Archive for May 2009

Where There’s Smoke

May 29, 2009

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It’s one of the great joys of  my life on the island, to get up with the sun and start smoking something.  Smoking is a multi-hour event, so it’s best to get an early start, although the fact that it’s light at 4:30 in the morning, and broad daylight by 5:30, even though we’re still three weeks from the solstice, is perhaps exaggerating a little on the early start front.

But just to be outside in the virgin morning, Puget Sound shining in the distance, firs and cedars sighing as the fragrant smoke swirls around them, thrills me with the prospect of a satisfying day to come.

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I’ll readily confess that my big offset firebox smoker is one of my favorite American toys.  I like to fuss more or less constantly with the fire, sometimes getting really intimate with the baby flames as I kneel to blow them awake with an encouraging puff of air or two.  Everything affects the cooking time, the outdoor temperature, the wind speed and direction, the wetness of my favorite cherry wood and the amount of it I add to the fire, and probably the phase of the moon, although I haven’t yet figured out how to account for potential lunar influences.  It’s primordial, all of that, deeply fulfilling and endlessly entertaining.

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Today the whole experience was dictated by the shopping goddesses.  Copper River sockeye, my favorite of all the salmon,  was ridiculously inexpensive, going for $10 a pound when some years in my memory it’s risen as high as $26.  For that reason I decided to try smoking a side, because what the heck, how bad could it be, and the price was right.  And whereas I’ve often grilled salmon sides, this was my first try at hot smoking, which I did according to this recipe.  Except that I substituted lovage for the didn’t-have-any celery and fennel, which, in hindsight and after judicious taste-testing, I don’t think made a particle of difference.

The resulting salmon was lightly smoky, rich and unctuous beyond my dreams, and made some of the best salmon sandwiches I’ve ever had.  Tomorrow morning is sure to find me, whether bright-eyed and bushy-tailed or sunrise-weary and bedraggled, back at the fish counter to get another couple of sides while the getting’s good, and do it all again, with feeling.

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And then, the minute the salmon was out of the smoke the chickens went in.  These whole, free range (but alas, not organic) chickens were “buy one, get one free,” or else I might have thought I was subjecting myself to smoking overkill, not to mention protein surplus disorder.  But a free chicken is not to be ignored, and while the fire’s hot you might as well use it, and so now we’ll be having barbecued chicken sandwiches, smoked chicken in salsa verde,  smoked chicken breast stir fry, and finally, a fabulously outdoorsy soup made from the smoked bones, skins, and scraps.

After which you might think I’d be ready to join Smoker’s Anonymous, but no.  This is my real “being in America,” more than speaking English to everyone I see, more than understanding every nuance of every article in the newspaper, more than being automatically rude in the face of incompetence instead of automatically polite.  This being at home outdoors in the semi-wild, where we’ve already seen a coyote and a raccoon and many eagles in or over our yard, this sending smoke up into the sky as women have done time out of mind, this ripping juicy fire-kissed meat from the bone, this is America.  We have arrived.

The Taste Of Home

May 27, 2009

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We’ve been eating very well since we’ve been back.  The first week we had insatiable cravings for Mexican food, and that’s almost all we ate.  But now it’s American food that floats our boat, like this lush Copper River salmon, abundant this year and delightfully less expensive than in years past.

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I’m rediscovering the joys of smoking, standing out on the back deck with my hair full of the sweet smoke of cherry wood, waiting for the chicken and corn to take on that aroma of the wild, the scent that women have been bathed in since they first learned how to carry fire with them on their travels.

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Eggs are another ancient food, belonging to no one culture, but made like this, according to our friend Kathy’s secret recipe for family happiness and by her own hand, they call us back to childhood picnics, summer evenings, and lightning bugs in jars.

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I didn’t have shishito peppers as a child, but since I’ve only ever had them in America I count them as American food.  They’re beautifully miniature, just a bite or two apiece, and one in a hundred or so is spicy enough to surprise you, while the other 99 are reassuringly sweet.

