When my high school career was nearing its end and it came time for me to look at colleges, I considered two schools in the Northwestern U.S., four in the Northeastern U.S., and one in California. After trips out to New York and Boston, Oregon and Washington, I decided that I liked California. I still do. The University of California at Santa Cruz is where I landed. My college experience, I suppose, was not unlike others in many ways, with its dorm life, parties, all-nighters and exams. I don't know, however, how many other college freshman had the opportunity to be awoken by the sun in a fairy-circle of Giant Redwoods on a Tuesday morning, pack up their sleeping bag and head back for a shower before class. Full-moon drum circles in the woods, climbing a 100-foot Spruce Pine to an ocean view, psychedelic cave exploration, these are some of the memories of a UCSC graduate.
I decided to study abroad for my third year in college, and opened my eyes one morning in Barcelona. Living in another country for a year has proven to be the single most transformative experience in my life. Learning to commune, socialize, speak, and think in terms set by a different peoples and history shatters your entire conception of reality. That conception is then reshaped, but it is painted with much broader strokes.
One of the consequences of living abroad (which I have found to be a different animal altogether than traveling abroad) is a heightened ability to compare, contrast, and critically analyze the functional realities of the culture in which one lives. There are social tendencies in Spain that seemed to me so natural, and so beautiful, that I seldom or never see in The States.
The Butanero, for example, walking up and down the streets on Sundays, with his bright orange butane tanks clanging from the strike of a rod, letting all know of his presence. I would go to the window and yell down to him, 'We need one, up here.' That's how you get the gas to heat your home and cook your food. If you miss him, you wait until next week, or borrow a tank from your neighbor. Oh, and if you forgot to buy groceries on Saturday, you have to wait until Monday. Nothing is open on Sundays. NOTHING! At first, these things can be frustrating to an American. We have immediate gratification coursing through our veins. "Wait 24 hours until I can shop again!!??" To the Spaniard, though, this rhythm of life is the 'clave' in their 'son.' It's impossible to imagine one without the other. That said, there are also (plenty of) tendencies that were very difficult for me to adjust to and/or accept about Spanish and Catalan culture. Needless to say, the first part of my year there was not easy for me. In the end, though, I fell in love with Barcelona. Va escoltar això, Barna? T'estimo tant.
In the same manner, along with all of the things that made me uncomfortable about the cultural tendencies of my own homeland, upon my return I fell in love again with California, and with Santa Cruz. Coming home to flip-flops, and smiling faces, and the "pack your trash, bro" attitude of Santa Cruz was as refreshing as a clara con limón on an August afternoon en España. My time abroad had given me the ability to appreciate more fully the things about my own culture that I truly treasure. Santa Cruz is a great place to live.
I remember once meeting a man in a small town in Finland called Padasjoki. My family had planned a mini-vacation during my year in Spain, and rented a lovely little lakeside cabin complete with sauna. So, I was chatting with this Finnish man, and he asked where I was from. "California," I said, "I live in Santa Cruz." His jaw dropped, "What are doing here in Padasjoki?" This same situation has played out many times for me since then. The places where I spend my days working and playing, fortunately for me, are the same places that people on the other side of the world dream of visiting.
I went to Cafe Brasil with some friends yesterday, and one of them-who, coincidentally, is about to move to Spain-was recounting her recent experience at a Santa Cruz City Council meeting. She was brought to tears as community members came up to share how city-supported social service programs have helped them survive and thrive. "You don't see things like this in Brazil or in Spain," said Karen, "this community is amazing." It really is. I feel so fortunate to be a member of a progressive community, where people are involved, and open and caring.
In addition to the appealing socio-political atmosphere, one need only open their eyes to be struck by the extraordinary environmental beauty that abounds on the central coast. The largest marine sanctuary in the United States, a backyard filled with the tallest trees on earth, a moderate Mediterranean climate, and a plethora of state parks and beaches make Santa Cruz an ideal place for the naturalist.
I often make a conscious effort to appreciate my life and surroundings as if I were a tourist; a fresh perspective, seeing for the first time the splendor before me. This is how I want to live my life.
I know much of this post probably sounds like something out a travel brochure, but I do feel blessed to live in such a beautiful place and I wanted to acknowledge that. Although traveling to, and even living in, other spots on the globe is a priority for me, Santa Cruz will always be a home for me. A place I respect and admire, somewhere I love, and feel loved.