Monthly Archives: September 2011

My context shift

Have you ever experienced a change of perspective, paradigm, or context so significant that it literally transformed your life?  I have.

While trekking in the mountains of Nepal in the fall of 2009, I was walking with a friend and talking about a potential career change.  I was brainstorming all kinds of creative ideas (new jobs, business opportunities, writing a book, etc.) when he asked the question that changed my life, “Do you need to work?”  At first, I almost laughed at the simplicity and apparent naiveté of the question.  I didn’t know how to respond.  For some reason I wanted to say, “Of course I need to work”, but that wasn’t strictly true.  No one needs to work.  It is, like all things in life, a choice.  So I thought about it and then answered, “I assume so.  I don’t really know.  I’ve never really considered it”.  And so, I considered it.

Answering the question wasn’t easy nor quick.  It was six months before I emailed my friend to answer his question.  I replied that I could, with a reasonable probability, live a lifestyle that would be acceptable to my wife and I, without needing a job.  Notice all the caveats in that statement.  That’s because deciding to stop working is not a simple thing.  Despite what the advertisements for banks and investments imply, it is something closer to an educated guess than an exact science.   For many people, I suspect it is easier to just keep working than to even answer that question.

Although finding an answer took a while, the change of perspective was quick.  I needed only to open my mind to the most obvious scenario, the one that was staring me in the face.  In business cases, the status quo is almost always considered.  Potential alternatives are compared to one another, but also to continuing to do what we’re doing now.  But somehow, I was overlooking this.  Although I was not working at that time, my mind was so locked into the idea that I needed to work, that I failed to see the obvious.  I needed only to see things differently to realize a world of possibility.  Dream Big.

Have you ever experienced a context shift so significant that it changed your life?

Elisabeth

Elisabeth was born in Hungary but moved to Germany when she was 4 years old.  At the age of 14 she married Ludwig, a wealthy and powerful man.  Despite this, she lived a simple life and spent her time helping the poor and the sick.   She donated a lot of money to good causes, including the establishment of several hospitals.  One of these hospitals was built nearby her home, and she would volunteer her time there including doing the dirtiest of jobs.

Against her husband’s wishes, Elisabeth often took bread to give to the poor of the nearby village.  One day her husband came across her carrying what he assumed was a basket of bread.  He asked her what was in the basket and she replied, “roses”.  When she opened the basket, the bread was indeed roses.  Her husband, a religious man, took this as a sign of God’s approval of her good deeds.

Elisabeth’s husband died on a trip to Itaiy.  She moved with her three children into a convent and spent the rest of her days there helping the sick and the poor until she died — at the age of 24.

And here is the rest of the story…

St. ElisabethElisabeth was born on July 7th in the year 1207.  Her full name was in German was Heilige Elisabeth von Thüringen.  She was the daughter of Andrew II of Hungary and Gertrude of Merania, and at age four was brought to the court of the rulers of Thuringia in central Germany, to become a future bride who would reinforce political alliances between the families.  In 1121 at the age of 14, she married Ludwig, the same year he was crowned Ludwig IV, and the marriage was by all accounts a happy one.  She lived in Wartburg Castle (which we visited yesterday) above the present-day town of Eisenach.   She and her husband were devout Catholics and she patterned her life after Francis of Assisi, whom she learned about from Franciscan monks.   Her husband died of plague in Otranto, Italy on his way to the Sixth Crusade and his remains were returned to her the following year.  She moved with her children into a convent where she continued to help the sick and the poor until she died at the age of 24 on November 17, 1231.  Elisabeth is today known as St. Elisabeth after being canonized by Pope Gregory IX in 1235.

What struck me about this story is that a teenager, despite having money and power and in addition to having 3 children, would devote her life to helping the poor and sick.  This was very unusual in her day as it is today.  And how sad it was that she only lived to age 24.

Berlin Marathon

If you’re looking for a fast marathon in a foreign land, I can recommend Berlin.  It’s one of the 5 major world marathons in addition to London, New York, Chicago, and Boston.  And, since we were planning to come to Europe at this time anyhow, we couldn’t pass it up.
Patrick, Diane, Werner, and Henny ot the train to the start

Patrick and Diane with friends Werner and Henny on the train to the start

My left knee has been swollen for the last 4 weeks (since Ironman), so I’d only run once in the month leading up this marathon, less than ideal training.  So it was with some trepidation that I toed the start line this morning (actually hundreds of meters behind the start line in corral ‘G’ which is in the second starting wave).  Our start was at 9:10 AM, a very civilized starting time, at least an hour later than we’re used to.

