Thursday, April 30, 2015

London: The Small Big City


 
Some kids grow up with fairy tale books. I grew up with British Literature. Sure, I had the French one, too, available, but my heart belonged to The Brits. There is some reverence about, an elegance, an order to it all. Unlike the French spirit, which is more haphazard and unexpected, the British folks are serious, balanced and possessed. With unexpected bursts of passion and lots of violence. I have always felt that we’re kindred spirits somewhere, in another life.

When I graduated college, everyone saw me moving to London. I remember my first trip to Margate (County Kent) – I sat down on the sidewalk and cried: I had found home and I never wanted to leave. I loved what I saw of London 19 years ago, in between the stops of the tourist bus that took me there. And I have longed to go back and to take it in at my own pace.

This year, this dream became real. We spent 5 days in London and we savored it. Or at least I did. You know: we always spent time reading about what we will do, and even plan a few things. We asked friends who have been there before what are the “must see”-s, we asked co-workers who live there how to effectively spend our limited time there. We took notes and we built an online portfolio of ideas, plans, pictures, “to see”, “to eat”, “to visit” things … And the minute we get off the plane and we get sucked into the first London cab, we let ourselves be swallowed by the whirlwind which is this old and beautiful city. We get carried away, and as one of my London friends said, we keep walking on to discover the magic behind every corner. And this curiosity becomes the only thing that drives us onto our journeys … Just like that, in an instance, the online portfolio is a thing of the past!

And magic this city has. I enjoyed the history lessons the most. I guess, after living in The States for 17 years, I was almost forgetting how heavy with history Europe really is. Every place we visited was a reminder of how old that country really is, and now young America is, by comparison. Not only every place we visited, but every wall and every statue we passed.

My husband’s favorite spot was Westminster Abbey. It is a strange place, really: a bit gloomy, more a huge mortuary than a true church. You step on graves and the names on them give you chills: Shakespeare, Dryden, Cromwell, Elizabeth I, Mary of The Scotts and so on … Like I said: my “fairy tales” …

My favorite spot was a somewhat “obscure” one – it was not something we planned to see, something we stumbled upon quite by accident: The National Gallery Museum in Trafalgar Square. We went in just to kill some time and because it was free. The amount of renowned Renaissance and Baroque painters whose works were exposed was astonishing! I thought I would have to make special trips to Madrid, Paris, or The Hermitage to see some of this art with my own eyes!

I mentioned before that we “kept walking” to discover what’s behind every corner, and with just one exception of the first day of the trip when we took a double decker bus to The Tower of London, we did indeed walk everywhere. We stayed in the Covent Garden area and we walked to Trafalgar, and Buckingham Palace and Westminster Square, and Waterloo Bridge. We stopped here and there, for snacks and beer, in between the history lessons.

And that brings me to my second huge surprise of the trip: whoever tells you Brits can’t cook have not been to England! Or … they lived in America way too long and their taste buds are damaged by too much cheese and butter! London folks know what to do with their meat and potatoes, let me tell you! Meat tastes like meat, not cheese, not bbq sauce, not soy, and etc. Potatoes are not greasy and tasting like oil – they taste like spuds! I did not have one bad dish there, and I tried their traditional food (fish and chips and bangers and mash) as well as other foreign cuisines, too, like Indian, Thai, even Italian – all delicious! My favorite, believe it or not, was breakfast toast (no butter – yes!) and the assortment of jams and preserves that they served it with. And yes, we had lots of beer, tea as well as gin, of course.

Although it is a busy and bustling city, we always felt safe here. There are policemen at literally every corner and bend in the road, in parks, museums and security at every hotel door. After walking the streets of Covent Garden for five days, we felt like we lived in a little borough, really, not a huge metropolis!  

I will leave you with the pictures from this trip. I wish you could smell the streets – a mixture of gas, cold spring air, and dust; I wish you could hear the incredibly noisy streets, half traffic and half construction work – a city always renewed, reinvented and restored; I wish you could see the richness of people’s races and cultures walking these streets; I wish you could taste the food – strong flavors, full of personality and uniqueness, without being loud; I wish you could be amazed at the spotless sky we had for 5 days straight and ask yourselves if you really are in the UK; I wish you could hear the steps of history chasing you on every alley, stories of torture and jealousy, betrayal and revenge. I wish you could smell The Thames and imagine that Dickens’s benches smelled that much more. I wish you could go and discover your London. It’s to each their own. 

An old landmark: The Houses of Parliament on River Thames: click on the picture for the whole album.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Perspective




I was told I was born a “big baby”. I am told I am a “small woman” now. It’s all relative and a matter of perspective, I guess.

I was born in another world. Quite literally. It was called Romania then. I call my world North America – occasionally Romania now. It’s a giant leap and not only in geography!

There was no email 40 years ago. No World Wide Web, either.
No iPhones, iPads or anything “Apple” for that matter (well, of course, outside The Beatles, but that’s another story).

Microsoft was founded only 5 days before I was born. Countries like: Russia, Slovakia, Moldova, Armenia were not sitting on their own on the maps of the world.
Same sex marriage was not recognized by any country in the world, and I was born under a dictatorship. Today, I live in the allegedly most democratic country in the world. Allegedly. There is always perspective, you see,  and interpretation.

The original World Trade Centers were barely 2 years old! You know where they are today.

Cell and cordless phones were not commercially available. I grew up with rotary phones and phones lines that “coupled” people (strangers) on the same numbers. So, you had to “yield” if your neighbor was making the call before you got a chance to.

I was born in a blizzard, in April, in a poor family, and my parents were full time students. I was born in a world were dads were not allowed in the maternity room at delivery time. I probably saw my dad days after I was born, and I was cleared to have contact with the outside world. Or rather, he saw me …

It was a small world. A bleak world. A far away one. But full of fire. Full of potential, desire, brains, and drive. To some extent, a world with a limited horizon, except if you were my parents. My parents knew that their kids will have the power to dream – and they were there to encourage it and to kindle the fire under our dreaming, so we can take off. And as with everything, they, of course, were right. We did take off.

I still hear my mom say “40 years is a lifetime”. And you know what, looking back from where I am standing now … it really is! I am seeing myself through these years, growing, maturing, succeeding, but most of all, most importantly, failing, and failing hard. I took some royal falls, that cannot be mended with a band aid or cured with an aspirin! But I also had amazing dreams come true, wild, insanely unrealistic dreams become reality. I have watched people’s extreme happiness and deepest sadness all the same, and all of it dug deep wrinkles in my forehead and even deeper in my heart.

I lost people that helped me grow, that tended to me when I was too small to take care of myself – all my grandparents, relatives that helped my parents raise me and my sister. I lost dear friends to horrible diseases. I lost pets I loved like my children. But I also gained amazing love and wonders in my husband, and my nephews. I gained renewed strength and built memories with all the friends that I have made over the years. Friends I have known and loved since middle school. And high school. And college. And since I moved to the US, 17 years ago.

My great grandparents never left their counties, or sometimes their cities. They never saw the sea, or jumped on a plane. My grandparents never even dreamed of leaving the country. I have seen half of Europe, one Asian country and have seen half of the US and the East Coast of Canada. And I still think I have seen nothing compared to most!

I remember when my parents could not figure out how to get back in touch with their best friends from college or high school, just to catch up. I can reach mine, with a click of the keyboard, through Facebook. My friends live nowadays anywhere between Armenia and the UK, Denmark, Italy, Canada and France. “Imagine there’s no countries” is becoming a reality, I suppose.

Looking back, I can tell you, you learn a lot in these 40 years. You can’t help it! Even when you defy learning, learning forces itself onto your throat … And you grow. And you know. Or at least you pretend you do. You gotta show something for this gray hair, I tell ya that much!

