25 September 2008

Canyon sunsets

I guess I had some more summer stories in me, after all... I wrote this the other day just after saying that I didn't. (Maybe I did it to prove myself wrong.) The post describes a couple of days in mid-August, after the family gatherings in Iowa and South Dakota.


After flying into Las Vegas and spending the night at my uncle's house, the Mister and I threw our suitcases and some borrowed camping equipment into the rental car. Said camping equipment consisted of: a pup tent, two sleeping bags, an air mattress, a flashlight, and a water bottle. (You might say we were betting on good weather and the availability of prepackaged foods.)

We drove merrily to the Grand Canyon, impressed along the way by the Hoover Dam and also slowed down by the traffic at the Hoover Dam. (Only a couple of hours into the nearly 2,500 miles of driving we did was the closest we came to an accident: a pickup behind me, annoyed at the slow pace up the curvy hill, beeping and swerving, decided to pass me on the right just as I decided to let him pass me by pulling off to the right, WITH blinker clearly blinking. Thankfully, with a last-second head-check I saw him zooming by and yanked us back into the lane. And THEN pulled off, to let my pulse get back to normal.)

Hours later, we entered the park and asked the ranger at the booth if there were campsites available. The look she gave us told us we were foolish to arrive at 7 pm during peak season at the GRAND Canyon, for Pete's sake, and expect a campsite, so our hopes were not high as we drove on to the campground. Yet, we were in luck. They still had a spot! Furthermore, in reading the handy park newspaper, we had discovered that sunset was at 7:33. I thought it would be fantastic if our first view of the canyon was during sunset, so campsite secured and tent hurredly set up, we drove as close as we could get, parked, and walked the trail to the edge of the void.

These were my thoughts as we hurried down the quickly-darkening path (it was already 7:45): Isn't it strange that I could drive so close to the edge with no visible sign of... anything? Here I am, walking in a pleasantly flat forest, only meters from one of the natural wonders of the world, and I just can't see it coming. It's not like a mountain, which you can see from miles away, and prepare for. It's a mountain in reverse, it's a gash in the earth, it's...sudden. A drop-off. Why is my heart beating so fast? I am nervous, as though I'm about to pet a wild animal. A very very huge wild animal.

There it was, only dimly visible as vast receding darknesses under the orange border of the dark northern rim. Ungraspable. The crowds of people around us, mostly teenagers, were already dispersing, because they had seen the sunset we had missed. We took a series of pictures in a futile attempt to get the canyon on film (the two days we spent there we were aware of the futility of our picture-taking yet constantly took pictures anyway), gazing at the last glows of sun.

And then we went and had pizza and beer at the dining hall. Among the things I was not prepared to find inside Grand Canyon National Park: a huge grocery store, Amy's organic frozen food, microbrews, pizza (especially not pizza with spinach and goat cheese), fresh baked goods, and delicious coffee.

We spent the next day hiking as much of the rim as we could, and taking many more pictures, because every spot seemed more photogenic than the last. We ate lunch on the trail and dinner at our very own campsite, and then strategically prepared for our second, and last, sunset at the grand canyon.

We wanted a spot that wouldn't be inundated with teenagers, a little more off the beaten track. It had to be nearby, of course, but not right off the Mather campground trail. We decided to drive out to Yaki point, near the second trailhead for descending into the canyon. When we got to the road, however, there was a problem: we couldn't turn onto it; only the shuttle could pass. So we had to drive down the road until we found parking, and then walk back to catch the shuttle. But the shuttle didn't have a stop at the intersection! And time was running out. Calculating hastily, we decided to walk the last stretch out to the point. Waylaid by a cute little deer that wasn't at all disturbed by our camera-snapping (none of those pictures turned out anyway), we ended up half-jogging to get there so we wouldn't miss the sunset again.

We found ourselves completely alone on an outcropping of rock, with spectacular views back over the length of the canyon. The sun descended as if just for us. After a while, a French couple appeared, so we traded photo-ops with them.

Finally, we made ourselves put the camera down, and put our arms around each other instead. Perched on the tiniest portion of the long winding edge of an immense stone basin, we soaked in the last rays of light and that heart-stopping sense of our own human smallness.

23 September 2008


I mentioned the other day that I joined a gym. This for me is a big deal, since I have never actually been a member of a gym and have always thought of such a thing as something other people do, much in the same way I think of basketweaving or hang gliding. Doesn't one have to actually enjoy exercise to make joining a gym worthwhile?

You see, I have never been what you might call an athletic person. I never played organized sports as a kid, although all of my siblings did, and so I have an at least sketchy knowledge of basketball, baseball, soccer, and field hockey. Just enough to know when to cheer.

