While I was stuck in traffic on my way to Düsseldorf a few days ago, I began noticing in detail the greenery growing in the median strip on the A-fucking-46 Autobahn. Fortuitously, an old German pop song began to play on the radio. I always listen to the oldies station, WDR4, since songs by Deep Purple and The Mamas and the Papas are now considered “oldies.” Seriously?
Anyway, Udo Jürgens, an Austrian pop star of old, suddenly began singing the song, “Ich war noch niemals in New York” (“I’ve Never Been to New York”). He closed the door, walked out silently into the neon-lighted stairwell. It smelled of floor polish and smugness. And on the stairs, he thought, what would happen if this was a departure. He'd simply have to go for all time…”
Almost all Germans know this song. About a guy who goes out to buy a pack of cigarettes and realizes he has everything he needs to just take off. Even a passport (I don’t take my passport with me when I go to the supermarket!). Everything seems to be perfect: He knows he could hail a cab and it is very likely that there is a flight to New York that evening. So what does he do?
Nothing. He goes home.
I have never been to New York, I was never really free, once being crazy and cross all limits. As I listen, I suddenly shout through the music, “Yes! Go ahead! Do it!” My car window is open. Some guy gawks at me from the next lane. Maybe because of my outburst. So what? Let them all gawk. Go and get those “cigarettes”. Now.
I used to be one of those daydreaming folks who believe they are already pretty cool. Living in an apartment on the main street, owning a savings account, and working at a full-time job in the public sector. Can you imagine me like that? Me neither. But that's how it was. And strangely enough, I also wanted to go to New York. Like the dude in the song. To be more precise, I wanted to go all over the US. On a huge road trip lasting several months. I'd already written the schedule in big letters on my calendar: “Someday.”
Someday: that's the day between "kiss my ass" and "never".
Then, without warning, my grandma died. Just like that. In the afternoon, she was happily on a 30-mile bike ride. Stroke that night. Dead in the morning. Some things are learned the hard way. And some people learn nothing, even from that.
I took my calendar and tore out the page that said “Someday”. No more floor polish or stuffiness. No way I was going back up that neon-bright stairwell. It was time to get “cigarettes”.
Those who regularly read my blog or who have read my book know that I made my travel dream come true. After I returned to Germany, I began to introduce many more life-changing events into my existence, like self-employment, location-independent work, and a long-distance relationship with someone in the U.S. It was a series of occurrences that demonstrated just how possible it is to move on after getting the “cigarettes”. But it was unlike many road movies, where the hero mysteriously rides off into the sunset as the credits roll, and you are left wondering, “How will they pay for that? Where will they live? What if they get sick? And what about their family?”
And those thoughts and feelings are perfectly normal human fears. Fears that stop us from going anywhere. Of course, no matter how romantic it may seem to just take off to the airport with your passport after a stop at Walmart, we don’t. We have jobs, health insurance, kids, parents, homes, pets. Basil dying in the kitchen. But I digress.
There's no way to just say, "Nice talking to you my child, but Mom will never cook anything for you after school now. However, I will write you an occasional postcard from Tahiti."
Or, "Bye boss, I'll soon be earning my living by selling artistically-painted soda cans from the back of my van on the beach in Acapulco."
Why would you still want to go out for “cigarettes”?
Because anyone who continues for a long time to feel this longing, is just living a life that does not make them happy. And that just sucks. A lot, even, because the universe has unfortunately endowed us with only a single copy of this "life."
If someone gave you a single, extremely valuable, and unique diamond ring, you wouldn't flush it down the toilet, would you? You would use it. Sort of. Wear it. Show it off. Sell it. Give away. But you wouldn’t waste it. So don't do that with your life either. Don’t waste your life with the wrong people, the wrong job, or the wrong place.
Okay, got it. Now how do I go get “cigarettes”? There are two ways:
1. You can just hop into the car, the train, the bike, or the plane, and just go to the sea, the mountains, or
even to New York. Spontaneously. Crazily. For a day or for a week. Provided you have more than three pennies in your pocket. “Cigarettes” are expensive, as we all know. Just taking off
for even a short visit would be totally liberating and relieving. Just getting away. From stress and pressure, lack of sleep and worries. Like opening a safety valve to allow you to feel
yourself again. Not a long-term solution, but a short-term relief. And that can often help enormously your ability to face everyday life again. If necessary, this can be repeated, or even
become a restorative routine. Once a week or once a month, just take a day and go to your favorite place. Where only you count.
2. If you really want to get completely out of the life you are currently living, "spontaneous and crazy" unfortunately is of little help. Anyone who offers you a two-hour, free online coaching session to help you quickly create a new life has got to have a screw loose somewhere above the eyebrows. It is not that easy. That's why you won't find anything like that here with me.
If you want to change really big things in the long term, you gotta sit your ass down and fire up your brain. Because big life changes usually need some groundwork, savings, courage, and planning. Maybe a lot.
Whew, that sounds big and exhausting. But the first step is to ask yourself questions that you can easily answer while sitting at the kitchen table: What job would I really rather be doing than my current one? What skills do I need for that? What skills and passions do I already possess? It's always much easier to change careers when you're on fire about doing something new. Make a list or ask friends what talents they admire in you. Often you don't see those things in yourself.
Also make a list of your expenses, current costs, and savings to get a realistic picture of your financial situation. It doesn't sound idyllic, but without moolah there is often nothing you can do. That said, I saved for almost twenty years before I could go on my trip to the U.S.—starting with five-mark pieces (about $2.50) I began to save as a seven-year-old child. It is possible. Even with little. For real.
Talk to your family, your partner, and your friends. A lot of things go easier if those you know best are privy to your “cigarette” plans and they support you. If they are not supportive, it may be time to separate yourself from some of those people. After all, you don't live for them, you live for you. If you have young children or are a caregiver, talking to everyone involved will help there, too. An acquaintance of mine is currently going to South Korea to study for several months. She has a small son, but together with the family she found a solution. It is possible.
The secret of getting “cigarettes” is that you don't go back to the shitty stairwell after you've made up your mind, like the dude did in the Udo Jürgens song. You don't have to run away with your passport right this second, but you do have to take that first step right now as a small start for a big change.
Ask your boss or a friend to talk with you and set a date, right now, so you don't fail to do it. Throw something away, tear something off the calendar, invest in something, say your plans out loud in front of witnesses. Immediately.
The first step out of the stairwell is the hardest. Because everything is new, unknown, and frightening. Because
people frequently don't respond well to change. Even if you don't remember it, you learned to walk once. You fell down. You picked yourself back up. You bled. You changed from a baby to an adult.
Without you being able to stop it. That is unmistakable proof that you can change. So go. Open the door. Step into the stairwell. You can do it.
You can also find more motivation in my posts: