Looking Down On Cities

Last year I did a 365 Project, partially as a challenge to myself as a photographer and partially as a way to document what I guessed would be a year of transitions. As it turns out, it was. I finished my Fulbright year in Spain, traveled on my weekends, walked the Camino de Santiago, got engaged, and returned home to familiar spaces in Michigan to start a new job in Detroit.

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Many distances were crossed – by plane, train, bus, car, but sometimes on foot.

I am working on a new creative project for this coming year, but it won’t be a daily photo project – partially because the tail end of the year degenerated into commuting/grading/cat pictures, and it’s hard to measure up to last year’s images.

I had a lot of adventures in 2012. I met a lot of amazing people, and traveled to some incredible places. My favorite parts of my travels were always the times when I climbed to a high place – often at sunset – and looked down on the cities I had spent the day exploring.

I learned a lot about travel this past year, and a lot about myself as a traveler. In the future when I go to a new city, that will be my destination – somewhere I can see the shape of the city, where small individual details dissolve into twinkling lights, and the iconic buildings from postcards become small silhouettes, dwarfed by the sky.

Granada - Ciudad Encantadora

Looking down on Granada from Miguel Del Alto. (Photo by my new Brazilian friend, Carolina.)

Granada - Ciudad Encantadora

Granada – actually in late 2011, but it was the beginning of a year of looking down on cities.


Barcelona, from Parque Guell.

Navidad en Madrid

Madrid, last Christmas.


Paris, from Sacre Coeur in Montmartre.


Rome for Easter.


Ancient Rome


The ruins of Pompeii



Senderismo en Jávea

Jávea / Xávia


Tabarca – not a city, but a small island off the coast of Alicante.

Senderismo en Calpe

Bird’s Eye view of Calpe, after a harrowing climb up the Peñón de Ifach.


Marrakesh, Morocco, from the roof of our riad.

Aït Benhaddou, Morocco

Aït Benhaddou, Morocco – you have probably seen it in a movie.


Not a city – but the Berber tents where we stayed in Zagora, at the edge of the Sahara.

Among all of the beautiful cities, my favorite was Alicante, where I lived for 10 months and that I often looked down on, from the heights of the Castillo de Santa Barbara. Nostalgia always adds a cast of golden light, but it was a beautiful city. Someday I will go back.

Santa Barbara


Tour de Alicante

All the lights lit for Christmas along Alfonso el Sabio.


La Playa Postiguet, full of sunbathers.


Tracing shapes with the spaces around them

(Santiago – less of a destination than a pause along the way.)

This is not me catching up on my 365 project. (I do have photos… un montón! Soon!)

This is not a description of the Camino, of the End of the World and monumental shifts, of transatlantic flights and preparations for a new job.

This is not a collection of the sights and sounds and smells that are floating around my headspace, both more vivid and more distant now that I am back in more familiar scenery (which in itself has become both vivid and distant.)

This is a reminder to myself:

Of how at the time your feet hurt, or sweat was dripping into your eyes, or something was grating or distracting, or the past surfaced like gold mist or a greasy oilslick, or there was just something more exciting just on the horizon or next week or in a few months. How like artists working with charcoal, we look at the spaces around bodies – making shapes by filling in the empty spaces, by shading in the things that are missing.

I was dreading leaving Spain and coming “home.” I had trouble imagining myself falling back into the once familiar routines: driving, alarm clocks, expensive vegetables.

Now I am home and I remember what it’s like to run into familiar faces on the street, to have so many friends show up at the bar that we have to push seven tables together, to go home to my parents’ house for dinner. I don’t feel as displaced as I thought – on the contrary, I feel as though the past year of my life didn’t exist – just a vague recollection of blue skies and old stone, fading into Midwestern cloudcover. I am sad to watch it recede behind me, but I am also looking into the future with a lot of hope – a new job, new students, a house with gardens and a fantastic kitchen, shared meals and wine on autumn porches, a wedding sometime next summer.

But this is not about the past or the future – this is about the present. I don’t want to feel wistful later about how I was too wistful now, losing hold of these handfuls of days.

So for now I am living out of suitcases for a few more weeks, sleeping in the freshly painted nursery of one of my oldest friends while she is growing a new little person inside of her. I am waking up by myself to much needed rain on the window. I am drinking beers with people whose faces I missed, and speaking in my native language. I am making budgets and picking up side photography jobs. I am sketching out the skeletons of lesson plans. I am savoring one more week of sleeping in. I don’t know if I’m home yet, but I am content.


Where I woke up to my last day in Alicante. Bittersweet.



Spent the night out at Cabo de las Huertas, sleeping on the beach under the stars – a long goodbye to the sea, and to Alicante, across the water. (Soon I will be much farther away, across greater expanses of water.)



We watched them being constructed all week, these large and flammable works of art constructed to be beautiful, or graceful, or socially relevant, or just comical. Tonight, the final night of Hogueras, they all go up in flames.

The official hoguera in the main square is always the first to burn. We watched in awe and occasionally fear as the flames climbed up above the rooftops and rained sparks down onto our heads… wonder and awe that would normally be quenched by fire codes back home.


