Travelogue LXX: Spain I

JL049409.jpgAugust 7, 2017 We are spending two weeks in Spain with friends from Stanford, in a villa on the sea an hour outside of Barcelona. It’s glorious, and a different Europe than anything I have experienced before. The colors are new to me, and the air, and the entire way of living.

The days start late here, with a long breakfast at 11am, and then a bit of work (we are all grad students and thus always have work, even in August in Spain), and then siesta until perhaps 5pm. During the siesta hours, absolutely nothing stirs here, no dog-walkers, no children playing outside, no traffic noise. Most of the businesses in the city are closed. Jonathan and I went for a walk one afternoon, and it felt like we were the only people alive in this particular corner of the planet.

It’s not about laziness though, however it may appear to, for example, the early-to-bed-early-to-rise Germans. It’s simply another way of doing things. And practically speaking, it’s also about the heat. It is hot in Spain in August–90, 95, 100 degrees every day, dipping down into the 80s or perhaps the 70s at night. The heat is a constant presence, all-encompassing and always to be reckoned with. One spends the days in as little clothing as possible.

At any rate, the early evenings here bring a hint of a cool breeze from the Mediterranean, and the shops open again in the little town of Palamós. We emerge from various napping spots and go down to the beach to swim, or take the car to some seaside medieval village. Still, nothing really happens until perhaps 7pm, when people do their food shopping and then start thinking about dinner. The restaurants won’t open until at least 8pm. We cook at home, however, and the dinner’s on the table by 10pm: on the deck overlooking the ocean, with a full moon and lit candles. Afterwards, wine and conversation until it is finally cool enough to get some sleep–1am, 2am perhaps.

You just don’t spend summers like this in Germany, or anywhere else I have lived.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom the little beach near the house, it is possible to walk along the sea from one cove to the next, high on the cliffs above the sea. The water in the Mediterranean here is blue, shifting shades of cerulean, and impossible to capture in photographs. It’s so clear that you can see straight to the sea floor when you look down from the cliffs. It’s also warm, and saltier than the oceans I know, and very easy to swim in. Every cove is full of naked sunbathers, children diving from the rocks. There are fishermen’s dinghies drawn up on shore and larger sailboats anchored farther out. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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I have my favorite adventure buddy back, too!

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A tiny fishermen’s village, only accessible by footpath or water. 

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The Catalonian flag. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo it’s gorgeous here, and so fascinatingly different. After a month in France and now these weeks in Spain, this summer has brought home to me the diversity of Europe, where you travel a few hours by bus over a border and find yourself in another world. Culturally, linguistically, culinarily, architecturally: Spain couldn’t be more different than Germany, and they are both worlds away from France. There are sweeping differences in America, too, but the spaces are larger and the English language tends to serve as a sort of great leveler, I think. I’ll be glad to be back on the West Coast in a few weeks, but for now, this is a gift.

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And there is ice cream. 🙂 

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Travelogue LXIX: Saint-Émilion

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Saint-Émilion

July 23, 2016 Last week we took the afternoon train to Saint-Émilion, a lovely little medieval village half a hour from Bordeaux, now entirely given over to the region’s wine industry. It’s full of steep streets and walls to climb. The church at its center is carved directly into a sandstone cliff.

Saint Émilion, as the story goes, was an 8th-century monk who took up residence in that same cliff long before the church existed. He soon gained the reputation of a miracle worker amongst the local villagers. After his death, he was buried under the cliff, and visited by pilgrims and travelers of all sorts. The monks who came after him founded monasteries on the spot, and brought with them viticulture, and so the village slowly took on form. Today, one has to walk a kilometer from the tiny train station to reach St. Émilion, and the place is surrounded by gorgeous sandstone Chateaus and rolling hills of vines.

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Here, they plant roses at the end of every row in the vineyards. The plants serve as a sort of early warning system for the winemakers, as they are the first to show diseases such as mildew. Romantic and rather morbid at the same time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe church tower is the high point of St-Émilion, and we were told it was possible to hike to the top if one had good enough French to ask politely for the key in the Office de Tourisme. Which we apparently did, and so we were given the key, and pried open an old wooden door and climbed up several hundred damp stone steps to take in the windy view from the top.

