Saturday, October 31, 2015

Many Reasons to Live or not to Live in Utah Valley

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog about 10 reasons why I should move to Denver, CO. It was just a spur of the moment "hey, I went to Denver for a weekend and loved it" kinda thing, but it turned out to be one of the most popular blogs I have written, over time.

So, I thought, lately, to write a similar post, about the area that I live in right now, since I saw, with the first one, that people find these tips helpful and since I have a little bit more insight on actually living here longer than a weekend.

I started this as a list of "pros and cons" but I have dropped that organization, because that kind of classification invites labeling and judging. These are just my own observations as a Utah Valley resident, and I choose to not put any kind of judgement into them. If they are on this list, they are things that seemed to me, and me only, worthy of mentioning, and nothing more to it. "Good" or "bad" are subjective matters, and as such, they belong to each of our own individuality.

If you don’t follow this blog regularly, we moved to Utah from The East Coast about 5 and a half years ago, for my husband’s job. It’s been a discovery process ever since and we try, to this day, to make this our home.

Some things that I have found to be different and unique from everywhere I have lived before, and some things have required me to adjust in the past 5 and a half years:

If you want to live in a diverse area, this is not the place to be. The population here is pretty mono-chromatic. I think last time I checked, gay people can marry and we do have the first black Mormon congresswoman in history in the government, but … for the most part, we are pretty single toned when it comes to diversity. Utah is still 86% white, in case you’re wondering. When we travel, the first thing we notice after landing in Denver, Atlanta, or even Dallas is "wow! people DO come in all sorts of colors". We miss that, here.

The air is absolute crap in The Valley. The rest of the state is pretty pristine and wild, and less trafficked, but in the Salt Lake and Utah Valleys (anywhere from Ogden to Payson, if you look on the map – where the jobs are), the air is an absolute nightmare! Cold days in the winter, and desert fires in the summer render the air un-breathable most of the year. This was my biggest (less than pleasant) surprise when I moved here. Most days, I feel like we are dying away like rats from breathing this filthy air. You can literally taste it, and  it tastes like rubber and melted metal, almost year-round. Willie Nelson was not thinking of Utah when he was singing about "Clear mountain mornings ...".

And another thing that is crappy - it's traffic! For a state with a population of less than 3 million people and a density of 34 bodies per square mile, we surely do feel like trying to kill each other in traffic! Traffic is the absolute worse I have seen in this country and one of the worst I have seen in the world. Romania still takes the cake on that, but Utah is another brand of it altogether. I used to complain that people don't know how to yield - they just stop and can't merge. Well, in Utah, there is no Stop signs! There are only thoroughfares with no markings! They will run you over and then cry for a few months that it was a tragedy! I have never seen more people run over by trains than in Utah, either, simply because people pay no attention! 

The only upside to traffic is how breezy and uncluttered it is on a Sunday! Highways and stores are empty, because the majority of people are in church! The downside is, though - some of your favorite stores and restaurants (sometimes entire malls) are closed on Sundays. Really - the mall closed on Sunday. Imagine that!

Although the job market has been great, even during the recession,   women make considerably less than men in this area. I usually stay away from generalizations (at least on public forums), but when you live here, as a woman, you feel like no one really expects you to work. I have been promoted in my job, right here, in Utah, but when at the meeting table surrounded by 20 men, I had no voice. I was rudely and blatantly shut up with "we need an opinion that matters" right in my facec. I hope that is not the case in all the companies around here, and maybe things are different in Salt Lake City, which is a bigger and more cosmopolitan town. However, Utah county is very much stuck in patriarchy, as far as I can tell. 

If you like a free ticket to buy alcohol anywhere, including your grocery store, you have some adjusting to do when moving to Utah. Although the law has loosened up since 2001 when I first visited the state (no more membership to be paid to the restaurant when you order liquor), you still cannot buy wine at the grocery store, nor beer that is stronger than 3.2% alcohol. You will need to find your closest ABC store for that – and even then, the selection is not great.