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Even sweeter is this raspberry mousse pie.  Actually, I could make this in France and French people would definitely enjoy it, but it’s here that raspberries are plentiful and affordable.  After several days of raspberries by the handful, in cereal, in smoothies, and even on toast, a raspberry mousse pie seemed like just the thing.

It’s funny, but now that I think of it, there’s one glaring omission in our all-Americana scheme.  We haven’t yet had one single hamburger.  Time to remedy that!

Sorting It All Out

May 25, 2009

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Back in the day, this jewel of a post office trundled from town to town, a communication center on the rails, gathering information here and depositing it there, helping people stay in touch with all those that were most precious to them, before it rolled on down the line.  I can relate, shuttling from country to country, writing letters to myself, trying to keep in touch with my observations and feelings before they slip away as life chugs on.

It’s three weeks now since we left France, but it feels like years.  Light years, that is.  We’ve slipped back into old habits like the old clothes we’ve dug out of boxes in the garage, although it’s sometimes an uneasy fit.  And often it’s the absence of past comforts that we wear like that poppy on the lapel, that smudge of ash on the forehead.  Today it’s Memorial Day in America, a day to remember, and indeed, Memory Lane beckons.

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We’ve practically never lived in this house without Riley, and we don’t want to now either.  I still see him everywhere, even though he’s been gone for over two years.  Sometimes the past just won’t stay past, but follows you around, begging for attention.

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Sushi too should be here, if only to remind us that death always comes too soon.  As if we could ever forget that.  That everyone has her time and place on this Earth, and that our time is now, and only now.

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And in our now it’s Spring, the time for growth and birth.  Restored by green food, renewed by the sight of a world in leaf, we begin again to find our way in this new old home.  The New World is both easier and harder to inhabit, and perhaps our ancestors also found it thus.

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To soothe the aches and pains of uprooting and travel we’ve been trying to get the hot tub working, but there’s a ground fault somewhere that troubles the circuitry.  That’s another thing I can relate to, as one life leaks into the other, fizzling and crackling at the interface of language and culture. 

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The food is different here, with the old familiar flavors, but expensive, shipped from far away, and the lack of daily bread leaves a void.  So today we’ll fire up the smoker for the first time this year, make a purely American supper, and take a step back toward a simpler life, a life before there were two lives.

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We’ll think of those who went before, and those who will come after, holding the past close as the future sweeps us onward.  We’ll live our two lives as if they were one, at least for today.

Rhapsody In Rhubarb

May 19, 2009

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We’ve only been back a week, but already I’m baking all the time.  In France I practically never baked, for an alphabet of reasons:  a) there was a bakery right next door, b) there were 14 other bakeries in town just in case we needed them, c) French ingredients behave a bit differently and don’t always work well in American recipes, and d)  and I had a limited supply of baking pans available. 

Shel went to the bakery once or twice a day, for his morning pastry and often a bit later for the day’s bread.  Here on the island the bread situation is downright tragic.  There’s bread that’s quite decent, but it’s delivered from Seattle, and only 5 days a week.  There’s bread at the weekly farmer’s market, for $6 a loaf.  Fresh, cheap, local, delicious bread available anytime, including weekends?  Forget it.  Before we went to France I used to bake a high percentage of our bread, and now I remember why.  I also used to bake piles of breakfast treats for Shel and freeze them, and I guess I’ll have to take that up again as well.  But in the meantime there’s the rhubarb to keep me busy.

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Having a vigorous plant, and being the only rhubarb lover in the household, are pretty much  guarantees that all of my hostess gifts plus most of my own breakfasts these days will involve the sprightly, tangy fruit.  Here’s a recipe  for the best rhubarb compote I’ve ever tasted, probably the only one I’ll make from now on.

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It makes a gorgeously pink, addictively sweet-tart compote, laced with Grand Marnier and orange zest.  I’ve been eating it with Greek yogurt, but if we had any vanilla ice cream I’d likely put them together in a bowl and bliss out.  I’ve even loved it on a rye crisp covered with almond butter, but then, I’m weird like that.