Give our lack of preparation, Diane and I chose to run together, as we did in New York in 2006.  The course was pleasant, entirely urban with few long straightaways (which psychologically mask the distance) and very flat.  Berlin was originally built on a swamp so the biggest hill was about 3 meters high (only 10 feet!) to surmount the low bridges which cross the rivers and canals.  The route passed by many of the major sights of Berlin, including areas of both the former East and West Berlin.  The event was well organized with a great start and finish location in a big city park (the Tiergarten) with frequent water and food stations.

The weather was pleasant – a high of 22 degrees Celsius.  Anticipating a tough race, Diane and I drank water at every water station.  We took gels starting at 1 hour and often thereafter, knowing that we’d need every ounce of energy we could get.

At about 15 kms, my right leg developed a will of its own.  Note that this is not the leg which had been bothering me for weeks, which had hurt initially but was pain free and rock-solid after 3 kms.  Despite my best intentions, I was regularly scuffing my right foot on my step-through, and occasionally catching my toe.  Obviously something was out of whack with my stride.  This led to increasing pain in my right knee, which was in full swing by kilometer 20.  At one point I had a sudden sharp pain in this knee and it almost collapsed.  Since it was so early in the race, I was worried and took some ibuprofen to temper the pain and reduce any inflammation.

By half way through the race, both Diane and I had growing stiffness and pain in our thighs, probably the result of insufficient recent training.  To make matters worse, as the race went on, more and more of the spectators stood on the sidewalk in the sunshine drinking beer from bottles or steins, a particularly cruel form of runner harassment.

Diane ‘smelled the barn’ with 6 kms to go, and picked up her pace, perhaps a bit too soon.  The last 2 miles seemed to take forever.  500 meters before the finish we passed through the famous Brandenburg Gate, then into the Tiergarten to the finish.  Diane and I ran across the finish line hand-in-hand with arms upraised.

Another thing unique about Berlin is that they serve beer at the finish.  Alcohol-free beer, but beer nonetheless.

Drinking near beer at the finish

Drinking near beer at the finish

We capped our day by going out for dinner with a contingent of Canadians from our running group.  Italian food with, you guessed it, more beer.

Peninsula Runners Celebrating

Peninsula Runners Celebrating

How can we afford to live like we do?

I’d like to be able to report that I’m one of the impressive people who travel continuously, funded fully by a sustainable income from a  location-independent business, e.g. http://manvsdebt.com/     Although this could happen eventually, I’m not currently actively pursuing this. But people often ask how can we do what we do.

The key to financial independence is having the correct balance between financial inflows and outflows on a continuing basis.

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.

Charles Dickens in David Copperfield, 1849

On the Income Side

Both my wife and I worked full-time for over 15 years.  We each worked for one primary employer during this period, and we were both successful within our organizations.  During this time, we utilized ‘pay-yourself-first’ techniques to pay off our mortgage at an accelerated rate, and to invest in equities (mutual funds in RRSPs and rental real-estate).  We also received a small inheritance with the passing of my parents.  As a result, we currently have passive income to fund the majority of our lifestyle, and we are slowly drawing down the principle of our investable assets.  In our sixties, we expect to continue doing this (at a reduced rate), as well as receive government benefits (CPP) and a modest defined-benefit pension from my employer.

There is still considerable uncertainty as to whether these income sources and eventually the liquidation of the underlying assets will provide a life-long source of income.  There is lots of published information on this topic (e.g. Unveiling the Retirement Myth by Canadian Jim Otar, many related technical articles at http://wpfau.blogspot.com/).  Both the magnitude and sequence of investmen returns have such significant and variable impacts on the probability of outliving one’s assets that unless the majority of one’s income is annuitized (e.g. defined benefit pension, secure government benefits, annuities, etc.), or one has huge assets relative to one’s expenditures, one can never be totally certain nor completely secure.

As a result, we don’t rule out the possibility that we might need to find additional sources of income.  We also might choose to work or own a business for the gratification they might provide.  If so, we will only do things we are passionate about, so they don’t feel like work.

On the Spending Side

There are several things which make our lifestyle, if not feasible, then much easier than it might otherwise be.  We do not have children.  We are both in good health.  We live and travel according to our own rules, not those of others.

We try to live a cost-effective lifestyle, obtaining maximum benefit at a reasonable cost.  I’d call us frugal (hopefully not cheap), but only to the extent that one can be deemed as such while living what some consider a desirable lifestyle.  As a result, we prefer long duration, low budget travel.

