking the music seemed to revive more than memories in some.

I danced with several others. At one point, a conga line formed and we danced around the room — and around and around and around. It went on so long, most of the guests dropped out. It even got me tired.

But perhaps my favorite moments occurred with a dance partner from my own table. He had sat silent and unresponsive throughout the cake and coffee, even though his relatives had tried hard to engage him. They told me he had dementia. He didn’t speak or make eye contact with anyone. His balance didn’t seem too good, either. When he stood, I got the feeling that he could fall over at any time.

One of his relatives asked me to dance with him. He was already standing, gripping the back of a chair. He refused to dance with me. His relatives stood around him, softly cajoling him in German. Smiling, I held my hands out in front of him, palms up.  I began softly singing to him. He released his grip on the chair and took hold of my hands.

I led him onto the dance floor carefully. I started doing a slow two-step, hoping that he wouldn’t fall. I sang louder. He gripped my hands tighter. The louder I sang, the more he seemed to perk up. Steadily, he began moving my hands side to side in rhythm with the song. He took over the two-step. Pretty soon, he was leading me around the dance floor.

He was a very thoughtful partner. He never made eye contact with me, but I knew he was aware of me and was looking out for me. As he led me around the dance floor, he made sure I didn’t run into any objects and guided me so that we didn’t bump into the other dancers. When he was tired, he escorted me back to the table, and motioned me toward a seat. He didn’t sit down until I had — a gentleman until the end.

I was still smiling when all the guests had left. I smiled while gathering the dirty dishes and putting them away. I smiled while I hunched over and pushed the trolley of dirty dishes outside. I smiled as we walked to the bus stop and all the long way home. I was still smiling when we finally made it to our apartment.

Sometimes, the person who benefits most from a service project is me.