Splinters from America.
It's time to go. Mum doesn't want to come to the airport, and that's ok. Dad and I make the three-hour trip in the early morning with my two huge suitcases rattling around on the back seats. In the car park at Heathrow I clench my fists very hard and Dad puts his hand on my knee. I remember, I said: “Why do I do this to myself?”, and he said, “Well,” and gave me a book of Californian poems.
He wants to push the luggage trolley for me because 46kg is a tiny but heavy load, but I grip the handle tight. From here on I need to prove my self-sufficiency. A bitten tongue through security. I wait until I have found lunch and a place to sit under the departure boards before opening the letter Dad has pressed into my hand at passport control.
My flight is delayed, and delayed again, and in the space this respite provides I find a calming of nerves and a clearing of mind. My sadness tinged with excitement swells and reverses: I turn to face westward shores. As the plane taxis down the runway and into the opaque sky I hear Bruce’s Land of Hope and Dreams, the song that echoed through my summer, become truth.
Eleven hours later I am on a freeway in late Friday afternoon traffic, racing through San Francisco. Stop signs halt us at the end of every block where, to the left, the intersecting road falls into nothingness towards the bay. We take the 101 North, and come up over a hill and onto the Golden Gate Bridge, with the sun running low in the west, the sky soft pink and orange, and the sailing boats below catching the wind on their way to Alcatraz. The bridge stretches flat and straight and crimson ahead, the tarmac rushing fast underneath us the way Browne writes in his songs, and then we are over and into the hills and I have arrived.
Before I move to Davis my aunt and uncle have me to stay at their house in Marin County, perched on the side of the great Mount Tam. The evening I arrive, jet-lagged and wide-eyed, I eat salad and fall into bed in the dark, but the next morning I wake before the sun and forget where I am. California smells of cedar wood and olives, and the light falls in straight bright shafts through the redwood forest as my Uncle Tom drives us up the mountain. Crickets hiccup in the dusk and when I wake at 5am, before the sun has started its scorching ascent, the bullfrogs under my window gasp and belch while I wonder whether to check Facebook. The New York Times arrives on the table on Sunday morning. We are six miles from the sea but the fog that shrouds the city and the bay seeps into the mountains of Marin county. Blue skies, hot sun, a light breeze – this is where I live now.
Arriving at Davis I meet very few Americans. The internationals get into town a week or so before the returning cohort, and I find friends from France, New Zealand, and the Netherlands, as well as Molly – a drama student from Kent. (We lived next to each other during First Year, but never met.) There’s an active and welcoming International Students Club, and within ten days I have caught a bus to see the state capital Sacramento, and booked a place on daytrips to Lake Tahoe in the east and San Francisco to the west. I fret a little about meeting the locals: there’s a newspaper on campus I’d like to join, which I think will help.
Molly will get to know Sacramento well, and in the months to come she will suggest the best coffee shops and vegan cafes to visit on my jaunts to the city. On this though, our first excursion alone, we wander downtown, through a farmers’ market selling pizza by the slice and Mexican food I can’t pronounce yet, towards the white dome of the Capitol. School children and protest groups gather here sometimes, alongside briefcases in suits hurrying to meetings and votes. It looks like a mini White House: I think of Josh and CJ as we pass through metal detectors on the way in. The elevators are really fancy, and you can sit in the gallery above the Senate and Assembly Chambers when they’re not in session. In a few weeks the US Government will enter a Shutdown, and the issues this causes for my visa status pale in comparison to the effects of the Shutdown on the most vulnerable. Access to government services is denied to children, domestic violence and sexual assault victims, migrants, and asylum seekers, while the vast number of citizens who rely on social security payments and medicare will see these services disrupted. Perhaps the California lawmakers buzzing through the hallways on cellphones today know a little of what is coming, or perhaps not. Either way, they do too little to prevent it.