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Then there’s this recipe for rhubarb cobbler.  Let me just say that this very afternoon a ravening horde of otherwise genteel lady writers demolished it in a trice.  And that it was very good.  And that I agree, a higher rhubarb to cake ratio would make it even better.  And that even though we have guests coming from California tomorrow and I need to bake something for them to have for breakfast, I think I’m rhubarbed out for the moment.  Coffeecake, anyone?

Like Proust’s Madeleine

May 17, 2009

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This is the elusive taste of my past.  Thirty years ago this cake was lost to me, the little handwritten recipe for my favorite childhood treat disappearing with the detritus of a relationship gone wrong, after a hasty packing and moving out day that left my entire adulthood thereafter cakeless.  Well, not entirely cakeless, but this one cake, the only cake that I could never reproduce, the cake my mother made for me on any good occasion, one of the first things I learned to bake as a girl, this was the forbidden fruit.  I dreamed about this cake, which remained vivid in my memory with the passage of time.  I never accepted its loss.

Over the years I tried every conceivable recipe I came across, sure in advance that no other pineapple upside-down cake could rival my vanished favorite.   And there were good cakes, and not so good cakes, but all were poor relatives of my cake of treasured memory.  By now I imagine that you’re waiting for me to unleash a barrage of exquisite adjectives upon you, extolling the wonders conjured by my cake dreams.  But no.  I’m not going to describe the peculiarly compelling deliciousness of this cake for you.  I want you to discover it for yourself.  Because yes, thanks to a new Facebook friend who offered me the original recipe, and my recollection of my mother’s little tweaks and improvements, the one true cake has returned to take its rightful place on my table.  And on yours.

                      
Lost and Found Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

1/2 cup  butter
2  cups  firmly packed brown sugar
1  cup  whole pecans, or more
1  20 oz can  pineapple slices, drained, reserving 5 tablespoons juice
3  eggs, separated
1  cup  sugar
1  cup  all-purpose flour
1  teaspoon  baking powder
1/2  teaspoon  salt

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Melt the butter in a 9-inch cast iron skillet.  Add the brown sugar, stir well to thoroughly combine, then turn off the heat — don’t cook it.   Arrange  pineapple slices in a single layer over the brown sugar mixture and arrange the pecans decoratively in every little space where there’s room for a nut.  Set the skillet aside.

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl; set aside.

Beat the egg yolks in an electric mixer at medium speed until they are thick and lemon colored. Gradually add the sugar, continuing to beat.  Turn mixer to low speed, and add the flour mixture to the yolk mixturealternately with the reserved pineapple juice.

Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold the whites gently into the cake batter. Pour the batter evenly over the pineapple slices.

Bake at 350°F for 45 minutes. Cool the cake in the skillet for 30 minutes; then invert it onto a serving plate.

Guard the recipe with your life.  Teach your children to bake it.  If  life gets messy and you have to leave in a hurry, tuck this recipe in your pocket.  Have some for breakfast.  Forget those madeleines and eat your cake.

Gobsmacking Timewarp

May 15, 2009

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Nothing’s changed.  And when I say nothing, I mean rien du tout.  It’s very late when we walk into the house, nearly midnight.  The clock has stopped, but when?  At 4:13, yes, I see, but what day?  What month?  What year?  We’ve been gone for 20 months, and time could have stopped at any moment since then.

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We walked out of this house in August of 2007, and no one’s turned the page on our kitchen calendar since then.  Although we nominally had tenants for the first year we were away they spent only a few weeks here, and lived very lightly upon the land.

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Things I left for them to use, salt, a welcoming bottle of bubbly tied with a gay ribbon, condiments, teas, spices, oils, vinegars,

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and even some chocolate sprinkles for their morning toast, are still here, seemingly untouched. 

