I am Joseph (Dodo) Levin an American Literature with Creative Writing student. I was at Berkeley for 11 months and I am now in my final year at UEA. The easiest thing, albeit the least telling, to mention about my year abroad is the weather.
Since returning from Berkeley I have met with many friends who I had not seen for a year. They all asked the obvious question: “How was it? How was Berkeley?” Each time I would pause, look at them, consider all the options and respond with the weather. “ The weather was superb, California had a drought last year so I was sunbathing in December.” However, in that slight pause, just before I start praising the American climate, I omit all the things that might seem ridiculous, complex, oversentimental or just not quite right for the moment. Because after returning from a year in a different a country you seem the same, and for the most part you are, however you feel different, changed.
For instance, I would decide not to mention, that when you walk through the Berkeley campus late at night, and you stop underneath the Campanile and look up, the whole world seems small as the tower cuts through the stars. I would also not mention that it is impossible to get tired of watching the sunset from The Berkeley Hills. How after you’d puffed and sweated your way up and beyond the sight of the Memorial Stadium under construction, you would reach a view of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz and Marin County and you’d marvel as the sun lowered itself to the horizon. I’d certainly not mention the buzz of Occupy; the hoards that flocked to Sproul Plaza, their fury after a poet laureate was attacked with a baton, the noise made in both protest of what they deemed wrong and in support of all those who shared their pursuit of fairness, tolerance and justice. Or how after the occupiers had been told they must leave, and those camping told their tents must be removed from the premises, one tent with balloons attached flew in the wind as a kite or flag signaling the continuation of free expression.
All these things I would not mention in that moment. Maybe I would later in conversation or maybe these details would drip out in the weeks to come. However, in that moment, when first asked, it is impossible to know what to say or whether the other person will ever truly understand what I experienced.
Certainly, I could not include everything: Berkeley, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Diego, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Point Reyes, San Quentin, Las Vegas, The Grande Canyon, The Hoover Dam, Coachella music festival. The multitude of beautiful places, the diversity of landscapes and the many different people I met meant that my year in America seems much longer than a normal year. With greater change, adventure, movement, there seems to be more demarcations in time, more fragments of memory that give the impression that more was lived and more time passed.
There are many moments, places, issues and events that stand out. I cannot mention them all but here is a few-
A teammate and fellow student called Vinnie was driving me back to Berkeley from a Football tournament in San Diego. I sat in the back of his Mustang. The sun set on the left and Vinnie put on The Eagles, turning the volume up high as the world whizzed past. At the time this seemed like a taste of the country in its purest form, what it was meant to be- highways, rock music, guys named Vinnie. I treasure every road trip I took and wish I had gone on more.
I took a student run Teach in Prison class in which I went to San Quentin and taught Mathematics to prisoners. A travel writing class took me to the Big Foot Museum and then we camped in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I wrote more than ever in a graduate non-fiction class on ‘like’ and ‘love’. I was also accepted to the first ever Summer Creative Writing Workshop. The other subjects I studied were Peace and Conflict, Linguistic Metaphor, The American Character and Hemmingway.
I moved accommodation over Christmas, changing from dormitories (dorms) to a Co-op. Co-ops are student run houses which, to me, sum up the essence of Berkeley. Ideologically co-ops diametrically oppose Fraternities, they attract hipsters, anarchists, Satanists, and even the odd nudist. Each student is expected to do five hours of work shift a week and has the opportunity to run for a manager position. The cleaning, cooking, maintenance and budgeting are all organized by the students. A council runs every week in which students can bring up any issue they would like to discuss or simply ask for money to improve the house or run an event. Rent is viewed as temporary ownership of the property, allowing students to paint murals or write quotations on the walls. The halls and rooms are filled with beautiful images and words from poets, philosophers and old students. The Co-op I lived in is Called Cloyne Court; it is the biggest co-op in North America, housing around 150 people. I was often found in the courtyard playing cards, throwing a ball, talking, or sunbathing. The house’s exterior is all wood, resembling a pirate ship in many ways, and on one wall climbs wisteria. This is the place I miss the most, it felt most me, most home.
Difficulties and Return
Now, being back for more than six months, it is hard not be nostalgic. The year was amazing, although at times also difficult. There were moments during the first semester when I felt homesick. I missed some of the rituals I was used to. Nightlife was different, dancing to music was different, Americans were different. American guys were so much less self-deprecating, so much more macho, more “bro”. The language, the way people related to each other was different, it took a while to get used to. Cleats not boots, hella not bare, soccer not football. The cultural differences were far greater than I expected. There was a language barrier, especially on a personal level. Did I tire of “ Oh my God, you have an accent”? Maybe…maybe not.
Coming back to UEA has also been hard at times. Suddenly, I am not special in the same way, not English in America. There is less excitement, less adventure. Everything seems pleasant rather than impressive. Cornwall calls rather than Yosemite, UEA’s frozen lake instead of Berkeley’s sun-dressed hills.
I am now faced with graduation and the looming question of what to do next? I have applied to the UEA Creative Writing Masters course in hope rather than expectation. My two passions, which battle for focus in my life (obviously not including football), are literature and politics. I love writing and I get angry at social injustices. All my dreams are lofty, I see ends rather than the steps towards them-I want to write a novel, I want to reform education, I want to change the world.
For now, I talk about last year’s weather, this is easiest: the sun was out almost everyday. I laid in it, I followed it, I captured it on my skin for a while.