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