In this process, we have traded some of the material benefits we might otherwise have enjoyed (a bigger house, a newer or second car, some of the latest toys) for far more satisfying and lasting benefits like authentic experiences, good health, leisure time, intimacy, and making contributions to others.

Most Importantly

The single most important thing that makes our lifestyle possible is a change of context.  A simple but powerful change of perspective.  Like many people, I’d always imagined that I’d work hard until my mid-fifties or later, trying but never quite living a balanced life, then retiring to start pursuing my dreams in earnest with the time and health that I had left.  This all changed in the blink of an eye, when a conversation with a friend opened my mind to the possibility of something else. I experienced the pre-requisite paradigm shift that made our lifestyle possible.  Without this, I’d still be working too hard, commuting too far, and stressing too much.

The limiting factor is never time nor even money.  It is imagination.

What’s it like to be traveling again?

We’re excited and happy to be traveling again, but as with any major life change, there is some trepidation as we adjust to our new routine.  After the demands of preparing for this trip (in parallel with us both completing in Ironman Canada at the end of August) followed by the inevitable last-minute rush, it’s great to finally be on the road.

It was terrific to be met at the airport in Vienna by our friends Sue and Martin, then whisked off to a nearby campground for a delicious meal and far too much to drink for a couple of dehydrated, jet-lagged travelers.

Sue on Martin on train in Vienna
The best photo I have of Martin!

 

In some ways, it’s a relief from the demands of being at home (as many ‘demands’ as people without jobs have, yet which somehow still constantly exceed our expectations).  Instead of our ‘at home’ to-do list, we now have a ‘traveling’ to-do list.  But, they say a change is as good
as a rest…

We now have a very different routine, which is inevitably some subset and combination of:

  1. get up, put away the bed and bedding, personal hygiene, get dressed
  2. prepare, eat, and clean up breakfast
  3. prepare the RV for travel
  4. navigate and drive
  5. visit sights or attractions
  6. do activities (like walking, running, cycling, hiking, etc.)
  7. prepare, eat, and clean up lunch (often a picnic)
  8. find a place to camp
  9. shop for food
  10. drink alcohol
  11. prepare, eat, and clean up dinner
  12. read and write
  13. take care of personal business (e.g. banking)
  14. plan our next day

Not that we’re complaining.  I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. We consider ourselves very fortunate to be doing what we’re doing and where we’re doing it.  This is the opportunity of a lifetime.  We’re very grateful and full of anticipation.

The Tent

For 6 months each year, Munich is home to one of the most unusual hostels we’ve been to.  Located in a botanical garden about 6 kilometers from the city centre is The Tent, a summer-only hostel providing accommodations in tents.  It is the cheapest place to sleep in Munich.

Exterior of the Tent

The Tent Exterior

It’s called ‘The Tent’ as opposed to ‘Tents’ because initially there was only one giant white circus tent, and everyone slept together on the floor on sleeping mats.  Now, they have two additional circus tents offering ‘premium’ accommodations where everyone still sleeps together in a giant tent, but on bunk beds.

The Tent Interior

The Tent Interior

Diane and I spent 3 nights at The Tent, making the decision to splurge and go for side-by-side
bunk beds (how romantic).  Our tent had bunk bed spaces for about 80 people which we thought might be quieter than the other tent which slept around 160 people.  Quiet is only a relative term in such conditions though, with people coming and going until late at night on the astonishingly noisy floorboards.  Our first night’s ‘sleep’ wasn’t great, with the sign from the exit light glowing in our faces.  Diane rectified this the following night by hanging a blanket down from the upper bunk on her bed.

Diane on bunk at The Tent

A sheet is provided to cover one’s mattress as are heavy wool blankets (circa WWII).  They recommend 4 blankets at this time of year — 1 to roll up for a pillow (which isn’t provided) and 3 to sleep under.  At check-in Patrick inquired whether they wash the sheets and was told, ‘yes’.  At checkout he inquired again and learned that in fact, they wash the sheets and blankets ‘when they look dirty’.  Ouch!  Another example of German efficiency.  Let’s hope that we haven’t brought any little friends along with us as a memento of our time there.

Diane sleeping at The Tent

Why would we subject ourselves to such an arrangement?  Firstly, it wasn’t that bad.  When you’re traveling for as long as we are, care must be taken to manage costs and to prioritize the things that are important to us such as seeing the sights, meeting the people, and enjoying the food and drink.  More importantly, The Tent is a European backpacker icon, a must-do when traveling Europe.  Most of the time we’ll be sleeping in our RV anyhow, so this type of accommodation will only be periodic and temporary.

