Around the World in 136 Blog Posts – Stop 19: Hellas

I have never been to Greece so this stop on my virtual journey around the world (during which I “visit” all the countries from where people have at some point viewed my blog) shall be filed under “I would like to go there one day.”

Greece is best known (at least from my perspective) for its abundance of islands, mythology, the colors blue and white, gyros and tzatziki, large families with over-the-top celebrations (please do yourself a favor and watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding if you haven’t already done so), and last but not least legendary philosophers and mathematicians whose teachings will forever help us make sense of the world we live in.

Let’s take a closer look at the Greek awesomeness listed above.

Abundance of islands: I don’t think the word abundance has ever been more accurate to describe a quantity, mostly because there are no accurate numbers. The internet says that there are about 1,200 to 6,000 Greek islands, 166 to 227 of which are inhabited. In the ages of there’s-data-for-everything and satellite images, I’m baffled that no one has figured out what exactly is going on in the Greek waters, but then again, mythology…

Gyros and tzatziki: Oh the garlicky, flavorful deliciousness… Well no more Gyros for me because I’m trying my very best not to eat meat but tzatziki… tzatziki doesn’t require the killing of animals and makes every single vegetable delicious. Win win situation.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding: It’s a classic rom-com with a very predictable story line and corny AF. I love corny rom-coms. (I’m not that deep.)

Favorite quote:

You know, the root of the word Miller is a Greek word. Miller come from the Greek word “milo,” which is mean “apple,” so there you go. As many of you know, our name, Portokalos, is come from the Greek word “portokali,” which mean “orange.” So, okay? Here tonight, we have, ah, apple and orange. We all different, but in the end, we all fruit.

Mathematicians: I will never forget how to calculate the length of one side of a right triangle when I know how long the other two are. And for that, I’m grateful.

Philosophers: Where would mankind be without Socrates and Plato. I mean really, the world is barely managing to keep it together WITH their teachings to guide us…

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

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Around the World in 136 Blog Posts – Stop 18: Österreich

When I think of Austria I think of the Alps, like most people probably do. And, assuming that Google is always right, I learned that 62 percent of the country is covered by the Alps, so thinking of mountains when thinking of Austria is fair. The Alps were also the reason for my first trip to Austria back in ca. 2002 when I and about 40 other high school students from the north of Germany got on a bus to go play in the mountains in the neighboring country to our south. (Germany is only one of land locked Austria’s eight neighbors, next to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia).  It took us about 15 hours to get there, six hours more than planned because the highway was closed after a horrific bus accident a few miles in front of us. Shocked by seeing the burned out bus on the side of the road, hungry and exhausted, we finally arrived at our picturesque hotel in the middle of the Pitztal (valley of Pitz?) late at night. A bowl of hot soup has never tasted better (turns out that even teenagers can get sick of eating candy and potato chips). I spent the days on the slope at the back of the pack trying to minimize the damage of inevitable falls and the nights “dancing” to Out of Space by The Prodigy, which was our jam back then and definitely took our brains to another dimension (alcohol had nothing to do with it). It was a good time.

The second stop in Austria was a night in its capital Vienna while travelling with the German National Team. We stayed near the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) from where we would continue to our final destination somewhere in Eastern Europe the next morning. While we washed our stinky practice gear in the hotel room sinks (our male counterparts were probably flying  somewhere in first class at that same exact moment but who’s holding grudges), our head coach, who was a small man with a giant sweet tooth, enjoyed the other thing that Austria is famous for, cakes and chocolate (see Sacher Torte below).

I look forward to being back in the Alps at some point in the future, as a much better skier than I was in 2002, and to top to bottom runs that will be filled with joy rather than with fear-induced tears and sweat.

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Athlete 2.0

I was hesitant when I took my first steps into a CrossFit gym a little over a year ago. I didn’t want this to be another form of exercise that I wouldn’t be able to stick with like so many other things I tried out since that day in March of 2011 when my knee and my hoop dream were crumbled into pieces. I was scared that my knees were just too bad and that it was the wrong sport for my body type. But my gut told me that it might be exactly what I needed. My gut usually knows best. CrossFit has given me a chance to rediscover myself as the athlete I have always been. From back in the 90s during the German tennis boom when I wanted nothing more than to be the next Steffi Graf, to my brief stint in track and field, to 10 years of Ball above All – I was always happiest when I worked hard, when the red clay stuck to my legs, when my eyes burnt from the sweat running down my face, even when I cried out of frustration because my body didn’t do what my brain knew it was capable of – I was happy. It was never so much about achieving goals as it was about working towards them. Maybe it’s a Capricorn mountain goat thing that makes me enjoy the climb so much while not quite knowing what to do with myself when I get to the top. In CrossFit I will never get to the top, not even close. I will sweat and struggle and curse and relish the temporary highs of achieving something new and then I will struggle some more and keep trying and getting better simply for the sake of trying and getting better. That, to me, is what being an athlete is about and that’s why I love doing this.

