Departures

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The nature of the north

Written by Chaz on 21 October 2012

Fueled by our fond memories of the road trip we took last summer, Emmy and I wanted to relive our glory days on the western highways with a miniature road trip at the end of our time in Maine. I devised a plan that would take us deep into the Canadian province of New Brunswick first, to visit Fundy National Park, then back into Maine for a stop at Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land, a not-quite-state-park just shy of the Canadian border in a section of the state known as the Bold Coast. In both parks we planned to backpack into the woods and spend the night, reminiscent of our canyon days.

And so it was that we rose around 3:30 on Saturday morning, made coffee, said goodbye to my mother, threw our things into the car, pointed it east and were on our way to Canada by 3:45. As we drove along the so-called “airline route” to Calais, Maine’s easternmost moderately-sized town, we had a good two hours before the sun finally began creeping over the horizon. Unsurprisingly, we did not see many fellow travelers.

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Before long, we were in range of the end of the United States, and after a quick stop for a much-needed coffee refill and one last refuel on American soil, we hopped over the St. Croix River, stopped for a brief passport check and found ourselves in beautiful New Brunswick — or, if you prefer, Nouveau Brunswick. New Brunswick is Canada’s only constitutionally bilingual province, and nearly a third of the population speaks French, though very few of those don’t speak English. (Quebec’s language status isn’t mentioned in the Canadian constitution, and French is the only official language of that province. The federal government of Canada is also constitutionally bilingual.)

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The highway from the Canadian border was a model of infrastructure investment, and before long, the city of Saint John — population 70,000 — was beckoning to us.

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We pulled off the highway, got a bit lost and eventually found our way to the Saint John City Market, Canada’s oldest farmer’s market, which our usual sources had recommended as one of the city’s few sights and perhaps the best place to find breakfast at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. Sure enough, it was an adorable market, and the various stalls were all setting up for the day’s business. We were beckoned into a small restaurant, Slocum & Ferris, by none other than the proprietor, with whom we dined and discussed our voyage north.

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We did only the tiniest bit of exploring in the small city, including a short walk through King’s Square and a quick look at the Loyalist Burial Ground, before hopping back in the car and getting back on the very impressive yet equally rural highway along the southern coast of the province.

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We pulled off the expressway onto the two-lane highway that leads to Fundy, and after a bit more driving on one of the more abandoned roads we have ever traversed, we entered the national park. We were almost immediately met with stunning views across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia. A nice French-speaking family took our picture.

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We continued down the highway to the visitor center, where we picked up our backcountry permit from a park ranger who was not as excited about our visit as we were. Adjacent to the visitor center lay Alma Beach, where we were told we could see the legendary tides of the Bay of Fundy, which are some of the largest in the world. Of course, it’s hard to see tides in one instant, but we took another look across the bay to Nova Scotia.

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Our first hike of the day was the Dickson Falls trail, a very short jaunt through lush woods. The best view of the hike may have been from its trailhead.

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Our next hike was to Matthew’s Head, a beautiful forest trail to a rock outcropping where we enjoyed a picnic lunch — sandwiches of turkey, muenster, horseradish and cranberry — surrounded by excellent views and few other travelers.

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We made a quick stop after our second hike at the Point Wolfe covered bridge. For some reason, Fundy is known for its several covered bridges.

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As we drove to our third hike, though it was only about 1:00, we were realizing that we were incredibly tired. I guess getting up at 3:30 will do that to you. So we pulled into the parking lot for the Laverty Falls trail, which was unpleasantly full, and promptly fell asleep for about 30 minutes. We were barely able to pull it back together and hit the trail. Though it was beautiful, it was unfortunately much more crowded that we were hoping for. The trail took us through forest to a trio of waterfalls, then along the stream back to the trailhead.

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From Laverty Falls, we drove to Bennett Falls, where we parked the car and prepared for our short hike to Tracey Lake, where our campsite for the night was. As we have done on several previous journeys, we had already begun to develop a new nonsensical way of referring to our belongings. We had two backpacks for the trip: one brand-new overnight pack that I had purchased at L.L.Bean on the way up, and one day pack that had previously been converted to a overnight pack for our somewhat improvised Grand Canyon backpacking trip. This day-night dichotomy led us back to yet another television show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the two bags became “day man” and “night man.”

The acquisition of a true overnight pack meant that our packs were much easier to carry than on our last backpacking adventure, but that still didn’t allow a less humiliating place for my Crocs than simply tied on for all the world to see.

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After about an hour of hiking, we arrived at our personal slice of paradise. There was no one else in sight as we set up our tent and made ourselves at home. I even took a quick swim on our private beach.

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Obviously our remote location did not lead us to compromise on cuisine, and we began with cocktail hour: red pepper dip, carrots, celery, cheddar bunnies, and a shared gin & tonic that was a bit more like warm lime water — and about as refreshing as that sounds.

