Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Most American Long Weekend of the Year

We live only an hour, at most, away from Snowbird Resort, but then again, we live about an hour away from anywhere worth going away. So, when we go to Snowbird for the weekend, my husband and I have sort of a tug-of-war between us over “we did go out of town” (he)  – “we didn’t go out of town” (me). Truth is … he is right: when we get up there, no matter how close to home it is, geographically, the air is cleaner and cooler, the pace is slower, the legs are lazier, the food is delicious, everything is a splurge, so it does feel like we are completely disconnected and on vacation.

We escaped to Snowbird this past long weekend, for July 4th. It was definitely not your “traditional” July 4th weekend, but it was a success, for us, nonetheless. As we were driving up there, we saw signs that fireworks were forbidden in the canyon - so that tells you that it was not going to be your regular Independence Day celebration up there.

We checked in, uneventfully, and then we headed out to dinner. The air was crisp and fresh, but not as cool as we had hoped for. The Valley floor temps were in the high 90’s, and Snowbird was not far off from that!  The air was fresher, though.

For dinner, we went to El Chanate, the first night. Every time I go to resorts around us, like Snowbird, Deer Valley and Park City, it puzzles me how I bump into very poor customer service everywhere – and I cannot, for the life of me, explain how these people stay in business! Our first night there was no exception: long waits, empty glasses, cold food, longer wait for  a bill … But all these could not damper our mood – improved significantly by the gorgeous mountain views, and watching deer graze on the slopes around us, and feeding the squirrels who were begging for tortilla chips on our patio.

This was July 4th: Mexican food, served very painfully slow, and no fireworks – due to dry weather and being in the canyon. 

On July 5th, I finally had my "patriotic" hotdog in my patriotic (USA) shirt. Best foot long I had in a while, with giant pickle slices and mustard.

The next day, we went exploring: the mountain trails, the grounds and other restaurants. 

Aspen and rock - it's all that peaks of the mountains Utah is all about!
We had a blast, bad (occasional) service, millions of kids and all! We saw deer only 5-6 feet away while exploring a close by trail, woodchuck mommas and their babies, bees and birds, we slid above snow covered peaks, eagles, pine trees and aspens in our chair lift. We had the best foot long hotdog (what’s more “American” than that, right?!) and relaxed by the pool, in total and complete abandon. The day felt like 48 hours long! 

The wild flowers were amazing! A feast for the eyes, and for the bees, flies and ants, just the same ...

We ate, we napped, we watched TV, we ate things we don’t normally eat (smoked salmon on pancakes, anyone?!), we saw gorgeous landscape and we people watched till silly! We are so lucky and so blessed to afford this, and to be able to drive just 60 minutes away from our front yard, to wash our retinas, be wowed and breathe clean air. 

All these guys were feet away from our hotel - so friendly and curious - were we trespassing their land?! Or just sharing?!

Nothing says "lazy weekend" to me than laying by a pool - this time, with mountains and pines all around ...

One of my favorite pastimes is to take the chair lift to the top of the mountain. The views from Hidden Peak were breathtaking. There was a breeze in the air, and there was not one bead of sweat on my forehead! We slid by rock, snow, mountain lakes and streams and the occasional eagle ...

My breakfast at The Atrium, one morning: smoked salmon, pancakes, fruit, raspberry, cheese crepes and seasoned potatoes ...

More food: a glass of white zin, black cod on a fried rice cake and French Vanilla creme brulee with fresh berries

Back home, growing up, we always only dreamed about “those Americans” who work long hours all year round, to only to run away for the weekend and recharge. It’s what the movies showed us.
Well, now, I live it: this is truly a great county, and dreams of long weekends filled with battery recharging activities and vistas really do come true!
I hope everyone had a safe, happy, relaxing and full July Fourth Weekend!
Here’s to an American summer! 
Please click picture to see the whole album from this trip. 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

July Fourth

This year is going to be my 16th July Fourth on this land.

On my first one, I was  watching the fireworks at Broadway at the Beach, in Myrtle Beach, SC. 
I had no (legal) job. I was  a brand new American wife, with a head full of dreams and a door wide open. 

Every year, on this day, I think of that day - the hopes and dreams and carelessness and ... hope. Lots of hope. I had no idea what the future held. I was dreaming of MY version of the "American dream", I suppose: a warm home, a steady income, a clean job, a neat garden with roses up front. Simple things. 

I could not even dream, at that point, about my life 16 years from then. 
16 years would have seemed like an unrealistic, unfathomable pipe dream.

But I am here to tell you: 16 years from that first  July Fourth, life is everything I dreamed of , and then some. All the dreams and hopes have been fulfilled and then some, beyond belief. 
I am grateful, happy, and still in awe. And I am here to tell you: I am glad that my parents taught me that  it's OK to ... dream. It's in the dreams that everything starts. So, don't be afraid of them. They will give you the map!

