Saturday, November 13, 2021

Highlights of a 10-Day Road Trip Through Eastern North America

1 year, 11 months, 12 days. This is how long it’d been since our last long trip (which was a drive to Florida that launched a weeklong cruise in The Bahamas in November 2019). We did take smaller trips since then, some overnight ones, and many day trips, but we almost never left our state (North Carolina) during this time. Crossing the border for a few hours into Virginia during this time doesn’t really count as “leaving the state”.

But this year, prompted by a milestone birthday in Michigan that we simply could not miss and the fact that hey, we were in the neighborhood of Canada where we have more close family, we had to venture out, COVID19 precautions and all, and take a longer vacation.

Almost 10 days later we would have traveled through 8 states, one Canadian province, two countries, more than 2000 miles and would have learned so much! We chose to do all this in a huge road trip, with zero flying. As much as I miss traveling and really long trips, flying is still not on my list for the time being. Airlines cannot space out people on planes and people are so inconsiderate when it comes to hygiene in close spaces. Not to mention that, to my knowledge (and belief!) the COVID19 pandemic is far, oh, so far, from being “over” yet. So this trip had to be a driving one, where we could have a bit more control of our surroundings.

Traveling now is nothing like traveling in 2019, as you can imagine, unless you have lived under a rock for the past two years. The logistics are different, but also our fears, our caution, our “paranoia”, if you will, is a new thing to get used to and embrace. Yes, I say “embrace” because despite all the worry that you’re out there, in the world, exposed to all sorts of human garbage, despite the fact that some people are stupid and selfish and … wrong … you still must try to have some fun, make some memories and save something for your family album. Otherwise, all the travel and the bother would not be worth it …

There are a lot of things that will remain with us from this marathon trip. A lot of new things we experienced for the very first time which taught us so much. I really don’t have the time (nor you to read such long belaboring) or the memory for it all, but I did not want this trip to go unnoticed, so I am summarizing some of the highlights in this journal.

West Virginia toll roads. Seriously, West Virginia! $4 a pop times three to cross your state (on the same road) is a bit steep! Also: West Virginia, have you heard of these nifty little things called credit cards, yet? All of the tolls must be paid in cash in WV. I remember that my Canadian family drove through there in 2018 and they did not have any American cash so they could not pay the tolls. Well, three years later, there are still no credit cards allowed in West Virginia. All cash or get off the toll roads and navigate the back country roads for free.

By the time we crossed the state we were $12 down in tolls alone through a state that, albeit beautiful, does not impress in road quality. As a traveler, always looking for interesting things, I suppose this is meant to slow you down to take life in, or something. But you are on a busy highway, so stopping, getting your wallet out, counting your dollars, waiting to receive change (especially in a time where everywhere else in the country cash transactions are rare because of virus transmissibility…) is a bit odd. But it’s how they do it in WV, so be warned.  

Cuyahoga Valley National Park, OH. I have this crazy goal to visit all of the National Parks before I die. So, when we drive past one now, I will try to make it through it at least for a couple of hours. Cuyahoga Valley was achieving a small piece of such a goal. The one surprising thing was that although a park of almost exclusively deciduous trees, the leaves were hardly turned yet on October 23rd! I would have thought that Northern US, so close to the border with Canada, would have been past-peak for leaves-turning by that date, but the leaves were mostly green … We had time just for a very short hike, which was peaceful and made for a couple of good photo ops of bridges and train tracks. The park is very easy to just drive through. No fee required.

The Ohio Turnpike bridge seen from the Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Egrets on Lake Erie! Again: too late in the year to see these beautiful warm-weather (we thought!) birds as far North as the Canadian border. But there they were … A whole flock of them just chilling on a marsh outside Lake Erie. Can we assume global warming?! Perhaps …

Egrets outside Lake Erie

Speaking of Lake Erie. We got to see several Great Lakes on this trip: Erie, Ontario, and Michigan. We skirted around Lake Huron, but we never so much as got a glimpse of it. I remember learning about them in geography classes in middle school, back in Romania. They told us they look and feel like seas or mini-oceans, with minimal tides and big waves. They were not wrong. I grew up on the Black Sea coast and I can tell you – there is not much of a difference between any of the Great Lakes and a sea such as the Black Sea which I am most familiar with. Sure, the lakes are full of fresh water and the a sea would be full of salty water, but if you’re not swimming in them to know this, there is not much of a difference between them by just looking at them. They are vast, impressive bodies of water and they do not ever feel like peaceful “lakes” but more like troubled, angry, and restless seas or even oceans …

South Haven lighthouse on Lake Michigan

Crossing the border into Canada in times of pandemic. Now, this was the real adventure. Many months before our trip, when the border opened in Canada to Americans to be allowed to visit, my sister who lives in Montreal educated me about how to cross into Canada who has a very strict system for contact tracing and enforcing pandemic rules (vaccinations and masking). We had to sign up for this app called ArriveCAN which would hold all of our information (passport, vaccination card, Canadian address, reason for visit, personal data, etc) 72 hours before we cross the border. We even had to tell them the approximate time of when we will be at the border and which border crossing we would be using. This system looked intimidating and impressive. I know of nothing remotely similar in the US. When the borders originally opened, the rule was that Americans can cross into Canada by car, train, or ferry only with a proof of vaccination and that a 72-hour negative Covid19 test was only needed for people flying there. Well, we were driving, so we figured – no test.

Two days before getting ready to cross into Canada, we were in Michigan visiting with family and I decided that it’s time to finish signing up and completing all the information for the ArriveCAN system. As I was finishing that process up, I found out that we did, after all, need to present a negative PCR test (which is not the “rapid test”, of course – that would have been too convenient and too easy) that could take up to 48 hours to come back. So, this would have meant that if we took it that day, it might be back the very day we were supposed to cross into Canada so we could be in Toronto for our hotel reservation.

We had researched before the trip places where we could get a test in Michigan, should we need one, for any reason, so we already had this one place mapped out. We did not need an appointment, luckily, so we just drove through, and they took our samples and we filled out a form. We were told it’d be up to 48 hours but it’s more like 24 hours from what they’ve seen in the last little bit to get the results. The test itself ran extremely smoothly. We were impressed by how Michigan seemed to have everything down to a science almost.

