Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Year's Wrap

Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door. ~Saul Bellow

As the curtain is getting ready to close for 2011, I take some time to reflect on what’s passed.

It’s been a good and unexpected year … We started out by saying there is not much we have planned, and we ended up with a full year, to say the least. Life has a way of throwing “plans” at us, when we make none, you know.

It was another year of “firsts”: first Valentine’s Day together, first nephew we welcomed into the world as a couple, first concert together (first ever for Aa.), first trips to Zion and Yellowstone for both of us, first trip together to Seattle and Canada … and so much more. After almost two years of marriage, I am still enjoying all this newness, and welcome more! It’s such a blessing to build memories in togetherness …

What a change a year can make! I didn’t have a job on January 1st, 2011, and I had no hope, nor prospect of one. I have a very good job now, and one that allows me to shine, and sleep at night, at the same time, without defining who I am, either. What more can anyone possibly want?

We were poorer by one member of our family, and now, we are so blessed with our little Kevin who is now almost walking all around the house.

We were also so much poorer in trips and wonderful new pictures – we made up for it with 365 opportunities to refresh our archives. Some of the trips we were fortunate to take were simply to disconnect and enrich our world perspective. Some of them were to visit friends and family. Both of these were rewarding in their own right.

On the home front, here in Utah, we had no yard, and no prospect of a yard, either! We have a new fence, a new yard, we cooked our first bbq meals, and we had our first outdoor parties this year, as well. We harvested our first tomatoes and herbs. We are home. Finally.

As a family, all over the world, we are all still here, and although not all healthy, we are grateful for all of us to see a new Christmas and a new year in a few days, as well.

We are grateful for a lot of things: this wonderful year that has passed, for our united and happy families, for having each other, for our health, for our food, for our jobs, and our homes, and for our friends.

The house in NC has not sold yet, but we are so grateful to be able to afford to pay the mortgage on it! We can still keep our good credit in this crazy world, and we pray and hope that one day, it’ll be behind us!

We are looking forward to a new year. A brand new, wide open, blank slate for new trips and new memories to shape up! Once again, we have small plans for 2012, but we hope for health and opportunities, and we shall make it into a great one, again!

Happy New Year, everyone, and may you never run out of possibilities …

Enjoy a peek at our wonderful 2011:

Saturday, December 03, 2011

A City Alive - Postcards from Seattle

Greetings from Seattle! I am not sure if all of the people who read here remember postcards. But I do. Even as a child, I was the only one in my family who always sent them to our friends from our family trips. Everyone could count on me letting them know where the family went that summer. I still browse the postcards stands in gift stores, and I dream about the days when I would pick just the best ones that would summarize the vacation spot just perfectly.

Nowadays, of course, we have Facebook. And phones with cameras and web connections, to post that telling shot of where we are and what it’s like to be there to let all of our friends know. Nowadays, I have my own camera, too. And instead of one postcard, I come home with 1000+ shots of the place. I send the link to my friends, and boom!, they are there, too: they can even feel the heat or the cold, they can almost taste the food, and hear the street noises or the quiet of the surrounding areas.

The recent trip we took to Seattle over Thanksgiving was no exception. Looking back through the pictures, I see just what my first trip to Seattle means. It means gray, of course. When we got there, there was a misty rain in the air, for which an umbrella would do little. We were told by one of our guides that umbrellas are not popular in Seattle. The rain never pours, but it usually feels more like that mist the hair dresser uses to spray your hair before she cuts it: “poof-poof” and you’re wet! The sky was gray and the roads were shiny. It was cold – bitter cold and wet. After all, this is the Pacific North West, right?!

Another snapshot in my mind is Seattle inside Pike Place Market on Black Friday. I know, sounds suicidal, but it’s actually pretty fun. So much life. Everyone’s coming or going. You feel the pulse of a big city and it’s pounding! For the most part, Seattle has a slower pace than most large cities I have seen, except for its Market. Despite the fact that the vendors are there year round and the market is probably hopping year round, too, they are always friendly and actively selling their stuff. They talk to everyone who stops by, and describe their products in detail. They are nice and never look bored, tired, or just indifferent, like most trinket sellers in touristy places. Their active involvement is really an attractive marketing tool.

My favorite thing in The Market, was not the fish throwing, as everyone would think. It was not even the overcrowded original Starbucks store, either – although that one did make my heart stop for a minute: it was that feeling of “wow! This is where everything started”. But my favorite market place was this corner stand where a woman was selling things made of lavender. The place smelled beautifully, and she had a “culinary wreath”, made of all sorts (I think 10) of herbs, that you just hang in your kitchen and peel from year round, to use in your foods. The wreath was as gorgeous as it was practical and for some reason it spelled "Seattle" to me: green, fresh, clean, delicious, unique and hippie-sh.

On the second day we were there, there was not a cloud in the sky! I thought I died and woke up in Atlanta! Blue skies and blinding light – perfect for pictures, and a boat ride. The view from Elliott Bay towards Seattle is much similar to all the skyline views you’re familiar with. Of course, not two skylines are alike. They each have their trademark that makes them recognizable – whether tall or interesting in architecture, these one building compounds put them on the map: New York has the Empire State building. San Francisco has the TransAmerica Pyramid. Toronto, the CN Tower, and Seattle – the shipyard and … the Space Needle.

The Space Needle is not the tallest, but it definitely is one of the strangest buildings I have climbed (along with Montreal’s Olympic Stadium leaning tower) to get a bird’s eye view of the city. It looks like a flying saucer landed on a skinny pole and it’s balancing just so. It’s one of those miracles of human dreaming and ingenuity.

The architecture of the town is a mix of old and new. I was shocked of how old Seattle really feels, although it’s a very few years over 100 years old! There are skyscrapers and cobble stone streets right next to each other. Horse drawn carriages and the airlifted Monorail train, side by side. The trip in the Underground will make you feel like it’s thousands years old. It’s a clean city, and although it feels like a metropolis, it’s not crushing you under its fastness, or clutter. It’s busy, but with breathing room. Not as oppressive as NYC, nor even Boston, for instance.

I think the most unexpected thing about the Seattle landscape for me was the fact that all the streets are incredibly steep! OK, they are not quite San Francisco steep, but they are a breath stopper, after you have climbed about 10 of them in a row! And that’s the good thing – you can really walk or take public transport to pretty much anywhere. I don’t think you must have a car to live in Seattle!

Another thing that will stay with me from this trip is all the restaurants – great, fresh food, incredible service, and good beer and wine! It’s a miracle to find a Riesling on most of the restaurants I visit, anywhere in the country. Seattle always had a Riesling and a moscato at all times! Even moscato champagne! The beers might not be as diverse, I suppose, as Portland’s, but they surely are plenty of choices and they are tasty! I am not a microbrew fan, but I did find some microbrews that were not too offending at all for my very soft palate. The foods are always fresh and just enough with a twist to make them unforgettable, but not too strange.

The town feels like a river of coffee flows through it. There is a fast food restaurant at every street corner in America, but not in Seattle. There is a coffee shop at every street corner here! Tully’s, Seattle’s Best and of course lots of Starbucks. Also, stand alone, independent ones, too. And when you are finished with your meal, you’re asked: “would you like a cup of hot latte to go, by chance? I’ll double cup it for you. It’s really hot!” They have invented their own language for coffee drinks here. A language that everyone speaks, of course. People walking down the street and holding cups of hot drinks from 7 AM to midnight! It might be what keeps them smiling?!

One thing that blew my mind was the fact that all the wait staff everywhere was so helpful, fast and so polite and just happy. Yes, Seattle has happy people, I would say! I have always thought that with that much rain, you must be a nature prone to depression to be able to live in Seattle. And yet, I have never seen so many smiley and cordial people and just plain content as Seattle folks! It was always a treat to sit down for a meal or just drinks. Just like visiting with old friends, we felt totally welcome.

The ultra-modern hotel. The picture book would not be complete if I didn’t talk about our very unique hotel room! We stayed at Hotel 1000, about two blocks from Pike Place Market and one block from Pier 56. Our suspended, flat screen tv was turned on when we entered the room, and there was a welcome message on the screen in our names. We had a fixture free (well, except for the drain) tub that had the downspout mounted in the ceiling above it. Instead of a solid wall between the bedroom and bath, you had an all glass wall, with a shade operated by three buttons in the wall – like a light switch. You could sit in the tub, and have a view to the harbor, across the room. The toilet and shower were in their separate all glass enclosures. The sink and fixtures were Kohler and counters solid granite. For those of you that think that granite is so overrated, I disagree! It’s clean and elegant. Period.

