Thursday, June 30, 2011

London Part 1

Way back in March Diana bought us a trip to London as a birthday gift for me. The idea was that we'd do a few days there when my 90-day tourist visa was up and then come back to Spain with a new 90-day visa. Unfortunately, we later learned that the way tourist visas work in the Schengen EU countries (which England is not a part of), I could only be in Spain 90 out of every 180 days. Damn. Anyway, we decided that we'd still go to London for the few days and that I'd fly back to the U.S. from there and she'd head back to Spain.

We arrived into London on Wednesday morning and visited all the tourist hotspots during our three-day speed visit. One of the things that I had always heard about was the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. Umm...maybe because it was summertime or something but the place was a zoo and we couldn't see anything of the event. I got this one picture of actual guards in the plaza in front of the palace but I didn't get to see much else:

We bailed on the rest of the show and took a walk along the Thames river stopping by Westminster Abbey on the way. We didn't end up going in because the entry fee was something like $25 so we contented ourselves with some photos out front.

Can I just mention that I couldn't believe how expensive everything was? For example, the metro costs 4.40 Pounds (approximately $7 U.S.) for a pass that can be used all day after 9:30am. There's no cheaper single-ride option. I know part of the problem is that the U.S. dollar is almost worthless right now but, wow, was it expensive.

We eventually worked our way down to the Tate Modern Museum and hung out there for a couple of hours while one of London's rain storms passed by. I'm thinking that London's a little like Seattle in that when the sun actually does come out everyone says how beautiful the city is and how lucky they are to live there. In between those eight days per year though they stay inside and drink hot beverages.

Our next stop was a quick pass by Shakespeare's Old Globe Theater. The original was destroyed by fire but it was still cool to check out. Ironically enough, there's an exact copy in Balboa Park in San Diego so it seemed very familiar to me.

We walked all the way up to the famous Tower Bridge, which I guess many people confuse as the kid's nursery rhyme's London Bridge. The bridge is fantastic looking and there's an old castle off to one side.

Later we passed by the Royal Albert Hall, which is supposedly a great place to see live shows. One thing is that the name shouldn't be confused with a Prince Albert, which is something completely different.

Diana wanted to go check out the O2 Arena because of its textile construction. We took the metro up there and walked around inside and out. The structure was supposed to be temporary but they're now trying to keep it alive as a shopping and entertainment destination. The building's design is super cool, even for a non-architect like me.

On the way back towards the hotel we stopped to take some photos in front of the Parliament building and Big Ben. It was cold, windy, and rainy, which just seemed right somehow since we were in the heart of London.

London is nice to visit and it's probably the "easiest" place outside the U.S. I've ever gone to. I guess it helps that they speak an unusual form of English that's a little tough to understand but you can work your way through it and figure out what they're saying most of the time.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Engagement

If you're friends with me on Facebook you're already aware that I got engaged on June 18th (that's how far behind I am on posting). Since my blog is mostly a diary-of-sorts for me, I thought that I'd do a post so I'd remember it. :-)

Leading up to the big day, I had already talked with my sister and Pau about the possibility of Diana and I getting married. Both were extremely positive and supportive of the idea so I figured that the time was right. I also felt good about it because my dad and friends Chuck and Pug (all of whom I trust immensely) told me how great Diana is. So I went about trying to come up with a plan to get engaged that was romantic and something that we'd remember.

On the metro on the way back from visiting some friends, Diana and I were talking about what we were going to do long term since her Spanish citizenship and my U.S. citizenship wouldn't allow us to be together in either country for more than three months at a time. I mentioned to her that we really only had one option and she said "yes!" and then gave me a great big hug. Unfortunately, I never asked a question and the fact that we were in the metro approaching the Vall d'Hebron station, the whole "event" didn't meet the requirements that I had set for myself. It was neither romantic or something that we'd remember the details of for many years. What to do...what to do???

I needed some help so I talked with Pau and he, being a very smart man, talked with his wife Pili about helping me with an engagement party. We decided to use a pre-birthday BBQ that they were having for Pili that Saturday night for the big event. (Thanks Pili for sharing your birthday party with Diana and me.) Pau and I went out and bought some Cava (Spanish champagne) and some snacks for the party. On the way back we got to talking about the engagement ring, which I hadn't purchased yet. After some further consultation with Pili, Pau and I headed to a jeweler near Plaza Catalunya in the center of Barcelona to pick something up. Everything was ready at this point but what was I going to say?