We wander the gardens behind the dome. There are orange trees along the path, dropping their fruit in the heat; the concrete is littered with exploding suns. We buy lemonade from a woman at a stall by the road and walk through the rose garden and around the memorials for the Pioneers, state firefighters, casualties of the Mexican-American War, and Vietnam. There are stars and stripes at every turn. We walk around a shopping mall, and then explore Old Sac – dressing up and having our photograph taken in a wild west-esque saloon. I’ll pin the picture up on my wall at home, and it will be the one people always ask about when they come over. We return home triumphant, navigating the long bus journey which, I will realise later, is three time the length of the trip you can take up the freeway to reach the state capital, and I will walk through new parts of a quiet campus I am discovering every day.
At the weekend we board a double-decker train, speaking ten different languages. The journey to San Francisco holds some of my favourite snatches of landscape, but I don’t know it yet. We ride for an hour and half, then descend to the Metro and figure out how to use the machines that give out travelcards, and ride the subway into the city.
The head of the student group takes us on a guided tour through the hills and furrows of the metropolis which will, quickly, become my favourite city in the world. We head up to Union Square, then enter Chinatown under the Dragon Gate at Bush Street. From there we trek up Telegraph Hill to the Coit Tower to take in the view of the bay, and then slide down to Fisherman’s Wharf for clam chowder by the seals. We meet up again in Ghirardelli Square, test out the free samples at the celebrated chocolate shop, and just miss the tram which will take us up Hyde. We walk it anyway, up and up the steep incline until we reach the famous part of Lombard Street. I imagine what it must be like to live in one of the houses on either side of the curved street. A nightmare for parking. We zigzag our way down and head back down Columbus, past City Lights Bookstore the Beats frequented and avoiding the Embarcadero with its bridge-scattered panorama. I will see these things another time.
This city stretches across the water. Somewhere across the Bay Bridge lies Oakland, Richmond, and Berkeley. I have not been here yet, but I will. Newspapers have begun to lament the gentrification brought by young hipsters and their tech start-ups: this is a town built on counter-cultures, the ideals of Occupy. Googlebuses drive mobs to the street. I overhear twenty-somethings discuss dot com businesses every time I order a coffee. There is a low rumbling, gathering strength. Something will give, sooner or later.
On this peninsular, though, cragged with a sharp, glassy skyline, there is a city which I find myself traversing with ease. Perhaps there is a rhythm here which matches something in my step, perhaps the shape of its streets are just the right size for a young woman mapping her independent atlas. Perhaps it is just so goddam beautiful, surrounded by velvet green hills and skyblue bay, the sound of the ocean hushing quietly down every straight, steep avenue. This is a city which forces you to look up. It is hard to get anywhere without climbing, and the low clouds can steep the streets in fog. The photographs from my first trip are vistas which look down on a civilisation perched at the edge of blue. How many cities ask you to see them from above? San Francisco lays itself out like a toy town, easy to navigate, easy to shape. I can see my house from here.
A week later I am cycling Covell on a pink cruiser I’ve named Billy Jean in the early morning twilight. A couple of cars show up at Molly’s place driven by boys from Italy and Germany, and we join a convey heading up the I-80 towards Lake Tahoe. The drive is fast and the music is loud; we sense the surreality of our situation. We are trying on our American road trip – the loud music and fast cars – over the top of our European guise. The drive takes two and a half hours.
We begin to climb into the mountains. There are signs at the side of the road warning of the need for snowchains in the winter months and roadside stores, closed for now, selling skiing equipment. Silver-barked trees with gilded leaves shade the steep freeway. We pull over on the hard shoulder, all five cars pulling a dangerous U-turn, to take photographs in the gold forest by an abandoned hut. The brush is dry and brittle, and in places ugly cuts scar the dense forests where firefighters have bulldozed paths to slow fires that have not started yet. These birch trees, branches aflame, trick the eye when glimpsed through evergreen rows.