The décor of the room was modern minimalist, but intricate, too, without being uncomfortable. Some pieces looked like they were chosen from an art gallery from the Seattle Museum of Art, down the street. Molton Brown smellies gave the air a lavish and fresh aroma. Nothing was random. Everything was pieced together just so, to make it classy and comfortable at the same time. We also had a light switch by the entrance door, that we turned on – this put a “do not disturb” light on on the other side of the wall, next to our doorbell. Very discreet.

And because Seattle is Microsoft, our hotel lounge had a virtual game room, with Microsoft game tables. Chess, checkers and many other virtual boards were the centerpiece of many seating areas in our lounge.

The Boka Restaurant downstairs kept in line with this feeling of modern and chic. We ate on burl tables and sat near towers of sculpted glass. The food, again, was good without being too pretentious.

Yeah, we ate and drank a lot on this trip! I have not done this since probably my last trip to New Orleans, another feasting town!

The feeling that people are environmentally conscious in this town meets you at every pace. There are typically anywhere between three and five trashcans in every public establishment. You need about 10 minutes of deliberation of where your waste needs to go before you (hopefully not!) give up and just chuck it in the one that’s fullest, labeled “trash”. You can order almost everything free of … whatever… milk free, fat free, gluten free, meat free – you name it. I think even without our cameras in hand, we would still have stood out to restaurant staff as out-of-town-ers, for always ordering the “real” things.

That’s Seattle for you: fresh salmon, good coffee, sweet wine, steep streets (bring good, comfy shoes), full body beers, health conscious freakishness, history, rushed people that smile a lot, wine and coffee shops in one, sometimes with a bookstore thrown in, clean and safe-feeling, calm waters, gorgeous mountain ranges, tasteful art, all spinning around the Space Needle, under a mostly gray sky with occasional rays of sunshine. It has a heart, a mind and a style all its own.

Till next time, Seattle, I greet you ‘stay awesome’!

A deconstructed image of Seattle, from the Monorail - courtesy of my husband.
Click on it to experience the whole adventure. I hope you can see, feel, touch, breathe and taste Seattle, even if just virtually.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving. It’s All in the Food.

If I hear one more preachy conversation on the radio or open one more magazine or newspaper and read about how we all should watch what we eat for Thanksgiving and we need to all dig into the all vegan recipes, that are oh, so yummy, I think I am going to have a conniption fit!

Seriously, folks?! What has America become? The rest of the year, we don’t seem to worry about how fat we get, all of a sudden, we want to be more Catholic than the Pope and pretend we’re on a diet on Thanksgiving?! Isn’t this just anti-American, or something?!

On my first Thanksgiving here, I didn’t know what to expect. I was honestly looking forward to some (odd) family time, to the much anticipated “you never want to talk politics and religion at the Thanksgiving table and you never want to ask anyone what they’ve accomplished this year. Families talk about everything else but the important stuff. Not on Thanksgiving, anyway!” that you hear about from folklore.

I ended up with good memories, with good family conversation, albeit polite and guarded, but I ended up also with great food memories. A foodie by upbringing, I cannot have a good time unless the food is plenty and enjoyed by all.

On that first Thanksgiving, I kept wondering why do Americans think they eat so much for this holiday?! I was raised at my dad’s school of “Let’s be gluttons!”, and if his weekly parties have less than 15 courses he considers them failures. So, a five dish dinner to me was lame. But I loved the food itself – just the traditionalism of it. The “must haves” to celebrate this particular holiday. It was a celebration and a bonding experience. One thing everyone could not only relate to but also talk about, freely. The only non-taboo topic at the dinner table.

Over the years, I have enjoyed many a yummy Thanksgiving dinners and I have learned that the celebration is centered around food! Whether you think it’s a lot or a little food, there is going to be enjoyment and love in making it. After all, the holiday comes after the Harvest season. Many a peoples have celebrated the fruits of a new bountiful year through a feast. It’s one primordial tradition that traveled across all generations and virtually all cultures all over the world!

And bounty means eating lots of foods that give you pleasure. Sure, if you are a vegetarian the rest of the year, eat what gives you pleasure! But if you eat a steak every week, you really want to dig into that tofurky just ‘cause the Food Channel, and the city magazine and the local radio station have jumped on the wagon of “let’s be healthy”? And it’s not even healthy, unless it’s a lifestyle – so one meal of oh “being different for the sake of being different” won’t make your hips notice. Trust you me!

I am not quite sure whether America is bored with tradition, themselves, or just bored period. I am all for healthy eating, don’t get me wrong, but Thanksgiving is not a time to start, I don’t think, or – worse - a time to pretend you’re doing your body a favor because for one night you’re going to eat carrot sticks! It’s a bit too much pretentiousness for my taste.

I am taking a leave of absence from the roasting of the turkey this year, as we are headed to Seattle for the weekend. But as excited as I am about the trip, I am also sad because my house won’t be filled with the smells of the season this November! I miss the foods, already, and I miss the whole spirit of the Holiday. The pause, at the end of the day, for being thankful to another year gone well. The Macy’s parade. The Food TV with Paula Deen buried in butter, “o’l” and molasses. The fireplace - turned on for the first time for the season.

But mostly I will miss my food. The fresh one and the leftovers! So, dear friends, have some crispy turkey skin for me, some mashed potatoes, some gravy and warm rolls! I will be drowning in fresh seafood and good North Western beers this weekend, and dreaming of my perfect Thanksgiving, which, this year, will only be a memory.

May this Thanksgiving find you with a full fridge and a heart filled with gratitude! And whatever you cook, make sure it’s the true you. Make it a good one, everyone!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Disrespectful Thoughts on Flying Respectfully

I still remember one of the teachings in one of my first yoga classes, from this instructor that I absolutely loved, back in Greensboro. Because he was so amazing, he used to pack a crowd in his classes, and there was never a comfortable space between two students’ mats. We were crammed in there, like sardines, mat near mat, or sometimes mat on top of mat.

When we stretched, or when we were doing the reclining big toe pose, we would accidentally touch our neighbor, with our hands or, oh, joy, our feet! And you would hear people shriek and cringe. He always reminded us that that is OK! It’s just our bodies.

He reminded us how enclosed within ourselves we have become to repudiate everything that’s not our own bodies and to consider it strange and even gross, when, in fact, we should welcome closeness, as an ultimate sign of humanity, and be respectful of one another, mind, soul and body, as we are all sacred entities.

I always think of this closeness and try really hard to make peace with it and not cringe when I am on a plane. Never, in our daily journeys, are we ever so close to another strange human (and so helplessly so) than when we are forced to spend hours strapped next to a couple of people on a plane. And as wonderful as the teachings of my yoga teacher sound, even today, after many years of trying to come to terms with my neighbor human being, I still wince and notice, in pain, all the unpleasantness that we are capable of! All the inconsiderate things we do! All the self-entitled-ness and complete ignorance for our own physical and emotional space and how that affects others.

So, on my last flying trip, I came up with a list of things that absolutely drive me up a wall (or out on a wing!) when I notice them in the 100 square feet of space I am forced to share with the human specimen while flying between Minneapolis and Salt Lake City, let’s say.

I gladly (and unasked) share, in no particular order:

1.0 I figured that babies are not the worst travelers on the plane! The worst travelers, I think, are impatient, really old people! Apart from the distinct odor of “depends”, they are restless, they chew constantly, and crackle numerous wrappers of their candies, they spit their ice back in the cups, out of sheer boredom, they move, they sigh, they snore, when they do sleep, they talk too loud on the phone, when they are allowed, and they don’t seem to give a rip, because they have lived long enough to earn their right to be oblivious!

2.0 Does the flight attendant really have to say “cookies, pretzels or peanuts?!” for every single passenger on the flight? Seriously? By row 20, have you not gotten a GOOD picture of what the options are?! Everyone kind of waits their turn, and they they wait for the options, and then they act surprise, as "wow! didn't know about these three options! How generous!"; and then they take a couple of seconds to "decide". What is there to decide?! Does it make them feel more special that these are their own, specific choices they are being offered, or what?! Just get with it, people! Don’t wait for the menu. It's not going to be steak! Not now, not ever!

3.0 If they say on the little speaker that the phones “must be turned off” or “must be in the off position”, it means that no, you cannot read the book you downloaded on your Iphone, idiot! The phone “off” means the screen is black and you can only look and admire its sexy Apple design - and that's about all you can do with it! No data is being presented on the screen! There is no such thing as “a little off” or “somewhat off”. Off is OFF!