We were supposed to get our results through email. The next day (24 hours) we kept refreshing our emails compulsively. Neither one of us got anything. So, that “it’s more like 24 hours” did not turn out to be true, after all. The second day, which was the day we were supposed to head out to Toronto, we practically did not turn our email app off and just stared at it all morning, refreshing and waiting … and panicking! Nothing.

I have worked with bureaucracy (and the medical field which is the worst of all in bureaucracy!) long enough to know that you do not rush these people. That when they say “48 hours” you better make damn sure you count down the very last second before you raise your hand and ask. But at about 45 hours (10 AM instead of 1PM when the test had been performed 2 days before) I lost my patience and I called. There was no answer, naturally! They placed you on this eternal hold where you knew no one would ever rescue you from.

I was picturing my cute little nephews waiting for us at the hotel that night and us not able to cross over and not able to be there to check everyone in (the hotel was in my name). They would have had to travel for hours from Montreal to Toronto, they had to interrupt school, our hopes and dream of finally meeting up after more than two years shattered. Because of COVID. Because of two governments in the “civilized” world that should have gotten their crap together already. I was angry. Disappointed. Mostly angry.

So I called. And called and called incessantly. I did not wait on hold. I dialed and if the on-hold voice came on, I hung up and called again. Till finally someone did pick up! The most helpful lady came on and explained that they had been trying to reach us the day before but I had not left a phone number (they told us they would send it through an email!) and they could not. It also turned out that they had misread my husband’s phone number and they probably called that, but they were calling the wrong person.

She asked me what my name was and she told me that they misread my handwriting and that the test is negative but the name on the test is different than my name so now she has to file a correction with the lab to have the negative test reissued. Every time I hear of someone having to “file” something … I know it’ll take a while. So I pleaded with her to please hurry because if it spills into another day I am losing thousands of dollars in hotel fees alone … Long story short: she sent me my husband’s proof of the negative test in my email (why they did not send his to his email will forever be a murky mystery to us) but I had to wait two extra hours for mine to be “corrected”. But we got our negative tests. Yay. Onward to Canada, negative test and ArriveCAN app ready and all. The border crossing should be a breeze now.

Only … not so fast.

We were both so nervous going towards Canada that during the two and a half hour journey from our family’s house in Michigan to the Port Huron – Sarnia border crossing we hardly spoke 10 words to each other. And mostly they were comments about the dark, foggy, gray day we were driving through.

At the border with Canada, this very friendly, masked lady officer asked us all the usual questions about why we were coming to Canada on a Wednesday (I didn’t know there was a special day you were supposed to travel to Canada, or in general?!), what we were bringing (“Did you know mace and pepper spray are considered weapons in Canada?”), and how much pot and cannabis products we were carrying. She looked at our passports and she asked for our negative tests (I have been more proud of a piece of paper in my life only when I got my American citizenship “diploma”. I was bubbling with pride for that hard-earned negative PCR COVID test, I tell you!).

She never once asked us for our ArriveCAN QR code where all of our information should have been stored. But right then and there, negative test in hand, she tells us that “Oops, this is not me doing this. But my computer just randomly picked you both to be tested today. So, here are your testing kits and you will go to this tent over there (she waived us) and get tested.”

So, here we were, just barely over the Canadian border, 48 hours since our last test (I suppose not official enough for Canada?) and taking another PCR test across the wall … Sigh. They asked us to sign up for yet another “system” called SwitchHealth. This is their contact-tracing system which seems to be very efficient, from what my family tells me. They, too, just like ArriveCAN, asked all the possible information about who we are, where we are going and we had to sign off upon threat of perjury that should we test positive that day, we would have to quarantine for 14 days at the address we were staying in Toronto (which was our hotel).

So now, let me tell you: you wanna know everything there is to know about me, my husband, our health, passport numbers, height, eye color, shoe size? Ask Canada! Between ArriveCAN and SwitchHealth, they’d be able to dig something up! We did receive the results on the SwitchHealth online portal (with an email notification), just like they told us at the border, in almost exactly 48 hours. They were very certain it will not be less than that and they were right. Like clockwork.

Two days was all we were spending in Toronto anyway, so we were wondering what would have happened if the results came in right as we were leaving – we would have “escaped” without quarantining, but … thank goodness we didn’t have to find that out!

Canada abounded in these signs - this one just as we entered Toronto

Canada was such a good visit! As scared and threatened by inconsiderate and lying people as I feel in the US about whatever they carry and expose me to, I felt 100% safe there. They truly have hand sanitizer dispensers every 10 feet in any indoor public space and during our stay there was not one of them that was not working or empty. They are all touchless too. You need a mask for all indoor places, no tolerance for unmasked people. You also need proof of vaccination for all the restaurants, hotels, and all the museums you want to visit. Museum entry is timed, so they allow only so many people at once in there. Again, zero tolerance for the proof of vaccination: you don’t have that, you are not allowed entry. And everyone complies. Everyone is polite and moves about their business and everyone still goes and sees places and has a good time, without having to feel like they ingest COVID boogers with every breath because of 10,000 lying inconsiderate you-know-what’s around them.

This was quite a lesson! I am sure every border crossing will be different from now on for the rest of our lives. I am sure that going to Europe will be different than this – the demands and restrictions will be different with each country and means of transport. But I digress.

Toronto is a great, big city but it is incredibly clean! Even my 10 year old nephew who lives outside Montreal noticed that “Toronto is so much cleaner than Montreal”. People are kind and patient, never rushed, like in our Northern big cities. They are helpful and welcoming. I was surprised how many vegan options I found in restaurants, even at our hotel: it is not just a matter of tolerance there, but it feels like true inclusion.

