Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

As I reflected on our recent trip and how mentally unprepared I was for the minor frustrations we encountered, I realized that it revealed what a deep rut I’d gotten into. I don’t remember struggling as much with everything being “foreign” on previous trips. Perhaps that was because I was younger and more flexible, or because our lives were less settled pre-parenthood. I’m not quite sure, but it has left me with the intention to keep from getting so stuck again.

My daily life, like most people’s, is full of routine. Some is necessary and inevitable, but I think I’ve created some because I really, really don’t like to be uncomfortable. Now that I think about it, I tend to avoid discomfort as much as I can. And when I’m uncomfortable, either mentally or physically, I will go to great lengths to fix it as soon as possible.  (I suspect this is also why I chronically overpack: if I am cold, or start to feel sick, I want to have items with me so that I can immediately remedy the situation—and, avoid the potential discomfort of having to seek out something I need quickly in an unfamiliar place. Wow, seeing that in print makes me cringe. Definitely time to loosen up!)

This most recent trip has reminded me that good travel actually involves being uncomfortable. If I am somewhere new, of course it’s not going to feel comfortable, because I’ve never experienced it before. Unfamiliar things feel strange, because they are. And so in order to truly get the most out of traveling, I need to embrace the unfamiliar.

I need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

That is where growth happens, right? In life—and especially as you approach midlife, it seems—we have two choices: either keep growing and expanding (thereby experiencing discomfort) or stay small, keeping everything the same. The second choice will inevitably lead to a shrinking of our world—a slow decline that feels way more terrible to me than some occasional discomfort. So I will consciously choose to keep seeking out new experiences, knowing that the discomfort they bring is good for me.

In fact, it may be time to revive my 2017 project of trying something new each month. Every activity I did last year definitely made me uncomfortable, whether it was surfing, taking piano lessons (and then performing live!), or even starting this blog! But every activity also made me proud, even when I didn’t do it very well. Just the fact that I tried was empowering, and each time I felt energized.

To be fair, I have already done new things this year that stretched me—publishing a book and then talking to strangers about it in person definitely count! But I’m going to recommit to seeking out more novelty, and will head into the second half of 2018 with a refreshed dedication to adventure and exploration.

How about you? Do you also dislike discomfort, or are you one of the lucky people who thrive on challenges? Either way, I hope your summer is filled with plenty of fun, whether it’s from exciting new experiences or comforting familiar ones!


Travel Lessons

We’re back! The trip was wonderful, and I’m proud to report that I was able to stay fairly open and relaxed. There were several times when I realized that we weren’t going to be able to fit in everything I had planned (see Travel Lesson #2, below) but I was able to release my disappointment pretty quickly and be thankful for the experiences we did get to have. (Hey, it just means that I have to go back soon so I can make it to what I missed this time!) If you’d like to see pictures from the trip, you can check out my Instagram feed (@joydetectiveashleybrown).

About midway through the trip I began to jot down some lessons to remember for the next time—some I used to know but had forgotten, and some were new. I will share them with you now; and if you have any of your own hard-won insights from traveling, I would love to hear them!

Travel Lesson #1

Jet lag is REAL; apparently it gets worse as you get older. When my husband and I last went to Europe, it was fifteen years ago. I remember feeling a little dazed that first day, and sleepy the next, and that was it. This time, we both felt like we were underwater for the first three days. I didn’t really feel like myself until Day 5.

We were able to tour around and enjoy ourselves, but every afternoon at about 3 p.m. I would feel like I’d been hit by a truck. I’d have to push through an overwhelming urge to go to sleep. I would manage to make it until about 9, then I’d collapse. I also felt vaguely seasick. Our son was fine, thankfully—he slept like a ton of bricks each night and woke up at his usual 7 a.m. feeling chipper. Ah, youth!

Travel Lesson #2

Everything takes WAY longer than you expect—even things you think will be simple, like switching trains in the same station (leave LOTS of time for that). My original itinerary was much too ambitious; things that I thought would take an hour or two generally took three or four. And you need a break in between each thing, or you’ll wear yourself out. (If you are like me, you will also need food in between each thing! My appetite was greatly increased, due to all the walking!)

