Faith in Vermont: California Sabbatical, Day 1: Palm Trees!
“Wait, people are just allowed to have palm trees in their yards?” my eldest daughter marveled on our first day in California’s Bay Area.
The palm trees have been the undisputed highlight of California thus far, the first thing on my daughters’ list when we ask what they like most about our five-month sabbatical from Vermont. They’ve observed that palm trees come in different heights, with various-shaped fronds, and with trunks both shaggy and smooth.
When I start home schooling my two oldest daughters this week, our science studies will commence with a unit on palm trees.
Our journey from Vermont to California began with a drive to Burlington, where we spent the night at the airport Doubletree in order to sleep in until 3:15 AM so that we could catch our 5:30 AM flight to Detroit. By “we,” I mean the six members of our family, and our 15 bags; yes, that’s our version of traveling lightly.
In Detroit, we had 45 minutes to cross the airport terminal and board the plane to San Francisco. Thanks to an endless series of escalators and people-moving belts, my daughters zipped along, convinced that this was more amusement park than airport. (To my knowledge, there is not a single escalator within a 1-hour radius of Middlebury; whenever we encounter one, it’s like my daughters just stepped out of the 19th century).
Four-and-a-half hours later, we touched down in San Francisco. The trip was amazingly smooth: no delays, no lost luggage, and our children were oddly well behaved (Thank you, tablet filled with movies!)
We exited the San Francisco airport into sun and temperatures in the 50s. “I can’t breathe, it’s so humid!” one daughter gasped.
My husband’s parents picked us up and whisked us off on an eight-lane highway to their home in Foster City, a suburb on the San Francisco Bay’s southern peninsula, where we ate a lunch of Chinese food at Cooking Papa restaurant: shrimp and pork dumplings, glistening flat chow fun noodles with beef, and crispy “Chinese puffs” – the Chinese version of doughnuts.
Foster City was built in the 1960s. It’s a planned city, constructed on engineered landfill in the San Francisco Bay marshes. 81% of the city’s total area is water, and its geography is distinguished by lagoons and levees. Cooking Papa is built out on pylons over the water, and a walking path behind my husband’s childhood home runs alongside a levee.
The best part of Foster City, especially for children, is: water birds! Ducks of all types, egrets, and geese abound in Foster City. In grassy areas, it’s impossible to take a step without landing in goose poop. The proliferation of water birds on our afternoon walk delighted my daughters only slightly less than the palm trees.
It’s all so different from Vermont, but the most obvious difference is how much more developed the Bay Area is: the traffic, the enormous highways, the lines for everything, the shopping centers, the houses built right up next to each other. Development isn’t without it’s benefits: sidewalks are nice when walking with young children, the houses’ tiny yards feature lush gardens of rose bushes, orange and lemon trees, and – yes – palm trees, and public parks and playgrounds abound in the absence of yard space.
The first day, there were the predictable episodes of cultural confusion. Our daughters didn’t understand why they couldn’t just run out the front door whenever they pleased. One daughter prepared to relieve herself in her grandparents’ bushes while playing outside. Also, our children wanted to walk up and pet peoples’ dogs – which elicited alarmed looks from the pet owners. Everyone’s interpersonal walls seem to be a little thicker here than in Vermont: “Most of them are smoking or on their cell phones, and almost nobody’s smiling,” my daughter bemoaned, unaware that she was describing much of the world at large, not just California.
Most surprising to us, our girls turned out to have no framework in which to understand the concept of the front yard: They ran through neighbors’ front yards completely unaware of the invisible property boundaries that they were crossing. And a low stone wall separating your property from the sidewalk? Forget it: That’s not your wall, that’s a public balance beam!
As the girls played in their grandparents’ yard on the afternoon of our first day in California, we looked up to see a rainbow stretching across the sky. We were standing in sunlight, but there must have been enough moisture elsewhere to create this beautiful vision, arching above the palm trees. It felt like it was just for us, a sign that we’d made it after all the packing and preparing and hours in cars, shuttles, and planes.
California was flirting with us.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: Early trials, in which I fracture my foot and we attempt to shop at the Berkeley Bowl.
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.