Welcome to my Year in Review post, in which I share the real-life, no-holds-barred, durn-tootin’ story of my 2020.
This is my tenth Year in Review. They started in 2011. When they’ll end… no one knows!
Warning: long and image-heavy blog post ahead!
I rang in the new year onboard a Southwest flight, headed east to Connecticut to visit family shortly before moving to Brooklyn for a few weeks. I sublet a room at my friend Matt’s apartment and once again got a sweet, brief taste of NYC life.
Just a month prior, I was still living in Germany, at the tail end of a tumultuous relationship. Much like 2019, my breakup prompted me to create a new life plan, this time involving a multi-month bike trip across the United States.
Long story short: I did embark my bike trip, but things didn’t go quite as planned.
I rode away from Matt’s apartment on February 2nd and enjoyed a few cold weeks of southbound cycling to Richmond, Virginia. There I snagged a train to Georgia, hopped to the Gulf Coast with a rental car, and then biked continuously from the Florida panhandle to New Orleans. Along the way I visited old friends, I danced, I Couchsurfed, and I successfully funded my new book on Kickstarter, among other microadventures. It was a wonderful and challenging month and a half, one which I thoroughly documented in a separate post, The Bike Trip.
My voyage effectively terminated in New Orleans in mid-March, when Covid-19 officially became A Real Thing. Yes, I could have pressed onward, but my favorite part of bike touring wasn’t actually the biking: it was the staying-with-friends-and-strangers along the way. That clearly wasn’t going to happen anymore. So I got myself to Austin with another one-way car rental and hunkered down for a few weeks of visiting family and friends, including my old friend Vanessa, who I hadn’t seen for years (and who would soon lose her multi-year battle with cancer 😞). My main comfort in Austin was its mind-blowing Mexican food; I regularly consumed large quantities of hella auténtico tacos al pastor.
Around this time, European Union countries started banning entry for foreigners, and my thoughts immediately went to my German ex, Sarah, whom I now realized I could no longer visit, even if she was sick. My feelings for her were rekindled, and I started seriously thinking (once again) of how we might make the relationship work. I taught myself some more German, and I considered getting certified in teaching English as a foreign language, which could theoretically lead to a job in Germany.
At the end of March I rental-car-relocated to my bike trip’s ultimate destination: Paonia, Colorado, the home of my friends Dev and Marian and their gap year company, the High Desert Center.
I spent the next two months living in a yet-unfinished yurt on Dev and Marian’s property, joining their gap year group for most meals and some of their activities. (About half the group remained; the others went home when the pandemic picked up steam.) I also spent a bunch of time on Dev & Marian’s front porch, using their high-speed internet to continue my various online projects and hobbies, which included:
- publishing the paperback, e-book, and audiobook of Why Are You Still Sending Your Kids to School?
- getting interviewed for other people’s podcasts (promoting my book)
- running a short online course for teenagers, Emailing Strangers
- playing lots of online Settlers of Catan with my friends Matt and Patrick
I started offering weekly teen meetups: free hour-long Zoom gatherings that brought together self-directed teenagers from all over the world. The format was simple: I came up with three interesting questions each week, put the teens into breakout rooms of 4-5 each, and let them discuss answers on their own. It was a fun way to stay engaged and offer something of value to teenagers whose social lives were suddenly restricted by lockdowns.
Late spring is a beautiful time in western Colorado. I biked frequently, climbed a local mountain, and enjoyed increasingly long runs alongside the irrigation ditch that passes by Dev and Marian’s property. Spending so much time outdoors, getting sun and exercise every day, working on meaningful projects, and being surrounded by good friends and interesting young adults… I struggle to think of a better way to spend the stressful and uncertain months of April and May 2020.
At the end of May I sold my touring bike to one of the gap year participants and relocated to my hometown-of-choice, South Lake Tahoe, California, where I have a small community of friends—one of whom had a furnished room she was happy to rent out to me.
From my temporary homebase in South Lake Tahoe, I enjoyed regular trail runs, saw my bay area family, and went on a short-but-sweet backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness with my friends Vince and Julie.
A few months earlier, at the end of April, Sarah and I had officially decided to get back together. But there was a hitch: I wasn’t allowed to fly to Germany directly from the U.S. without a German-government-approved “special purpose,” which I most certainly did not possess. So we put our heads together and came up with a solution: I would fly to the United Kingdom, quarantine for two weeks, and then fly to Germany. This plan seemed quite likely to work, but there was no guarantee. I decided that it was a gamble worth taking, and I purchased a one-way ticket to Germany to reunite with my ex… just as I had done the previous year.
In mid-July I departed for Edinburgh, where I stayed with my friends Alex and Duncan, who were delighted to put me up in their spare room for two weeks. I did a ton of cooking, reading, and work: a highly pleasant two weeks of “self-isolation.”
