The Bay, a home away from home

I took a sketchy craigslist rideshare from Hollywood to San Francisco, and only realized half way that the couple driving me were on their way to the Iceland vs. Mexico soccer game in San Jose. I nearly blew my plans to join them, but had a special invite to a ´play´ party that I couldn´t miss.

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San Fran´s cable cars

I based myself in San Francisco for the weekend, the city itself, which is rare for my bay visits. I studied at Berkeley, once lived in Oakland, and usually stayed with friends in Walnut Creek or Danville. Now a handful of UBC friends live in San Fran, Alameda and San Leandro, so that’s where I bounced around for a week.

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my adopted family and hounds for the week

It´s getting rare to sleep on couches anymore, because my friends are all grown up, figuring life out with their families and houses with guest bedrooms. Our conversations revolved around pregnancies, children, home remodeling, gardening and the bowel movements of pets. I became a live-in au pair for Maya, whose 34 week belly made her less inclined to do house chores or walk the dog. We did manage to do some pregnant yoga, bake and cook a ton and I squeezed a whole lot of lemons and oranges into delicious, fresh, vitamin C rich juice.

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at the Stefan/Mane/Isabelle household for brunch

My friends Stefan and Mane bought a house in Alameda, where they´re waiting for their second miracle to enter the world. Their first daughter Isabelle is quite possibly the cutest kid I´ve seen – I totally understand the desire to make another one. We spent day on the beach flying the biggest, highest kite I´ve flown, and when everyone was busy working, We ate Ethiopian food in Berkeley for Maya´s mother´s birthday and drank patio beers at MadOak on the first hot, summer night of the year. I took a brewery tour on a pedal bike around Alameda, finally figuring out that I may be allergic to hops, not anything flour or gluten related.

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flying kites at Alameda beach

I reconnected with a couchsurfer I met traveling in Albania in 2016, first for coffee and an overpriced kimchi croissant (only in Frisco), and a night out in the city. A friend Billy was throwing a party to celebrate his self-proclaimed entry into a degenerate lifestyle, after quitting his cush job at Google and buying twenty people food and drinks at a speak easy bar called Bourbon & something. We had the ´Russel Room,´ hidden behind a rotating wall disguised as a bookshelf on one side, and a cigar cupboard on the other, and made way to an art-deco room that looked like a movie set, but was clearly authentically original, complete with its pre-Vegas Chihuly chandelier.

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Easter Sunday hike

My main goals in California were to eat plenty of In n Out, animal style, and shop at all or any Trader Joe´s that I saw. We hiked thru some red woods and poison ivy, discovered that the Oakland Zoo is not pet-friendly, and I assisted in a photo shoot with two Jess´s for maternity wear being modeled by Maya. Ironically enough the photographer Jess was also pregnant, and I started to wonder how much exposure I could have to pregnant women before being bit by the mommy gene. Fortunately for me, I´m now even more positive I never want to be pregnant, since everyone else seems to do it so much better than I ever could.

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Photo Highlight: Iceland in the heart of Berkeley

a slightly confusing sign locating Iceland in the middle of Berkeley, California

this ice-skating rink closed a few years ago, but back in its good old days (circa 40's to 60's) was a popular place no-one would have predicted to become abandoned to graffiti artists

Berkeley's Best Kept Secrets

Even though I lived in Berkeley an entire semester last year, it would take years of living here just to visit every neighbourhood, try every type of cuisine, and experience all the amazing arts and culture the city has to offer. Some of my favourite parts of Berkeley include all the fresh produce, organic food culture and farmers markets that allow you to buy locally. Berkeley Bowl and Berkeley’s Farmers Market (all organic on Thursdays on Shattuck @ Rose) are the best examples I can think of.

lots of locally grown, organic goodies

This time around, I discovered three little Berkeley gems I had never really heard of before, and definitely never been to. The first was Strawberry Canyon Pool, which sits behind UC Berkeley Campus a little up past the football stadium on the Berkeley Hills. Its an amazing 6 lane pool perfect for swimming laps, has a deep end section where you can just splash around if you prefer, and is exposed to direct sunlight with a green lawn to lay out and tan if you please. The best part is its surrounded by trees, free for Berkeley student, but still open to the general public for a few dollars.

Strawberry Canyon pool

Strawberry Canyon pool

If you keep going a little further up the Berkeley Hills, right behind campus is Tilden Regional Park, a huge, green, forested space with miles of trails, wild cougars, and a beautiful, swimmable lake. There are endless possibilities for hikes, picnic areas and even camping, and this all exists only minutes away (by bus, car, or even ambitious road bikers) from downtown Berkeley.

