Madonna, Shopping, Surfing and left-leaning Democrats

So what’s America like? How are the people different? Are Americans all fat, lazy and pro-Trump? Difficult to answer. Maybe these words will help answer that question.

I have utilized part of my time and energy simply soaking in California, gobbling it up would be another way of putting it. Smelling the flowers, gazing up at the trees, walking barefoot on the hot sand, watching the sea lions in the bay, walking through the neighborhoods and examining homes, hiking up the local hills and gazing over the city.

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Interacting with other humans is also part of my empirical study (hey, I could get grant money and publish my results!). Last night I was at a meeting of the SLO Progressives, previously SLO for Bernie. It’s basically a democratic club working on getting “left-leaning” candidates elected. They are new but many people are involved, they are cooperating with other organizations, and they are very well organized. The meeting was well structured; general announcements, short statements from candidates, then statements from three working groups. I already signed up to canvas Morro Bay about single-payer health care. That means knocking on doors and passing out information and dialoging about health care.

That was my second political event here and what was so cool is meeting other people. It seems very easy here in California to engage in conversation with strangers. I was at a talk recently by Jodi Evans, co-founder of Code Pink. I just walked into an almost empty lecture hall (it filled up later) and immediately elderly woman said, “Hi, what’s your name, nice to meet you.” To her friend she said “Hey Jill, this is Gus, he’s from Germany.” After the event she invited Theresa and I to her farm for dinner. Cool. After the event I started talking to this guy and it turns out he was also from Palos Verdes. We went to neighboring high schools.

Aside from just soaking in California, I have tons of energy to do things. I feel almost obsessed with hiking, surfing, biking, drinking coffee, working some. That’s good though, I think. Right now I am also working on a grant proposal with Christian Felber from the Economy for the Common Good. The proposal is about reforming the UN and making it more democratic. I think it’s a great proposal and if the jury does too we could get lots of dinero.

Part of my empirical study is the shopping experience in America. The other day the girls and I went shopping with my sister to the giga-store Costco. The first thing our friend Lisa noticed were the supersized shopping carts. They are about 50% larger than normal ones. As it turned out, it was too small for us and we needed a second one.

As I walked into the store, I was bothered by how bright it was and how high ceilings were. The shelves of products tower endlessly towards the rafters. It looks like a warehouse, except for the tasters. They have tons of little servings of bread, meat, fruit and drinks. I was told that I have to buy toilet paper at Costco. “It’s the best in the world,” they said. I’m thinking, what, it’s just toilet paper? What’s the difference. Is there really good and bad toilet paper. Sorry, never noticed the difference. Come to think of it, though, I have experienced really bad toilet paper. It was in the German Democratic Republic, behind the iron curtain while it still hung. The toilet paper was dark grey and rough. It actually didn’t look like paper, rather more like the surface of a poorly-maintained street.

Anyways, I bought the toilet paper. The 50 rolls filled the first of our two shopping carts and should last for the remaining 10 months of our stay.

I continued down the aisles and noticed myself being overcome by a strange, elated sensation. Everything is so cheap and of such high quality that I felt driven to just buy everything. Gallon-size containers of walnuts; yes, take them. Six high quality t-shirts for $10, yes. A life-size teddy bear for $20, yes, uh, well no. OK, I caught myself. I will not purchase the 6-foot stuffed bear. It’s pretty darn cute and cuddly, but I realized it will not fit in my bed. Ok how about the sheepskin blanket? Yes, blanket. It’s not just one sheep skin, it’s about four sewed together into a blanket. Its only $35, can you believe it? Ok, I won’t take it. Oh, but look over there! A 1.1 kg bag of tortilla chips for only 4 dollars. I cannot resist. I know it will make me fat as hell, but what a bargain. Hey, a 1.3 kg bag of pistachios, yes, no questions asked. This store is fantastic. Bargains everywhere.

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I am elated, so happy. Then we get to the cashier and the super friendly cashier lady informs me that I get a second bag of bagels for free and the even friendlier bag girl (actually she looked to be about 45) said she’s a fast runner and she would be glad to run the 200 meters to the back corner of the store to get it for me. What an amazing place. Then I gave them my credit card, entered my PIN and pressed ok and happy as a clam. When I got to the car my daughter informed me that the escapade just cost us 230 dollars and 48 cents. “What,” I thought, “how in the world did that happen?”

