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Faith in Vermont, California Sabbatical: The Honeymoon Ends

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Posted on January 26, 2016 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Our first two days in Northern California were filled with palm trees, rainbows, and loving grandparents. On the morning of the third day – the day we would leave the comfort of the grandparents’ house and move into our rental house in Berkeley – I fell down the stairs.

As Mick Jagger said (or was it Richard Nixon?): “The honeymoon don’t last forever, kid.”

It was a stupid misstep that I’ve replayed in my head a dozen times: I was walking down the stairs of my in-laws’ house early in the morning, carrying our two-year-old daughter. It was dark. Assuming I was on the ground, I missed the final step and came crashing down onto a tile floor. My daughter was fine, but because I’d focused on holding onto her instead of cushioning my fall, I was not.

Nevertheless, we drove the 10-lane highway 45 minutes northeast to Berkeley. We found our rental house and moved in, making the arrangements necessary to accommodate a family of 6 in a 2-bedroom house less than half the size of our Vermont house.

Our next stop was Target. It’s been five years since I set foot in a Target. This one is roughly the size of downtown Middlebury, and includes an escalator for your shopping cart. It sells everything. Everything.

We ended the day with a dinner of Mexican food at Cactus Taqueria: A real treat, since in Vermont we have to drive an hour to the closest Mexican restaurant.

We arrived at Cactus at 6 PM, which would seem to be a time when one might expect a restaurant in a metropolitan area to be relatively uncrowded -- especially a low-key restaurant where you order at the counter and they call your number to come pick up your meal, and you bus your own table. But the line at Cactus stretched the entire length of the restaurant, and there were no empty tables.

That was the moment when we remembered that Berkeley is more crowded than small-town Vermont. Berkeley’s population in the 2010 census was 112,580, versus Middlebury’s 6,588; Middlebury’s population density is 473 people per square mile, whereas Berkeley has 10,752 per square mile. With so many people so crunched together, it’s important to be able to wait. So we waited.

After we finished dinner and had to return to the car, I could barely walk for the pain in my foot. That was when I remembered how much of life in metropolitan areas involves walking. Parking is at a premium in Berkeley: almost all downtown parking is metered, and if you’re able to find a spot in our neighborhood, you’ll have to move your car every two hours unless you’ve purchased a residential parking permit.

If I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t function. My husband needed me to be able to function, so he packed me off to the Emergency Room at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center the next morning.

During the three hours I spent in the Alta Bates ER, I was reminded of something else about metropolitan areas: life’s seedy underbelly is more exposed here. Vermont isn’t perfect; it has problems with opiate abuse, domestic violence, and alcoholism. But there’s more space between people in Vermont -- and for half the year nobody goes outside -- so it’s easier to ignore these issues. Without delving deeply into the reasons why (more people, less community accountability, etc.), it’s impossible to miss the fallout of poverty, substance abuse, and mental illness in Berkeley.

Life’s seedy underbelly was on full display in the Alta Bates ER. On my way to the X-ray, I walked a hallway lined with people moaning on gurneys. I was examined in a cubicle with only a thin curtain separating me from a man who was clearly on some sort of opiate. And as I waited on the curb for my husband to pick me up (newly diagnosed with a sprained and fractured foot, and suited up with a soft boot), I was joined by a very young, very pregnant woman who exited the hospital hooked up to an IV and mumbled to herself while she smoked a cigarette.

Then we went grocery shopping at Berkeley Bowl.

Berkeley Bowl is a local institution: a grocery store known for its massive selection of fresh produce at reasonable prices. The store’s name comes from its flagship location in a 40,000-square-foot former bowling alley. Whether due to poor planning, or a perverse experiment in human behavior, the aisles in the original store are large enough for only one shopping cart to pass through at a time, making shopping there a harrowing experience in which tofu-loving former hippies bash each other aggressively with shopping carts.

Berkeley Bowl opened a second location in 2009. I have fond memories of shopping peacefully in the 140,000-square-foot Berkeley Bowl West, whose aisles are spacious enough for two carts to pass comfortably.  

This time, our foray into Berkeley Bowl West was anything but peaceful. Perhaps our mistake was attempting to shop on Saturday afternoon, although it wasn’t a holiday weekend, nor was a major storm predicted.

There were no parking spots available, either in the Berkeley Bowl parking lot or the underground garage. Once we found a space, we had to wait for a shopping cart. And the store was a 140,000-square-foot sea of people. I’m sure the produce was lovely and reasonably priced, but I didn’t notice: I was keeping my head down, trying to navigate through the crowd with my bulky new boot.

In Vermont, I usually get some sympathy for having four young children clinging to my shopping cart; not here. If anybody in Berkeley Bowl noticed our children, it was to glare at them. (And not because they were misbehaving – my children were stunned into silence by the masses of people.)

A friend told us about a local online service called Instacart, which typifies the Bay Area: Sitting at your computer (or smartphone), you “shop” for groceries at cost from local stores, including Berkeley Bowl. Somebody else braves the crowds for you, and delivers the groceries to your door for a $4 fee.

When we first heard about this, we laughed in disbelief. After our experience at Berkeley Bowl, we signed up. 

Metropolitan areas are often praised for their “convenience.” When we moved to Vermont, we were concerned that we would suffer from a lack of conveniences, like big box stores and enormous supermarkets.

Now I say: Convenience is a matter of opinion. In my opinion, the only thing that is convenient about the Bay Area is that it’s easier to buy more things here. But if your opinion is that it’s worth waiting in traffic and lines in order to have your pick of 2,000 brands of artisanal peanut butter, then I have a parking space to sell you.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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