Sunday, October 13, 2013

My Amazingly Awesome Trip to the South of France


 
 
It is without hesitations or reservations, partnered with the fondest of memories that I share with you that the French leg of our European holiday was my favorite part of our vacation. We set out for the south of France from Frankfurt. But we opted for an 8 hour train ride as opposed to a flight. Two factors weighted into this, the first was that the price difference was substantial, but the other piece was that our train ride would take us along the gorgeous and picturesque German and French country sides. And with an itinerary that made our train trek during daylight hours, we simply could not pass it up. Here’s a few pictures of us at the train station and during our embarking journey to the south of France.

 




 

The only downside to European rail travel that I could find was the meal offerings. I had genuinely expected full meals to be available for longer routes such as ours and while our train did have a cable car, I was underwhelmed by the sandwich offerings. Had we known this ahead of time we would have packed ourselves a lunch with a bottle of wine during our journey, as several of the seasoned European travelers had done that sat around us. But nevertheless the views were breathtaking and, although scary at times, the speed of the rail was impressive and I found it very cool and rather manly to be traveling at such high speeds.

 

Our “home base” in France was a beautiful and romantic town called Aix-en-Provence. Many years ago, thanks to a wonderful site called couchsurfing.org, my wife and I met and hosted a French couple that we have since become very good friends with. Of course they had visited and stayed with us in Chicago, we had met up in Nashville, Tennessee earlier this year, and felt it was appropriate to meet up with them during our European holiday. And they were the most incredible hosts that we have probably ever stayed with. From the moment we stepped off the train and met up with them we felt at home, welcomed and loved. I feel immensely blessed to have friends like this in my life.

 

And man were we spoiled. Our breakfasts consisted of delicious French pastries and what felt like an endless supply of nutella. And I must say that our French friends know their way around a kitchen pretty well and we enjoyed probably the best meals of our journey in their home for lunch and dinner. It was everything I could dream of, a picturesque setting in the south of France with great friends, wining, dining, laughing and catching up on life. I mean it when I say that I would seriously consider moving to the south of France.

 

Our friends lived within a reasonable driving distance of the city center in Aix, and the city center, just like the country side, took my breath away. There were endless streets in the marketplace with incredible architecture and I felt like every 5 seconds I was stopping to take pictures. And having our friends to help us navigate around town saved us so much time and hassle. I felt like we made a great use of time seeing the best sights and did not get lost one time, which definitely would have happened if my wife and I were left on our own. Admittedly, I have fallen in love with Aix-en-Provence. The city center goes beyond what I expected a bustling vintage European city to be like, and the rolling hills and lush green mountain sides, well, words on paper (or a web site) just do not do it justice!

 



 

 

From Aix our friends took us on a weekend trip to Avignon which, surprise surprise, left me speechless. The city center in Avignon felt a hair “more modern” than Aix, but the sunsets from this city were without question some of the best I have ever seen in my life. As if the sights were not enough, our friends also took us through a wine festival (a common occurrence I’m assuming that happens in France, which by the way needs to happen a lot more in Chicago), out to dinner for brick oven pizza that (and hopefully I don’t lose my Chicago card for this) puts deep dish pizza  to shame! And the highlight event during our visit to Avignon was a 3-d light show in the Palace of the Popes. Although the narration was in French and our friends did their best to translate for us, the views and images on the inside of the castle walls left my mouth agape for the entire show. It was without question the best visual eye candy I have ever seen and if you are anywhere near Avignon I highly recommend seeing the show.

 







 

And of course any trip to the south of France would not be complete without a stop in Marseille. Our friends pointed out that Marseille has an interesting reputation among French cities. Based on its location, Marseille is an immigration hub for the Middle East and North Africa for immigrants making their way into Europe. With that as a background, this city has seen its problems with trafficking, drugs and gang activity skyrocket within the last few years. So when our friends shared with their colleagues that they would be taking their American friends to Marseille, our friends were cautioned, “You must be careful, it is like Chicago down there.” To which our friends replied, “No, it’s ok, our friends are from Chicago!” To which our friends’ colleagues looked on horrified, wondering why they would make friends with American mobsters J!

 

All puns aside Marseille is a very interesting city. I think gritty is the best term to describe the city center. The center moves at a pace similar to New York with the external feel of Harlem. On any given block there are Islamic women dressed traditionally pushing  baby carriages, seedy looking characters walking from flat to flat and businessmen on scooters honking and speeding through like bats out of hell. Yet at the same time the architecture was stunning on every block. The Mediterranean influence was so much more present than I expected and really added to the flavor of the area. And once we were out of the city center and close to the Mediterranean Sea it felt as if the entire world had opened up. The streets were just a bit larger and the city center grittiness felt like it was replaced with a beach front metropolis, almost a healthy mix between San Diego and downtown Chicago. There we were greeted with even more stunning views that I’m more than positive made me look like a tourist every step of the way.

 



 

By the end of our French travels it was very hard for me to move onto the next and final portion of our vacation. I would like to point out that even beyond the food, the rich history and the picturesque settings, I really enjoyed France because of the company that we were with. I feel like friends that my wife and I both click with, let alone a “couple” set of friends, are very rare to come by no matter the continent. So I truly cherished every second we got to spend with our French friends. From the late night conversations, to the impromptu picnic to walking the street markets in Avignon, to seeing their hometown to the delectable breakfasts and dinners that our hosts prepared for us I genuinely enjoyed every second of it. Words alone cannot describe how humble and happy I am to have friends like these in our lives. And even though we live continents apart, I am positive that we will stay close and will see each other again soon.



 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My Two Week Reset


The brilliant words of Bob Dylan have never been truer than ever before at this point in my life. “The times they are a changin’.”


I have a ton to update you on and I offer my sincerest apologies for starting out this quarter’s blog flat. The first bit of news which I want to unpack with you today, that has caused me to be giddy with delight, is that I have officially made a vocational change. It was tough for me to keep this bit of news quiet as I was awaiting final confirmation, but now that it’s here I am very happy to share this with all of you.

Later this month I will be transitioning to the next chapter of my professional career and am trading in a U.S. anchor for a certain Swiss investment bank. After months of searching, interviewing, hunting and praying, I feel like I have finally found a great place to start the next phase of my (optimistically) young finance career. The I’ve taken on is essentially providing operational support for the firm’s traders based in Chicago.

During the interview process which spanned just about 2 months in length, I met with the entire team I will be working with including lower and upper level management within the division and I was pretty impressed. Now I won’t be na├»ve and think that everything will be peachy and not have a care in the world. I’m realistic enough to know that every role at every firm has it’s ups and downs and successes and challenges. But what captivated me with  this particular role was that everyone, from newbies to the division’s head honcho, are on the same page concerning best practices, how to provide the best service to internal traders and the elevated responsibility levels expected from every team member regardless of title. Plus the head honcho was a fan of Jim Collins’ excellent book “Good to Great,” so there was that too J And when an offer letter came through it really was a no brainer.

But I still had to say goodbye. Given that my wife and I are blessed to be in the financial position that we are, I opted to finish out the week I was working and take 2 weeks off to start anew having taken a breather. On the technical side for the month of October, my wife’s paycheck will cover our living expenses and any residual income that I bring in will head to our taxable brokerage account.

But on the personal side I found that it was tough to say goodbye. For the last 5, almost 6, years I went nearly everyday to the firm’s South Loop office. I started there broke, without work experience, single and heavily in debt. I emerged and left having put myself on the road to financial peace with the help of their paychecks, married, an experienced finance professional and debt free. But it was more than just the paychecks.

I spent my last few hours there as an employee making the rounds to old divisions that I had worked in and bid adieu to an All-Star list of my favorite colleagues. It left me feeling like the last 5 years had gone by very fast. And also that I really enjoyed and was grateful for having had the pleasure to work with some pretty incredible people.