Along the same lines: you cannot go anywhere “for just a drink”. Unless you buy food, you can never order just a drink, anywhere, bar, or restaurant alike.  You can also not order another drink unless the drink in front of you is completely gone. These are the rules. Trust me. They will enforce them. And get used to ordering a Riesling and the pimply kid who's taking your order telling you there is no such food on their menu. When you explain that is a "wine", they blush and say "they cannot fulfill your order because they are underage. You have to wait for the owner or bar tender to come and take your order and actually deliver the drink. Even when they do have an alcohol license. It's a process. Also, expect to be the only patron in a 200+ occupancy joint that consumes alcohol. And yes, some people will stare.

This is yet another different way of life, I guess: expect most of your neighbors to be consumed by their involvement in their (LDS) Church. The Church here is not just a means to a social life, or a means to eternal salvation. It's a way of life - The Church decides what organizations you should support as charity work, where you should get your savings, who makes your financial plan, what (physical) church (building) you go to, they organize yard sales, chili cook-offs and kids' activities, even are involved in your kids' scouting camps and all. And as a member, you are expected to pitch in. This leaves little time for people to make friends outside the church. We have managed to make a couple of friends, from within and outside The Church during our time here, but it has not been the easiest thing.

You cannot grow much of anything here. Let’s face it: you’re in the desert! I chuckle (and yes, you can say I judge!) at the large number of people who are stubborn to grow a lawn and even more stubborn to keep it lush year-round. I cannot even begin to imagine what their water bill is! We, on the other hand, embraced the environment, and we put a rock garden in our front yard. Nothing but boulders and pebbles, and it looks great, I think. I do have a garden, and it does need almost daily watering for the few tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and herbs I harvest every year, but I would not make it bigger than 2 beds.
Speaking of water: I have never had a water softening system anywhere else in my life - but you must invest in one here, because the water is incredibly harsh. I have never been through so many bottles of body moisturizer in one year, as I have been since I moved to Utah. Both the air and the water are harsh sandpaper into your entire body's skin!

This is  a "con" for me, personally, but I know lots of people who might embrace this: people around here love their superheros and their make-believe, " I am the maker and the king of the galaxy" movies and books! I guess when you can't have alcohol, or coffee, or anything to "excite you" in your life, you need some adrenaline rush from somewhere - they love sci-fi and XXX games! Probably 75% of all the 30 year olds I know have had a knee or a hip injury they got trying to fly through the air, or flip over hills while skiing. No joke! In their mind, they are superheroes!

Along the same line, and because today is Halloween - I have never seen anyone ever making a bigger deal over Halloween as these folks. You know the rule of "if my front porch light is off, we're not opening for trick-or-treaters"?! Well, yeah, no, not in Utah County! It can be dark as a moonless night out there and the house wrapped up in darkness, you will get trick-or-treaters for 4 hours straight at your door, and they won't budge even when you make no motion of intention from the inside that you will ever open the door. Parents and kids dress up here, and they have an office party, and neighborhood parties, organized by the church, usually (several, for the different age groups), not to mention parties that individual houses decide to have. It's a ghoulish culture, I tell ya!

No pun intended, but ... prepare to have the "are you prepared for emergencies" conversations (yes, as in multiples, and constantly) when you move to Utah. This state makes a very lucrative business from selling "preparedness items" and ideas all year round. No, not when we are supposed to be hit by ... oh, wait, we don't have tornadoes, earthquakes or hurricanes here at all! They "prepare" all the time. The radio tells you that you must, the billboards, the co-worker does too ... They have conferences, too, and classes on how to do it right ( Most of my native Utah acquaintances have bomb shelters in their home and huge storage rooms, with food and water supplies (and not only) to last them for months, I hear. And yes, the church is very much driving this, as well. We even have emergency drills in our neighborhood organized by "the bishop" of the church in this area, to which we silently and civilly non-participate. It is, I have found, quite another piece of reality you must get accustomed to, if you come from a  world that is happily oblivious to any such threats, like me. I come from a  world that leaves everything up to God - and lives blissfully ignorant that there is absolutely anything we could do the prepare should anyone stir up God's wrath.

