On Saturday September 3rd, 2016 I spoke at SQL Saturday Oslo. As in: Oslo, Norway. That’s just a smidgen over 4000 miles from Dublin, Ohio (as the crow flies) but for nine hours that day I felt just as at home there as I do anywhere near my actual home. And when I was done speaking there, I embarked on a personal journey of sorts across most of Europe that left me fundamentally changed as a person. I have struggled with this blog post and how I should write it, but if you’re down for reading my personal revelations, then by all means I encourage you to continue. My hope is that by the end of this story, you’ll be encouraged to do the same.
To tell the story right, though, I need to start at the beginning, which takes place on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean.
At 1:30 in the afternoon on January 30th, 2016, I was meeting a lot fantastic of people for the first time. We were in a small but comfortable conference room on a the Norwegian Escape, and we were all there for SQL Cruise. I counted myself fortunate: I had heard from a number of people what attending SQL Cruise would do for my career. Even after an unforgettable week at sea, I didn’t fully appreciate what that statement could (or in my case, did) mean. But while I was there, I met two very special people who happened to be from Norway: Tone Hansson and Rune Rakeie. Throughout the course of the week I got to mingle, network, joke, and swap war stories with so many people. Towards the end of the cruise, the topic of SQL Saturday’s came up. I (half) joked with Tone that if she needed anyone to come to Norway to talk about PowerShell and SQL Server, that I’d be down for that. She said it sounded like a great idea, and to watch for the call for speakers.
The call for speakers opened on March 3rd. I took some of my previously accepted sessions from other SQL Saturdays, updated them, and submitted.
I thought it was an empty promise on my part: aside from the fact that conference was in you know, Norway, who the hell was *I* to assume that of all the people that could visit an international event and speak that I’d be the one to get picked. Never mind the fact that there’s plenty of more highly-qualified and respected people living in much closer proximity to the event. But my motivation came from a deeper place. See, for a long time I’ve been inspired people like Brent Ozar and his Epic Life Quest: goals you set for yourself that take you incredible places both physically and emotionally. I hadn’t put anything official down on paper, but in my head my personal goals for 2016 looked something like this:
Attend SQL Cruise.
Speak at a non-SQL conference.
Be able to do a free-standing handstand.
By the end of May, I had completed items one and two on the list. I was determined to accomplish number 3, and it didn’t matter if it was as “close” as Canada, or overseas: just some place not in America. Part of the reason is the chance to travel, but there’s also the cache of having “international speaker” as a title you can legitimately claim. I wasn’t even attempting to do it for the accolades, I’ve just always wanted to travel to more parts of the world. The farthest I had been from home at the time was the UK, when I went to play in a collectible card game tournament. If anything, I just wanted to expand my horizons a bit.
I was finishing a particularly brutal workout at the gym I belong to on an especially hot day in June. I checked my email as I was walking out and my addled brain managed to pick a couple key words from the subject line of one of the unread emails: “Selected” and “Oslo.” I was over the moon. By the time I got home, though, reality was already setting in. Since this event was in Norway, I had to… actually get to Norway. I priced out options: flights, hotel stays, how long I’d stay. Where’d I visit, what I’d do, and what I’d eat. It was so overwhelming. Fortunately for me, I had a secret weapon: Catherine Wilhelmsen.
Catherine is an organizer of SQL Saturday Oslo, and from the minute I got accepted to the minute I left Norway she was such a tremendous help. She provided pointers on places to stay, and things to see. I asked her about so many things, ranging from train tickets to the weather to how crosswalks work in Oslo (tip: just walk out in them unless there’s a traffic light). She took a lot of time to deal with all my questions, and did it in such a polite and professional way that, unfortunately for other SQL Saturday Organizers, the bar has been set tremendously high. She also runs one hell of an event.
So I was all set: I had my flights planned, and I was all ready to book the hotel stay. I initially left two extra days for sightseeing and I’d be home early the following week. Try as I might though, I couldn’t bring myself to buy the tickets. Something still didn’t feel right. I took a few days to mull it over, talked it over with people close to me, and decided to make this more than just a trip to Norway. I was finally going to see Europe.
