Monday, October 31, 2011

Flags! Flags, Everywhere!

Several years ago, I was listening to the radio on my way home from school, and the host of the show I was listening to mentioned that he had traveled to something like 95 different countries in his lifetime.   He was talking about how dear this achievement was to him, how his experiences in those countries had truly enriched his life, and how excited he was to be closing in on a total of 100 countries visited.     It's especially remarkable considering the host is not someone who travels for a living; he's not an airline pilot, a missionary, or a diplomat, and he's not in the military... he's just a radio host who enjoys traveling.  

At that time in my life I had been outside the USA only twice before, once to Scandinavia for an international trombone festival, and once across the Canadian border at Niagara Falls during my honeymoon: a total of 4 countries.     But as I listened to the radio personality describe some of his trips, I imagined how cool it might be to follow his example.   It seemed a very adventurous, optimistic, and romantic thing to set a goal like that, and I decided I would try it.

At the time, the idea of visiting 100 countries seemed a bit ridiculous... so I set a more realistic goal for myself: to visit 50 foreign countries and all 50 US states.

Now fast forward 6 years.   We're not only living abroad in Austria, but my job is also very travel-heavy.  In a relatively short time span, my grand total has jumped from 4 to 36 countries!!  

I have been very blessed with some amazing opportunities for travel since joining the Vienna Philharmonic, and my life has truly been enriched by each place I've visited.   I'd like to talk more about why I enjoy traveling and why I think it's important in a later post, but right now I want to share a project I've been working on to help me keep track of (and ultimately celebrate the completion of) my travel goals.

Sorry, but this requires more backstory.  I'll be as brief as possible... let's try it this way:

Moved to Austria. 
Didn't know squat about foreign countries.  
Felt like ignorant American. 
Felt embarrassed when meeting people from countries I had never heard of.  
Decided to learn things.  
Bought iPhone app.
Learned where all the countries of the world are located on a map.  
Yes,  still know.  
Must occasionally review.   
Saw 192 nations' flags outside UN building in Vienna.  
Decided to learn those too.  
Bought iPhone app.
Learned those, too.  
Must occasionally review.  
Remembered goal of 50 countries.
Decided to collect a flag for each country visited.
Realized flags are large - wall space was insufficient.
Had an idea. 
Desk flags!
Needed something to display them.
Commissioned handy woodworking father to build stand.
Turned out great.
Realized I had also visited 36 US States.
Decided to do a 2nd stand.
The End.

There are two stands: one for nations (front) and one for US states (rear)

Yes, this was the elegant solution I came up with.   My Dad was awesome enough to spend a day fashioning two flag stands out of beautiful black walnut wood from the hills around my hometown. 

Each stand has 51 places for small desk flags and will 'thusly' show my progress towards my "50/50" goal.   Why 51 holes?  For the 'countries' stand, I wanted to put the Stars & Stripes in the center and still have room for 50 other countries.   For the 'states' stand, I have the flag of my home state (Tennessee) in the center and room for the other 49 plus the District of Columbia.

Don't they look great!?!?   Well, at least I think so.   It's so great to be able to look over at them when I come into my office and see that visual reminder of the great experiences I've had.   And when both stands are filled to capacity, I will have achieved the goals I set 6 years ago!!

And now... some FAQ'S (Yes, I have actually been asked these questions):

Q: What order are the flags in?
A:  Starting in the center and alternating out both left and right, they are in the order that I first visited each country or state.   So the further you go from the center, the more recent.

Q: Do you count airports as visiting a country?
A: No.   I wanted to make sure that all the flags represent an experience rather than geography, so I don't put a flag in just for flying through an airport.  I don't feel that constitutes a true visit to a place.   For each flag, I've actually walked around, spent the night, had a meal, etc. in that place.  At the moment, the only place I've technically been to that isn't in the stand is Singapore.

Q: What counts as a country?
A: This question comes up in regard to places such as Hong Kong, which is technically owned by China.   Should I count it as a separate country or not?   In general, if a place has its own government, is a member of the UN, or has ever sent an athlete to the olympic games, I count it.  And in most cases, if a place has its own flag, that answers the question in and of itself.   The only ones that I'm a bit iffy about are the Cayman Islands (a British Overseas Territory) and the Vatican City, but for the moment they're in there.

Well, that's all for now.   Hope I haven't bored you all too much.   I reckon everyone's got an inner dork... I just seem to also have an outer dork who happens to like flags and traveling.  :)


  1. If I ever get to start deploying overseas, I'm so stealing this idea.

  2. Ronnie is giving you the Vatican City as a country as it sovereign. The jury is still out on the Cayman Islands. :-) You are such a cool guy!!