hen I got the call to pack my bags and head to Germany on a weeks notice, I did a happy dance in my home office - literal, not figurative. Germany is one of my very favorite places to travel, but there's one big Deutsch bucket list item I had yet to check off: CHIO Aachen.
I jam-packed my carry-on with multi-purpose items - bodysuits, jeans, sneakers that could hold up to some serious walking - and made the two-hour drive from Rancho Santa Fe, CA to the Los Angeles International Airport. The flight there was fast and easy, although I soon discovered that my airline charged for everything: water, tea, tiny bags of peanuts. So I arrived at my layover in Iceland dying for food and about had a heart-palpitation when I walked right into a gluten-free juice bar in the Reykjavik airport. If you don't know yet, I have truly embraced my eight years in California and have become a painfully obnoxious juice loving, gluten avoiding, emoji texting, crystal toting west coaster.
By the time I arrived at my almost final destination in Belgium, it was time to hustle: I grabbed my bags, ran to the underground train terminal, and jumped on a train to Aachen with 7 minutes to spare. So, fun thing about this train - they had some sort of mix-up with a previous multi-country train and had decided to offload those poor passengers onto our train, meaning that there were human beings literally on every surface of the train - doubled up in seats, sitting in the aisles, crammed around the luggage racks. Claiming our assigned seats were definitely out the window, but I, fortunately, found a spot in a strange little 8-person car. I had planned on working throughout my train ride as Issue 12 of the magazine was imminently due, but with four of us warring for one outlet and a tiny side table, it didn't seem to be an option. My phone was also dying, but thankfully, my non-English speaking seatmate kindly allowed me to plug into his power bank (via an interesting game of psuedo-charades). All would be well and good as the train ride was only anticipated to be about 90 minutes, but wouldn't you know it? We got delayed. Because someone was hit by a train. Not our train (or I would have been scarred for life), but a train several minutes ahead of us. This meant a four-hour delay. With no internet. Of course, my heart went out to the person in the accident and their family, and I had little to complain about - I was safely in a seat en route to the horse show of my dreams.
Things really turned around an hour or so later when the hysterical older British couple across the row decided to bust out two bottles of rosé and eight plastic cups, and regaled us with stories of their exceptional bad luck throughout their anniversary trip.
I finally arrived in Aachen around 11 p.m., took a taxi to my hotel, and jumped on the internet to do some late night edits on the magazine before crashing.
The morning brought a fresh wave of excitement that made me forget about my 26 hours of travel and mere three hours of sleep the night before: I was about to witness one of the greatest horse shows in the world, and chat up some of my all-time favorite riders.
Living the dream would be a vast understatement.
I've been a reporter for most of my life. I was an aspiring (aka, struggling) actress with an agent and a manager from age 12, but I was spending most of my time showing horses, so my future as a less-awesome, less-attractive, and less-talented Emma Stone was put on the backburner. When my interest in journalism piqued, I turned my focus to hosting and reporting. At age 15, I started interning for ESPN, which turned into seven years of climbing the ladder in television production and field reporting. Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles from Oregon and made reporting my full-time career, still dabbling (okay, busting my ass, but same/same) in working as a producer and doing a little marketing and freelance writing on the side. Point being, I've interviewed athletes, celebrities, and everyone in between for most of my adult life. I've never been starstruck by anyone. Not until I arrived in Aachen.
My first love has always been horses, and I've been actively competing since age eight. I've looked up to the likes of Beezie, Laura, and McLain for years, and have followed the careers of the up and comers like they were my own best friends. There is nothing that jazzes me up quite like a horse show, and this particular one blew my mind: not only was it the most stunning, expansive, high end production I've ever been around, but nearly every single rider I've idolized over the years was in one place, and they were totally willing to sit down with me for a coffee and dish it all. Safe to say I was freaking out a little, but channeling that whole duck thing: calm on the surface, going crazy under the water.
I've confirmed there is a heaven, and it's CHIO Aachen.