Unfortunately, in an all-too-familiar turn of fate, Sarah and I found ourselves mired in familiar arguments and disagreements that resurfaced over Skype calls over the summer. The pressure reached a crescendo just before I flew to Germany, and we broke up before I even boarded the plane. My love life: the tragi-comedy.
I got into Germany after all; it was shockingly easy. The border guard asked if I was traveling for personal or business reasons, and I said “business.” No more questions. Willkommen in Deutschland.
Now I was in Freiburg, suddenly bereft of my primary reason to be there. It was early August. Should I stay? Should I go? Here was my calculus:
- Having visited three times before, I knew that I genuinely liked Freiburg.
- While I had very few friends in the area, I’m good at making friends.
- Having just expended so much effort to get here, why leave so soon?
- Germany was doing a much better job of handling Covid-19 than most other places in the world.
- I could stay in the same beautiful room I had rented on previous visits, across the street from Black Forest trails and a short walk to the city center, for as long as I wanted on a month-to-month contract.
- Everything important I needed to do, work-wise, I could do from my laptop.
- I could go visit other Western Europe countries!
So, I stayed.
The first order of business? Collect a cash prize. 😎
Allow me to explain. Back in May, while dreaming up different ways to get myself into Germany, I hired a Berlin-based immigration consultant. She suggested that, given my entrepreneurial background, I should look into joining a German startup competition, which might give me an “official” reason to enter the country.
A quick search revealed a Freiburg-based startup competition, Spark, that had gone 100% digital (due to the pandemic) and opened its doors to international entrants. I applied as a “Wild Card,” got accepted, and ended up joining a team of students who wanted to improve Freiburg’s impacted housing situation. Over the next few months I met with the team over Zoom, helped them refine their vision, designed their website, and co-pitched the startup on Demo Day. Our team ended up winning the “Social Impact Award” and €2000! (All this happened before I departed the U.S., giving me one more tool for dealing with a potentially ornery German border guard: “I’m part of an award-winning German startup team—bitte schön, let me in!”)
Two days after arriving, I met my team face-to-face for the first time, and we collected our award.
Over the next month I focused on making new connections and going on adventures. I made two fabulous friends, Jacky and Nehal, through the Freiburg Couchsurfing community. I met a Barcelona Couchsurfing friend for a weekend of heavy metal at a small castle on the Rhine. (Yes, really.) I bought another touring bicycle, rode from Freiburg through Switzerland (Basel-Bern-Lucerne-Zurich), snagged a night train to Vienna, and rode back west along the Danube river to Munich, staying with friends and Couchsurfers en route. (I really must thank Couchsurfing for my European social life!)
In September I got down to business with Self-Directed Learning 101, my 12-week online microschool. Running an online school was something I’d long dreamed of, and in July, I decided to give it a real shot. I threw the idea up on Facebook, received tons of interest, and had 44 teens apply for 25 spots. The fully enrolled program started on September 15th and met twice a week until December 10th. My friend and co-conspirator Margie helped facilitate.
Self-Directed Learning 101 gave me an excuse to synthesize all the practical advice I’d offered teenagers over the years—via books, workshops, and online projects—into a cohesive whole. It was a fun journey for all of us, and I was grateful to work with another group of kind, courteous, and impressive teenagers, especially in a year without Not Back to School Camp or Unschool Adventures.
Over my birthday weekend, my Spanish friend Fred met me in the French alps for a two days of trail running in Chamonix and Annecy.
September to December was an island of stability in a stormy year. I went on a few mini-adventures—a weekend in Berlin, a bike trip to Colmar—but mostly hung around Freiburg, prepped for my Self-Directed Learning 101 classes, and consumed a ton of books.
In November, lockdowns returned to Germany, and I could no longer work in coffee shops or take swing dance lessons. C’est la vie. More time for cooking, reading, and trail running.
In total, I ended up living in Freiburg for 4.5 months*, a relatively long time for my nomadic self. Indeed, 2020 was a tough year to be a nomad; how does one respond to a “Stay at Home” order without a permanent residence or when home is a bike? But it turned out that my wide circle of friends and the flexible nature of my work saved the day.
Today is December 11th, and in one week, I fly back to the U.S. for the winter holiday. In early January I fly to Chile, which recently reopened its borders to international visitors (with a negative Covid test). This is part of my broader plan to take a sabbatical in 2021, something I’ve been dreaming about for a while. But let’s see! If 2020 is any example, then anything might happen. There’s only way to know: Stay tuned for my 2021 in Review!
*How did I stay in Germany for 4.5 months, when a normal American visitor is only entitled stay for 3 months? I attempted to apply for a 6-month job seeker visa, for which I am qualified… but the German authorities couldn’t wrap their heads around my self-designed bachelor’s degree in “Alternative Schooling and Science Education.” Ha! So I explained my situation to the Freiburg Ausländerbehörde (Immigrant’s Office), who kindly granted me a 90-day extension—which, in the end, was all I needed.