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Emmy broke in our new lightweight camp stove with our shrimp fettucini dinner, mostly prepared in advance.

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After dinner, as the sun began to fall behind the trees, we realized we had to do something with our food in case of bears. Though the ranger at the visitor center had told us they had never had any problems, we still didn’t want the food in the tent with us. So I slung day-man, full of every food product we had, up into a tree a couple hundred feet from our tent. Was it the safest way? No, but it made us feel better.

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We turned in early, exhausted from our long day and truly one with nature.

More whirlwind adventure

Written by Chaz on 30 September 2012

The weather forecast for Tuesday morning was, for the first time since I arrived in Maine, rain. The thought of getting wet scared off all but the most hardy travelers, and my mother, Emmy and I left home very early on Tuesday morning for a hike up Mansell Mountain and around the Great Pond Trail. Mansell is one of the more scenic trails on the much quieter western side of Mount Desert Island, where a large section of the national park lies, and we did not see anyone on the trails for the first couple hours of our hike.

We climbed Mansell using the Perpendicular Trail, famous for its long granite staircase.

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Though it was barely raining for most of our hike, the mountain was entirely shrouded in fog, so there were no views from the top. But still, the different climate made a nice change from the full sun we had been having. (Not to say I wasn’t delighted when the full sun returned.)

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As we began descending the back side of the mountain into Great Notch, a small mountain pass, the fog swirled around us through a beautiful lichen-covered forest.

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We wound around the mountain through a damp, lush forest back to the shores of Long Pond, where the fog had barely begun to rise.

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We headed home for breakfast, where we waited for the last of the rain to leave the island before we headed out to Bass Harbor Head Light, a lighthouse that has become an icon of Acadia and is even now featured on a quarter. The view out to sea remained bleak.

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From the lighthouse, we drove just east to the Ship Harbor and Wonderland trails, which, both being flat and easy, made a nice change from all the peaks we had bagged a couple days earlier. The trails opened onto the rocky Maine coast, and we explored the tide pools a bit.

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For lunch, we drove over to Seawall, a long stretch of beautiful granite that anchors its section of the national park. We explored the rocks more and took the opportunity to take a few more inspired photographs.

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Lunch was again turkey, muenster and avocado with spicy honey mustard on rosemary bread, and it paired very nicely with the scenery.

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We also took the opportunity for one final shot of all of us in our T-shirts.

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Ben was leaving us that afternoon, and I had planned to drive him to Bangor. After lunch, I realized that we were relatively tight on time to get him to the airport. So we stopped at Sawyer’s Market, an adorable grocery store in Southwest Harbor that my family has been patronizing for nearly three decades, with items for each of us to grab already distributed. We high-tailed it from there back to Seal Cove Pond, where Joanna and I dove into the pond for an express swim that was refreshing by both its nature and its cadence.

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We went home and left Joanna, Seth and Emmy to enjoy cocktail hour on the porch while I drove Ben back to the airport in Bangor. From the looks of it, I missed a very nice afternoon.

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I returned just in time for the sunset.

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The parents of a college friend live on the island full-time and we see them whenever we come up here now. When my mother and I took a long-weekend winter trip, we stayed Rosemary and Charlie and spent time exploring the ice-covered park. On this much more summery evening, Rosemary came over for dinner, and we had an amazing feast. We began with a tomato, basil and mozzarella salad, and my mother reprised her homemade crab cakes that I had enjoyed in sandwich form on Isle au Haut, served with potatoes and string beans.

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As Ben’s departure left us with four people, I tried to teach the group to play spades, a Kelsh family favorite, which was only moderately successful but a still a very good time.

Emmy and I rose early on Wednesday, threw two bikes on the car and tried to take a bike road on Acadia’s beautiful carriage road, but due to technical issues with my mother’s bike, we barely got anywhere. We returned home before 7, and decided to do a bit of kayaking in the little inlet by our house. For reasons of safety — the camera’s, not ours — there are no photos.

Once the full gang was up and at ’em, we drove into Bar Harbor for one last meal as a group before Joanna and Seth had to return to the airport. We were able to be seated right away at Cafe This Way, which was a minor miracle. Cafe This Way, an island landmark in recent years, is perhaps the only restaurant I have ever known that serves only breakfast and dinner. Emmy, Joanna and I had omelets — Greek, trout and sundried tomatoes with mozzarella, respectively — while Seth enjoyed a veggie sausage burrito and my mother went for the eggs benedict.

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After breakfast, it was time for another chauffeur run up to Bangor. Emmy and I said goodbye to Joanna and Seth inside the tiny terminal, delighted at what a great time we friends had had together and sorry it had to end. Emmy and I stopped at Walmart on the way back to pick up some supplies, and by the time we made it back to the house, it was time for lunch. Emmy whipped up some tuna melts, which we enjoyed on the porch.

