Travelling Like Spam Poetry

We have an anniversary.

In the summer of 2005,
the Chief Engineer and I set out to visit every Austrian village
whose names started with the letter Z.

It was a straight-forward idea given that we lived in a z-village. Our universe of websites contains the virtual equivalent – z-village.net, a German website chronicling the adventures and musings of two fearless settlers – calling themselves Subversive Element and Irgendwer (Somebody Doing Anything Nobody Wants to Do). These setters are on a mission to discover myth-enshrouded z-village. Today the z-village website is an epic tomb, but we link to it on our blog: punktwissen – Professional Tinkerers and Restless Settlers, tagging it with How it all got started. Perhaps that’s why not every reader recognizes this blog’s business-y nature.

Now, after I have scared everybody off with weird links (…. wait, I forgot to mention that it was the other members of our EPSI circle that suggested this trip!), here is the story:

We used the official list of z-villages from Austria’s statistical service – 247 places in total in a manual approach to optimization: Trying to visit as many as possible in one round trip. In the end, we managed to see 100 z-villages, driving 2000 km in about 10 days.

So the process was:

Try to find the next z-village shown in your print-out of Google maps or referred to in other sources. Most of these villages were small settlements rather than political entities, comprised of houses with addresses like z-village 7, and finding those was like trying to follow a yellowed old treasure map.

z-tripz-tripFind a place-name sign.

z-trip, found sign.Take a weird photo of the sign (Collection).

z-trip

Take to our heels when local life-forms start wondering. Sometimes it was scary, like Indiana Jones meeting the cannibals. In the north of Austria near the border to Czech Republic  – places typically picked for stereotype dark-family-secret-in-rural-village crime stories – the locals were especially suspicious.

Look, these guys are taking a photo of the sign ????!!!

z-trip, scary place

I realize, it might be hard to see the fun in this. You need to be part of it. Later I proposed this type of travelling to become part of life coaches’ outdoor training offerings. In jest of course, but as usual some people took it seriously.

Via the silly rule implied by the list of names we were forced to travel to places you would never pick for any type of vacation: They were neither advertised to tourists nor intriguing to maverick adventurers. It was like clicking form one hyperlink to the next and having to pick one line for poetry.

In the years before the z-trip our travelling was mainly for business. I mainly saw airports, train stations, motorways, and corporate headquarters. Though it should not have been a secret, the z-trip showed us that we live in a country comprised of fields and forests, of land not completely sealed by the tokens of 20th century’s civilization.

z-trip, as in the bucolic cliché

z-trip, magic well

z-trip, wind farm

We had to neglect some z-villages in the Western, Alpine regions to keep kilometers to a reasonable level. Nevertheless, we saw enough small villages that made us wonder how people can cope with tons of snow.

It was like in these movies portraying New Yorkers travelling to the wilderness of Alaska for the first time, having to deal with harsh weather and raccoons. I realized how clichéd, biased, and distorted some of my views were (… and yet, I use more clichés now to make my point!).

z-trip, wild animals

We both quit our corporate jobs the day after we had returned from that trip.

z-trip, settlers' selfie

Travelling like this was like using the internet in the pre-social-media era: Jumping from one obscure private website – designed by Microsoft FrontPage, with pink marquee taglines – to the next, not sharing and commenting on it.

I crafted my first website in 1997 – with FrontPage, I admit, and for business – but I was very reluctant to enter the interactive social web for a long time. My reluctance was the topic of my very first WordPress post. Since three years I have been exploring Web 2.0, and I am now returning to the z-travelling style of using the internet.

z-trip, mystic river

z-trip, bumpy road ahead

Almost There: Celebrating a Special Day

No, this does neither refer to the End of the World tomorrow(*), nor to Christmas, nor to the End of the Year.
(*) In 8 minutes in my time zone.

Since I have alluded to a ‘leap of faith’ and ‘passing through worm holes’ here or here I owe you a sequel. In a sense it is also a prequel.

I am celebrating an anniversary today: It has been the 20th of December 2003 when I travelled to Tenerife. Escaping snow, cold and Christmas-related rituals.

I had just finished one of those Need-to-be-done-before-Christmas-it’s-so-funny-to-spend-the-nights-in-the-Office projects. At the airport I bought popular science magazines on quantum mechanics and the history of the Curie family.

Actually, I was embarking to another journey and slowly I am realizing today that I am almost there. Fortunately I have not known it would take to long, but I believe the journey has constituted a reward in its own right.

Meandering Paths. Tenerife.

Meandering Paths. Tenerife.

My visits to the Canary Islands have always been entangled with career and life decisions: I have been to Lanzarote nearly 20 years ago as a PhD student – when I was pretty sure I will not stick with academia forever. In Fuerteventura I recovered from having been promoted to my first management position and decided to return to the pleasures of working as a geek specialist soon.

