Friday, December 31, 2010

A Minute of Remembering. A Word of 'Thanks'.

“For last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice.” (T.S.Eliot)

I have never been much into New Year’s resolutions … A friend of mine was asking the other day to give reasons why we don’t make them, as opposed to most people out there who make them every year. At the time, I couldn’t come up with a reason. I just knew I was not in the “let’s make a list for the new year, so we can have something to stray from” crowd.

Then, I thought about it for a bit … And, as with most of everything in my life, when I need explaining about who I am, I go to the way I grew up. Sorry, mom and dad, but it is true!

As a Romanian, who are somewhat passé-ists, I look back to the old year for lessons learned rather than look into the future with a plan. In our household, and even today, when I call my folks at midnight tonight, we talk about what went on this year and what we've learned from it. We assess how this year has changed us, inevitably, through the fortunes and misfortunes it showered us with, and we acknowledge what, if anything, is still the same in our characters … Sort of like a landscape after a tornado – we evaluate the damage and contemplate the new surroundings, never the same again.

And here I am, in the last day of 2010 reviewing my past 365 days! Every time I think of this year I feel tired! Every time, I sigh and say ‘WOW’! - I cannot shake this reaction, although I have tried to multiple times during the year … But this year has been that full, that overwhelmingly rich, meaningful and yet … short …

I feel like this was definitely, for me, one of those milestone years. One of those years when you know your life just took a 90 degree turn. I have done things this year I won’t be doing often, for sure … All the while, I have learned more about people and life in general and I have learned more about who I am, about my flexibility, patience, or lack of it, about what’s true and important and timeless in life.

I have learned that there can be marriage without a power struggle. We are here, together, to complete each other, and not to dispute who gets to the finish line first. There is no finish line, and if there is, I’d rather get there together, at the same time, hand in hand. I have learned new meanings of love, commitment, and respect, and for that I will forever be grateful to my patient, loving and overall amazing husband. Who knows me better than anyone else now, and who loves me just the same!

One of the things I have learned from him this year is how to slow down! I never thought this was possible! My agenda used to be completely full all the time. My calendar, with no days off for months! My weekends, filled with plans, trips, friends, and chores … Not so much anymore … I have learned how nice it is to just be. To just sit down for a full day and do nothing but finish a book, or a scarf!

One valuable lesson that I am still trying to acquire teachings from is that so much in our lives is out of our control! I know this is such a cliché for most people, but you control freaks out there know what I am talking about! We always want to know we’ve got the handle on everything. Well, I have learned this year that we have control over perhaps 10% of what’s happening to us. And that percentage is generous! The rest is chance. Or God. Or Nature. Or Government. Or … the economy … Or family. Or friends. Or … you fill in the blanks…

Like many folks around me, I have learned that the American Dream of owning your home can quickly become the Universal Nightmare of not being able to pay for it or sell it. And that what seems like a completely personal decision you have made with eyes wide open can take a life of its own and spin out of control when the economy tumbles! And, again, there is not much you can do about it. And “waiting it out” is painful, but it’s the only thing to do. Waiting it out is also not an option for a control freak. But I am forced to adjust.

I have learned, yet painfully, and very much against my nature, that my job doesn’t define me! I also learned that you can lose a job as quickly as you can get a job, and losing it has absolutely nothing to do with who you are or how good you are. I know now that a job is probably one of the most volatile “assets” we have, and thus we should not make an absolute of it … We should very much treat it like an appliance – it’s great, and useful while it’s there and while it works. And we do our best to care for it, maintain it, give it our all to keep it going. But once it breaks, we have to be ready to buy a new one. Not get stuck and cry over it in deep depression for months, ‘cause that won’t fix it. My mom was right (of course): “People make jobs. Jobs don’t make people”, she says. So, you move on, and you start enjoying your life instead of crying for that broken vacuum cleaner … eerr ... I mean … lost paycheck! Your life is the only definite you have left at the end of every day, for as long as you live. So tend to it.

On a more practical note, I have discovered that three old cats do not die if cooped up in a small car for four days and moved across America. They do just fine. Once again, I was amazed at their resilience and their tolerance, and their immense and unconditional trust in me! It was a once in a lifetime journey, and I am so glad we all did it as a family!

I have discovered how fast kids grow this year: one minute they are completely reliant on you, the parent, in diapers and non verbal, the next morning, they wake up speaking in sentences and asking for things by name, like “a red fire truck with a ladder” from Santa! My nephew also taught me how deeply sensitive, impressionable and kind small kids can be if exposed to love and affection – it’s all up to us whether they will be bullies or lovers!

Speaking of kids, I am also learning as we speak, that unborn babies have a mind of their own! They can call for birthing any time they feel like it – not knowing a thing about the mandatory 40 weeks! And the adults, and the doctors have to comply with their needs. They’ll show you who’s boss from early on. The tens of shelves in thousands of bookstores loaded with books about “What to expect when you’re expecting”, eat your hearts out!

I have learned this year that I am really not too old to change! All my life, I have secretly wished that I will never be too old to change … and this year was a great testimony to that: I am not too old to move to a state that should require a passport to just come visit; not too old for a new climate, new culture, even new speech! I am not too old to once again learn how to live with someone else in the house. Nor too old to make new friends and look for new connections. It’s refreshing to know that I still have the drive to go out there and find life and beauty and interest, even if sometimes I do have the reputation of a cynic.

I have been able to stay true to my personal goal, and keep moving this year. Life IS a trip, after all, is it not?! I have been so lucky to afford, both financially and physically, to see some gorgeous places this year – I have literally traveled “from sea to shining sea”, from North Carolina to California, through many places in between, and all the way to The Great Lakes, too. With every mile, I have reveled in the splendor of this land, and have returned home richer and more inspired to look for more beauty around me …

I am even grateful this year for the things that were not so fortunate. As I say, always, I am even grateful for the band aids: declining health, loss of money, loss of jobs, loss of friends – they were all part of this year’s mix! But each one of these was a lesson in patience, humility and optimism! You have to keep moving on. There is no reverse in the car of life! So, you “get tough or die” as Johnny would say.

I have learned this year who my friends are, for now. And that they can be as relative as the days of life themselves: they come and go … regardless of my actions. And that is fine. That is just the tide of life as it is. We change as people, so our relationships change. I am grateful for all my friends, from various stages of my life, and I wish all of them happiness in the new year, regardless of where in my universe they reside now.

I am also thankful to my blog readers. Their comments, and readership sometimes were the only connection I had to the “great, big world" out there, when I traveled across The States, or complained about the “new culture” I moved to, or about my craggy yard, or about unruly parents! For their presence and time, I thank them!

More than anything in the world, I am grateful today for my family – for my old and my new one, too! They are the force behind my smiles, and the energy under my feet in the morning! I am grateful for every second we all got to spend together this year, and I have been feeding off of the magic in those seconds year round! I know now, more than ever before, that no matter what life will throw my way, no matter how many changes, and pains and challenges, the lighthouse of my storms will always remain my family! And I am so happy to have that! The rest is just superfluous matter!