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Unable to rally ourselves for much physical activity, and not excited at the notion of doing something in the mid-afternoon sun, we settled for a quick dip in Seal Cove Pond. As we wove through the backroads of the park, we spotted some friends along the way.

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After an abbreviated cocktail hour, we drove back into Bar Harbor for the early showing of Headhunters, a Norwegian film about an executive recruiter who moonlights as an art thief. We didn’t know much about the film and had basically no expectations, which made it even better when we thoroughly enjoyed it. For dinner, we began with a nachos platter during the first half of the movie, and at intermission moved on to the High Plains Drifter pizza, Reel Pizza’s take on the classic barbecue chicken pizza, one of our favorites in Providence.

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We returned home full and happy, and got in bed early, ready to start the next day bright and early.

Long days of summer

Written by Chaz on 16 September 2012

IMG_6947After sleeping late yet again, I woke up to another breakfast of a Swedish sandwich and coffee and sat out reading for a bit. Torbjörn and I then set out on bicycles to the nearby town of Bergshamra, where there is a small grocery store, to pick up some food. It was a gorgeous day for a ride, and our route took us through a farm, down to the water to a marina and into town.

I learned at the ICA grocery store in Bergshamra that you can order alcohol that is otherwise only sold at Systembolaget and have it sent to a rural grocery store, so that alcohol is available in places too sparsely populated for a Systembolaget store. I guess that’s more convenient, and it just goes to show the level of dedication to keeping the monopoly and making it workable.

Arriving home, we walked down to the beach for a quick dip in the Baltic under the broad blue sky.

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After swimming, I sat out on the porch and shelled shrimp for dinner before making some more headway in my book. Dinner was pasta with shrimp, salad, and white wine, followed by a dessert of rhubarb pie with vanilla sauce and ice cream, and of course coffee.

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The light was so nice after dinner that we did a quick photo shoot to remember the trip by, and then, still not wanting to go inside, we took a very long walk down to another bay, where the sun’s last rays were especially beautiful.

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We woke relatively early on Sunday and immediately headed for the dock, where an early swim was especially cold and thus very quick. We cleaned up and had a very relaxing breakfast all together on the porch, with smörgåsar with spicy tomato-ginger marmalade, cereal, filmjölk, coffee, and orange juice.

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Anna, Karin and Nils had to return to Stockholm that afternoon, so we made a trip of taking them to the bus in Norrtälje. We walked around town a little bit and looked in at Akeba, a neat furniture and home goods store.

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We had a fika at Tre Praliner, where we had actually eaten three years earlier when my mother visited Sweden. We sat out on the deck with kanelbullar, chokladbollar and coffee.

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IMG_7034After our fika, we drove over to the bus station with more than enough time for their bus to Stockholm, and sure enough, as we walked up to the platform with 15 minutes to spare, the bus was pulling up. But as we chatted and said a long goodbye, the bus pulled away! It turned out that the buses actually leave for Stockholm every 15 minutes, so we had been looking at the bus before theirs. Another bus came along shortly, we repeated our goodbyes, and they were on their way.

Erik, Torbjörn and I drove over to Coop, the grocery store, where we recycled various things into several bins: plastic, metal, paper, colored glass and uncolored glass. A large sign proclaimed that light bulbs could not be recycled there, and believe it or not, we actually did have a light bulb to recycle. The whole thing felt like a scene out of Portlandia, one of our favorite showsthis scene, to be specific.

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After yet another grocery self-scanning experience, we drove back to Lögla, where we had a relaxing afternoon, reading on the porch and taking a long swim at the beach. We began making dinner, for which we had big ambitions.

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Round one of dinner, a salmon vegetable stir-fry with rice, was excellent, and very attractive in the cooking process.

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Round two came a bit later: chorizo with korvbröd, senap (Swedish mustard), ketchup, rostadlök (the Swedish fried onions), grilled halloumi, and beer. It was excellent in a very different way from the stir-fry.

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After dinner, we took one last long walk around Lögla. Throughout the trip, I had been remarking on how much the Stockholm archipelago reminded me of Maine, my favorite place in the world, and how my Swedish family ought to come visit us there. As we looked over the water at the sunset, Torbjörn turned me and said with a knowing smile, “Very Maine, right?”

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The next morning, we woke up very early and set off for Arlanda airport, where I said goodbye to Torbjörn and Erik, pledging that we would see each other again very soon. As I made my way through airport check-in, and security, and into the departure lounge, speaking Swedish at every step, I realized how far my Swedish language skills had come, and how much further even they had developed on my 10-day trip — not just in vocabulary or grammar but also in just feeling comfortable using it. I picked up a Stockholm newspaper in the airport, which appropriately enough contained a story about Providence. I also seized the opportunity to have one last Swedish breakfast.

