Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Travel and Friendships

This post has been sitting in very disjointed draft form on my blog for nearly a year, and I just re-discovered it and decided to tidy it up enough to publish! I had started writing as usual about activities in Berkeley with friends, specifically some of the fun I had with my Mexican friend Herzonia who came to visit for a week. But the post also became a reflection on the opportunities for new friendships and richness in my life afforded by the kind of travel we are doing now, where we are living in a new place for 6 months rather than being short term tourists. I have taken the opportunity to get involved in various community activities and it gives me much more of a sense of what my life might be like if I lived somewhere other than Melbourne.

I recall observing how my mother’s horizons contracted as she grew older. In later life she often remarked she had more friends in Springvale (where the main Jewish cemetery is located in Melbourne) than anywhere else. She often expressed a “been there, done that” attitude and rarely agreed to try new things, which might have been a sign that she was a bit depressed. I also observed that I was heading in a similar direction. I love the familiarity of Melbourne and the comfort of my oldest friends. We grew up together and know each other’s family and personal histories, and have shared a lifetime’s experiences. I miss my friends a lot when I am away, as well as missing the landscape of Melbourne and Australia.

But these last couple of years, when we have spent 6 months at a time living elsewhere, I have had the unexpected pleasure and freedom of making entirely new friends. I may refer to my “new best friend” somewhat lightly, but my experience of being in a new city where Barry is at work and I am not has been totally transformed by my fortune in meeting new people who have opened new worlds to me. New friends have given me the opportunity to participate in new activities and meet other new friends through shared participation, rather than a shared history. I highly recommend it!

Herzonia -see top photo.

Last year, meeting Herzonia transformed my experience of Mexico City. She features in many of the Mexican blog posts from 2007. We exercised together, cooked and shopped together, and hung out a lot, always talking, talking, talking. How great that she could come to Berkeley for a week to do more of the same with me (and a lot of talking with Barry too) at our rented house.

I have posted text and photos elsewhere about our Napa Valley winery visits. We also did fair bit of wandering about the Berkeley Hills and one early afternoon took a long and at times quite steep walk with Cheyla and Nico, anthropologist friends of Herzonia’s and their extremely cheerful baby (see the photo). We walked in Strawberry Canyon, a nature reserve right at the top of the UC campus. I skipped my swim for this glorious hike – it was a crisp but sunny day and the views over the East Bay were absolutely stunning. I had known there was a pool and recreation centre up here, but it is a bit too far to walk from home. Without the prompting and the company, I would not have made it up there, and as we spent more than 2 hours on our round trip I am glad we opted to drive to the starting point, as it would probably have taken the best part of another hour mostly uphill to get back home. We were able to pick Barry up from campus on our way back, too.

Sonya (on the right in this photo)

If I have made another new best friend in Berkeley, it is Sonya. I first met her at the JCC Senior’s exercise class I found in my first week at Berkeley – she went out of her way to say hello to me as a newbie in the class and I asked if she had time for a coffee afterwards. We had a lovely chat and I mentioned my blog to her, but then I went off to NYC for a couple of weeks and she went to visit her husband’s daughter and a new baby in Amsterdam. When we next met, she had read and enjoyed some of last year’s Mexico blog entries, and one thing led to another, and we had coffee together most weeks, then she suggested I might enjoy the slightly more rigorous seniors' exercise classes at the Albany YMCA, which I eventually managed to try out after my October trip East. We took to going together a couple of times each week, and usually Sonya came by to pick me up on her way down there – again, I would probably not have found out about it as it is a bit far to walk (especially uphill going home after a vigorous hour and a quarter in class!) So it has been really different and very enjoyable to have someone to go to classes with.

After class Sonya often had errands to run so I frequently accompanied her, whether to the Tokyo Fish Market , Monterey market, Andronico’s, the Berkeley Bowl – I can always use a visit to a produce market, planned or not! And a couple of times we had lunch at a local restaurant or back home at my place, helping showcase and devour the bountiful harvest from the garden at Santa Barbara Road. (There is always scope to use some fresh figs and tomatoes to tizzy up a salad). Philip and Sonya invited Barry and me to dinner one evening at their beautiful house a bit further up in the Berkeley Hills, very Japanese by design, though it was not when they first moved in. I had dropped Sonya off once or twice when we were using my car rather than hers, and she had observed with a degree of bemusement the horrible truth about my navigational skills and inability to reliably distinguish left from right. She told me to turn right and I promptly turned left, at which point she perhaps also began to realize why I couldn't always follow our dance routines in class.