The tent is full of interesting characters, like the people who got up each morning, dressed in business clothes, and headed off to work (apparently long-term accommodations are difficult to find in Munich).  And the guy who sat there working on his computer all day every day.  And the  woman who slept near to us who seemed to spend the whole day dressing and undressing (including applying Egyptian-style eye liner and pony tail hair extensions a-la Lara Croft), moving things back and forth between her 3 lockers, and wandering around in her bra and leopard print bikini underwear (sometimes while wearing army boots).

The Tent provides lockers to secure one’s things, clean bathroom and shower facilities, a cooking area for those who want to self-cater, free Wi-Fi, and a casual restaurant with a set menu of basic foods and an a-la-carte breakfast (not included).  It is conveniently located about 15 minutes by tram (#17) from the city center and main train station (Haupbahnhof).  The staff is friendly and the beer is cheap.

Patrick drinking beer at The Tent

Impressions of Germany

Germany has a lot of similarities to Austria.  After about a week in Germany, here are some of the things we’ve noticed.

  • Germany is a financial powerhouse of Europe, despite spending a fortune to re-integrate East Germany since 1989.  There are still considerable economic differences between the former East and West.
  • Germany is the most populous country in Europe excluding Russia.  It’s much smaller than Canada, but there is still lots of open countryside.  They have many immigrants including a large Turkish (Muslim) minority.
  • It seems that more people smoke in Germany than in Canada.  Smoking is still allowed in restaurants and on trains.  You can sometimes find a non-smoking area, except on patios where the fresh air is ironically limited.
  • Germans are quite open about their troubled history.  There are memorials everywhere.  As time passes and the population ages, fewer Germans have had a personal involvement in World War II.  The younger generation is well educated on Germany’s past, and most Germans will speak openly about their history.
  • Germans are more environmentally aware than Canadians.  They recycle.  There are wind turbines throughout the countryside.  They use more solar energy than in Vancouver, despite the fact that the weather is similarly variable.
  • A lot of people cycle here.  Almost none of them wear helmets, which presumably aren’t mandatory.  There are bicycle lanes beside many country roads and throughout the major cities.
  • People obey the traffic lights and pedestrian signals here (unlike much of the world), but you need to constantly be on the look out for bicycles which move rapidly and silently, even through crowds of people.  Often the only difference between the bike lane and the sidewalk for pedestrians is a different texture on the asphalt, so it’s important to be aware and not stray. A tour guide informed us that when confronted with a bicycle, the best thing to do is freeze and they will (hopefully) go around you.
  • Bavaria, in the south of Germany, is predominantly Catholic.  The church bells ring to call the faithful to prayer and throughout the day to chime the hours, a practice which has for the most part been eliminated in Canada (at least in the West).
  • The German language is full of very long words.  Germans often use one long concatenated word where we might use 3 or 4.  Street and place names are often 5 or 6 syllables, making them hard to pronounce and harder to remember.
  • A common German breakfast includes bread or rolls (not toasted), cheese, and some sort of cured meat.  They seem to eat a lot more pork than we do, particularly in the form of sausages and salami.  We have wholeheartedly adopted the bread, cheese, and pork diet, as part of our focused training plan for Oktoberfest.

Early ‘Retirement’

People ask if we have retired.  I don’t really know how to answer.  In the early days I responded just that “we’re not working”, which didn’t seem satisfactory to my interrogators.  This subsequently evolved into, “we don’t really have any plans to return to work”, which gave the questioner more of an indication that this was a not just a short-term phenomenon but a longer term trend.  However, it still didn’t answer the question of whether we weren’t working by choice or by happenstance.  Although I believe that everything is a choice, I’ve preferred to leave it this way, in part because of my own uncertainty regarding what the future might hold.

I didn’t want to proclaim that, at the age of 42, I was retiring, only to subsequently return to work by necessity.  This would, in the eyes of others, and most importantly in my mind, likely be seen as a failure.  No one wants to fail at retirement.

But it seems that we’re not alone.  Like the definition of family, the definition of retirement seems to changing over time. It is now exceedingly rare to work for the same employer for 35 years, retiring with the gold watch and a defined benefit pension.  Many baby boomers are realizing that they need to change their expectations of retirement, perhaps retiring later due to insufficient savings, a recent financial shortfall after the 2008 market adjustment, or a change in the status of their pension plan (e.g. Nortel employees).