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My flight took me through Amsterdam, where I saw a Lego model of the Amsterdam airport and enjoyed one of my favorite beers in its homeland.

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Yet another wonderful time in Sweden. The next one can’t come soon enough.

In the shadows of memories

Written by Emmy on 7 November 2011

Monday morning marked the end of the official LisSister journey through Spain. I had to make my way up to Barcelona in order to fly across the ocean Tuesday morning, though Jessica was able to fly back to Rome directly from Valencia, thanks to my favorite airline. And so we bid farewell and I took the train and arrived back in Barcelona just after 2 p.m and just in time for a menu del dia.

When I first got to Barcelona two years ago, I went through a six-hour teacher training in order to work at La Mar Bella. We received a midday break for lunch and with three of my friends, I headed to a nice cafe near the CASB building. We had heard about the wonders of menu del dia, but had not yet partaken. So we sat down, ordered our three courses, and then because the concept of day drinking legally was still novel to us, we each ordered wine, expecting a glass. Instead, we received two full bottles. The afternoon part of training was far more fun.

I continued returning to Por Sant with my friends because of the delightful outdoor seating, copious amounts of wine and unbelievably good food. When my mom came to visit, I brought her there and when Chaz came to Barcelona, we spent several happy hours on the Por Sant patio.

There was no way I could return to Barcelona and not eat there, so I went by myself for a delicious lunch. The menu changes daily, but rarely disappoints. I was pleased to find several new options available, as well as some old favorites. I started with zucchini baked with mushrooms and cheese in a light tomato sauce.

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I followed this with chicken stewed with prunes and apricots. This was always my favorite Por Sant entree and I was pleased to see it was still a menu regular. The dish is served in a sweet wine sauce, though it has a little bit of a citrusy kick.

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One of the beauties of the menu del dia and meals in Spain in general is that you will never be rushed away from your table. Lingering is encouraged, and so I sat for a while with my personal bottle of white wine and watched the quiet commotion of the streets nearby. The waitress who served me was the same waitress who always helped my friends and I. She was much nicer to me as the quiet solo diner of ambiguous origin than she was to me as a member of the crowd of loud obviously American teenagers.

For dessert I had the cheesecake, which in Spain is far lighter than in the U.S.

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From Por Sant I took a long winding walk down La Rambla, through Plaça Catalunya and into the heart of the Gothic Quarter. I paid a visit to La Manual Alpargatera, the world-renowned espadrille-manufacturing store. Espadrilles are quite possibly the most comfortable shoes in the world and I am very pleased that they have remained a fashionable item in the U.S. While you can find them in most nice shoe stores at fairly high prices, at La Manual they will stretch their handmade shoes to create a custom fit and the average pair costs nine euros.

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From La Manual I took a weaving route back to my old neighborhood. By Monday I was experiencing serious nostalgia for my time abroad. I went to my neighborhood Mercadona to pick up Spanish candy for my friends back in New York and sat on a bench in the Onix courtyard for a while. The courtyard was, as always, filled with little kids playing soccer, despite the rampant “No fútbol” signs. The adults couldn’t care less; they were all busy having a beer or playing bocci ball nearby. I saw several girls around my age walking into the supermarket from Onix and had to resist all temptations to start talking to them. I thought it might be a little creepy, so I refrained and just drank my 18-cent seltzer. (Grocery shopping in Spain is a remarkably cheap experience.)

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I had a similar reaction to returning to Barcelona as Chaz’s homecoming to Sweden, which he reflected upon after returning. Ever since leaving Spain, I have wanted to return and I built up the experience in my head. My homecoming too did not disappoint. That our high expectations were met is the only similarity between our experiences though. Chaz had remembered Sweden as the ideal country with the ideal system of functionality and it fulfilled his hopes. I have never believed Spain to be the pinnacle of success nor the perfect model of self-governance. Its current track record severely begs to differ. But what I loved about Barcelona while I was there and what I was so eager to return to was the spirit of the city and the disposition of its people.

Barcelona is a city tied to its rich cultural and linguistic past and a city constantly at odds with its surroundings. The people who live there firmly believe in themselves and all that their land stands for. They are lively and vibrant, occasionally angry, but always passionate. The city is unique and special. It’s something easy to catch onto after only a few days there, but a sentiment you come to regard as your own after enough time living there. Catalunya is not Spain, and Barcelona is like nowhere else.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering in my old territory, soaking up as much of the local energy as I could. For dinner, I headed to Ciutat Comtal, the sister restaurant of Cerveceria Catalana. Slightly less well known, it’s also slightly less crowded and they have a long bar, which makes for convenient solo eating. I fought my way toward the bar and picked out a stool at the very end. The woman next to me turned to tell me she and her husband would be vacating their seats soon, but because I was alone and had ordered a drink in Spanish, she assumed I was native and so spoke to me in English in the way my family always jokes that my father speaks to foreigners: slowly, loudly and with simple words. Trying hard not to laugh, I responded in my very New York-ish English, wished her well on the rest of her trip and turned to order my tapas en español.

