My employer – Autodesk – is one of the oldest software companies in the world. A quirky benefit for US based employees is a six weeks sabbatical every four year. This June I am completing 12 years with Autodesk and today I am taking off for my third sabbatical. Like in academia, sabbaticals are meant to recharge batteries and focus on something outside ones regular job. On Friday at 5PM, I signed out of my work email – and today, Sunday I am on a flight to Kiev in the Ukraine. Nothing seems to recharge my batteries like a trip to a new country – or countries.
Over the next seven weeks, I will visit Eastern Europe (Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria), the Balkan (Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and maybe Kosovo. I will take a short break from Europe with a quick trip to Thailand and Myanmar. Back in Europe, I will catch up with my brother Alfred and my wife Kim in Georgia and Armenia. After Alfred leaves, Kim and I will continue on to the Baltics (Lithuania and Latvia) and finally Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway, and Denmark). The grand finally of the trip will be a visit to my family in Austria – and Kim’s family in Rochester, New York.
My first sabbatical took me to South Africa. My second sabbatical found me in South East Asia. Today, I am on my way to a place I did not have much of a desire to see just a few years ago. Europe always seemed to familiar, to overrun and not worth exploring. It all changed with a few short side trips as part of business trips. One time, on my way to India, I visited Czech Republic and Poland. Another time, on my way to Moscow, I stopped in Estonia – and both time loved the experience. Different then Western Europe but similar, I found well-preserved cities, distinct architecture and beautiful surroundings. I enjoyed well-prepared local cuisine and fantastic beer (mostly Pilsner) – and most of it cheaper than you find places like Central America, South Africa, India, or Western Europe. I was hooked. Customs and culture are close to European culture I am familiar with – but the Eastern influence gives it flavor that makes it worth exploring. Eastern Europe had the best of both worlds.
A sabbatical is not only a time to explore new geographies, it is also a time to explore many of the things that day-to-day living keeps me removed from. Since I shut down my work computer last Friday, I noticed my mind relaxing – much more than a two weeks’ vacation would do. Deadline and politics disappear and a blank canvas appears onto which I can paint anything I want to over the next two month. (My sabbatical is almost two month due to the US holiday calendar and a company wide shut down for one week in July). Sitting on my first flight for the sabbatical from San Francisco to Chicago, I don’t know what this canvas will tell when I return to San Francisco. What I hope for is strong connections with the places I visit, different perspectives, and a greater appreciation for the beauty of this planet. I am looking forward to breaking with some of my routines – and making time for some of my passions. Here is to a great sabbatical.
On my way to India, I stopped in Europe and decided to take The Long Way into Austria. Usually when I arrive in Munich, I drive 340 km to my parents house. This time, I decided to go east and around Austria and enter my home country from the south. Brother Fredi joined me in Munich in late July of 2015 and we started our long way home.
My flight from San Francisco to Munich was uneventful and I met Fredi in the agreed upon airport brewery. After picking up our white Citroen, we left the airport within the hour of my touch town. With Pilsen our first destination about 250km away, we headed in the opposite direction of Salzburg and arrived just before sunset. The Pilsner Urquell was our primary reason to visit and we made our pilgrimage to the brewery shortly after checking into our hotel. Although attractive enough of an area and very near our hotel, the brewery failed to impress. We were greeted by loud disco music in a very old looking building. With the auditory experience not matching the visuals, we felt disoriented and it did not seem like a real place. Of course we had to have a Pilsner here and stayed for dinner. The pleasant surprise, and something that continued for most of the trip, food and drinks are very reasonably priced (dare I say cheap). Our traditional meat “something” with three kinds of dumplings was deliciousness and this combined with a few beers was less then $20. What is there not to like about.
With the help of jet leg, I took an early morning walk and was able to add two life birds to my list and also discover a beautiful old town square just after sunrise. All in all, a great first little stop on our long way to Austria journey.
Our main destination in the Czech Republic was of course Prague. It was nice to only spend one hour driving after much driving and flying the day before. Our GPS brought us directly to our designated destination in Prague and the city was love on first sight. Our hotel, was dab smack in the middle of all this prettiness (and had a beer spa to hoot). Fredi and I wondered among all the must see and not necessarily must see sights of this lovely city and enjoyed one (or more) beverages this country is known for in a beautiful, leafy beer garden overlooking Prague. I was only able to add one life bird here (a Great Spotted Woodpecker) but it was wonderful spending some time in a true jewel of Europe. Knowing that the next day will have us cover many kilometers, we were not able to fully (keyword “fully”) enjoy the nightlife of the city, we both agreed to be back here soon again.
