Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A trip back home over the holidays

Going "back home" for a vacation can feel a bit different, initially; or at least it did for us on our three-week trip back to the States for the holidays. You're not darting around sightseeing and exploring new things; instead, you're reconnecting with dearly missed family and friends, as well as with things and places (and, quite importantly, foods) that you desperately missed while away. It had been 2 years and 3 months since we'd last set foot on American soil, and that was more than enough time to start missing - no, yearning - for the place that both of us called home for eons. 

Rather than go into tedious, mind-numbing detail about every moment of the trip, I thought I'd select a few vignettes that stood out and made us appreciate the Bay Area all the more.

10:00 am, Tuesday, December 18 - the Hayward, CA DMV

The first order of business upon arriving was to go to that special plane of Boschian hell known as Hayward's California Department of Motor Vehicles so that Terezia could renew her CA driver's license, which had expired while we were in Slovakia. Even though Terezia had the foresight to make an appointment in advance so as to avoid the notoriously endurance-defying line, we couldn't avoid the red tape entirely and had to sit in the waiting area for 10-ish minutes, where we both found ourselves overjoyed (a feeling seldom experienced at any DMV) at the sheer volume of cultural and ethnic diversity that surrounded us. We were just about the only white people in the entire place, which felt refreshing after so much time spent in culturally homogenous Slovakia, where you can go for weeks without seeing anyone who's not pasty, white, and Slovak.

Friday, December 20 - Sakamoto Hill (one of several trips)

While hiking up Sakamoto Hill or on any of the other picturesque trails at Lake Chabot (near where I grew up in Castro Valley), we immediately noticed some rather odd behavior from the locals: just about everyone walking, jogging, or mountain bike riding in the opposite direction smiled and said "hello" to us. What could compel these people to act so friendly to complete strangers? No one would dare behave like this in Bratislava. 

Thursday, December 19 - Kimchi burritos at HRD, San Francisco

We had a slew of favorite restaurants - mostly different ethnic eateries - that we were determined to eat at on this trip, but when meeting my brother for lunch in the city one day, he introduced us to a new place that pleasantly surprised our palettes: the ambiguously named HRD. It looked quite like the old-school greasy-spoon coffee shop that likely occupied this spot before HRD moved in, complete with yellowish formica countertops and old stools. But the food, particularly the kimchi burritos we tried, stuffed with kimchi, rice, and rich, juicy Korean bbq, topped with a hot sauce that offered a sharp kick to the tastebuds, was an awesome thing to behold. Each and every bite was an explosion of flavor. Bratislava could really use a place like this.

Multiple other restaurants scattered throughout the trip

We hit up several of our favorite old haunts (and a few new ones): Banana Blossom, our old neighborhood Thai joint, has a menu that can be hit and miss, but their sublimely rich and complex massaman curry chicken, as well as their spicy crab noodles, were still as orgasmically flavorful as ever. Ajanta's Indian curries, with the tenderest, juiciest chicken and lamb you can imagine, still resulted in the overwhelming urge to roll around on the floor in a curry-induced stupor. Angeline's Creole style jambalaya was like getting punched in the face with rich, bold southern flavors. Umami Burger's rare, life-alteringly juicy truffle burger - easily one of the best burgers you can find in the Bay Area - did not disappoint. Feasting on Zachary's deep dish stuffed pesto pizza felt like reconnecting with an old friend. Kirala's super fresh sushi went down like butter, and most importantly, their unagi nigiri, the thing by which I judge a sushi place, was served warm, like it's supposed to be! (Frustratingly, every sushi place in Bratislava that we've been to serves their unagi stone cold, which should be considered a crime against humanity).

Monday, December 23 - Telegraph Ave, Berkeley (one of numerous trips)

After spending some much yearned-for time perusing the racks of LPs and CDs at Amoeba records and the unique, stylishly offbeat vintage clothes at Mars and Buffalo Exchange, we met with a friend of mine at Cafe Mediterranean at a table near the window, which was the perfect place to perch and people watch with a strong caffe latte. At any given minute, you'd see semi-homeless crusty punks, aloof university students, dreadlocked hippies, immaculately dressed yuppie-hipsters, interracial and gay/lesbian couples, pretentious wool-jacketed English Lit majors, and just about any ethnic minority you could think of, all walking up or down the same sidewalk, which made us feel completely at home. I'll concede that in general Telegraph Ave isn't quite what it used to be, but it still retains a certain unique character.