The line between tourist and local was a hard one to ride in Spain and a very different experience than my other summer trips. In Asia, there was no disguising the fact that Chaz and I were foreigners. Between his blonde hair and my large camera, not to mention our maps and guidebooks, it was game over. At the Grand Canyon, of course we were tourists. Who isn’t? When I was last in Barcelona, I spent four months trying to convince people I belonged, by dressing in a nondescript way, picking up the local accent and just generally blending in. This time though, I wanted to take pictures and cause a scene — for blogging and for personal purposes — but at the same time, I still wanted to be mistaken for a local student. At the bar at Ciudad Comtal, for instance, I could have potentially passed when I first sat down alone and ordered in Spanish. But my food came and then I was that strange girl in the corner photographing her dishes, clearly not a local. And once the waitstaff start posing for your photos and using their few key English phrases, how can you argue you’re getting the authentic experience?

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Cracks about my photography aside, I did have a delicious dinner of some standard tapas favorites. Tapas for one is really difficult, so I just over-ordered and sampled from my various personal plates, which included a seafood montadito, the Catalan version of a pintxo; a pepper stuffed with tuna; escalivada, the same eggplant, pepper and onion tower we had the first night at Cerveceria Catalana; and some grilled veggies.

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Much as I love Barcelona, I know better than to traipse around solo at night and so I retired early in order to prepare for my departure, so that I could still have the morning to play.

I woke up early, but then remembered why Barcelona stays sleeping till at least 9 a.m. At 7:30, the city was still dark. I had grand ideas about storming the gates of Gaudi’s Park Güell, but thought better of it and instead of heading outside the city, dove back into its depths one final time. For as many visits as I made to the Boqueria, I had never been in the morning when it first opens and so I decided to catch a glimpse of the merchants unloading their produce and other wares before heading out. I was definitely the only tourist among the fishmongers taking their giant animals off ice and the fruit sellers unpacking cartons.

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IMG_7513For one final bite of authenticity before leaving the city, I returned to Cerveceria Catalana. Despite the fact that they fend off crowds and feed them tapas until late in the night, the bar opens at 8 a.m. in order to serve coffee and flautas to hungry locals on their way to work. I sat down at the bar and lingered for a while because I had time to spare, although in the time I sat there several cycles of people shuffled through, taking a moment to sip their cafe and read their newspapers before heading off the start the day. I had coffee and some manchego, which was a standard order, though one man to my left had a glass of wine and one to my right had a cognac. Nothing like starting the day strong. Inspired by a worker who took his sandwich to go, I requested a second flauta in tin foil — a preferable lunch to whatever Delta was going to serve me.

With my tuna and olive sandwich in hand, I made my way to the very familiar Barcelona airport terminal. Saying goodbye to the city was shockingly hard and I found myself getting a bit emotional, but it only reaffirmed what I had already determined: I would be back.

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Such a beautiful horizon

Written by Emmy on 9 October 2011

Two years ago, I spent the semester in Barcelona. Ever since, I have been desperate to go back.

Chaz had his homecoming to Stockholm earlier in the summer, and now it’s my turn. In the final checkpoint adventure before adulthood sets in, I’m returning to beautiful Barcelona. My sister Jessica is studying abroad in Italy this semester and we are meeting in Spain for her fall break. We’ll start in Barcelona and visit my old haunts and old friends before turning south to Valencia, the coast’s other large city. I leave tonight and my departure could not come any sooner.

Barcelona is a city full of life, art and music. When the city hosted the Olympics in 1992, Freddie Mercury, Queen’s leadman, wrote a song in its honor, which subsequently became a sort of anthem for Barcelona. While I was abroad, I took to listening to the song as I came back from weekend travels. Something about Mercury’s “Barcelona” reminded me just how much I loved the city every time I returned. So you can bet I will have this song on infinite repeat as my plane circles the city and touches down right next to the Mediterranean.

Final destination

Written by Emmy on 7 October 2011

After our picnic, we bid farewell to the Grand Canyon and hit the open road.

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Although the Grand Canyon was our last real destination, the remote North Rim is a bit far from all commercial airports. Since we planned to fly out of Phoenix in the early afternoon the next day, we had decided that we would get a bit closer to reduce pre-flight rush. So we drove the deserted highways of Arizona and made our way to the first real city beyond the canyon, Flagstaff.

Along the way, we passed mesa after mesa, cactus after cactus, and very few other cars. These are the roads that 75 miles per hour speed limits and cruise control were made for.

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The only real landmarks along the way were two national monuments, neither of which I had ever heard of before picking up the area map. Contained within the same 35-mile loop detour off the highway, the Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument are definitely removed. Wupatki, where we stopped for an emergency bathroom visit and a NPS passport stamp, is considered a sacred place among many Native American tribes. Sunset Crater, where we arrived after the visitor center had already closed, was formed by several volcanos back when Arizona was a more fiery place.

