Saturday, February 14, 2015

A brief update on life in the States

Since we've been back in the US for over three months now, it seemed like time for an update.

We moved back into our old Oakland apartment at the start of the year, and it was almost surreal to be back in the very same place, with more or less the same bed, furniture, stuff on the walls, etc. After spending the first night here, we woke up joking that the last three years in Slovakia must've been one wildly epic dream. But it's been wonderful to finally be back in our own home.

On the work front, Terezia found a job surprisingly fast. She's got a gig as a full-time private chef for a family on the peninsula that adheres to a very restricted diet due to illness in the family. It's based on the trendy Paleo diet, which revolves loosely around the way people ate back in Paleolithic times - lots of meat, some seafood, a specific list of veggies, but no dairy, gluten, or grains, etc. The family has been great to work with and the dietary restrictions have proven to be a fun challenge for Terezia, as she has to work within these boundaries and still prepare food that's delicious and gourmet. The only drag is the insanely long commute.

My job search is still ongoing, and I'm hoping to find something that involves editing and/or writing, in an attempt to build off my experience as an assistant editor at the Slovak Spectator. There's not a ton of stuff out there right now, but I've sent out several resumes and had some unsuccessful interviews. For the most part it feels like I'm just tossing resumes into a black hole. I've probably been a little too picky or discerning about which jobs I apply for, and if I'm still not getting results after another month or two of this, that will have to change. But it took both of us six months to find work when we moved to Slovakia, so I didn't anticipate that we'd both find work immediately here. I'm just glad one of us has got something.

But we've been super busy getting the apartment back into order. We spent most of January moving, unpacking, painting some of the rooms, unpacking, scrubbing down the kitchen and bathroom, unpacking, replacing furniture and appliances we had to get rid of when we moved out, unpacking, etc. And we've still got a water-damaged garage with black mold growing on the walls to deal with!

Oakland appears to have undergone a few noticeable changes while we were away. The downtown area is getting a jolt of gentrification, and now some stretches of it look almost unrecognizable, lined as they are with trendy new restaurants and bars and - shockingly - people. While previously your options for good restaurants/cafes/bars/etc were basically relegated to the very cool and vibrant Grand Lake/Lakeshore, Rockridge, and Piedmont Ave neighborhoods (not to mention the Temescal area), now downtown Oakland is transforming into yet another destination.

This strip of hip new restaurants/cafes popped up while we were away.

Okay, so I realize these spots aren't exactly crawling with people at 10AM on a Friday morning, but around lunchtime and evenings, these places seem to be fairly hopping, which is good for downtown Oakland.

I also noticed some of the old, pre-war facades have been restored or repainted, reclaiming pieces of Oakland's history. One hundred years ago, Broadway and the adjacent blocks in downtown Oakland were extremely picturesque and ornate, but an alarming number of those old buildings were mercilessly razed and replaced in the 1960s-70s with hideous 20th-century office high-rises and soulless brutalist parking garages. But it seems that efforts are now being made to hold onto what history the downtown has left.

Some photos of downtown Oakland's neo-gothic Cathedral Building, just because...

The first signs of gentrification were already apparent before we moved, particularly around the Fox Theater, a gorgeous Moorish-styled cinema that was built in the 1920s. Back in 2000 this building was literally rotting away and reportedly had mushrooms growing in it, and it narrowly avoided the wrecking ball after spending decades shuttered. But a couple years before we left for Slovakia, it had been completely restored and reopened as a live concert venue (we saw OMD there in 2011), while the surrounding block was rejuvenated with hip new restaurants and hangouts. This now seems to be spreading to some of the neighboring blocks, and it appears to be injecting the downtown area with a little more life.

The Paramount Theater, an Art Deco cinema just a few blocks away from the Fox. While the narrow facade is nice, the interior is arguably one of the most beautiful of any cinema or theater in the world. Go ahead, do a Google Image search for Paramount, Oakland, and you'll see. 

Another exciting addition: while we were away, downtown Oakland got an Umami Burger, a small but growing west coast chain that makes a damn tasty burger, which comes in a truffle glaze, with fries slathered in truffle cheese. We only eat burgers a few times a year, because I tend to feel like I got punched in the gut after having one, but this place would be one of our first choices.

Umami Burger: obviously *not* housed in a hip older building, but rather, on the ground floor of this cold, bleak, corporate monolith. Still, the burgers are worth it. 

Sadly, but not surprisingly, I have to report that pubic transportation here is still abysmal. And since Terezia and I have decided to get by with only one car (which she uses for her Odyssean commute), I've been at the mercy of the Bay Area's dysfunctional public transit. Bratislava, for all its issues, at least had pretty reliable public transit. But here, standing around at dull, shadeless bus stops waiting 25 minutes for a late bus is still a common occurrence. And in some smaller towns, like Castro Valley (where we stayed at my mom's before moving back to Oakland), public transit is almost nonexistent, making it impossible to get around without a car or bike.

Fortunately, moving back to the US after living abroad for a while requires infinitely fewer bureaucratic hurdles than moving back to Slovakia. You just kind of pick up where you left off - no having to reestablish permanent residency or any of that pointless red tape that's been laid out just for the hell of it. But one possibly nice thing about US bureaucracy is that these days you can deal with some of it over the telephone from the comfort of your home. For example, we've spent hours on the phone sorting out various issues and ambiguities involved with trying to sign up for health insurance via the Affordable Health Care Act, which, while definitely annoying, could at least be done, for the most part, while plopped cozily on the bed. I'll take sitting at home on hold for painfully long stretches of time over standing around in person in some epic line at some depressing office. We've also spent a few hours on the horn with evil Comcast, the internet provider and possibly the most despised company in American today.

At any rate, it's been absolutely wonderful to reconnect with friends and family, and to feast on the amazing and diverse offer of food here, some of which is walking distance from where we live. Plus, I'm overjoyed that I can get my weekly record store fix with visits to Amoeba Music in Berkeley and SF (not to mention, it's been awesome to be reunited with my LPs!). We both really missed the life here in the Bay, and in Bratislava I think we really only felt "alive" when we were out of town traveling or exploring new places.

Terezia at Oliveto in Oakland

The LPs

In Slovak news, I'm happy to report that Slovaks essentially rejected a recent referendum to ban gay marriage. But it wasn't that people turned out in droves to vote against it; rather, not enough people voted in the referendum for it to be considered valid. The vote required 50% participation, but only 21.41% voted. This probably had much more to do with extreme apathy than Slovaks suddenly supporting LGBT rights (in our three years there, we were alarmed by the blatant homophobia of many people we encountered), but we'll take this outcome over any discriminatory law. It's hard enough for the gay and transgender community in Slovakia as it is, so I hope activist groups use this opportunity to keep pushing for LGBT rights.

Slovakia has also been hit with some heavy snow over the past few weeks, which, I have to say, makes us a little nostalgic. The winter here in the Bay has been freakishly mild and summery this year. While it's nice to have week after week of sunny, clear, great bike riding weather, it's nevertheless a very real concern that these mild winters are going to be the new normal here. And, in a perverse way, we kind of miss those days of trudging cautiously through Bratislava's treachorously slippery, snow-and-ice covered streets, bemused by how inept and erratic the city was at keeping them clear.

I realize the blog has been collecting cobwebs over the last three months, but I will pop back in from time to time with the occasional update or development, so don't forget about this place completely!

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