Friday, November 22, 2013

Toto, We're Not in Salt Lake Anymore

We've been here three months, and in this short time several events have transpired to remind us that we are not in Salt Lake anymore.  People here ask us where we're from, and as soon as I say, "Salt Lake City," with a great big smile (how I do miss the place!), they respond, with a significant look, "Wow. BIG change."  They couldn't have said  it better.  (There was even that one time when the followup question was a conspiratorial, "Are you a Mormon?"  to which I wish I had whispered in response, equally as conspiratorially, "No. But are you a hippie?")

So, what are some big differences, you ask?  Here are a few we've found so far.  I must admit I am sad to report that the list does not include meeting any hippies, or even having one conversation with a dreadlocked member of society in which my conversant utters a "Whoa. Faaaar out, man," which before coming here I was really looking forward to.  Since we're not leaving til May, there's still time for me to amble up and down Telegraph Ave. calling, "Here, hippies, hippies, hippies!"

1. Quakes.  Within the first month of our arrival, we felt our first quake [Richter 3], which apparently wasn't notable enough to anyone but me, but nevertheless had me running to the store to stock up on emergency water the next day.  A week later, there was a second little rumble, which reminded me to stock up on candles, too, but nothing since then.

2. Diversity. Every newsletter, announcement, or email that comes home from school is accompanied by the Spanish translation on the back.  School presentations for parents, (e.g., "Kindergarten Orientation," etc.) are conducted in both Spanish and English.  And with a quick glance around the Rosa Parks playground, one can easily pick out at least five or six different ethnic backgrounds. This diversity means we spend a lot more time learning about "Dia de los Muertos," and other cross- and multicultural events.  And enjoy authentic tamales from the grocery store. Arriba!

3. Food.  OK, everyone likes food, and we have some truly awesome restaurants in Salt Lake, so difference here is not that they have better food here in Berkeley, but they have more of it.  And there is an obsession here with food that goes above and beyond what I would consider the norm. Berkeley is seeped in the culture of food, from the gardening and cooking classes offered in every public school, to the grocery stores devoted only to produce (e.g. Monterey Market) or fish (Tokyo Fish Market), to the internet foodie sites. Berkeley Yelp plays a central role in determining whether a business here, particularly a restaurant, dies or thrives. Yelp has made the consumer king, regardless of whether the consumer is fit to review a place or not (I've found that college kids tend to give great reviews to mediocre joints just because the food is cheap and plentiful, but they also don't hesitate to knock a place down if slighted by service the least little bit).  

There's also an obsession with healthy eating. For example, it's against the school rule to pack a lunch with a small chocolate treat in it. Gummy fruit snacks and juice boxes are also frowned upon. A mom shared some cookies on the playground with some kids after school and another mom chided, "Oh, I see you give in to that stuff."  The first mom said, "Yep, it's just who I am. I have a sweet tooth and I can't help it."  Chocoholic that I am, I liked her instantly, and delightedly accepted my cookie from her when she offered. 

The Berkeley Bowl, a grocery superstore that functions like an every day Farmer's Market (and do not doubt they have a Farmer's Market in various spots of Berkeley almost every day of the week, too, in case you need to eat your vegetables literally within minutes of them being plucked from the ground), carries a huge array organic and non-organic produce. Because of the sheer vastness of organic, non-GMO, pasture-raised, cage free produce offered, even a "quick" trip to this place can take upwards of two hours.  I have stood for several minutes in an aisle completely dedicated to different kinds of tofu, at a loss for what item to get.  "That place makes you grumpy," +Suresh has observed. Well, yes, after having devoted a whole fifteen minutes of my life to pondering the benefits of organic, vitamin-infused, silken or firm tofu, and then another significant chunk of time in front of the free range, cage free, pasture-raised, Omega-3 fatty acid eggs, and another in the produce section wondering what people do with banana flowers and how to prepare nopales, and then coming out of the store two hours later with just bread, milk and eggs (all organic, mind you), overwhelmed by choice, I am a little grumpy.

The intimidating Aisle of Tofu (Pictured: 1/3 of the aisle)

Banana flowers?
How do I eat banana flowers?
(Center, top shelf)
An item I'd never considered food before now.

4. Walking.  Berkeley is a walking town.  It's great to be able to walk to Semifreddi's Bakery in the morning for the crispy croissant or morning roll and coffee, to walk the kids to their pottery class at a lovely little studio run by a professional potter after school, to take a short bus ride to the public library, to walk to the pool.  Everyone walks, and it's a great town for doing it in.  The difficulty is having to constantly look out for walkers, whether they decide to take the crosswalk or not, while behind the wheel.  And parking: well, let's just say I figure in an extra 15 minutes for any trip with the car just for circling around looking for a space on the street.

5. Start-ups and the competitive culture. When we first moved to Berkeley, both boys told me they'd like to continue piano lessons while we were here, so I immediately started searching craigslist for a piano.  We didn't need anything fancy, just something that had all 88 keys and could hold tune.  I soon found one, and after paying the owner a small deposit to hold it for us, scheduled piano movers to pick it up at a time and date compatible with the owner's schedule.  On the day of the move, I got a call from the owner, saying that he's very sorry but his company just got bought, and he's stuck in San Francisco helping to broker the deal.  Could we reschedule? Of course, I said, and texted him with alternative times and dates. After an entire week of texting back and forth with both him and the movers, and not finding a single time when he'd be home to meet the movers, we finally decided I should just get my deposit back and try again with someone else.  Where else but the Bay Area do we say, "I'm so sorry, I can't make your such and such appointment, because my company just got bought" !?  It's a fun line, and darned if I'm not going to try it sometime.  

There's a up side to being in Start Up Land, of course, and that is that nearly everyone here is fluent in internet, email, Facebook and the like. Heck, most people have their own websites, whether they own a company or not.  The downside, of course, is instability. Start ups have this nasty habit of going up and down, appearing and disappearing, thriving and failing when you least expect them to.  It means, usually, both parents have to work, and work long hours, to afford the astronomical mortgage and costs of having a family here. It means stiff competition for after school programs. It means newcomers are treated not with open, welcoming arms, but with a slight wariness, a friendliness-at-a-distance, because you, too, may come and go, appear and disappear, and in the meantime, you're just here competing with the locals for limited (organic) resources. It means that despite the near-perfect weather, the gorgeous view by the Bay, the immense cultural richness and diversity we have to celebrate here, there is the ubiquitous undercurrent of stress. A great deal of stress.  [Don't just take my word for it:  Here's what some locals said in response to KQED's poll, What Do You Give Up to Live in the Bay Area?]

I am grateful to be here experiencing the richness and the vibrancy, the energy and the beauty. And I am also grateful that I have a home in the Wasatch Mountains, a place of peace and grace, and deep friendships, to return to.


  1. I had a lot of banana flower curry when I was a kid and I loved it:

  2. Oooh. Thanks, Parasaran! And this one from the same site looks tempting too:

    1. Vadai involves deep frying which I try to refrain from :)