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We pulled into Flagstaff with storm clouds looming overhead. I had read all about a hotel in historic downtown Flagstaff and so reserved us a room. The Weatherford Hotel was definitely unconventional. I think there were more barstools than rooms in the establishment. Flagstaff lived its heyday in the 1800s during westward expansion. The town was christened on the country’s centennial — how it came to be named after the pole hoisting the stars and stripes. The Weatherford was a relic from that era, which meant that it lacked some more modern amenities. But upon arrival, all we really needed was a long shower to wash the canyon off of ourselves.

After washing up, we headed to Beaver Street Brewery, a restaurant highly recommended by all of our usual sources. We ordered a couple of the local brewery’s wares and tried to stick to local fare as well. We started with the thus appropriately named Arizona quesadillas, which were filled with chicken and served with sides of fresh guacamole and salsa.

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We asked our waiter what he liked best and he recommended any of the flatbread pizzas and one of the house platters. We had already decided he was pretty awesome, so we followed his directions to a tee. We split a southwestern chicken pizza, which was topped with a chicken, tons of veggies and a cilantro pesto (take that, cilantro haters — even if you might not be able to help yourselves). We also had the shrimp taco platter, which we both thought was phenomenal.

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After dinner, we strolled past the Flagstaff train station and decided to check it out. Amtrak was my primary mode of transit between home and Brown, so I became quite accustomed to delays on the Northeast Regional line. But we’re talking 15 to 30 minute delays. Apparently on the western lines, like the one that runs through Flagstaff, delays of one, two, ten hours are basically par for the course. Without an agenda for the rest of the night, we decided to sit on a bench and wait with the angsty passengers of the evening Southwest Chief.

IMG_6345While we were waiting, we must have seen ten giant freight trains roll through. Flagstaff sits on the highly trafficked Los Angeles to Chicago route of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, more commonly known by its acronym, BNSF. I’m not sure I have ever seen so many large aggressive freight trains before. We discussed the politics of transcontinental trains until the Chief finally arrived about an hour after schedule. We waited till the train had departed the station and then we retired for the evening. However, the freight didn’t stop just because we did. The trains ran all night, which was a bit more disruptive than our prior few nights under the stars had been. Price of capitalism?

We woke up in the morning and undertook our largest challenge to date. More strenuous than Half Dome, more tiring than the Grand Canyon, completed on less coffee than Angels Landing: unpacking, cleaning and repacking Dorothy. We managed to do quite a number on her in two weeks. If you happen to rent a black Dodge Grand Caravan in Phoenix anytime soon, just don’t open the stow ’n go compartments.

Before leaving Flagstaff, we managed to sneak in a quick and authentic breakfast at MartAnne’s Burrito Palace. Chaz ordered based upon the restaurant’s name and had a breakfast burrito.

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I followed their tagline — “the house that chilaquiles built” — and went with the traditional Mexican dish of scrambled eggs, tortillas, cheese and green salsa. Both portions were enormous and came with beans, rice, potatoes, lettuce and tomato, and tortillas. Breakfast was delicious, and I’m not sure I ate another full meal for the rest of the day.

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After finishing breakfast, we powered south to Phoenix. Over the course of the drive, we dropped almost 7,000 feet in elevation, a shocking accomplishment considering it never looked like we left the desert. We stopped briefly for gas and then pulled up in front of the Delta terminal at Sky Harbor International Airport. We couldn’t both bring Dorothy back, much as we would have liked to bid her a teary farewell together, because of the sheer amount of luggage we had. So Chaz took our girl home while I babysat what can only be dubbed a mountain of baggage.

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The final count on Dorothy’s odometer was 2,417.3 miles — a fairly awesome feat for two weeks. (Never mind that we flew more miles than that just to get to our starting point.) From the windows of our minivan we had seen deserts and the ocean, packed freeways and empty country roads, mountains and vast flat expanses. We had eaten (and spilled) countless meals in her confines, possibly broken a GPS system we never asked for in the first place, and listened to the same classic songs on infinite repeat. (And happily, we managed all this without damaging the car or earning a single traffic or parking ticket.) But now it was time to board our plane back east.

We flew together to Detroit, where another journey once began and others are likely still to come. “You don’t get to be silver without going to a hub a few times,” Chaz said, when I pointed out this symmetry. And so we hugged goodbye and ran to our separate planes, ending yet another fantastic voyage for the checkpoint.

Emerging from the canyon’s depths

Written by Chaz on 7 October 2011

The alarm went off at 4 a.m., and we were up and striking camp by 4:15. We had made the decision after packing all our things the day before that we could afford to bring the requisite items for making hot coffee, and I was extremely grateful that we did. (Even if we did have to both drink the coffee straight out of the percolator.)