4.0 A bag that won’t fit through the aisle, most likely won’t fit in the overhead bin, nor under the seat in front of you. Figure that out before you reach your assigned seat, at the very back of the plane!

5.0 When they are “ready for boarding”, they mean pick up your 3 carryons and move it, pal! Line up, and be a sheep! Follow the line! They don’t mean, pull up your phone and dial your spouse to tell them that oopsy-doopsy-doop, you’re getting ready to jump in the biggest adventure of your boring life, and you’re boarding your plane! Don’t stop in the tracks to text your boyfriend, telling him the same thing. Boarding means there is a line, people are waiting behind you, it’s not a phone booth. Put that sucker away, and move along! No phone checking, texting, answering in the aisle, on the breezeways, anywhere where people are waiting for just your feet to move!

6.0 And speaking of “respect”: everyone in the airline business seems to be disrespecting the simplest notion of everyone's time. I figured out a while back that schedules are just suggestions, far from strict timetables anyone is sticking to: when you’re there, there is no regard, from anyone in the business, to your personal time, to when you actually need to make it to the destination and how long they can trap you in there for: when the pilot says “we’ll leave the gate in 2 minutes, as we still have a final check of luggage (or equipment) to perform”, read ’20 minutes’ at least in this spiel. It will save you a lot of heartache! Just let it go! You won’t be able to control it!

7.0 I heard on the radio the other month that Delta is “bringing back the red jackets” as part of their reinventing themselves as the “best and most admired airline in the world”. I somewhat like the formality of the staff’s clothes on a plane – makes it all official and like I can really listen to them, and entrust my life in their hands, of sorts. The last flight with Delta had the stewardesses dressed up in jeans, long sleeve white undershirts with pink t-shirts over them, in support of breast cancer awareness month. I felt like getting food from a soccer mom. I guess a discreet pink pin in the shape of a ribbon would have been “too” formal for Delta and not enough to support the cause?! I sure as heck am not “admiring” the white undershirts!

8.0 This is not flight related, but it did happen in an airport: when the car rental agent tells me I am getting the best deal, and the one car on the lot with “all the bells and whistles” and then she offers to “sell” me the rental of a GPS on top of my rental price … it makes me wonder what other bells and whistles I will be missing. Makes me doubt her truthfulness, just a tad!

9.0 and 10.0 – add your own here. I am sure you have some of your own…

Does this make us bad humans? Super sensitive? Spoiled? Self-absorbed? Or just super observant? I am not sure. But I am sure that I, for one, am more mindful about my own space and bearings when I am around that many strangers, that close. And that all comes from simply respecting my own self.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Good and the Bad on a Not so Bad Trip

As most of you know, my only sister lives in Montreal. Most of my family and her in-laws usually travel to Niagara Falls every time they visit her. It’s sort of a ritual, sort of a “must see”. Although I have visited her plenty of times, in the past seven years since she’s lived there, I have never had the privilege to see The Falls. In a way, from all the pictures I have of my family under the falling water, I have always felt I have been there before. But nothing is quite the same as when you see it for yourself.

My husband and I decided to take my mother-in-law to Niagara Falls for her 70th birthday. She lives in Michigan, so we were to fly into the Mitten State, and then drive to Niagara Falls, ON, “the Canadian side”. We knew, from family and friends stories, from The Wiki and google images, that the Canadian side is more majestic than the US side. Sorry, US, ya have to let them have that!

And so we did: flew into Michigan and drove Northward the day after getting there. This was maybe not the ideal time of the year to visit The Great North, I’d have to say. The weather was cold (low 40’s and high 30’s for the most part), rainy, and foggy. We had a room with a view of the Niagara river, but we could only see the mist from the falls from our window. It was, however, beautiful!

The first day we went sightseeing was so foggy we could not see even the river from our window. We could not see the river, even from the park right above it! It was pure milk! And rain, and wetness. And cold. A lot of cold. We had breakfast at Coco’s and then we started the walk towards the Niagara Falls park. We could very much hear the falls, loud and roaring, angry, and we were almost drenched in a mist, we could feel the wind pulling us in, but we could not see it very much.

The first day: fog and water. Mostly fog. Looked like Ireland (I think)

Another reason why this was not an ideal time to visit was that a lot of things were closed for the season. Some restaurants were closed, and even the boat that takes you to the bottom of the falls was retired for this year.

I guess this is what Jim Cantore must feel like!

We visited the Visitors’ Center and the shops (just to shelter ourselves from the big wet nature out there), and then we did the “Journey Behind the Falls”. They take you down on this elevator to the bottom of the Canadian Falls and you get windows into the waterfalls, and you get to see the outpouring of water from behind the rocks. The noise it makes is unreal! It feels a bit claustrophobic, dark and menacing down there, but it is a unique experience. How much can you really let go in order to observe a miracle of nature?! Test yourself! Your stomach might be in knots, but at the end it’s so worth it!

The elevator assistant was very dry (pun not intended). She looked serious and bored. One tourist asked her “how many times do you go up and down in this elevator, a day?”. She answered promptly with a shrug and a half look: “I don’t know, Sir. I never counted. I have more important things to worry about. The only one worrying about such things is you”. No one laughed.

After seeing the falls, or, again, hearing them from underneath and behind, we came up for air again, and started driving along the Niagara river, North bound, towards the Botanical Gardens. They were, once again, closed for the season. But the jewel of the gardens, the butterfly conservatory, was open. So, we strolled in.

60 species of butterflies, from all over the world, and 30,000 individual insects greeted us, literally. Some of them as large as a humming bird, and all of them dressed up in their Sunday best! They would fly everywhere, land on your hair or clothes, and just offer the most beautiful spectacle for the eye that I have ever seen. The conservatory is landscaped beautifully, as a tropical paradise, with palm trees, coconut trees, a waterfall in the middle and various exotic plants. It’s like a giant green house, full of life and freshness. This stood in stark contrast to the dreary world of the outside. It was alive and warm.

After this, we continued to drive North, along the river. What I always adore about any town in Canada is their parks! Even in the most humble neighborhoods, the parks have wide and clean alleys, with lawns that are impeccable and always lush! We drove through parks and high end neighborhoods, through vineyards and along stone walls, protecting the pedestrians from falling into the rapid river below. Oh, the view one would have from their sunroom along this path!

The glitz and glamor of Niagara Falls, Ontario

After a short drive, we reached the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. If Niagara Falls struck us as touristy and extra loaded with unnecessary cheese (like Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and The Frankenstein House), Niagara-on-the-Lake is a quiet, beautifully architected old town! Reminded me in parts of Quebec City, and in some others of England. It is quaint and classy, with lots of brick and stone houses, large trees and quiet roadways. Although it rained the entire time we were there, we walked the streets for a couple of hours, in ponchos and umbrellas, visited boutiques we never get a chance to visit anywhere else, bought local foods, jewelry, presents for friends, and compared wine prices with the rest of the world.

The quaint charm of Niagara-on-the-Lake

I almost forgot how important the wine industry is for the Niagara region, so we enjoyed visiting the various wine shops. We never bought even one bottle though, and I am not quite sure why! The rain got us in a damp mood, I guess. I did have Canada ice wine before, and it’s delicious, and it appeared, from it being showcased everywhere, that it’s one of their specialties, here, as well. I do, wholeheartedly, recommend it to anyone who likes wine. It’s delicious, and worth the $30 price tag for even a small, skinny bottle!

The second day we were there, we took the elevator up The Skylon Tower, as the fog had lifted and we could now see the falls. I always love views from up high, and this one was as impressive as any I have seen. You can clearly see both the American and the Canadian Falls, in all their splendor and they are correct – the Canadian ones, with their horseshoe shape, look much more interesting. Although, if you only had the American ones to look at you’d be as impressed, too, I am sure. The quantity of water they put out and the speed with which they flow are breathtaking – overwhelming and humbling all at the same time.

Looking across the border into the US was an opportunity for me to stop and think about the relativity of life, in general and of people-made things, in particular. What’s a border, after all? Just a very relative, and almost imaginary line separating two worlds. And people often forget that “relative” is the key word here. No one is more special than the other person, intrinsically, just because they happen to have been born on either side. But, oh, how people forget that!