It would have been nice to have a grand recognition of our retirement.  To be honest, being able to stop working so young is something that I’m proud of, even though it is due only in part to my diligence.  I’m careful to say this because studies have shown that successful people have a tendency to overweight the perceived value of their own contributions to their success, and underweight external factors (i.e. timing, luck).  This is analogous to how politicians credit themselves for the success of the economy while blaming everything and anything else when it falters.

It would have been great to invite all of our friends to a party to formally recognize our
attainment of this important milestone in life and then, to head off into the sunset with both resolution and certainty.  However, life is a lot more fluid than this.  As it was, we kind of just slinked off into retirement, proceeding bravely but prudently as we dipped our feet into an alternative lifestyle.

How has your reality or perception of retirement changed over time?  Will you be able to identify this milestone with certainty and recognize it in style?

The Bonehouse of Hallstatt

The prettiest graveyard I’ve ever seen is located outside the Catholic church in the village of Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut lake region of Austria.  This village of about one thousand people is sandwiched between the Hallstatter See (lake) and the steep hillsides that ring the lake.

Village of Hallstatt

Sandwiched into this space is a small Catholic church.  The tiny graveyard adjacent to the church looks over the stunning lake and nearby mountains.  It is like none I’ve ever seen.  The surface of each grave is beautifully planted with different types of living flowers and greenery.  Rather than a tombstone, each grave has a lovely marker standing above it with information about the deceased and other ornamentation.  Each grave is carefully manicured.

Catholic Graveyard in Hallstatt

Because of the small size of the graveyard and a ban on cremation by the Catholic church until 1963, this diminutive graveyard could not accommodate all the deceased of Hallstatt.  So, and interesting custom developed.

The Bonehouse of Hallstatt

After ten to fifteen years the skulls and long bones of the deceased were exhumed, ‘cleaned’, dried in the sun, then placed in a charnel house, the Beinhaus of Hallstatt.  In order to identify the skulls, the names and dates of birth and death are carefully painted on each.  They are beautifully decorated and stored with all previous residents of the graveyard, grouped with the skulls of family members.

Skulls of the Beinhaus

Skulls of the Beinhaus

Of the 1200 skulls here, 600 have been hand-painted with decorations, mostly of flowers.  This tradition, begun in 1720, evolved from the fact that flowers were traditionally laid on the grave sites.  The painting of the skull is considered an act of love.

More Skulls of the Bonehouse

The last skull was placed in the charnel house in 1995 at the personal request of its ‘owner’.

Impressions of Austria

Schonnbrun Palace

At Schonnbrun Palace

The first country in Europe that we’re traveling through is Austria.  Here are some things we find interesting about Austria.  Because it’s our first foray into Europe, we can’t be sure whether these items are unique to Austria or more common throughout the continent.

  • Among other things, Austriais famous for apple strudel, Weiner Schnitzel, and The Sound of Music.
  • Austria is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sigmund Freud, Hitler (not from Germay), and The ex-Governator (Arnold Schwarzenegger).
  • Austria is a small, land-locked country with many neighbours.  Clockwise from the North these are Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein.  Having so many neighbours is a foreign concept to Canadians where we have enough challenges with the United States (and Quebec).
  • Most Austrians speak a dialect of German.  They all learn high German in school.  Most people, especially the younger generation, also speak some English.
  • Austrians are very fond of the mountains and mountain culture.  There are channels on television here showing continuous live video from the mountaintops.  In Austria, great mountain climbers are national heroes (unlike in Canada– can you name one famous Canadian climber?)
  • The DJ’s on radio and music television stations speak German, but most of the pop music and videos are of the same English-speaking artists popular in North America (e.g. Lady Gaga)
  • Some Austrians still wear traditional clothing (envision Captain Von Trapp and Maria in The  Sound of Music).  We’ve seen a few men wearing felt hats, capes, and/or lederhosen, and women wearing long aproned skirts.
  • In comparison to Canada, virtually everything in Austria is old. 
  • Austrians love to eat bread, most of which is dark, heavy, and a bit tough.
  • Accommodations are expensive in Austria.  A double room in a hostel (not hotel) costs about $100 Canadian.  Dorm beds are about $30 per person.   Gas costs about 50% more than in Vancouver.  However, food in restaurants and grocery stores costs about the same as in Canada.
  • Austrians have a laid back attitude about alcohol.  Even hard liquor is sold in grocery stores.  To our delight, beer and wine sold in stores is considerably cheaper than in Canada.  Bottles of acceptable wine can be purchased starting at $1.50 Canadian (that’s not a typo!), and 500 ml cans of beer are about the same price.
  • Everything in Austria seems picturesque and very well maintained.  The churches, buildings, homes, parks, and even the farmland look pristine.