Home Again

My friend Meg, a translator of Spanish and Catalan literature, was living and working in Barcelona winter semester, so of course I had to visit her. Neither of us had been to the País Vasco (Basque Country) or Galicia, so we decided that beyond Barcelona, we would head northwest to San Sebastián in Basque Country and then to Santiago de Compostela and Fisterra in Galicia, which is the westernmost part of Spain and just north of Portugal. (There are photos on Instagram under #MarisaInSpain.)

It was an excellent spring break, full of seaside vistas and pastries and train travel and tapas and beautiful old buildings. We stayed in nice pensiones with simple, well-designed rooms that surprisingly only cost us each about €20 per night (the nicest rooms I’ve ever booked). We alternated long walks and sightseeing with cafes, park benches, and the occasional siesta, which was a good balance (although it would have been better if we hadn’t been working on our laptops during so much of the downtime).

Coming home, I saw Ann Arbor in a different light. I was surprised by how wide the streets of downtown Ann Arbor felt after crisscrossing the streets of Gràcia in Barcelona for days, where tree canopies shadow one-way lanes that pedestrians fill until a motorbike or car appears. My little city’s streets disappointed me a bit: their width seemed so gratuitous. The parked cars and wide lanes felt like a canyon separating the people and shops on either side of the road. Of course, Ann Arbor’s downtown streets aren’t wide at all compared to many others, but I felt the change from the neighborhood in Barcelona acutely.

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Ann Arbor’s Main Street, packed with International Women’s Day strikers.

Still, Ann Arbor is home, and there are many things I know I’ll miss when that’s no longer true.

For years now we’ve wondered when we might leave. Cooper and I first thought we might move to Detroit several years ago, when he finished his PhD coursework. I resolved to do all our favorite Ann Arbor things then, to say yes to anything fun and enjoy a final summer here, a perfect autumn of cider mills and walks in the Arb(oretum), which we did so often when we were in college. But staying put was easier and cheaper than uprooting ourselves, and once I found a mythical job with benefits, there was another incentive to stay.

So we waited, unsure when Cooper would finish or where he might find a job. More than once I thought the next year would be our last year here. In the moments when we realize our lives could soon take a new turn, the familiar becomes more precious. This encourages us to take advantage of what we can while we’re still here: to go to the film festival during the work week, to visit all the parks and restaurants we still haven’t been to. It also made it difficult to decide last summer if we should postpone our Lake Superior vacation for Iceland. What if it was our last summer near the Great Lakes?

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The Huron River at Island Park.

I’ve looked forward to the adventure of a new place for years. I love my apartment, enjoy living in this pretty college town that is populated by friends and family. But I’ve long looked forward to putting down firmer roots in my next home, living in a neighborhood where people get to know each other, instead of so many neighbors cycling in and out every year as they graduate from college. I don’t have a history of being involved in my community; I am not good at reaching out and making friends, at sharing myself in person, carrying on a conversation when I’m uncomfortable. So for a while, I procrastinated. I wanted to be involved in issues I care about, but I thought I’d wait to lead life differently wherever we ended up.

But I got sick of waiting. I didn’t do as much as I should have, but I helped register people to vote. I volunteered with the campaign to fund our Regional Transit Authority.

Then the election happened. I still didn’t know where we’d be in a year, but waiting to take action was no longer an option. So now I’m putting down roots in the place that I expect to leave. Of course, there’s no harm in doing so, but it feels a little odd sometimes. After ten years here, I’m seeing things from a new angle, getting a more human-centric view of this place, and it makes the looming farewell even more bittersweet.

There’s a lot for me in Ann Arbor. And the more community events I go to, the more people I connect with and things I learn, the more I love this town. I’ve known all along that this city is full of like-minded people, but now that I’m experiencing it more fully, I sometimes wonder if I’m crazy to imagine going somewhere else.

We’d imagined life in Cleveland, which could be a good place for Cooper to work and for us to live, and is still pretty close to home. I was excited about a program in Austin that Cooper was interested in, thinking it would be fun to live in a completely different place for a year or two, until maybe he’d get hired at a university back in the Great Lakes region. We were prepared to go almost anywhere, if there was a good job for him. Finding a tenure-track position is no mean feat.

We talked with friends about how we hoped for the sliver of a chance that we could make the smaller move back to the Detroit area; the want was still strong, our hearts were still invested in the city (and our parents who live nearby, and our people across the state). We talked also of how I’d always wanted to move away for a while, experience a bigger city or a different climate, new people and perspectives. That comes with the exciting but also troubling possibility that somewhere else would be perfect for us, and we wouldn’t come back.