Happy New Year to all of you! Hopefully better, hopefully richer, hopefully healthier for all of us. But more importantly: make it full; make it matter, and enjoy it!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Talkin' 'Bout The Weather

My first full winter in Utah! Everyone warns me about it, so needless to say, I am nervous. Actually, the truth is, I have been spoiled by living in The South for 12 years! It’s amazing how your body forgets cold (or hot) and how you get cozy in more comfortable temperatures. I am also used to wearing winter clothes that are fashionable. Not practical. So, a handful of folks believe that I do not have what it takes for this winter at high altitude deal. And, yes, I have been nervous.

The weather’s been very strange so far, though … I know – there is no bigger platitude than that! Weather is always strange, right?! But it’s been like nothing I have expected or been warned against.

One minute, it feels like fall. The next, like The North Pole. We were in a whiteout around Thanksgiving, and I was worried we’ll have 6 months of actual white winter, like Canada. And then, it all melted, and everything became bright and sunny! For a while.

Yesterday, talking to a friend from out East, she reported 14F in Rocky Mount, VA. I was at 50F, in Spanish Fork, washing windows outside in a short sleeve shirt. And except for the peaks of the mountains, everything was dirty and muddy. No snow. Not a flake!

When I checked the forecast before bed last night, I saw some prediction of snow and rain, but didn’t take it seriously, since snow usually happens “in the mountains”, and down here we might get some rain drops. After all, we live at the border of mountain and desert, right?!

View from my back patio door

Well, this morning, I woke up to this! Ski resort Sundance reports 5 inches of accumulation, and usually they get more than us, in The Valley. But I swear, we got at least that!

Our lonely bird feeder, today

It’s beautiful out there! And this morning, while the roads were still tricky, it was quiet, too! I love winter mornings where you can hear a pin drop outside – cold, crisp, snow squeaking under boots. Just a big, white void. And I love looking at snow. I don’t like much driving into it, if I don’t have to, but looking at it and sipping my hot coffee – oh yeah …

Our driveway and the neighborhood

I am hoping the snow will stick around till next week, or we’ll get slightly more, and we’ll actually have it for Christmas. I love the warm Southern Christmases of the past, but there is something to be said for a white one, as well!

Front porch and beyond ...

As it turns out – winter is not that intimidating, so far, after all … Just temperamental!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

From Low to High

There is nothing more rewarding to us than going away for a short bit. Unplugging from the everyday and putting things into perspective. And the end of the year, the beginning of the Holiday Season, seems to be the perfect time to do it, really.

Our Thanksgiving week was framed by two great trips, one to the South, in the relatively low flats of Nevada, and one to the North of us, atop the peaks of the Wasatch Front. Two very different trips, in landscape, weather, and activities, but similar, too, in more ways than one.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, some friends of ours suggested we should go to Mesquite, NV (closer to us than Vegas) and try our luck at Bingo. Sounded like fun, but no one won anything. At least not in Bingo.

Mesquite, NV

Mesquite is nestled in the Virgin River Valley, almost right on the border with Arizona. It reminded me somewhat of Myrtle Beach, SC, without the beach of course: lots of palm trees, retirees and golf courses! Our friends almost exclusively played bingo or some other games during the weekend, but we took some time to visit some of the local landmarks: the local museum, the art gallery, The General Store and this beautiful arts and crafts store called Baja Imports.

It’s a small, tranquil, sleepy town, a strange mixture of “cheese” and picturesque. Everybody seems to know everyone’s name and if they don’t recognize you, they’ll ask who you are and what you are about. Although set along the Spanish Trail established in 1820’s, the town itself is relatively young (the very small museum of history was the hospital till 1974), with an establishment date of 1880.

The architecture is typical of what you imagine South Western, desert architecture to be: straight lines, not a lot of windows, very much in the adobe style. Pretty much the entire town is monochromatic: various shades of yellow- brown. The streets are quiet and the traffic is slow. It was nice to kick back and just slow down a little, taking in the sleepy streets and the vacation-like lifestyle that exudes from everyone in town.

The gambling crowd was somewhat of a rude awakening to me. No movie I have ever seen about gambling could have depicted the reality that I saw. People at the tables and mostly at the slot machines look like they are in a trance. Despite the millions of bright lights, the casinos are not luxurious and don’t look rich. OK, maybe this was a “lower class” casino compared to Vegas, but still: they reek of cigarette smoke (we SO take for granted the smoke free public places so common in so many states till we enter an establishment that is not abiding by those rules yet! Man, what a difference!!), they are noisy, dark (I know! With all the lights, still!) and people look like drug addicts, hooked on these machines.

They don’t look happy: paying no attention to what’s going on around them, smoking, barely eating, unhealthy looking and somewhat skinny, maybe with a drink in hand (alcohol is free “if you gamble”), eye bloodshot and pushing the button. Repeatedly. Obsessively. Hopelessly. Hopefully, I should say. It was quite a sad picture of humanity for sure.

There was a handful of folks who were there just for fun. In groups of friends, smiling, enjoying the drinks, the conversation, the cheap popcorn, having fun winning or losing. But the majority of the crowd was made up of gambling “veterans” that you kind of knew lost everything at least once in their lives, for the greed of the game. Those folks looked like lonely ghosts who had one relationship: it’s them and the machine. No friends. No bonding. Becoming machines themselves, maybe.

Between the Utah and the Nevada borders, there is a short distance that takes you on I-15 through Arizona. Back in the day, when America was just a dream for me, I have always wanted to see two states: Arizona and Montana. The apparent emptiness of one and the lush richness of the other fascinated me. The very little North Western corner that I have seen of Arizona on this trip was much like I imagined Arizona to be: arid, red, wide open and filled with cacti.

I love any type of cactus plants, but in Arizona they make up entire forests almost – free from the pots I usually have seen them in, they look like they tower over the open lands, owning it – alone, unperturbed and at home. The soil is either sandy or rocky and extremely barren. The cacti are fragile yet painfully thorny – you touch them with the most care and respect. It’s a beautiful live painting of desolation and solitude, which, at the same time, breathes life and mystery.

Just standing in the middle of the Virgin River Camping Grounds and feeling small in the midst of the tall rocky mountains was my favorite part of the trip; it also gave me once again the feeling that “I have arrived”. It’s a funny feeling seeing your dreams alive – you know you’ve made it, and yet you’re empty again, looking for the next goal to reach.

Virgin River Campgrounds, AZ - click on the picture to see the entire Mesquite album

Park City, UT

After a short week, where we stopped home for a bit of food and friendly gathering for Thanksgiving, we headed North to Park City, to spend the following weekend in The Stein Eriksen Lodge , a ski resort.

If Mesquite sits low, at an elevation of 1608 ft, The Lodge is perched up on many a slopes at 8200 ft above sea level. It was a quick and steep climb from the weekend before – my heart and brain (ears) definitely felt it!

Although the stay at The Lodge was scattered with various snags, results of miscommunication and poor judgment on the parts of some of the staff, the overall feel after the weekend was of a time well spent, in a high end establishment, with great décor, amazing food and friendly folks.

If you can afford it (ours was a gift), I would definitely recommend staying there, ski season or not! The resort was named after a famous Norwegian skier of the 50’s who later immigrated to the US and made Utah his home. Needless to say, the rates go up during skiing, which starts on December 1st. But skier or low key traveler, the stay here would be worth it in any season – you’ll get to enjoy the beautiful Utah landscape and many trails and bike routes, as well as the proximity to Park City and Deer Valley. And as in any “high class” resort nowadays, let’s not forget the spa and the wine cellar they have, as well.

They don’t skimp much on anything in here. Down comforters and pillows, expensive soaps and lotions in the bathroom, leather couches in lobbies and living rooms, tons of natural wood and stone, real wood fireplaces in every room, fully furnished condos (not just hotel rooms), experienced and innovative executive chefs make the stay in this hotel elegant and cozy.

The views from anywhere in the hotel are amazing – just endless amounts of mountains, with winding roads leading to the bottom of the valley, pine trees and rocky peaks.

After a short drive of about 10 minutes, you can be in Downtown Park City, close to anything and everything this beautiful mountain town has to offer: eating, shopping, art, strolling along historic Main Street. We had dinner at Squatters Brewery, a local favorite in this part of Utah (we usually go to the one in Salt Lake), brunch on Saturday at our old friend, The Eating Establishment, which is another famous, historic restaurant in The City, breakfast at Wasatch Bagel Café, which we discovered for the first time, quite by chance, just googling a place to have bagels in, and with which we fell in love, because the coffee is amazing, the portions are generous ,and the taste is even better!

And when you say “historic” in Utah … you will have to remember you’re measuring time by American history, not European. As an example: the oldest restaurant in Park City is The Red Banjo, and it was established in 1962. The Eating Establishment is the oldest “full service” restaurant, with a birthday of 1972.

On Saturday night, we dined at the The Glitretind Restaurant inside of our resort. It was part of our “weekend getaway package”. Just like in some of the restaurants of California, we once again felt like we were witnesses of higher culinary arts, not just of “food”. The presentation of all the dishes, and the combinations we had were something you’d not quite find at your local diner. We had a corn and shrimp soup with popped corn, a duck breast cooked to perfection, parsnip puree that was smooth and silky like a mousse, grilled shrimp on watermelon appetizers and the best caramel apple martini, too.
We ate things like “watermelon radish” and “hen of the woods mushrooms” which I am sure will not be as easy to come by as going into our local grocery store and pulling them out of a bin.

The slopes were not open yet, which made for the resort to be less busy, much to our enjoyment, as we typically hate crowds. We don’t ski, either, but even without winter sports, we enjoyed a beautiful and relaxing stay in a close to a magical place – the fires, the foods, the winter outside, the smell of wood made it all fairytale - like for us. We will definitely keep this place in mind for future anniversaries and special occasions.

Both of the weekends were a great way to kick off the (always busy) season to come. We learned a lot of new things about Western history, saw new landscapes, enjoyed new foods, had fun gambling and chatting with friends, we disconnected from the everyday and recharged for what it is to come.

As my dad always says: always make time to celebrate and savor life, and not just work-routine-work all the time. With the help of friends and family, to whom we say a big “thank you”, I like to think we did just that.

View from our balcony, at Stein Eriksen Lodge - Park City, UT
Click on the picture for the entire album

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Letting Go. A Pep Talk

In typical Aries manner, I always, and I mean always, jump head first in the river without realizing that I can’t actually swim. All of a sudden, I find myself in the deep midst of it, and then I go: “Oh, s^it! Now what?!” …

That’s pretty much how moving to The States felt like. And that’s pretty much how moving across America, 12 years later feels like, too. Moral of this story is: I never learn.

I moved to UT in May of this year to follow my heart. Just like moving to The States a while back, I have zero regrets. Usually, I try not to have any regrets about anything. A dear friend of mine says regrets are for weak folks, and an Aries will never admit weakness. I say that everything is a lesson and everything an adventure, so I have enjoyed thoroughly the good and the bad of the last few months …

But when I jumped in that car to come to The West, I had no second thoughts about what I left behind. With eyes wide open and perpetual curiosity, I was just happy about the unknown ahead. The places and people I was leaving behind – I was just happy to carry them in my heart and I figured we would always be close, as true friends are. I never expected I’d be missing them, or worse that I might never hear again from most. After all, we were so tight. So close. So … present … Nothing would change, other than we might not see each other, but we’d write. And talk. And of course, Facebook, too. But as life would have it – sometimes, one is wrong.

Every day a small jab of missing-ness shows up in my ribs just as a painful reminder that the world is too fast and too busy for living in the past. A small jab to remind me that things are what they are and will never be the same as they were 2000 miles away from here.

It’s tough to realize that what the day to day life used to be like in North Carolina can no longer be. I had friends there, and groups I associated with. A social life, and a “personal” life, if you will, that are missing here, because the people and circles that made that life possible are missing now.

I know – this is just common sense, and I should not take a couple of hours of my life to write about something so trivial. But truth is: you always hope that life and relationships matter more than they end up mattering. After all, you put time, and soul in every one. At least I do. Plus, I have some Romanian left in me, and things, and people and memories attach to me, like algae to rocks, staining them.

With every day that passes when I don’t hear from people I loved there, the jab in the ribs is more and more painful, it seems. Am I that easily forgotten? Are they that busy that they cannot email me at least once a month to check on things? Are 12 years of friendship that volatile to them? I did write to them first … but the wait of a response for days and sometimes weeks became too much to bear. So … now, I wait … Disappointment …

And then, there is the house that I left behind. A house that I loved, and that now feels like a huge burden. Every day that passes where I don’t get a call from the realtor that I might have had an offer of purchase, I feel the jab in the ribs hurting a little more … I feel like one more day on the market means one more day of neglecting the house. Bigger assuredness of having to jump on that plane waiting for me in Salt Lake with destination Greensboro to go check on it. One more drag in the past … One more worry … Guilt …

But this past week, when I decided to go out here and seek out new groups and new people and new opportunities, it dawned on me. There is a whole new life here, too, that I am missing out on. With every person I meet that has at least one thing in common with me, I feel a little bit less lonely. With every single loving thing that my husband does, I feel a bit less alone. With every single thing I find here, too (a favorite store, a favorite food, fried pickles on a menu, or a bag of Munchos in the grocery aisle), I feel a little bit more home.

As for those I left behind, people have lives too. Lives that don’t include me anymore, and that’s not their fault. I chose to leave. They didn’t kick me out. If all I will be is a memory to them, I am fine with that. I hope I would be a pleasant one. As with anything: I have control only over how I treat them, not the other way around. And I will always be here for whomever needs me … Should that ever happen … The house will do as houses usually do: it will sell, or rent, in its own allotted time … That is not for me to decide. Only for me to accept.

But I do have control over what’s around me now, and what will be a new memory tomorrow: there is a whole new world out here, in the mountains. There are fun people, and beautiful days to be filled. There are mountains to be climbed and birds to feed. Gardens to plant, movies to go to and groups to join, here. And now.