Apart from the weather not giving us our best shot at seeing the sights and the rainbows, we have enjoyed just being away, and seeing a piece of the planet that was new to us. If I were to go back, I would probably try to sleep and eat in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The touristy violence of Niagara Falls was sort of disappointing. That, and the very high prices, for not so much of quality as you might think. In one of the restaurants, I ordered poutine, a very Canadian dish, but it was nothing like the Quebecois poutine I fell in love with in Montreal! No curd fresh cheese, and thick gravy, no sautéed potatoes! Just gravy from a pack, plain tasting, and shredded cheese from a bag. And probably bagged fries, too … The prices are huge everywhere, for frozen meals reheated sometimes – or maybe we didn’t pick the places right! I did enjoy the tomato bisque at Kelsey’s, the first night we were there. And be prepared to pay for parking anything from $2 and hour to $10 a day! And we needed to move the car a lot, since it was raining the whole time and we could not walk anywhere, really.

The American Falls, with Niagara Falls, NY in the background

The Canadian Falls, ON

But the beauty of nature, and even of man, when he’s thinking before building, was refreshing and warm. And now I, too, can say, like the rest of my family, that I have been to The Falls. The Canadian ones, you know – the only ones that matter!

This was one of the plainest butterflies, but one of my favorites! Click on it to see all the pictures from this very beautiful trip.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Biggest Halloween Ever!

Some of my friends from far away have been asking me lately whether people around Utah, being as pious as they are known to be,“ do Halloween”. And let me tell you, my friends, a story about Halloween in Utah County!

This is my second year here, and I don’t remember quite a busy night from last year, but oh my word, my doorbell is probably numb at the moment from all the small and big pilgrims ringing it since 5 PM. I think I stopped counting at 20. And we don't even have the light on the porch on, which was, I thought, a sure sign they would "know".

I personally don’t like Halloween – nothing to judge, just a matter of personal taste – and I never buy candy, so I never open the door on this night. But tonight might have changed my mind forever! I’d rather open the door and share in the fun costumes and eager eyes than be behind closed shutters and looking like the wicked witch of the west to all my neighbors’ kids.

But even before tonight! A friend of mine came to visit us in early October – and the whole town was dressed up for Halloween. She even noticed how, driving along the mountains, outside the Provo city limits, there was Halloween décor out in the middle of nothing, on a hill. The Spanish Fork downtown was also dressed up to the occasion, as early as October 8th!

As my friend put it: "Look! Crazy Halloween decorations in the middle of nowhere!"

From years past, I have been used to people coming dressed up in costumes at work on this day, maybe sharing candy with co-workers and decorating the cubes in dollar store garb. This was Halloween at work to me in the rest of America. Today, at my new job in the midst of Utah County, home of the BYU, things were much, much more different!

Practically every aisle was decorated, and one whole area was enclosed from floor to ceiling in black tarp, with the lights out – as if in a haunted house. Around 3 PM, the entire company stopped working, practically, and every department started playing loud music, according to the theme they all picked for the department: my area had big band, pirate ship music, and the area adjacent to ours had bluegrass music, as everyone there was dressed up as “swamp”, redneck folk.

And then, the spouses (mostly wives) came in with the kids – every family had anywhere between two and five kids, and every other family had one on the way, too. Everyone was wearing a costume, even kids as small as a few months, and some of the clothes were very intricate and home tailored – nothing you can get at WalMart, I am sure. These things were involved! The makeup, too. The kids went by all the departments, and greeted everyone, picking up one piece of candy from each offering bowl, under the close policing of the parents. It was quite a disciplined affair.

Everyone, kids and parents alike, seemed to have a ton of fun! So, yeah, I think I would conclude that they do do Halloween in Utah. And even are serious about it! Well, as serious as you can be about grown men in tights, that is!

The company I work for not only afforded to let everyone play for a couple of hours, but they also paid for all the candy we gave away to folks and they bought treats for everyone, too, in the form of festive donuts, crullers, lemonade and soft drinks.

Now, what all those parents can possibly do with 5 pieces of candy (per department) x 5 kids x 10 departments + candy from all the neighborhood houses + relatives’ houses is absolutely mind numbing to me! But they surely do prepare a lot for this one night of ghoulish fun! I could almost say they could give lessons to the rest of the nation, or at least the parts I have been familiar with till now.

Spanish Fork downtown, decorated for Halloween. We noticed this on October 8th, but I am sure it had been there for a while.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An Autumn Drive. A Random Thought.

My car needed some repairs this week. So, I dropped it off overnight to the dealership and I picked it up this morning, when then sun was not all the way up, yet. They parked it in the parking lot, so it was cool and all covered in autumn dew when I drove it off the lot. When I climbed into the driver’s seat and drove away (forgetting to use my scraper to clear up the windows), I kept cringing at the touch of the cold wheel and I kept pulling my windows down, so I can see if it’s clear to turn. And then I remembered – all this cold and dewy window business felt awfully familiar.

Until May of last year, I never had a garage. Cleaning up the windows in the morning, during fall and winter was second nature before. Waiting for the car to warm up a little before I drove off was, too. All of a sudden all these things that were “normal”, routine, till a year ago were such a huge inconvenience this morning. All because for the past year my car has been sheltered in a garage, away from the elements.

And this is the trouble with life: we forget! We forget where we started. How low we started, and how hard. We get used to the “easy” and we forget we can handle harder times. I have a friend who says “the human body has an amazing ability to forget pain”. And worst of all, we take for granted, like I do the garage and the clean windows in the morning. And the (relatively) warm seats at 7 AM in October.

The past few weeks have been especially hard, with just little bombs blowing up here and there … And I have found myself sighing and telling myself how I’ve had enough and how I want some good news, for God’s sake. But I forget how much good news there is in the span of my every 24 hours. How I still walk and talk on my own, and I am no burden to anyone, how I still have my mind. How I can have a great job with benefits, that allows me freedom to eat and drink and play, when so many people are counting days till the unemployment will run out. How I have a shelter, and a beautiful family, how I love my husband and how he loves me back. How I am greeted every day by three beautiful, healthy, purring cats that never once fail to make me smile. How I still have sight to see the sun and the moon, and the beautiful mountains and the leaves turning. How I have beautiful friends who have not forgotten about me, even after over a year of physical absence! How … I can go on forever now, but you get the idea.

We forget. Way too easily, we do. And I thought to stop for a second and acknowledge some of the things that I am grateful for, even during these hard times.

This morning’s ride was a great reminder of the bigger things in my life – a reminder that I can always handle harder, that I have handled more (even as trivial as this simple ride may sound), and that I am still here, through it all. Today, I am grateful for even the harder things that came our way lately – because I know they will make us stronger and make us happier when things do get straightened out.

But I am not holding my breath. Life will do whatever life will do – hard or easy, its course is its own. In the meantime, I am just grateful for a garage, in the winter.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Burning Issue

Warning: a couple of times a year, I write about something totally trivial and personal. This is one of those times.

I have never been into clothes. Never been into fashion. I do know how to spell “style”, but that’s about how far it goes with me. I remember my dad telling me all throughout high school and college that no boy will even notice me because I dress like a “golanca” – which means … “rogue”, in a way. Back then, I used to wear his (torn, bell-bottom) jeans from when he went to college, so, go figure!

I could not tell you what goes through my head as I pick a shirt or a skirt or a pair of jeans. Well, my first thought is always: “Holy cow! Is that what people pay for cheese cloth?!” But my second thought is: “It won’t fit”! Unlike the majority of women out there, I hate shopping for clothes and shoes, because nothing ever fits. I have no set size. I can wear a 0, a 1, a 3 or a 4, a 5 or a 7, even a 14 or a 16 – depending on what department I shop in: women, petites, juniors, children, etc… I never know!

Unlike my beautiful sister, who knows exactly what’s in fashion now, in Montreal and Paris, and New York and what is a has been already … I have no clue whether denim is in or “so out”, same thing for chenille, velure or polyester. I have people tell me “oh, purple is the color of the summer” (that’s my favorite color), and I smile, thinking: “well, then, this one year I must be in style, ‘cause I have plenty of purple clothes, thank you very much”. But I never know, and fashion has never, ever preoccupied me!

As long as it’s covered and I am comfortable, I am good!

And that’s one of my criteria: money is first – it has to be cheap to buy it; I feel silly investing a lot in clothes and even shoes; comfort is a close second; if I don’t feel comfortable in something, there is no way I’ll buy it. And fashion can wait.

But lately, I have experienced some strange new feeling. I wake up every morning hating my clothes. All of them! They look like solitary little strange soldiers, lined up to torture me every day! I hate them all! Some don’t fit anymore, some are faded, some are so old I am simply bored by them! But for the first time in my life, I actually have some kind of feeling about my clothes!