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“You have to fall in love first.”

It was the first day of a 6-week women’s only crossfit challenge and we went around the room introducing ourselves. There were a lot of the same stories about wanting more structure and being bored with going through the same old exercise routines. And then there was Staci. She had lost a hundred pounds by herself and was there to take her fitness journey to the next level. Based on her reaction to the spontaneous applause from the rest of us,  it was clear that she’s a woman who doesn’t give herself enough credit for her accomplishments. She struck me as a fighter right away and when she told me how she lost the hundred pounds I got the first taste of just how much fight was behind that bright smile.

One summer Staci decided to start walking the streets of Baltimore (where she worked at the time) for hours every day, rain or shine, armed with willpower, water, and a smile to hide the pain. She was determined to walk until the pounds would start dropping. Eventually, the pounds budged and they did so despite the PCOS Staci was dealing with. (PCOS stands for polycystic ovary syndrome which comes with a slew of highly uncomfortable sounding symptoms and often makes it infinitely harder to lose or maintain weight than for a person without PCOS. Staci’s explanation made it sound incredibly frustrating, like an endless treadmill, both literal and metaphorical.)

So there she was, fighting her way through this crossfit challenge, motivating others and pushing herself with her positive attitude until… well, until we paired up for a partner workout and it was my turn to push her. I knew she understood my sense of humor so I went full pretend-psycho on her, channeling Jillian Michaels during her toughest days on the Biggest Loser. I distinctly remember yelling “You want me to get off your back, Staci?! Guess what, life isn’t to get off your back!!” Little did I know how right I was.

We failed to exchange our contact information when the challenge was over but I found Staci on social media a few months later. Scrolling through her posts, it quickly became clear to me that she had gone through some serious health issues but I didn’t want to ask what was going on until seeing her in person, which finally happened another few months later when we met for drinks. After the socially required minimum amount of superficial small talk, Staci told me that life had not gotten off her back at all. Well, technically it almost did. She had to be saved in an emergency surgery after the spontaneous free perforation of her intestine, meaning she suddenly had a hole in her colon for no apparent reason and it almost took her life. The doctors credited her survival to her good level of fitness at the time. The long and difficult recovery set that fitness level back to zero, along with her bank account and her independence. By the time we met for drinks Staci was just getting back on her feet, with the last medical bills paid, medically cleared to start working out again, and smiling brighter than ever.

There were many times throughout the evening when all I could say was “wow” or “holy shit” or “what the fuck”, or something equally articulate. But there was one particular part of Staci’s story that made my jaw drop and it was the part that she was most hesitant to tell. It was the part where she went to heaven (for lack of a better word) while doctors fought to save her life. Staci’s heaven was a classroom (she passionately works in education) where she saw her late cousin Vicki. Staci told her that she didn’t want to go back to being in excruciating pain and to a life full of fighting health problems. Vicki was having none of it and told Staci that it wasn’t her time yet and that she couldn’t stay. But Staci insisted that she was okay with not going back and that she had done everything she wanted to do in her life. “You can’t stay,” Vicki repeated. “You have to fall in love first.”

Thank you for sending her back, Vicki.

 

(Gentlemen, she’s still single.)

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Around the World in 136 Blog Posts – Stop 17: Türkiye

Adana, Turkey was my first stop as a professional basketball player in 2008. The food was delicious, the roads chaotic, the men hot headed (which might have something to do with the chaotic roads), and the women beautiful and undervalued. Hot headed, undervalued, or not, everyone was friendly and welcoming. From managers and physical therapists going above and beyond to make our life as easy as possible to teammates inviting us to home cooked meals with their families, there were a lot of good people I will always remember fondly. I also fondly remember the freshly squeezed orange juice and banana milkshakes from a little fruit stand that my American teammate and I visited after almost every practice. When we walked the streets together you could see the heads turn in amazement, unsure of who to look at first, the black woman or the tall blonde.

Before my time in Adana, I visited Turkey a few times with the German National Team for various games and tournaments, the most memorable one being the 2005 Summer Universiade (Olympic Games for University students) in Izmir. There was an opening ceremony in a huge stadium and an Olympic village with athletes from 171 nations, and free Coca Cola for everyone around the clock. Our tournament ended when we got steam-rolled by Chinese Taipei, a team that seemed more like a well-oiled machine than a group of women. There was no German precision that day, just a coach laughing because she didn’t want to cry. It was her birthday.

Other memories in Turkey include a visit to the ruins in Ephesus, and a vacation in Alanya with one of my best and oldest friends and her boyfriend. Highlights of the trip included paragliding of a mountain with a pilot half my size, a trip on a party boat, and bikini sharks (don’t ask…). Let’s just say we kept it classy.