And then we came down, and drank a good deal of wine. Bordeaux is mostly known for the red wines, but we were taken with the Rosés. They range from the palest of sandy pinks to translucent ruby, and seem to glow somehow in their glasses.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe storefronts in St. Émilion are all brightly painted wood, set into the sandstone buildings. If we could have had a dime for every place that sold vin we could have financed the whole afternoon. And what wine! We saw bottles for 800, 1,000, 5,000, even 12,000 Euros–old, strange, rare vintages with names that said nothing to us, but would have said a great deal to Jonathan if he had been there, and did when I told him about them later.

“How on earth can anything taste good enough to be worth 12,000 euros?” I asked.

“It’s not about the taste of those wines,” he said. “Most of them aren’t particularly good after so many decades. It’s about the collection, it’s about the art-form. It’s like buying a Chevall window to hang up in your living room.”

By the end of the afternoon, we were slightly tipsy. We had to run to catch the last train to Bordeaux, and took a detour through the vineyards of a Chateau that may or may not have been private property, and ended up having to climb over a rather tall and very spiky gate. All as it should be.

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Travelogue LXVIII: Dune du Pyla

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJuly 6th, 2017 I’m back after a hard and good year, for a summer of study in Bordeaux and the Rheingau. Much more about all of that later. For now, this weird, sun-baked place–the Dune du Pyla, all 60,000,000 cubic meters of it, the largest sand dune in Europe, and surreally out of place in the green French countryside.

Over the past decades, it has swallowed up countless trees, roads, and houses. The day we went, it was an easy 100 degrees on top, bone dry, and windy. Imagine being on the set of Mad Max, but with an ocean and a good number of Japanese tourists.

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The view from the top, out over the Atlantic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe hiked up the steps someone had kindly laid up the back side of the dune. From the top, one has the feeling of falling straight down into the ocean below. Despite the selfie-taking tourists and beach-goers, it’s a strangely silent and isolating place. The sand eats up all excess sound and if you happen to be looking in a direction where there aren’t any people, it’s possible to feel quite shockingly alone.

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Up the stairs, slowly being eaten away by the sand, to the top of the dune.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe slid down the sand to the ocean, and burned the soles of our feet bright red. The water was calm and perfectly cool, and we ran in fully dressed and didn’t want to come out again.

By the time we made it up to the top again, our clothes were completely dry. Within minutes, we were back in the green and on a bus to Arcachon, and within an hour we were surrounded by bordeaux-drinking French and consuming massive amounts of mussels in white wine sauce. It’s a surprising place, this world.

 

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That slope down to the beach was much steeper and longer than it looks. Especially on the way back.

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If you look at the sand up close, it’s a shockingly unstable thing–constantly shifting and blowing, little rivulets running down everywhere and filling in cracks and making new ones. 

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C’est moi! On the edge of the world…

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Locus Amoenus V: Geisenheim

Locus Amoenus, Latin: the lovely or pleasing place. A common trope in Ancient Roman literature, usually a garden or woodland–a spot of inherent safety, comfort, and striking beauty. The concept features in works by authors as early as Homer, and it was reveled in by the later pastoral poets before being passed on to the writers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Locus amoenus is a place to retreat to, often with overtones of Elysium on earth.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApril 2, 2017 This time, the locus amoenus I am writing about isn’t my own, or not directly at least. It’s Jonathan’s–his tiny apartment in Geisenheim, where he studies viticulture and has lived on and off for the last seven years. In the time that I have known him, I’ve come to love the place, too. Now, he is beginning the long process of tearing it all apart, because he’s going to be leaving everything at the end of the summer and moving to California to be with me as I work towards my degree. It’s all thrilling, of course, but difficult: How does one fit 30 years of life into a few suitcases and set off for the other side of world? 

These sorts of processes are harder for Jonathan than they are for me. I love packed bookshelves and art on the walls, but a part of me has always been equally thrilled by minimalism. It’s exciting, and easy, for me to pare down everything to a suitcase, to give away and leave behind, and just go without it all.