Like a true non-American, I still hate peanut butter. 
Like a true (imported) American, I still love freedom.
And because I am simply, undeniably "me", it all works out at the end of the day.

I am grateful every second of every day for what life and America has given me. I can never fully feel like I belong, but I can always and forever feel grateful. 
When I hear the news about the people that are sending their children here, for a better, free life, I just want to walk (yes, walk!) to them and adopt them all. I want to tell them that, yes, it's possible and yes, they should keep trying. Whatever their dreams are, they are becoming reality here. So, they should keep trying and they should keep dreaming.  
Freedom and happiness and ... another day, full of hope, unrestricted sun rises and no worries ... are possible.

Happy Birthday, America! 
And thank you for having me at the Big Party for yet another year!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Hydrangeas in the Desert

“The greatest wealth is to live content with little.” (Plato)

I can’t believe it’s the end of June already. Half a year – just gone. Time flies, and we grow old. Not much we can do about it, I s’ppose, other than wake up every morning trying to make it better, more fruitful, or, why not, simpler …

My friends are out there traveling the world. Others are being promoted to the title of their dreams. Others are yet getting more and more degrees in education so high it makes me dizzy. There are people building families, and others picking up the pieces after demolishing them. People conquering diseases and others writing books and building a home with their bare hands.

I have respect and awe for all these challenges and accomplishments of all people I meet every day. But today, for me, I am just simply grateful once again for every nugget of quiet in my life. For every breath of every day and for every day, however unexpectedly it decides to creep up on me.

Today, I am just grateful for the sunset on my back porch and that for the first time in three years, my hydrangea decided to bloom, in the desert. Today, life is simple and quiet. As quiet and simple as rain drops on leaves … 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Fire, Cheap Beer and Butterflies

" I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes." (e. e. cummings)

That, right there, pretty much summarizes my camping craving and my camping trips.

Last year, we didn't go camping. And let me tell you: I am still mourning that predicament.

This year, we're planning for several trips, but we got at least one in before the summer leaves us, on Hobble Creek Canyon, right above our house.  Mostly.

Here's the story of that weekend, in pictures that speak louder than I could. 

There is something esoteric about a camp fire. Something metaphysical and deeper than the regular human realm, that projects your mind into deep thought, looking for even deeper meaning, just like ocean waves or sunsets. We have a fire-pit at home, but we almost never use it. The fire in the woods, wrapped up in trees, loneliness and cicadas' noise is what our summer dream is all about

 The butterflies were insane this year! So many species and sizes and colors and they were everywhere ... When we crossed the river, we almost had to step on them to be able to step on the rocks to carry us over to the other side.

... and this is what I mean: butterflies on the rocks in the river. My favorite spot to camp is by a stream. There is nothing more soothing than falling asleep with the sound of the water hitting the hard rock - the most perfect music ever written ... We were lucky enough to find this spot this year, and although the campground is fairly small, we shall be back - for the stream, and the quiet, and the butterflies ...

This log reminded me of a Texas longhorn - right?!  

I have never camped in a spot where there were so many bugs! Just all sorts of bugs, but mostly, these red ones. In Romania, we call them The Lord's Roaches, and you can't squish them, because it's a sin. I didn't kill them on purpose, for sure, but they were so many, like a blanket on the ground where we laid our tent, that some of them fell as victims, I am sure. They're beautiful and do no harm at all.

The food - of course, the food! We had Bush's baked beans, Hebrew National hotdogs and baked potatoes the first night. I can still taste the brown sugar in those beans! The smoke of the fire does something else to them ...

What can be better in the morning than fresh eggs and a side of meat - this time, Canadian bacon - fried in a cast iron skillet, like it's meant to be?! Oh, yeah, and leftover hotdog buns are great for dipping in that semi-soft yolk!

Dinner the second night was chicken, peppers, corn and potatoes in a garlic sauce, all sauteed over the fire. And eating it straight from the "pot" is how you do it at campsite ...

My drink of choice, usually, when I camp. Just pure American water-y beer is the perfect  drink on a warm summer night. Would you believe they made the can "popper" so stylish as to copy the shape of the Budweiser crown?! Attention to detail is something else ... 

This was just one sneak peek from our hike that weekend - it was a picture perfect day, with clear skies and not too hot. Everything is so green, so vibrant, so full of noise and color and life, even in this drought we're having ...  

That's me, dirty, sweaty and unkempt. Yep, the "real" me, at campsite. I am looking into the future, and hoping  that there is a tent in every summer that the good Lord will indulge me to have ...