It’s been a month and a half, well actually a month and three-quarters, since I landed here in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. That’s a strange line, isn’t it? Who is free and who are the brave? Comes out of the national anthem, holy stuff around here. Questioned by few. I was at a football game at my daughter’s high school and was surprised when everyone suddenly stood up before the game started. At first I didn’t know why they were standing up. But then I noticed them putting their hands to their hearts and singing along with the national anthem.

After that game the national news and social media have been full of discussions about the protests during the national anthem. Football players recently continued “taking the knee”. This means kneeling on one knee. They did this instead of standing during the national anthem. Trump continued his bigotry and went so far as to call the people protesting sons-of-bitches. Is this guy for real? What a racist, what a fool. He has gone way over the line once again.

I wanted to tell you about my Saturday. I first went for a guided hike up Madonna Mountain at 9am. My alarm clock forgot to wake me so I was ten minutes late. The first thing the guide told us was that Madonna Mountain is officially called Cerra called Cerro San Luis Obispo. The townsfolk call it Madonna Mountain because it is owned by the Madonna family (no relation to the singer and sometimes-actress).

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Madonna Mtn. and Bishop Peak (right). By Ken Broomfield – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Bloody-libu using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20383360

 

The hike only took about an hour but there was a beautiful view of the city and I could see all the way to Morro Bay. The guide showed us the greenish rock, common to the area and called serpentinite.

After that the girls and I met my sister and her daughter for some surfing. The waves weren’t too great. I actually felt like most of the time I was diving over and under whitewater. For the Germans out there this is the Gischt. This is funny, because in German there is a distinct word for the white, foamy part of a wave after it breaks. The colloquial term in English is whitewater. Wikipedia, humankind’s newest source of THE TRUTH, says whitewater is the white, rough water found in rivers. I would actually agree, though I am no expert. Ask any surfer and they will say whitewater. Look it up on wikipedia, and you will find only “sea foam”.

It was a beautiful afternoon at the beach, though. The skies were clear and it wasn’t too windy. The waves sucked though. I noticed small, or miniscule, improvements in my surfing abilities. I am a patient guy, though.

Busy days, some down time and “home”

Today is an unusual day. I have no plans, no dates, no sports, no yoga, no events to attend. This is a welcome change. Just the last two days are an example of how busy I’ve been. On Monday morning, I went to my sister’s house and from about 10-3pm helped tear down her old kitchen. Then we drove over to the beach and went surfing until about 5pm. Then I hurried home, grabbed my new bike and rode over to 6 o’clock Yoga in the Park in San Luis. Yesterday was similar. After cleaning up the house I went for coffee with my buddy Jim, then drove over to the Damon-Garcia Sports Fields and played soccer for an hour and a half. After a small lunch, I picked up the girls from school (in my car) and we drove over to Morro Bay to celebrate my niece’s birthday party.

Today the girls are in school and I’m on my own. As predicted, I ended up in a downtown coffee shop and hope to do some writing (one paragraph already done!!!). In September, I will start working for my university one day a week and for the Economy for the Common Good (ECG) for half a day. I will also continue helping my sister renovate her kitchen, do some additional volunteer word for the ECG and continue with surfing, yoga, hiking and soccer. I may sign up for the Guerrilla Gardening Club, a group of folks that goes around cleaning up and planting public land around Morro Bay. Maybe I will get involved in the local cycling initiative. There’s a store in town that offers free tools for people to fix their bikes and also has volunteers helping fix bikes. They are also involved in advocacy work to improve the safety and comfort of city biking.

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By Leif Arne Storset – originally posted to Flickr as Bishop Peak, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1820267

Actually, I may just take a hike up Bishop Peak this afternoon. The trail head is a three minute walk from my house. The peak is 1500 feet (470m) high and the trail is beautiful. The area is brown now as usual, unlike in the picture.

Check out my video report from Bishop Peak.

Home

Some of the major topics of my book Homing In were living in a foreign country, cross-cultural experiences, speaking a foreign language and experiencing home. Those are loaded issues and I want to explore them on my American journey. I am pretty sure I won’t be able to sufficiently answer them and it will be a challenge to approach them.