In college, I lived across the street from the brand-new athletic center for the three years I was on campus. A one-minute walk. Yet, I probably exercised there a total of...eight times? I was busy with other things, like my self-designed double major and minor, and being an RA, and singing in choir, and any of the other gazillion little groups and things I joined.

I didn't notice that I had gotten a wee bit chubby until after I suddenly wasn't, which happened after I left college and moved back home and started hanging out with a guy who--no joke--was an olympic triathlete. This is still amusing to me. Because I found myself climbing mountains, taking thirty-mile bike rides, swimming, and jogging regularly. That summer, I house/dogsat for family friends, and I took their dog for a run almost every day. And liked it!

Then I got a job in Austria, and didn't do anything but enjoy living in Austria. Sure, there were walks and bike rides, but nothing intentionally exercisy. (By this time I had met the Mister, and so was quite preoccupied with the bubbly hearts shooting out of my head all of the time.) So I was entirely out of the habit when I moved back to the US and into an apartment with four other women on Boston's north shore. Since exercising with a friend is always motivational, one of my housemates and I went to the gym in the basement of her work a few nights a week, as it was just around the corner. And free. Tacked on the wall was a lurid 80s poster of Schwarzenegger as body builder. His muscles glistened. It made me ill. At some point we took the poster down, an act of vandalism that I still think was entirely justified.

At around that time, three things happened. I became a vegetarian and learned how to cook, I applied to grad school, and I got offered a permanent job in Austria. I turned down the job because of grad school, but they offered me a three-month position anyway. Since Austria was thousands of miles closer to the Mister, and since I hadn't really ever found a proper job in Boston, I accepted. And I was back to the no-exercise-when-living-in-Europe plan, although I did stick to eating well.

Thus it was that when I arrived in Indiana, older and wiser than my undergraduate self, I was determined to at least take advantage of the free gym access on campus. I eventually joined a yoga class, and started swimming for exercise. My housemate and I would go to yoga and then come home and make fun of America's Next Top Model while we ate dinner and avoided reading literary theory.

In an ill-advised fit of athleticism, I also let myself be convinced to join an intramural basketball team, made up of women poets from the creative writing program. Only two of us had any inkling about how to play basketball. I was not one of them. We played against tall midwestern girls (superficially, I looked like them) who had just missed the cutoff for the school's Division-I team (their skills made mine look like dogfood). We lost every game we played that semester. By about fifty points.

And then? Then I moved to Brussels with my new husband, and it seemed that I was succumbing again to the Europe=not exercising equation. But after a while the diet of heavy-duty Belgian beer and things fried and/or covered in sauces, plus the cooking-for-two effect (I overestimate how much to cook, and we eat it anyway), took their toll. I was starting to look like a pillowy version of myself, and didn't like that much either. So I dragged myself a few meters down the road to the local art-deco pool, and did laps every once in a while. I always intended to join a yoga class, but never found one that was close by/reasonably priced/in English.

Which brings me to last week's major coup: the gym membership. I went to yoga for the first time in over two years, and boy have I got some loosening up to do. I also got on the elliptical machine for the first time since that basement gym with the Schwarzenegger poster. It brought back memories (which is why I find myself churning out this blog entry, I suppose). The pool, compared to the one in Brussels, where lanes were a theoretical suggestion and children were likely to launch themselves into the water on top of you, is heaven.

I had checked out a couple of options in our neighborhood: the semi-public mega-complex of glass up the road, and the private, dimmed-lights, warm white towel service place down the street. I was very surprised to discover that the fee for six months was the same for both, and the latter waived my sign-up fee and gave me the rest of September for free. And it comes with several guest passes a month, so the Mister can join me on weekends! And there's free wifi (which is why I am writing this post at the gym), and a restaurant, and a spa, much nicer facilities all around, and did I mention the towels! Plus classes that I am much more likely to go to. The first place didn't even offer yoga. Oooh, also there's a high-tech hand-scanner at the entrance. I am easily impressed.

I'm going to challenge myself to go every day, alternating classes and workouts. Things I have never done before in my life include any kind of aerobics class, dance class, or pilates, so I'm going to try all of the above. Meanwhile, just the step of joining a gym feels very empowering. I slung a white towel over my shoulder this morning and thought, maybe I am one of those people after all.

19 September 2008

A visitor

I was watching TV the other night--Chuck in Catalan! (most of the time they choose pretty crappy shows to dub, but this is looking fun)--when an audacious little lizard crawled right across the tile floor. My first impulse, which surprised me even as I lunged, was to grab the little fellow by the tail and bring him outside. But he was too quick for me.