Jonathan, however, is a materialist in the richest sense of the word. He revels in the feel and shape and smell of the physical, in beautiful and useful things, in collecting and saving and creating. His apartment is packed with stories as told by objects, full of leather and paper and wood and green growing plants. There is a record player, and a tiny glass still for making gin. There is a dark wood cabinet that folds open to reveal a collection of matching tumblers and wine glasses. There are small wooden drawers full of vials of seeds, rainbow-colored tin, pocket knives, sealing wax. There are boxes and boxes of old letters and photographs.

All of these things are a part of him, and I love him for it. But they all make the leave-taking so much harder. Almost none of this will make it to California, at least not at first. So I took my camera during my last visit to try to capture a bit of it. I wanted to try to get the feel of this lovely place onto film before he, or actually we, pack up, leave all this, and start something new.

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Travelogue LXVII: Rheingau

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarch 22, 2017 I’m back in Germany for just a couple bittersweet weeks, before the start of the new semester in California. I wanted to wait for a sunny day to climb into the vineyards on the Rhine to take pictures like the ones I took almost exactly 13 months ago, but waiting for clear weather in Germany in spring can be an entirely unproductive undertaking. So we went out anyway and walked into a misty gray morning, which had in the end its own sort of loveliness.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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The vines have been pruned and trained along wires for the next growing season…

The vineyards on the Rhine are full of walking paths, zigzagging back and forth across the slopes. It is possible to hike the entire length of the Rheingau, sometimes through the vineyards and sometimes through the woods, dipping down into the villages in the valleys. The roads that crisscross the vineyards are primarily there for the winemakers, enabling them to ferry workers or small equipment high up the steep sides of the mountain. But they are also there for those who want to enjoy the beauty of the valley for its own sake, from curious tourists to serious hikers to locals out for a Sunday stroll. The paths are dotted with benches and the occasional gazebo at the particularly lovely spots.

And, because this is Germany after all, every once in a while there is a tiny self-serve kiosk where you can open a door and take out a bottle of local wine and glasses, pay by the honor system, and then sit and drink. It’s the perfect mix of nature and culture, I think: the gorgeousness of the Rhine River valley all around you, and then community over a shared bottle of wine. The last time we were here, an hour at a picnic table turned into two, and then three, and we shared stories and then walked with new-found friends all the way back to the village. It’s things like that that make me miss Germany.

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Checking out the wine selection at one of the many self-serve stations along the way, although it was too cold and too early in the day for a drink.

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Into the woods..

Travelogue LXVI: We

unspecified-10January 10, 2016 In the few years of this blog’s activity, I’ve tried to keep purely personal narratives to a minimum, to reveal the goings-on in my life only to the extent that they were applicable to the business of being abroad. But some of you may have noticed that the I in my posts has been more and more frequently replaced by a we. Maybe that deserves a bit of an explanation.

And anyway, some joys are just too big not to be shared.

unspecified-4unspecified-5unspecified-2unspecified-7unspecified-3unspecified-9unspecified-8unspecified-14unspecified-13unspecifiedAll pictures were taken by my wonderfully talented sister, Anna.

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Travelogue LXV: Humans of Vermont II

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJanuary 5, 2017 Jonathan and I have flown in from opposite sides of the planet to spend Christmas in Vermont. We have a place to stay together thanks to the wonderful hospitality of Katharina and Glenn, who have lent us the use of the tiny cabin/sauna up the hill from the home they finished building last summer. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere’s a look into the beautiful space Katharina and Glenn have created for themselves, using timbers from an old deconstructed barn. The house is on a back road about fifteen minutes from my family’s farm, surrounded by the other cabins and homes Glenn has built over the decades. They have big plans for the place–an outdoor kitchen this summer, an amphitheater built into the hillside, grapes on the south-facing slope, animals to keep the fields clear. They want a space for collaborative living, for projects and creators of all kinds.

