California

So I have this theory about how different people experience the world…. 

Simon on the Stanford Dish Hike trail. :)

….Some people might walk down the hiking trail above completely absorbed in their own thoughts, for the most part taking for granted their natural surroundings. Some might walk the path a little more in tune with their environment, pausing every once in a while to take a photo and think, 'wow, this is beautiful.' And others might experience this scene with every ounce of their being, marveling at the way the sun illuminates the golden grass, deeply inhaling the fresh air from the bay, and trying to find the right words to describe just what it feels like being eye-level with the clouds. Simon and I strive to fall into this third category. When we explore new places, we try not to focus too much on hitting up all the tourist spots and seeking out thrilling activities, and instead we take our time to really, truly feel the atmosphere of a place with each of our senses, capturing our impressions through pictures and prose. On that note, I'd like to talk about how we felt about our week together in California this summer. :) 

One of my favorite parts of California was without a doubt the mornings spent relaxing in Simon's backyard in East Palo Alto. There's nothing quite like fresh fruit, organic cereal, and the promise of uninterrupted reading time in a hammock to convince you to get out of bed in the morning. Then there was the weather, which basically embodied everything that perfect summer weather should be. Sunny and warm on the surface, with a consistent undercurrent of a crisp, cool breeze…blue skies, a reliable 65 degrees, and exactly zero chance of rain…honestly the weather made me want to live outdoors. What I would have done to bring it back to New York with me! We never spent more than an hour or so sitting and relaxing though. Even on vacation, I can't seem to sit still for too long, which is why breakfast and hammock time was followed almost always by a bike ride.  

Since we did not have a car, we biked literally everywhere, from Stanford campus to downtown Palo Alto to Simon's lab at NASA. What struck me the most during our miles of bike rides was that California is truly vast. Compared to Manhattan especially, there is an incredible amount of empty space, which was alternately liberating and isolating. In that sometimes it was kind of amazing feeling like it was just us and the grass and the sky left in this world, but at other times I missed the comfort of being surrounded by people and the hustle bustle of life. At any rate, the palm trees that lined the main road to Stanford were absolutely stunning, and the dry, arid landscape of the Bay Trail leading to NASA had a unique beauty to it too.

A funny moment from our bike trips was when I realized that part of the reason California seemed so golden brown in color was because I was seeing everything through my sepia-toned sunglasses. (Imagine seeing life through your favorite Instagram filter--that is basically what it was like.  I have since concluded that everything looks better in sepia tone.) Also quite amusing was the number of hurdles we had to overcome in order to actually be able to use our bikes to get around: two flat tire incidents, one case of oops the key is permanently jammed in the bike lock and we need professional assistance to open it, one chain falling off debacle, and the rather silly fact that the bike rental shop gave us a super fancy road bike which was only possible to ride if you leaned down like you were Lance Armstrong. How I felt about these obstacles is best captured by the second photo below.  

But enough about biking. When we weren't busy taking the scenic route to get from point A to point B, we spent our time on foot, exploring two cities: downtown Palo Alto and San Francisco.  Palo Alto puzzled me, because it seemed to have a bit of an identity crisis. Its residential parts consisted of quiet tree-lined streets and charming old Spanish- and Victorian-style houses inhabited primarily by Stanford professors. But in stark contrast, the commercial district was filled with swanky storefronts, modern but somewhat unoriginal architecture, a young, T-shirt and flip flop-wearing Silicon Valley crowd, and a few too many parked cars. It all felt like an awkward cross between a quaint college town and a run-of-the-mill American suburb, without a unifying culture or character. BUT that doesn't mean it didn't ultimately steal my heart! Palo Alto's saving grace was its fantastic food scene. 

We had the most delicious arepas ever at a lovely little Venezuelan place called Coupa Cafe. Then there was the incredible brown sugar banana and speculoos flavored ice cream at a 'microcreamery' called Scoop, and the award-winning (literally) Italian food at Osteria. I could go on. But everything just tasted so very fresh and so uniquely flavorful. I suspect this was at least in part because the ingredients in most of these eateries were locally sourced--when you think about it, just about all of our produce and organic food comes from California or someplace near it. But I am sure much credit is owed to the chefs and patrons of these restaurants as well, many of whom had received a 'Best of Palo Alto' distinction. :) In any case, spending the day hopping back and forth between the outdoor courtyards and terraces of various food establishments seemed to be an entirely acceptable thing to do in the city, and we embraced it. We whiled away whole afternoons reading and blogging and talking about life at Blue Bottle Coffee. Though Blue Bottle has many locations in New York as well, none of them can compete with the bright, sunny, inviting, picture perfect atmosphere of this one in particular!

As for San Francisco…well it would take a whole separate blog post for me to adequately convey my love for San Francisco, but I'm going to try my best to fit it in here. Simon and I had both been to the city before but I insisted that we come back for a day trip because I find San Francisco to be so wonderfully and refreshingly different from any other American city I've visited.  I love its hilly topography, its weirdly cold and windy and perpetually autumn-like climate (fun in small doses), its colorful streets and ethnic neighborhoods and Victorian houses, its proximity to the bay… need I go on? I think the pictures tell the story best. We began our day in vibrant Little Italy….

 …admired the architecture on the way to Fisherman's Wharf….

…strolled through the Marina district, and saw for the first time the breathtaking Palace of Fine Arts

…and capped off the day at the Presidio, an old military post turned into an enormous public park, which apparently features a food truck festival every Thursday evening April through October. I think it was at this food truck extravaganza that I felt most strongly that we were in California. A long row of food trucks was lined up along the green, serving everything from Baja fish tacos to Peking duck Neapolitan pizza to grilled cheese and tomato soup and other comfort foods. In the center of the green, a live banjo band played, and people gathered around campfires in little huts called cabanas, chowing down and enjoying one another's company. We'd never experienced anything like it before. I couldn't decide if I'd just walked onto the set of the movie Chef, or if I'd entered a new-age hippie commune, but I was very happy. 

I came back to New York about eight days later to an apartment that was just as much of a disaster as when I'd left it, and--much to my displeasure--to a new family of cockroaches. But you know, I think I brought some of the happiness and carpe diem attitude I found in California back with me. I've been pretty high on life ever since. I'd be quite content getting to spend a week or two of every year recharging my soul on the West Coast. I leave you with one last photo. It complements the very first one, being from the same Stanford Dish Hike trail that got me thinking about different ways of experiencing the world. It reminds me to not just breeze through each day as if it were nothing remarkable, but to really seize each moment and LIVE.