Last day at the colegio. Overwhelming, tearful, bittersweet.

At the end of the day the entire school sang and danced to say goodbye to the 6th graders and to their school year (and to la americana.)

Items of note: The wide angle lens that was a gift from my boyfriend – and which fits the whole school in!

Autoretratos en la Vida Diaria

I am saying goodbye and tying up loose ends. I still have some time left here in Spain – a few last days on my own until my boyfriend arrives, a week of both showing him the city and taking my own final paseo, the weeklong party that hogueras brings, and finally, a month of walking the Camino. However, my normal days are numbered – days to wake up early (but not too early), catch the bus to school, navigate the trilingual collage of the colegio, go from to class to class with lessons and vocabulary games, listen to music and read on the busride home, pass the pet store to melt over the cuteness du jour, cook for myself and putz around my apartment.

This isn’t a day in the life – more like a morning in the life. But these are small simple routines, rituals, and daily details that I will miss.

Vida Diaria

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Being Tolerable (Not Just Tolerant)


(The best perspective comes while in transit.)


A few weeks ago I took the tram up the coast to go hiking. I’m at that place where I have finally begun to master the equilibrium of traveling – what to bring, what to leave behind, how and when to pack without panicking, appropriate amounts of breakfast and caffeine and time to get out of the house. So I had my book, my music, and a few hours of beautiful coastline to slide by outside the window.

Then my headspace was invaded by the sound of a group of fellow travelers, a few rows behind me. They were young, they were loud, and they were very, very American.

I don’t know what it is about my fellow citizens that make obnoxious American tourists that much more irritating than obnoxious tourists in general. (This is also ridiculous considering that 99%* of the people I love and respect are, in fact, American.) Perhaps it’s that I can understand them. Perhaps it’s that their tonterías no longer have the novelty of eavesdropping on Spanish. Perhaps I’m just ashamed to be lumped together into a demographic I find irritating. Perhaps it’s the valley girl voice thing that I find grating even back home.

I got up and moved to a different car, more out of frustration with myself than out of irritation at them. (Though partly out of irritation at them.)

I think I assumed that traveling and living abroad would automatically make me more understanding, empathetic, and tolerant. As it turns out, it’s far from an automatic process. If anything, in a new country it’s easier to jump to conclusions, make snap judgements, and cling to secondhand, on-the-spot stereotypes as keys to untangling the overwhelming mess of new experiences. Keeping this in check depends on a lot of effort.

I think individual relationships are key. Lots of them. Broad assumptions about any group – Erasmus students, British tourists, middle-aged Spanish women, Americans abroad, kids who grew up rich, the Religious Right, people who find dates online – are increasingly more difficult to maintain once you start making personal connections with people. Not in a token “I’ve got a ___ friend” way, or a one-shot “once this type of person did this terrible thing to me,” but really knowing people, individuals, who have endearing and inspiring qualities even though they sometimes eff it all up.

More than anything I want to be more self-aware. Living here in a new place has made me feel like I am constantly under a magnifying glass, scrutinized by others – I am the American spectacle, after all – but even more so by myself. This might be the result of too much free time, but I think it is part of the constant process of analyzing my surroundings, which along the way brings just about everything about me into question – my accent, my hobbies, my appearance, what I eat, what I don’t eat, my politics, my sense of humor, my belief systems, and so on.

Being overly self critical is just as dangerous, but I think it’s possible to walk the line between neurosis and self-knowledge. Perhaps it’s a way to channel the mass of judgey feelings into some kind of healthy self-improvement.

This is part of being a cultural ambassador, which is one of the reason why Fulbright pays for people like me to come live somewhere new for a year. The impact of this experience on me as an individual is inevitable, but the idea is that somehow I’m here to influence Spain’s view of the United States. My vast country of origen is not just one giant combination of Friends, Jersey Shore, and American Pie. Not everyone lives in California or New York. Not all Americans eat fast food and a terrible diet in general. For that matter, not all Americans eat a gigantic breakfast – eggs, pancakes, toast, bacon, sausages, etc. – every single day. We don’t have one national dish, and we don’t have holidays that everyone celebrates.

During my time here I’ve tried to focus on people as individuals, not people as poster children for somebody’s idea of culture. I’ve tried to share information about my personal experience in the United States, and facilitated individual connections between students here and students back home through our pen pal letters. Along with individual snapshots I think it’s important to connect with a much wider and more diverse range of experience – many of the things I do are not because I am an American, but because I am Sara. Really that’s all it comes down to. People deserve the benefit of honest, individual experience.

With this in mind, I would like to apologize to the young folks on the train who I glared at and tried to escape so gracelessly. I am not irritated by American kids abroad. I am irritated by people talking too loudly too early in the morning when I am trying to write thoughtful things on the train.

*No real math was used in the making of this blog post.


Hogueras begins!

More on that later.


Went out to Valencia for a final reunion with other Fulbrighters from the Valencian region. The night ended up being a little surreal, but it began with this delicious dinner with Ted – pumpkin pasta with pesto, and a wine called Poema.

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