One question will be whether I feel more at home here, more “at ease”. I’m not sure yet but have had some interesting reactions. The feeling of being an outsider has faded, though not completely. In Germany I sometimes still feel like a foreigner, like I don’t totally belong. The feeling can be spurred on by comments a friend might make at the bar after soccer. He could be telling a little story to the group and reference a German band, musician or comedian of the seventies or eighties. He’ll then look at me, pause, and say “Oh, Gus, you probably don’t know Loriot, do you?” It may seem like a harmless comment and in many ways, it is harmless. The problem is, is that it reminds me of my differentness. I think is has an additional group function of defining the inner circle. But that’s for another time.

Here in my new home on the Central Coast of California I can claim to be a local, a non-stranger, a non-foreigner. I did not grow up here, rather about 200 miles south of here, but for California that is local. Nobody can treat me like a stranger here. Although I’ve been gone for 25 years this place belongs to me (not in the literal sense, ok).

Despite many factors that could make me feel uneasy here – like crime, widespread poverty, homelessness, turbo consumerism, fires, earthquakes, mountain lions – there is a certain sense of feeling at ease that I missed in Germany. Still, though, I feel rather at home and like I belong here.

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The girls enjoying our awesome new car

I was talking to one of the guys I played soccer with yesterday. After I told him I have been living in Germany for 25 years, he told me that he had moved here from Mexico 20 years ago. I don’t know how much our experiences have in common, but I did sense something. In the dominant culture of California there is a lot of discrimination and racism against Latinos. On the more personal side, though, they can continue to speak Spanish here and probably have a lot of family living here. In fact, California was once part of Mexico. It was the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 which gave the US ownership of California, about half of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and even parts of Wyoming and Colorado. I don’t know if that gives Mexican-Americans more of a sense of home while living here. They must feel a large sense of community and belonging because the Latino culture is so widespread here.

Hiking and Bicyling in SLO

For starters here’s a short clip I took while hiking up Bishop Peak, a mountain about 1400 ft (400m). The trail begins just a five minute walk from my house (view Video):

I have two entire hours with no plan and nothing to take care of. An unusual moment in the last 18 days. The day did start off busy though. I accompanied the girls on bike (yeah) to school where they had to take an English placement test (“easy” they said). We checked out the best route and were there in about 20 minutes. Then I decided on an insurance plan for my car and finally I sat myself down in my favorite café in SLO, Linea’s.

It is great to have a bike. On my bike, like walking, I can much better get a sense for the town.

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Registration day at SLO High

The city also has a great biking infrastructure. Germany could even learn something. In most of the neighborhoods on the way to town the streets are seemingly abandoned and super wide. Hardly a car around and if one comes they drive very slowly and are terribly polite.

 

From our house, we rode down the tree-lined Jeffrey St. to Chorro St. which brought us straight into downtown. Chorro is a dedicated bike street, meaning bikes have the right-of-way and can use the street just like cars. Downtown and on many of the faster streets there are bike lanes. For the most part they are wide enough and near the intersections are painted green so cars are warned to watch out. Along many of the bike lanes there are little signs saying “no parking, bike lane”. Luckily the city decided against separated bike paths. I don’t like them because they are usually not well-maintained and are dangerous at intersections.

Continuing down the road in a t-shirt and shorts I noticed more bicycle-friendly traffic sign such as “Left turn yields to bicycles”. This sign is for cars who are turning left telling them that they have to watch for bicycles in the opposite lane and that they have the right of way.

I was sweating by the time I left the girls for their English test. We had to climb a small hill and my new road bike doesn’t have enough gears. The thing is, though, is that the temperature is perfect. It’s not too hot and not too cold and it’s not humid at all. After dropping off the girls I sat down in a charming patio at the café, I am perfectly comfortable in my summer attire.

This evening we are inviting my sisters and their family over to dinner in our fancy little house. We got so lucky with our house. We are renting a unit in the front part of a nice home in a fancy neighborhood on the south side of San Luis Obispo. We enter the house from the front. The owners have to enter through their garage. Funny. We have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a little kitchen, a living room and a dining room and, listen to this, an indoor fountain. Not to mention the fact that we have an outdoor fountain in front of our door also.chips-sm.jpg

The owners did an extension their house to build this additional guest space or rental unit and put much attention into detail. The indoor fountain is about 7 feet high and the water spews straight down along a tiled wall into a little pool. It was designed so that no water gets onto the cherry wood floors. It’s Brazilian Cherry to be more exact.

It has a vaulted ceiling and fake Roman columns built into the inner wall. Large windows open up out on to the front lawn (with fountain and two palm trees I forgot to mention). The owners also put much care into the furniture and lamps and lighting. Not only are there fancy lamps in the corners, but there is a system of ceiling lamps that let you create all kinds of different spacial experiences.