We head onward to the shores of the lake and eat lunch above the sand in the chill winds. It is a blissful wilderness surrounded by log cabins and stores stocked with snow gear. The lake glints azure in the well of the snow-capped mountains covered in deep forest. The smell of pine hangs heavy on the breeze. The landscape is frigid in a clear sense. We drive up again to the viewpoint above Emerald Lake to take postcard photographs and upload to instagram. There’s debate about whether we’ll cross into Nevada on our way home. The trail takes us around the south end of the lake, down through the steep mountain passes behind big RVs and yellow school buses. We lose the convoy in one of the stoplight-strewn towns, but it doesn’t matter; we know the route back.
These are my first roadtrips – by bus and train and car. Since I arrived in California three weeks ago I have travelled over 450 miles: cities, subways, highways, valleys, mountains, lakes, and forests. Classes have started at the university now and it’s time to settle down. It is on this drive back from Lake Tahoe that I realise, with a small shock of happiness: every time I return to Davis it feels like coming home.
The kids at the university drive the buses, and that just about sums Davis up. The bus stop is just outside my bedroom window, the ground floor apartment at 101 Lake Boulevard. My complex is at the far north-west edge of town, and sits like a cornerstone at the top of the city. Red single decks rumble past every thirty minutes. If I leave the house at thirty-one minutes past the hour I will have just enough time to watch the shimmer on the horizon line, out across the fields on the other side of Covell, before the bus stops for the light on the corner and signals onto Lake. There’s no fare: just show your Aggie Card.
It’s in ways like this that the college works as a backbone for the city that surrounds it. Davis didn’t exist until UC Berkeley opened up their agricultural wing here ninety-nine years ago. The town grew up with the college, and this is why it feels so fundamentally different to Canterbury. In Kent the students are a nuisance; there are too many of us, we litter the medieval streets with loud rough voices and ugly student lets. But in Davis, students are the lifeblood of the city. Though the population halves in the summer months when we go home, though we crowd the main roads with a stream of bicycles, we are the sole reason the town exists. The city celebrates us. When there’s a big community event on campus, like Picnic Day or a rival football game or a world record attempt, everyone shows up. Businesses cater to us. There are more than fifty cafés, restaurants, fast food joints, and coffee houses to grab dinner from. The tiny independent bookstore on second street opens seven days a week, ten a.m. to ten p.m.
Campus is so big it has its own police department, fire station, arboretum, and airport. In my first quarter at UCD I explore perhaps a third of the college. There is an abundance of societies and sororities to join, and at every turn I find students playing a crucial role in the managing of their university. Kids don’t just work at the cafeteria in the Memorial Hall: they run it. The student government is given a budget of $11.8 million every year to administer vital student services. Those students driving the buses are taking radio orders from supervisors the same age. (During my time at Davis, Bijan’s friend Shazib – a Junior like us – will become Unitrans OM, effectively running the whole company.) The level of trust awarded to students is phenomenal, and even more exciting is the success they enjoy. These jobs aren’t work experience or internship: they are the real deal, and I feel that the day I first walk into the Aggie offices.
I have started to think of America as surreal in the gothic sense: my country’s not-quite-double. My bedroom window is a false mirror to a world which is only almost-home, and every day I am surprised to find new codes of culture that need translating into a language that I recognise. (How to ask for a croissant in the morning, pronouncing the T; how to buzz the stop request on the bus, with a cord not a button; how to tip properly in restaurants, where workers earn less than $2 an hour.) I am learning, slowly, how to judge a quarter in my pocket from a dime, how to convert USD to GBP in an instant without using my phone, and how to look both ways, twice, before crossing a road. (It will be six months before I notice that I have learnt to look left automatically.) I scan sentences before opening my mouth, checking for words which need translation: to use the toilet, to empty the rubbish, to hand in an essay. I twist my mouth into new shapes to accommodate new language. The first time I ask for directions to the parking lot I feel my face flush.
