UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, BERKELEY.

 From San Francisco to Berkeley, by BART, Bay Area Rapid Transit, it is a short journey. Just find Embarcadero subway station near the embankment, study the schedule carefully, and wait for the train which goes in your direction. Then go, under the bay of course. It is a bit scary at first, but it is very fast, cheap and reliable. Berkeley was founded in mid-19th century on a site bought from a Spanish family. Today, it is mostly famous for being home to the University of California – Berkeley. One can feel that it is a university town not only when walking on its huge campus, but on any street, at any café, restaurant or shop. Students with backpacks run along in warm hoodies, shorts and flip-flops. Teachers and researchers briskly stroll by, talking science. A multitude of languages is heard everywhere. One can stumble on any number of ongoing events, be it a students rally, a cancer drive, an impromptu performance or an excursion. I followed one developing story with great interest. It seems that the university wanted a new stadium and decided to cut down several old oak trees. A band of protesters settled on the branches, thus blocking the attempts to cut down the trees. Instead of somehow resolving the issue, the university administration provided warm blankets, food and security for the protesters, spending a lot of time and money on it. The police tried to do something and failed, due to the unconventional missiles tossed at them by young people from the trees (plastic bags filled with excrement). I guess such an episode can happen only at a university campus. Eventually the conflict was resolved. The campus is huge and very green. Roses, carefully tended lawns strewn with students studying or relaxing, flower-beds and blooming bushes abound; in one corner, you may stumble on what looks like the perfect place for shooting scenes for a Harry Potter movie, the words “Forbidden Forest” come to mind. It is easy to get there, just following the University Avenue which runs across town. The tall clock tower can be seen from far away. If one turns right at Shattuck Avenue, one will see lots of shops, with quite a number of very good bookstores which sell both new and secondhand books. Turn left at Durant Avenue, and you will get to Telegraph Avenue, with many shops which mostly cater to students: sports, shoes, T-shirts and sweat-shirts, backpacks, CDs and DVDs. There is a nice little café called New York Bagels on the corner of Durant and Telegraph, where one can always get wonderful hot bagels. In a side street off Telegraph, one can find a lot of little inexpensive cafes which serve a great variety of delicious dishes. If you are looking for a nice place for dinner, Venezia restaurant or any other Mediterranean cuisine café is the place for you. You will like the ambiance, and the cooking is superb. If you are particular about your drinks, be sure to say so: you will ask for beer Moretti, and they may bring you beer Peroni. But both are Italian.

As in many other places in California, there are rather many homeless people in Berkeley. In New York and other big cities, one can see panhandlers at any street corner; sometimes they can be quite annoying. In Berkeley, they get together in some places, sit around on benches during the day, talking to passers-by. Students are very friendly, and it seems that they are not aware of the accompanying dangers. The town issued cell phones to the homeless, so that they can call 911 in case of emergency. Numerous town churches distribute hot meals, so one can see long lines waiting for free food anywhere. In one of the marinas, the homeless more or less occupied an attractive square, because there is a big public toilet with shower nearby. Needless to say the tourists steer clear of that beautiful place. The town tried to do something about it, but human rights activists argued that the homeless have the right to use the facilities, and so the town backed out. Vans come there daily to distribute hot meals, and the town issues warm blankets to people who sleep on the benches surrounding the square. It gives a visitor a weird sensation, when one sees this sort of two parallel worlds co-exist, with very busy intelligent students and teachers going about their business, and the idle dirty groups sitting around watching them. One night, I was going to a restaurant where I was to meet my friends, when I saw two men in the dusk ahead of me. They also saw me and began to wave and call out, just as I neared a streetlight. I was actually wondering whether it might be prudent to rush back to the hotel and phone my husband, when they saw my face – and apologized. Obviously, at a distance, with the light uncertain, I looked like a girl, but the light showed them that I belonged to a different category, as the younger one said to me, “Sorry mama”. I passed by, but it was quite unnerving. During the day, it is perfectly safe, and I never heard about any muggings while staying there. Still, the experience made me wonder again about the eternal problem of those two parallel worlds.

©gretag 2012

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