Saturday, January 14

Roll Bus Roll | Baltimore, MD (i)

Baltimore, Maryland: Charm City or dangerous drug hole, you decide. What you already know of Baltimore is made of other people's perceptions. You know it's one of America's most violent cities; but you don't know that Edgar Allan Poe lived there, is buried there. You know it's basically The Wire, but you don't know about how the sunset hovers over the water of the Inner Harbor. You know you can't roam streets the same way you're used to in London, but you don't know about the strings of colourful porch-lined houses that remind you of Portobello Road, the city's free bus service, Hampden with its hipster creameries and rainbow'd doorways, or the stately Peabody Library.

Baltimore, Washington DC's unpopular neighbour. Baltimore, where there's some streets you just don't walk down at night, at day, ever. Baltimore, sweltering summers and freeze-your-ass-off winters. Baltimore, home to great ice cream, the Baltimore Bomb pie, Papermoon diner, the beautiful Johns Hopkins campus, and a thriving local music and arts scene. Baltimore, you aren't so bad.

'Baltimore? Why?' My history professor is a little incredulous when he discovers I'm spending some of winter break in his home city. He later defends his turf. 'I'd move back there any time,' he tells me, amid recommendations for bars and museums. I trust him, but others are less charitable. On the plane from Oakland I talk with a Berkeley PhD student flying home for Christmas, who tells me about Maryland's beautiful undulating farmland, scenery which on a later bus ride reminds me strongly of Devon. 'Baltimore, though.' He pulls a face. 'I'm sorry you have to experience that.' But I decide to remain open minded. Future Islands, one of my favourite bands and proud Baltimoreans, staunchly defend their city. Keyboardist Gerritt Welmers describes it as an 'underdog city'. 'It's a terrifying place sometimes,' he says, 'but because it is that way I think it brings everyone together.'

Terrifying's a good word for my first few hours in Baltimore. The baggage takes its sweet time from plane to arrivals belt, and it's late evening when I eventually step out of the quiet airport to the light rail platform. The cold air is a fist on my chest. Though the cheapest airport-to-city transport I've ever experienced ($1.70 for a single fare, unlike Oakland International's steep $8 connection to the BART), the light rail is also the most nauseating; it twists unsteadily through a darkened landscape before plunging into the city. From the window I see icy sidewalks - it snowed recently - and steam buffeting from grates in the streets. There are boarded-up windows, and not many people about. A shadow here and there, on a street corner, hunched at a bus stop. I pull my bags tighter around me, remembering all the adjectives I've heard bestowed on the city: sketchy, violent, terrifying, cold.

The five minute walk between the rail station and the bus stop is kind of perilous. I'm in a quiet part slightly west of the city and apparently west is bad; it's dark; street lights are few and shadowed nooks plenty; I'm not sure where I'm going; and the ground is slippery white. I can't find the bus stop. I walk up and down the same block multiple times, something I really hoped I wouldn't end up doing. I'm lost on a bridge over the railway tracks in thick ice and there's nobody around except a homeless guy and a few people drifting in and out of bars. All of my valuables are on me. This is an interesting situation. Then suddenly a great lick of warm yellow light and the bus is here, and before I know it I'm up the road and safe inside Lizze's apartment.

California doesn't lend itself well to the kind of festive feeling I'm used to, but in these colder eastern climes Christmas is unavoidable. I cave, hard. Eggnog, pumpkin cookies, mulled wine, lights, decorations, shopping; the season is crammed into these last few days of December. Baltimore is bright and cold the day we catch the 'Charm City Circulator' - the city's free bus route - down to the water. Inner Harbor is a mix of high street stores, small malls, boats and bridges. I've heard there's a Shake Shack nearby. We wander the tented Christmas village and I buy woollen boot socks for Canada. The city's seasonal ice rink is small and sad compared to Somerset House, Union Square, Central Park, but as we skirt the water's edge the old industrial brick buildings glow brightly in the late afternoon sun. It's a long way out across the water to the Domino sugar factory the other side. I saw the giant red neon Domino sign from the light rail that first night.

By the time we've reached Fell's Point, dark is falling swiftly. I can't feel my fingertips. Fell's Point is pretty, lined with lights and bars. We buy the biggest bottle of wine to mull back in the apartment.

North of the city lies Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, a cosier student bubble buffered by Hampden, Wyman Park, Druid Hill Park, and the Baltimore Museum of Art. The campus is the opposite of Berkeley: the attractive red brick buildings all match, there are neat tree-lined quads,and it is very quiet. I later learn that this campus architecture is unusual for a historic American college: most were built in the 'Collegiate Gothic' style, unlike Hopkins, which is more attuned to its federal locality.

On long runs around the campus' surrounding neighbourhood I notice the buildings are older, a little more elegant. Neat terraces and larger detached houses with verandas and rolling lawns sit between patches of woodland and fields, and I'm reminded of middle-class villages in Surrey. It's calmer and grander here, and Hampden, home to unique shops, eateries, and local festivals, is well worth wandering. But there are still patches and streets you avoid. Like the Minesweeper game, venture too far north, south, east, west, and it doesn't feel so good.

The parks are pretty, though. I think of how the trees must've looked in autumn. We run in all conditions: black ice, mud, subzero temperatures, sun, snow. Circling Druid Lake one cloudless afternoon, my legs are completely numb, but all of Baltimore stretches away to my right, I've got saxophone playing in my ears, and this is the furthest distance I've ever run. It feels good.

Monday, January 2

California, month four | throw comfort out

How to describe the feeling of today? The pastel skies from sun up to sun down, the dirty-nailed blonde boy smoking a rollup next to the No Smoking sign outside the doctor's surgery, the coffee under dappled sunlight and the feeling of swaying along the city streets, the oppressing heat of the central line, how the saxophone in Jungleland rips open the song just as the tube rips out of the tunnel into the sunshine, the pub garden held so still by the sunlight and the foliage behind the beer drinkers, and that wonderful moment when you're midway through a pint and plunged blissfully in enjoyment, the talking and the laughing, the heat burning through the bus windows, cheers with plastic glasses of prosecco, and burritos on the grass and catching up, and the sun falling behind the trees, and how the sky was so clear and pink all the way home as the LED streetlights winked on, and that city feeling returning so strong.
Words written at the end of my last day in England, back in mid-August, a lifetime ago. Half of my Berkeley time has passed. I've been here forever, and I've been here five seconds.

Thanksgiving rings change in the air. At work we tattoo turkeys on the coffee lids and everybody heads home for the long weekend. The campus clears and cools, the leaves turn and fall; everything's winding down. Thanksgiving morning begins with sunshine. Vesa visits, and we sit in the warmth of the sixth floor balcony with bagels and coffee until the narrow strip of sunlight is eaten up by autumn shadow. The rest of the weekend is spent pretending to study, buying secondhand winter clothes, eating bad Chinese food, and walking along in the Mission in the rain, as Robert Hunter/Jerry Garcia once put it. I'm yet to try pumpkin pie.

My final history lecture ends on the rise of hip hip in the Bronx in the seventies, and Rapper's Delight. Coincidentally I listened to this song a lot at the start of the semester, after watching Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! three times in a row. It's a neat and strangely emotional end to a great semester.
'And guess what, America, we love you / Cause you rocked and a rolled with so much soul'
Sandwiched between the end of fall classes and finals week, 'Dead Week' is scheduled cramming time. The last three weeks of semester feel different to everything that came before. It all hits at once: papers, finals, Christmas, moving apartment, planning winter travels. It's as if I dropped my to-do list on the floor, it smashed into a thousand pieces, and I can't quite piece it all back together. That hackneyed John Green quote about falling in love 'slowly, then all at once' is annoying, but it describes this semester perfectly. Long sun-filled days, then after October, things get colder and faster. One professor tells us to treat ourselves right this week. 'When I'm so stressed I can't work,' he says, 'it doesn't mean I'm so stressed I can't go to a bar.'

It's a strange few days, like a 2D Mario World where all I can do is focus on the next obstacle looming on the right side of the screen. This world consists of my room, campus, and the stretch of sidewalk in between. Past the bank security guard, and the spectacled homeless man, who thrusts a Fat Slice Pizza paper cup under my nose for loose change. The library pulls me forward on a thread. Three papers, two exams, crisps and snacks for dinner most nights, and too much time under the harsh glare of the late-night lamps.

It rains a lot that week. The rain, the rain. Homeless men play chess in the downpour, under huge beat-up umbrellas. Occasionally, a passing train whistles repeatedly exactly as the campanile strikes the hour. I notice these sounds more when it is wet.

One mild December night I catch the bus into the city, to hear Maria Popova talk to the queen of my nerdy heart, Rebecca Solnit. They speak about Virginia Woolf, the election, hope in the dark, the tyranny of simplification, slowing down as an act of resistance, and how stories are instructions to us all. 

'The future is dark,' wrote Virginia Woolf in her diary in 1915, 'which is the best thing the future can be, I think.' Solnit explains why she has circled around this quote in her own writing: because optimism and pessimism always generate certainty, whereas uncertainty is the only place where hope can survive. Hope in the dark. 'Throw comfort out as a criteria,' Solnit advises us. 'When you're not comfortable, you're not learning or changing.'  

Now I am thinking about the final few days of fall semester, of gradually stripping my room back to its empty-prison-cell greys and creams. Of the final rush, skidding between packing, studying, and saying goodbye to friends. My roommate helps me clean, and plays Elvis as I fold clothes and rattle drawers. The Christmas lights along the wall are the final thing I take down. The books, clothes, Springsteen posters, and postcards from home all somehow transform into a small pile of bags. Zips bulge. My possessions have inevitably doubled themselves in the four months I've been here.

I'd expected to linger thoughtfully over these last weeks of semester, to sit in one of my favourite campus spots, listen to some songs and find some meaningful thing to say about it all. That doesn't happen. I'm too busy. It's unnerving after years of forcing my life to move very slowly, but at the same time, it's a good thing not to think too much.

Leaving Berkeley is hectic, but I step out of my apartment early on Saturday morning to head-clearingly cold blue air. I walk down to the subway station feeling like Llewyn Davis, laden with winter scarves and awkward bags. No ginger cat, though. On the sidewalks people load belongings into cars, or sit on suitcases waiting for a ride home. It's the first day of winter break, the first day of sun after days of dark rain, and everybody looks dazed. My bags take up two seats on the subway. I've been dreading getting them onto the plane, but I'm offered free checked baggage at Oakland airport and the whole process - checking in, security - is smooth. Americans are just better at flying, I guess.

I'm off to Baltimore and beyond.

Songs: month four

Lucky Town / Bruce Springsteen
Silly Me / Yeasayer
Rapper's Delight / The Sugar Hill Gang
A Whiter Shade Of Pale / Procul Harum
England / The National
Happy Birthday Guadalupe! / The Killers
It's Now Or Never / Elvis

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California so far: