California Dreaming is California Living

Our first dinner party at Maya's house

Our first dinner party at Maya's (2nd to left) house

Despite all my ranting about UC Berkeley in my previous blog, I am (otherwise) getting the most welcome arrival otherwise possible. I have a handful of really good friends that I have known for a long time living in the east bay area, and all of them have contributed to taking care of me and helping me out in ways I could never ask for.

After I first got out here with my family, I was very unprepared. I didn’t have housing or transportation lined up (UC students get free bus passes, but not UC exchange students – go figure), but my friend Misha happens to always have 1 to 4 extra cars lying around not being used, so I scored the jackpot with a little 1986 BMW 325. She’s not that pretty, but complete with leather seats, automatic windows and a sunroof, so the fact that she has no second gear isn’t a big deal. Misha also let me stay at his beautiful Danville home, complete with a pool in the backyard, until I found housing closer to Berkeley campus.

My quasi-roommate from first year university, Maya, who lives in a quaint neighbourhood called Montclair in the Oakland Hills, was my second saving grace. Her parents had moved to Tahoe for the season and she welcomed company in her family’s big, empty house that she was now living in alone. So, we are back to being roommates, with a much more upgraded living situation than Totem Park dorm rooms from UBC. We have a beautiful patio, a big, hilly backyard, and of course a hammock to do some productive reading on.

There are countless others who have facilitated my adjustment to a new city and a new campus; also mentionable is Michael, a friend who enjoys pianos almost as much as me, so when i discovered a free piano that I unfortunately found out would never make it up Maya’s 44 stairs, he took it to his house instead and swapped me loaning privileges to his electronic keyboard so I can still play music.

I should also mention my two supervisors at UC Berkeley; one from the tourism department, and the other from the Environmental Policy & Management dept, who are going to pretty much write my thesis for me, with all their knowledge, weekly meetings and directing me through the graduate academia world I feel so hopelessly lost in. Otherwise, I feel I’m finally fitting into place in my new sunny home of California. I’ve had my first few visitors come stay with me, and acted as the ‘local’ tour guide, so hopefully I’ll get to know this place as intimately as others from around here by the time I leave.

Fly Fly Away!

how do those thousand ton machines actually float in mid air anyway?

How do those thousand ton machines actually float in mid air anyway?

Language is basically a facet of communication, a way to express our thoughts, but it’s often been said that language is a limitation to thought. Language is constantly in flux, with new words being created or borrowed within the thousands of existing languages. Words are often closely related, either because of meaning or etymological history.

Think about the words we use for flying: fly, flights, etc. Its a verb, an adverb or adjective, a noun… but then we have a different name for things that fly, like airplane or helicopter. Similarily, in French, ‘voler’ is to fly, ‘vol’ a flight, (vuelo in spanish) and ‘avion’ an airplane in both French and Spanish. In other languages, flight and planes are much closer related words, where the title of an object that flies is clearly built on the word ‘to fly’. In Icelandic, fljuga is the verb to fly (flug is the noun), and a plane is simply a ‘flugvel’, loosely translated as ‘flight-engine’. In German, an airplane is a ‘flugzeug’, and a flight is ‘flucht’. Further eastern european countries lose the resembling ‘flyvning,’ ‘flygning’ or ‘vlucht’ of Indo-European languages, and in Latvian, airplane is lidmaš?nu, and flight is lidojumu, with Finnish meeting somewhere in the middle between the nordic and slavic languages with airplane said as ‘lentokoneeseen,’ and flight as ‘lennon.’

Etymologically speaking, the word ‘flight’ is said to have originated from low German ‘fleugan’ (circa 1300’s), and was first used to describe skittish horses and then defined as “an instance of flight,” as in ballooning. Before the Wright brothers came around with airplanes, flight really was a supernatural event, which only winged animals and insects could partake, but who could have know that today, millions of people and planes fly in the air every day, defying the laws of gravity and even reaching the frontiers of space!

Black Rock City and Burning Man

the Man

the Man

Many people have heard of the art festival Burning Man, but those who haven’t gone often have a wrong impression of it. Most people that knew I went asked “isn’t everything free there, like alcohol?” and “aren’t you going to do so many drugs there?!” Others comment on the fairies, hippies, glowing night life and raves that go on, while others try to understand where it is (in the middle of a desert, a former lake bed) and how a temporary city of 60,000 survives there for 8 days. What I went to Burning Man for was first and foremost for the art and artistic expression (it is, after all, an art festival), and also to explore a new environment, both natural and cultural.

The set up of burning man camp is circular: a clock where 12 noon has a temple, the centre of the clock is the Man, 6 o’clock is central camp, and around the circumference from 2 to 10 are camps. The art is all around you; the big circle of the clock has the major, large, installation art works, and camps all around are decorated to a theme. The only automobiles that are allowed to drive around camp are ‘art cars,’ and people themselves are walking art pieces covered in dust, fur, glowy stuff and costume.

The mentality of Black Rock City is unlike any other ‘real’ city in the world; people love, trust, respect and share almost unconditionally (with everyone), with the underlying philosophies of burning man being about self-expression, inclusion, communal effort, civil responsibility, participation, gifting, and leave-no-trace (garbage is affectionately called MOOP, an acronym for matter-out-of-place).

Self reliance and decommodification are other major themes of burning man; you are meant to bring enough food, water, shelter and first aid to survive one week in a harsh desert environment, and the selling of ANYTHING is prohibited (a barter/exchange economy exists through the notion of gifting).

My personal experience of Burning Man was a surreal journey through self exploration, literally and figuratively speaking, where the art, camps and people I met at Burning Man all contributed an invaluable piece to an overall wonderful, unforgettable experience. There is definitely nowhere else on earth you can go and have a similar experience, and explaining it to people is almost a waste of time because its one of those things you cannot truly imagine or have expectations of until you go there and experience it yourself.

Word of advice: Go to Burning Man 2010.

3 Ways to Get Lost in a Major City

San Fransisco Trolley with the Bay Bridge in the background

San Fransisco Trolley with the Bay Bridge in the background

Whenever I visit great cities, like London or New York, it’s overwhelming how much there is to do and see in one place in too little time. Arriving in east bay California means I’m only 20 minutes away from San Fransisco, a fairly small city (in square km’s), but still offering a lot to explore. I’ve come up with a few little things I like to do (instead of reading guide books and calendars of events) to fill my time.

First, don’t carry any sort of map. Just use your well-travelled self to have a good enough sense of direction to find your way back to where you started. Just make sure you never look too lost, to avoid every nice person coming up to you and asking “are you lost? Can I help you find something?” since, you should have no idea what you’re looking for.

Then, walk in the direction that your senses pull you, and when you get to an intersection, turn in the direction you feel like. Whatever looks prettier, smells yummier, or sounds more interesting, go there. Get off the shopping streets and walk through some neighbourhoods, wander through an industrial area, or even end up in a poorer section of town to see the not-so-touristy picture perfect images of a city.

Finally, try and take a random bus/metro/trolley a few stops in an unkown direction, without asking any questions…try to blend in and act like a local, and get in a little bit of people watching. Just get off when you feel like it, or when most of the other people get off. Just make sure you know how much bus fare is and have exact change, or else everyone will still know you’re that lost tourist 🙂

Basically, try and get totally lost, and along the way, you will discover all sorts of treasures and surprises a lonely planet would have never predicted.

UC Berkeley, my disenchanted dream

Me, mom and older sister Kristjana at the UC Berkeley entrance gates

Me, mom and older sister Kristjana at the UC Berkeley entrance gates

I have always wanted to go to UC Berkeley, and my third time around, I got in. I applied both to an undergrad program, and last year to an LLB program, and finally, as an exchange student from my current master’s program at the University of Iceland. This time, to my relief , I finally got in without having to pay their horrendous tuition since I’m just there on exchange. However, this “free” exchange has cost a lot of time, money and energy.

It began back in April, when I first got my acceptance letter. It was 12 pages long, outlining all the paperwork, procedures and fees I would have to complete before my arrival. First, I needed to get my student visa. The Berkeley office had to prepare some fancy form called DS-2019 for my to even be eligible to apply for the visa, and to get them to process that I first had to prove financial security of $1600/month (since Im forbidden to work under my student visa) for the 5 months I would be in California (what grad student has $8000 in their savings account halfway through a masters program?). Then I needed 2×2 inch passport photos scanned into digital format at an exact resolution; also, reference letters from employers or professors, tax slips, and/or proof of family ties outside of the USA so they believed I wasn’t trying to seek refuge in California. Finally, I needed health care that met the US department of State’s standards (now we all know what an issue health care is in the US) and since my coverage for repatriation of remains is $5000 instead of their minimum $7500 with my health insurance in Canada, I’ll probably need to buy the ridiculously overpriced healthcare the campus offers now that I’ve arrived.

Once I got that special DS-2019, I had to pay a SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) fee for $180 US, then direct deposit $131 US visa fee into a Scotiabank (which, doesnt actually exist outside of North America, a slight problem when you are an International Exhange student), pay $8 cdn to schedule a visa appointment at the embassy to apply for the visa, spend 6 hrs in their dark, silent, surveilled office without any guarantee it would be processed, and then come back 3 days later and wait in an hour line to pick up my passport (at which point I found out I did get the VISA).

Upon my safe arrival to Berkeley, my first orientation consisted of a small welcome, alot of forms (one legal document which waives my rights to any ideas or inventions I may have during this semester to be the full property of UC Berkeley), and $410US (payable in cash only) for that one page, good old DS-2019. I now owe $200 for my “registration fee”, even though they informed us at the orientation meeting that exchange students are NOT registered Cal students, nor do we have any recognised status as UC students for campus benefits like bus passes or gym admission. That also means I cant register for classes online, and will have to run around all week to actual class rooms, begging professors to let me audit their already full classes. I won’t get a transcript at the end of all this either, so let’s hope I actually get credit at all for the work I’ve put into realising my Berkeley dream. Moral of the story: It’s a lot easier to travel to California as a tourist than a student. Try to avoid “researching scholar’ student visas to the US unless you’ve got plenty of time and money to waste!