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On Grieving the Living

Have you ever been disappointed by someone? Hurt by the fact that they stopped giving you the attention that you craved? Torn apart by the mean things they said to you when you feel like all you have given them is love? If you’re human (which you are if you’re reading this) the answer is most likely yes. And given that you’re human, it is just as likely that someone has been disappointed and hurt by you. (Shit.) Being hurt emotionally sucks, maybe more than being hurt physically. Thoughts like “did I do something wrong?”, “how did we lose our connection?” and “I deserve better” can truly make you feel like you are losing your mind. The bad news is that people (including you and I) suck sometimes and will inevitably hurt other people. The good news is that, thanks to our ability to grieve, this pain doesn’t have to drive us insane (in the membrane).

Grieving is of course most commonly associated with the death of a loved one. When someone we love dies we have to accept that they are no longer there. We have to grieve the loss in order to be able to move on with our lives. We have to find a way to be okay without them. Similarly, we can grieve the loss of a person who is still alive but not there for us the way we want or need them. That can be manifested in a breakup, a good friend going A.W.O.L., a parent not loving us the way we want to be loved, someone who was really into you deciding that they’re just not that into you anymore, or that instant inexplicable connection that ceases to exist just as instantly and without explanation, et cetera, et cetera. It’s almost impossible to not take those situations personally, to not let the associated pain affect our self-worth. At the end of the day we are all just breakable boys and girls who want to be loved and treated the way we love and treat people.

One way to avoid being broken (and going crazy) is to accept the fact that people are limited and that, more often than not, the way they treat you has nothing to do with you but everything to do with their limitations. They simply cannot give more or love better. They say mean things, they fall out of love with you, they lose interest. It has nothing to do with how much you give; how well you love; how gentle, madly in love, or invested in their lives you are. By accepting their limitations and grieving the fact that they are either gone or different than you want them to be, or that they can’t fulfill your needs, you give yourself permission to move on with your life. It doesn’t mean having to give up on them or forget them or stop loving them. It means that you can appreciate their good qualities, the good memories you share and the lessons they taught you. That type of grief is a difficult and painful process, not unlike grieving the death of a loved one, but it’s either moving through the pain or losing our minds. Your choice but I’m done losing my mind.

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Spaghetti & Meatballs

Spaghetti. That’s what my leg felt like when I tried to put pressure on it. Overcooked spaghetti. I knew my knee was fucked but I didn’t know yet that my whole life was about to change.

But let’s hit the rewind button. It was a beautiful spring day in Hondarribia, the picturesque town nestled in the Basque Country on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. My parents were leaving in the morning to go back home to Germany after staying with me for three weeks. I said “see you in a few days” as my basketball season in Spain was nearing its end. It had been a frustrating one with little success both as a team and individually and a coach who took the love out of the game that I loved so dearly. Our last home game was scheduled later on that day, a rare Wednesday evening game. Feeling low on energy and a bit out of it, I tried to take a nap, gave up on it, took a shower, put on my uniform, fixed my hair, and drove to the gym as I had done countless times before. Another day, another dollar.

The outcome of the game was irrelevant and we all just wanted to get it over with. Two more games and four more days until the much needed break. I started the game, didn’t play well but not terrible and got subbed out after a few minutes. The coach made a passive-aggressive comment and I threw one right back at him. We had that dysfunctional dynamic down to a tee. To say that we didn’t understand or like each other would be an understatement. I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t play for the rest of the first half and didn’t start the second half. At some point in the second half, he pointed down the bench and asked me if I was ready. “Sure, whatever.” Within less than two minutes of being back in the game, I found myself in the middle of a bunch of players, all of us fighting for the rebound close to the basket. Before I could get my hands on the ball, someone jumped into my left leg, causing it to hyper-extend. I felt something crack, went down and held my knee. I don’t remember if I cried or screamed but I remember that it took a few moments for someone to notice that I wasn’t getting up and  needed help. Then the overcooked spaghetti sensation. When I sat down on the bench, the team doctor gave me some ibuprofen and an ice bag. That was it. Muchas fucking gracias.

I sat there quietly with tears dripping down my face as I watched my knee swell up to the size of a volleyball, the pain becoming more intense as the adrenaline faded. I wasn’t hysterical but the complete lack of color in my face must have shown my level of distress. My teammate’s jaw dropped when she saw my ghostly grimace and yelled at the doctor to give me something for the pain. He promptly rammed a shot into my arm, which felt warm and fuzzy for a second but I don’t think it brought any real relief. Due to a Spanish superstition that touching crutches will make you the next one to get hurt, it took a while to get me up on my one functioning leg after the game was over. On the way to the my teammate’s Ford Focus (the “ambulance”), I repeatedly heard “que no sea nada” – I hope it’s nothing serious. They all meant well but I knew better. I had tasted the spaghetti. No bueno.

My two closest friends on the team (the “paramedics”) tried to be positive but anticipated that it would be a long night so we did what any group of elite athletes would do and stopped at the McDonald’s drive-through on the way to the hospital. Upon arrival at the hospital, an x-ray brought a quick diagnosis: tibial plateau fracture, which is a fancy term for a broken knee. The head surgeon, who had successfully fixed up my teammate with a similar injury (but a much less severe version as it it turned out) was out of town for a few days so they put my whole leg in a cast. My teammates took me home to their place (best paramedics ever!), where I made a few phone calls and had a restless night. Have you ever tried sleeping with a broken knee?

The surgery was scheduled for early the next week and it was supposed to be as simple as mending the fracture with the help of a small plate and one or two screws, just like it had previously been done for my teammate, who made a full and fast recovery. Easy peasy. With the rest of the team getting ready for the last game of the season, I was mostly alone during the days leading up to the surgery. I survived on frozen pizzas, built myself a handicap friendly shower with a plastic patio chair, and spent a lot of time talking to friends and family. During one of those conversations, I joked with a good friend from New York that she should come hang out with me since she wasn’t tied down by anything at that time. That good friend was my former college coach Sue Wicks. I was full of gratitude when she asked me a few minutes later what airline to book with. Then I realized that I had to get a bed ready for her – on one leg. Turns out that crutches are multipurpose devices and excellent for pulling off sheets and dragging laundry baskets around the apartment.

I chose to be awake during the surgery. I’d had multiple surgeries before and preferred a spinal block over general anesthesia. (A spinal block means that you’re numb from the waist down. They also give you a light sedative so that you don’t get too freaked out by the noises [they’re not unlike those coming from a construction zone], the blood, and the generally unpleasant ambience in the operating room.) I enjoyed it in a weird way because it appealed to my scientific curiosity to be an observer instead of sleeping through it all. I enjoyed it until I felt the surgeon drill into my leg. He was on the fourth or fifth screw (yeah, I know, whatever happened to a couple of screws and a tiny plate?) when I felt a burning sensation as I watched the drill bore into my leg on a monitor. They must have knocked me out after I alerted them that I was in pain because the next thing I remember is opening my eyes in a wake up room. Hours later, after settling into my airy, private hospital room, the surgeon paid me a visit to let me know how it went. He nonchalantly told me that it all took a bit longer because they had to deal with my torn up meniscus and cartilage before even getting to the fracture. The x-ray in his hand showed eight screws. That’s four times more than planned but no one seemed to give a fuck about that minor detail. No one but me.

The scar was huge with 20 to 30 staples and my leg felt as if it weighed at least a thousand pounds. It sucked. Just when I was busy wallowing in self-pity, Sue walked into my room. For about a week, we laughed a lot, often so much that it would make my knee hurt more than it already did. One of my favorite memories is watching Vicky, Christina, Barcelona. It’s fascinating how much the way you experience a movie depends on who you watch it with. Let’s just say I had a significantly better time watching it with Sue than with my mom.

Despite her strong dislike for flying, my mom got on a plane a few days after Sue left. She couldn’t let her baby suffer alone. Days and weeks passed with home-cooked food, playing scrabble (I didn’t stand a chance), doctor’s appointments, and spending time with the few people from the team that stayed in Hondarribia. It was as good a time as it could have been. My mom put on a brave face through it all, never letting me see how much it upset her to see me hobble around like a bird with broken wings. The curtain fell on her bravery when, finally back in Germany seven weeks after my accident, doctors told me that the spanish repair job on my knee was no bueno and that I needed a do-over. The color on my mom’s face was not unlike mine when sitting on the bench with a freshly shattered bone.

It became clear that I didn’t only need a new set of hardware in my leg but also a new life. “If you want to get up and down stairs when you’re 40, you should hang up the sneakers.” I could tell that the doctors hated saying that to me. They live to get people back onto the court, not to crush their hoop dreams. As logical as the decision was to walk away from my sport, it took balls to do it – more balls than going trough a grueling rehab in a desperate attempt to play again. Rehab sucks but it’s easy at the same time – the grind, the pain, the long hours in the weight room, it’s what you know as an athlete. What you don’t know, what you have no clue about, is how to reinvent yourself in the real world, with real problems, and real bills to pay, always having to explain to people why you aren’t playing anymore, why you gave up on your dream. With the help of a fantastic support system I navigated the unknown waters and here I am, 6 years later. Katja, the basketball player, no longer exists but instead there’s Katja, the engineer, skier, dog mommy, wife, crossfitter, writer, woodworker, and forever a baller.

When life gives you spaghetti, whip up some meatballs.

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