Travel Lesson #3

In a foreign country, everything is foreign, not just the language. That can be surprisingly disconcerting. Obviously, we knew there would be a learning curve as we figured out how to get around in a new place. But I had forgotten about all the little differences—plugs (which even varied from the UK to mainland Europe), light switches, appliances, train stations, restaurants, stores, food… practically every aspect of basic life was different, and it was tiring to have to keep figuring stuff out. It took a while to get to a comfort level.

It didn’t help that we stayed in three very different countries on this one trip, so by the time we got the hang of one place, it was time to move on. On our next trip we will limit ourselves to one or two places.

For example, something as simple as walking on the street could be really taxing—in some places, what looks like sidewalks are actually bike lanes, and when crossing streets you often have to watch out for cars, and bikes, and motorbikes.

Going out to eat was often more complicated than expected. We were able to decipher descriptions easily enough, and even often found places with English “subtitles” on the menu. But many times descriptions seemed straightforward, but the food was not what we were expecting. For example, I was really craving some greens after a few days of heavy fried food, so I was thrilled to see a grilled chicken Caesar salad on a menu.

When it came, however, it was not what I had pictured. The chicken was small strips of dark meat covered in a sort of chili sauce; the dressing was a sort of vinaigrette; there wasn’t much lettuce; and there were boiled eggs and other items that we don’t generally put into Caesars in the U.S. I still ate it, and it was fine, but it didn’t really satisfy that salad craving. And then there was the “lobster roll” sandwich, which was actually a roll and a large fried rectangle of something smushy inside that tasted like tuna and cheese.

There were several times when neither my husband nor myself could figure something out, and it was really frustrating—especially when it was as simple as trying to turn on the light in a hotel room. We had to get someone to come show us what to do—and even though it was something we could never have discovered on our own, we still felt stupid, which is disheartening.

Add to that the tiredness of a long day of travel, and hunger, and you have a potential recipe for disaster. But we were able to keep our heads, and no matter what challenges came our way, we overcame them with only minor outbursts. It even became a point of pride—we weren’t going to let anything defeat us. (Even when we thought we weren’t going to make our flight home, due to a computer issue. As we stood at the Air France counter for more than an hour, while a very nice man tried valiantly to find our reservations in their system, we were able to keep from flipping out—a major victory!)

I am very proud of the fact that my husband and I never let our frustrations prod us into fights. I remember a couple of doozies from our travails in Italy on that last trip. Certainly having our son there helped, but I also kept reminding myself to keep calm, and stay focused on my intentions for the trip.

Sometimes that was really hard. For example, when you’re tired, hungry, confused—and stuck INSIDE a train station at the end of a long day of taking THREE trains across FOUR countries. And you can see daylight, and the taxi that will take you to your lovely apartment where you can wash off and rest and go get something to eat, but you CAN’T GET PAST THE TURNSTILE BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE THE MYSTERIOUS LITTLE CARD THINGY EVERYONE ELSE SEEMS TO HAVE.

And there is apparently NO PLACE within the station to get one of those thingys. And NO ONE TOLD YOU that you would need one, when you bought the train tickets that brought you to that station.

That situation required some very difficult mastering of emotion, as my son and I stood there for almost an hour while my husband searched for help. (We finally were able to get a nice lady to let us out.)

Travel Lessons #4 and 5

Don’t take three or more trains in one day. That third trip will bite you in the ass. And read up on the train stations you will be entering and exiting—there are all sorts of little tricks that can mess you up if you don’t know about them in advance. Don’t assume the company that sells you the tickets will tell you everything you need to know.

Travel Lesson #6

Some of the best memories will be the “in-between” moments, not the guidebook experiences. I will always remember riding bikes back from dinner in the Netherlands, and my son saying he wanted to keep going when we got to the house because he was having so much fun. We rode around the neighborhood in the lovely cool dusk; it felt like we were residents, too.