I asked my husband if people who buy an expensive car for their midlife crisis have always been into cars, or just one day wake up that they want to buy an expensive car, and they just buy it, outta crazy impulse. I feel the same way: I have never been preoccupied by clothes, but all of a sudden, I want to burn all of mine and spend $5000 on a whole new wardrobe and a whole new ‘style’. Well, a style at all, from the previously non existent one!

Yes, ladies and gents, I am having my midlife crisis and mine is about clothes! True to form, as always – I am a late bloomer (to be noticing clothes just now – people usually have these dilemmas when they are teens!) and a precocious one, too (to be having my midlife crisis at 36, I guess) – but here we go … I am a mess! It still doesn’t excite me to go shopping for them, but I actually notice what women wear around me, to get ideas and figure out what in the world to do with myself next. I have no clue where to start. How do people learn about what looks good on them? How do people buy clothes? Really ...

I have not actually burned my clothes as of yet. I have not even thrown at least one t-shirt in a Good Will basket … I am not sure what will happen, really, but I do know I will have to do something soon! Spending 20 minutes in front of my shelves in the closet every morning trying to decide what to wear needs to stop! That time is for snoozing, not for styling! One is so much more becoming of me than the other.

And for my friends and family who read this and are now thinking “oh, I’ll take her shopping and I’ll show her a few things that’ll look cute on her” – STOP! You know me well enough to know the last thing I could be is a puppet! I am pretty lost, but I still can’t take advice benevolently.

This too shall have to be a self-discovery journey. I just hope I remember to burn only after I have gotten some new outfits to replace the old. It, after all, still needs to be covered first!

I know … I am trifling.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Be Quiet. The Earth Is Awake

“Take a look into a few of the … volumes of the grand geological library of the park … no technical knowledge is required; only a calm day and a calm mind.” (John Muir, about Yellowstone)

Going to Yellowstone National Park this past Labor Day was mostly an accident. One of those trips we planned because, at the very last minute, we realized the summer was going to be over and oops! We didn’t make any plans for the summer’s last hurrah, the Labor Day Weekend. With three days to burn and with so much beauty all around us, it was not hard to pick. Actually, it was hard to pick, because we can never narrow it down to one destination – we have so much to see just within driving distance, we can never pick one thing.

But Yellowstone it was. And, at the advice of one of our friends, we decided to come back to Utah through The Grand Tetons, another amazing work of nature.

We drove up through Utah and Idaho to make it to West Yellowstone, MT on Saturday. The drive is mostly through a “mild” desert, not quite as arid as Southern Utah or Arizona, but still yellow enough to not call it a pasture. Idaho had no potatoes to be seen from the haste of the car! Kind of shocking, really. We stopped for fast food on the way up, just because we wanted to make it to Montana before dark, and get to see some of the sights around town. The KFC in Pocatello, ID had the worst mashed potatoes I have ever had. Ever. Hands down. In Idaho, mind you! And also, KFC was out of … chicken! Yep! No white meat left.

Once you cross the Montana border, everything reminds you of Twin Peaks (its creator, David Lynch is from Montana, of course) or Brokeback Mountain. (Where would we be without our pop culture, right?). The mountains are rolling and green, the pine tree woods are lush and majestic, the streams are cold and crystal clear. The air is clearer. Everything is lush! The grass is soft and green. Log cabins and river stone walls abound. Montana is like coming home, to me. Everything I ever wanted when I am thinking of peace.

Seeing Montana is another dream come true for me. Always dreamed of the tall mountains, the untouched territory, the bison roaming free, the Last Frontier, the Big Sky … It’s all that and more … You just need to explore it – there is no way to do it justice by enunciating what it looked like to my own, biased, naked eye.

The second day, Sunday, we planned to just drive through as much of Yellowstone National Park as we could! As much as daylight would allow, that is. After an “interesting” breakfast (more on the “people” and food of this trip later), we headed west, towards the border with Wyoming. Wyoming, or as much of it as I have seen, is much like Western Montana, relief-wise. Lots of very well taken care of farms, too.

Now, as far as I am concerned, Yellowstone was a total mystery to me. I had no idea what to expect. Every time I would google images of Yellowstone, I would get pictures of wildlife. So, I was not expecting one kind of landscape over another. I had no clue what kind of land I’d be in: woodsy? Desert? Rivers? Falls? Lakes? Prairie grass? No idea!

Coming from Utah, I am always amazed at how diverse this land out here is geologically. How many different colors of rock, and how boulders and sand and everything in between are part of the same cohesive landscape … But Yellowstone is diversity raised to the rank of art. Not only the colors of various soil, or the juxtaposition of rock and grass and woods and clear rivers and deep, cold, serene lakes is breathtaking, but the consistency of every surface is amazing: from sand to crumbling rocks, from mud to clay, from bubbling hot waters to bitter cold mountain rapids – it’s all an explosion of color, substance and movement mixed in with stillness.

Everyone in the park was there to see “creatures”. At every stop, we heard people looking for some kind of animal or bird. I guess those google searches influenced everyone’s expectations after all. I didn’t want to miss out on the beauty of it all, so I took everything in – whether it was a creature (and they were plenty!) or a milky white puddle of boiling clay - I let my senses drown in the richness of it all.

Of course, Yellowstone is famous for the geysers, and mostly for its “Old Faithful” one, which erupts every day, almost every 90 minutes. As we have found out, it’s not all “that” faithful after all – 90 minutes is really an average – it can be 30 minutes or 2 hours … I won’t talk about all the geology behind it all, because you can easily research that for yourself … The geysers were indeed amazing. I have seen hot springs before, but never so active. And so present, and so … noisy.

The Yellowstone Movie

Being that close to an active puddle of sulfuric acid is surreal – you feel like a volcano will erupt in your face any second, but at the same time you feel humble, that the earth shares its life with you so viscerally.

It’s so amazing that these geysers which feel like they kill everything they touch are actually full of life – the signs explain all about the bacteria which lives in them. And there are trees around which are still green, and dragon flies landing on hot rocks. In the middle of so much apparent death – a glimpse that life is perpetual and stubborn.

I loved the geysers, but I also loved everything else about the Park – the Madison river, with its winding banks, full of fly fishers and trout and rapids was my second favorite, I guess. The way wild creatures share their presence with us, humans, also rendered me grateful. We didn’t see the much talked about and warned against grizzlies, but we saw elk, and bison, innumerable crowds of ravens, lots of dragon flies, ducks and geese.

On the third day, we started off towards the South Entrance of Yellowstone, again through Wyoming, and onto The Grand Tetons National Park. They are by far the most amazing and awe inspiring mountains I have ever seen. I have seen mountains taller than the Tetons, but there is something surprising about them! They rise completely straight up, at an 90 degree angle almost, against this clear blue set of lakes (Jackson, Jenn) – and the contrast between one’s tallness and other’s flatness is what makes them stand out. Plus, they are almost completely rocky. There is some pine-y vegetation towards the bottom half of The Tetons, but they are almost completely rock otherwise.

The town of Jackson, WY is the kind of town, at first glance, that I would love to retire to, one day, if it were close to a major airport. It’s definitely a mountain town, a cowboy land, and Western town, all in one. Art stores at every corner, and the architecture is crafted in such a way to not insult or disturb the beautiful landscape around. I also had the best nachos in the whole wide world at The Town Square Tavern, in downtown Jackson, across the central park of the city! Best guacamole and best seasoned ground beef –and I don’t even like beef!

And speaking of food. And of people. In stark contrast to the amazing beauty of this land was the relative ugliness of the people in these parts. I am not sure what it was, maybe it’s such a heavy trafficked area that people in customer service are just so tired of pleasing cranky tourists all day long they are just plain rude! The (dis)service we received was pretty appalling.

On our first night in West Yellowstone, we had dinner at the Bullwinkle’s Saloon and Eatery. The whole service was a train wreck! I asked for a straw three times, till she finally came up with not one, but three of them. Not sure why 3, but … I guess she showed me, huh?! She forgot to put our beer order in the computer. About 20 minutes later, after we asked about them, she said “someone didn’t bring them to you?!” in surprise. After another 10 minutes, she came back to admit she forgot what beers we ordered and to say she will put them in “right now”. She warned us that if Aa. wanted to replace his mashed potatoes with fries “there will be an extra charge because, you see, we need to make the kitchen think. So, they get paid extra for that”. OK! But then, when the food came out, she brought mashed potatoes, still. So, since they “didn’t think”, can we get the surcharge withdrawn? Don’t think so!