Though it took us a little while to take down the tent, pack everything up and tie everything back onto our backpacks, both of our packs ended up much more securely attached than they had been the day before, when there had been a little bit of uncomfortable shifting back and forth. Given that we had the much harder trek out of the canyon ahead of us, we were both happy about that.

We got on the trail at about 5:45 after filling our water bottles and making one last stop at the composting toilets at our campground. Though the sun was still at least an hour from rising over the crest of the canyon, it was already light out, and we were able to put away our flashlights nearly immediately. We made excellent time, setting a timer to ensure that we took regular stops for hydration and snacking. We took a long stop for more turkey-muenster-avocado sandwiches, and to prop our legs up, which we read helps your body drain waste products out of your leg muscles to reduce soreness. (Ew, though.) We met a few interesting people along the way and enjoyed sharing and hearing Grand Canyon stories.By the end, we were sharing our tips, experts that we had become.

Though the last, steepest 1.7-mile section after Supai Tunnel wasn’t exactly fun, the hike out really wasn’t that bad, and we returned to Dorothy in a mood of extreme triumph by about 10:15. We threw all our things in the car, refilled our water bottles, and headed back down to the North Rim Lodge, where we walked out onto Bright Angel Point to reflect on where we had just come from.

After a few more bathroom stops (that hydration really gets to you), we drove away from the rim to a picnic area that overlooks the canyon for one last meal with a view. We couldn’t resist a celebratory cocktail — we considered that we had more than earned it — and we whipped up the leftovers from Mexico night as well as some macaroni and cheese, doctored to have some Southwestern flair.

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Amazing memories made, we packed everything back into Dorothy and said our goodbyes to the Grand Canyon, grateful for a wonderful visit.

Go west!

Written by Emmy on 7 September 2011

Though we have only just caught up on adventures from mid-summer, we are in fact jetting off on a new one right now. Today we kick off a two-week road trip on the west coast!

We began our journeys in our home cities — I write to you from JFK’s Delta terminal — and we will reconvene in Fresno, Calif. From there, we’ll head to Yosemite National Park, where we will spend several days exploring the natural splendors that the park has to offer.

Our journey heads to the coast from there, pausing in Napa to sample the homegrown beverages. We’ll stop in the Bay Area to catch up with friends before heading south along the scenic, waterfront Pacific Coast Highway. At Los Angeles we’ll turn east, taking a detour at lesser known Zion Canyon en route to the big attraction, the Grand Canyon. We’ll approach the canyon from the North Rim, the less trafficked and more tranquil side. After several days on the edge, we’ll head south, stopping in the quirky college town of Flagstaff, Ariz., on our way to the Phoenix airport.

As always, we’ll keep an eye and a camera lens on our plates, though it remains to be seen how applicable the lessons of Thai Cookery School will be at a campsite. We’ll keep you posted as we go. Make sure to watch our Twitter feed for more constant updates!

And with that, we are off!

Put a bird on it

Written by Chaz on 6 September 2011

After leaving Joanna in Los Angeles, I headed up to Portland to visit my friend Sophia, who was interning for the summer at the Oregonian, the city’s newspaper. I’d heard a lot about how wonderful Portland is, and I was very interested to see it for myself — especially after watching Portlandia, a niche TV comedy about the city, when it ran earlier this year. Portland certainly lived up to its reputation.

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I spent my first day in Portland exploring the downtown area. The city has no major tourist sights to speak of, but I didn’t mind that. I was mostly interested in walking around and getting a feel for the city’s famous coffee-sipping, skateboard-riding vibe.

IMG_4077The Portlandia statue, a symbol of the city and the TV show’s namesake.

But one major landmark and highlight was Powell’s Books, a bookstore the size of a city block. I spent at least two hours there, combing every section. The selection was incredible. Frankly, I wouldn’t have thought there was a single bookstore in the country in which I could compare ten different Swedish grammar books.

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As I walked around, a few things really stuck out. First, of course, the streetcars, for which Portland is well-known. I was able to take a few steps out of the airport and hop right on a light rail train that took me right into the heart of the city, and they’re equally useful for getting around downtown and to a number of suburbs. To top it all off, they’re free in the central area.

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Another was the parks, which are everywhere and beautifully kept. My personal favorite was Tanner Springs Park, which is a reclaimed wetland nestled into an extremely urban setting. It’s in the Pearl District, a trendy neighborhood just above downtown.

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Sophia and I had dinner on my first night in Portland at a place that could not have epitomized Portland better: a worker-owned vegan cafe. It was actually pretty good, too. We had a bunch of different veggie-based dishes that were inexpensive and, I’m sure, nutritious. Sophia is a vegetarian, and we spent most of dinner talking about how difficult being vegan would be.

