Sunday, October 16

California, month two | the dust settles

Dusk on the Berkeley campus, 6.30pm, mid-October. Classes are over for the day and students stream from buildings, a steady drift of backpacks, cropped denim, scarves over shoulders. The air is pink and clear. It feels cold after weeks of Indian summer heat.

Maybe it's this first freshness of autumn - the translucent dusk, the realisation I might need a jumper from now on - that's triggered a feeling of my head clearing, leaving behind the hot easy joy of summer for more practical thoughts. This is my year, here. My life in Berkeley isn't permanent, but it's not short-term either. The season is finally turning, but I've settled into rhythms based around sunshine, reading what I want, planning travels, being more selfish than usual, leaping from one exciting thing to the next. This cooler air is altogether more serious: it whispers, 'the high won't last', 'make plans', 'stop, think'. I'm not sure I like it.

My parents both lived abroad in their twenties, in Australia, France, Spain. Mum recalls the nostalgia of booking travel with Trailfinders. I tell Dad about the ongoing Californian drought and the need to save water. 'That's what it was like in Spain,' he says. 'We only had seven hours of running water a day!'

The situation here isn't quite so drastic; or maybe it is, but try telling privileged Americans they can't have running water whenever they want. I was warned Berkeley would be wet, yet it only rains once during these first two months here. I wake to a sense of familiarity that takes a while to place. A faint sound, like waking on grey school mornings in England, of raindrops tapping windows. The slate tiles of the building opposite are slick-dark with water. The shower is light and brief, but what it lacks in force, it makes up for in scent; the odour of wetted air, strong and salty like the sea, or the dampness after a heavy summer thunderstorm.

The weekend I put this post together, though, I get my first proper rain; a steady, lingering, London kind. Soggy leaves in gutters, damp cool to the bones, empty wet benches, hair plastered to my face. The degree of waterproofing on others is astonishing: more umbrellas than I've ever seen in London, rubber hats, wellies, enormous jackets. 'It's because it hardly ever rains here,' a friend explains. 'We get excited to wear all our rain stuff.'

One afternoon I catch the BART into the city with Born To Run, Springsteen's newly-released autobiography, under my arm. I step off at Civic Center. A farmers market draws crowds of locals and tourists to the nearby orange-leaved street. Flags from city buildings ripple in the clear sky. I head a few blocks down to the Hayes Valley 'hood, where I get coffee, pace about in the rapidly cooling air. If Hayes Valley was in London it'd be Notting Hill; clean quiet streets, awning, fairy lights, pristine minimalist clothes shops, Four Barrel coffee, fancy bookstores, hipsters walking dogs. Of course I bloody like it. But I feel uncomfortable. Up until as recently as the eighties it was one of the city's worst ghettos. The scent of gentrification runs heavy in the air here. Good coffee and photogenic sidewalks don't really make up for that.

A group of us congregate at the back entrance of the theatre where Springsteen will be talking tonight, in hope of witnessing his arrival. I'm freezing cold and desperate for a wee, and yet I stand there for an hour, rocking on the kerb, eyes on the road. It's ridiculous. He's already inside the building.

The house lights darken, the stage expectant. The woman next to me hyperventilates with excitement, clutches my arm. 'Ohmygodohmygod,' she says. I know the feeling. It's funny to see Springsteen walk onto an ornate theatre stage instead of a cable-clad stadium stage, but as he does, the entire room rises up in ecstasy.

Even the way Springsteen sits in the grandad armchair is cool. He talks about Moby Dick, Kendrick Lamar, and how physical exhaustion stops you from rooting around in the weeds for that stupid thing your mind wants to torment itself over. Occasionally he reads passages from his book. The first time, there is a sheepish pause: 'I left my reading glasses in the car!' Somebody at the side of the stage lends him a pair. 'Ah, these'll do.' To hear his rugged New Jersey baritone breathe life into the words I've been visually inhaling all week is more than a treat. It feels intimate and important, a perfect welcome to the city.

When Springsteen leaves the stage we rush to the back entrance - a shiny black car appears - a window slips down - he's inside, calling out 'thank you!' - his face so close - smiling out at us for a brief second, until the car is mobbed by men demanding autographs and girls demanding selfies. The car gets stuck at a red light and a stampede rushes out into the street amid exasperated horns. The sidewalks, jammed with fans, catch on to his presence, and his car turns the corner onto Hayes Street serenaded by hundreds of voices shouting 'Brooooce'.

I head back to the BART station tingling. You really start to feel part of a city when you walk its streets at night, on your way home from somewhere or to somewhere else. Everyone on the BART platform clutches a copy of Born To Run, as if we've all just been to a convention of some religious cult. Which in a way, we have.

I cast half an eye over the presidential debates, a little bit curious but mostly just sick of the airtime given to that sniffling, rancid wotsit. Everyone's watching though. I hear his nasal trumpeting from the tv outside the laundry room, and cheers for Clinton from the reception desk where the assistant on duty gazes at his laptop over a bento box.

There's another home game: Cal Bears vs Utah Utes. I know this from the plethora of yellow, blue,  red and white along Telegraph on Saturday morning. I've learned to avoid the student bars on game days, and the pep rallies are no longer a novelty. As an unpatriotic Brit I can't quite get my head around college spirit, until I remember what I'm like at Springsteen shows, or when Federer plays, or my obsession aged fourteen with the Italian national football team. Other international students revel in these college life cliches - red cups, frat houses, team colours - and it's probably partly why they came to America, and that's just as worthy an experience. But for me this side of college life feels like an extension of my experiences back home. I'm more interested in college counterculture; even more interested in the country beyond the campus. College is a funnel for my interests, a means of path-finding.