I ordered Idaho trout, and I got… a fish, but when I tasted it, it had the most foul taste ever. I have always said I have never met a fish I didn’t like before that night. And what was worst of all – trout is my absolute favorite fish! There was no way you can have a bad trout. Ever. After trying to talk myself that it’s probably my taste buds that got screwed up and the fish is fine, the waitress came back with yet another plate – of another fish but the same sides I had with my first dish: she admitted they gave me the walleye, and not the trout. So, she yanked my “wrong” fish from in front of me, and placed the trout down instead. And yes, the trout was delicious! At the very end, she “apologized” by giving us a free dessert absolutely drenched in chocolate, with the comment: “Well, I figured, everyone loves chocolate, so here you go”. Umm… yeah, everyone but this one (me!). No, they didn’t subtract the charge for the fries! $60 later we wondered where in the world is courtesy and common sense in today’s service world.

The next morning, at The Three Bear Lodge restaurant (we also stayed at Three Bear Lodge, which was beautiful!), my husband ordered the bacon and American cheese omelet. He got bacon and mushrooms. No cheese. The drinks were served by Grumpy (as in the dwarf). I have never seen a person so unfit for working with people. He acted like we woke him up from his nap and if we asked for one more thing, he’d pull his Colt 45 at us right away and then requests would perish! He never did come back with a straw, either. He didn’t talk. He just puffed and threw things … Pretty scary, actually.

People were overall cold up there, and pretty much unapologetic! The nicest man we encountered was the guy who sold us the entrance tickets for The Park – an elderly gentleman who sits in a lonely booth all day, waving people by at Yellowstone Park. Just sweetest man, who “thank you, Sir”-ed us and “have a nice day, Sir”-ed us, and smiled and just loved life! He was not working for tips, either!

As enchanted as we were by nature, we were equally put off by the humankind! Till we got to Jackson, WY, the very last day. In the middle of a strip mall, there was a box with these words on it ”Free Poems Weekly. Take One”. And we did. A small touch of humanity and unconditional kindness.

So, maybe … there is hope. Just like the small amounts of life in the death of the sulfur in the geysers. Maybe, just maybe, kindness and life will exist, albeit in small amounts. It’s worth searching for it, anyway.

From “The Poetry Box” - thank you, Chandler:

“But a single rose
Every petal every thorn
The rain pouring down
The sweet smell tingles my nose
Like the smell of that sweet rose
Raindrops run down my face
Like the tears I cry
Hidden among the cold drops
Tears only visible to your eye
Only you can see through the rain
Helping to relieve some of the pain”

(“You’re a Fallen Petal” – Chandler MyRick – 11th grade student at Summit High School)

"Pandora's Box", in Jackson, WY - please click on the box for pictures from this trip. And enjoy roaming ...

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tomato Jackpot

This time last year, if you remember (I certainly do!!!), I was strolling all the Farmers’ Markets a couple of counties over in search for home grown tomatoes. And almost every time, I would come home either empty handed, or disappointed, with tomatoes that tasted so-and-so, but cost more than the grocery ones.

I love fresh tomatoes! My poor old grandma, God rest her in peace, is probably smiling down on me (I have said this before, too) knowing I love them so much – I used to hate them as a kid and she used to make me eat them every morning. Now, I can’t get enough of them. But not literally!

So, after last year’s tomato drought, I decided to put a few tomato plants in my new veggie garden. I bought about 10 or so, thinking, juuuussst maybe one or two will bear fruit. And holy Christmas! They all did! Don’t even ask me what kind I bought, ‘cause I think I bought one of each kind, telling myself that “well, we’re experimenting and there is no way they’re all going to come out, anyway”. They all bore fruit, and they are all deliciousness in a bowl! Sweet, and ripe, and firm. They are so heavy with fruit, they break the stakes! They are all laying on one side right now, and I have given up trying to tie them up them properly.

My heavy with fruit tomato plants

I have made tons of tomato salads, and cooked with them so far: just put them over pasta, with herbs and such, made omelet with them, soups, put them on the grill, even! Let me tell you, my Southern friends would tell me there is nothing like a fresh tomato sandwich, and that is the pure truth! But skip the sandwich – just slice them up, put some salt and pepper on them and eat them on the side of your favorite … whatever …

My wild cherry tomatoes

I am not tomatoed out yet! I am so greedy, I am not even sharing them! And they keep coming, too! Now, I am looking for recipes on how to preserve them for the winter – who would have thought that in a state where the farmers had trouble growing them last year, I could get such a harvest?!

Till I find just the perfect way to can them or the perfect recipe for a canned sauce, I just bagged several portions of freshly chopped tomatoes for winter chili and I am planning my next salad meal. Cannot wait! Hmmm… the smell of tomatoes on your hands …

Remember Bubba in Forrest Gump telling Forrest about however many ways you can cook shrimp?! Well, that’s how I feel right about now with tomatoes! What else can I do with them?! Good thing we have google for that, and

And as for sharing them. Maybe next year. Hopefully.

And in case you forgot Bubba - a reminder

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Torn by Contradictions

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” ~ John Muir

They were apple trees. I think. I drive to work every morning through this neighborhood. It’s a mixed bag of old and new houses, some well kept, some not so. Not a cookie cutter business, but sort of a compact but eclectic mix of this and that – all sizes, all sidings, all sorts of landscape, green and desert. In the middle of this small city world, there is a beautiful green and fresh orchard that stretches for a couple of blocks, behind a well kept split rail, white fence, where horses graze in the heat. A fresh, green spot in the middle of asphalt, giving your eye a break in today’s overgrown urban jungle. Or should I say … there was an orchard.

The orchard is sort of a big deal, perhaps, been there longer than the mix-and-match houses, because the neighborhood elementary school adjacent to it is called Orchard Elementary. Judging by the 70’s looking architecture of the school, it looks like it’s been there a while. This week, I drove past the orchard as usual, only to see all the trees cut down to the ground, and a big sign in front of the fence announcing custom homes coming up soon.

My heart sank! I keep trying to forget about it, to not think about it too long, but the poor, beautiful trees laying down and withering – dying - under the desert sun have been haunting me like a bad deed trying to scream out from cover! What a shame! In a place where it’s so hard to grow anything, because of long winters, too much rock and not enough rich soil, too much scorching sun and not a lick of shade, a whole entire orchard that somehow weathered it all is now gone. And for what?!

A page of Americana - with this old truck driving by the "Orchard Elementary" sign

My first impulse was: “Great! We have thousands of empty houses people (me, included) can’t sell in today’s market, all we need is more homes?!” I hated the person who came up with the idea and hated those who cut the trees down. But then my husband reminded me – maybe the farmer is just trying to get out of debt and the money he got from the developer will pay for all his troubles and allow him to live comfortably, or maybe he has a huge loan due to health trouble to pay off, and this will allow him to do that. Maybe his kids need to go to college? And everyone wants new homes nowadays – some families will be happy there.

I don’t know what to think. Sure, those are all good points. But the trees, somehow, to me, have to have a say in all this too. Years and years of fighting drought and wind. Years of trying to be fruitful, despite all adversities. The assiduous care of the farmer, who had to water them, fertilize the soil, prune, mow around them, weed, protect them from pests! All that – gone. In half of a day, all that work, and sweat, and green – gone. Then, the name "orchard" which established a neighborhood (the neighborhood grocery store shopping center is called "Orchards", too), a page of the history of the city, maybe - elbowed aside by "civilization".

Behind the pretty fence, the fruit trees cut down to the ground
(click on the picture for a larger view)

All good reasons for it set a side, I can’t help but feel a big, deep hole in my heart. There is something sad about trees being killed. A little spot of heaven on earth goes away. A huge disappointment in humanity. A feeling of emptiness and loss like that of missing a good ol’ friend only now, they’re gone forever.

“Who leaves the pine-tree, leaves his friend,
Unnerves his strength, invites his end.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson ~ "Woodnotes"

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I Love America, the Past

A personal quest kind of blog

“At some point … we became a nation of whining, sniveling, complaining, suing, Prozac-gobbling, label-warning, non-spanking, airbag-surrounded, water-conserving, designated-driving, emailing geeks.” (Prioleau Alexander – “You Want Fries with That?”)

I come from a long line of very hard workers – as I am sure most of you are. They raised me believing that nothing is ever achieved without sweat, blood and tears. And most often than not, the government, your company, your rich brother, or just life in general, good ol’ Karma, will rob you of everything you’ve got. And that’s just normal. But no matter the hardships, you worry about yourself, and keep going.

