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.


Lavacolla to Santiago de Compestela.

We made it! And look how excited Santiago was to see us. Fireworks everywhere!

(Or perhaps it was because tomorrow is the feast day of Santiago, their biggest party of the year?)

This is the destination we’ve had our eyes on for the last 25 days. So what happens when you arrive?

You get to Monte de Gozo, the Hill of Joy where pilgrims catch their first glimpse of the city – or in this case, where you catch a glimpse of  suburbs, a gigantic monument commemorating Pope John Paul II’s visit, and plenty of people eager to sell you crap.

You walk through the modern outskirts of the city, beginning to feel a little sad knowing that you’re done with the mountains and the peaceful green fields.

You pass into the old part of town, where apartment complexes give way to cobblestones and old stone.

You get to the cathedral – a muddle of steeples and street artists and sweaty pilgrims – in time for the daily noon pilgrim mass.

You do not have time to feel much in the cathedral, in the press of other pilgrims standing or sitting or leaning against pillars during the service, and the stream of tourists pushing through with their cameras.

You get a little excited when they pull out the famous Botafumeiro – the huge incense burner that swings terrifyingly high, spitting out sparks and smoke. You feel impressed – by the bells and the organ music and the sweet smoke mixed with pilgrim sweat – but not necessarily spiritual.

You wander out into the bright sunlight and get someone to take an after picture in the crowded plaza.

You stand in line at the Pilgrim’s office and get your Compestela – the Latin document that says something along the lines of: Good job taking that long walk, pilgrim, and here’s a get-out-of-purgatory-free card.

You find a menú del día that includes octopus, but maybe secretly remember Burgos (and the meal that now will hold all meals to an impossibly high standard.)

You realize that since tomorrow is the busiest day of the year for Santiago – the saint’s feast day – you probably should have booked beds somewhere earlier. You end up paying too much for yet another dingy private room – but outside the window are the steeples of the cathedral, cascades of bells, warm light and plate noise of a restaurant patio below.

You take a shower, take a nap, wander the city, feel a bit wistful about the journey receding behind you, now that you’ve reached your destination.

You soothe your existential crisis with tapas, at an incredible place where ordering two glasses of wine sets in motion a seemingly endless stream of little plates filled with delicious things. You watch Spain beating the U.S. at basketball, which seems unimaginable, so you talk trash accordingly.

You find a spot in the crowd with a view of the cathedral, to watch a crazy light show projected onto the ancient facade itself – making it change colors, catch fire, extinguish itself, dissolve into darkness, and rebuild itself several times, before the sky explodes into fireworks around it.

You try your best to go out and party with the rest of the city – and perhaps the rest of the region – but feel old and tired, once again defeated by the Spaniards’ party stamina. The Camino is done, and so are you.

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.

Column A, Column B

I’ve been in Spain for 9 months.

Things I have missed:

  • Family and friends
  • A dryer (but only sometimes)
  • Michigan beer
  • Spicy food
  • Customer service
  • Central heating (but only for about two months)
  • Fall & Spring foliage
  • My gato
Things I haven’t missed:
  • Driving
  • Crappy weather
  • Driving in crappy weather
  • Expensive produce
  • Expensive food & drink in general
  • 2am cutoffs
  • Coffee in to-go cups
  • Sleep deprivation


I feel like most things in my life recently are a little retrasado (and I mean that more in the running late sense, and less in the mentally delayed way – but who knows?)

So more than a week after the fact, I am taking time to comment upon the many impressions and inspirations that I was left with after spending several days in Valladolid for Fulbright´s mid-year meeting. This included all the English Teaching Assistants from all over Iberian Peninsula – from Valencia, Cantabria, Madrid, and Andorra – and all the research grantees here in Spain, researching everything from cancer to Antarctica to flamenco.

Hint: this is not a cheap student hostel.

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Esperanza y Belleza (and maybe some sleep deprivation)

This morning I said goodbye to my dear amiga who came to visit me for nearly a week – a week of exploring Madrid, of showing her around Alicante, of watching her learn (and use) her first words of Spanish, of getting bed bugs in Madrid and spending a fair amount of our trip getting rid of them, a week of delayed flights and hours spent in airports, a week of meeting new people and introducing an old friend to what has become normal life to me. (Except the bed bug part, thank god.)

It was a very full week and it flew by, only slowing down for brief moments: the frigid walk through the empty streets of Madrid on Christmas Eve with a Russian pilot I met while waiting for the cathedral to open. The grey jumbled expanse of Picasso’s Guernica in the Reina Sofia museum. The sound of the sea sifting through stones on the coast of Altea. The brown patchwork of Spain drifting by beneath me – roads winding through hills to small towns clustered around bullrings and church spires casting humble shadows.
Now time has slowed down again and I am wandering Madrid on my own for the day until my paths cross with other friends tonight. After so much conversation and adventure it is a headlong tumble into my own brain-noise. Listening to guitar players and stepping over puke on the metro. Watching as the street workers clean up the massive heaps of garbage from Madrid’s New Year’s Eve’s Eve (which appeared to be a full dress rehearsal for the fiestas to come tonight, Nochevieja.) Getting the first hola guapa of the day from a gentleman with pajama pants and a mimosa in hand, behind glass in a hotel lobby. Wandering in and out of churches and plazas and bookshops, looking for central heat or for sunlight. Finally indulging my craving for spicy food at an Indian restaurant in La Latina, where chicken vindaloo and a free shot of apple liquor leave me warm inside despite numb fingertips.
For me the beginnings and endings of things are significant – a year older, a year ending. I feel contemplative this time of year, and  especially now: beginning a new year in a new place, so far away from where I was a year ago and with no idea where the next year will find me. I wish I had something more conclusive or wise or insightful to say, instead of just a handful of vivid snapshots, trailing loose ends and snipped connections like so many sparking wires.
Rather than resolutions (though I have them) or summaries (it would be impossible) or predictions (even more so) I want to close this year with hope.
Hope that 2012 holds more healing than hurt, more growth than destruction, more peace than war.
Hope that this coming year will find me stronger, more aware, more open, more adaptable, more rooted in confidence and peace.
Hope for the same for the ones I love (yes, you.)
Turning the sea upside down at el Castillo de Santa Barbara – photo by Ashes.

The things I’d do to crunch leaves beneath my feet

(Notes from a journey)

I am relearning how to be a passenger –
how to travel alone on slick rails or the lumbering rumble of this near-empty bus,
pointed toward Madrid.

The clouds began to gather over the Mediterranean, light pushing us inland.
We pass places I will never see up close.
An old man pokes around with a cane under an olive tree.
Broken walls drown in the brush, or circle fortresses perched on cliffs,
edges smoothed by clouds.

Slowly twirling wind turbines march in lines over the hills.
Their smooth graceful lines make me taste imagined vertigo of a dream I had once:
clutching windmills,
or perhaps it was a book I read, or some carnival ride,
hanging on and trying not to vomit.

I will watch from an unheroic distance.
My coffee trembles in its
fragile paper cup.

I am relearning the art of contentment.
I am undoing the strings that slowly tug at my ribcage.
Being un-lonely when I am alone.
Un-craving solitude in crowded rooms.
Un-missing. Un-yearning.

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Adjustment to a new culture nearly always leads to some degree of culture shock – simply because culture is not just a collection of new foods, a translated phrasebook, and new horizons.

Culture is all of it – all the small, crucial elements that shift and vanish and reappear and rearrange themselves.

I noticed differences in the air when I first stepped off the train here – heavy and hot on the platform, pressing down on my limbs, suitcases rooting themselves to the cement. I walked downhill towards where the sea glimmered between buildings and palm trees, but it was the wind that caught me first. It pushes through narrow streets, like the wavering wand of a compass pointing me toward the skyline, slivers of wind through heavy wooden shutters, cooling the sweat on the back of my neck. After the first few days I can’t smell any difference in the air, but the breeze still catches me as I come around corners.
Foreign snippets: People in the street – liquored-up laugher at 6am, high heels stumbling across cobblestones. Music from the square – twirling violins, merengue beats, or the Piano Man. Silverware noises from kitchens above kitchens, filtered up through laundry hung above other laundry. Italian and French coming from the other bedrooms – unknown words in familiar tones. Toasts in five languages at our red-checked kitchen table. Real bells.
Sometimes the smallest adjustments can feel like fundamental shifts – as though the ground is tilting almost imperceptibly. In my kitchen is a small Italian coffee pot that perches precariously on the gas range – or that tips and dumps hot coffee all over the stovetop, in early morning light. I am using cups with saucers, and eating toast with pureed tomato or olive oil and salt sprinkled on it, instead of butter or jam. I am eating Spanish food on a Spanish schedule – lunch at 2pm. Dinner at 9. I am taking the bus every morning – catching the 8:25 bus and sitting with my forehead on the glass and music in my ears. Or watching the earlier bus sail past, and waiting along with the private school kids in their blue and white uniforms, until they climb onto their swanky private school ride. When the 8:40 bus arrives, it is packed and warm with crowded breathing, and I am always clinging to some pole near the front, adjusting to the jerking stops that throw me off my balance. (And invariably, the people I am thrown awkwardly into are either frail, elderly women or young, attractive men.) My first day riding the bus to school – while in the early stages of being an allergic, coughing mess – I sat next to a somewhat larger and significantly older gentleman. We sat there in silence, both slightly wheezing, until I got caught in an uncontrollable coughing fit – at which point he silently handed me a cough drop. I thanked him, and now we nod at each other most mornings.
(All of which is to say: I’m not a visitor here. I live here now.)
Time and Space.
The magic of technology can be a soothing trick of the eyes (and the ears.) From across oceans you can hear the same voices, see the same faces, say the same things in the same language, pay the same bills, read the same news, and watch snippets of familiar faces and lives slip by. Decades or even years ago, you didn’t have the same illusions. You could watch for the mail. You could read and re-read words on creased paper. You could wait at train stations or airports for faces that had grown thinner or hair that had grown longer or unfamiliar clothing on familiar bodies. Your skin could still prickle with loneliness, but without the pixelated faces and garbled voices. I’m trying to remember these things, and I’m putting more on paper than I am on this screen.*

