A Rare Kind of Contentedness

There are some roads we travel on just once, and others we revisit again and again. It’s hard to know the significance of such a series of curves – gray concrete and yellow lines. But as I peer through my dashboard at the two golden orbs casting tunnels of light across the foggy I-5 Northbound in Oregon, I am reminded of a certain road I traveled on just once in Spain.

I was perched tall on the bus seat, bobbing gently as we chugged along the windy road. Sleepily, I pressed my nose against the cool window, staring out into a misty tide of fog. Each time we’d wind around a bend, the moon would shimmer, skipping alongside the dream catcher of forested hills to keep pace with us. I was returning to San Sebastian from a day trip to Bilbao.

There was something special that happened that day. I had met an unlikely friend: an old woman with pearlescent white hair.  When I got off the train at the top of the hill, I spotted her walking across the lawn with a limp, slowly dragging a checkered push cart behind her.

I walked to the railing that lined the park to take in the view. It was breathtaking. There were tall mountains and the charming city of Bilbao below, interspersed with patches of vibrant green farmland and a silver ribbon of river winding between them. The air felt cool, fresh and somehow, familiar.

I felt a presence approach behind me and turned to see a beautiful, smiling face studying me curiously. She must have been standing there for a few minutes watching me. We got to talking with the mediocre Spanish I learned in school and she told me that her parents were carpenters. They had once visited the old growth forests of Northern California and Oregon and told her about the unbelievably tall trees, she explained wide eyed with hands outstretched. Then she told me I should learn more languages and study a specialty outside of Journalism. I laughed, appreciating the motherly advice. I told her I thought it was a good idea. We chatted some more, using hand gestures and laughter to close the gap in our understanding of each other’s words. She invited me to join her for dinner the following night, and although I was touched, I had already purchased a bus ticket back to San Sebastian where I was staying with a friend.

We decided to take a picture together, stopping a passerby to snap the photo. After five, or what felt like ten kisses, and several hugs, we parted ways. As she shuffled down the path, just before dipping out of sight around the bend and down the hill, she turned once to blow me a kiss. Like waking from a dream, I stumbled out of the shell of my loneliness and felt my beating heart again. I blew her one back and turned to walk the opposite direction with tears in my eyes.

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I learned an important lesson that afternoon: that no matter how far from home, and no matter how alone I perceive myself to be, the world never stops inviting me to take its hand once more.

My short visit to Bilbao was wonderful, nourishing and provided the breakthrough I needed in the moment. The fog that crept in later that night no longer felt ominous, just as it doesn’t tonight on my drive home to Portland. The light of the moon and my headlights are enough.

In the comfort of not needing to see beyond just a few steps ahead, the ride can be the destination itself. And that creates a beautiful, rare kind of contentedness.

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A Morning in Vernazza, Italy

Here I meet the Mediterranean Sea. I can walk all the way up to its powerful, rolling, green body and stare directly into its eyes. The salt spray clings to my hair and the humid wind draws sweat from my pores. Behind me stand rusted orange, yellow and pale pink buildings with dark green shutters sprawled open on every window. From behind them peaks the little dome of the cream-colored chapel halfway up the hill. A train passes along the sea cliff and disappears into the rock tunnel beneath stripes of grape vines stretching wildly in every direction.

The sea is a translucent green, defined by a line of navy blue as the water deepens farther out from the pier. It pushes its waves around the rocky cliffs with intensity; where they collide, big white sprays leap into the air and drop again, leaving dimples for a split-second before melting back into churning currents.

I’m staying in an Inn where a resident cat greets me each morning with a raspy meow. In 30 seconds from my door, I’m at the water’s edge, glistening under morning sun. I’m two months into my travels, and I’ve seen a lot of incredible places, but Vernazza feels like a dream. It’s so piercingly beautiful and idyllic, it’s hard to fathom it’s real, and that I’m somehow here.

Vernazza is one of five colorful cliff-side villages that make up the famed Cinque Terre in Tuscany, Northern Italy. Today I’ll hike to Monterrosso Al Mare, a village north of here, but first, I need an espresso.

Her hands move skillfully with ease as she flicks milk foam atop the fragrant brown liquid. I smile widely out of excitement, and she stares back indifferently, swatting the flies now gathering above a piping hot plate of focaccia vuota on the counter. A graying mass of wild curls frames her tan, sun-soaked cheeks and full lips. The brown mole above her left upper lip twitches momentarily as she slides the cappuccino my direction. “Grazie,” I say, blushing at the sound of my obvious American accent.

Next I head to the only grocer in town, which is stocked with local produce, fresh pesto in gallon glass jars, cured meats, olives, cheeses and the other necessary items like toilet paper and pasta. I buy a container of pesto, a hunk of cheese and some prosciutto to take with me for lunch on the trail.

The sun is already hot on my shoulders, so it’s time to get a move on! As I make my way toward the trail and begin climbing up through the hillside vineyards, I look back over my shoulder and fall even more in love with Vernazza.

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The view down the trail wasn’t too bad either!

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The City with a Fur Coat and A Black Eye

Reflections of passersby glisten and slant as they scoot past sheer cliffs of glass and steel. The tall buildings stand with arms crossed glaring down at us, and I feel like a mouse. On another morning, though, when the sun peeks through the gray net of clouds overhead, I think “All this silver reminds me of a great river,” and I marvel at the way the glass glints like gold atop splashing waves.

It’s my first time in Vancouver, British Columbia and we’re staying at a hostel on Granville Street, the main artery of the city center. Outside our little room, the streets pulse and thump with activity. Fashionistas strut their catwalks, and us Oregonians watch wide-eyed. I find myself trying on a purple designer dress and tall heels, imagining life on the fancy side.

We eat sushi and crepes, explore the various neighborhoods and chit-chat with a young shop owner. It becomes clear there is a gap in the city between the wealthy Vancouverites and the large population of homeless, who wander blurry-eyed and desperate, grinding their teeth in unnatural directions, jaw bones jutting out of concave cheeks. They ask for money at the crosswalks and weave through the crowds with palms outstretched. We spend a lot of time dodging these grimy and heartbreaking characters, but they seem to be everywhere: tucked under eaves of decrepit buildings and lying in bundles of blankets on the sidewalk. They’re mostly harmless, but I find myself uneasy when they approach. It’s clear many are under the influence of hard drugs, and it makes me feel sad.

On another day, we take a hike through Stanley Park and are dazzled by views of misted mountains hovering above steel-blue sea, while the city’s montage of glass condos stand stoically to our right. The colors – blues, greens, silvers and grays are stunning like the scales of a fish under sunlight. The air is fresh and the breeze smells like salt and rain. We both agree it’s quite beautiful outside the city center.

The hostel we stay in is outfitted like a hotel with white crisp towels and starched sheets. We sleep in a bunk bed and brush our teeth over a little sink in our room. The shared bathroom is up the hall. I hear a strange cooing sound and look out our second-story window. There, beneath a tiny awning, is a family of pudgy pigeons sitting in a row. Out beyond their stoop is a grimy apartment building that looks like it might collapse if there were a strung gust of wind. Directly to the right of it stands a tall, upscale building made out of modern brown and black bricks. Each morning when I pull back the curtain and look up, I see a young woman with long black hair wrapped in a red-checkered blanket smoking a cigarette on her brick bordered balcony, gazing off into the gray, misty distance.

The nightlife on Granville Street is international, and the clubs are swanky. We hear a handful of languages on the dance floor and truly feel like we’re outside the U.S. It’s a matter of minutes until we’re surrounded by young gyrating men wearing button-down shirts and hair gel. It smells like cologne and booze, and everyone is a little too handsy. I close my eyes to listen to the music and tune out the unwanted attention. When I open them again, I’m surprised to see an exotic dancer on stage. My friend and I give each other the look and head to a different room in the club. We end up meeting a friendly and raucous group of twenty-somethings visiting the big city for a night on the town. We decide to join forces and the festivities continue until dawn.

In all, Vancouver is a wonderful city, and I enjoyed my visit. At the same time, I can’t shake the feeling that beneath all its glitz and glam lies a sizable bruise, like a black and blue shiner glistening in the bathroom mirror.

But that won’t keep me from coming back. After all, what’s a city without a little underbelly?

IMG_1237 Where city, sea and trees meet.

Looking back at the cityscape from Stanley Park. Looking back at the cityscape from Stanley Park.