When we were invited to dinner I got some Google Maps instructions for driving and walking there from our house, and set off one afternoon to explore the neighbourhood on foot, using a combination of these instructions and the Berkeley Path Wanderers' Map, hoping to discover some new paths or steps I hadn't seen before while getting a bit more familiar with this part of the Hills so I wouldn't get totally lost again driving there in the evening. I can report partial success: some of the paths had however disappeared, and, as I had discovered some time ago when I tried to follow the paths through Codornices Park, the Paths that seem to enter a park are not clearly marked and I got quite lost wandering through some uncharted territory. I met several deer (see this one who stood still for an instant before bounding off), several other walkers , and some very friendly cats, and found my way home via some really spectacular views. It is so beautiful around the Berkeley Hills, I can see why housing is so unaffordable here!

How I got involved in new activities - Seniors' exercise classes, Spanish conversation groups and the East Bay Jewish Folk Chorus.

In the various activities I do at home, from my U3A “Why Is It So?”(formerly Geology and the Universe) physical sciences class which I love, to my regular swims and assorted senior’s exercise classes, I participate on my own. As I mostly worked full time through all but 3 of my 37 years of professional life, and spent several periods of Ben’s early childhood years overseas, I haven’t had a history of sharing leisure activities with women friends other than going to the movies, or occasional theatre, concerts etc. I didn't start out with any friends in my choir at home (Canto Coro) though I became friendly with the altos and other committee members over the time I was singing. Likewise in my exercise classes – I have often felt vaguely envious of women who seem to do these activities with their friends. Different working patterns than those of my old friends dictated that we didn't do many daytime activities together, only weekend or evening cultural events.

My involvement in activities in Berkeley has been a bit of a random walk. I noticed the JCC about 20 minutes from our house on a walk on our very first day in Berkeley, checked to see that JCC did indeed denote Jewish Community Centre, then Barry noticed in the Daily Planet (a free weekly Berkeley Newspaper that we picked up in the local deli where we ate that night) that they ran seniors' exercise classes, so I went to one to check it out. There I met Sonya - see the paragraphs above for more about her. In the same issue of the Daily Planet there was some information about a Spanish Conversation class at the North Berkeley Senior’s Centre, so I went along to one of those sessions, where I overheard Judy, a fellow student, wondering aloud where she had seen the teacher before, concluding that it was at The East Bay Jewish Folk Chorus. At the end of the session, I asked Judy about this choir, which seemed right up my alley. She told me it was about to start a new season rehearsing at the JCC. She gave me a contact number and I shortly began singing there, though it was quite difficult at first because I don’t read music and most members do. However, Achi, the director, sends out most of the music in MP3 files as well as the lyrics, so I was able to download the alto parts to Barry’s iPod and practise while walking about Berkeley exploring or heading to campus or the JCC for activities. Here is a picture taken at the choir's Sukkah party in 2008

After my August 2008 trip to NYC to visit Ben and Lissy just a week after we arrived in Berkeley, I resumed the JCC exercise class. I asked several other women in the class if they had time for a coffee, and discovered Anne who spends up to half of the year in Mexico. By this time I knew the Spanish conversation class I had tried was too elementary for me, so I asked her about more advanced opportunities for Spanish conversation. She introduced me first to the small North Berkeley Grupito del Norte, which meets informally in my immediate neighbourhood. It is a recently-formed offshoot of the Tertulia which is more often held in Oakland, and which has a more formal structure - a pot luck dinner and a discussion around some prescribed reading. In pretty short order I discovered my Spanish was adequate to participate in both groups and found myself with an activity every Tuesday evening – and also was speaking to Anne mostly in Spanish and began car-pooling to the Oakland meetings with her and Karl, a piano teacher who took some advanced Spanish Lessons with Anne, who lives nearby and is a regular attendee also.

I hosted several Grupito meetings – I like to do this and it removes the need to drive and the eminent probability of getting lost – and figured out I had just one chance to host a tertulia before we left Berkeley in 2008, so volunteered to do this a couple of weeks before we left.
Herzonia was able to be present at this tertulia, where the reading I had selected for discussion was from a BBC Mundo Spanish web site, an investigation of the drug trade in Mexico. Her presence at the meeting was very much appreciated by the 15 or so attendees, many of whom specifically remarked on the night or emailed me later on how good it was to have a native Spanish speaker who spoke with such clarity and at a speed we could all understand, who, as someone from the very place we were discussing, had a different and highly interesting perspective. We had rather too many desserts that evening, and at one stage I feared we wouldn't have enough mains, so I reheated some chicken cacciatore I had made just in case. In the end we of course had lots of leftovers, but that’s the way the Jewish mother in me always caters for a crowd!

I guess I have thrown myself in the deep end, with really great outcomes for me. I have certainly learned that wholehearted participation in whatever activity I undertake is usually appreciated by the existing members of the group – my choir and the Grupito and Tertulia people all seemed genuinely sorry to see me leave and expressed delight in the prospect of our return here next year, at which point I fully intend to take up all these activities and my friendships again. We will just have to find another house in the same neighbourhood!

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