Over the course of the show, I was pretty consistently blown away by the deep relationships Noëlle and the NF team have cultivated with the world's top riders. Despite their insanely busy schedules, they made time to hang with me at the Rider's Bar, talking everything from their morning routines to managing disappointment, avoiding burnout to the excitement of working with youngsters. These were solidly some of the favorite conversations I've had in my life - I can't say enough to how passionate, deeply involved, and dedicated to their sport these athletes are. Between rapid-fire chats I bolted into the stadiums to watch the greats navigate ridiculously tough courses, double ditches, and challenging dressage tests. In the evenings, I'd drag myself away from participating in the neverending parties - and let me tell you, the Germans know how to party - and dive back into putting final touches on magazine articles before the North American team woke up. Pulling 14 to 16 hour days is a breeze when you're doing what you love, and I've never loved a job more.
I kicked off the weekend by meeting up with one of our badass freelance writers, Annette Paterakis - a mental skills coach for top level equestrian athletes, who pens our 'Mind Games' series - after I finished my interviews for the day. Annette and I geeked out over the particularly tough Nations Cup course and cheered like crazed soccer fans everytime our favorites went clear. It's a really cool experience to link up in person with the people you regularly work with on the internet, especially someone so involved with the sport on the other side of the world. Annette and I grabbed a drink with two of her clients from Kuwait (also, can't get over how small the horse community is, despite its global reach) and I had to drag myself away from the ever-increasing party and flowing Aperol spritzes to get some sleep before I met up with our editorial photographer, Andreas, the next morning.
Andreas and his assistant are crazy talented, but they'd never been to a horse show, so I tried to prepare them for the adventure. During the weekend, things got pretty wild, as we physically ran back and forth across the massive show grounds to catch riders for interviews and photoshoots whenever and wherever they were available. As competition cranked up, we'd seriously get anywhere from 3 - 9 minutes with each person, and we had to be creative since the light was uncharacteristically harsh for Aachen (think: full sun, zero clouds, all day long). Andreas was pretty sure I had become permanently fused with my cell phone and I started to believe him after it hadn't left my hand for 8 hours and I was plugged into a battery pack that was riding in my fanny pack.
Side note: yes, I wore a fanny pack the entire week. But it was a chic one, and I fully believe in the power of the fanny pack. The 90's were onto something, let me tell you.
I was so sweaty the whole weekend it looked like I had just come from Florida, but then again, everyone was sweaty, so it really worked out. There were times I felt my brain melting too - like when 4 different riders all only had 2 p.m. available - but I thrive under extreme pressure, and CHIO feeds the press a daily meal, so ultimately, we made it happen, and it turned out pretty damn well.
The week was as rock and roll as I thought it would be - fast-paced, high-stress, and a wild, wild ride. But it was also inspiring, incredibly fun, and hands down the best reporting experience of my life so far. I may have lived off less than four hours of sleep a night and grocery store crackers and vegan cheese for 6 days - being a dairy-free, gluten-free individual in Germany is not the easiest - but who needs hot food or sleep when you can run off of passion, excitement, and the buzz you get from getting to talk to your idols all day long? Not this girl. However, on Sunday night once the show wrapped up, I was determined to find food. Germany likes to close everything on Sundays, so I walked three miles into town at 10 p.m. (which still looks like full daylight, it's bizarre) and started to panic when every single place, including my trusty grocery store, was closed. I finally found a hole in the wall Indian restaurant which was technically closed, but the nicest man in the world agreed to make me a veggie curry to-go, and I actually hugged him. It was so spicy I almost died, but it was hot food, and it was so, so good.
Because of flight issues, I had Monday to spend in Aachen, which admittedly, I had not actually seen yet, as I had been so deep into horse show life I had thought of nothing else. I decided to walk on down to the famous Aachen Thermal Spa, which hosts world-renowned mineral hot springs pools and like, 25 different types of saunas. It's also nude (convenient as I hadn't packed a suit). And co-ed. So that was an experience. I stayed there for most of the morning, just doing my naked thing with lots of naked German guys and sauna activities such as 'Aroma Ice' where you sit (still naked) in a sauna packed with people like a can of sardines while an attendant yells at you in German and fans the world's hottest air around with a towel, then opens the door and tells you to run outside and rub scented ice cubes all over your (still naked) body before you go back into the sweat-den. Fun stuff.
My trip ended as it had started - on a train back to Belgium - but this time, I posted up with my computer to start uploading interview files and write a few blog posts. Reliving each moment of the trip and listening through the wonderful conversations I had with these world-class riders was the cherry on top, a perfect way to bring my first reporting trip for NF to a close, and celebrate the fact that I do, in fact, have my dream job.
Legit photos by Andreas Pollok, cell phone shots by me.