We did touristy, Toronto-related things while here, like climbing up to the glass floor in the CN Tower and visiting the exhibits of the Royal Ontario Museum. But there were two activities that stood out for me: a walk around Toronto Islands was a welcome surprise. A short ferry ride takes you to the middle of Lake Ontario and you truly get a sense of what the currents are like on this enormous lake! The winds are nothing short of amazing, even on a sunny fall day. Walking through parks and neighborhoods along the water with the wind blowing my hair every which direction and turning me into a banshee was refreshing … All worries washed out … There are several neighborhoods on Ward’s Island, even a school – it’s like a mini-small town outside of Toronto. The yards were overgrown with tired flowers and bushes, only a pale testimony of how green and lush they once were in the summer. I was trying to imagine how these people live in the winter when the winds are the cruelest and the lake freezes over, so the ferry service must stop. It would be nice for writer’s isolation, but not productive living, I am sure. We spent a couple of hours on these islands just walking and having family time. No services were open, so restaurants, cafes and the amusement park were closed. But the quiet, the peace, the isolation, minutes away from a bustling city across the water will stay with us.

Some views from our walk around Toronto Islands

My second Toronto highlight was Casa Loma ( Built at the beginning of the 20th century by Sir Henry Pellatt, a banker, investor, and British knight, it is an amazing construction, a large private residence and lastly, a castle. I saw Casa Loma in a Toronto advertisement going across my screen when I was booking the hotel for this trip and something about it called my name: the British, almost medieval look, the secrecy and grandeur, and the fact that it is in Toronto, Canada of all places (when it should be in Scotland or Ireland or some other place) just spoke to me. It did not disappoint. If you are into architecture, or history (especially British and North American history), it is a must-see when you are in Canada. I came home with a book about the family who built it and the building process and the history of the home after the family’s status fell and they were forced to sell it piece by piece. It just fascinated me as if maybe many generations ago my own family might have lived there (very seriously doubting this).

The impressive Casa Loma

After two full days in the capital of Ontario, saddened that we were parting with family and unknowing of when our next get-together might happen, we started our long journey back towards the US to come home. Crossing the border back to the US was nothing like crossing it into Canada. In a symbolic testimony of how the US does the COVID pandemic, the border officer was not masked and the first thing he ordered us to do in a gruff and unfriendly tone was “Masks down!”. Then, he waved us through after checking our passports.

We stopped briefly to the Niagara Falls State Park for some pictures and then away we went to reach our next destination in Harrisburg, PA that last night on the road. We drove through beautiful places that day in Western New York state, rolling hills clad in autumn colors, but the rain and fog were so thick the pictures we took do them no justice. The following day, we stopped in Lancaster County, PA to take in some of the Amish countryside, but we could really not partake into any of the offerings as it was Sunday and everything was closed.

It was a whirlwind of a trip, with mixed feelings, much love and many meaningful hugs (which were the most important, to me). With lots of new places and people watching, something we have been hungry for for too long. Stresses we never had before and joys, too, that were new.

One thing I know for sure: I never did much of this before, but now I know that I will never take the privilege of traveling for granted again. Travels have taught me so much, always, but especially now, when we’re trying to understand a new world, you find that every action, every stop, every person you interact with truly teaches you something new. You cannot help but learn so many new ways in which others do life. Ways you would never dream of when you’re just watching life go by from your couch. There are new learnings everywhere, close and far, but when you do go far, the learnings are exponentially bigger. Exposing yourself to the world, making yourself vulnerable only empowers you.

Happy, mindful, respectful, and safe travels, you all!

Click on the CN Tower picture to see all the pictures from this trip

Monday, October 18, 2021

Four Years Ago and Counting ...

Four years ago today we left our old home in Spanish Fork, UT and headed Eastward towards our new home in North Carolina. I say "our home in Spanish Fork", but by that time, it was no longer ours ... By the time we reached Moab that night, it belonged to this other couple who already had plans to expand the garage and finish the basement ... Such is life ... 

When we lived in Utah I longed for the South. I missed my friends and the gentle rolling hills, covered in green for most of the year. I never knew I liked green so much as when I lived in Utah and I didn't have much of it at all around me ... I longed for the Southern food where every restaurant parking lot smells of bacon. 

Now, that we have been here, we hardly ever see our friends - we're all too busy and then, there has been the pandemic ... With my vegan diet, I can hardly ever have any food that's appropriate for me and I can never truly dodge someone sneaking butter or cheese in my food or frying my fries in lard or bacon drippings in North Carolina ... I never stopped missing The Rockies. I miss my doctors who were small-town doctors that cared for the patient more than their career ladders, like they do in the big medical world of The Triangle. Sometimes I have doubted whether we made the right move ... 

We always want and crave what is not right here, in front of us. 

Four years later, missing the mountains and all, I still think we've made a good move. There is not a day that goes by where I don't gasp "wow! I am so happy we live here" when I look at the massive trees in my back yard or drive for 15 minutes through NC hardwood forests and don't encounter another car. 

I love the people, even my neighbors, I love the green, I love the fact that you drive for 30 minutes and you're in a different city, with a different history, different landscape, different restaurants, and culture. I love the slow pace my heart is beating at right now, as compared to the way it was jerking around in my chest at 11,000 ft in Utah! I don't miss the Utah air, and not much about the Utah culture in general. I never felt like we really belonged there, gorgeous mountains, breath-taking sunsets, open spaces and all ... 

I love a lot about NC still and NC still feels like home. I can hardly believe it's been four years, though. I look around and I feel like we didn't accomplish much, although, my husband has had two jobs since we moved here, we made tons of home improvements, we've made new friends, and reconnected with just a handful of the old ones, we traveled plenty around the area and out of the country (and even went back to The West a couple of times), we lost a cat, and got another one more than a year later, we welcomed family in our new home from all over the planet ... And just like that time flew. I guess this is how you know we made a good move: when time flies by fast because you're having too much fun. 

No regrets and all, life is what you make of it with what you do have in front of you. Four years later, we're still taking one day at a time and making the most of it, right here, in the middle of the green North Carolina ... We are home. I have no doubt about that. 

Leaving Spanish Fork and arriving in NC - October 18-26, 2017

Monday, September 20, 2021

O zi deosebită pentru un om deosebit ...

