Tuesday, October 17

California, month eight | tidefall

Full force happiness now. If I spent fall semester slowly wandering campus and Berkeley's peripheries, stunned that such sunlit joy can exist, that it is laid out here, for me, then I spend all of spring semester putting that love to practical use. You can see it in the careful construction of my fall semester posts compared to the compiled-months-after-the-fact jumble of spring.

Berkeley's rain sodden winter months, along with a doubled study load, daily French classes, regular seven am work shifts, and half-marathon training, should surely force a collapse, a retreat into my well-worn shell of routine loneliness. But I am rarely alone now. There's always somebody to spend the next hour with, to study with, to dance with; an inverse correlation between alcoholic intake and hours of sleep; a continuous battle between over-caffeination and under-caffeination; a head too full with things to process; and I have never felt this happy before.

Full force happiness: a gale so wild I have to correct my previous understanding of the concept of 'happy', readjust the scale to fit these new feelings in.

Early one Saturday morning in March we stand outside our apartment building, backpacks on the kerb, looking out for a car. It's so foggy we can't see beyond our block, let alone down to the bay. As Camille drives us north towards Marin County, though, the haze disperses, replaced by the clear Californian visibility that bewitched me last semester. Winter is beginning to drift away from these northern coastlines. 

We're heading to California's Point Reyes National Seashore, to hike to Alamere Falls. Sweeping and rolling straight into the sea, Alamere is technically a 'tidefall', and I adopt that term as noun or verb to describe how spring semester feels. A tidefall of events and emotions and faces and feelings, of everything I'd suppressed behind canal gates for so long. There are only six of these ocean-bound coastal waterfalls in North America, twenty-five in the whole world. Tidefalls are rare. Both the geographical kind, and my kind.

After tracing wide open cliff tops for a while, a makeshift sign of white pebbles laid on the ground indicates a narrow path ducking left into woodland and eventually opening out on the edge of the land, closer to sea level. To get down to the cliffs and beach Alamere Falls calls home, though, requires a precarious scramble. Jump (or slide) down a sandy coloured rock face: vault, before the eyes of all other waiting visitors, a gushing stream that's too wide for even the longest pair of legs: propel yourself over deep gaps in the cliff face. It's a tall order for some visitors. Flip flops just won't cut it. Not everybody makes it across the stream.

Granted, this is no Appalachian trail, and I can't compare one short hike to weeks of fell-walking in the UK's Lake District, but already I'm struck by the differences in hiking culture in America. For example, flip flops aside, people play music out loud as they walk, and while I'm no stranger to the joys of a bluetooth speaker, there's a time and a place. Maybe I'm too schooled in Wordsworth and Whitman, but the whole point of getting out 'into nature' (whatever that phrase means) is that you're away from nature's opposite, the noise and metal of the built environment. I can't identify birds from their chatter, but I can hear how a breeze sounds different near water, or notice that in a landscape left to its own song the pace of visual and aural stimulation slows, and your own mind adjusts accordingly. The change in speed and perspective feels like a relief and a newness. It's no place for Bieber, or even Bruce.

Down on the beach you can walk right up to the tidefall, let it bellow in your ears, stand in its spray. The Pacific beats in and out fast, and catches my Converse unawares. My feet dry quickly on the rocks, but the sneakers stay stiff with salt and sand all summer.

I fall asleep as we drive back south, across the Golden Gate Bridge and through San Francisco, tracing its ups and downs. Waking up, through the rear window I watch the streets curl up to meet the sky and the dipping sun. Don't make me go home, I think for the thousandth time. I am so happy here. I couldn't be happier.

I'm wrong, though: tomorrow, Sunday, I will read Faulkner on the sand at Half Moon Bay in the first wave of summer warmth, nothing but sand and ocean and words. In two weeks one of my oldest friends will fly halfway across the world to visit me. Before the month is out I'll be midway through the first of two once-in-a-lifetime style road trips, the kind you get notions about from Kerouac and summer movies, travelling with a bunch of once-in-a-lifetime style people. I will spend the rest of spring semester mooning over the first road trip, and the rest of the year mooning over the second.

Andrew arrives one afternoon the week before spring break. All of a sudden he materialises on this continent, standing casually outside downtown McDonalds waiting to cross University & Shattuck as if he'd been living in Berkeley for years. It is a rare thing to have a friend willing and able to make the five thousand mile journey west to see you; it's even rarer to have a friend who puts up with your dribble of a shower, your endless supply of vegan meatballs, and who gets up at four am to stand in a dark chilly park without complaint and watch you run a half-marathon. Rarest of all is the friend who bakes croissants for the party you throw on the first evening of spring break.