The destination for day two on journey was Krakow, Poland about 500km away and our plan was to stop at the bone church, some birding and Auschwitz. The bone church was about one hour from Prague and took us barely off the most direct route to Auschwitz. The church was build about 600 years ago. After a huge battle in the area, bones from 10,000 fallen warriors were used to decorate the church many years later. On the outside, the church looks fairly normal and the village itself was nothing to write home about. The inside of the church felt like a horror gift shop were old ladies may have gone a little overboard. For the most part, bones were nicely arranged in attractive formations. Near the entrance, two huge piles, mostly skulls, looked like the “boneyard” we’re it all come from. Fredi and I shared our time at this church with a noisy tourist group from China that seemed to enjoy taking selfies with real skulls in background.
With weather and timing not ideal for birding a few hours after the bone church, we change plans and visit another old, lovely town in northeast Czech Republic per LP’s suggestion. After a hefty lunch at a local brewery, we visit the main site of this town- a very large, recently renovated church. After Prague it take more then just size to impress us – we leave fairly soon and make it to Ausschwitz, Poland shortly after they start letting in individual travelers. For most of the day, one has to join a tour to enter.
Being Austrian and having grown up hearing and reading about this dark periods in our history a lot, I was very curious how being in this place would actually fell beyond what I already knew. The two things that struck me – and something you probably can only experience onsite is how small Ausschwitz 1 felt. The place felt like it was build very much on a human scale and it is hard to imagine that this was an execution factory. Even the “Arbeit macht Frei” sign seemed friendly. The other surprise was that a town had grown up around the location of one of the worst human atrocities ever. I know there was a town there before 1942 – but seeing new apartment buildings and fast food restaurants within a few meters from Ausschwitz seemed bizarre. Why would anyone want to have their morning coffee or discount burger while looking over the camps. I expected the area to be “poisoned” and no one would want to live near there but instead found a town that is not much connected with its past.
After Ausschwitz, we also visited Birkenau. Most of Birkenau was destroyed by the Nazis before the Russians liberated the area but I got a better perspective off size and of the scale of the crimes committed here. After the bone church and Ausschwitz, Fredi and I had enough darkness for one day. Luckily, Kraków is an easy place to discover some lightness, good food and friendly pubs. Like Prague, we felt we did not have enough time for this lovely, not well known city and hope to be back someday.
The next day had birding in Slovakia scheduled. The friendly pubs took more of a toll then expected and lack of sunshine killed the rest of our motivation. We crossed the Tatra mountains from Poland into Slovakia and while waiting for our lunch, I bagged two life birds – the the European Goldfinch and a White Stork – my only two in this country. Hotel for the night was out in the middle of no-where in a forest. It allowed us to recharge our batteries after two good nights in Prague and Kraków.
More rain the next day forced us again to be flexible. I skipped birding in Slovakia and hit a few birding spots in eastern Hungary. The area seemed it would be ideal for birds but it was not very productive for. The area was also very flat – a type of landscape that is not very energizing to me and we decamped for Budpest fairly soon.
that feeling in my stomach before going on a trip. This does not happen when going on a business trip – and this is a business trip. With travel, AU India will chew up about a week. I will stopover in Europe for a few days on my way to India. After AU India, I will spend a few days in Kerala, South India with Kim.
The stopover in Europe will take me the long way from Munich into Austria through a few countries in Europe I have not visited before. Kerala will also be new and so I expect plenty new and be able to feed my travel bug.
Although my expectations are low, I am bringing my birding guide for Europe along and hope for at least one lifer in each country. Altogether I expect 100 lifers on this trip. Will see what happens.
Over the last few years, a particular pattern seems to have snuk into my travels. I don’t d much travel towards the beginning of the year – but it picks up in H2. The main reason for that is of course the travel I do for work. Once my trips are confirmed, I am able to plan personal trips – and add-on trips around my business travels.
Between now and the end of the year, I expect to get passport stamps from 20plus countries (if they were to stamp – which they don’t do in Europe).
July/Aug – Czech Republic -> Hungary -> Austria – India
Sep – Ecuador (hard-core birding)
Oct – Finland -> Russia -> Germany
Nov – Taiwan – China – S.Korea
Dec – El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize
I am looking forward to a beer spa in the Czech Republic, visiting my hometown for Villacher Kirchtag, 1,600 birds in Ecuador, high-speed train in Korea – and exploring a few more countries in Latin America.
First week back in the office and I survived. Although I can not say I am back in swing of things, it was great seeing the team again. By now I feel caught up on things, all technical issues that appear after a long sabbatical are fixed and I am ready to jump in fully next week. Also glad to to jump start my now official role as global AU franchise manager with a trip to Vegas and connect with some of the folks I will be working with closely.