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Afterwards, we explored another scene that Portland is known for, its craft beers. We checked out two places that were near dinner. One had a wide selection of local beers and the other made its own line of sour beers, which were sour like sour candy. Not my preference, but an interesting idea, I guess.

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Sophia and I went hiking in three great parks just outside the city center: Forest Park, a huge park that extends from downtown out to the northwest; Council Crest City Park, which had gorgeous views out of the city; and my personal favorite, Tryon Creek State Park, a lush oasis of green still within the city limits. Here’s Sophia, doing what she does best and reporting live from the scene.

We also took a longer expedition down to Oregon’s wine country, where we visited a few vineyards before stopping for a delicious dinner at Cana’s Feast Winery in Carlton. The view from our table, out over the rolling fields into the mountains, was spectacular, and dinner was very good too. Wonderful, fresh produce.

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The next morning, we had breakfast at Bijou Cafe, which all the guidebooks called a must. It was very FLOSS — a Portland term that means “fresh, local, organic, seasonal and sustainable.” I had a (vegetarian-fed) beef hash and Sophia had a beautiful omelet.

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Because the news never stops, not even when I’m in town, Sophia had to work the last afternoon of my visit. I took the opportunity to get a little closer to Mt. Hood. I took a short hike out to Mirror Lake, which reflects the mountain in its waters.

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I drove back through the beautiful Columbia River gorge, stopping at the incredible Multnomah Falls. As I approached Portland, the sun was setting, and the colors of the sky were amazing.

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I got up early the next morning and headed back to the airport and Philadelphia. Portland seemed similar to Philadelphia in only one way: a perfectly nice place to visit, but a fantastic place to live. I definitely understood why people love it.

IMG_4154Taken at a vineyard by a random person; highly suitable for wedding invitations.

A short time on Long Island

Written by Emmy on 5 September 2011

After only a few weeks apart, it was about time for Team Absurdity Checkpoint to reunite.

When Chaz was finally able to board a plane headed for the U.S., don’t be fooled into thinking he was going home. Due to the restrictions that come with flying using frequent flyer miles, Chaz had to fly into New York — which gave us the perfect excuse for a weekend of fun and sun on Long Island.

Because of Chaz’s delayed take-off from Stockholm, he arrived into JFK a bit later than planned. While this would normally have been no issue at all, his arrival happened to coincide with the release of the final Harry Potter movie. As this was an event I had been preparing myself for for years, it could not be missed. So with my friend Ian in tow, we picked Chaz up at the airport and made off like bandits for the movie theater, where my friend Danielle was waiting for us with tickets. (Appropriately, we saw the movie at the Roosevelt Raceway movie theater, completing the trifecta of Roosevelt sites in the area. On previous visits, Chaz and I have seen Teddy’s birthplace in Lower Manhattan and his country estate in my hometown of Oyster Bay.)

The theater was sheer mayhem and filled with costumed viewers. I wore my Brown sweatshirt in support of Emma Watson, while Ian joked that in his black hoodie, he was dressed as Voldemort. After three action-packed hours (plus the hour we spent saving our seats), we headed home and put Chaz to bed.

The next morning, we began a day of adventure. Chaz had requested a full-out triathlon following his week-long eatathon in Sweden. The weather was beautiful, and so we kayaked in Oyster Bay (the body of water for which the town is named) and swam in my backyard.

IMG_3787The view, several hours later

We had lunch on the water, and though the restaurant served mostly local seafood, we obviously both gravitated toward the most Asian item on the menu, seared sesame tuna over salad.

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After lunch we went on a tour of Oyster Bay’s finest supermarkets in preparation for the evening’s event. I got to have the once-in-a-lifetime experience of hosting what was effectively our own mini frat party. Ian came back (sans the Voldemort costume), our friend Ben took the train out from his new digs in Brooklyn and our friend Max joined us fresh from Teach For America’s training institute in Queens.

It was great to have so many people we like in one place and to catch up on everyone’s action-packed summers. We relaxed in the backyard over a lovely spread of chips, salsa and a long-perfected guacamole recipe and watched the sun set over the bay. For dinner, we dug in to homemade burgers and turkey burgers, salad and coleslaw. The men handled the grilling, while I took on the token girl role of salad making.

For dessert, my parents brought home ices from the famous Long Island institution, Ralph’s, but we were all almost too full to partake. Almost.

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IMG_3846IMG_3822More candid photos are viewable here.

We took the next day a little easier, luxuriating over morning coffee and then moving onto a picnic lunch gathered together by my parents. Once everyone was totally full with all of the Island’s best offerings, we dropped Max and Ben at the train. (Fun fact: the Long Island Rail Road stop we took them to, Syosset, has the largest gap between the platform and the train in the whole system.) After a short time back at my house, it was time for Chaz to jet back off again. I dropped him at LaGuardia Airport, where he set off on the next of his summer adventures.

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