I also loved savoring a morning café au lait and pain au chocolat at the café around the corner from our hotel in Paris as we watched the locals start their day. I honestly could have spent our trip riding bikes and enjoying leisurely café meals and I would have felt completely satisfied. Speaking of eating…

Travel Lesson #7

When in doubt, eat Italian. Especially when the country you are in serves mostly fried, heavy foods, Italian can really be a delight. The menus are fairly universal—you can pretty much count on getting a familiar version of what you order—and I have yet to find a bad Italian restaurant on our travels.

An amazing Italian place rescued our evening in London (site of the can’t-turn-on-the-lights defeat). I had thought we would eat around the train station since the hotel was close to there, and had written down several recommendations, but what looked close on the map turned out to be not close at all (see below) and we weren’t about to go back there once we finally made it to the hotel.

We went next door to a place that looked good, but it was full. I pulled out my trusty phone and began searching, and found Mangia Bene. It turned out to be one of the best meals we had, thoroughly reviving us and restoring our spirits. (A calzone as big as your head and the best ravioli you’ve ever had in your life will do that.)

And when we were in Amsterdam and in dire need of a decent lunch that didn’t involve more fried food, we found incredible paninis and pastries at this tiny hole-in-the-wall. Vivia Italia!

Travel Lesson #8

Maps don’t show hills. You would think I would have learned this after we visited Capri in 2002, and I discovered that “strolling” around the island was more like mountain climbing. But no. We got off the train in London, looked at the map, and figured that we could walk the mile to our hotel since it was on the same street. Within a block, the street started to rise, and it got steep pretty quickly. It was hot, and we had been on the train for six hours, and we were hungry, and we hiked up that damn hill with our heavy suitcases for what felt like an eternity. #shouldhavecalledacab

Travel Lesson #9

Travel hairdryers suck.

Travel Lesson #10

Renting an apartment is wonderful because it gives you more room to spread out, and to rest comfortably in between excursions. If you can get one with a washer/dryer, that’s even better! Especially on a longer trip, it’s extremely helpful to be able to wash your clothes. (However, be prepared to get REALLY frustrated as you try to figure out how to operate said washer and dryer!) It also helps you feel like residents, rather than tourists.


As I read back over these, it strikes me that I sound whiny in places.  To go to London and complain about not being able to figure out the light switches, or to the Netherlands and find issue with a different type of Caesar salad? Talk about first world problems.

I’m a little ashamed at how mentally unprepared I was for this trip. I was eager to “experience new things” but I didn’t anticipate the frustration that could bring—and how much more sensitive we would feel when we were tired and in unfamiliar surroundings. Now, I’m eager to go back again soon; I feel like I’ve been broken open a bit, and that I would be able to appreciate the adventures more and feel less blindsided by the challenges.

If you’re planning a trip to foreign lands, I hope these “lessons” are of some help. I will certainly refer to them before we go back. And if you have any tips on how to get over jet lag faster, I’d love to hear them!


Having a Bon Voyage

The big family trip to Europe that I talked about a few weeks ago (see that post) is finally here! I’m in the last few days of packing and prepping. By the time you read this, we will be in the air, headed east! I’m so excited!

I’m trying not to be too frenzied as I make all of the last-minute preparations. As I talked about in that last post, I want to be more relaxed about this trip than I usually am. I want to approach it without expectations of how things will be so that I’m not disappointed when our experiences don’t match those expectations.

And even as I make the lists that I love to make, I keep reminding myself that these are possibilities, not plans. There are many restaurants I’d like to try, shops I’d like to visit, and places I’d like to explore … but I don’t have to do it all.

In fact, trying to do it all would almost certainly make us miserable. While “failing to plan” can sometimes mean “planning to fail,” in this case I think that planning too much can result in failing to enjoy. So although my anxiety level ratchets up each time I think of missing out on something, I keep reminding myself that I can’t possibly see everything in one trip. There will be other trips (hopefully!), and this time I just need to concentrate on the top interests—and leave some room for unexpected surprises.

