2024 Travelogue: An epic month on the road

After a month at home, the bill was sure to be paid. I set off for an epic month of travel in February and March. This trip started off humble with work meetings and client calls, but quickly became an epic. I paid a big debt to my old self, I met a personal hero, I solved real problems, and made real progress on years-old goals. I’ve not been writing or posting much because I’ve been gogogo, but now I have a week or so to settle, I can reflect on the time.

Leg 1: Helsinki

My company has an office in Helsinki, not too far from the main train station. Actually, a meaningful fraction of our data science capability is based there, and it’s been more than a year since I’ve found the occasion to visit. After a few aborted attempts earlier in the year due to strikes, I finally was able to pin down my team and head up north for a couple days in the office.

Helsinki is a cute city with charming architecture. It’s also very cold in February. I’d started running again this winter, doing the Couch to 10K program, and Helsinki was the only place where I decided I’d do my morning run in the hotel gym. I know, there’s no bad weather only bad clothing, but let’s be honest here, I was packed for a month on the road and I wasn’t about to bring winter jogging clothing halfway around the world just for two nights in Finland.

The meetings were productive. My responsibility space now is all of Europe, so regular alignment with my team is necessary. It’s worth the trip every time to get some face time with our local leadership. I need to get to Helsinki more.

Leg 2: Brussels

After Helsinki, I had a client visit just outside of Brussels. My Amsterdam-based team planned for a hotel stay near the airport: “Consultant City” my wife calls these soulless, prosaic locations. The most interesting thing about this trip was that my morning jog took me around NATO headquarters. I’d never really considered that NATO should have a headquarters, but it does: a bizarrely shaped building that looks a bit like a Quonset hut was scaled up in Photoshop and then pulled apart by as if by a cheese slicer.

One nice thing about Brussels is that its airport has decent connections, including direct flights to Washington-Dulles, unlike, for some damn reason, Berlin’s. I don’t mind transiting through Brussels when I have to, and since I was there already it was easy for me to jump off to my next destination.

Me speaking on a panel at EU Parliament, there are two MEPs and several speakers at the podium with me

Leg 3: Charlottesville

Over the winter, I worked on some home renovations in the Charlottesville home. I’d redone the floors in the hallway and it was time to tackle the utility room. We had bought a new washer and dryer while they were on deep discount after Christmas and scheduled the delivery date as late as we could: March 2. Working with a deadline, I planned my time back home to tackle perhaps my most ambitious home project yet: removing the old laundry closet, tearing out the wall, replacing the flooring and subflooring, moving the plumbing and electrical, redoing the drywall, fixing the dryer and sewer vents, and getting the new machines set up.

I’ll save the details for a “What’s New” post in a couple days and simply show the result, which I am very proud of. The room’s not done yet: you can see some missing trim and drywall. I’ll be back later in the spring to finish the rest of the room, but the hardest part is done!

A finished laundry nook with new machines, an iron hanging on the wall, and some utility hooks for mops and things

Leg 4: Brussels, part 2

This is where the trip gets cool. I was going to stay in Charlottesville another week, but I got an opportunity that I couldn’t say no to. I was invited to speak at EU Parliament by the Greens/EFA on an event regarding Recommender Systems and the Digital Services Act. I had a brief moment to speak on a panel, but the event was worth it for the socializing. The best part was the keynote speaker: Maria Ressa, who jointly won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. Ressa is a Filipino journalist who was arrested by the Duterte administration on charges of “cyberlibel”. Her courage and persistence in the face of such oppression is something I deeply, deeply admire.

What’s cool is I got to see her speak. She talked about technology and media and how social media companies have massive, unchecked influence in the media space, but she remained optimistic that new trends in decentralization are signalling some promising changes in the internet. It’s worthwhile watching her impact with Rappler.

I got to speak with her briefly after the event, which is probably the highlight of my speaking career thus far. It’s also caused me to think about where I am in my career, what it is I like doing, and what motivates me. There are times I think I am holding myself back (or being held back) or squandering my opportunities. But I think I’m doing ok. It just means I have to focus.

Leg 5: Berlin

The first four legs took me nearly a month on the road. I was able to touch base back in Berlin, albeit briefly. I was only able to spend two days back home. Just enough to load up on a fresh stack of books and get some laundry done. It was fortuitous however: a friend of mine who was in town got stuck 2 days longer due to the airport strikes here in Berlin, so I was able to let her crash at my place for a couple days. That worked out perfectly! But my schedule is without relent. Some things came up at work and I was summoned to our HQ: Chicago.

