A total sensory experience

Pereta, Italy 2009

My current trip to Europe calls to mind memories of past visits, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I reminisce. A couple of years ago I went on a bicycle tour of Tuscany. My group stayed in rural farm inns, agriturismos, and operated in a radius of somewhere around 20 miles each day. Although we pedaled hard, it was really a languorous vacation existence. That in itself was something of an accomplishment for my hard-charging wanderlust.

What I didn’t expect was the total sensory experience I would gain from exploring the area on a bicycle. I vividly remember one particular ride when I slowly became aware of a clink-clink-clink sound. I looked up into the hills toward the direction of the sound and saw the form of a house, mostly hidden by trees. The sound itself came from workmen’s hammers making some improvement I couldn’t see.

I would have missed that there was a house nearby had I not heard the faraway clinking of hammers–something I would have completely forgone if I had been inside an automobile. Fascinated, I started paying more attention to other things around me. I smelled ripe figs before I saw the tree. I noticed tomatoes lying in fields, dropped after the plants had been harvested. I tasted salt in the air as I neared the sea. I was overwhelmed by the fragrances of anise, rosemary, and oregano as I cycled past wild growths of each. I saw with my own eyes that when untended, rosemary grows into bushes. I broke open a cone from a pignoli tree to discover the origin of pine nuts.

In little more than a couple of hours, I easily could have covered the same distance in a car that it took us a week to cover on bicycles, but I would have missed it all. That trip underscored for me that much of life is a total sensory experience. How much more do I learn and remember when I use all of my senses to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste the things around me? How can I apply this lesson to more than just vacation?

To my readers: I would love it if you would share your own examples in the comments here. Tell me what you have learned through your senses and how it has made a difference to you.


Be open to the moment

West side of the Berlin Wall, at the Newseum, Washington DC, 2011

The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and I missed it. I was studying in Tübingen, (West) Germany, at the time so you’d think I would have been well positioned on November 9 when Günter Schabowski from the East German politburo announced that the border was open. So what do you think I did when I heard my landlord shout from the living room that his wife and I should come quickly to the TV, that history was being made? I ignored him. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to him, and what I did hear, I didn’t really believe would last. His wife and I continued our conversation in an adjacent room and the wall came down without us.

Of course, over the days following, I realized that the events of November 9 were real and would likely have lasting effect. I quickly caught up to and immersed myself in the occurrences of those weeks and months. Soon thereafter, I went to Berlin, where I crossed the border several times myself with only perfunctory checks by the nonplussed guards. I smuggled out East German marks and brought home my own piece of the wall.

I heard a saying recently that fits this situation perfectly: be open to the moment. That night in Tübingen, I had closed myself off from possibility and let history slide by. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I understood that my lack of participation that night could teach me a greater lesson. I can’t let myself get so wrapped up in my plans or my current activity that I miss an opportunity of greater value. These opportunities can be big or small. They can be at work or at home. The important thing is that I remember to look around once in a while and be open to the moment.

Travel rules for eating

I’ve acquired a bit of a reputation among my colleagues for being persnickety when we’re on business trips. No, I’m not a spoiled traveler who has to have the comforts of home. On the contrary, I actually DON’T want to experience the familiar. One of the benefits of traveling is that I can experience different things and see the world–including different corners of my own country–through different eyes. In that vein, part of understanding the local culture includes learning it through its food.

Over time, I’ve developed what I call my Travel Rules for Eating. Though they are often the subject of friendly teasing, I think they are quite reasonable. Whether I’m on the road for business or pleasure, I try to follow these rules:

  1. Don’t go to any restaurant where I can go at home.
  2. No chains! (With the possible exception of local ones)
  3. Don’t go to the same place twice on the same trip.
  4. When deciding what to order, give preference to what is indigenous to the area. Don’t order seafood in Tulsa, for example; save it for a coastal visit.
  5. Breakfast doesn’t count. Many people have a particular regimen they consistently follow for breakfast: yogurt, fruit, coffee, whatever. Don’t sweat it; just get your breakfast and move on.

A person can learn a lot about an area through its food. The ritual of eating is so entwined with culture, I view it as an important part of putting on the glasses of that area or learning the accent (click to see related posts). Besides that, it’s fun.