I and the girls still need to decide what to cook for my family. We have done a lot of cooking in the 18 days since we’ve been here and it’s been a joy working with them. The girls love the shopping experience. There are huge supermarkets, smaller natural food stores and their favorite is the Grocery Outlet, a huge supermarket that sells groceries that normal supermarkets throw out.

The choices of fruits and vegetables here in California is impressive. We have had cantaloupes and peaches, avocado and squash and lots of pulpy orange juice. We do need to be careful about the prices. The price variation is amazing. At one natural food store, a bottle of milk was over $4. At the next one it was only $1,50. The old saying “caveat emptor” should be taught to every grade school kid in the state.

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I will close this blog with this great message posted in front of a home in Los Osos.

Sitting at the bay, buying a car and playing with whales

The sun is about 20° over the horizon looking out onto the Pacific Ocean past Morro Bay. Does that mean about an hour until sunset, or two? I will have to study that. The solar eclipse will be happening in a few days. The moon will be moving in front of the sun and if we were up in Oregon day would turn into night for a few minutes. Down here it will be partial. I did get to witness that once. It was in Germany perhaps 20 years ago. My son Julian was with me up on the hill overlooking the valley where Tübingen lies. It rained like crazy and we were all cowering under a huge tarp when all of a sudden it got dark. Right in the middle of the day. It was weird and kind of scary. I didn’t really like it.

Not sure why I mention that now while sitting here on a park bench on the shore of Morro Bay. There are a few sailboats anchored out in the bay and more moored at the two little piers here south of the marina. It’s a peaceful evening. There’s no wind, at least not over here. Over at the beach on the ocean side it might be windy. It’s also sunny here which is not always the case. It gets foggy and cloudy here in Morro Bay and Los Osos a lot in the summer. That hasn’t bothered me a bit. It’s still warm and the clouds give you a bit of respite from the strong sunrays.

Just sitting here looking out onto this large blue bay is a perfect moment and kind of symbolic. I have, miraculously, taken care of the endless challenges of getting here and now I have arrived. A school of screeching seagulls just flew overhead and I hear the barking sea lions off in the distance. A boat’s horn is howling and the sea water is gently patting the columns of the dock. I have arrived.

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Sand spit visibe on left

The soft afternoon sun is warming my cheek as I gaze out to the sand spit (Nehrung in German), a 3 mile-long (5 km) deposit of sand forming a finger of land at the western edge of the bay. It starts in Los Osos and ends just before Morro Rock and has a series of rather high dunes. I have never been there and even though they are but a kilometer from my park bench it seems like a dream to be able to walk up and down those mountains of sand in the sea. I plan to walk all the way out and back but looking at it I am not sure if I can even make it in one day. I will have to bring sufficient water and a cell phone.

 

Just sitting here looking out onto this large blue bay is a perfect moment and kind of symbolic. I have, miraculously, taken care of the endless challenges of getting here and now I have arrived. A school of screeching seagulls just flew overhead and I hear the barking sea lions off in the distance. A boat’s horn is howling and the sea water is gently patting the columns of the dock. I have arrived. The soft afternoon sun is warming my cheek as I gaze out to the sand spit (Nehrung in German), a 3 mile-long (5 km) deposit of sand forming a finger of land at the western edge of the bay. It starts in Los Osos and ends just before Morro Rock and has a series of rather high dunes. I have never been there and even though they are but a kilometer from my park bench it seems like a dream to be able to walk up and down those mountains of sand in the sea. I plan to walk all the way out and back but looking at it I am not sure if I can even make it in one day. I will have to bring sufficient water and a cell phone.

Cars, Whales and Community in Arroyo Grande

There is so much to write about and so much to say about my first two weeks in California. Where can I start? Perhaps I could tell you about my car search two days ago. Being in California it quickly became obvious that I needed a car. I have been looking for many weeks and had focused my search on four different offers: a Toyota Sienna minivan, a Honda Civic, a Ford something and a Kia Sedona minivan. Funny enough they were all in Arroyo Grande, a city about 20 km south of San Luis Obispo.

I borrowed my sister’s 30-year-old Ford van and headed down the highway. The van has a giant motor and driving down the highway felt like driving a big semi-truck (LKW for the Germans). The highways are great to drive on here; wide lanes, not many cars, speed limits between 90 and 110 km/h. Very relaxing and in that big van it felt like steering a ship.

Curving through the gentle, dry mountains south of San Luis I reached the coast near Pismo Beach and was astounded to look down the coastline and see a long peninsula of sandy dunes reaching out into the ocean. It reminded me of some movie with images of the Saharan Desert meeting the sea. Even though I grew up in California and had been on that highway many times, I never remember seeing this odd peninsula jutting out into the water. Perhaps it was the way the evening sun was illuminating the white dunes or the way the light reflected off the deep blue water. The dunes stretch what looked like 10 km out into the water, they looked to be 100 meters high.

I got off on Halcyon Blvd to get to the house with the first owner. At that point, I didn’t know what Halcyon referred to, but more on that later. The owner of the Toyota Sienna was a recent immigrant of South Africa. After the removal of the Apartheid government and the economic downturn 2010 he had lost everything and came to America with his wife and three kids with only “the shirt on my back”. We struck up a nice conversation and he let me take a test drive all by myself. The three other owners, all Americans, wanted accompany in the car.

The second car was a small Ford sedan with a manual transmission, both very unusual in this country. The owner and I took a drive around town and also struck up a great conversation. He told me about the beaches, the dunes, local soccer clubs and bicycling. He asked if I wanted to see the beach so he pointed me in the direction of Pacific Coast Highway. He led me to a parking lot at the bridge with a gate and a guard. He told me to tell them that we just wanted to take a quick look. Well, he didn’t let me through but I saw with my own eyes that there was actually a long stretch of beach, maybe 10 km long, where people are allowed to drive their cars right on to the beach. I couldn’t believe it. I think it’s the only one in California. You have to pay five dollars a day or fifty for a year and you can drive all the way down to that fabulous dune peninsula. Much to my chagrin, the Ford owner also explained that the dunes are open to cars, mobile homes and dune buggies. I will have to go there with the girls and check it out, but I do hope we won’t see cars and campers all over the place.

After looking at the other cars, I had pretty much decided on the Toyota. On my way home I drove by the beach again, but a few miles to the north of where cars are driving on the beach. I parked and walked over on a narrow, wooden bridge along the sand and noticed people shouting and staring out into the water. I looked out and saw huge spouts of water about 300 meters off shore. I didn’t know what it was at first but asked someone who told me they were whales. I couldn’t believe it but then I saw one. A huge whale’s back came curving elegantly up out of the water. Then more spouts of water, then a gigantic whale tail waving up into the water. There were hundreds of seagulls flying above and for about ten minutes we watched and cheered on as this natural spectacle unfolded before our eyes.

I guess they were either Humpbacks (Buckelwal) or gray whales (Grauwal).

The following day I drove down to my South African friend’s house and purchased the Toyota Sienna. My nephew dropped me off near the owner’s house and on the short walk over I stumbled upon the City of Halcyon, California. I had seen something on Google Maps about a “People’s Temple” but I didn’t understand what it was. Luckily I was able to discover it on foot, the best way to move and experience. I walked down South Halcyon Blvd which is a typical city street, straight with wide lanes and built solely for the purpose of transporting motorized vehicles. Then I turned onto Temple Street and entered a paradise right smack in the middle of the very “normal” city of Arroyo Grande. The streets were narrow, the houses set back and sparsely spaced. It was the trees that caught my attention first. Huge eucalyptus, overgrown redwood and other tall, poorly trimmed trees. In the empty fields around the homes, fallen trees were lying around and degrading in peace. Unkempt bushes were taking over land on their own free will and a mood of serenity was prevalent.

In the 30 minutes that I walked through the small community I saw about four moving cars. I met Annie who was walking her old dog without a leash. While Annie was telling me that the place was 100 years old and was the oldest intentional community west of the Mississippi, doggie just lied down in the middle of the street. As a car approached at about 5 km/h Annie yelled lightly and told the dog to skedaddle over to the roadside.

The homes were mostly older, smaller places. Some looked more like cabins. None were fancy or ornate. It looked like they had a radical restriction on new housing. In fact none of the homes looked like they had been built in the last thirty years.

Halcyon is an incorporated city on 125 acres (50 ha) and was founded by the Theosophical Society in 1903. I don’t know anything about it but Rudolf Steiner was a follower before he founded the Anthroposophical Society. The community has public meetings every week and invite people to visit their library. It may be a bit too religious or spiritual for me, but the place has a powerful, attractive, warming energy that will certainly draw me back again soon.

Home Search in Morro Bay

As I was leaving Germany a few close friends and family members said, “oh, don’t worry, the time will go by quickly by the time you return”. I think they were saying that to comfort me. My reaction was, however, that I hope the time goes by very slowly. My feeling is that if days and weeks just fly by and you’re a year older without even noticing, then something is not so hot. Life is boring. If, though, a week seems like a month, then you are experiencing life intensely.

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The surfing gang at Morro Rock (aka The Pit)

Well, rest assured, the week since my last entry has been intense. It seems like a month or more. I must admit it has been a bit too intense. I have hardly had a moment to sit down and read my book or write in my journal (ah ha) or do nothing. This is fun but it can’t be sustained for too long.

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A struck of luck gave us this great house

The home search was one hell of an adventure. At some point, I was ready to just give up. One rejection after another. I even got a rejection yesterday after I already had my new place. For some reason my profile had minimal chances against all those vulture rental-seekers out there. Maybe I am too old, maybe they don’t like the fact that I lived in Germany and that my employer is in Germany. Maybe they don’t like my long, unkempt hair.

My home search started a few months ago on a website called craigslist. It’s a non-commercial site, which has basically killed the classified ads in newspapers, one of their most important revenue sources. From Germany, I was looking but realized that it was futile because the rentals were always available immediately and they all wanted to see the potential tenant.

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One of many cool messages around San Luis Obispo

We came up to my sister’s in Morro Bay last week and I jumped right in and drove all over and looked at various apartments, condos and houses. We saw amazing places and we saw some dumps. One place had a view directly over the harbor in Morro Bay. On my first visit it stunk of fish but the view was a sell. Another place had paint peeling off the exterior walls, spider webs up and down the entry way and looked more like a converted storage building than a house.

I applied for the one with the view and never heard back from them. We looked at a few places way over my budget. One was a very nice, small house on a lot overlooking a beautiful valley. The landscaping around the house was draught-resistant and blended perfectly into the environment. It had a back porch and sitting down on a chair I just wanted to remain there for the rest of the afternoon. That guy also rejected me.

One of our last hopes was a cute little house a few blocks from the beach in Morro Bay. It was a house from the fifties, with a vaulted ceiling, wooden trim on the windows and real wooden cabinets in the kitchen. I applied for that one but had delayed paying the $60 application fee. The girls and I had a nice chat with the two male owners but as I saw all the interested parties milling around the open house, I got totally depressed and felt I had no chance. There were young students, a young couple with no kids, a single woman and a man who had just suffered from stroke and was hardly able to speak. Yesterday I got an email from that guy saying they had decided on another person.

So many rejections in one week was trying. But, I don’t give a damn. I got a place and its awesome. It’s a charming two-bedroom, two bath unit in San Luis Obispo. It’s fully furnished and the owners are extremely friendly.

First Days in Los Angeles

Theresa, Lisa and I departed Union Station by train today. This is, I believe, the first time I have every taken an Amtrak train out of LA. This precludes the numerous light rail trains and subways I have frequented in my times in LA. Even though I am a big public transit enthusiast, this is my maiden venture.

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Theresa and Lisa at Santa Monica Beach

Departing from Union Station was momentous. The building itself is wonderful and does not pale to some of the magnificent stations of Hamburg, Paris or Milan. In fact, I have never in all my travels through Europe seen a train station with such cool lounge chairs. A couple months ago I was in Paris and while waiting for our train, my friend and I had to sit on the cold ground because of a lack of seating. Not in LA, though. Here they have wide, leather, cushiony seats, fit for a living room in a ritzy Beverley Hills home. The wooden arm rests are wide enough for a latte and a bagel. The station has ornate, carved wood ceilings and fancy tiled floors.

Union Station was built back in the thirties, which is super old for California. The construction was approved by a ballot initiative in 1926. Isn’t that cool. A popular vote was initiated to decide on building the station. It was a time of rapid growth in the city, even though it was relatively small. In 1920 the city had only 570,000 residents and by 1930 it had more than doubled to 1.2 million.

We departed right on time and headed north west through Pasadena, Glendale and out towards Oxnard. The train was very slow and the route is very curvy, obviously not improved for speed. I would guess, in fact, that the route has not been improved upon in its entire history. It took us two hours to get to Oxnard, a trip that would take about an hour by car.

