Last Saturday, while I was volunteering at a painting competition at the art center and drawing henna designs on little kids’ hands, the father of one of the children leaned over and asked curiously, “Where were you born?” I smiled sweetly and answered, “Berkeley.” And while it was the truth, it was quite obvious that that wasn’t the answer he had been expecting to hear.
With friends, I always laughingly append the answer with, “And that just explains everything, doesn’t it?”
I love Berkeley. I’m not there very often and, admittedly, I’m still not an expert at figuring out my way around, but if you leave me at the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph, I’m all set to go. From there, I can navigate my way to anywhere. There is only a small, select group of people I can tolerate shopping with, yet I’m content browsing for hours on my own and Berkeley is optimal for such an experience. I’ve bought candy from small corner shops and eaten it all while walking down the street. I’ve sat in cafes while drinking hot chocolate, watching the world walk by my windows, waving at people I happened to recognize. I’ve conversed with sidewalk vendors and returned the genuine, crinkly-eyed smiles of homeless people at the corners and tried on flip-flops and handled dangly earrings and slathered on lotion at the Bath & Body that’s now gone. I’ve taken my sweet time walking slowly from the BART station to the campus, inadvertently eavesdropping on people’s conversations, inwardly amused at the juxtaposition of buildings.
“Telegraph is overrated,” a girl said dismissively to me recently. I remember raising an eyebrow and making a curt, snappish remark in response. Perhaps my Berkeley experiences are not truly indicative of what it’s like to actually live in the town and know the place like the back of one’s hand, but the very fact that I don’t live there makes me appreciate it more, maybe. Berkeley is weird and wonderful and whack, and the fact that everything there is all slightly shabby and imperfect, eccentric and unexpectedly out-of-place, is what makes it all the more appealing.
I can see myself living in Berkeley.
I was in Berkeley recently to have lunch with a friend. Walking back to our car afterwards, I stopped abruptly in the middle of the sidewalk, hands on my hips, craning my neck upwards, and exclaimed loudly at no one in particular, “I love those bay windows!” It was a three-story house, two of the levels made up of the wide bay windows I couldn’t help marveling at. My friend, who had obliviously continued walking ahead without me, stopped and turned back, a bit disconcerted by my sudden display of enthusiasm. I suppose she didn’t know that it’s a habit I have, this stopping dead in my tracks whenever something captures my interest.
The Berkeley building reminded me of how much I miss our old Victorian home with the bay windows and soaring rooflines â€“ the tall, dilapidated house we spent over a year taking apart and rebuilding, knocking down walls and taking out excess doors, retaining the old moldings and doorway carvings, polishing the hardwood floors until they gleamed, reveling in the sheer glory of the house, a vast expanse of space and light. We remained there for only two more years after the year of renovation.
There are college students living there now, and a Volkswagen Jetta parked in the driveway. They sprawl on sagging couches on the wide front porch, littering it with six-packs, and the elegant bay windows sport posters of rockstars. My father’s geranium plots and brick borders, once intricately laid out and lovingly tended, are long gone, replaced by a patch of grass and nothing else. I miss the ingenious placement of those red geraniums, so vivid against the gray and white of the house.
I also miss our behtuk in the village, and the way the multicolored shutters shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. I miss the smell of rain, and the indescribably peaceful feeling of sitting on the rooftop and gazing down on the village. And my bebe and how she refused to acknowledge me as “Yasmine” and stubbornly persisted in calling me by my middle name, always.
I miss the miniature rose bushes from the house we lived in before that, and the level, green lawn. I miss watching the sunset from the laundry room window, and standing on the back porch to gaze at the stars, and reading so many more books in one year than I have collectively since then.
And before that â€“ well, before that, there was this, and I came back, didn’t I?
They say you leave behind pieces of yourself, too, in every place that you live in and leave. I, of all people, know how true this is, having abandoned bits of myself everywhere, gradually shrugging off the qualities and habits and personality traits I found lacking, ill-fitting, awkward, unnecessary, or even, yes, embarrassing. But I also think one learns to pick up pieces, too, and so it becomes not just a matter of leaving behind pieces, but of learning to resourcefully substitute new ones for every bit you discard.
The individual self is a jigsaw puzzle.
Or maybe I’m just a sentimental fool.