Amoeba music, I missed you so much!

Monday, December 30 - Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland hills (multiple hikes) 

The dense grove of redwood trees that inhabit one of our favorite East Bay hiking places are third growth (the first having been logged in the mid-1800s to make San Francisco, the second decimated to re-build SF after it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake), but it's nevertheless an insanely beautiful park, with a web of lush, winding, shady hiking trails that snake through gorgeously picturesque scenery with the occasional surprise panoramic view of the Bay. We missed not only those stately and grand redwood trees while away, but also the sheer variety of other trees and foliage: gnarled old oaks, twisty and lush bay trees, prehistoric looking ferns, ivy-draped slopes, and the myriad dense, brambly shrubs fill up the landscape. Bratislava's Horsky Park and Koliba are nice, but as city parks go, Joanquin Miller is hard to beat.

Even in winter this place stays green.

Berkeley Bowl - multiple trips

Aside from Berkeley Bowl's rich variety of exotic (and more pedestrian) fruits and veggies that a Bratislavan would have to travel to Naschmarkt in Vienna to find, what we really appreciated this time was, once again (sorry to hit people over the head with this), the kaleidoscopic diversity of the people there. Like Telegraph Ave, Berkeley Bowl would be a great place for people watching. On any given day you have all manner of freaks and weirdos - you know, individuals - imaginable. Along with the usual cast of smug yet slightly flighty Berkeley liberals, you had mung-haired hippies, lesbian mothers, sikh couples, goths, bespectacled vegan indie kids, political activists passionately collecting signatures out front for universal health care, etc. Yes, you could argue that on some level many of these are just archetypes and stereotypes in and of themselves, and that what matters most are things like personality and intellect. But the fact that in Berkeley you have such a colorful array of socio-cultural diversity, and that you have people who refuse to conform to bland, socially acceptable, cookie-cutter cultural norms and who value a sense of individualism, was, again, refreshing, and made us feel at home.

Half Moon Bay/Moss Beach - final weekend

For Terezia, a trip to the ocean was obligatory. Living in landlocked Slovakia caused her to miss it dearly, and my joking about "c'mon, in Bratislava you've got the Danube!" only elicited eye rolling. While standing at the edge of the Pacific, watching the unusually high tide glide over the rocks and the tide pools, Terezia said, "if we have a child, I want to raise it here, close to the ocean."

The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge (driven over several times)

This finally opened a few months prior to our trip, and driving across it felt almost distractingly satisfying. So, it took them a whopping 24 years to replace the old span after it was damaged in the '89 earthquake and deemed structurally unsound. I'm often critical of new architecture, but they really did a commendable job with this - and it's especially fetching when lit up at night. It's surreal to see the old bridge (which they are slowly dismantling) still standing right alongside it.

What the hell happened to California's winter?

The only thing missing from the Bay during our visit were any signs of winter. In fact, 2013 was a record dry year, and while just about everywhere else in the US was caught in the "polar vortex", this December was the driest and warmest on record in CA. The weather hovered around 70 (21 Celsius) (!) in the day, and dipped down into the upper 40s (8-9 Celsius) on only the coolest nights. It was like having Xmas in SoCal, which is a strange thing to experience if you're used to things like seasonal change.

Everything seemed to be as dry as a desert twig, and a complete lack of wind and rain resulted in this thick, dense, grey blanket of smog that hovered over the Bay, preventing one from seeing SF from the East Bay hills across the bay.

On a clear day, from the spot where this photo (below) was taken in Joaquin Miller Park (Oakland), you get a stunning view of San Francisco, with downtown Oakland's skyline more in the foreground. But for much of the three weeks of our trip, this was literally all you could see.

Here's a shot from the San Mateo Bridge. Normally this view affords you a clear, full view of San Francisco, but on this week you couldn't make out anything through the smog.

I know that people often joke that seasonal change in San Francisco is, well, subtle, but winter typically makes itself known much more than it did while we were there. On the upside, not having one single of day of rain during the trip certainly made things easier.

As much as we miss the Bay Area, I would occasionally recall things while we were there like the feeling of excitement when pulling into Prague or Krakow on the train, or going to the dingy, drab commie-era pub where Terezia's parents live, etc. I suppose it's natural to feel a pull between two places that you're connected to, especially when one of them was where you called home for a gazillion years. Either way, we were completely elated to be back in California.

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