Immediately after that I got grossed out. What is a lizard doing in our house? Still--is this mistaken?--I have the idea that a lizard is a much preferable, much cleaner visitor than any number of bugs I can think of. In fact he may eat any bugs that might be around. I still recollect the utter horror of the cockroach infestation in our apartment in Brussels. I didn't cook for a month. Shudder.

Plus, I have a history of fascination with lizards and snakes. In seventh grade, I actually signed up for an extracurricular herpetology course with Mr. Witmer, who had snakes in cages in the back of the classroom. We took field trips to see other, fancier snakes, and memorized things about salamanders and lizards and frogs and snakes that I no longer remember.

So my questions are several. Did he just get lost and find himself indoors by accident? Will he eventually leave again? Does this mean there are more, or just him? I saw him again a few minutes later, heading for the open balcony door (but then couldn't find him again once he went behind some furniture). Was he leaving of his own accord?

Here's hoping he is a benign and temporary resident chez nous.

Sometimes life...

...bowls you over:

Last night I found out that my grandfather's pre-cancerous ailment has turned into full-blown leukemia. They're going to treat it aggressively, so we'll be praying that his body responds to the treatment, and for my grandparents' serenity in facing it.

And when I woke up, I saw a phone message that my brother and sister-in-law were at the hospital, working on delivering a brand new little baby boy.

17 September 2008

Settling in

So I know that I was supposed to be writing subsequent blog entries about our trip this summer but several factors have conspired against me. First, we remain internetless. From time to time, at unpredictable moments of the day, I am able to pick up a neighbor's wifi signal. But this signal is likely to fizzle out after a few minutes and be maddeningly slow. We have signed up for high-speed service, but according to the guy at the store, there's some problem with the "central system" and our request hasn't yet been uploaded. Once that happens, it can take a month to actually be installed.

Second, I have been preoccupied with getting comfortably dug into life here in Barcelona. Summer, as a result, seems like a distant dream. I'm loving--LOVING--being here. As the fourth person in a row complemented me on my Catalan today, I realized how handy it is to actually speak the language of the place where you're trying to settle in. Being my shy self, I probably, if subconsciously, avoided taking as much advantage as I could have of being in Brussels, due to my fledgling French. And the Belgiums, even if I had spoken superb French, don't so much do the complement thing.

The one ongoing disagreement I have with a friend of ours, a Catalan girl, who we met in Brussels and who now lives in Barcelona, is over the relative merits of each city. She pines for Brussels and makes what I think are erroneous claims about how much nicer it is there. Isn't it self evident that sunny boulevards, tree-lined beaches, and tapas are much better than grey, grey, and more grey? For me, there's also the hands-down superiority of a seafood-based cuisine vs. a ham-hock based cuisine. We had a reunion of sorts with her and other friends in Brussels for the Beer Festival two weekends ago, and although it was great fun, and boy they make good beer, it wasn't enough to make me wish to move back there.

Sure, there are things that are difficult about living in Barcelona too. Red tape and general administrative unhelpfulness abound (see above re: internet), and I'm still getting the hang of how things work. We finally received our libro de familia--the official Spanish document confirming our marriage--over TWO YEARS after our wedding. And now I'll be jumping through all sorts of hoops about residency and health care here. But it feels like putting down roots, so it's worth it, even if it all happens poc a poc.

Plus, I love our neighborhood. Around the corner: the metro stop, the market for fresh fish and fruit and vegetables, the cinema with good movie selections, and a plaza where children swarm over the playground and old folks sit on benches. The demographic seems to be predominantly families with little kids and retirees. Down our street or one over: the video store, my new gym (I just joined yesterday!), my hair salon, the grocery store, the greatest little wine shop ever, and a number of other tiny shops that are perfect for odds and ends. If I need to do more serious shopping, there's a Corte Ingles (Spain's major department store) and a whole fancy mall a ten-minute walk north. Most of the time I don't have to go up there, though. A ten-minute walk south, there's the train station, which can take me to the suburbs, where the Mister's family lives, to the airport, or anywhere else I feel like going!

The Mister's 93-year-old grandmother lives a couple of blocks over, and not only does she invite us over for delectable lunches, and tell me exactly where to go for anything I need, she also explains the history of this neighborhood. Strolling through it with her is like a walking history lesson. Through her eyes, I see this barri when it used to be a town on the outskirts of Barcelona, smell the smell of the chocolate factory that used to be here, hear the tram that used to pass where the four-lane road is now, and see the view of the Tibidabo hill from the fields that used to border the buildings (now, if I lean off our front balcony, I can just see Tibidabo's church lit up at night). Through her eyes, I see how the ladies in their fancy dresses used to gather at the town center for dances. As a little girl, she grew up in the apartment where we live now, and tells us about how she shared our tiny bedroom with a whole bedful of siblings.

Speaking of the house, we're getting it in shape slowly but surely. Still missing are a washer/dryer, a coffee table, and various other odds and ends, and we have yet to put anything up on the walls, but we finally bought a couple of area rugs that I'm really happy with, and I'm enjoying working in the office. I've been doing a much better job of writing for solid stretches of time every day, despite running around to get life in order.

The Mister is in Brussels during the week, but I much prefer having him to myself on the weekend rather than on weekdays. Plus, he's usually able to fly in on Thursday and leave Monday, so that's a nice long stretch. So far, so good. We'll see if I'm still singing the same tune in a few months! In any case, unless the unexpected happens, this arrangement will just be for another year, and then our lives will be one big question mark. Question marks are scary, so for now I'll concentrate on getting settled in here!

03 September 2008


No one told me just how desolate, just how cliff-hugging, just how hairpin-curvy, or just how beautiful the Big Sur coast road is. I mean, I had read Robinson Jeffers and John Steinbeck, and I knew it was going to be full of sweeping views and water crashing onto craggy stone towers.

But as we drove through the country just north of San Simeon (before the real curves start), I thought: this is what they are talking about! How lovely! No wonder it's famous.

I was getting ahead of myself, because I had no idea what was yet to come.

And we were woefully unprepared. Having no reservation for a campground, we planned to stop "somewhere along the way." I had a quarter tank of gas, which I thought I would be able to replenish, also "somewhere along the way." And it was starting to get dark.

Thus it was that we found ourselves swerving around the tightest of curves, perched upon the highest of cliffs, face-first into the most deliriously blazing of sunsets. I could barely see the road, both because the intense flaming orange filled the windshield and because all I wanted to do was stare down the horizon: undulating cliffs and cascades of clouds falling golden into the sea. But I crept along and hugged the side of the mountain and, alternating with incoherent exclamations about beauty and telling the Mister to take pictures, nervously watched the gas needle plummet as we vainly searched for campground indications.

It occurred to me that this moment would qualify as Sublime, capital S, in the 18th-century, Burkean sense of the word, an experience (usually of the natural world, most particularly the Alps) in which terror and beauty simultaneously overwhelm the beholder. If John Dennis' conception of the sublime was an appreciation of utter beauty "mingled with Horrours, and sometimes almost with despair," well, our drive along the Big Sur coast road sure was sublime.

Because we were starting to despair when at last we reached the little outpost of the outside world called Gorda, and I was grateful--grateful!--to pay $6.25 per gallon of gas. I asked the guy where the next campground was, and he said laconically, "just a ways up the road." We had already stopped at a couple of places that were totally full, and I was past freaking out, already stoically resigning myself to driving those curves in the dark.

"A ways up the road" turned out to be, oh, three miles, but they felt like twenty. We rejoiced at the sight of a sign saying Plaskett Creek campground, but despaired once again when it became quite obvious that most of the first-come, first-served campsites were taken. At last, we spotted a tiny spur off to the side with a postage-stamp campsite, and in the almost pitch dark, we set up our tent. We had to make do with no running water and pit toilets, and for dinner we ate peanut butter sandwiches out the trunk of the car, but we counted ourselves lucky.


02 September 2008


It's September. A whole summer of sunsets have gone by. I didn't write any of it down while it was happening, and now trying to find the thread of this blog is a daunting task. The trips we took--to the US for a month, to Amsterdam, to Italy--stand out as a series of images, so I'm going to try to capture just a few of them here over the next few days.

The gist of the summer was this: I flew to Boston, hung out with family there, drove for three days with my parents and siblings and nephews out to Iowa, spent five days in the town of my birth (the Mister arrived while we were all there), and then another five in Yankton, South Dakota for a family reunion. Then the Mister and I flew to Las Vegas and rented a car and spent two weeks exploring the parts of the country we have never seen: Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, then Los Angeles and up through Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, then over to Yosemite, Death Valley, and back to Vegas. We camped, stayed with family and friends, and resorted to hotels when we had to. It was the best trip ever. We flew back to Barcelona for just three days, then spent a week in Amsterdam while the Mister studied Dutch. After another week in Barcelona, we flew to Turin for three days, and well, that was two days ago and now I'm here in breezy Barcelona, wondering where the summer went.

Like I said, I'm not sure how to write it all down, so I'll just start snapshot by snapshot, sunset by sunset as it were. They were all so different, but all equally magnificent.