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Actually, the fact that they left it all just as they found it turned out to be a benefit at our first lunchtime in the house.  The battery in the car had given up the ghost, and the market being out of foot reach, I nonchalantly opened the cupboards and made a meal from ancient foodstuffs that I’d thought they might use.  It’s amazing how the passage of nearly two years hadn’t affected the cans of beans, green chilis, olives, and dried potato flakes that the cupboard yielded up.  Even the spice cabinet didn’t fail me, the pungent Rancho Gordo Mexican oregano and a tightly sealed tin of pimenton disproving the adage that all spices turn to dust and need to be tossed once a year.  Our first “home cooked” meal, composed of foods I abandoned to their fate so long ago that I’d forgotten them completely.

It turns out that I had forgotten almost every single thing in this house, recognizing it now on sight with an “oh wow, that’s mine?” sensation.

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The music I was singing before we left is still open on the piano.  Can I even still sing Un certo non so che?

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The dishes, the linens, all as we left them.  But what is this, the North Pole?  Why do we have so many blankets?  No sooner do I wonder that than we begin rooting through boxes searching for fleece and flannel.  We brought summer clothes back from France, but here it’s grey, cool, and rainy.  We shiver and cough and  sit by the fire.

There are 43 messages on the answering machine, each marked with the time of the call, but not the date or year.  Those calls urging us to vote for Obama are identifiably last year’s, a moment of history preserved.  But the stranger who called twice asking me to send her some of my vinegar mother, made slightly famous by this article  in Food and Wine?  What would she think if I return her call a year or two late?Sunrise 012

Only the garden betrays the passage of time.   When I left the rhubarb plant was so young and timid that I didn’t dare to harvest much of it.  Now, in only the middle of May, there’s enough fruit for a dozen pies.

There’s very little noticeable change on the rest of the island, either.  My favorite checker at the grocery store has retired.  Our neighbor has some new grey hair.  Aside from that, it’s like we never left. 

And because everything is exactly as we left it, it’s as if we dreamed our life in France.  If things had changed here, we’d be thinking “that’s natural, we’ve been away a long time, things do move on.”  But as I empty well-aged bottles of olive oil and toss dusty tea bags, find my bathrobe hanging on the back of the bathroom door where I inadvertantly left it, and wash my hair with a vintage 2007 Aveda shampoo, I have to wonder.  Is there really a house in France that we called home just ten short days ago?

Wait, I know.  I still have a deeply-ingrained habit of checking the bed for scorpions before I hop in.  I must have learned that somewhere.

From A Moving Train

May 13, 2009

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We’ve been traveling across a small corner of America, clocking 1600 miles, 2575 kilometers, idling away 48 hours, riding two slow trains, peering out countless dirty windows, creeping closer to that place we once called home.

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We boarded the train in Green River.  Take my advice and don’t go there without a compelling reason.  That’s the town, behind the sign.

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And here’s the train station.

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Nobody’s there.  It’s all boarded up.  There’s an asbestos danger warning sign on the door.  At a nearby gas station the guy answers my disbelief with “yup, that’s the station, but don’t worry, if you have a ticket the train will stop for you, people get on that train every day.”  I’ll bet they do, escaping from Green River.

But what train?  The departure time  comes and goes, no sign of a train.  Fortunately for us there’s one other person at the station, waiting to pick up her arriving boyfriend.  Even more fortunately for us, she has a cell phone and so does he, and thus we learn that the train will be 2 hours and 45 minutes late.  If she hadn’t been there we’d have been standing on the edge of the desert with our legs crossed, afraid to even go searching for a bathroom in case we might miss the day’s only train.

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Waiting in the twilight, kept company by swooping bats, we are very glad to see the train coming.  We cram ourselves into our tiny sleeping compartment and surrender to train time.  Once aboard an American train, time no longer really matters.  You’re going to be late and that’s all there is to it.  If you can’t cope with that, you fly.  We toss and turn, rock and roll, in our little berths, dreaming about France and the TGV that always runs on time and travels so fast you can’t even see the scenery you’re passing.

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We awaken in Nevada.  I decide that even though the dirt on the windows and the blur of our progress will mark the pictures, I’ll show you our train trip unretouched and in the raw.

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Nevada is huge and empty.  We cross it for hours.