Putere ... tenacitate ... caracter ... fermitate ... integritate ... – sunt doar câteva virtuți care îmi vin în minte când mă gândesc la mama ...

Mama nu a avut o viață ușoară – spune și ea asta cu orice ocazie care i se ivește...

Nu enumerez aici multele pete negre pe care i le-a aruncat viața în cale încă de când era copil și mai apoi și in anii de adult – cei care o cunosc bine știu povestea ei.

Azi vreau doar sa îmi amintesc de ceea ce ne-a învățat ea pe noi din experiența zilelor ei grele de peste timp, experiență care a format-o în cel mai puternic caracter pe care l-am întâlnit vreodată.

În fiecare moment in care mi-a fost greu in viață, în fiecare clipă când m-am găsit la o răscruce, la o cumpăna, am auzit mereu vocea mamei, aducând-mi mereu aminte să nu mă uit mai departe decât în mine însămi: ca un înțelept budist, mi-aducea mereu aminte că răspunsurile sunt în mine, în sufletul meu, în mintea mea, și nu mai departe ...

Mi-a adus mereu aminte că sunt echipată de la natură (de la ea, mai bine-spus) cu tot ce am nevoie, că sunt puternică și că voi face mereu o alegere bună pentru mine, pentru că sunt înzestrată cu exact ceea ce trebuie să „fac față la tot ce îmi este pus in cale”.

Când o întrebam dacă nu se teme de vreun șef, răspundea cu o seninătate și siguranță de sine de nezdruncinat: “Vai de mine! Dar ce au șefii in plus față de mine? Un titlu? Caracterul, știința și siguranța de sine nu stau într-un titlu! Avem amândoi o facultate, aceeași experiență, un creier, de ce să îmi fie frică?! De un titlu pe care azi îl ai și mâine, nu?”

Astăzi, peste mulți ani, îmi dau seama cât adevăr există în aceste cuvinte!

Ne-a insuflat mereu certitudinea că nu suntem „nici primele și nici ultimele care trec print-o încercare” – și așa prindeam curaj de fiecare dată pentru a merge înainte.

Așa ne-a învățat toată viața: că puterea, siguranța există în noi înșine. Ne-a învățat să credem in autosuficiență mai mult decât in orice,  ne-a învățat că suntem noi înșine in stare să răzbatem prin orice. Nu prin morală a făcut asta, ci prin exemplul ei, prin felul în care a răzbătut ea printr-o viață mult mai grea și amară decât a noastră ar fi putut fi vreodată.

Pe mine, personal, m-a învățat sa mă ascult – să ciulesc urechile la adâncurile ființei mele și să aud ce îmi spune: toate marele alegeri pe care le-am făcut vreodată le-am făcut ascultându-mă pe mine însămi, având siguranța   nu exista dilemă pe care să nu o pot rezolva singură.

Orice dram de curaj, orice credință, orice putere pe care le-am găsit vreodată în mine de-a lungul existenței mele le-am moștenit de la ea.

Dintre toate mamele din lume, poate nu a  fost cea mai “mămoasa” în sensul că nu ne-a alintat, și nu ne-a răsfățat la maxim, dar ne-a dat niște calități  infinit mai importante și de mai mare valoare decât alintul: încrederea în noi înșine, reziliența, curajul fără limite de a crede în puterile proprii, duritatea de a rezista în orice situație – toate acestea ne-au înzestrat cu o armură mult mai importantă și mai indispensabilă supraviețuirii unei vieți care s-a dovedit a fi, pentru noi, uneori nedrepte și alteori aspre, dar foarte adesea singure.

Astăzi, în  ziua când o celebrăm pe mama, cel mai important om de pe pământ pentru mine, simt în fiecare mușchi, în fiecare por, în fiecare celulă puterea și tăria pe care mi le-a transmis, și care vor rămâne și in mine cât timp mai exist.

Mom, nu aș fi putut ajunge nicăieri fără încurajările tale, fără sprijinul pe care ni l-ai dat, chiar și in detrimentul bucuriei tale, an de an, zi de zi, in modul tău tăcut, ferm, și nu in ultimul rând, puternic și impetuos de a fi.

O călăuză neclintită, un far luminos si neșovăitor, un exemplu de calm si putere – ne călăuzești mereu, oriunde ne-am afla, si oricâtă distantă fizică ar exista intre noi ... Ești parte din noi; te auzim, te purtăm și te simțim în fiecare bătaie a inimii; în fiecare respirație ...

Tot ce îmi doresc este să  te asculți pe tine însăți și să iți asculți propriul sfat de a continua să răzbați prin orice durere, si orice obstacol. Astfel, mergând mereu înainte ( „că înapoi nu se mai poate”), să continui să fii cu noi multe, multe, toamne de acum înainte, să ne bucuri cu înțelepciunea ta nesfârșită, lucidă și calmă, să te știm aproape mereu și să ne amintești mereu că totul se poate … pentru noi, dar mai ales, pentru tine.

Te iubim, mom!

Cu mulți ani și multe speranțe înainte ...

Această fotografie e în ziua nunții mele (2010). Mă bucur că o zi atât de importantă și scumpă pentru mine i-a putut oferi mamei ocazia unui zâmbet. Se întâmplă mai rar ... 

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Where Are We Now? After 20 Years.

Random thoughts on the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks ... 

20 years ago today I was in my parents’ kitchen in Romania, watching with stopped breath and open mouth the horrors of the 9-11 attacks. I lived in the US at the time but I was on vacation for two weeks, visiting my family in Romania. I had climbed to the top of one of the Towers less than two years earlier and when I saw that plane hit it all I could think about was how massive a number of people that meant would be dead! You knew when you saw those sky-scrapers how many thousands of people it housed. I could not imagine what would happen to them now. When the buildings collapsed, the unknown faces of those thousands of people kept playing in front of my eyes like a morbid slideshow. Unstoppable. Horrific.