In the past couple years, I’ve drawn closer to this state of mine. I’ve always loved the lakes, but learning about Michigan’s history bored me as a child. From an early age, I disliked Metro Detroit’s massive sprawl (ugly and inconvenient); later, I hated how dull it was to live in a suburb so committed to quiet uniformity, and dreamed of leaving.

In the time since I graduated from college, and stayed, and stayed, and stayed in Ann Arbor, I’ve learned a lot more about the state, its politics, our cities and towns and natural wonders. I want things to get better. I want people to be safe, wildlife to be protected, our governments to help instead of harm us.

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Kerrytown in springtime.

By October, it was becoming clear to me, though I couched it in a sea of maybes, that if we want to build connections and be a part of communities we care about, if life is fleeting and we don’t really know how long we have, if these battles are critical now—and they are—then maybe it’s foolish to think that in my overall life trajectory I would still prefer to have moved away and then come back, when I have no control over the distant future and only some control of what’s coming next. So maybe, maybe the best thing is to finally do the things we want to do right now, live somewhere in our lifelong home state, which has so much going for it and yet so many profit-hungry Republicans stacked against it, to work to make the place above all other places in our lives a better place, see our best friends on the weekends and help out our parents and hopefully be part of the city we have watched and cared for and had so many beautiful memories in already.

Maybe that’s the best thing to do.

Why I Support Public Transit

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A tram in Prague.

I grew up in the suburbs, where you had to drive to get anywhere interesting. (Although today my dad bikes all the way from Grosse Pointe to Johnny Noodle King in Detroit, there’s no way my mom would have let me do that…and yeah right that teenage me would have even wanted to bike so far.) I used mass transit on rare vacations in what I would have called real cities: Boston, New York, Chicago, even navigating the Paris metro with my classmates on that first, heady trip to Europe. I used the bus sometimes in college to go to the mall. And then I moved to Germany for a year.

It was a completely different world, where a student could pay I think like 65€ for six months of unlimited public transit in the city. I lived two minutes from a Straßenbahn stop, and so I could take the tram straight downtown, or to my friends’ dorm on the other side of the city, or to the train station, where high-speed trains took me to Munich and Slovenia, Prague and Paris and Berlin. I could take a bus from the train station to the regional airport—something you couldn’t do in Ann Arbor back then, unless it was a major university break and you were a card-carrying student. It was completely different to live alone for the first time in Freiburg, instead of somewhere in Michigan, especially carless.

I learned to love transit in an extremely privileged way, when I was living off financial aid in Europe. When I came home, there was a car I could take from my parents. I mourned the loss of rail travel because it was so fun, because it worked so well, and because I saw no logical reason not to have it. When I killed the car, there was no money, and I didn’t consider buying a new one. Cooper ended up needing his own car, and so we didn’t have to depend exclusively on the erratic Amtrak schedule to keep our romance alive while he lived in Detroit. Luckily, I’m able to walk and bike. I’m happy with the decision to pay more to live centrally, or to live in a small space to live centrally, and eventually I learned to love that I don’t own a car.

Let’s be real, though. I have a car. I share it with Cooper. We don’t use it every day, or even every other day, but we have it whenever we need it. We take the bus and bike because it’s less stressful for us, much cheaper, better for the planet. We take the bus because for us, in central Ann Arbor, it’s easy.

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I don’t have any intentional bus photos.
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Chicago’s Union Station.
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Chicago to St. Louis on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle.

I wanted to write a love story to train travel. I want to make you love trains as much as I, a surprisingly dorky twenty-eight-year-old woman who never went through a public transit obsession as a small child, but who as an adult reads train travelogues and histories sometimes in her spare time. I really do get excited when I see streetcars in New Orleans, when I get to ride a subway. But I don’t have time to write that, because it’s not all sorted out in my head. Transcontinental trains have long stories, long reaches. And though the U.S. definitely also needs more long-distance trains and tracks, better trains, faster trains, southeast Michigan in particular needs a regional transit system.

I believe in that, too. Not just the sexy ICEs and TGVs of Germany and France, the intriguing yet unlikely train route from Ann Arbor to Traverse City that’s being researched. Not just the light rail I wish was already planned for the full length of Woodward Avenue, instead of just a little blip, or the light rail they might one day build to cross Ann Arbor. Not even just the commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, that people were talking about when I started college ten years ago—although that is a fucking big deal and a huge start, and the commuter rail is part of the historic and necessary transit package we are voting to fund in southeast Michigan tomorrow.