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We talk a lot about the pioneers, how they crossed all this in wagons, or walked.  Coming from Europe, this moonscape must have bowled them over, just as it now does us.

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People do live out here, but it has the look of a precarious existence.

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Inside the train something extraordinary happens.  The conductor picks up a passenger’s guitar and begins to play and sing.  He’s very good, with a clear pure baritone and some original songs that deserve to be hits.  We keep him playing for a long time, until the crew changes at Reno,

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where two volunteers from the California Railroad Museum come aboard to narrate the journey along the historic railway into Sacramento.  One of them picks up the guitar, and holy smokes, he’s even better than the conductor was, finger picking and singing the blues like nobody’s business. We agree that this could never happen on a French train, and thus we conclude that yes, Virginia, there really is an America and we are in it up to our ears. 

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We finally reach California and travel along the Truckee River through

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the cute little town of Truckee, which I used to visit often in a former life.  It looks impossibly exotic to me now, rustic beyond recollection.

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We cross the Sierras at Donner Summit, past Donner Lake, where many pioneers perished as they struggled to reach the coast.

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There’s still a lot of snow up here in mid-May,

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but it warms up quiclky as we drop down toward the Sacramento delta.

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Arriving in Sacramento, where we have a 9 hour layover before boarding our next train, we pay homage to the past at the train museum,

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and to the present at an Internet cafe where we appear to be the only people over 25, before having dinner with an old friend whom we haven’t seen since our wedding, almost 14 years ago.  Finally, after midnight, we crawl aboard the train that will take us north and fall asleep almost before we start moving.  I don’t even wake up during the two hours we’re stopped somewhere behind a broken-down freight train, and so in the morning I’m surprised and delighted not to have missed

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the beautiful Mt. Shasta, normally passed in the night by northbound trains.

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Crossing into Oregon I’m reminded again of the early settlers, the unimaginable hardships that they faced,

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my thoughts underscored by the snowstorm that descends upon us as we cross the Cascade summit.

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Spring awaits us below, and as we get closer to leaving Oregon we begin to imagine what we might find at “home,” just one more state away.

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We come into Washington as the sun is setting.  Our very long journey is almost at an end.  Are we ready?

An American Wedding

May 10, 2009

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I’d hate to deceive my French readers, although I’d love to pretend that this was an absolutely typical American wedding.  I’m not saying that grannies with parasols are the quintessence of every American wedding, but there they were yesterday, saving their spot front and center in the desert wedding paradise,

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in case the sign didn’t do the trick.  Holding your own in the desert is a special skill, and that’s what this wedding was all about.

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American weddings usually do have music, and this one was no exception.  No choir, no organ, no soprano, just a lone guitar sweetening the dusty air.

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No one wore fancy shoes to this nuptial.  The road we walked to the wedding site was soft red dust and sand.  Even the bride didn’t dare arrive in her wedding dress

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but instead changed into her finery behind this little screen, trying not to drag her hem in the red earth.

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Like most American brides, she was walked down the aisle by her father.  Okay, it was an aisle in name only, more of a red carpet, really.

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The minister, sister of the bride, who had gotten herself ordained just for this occasion, awaited the bride and groom at what would have been the altar, if there had been an altar.

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The bride and groom’s beloved dogs were the ring-bearers, and the wedding vows included commitments to “love your dog as much as I love my dog.”

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The promises to have and to hold and to cherish were by turns serious

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beset by giggle fits, momentarily tearful, jubilant

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and passionate.  And then, the newlyweds eased back into their normal life

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doing all the things that come naturally to them, holding their own,

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while the desert prepared to sleep.

And now we board a slow American train for the two day trip back to our island.  There are no TGV’s here, nothing close, and we’ve stocked up on piles of books to read along the way, catching up with what’s happened in America while we were away.  Come along for the ride, it’s a beauty.