Tilden Regional Park

The last place I want to mention is certainly the most magical place, but one whose location I cant exactly give out. Among an in-group of Berkeley women, this place called the Essex Hot Tub exists, which is a private hot tub circa 112`F degrees in someones backyard. It sits in a secluded area sort of under the house, with a change room and shower built into the house, and opens to a backyard with lots of trees and lounging area (including a hammock) for you to sprawl out. The only unspoken rules are that since this is  a place for rest and relaxation, no-one can talk, and even though its not a rule, almost everyone goes naked and men can only visit if escorted by a lady companion. Getting the code to the locked door into the yard is the only tricky part, but thanks to a tango dancing friend, I only had to figure out where it was and go.

American College Football

me hugging Oski, the California Bears Mascot

me hugging Oski, the California Bears Mascot

I attended my first college football game here at Cal (short for the University of California at Berkeley) where the California Golden Bears played the Oregon State Beavers in their second-to-lastlast home game. Unfortunately, it did not go so well, with their main quarterback suffering a serious fall (leading to a stretcher carry-out and a concussion)  and the final score being 31-14 for Oregon. Their last home game was a close call, but victory against Arizona came with a 24-16 final score. Next weekend they play their second-to-last last season game, against Stanford, a long standing rivalry of theirs. Even day-to-day on campus, all students express fierce competition with Stanford on every level (other varsity sports, academically, socially), and Stanford recently won a game against USC (the University of Southern California) by 55-21, one of the biggest margins ever.

Since the Cal Golden Bears are ranked 25th and Stanford is ranked 17th (BCS Standings as of Nov 15), there is a lot of pressure on Cal, and fans here are tough; during my first game, I was sitting in the stadium, and after the end of the third quarter, more than 25% of the fans had just left, knowing the game was already lost. Halfway through the last period, you could see on the televised versious of the game that the stadium was more than half empty, and the only section still full and cheering was the Oregon fanbase. It seems harsh for that many fans to turn their backs on you after a rough game, but, those people come to see them win, not lose.

It was still a really cool experience; the Cal stadium is up on the top of the slight hill that Berkeley campus sits on, with a view of San Francisco from the top of it. At night time, it is lit up with so many white lights that you can see it glowing from accross the bay. It is the largest football stadium in California according to its 72,000 seating capacity (which fills almost every sold-out game); being in a crowd that big for the most beloved sport of Americans was definitely an experience I couldnt miss out on, especially since I myself am now a ‘bear’ – an affectionate term for Berkeley Students.

Autumn in Berkeley

Berkeley Clock Tower in AutumnToday is the first day of rain I’ve seen since moving to California in August. And boy is it raining; 4 inches in just one day, with lots of wind and grey clouds to complete the miserable day. The leaves are starting to turn auburn, the days are getting slightly shorter, and the air is begining to cool, but I still have nothing to complain about since the coolest day here is still substantially warmer than the hottest day in Reykjvaik. I just find my wardrobe unprepared for the cool, since I ignorantly expected sunny California weather until December, and walking around in my flip flops and tank tops hasn’t proven viable for the last couple weeks.

The houses here seem to expect the same thing, since lack of insulation and the delayed arrival of fall means that overnight, my room gets so cold and getting out of bed in the morning is one of the most difficult things I have to do. Once I get out of bed, there really isnt any relief til noon or so, since it takes the whole morning for the house and outside to warm up. Then it will get deceivingly warm for a few hours and sunbathing on the lawn would be totally acceptable, until the sun starts to set and dusk brings a cool front over you again.

It is beautiful to see the greenery on campus right now. There are mixed forests sporadically dispersed between school buildings, palm trees, evergreens and deciduous trees happily coexisting. The melange almost stays as green as it always is, except for the oaks and maples slowly turning into hughs of gold and copper. No leaves have actually started falling, but soon the ground will be speckled in orange, red and yellow, and seeing the bare trees among the palms and evergreens will also be a sight, especially if the sun keeps coming out.

With fall comes more pressure in school, so students are too busy and too stressed to really enjoy their days or nights. For some reason I find myself doing just the opposite – wasting my time trying to maximize playtime in the shortening days outside and avoiding staying at home in the evening in fear of being too cold. However, there is actually lots to be done, so hopefully the blissful, romantic days of fall can pass, not to be forgotten, but just to stop tempting me with their distracting appeal.

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.

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!