One Friday lunchtime a 'three-alarm' blaze in a church on my street chokes the air with alarms, choppers, and curious folk. It is the biggest fire I've witnessed first-hand. Hoses and ladders surround the building as the smoke churning up into the sky grows thicker and darker in its centre, paling out over the nearby streets and buildings. It picks up the soft pastels of the Californian air, turning pink, blue and orange as it spreads.

After holding the germs at arms length during a busy week, I spend a weekend sick. On Sunday afternoon I sit outside at Cafe Strada, take it easy in the Californian sunshine with the Springsteen cover issue of Rolling Stone and Greil Marcus' Mystery Train for company. The latter is the perfect book for me right now (and I'm excited to discover he's taught at Berkeley, and lives here too). In his prologue, Marcus writes:

'Since roots are sought out and seized as well as simply accepted, cultural history is never a straight line; along with the artists we care about we fill in the gap ourselves. When we do, we reclaim, rework, or invent America, or a piece of it, all over again.'

This is a bit like what my English professors have been explaining to us about T.S. Eliot and Prufrock and historical tradition; about how when you add to the conversation of history, you automatically change, or rework, every single thing that has come before. And though Eliot ran away from young America, more interested in the older poetic archive, he still became part of American history, simply by way of being American. He sought roots in England, in the classics, in the historical archives themselves, but his American heritage can't ever be erased, only accepted. I'm the opposite of Eliot: running away from England (understandable, given the current state of the things there) to seek out roots in America.

I think about the states, cities, and coastlines I'm knitting into my identity by way of both geography and culture. In spending a year of my life in northern California I become a little bit part of this area. But pieces of me are slowly fusing with other parts of the continent, too, through my love of the cultural significances they hold. California again for the summer aged seventeen when I lingered over The Grapes of Wrath, feeling every grain of dust road under my fingers. New York City, which for reasons unknown has become the 'someplace else' of my dreams and desires. The eastern seaboard in general: Boston, Philadelphia, the Jersey Shore (for Springsteen, of course, and the bands, bars and beaches in his orbit). Wisconsin, and then the prairie lands, for my endless rereading of the Little House books as a child, fascinated by the idea of living in untamed territory, and how despite the bears, Red Indians and yellow fever, the life of the Ingalls seemed more orderly than my own twentieth-century working-class suburban existence. The Deep South, for the gothic novels of Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor and Truman Capote, and where out of the hot swampy land arose the early strains of rock and roll music. I write a list titled 'Dream Gigs For This Year': Springsteen in Philadelphia, The Killers in Vegas, The Gaslight Anthem in New Jersey, Future Islands in Baltimore, The National in NYC, to name a few. I've already ticked one off.

'The smell of eucalyptus bark and high grasses, that uniquely California smell, surrounded me and reminded me that I was a young traveler in a strange land,' Springsteen writes in his autobiography. 'It felt good.'

It's definitely cold, the sky purpling, so I join the homeward current of students. At the edge of campus the hare-krishna hippy has begun his evening shift: he will stand there and dance to his repetitive metal castanet song late into the night. A vegetable stall on the sidewalk offers 'ugly' rejected produce. Students slip in and out of Walgreens for snacks and cold remedies. The smell of Subway lingers in the air. On Bancroft, traffic crawls west towards the sun setting over the bay.

When adventure is a year long, you settle into that state of adventure. It becomes the norm. Your stomach doesn't leap the same way it did when you first stepped off the plane. Your heart don't beat the way it used to, to paraphrase The Killers. The Facebook messages and texts dwindle because the actual moment of change has passed. You're here now, and you have your room keys and your routine, the shops you frequent for bread and coffee, the same faces in the gym, the streets you take without thinking. You're a local and a traveller at the same time, so inevitably you feel like neither.

It isn't homesickness or culture shock, in fact almost the opposite. Daily life here feels more like home than it should. So maybe it's a kind of displacement, instead; a need to stop and take stock of my situation, remind myself why I'm here, and what I want to do before I leave. That I'm not here to settle down. Or that maybe I am, one day.

In Mystery Train, Marcus writes about 'an impulse to freedom, an escape from restraints and authority that sometimes seems like the only really American story there is.' It feels like this impulse to freedom might come to define my own American story, too.

Songs: month two

You're Not Good Enough / Blood Orange
West Coast / Coconut Records
Restless Nights / Bruce Springsteen
Don't Change / INXS
Hot Tramps / Beach Slang
You Can't Judge A Book By Its Cover / The Castiles
Give Up / American Wrestlers
Take It Easy (Ever After Lasting Love) / White Denim
Jinx Removing / Jawbreaker
Hand In Hand / Dire Straits
Your Best American Girl / Mitski
Handwritten / The Gaslight Anthem

*    *     *

You can read about my first month in California here: California, month one | in and out of the game

1 comment:

  1. Loved this. My friend, Fiona, stayed in France a few years ago and said that it wasn't until she'd been there about 3 weeks that it started to really sink in: I'm not here on holiday. I'm living here. I'm staying here for a year. And it was kind of disorienting as well as exciting - sounds a bit similar to what you're going through. Hope it ends up being a great year. What an adventure for you. So many good details for you to soak in and store up.

    ~ Melissa