It’s that easy

On this week’s trip to the UK, my colleagues and I dashed to a local supermarket for a grab-and-go lunch. We went to the deli in the back of the store but found only salads and hot items–no sandwiches. When my colleague asked the woman behind the counter to for assistance, she told us to follow aisle 31 to the front of the store and then look to the right. Friendly, helpful–what more we ask, right?

The woman surprised us all when she further offered to walk with us to make sure we found the sandwich cooler. We politely declined, but my colleagues and I walked to the front of the store smiling. 

I’ve been thinking about that gesture ever since. That kind of service is rarely found in the US, especially in large-scale supermarket chains. But really, why not? It didn’t cost the deli employee more than the extra effort of making the offer, and even if we had taken her up on it, she could have been to the sandwich cooler and back in less than a minute. A little effort can yield disproportionate returns. The formula for great customer service–and satisfied customers–seems so simple that it baffles me how infrequently it is executed. Go a little bit out of your way today and let me know what happens.

Complicating the issue

Until very recently, my home state (Indiana) did not observe Daylight Savings Time. The magical days in the spring and fall that shift time on its axis were simply not part of my consciousness. That explains how I missed a flight in my sophomore year of college when returning from spring break. It was the day time sprang forward, and I arrived at the airport thinking the I had plenty of time, when in fact my plane had just left.

Since that time, I’ve become a much more seasoned traveler and I know that the protocol that follows missing a flight is pretty straightforward. The airline puts you on the next available flight and you go on. You might be late getting where you’re going and you might have to adjust your plans, but you adapt and keep moving.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite that equanimous back then. When I talked to the agent at the counter, I was rattled and she could see it. She saw me as easy prey. Suddenly, she spun my missed flight into a big deal. The process of rescheduling and rerouting me became a Herculean task, one that would have been insurmountable by a lesser gate agent. She, however, deftly jumped the hurdles caused by my ineptitude, and through her own superiority, solved my problem.

New ticket in hand and calmer, I was on to this woman in minutes. She was one of those people who makes things more complicated than they need to be–or at least seem more complicated–so she can be a hero when she facilitates resolution. She didn’t give me anything that wasn’t already mine (or my right) and didn’t add any value to the transaction, though it initially seemed as if she did. She made me think I couldn’t live without her.

We all know people like that, but I hope I’m not one of them. Why spend my limited resources and energy complicating the simple when I could use it instead to move forward? I don’t want to try to protect my job by adding false importance where it’s not appropriate; I want to add real value.

You know, a reassuring smile and a don’t-worry attitude would have added more real value, Ms. Gate Agent. It doesn’t always have to be hard.

Believe in yourself

There are a few people within my company with whom I really love to work. Regardless of who carries which title, our interactions are always collaborative rather than hierarchical. These people are really good at what they do, and they think the same about me. They ask my opinion and they value it, as I do theirs. Their belief in me helps me believe in myself.

Sometimes they’re even way ahead of me on that score.

When someone believes in me more than I believe in myself, something curious happens. I rise to the occasion and become the person he or she believes me to be. I accomplish things I didn’t think were possible and my self-confidence builds. It’s a circular proposition, and it turns into a positive spiral.

I love working with those people. My question for myself is this: am I making anyone feel the same way?

The devil in the details

I’m getting ready to take a business trip, and I’m excited to meet some family in France at the end of it. Since I will be hopping from location to location on this trip, I gave my cousin my cell number and the phone numbers of all our plants and the dates I will be at each. Pat myself on the back for such great planning and foresight.

This morning I received an email from her asking me to provide my train number and time of arrival in Paris so she can be in the right place at the right time to pick me up. Wow. For all my self-satisfied planning efforts, I neglected to give her the most important pieces of information, and the only ones that were truly necessary.

Have you ever been so caught up in the details, in making sure the accoutrements were just right, that you neglected the very heart of the matter? Have you ever made a Power Point presentation look really, really good but neglected the content? Did you ever visit 15 customers on a business trip but didn’t schedule time with the one who would have made the biggest difference to your business? I’m sure you have your own example; we’ve all been there.

The point is, when we get busy making sure all the details are covered, we shouldn’t forget to step back and make sure the real task at hand is complete.

Valerie, I’ll be on TGV 2880. See you soon.