Because this isn’t about me, even though the commuter rail line is what might impact my life the most at first, and is what I most hoped for, these many years. This transit millage, to fund the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, is about connecting people, uniting our region, making it so people who can’t drive or can’t afford to drive or don’t want to drive or just don’t have a car that day because it’s broken or whatever, can get on with their lives, like they live in a real place that respects them as human beings and wants them to be able to work and pay their bills and feed their families.

Connecting Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties—the only major metropolitan area in the country without regional transit—and expanding and improving their transit options: this is a social justice issue, this is an environmental issue, this is an economic issue.

And so I didn’t write that lovely story about big trains going to far-off places, because that’s not the battle we’re fighting today and tomorrow.

Also because I’ve been busy calling voters and dropping brochures these past few days, and I haven’t had time to write seriously. If I hadn’t decided to do this NaBloPoMo thing again (a commitment to post something every day in November), I’d be asleep right now. But I wish I’d written this post, which maybe ten people will read, a few days ago at least. I wish I’d volunteered sooner and more. I desperately hope it works out tomorrow, for transit and for Michigan, and for America and the world.

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A retired Detroit streetcar at work in San Francisco.

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

img_9586When I got off the bus at work that Monday, the first thing I felt was the invigorating chill of the October air mixed with the cheery morning sunshine. The prairie patches grown by the university as a less labor-intensive, more biologically diverse and sustainable form of landscaping, still buzzed with life and waved in the breeze. I felt light and free and happy as I strolled past, the earlier dread of missed buses and unknown inbox contents set aside.

How do I hold onto that feeling? How can I possibly hold onto that feeling when I have to wave my ID card at the door, climb the three flights of stairs (my choice, but I don’t always enjoy it), and turn on the computer, that mesmerizing and dulling device that rules so many work lives?

I could have walked the entire way to work, but only if I was ahead of schedule.

I could have sat down on that sidewalk like a weirdo and breathed in, breathed out the peaceful morning smell, willfully ignoring the heavy car traffic behind and the hulking office buildings ahead. But knowing that I was only briefly postponing the inevitable, that I needed to move along and get to work, would have distracted me.

What I thought, as I walked toward the wide expanse of parking lots that I snake through to cut the most direct path to my building, was that this was why I wanted to go up north that weekend. I wanted to leave everything behind except for my boyfriend Cooper (I’d take Haroun and Table Cat too, if they were dogs) and put all my focus in the moment, in the beautiful forests and waters of the Upper Peninsula. No worries except about what’s for the next meal. Feel tall standing on big rocks. Bouncing feet along the trails. Bundled up in sweaters and scarf and jacket against the wind. Experiencing things that really matter.

The thing is, travel is also stressful. There’s always an opportunity cost. In the final four to twenty-four hours before departure, I start to panic. Why do I want to leave this apartment and these cats that on a usual day, I wish I had more time for? Why do I need to skip town, when town is full of good food and better people and really, lots of pretty trails and a cozy bed I know? How will I know what I want to wear two days from now? When will I ever write about the trips we already took, when will I curl up with all the books in my stack and catch up? I rarely get much reading done on trips, because no matter how long we spend away, it’s not quite enough. Often, I get lost and exhausted in the decision-making.

Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I don’t know how to be present, maybe I don’t really know what I want, because I want too many things.

We hadn’t planned our getaway yet, didn’t have a place to sleep, but it was only days away. Cooper had a long to-do list, better tended to with undivided attention at home…and yet, despite not working out the logistics, we had planned on an escape to Lake Superior all year. There was nothing I wanted to do more than this.

So We Went, and It Was Glorious

img_2691img_2793img_9795We spent two nights at a motel in the unincorporated community of Paradise, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay. We visited Tahquamenon Falls surrounded by the resplendent colors of autumn, all golden light the first afternoon. We visited the Lower Falls again for a longer hike the next day, when we had the world mostly to ourselves, cocooned under cloudy skies with all the trees and the largest lake in the world* in front of us. The final morning, the beach at Whitefish Point was all ours, too, as the blue-green waves crashed and crashed, and the blue sky started to peek through.

Why do I travel? I travel to feel free, to fly loose from daily cares, from what others want from me and from what I demand of myself. I travel because I like to see new things, because I like to bring stories I’ve read to life and build my interest for other place’s pasts and presents. To disconnect, and to connect.

Things were really simple on this trip. Heavy storms the first night and the next morning put our power out, and so we cleaned up and wrote by candlelight, internet-less, until lunchtime. Other than that, our goal was to be outside together—mission accomplished.

*largest freshwater lake by area

Looking for Puffins

iceland lumix reykjavikpuffin-tour-watching-puffinsiceland reykjavikWhale watching was on our to-do list in Reykjavík, but we didn’t plan ahead for it. We also figured that it would be wrong to leave Iceland without seeing any puffins, as colorful, goofy, and famous as they are. On our second to last day in Iceland, Cooper, Emma, and I drove the southern coast of Iceland, from Grindavík all the way to the town of Vík, near the island’s southern extremity. I had intended for us to catch the ferry to the Westman Islands off the coast, where we were sure to see puffins, but time was short, so we focused on the mainland instead. One beautiful spot was the Dyrhólaey nature reserve, where many puffins nest in the spring and summer. I wasn’t sure if we’d actually find a puffin, since we weren’t sure exactly where to look, but it was exciting when we did! So exciting, in fact, that we decided to go on a puffin boat tour in Rekyavík the next day, instead of whale watching.

Dyrhólaey Nature Reserve

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Looking east toward Reynisfjara beach; the town of Vík is just over the ridge.

Continue reading “Looking for Puffins”

Reykjavík Does It Right

Day one, we wandered from our apartment by the old harbor, heading down any street that struck our fancy. We met a friendly, giant calico cat near houses with inviting gardens. It was bright and sunny, and I could instantly imagine spending long afternoons and late nights here, grilling dinner and chatting outside until the sun got to setting.

On the way back to our apartment later, we saw two probable tourists greeting an even bigger animal. The next day, he was out again, and so we got acquainted with the giant feline we thought could have been a dog, christening him Huge Haroun. Same colors, same fur—but his head was at least twice as big as our spunky Haroun’s. We pet Huge Haroun until he caught sight of another cat and bounded off in pursuit. We felt sorry for his target, whether he or she was enemy or reluctant paramour (we suspected the latter).

We passed some churches and wandered through a pretty, green park, also populated by friendly cats, along with some relaxing Icelanders and their little dogs.

From my repertoire of weird Icelandic facts: Dogs were made illegal in Reykjavík in the 1920s, due to a tapeworm that they passed on to humans, often fatally. I think it was in the 1980s that the city started allowing exemptions to the law: if you paid an annual fee, and your neighbors consented, you could have a dog. Dog ownership is on the rise in the city, but Reykjavík remains a city of cats, and friendly ones at that. Most of them have homes: cats are required to be microchipped in Iceland, and a study I read about somewhere found that almost all of the cats they met on the street belonged to someone. What lucky cats they are, free to roam this pretty city and make friends all around. One of the apartments we tried to rent required guests to keep a window open, so their cat could come and go, and Cats of Reykjavík posted a funny story from someone who woke up with a strange cat in their bed. There’s approximately one cat for every ten people in Reykjavík—it’s my kind of place.

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Jane, Cooper, and Huge Haroun, with his massive head and mane.

Before we wound our way down to the city center, we found ourselves in a neighborhood of impressive houses, still mostly made of corrugated metal painted pretty colors, and also surrounded by lovely gardens. We were on a little hill, and looked across to see famous Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrím’s church) in the distance. We headed vaguely in that direction and explored the charming city center, talking for a while by Tjörnin, the small lake behind the parliament building, and mysteriously passing up a waffle cart opportunity in favor of (quite good) vegetarian dinner, like responsible adults. (We got rave reviews of the waffle cart from my friend Carolyn when we met up with her on our final day, but failed to track it down. Do better than us!)

The waterfront beckoned, so we walked along it, before eating dessert al fresco at Café Paris on Austurvöllur square. On our way home, we watched the sun set over the harbor, Snæfellsjökull (snow mountain glacier) far off in the distance. Continue reading “Reykjavík Does It Right”

Unexpectedly Iceland

The possibility of a trip to Iceland appeared in my inbox out of the blue. A few minutes later, I was already texting Jane back, mid-evening-walk. I had very little practical knowledge about Iceland then, though I had seen a lot of photos from people who had been there. It wasn’t anywhere on my current travel list, but it had been when I studied in Germany for a year in college. So Iceland was a wildcard, but not completely unknown.

(Okay, practically everywhere was on my list that year, when budget airlines and high-speed trains, not to mention open borders, made anything seem possible. The big destinations I missed out on during study abroad—not that I’m complaining—were Morocco, Turkey, Scotland, and Scandinavia, including Iceland. I also failed to see large parts of Germany, which I regret more. Hamburg and Bremen and the North Sea and Dresden and the castles on the Rhein; I barely even saw the Schwarzwald, the Black Forest, which surrounds the city I lived in.)