Bright New World

May 9, 2009

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Fresh from the old world, our eyes are trained to scan the horizon for castles,

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towers,

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moats and ruins.  And so we see them everywhere here, in these monuments to times long past: majestic, imposing, not formed by centuries of culture and civilization.  This, the raw new world,

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crude, powerful, instantly recognizable as the land that shaped us.  I can see why Americans feel they can conquer anything, coming from such a land.

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The Kennecott copper mine, nearly a mile deep, man’s largest excavation, visible from space, reflects that drive to dominate our environment.

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In 1906 this was a mountain.  Now the overburden and slag piles from the excavation make new mountains where once there were canyons.

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That line of trucks, traveling across the face of the mine, twenty four hours a day?  Each one is 44 feet tall, just about the height of the tallest buildings in our small town in France.

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And of course the French appreciate good copper as much as anyone.

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We think a lot about France.  Yesterday, as we were picnicking, a man walked by us and said “Bon appétit,” wishing us a pleasant meal.  Nothing more natural in the world, a perfect stranger passing by wishing us bon appétit.  Except, we’re not in France.  Startled, I asked him, in French, why he had said that to us.  “Because you’re eating” he replied.  “But why did you think we speak French?” I asked.  He just shrugged, as if of course everyone speaks French.  Which turned out to be almost true yesterday

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as we kept passing French tourists on the trails of Arches National Park.  Finally I asked a pair of ladies why there were so many French people in the park today, thinking there must be a huge tour group traveling together.  “We were just wondering that ourselves” she said.

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I have to say that speaking French in a place that looks like this gave me a funny colliding -worlds kind of feeling.  But that’s ok, because in fact my worlds are colliding, and it seems only normal that the universe is conspiring to remind me of that.

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Even here, on the shore of the Great Salt Lake, if we squint our eyes and click our heels, we can almost imagine ourselves back in Europe.

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Except that in Europe this would be a Brancusi.

On The Wing

May 5, 2009

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We spent yesterday in the sky.  No longer in Europe, not yet in the US, for 10 hours and 22 minutes we were nowhere in particular, with no choices to make and our loyalties untorn.

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I usually claim to be scared of flying, but yesterday I realized that what really scares me is thinking about flying.  Barring all imagined disasters, I’m actually quite happy once I’m in the sky.  There’s no other way I’d get to see Greenland, always a splendid sight.

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10 hours and 22 minutes to think about life, 38,109 feet in the air, -51 degrees outside, 68 mph headwind, 508 mph ground speed, thin air above and polka dot ice floes below, it’s not your average day.

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While in the sky I remembered how amazed I was the first time I flew, child of the San Francisco fog that I was, to learn that the sun is still shining, above it all.  That’s when I learned that it may be foggy in your own personal life at any given moment, but up there somewhere, the sun is still hard at work.  It was a joyful revelation then, and it hasn’t worn off since.

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The ice is beginning to melt for the summer, and I thought about how the day might soon come when polar bears will have to swim for their lives.  The water is large, and the ice is getting smaller.  That’s a different kind of revelation, a glimpse of a future that won’t be kind to the bears.

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Up that high, where you can see the future just around the corner, you can almost see the natural curve of the Earth.  But if you look closely there’s a straight line, something not normally found in nature.  An ice road, the first of many I’d see, going from what looked like nowhere at all to another nowhere place.  Destinations aren’t always obvious, that’s what our recent life has taught us.

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Finally the ice yielded, to the wildest looking land imaginable.  I don’t know where this was, possibly somewhere in the far north of Canada, but I know I don’t want to live there.  There, that’s one less decision to make.  This was the kind of beauty best admired from a great distance, lest it swallow you up entirely.

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But this, now this is Montana.  America at last.  America the wild, untamed, savage land that it really is, away from the thin veneer of population and two hundred years of Western culture.  The wild, wild west.

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And then Utah, lightly tamed against a backdrop of wilderness.

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Salty Utah, brine shrimp central, a fantastical moonscape of salt lagoons.

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This is the wing that brought us here and set us down gently.  This is where the wing brought us.  Like migratory birds taking a breather, we’ve come aground in Salt Lake City.  Where one thing is certain: we’re definitely not in France anymore.