* But please note that I have written 2 blogs this week – I told you I’d try to keep up better!

How To Get To Spain (Part 1)

(Not to be considered a complete or even entirely credible guide, since I am not in Spain yet.)


  • (3.5 months before departure.) Get your acceptance letter as a Fulbright ETA in Spain. (You might want to try getting an initial rejection letter first, like I did. It enhances the surprise.)
  • Submit request for a background check to the FBI as soon as humanly possible. Include prepaid priority mail return envelope. (Don’t bother sending return postage; they will not use it.)
  • Set up a doctor’s appointment and fill out all the medical forms for medical clearance.
  • Peruse the website for the Consulte of Spain in Chicago, where you have to apply for your visa. Send an email inquiry that gets bounced back a few times, call and wade through a bilingual phone system a few times, and read several different checklists of the necessary paperwork for a student visa.
  • Set up an appointment with the Consulate for a few weeks later, since the FBI should have your stuff back to you, right?
  • Start looking at flights, hostels, and apartments obsessively.
  • Call FBI periodically to check on your background check.
  • Call FBI again the week before you are supposed to go to the consulate, and realize that they now take up to 8 weeks to process background checks.
  • Despair of ever getting background check from the FBI. Cancel consulate appointment and bus to Chicago. Reschedule for 8 weeks after you sent them your crap.
  • The FBI is probably getting tired of hearing from you. Resolve to only call them once a week.
  • Meticulously gather paperwork into a dorky little filing system. Read the recommendation to avoid making an appointment before gathering all required paperwork, and to avoid buying plane tickets until you have a visa.
  • Book a plane ticket before you have a visa.
  • Book a hostel in Madrid, too – you might as well.
  • Call the consulate to ask if a copy of a previous background check would suffice. (You are a teacher, after all.) Leave messages in English, in Spanish, and maybe in Spanglish. Send emails.
  • The week before you are supposed to go to the consulate, despair at the lack of background check in your mailbox. Cancel appointment and bus to Chicago… again.
  • Finally get an email from the consulate assuring you that you can still apply even if you haven’t received the background check; as long as you have proof you sent paperwork you are fine.
  • Reschedule for two weeks later, which is the next available appointment.
  • Bang your head on your wall a few times, because you could have done all this weeks ago.
  • Get your background check – hallelujah! No crimes here.
  • Take background check to a far-away Secretary of State, to get it authorized with the Apostille.
  • Be informed by the clerk that you cannot get the Apostille unless the document is signed and notarized. (It is not.)
  • Call and leave some more bilingual (or perhaps non-lingual) messages with the consulate.
  • Bang your head on your steering wheel.
  • Get the background check notarized by copying it and having a public notary (thanks, housemate!) notarize that it is an official copy.
  • Go back to the Secretary of State and get the Apostille. (It includes a fancy gold sticker, which is more satisfying than most of the rest of the process.)
  • Try to take your own passport photo for the visa application. Look like a serial killer despite your expensive camera.
  • Four weeks before your (supposed) departure, make copies of all your paperwork and arrange it in your dorky file folder before getting on the bus for Chicago.
  • Give yourself more than ample time to get downtown for your appointment. Wear a dress, because you are going to charm your way into their country if you have to.
  • Get off the train and walk the wrong way down Lake St., about a mile out of your way.
  • Stop for directions and realize where you are (or rather, where you aren’t.) Panic because you have less than ten minutes before your appointment.
  • Have flashbacks to a similar experience where you never made it to Barcelona. Despair of ever getting to Spain.
  • Frantically hail a cab and arrive one minute before your appointment time.
  • Sweat in the fancy elevator.
  • Wait in the lobby 15 minutes because they are running late.
  • Hand over your paperwork and your passport, and forget to use any Spanish other than me pongo nerviosa.
To be continued.
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