I moved to America, leaving everything I had and knew behind, because I was also raised that in America, things are different. You work hard, and you get to keep most of it (except for the taxes, of course, but they have laws for that!). Injustices are punished and fairness is restored. People are respectful and own their actions.

I was raised to believe that in America all things are possible. I grew up reading the stories of the making of this beautiful nation, stories of freeing of the Old South and of shaping up of the great, big Wild West where people started with nothing but their own bodies and own two hands, and slowly and assiduously, made a life. For them, and their followers.

Back in the day where there was no law, no boundaries, and nothing but willing, hardworking people with a vision. And thus America was built. No complaining about hardships, just a big, wonderful dream of making it. They crossed an ocean, they fought persecution and extreme poverty, diseases unknown, and they made a country. They had will. They had hope. They had drive. They had grit! And amazing things did happen – the civilization we enjoy today is proof of that. That’s the America of my childhood stories. The sense of adventure, and freedom to achieve something lured me in like an iris does a bee!

As they often tell you, once you get closer, the shine seems to fade, however. I sometimes wonder, in my day to day life, when and where did that shine disappear? I am wondering are we truly the followers of such wonderfully driven and resolute people that built this unequal under the sun nation, of freedom, equality and hope?! Where are today’s whiners, and complainers, and weaklings truly coming from? When did apathy replace fortitude?!

Our world today is full of people who are mostly ungrateful, self-entitled, self-absorbed, over-consuming, space-hogging, comfort seekers, who need buttons and “apps” for everything to avoid using a minimum effort for anything. The pride is still there, however, but its roots are gone!

I am still to find the true passion that built this country in our every day life, especially in days like today where this passion is needed. It’s so sad, some days, to watch this! A myth busted is always disappointing, but even more so when that myth was the Bible of your own life. We all complain about too much work and not enough pay, and we too often forget about people who just a couple of hundred of years ago were still tracking across an empty and beautiful land full of nothing but dust, starting farms and building roads with nothing but their own backs! Too much work?!

I hear people every day that that “have to have” comfort, and recognition, and respect, but they show little effort to earn those. The sense of expectation is far bigger than the sense of deserving.

We criticize that the waitress is rude, the internet is too slow, the burger is too dry, the a/c is not cold enough, there is no customer service anymore – and these are all unacceptable, unless – unless – unless – we are in the business of providing these! If we are supposed to provide these for others, all of a sudden, things change. Then we want amendments! “Well, yeah, I talked bad to my customer but my five year old is sick with the flu so I didn’t get much sleep last night” or “I showed up for work every day last month – why didn’t I get a bonus?!”. Or “Oh, yeah, Sir, your internet is slow, but you can’t stream a movie, have 100 tabs open, upload pictures and a movie all at the same time. Sorry.” But this shall not apply to us.

We find such easy excuses when we forget how people before us could not afford them, as their lives depended on their own drive and resolution. They were meant to follow those or perish! How and when did we forget that we actually have to participate in order to reap rewards? That we have to care? That life is hard, but then the pay is grand? We have technology, but the rules of common sense should still apply, don’t you think?!

I think when Bush II got elected, and even worse, re-elected, mediocrity was accepted as the new law of the land. All of a sudden, “life was not that bad for a C grade student” and we could not leave anyone behind! Striving for excellence and trying harder, staples that built America, were never to return as part of the equation of making an American. Excuses flourished. “Good try” replaced “good job” at every level of society. And “good try” was good enough.

There is no accountability anymore. We sue the city because they don’t build fences around rivers, so our kids won’t drown. We come on the radio and declare: “Well, if society wants me to be skinny, they need to provide me with the tools to know what I am eating (about putting calories and fat content on menus nationwide) so I can be skinny”. Really? Seriously? You should have called us first, before your first bite – we would have clued you in! But would you have listened? There are always choices – and today, it’s hip to make the wrong ones and then find a scapegoat to sue.

The decay you see in this society is visible, to me at any level. Our teens might not know who Dostoyevsky, or Cezanne were. Or even Fitzgerald or Frost. But virtually every one of them misses life going by because their heads are buried in a smart phone with a thousand apps doing absolutely nothing, at all times. If I thought finding humor in Jackass was bad, more recently, our society started finding humor in “the human centipede” – and that says enough!

Where I come from we say that one can become weary of “too much good”, and I think that’s what happened to our country. Except for the blue collar worker, or the under minimum wage worker at WalMart, we are all becoming weary of too much good – and the things that “matter” to today’s world are frightening and embarrassing.

Whatever happened to the dream I had of America? A land where everyone was free, happy, resourceful, intelligent, with endurance and drive and worked towards something bigger and better than just shining their navel?!

I talk with friends and family from other cultures and this new era of America is a laughing stock for everyone out there. We boast loud and clear that we don’t need to fix out health system, because we don’t want to lose access to our medicine which is the “best in the world”, and yet I was given the wrong treatment for a sinus infection! And the misdiagnoses, inflated prices, poor paperwork, unresponsiveness, lack of care abound in every family I know!

We have no interest in culture, no manners, our political system is just as bad as everyone else’s out there, and yet we not only don’t think we should be the ones to fix it, but we emptily demand the respect of everyone else in the world, forgetting that respect is earned and there is no kind of real, worthwhile leadership other than that by example. We still clench our fist across our heart and declare ourselves patriots on July 4th. Our pride grows inversely proportional to our resourcefulness and involvement.

I fear some days that all this Americanism is contagious and I am becoming more American than I ever wanted to be. But the choice is to be a cynic – and I am not sure what’s worse.

I still love America, and I am still happy and grateful that I am one of her citizens. But, as a true Romanian passeiste, I love the past more. I also love it because it still allows the freedom for every one of us to be whoever we are, regardless of what’s going on around us. For now. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a chance not to forget my own past.

I stepped off the box, but if I could make one more suggestion: grab a copy of the “Fries” book quoted above! It will open your eyes to a whole new world. The world you are living in today.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

From "Family Town" to "Everything Town"

Interesting fact: Did you know that tiramisu is made with … lemons instead of coffee in some Utah County restaurants?! For those who don’t get it, just google “coffee forbidden Utah” and find out.

We are so lucky to be so close to Park City for so many reasons. Not just because it’s a picturesque place to visit, with breathtaking mountains and beautiful architecture, but it’s our breath of fresh air. Literally and figuratively!

We go to Park City for The World Market. We go there for the Whole Foods store. We go there for The Eating Establishment restaurant and Squatters' IPA. We go there for good bagels. We go every summer for Park Silly Sunday Market, and every fall for The Parade of (vacation) Homes.

But most of all, we go there to escape into a sense of normalcy! It’s our chance to remind ourselves we still live in the US of A, and not on a patriarchal estate, somewhere, on a remote island where God locked us up and threw the key away.

In our very guarded, very securely, ever so carefully and morally tightly packed ‘Family County’ we feel like suffocating some days. After tripping on strollers everywhere in our town, after dining next to “The Smiths, family of 23”, of which adults are always outnumbered, every Friday night, no matter what restaurant we pick, after weeks and months of frowns when we order wine in a restaurant and a parade of several waiters in one order because the 16 year old, nor the 18 year old, nor their parent waiters know how to make a ‘non-virgin’ margarita, it’s nice to go “out” (literally) and … have choices!

Funny how our lives change. As the old cliché goes, you don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone. Ordering a drink, being in an adult place, like a bar, and feeling that comfortable unwinding kind of feeling at the end of a long week, where you congregate with other adults and hash out the stress gone by, used to be commonplace a year and a half ago, in another state. Not anymore. Now, it’s a treat that you have to travel to the next city to get.

This past weekend, we got away for an impromptu couple of hours to the said Mecca of Park City. We ate at Bandit’s Barbecue and I re-discovered another long time culinary love of mine that I don’t order but maybe once a year: fried pickles, baby! And here I was thinking that I left them buried into the Ol’ South! Not so.

We also took the chairlift across Main Street and beyond – more than an hour of peace, quiet, fresh pine and sap fragrances, and lots of fresh air. That was such a recharging experience, too! There is something overwhelmingly serene and therapeutic about being forced to just sit, with nowhere to go, and just be. Just breathe and watch and listen. And wonder. That’s what a chairlift does.

But as beautiful as the nature was, and always is, our most favorite part was just to connect with “other” kinds of people. Less judgy, perhaps, and more accepting (or completely ignorant!) of their neighbors. We enjoyed seeing the big, wide, crazy world out there, first hand, past the borders of our subdivision and small city life: colorful people and street décor, no reservations young artists of all sorts of media, we loved enjoying the exotic smells of street foods, like Thai and Peruvian, loved even seeing the oddities, like super fancy mobile restrooms (not the kind you think!), funky art like necklaces made of bent spoons and forks, and spoiled rotten puppies, as well as people eating out on the sidewalks on small patios and decks, taking in the mountain dim sun!