I spent the next two days thinking about what I'd say, what stories I could tell. It got me thinking about our trip to China last year when Diana and I were in random restaurants where we couldn't communicate. Diana would lead the waiter around the restaurant and stop at different customers' tables, do a small bow, and proceed to order by pointing at the food she wanted. It was such a typical Diana move. I know it's strange but it was then that I knew that we'd probably end up getting married one day. It was the fact that I felt so safe with her, that with her I could get through any situation anywhere in the world...that she had no fear of anything, anyplace, or at any time. These things became the basis of my very-mangled-in-Spanish proposal "speech", which I'm still sure that no one present that day understood except for Diana.

So the big moment came. Pau and Pili served everyone champagne. I got "up front" and began my speech to Diana and the whole group. I told everyone about how my life in the past three years has ranged from super terrible to super great. I told everyone about how I never expected to find "the one" when I went to Spain last year. Diana started to cry a bit here. I told her that she couldn't cry. I then told the story about China and how Diana said "yes" to a question that I never asked in the metro that day. Everyone laughed. I felt good. I ended by asking Diana "quieres casarte conmigo?" (do you want to marry me?) She immediately said yes and we gave each other a big kiss.

Unfortunately, in my nervousness, I forgot to give her the ring, which I did about three minutes and 20 kisses and hugs from friends later. It all worked out in the end and now we're engaged.

Thanks to Pau and Pili for hosting (and sharing) the party with us. Being able to share the day with close friends was as romantic as I had hoped it'd be (in a Darren-and-Diana kind of way) and definitely something that we'll remember. Also, big hugs and kisses to everyone who came that day as well as to those who couldn't be there. XXOO!!

In true Diana fashion, by the following Monday night, we had met with the priest to confirm a date, the church to get a time slot reserved, and with the restaurant to host the reception. No time wasted there. The wedding will take place in late September of this year in Barcelona. It'll be a smallish event but we would love to have you attend. Please contact me for details if you're interested in coming and we hope to see you there!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Airline Repair Facility Tour

Wow! I'm really far behind posting stories. Don't worry though, I'm still alive and lot's been going on...LOTS!

On our first day in Frankfurt we did a BBQ with our hosts at their place. While drinking a couple of bottles of wine and eating some fabulous food, we were offered a chance to visit host #2's workplace for a tour. He's an aerospace engineer and works in projects and maintenance for a large commercial airline based in the city, which, due to a long legalese non-disclosure form that I signed, I can't mention by name. (Also, you'll note that the photos for this story have been partially blacked so that I could use them. There are so many more cool ones from the visit that I can't post.)

Have you ever thought about what it'd be like to go behind the scenes at your local international airport to see what goes on? Ever wonder what they're doing over in those huge hangers on the other side of the airport? I definitely did and couldn't wait to see it. My only other previous behind-the-scenes view of an airport was one time when I flew from Carlsbad to Las Vegas with the owner of my last company on his small plane. Landing on the main runway at McCarran with 737s in front of and behind us was an experience I'll never forget.

After arriving at the airport via the metro, we took an employee bus to one of the industrial-style entrances on the other side. There's a visitor's center (sorry-no photos allowed) there that's mainly for vendors and other official visitors but it's also set up for the occasional friend or family that comes to visit an employee. The waiting room had two sets of three coach-class airplane seats and not much else. I was hoping for an upgrade but it wasn't going to happen on this trip. Oh yeah, there were no pretzels or peanuts provided while we waited.

When host #2 arrived, we had to pass through a security checkpoint that is identical (sorry-no photos allowed) to the one you go through to fly on a commercial flight--identification check, metal detector, x-ray tunnel, etc.--but without the U.S.-government sponsored "massages". And with that, we were on our way into the first big hanger where there were several planes undergoing different types of maintenance. It was very cool to be able to walk get up and personal with both the planes and the staff.

We then went through one of the buildings where they disassemble, inspect, and reassemble the engines. It's amazing how many small blades there are inside a jet engine. Each one needs to be taken out, sent out for inspection/rework, and then reassembled back into the engine. The engines are then set aside for use in the next plane that needs them.

From there, we got to see one of the main "control" rooms where all the facilities planning is managed. Having done a ton of facilities planning over the years, it made me happy to see that they were using model planes with magnets attached to them on a large magnetic white board (sorry-no photos allowed) to allocate space for each of the planes needing servicing.

From there, we got to check out the cockpits and crew quarters of a couple of the planes. It was interesting to see the differences that host #2 pointed out between the two main companies that manufactured the planes we saw. For example, one company uses a joystick-based control system where the other uses a "steering wheel" style of control.