It was pretty luxurious on the train, though. The tracks are about 20 feet from the beach and we enjoyed watching the surf and the beachgoers from our double decker train.

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Poster in Cafe in San Luis Obispo

It had been extremely hot in LA, way hotter than usual. But what’s usual in the day and age of climate change? I grew up in LA near the beach and it was never so hot and muggy. To avoid the heat everything is air conditioned. That’s also something I don’t remember as a kid. In the train there was cold air blowing down from the ceiling. I had to put my jacket and baseball cap on in hopes of not catching a cold. I hate it when I go into a store from the sweltering heat and get smacked in the face with ice cold air. I don’t know how the people manage not to get stiff necks and colds all the time. Not to mention the disastrous amounts of energy it wastes keeping these things blowing. I may end up living in California like a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf any time I go into a public building. We shall see.

A Woman’s Gaze up the Street

I just got a glimpse of her as I drove slowly by on that December evening in 2010. The glance was enough, however, to reveal a treasure chest full of memories I thought were long lost.

She stood at the end of the long driveway gazing up the street. Her mouth slightly opened, concern in her eyes, the stiffness in her figure revealing so much of her past. Age had taken its toll on Jill and her once curly brown hair and changed to curly silver. The very fact that she was even standing there told me so very much. In fact her mere presence awoke in me a fascination that has driven me to write this little story on in the hopes that I can then lay it to rest. You, just like another passerby on that street, may find this situation perfectly normal and not note-worthy, but perhaps you will be surprised.

It was not just any old street and the person in question was no stranger to me. The street was the street of my childhood. The street that I rode my bike up and down countless times. The street with the carob and the eucalyptus trees. The street with the mysterious old, dark houses set back from the road. It was a green street with trees towering above, with freshly mowed lawns or with ice plant taking over and creeping onto the street. It was the street which is as familiar to me as the back of my hand. Every house is etched into my memory. If you asked I could draw a perfect three-dimensional rendition of the street, with perfect lines showing each curve and every hill. Continue reading

The Mosque of Córdoba, Spain

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I swear this is the weirdest religious building I have ever been to. Even though I am by no means a religious man, I have been to quite a few in my life, but the Mezquita (mosque) in Córdoba, Spain is the most unusual. Traveling around Europe, which I have also done a lot of over the past 20 years, I have seen a multitude of churches, cathedrals, synagogues and a handful of mosques.

I must admit that I have rather tired of cathedrals. I mean its like Ronald Reagan infamously said at the height of the clear cutting debate in the early eighties, “If you’ve seen one Redwood, you’ve seen ’em all”. I wasn’t much of a fan of Reagan, to say the least, and I love Redwoods, but I after visiting probably over 100 really big and really impressive cathedrals I feel “I’ve seen ’em all”.

I have also visited a fair number of synagogues and they are usually pretty modest affairs. The hidden synagogues of Venice, Italy are pretty amazing, despite their modesty. You go into the “ghetto” there (that’s the Jewish Quarter and also the place where that word originates) and you walk into a plaza that looks like any number of old Italian piazzas and you simply do not see the three or four synagogues that your tour guide told you about. They are truly hidden. You enter a residential building, walk up the stairs, go through a very low key entranceway and then you are in the middle of an actual synagogue. Strange.

Another very bizarre house of worship which I visited, or at least attempted to visit, was in Jerusalem. If you are ever in the neighborhood I highly recommend you visit the Old City. Enter best through the Damascus Gate where you will immediately dive into a mysterious Arabian world more exciting than any Indiana Jones movie or romantic Arabian fairy tale. Don’t rush and do buy lots of products from the friendly sellers in their colorful shops. Stop by the cafe for a super sweet pastry and an even sweeter cup of tea. Let yourself be cajoled into buying a cashmere shawl for super cheap. Eventually you will be pulled toward the center of the city. Don’t even try to fight the magnetic force attracting you there. You will make it, I am sure, to the very same spot as I. You will be standing in front of a tunnel-like arcade full of even more enticing shops with friendly Arabs selling delicious spices, dates, pots and pans and you will know that just on the other side, less than 100 meters before you, is the miraculous Dome of the Rock with its golden dome and with the most famous rock in the world. Just across the plaza is the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Did you know that Al-Aqsa simply means the furtherst and was named that because it was the furtherst mosque that Mohammed travelled to before going to Heaven.

