2020 is over, and ooh wee it’s been a weird year.

There were fireworks on New Year’s, but significantly fewer than in previous years. That’s probably due to the fact that the sale of fireworks was banned as a measure to reduce stress on hospitals, and so if you wanted to get your hands on them, you had to drive to Poland1. But there were still fireworks, and honestly, I kinda liked it. It’s a nice kind of minor anarchy.

I don’t want to phrase this year as a “survival” – the past three months have felt like that, but there’s been a lot of freedom here; everything was basically open from May to October. So, here’s the year, in broad strokes:

Not all of it was time well spent, but some of it definitely was!

Recurse Center

I’ve held off writing about this because it’s hard to do it justice, and everything was a bit marred by leaving NYC in a hurry, but I spent three months at the Recurse Center in NYC, ostensibly learning how to become a better programmer. I definitely did become a better programmer2, but there’s a lot more to it than that!

I think the more transformative aspects of the experience were:

If you’re a programmer, it’s a great experience, and I can only recommend it! If you’re hiring programmers, consider hiring them from RC; they’re some of the smartest and kindest I’ve met. ✨

Walking as a way of life

My favourite accident in 2020 was that I spent the first three months of the year living directly on Prospect Park and working in Downtown Brooklyn, and my path to work was a fifty minute walk, the first thirty of which were through the park. You start to notice the way the environment responds to the weather; I remember noticing the fuzzy buds on the Magnolias at the start of February and not having any idea what they were. The third day I was there, there was snow falling; and I only took one photo, because I thought New York was snowy, and it would happen again. I was wrong.

6th of January, 2020, 8:32am

6th of January, 2020, 8:32am

These morning walks were hugely focussing for me. Sometimes calling Jackie (in Cairo) on the way, sometimes listening to music on my oversized headphones which somehow zap you if you turn them up too loud (??), usually picking up a way-too-large coffee on the way.

Flatbush and Sterling. That tiny store is where the coffee is.

Flatbush and Sterling. That tiny store is where the coffee is.

These walks were something I brought into my life in Berlin, and I started writing about them. Regarding the Willows on the Landwehr Canal is one of my favourite things I’ve ever written, but goodness it was slow to write. I spent a long time editing to perfection and a long time procrastinating on actually taking the photos of those willows and their bowl-cuts. I remember actually worrying that they would have lost all their leaves by the time I got around to photographing them, or that the swans would get bored, and then in the end I took the willow portraits one July morning, before jumping on a train to Munich to start a ten day hike. That was a weird morning; a drunk man was washing his face in the canal and fell in, and I helped pull him out.

Life comes at you fast.

Early. – Ehrwald, Austria

Early. – Ehrwald, Austria

I walked from Oberstdorf to Innsbruck in July. It was the first time I’d really stitched together multiple long-distance hikes into one – it was a little bit E5, a little bit trails I’ve walked before / my favourite huts from bygone hikes, a little bit of the Adlerweg, which traces a route east-west through Tyrol. It was definitely the most demanding hike I’ve ever done, but I only thought I was going to die like, twice, so not terrible. I kept taking portraits of mountains, and discovered that there are themes in my photography that seem to be inextinguishable and inescapable. I like that I’ve developed a style, but it would be nice to break it, and have the guts to take portraits of people sometime.

Mountain Portrait IV.

Mountain Portrait IV.

German classes

I spent April through June in intensive German classes, and it paid off (es hat sich gelohnt). it’s hard to quantify the progress, but on that hike in July, I spent two hours talking with another solo traveller about migrating, raising kids, and mountaineering during storms, and it all went ok. Got a grammar lesson during the conversation4, but it was welcome, and borne of kindness. During the course, I gave talks on a new favourite book and on post-impressionism5, and wrote a very cheesy travel guide about what to do if you ever find yourself in Wollongong for a weekend.

My German teacher had also identified that 2020 was fucking weird, and wrote a book about it:

It’s called “Suddenly online: A virus turns life upside down”. That’s me top-center!

It’s called “Suddenly online: A virus turns life upside down”.
That’s me top-center!

Tech / Computer / Programmer-y things

I’m not always motivated by technical work itself, but I’m hugely people-oriented and motivated, and I’ve had five or six amazing conversations with people as a specific result of the work I’ve produced this year. Some takeaways on that:

Small things

A list of short observations from 2020; my memory is full of holes and I’d like to remember these things again someday:

Hello birds!

Hello birds!

On losing momentum

I lost momentum at some point. It wasn’t so much that I ran out of stuff to do, or that the stuff I was doing wasn’t important, it just wasn’t that focused.

On New Year’s, Pavel told me a parable about a friend who’s taken a year off work three times now, each time saying he’s going to make something of himself. And the first few weeks go great, and then he spends the rest of the year kinda drifting, and then eventually runs out of money and goes back to work. The last time, he told Pavel (wryly) that he probably would’ve had better results and the same expenses from seeing a psychologist three times a week for a year.

That was relatable, and looking back at what I wrote this time last year in New York, where the coffee was expensive (remember writing from cafes?), it’s clear that I have a lot of personal ambitions that went unfulfilled, and might have been looking in the wrong places for solutions.

Maybe Pavel is the proverbial fish in my cup. 🐠

So, looking forward, again

In 2021, I’m working full-time again, and it does feel like I didn’t really achieve what I set out to in my Free Year. While my time is now more limited, and my stress-levels are higher, it’s not zero-sum, and I’m not feeling defeatist about it – I was excited about this job because I figured it would be a great chance to learn some stuff, and there’s plenty of opportunities for intentionality around that full-time framework. ✨

My “less-obvious but more profoundly important” goals from last year were good! And are a good place to start from this year. So let’s try it again; once more with slightly less free time and slightly more intentionality.

  1. The Berlin Senate would additionally like to remind you that “Berliners who would like to buy fireworks in Poland are required to quarantine for ten days upon return”. ↩︎

  2. I’m now a very confident Rust developer! Plus; I picked up a lot of experience in debugging, profiling and performance optimisation, a working knowledge of a very specific compression algorithm, and familiarity with some image processing fundamentals. ↩︎

  3. This is obviously complicated now that RC is remote because of Corona; and they wrote about it here. ↩︎

  4. “maybe I should have moved to Munich instead” is a complicated construction of verbs and cases; vielleicht hätte ich stattdessen nach München umziehen sollen. ↩︎

  5. I became very quickly aware as to how little I know about art and art history ↩︎