Leg 6: Chicago

Fresh from shaking hands with a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and hanging out with my friend, a proper humanitarian hero in her own regard, I was given an opportunity to juxtapose my life with the life I thought I wanted to lead at one point.

When I was an undergraduate, I got it in my head that I wanted to go to grad school at the University of Chicago. They had a decent computational math program I was interested in, but it was the university’s website that appealed to me. It was the silliest reason: the bragged about having nine coffee shops on campus. This stuck with me. Coffee shops were still not exactly ubiquitous in the early 2000s. You had your Starbucks, and a cafe inside Borders, but the indie corner shop was still a novelty. We didn’t really have one in Troy, where I was living at the time. I’d often drive out to Professor Java’s on Wolf Road outside Albany. The casual culture, the intellectualism appealed to me. I’d study, write poetry, flirt badly. I had spent a summer on fellowship at Princeton and I hung out frequently at the Buck’s County coffee shop just off Nassau St. at the time.

It was the culture I was really looking for. I had come from a very small town and when I was younger, we found ourselves going to even smaller places, literally camping for days in the middle of the woods. I wanted big. I wanted far away. I wanted to feel connected to the world, and the beautiful campus of the University called to me. When you’re from small, the mass and anonymity of big makes you feel like a part of the world, it feels like a privilege. Maybe it’s counterintuitive, but nobody knows about or goes to Columbia, Connecticut. My own Wikipedia page has more content on it than my hometown’s.

There was something else about it: hope. I was really sick my last year of university. I had to take extended medical leave. I was in a bad spot physically and an even worse spot mentally. Having a goal was the only thing keeping me going. I set my desktop background to an image of the university taken from their website. The only future I could imagine involved me going there, getting a Ph.D. in Math, and living a bohemian life as a weirdo academic. I promised myself I would make it there some day.

I never did go to Chicago, not even for a visit. It had been a city I’d somehow managed to never visit, despite transiting through O’Hare at least a dozen times in my life. So given the chance, I took an afternoon to pay a debt to my younger self by visiting the university. It was as beautiful a campus as I had imagined. As I walked through the quad, two professors greeted each other, one was over the moon telling his colleague he had a paper accepted in a prestigious journal. They embraced in a big nerdy hug. I thought a lot about the path I took to get there. It wasn’t what I imagined, but maybe somehow it was better. The week before, I had shaken hands with a Nobel Peace Prize winner! I had spoken at EU Parliament! I didn’t make it the way I thought I was going to 20 years before, but I made it. It gave me a sense of peace.

I forgot that dream, like many others, after it became clear it would never come true. I wouldn’t have gotten in to University of Chicago. If I did, I wouldn’t have survived. But if I did, I think I would have been happy there.

The rest of my trip to Chicago was for important work meetings. It was worth the trip, but they didn’t fill my soul like this did. I’m grateful I got the opportunity.

A tower rises behind a tree at the University of Chicago

Leg 7: Berlin

After a few days in Chicago, I was back to Europe. I stopped off at Berlin, this time for five (5!) whole days. One was a day of recovery, one was a day for doing chores, and one was giving my Digital Safety training. The rest were work days and meetings. Then I got called away again for a client visit: London.

Leg 8: London

I do love London. I’ve said before that London is a proper city in ways that Berlin is not, and that holds up. I love our Soho office, meeting colleagues at the pub for a pint after work, the vibrance and diversity of the food and culture and music and art. I hate that I never really get any time to enjoy the city as I am always there for work. There’s so much I want to explore, I want to spend a year there some day. Maybe that dream has taken the place of Chicago. Maybe I still seek big, because I come from small, and I want to be part of the world. I felt like part of the world jogging along the Thames. It’s a privilege my younger self could have only imagined. I am living a life better than I dreamed. That’s something. That’s something.

Trip log, 2024 (cumulative):

  • Airports:
    • BER
    • EWR
    • IAD
    • FRA
    • HEL
    • MUC
    • BRU
    • ORD
    • LHR
  • Countries:
    • United States
    • Germany
    • Finland
    • Belgium
    • United Kingdom
  • Cities:
    • Charlottesville
    • Washington, DC
    • Berlin
    • Helsinki
    • Brussels
    • Chicago
    • London

Posted: 24.03.2024

Built: 23.06.2024

Updated: 24.03.2024

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Words: 1882

Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes