Monday, September 19

California, month one | in and out of the game

Four weeks ago I moved from London to California. Life here has settled down enough to be able to watch the American sun get swallowed up by dusk and streaky northern fog, and wait for the tiny rainbow lights of the Thai place on the street below to blink awake. Down towards the bay, that great body of water that nods at you from the ends of sloped streets and campus paths, the sky is turquoise and orange. Purple clouds skim up the darkening hillside. Evening falls so fast here.

I live in California now. Misty early mornings, giving way to steady sun every day. (The rainy season will come, I've been told.) I drink iced coffee. I walk to class. I study Whitman and Dickinson, and ecofeminism, and the history of New York City. I'm mocked for my accent. I cling to those words that make me British: quid, lift, module, bin, trainers, trousers, loo, pavement, you're welcome. And then one day I find myself saying elevator, and I feel half-annoyed at letting go of my identity, and half-excited that my identity has started to reach out and grasp this new home.

There are some lines of Whitman's that have taken hold of me. He says,
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it. 
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it. This is exactly how I've been feeling! Because it's as if some random force has picked me up and carried me along the air like a flying carpet, dropping me down in California. I'm not quite sure how I got here, or why. Have I come on holiday by mistake, like Withnail?

I spent the whole summer simultaneously unable to think about nothing but the trip, and unable to think about the trip itself at all. I felt strangely separate to the passing of time. So when I suddenly find myself in Berkeley, I am there and I am not there. A participant and an observer, planning and stalling, active and passive.

For the first two weeks I wander the campus and surrounding streets, looking looking looking, trying to root myself to this new place. It's not that I'm unhappy, or violently homesick, as I've been in the past. The sensation is more like I'm a puff of air, blowing about Berkeley, wisping circles under the sun, lingering in classrooms and cafes and dorm rooms, feeling as if I might blow away again any second. I want to be more substantial, be tied down to the Californian earth. I'm trying to avoid a redwood metaphor here, but when I walk past a cluster of them near the creek on the western side of campus, I have no choice but to stop and watch them stand there, so fixed, so knowing, so comfortable. To stand next to these redwoods gives me a slight sense of connectedness, as if through proximity and osmosis I can absorb some of their physical confidence and belonging.

There are so many little details of this new life I’m already forgetting: the sound of skateboards gliding down my sloped street in the early hours, the homeless guy who says 'hey sis! Like your boots!’ every time I walk by, the stolen jalapeƱos, the old lady in the college cafe who knows everybody’s order ('no bagel today, Lana?’), the cool of the fog before dawn and after dusk, the campanile striking the hour, the squeak of the road crossings, the broad fresh-bark sweep of campus.

In the bathroom of a Haight coffee shop in my fourth week here I see graffitied the line, ‘in this moment, I am happy with myself’. Most of the time I still have to drop the last two words but I can say that in this moment, I am happy. 

A whole week of happiness, actually. Sitting in fairy-lit bars drinking expensive wine; cuddling dogs; climbing the Sather Tower, hiking hills to sit on a swing and look over the whole of the bay; introducing friends to Frances Ha; catching a bus into the city and roaming the Mission District, where I eat the best burrito and visit the best bookshop. A solo adventure across the whole of the states to Philadelphia to a Springsteen show, the most independent thing I have ever done. Holding Bruce's hand again, being recognised, sort of, by him. Holding his hand. Holding his hand. Dancing in the dark in 38 degree heat with fireworks and the sweat-jewelled faces of new Bruce friends. Realising my deep unshakeable love for eastern US cities. Roaming with friends in hot city heat. Eating chips at 10pm, talking about life. Seeing state after state unfold beneath me on the flight home. Signing up as a volunteer at a radio station and feeling like I never belonged so much. Just happy.

In fact, those plane journeys to and from Philly, alone, free, an entire continent at my feet, exploring the places I've longed to see, and that fleetingly special moment with Springsteen: all this triggers a kind of happiness that I haven't felt in a long, long time. Is this what growing up really feels like? Not stepping into the predictable, dreaded shoes of adulthood, but finally finding a space that makes you feel as happy as you did that time when you were sixteen, lying on your bed after your last GCSE exam, windows wide, soft summer rain outside, Gimme Shelter starting up on the radio, a whole world of promises waiting for you.

I know this happiness won’t last. The winter, though mild, is coming. My tan will fade, the junk food will catch up with me, and the post-Bruce blues will hit (edit: they've hit). I have a paper due and a big big hole in my savings. Laundry to do. Money to earn. Notes to catch up on. Midterms looming. 

'Playing a show brings a tremendous amount of euphoria,' Springsteen said, 'and the danger of it is, there’s always that moment, comes every night, where you think, Hey, man, I’m gonna live forever! You’re feeling all your power. And then you come offstage, and the main thing you realize is "Well, that’s over." Mortality sets back in.' 

Mortality will set back in. But Springsteen’s heading to the west coast in three weeks and his autobiography’s coming out, and I love my classes the same way I love late night hot chips after hours of dancing, i.e. voraciously, and there's time ahead in the radio station music library, thumbing the rows of vinyl, and in San Francisco’s record stores and thrift shops, and there'll be club runs, an election all-nighter, halloween parties, movie nights, another ear piercing, band t-shirts to wear, and a half-marathon to run. 

America makes me feel more 'me' than I ever have. I think about how I was, back home, and I feel like I’ve cast off those chains, that I’ll never go back, and yeah. I’m happy about that.

Songs: month one

Going Away To College  |  Blink 182
Noisy Heaven | Beach Slang
Wheels  |  Restless Heart
Putting My Tomorrows Behind  |  Daniel Norgren
Take It Easy Baby  |  The Animals
Hard Travelin'  |  Woody Guthrie
Trapped  |  Bruce Springsteen
Rock & Roll  |  The Velvet Underground
Sweet Soul Music  |  Arthur Conley
From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)  |  Bruce Springsteen
Gold  |  John Stewart
Driver's Seat  |  Sniff 'n' the Tears
My Sharona  |  The Knack
Domino  |  Van Morrison
Every 1's A Winner  |  Hot Chocolate

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