The past is called that for a reason. A door closed and I need to be aware of it, keep it closed and just welcome flashbacks from the past as they happen, if they happen. And most times, we just need to live with the volatility and futility of it all. Even if that all is ourselves. It's just life and the nature of humanity - passing.

In one of my more recently read books, one of my favorite authors says that when we move on in life, it feels just like someone pushed us off a bridge into a fast moving stream. Our first impulse is to grab on to the grass and twigs and branches along the banks of the river and hang on tight, because the stream is such foreign territory to us, used to the stability and familiarity and peace of the banks. But with time, the river wins. And we start letting go of the blades of grass and the twigs, little by little, until we hold on to nothing anymore and we start moving along, learning to swim in the new environment, and learning to let go and trust the new medium to take us to yet another safe shore … Every day, our fingers let go of one more blade of grass, until we have none left and the old shore is nothing but distant, and nothing but a memory.

I am still letting go of the last few twigs. The last one will be the house, for sure … but until then, I am practicing this swimming deal. And learning how it goes. After all, I jumped. And it’s either learning to swim or drowning. And the last thing an Aries wants is to accept defeat!

Sunday, November 07, 2010


Sometimes the roads less traveled go straight through your own town. That’s what we ended up finding out this weekend, for lack of a better occupation. We walked those roads and found out where they took us.

Trying to enjoy the last bit of a finicky Indian Summer, we decided to take Saturday off from house chores and what-not’s and just stroll about the small (that is an understatement!) downtown of our presently hosting town of Spanish Fork, as well as through Springville, the next town over. The luxury of living in a small burgh is that it only takes a few minutes to cover the downtown walk. So that leaves you plenty of time in the day to visit the next small city (glorified name alert!).

Aside from the weather being just spotless beauty that day, the thorough enjoyment of the adventure also came from unexpected findings like shops with treasures, unique local art, history, old times charm and lots of just plain local beauty.

We got lost in an antique store and then in a local gift and sweets store, and we had lunch at an unusual joint, that advertises “Chinese and American” fare on their sign. We took in the specific of these parts, which speaks so much of what the West stands for, and which are built mainly on family values (read: “kids”) and the Mormon Faith and traditions.

I’ll let the pictures we took speak for themselves about the local flair of what it means to live in a smaller than small Utah County (a.k.a. “The Most Mormon County in Utah”) town. I hope you find them telling.

Enjoy the journey! (just click on any of the pictures to see them larger)

We found out at the Spanish Fork Library that the first white man expedition around here was not Mormon, indeed, but Franciscan/ Spanish. There is a monument erected to celebrate this expedition on the Library's front lawn.

This time capsule also at the Spanish Fork Library marks my first ever encounter with such a landmark. I was trying to figure out if I will be alive when it's set to be opened. Probably not!

The downtowns of both Spanish Fork and Springville look very much like your typical Western town: lots of connected one story businesses, in a row, across the street from each other. But a zebra on the roof?! Now, that's different. And I have no idea what business that is, and why a zebra! No, zebras don't live in the Rockies, for those who are wondering ...
- Spanish Fork

Strangeness of Spanish Fork: directions on how to cross a road WITH a flag and major fire hazard. I knew these folks are way crazy about Christmas decorations, but seriously, this does not look safe. And what in the world is "normal caution" anyway?! Hhmm ...

Both Spanish Fork and Springville have family owned drug stores in their downtowns. We always wonder how in the world they stay in business with Walgreens just at the next corner, but ... selling dolls is evidently how - in this family oriented town, those are on high demand, I am sure! - Spanish Fork

And speaking of Walgreens: we spotted this shirtless gentleman in the parking lot of Walgreens, just standing there. No, he was not homeless, by all appearances, he had just hung up his cell phone as I was taking the picture. And was just waiting there... Small town indeed. - Springville

I absolutely loved this store in Springville! It is a gift and sweets store, and everything else you might want to sell, with a local flavor - homemade crafts, "inspirational" gifts and such.
We witnessed a conversation of folks putting in their order for homemade breads for Thanksgiving with the owner, and it was just like coming home again. Nothing beats the personalized, individual attention your small town "mom and pop" store gives you! The name of the store is ShayBee's and it's lovely! The way they preserved the original outside walls where they probably built on an addition was interesting, as well.

There was a memorial square of some sort commemorating settlers, or so it seemed, in Spanish Fork. This particular plaque caught my eye: He was a homebuilder and she was a homemaker and they were both successful. Career women, eat your hearts out! Only home, I noticed that her name was "Margaret Mitchell", one of my most treasured American writers to date ...

Downtown Spanish Fork, the old and the new collide: I am browsing a 1905 edition of the book "One Hundred Years of Mormonism" on the patio of our very own, local, family owned coffee shop. Yes, coffee in Utah County - with a sassy sign, nonetheless.

Eating establishments: "T-Bone Restaurant" in the first picture - one online review described it as " a total dive, but the food is good", and they were not far off! Second picture: the beautiful stained glass windows at Magleby's, another restaurant staple - both in Springville.

Springville, or "The Art City", is literally littered with metal and marble and ... whatever else material you can think of sculptures. Please visit the whole album for a broad depiction of these unique works. You will notice that most of these sculptures are of kids.

My favorite sculpture of all was of course Mark Twain, in front of the old Public Library (1922) in Springville, now a museum. So cozy ...

And because these establishments are filled with little ones more often than not, there were warnings on some of the metal sculptures which made us chuckle.

These markers were all over Springville. They spoke to me, as a live testament of the Old West and its Pioneers. Just like an old coin, branded in everlasting metal, they bore the mark of time, history, hope and faith. It was moving. It's not just brick and mortar of old walls a town is not. It's lives, and people who built it, and their story and perseverance that gave us what we have today.

Springville: I just loved some of its architecture.

Fall in Springville.

Visit the album of this trip to see more. And remember: the next revelation of the year, or of your life can be hidden down that road you never ventured on because it was marked "one way". Park the car and wander about.

Treasures abound right under our noses. And if writers bear any truth, "you might wake up spiritually as easily in Utah as in Sri Lanka" (Anne Lamott), so you never have to travel that far ...

Friday, October 22, 2010

Feed Them (Pretty Much Anything …) and They Will (Still) Come

You know what we all should be in the business of selling in order to get rich? Even in this crappy economy?! We should ALL sell fast food! All of us! It seems to me that no matter how bad the publicity of all the fast foods is, no matter how scandalous the lawsuits, how many bypass surgeries they have to pay for, no matter how bad the food is, fake, plastic, greasy, poisonous, deadly, no matter how many times they screw up your order … we all keep going back!

We keep them all in (very successful, bazillion dollar making) business. Did you notice how McDonald’s stopped counting?! They now don’t tell us exactly how many millions of burgers they sold, they just say “millions served”. I guess Seinfeld’s wish has been fulfilled after all …

It’s the biggest mystery yet, to me. We all complain about bad service pretty much anywhere, even WalMart - although, like I said before, you just set yourself up for failure if you walk in there expecting good service. But we don’t ever promise to never go back to say … McDonald’s. Even if they give us the wrong drink, no ranch, no plastic ware for the salad, bacon when we want sausage, even when people find human thumbs in the chili (sorry, that was Wendy’s) or bugs in the tacos (T. Bell) – we go back … Always …

So, here’s my most recent experience at the now (unfortunately) legendary establishment.
There is this “ritual” in my new office – every Friday, my “team” goes somewhere fast for breakfast. Most usually, they go to McDonald’s because it’s faster, closest (of course, they’re on every corner in America, you knew that!), bla bla bla …

I seldom eat any fast food. Unless I am on the road to somewhere and I am in a rush, I never visit them. But, I am new in the office, didn’t want to be antisocial, so, I go along for the ride. I usually get just a plain biscuit and a cup of coffee. I figured, it’s the least poisonous stuff in the freezer, right?! I never liked fast food much, but since Morgan Spurlock’s documentary , I am even more consciously avoiding them. So, anyway, back to my sheep: they go to McDonald’s every Friday … I (most) times join them.

Today, I didn’t have much of a breakfast at home, so I figured, I can get something on my biscuit. And I decide I don’t like sausage, nor bacon (not today, anyway), nor steak, there is no chicken option, nor ham, so I’ll get just a cheese and egg biscuit – but that is very dangerous, because there is no such thing on the menu. So, it’s a custom order. I am nervous, but … here it goes:

Me: "An egg and cheese biscuit and a regular small coffee" (there is no “button” for my order, you see).
Teenage chick, who looked new and lost, in a foreign accent: "Hhmm... you want an egg biscuit?"
Me: " Egg and cheese, please"...
Her: "Oh, ok." She punches something in the register ... and repeats just to make sure she got it right: "OK. An egg biscuit." - looks all happy of herself. " And a coffee??"
I give up and say: "Yep. Egg biscuit and a coffee."

I was secretly happy she kept missing the cheese, since I really don't need it anyway ...

She puts it in the system. The lady from the back comes with the order in the bag. The cashier confirms with her she got an EGG biscuit, not anything else ...

I am all happy ... We drive back to the office, I sit down and open the sandwich. And surprise-surprise: I got not only egg AND … cheese on my biscuit, but sausage, as well. Although the word “sausage” never once was spoken.

Apparently, whoever Subway is using for their egg provider is in business with McDonald’s, too, because the eggs are square, and they taste like cardboard. That is not a metaphor, mind you … they really, do taste like you just licked the back of your pizza box! Really. Honestly!

So, I peeled off the sausage AND egg AND cheese off the bread, and ate my usual plain biscuit. Now, I am kicking myself for paying $3.00 for all that, when I should have just started with a plain biscuit (they didn't screw that one up yet ... ) and paid $1!

I am contemplating this office Friday "ritual". Should I risk being unpopular and a stick in the mud and just not join my co-workers?! Too soon to decide that, I think, but I can definitely not be on the McDonald’s Friday diet, for reasons so many the entire infinite web space is not roomy enough to host! So, I’ll refrain from listing … “Sigh”.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Time and Times Are Slipping …

Nothing is new, and yet every year it all feels freshly different …

Cats are hovering over warm vents in the house and get fatter… The furnace kicks in at night … We grab jackets from the coat closet on our way to work … We turn blue on our daily walks…We remember we have a closet just for coats …

I walk into Hallmark just to smell the “harvest” candles … Pumpkin pie … Apple and cinnamon … Autumn wreath … I dream of fires! Grapes are sweetest … Another year – another new wine …

Dogs get spunky and thicken their coat … They eat more … Cats snooze more, if that’s ever possible …

God-awful, cheesy Halloween décor shows up on lawns … And pumpkins … Christmas trees are in the store front at Lowes … *sigh* …

We’re craving and cooking the “warm and cozy” foods … Mashed potatoes … Mac and cheese casserole … We roast a whole chicken in want of Thanksgiving … We’re baking more bread and feasting on its warmness … We’ve retired the salads …

The smell of freshly chopped wood floods the morning drive through the neighborhood … Piles of wood greet us at the stores …

People at the office exchange recipes for squash dishes and pumpkin soups … It’s “orange food” season … Kids go apple picking and drown in cider ...

We go shopping for new books and reach for a blanket … Make the book thick. Make the blanket soft …

Autumn rugs are lying on earth once again … yellow and red and brown and purple … It’s raining more… It’s dark longer … The sun has lost its bite …The rocky peaks jumped the gun into snow already …

Things are slowing down and quieting down to get ready for “the big sleep” … All things but the wind. The wind is howling in the dark void of leafless valleys …

It’s fall and we’re going with it …

Oct. 5, 2010 - first hint of snow, outside my kitchen window.
Please click on picture for more fall pictures along the Alpine Loop, in Uinta National Forest

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Cranky Saturday

The Life is good saying of the day is timely and fitting: “nothing is happy proof”.
But I wonder sometimes, after a day like today, if that’s really the case … Hmm… still debating. But let’s see what happened today to make me doubt this!

We were looking forward to this weekend, because we both had crazy weeks. So, we set off to a fun day, we thought, of harvesting and shopping and eating out and just being together. And the day turned out a bit stressful, to say the least!

We stopped by Sundance , where the Harvest Market was going on. They advertised on the site that there will be a local wine and beer tasting at this market, so I was hoping that kids would be scarce, since you know, alcohol is still the devil in Utah and such a bad example to youngsters, thank God!

Well, I was wrong. The whole place was flooded with them!

When we reached the upper parking lot (which seemed like a mile away from the actual market!), we almost ran over five or six of them, because they were roaming free, with no adult supervision, all over the overly full and rapidly filling parking lot! My husband stopped maybe half of a foot of a three year old girl, not even seeing her, because of her shortness, before she looked all surprised that she was that close to a car. The mother was smiling at the sky, and adjusting her purse strap somewhere not nearby enough …

When we reached “the market” there were no written signs of where and what was going on. We saw food being cooked, we saw people with wrist bands, but we had no idea where or how to get either … We roamed about, looked at crafts and found out the workings of the place, only after we asked a person with a name tag.

And we found out pretty soon that the name “harvest market” was loosely used: there was no “harvest” related merchandise or décor there – the only “harvest”- like tent (only ONE!) had tomatoes and peaches in it. No pumpkins, no gourds, no corn, no hay, no wreaths! NO harvest!

When it was time to get food, both the chicken and the burgers were not done yet. Sure, the barbecue and the hotdogs were, but that’s not what we wanted! So, we had to wait “for a minute” (that is a relative term in customer service!!) for the coals to be added to the grill, and for the food to cook while we were baking in the heat and listening to our waiting partner, an older man, who seemed to be following us around.

When we were done barbecuing … we went to check out the wine and beer tasting in The Owl Bar. OK! We arrive at the bar and there are again no signs about any wine tasting, nor people with samples of anything liquid. There were people sipping real drinks and ordering food, but … no signs. Again, we ask. I guess they offer it, but it’s not very visible, because, again: alcohol equals devil! But it’s a BAR!!!! So, we ask! They have two beers and one wine to taste. $2 for EACH of the beverages! They were advertising it as “local wines and beers”, and they had some Michelob Wheat and some other Michelob beer and also a Parducci white “sustainable” wine from … California! “Local” - my toes!!

We do taste some “sustainable” wine, and then, off we go … After a neat stop at Cabela’s, where we looked at dead creatures and shopped for camping gear – fun, fun!

And then we went shopping at the mall. We got hungry, so we went to Winger’s, which, according to Aa. “have everything”. And they do. So, we sat down, we looked at the menu – I knew I wanted a beer, a glass of cold water, a bowl of soup and some chicken wings! Well … hhmm … sat down we did, and we waited! For minutes on end. And no one showed up to even acknowledge we were there … So, off we went, after about 15 minutes of being ignored … Hungry and pi…ed, but definitely not in the British sense of the word!

I suggested to go to the Winger’s in Spanish Fork, closer to home, since we already knew what we wanted and we could skip the whole “looking at the menu” part. And so we did. Only to find out that the Spanish Fork Wingers … doesn’t serve alcohol! Smaller town, no liquor license, I suppose. Oy!

But we got great service in Spanish Fork, although they were much busier than the Provo mall folks! With stomachs full and still craving beer, we headed home next, only to almost hit another little girl in the parking lot, while leaving Winger’s! Our hearts jumped again: the girl was about 3 with no adults watching her !! I swear I could kill parents most days!

We decided we should stay in tomorrow! Too hazardous out there! And I have not said a thing about the crazy traffic we have been through all day, people with no direction, no signals, no common sense, breaking, cutting off … being stupid!!

But even on such a day, we come home, where it’s peaceful and quiet (for the most part) and we get to just enjoy each other, and the blessings of being alert enough not to kill two kids today! And that, my friends, is happiness!

Life is, indeed, good.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

We Didn’t Get Killed, After All

A different camping experience, indeed.

I remember, the first time I came to the Rockies (January of 2000), I promised myself that one day, I would come back in the summer, to camp and hike here. And here I am living here, and camping in The Rockies for the first time.

As always, camping is everything I ever want it to be: disconnecting, refreshing, re-plugging, invigorating, wandering and wondering, all at the same time. Nature never disappoints! Humans, on the other hand …

The campground we wandered to this time is only maybe 15 minutes away from our house: Whiting Campground, in Mapleton, UT. It’s so nice to live in the middle of this beauty and to have it all available at your backdoor. Pretty much literally.

The venturing out was not empty of adventure. We managed to dent our driver’s door when my husband backed the truck into a tree; he lost his watch, and both of us were attacked by flies and bees, and both of us got stung by yellow jackets. We also found out that adults can be a pain in the neck, so much more so than kids!

All weekend, the adults were the ones guilty of all the noise! They were laughing too loud, driving too loud, at all hours of the day and night, revving up the engines on motor bikes, riding horses on sidewalks until wee hours of the night, driving trash trucks, or maybe horse trailers at midnight on a Saturday through the middle of the campground, making a huge fire and partying ‘til 2 AM on a Saturday, only to return to town the same night.

We have found out that one downside of the campground being that close to town is that young people (I know! They’re the ones guilty of living it up, aren’t they?!) stop by for a fire and a hotdog, and a joint, any time of the day, or night, and then drive away. Unlike out East, this campground didn’t seem to have a gate that closes at dusk, so drifters were pretty much coming in and out as they pleased, all day and night long.

Despite these small distractions, we did manage to do everything we planned to do to disconnect and recharge our batteries: we slept in, we made fires of our own ‘til we started smelling like bacon, we hiked, we watched the moon and stars in the night sky, we read, we snoozed in on a lazy afternoon in the shade, we ate beans and dogs, like true cowboys, we made grilled dough, or “brown bears” on the open fire, like camping friends have taught me out East.

We saw hardly any wildlife at all, for some reason! They were probably hiding from the human noise! That didn’t tame down my paranoid fear of bears, however! I lived with that fear the entire 36 hours of living there!

We found out that the hot Utah summer left the river bank dry, so there was no babbling brook there. But the mountain air alone and the fresh, rusty colors of fall were enough of a backdrop for a wonderful getaway.

With all the other mishaps, of sorts, we did have a successful trip – one that is begging us back soon. After all, we didn’t get killed by the bears I was afraid of, we did not break any bones in the very steep hike we took, we didn’t get slashed into pieces by the hooligans that were having a bonfire and a wild gathering in the middle of the night, a couple of sites down from us, either. We survived it all and lived to tell the tale.

So, maybe we’ll raise the danger level next time and go off the beaten path a bit and just be one with nature alone - no campgrounds, just wilderness. Away from humans and all their array of noises… We’ll see.

It was a great trip. As the pictures can always tell.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Sip of This, a Bite of That ...

A journey through Northern California

California has haunted me for most of my life. I have always wanted to go see it, but I guess I share that dream with a lot of folks.

Growing up, all I knew about America was California and Dallas. OK, MAYBE The Statue of Liberty, but it was not till probably in first or second grade that I knew that was in New York. Everything, to me, was in California. California and America were perfect synonyms. What?! They are not one and the same country?! Well, as I have discovered in this last trip – they are very much not the same country. Most times, anyway.

We started off on a Saturday, on a road trip towards the Western state. On I-80 West of Salt Lake City things are flat. And salty. The Salt Flats fit their name to a tee. Yes, I did have to jump out of the car and taste the soil, just to make sure all that whiteness is salt. It is. The huge mountains of salt being harvested from basins on the side of the roads testify to that also.

Onward through Nevada we had again that Dorothy-like, deserted feeling we experienced in Kansas this year: lost. Just vast lands, big sky and nothing much more than dust. One would tell you that there are only two colors, yellow and blue, for the sand and the sky, but there are so many shades of those colors your eyes hurt! I guess if Eskimos have 100 words for “white” (or is it “snow”?!), Nevadans should have 100 words for “yellow”. In Nevada, because of wide spaces and infinite horizons, you get to see the beauty in the simplicity of the desert. The vegetation is scarce, but the land is vast and overwhelmingly present.

Once you cross the border in California, you literally feel like you are in a different country. People drive faster, traffic thickens and roads are horribly, horribly worse than anywhere else I have ever been. The landscape is different, too: lots of pine trees and junipers are now adorning the sides of the rocky mountains everywhere. Whereas in Nevada the dimension is horizontal, in Northern California you flip your vision by 90 degrees to vertical: there is only one way the eye can look, and that is up, from the winding, narrow valleys of the highways and you see the blue skies. Everything is close up and personal there!

We planned to make Napa Valley our main base for the short stay, and travel around it, for wine, food, sightseeing and photo opportunities, and of course people watching. I guess I can safely say we accomplished all that. We spent a couple of days winery touring, one day in San Francisco and on our way home, we stopped in South Lake Tahoe (for some WEIRD reason my tongue continues to call it “Lake Taco”) for lunch and lots of photos. It was a beautiful journey, one that I hope I can make another day, a little less rushed, and a little bit longer, so I can see all the beautiful adjacent places to these spots we saw this time.