I changed my airline ticket to a multi-city ticket: fly to Oslo from the US, then fly back home via London Heathrow. I had pretty much the entire continent between my starting and stopping points. Now it was just a question of where to stop. But I still had a conference to attend, first.
SQL Saturday Oslo was an amazing for a lot of reasons, but the primary reasons were because it was so very well-run by some truly dedicated people. Tone, Rune, Catherine, Magne, Bjørn, and Johan really put a lot effort into the event and it showed. It was also the first event I attended where the was beer given out at the raffle. It was also a pretty large event, with almost every session getting near capacity. Everyone had a super-upbeat attitude and it seemed like every little detail just came together perfectly. As soon as my session was over, I felt so emotional. I couldn’t believe I had done it. Even the after party was something special: never before had I met a group of nicer, friendlier people anywhere in the world. Everyone wanted to talk, everyone wanted to share a drink and/or a story. I didn’t want the day to end. I know I’ll never forget the first time I spoke, but this event? This event has an extra special place in my heart. There are just so many special people to thank, that I hope I got them all.
As for Oslo itself, it’s such an awesome town. It reminded me a lot of Columbus: not very big, younger-ish population, lots of really awesome local restaurants and pubs. There’s also lots to see and do (more on that below). If I do manage to come back one day and see more of this beautiful country, I want to visit more of the countryside.
After the event was over, I stumbled back to where I was staying and passed out. Even after being there two days, the time change plus alcohol wiped me out. When I got up the next day, I found some coffee and headed to the train station.
The best birthday I ever had was when I was 8 years old. My dad asked me what I wanted to do, and I just said I wanted to ride a train. Didn’t matter where. Just had to ride a train. I was train obsessed (I still am: I have 96 hours played on Train Simulator). At the time, Pittsburgh still had trolley routes in the city. Not light rail like it has now, actual honest to goodness trolleys. We drove to Library, PA, and got on one and rode it to the city. We got there and stopped at a hobby store that… you guessed it, sold model trains of all sizes. We rode the Duquesne Incline, which is just a train that goes up and down a hill. We spent all day out, but I wouldn’t have known it. I was glued to Windows, watching the scenery. When I was in college and worked in the Summer time down on campus, I still took the light rail in town. It might not have been faster, but it was free for students and it was a train.
The rest of the trip just wasn’t about visiting Europe. It was about visiting Europe by train.
I didn’t have a ton of vacation time to use, so at most I could be gone 10 days. I decided to stop in Copenhagen (Denmark), Mons (Belgium), and Paris (France). And I was going see all those things the way I always dreamed I would: by train. When I planned my trip across Europe, trains were a large part of the appeal. But not just any trains: high-speed ones. Blistering 300km/hr speeds while traveling much more comfortably than any airplane. I’d see swathes of beautiful countryside inside modern marvels of engineering. I’d get to take a train under the ocean from Paris to London. But most importantly, the trip helped me connect to a time that was special with me: time spent with my dad, recapturing some of that magic of riding that train with him many years ago.
I wasn’t disappointed.
And that ultimately was why this trip was so special: sure, it was a breathtaking trip to some of the most beautiful places on earth, and I got to fulfill a dream of speaking to a new audience. But without the push, the encouragement, and the opportunity afforded to me by the SQL community, I probably wouldn’t have taken a trip like this and feel the way I did along the way. I made a lot of new friends and got to spend time with ones I already met. I’ll probably never ever be able to properly repay all the special people that helped me do this, but for now I think the only way I know how is to share my story, and why it was so important to me, in the hopes that someone else out there can experience the feelings I had and complete some goals of their own.
Now, if I can just get that handstand thing down…
I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you the boring details and just hit some of the highlights:
Oslo was a very awesome place to visit, and I saw some awesome stuff: Viking Ships, Polar Exploration Ships, and a Fort. If you go (and you should) I recommend all of that. Had I more time there, there was a lot more to see.
Walking around Oslo, not having any clue where you are and then stumbling into not just a farmer’s market, but THE farmer’s market for the entire country was awesome. Free samples of some of the best meat/fish/beer/bread/desserts/produce that Norway had to offer was amazing. I even ate whale meat, although I have to say, it’s… not for everyone.