At that point, late May, our big plans for the rest of the year were nil: Cooper and I had, yet again, ruled out the possibility of a trip to Italy and Germany. Too expensive, too ambitious, and Cooper now had conflicting obligations for September. We weren’t sure what we should do instead. Jane, who’s been friends with Cooper since middle school, was preparing to move from Atlanta to Minneapolis with her husband Ed. I was preparing to invite myself to Minneapolis, hopefully en route to Lake Superior’s North Shore and a road trip home through a more northern Ontario than I’d previously encountered (another harebrained idea I wasn’t sure we could pull off in the time we had). Jane wrote back that they were thinking of Sweden, Denmark, or Iceland for a vacation before her job started, since she had never been to Europe and flights weren’t too bad from MSP. Did we want to come?

Staying away from mainland Europe quelled my instinct for extended, multi-country trips. The flight to Iceland from Detroit was cheaper than any other European destinations for the summer. Plus, it’s a small country. Michigan is almost two and a half times bigger in area, and Detroit has far more people than Iceland does. We thought it would be manageable, and rewarding, since it’s bursting at the seams with beautiful and unusual scenery. How often do two of your closest friends offer to meet you in Iceland? Of course we wanted to tag along!

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I looked into costs, plane tickets and car rentals and accommodations. We panicked, a little, since by this point Cooper and I were expecting more of a drive-your-own-car trip, not a journey to a much more expensive continent (okay, technically, tectonically, Iceland is on both the North American and European plates). I worried it meant we wouldn’t be able to afford Europe proper next year.

I clicked through slideshows of the top Icelandic sights and got overwhelmed by how much there was to see, all over the country. I narrowed in on southwest Iceland and still found more than we could do in six days. I definitely wanted to go. A week after Jane first mentioned it, Cooper and I bought tickets for $860 each, to fly to Keflavík International Airport via Minneapolis. Emma, my oldest and most adventurous friend, decided to meet us there too, on her way home from Ukraine. So we rented a two-bedroom apartment, plus sofa bed, in Reykjavík, and a little automatic car. Cooper and I traveled around the Great Lakes region, worked, read about Iceland (mostly me), bought hiking boots (Cooper) and a rain jacket (me), and waited for July 30th.

Absolutely, 100% Worth It

I love Iceland. I expected and hoped to enjoy the trip, of course, and I knew the company would be great no matter what. But there’s a lot of hype about Iceland—everyone seems to return enchanted—and I wasn’t sure if it could be as good as people say.

But for us, it really was. Continue reading “Unexpectedly Iceland”

Up North Rituals

manistee-bluff-2015The first thing we always do when we arrive is run down to the beach, or up to the bluff, to say hello again to our friend the lake—whichever Great Lake it may be. It was true when I was a kid, up north with my cousins. We’d get to our condo or cottage for the week and immediately ditch the grownups, drop that first bag of the many provisions we were supposed to be unloading from our caravan, and run down the path or over the grass and into the sand, to see our long-lost friend, Lake Huron.

When Cooper and I get to a beach, we usually kick off our shoes and walk up to the shoreline where the waves lap up and the sand is wet and firm. If it’s not swimming weather, we’d still like to get our feet wet. Even in winter, we want to dip our fingers in and commune with these giant bodies of water, which surround the land we live on from so many sides.

Of course, wherever you vacation, you usually want to take stock of your new holdings on arrival, however temporary their tenure as your home may be. You want to claim the best bedroom, perhaps, but more importantly, seeing the lay of the land helps you stake a claim on your vacation, and bring it from the realm of anticipation to reality. Your vacation may begin when you pull out of your driveway at home or your plane leaves the runway—suddenly, predictably, and yet improbably airborne. You get a step closer to vacation when you leave the interstate, or land at the distant airport. Another step closer with that first glimpse of lake through the trees, or foreign signs everywhere, or crossing city limits. You come off the numbered smaller highway and onto country roads with periodic mailboxes and gravel driveways tunneling into the trees, tall and impressive although they aren’t as old as we’d like to dream.

But I’m not really there until I’m face to face, as it were, with the lake. Then, vacation has arrived.

It makes me so happy that Cooper shares these customs with me, this friendliness with our lakes (and admiration for the sea, when we find ourselves on ocean beaches). I don’t know if anyone taught me to feel this way toward the land and water, or if I came upon it instinctively. Not every Michigander acts like me. But Cooper, who comes from a different family, is so similar in this.

In a way they are low-key deities to us, our nature gods to whom we delight in paying homage.

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A beach at the Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness area, near Ludington and Manistee.