A few travel notes for next time and for those interested in following in our footsteps.

Food in Napa and around is amazing. Yes, we did spend a bit more for food, because this was a special occasion for us, but even when we didn’t, when we stopped at a hole-in-the-wall kind of place, food tasted delicious. We had lunch at Armadillo's, in St. Helena, a Fresh Mexican food place, and it was like nothing I have ever tasted before! All the ingredients tasted like what they were not like melted cheese under a broiler.

The resorts do a fantastic job of cooking everything gourmet and everything familiar with a gourmet twist. Some of my favorite finds were the cold corn and lime soup at Solbar at the Solage Resort in Calistoga, as well as the herb French fries at Siena, the restaurant at Meritage, in Napa, our home for the trip. Now, two words of caution here: Solbar changes their menu daily, so the soup might be a one day event there, but everything they do is out of this world, so, you're in luck anyway. Siena (our “own” restaurant) has absolutely horrible service for dinners, from what we have experienced. Morning service was OK, but dinners – not so much. Unless you planned to spend at least two and a half hours for dinner and 30 minutes waiting for someone to show up to take your order, I would not recommend Siena. All I could figure was: well, they have you there! You stay there, you come in for dinner because you probably are too tired (or too tipsy) to drive anywhere else, they can make you wait forever – where else would you go?! Definitely below par from what you expect from a highly rated resort.

I WILL have to say one word (OK, maybe several!) about Morimoto Napa Restaurant. For those of you who watch Iron Chef America, you know who Masaharu Morimoto is: he’s this Japanese “iron chef”, one of the original “iron chefs” from the original Japanese show by the same name. You will see him cook on the American version of the show, and as one of our friends put it “he is the one who is always perfect”.

He has a restaurant he owns in Napa . I am not too sure how this whole thing works, whether he comes up with the menu, or ever cooks it, or supervises the chefs through video conference from New York, or even has anything to do with anything in there at all other than putting his name on the place and grabbing a check every month. Not sure how much of Morimoto is involved in the food is what I am saying. But the foods on the menu are pretty close to the tradition he’s cooking in: Japanese, lots of fish, fresh ingredients, original pairings of flavors.

The dinner we had there was definitely an experience of a lifetime! We looked around and no two plates looked alike! Every food had its own kind of plate or bowl, various colors to complement the foods, and various shapes. I had a crème brulee that had blueberries and Earl Grey tea in it, and lemongrass ice cream on top. Now, lemongrass is something you eat in your fried rice dishes, or your glass noodle Thai soup, as a veggie … The whole thing was exploding with flavors and just melting in my mouth. And I hate desserts, mind you! But this was not a dessert. It was a journey.

I had to have some sushi, as Morimoto describes himself as a sushi chef, primarily. I had flying fish roe and then king crab sushi – fresh, sea-like and simple! My fried rice and yellow tail came in this 400F Dutch oven kind of bowl – everything in the bowl was uncooked, except for the rice – the waitress cooked everything in front of me by mixing everything together and allowing every bite to touch the hot walls of the bowl– it was sooo fresh when I tasted it! There were ingredients in there I never had in fried rice before: mushrooms, nori, spinach all “fried” in sesame oil. Again, the rainbow of flavors was amazing: the salty fish with the woodsy mushrooms and the green spinach, the sweet sesame oil and again salty, sort of pickled nori – your mouth didn’t know where to go to describe it all!

My husband had a ginger and peach “martini” that was pretty boozy and surprisingly tasty, for ginger, in my opinion. He also had miso soup and pork chops with kimchi and ginger – in he Japanese tradition of perfect balance, they balance heavier meats (pork) with a smaller, leaner side (kimchi). In an American restaurant, you’d get pork chops AND potatoes AND fried onions on top! His dessert was tofu cheesecake with maple and coffee reduction sauce and maple ice cream. The cheesecake was like chewing on air – so light!

We didn’t have any bad service to speak of at Morimoto’s – the place runs like a scientific experiment – we were waited on by several people and we were showered with attention, although the place was incredibly full! The décor is something else too, but I don’t want to take too much longer here, so, just, please … visit the pictures .

The wine, of course, is plenty in Napa. And that is all I am going to say in the adjective department. Wine, much like any taste derivative, is a personal choice. And my mom always said don’t ever argue about taste! And I won’t. Some wine was good and some was not so good. To us. Some of the wineries we visited were: Domaine Carneros (my first “sparkling wine” winery), Artesa, Folie a Deux and Napa Cellars, Sutter Home, Freemark Abbey, V. Sattui, Joseph Phelps.

I have read a lot before I headed out there, but unfortunately not before we booked the trip: they tell you that Sonoma is a white and sweet wine place (more South, longer summers), and Napa is a red wine place, and a dry wine region – for the most part. Of course, there are various things to be found in both. But yes, they are right: Napa is predominantly “red”. We are mostly sweet white wine drinkers. OK, we’ll give a Riesling and a Pinot Grigio a try once in a while, but we like our “Kool-Aid” on the lines of Muscats and Ottonels . Sutter Homes and V. Sattui had the sweetest Muscat wines, the most perfumy ever! And thus we tasted the difference between Moscato, which is what you can typically find in any grocery store in America (well, except Utah, of course), and Muscat, which is what I grew up with, back home: fuller body, in the sugary content. All grapes, sun and deliciousness!

At Joseph Phelps we had a beautiful surprise because their grounds were by far the most serene and spectacular: just simple, quiet beauty. We were there on Harvest Day, September 7, and they were all looking forward to a wonderful new season, as these folks really get into their trade. The winery is by far the most upscale, and most "technical" of all of the ones we saw - not for the pleasure drinker, for sure: they talk about their wines in “points” and percentage of wines that make a blend. And they offer private tastings with a wine specialist in this beautiful, all wood tasting room. Definitely “up a notch”.

They are off the beaten path of the Hwy 29, but so worth the short trip. Whereas all the wines were anywhere between $5 and $25 at all the other wineries, Phelps’s bottles started at $45 and stopped at $225. They make mainly Bordeaux style wines, Merlots, and Cabs, very “full body” some say … but to us, they are “full of chalk”. And yes, I said that to them, and of course they stopped paying attention to me.

I personally don’t believe in the absolute in wine! There is no such thing as an absolutely great wine. I think it is such a subjective matter of palate and taste that you cannot tell me a full body Cab is the best wine ever produced and a fully aromatic Muscat or a perfectly balanced and smooth Pinot Gris is junk! Because what makes a wine great, after all, if not the taster?! I believe strongly that wine, just like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Phelps also reminded me that price has nothing to do with what you like, either. If it brings you pleasure and you only spend $.50 on it, more power to you, I say! A $225 bottle tasted worse, to me, than any $5 bottle of Muscat I ever bought.
Beautiful place, though. Definitely worth the trip, for the grounds, the trellis work and the largest wisteria in the world hanging off of it. Just don’t mention their wine is chalky if you want to make friends!