Another thing hit close to home for me: when I watched the towers collapse, the anchors repeated the names of the flights that had been hijacked and they kept saying that the flights had taken off from the  Dulles airport in DC. I realized that that was the airport where my flight to Europe had taken off only days earlier. I had chills down my spine: I was in the same airport as those terrorists! Oh, God! Could that have been me on those planes? Everyone who has ever flown could have related to that fear but especially those, like me, who were in-between planes at that time, knowing full-well, they’d have to brave another flight to make it home.

Lots of people died that day – at The Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania, too, but for some reason the collapse of those two towers is what stopped the hearts and the breathing of an entire planet! As you watched the images on TV  of people jumping out of the windows of The Twin Towers towards their sure death, repeatedly, ad nauseam, you could feel how every soul of the world was looking for someone else’s hand to clutch, for someone, anyone, to hug, to ensure they are not alone and not abandoned in that vacuum of sheer pain. You could feel that everyone who had any heart left felt the same horror and the same grief, and the same anger as you felt. This was the togetherness people are talking about now, that we should be awaken to … the togetherness that we all need, as humans, as compassionate beings when times get tough.

I remember as if it were yesterday my first two thoughts after watching the events unfold: first, I was thinking that the US will never allow me to get back to my home which at the time was Greensboro, NC. I was not a citizen yet. I had gotten my temporary Green Card just the year before, so I was for sure not going to be allowed in the country – the announcements that the US does not allow anyone but citizens to return to the US was made by many  US Embassies in many countries including in Romania  almost immediately after the attacks. I remember this scared me terribly as moving to America was my life-long dream. My husband was in the US and my new life, the way I had built it. My hopes for the future were all here, in the US. I was terrified this one act of terrorism would kill my future for me, my life-long work and would ground me in Romania.

The second thought was “oh, man, America will first get together and pray after this. That’s what they do: they first, pray. But man, after that, they will be pissed! They will crush whoever did this. I feel sorry for them.” We did not know right from the beginning who had done this. I was sure, though, this was another country, another power, not the US. I knew a war would be coming but never in my worst dreams did I think that war would span for the next 20 years! I knew whatever war was coming would be brutal, given the 20th century’s advancement in arms, and I feared what that’ll do to the world and to each of us, individually. I was wondering if we would be able to travel freely anymore, if I would be able to come back to Romania and see my family there, in the future, if America was going to wage war on … whoever did this … and involve other powers in this war as well?!

America did pray right after September 11. Country-wide vigils and charity concerts abounded. Charity to 9-11 victims sprouted everywhere. People looked up to the heroes of 9-11. Everyone swore they would never forget.

Giuliani, the Mayor of New York at the time of the attacks, became “America’s Mayor.” For all his faults, lies, and illegalities, for all of his Republicanism, my liberal friends loved him and touted his accomplishments and how he brought the city, the first responders together and what an incredibly great job he did handling the aftermath of this tragedy. How can you handle it, really?! But that, he did. After that, it seemed like we, as a people, were not divided in camps, anymore – albeit very briefly. The lines that separated us because of different political views, different tax views and views on how one should handle the economy and what it means to be patriotic faded. We were all thinking as Americans, together in one common thought: “who did this to us? They would pay dearly. Let’s hold out hands together and pray for those that we lost. Let’s be together. It hurts less when we’re holding hands.” – it looked as if we were saying …

As I was in Romania, my US friends, coworkers, and relatives flooded me with messages of “come back home, safely”, “how are you?”, “what do people say there?” (meaning in Europe, in Romania). I never felt alone. I was with one half of my family, my blood half, but my other half, the one I had chosen for myself, was hailing back, not forgetting me, from across The Pond. For all our differences, we were all one. And I am sure that what brought us together was not our true belief that all of a sudden Giuliani was  a nice guy and Bush stopped being an idiot overnight, but  that need for togetherness in front of horror, that need for holding another’s hand to cross the dark pit left in front of us by those planes going down. That simple, human, vulnerability, unaccounted for by much fanfare or glamor, but our simpleness as humans that needed to be held …

I have always believed that what sets Americans apart from many other nations is their individualism – their obsession with themselves, their lack of awareness that they are not alone in the world, that the consequence of their actions affects others. But during those days, I saw an America where people stopped for just a minute and started to be aware of their neighbor’s pain, of their neighbor’s loss, of their ability to help or be compassionate. All because it could have happened to any of us.

The US did allow me to get back – they opened the borders for US citizens and Green-Card holders alike in the following days. I remember boarding my flight from Germany at the time and military American personnel with automatic guns were supervising the boarding. They made us empty all of our carryon bags, and even questioned whether we were hiding explosives in our (film) cameras, they body-searched us (a first of many, many others to come), and questioned us for hours before they allowed everyone to board. It was terrifying and reassuring at the same time.

But it was then, in Germany, only about 10 days or so from September 11, when the American individualism showed itself again: people were frustrated and angry that they were being searched. How dare they think I’m a terrorist?! Completely missing the point! Although there were American soldiers flanking the departure gate, although a United Airlines flight (the same airline whose planes had been hijacked 10 days earlier!) was waiting at the gate, Americans were upset that they are treated as if they were terrorists. To me, this was reassuring. To everyone else, it was an infringement to their freedom, forgetting that what the military was protecting was precisely that freedom.

Ever since, I wonder: when we do say we come together in times of crisis, do we really come together, or do we say that as some sort of a slogan that just sounds well; as some sort of generic statement that we know sounds good, but which does not truly come from the heart?!

And do we really come ever together, despite all cost to us? Or do we come together when and if it’s convenient to us? When it’s not infringing on our freedom?! Is patriotism not a selfless display of altruism? A complete abandon of the “I” in favor of protecting the “many”?

20 years later today, people all over the internet are saying we need to remember how we came together then. We need to remember how, despite all of our differences, we all have a common goal – that of being free, protected, and that of ensuring we all live in peace. This is all true. But do we even really believe that we can strive for that common goal anymore?

I have felt so defeated and so alone in the past few years, the whole country growing angrier, and more violent, more inconsiderate, more careless, and more disconnected, that I really don’t see how we could ever think of the other selflessly, and purposefully taking our own person from the equation. What’s worse: I don’t think we can even acknowledge another’s merits, when we see them as different in any way than us. I feel like the first thing we do nowadays is look for differences between us and not commonalities.