One of the bigger challenges for me, personally, has been the exposure to guns around here. Most people carry guns, even to work, and when they go out shopping at the mall with the family, on a Saturday. For what, I do not know! I have met stay at home mommies of 3 or more that organize all women gun safety parties in the evenings. In North Carolina, I had a crafting group of friends and a book club. Here, I know women who teach one another how to "safely" handle guns! It's not unusual to hear on the radio that cops get shot just at a routine car stop, or even security guards getting shot at some store in a strip mall. You definitely have the feeling that the Wild West is not completely gone and people have not gotten the memo that we have laws now, that don't require us taking them in our hands to make justice! This bit is a little unnerving for me, who am not comfortable around guns at all.
Job market is amazing in this state, and particularly around Utah Valley. The amount of entrepreneurship in this area is flabbergasting to me! There is a strong software presence, but also call centers, marketing centers and multi-marketing companies that pay well, not to mention the hospitality industry of ski resorts, film festivals and such. See the “con” about what women get paid here, though. It’s not a fair game!

The cost of living is not extremely high and there are lots of grocery stores and discount food stores that accommodate large families with only one income. However, the cost of houses is higher than what I was exposed to in North Carolina, for instance. Houses here are huge (again: big families), and I have not seen any condo community for less than $120K/ unit. Utahans are incredibly crafty and natural born DIY-ers, too! I know folks who raise their chickens, smoke their own meats, make their kids' clothing, raise their own bees, and can-can-can everything they buy at the Farmers Market every summer! It's contagious, too, so after living here for a while, you, too, will dabble into one or more of the DIY "crafts". Salt Lake City even has an annual DYI fair

The cost of a high-end meal is pretty steep, but then, that is the case anywhere else. The family restaurants and chain ones are reasonable, but the high-end ones are very expensive and also clustered around Salt Lake City or any of the ski resorts. Not many "elegant" options around the suburb cities, I would say.

We talked about the liquor restrictions above. But the one good thing about the alcohol laws of Utah is that there are no dry counties in the state, nor are there any “dry” times of the week in purchasing alcohol anywhere. So, if you want to buy beer before 12 PM on July 4 on a Sunday, you can do so at any grocery store that is open. ABC stores are closed on Sundays, but that is because of a Government restriction (nation-wide). Other than that, you can buy your real liquor till 10 PM every day of the week, including Saturdays.

To continue with the alcohol theme, Park City has a whiskey distillery with a restaurant to die for, and the state has several breweries and beer pubs that showcase hundreds of different beers from all over the world. There are wineries in the Southern part of the state, as well, with whole resorts built around them. Once you’re here, you’ll know where to go and the selection of local beers and imports is not that bad, for an alcohol unfriendly state. It’s not Oregon, but … it’s better than South Carolina, I would say!

I am sure there are still so many other facets to life in The Rockies: the ranches, the rodeos, the super-conservative politics. But none of these directly fully aware-ing-ly affected out lives here. I never set out to make a documentary of the life in the West, just a small note collection of my own experiences. That's all.

Despite what you hear outside of Utah, and although 62% of the population of the state (more like 98% of Utah County where we live and work) is Mormon, no one will try very hard or very openly to convert you to Mormonism. They welcome visitors in church, but not in their teaching classes, to my knowledge. And no one comes pounding at your door for "conversion" conversations, either. Your LDS neighbors will be mostly very dedicated to their beliefs and lifestyle, but they will not try to convince you otherwise.

Although the soil is hard, and not much grass grows here (thistles are not grass), Utah grows the sweetest tomatoes in the whole wide world! I am not sure whether it’s the harsh, acidic soil, or the dry air, or the pelting sun, but the tomatoes here are healthy, large, juicy and sweet. On the occasional wet summer (not many of those!), they won’t produce as much, but they are still tasty.

“But it’s a dry heat”. Ok, to me, heat is heat! I lived in The Carolinas for 12 years, and wet heat is punishing. After 5 years in the desert, I can tell you, it’s just as bad when there is no promise of shade (there are no trees here!), and when the red rock gets so hot you can fry an egg on it, and starts reflecting the heat from 360 degree angles everywhere, cooking you alive! However, I live for the cool nights! The minute that sun settles down behind the mountains, the air is crisp and cool, and there is such a thing as “leave the window open all night to cool off the room”. In North Carolina, even at night, the air would be musty and thick with humidity! Here, you can sit by the fire, in August, under the starlit sky and just cozy up in a light blanket and feel the wind of the desert caressing your cheek. It’s pure health, as my grandma would say.

If you look really hard, there is culture around here. There are theater companies, in both Salt Lake and Provo area, there are great concerts that come to town and museums and traveling exhibits, too! They are not as frequent, I am sure, as New York City or LA, but they can compare with bigger cities like Atlanta or Charlotte for instance.