I think the funniest memory I’ll have from the wine journey will be the fact that when sales people were asking us where we’re from at the wineries, and we said Utah, they would make this very sad face and add “Oh, I am SO sorry!” – because they knew about our silly alcohol rules up here. But I will have to say, we got out of being upsold on memberships and “wine clubs” by telling them “hey, we’re from Utah, you can’t ship alcohol there”. And they can’t. And they were bummed. And we weren’t. Although the Muscat from Sutter Home would make my day every time it would arrive in the mail! For sure.

And speaking of Sutter Home – they also have beautiful grounds, although on Hwy 29, smack dab in the middle of traffic! They have the most gorgeous gardens. And that’s the thing about California: the vegetation is amazing! You get thousands and thousands of acres of vineyards, of course, but then you get olive orchards, and orange trees and lime trees and bushes, and lemon trees, and pomegranates, and palm trees and cactuses, and … pine trees …and what NOT?! It’s beautiful, and diverse, and lush green and fresh! The roads leave a lot to be desired, for sure, but what a delight for the eyes the hills are!

Till you get to San Francisco that is! Well, maybe I am once again biased here! You see, I am not a big city girl! I am one of those people who’ll tell you that NYC is “great to visit but not to live in”. Same thing in San Francisco! Man, what a zoo! And yes, surely: part of the zoo was the fact that we drove into it on Labor Day (Monday) and the place was abuzz with tourists, but part of it is just San Francisco: traffic, and more traffic, and pushy merchants, and crazy hills to drive on, and no parking and … metropolitan jungle at its worst! And I said nothing about the tourists everywhere – because the only other place I ever saw that many tourists, their bikes, go carts, kids, strollers, dogs and funky fashion styles was in New Orleans. Very colorful!

We had lunch at Lolli’s Castagnola’s in the Fisherman’s Wharf, and we had the world’s weirdest waitress serving us. We were perfectly sober, but we could not tell whether she (“Jennifer”) was a man or a woman, nor whether she was sober, drunk or high … She was something else … She started by saying she will make us “the world’s best Long Island Ice Tea”, as she is a world renowned, award winning bartender first, and a waitress next. And everything after that was “the best”, “the mostest” that we ever had, according to her … She had to “flirt with the chef for extra shrimps on my sandwich” and that alone almost killed my appetite. The seafood we had was definitely fresh, but not spectacularly cooked. The Long Island Ice Tea, however, was apparently amazing, according to my husband who did take her up on the offer.

We took a boat tour of the San Francisco Bay, and floated by The Golden Gate and Alcatraz Island, and just peeked, away in the distance, at the San Francisco – Oakland Bridge. I always love bay cruises, because they put things into perspective for you. I do enjoy riding through a city (or walking it, like we did a bit, too) to get a feel of what that city is, but I love seeing it from afar, too. After all, when you see postcards from New York, San Francisco, Chicago, etc – it’s always some skyline shot from some body of water, isn’t it?! So, seeing it in real life for yourself kind of gives you the feeling of “Wow! I have made it there!”.

The bay tour was great, I thought. Gave us perspective and a nice, relaxing way to look AT the city. And they don’t call it “the Fog City” for nothing! It IS foggy! All our pictures can tell you that! We didn’t visit Alcatraz, but I was shocked by the amount of decay we could see from the boat. I visited Ellis Island, and I was moved at how everything looked like it must have been many years ago, when it was a working island. I don’t know the history of Alcatraz that well, so I am not sure why it could not be preserved, but … it felt very depressing, and not just because of the fact that it’s a prison island. It felt like staring into a skeleton.

On our last day, we drove back home through Lake Tahoe. And what a beautiful trip back home that was! The Tahoe area is gorgeous. I am not sure how else to put it – but it’s just one of those places you just NEED to go to before you die! It’s beautiful mountain landscape at its best – breathtaking, raw and wild. Between the simple and tall beauty of the pine trees and redwoods, and the bareness of the rocks and the clear of the lake, you don’t know where to look for simple amazement!

The California part is nice and landscape - coordinated, all log cabins and stonework. No building almost violates the beauty of the land. You cross over into Lake Tahoe-Nevada, though, and as my husband said “you get lots of cheese in a hurry” – casino signs and billboards out of this world!

Nevertheless, the beauty of the mountains and the lake endures, and no human cheese can really temper that!

We had lunch at an Irish Pub and just drove along the shore of the lake for pictures. We stopped in the canyons for more photo opps, of course! It was like an extra breath of fresh air (in more ways, literal and not) before our long and relatively boring drive through Nevada, back home. But as any traveler will tell you: any corner of the world reserves a surprise, and we were lucky enough to once again be speechless when we almost found the “pot of gold” in the desert . Must have been that Irish blessing we got at the pub in Tahoe.

We loved our trip, and if we were to do it again, we would do it in a heart beat! We would like to go back to Tahoe right away, just for a longer weekend, or so … California was naturally gorgeous, but humanly weird, I guess. People are not friendly. They are always in a rush, and always want to sell something. Whatever it is about Napa, they’re trying to sell you on two things: wine and spas! And they’re really pushy! The roads are horrible and in a state with toll roads and 9% taxes I am not sure why they can’t fix them … The overpopulation feeling definitely kicks in in California. I come from North Carolina which does seem more crowded than Utah, but California is like Time Square at the size of a state. OK! I have not seen the whole state of California, but everything between Sacramento, San Francisco, and Tahoe is way too tight, population wise.

Another characteristic of the area is that there is a lot of “green initiatives” – more than I have seen in any other states: lots of solar panels on the houses, traffic lights, wineries, lots of windmill power, lots of “green” in restaurants (no ice, tap water, real, cotton towels to be reused, etc).

Like anywhere in the Southwest, there is a huge Hispanic influence here – and that was actually one of my favorite features! All our Hispanic waiters and waitresses were by far the best, friendliest and worked hardest. Just a side note, but an important one to me, when I will look back!

The small Western towns are a gem, if you can navigate the traffic to get into them. Old buildings, and lots of live oaks and palm trees. Nice houses, sort of Mediterranean in architecture, with overgrown gardens that offered much needed shade and privacy. These settlings are an oasis of small town feel in the middle of madness. St. Helena and Yountville were very quaint and quiet.

And what is California without star sightings, right?! So, apart from being in an internationally renowned chef’s restaurant, we also were seated at the table next to Tyler Florence , another chef, and his entourage, when we dined at Solbar. I will not go into the details of our eavesdropping, but suffice it to say, the conversations involved cooking with “aromatic herbs”, the kind some people in Amsterdam smoke. Or so I thought I heard.

It was definitely a fast forward trip, with the long drive and the not many (five) days we spent there. But it was an experience in more ways than one: cultural, culinary, oenological, geographical and definitely psychological!

I cannot find a better ending to this than the statement my husband summarized California in: “The experts have determined that Pluto is no longer a planet. California is in no danger of such a re-classification - it is a planet unto itself.”

Just GO! It’s worth it! And remember to take a camera, too. This way, you’ll end up with 2000+ pictures, like we did. Enjoy some of them here .