Most importantly, we loved just feeling like ourselves again. With freedom to talk however we want, and order without any nervousness that they might be out of … adult beverages on a weekend, freedom to even shop, on a Sunday …Freedom to move about without tripping on 2 year olds. We forgot there for a minute we’re in the same state. We forgot we’re not on vacation yet. And the ever so joyful and acute feeling of letting go and enjoying the moment was one last plus for which Park City will always be our get-out-and-breathe little getaway! Till next time, world …we’re back on the estate. *Sigh*

For pictures from this midday adventure, click the “last chair”.

Coming back from the mountain on the chairlift - last chair floating by us ...

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Parade

So, my husband and I are home improvement junkies. We watch everything there is to watch on HGTV and DYI Network, and we parade all of the homes there are to parade in a season, three counties over. We like to learn about what’s possible in a home, just because we’re both, at core, really, home bodies. We need to make it as comfortable as we can, right?! And what are you gonna do when you make less money than your heart desires to spend? You dream, and you snoop on others who can afford it, right?!

And you can surely dream while visiting these places – for as many great ideas as we have gotten from these tours, we have gotten that many crazy ones, too. And the people watching is priceless!

Great ideas we have seen. And I am not talking about the really “crazy”, extravagant ones, like golf courses in the basement, and skate boarding half pipes, and mini movie theaters with 20 recliners on premises. Or basement bars with 4-5 suspended television sets above your head. Or indoor pools and bedroom balconies complete with hot tubs and water slides into the waterfall pool down below … I am also talking about the practical, new ideas that we can actually use in real life, for better insulation, cost saving siding and roofing, creative and economical ways to build heating and cooling systems, using solar and wind energy. The list goes on and on. These latter features are really the lessons we learn, constructively, for when we might be ready, one day, to build our own humble abode. One day!

With every house we see, we become more and more fascinated by what’s deemed “comfortable” and “needed” in today’s world. And what is a home anymore? Is it just a place to shelter you from the seasons and offer you comfort at the end of a long week? Or very much a showcase of how much money you have and how wild your architect and interior designer get? Do these people really need all the 10 bedrooms and 12 baths? Really? I know Utah people have large families, but seriously? Most of these mansions have so many “toys” they would never be fit for kids anyway. A horse barn and a waterfall? And a vintage kitchen as if peeled from a French magazine?! Sometimes I wonder how they even have time to cover by foot all the square footage in their own home, in a whole year! I bet you they stash stuff in closets and forget about it, and end up with 10 of the same thing when they eventually move out.

View of the Salt Lake Valley from the living room of one of the homes on Capitol Hill

The size of the homes is not the only thing that amazes me, though. The materials sometimes are unreal, as well as the facilities. You can see everything from elevators to complicated intercom and surround sound systems, from wrap around porches on the second floor to mini play rooms tucked under staircases for the really little ones.

Sinks, in various shapes and colors, made of anything from Murano to recycled glass, the quiet, infinity bathtubs, the efficient (and also quiet) toilets, the 2 toilet master baths, each with its own little room, the views of some of these homes … oh, my! And some homes are built just purely for fun – like the replica of the “Up” house – yes, a real life, very much in-livable copy of the house you saw in Pixar’s “Up” cartoon. Tell me that’s not done purely for experiment and show?!

The "Up" House - complete with the balloons and a hired (or volunteer?!) "actor". The living room has a mural of 'Paradise Falls' above the fireplace and many other movie details

They had on the radio today that the majority of people in Haiti don’t have “permanent homes:”, they live in tents, under tarps and cardboard roofs, in these temporary shelters, since last year’s earthquake, but in America, we can afford to spend a minimum of $100,000 for a “simple home” just for the sake of building.

But it’s fun to snoop. Except for the low points.

The visits are usually fun, except for some “snags” that cramp our picky styles. Like, the infamous “surgeon’s booties”. Man, whoever invented the system was not very bright! I mean – the use of these booties at the home shows: they ask you to slip them over your shoes, not to step on the rugs/ carpet/ hardwoods with your muddy shoes (no mud in the desert, mind you, but …). The worst part is not the wearing of them, but the fact that they reuse them over and over and over again for three weeks straight. And since it’s summer time, most everyone wears sandals – and the booties are wet and smelly from likewise feet! Some homes ask you to put the booties on over you bare feet – again, reusing them forever … and then … it gets really juicy! Some parades, however, forgo the booties, and those are our favorite, no matter what homes they have on display!

Then, it’s the mandatory “chat”. There is usually a representative from the builder’s business or the realtor who’s listing the house – and they must talk to you, about their business, and about your needs, and how the two might meet. And we're not talkers.

I must say, though, other than their normal "business curiosity" – they’re in this business to make money, right?! – they are not too bad. They don’t require you to sign anything, at any time. Some of them might offer a drawing for home décor or other home services, but they are not forcing anyone to sign up – which is pretty nice.

But then, there is the painter guy who makes all the art and murals in the house. And the stay-at-home mom jewelry maker, and the Blazer scooter salesman, and … the trust fund guy – all waiting for you to exit through the garage and while you’re helplessly and embarrassingly and disgustedly peeling off your booties, they jump on your back like a flock of hungry vultures – even with nothing but dirty looks at times - making you feel even smaller than wearing the booties does and answer their lame questions about when was the last time you thought of a will or a trust fund?! I guess they make money at this – but, again: seriously?! Is that a place to “hit people up” for stuff like that?! Credit card offers are next, I am sure!

As for the other visitors, they are usually polite and courteous. Except for the high maintenance wife who insists on yelling out how cheap everything looks compared to her own house, while she snaps shots with her Iphone and sends them over to her rich husband, on business in Shanghai, I am sure. Or except for the parents who think the open house is a new playground that just opened for their 5 kids, and who are letting them behave likewise … But then … they never offer lessons in behaving in public at these joints, so what are you going to do?! All are welcome, and as we know: “all” is a pretty wide range.

Overall, it’s a fun experience. Educational, in many ways, enlightening in more of others, and never boring – by any stretch of the imagination. If you think it’s boring, just ask my husband for the cure: open a cupboard or a closet, and you’ll find a reason for a chuckle. Almost always!

We were so shocked that someone had the guts to display this at the entrance. We had to emigrate to Salt Lake County for this, but ... it was a treat!

Monday, July 25, 2011


He would have been 40 today. In a strange, prophetic way, he always knew he won’t make it, though. And that, I think, makes it even sadder.

For over three years now, I have been thinking about him every day. And praying, as promised, for his strength, wherever he may be. I hope he has that … What we have here, after 3 years, is still less light, less spirit, a black cloud when we watch The Phillies win, or the Cavaliers lose, or …

I have thought of writing about today all day long, and I am still at a loss for words. A sense of deeper than deep unfairness that he didn't live to see today chokes me up! And how could it not?!

He is still very much alive, and very much, painfully gone, every day … It never gets easier. What they say about time healing wounds doesn’t work when someone slashes your throat to its core with pain, unfairness, helplessness …

The lessons he taught me in strength, friendship, forgiveness, courage allow me to move on, somewhat – but his loss is still crippling. Taking our loved ones for granted is not excusable anymore …

It’s hard to find the right words, because for a person like he was there will never be words big enough. The void left, too deep of a crater to fill … even with sentences …

The only things I could say have been said before – some of them in this song that one of his best friends sent me after the funeral. This song, and its lyrics “carried me through” the past years. Thank you, R.D. – you, as always, came through!

Rest in peace, my dear friend, and I hope you make another world out there brighter and happier just like you did ours …

All of my dreams
Seem to fall by the side
Like a discarded thought
Or the day's fading light
But I know that if I could just
See you tonight

At times we may fall,
Like we all tend to do
But I'll reach out and find
That I've run into you
your strength is the power
That carried me through

Your kindness for weakness
I never mistook
I worried you often,
Yet you understood
That life is so fleeting,
These troubles won't last

Inspired me truly
You did from the start
To not be afraid
And to follow my heart
There's a piece of you with me
They can't tear apart

In times we may fall
Like we all tend to do
Your strength is the power
That carried me through

Forever …

Forever I'll find you, forever we'll be
Forever your power and strength stays with me

(Dropkick Murphys – Forever)