If you do have a family, then you might find this place to be close to heaven on earth for families - the restaurants send coupons to your house every other week with discounted meals for kids, or discounts when you buy "4 or more". So you can definitely have a family on a low budget here. Also, every family with kids has some sort of a pasttime vehicle (RV, boat, ATV) and they spend most of the year outside, just staying active and enjoying the beautiful outdoors around us. You can definitely make friends much quicker through kids - I think - not something I can say I have had experience with, though. 

If you have a family of two, like mine, get used to the question "how many kids do you have?". In the rest of the world is "do you have any children?". Here, if you are as old as my husband and I the question is "how many do you have" and "how old are your kids". My husband just got offered a coupon book to kids' activities around the county a couple of weeks ago with the smiling nod: "you know, for when your grand-kids visit". And this, from our next door neighbor!

The obvious needs to be stated here, as well: this state and the states around it are just gorgeous! Just within themselves - the vastness and the beauty of the landscape are mind blowing! You really feel God and His presence in every sunset, in every rocky spine of the hills, in every babbling stream, in every fawn frisky-ing around the raw green of spring.

There is a peace and a tranquility about it all that I have not found anywhere else in The States! There is nothing of the over-crowdedness of the East Coast around here. You have plenty of elbow room, and if you don't like your neighbors or can't stand their screaming kids for 5 more minutes, you can just jump in the car and you're only 5 to 10 minutes away from wilderness! Go and be quiet for a spell!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Tastes, Sounds and Views of a Full Summer

Wowie! I feel like jumping off the roller coaster and my feet still want to keep spinning!

We have had the busiest summer I can remember, in a long, long while. Nothing but one planned weekend after another with hardly any break in-between.

I have stopped a couple of times and talked about Montana and our camping trip on here, but I have not mentioned any of the other beautiful memories we have created this year. And just when you thought I was a slacker or a bad friend for not keeping in touch as often, let me just take you through our journey between Memorial and Labor Day this year.

Here we go ...

We kicked off the season with Parade of Homes. I had put three such events on our summer calendars (corresponding to various counties), but we managed to get in just one of them. The other two fell on "out of town" weekends. Bummer, but maybe next year! 


This year's Parade's staples were funky light fixtures and beautiful views. The homes were almost always set in the perfect environment to make the most out of our backdoor backdrop.

On July Fourth, we had my mother in law visit us, and we spent the long weekend sightseeing around our town, which is nothing to sneeze at! We had dinner at Sundance, we climbed to the top of Snowbird's 11,000 ft tall Hidden Peak and we hand lunch at Highwest Distillery  in Park City, before walking around the Silly Market.

Wandering in Park City, at The Silly Market

And what says "summer' louder than cooking outside? We had a cookout, too, that weekend and on Memorial Day, too.

Cooking out at home

July is also our favorite month for outdoor concerts. This year, we spent the night in Salt Lake City and decided to make a weekend out of it: we saw The Zac Brown Band at Usana Amphitheater and we spent the next day shopping and discovering new foods in the city: we ate at Mazza Middle Eastern Cuisine, which is a true must go to, if you're ever in the area. It stands out not only for the  authenticity and freshness of the food, but also for the friendliness of staff and owners.

Zac Brown Band - the Jekyll and Hyde Tour - Usana Amphitheater

Mazza lunch - stuffed grape leaves, falafel over rice

We also went to our now yearly traditional summer play - Salt Lake Acting Company's The Saturday Voyeur -  and got a good laugh or five after a delicious Thai dinner at Sawadee - another new find this year. Thank goodness for friends who enlighten us (both on the play and the food alike)!

Later on that month, we took a weekend drive through Solitude ski resort, and then through the mountains to Midway - both very picturesque settings in the Rockies, and must sees for those visiting. You forget you are in the US of A for a minute and the views and the architecture carry you to the European Alps. The food and the beers help that feeling, too. One full day ride felt like a whole week away!

Solitude, Utah
This outdoor cafe in Midway, UT is welcoming and delicious! 

During the last days of July, we got our fix for street food and more local vendors at Spanish Fork Fiesta Days. We did not go to the rodeo this year, but the fair grounds and the tacos, hot dogs and popcorn on the sidewalk did the trick. 