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Michigan Charm

I have at least a couple of friends out there who will think these two words are mutually exclusive. My own husband will say the same thing, perhaps, and that’s where he grew up. And I’ll have to say – because of all this bias, it took me several years (since 2010) to realize that yeah, there is so a Michigan charm, and a big, deep, profound one at that.

I still remember having dinner in Greensboro, NC with my friend M. She is from Ohio and she would die if she ever found out that I mentioned her name in a blog about Michigan. But she was telling me about the Ohio people, their charm and depth: blue collar, hard working, family oriented, solid, simple values. No muss, no fuss, just real American blood. Years later, I see this in Michigan (sorry, M.!).

I am not sure what it is, really – could be the rolling hills, the majestic oaks, the farms intertwined with city homes in Kalamazoo, the British charm of South Haven, on the shores of Lake Michigan, the dedicated, strong, unaltered Christian faith of people I know there, the huge rivers, the dewy meadows littered with red barns like birthday cakes with happy sprinkles. Not sure what it is, but there is a slow, quiet, laisez faire about Michigan that I can’t quite capture in words.

This fallen tree in Big Rapids, MI is testimony of how old these hills are. It was almost as thick as the house behind it. 

Farmland somewhere between Grand and Big Rapids, MI
Maybe it’s the fact that when I visit, my mother in law takes us to her favorite, 30 year old diners. She knows the story of every waitress and of every owner. They are all nice, quiet people, making a living as a waitress, for many, many years. Putting their kids through school and funding their husband’s businesses with their tip money. They have an empty, dead end gaze, but a twinkle of hope that they are doing the right thing in the world. A sense of purpose that eludes some of American folk everywhere else.

When I was a kid, dreaming about making it in America, I, too, dreamed, that I would have a waiting job in a diner, just a small cash flow, that would allow me to have a small place of my own, that I can call “home”. Not much. No luxury. I wanted to work my bones off, to see that cash at the end of the day. To get to meet those people now, in Michigan, it’s close to my heart, in so many ways. And that’s just the difference: everywhere else, kids in college wait tables. But in Michigan, at least in diners and restaurants with a story (like Clementine’s in South Heaven), people make careers out of this job. That’s a rarity and a lost piece of Americana, in a way … And they’re proud of it: they know every customer’s story, and they are willing to share their own, too, over waiting for the bill to be paid and the tip to come. You know, for “an up North” state, there is a friendliness about Michigan people that I cannot explain. They are, especially, in smaller towns, patient and know so many stories – if only you’d have the time to listen.

Maybe it’s the fact that not every other town in America has a 24 hour, 7 day a week family owned doughnut shop, like Kalamazoo has that makes it special. Maybe it’s the fact that every family restaurant has a coat hanger for winter clothes that speaks about the promise of tough winters, when people tumble in from the cold blizzards for a warm fireplace and a hot pot of soup that makes it cozy to me. 

The sign on the marquee for Sweetwater's Donut Mill, in Kalamazoo, MI against a typically gray Michigan sky.  A family owned, 24/7 donut shop that makes ginormous donuts - so large that they are enough to scare a sumo wrestler. And I am not kidding.

 Maybe it’s the fact that in every shopping center there is a corner bakery with homemade, crooked, cheesily decorated cakes, which look like a five year old would have made them – but delicious nonetheless. 

Chocolate cake at Rykse's, a 27 year old family owned restaurant and bakery, decorated with lilac blooms, for the spring

Food in Michigan is rich and scrumptious. I feel like I gain 100 pounds every time I visit. I guess something has to keep them warm on those long winters, and it’s the layers of fat they need for survival!

Maybe it's the charm of all its small, little towns, all loaded with history and stories untold - like Paw Paw, Gobles, Plainwell and Rockford, just to name a few on the South Western end. You know  the layout all too well:  one Main Street, the "main drag", that has all the important "joints" strung together, the grocery store, ice cream shop, beauty parlor, town library, funeral home, city pub and the rest of the town lies about, clustered around it, like a beehive.You've walked for 20 minutes, you've seen it all. But it all clusters such drama and ages of lives ...

The old mill turned restaurant in the city of Rockford, MI

Maybe it’s the Michigan pride, in cars, technology in general, pride in coming back from the ashes and making it big once again, like Detroit still hopes to, one day … that makes its charm. Maybe it’s all of these things, or maybe I am off the wall nuts. Not sure.

But Michigan speaks to me. There is a warm, welcome feeling when I go visit. Not enough to call it home (not after seeing Lake Michigan completely frozen over two winters in a row), but enough to call it a place in my heart. 

The Muskegon River, in Big Rapids, MI - awesome and rapid, as the name portrays it, lined by large oak trees and willows.