At the end of 2003 it has been a year since I had started to re-read all my university physics text books and lecture notes again ‘for fun’. The pop-sci magazines were intended to serve as light entertainment on the airplane, but finally they triggered a process that could not be stopped ever since. I was determined to work my way back or forth from corporate global IT to physics and engineering. More than that I wanted to invent my own peculiar way of doing that – as explained previously neither academia or a corporate position were an option for me.

Pine trees in Tenerife.

Pine trees in Tenerife.

Actually, one of the outcomes of the Tenerife episode was an offer to work in a project on applied quantum physics shortly after my travel. Quite flattering, actually. But I declined after some sleepless nights and decided to stick with IT for some time (and gradually transform and control the way I work) instead of returning to postdoc life.

It took one more trip to La Palma the next year in order to finalize the next step – in our joint journey. We founded our company another year later,  focussing on some very specific fields in IT. Actually, the final preparation was done when travelling as well: We visited most of the villages and cities in Austria whose name starts with a ‘z’ – an idea created in the company of like-minded strange lifeforms. This trip had a surprising impact: Since the z criterion was so random you were forced to visit places neglected by tourists (Some villages consisted of a single street basically). And all of a sudden you realize how rural and down-to-earth the country is where you have lived – and how immaterial, weird and bizarre the world of global corporations seems to be. It was like Dilbert working on a farm – the ultimate outdoor experience.

Breakwaters. North of Tenerife.

Breakwaters. North of Tenerife.

Nevertheless, I spent some more years at airports, in chilled data centers, and steel-and-glass office towers, and air-conditioned hotels. But it was a tremendous improvement to work as a self-employed consultant versus working as an employed consultant: No more goals in terms of utilization and billable hours! Paradoxically, I did not work less, but I had the chance to say yes or no to every project request and I was able to become even more specialized in an area I had selected – instead of working on the projects that are on the table and need to be done to meet the numbers.

I was still reading physics stuff including really hard text books, but I admit I focussed on beating my own numbers every year. I am still proud of my achievements and in particular about the fact that I never did anything remotely resembling marketing. Unless you count ‘drinking coffee with old friends’ as marketing.

Mountains in Tenerife

Mountains in Tenerife

I was in Lanzarote at the beginning of 2010 – considering a career change really seriously, but not yet sure about how to start exactly. I had acquired a ‘licence’ as a ‘Professional Engineer in Applied Physics’ by the end of 2009 and we have started to tinker with an unconvential heat pump system.

Fast forwarding to end of 2010 – I was stressed and nearly burnt-out by the end-of-year deadlines, not so much by the work load but by what I called a lack of meaning. Suddenly I felt like the anti-security consultant who tried to help really productive people to get their work done despite security and compliance. Ironically, IT security was (and is) still ‘hot’ – I have been busy with declining project requests long after I had stated firmly I will not do this any more.

In December 2010 I would have loved to write a good-bye e-mail to all of my customers, but I was not ready for that yet. I left hints between the lines on some of my websites but nobody noticed. The difficult part in the decision was not about renouncing of future revenue, it was rather about disappointing all of my ‘fans’ who invented nicknames as ‘Grande Dame of PKI’ for me.

Then there was Easter vacation and accidentally I heard some stories about friends from friends who had been forced to change their careers – due to the economic crisis or health issues. And then I knew that my personal challenge was to initiate the change all by myself.

Natural swimming pool. Tenerife.

Natural swimming pool. Tenerife.

After having considered zillions of postgraduate studies since 10 years (incl. philosophy, computer science, mathematics, psychology, science communication) I enrolled for another master’s degree programme in energy engineering immediately after Easter. Our personal heating system project proliferated into a research project. I informed all my customers, one by one, experimenting with the way I presented my story. I got amazing feedback and heard interesting stories of other IT people who wanted to do something else or who basically stated ‘Finally you are doing what you always wanted’. During the time I was already phasing out my IT activities I had a meeting with a new potential business partner nonetheless, playing my IT role for the last time (I thought). Months later I confessed to this partner and he told me right away that it was clear to him from our lunch small talk that my heart was in science and engineering. I could not even remember I talked about science with him.

So here I am: Aspiring consulting engineer in renewable energies, the transition period is going to end soon. The pilot system is doing fine and I am entering the final purt in the third term (of four) in my master’s programme. I am delighted by feedback and questions from potential customers and partners – during the stealth mode period.

Wind Park in the north of La Palma (2004)

Wind Park in the north of La Palma (2004)

More often than not in the past I did not celebrate achievements or milestones, but rather executed the perfectly designed plan. I did not travel the world after completing my first Master’s or PhD studies, and between jobs I spent two weeks of vacation maximum. But this time I take every single step with utmost awareness.

__________________________

Further reading / context: Reading and contributing to discussions on www.physicsforums.com helped me a lot to develop my personal strategy. My postings over there allow for tracking the gradual shift in my attitude.