Some folks are saying today that they pray that we can see again our togetherness from 20 years ago before another tragedy happens to remind us how we can be all one and be there for one another. But has that tragedy not already happened? Have the past 5 and 2 years (and before that, even!) not been anything but an ongoing tragedy, and open wound, bleeding, for all of us, and we still, don’t see one another?! More than 650,000 people died of Covid alone in the past year and a half. Add to those people who died of hate crimes in the past few years, people who died in wildfires and hurricanes, people who died from hunger and lack of medicine because of lack of healthcare, just to name a few … Those are infinitely more (possibly preventable) deaths than the ones we saw at 9-11.

When the cameras are off and the social media sleeps (does it ever?) and we’re not trying to fit in with the rest of the world by saying what everyone says (“we’re in this together”, “we’re one”, etc), when we dive deep into our heart, do we ever really feel like we did then, when we watched the towers collapse for the first time: do we feel in the dark for another hand to clutch on? For another person to be close to us so we can share the grief? Or do we stubbornly believe that “I” is enough in this mad world?

I believe we too often forget that grief hurts the same whether you’re this nationality or another, of this political belief or of another. Grief sees no color, no sex, no culture, no age, no country … Somehow, we have become blind to that.

What elevates us as humans, what we all (should) seek now more than ever is that simple, heartfelt, visceral togetherness of not being alone in the face of grief, horror, and pain. What brings us together is that first instinctual thought of “oh, God, can that be me out there?”  - that is where true compassion springs from (“Do onto others as you would have them do unto you …”): that however dark a tragedy is, it could happen to any of us. So, step with care …

Can we find that now deep, deep into our souls? Not because it sounds good or it looks good under a hashtag, but because we truly filter the tragedies of the world through our hearts and we know how it would feel if it were us?! Can we do it?! Or are we too shallow and clueless in our ivory towers to allow us to even ask these questions anymore?!

I am not trying to belittle the 9-11-2001 attacks. Saying they were horrid, unnatural, and mind-stopping is an understatement. But what I am trying to say is: we should pay attention to our every day and just re-learn to be human again, the very same way we were so painfully reminded that we are human on that dark day in history.

I hope humanity is not completely lost and I hope that one day soon we would wake it before all is lost. Because this is the only thing that might get us through the pain that is here now.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

From a place of humility rather than from one of bragging, I can say that I have traveled quite a bit for a girl from a small, Eastern European country. I climbed many a mountain in my day, in several places in Romania, Turkey, all over the American Rockies and Smokies, as well as climbed a few cliffs and rocky Mayan temples in the Central American jungle. I have been hiking and climbing since I was 6 or 7 years old – not the professional, competitive type, I am a home body at heart, but the easy, relaxing type of hiking, where you can take it easy and stop (often) for a break and for pictures. Always stop for pictures. Trails and I are good friends. The best of them, really.

I even climbed a limestone mountain covered by thermal spring water in the heart of the Turkish dessert. I might have slipped here and there in my journeys, but never (that I can remember) fell. No. The fall was going to be on this skinny trail in the middle (not quite) of the Atlantic Ocean. At sea level, surrounded by nothing but water, with all the pelicans and gulls to watch over me and laugh.

I was fed up with the house. We have still been mostly isolating (less than last year, but still not back to our normal travel schedule yet), still being in the house too much this summer. We had to give up weekends and could not go anywhere because one time there was a shortage of gas (we could not venture too far from our town for fear of running out of it and not being able to find a gas station to refill). We had to give up a couple of weekends because of constant rain (tropical storm season!), or health reasons (ah, well, what can you do about that?!). But this weekend, we were going to be out, darn it. Come hell or high water, we were going to drive to the beach and just shoot some birds for a few hours. (Spoiler: nothing ever good will happen when you say “hell or high water”).

We had a lovely seafood meal at Elijah’s on Wilmington’s waterfront of the Cape Fear river, we walked the streets of the city in 108 degree (according to my car’s thermometer) heat, we visited The Bellamy Mansion on Market Street – a gorgeous ante-bellum mansion that speaks volumes about that gone with the wind era, and we finally headed to Carolina/ Kure beach to walk around Fort Fisher, a military fort since the times of the American Civil War.

The Cape Fear Memorial Bridge - Wilmington, NC

I have never seen this boardwalk this empty

Empty streets at Chandler's Warf in downtown Wilmington. The extreme heat at 1 PM sent everyone indoors, no doubt. 

The Bellamy Mansion, 1861

On the map, trying to plan for the trip to The Fort, I had seen these formations in the water that looked like a dam made of rocks piled together. The dam started at Fort Fisher and it kinda disappeared into the ocean, according to Apple Maps. It looked like a great place to shoot some water birds, fishermen’s boats, the Fort Fisher Ferry.

We parked outside The Fort and walked across some sand dunes towards the water. Then, we saw the dam – long, winding through the calm waters, the Cape Fear river on the right, the Atlantic Ocean on the left. Sea gulls, pelicans, cormorants were flying above and we were trying to catch some with our cameras. Crabs were burying in the sand and dragon flies were sunning on reeds. The air was paralyzed with heat. You could not even smell the salt of the ocean, because there was no breeze – everything was sleepy and silent, except for the chatty gulls every now and again.

Various shots around Fort Fisher and from The Rocks

A shot from The Rocks, looking out to their "end" which we did not reach...

I wanted us to walk those rocks as far as we could walk them. And we did. For as far … until bam! I went down like a billion pound sack of potatoes and rattled the world! The dam had not for one second seemed wet or slippery! I personally had not seen any warning signs that it might be. There were people on it, walking and taking in the ocean air, people fishing, kids running around, dogs prancing. The rocks were porous and dry, with the hot early afternoon sun baking them – 108 degrees, remember?!  I did not see one person losing a footing or wobbling in the very least. The fact that my foot all of a sudden slipped like I was walking on ice was a total shock. And down I went – sun glasses flew one way, my camera (around my neck) hit the ground hard, and my left thigh, knee, ankle, wrist, and elbow all served as cushion between the rest of my body and the black, grimy, probably algae-covered rock, where oyster shells were cemented probably for centuries, sharp side up (of course!) … The rock scraped my skin off my thigh in two areas about the size of dollar bills. The shells cut deep into my flesh in so many spots I can’t count. My first thoughts were: “Oh, please don’t let any bacteria run into my blood stream from this sea muck!” and “Ouch! That’s gonna hurt tomorrow!”

My husband was livid with worry, ensuring nothing was broken (nothing seemed broken or not working). We started walking towards the car. I guess this was as far as we could go.

Another couple with a dog saw this and offered help, even chocolate. I politely declined, but during our exchange both the lady and I noticed their dog was bleeding from one foot – the dog, too, had slid earlier, they shared, and probably cut one of the paws in the sharp oyster shells. I was walking just fine, but I could tell my thigh was starting to swell up. Thank goodness I am loaded with hand sanitizer, so, I bathed all the wounds in it even before we got to the car where we had disinfecting alcohol.

Back home, I did a little research on The Rocks, as the dam is called. Almost every site that had a story on them (a long rock jetty built and completed in 1881 to aid navigation by stopping shoaling in the Cape Fear River) warned against walking on them because they are slippery and sharp (who knew?!). They also said they connected Fort Fisher to Zeke’s Island and at high tide they become completely covered leaving tourists who walk them all the way stranded on the island. They mentioned in several spots how the local authorities are called frequently to tend to cuts and cruises from the frequent falls of unassuming foot travelers like us.

I hope you agree from some of the pictures – the walk was all worth it. It’s one of those “end of the world” feeling this place has, where the Cape Fear pours into the ocean. Would I do it again or recommend it: probably, yes to both, but … do your research before you go there, not after like me! Get some good shoes (people were walking in thong flipflops, I had hiking shoes on, and still!) with serious rubber grips and walk slowly! It’s definitely a place I wanted to explore, because it’s like no other I have ever explored. Now, I also have a heck of a tale to tell that will make it even more memorable. My childhood best friend’s grandpa used to tell us all the time that you never want a trip to be eventless, because you’ll never remember it. Well this one, friends, will be remembered for a long while to come …

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Missing My Sister. Something Awful ...

COVID sucks!

I have said for a year and a half now that I don’t really miss people. “This Covid separation is doable,” I say often. “There is Zoom, and Skype, and FaceTime. I’m good! What are people complaining about?!,” I say.  But darn it, I miss my sister! For more than two years now, I have walked around broken, incomplete, and empty because there is no prospect of seeing her yet.

I miss my sister in an organic, visceral way, in the sense of her person, with her nerves, and flesh, and sinews.

I miss our chats in person, over a glass of wine (her), bottle of beer (me), a bowl of chips or sunflower seeds. I miss her smell and her smile, her jokes and sass …Her picking on her children and making them laugh. Her children are my only competition at adoring her.

I miss her eye-rolls when I say something too serious and too worrisome. I miss her cooking and her quirkiness when she moves about the room. Her clumsiness when she knocks glasses full of liquid or plates full of food off the table and then shrugs it off with a laugh and her head thrown back … “It’s oohhh kaayyyy,” she pep-talks herself cracking up.

I miss our walks, as no one ever walks like her: this girl does not walk. She runs, rather. She fidgets. She hurries and jumps. She makes your ankles snap and your belly fat jiggle and she does not look behind, so you better keep up!

I miss her hugs – they are the best! I relive my entire life when she hugs me – I see us, children, short, and bony, climbing mountains, feeding farm animals or cats, chasing dogs and making hay or gathering mushrooms and wild berries. Falling asleep in the same bed, so exhausted, we don’t finish our sentences. I miss the sleepovers …

I miss her squeezing a cat or some creature and making funny voices, as if she speaks to babies. I miss her outpouring of love on every thing and every one … The enormous display of affection she has for everyone she loves – human or beast!

I miss her state of being the most: contagiously happy and caring, doing one of the things she does best: loving creatures and life ... 

I miss us painting our nails together and her restlessness, then giggles when she “messes up another nail” because the woman can’t sit still. Not even for a minute.

I miss looking into her deep, coal-black eyes – you can drown in those eyes, lost to the world forever. Those eyes tell my life story, just like her hugs …

I miss us watching Seinfeld on a loop and her laughter, out of control, rich, healthy, contagious. At every scene. Her reciting the lines …

We do FaceTime and Skype, but none of these are possible through those. None of the palpable, blood vessel against blood vessel, smell wrapped into smell, hand touch against skin real-ness – none of these are possible with FaceTime and Skype …

I miss her so much it hurts! It makes me gag and choke up, hopeless!

Two days before her birthday (yesterday), her country (Canada) opened their borders to Americans. This was the best present possible on her birthday for me. America is still not allowing Canadians into our country … I dream of a day, soon, before I whither away with longing, when we can be together again, even if it is for just 24 hours.

Till we make it to that day (and we will. I am sure of it!), happy birthday, sweet child! Happy birthday, my soulmate … I’ll fall asleep tonight with nothing but a head full of memories of times gone by and wishful longing for more, better times to come – soon. Till then, thank you for having shared your whole life with me. You are the biggest part of my life. You hold all the secrets and all the unsaids … I sometimes fail to know where you end and I begin …

I love you …

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Ziua Tatei. Amintiri. Fotografii ...

Unele fete, își aduc aminte că atunci când erau mici se jucau cu păpuși. Își aduc aminte de numele lor, de hăinuțele pe care le-au făcut fiecăreia, de mână, cu ajutorul mamei sau a bunicii. Eu nu am astfel de amintiri, și  nu pentru că nu aveam păpuși, ci pentru că nu m-au interesat niciodată. În loc de joc cu păpuși eu mi-aduc aminte de zilele de weekend pe care le petreceam cu tata in “camera obscură”, in studioul nostru foto încropit acasă, in bucătărie ca să „lucrăm” fotografii.