Scrapbook 1: Spanish Fork Fiesta Days
More street food: the ribbon fries were another first food find of this summer, at the DIY Festival in Downtown Salt Lake

Speaking of tradition: we went to our second Payson Salmon Supper which is this huge cookout where the city of Payson (next door to us) flies in all the wild salmon they can catch in Alaska and cooks it on wood chips on giant fires in the downtown park. The food is delicious, and the feeling of community is hard to describe. The music, the people watching, the smells and the delicious food at the end make the sometimes 2 hour lines worth it. And I don't say this just about any line.
Scrapbook 2: Payson Salmon Supper

August was also Montana vacation time. This was my first time in Whitefish, Montana and Glacier National Park, as well as our first time in Cody, Wyoming. I have already talked plenty about how amazingly beautiful Montana was, so I won't detail it here. I could be writing several books about it. As breathtakingly beautiful as Montana was, Cody was just soaked in history: every street corner, the Buffalo Bill museum, the Irma Hotel - everywhere we stepped and everything we touched had some story to tell - about hardships, hope, carving a new continent, about true grit. I am so unbelievably lucky to live so close to (or right in the middle of) these spots that other people know about only from Western Hollywood movies and maybe books!

Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming
I know September is not "technically" a summer month, but this year, it very much has been! Even now, as I write this, my fan is on and the windows are wide open - it's nice and summery out there in the dusk. So, I'll continue my stories about our estival wanderings ...

September was Canada mini-vacation month. We went up to Montreal to visit my sister. Montreal is always like a third home (I know, I know ... where does it stop, right?!) to me. It feels very familiar and very cozy. Maybe because I am seeing it always through the eyes of people I love, but it has a familiarity about it that makes every visit comfortable. 

This year, we drove up to Mont Tremblant, a ski resort on the Eastern Coast, and we spent a day in Montreal's Old Port district, over brunch and visiting the St. Joseph Oratory - a rich architectural universe of the Catholic world. 

Although Mt. Tremblant was a zoo (Labor Day!), it was gorgeous!
St. Joseph Oratory - Montreal, QC

Of course, the best memory about Canada is just getting my fix of family and love that has real meaning. We loved seeing the kids and just having our fingers on the pulse of the passing time with them around. And how else would we learn about TrashPacks and Skylanders and stay "cool aunt & uncle"?!

          Taking a pre-dinner neighborhood walk with the family - St. Basile Le Grand, QC

Oh yeah - and have I mentioned that we also bought a new truck and a new RV this summer, too? Yes - busy with what all that entails, too - and learning to use the RV and navigate it and care for it, and just own it, or be owned by it - I have not decided which.

We camped three times this summer - the most we have ever camped in one season during the five and a half years of being together. We actually had more camping trips planned before fall crept in quietly with its cold temperatures and more out of town activities. We closed the year with a wedding and with a visit to see dear friends who live far, too far away.

                     Summer also means "camp fires" and my husband makes the best ones!

Sometimes in there, we squeezed in some yard work time, too - we have the most green yard we have ever had - I guess after years of hard work and planting the right stuff and watering in copious amounts, something actually took root. We harvested and canned and tied all that up in bow, for the next year, almost (still have some tomatoes and peppers on the vines and some rosemary to dry up for the winter).

 Grape leaves, raspberries, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are only a few of our garden's
                                    harvest this year. Very happy with it!

Usually, I am so depressed when fall comes. I am simply never ready for the cold months, for covering up my toes and packing them in closed shoes for months and months on end. I know the months to come will be long and dreary. But for the first time (maybe I am getting older, truly?!), I really am looking forward to the winter, with the comfort foods and fireplace crackling, with the mulled wine and the copious amounts of baked goods in the house, the smell of cinnamon, spiced pumpkin and red apples candles, and later on of pine and mistletoe.

Time to close out the door for a bit and just take everything in. We've had a rich, happening summer and year, for sure. Looking forward to a temporary break and to recharge our batteries for what 2016 will bring, God willing.

I know "summer" means the ocean to most people out there - and we did get just a glimpse of ours, on our way to Montreal. I know: pretty bizarre, we flew over the Pacific (out of LAX) en route North East. Here's to happy plane wings to come and more restless summers ...