Any time I get to spend time with Steve Jones is awesome; he’s such a great speaker. Same goes for Grant Fritchey, who got to attend my session and give me awesome feedback to help me improve.
I used Airbnb for all my accommodations except Belgium, and it was my first time using that service. The verdict: worth it. Just do your homework: read reviews. Look at where it’s located in relation to where you want to stay and public transit. Don’t use the instant book feature. Actually “apply” to stay in someone’s home. Tell them why you’re staying. Get to know them, and their home becomes more than just a place to lay your head. I stayed in really friendly neighborhoods that helped immerse myself in the cities I was in. It saved me a lot of money.
That time Grant and I had to hop over walls to get around barriers to get home from the speaker dinner…
Interesting train tidbit: if you take a train from Copenhagen to Germany, your train goes on a boat. You read that right: you don’t get off the train, walk to the boat, and get on a different train. Your entire train goes on the boat.
I wish train travel would catch on more in the US. I know it won’t, but it’s so amazingly simple and easy: buy a ticket. Go to the station. Walk to the platform. Get on a train. Show your ticket when asked. Get off at your stop. And it’s so much cheaper than traveling by air, and less of a hassle. Even if you’re not as passionate about trains as I am, you should definitely try it if you’re overseas.
I hadn’t spoken French since high school, but it’s amazing how fast things come back to you. After a short time in Belgium, and in Paris, just looking at words helped me remember some phrases. I’m sure I murdered proper gender on nouns and my verb conjugation was annoying, but all you have to do is try and they’ll help you. The only place I got in over my head was a rude attendant on the Metro in Paris, but I think he was just as frustrated as I am because I didn’t know how to explain my ticket was demagnetized.
Had an awkward situation in Copenhagen when I found a place to eat. I was the only person in the place at lunch and I ordered a sandwich. When it was time to pay, the proprietor (who was also the host and cook… literally it was just this one guy running the whole place) told me he didn’t take credit cards (he did, but his machine was broke). I didn’t have enough cash on me to cover it, but he let me go to the ATM and get some and come back. Had a couple more beers and learned all about him: flew for airlines for years, became a lawyer, didn’t like it, opened a small restaurant. I had a great time just relaxing and shooting the breeze there. Really great guy, and the food was amazing. If you’re there, check it out here.
While I was in Mons I got to meet and hang out with the awesome Chrissy LaMaire and her equally awesome wife Lauren. Chrissy maintains the awesome DBA Tools PowerShell project. They were awesome hosts and showed me a great time in the little rural town of Mons. We also drank a lot of REALLY strong beer and watched “Rick and Morty.” What can I say, they get me.
If you plan on visiting Paris, I’m sure you think you’d want to see the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa. I skipped those. You can get equally impressive shots of Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe and it’s cheaper and quicker to boot (but a lot of steps).
Due to the terrorist threats that were in the city while I was there, a lot of landmarks had really long wait times to visit. But I did check to check out a lot of things, including the catacombs of Paris. Extremely creepy but equally interesting. I recommend it, but buy your tickets ahead of time, because they only let so many people in at a time and the line moves REAL slow.
Also when you’re in Paris, take a day and visit Versailles. Kind of a pain to reach via public transportation but there are also buses to take you there. It’s just amazing to see how people lived in such opulence once upon a time. I also recommend the Hôtel national des Invalides.
No matter where I was in Europe, I was shocked at how many people drove Teslas. I mean, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one (I tried). Turns out, the cars are just as expensive to buy as they are here in the states, but EV owners get tons of great benefits: free parking, no tolls on toll roads, and free charging pretty much anywhere. And in some countries you pay a tax on your car based on the size of your engine. Or, I should say, your carbon emitting engine. With incentives like that, it makes a TON of sense to own one. I know I’d own one if I got benefits like that.
Got to fly on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner on the way home on Virgin Atlantic. If you’ve never flown them, it’s an experience. Cabin mood lighting, great in-flight entertainment, and REALLY good food, and not just by airline standards.
I hope enjoyed reading about my trip. It’s not meant as bragging; I had an amazing time and when your choice of career helps your pursue your passions you should count yourself as blessed. My hope is that you’ll think about how you do something similar, and when you do, make sure you let me know because I want to hear all about it!