Culture shock, though, comes most acutely in my classes. Individual desks are spaced out in rows facing a blackboard, and the professors (always referred to by their surname) still use chalk. I take three classes a quarter, each with around three hours of contact time. One class has maybe twenty students, another close to fifty. All lecture as their main method of teaching, and you must put your hand up to speak. I realise quickly that expected standards of written work are lower than those at British universities, but I’m not being diplomatic when I tell people the work is harder through the sheer quantity expected. I hand in a paper a week for one class, but I challenge myself to write it on a Thursday between my morning class, which finishes at eleven, and the afternoon class that it is due for at twenty-past four. There are pop quizzes and midterms to contend with alongside papers, and I am still trying to work out the grading structure when someone tells me I am riding a 4.0.
More than anything, though, the freedom of (relatively) easy As, combined with the assurance that this year is worth just 10% of my overall degree, means that – for perhaps the first time in my life – I can take my attention out of the classroom and into the great, wide, strange new world outside my door. The American landscape is vast and vivid, I have barely explored the campus by bike, and the map of the state on my bedroom wall is pricked with white pins for wished-for adventures. More than anything I want to see it all, and starting with Davis. My interview for a job as a photographer for the campus newspaper, The California Aggie, is so earnest that Bijan and I will laugh about it, much later. My first assignment is to shoot interiors of a fancy restaurant downtown, and when I explain that I work for the Aggie the owner gives me lunch on the house.
There are a handful of us working on the photo desk, but I don’t meet everyone until Bijan calls a meeting halfway through the quarter. We discuss upcoming assignments and, because I don’t shoot sports, because I’ve never used the long-range Canon system, and because I don’t know how American football works, they nominate me to shoot the game that weekend. When we come out of the meeting the Q Line I catch home is packed. We are driving down Howard and I am tripping over my bag, crushed between two frat guys talking about Saturday over the hubbub of loud conversation, and I am suddenly aware that I am giddy, giddy with happiness.
There is a party for all the Aggie staff on Friday night. I make dinner early and eat it over an episode of NCIS that is two seasons ahead of the schedule in England. I have a couple to catch up on. It’s been a long week. I’m not even sure how to get to Bijan's house, where the party is being held, and I’d have to cycle there in the dark. It gets to ten O’clock. Abby texts to say she might show up after cheerleading practice, so I put on a dress and some make up and my helmet, and look both ways twice before cycling into the street. I get a bit lost on Anderson, and then I find an apartment with bicycles lined up outside and the thumping shudder of bass, and I guess I’m in the right place. Inside there are lots and lots of people I don’t know, but I’ve learnt that the best way to make friends is to wait until someone notices my accent. A disposable camera is being passed around and the flash is blinding. (On Monday the results will be pinned all over the office.) Bijan is in the kitchen when I find him, mixing drinks. The light is very bright in here. “Bijan!” someone is yelling, “Bijan!” And the name comes up with a long drawl at the end, like the ‘a’ in calm, not the ‘a’ in can. I am suddenly acutely embarrassed. In the native parlance, I realise I’ve fucked up real bad. He’s pulling more beer out of the refrigerator when I say, “Have I been saying your name wrong all this time?”
He looks up. We’re both a bit drunk. The music is very loud. “No!” he says, smiling wide, “You’re the only one who ever says it right here!"
(Later I will realise this has little to do with my natural excellence at Farsi, and everything to do with British colonial history. Americans hate clipped vowels, but the British exceed in them. Bij ends up with a name from his Persian family, and another from his “American” friends.)
I stay late watching, and then playing, beer pong and rage cage. I thought red solo cups only existed in movies. I realise you get better at drinking games the more you lose. Long after everyone else has gone home a girl I sort of recognise from the Aggie and I are sitting on the sofa with Bijan and his roommates, Ryan and Dragily. The girl’s name is Misha, and the first thing she said to me was so intimate and hilarious I liked her immediately. We all stay up into the early hours, sobering slowly, talking about the newspaper and the concerns of early twenty-somethings over rounds of Mario Kart. By four a.m. I have found something very precious. It is rare to fall into friendships so effortlessly and so acutely. I cycle home under the first light of dawn in my dress from the night before, the hem catching at the chain, the sun coming up in shades of pink over the mountains at the end of Covell.