I know now that not looking back is a gift. Use it often. Move on, remember, but don’t wallow! Second looks are for losers. And as the song goes, “there is no time for losers”.

Life won’t give you second chances much … er … at all. So, don’t waste your time giving them to others. Trust me – people will disappoint you every chance they get!

Once in a long while, someone will leave you speechless with their generosity, love and, yes, even sanctity! Embrace it, and thank God you met them! Then, try to return that favor.

Always be honest with yourself, even if it makes you bleed! Lying to yourself is the biggest, most hopeless hole you can get dig yourself into, and no one will ever give a damn to pull you out of it! 

Don't ever, and I mean, not even when you're craving that big mansion your sister just bought, or that stupid car your co-worker is leasing for more than your mortgage, don't ever chase someone else's dreams! Just 'cause the world has to have 3 kids, a gray dog, a white picket fence, a house with a basement and a fireplace doesn't make it right for you. And what is right for you is the only thing that matters. Be brave and stubborn enough to figure out what that is! Stop cheating and comparing notes! That's a waste of time! And time is what you can't let to waste ...

Don’t attach strings to anything you give. Give freely. And like a boomerang, life will give it back to you even faster and stronger! I promise that with all my might!

The more you let go, however painful it is, the more you have. I know, it makes no sense, but it’s true.

I never spent much time worrying if I am perfect, so I won’t start now. I know that I am unique, as is everyone else. And that suffices!

I know now that I love cats and dogs much better than most people. And that’s more than just a cliché.

I have always been grateful for the fact that I grew up in communism, and for the rare disease I was born with. The fact that I survived both and am sitting here today, 40 years later, across the world, typing my words in a device few people dreamed they would own one day, 40 years ago, makes me a believer in faith, human strength, loving people and luck. Much luck!

I still won’t spend more than $5 in Vegas, though! I believe in luck, but I am not stupid. Most days, anyway.

I’d still rather buy a book than a pair of shoes. And 17 years of consumerism in America has not changed that!

40 years taught me to say “I love you” often. I say it every day. To my husband, my cat, every time I speak to my family, every chance I get to people that have established themselves in my heart … Time is precious!

The next blink of our eyes could be too late. Again, that is not a cliché. Just think about it: you float on this blue bead of soil and water into the universe. Something sneezes up there, in the whole scheme of the world, and you’re gone! Your being, dreams, hopes, plans for tomorrow, even your most favorite chair positioned just so in front of your fireplace. Poof! Gone. Be mindful. Touch this table, in front of you, and really, really feel it … Remember: this touch, now, is all you got for sure and for real. Make no assumptions!

There are people in the world who are really, really shitty, sick f*cks! But for every one of those, there are hundreds that make this journey worth it!

There comes a day in your life when you realize the fact that your burger was cold at the steakhouse last night is ridiculous; you realize that the new shampoo you just bought that makes your scalp flake is just a gnat in your daily journey. You realize that every breath you take is more important, more sublime and supreme than every time someone broke a promise to you … And you get perspective. And you revel in the amazement of it all!

The one, truest thing I have learned though during this mammoth amount of time came from my dad. He says: “The secret to succeeding in life is to be five seconds smarter than life”. And it’s different for every one of us what that means.  But if you crack that code, I tell you this much: there are no doors! Only possibilities turned into life. 

PS: and you want to hear something else crazy?! I don't feel old yet! Who knew?!

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Streets of ... San Diego




There are a couple of obvious things that would make San Diego a favorite destination for me, like the fact that it’s only an hour and 24 minute plane trip away from my home airport, or the fact that almost always it will be warmer than where I live. Or the fact that it’s in California, which is my one of my favorite states to travel to for healthy, un-messed-with food and good libations. But there are some other things that I discovered about the San Diego area that make it interesting as well. Things you don’t know about. Unless you go.

Here is my list of things that I have learned to appreciate about this Southern Californian city, as well as some things that kind of left me “blah”.

1.0   The vegetation throughout the city:
I remember when I asked a co-worker native of San Diego what is the vegetation like down there, and she said “kind of like a desert”. Well, she was only half right, in my opinion. It’s “desert meets lush green, Hawaii tropical meets Arizona cactus”, if you can imagine that. Either way, it’s beautiful, as these next shots hopefully show it. 

Various vegetation around our hotel, on the streets of San Diego

2.0   The Gaslamp Quarter:
I was afraid that the Gaslamp Quarter would be overrated, a bit, and that, in my opinion, it was. It’s a hopping place of open air bars and patios, souvenir shops and much construction, with Happy Hour menus, it seems, around the clock, and drunk smells (alcohol and throw-up alike) everywhere. The history is still there (its development started in the late 1800’s, so most of the architecture reflects that time), but it’s been swallowed by the urbanism of today and the attraction of bars, entertainment and random shops and contemporary murals.
San Diego has a feeling of big, dirty city, with bad roads, and limited parking. At least the parking was affordable, just a couple of bucks for a couple of hours, but harder to find. It overwhelmed more than it welcomed you. As you know, I am already a fan of bigger cities with a small town feel, like Montreal or Denver. This was different – more along the lines of San Francisco, Seattle, even Boston or New York (overlooking the scale, of course). Just not my … glass of wine, you know … 

 
Snapshots around the Gaslapm Quarter


Street corner in the Gaslamp Quarter


The dirt of a big city


San Diego downtown street


               Reminders of the "hippie" generation in the Gaslamp Quarter murals

3.0   The Bay:
On the way from the Downtown/ Gaslamp Quarter towards our hotel, in Point Loma, we passed by the San Diego Bay. Although the feel of the large, swallowing city remains, the views of the water and of the Marina are beautiful, and the silhouette of the city across the street from the boats is majestic. We caught some beautiful glimpses of the sunset resting in the water from this stretch of the road. 



The San Diego Bay in the sunset

4.0   Point Loma neighborhood:
This is where our hotel was – in the same area as the airport. Being this close to a loud and busy airport usually bothers me, but people build right, I guess, in this town, because I could not hear the planes from our hotel at all. And the neighborhood across the street from me was amazing! A contemporary mix of single homes and townhomes, most of them in Spanish “hacienda” style, with just enough green space to make it fresh and not too much to overwhelm the homeowners with landscape chores. It had a vibrant air of posh but affordable, quiet and hip, wild and well kept, all at the same time. I joke with my husband and I say that I want to retire there, when I am all done with my job. Yeah, “when” is another question. 


Neighborhood interior court in Point Loma

5.0   Torrey Pines State Reserve around the La Jolla region:
Just a short ride of maybe 30 minutes up the Pacific Coast, from San Diego, through the La Jolla region, will take you to the Torrey Pines Reserve. It has everything you’d normally expect from a State Park, well marked trails, lots of open beaches to walk, run, feed the seagulls or shoot the waves at your heart’s content. It also has very well marked vegetation, a visitors’ center and very limited parking, too. It’s here that I met the California I was always dreaming about and seeing in movies: to the right, you have the mighty Pacific Ocean, to the left you have the rocky mountain slopes. 




The beautiful vistas at Torrey Pines Reserve

The pine trees on The Reserve


Desert meets flowers on the Pacific Shore. 
 
On the way back towards San Diego, we stopped at Iris, this pub where we had the best fresh calamari with some home made aioli and cocktail sauce to kill for– some of the best snacks we had while down there. The restaurant was on the edge of Los Peñasquitos Lagoon, a coastal waterway filled with egrets and more seagulls and other water creatures – just a beautiful view off of our patio, and more photo ops for us, of course. 