During the day, the sun pours in the wall of south-facing windows, flooding the living room and kitchen with light and making the two wood stoves that heat the place almost irrelevant. But it is winter in Vermont, and the nights are long and it’s pitch black and ice cold again by 4:30. We spend the evenings installing speakers and a turntable for Glenn’s massive collection of records, or reading under a petroleum lamp in our cabin up the road. We trail along with Glenn and Katharina to a solstice celebration, a bonfire and poetry followed by bluegrass fiddling. One night we haul apple pie and wine up the hill and fire up the sauna. It’s snowing hard, and after we are thoroughly sweating we step outside and rub ice into our backs.

For Jonathan and me, it’s offered us space to reconnect after months of 5,600 miles of separation, and to make some pretty big and exciting plans about our future. And, of course, a chance to rest and revel in Vermont’s beauty. Jonathan has split wood and driven trucks to his heart’s content, and I’ve seen my mountains again.

Und es war alles, alles gut. 

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The sauna up the hill, where we are staying.

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Travelogue LXIV: Stanford

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADecember 31, 2016 One year ago today, I stood on the old stone bridge in Heidelberg between rolling hills and vineyards, screaming and laughing and hugging as New Year’s fireworks arched off the castle parapets. Now, 365 days later, we will leave this tiny Vermont village to dance in the new year in Montpelier’s old Grange Hall with the usual, lovely, giddy crowd of hippies and farmers.

And when it’s all over, I won’t be taking the train to the Mainzer Altstadt, but  flying back across America to the San Francisco Bay to start my second semester at Stanford, Ph.D. in German Literature and Languages. My brain, and my soul, haven’t quite caught up with the changes of the last year.

On one hand, Stanford has been incredible. This is what I came back to American academia for–the incredible intensity and closeness of education, the in-class debates that blur the lines between scholarship and politics and life, the drinks with the professors at the end of the semester, the feeling of community and shared joy (and sometimes misery) among the students. And being at this particular school is a blessing; the resources and opportunities at my disposal are still shocking to me. You’re playing with the big boys now, Emily. How on earth did you get here? 

The sheer beauty of the place is staggering, too. It’s like living and working at a five-star resort, 365 days of the year. The long porticos and green lawns and palm trees–and the sun, this wonderful warm, dry light that I can’t get enough of after a childhood in New England and two years in Germany. I sit at the bright little cafe on the quad and drink my chai latte with almond milk, reading contemporary theater and overlooking green grass and flowers, and can’t quite believe it.

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Memorial Church

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From the steps of the library.

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The German Department building.

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The library.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the same time, though, the last semester has been hard and unsettling in new ways. I’m experiencing culture shock for the first time in my life, in the country I was born in. Arriving in Germany felt like coming home–some part of me immediately recognized something there, and I fell for the place hook, line, and sinker. Here, even now I’m still struggling to find my feet under me, to make sense of exactly what this whole place is about, to find something to hold on to in the rush and energy of the Silicon Valley.

And it turns out that living on a five-star resort starts to become a bit freaky, after a while. We spend the day in Berkeley, with its dirt and its homeless, and the campus here begins to seem disturbingly prettified. We count more Apple products than people in the cafes in Paolo Alto.  Our student housing has a sauna and pool, and we swim under the stars and palm trees and discuss an article from Die Zeit–about families in our community who make $50,000/year and still live on the streets, because the housing market is booming and things can be a bit problematic if you don’t work for Google or have a Stanford stipend. But we don’t see any of that ourselves, not on our daily walks between our newly-renovated subsidized apartments and the school. We have the sneaking feeling that something very real is missing from our experience of the Bay Area.

It’s not that saunas and MacBooks are bad things, and it’s not at all that I am ungrateful for the incredible gift of these next five years, for the opportunity to do what I love in such a stunning and secure environment. But this place asks some hard questions when you peek below the gorgeous, red-tile-and-sandstone surface.

Maybe that’s a good thing, though. Check your privilege, all ye who enter here. I would like to learn how to do that.

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A few of the dozens of Rodin sculptures on campus.

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Hoover Tower

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I still can’t get over the palm trees.

Travelogue LXIII: Vermont I: Landscape

September 1st, 2016 I’ve been back in Vermont for two weeks now. At the end of the day, this place comes and will always come closer to home than anywhere else I might live. It’s in my blood, familiar as the back of my hand.