I will be mostly unplugged for the trip, which I’m really looking forward to, so this blog will take a vacation break along with me. When I get back, I’ll let you know how it all went!

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The Thrill of Anticipation vs. the Risk of Expectations

Do you like to travel? For me, it’s a sure source of joy. I love seeing new places, experiencing new things, and meeting new people. I daydream about places I want to go constantly.

And when we have an actual trip on the books and I get to make plans for it? Oh, that’s heaven to me. I just read a happiness tip that recommended booking your trips months in advance, because studies have shown that people are happiest when they’re anticipating a vacation. That makes total sense to me.

We are headed on a family trip to Europe in just a couple of weeks, and I’m beside myself with anticipatory excitement.  I haven’t been there since before our 13-year-old son was born, so I’m really looking forward to going back. Plus, I can’t wait to share the fun with my son. He loves to travel like I do, and this will be the first time he’s been out of the country. I’m having such a good time poring over guidebooks and making lists of possible sights to see and restaurants to try. There are so many options to choose from and so many new experiences waiting to be savored.

This is all marvelous. However, sometimes I can enjoy the anticipation of what’s to come more than the actual trips. In my imagination, everything is perfect. There are no travel delays, no rain, no frustrations. But the reality of a trip often includes at least one of those. And occasionally, because the reality conflicts with my too-high expectations, it can cause me to feel more upset than the situation really warrants.

I’ve been reading Wake Up to the Joy of You by Agapi Stassinopoulos (which I highly recommend—it’s a lovely book) and I recently read a chapter titled “Finding Grace in Disappointment.” She discusses how we can set ourselves up for disappointment with our expectations. She says, “Fundamentally, we are wired by human nature to have expectations. You want things to work out a certain way, your way. You plan and imagine the desired outcome and attach your own fantasies to the experience. You tell yourself stories about how things should happen, and when the reality does not match, you feel let down and experience a loss of energy.”

This certainly happens to me on trips, or even any big event. I’ll picture what it will be like, and if it doesn’t match my expectations, I’ll feel let down. This can happen even if the actual experience is nice, which is a shame. I’m cheating myself out of full enjoyment that way. 

Stassinopoulos suggests that the way to avoid this is to become more present with what is really happening, rather than getting lost in wishful thinking. If we don’t go into something with a preconceived notion of how it will be, but rather we go in openly and with curiosity, being present for whatever unfolds, we can enjoy that without judgment.

I love this idea, and want to approach my upcoming trip in that spirit. But I want to eat my cake and have it too—I enjoy reading guidebooks and sifting through restaurant recommendations way too much to go completely plan-free. Instead, I will make plans, but I won’t decide in advance how the experience will go. I won’t set a high bar of expectations.

My husband likes to travel without much advance planning, which can make me uncomfortable. I definitely need the security of knowing I have a confirmed place to sleep each night! But I’ll admit, the times when we’ve just rolled into a town and “sniffed out” a good place to eat or something fun to do have usually turned out wonderfully. Plus, there’s a specific feeling of accomplishment when you discover something that’s off the beaten path.

Traveling in that way can really broaden our horizons.  Exploring uncharted territory and enjoying (or surviving!) unexpected adventures—this often results in some of the best experiences (and funniest stories). On this upcoming trip, I intend to leave room for those types of happy surprises.

I will also make every attempt to leave my expectations at home, even (or especially) for the parts I do plan in advance. I will “go with the flow” (oh, how this is a challenge for me!) and be present for whatever happens, without judgment.  I think it will result in a richer experience overall. Wish me luck! I will let you know how it goes!

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The Joy of Novelty

I watched “Breakfast at Tiffany's” again recently. (I love that movie!) This time, I was struck by the part when Paul sells his story and Holly says, “We should celebrate! I think there's a bottle of champagne in the icebox; you open it and I'll get dressed.” He says (while opening the bottle) that he's never had champagne before breakfast before, and she says they should spend the day taking turns doing things they've never done. She takes him to Tiffany's; he takes her to the public library; she takes him shoplifting! I thought, what a wonderful idea! Not the shoplifting—but to spend an entire day doing new things. Doesn’t it sound invigorating and adventurous?