The yummy calamari at Iris's


Egret on the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon

6.0   The puppies, the kitties and the wild parrots, too:
We have been to cities that are dog friendly before (like Denver, Vail, Park City and Seattle). But we have not seen anything quite like San Diego yet! There are dogs and cats virtually everywhere, and I don’t mean the stray kind. People here love to dress up their dog, and restaurant websites even advertise that they are “dog friendly” on their sites. We also saw a wild parrot around our hotel, as a local told us quite matter-of-factly that “oh, yeah, we have a couple of resident wild parrots here, in Point Loma.” And they were not quiet, either. 

 


The creatures of the streets of San Diego ....
 

7.0   The food
As we normally expect from any place in California, the food was overall above average. Everything was a bit higher (price wise) than what we are used to, but everything was delicious, fresh and definitely unique. We ate on patios most times, as the weather was gorgeous for this time of the year (late February). There are several options in specific menus for vegetarian and vegan foods, right along with the best seafood and pizza in town. We went to a “hippy” café (The Naked Café) for breakfast one morning and that had this vegan wrap with a side of quinoa that I loved … I know, I know: it’s not breakfast food, but it was so fresh and plenty that I didn’t care. It gave me the energy I needed for the day. And where else in Utah can I get quinoa for breakfast, right?!
Dinner at Anthony’s Fish Grotto on The Bay was amazing! Funny how I live in the mountains, but I had to fly all the way to California, on the Ocean, to have some decent trout! Anthony’s does have the best views of the sunset from their dining room, so if you’re into that, definitely check them out! 


The "made to order" (otherwise non-) vegan flat bread at Oggi's


The "quinoa" breakfast at The Naked Cafe


Street food: Pretzels and veggies with cheese dip and hot mustard at Barley Mash in the Gaslamp Quarter


A more traditional "American" breakfast at Crest Cafe, one of Guy Fieri's picks

8.0   The Pacific Ocean:
My favorite element from this trip was the proximity to the Ocean – which is why I booked this trip to begin with! Call me crazy, but I have to see The Ocean, any ocean, at least once a year every year or else I am losing my gourd, more than usual.  After living on The Atlantic in my past, and having seen The Pacific three times so far, in my life, I can tell you the latter is my favorite. The color is a peaceful blue, and it’s quieter, more patient, and more “friendly”. Definitely less angry than its East Coast brother. 







9.0   The history:
If you’re a history buff, then San Diego has a lot to offer, for a relatively young city. Spanish and Mexican history and architecture meet American South West. It is also a modern military base, so lots of recent history reminders greet you at every place. We visited the USS Midway, a massive aircraft carrier, anchored in the San Diego Bay. Right next to it, the Unconditional Surrender Statue greets the ships entering the Bay. You’ll love picking apart the architectural styles of the Old City and of Balboa Park as well. 

 

The USS Midway Memorial


The statue of The Unconditional Surrender

10.0 And that brings me, finally, to my favorite escape: Balboa Park.  There is everything for everyone there: there are beautifully landscaped gardens, gorgeous statues, and ornate architecture, a massive outdoor organ, a large pavilion hosting orchids and other tropical plants, there are birds of every color, beautiful trees, bushes and plants at every corner, open door amphitheaters, and fountains, and countless museums for every taste or hobby. We never did make it to the Zoo, but there is that as well, and from what we read, it is extensive. We visited the Photography Museum, the Japanese Gardens and the Orchid Exhibit at the Pavilion. 


The entrance at Balboa Park


Architectural detail at Balboa Park


Orchid at Balboa Park


The gardens pavilion at Balboa Park





The Bonsai Garden at Balboa Park 


The Japanese Gardens at Balboa Park


The outdoor organ amphitheater at Balboa Park


More architectural detail at Balboa Park

Overall, we had a great trip and San Diego offered us that busy and relaxing getaway that we were hoping for: we chilled, and ate, and learned some new things to widen our minds. We will probably go back, but we’re not in a rush. We’re open to other Western (and not only) hidden gems, first, speaking for both of us, I think.