Many had a wealth of experience and took time out of their days to teach and help a young kid who couldn’t spell finance when he got out of college. Among those I worked with, I would say we were a rather eclectic bunch. There were semi-pro football players, ex aerobic instructors, art history majors, a few enlisted in our armed services, aspiring nutritionists, freelance DJs and finance professionals whose previous employers had shut their doors.

And believe me, our South Loop office was anything BUT glamorous. But for 5 years in this little building that looks like a prison, in a building full of seemingly the most random people, there gathered together a group of people that did the best job they could with excellent client service. We laughed, shared our stories, shared heart break and celebrated life together. Sometimes with food, sometimes with drinks.

I shared with my wife that the entire building was kind of like a business professional version of the “Bad News Bears.” We weren’t flashy and there aren’t spiffy white collar executives pacing the halls. Instead there was a ragtag bunch brought together to steady the anchor, and they did a damn good job of doing it. And as I headed towards the elevator and the eventual exit I had Simple Minds’ classic 80s hit “Don’t you Forget About Me,” blasting on my ipod, and tears began to well up in my eyes.

I was/am incredibly happy to have had the experiences that I’ve had for the last 5 years. The people I met, the challenges faced, the goals met, the frustrations felt, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. It helped shape me into the person I am today, and for that I will always owe a debt of gratitude to my first employer.

So with that said, I’m 3 days into a 2 week “reset” as I refer to it. I have time to write and share my life with you, as well as get myself rested and ready for this next chapter in life.

Gone will be 6am start days, replaced with trading hours that will go roughly from 8am to 6pm. I will be working in the Loop for the first time in a fancy pants building. And on top of that our household will need to stay sharper than ever when it comes to our personal finances. Previously our household earned an income that had us right in the middle of the 25% tax bracket. With this new role we will be (in my opinion) dangerously close to crossing into the 28% bracket. And with a bonus structure and overtime available in addition to my salary, that very well could be a possibility. So we will do a thorough check up to ensure we are maximizing all pre-tax savings vehicles available to us to lower our taxable income and you can bet I will pass along the advice to you!

For now I’m going to kick back on my fold out chair and take in this stunning view of the city on this beautiful day. Because very soon, the Lake view near where we currently live will be traded out for one on the Edge of the water J But more on that later.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

My Cause for Celebration



I received an excellent bit of news yesterday and it had nothing to do with my net worth numbers or our government becoming more effective than ever by shutting down. This piece of news thoroughly filled me with pure and unadulterated joy and glee and it has nothing to do with the market being up significantly today in the face of our government being closed. No, this bit of news was personal, inspiring and unbelievably humbling.

A friend of mine whom I fell out of regular contact with over the last year made a declaration yesterday. After 17 months of hustle, focus and gazelle intensity, he and his wife are debt free. Now I have had the unbelievable privilege of hosting and facilitating Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. And over a year and a half ago I can vividly recall the first class that I ever hosted in our apartment, and this friend was a member of that very first class.

Now I won’t go into my friend’s specific situation nor give details, I feel that is his story to tell and not mine. But from my perspective upon hearing the news that he and his wife became completely debt free, well that (arguably) made my year. My friend had heard of Dave Ramsey prior to the class, listened to Dave’s podcast and was familiar with the principles. He got a great deal of fine tuning and motivation from being in FPU, surrounded by others as we each shared our stories about where we were financially and where we were trying to get to.

And 17 months later this friend and his wife have broken the shackles of debt and are now ready to live like no one else and take the first steps into their legacy journey. Now my egotistical side would love to sit here and type that I helped lead him to financial peace. But that would be a lie and also incredibly short sighted. The truth is God lead him there and used me as a tool to help him get to where he needed to be.

Through the process of finding financial peace I’ve experienced reconciliation with those that I love and have come a long way in bringing healing, love and forgiveness within myself and the baggage that I carried within myself for decades. My journey to financial freedom completely revolutionized my life and strengthened me to become a more giving person, a socially conscious consumer, a better husband, and ultimately the person that God calls me to become.


And if God can work his ways through the rough and tumble young man that I used to be, then I am just that much more thrilled and excited to see how He is going to change and transform my newly minted debt free friend and his household!