Earlier this year I travelled to America for the first time. My wife had a visiting scholarship for a few months in Berkeley, California, and I thought I would set down some of our impressions before they wore off
“Could you be French?” my wife asked me, one evening early in March this year. We had been living in Berkeley, California for just over a month by then.
We made a quaint couple, not at all unsuited to some golden age of America; she engaged with needlepoint, I fighting to keep my eyes open for a few pages of edifying literature – The Magic Mountain – before bedtime. The question brought back many wonderful holidays, and a happy few months spent living in Poitiers. “Of course I could be French,” I answered. My wife then raised the stakes: “Could you be German?”
That was a trickier one to consider, given the bedrock of anti-Teutonic prejudice that an English upbringing had fixed in my basic outlook on life. Between the age of 5 and 10, boys at my school who were designated German in a game of soldiers were obliged to accept the role of “baddies.” It startled me later to notice how American films cast Englishmen and Germans as villains quite indiscriminately. Such realizations, and a decade spent living on the Continent, helped me reply, after only a short moment’s pause. “Yes, I could be German!” I was shocked with myself, but it was true.
I think perhaps the wife’s questions were prompted by my efforts with The Magic Mountain, but she claimed that her mind was set more on our distance from home. That distance Americanized our view of Europe, and made the distinctions between its countries seem like the differences between the states united on the north-western side of the Atlantic; meaningful, but not worth going to war for. In our little house in Berkeley, surrounded by our landlady’s Himalayan memorabilia and salvaged antiques – Berkeley has a thriving culture of reuse – our European identities seemed more important than our official nationalities. Europe seemed to offer bulk and safety. England or Italy seemed frail and piffling, their singularity preserved, in fact, by the relative mass of the Continent.
It was hard to understand our latent edginess. Like most new arrivals, we were enchanted by the Californian miracle of magnolia in February, and the natural setting of the Bay, with the balance of shelter and extension offered by its dreamy peninsulas. I needed quite a while to understanding the peculiar magic of the Golden Gate Bridge. Part of it, I told myself, was due to the forthright solution provided by the near-straight red crossing; but more lay with the tensile focus the coast places on the Golden Gate Straits themselves, the Bay’s single outlet.
We were assured that Berkeley was something of an exception in today’s USA. Perhaps only certain quarters of New York or Seattle could still claim to equal the community’s dedicated political liberalism. “The place is a bubble within a bubble,” a new acquaintance told me, shortly after I arrived with my family in late January.
By the outer bubble, my companion meant the wider Bay Area; a zone where liberal politics was supposedly the norm. The inner bubble was Berkeley itself, covering the north-eastern side of the bay, and rising from coastal flatland to the wide steep hills where the university sits, halfway up. The gleaming campanile is the city’s central landmark, visible from the Mission District – the original point of European activity in the region – across the water in San Francisco.
Berkeley, and its adjacent cities of Oakland and Albany, first grew when citizens, left destitute by the great earthquake and fire of 1906, crossed the bay to establish temporary homes. As a bubble within a bubble, where special degrees of free-thinking, tolerance and a concern for society and culture prevail, colored strongly with successive layers of hippy and new-age preferences, Berkeley still has the feel of a refuge. The name of Trump is so hated as to be almost unsayable; a firm revealed to have bad “45 politics” (a reference to the current, 45th presidency) will soon find itself in trouble with customers. It is one of the few places on earth, a friend informed me, to have a militant pedestrian movement.
The relics of innumerable pushes for change and for peace decorate most neighborhoods, from the desultory Bernie Sanders election posters still pasted in windows, pro-Tibet stickers on the backs of ancient Volvos, to the Buddhist prayer flags you sometimes see outside modest-sized, yet idiosyncratic wooden houses, such as the one we stayed in. A couple of nights after we arrived, there were riots up on campus against a hateful extremist provocateur who had risen to prominence on the back of Trump’s victory, and whose name is best forgotten. He had been invited to speak by the university’s handful of Republicans.
Berkeley is no haven, we discovered. It is a place of striking discrepancies. On turning the corner from an artisan ceramics shop, an organic bakery or a café where a coffee may be six dollars plus tip, you will see ruined people and disintegrating structures. On leaving the small abode that costs you three or four thousand dollars a month in rent, you will soon pass homeless bodies sleeping at noon, and extrovert tramps coaxing quarters from drivers at traffic lights. At the elementary school where our son was offered a place, the staff were resolutely cheerful and committed. The children in his class were catatonically quiet, disconnected from each other and themselves, lacking even the will for rudeness or mischief. Official statistics told us that 44% of the school’s students come from economically-deprived homes. Outside Berkeley and the Bay, some school authorities might be pleased with such a figure; I don’t know.
It was like living in a place where some terrible argument had taken place, and members of the losing side had been left to pace and gibber on street corners. Perhaps whenever you arrive somewhere to stay, you will often try drawing lines and making distinctions between yourself and your new surroundings; and then relax them as you acclimatize. But each day we found ourselves referring back, no doubt shamefully, to the idea that we were European, foreigners passing through, and had no part in the quarrel or its aftermath.