Have you ever wondered where the crew disappears to on those long, international flights? They might just be hanging out in the crew clubhouses built into the recesses of the planes. We got to see one area that was behind and above the rear bathrooms in a 747. There were several bunks and a tiny bit of space for the crew to nap/relax. One of the other planes we saw had a system where they place a "crew-container" into the belly of the plane. The crew accesses it via stairs or a small elevator located in a closet next to one of the middle bathrooms. The container looks just like one of those large metal cargo boxes that they load into the plane except that these ones have some bunks and space for the crew.

Another walking-around photo:

One of the things that I learned on the tour that I had no idea is that they regularly reconfigure the seats in the plane depending on the route and demand for seats. Host #2 told me that it can be done in "a couple of hours", which allows for them to offer more or less of certain classes of seating. Prior to this, I assumed that the seating in a plane was relatively static, rarely if ever moved.

The last part of our tour was probably the most important--the employee dining room! We got to sample a bunch of company-subsidized food from the cafeteria, which, as with tour and everything else from that day, was first-class! What an amazing opportunity! Life's pretty good, isn't it? :-)

A special thanks to our hosts (who requested to remain nameless) for the amazing time we had on our trip to Frankfurt and to Diana for knowing lots of pretty amazing folks. Let's all meet up again soon--maybe in northern Thailand???

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Frankfurt's Book Kiosks

Every once in a while I come across something that is so culturally descriptive it's amazing. While walking around one neighborhood in Frankfurt, I saw a metal and glass box that was a little smaller than a phone booth (look at the picture if you're too young to know what a phone booth is):

When I got closer I could see that it was full of books and it was UNLOCKED! What? Did someone forget to lock these books up?!? Not at all. This kiosk is apparently some sort of book-exchange system.

Using Google Translate, I determined the note on official letterhead that's attached to the side says something along the lines of "This community-sponsored free book exchange is open 24 hours per day and you are welcome to take a book and bring it back when you're done. Please leave books that you feel others might enjoy. Books for children are on the bottom shelf."

Germans are known for being super smart, very systematic, and honest among others. This book kiosk pretty much sums it up for me. I love the idea of a community-based book exchange if I can just figure out how to load them on my Kindle.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


If you've read my blog for any amount of time you'll know that one of my favorite things to write about is all the food that I get a chance to try while traveling. Germany was another chance to try some new stuff...

Having grown up in Philadelphia, I was excited to eat as many German soft pretzels as I could stuff into my gullet, which I least three or four per day during my visit. Trust me, I definitely overdid it with the pretzels! I also had the chance to try a new-to-me local specialty drink called apfelwein.

Apfelwein is an apple-based (alcoholic) cider that's from the Hesse state (and region) of Germany of which Frankfurt is one of the main cities. It looks sort of like pineapple juice because of its "milky" yellow-gold color. With my love of all things sour, like Sour Patch Kids for example, the puckery-apple flavor was right on target. This was the first apfelwein I had during the trip. I enjoyed it and some local pound cake along with our gracious hosts while we hung out on the Main river:

The glass, called a Geripptes ("ribbed" in German), that apfelwein is served in is also a tradition. From what I understand, the diamond pattern was first created back when people would eat greasy food with their hands and they had a hard time keeping the glass from slipping. I'm not sure if that's true but it's cool that they've kept the tradition alive. Apfelwein and the Geripptes are such a part of the local culture that a local office building was built in the style of the glass!

One night while we were in town, we went to a modern Japanese dance show at a local theater with our hosts and a couple of their friends. It's actually kind of funny because I (from the U.S.) went to a Japanese dance performance in Germany with people from Colombia and China (we did have one local but he was from another area of Germany) followed by an Italian dinner. How many times have you gotten to cross off six countries at one time? It was a very fun and interesting night. Here's the apfelwein-in-a-bottle that I had that night:

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Frankfurt Germany

I wasn't sure what I would find in Frankfurt. Other than a six-hour overnight layover in Munich last year, this was my first visit to Germany. I've heard from so many people that it's super organized, very clean, and generally a nice place. To me, it sounds a lot like Calgary except with Oompah bands and Lederhosen instead of Poutine and hockey players. :-)

Well, it turns out that Frankfurt is a bit like Canada. It is very clean, well planned, the people are awesome, and it is indeed a nice place. Most things look new. What is extremely different is that Canada didn't get flattened during the second world war, which accounts for the newness of everything. Here's a photo that I took of some photos in a local museum in the center of town that shows the damage in the area immediately surrounding the cathedral:

I was told by our hosts that most of the town that exists today has been built since 1945 and that my vision of what Germany looks and feels like is probably more in line with towns in the Bavarian region (and unbeknownst to them, what I saw in European Vacation). Frankfurt is trying to remake their historical core using traditional German architectural styles in an attempt to recover a bit of history that was lost. This area is the same one as in the photo above. You can see the very cool cathedral in the background and some of the new "historical" buildings in the foreground:

Like I mentioned, Frankfurt is a modern city that serves as Germany and Europe's financial and banking center. There are tons of banks here including the main offices of the European Central Bank, home of the Euro:

Frankfurt's a cool city to hang out in. If you've ever flown into/out of the massive Frankfurt airport, you probably know that the area is actually called Frankfurt Main (pronounce "mine") due to it being the "Frankfurt (located) on the Main" river, which runs through the middle of the city:

If you're curious, I didn't really see many indications, other than the display above and all the new-ish buildings, of what had happened in Frankfurt before, during, or after the war. I have to be honest that I didn't look too hard but this concentration camp memorial was the only large thing I stumbled upon:

So, in review...what I didn't find during my visit to Frankfurt were tall blond-haired blue-eyed people, beer drinkers, and overly-punctual folks. Oh, wait, yes I did but, unfortunately, I never actually saw any Oompah bands or anyone wearing Lederhosen. Maybe next time...

So why was I in Frankfurt you ask? I was there to attend the Techtextile/Texprocess/Tensinet textile trade show and fair at the Messe Frankfurt Conference Center. It's a textile-industry trade show that covers anything related to textiles, similar in style to more clothing-oriented Colombiatex that I went to earlier this year.

But the real reason for the whole trip was that Diana won an industry-sponsored award for the revolutionary research she's doing on lightweight structures for her PhD. Techtextil and Tensinet paid for the airfare and a couple of night's hotel and held a ceremony the night before the trade show started. Here's everyone's favorite international world-traveling Chiquinquireña accepting the award for all her hard work:

Congrats to Diana on winning earning the award. Estoy orgulloso de ti!

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Over the past two days I've had three different people ask (or tell) me, in one way or another, how I've done what I've done (take off and travel long term) and/or that they wished they could do (or would have done) the same. Without thinking about it, I told them each a variation on the same theme, which I thought that I'd expand on a little here.

I continue to do a lot of reflection on what's happened and is happening in my life; the experiences, who I've met/known, and what I've learned and continue to learn. I've also been reading a ton, both in old-fashioned books on my Kindle as well as online, and have learned so much. All of it has added up over time resulting in an ever-changing view of the world. Where is Darren now? In such a different place than where I was when I started this blog.

Because you may not be familiar with my back story (up to mid-2008), here's the 40+ year summary in 22 words:

Grew up. Went to school. Started a relationship. Got the degree. Got the job. Got all the stuff. Chose a different path.

The results of that choice, both intended and not, are what would forever change me; the events that directly or indirectly resulted in who and where I am now.

At first, I didn't know what to do but I slowly realized that I wanted to leave San Diego for a while, see some of the world, and have the opportunity to reflect and learn more about myself. So, in December 2009, after losing, selling, or giving away almost everything that I've ever had, I left.

And I traveled, moved to a new country, met new people, and have been out living and learning. I learned very quickly that I didn't need much "stuff" and that I preferred having very few possessions. Once all the stuff was out of the way, everything was much easier to see; there was nothing to hide behind. I grew to appreciate that I have no control over the past and that I need to let it go and that I needed to live in the here-and-now. I also continued to learn that what I valued was my family and friends. They're what keep me wanting to be here--what make life worth living.

Recently I came across a blog by a guy named Derek K. Miller who was from Vancouver, Canada. Derek, who I never knew, was born a few months after me and, for all practical purposes, had a life not unlike mine--growing up, the career, the relationship, and the "required" stuff (in his case he had kids too). The big difference (so far) is that he developed cancer and recently died because of it. As part of his preparation for a death that he knew was coming, he wrote a blog post, which is almost perfect. I can't do it justice but in it he says how grateful he was for the life he led, how amazing the world is, how much he loved his family, and how he doesn't regret anything. You need to read it. Go ahead. (Please do it now, and then come back.)

Wow. Right?

When I was a kid I always said that I wanted to live each day like it was my last. To live a life where I would be content if I didn't wake up tomorrow. I kept that belief for a long time but life crept up on me and I lost touch with it. It snapped back into consciousness hard in January of 2009. The finality of it all. As my sister-in-law says, One Life One Chance. When we're dead, that's it. No more chances. No more hopes. No more dreams. No more opportunities to visit that friend...or to go to that place...or to read that book...or see your kid's soccer game...or to be that person you've always wanted to be...or [fill in the blank with what you've been putting off]... You're gone. And done. No, actually, just DONE.

I'm committed to live my life in a way that allows me to experience and learn the maximum each day. To live life like I might die tomorrow. I'm not living crazy or doing silly skydiving stunts or something. No. I'm just focused on taking advantage of what we have while we're alive. I've learned this both from people who I loved who are no longer here and continue to learn it from all the people who are still in my life.

For me, it originally took my world imploding for me to go out and travel long term but you have a choice. I'm not saying that in your case you should dump everything and travel the world. I guess what I am saying to you (and repeating to myself) is: Don't Wait. Realize that tomorrow is not guaranteed. One day you too will be done. Do those things. Be that person. Call that friend. Go to that place. Do it for yourself. Do it for those you love and who love you. Do it all and don't regret anything, but if you do, better to regret what you did than what you didn't. This is where I am now or, more accurately, this is Where Darren Is Now.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Travel Learnings #2: Personal Space

Travel Learnings is an occasional feature where I share things that I've learned while "out on the road". The topics, which are intended to help you when you travel, will include travel tips, how-to tips, photography tips, an occasional random topic related to travel, or even just fun "hmmm...that's interesting" stuff. To make them easier to find, they'll all have the title and tag "Travel Learnings:". I hope you find them helpful and entertaining. I'd love your feedback via email and/or in the comments section below.

Today's travel learning is about personal space. In the U.S. we tend to have lots of space around us; we get our own bedrooms as kids, we drive to work solo in our cars, and we often have cubicles or offices at work. Each one of those places is OUR space--no one else's. It wasn't until I started traveling a lot more to a lot more places that I learned that my idea of personal space wasn't everyone's idea of personal space. From what I can tell, everyone else's idea of personal space ranges from smaller than mine to much smaller than mine.

To try to illustrate my view of various places' personal space, I'm going to use the example of when people (who you don't know) are waiting in line at the airport/bus station or when you're waiting in line to enter something like a museum. Leonardo Da Vinci did a famous drawing called the Vitruvian Man to demonstrate the proportions of the human body but I'm going to hack that up to show the relative personal space that I've experienced. I'm not saying that one version of personal space is better than another, just that they're different and it's a cultural feature that I find interesting.

First up, in the U.S., we will generally allow about an arm's length's of distance between us and the person in front of us or behind us. If the space gets smaller or we actually touch, we'll tend to back away a little bit until the proper distance is restored. It looks something like this:

That's how I was brought up and how I feel comfortable. My first out-of-the-U.S. experience was working in Mexico and people there generally tend to line up much closer to each other. In my observation, there's no sense that people shouldn't touch accidentally or that they need to leave any more (or "extra") space than necessary. I'd guess that people leave somewhere between six-to-twelve inches between each other. I've traveled a lot since my two years in Mexico and I've seen that in Guatemala, Peru, and Colombia also have similar space expectations. This gives you a rough idea of what I've seen:

Needless to say, I'm not very comfortable when I'm in line in Latin America but it's bearable. Part of the difference I'm guessing is that people in Latin America tend to have less space to live in and are more comfortable "sharing" that space.

Now that I've spent considerable time in Europe, I find that personal space is somewhere between that of the U.S. and Latin America but it's definitely smaller. If a 5 is the average personal space in Latin America and the U.S. is a 10, Europe on average is probably like an 7. Compare that to when I've been in China. China's probably a 1 when compared to Europe and the U.S. I remember one time when I was checking in for a flight at an airport in China that the guy "behind" me in line was actually physically in front of me at the ticket counter and already had his bag on the scale before I did. The lines look something like this to me:

You can probably guess how I feel in that situation. U.N.C.O.M.F.O.R.T.A.B.L.E. Based on personal space alone, I'm guessing that the average Chinese person lives in a space that's the size of a closet in the U.S. :-)

Personal space is what it is around the world but you need to be ready for it when you go. I always try to remember in those situations when I'm a bit uncomfortable that I'm there to experience new things and that varying personal space is one of those things. It's definitely fun and makes for great stories later.

Now get out there and see some of the world!