The aesthetics of Vermont are winning me over again, as they always do. It’s a sort of resting, this–to stare into the distance and see nothing but woods and clouds and perhaps a single mown field on the horizon. You can hardly do that in Germany. It’s a country full of green spaces, but with 82 million people in a land the size of Montana, the next village is almost always in sight. Here, so much of what one sees is defined by emptiness, and that emptiness is breathtaking.

This time, instead of posting my own photos I am handing things over to my very talented mother and sister, who have captured a great deal of beauty on the farm in the last two years. Most of the pictures were taken from our front porch.

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Travelogue LXII: Liminality

Liminality, noun. From the Latin limen, threshold. The quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.

In common usage, liminality describes any period of transition, where the individual has the feeling of being on both sides of a boundary or threshold. It is often a time of discomfort, of waiting, and of transformation. (source)

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Between Mainz and Geisenheim.

July 26, 2016 I find myself in a liminal space. In three weeks, I will be in Vermont. The day after tomorrow, I will defend the thesis I came to Germany to write. Everything is in flux.

Next week I will be spending the last night in my beloved apartment in the Old City.  It’s been the first place in my life that belonged only to me—above the flower shop, in a cobblestone street where the bums call out “Good morning, Whistling Girl!” when they see me and the waiter in my favorite Weinstube knows my name. The leave-taking is hard. Last spring, I watched the mourning doves outside my window raise a family while I went to the theater alone; this spring, I was the one making a nest. And now I’m packing everything into suitcases again and starting over on the other side of the world.
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Between Hamburg and Copenhagen.

 July 30, 2016 Germany, it seems, is also in a liminal space. It’s a strange and heady time here, when it seems like Europe is falling apart a little at the seams, where in Germany especially the greatest of challenges is faced and answers are sought to very hard questions. The face of this country is in flux.
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Some parts of the change you are used to already, even when you don’t want to be. For instance, you are drinking wine with friends when one of them excuses himself to go call friends in Munich to make sure they are ok, and you say, “Another terrorist attack?“ and know that the answer is yes and somehow are not even shocked anymore.
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Some things you are still learning. For instance, you are standing in Berlin in the train station surrounded by thousands of people and you think fleetingly that any one of those suitcases, any one of those sunglassed tourists could be about to blow the place up. You are learning not to be scared. You are not scared.
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But still, there is always something in the air, an underlying current of discomfort that only needs the tiniest of triggers to come to the surface. You are at the Christopher Street Day in Mainz, laughing and dancing and watching a line-up of the Pfalz’s finest drag queens, when someone pops a balloon behind you—louder than usual, cutting through the music. You jump and cling together for a second and have to admit that the first thought that entered your head was that this was finally it, the nightmare come to Mainz….
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Ambiguity, discomfort, transformation. The whole country is waiting; the ritual is not yet at an end. And right now, all one can do is stand in a torn-apart kitchen and wash windows and almost cry as Rheinhard May sings “Wann ist Frieden endlich Frieden?“—when is peace finally peace? 
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Between Mainz and Frankfurt

August 25, 2016 I’ve been back in Vermont for ten days now, in this place that seems so silent and peaceful and non-transformative in comparison to what I just left.

Taking the bus up to Vermont from Boston, the driver plays the country station I grew up listening to, wedged between my father and my siblings on the seat of the pickup. We fly up the interstate and I am suddenly surrounded by the Green Mountains, for the first time in over a year. This is home, I think, I’m back.

But later that night, the liminality of it all is brought back to me again. Even after 24 hours of jet-lagged travel, I can’t sleep, in my own childhood bedroom. The silence and dark–things I once treasured, things I needed to sleep–are suddenly oppressive, foreign. I want the echoes of footsteps on cobblestones, want the friendly light from the street lamp in the courtyard. In the huge drafty room I share with my sister, I feel lost.

And so the transition goes on. After the first few nights, I can sleep in Vermont again. But in two weeks, I will be leaving even this for a strange city on the West Coast and a new field of studies and a new way of life. I will arrive again, and put down roots, and I am deeply looking forward to this.

At the moment, though, I’m still standing on both sides of the threshold.