Of course in New York City it would be easy to fill the day with new activities, but in a smaller town, is it more difficult? You might have to try a little harder, but I think it’s possible. There are plenty of places here that I've never been. I bet we all have those spots we drive by and think, "one day I'm going to check that out,” but we’re always too busy, and then we forget.

Now, an entire day might be asking a little much in my current world—and probably in yours too—but we could certainly take an occasional morning or afternoon to have one or two new experiences. Hmmm … I just tried to make a list and I could only come up with three things. Wow, I am definitely stuck in my old habits! There are probably dozens of activities I haven't tried and places I haven’t visited around here, yet I can only think of three.

When you're in a rut, it's hard to turn the wheel and get out. That's why I love traveling--new places force us to do things differently and expose us to fresh experiences, which inspire growth and novel ideas. Keri Wilt, author of the beautiful blog FHB&Me, just wrote a post about that very thing. She related how her young son would make huge leaps in development whenever they would take a trip. She says, "Despite all of my encouraging and nurturing at home, it was only when he left our home base, that he grew and changed by leaps and bounds. Now, I am not discounting what he learned at home, but I made a mental note at the time about the power that new people, views, and experiences can do for a developing mind. And guess what? It's true for my developing mind too! Yes, my 43 year old mind is still changing and learning and growing. And just like my son, when I confine myself to living the same days over and over again: wake up, breakfast, work, lunch, home, tv, dinner, bed...I get stuck and my growth slows to a crawl."

Yes! She hits the nail on the head. Novelty is good for us. It wakes us up, stretches our mind, gives us a different vantage point from which to examine our lives. It opens us to new possibilities. Research shows that learning new things keeps our brain changing and growing as we age, and can help prevent cognitive decline. So not only is it fun, it's beneficial to our health.

My husband and I try to have a date night every week. We’re in a rut on this too, usually heading to our favorite bar for cocktails and then to dinner. Recently, we shook it up a little by trying a new restaurant. It was amazing—incredible ambience, excellent service, to-die-for food. We felt like we were in a different city altogether. It was so much more memorable and fun than going to the same old place.

Last year I read the book “The 52 Weeks: Two Women and Their Quest to Get Unstuck, with Stories and Ideas to Jumpstart Your Year of Discovery” by Karen Amster-Young and Pam Godwin. It was a fascinating read. These two 40-something friends felt like they had lost momentum in their lives. They were griping to each other over drinks, and came up with a plan to “face our fears, rediscover our interests, try new things, and renew our relationships” by doing something different each week for a year. They started a blog to chronicle their year and ended up publishing the book—how’s that for shaking up your life? After I read it, I was quite inspired. But the thought of trying to do something EVERY WEEK was a bit overwhelming, I admit. So I adjusted that to every month—which still felt a little intimidating, but much more manageable—and decided I would start in January of this year.

So far, here’s what I’ve done:

·         January: took piano lessons for the first time

·         February: made marbled paper on my own and taught a friend how to do it at our first “art party”

·         March: performed a song on piano, in a band, at a showcase—in front of actual people! (Eeeek! I was terrified but I did it!)

·         April: started writing my first book

·         May: launched this blog!

Each of these took me out of my comfort zone, and everything except the art in February scared me silly! But I find that I’m now feeling more excited, engaged, and energized than I have in years.

For June, I’m REALLY stretching my boundaries. I’ve got a surfing lesson scheduled this afternoon! I have never tried to surf and am not particularly athletic; luckily, the waves here are not that big. Surfing is something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time, but I’ve always been too afraid of looking like a fool. I got tired of moving the Post-it note that said “book surfing lesson” from calendar to calendar year after year, so when I decided devote 2017 to new activities, I knew surfing would be one of them. I am both excited and anxious; I will let you know how it goes!

What have you always wanted to try? Which interesting spot in your hometown is crying to be checked out? I hope you get to have an adventure of your own soon, and that it brings you joy!