Poze lucrate de tata. Cele din rândul de jos sunt făcute de noi doi

O “alungam” pe mom din bucătărie câte o sâmbătă întreagă (când era ziua ei de făcut mâncare), ca să avem acces la chiuveta și  puneam pături in geam și  in ușă ca sa facem bucătăria cât se poate de întunecată, pentru a nu voala hârtia fotografica. Apoi agăța tata lumina cu filtrul verde (pentru fotografii alb-negru) de perete, scotea aparatul de mărit, tăvile pentru diferitele soluții (pentru developare, revelator și  fixator), hârtia fotografică împachetată in hârtie neagră (anti-voalantă) și  … ne apucam de lucru. Developam poze de dimineață pana seara când ne apucam sa le uscam.

Dintr-o lecție in alta, tata îmi explica toata arta și  tehnica fotografiei: de ce aveam nevoie de filtru verde și  nu roșu (pentru ca noi “lucram” numai cu filme alb-negru și  filtrul roșu e pentru film și  poze color), cum se supra-expune o fotografie (ceea ce vrei sa eviți!), importanța luminii și  pentru film și  pentru hârtia ce va deveni fotografie, cate secunde se expune hârtia fotografica la lumina (le număra in funcție de cât expus fusese filmul), cum se folosește aparatul de mărit ca sa facem prim-planuri, cum se fac colajele, când acoperi o parte a hârtiei foto cu hârtia neagră și  expui doar părțile din hârtie alba pe care vrei să capturezi imaginea.

Apoi filozofa despre ce înseamnă fotografia pentru el: o arta a capturării momentului, o secundă suspendata in timp, pentru eternitate. Iubitor de voie bună, și  un sentimental incurabil, mă încuraja mereu să fac lucruri pentru a sublima in memorie momentele frumoase din viață: fotografia era unul din aceste lucruri, ca și  petrecerile când ai un motiv de bucurie și  îmbrăcarea in haine elegante de Anul Nou când inviți un nou an in în viața ta – trebuie sa îl închei cu bucurie și  sărbătoare pe cel vechi.

Deși un strat considerabil de praf s-a așternut peste amintirile mele din copilărie, lecțiile învățate atunci, mai ales cele sentimentale, despre importanța capturării momentului (pentru că nu se știe ce aduce ziua de mâine, dar vrei să iți amintești de bucuriile de azi), dar și  cele mai “practice” despre lucrarea fotografiilor încă își au un loc de cinste in mintea mea îmbătrânindă …

Fotografia mi se părea o știință ocultă, destăinuită numai unor persoane deosebite și  inițiate, așa cum părea el, și  aveam o anume timiditate de a mă apuca și  eu, “cu mana mea” de a fotografia și  de a lucra fotografii. Eram doar bucuroasa ca puteam sa îl asist și , ca un burete, absorbeam orice bucățică de lecție predata de “dom’ pro ’sor”. El mă încuraja și  prin siguranța lui de sine părea a face ca totul sa fie ușor. Ca atunci când spunea, “ei, un aparat de fotografiat nu e ceva complicat: e o cutie de conserve cu obiectiv. Dar cheia aici este: in obiectiv!”. Peste ani și ani, am prins curaj, pentru că mi-e cumva in sânge aceasta artă.

Pot identifica foarte ușor fotografiile făcute de el (sau de noi) pe care le păstrăm in familie până in ziua de azi au pentru ca au semne concrete ale uneltelor lui: cadrul lui de înrămare a hârtiei înainte de a o expune aparatului de mărire are un defect și  toate imaginile sunt “ciobite” pe una din margini.

Imaginea "ciobită" din cauza defectului de pe cadrul de hârtie

Apoi, câteodată, nu așteptam sa se usuce pozele in aer liber, înainte de a le pune la uscătorul electric și  aveau pete de apă pe ele – un alt defect pe care îl recunosc. Ca o semnătura ascunsă, acestea sunt taine ale artei sale unice. Aceste fotografii au sublimat nu numai momentele și  oamenii din ele dar și  atingerea mâinii tatei. Au valoare sentimentala dublă!

Pată de apă

Până uscam toate pozele lucrate într-o singură ședință se făcea uneori dimineață! Dar tot stăteam treaza, pentru ca examinam cu minuțiozitate fiecare fotografie și  mă minunam cum o hârtie care cu câteva ore mai devreme fusese alba și  atât de fragila că nu putea fi expusă luminii zilei conține acum o imagine, o amintire care va dăinui, peste ani și  ani, cu mult după ce memoria noastră poate ne va părăsi. Defectele acestea recreează astăzi când răsfoiesc albumele de poze ale familiei acele momente in care tata m-a învățat nu numai despre fotografie (de care sunt îndrăgostita pana la obsesie și  azi) zilele acelea de sâmbătă in care tata și  fiica se ascundeau in “camera obscură” să dezvăluie momentele de fericire ale familiei și  prietenilor și  să le cimenteze pentru generațiile de mai târziu. Pentru eternitate.

Când “lucram” poze împreună mereu îl întrebam de ce nu lucrăm și  poze color. Răspunsul era simplu (si tipic pentru tata): soluțiile, hârtia, filmul, și  filtrul pentru fotografii color sunt mai scumpe. Astăzi, când mă uit peste albumele “noastre” (pot spune ca am participat și  eu la crearea unora din ele) mă bucur că nu am făcut deloc fotografii color. Savurez atemporalitatea, clasicitatea și  patina ușor melancolica a pozelor alb-negru. Am citit undeva ca atunci “când fotografiezi oamenii color, le surprinzi hainele. Când îi fotografiezi în alb-negru, le surprinzi sufletele.”

Mulțumesc, tata, că m-ai învățat cum sa surprind ... suflete, inclusiv ale noastre in multe fotografii peste ani. Nu îmi doresc nimic mai mult azi, de ziua ta, decât să surprindem și  sa celebram și  mai multe momente într-un viitor cât mai apropiat, plin de fericire și  sănătate.

Te iubesc! La mulți ani …