Standing in front of that tunnel all you have to do is walk through this bazar and you will be there. The only problem is that there are two young Israeli soldiers with very long machine guns who are stopping any non-Arab looking people from going in. Jewish Israeli soldiers allowing only Arabs into the most Holy spot on Earth. How strange is that?

So back to Córdoba, Spain. Here at the Mezquita its there are similarities with Jerusalem in that Christians, Muslims and Jews have populated this city for centuries, sometimes in peace, sometimes not. The Christian cathedral is actually hidden within the mosque. Hidden is Perhaps the wrong word. Its as if some super huge monster dude picked up this gigantic church and dropped it in the middle of this even more gigantic mosque.

Its a pretty mixed up place and the name pays tribute to it. If you look it up on the English Wikipedia (my current place of worship) you will find it being called “the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba”. When you walk up to it, however, you will see a big sign saying “Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción” and then in smaller, cursive print below “Mezquita de Córdoba”.
So what is it, a Catholic church or a Muslim mosque? After visiting the place I would clearly and unequivocally say, uh, not sure.

Looking back in history doesn’t really help us solve this riddle. It was originally built as a Catholic church (dear Miss Wikipedia failed to provide the date), then starting in 784 Abd al-Rahman began construction of a mosque that was to rival those in Syria and Baghdad. In its hay day a few hundred years later it was big enough to fit 15,000 worshippers.

Then in 1236 the Reconquista made it to the city and the Catholic forces took back the city from the Muslims. As often happened the one religion decided its place of worship has to be on the exact same piece of real estate as the last. The town council was against the construction plans mostly because they feared the new church in town would take business away from the other church across town. The guy with the most dollares won out and instead of tearing down the mosque he decided to just build a cathedral right smack in the center of the old mosque. I wonder what kind of drugs he was on.
Actually we should be thankful that this guy was daring and humorous enough to go through with it.

Long Walk to Marbella, Spain

sunset-1283018_1920I have to admit that this is one of my favorite past times; sitting in a cafe, reading or writing and watching the world go by. Of course its great if my wife or kids or a friend are with me, but alone is cool too. If I have a beach and waves to look at it makes the moment even more special.

I discovered this spot by chance after being dropped off at a highway intersection 8 miles shy of my destination of Marbella, Spain. Unprepared as usual on such outings, I thought it was more like three miles so I had no water and my cell phone battery was running out. With no cell phone I had no navigation system. What did I do? Like usual, and this is another of my favs, I just put one foot in front of the other, followed my nose, headed to the shore and hoped I would find the perfect cafe at the beach (with wi-fi, I have my iPad of course and it has 30% battery left).

I had to navigate my way through this funky “urbanizationes Marbella”. I guess it could be translated to residential district with vacation homes. Its an expansive collection of homes on a hillside overlooking the Med. The narrow, curvy roads and tiny single-family, Spanish style homes (this is Spain after all) are decorated with red-tiled roofs and white, stucco walls. The homes seem mostly to be occupied by retired English chaps. Most of them have little swimming pools, about large enough so you can take two strokes before you run into the edge.

Finally I found my way down to the beach, discovered this cafe (with wi-fi and an electric socket), and asked Google Maps how far the walk is to Marbella. Two hours and 9.9 km (do the math if your still not metric) straight down the beach. Cool, I can do that. I have all day and just hope my hip doesn’t start acting up on me.

My weakness for sitting in cafes with a book or a newspaper goes all the way back to my college days. Ah, how I loved sipping my vanilla java, reading the San Francisco Chronicle and smirking at Herb Caen’s column on life in The City. (Hm, wonder if he’s still around). Those Saturday mornings at the Upper Crust or Sam’s Cafe down on Main Street were priceless. No worries in the world and the buzz of newly discovered caffeine boosted me into a space of boundless creativity and optimism. Unfortunately, the results were modest and I was happy to finish the conclusion on my poly sci essay on America’s role as a counter revolutionary force in Central America Before the high wore off. Can you imagine, I actually wrote that essay on a piece of paper with a ball-point pen?

Certainly a few years have passed since then. Now I write by tapping on a piece of glass, my children have to glance down to look me in the eye and the wrinkles around my eyes remain after I finish smirking at the daily Doonesbury. Its not all gone to pot, though. I can still sit here in a cafe and enjoy my book and newspaper and watch the world go by