On the days I have too much school, Andrew walks around San Francisco, visiting all the places I still haven't got round to seeing. He acquires a tote bag straining with poetry books, and boots that give him blisters. We hang out on campus in the sun and in the rain. I take him to my English lecture and he falls in love with the professor's hands.

It is once again odd to see a face from home here; even odder that it is not one of my family, who have seen me everywhere I've been in life. Andrew knew me as a shy oversensitive fifteen year old, and it is nice that he will also know me as I am in Berkeley, twenty-four and insanely happy. He will know, if transiently, the rooms of my apartment, my favourite bars and streets, the feel of Californian rain, the faces of my friends.

If I had to pick the happiest day of the year so far, poised as I am at the end of March, it might be this one: Sunday the twenty-sixth, leaving the apartment gut-wrenchingly early to stand in a pitch black Golden Gate Park with a bunch of other sleepy runners; taking in thirteen and a bit miles around the city; running over the Golden Gate Bridge and back, Bruce's 1978 San Francisco show in my ears; the waves and shouts of Bea, Connie, and Andrew propelling me along those final metres; crying at the finish line.

And the day doesn't end there. From the finish line at Civic Centre we ride an Uber back to Berkeley to pick up the car that's going to take us on next week's adventures. There's a mad tangle of sleeping bags and tent poles and jumpers, and suddenly we're jammed into the car, six of us, duvets and crisps and all, and we're away, all of the west at our feet.

Songs: month eight

Portions For Foxes / Rilo Kiley
Stolen Dance / Milky Chance
American Boy / Estelle
I Melt With You / Modern English
Leave Before The Lights Come On / Arctic Monkeys
Racing in the Street [live from San Francisco, 1978] / Bruce Springsteen

Wednesday, July 26

California, month seven / liner notes 05 | moving real fine

1. W E A T H E R

At seven am the world always feels like it's ending.
We sit under the canopy drinking coffee in the pouring rain and the sun glows through the wet.
Three degrees, uncharacteristically cold, a cruel lean wind.
With E by the fountain in afternoon sun, squinting like lizards.
A postcard from L in Cuba. She describes the mango trees and how she is wearing all of the summer clothes I left behind in Baltimore.

2. R U N N I N G

Zig zag hill training runs.
Eight and a half miles north to Indian Rock Park, weaving a figure eight back south to Elmwood. The psychology of longer distances, how easy it is to adapt to a different scale.
How are things on the west coast / I hear you're moving real fine

3. M U S I C  +  L A N D

Fifties teen culture and coffin songs, doo wop, mixtapes, Skip James.
Writing about John Henry in a cafe when the electronica soundtrack turns to the folk tune Doin' My Time: 'you can hear my hammer, you can hear my song.'
A slightly tipsy 1am Ebay purchase of eight vintage music publications for 99c turns out to be a very good decision. They all feature Bruce Springsteen on the front cover.
The American landscape as discovered from the west, Malcolm Gladwell on sneakers, small American country towns, and 1930s squatters camps.
Academic approval to write about the industrial landscape of Bruce Springsteen songs and seventies roadside all-night diners.

4. T A K E  M E  O U T  T O N I G H T

A sort-of-frat party that ends just after midnight, because everything in America ends hilariously early. So we tumble down to a basement for beer and cheez-its, and get to bed at five am.
A Berkeley co-op party where each room has a theme. We crawl through cushions into a dark room where we're fed 'worm slime' (sour worms soaked in an unidentifiable spirit) and one of us has to 'do the worm'. In another room there are three kinds of disco light and a screen endlessly repeating dank memes. In another, rosewater punch.
Let loose on a dive bar jukebox. Springsteen, The Clash, Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, Pixies. Free bottomless popcorn. And to think we didn't feel like going out. E says, 'that is the happiest face I've ever seen in a bar!'

5. ' E V E R Y  D A Y ,  O N C E  A  D A Y . . . '

Late night toast, imported marmite and expensive cheddar, Twin Peaks, food pantry hauls (Barbara's Oat Crunch, organic peanut butter, endless oats, alfredo sauce, Acme sourdough, frozen spinach: Berkeley food is expensive, and the pantry keeps us from starving), Trader Joe's trips for samples and the eighties playlist, iced coffee with milk and honey, frozen yoghurt trips, too much sleep, not enough sleep, rainstorms, nine-grain bagels.
'Harry, I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don't plan it. Don't wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men's store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.'

6. S U N S E T S

One: walk through campus - watch the bridge and the dusky sky - realise how much I'll miss these California sunsets - feel happy and sad and happy. I wait a while under the campanile where the air stretches out to meet the Golden Gate Bridge and the western hills, and see the sun, and a delicate slip of moon.
Two: every night brings a sunset as beautiful as the last, but always a little bit different. Tonight, dark orange and indigo and the hills and the city glittering in the fiery depths of the sky.
Three: walk home from j-class across campus as the sun sets and the warmth fades, pass under palm trees and through the heavy scent of bark and eucalyptus. Californian spring assaults all my senses in the best possible way. This is the happiest I've ever felt.
Four: a glowing, opaque veil that presses down hard into the edges of streets and buildings, the light reaching along telephone wires and illuminating the rigid lines of tennis courts and parking lots.

7. T H E  H E A R T

Yesterday was a long drag, a lingering blink, that gut-howling misery of the alarm going off at 6.30am, brain cogs too tired and squelchy to turn, pointless hours in the library and the cafe, head scratching until late, falling into bed feeling like I hadn't achieved anything at all -
But I am on the west coast, and I am moving real fine.

To a girl born in and shaped by London, California does not seem a real place, but it is a damn happy interlude.

This world, this world right here, this world is for you.

Songs: month seven

John Lee Hooker For President  /  Ry Cooder
Romeo and Juliet  /  Dire Straits
Tumbling Dice  /  The Gaslight Anthem
A Little Faith  /  The National
Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard  /  Paul Simon
Like Crying  /  Fleetwood Mac
Try A Little Tenderness  /  Otis Redding
Twisting the Night Away  /  Sam Cooke
Only the Lonely  /  Roy Orbison
The Heinrich Maneuver  /  Interpol
Headbutt  /  The King Blues 

Saturday, July 22

California, month six | that great strong land of love

Apartment twenty, early January 2017. C arrives in a rainstorm, late the first evening, and we brew tea immediately. The new place is a mess: floorboards awash with scattered q-tips and dustballs and broken clothes hangers, strange objects huddled in corners (a china monkey money box, an elephant-shaped watering can, a half eaten bag of cough drops, a dented can of chopped green beans), the rooms heavy with the cloying odour of a four-week full bin. All day I'd cleaned and unpacked. I wiped, dusted, sprayed, filled bag after bag with rubbish, and swept the floors with a plastic orange brush I bought at the Japanese dollar store. When I'd arrived that morning, shoulders burning after carrying my bags up to the second floor, it took all my willpower not to sink into the bottom bunk's bare rubber mattress and sob. Everything was so dirty, and I was adrift in unfamiliarity again. But instead I put on some music, rolled up my sleeves, and got to it. By the time C's at the door, the rooms are a little more habitable, and when I hear her moving about in the living room, putting the kettle on, it already feels like home.

Peace and sun, those first few days. Golden hour is ridiculous from the window of our new room. Last semester I could see the Sather Tower and used its hourly peals to structure my day; now I can watch the hills behind campus, the way they reflect the sun at dawn and dusk, the way the small houses at the top wink in the dark.

Day trips to the city. Waiting for the bus with 7-Eleven coffee and donuts.

Loafing at the top of Bancroft with thermos flasks as the sun dips. It's warm enough to sit outside, though you'll need a scarf. It doesn't feel like any January I know.

Getting tangled in freeways on the first few half-marathon training runs.

Saturday afternoon at the farmers' market. Everybody outside in warm blue. Herb bundles in bicycle baskets, a girl in dungarees with fruit under her arm, that sort of thing. Fresh bread and sunshine. So far, January in California feels like April in England, and I am very much ok with that.

When Trump's sworn in nobody wants to look. I'm at work, anyway, and I have to make smoothies for a bunch of Trump supporters. The peanut butter scoop shakes in my hand. Later we race down Telegraph towards Oakland to catch the tail end of the inauguration day protest. Police in riot gear wait along Oakland's peripheries as the protestors head towards the city centre, yet all is peaceful: downtown we're met with free pumpkin pie, not tear gas or stun guns. The air isn't charged the way it was on election night, not raw with pain, yet the voices are louder, more defiant.

The following morning we make signs from cardboard boxes raided from the recycling bins. NASTY WOMEN UNITE. VIVA LA VULVA. GRAB 'EM BY THE PATRIARCHY. The San Francisco bus is full of students: it almost feels like a school trip: there's not much traffic on the bridge: a parade of children forced on a pro-life march drift past the bus windows and we all get angry: and then we're in a one-hundred-thousand strong crowd at Civic Center, a damp fierce knot of umbrellas and battered signs and fists. It's International Women's Day. In the dusky rain we march and sing, and are filled with hope.

'I refuse to call him president,' says the elderly lady sitting next to me at Caffe Strada a few days later.

Solace, as ever, is sought in the words of my favourite poets. Thousands of miles away in Australia, Bruce Springsteen speaks out against Trump's Muslim Ban. 'America is a nation of immigrants,' he says, 'and we find this anti-democratic and fundamentally un-American'.
And then there's Langston Hughes:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed --
Let it be that great strong land of love
Alternative coping mechanisms are also available: homemade cocktails (White Russians and hibiscus gin), playing every song that ever existed, dancing on chairs into the wee hours. Federer winning the Australian Open, his eighteenth slam at the age of thirty-five. Saturday evening at the marina with friends, sitting on the rocks by the water to witness a sunset too beautiful to hold on to. Faces and hair lucent with golden light.

Most of all though, a visit from my mum.

Spring semester is relentless. The workload is final-level-Tetris heavy. 'I don't know what I'm writing,' I complain to C one night. 'I'm two letters into a word and I don't know what it's going to be yet.' Classes almost doubled, I take the early morning shifts at work. The alarm's set for that pre-7am no man's land, but as a night owl, sleep is unavoidably sacrificed. I learn to survive on five or six hours, but this hallmark of adulthood won't stay with me long: as soon as school ends and life slows down in June, my nine hour nightly dosage resumes. For now, though, daily life has changed hugely. Yet the change itself occurred unnoticed, giant and silent in the corner of some room I might've walked through once. I no longer have time to burrow deep into the frivolous recesses of my brain; every scene passes by too fast, like trying to take a picture from the window of a speeding train. I think I like it this way, though. It's true: the busier you are, the more you do, and the more you do, the more you want to do.

Mum arrives the night of the Milo Y riots. As I open belated Christmas presents in her Airbnb apartment we hear the rumble of helicopters over Telegraph. My social media feeds erupt with footage of fires and bangs. 'Berkeley's not always like this,' I feel compelled to point out more than once. The streets are scattered with debris and people smoke against makeshift wire fences, eyes bright, bodies still charged. Walking to work the next morning, the physical effects of the riots are clear in the cold eye of dawn. Anti-Trump graffiti embellishes the walls of the bank, a building made 'riot-proof' in the sixties. On campus, trees are singed black at the tips, the Amazon locker room windows smashed in, and the hulking jumble of burned tech equipment sits sooty in the middle of Sproul Plaza like some kind of contemporary art sculpture.

Mum's staying in the 'Purple House', a wood-walled ground-floor apartment in Elmwood. I love staying there with her, love the non-student perspective on Berkeley life it provides. We shop in Whole Foods and cook together, finish morning runs with coffee. I show her the campus, the streets, the city across the bay. I introduce her to my friends and my favourite bus routes. She keeps me company on coffee shop study dates and buys me the enormous slice of apple pie I've been eyeing all year. It is a special twelve days.

After days of rain, the sun returns and Mum finally sees the California I've been raving about, the clear blue skies, the dazzle at the ends of streets and hilltops. We spend her final weekend in San Francisco. Resistance posters have appeared in windows both sides of the bay, and in the Mission District, Four Barrel's coffee cups come stamped with the words 'Resist Fear, Assist Love' in rainbow ink.

Catch the bus to Haight-Ashbury. Get coffee at Stanza, or Flywheel, which sits at edge of the neighbourhood where Golden Gate Park looms dark. The Goodwill store is messy, and 80% junk, but if you hunt hard you'll find things at a tenth of the price of other Haight thrift stores. There's a real good bookstore somewhere along the street: you'll find it. Buena Vista is all steps, but catch another bus a little south, as the roads start to climb. It'll only take you halfway up; when you alight, follow Twin Peaks Boulevard as it snakes uphill, and eventually you'll reach the carpark and viewpoint at the top. Most people drive up to Twin Peaks but it's better to watch the view unfold gradually, angles and gradients shifting, until the rusted tips of the Golden Gate Bridge poke out above buildings and cloud to your left, and the entire city arranges itself around you, better than any virtual map could. You'll finally understand the confusing geography of San Francisco, how the multiple grid systems shuffle against each other, the dance of streets and hills. You'll note the physical relief of the landscape, from the smooth natural contours of the earth to the tall stubbed cluster of the financial district. The white buildings shine pristine in afternoon light, so that the entire city looks celestial. And all of it held by the water beyond.

From the peaks of the city, move to its edges: ride the Muni all the way through Sunset out to Ocean Beach, and watch the sun sink softly into the water. Everybody will stand motionless on the sand to watch, as if it's a drive-in movie. Colours will drift about and alter the look of the water, sand, and air. Deep sky blue, viridian, turquoise, champagne pink, peach, apricot, tiffany, pale indigo. To heighten the liminal magic, you have the beach's routine haze and majestic scale: the height of the waves, the sand's expanse, how the scene looks both stretched out and zoomed in, like so much of the American landscape.

* * *

Songs: month six

Fluorescent Adolescent  /  Arctic Monkeys
Get Lucky  /  Daft Punk
Wild World  /  Cat Stevens
Christmas in February  /  Lou Reed
Pacific Theme  /  Broken Social Scene
Stolen Dance  /  Milky Chance
Mother & Child Reunion  /  Paul Simon

* * *

California so far: