Month: March 2013

The California Diaries – Through the Silicon Valley

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almond flour pancake, lemon ricotta pancake, coffee and a side of fruit

My last day in San Francisco started at Plow, the city’s best spot for breakfast and brunch (according to local press and to our landlady) in Potrero Hill, a few blocks from our room. It’s cool, it’s cozy, it’s trendy, it’s…ORGANIC. Yet the menu isn’t for dieters or sensible stomachs…Image

I went for one almond-flour pancake (lacking taste without the maple syrup), one lemon ricotta pancake (good, really good) and one side of fresh fruit. The kitchen is on the other side of the counter so you see everything. And my European organic eyes were wide open when the cook flipped the gluten-free almond-flour pancake next to the bacon slices, removing the excess grease coming from the pork every now and then with a small spatula. Pancakes cooking on animal fat? Really? And then, of course, each pancake had a small nut of butter melting on top of it once presented at the table. I think that in Europe, in any fancy “organic” breakfast spot as popular as this one you could go to jail for that. But when in Rome…so I ate the whole thing not without repressing some anxiety regarding what all that trans-fat would do to my almost middle-aged body. The other customers were all ordering without the slightest sign of concern chinese breakfast and other eggs/pork/bacon/fried potatoes combinations and none looked terminally ill to be honest.

The sweetest part was a little girl of around 6, eating at the counter with her dad a poached egg and wearing amazing red cowboy boots under her very preppy grey coat. I took a picture because she looked adorable (and very fashion conscious).

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Red boots for breakfast

Short before lunchtime we left the city to start our journey toward Los Angeles. First stop, the Silicon Valley. Husband was over excited by simply looking at street signs: Palo Alto, Sand Hill Road, Cupertino…it’s his personal Disneyland. He dropped me in the middle of nowhere to get to a meeting on time and I walked, and walked, surrounded by serious-looking office buildings and blossoming cherry trees (cheer up, Europeans, spring still exists). Some baseball (or was that football? I only know soccer so don’t be mad) fields later I spotted a Starbucks and basically ran there, my raft in this hi-tech sea.

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Cherry blossoms and hi-tech offices

Then, suddenly, I was enlightened. Sitting in the corner of a Stanford Starbucks, I got it: flipping pancakes on bacon fat doesn’t matter here because none is thirty yet. Not even 25, I guess. For the past 4 days I had an hard time trying to spot anyone my age or older. They’re all super young, look super bright (I could feel an “underachiever and stupid” growing on my forehead just by listening at their conversations) and dress like Mark Zuckerberg. So I wondered: did he set a dirty-looking tee/bermudas/thong trend and all those young students and techies are just imitating him out of desperate hope to become as successful or he’s just the by-product of Silicon Valley nursing?

I still had one, simple question. What do you do to old people? Do you shoot them on their 30th birthday? Do you send them away on a special plane once they enter the reproductive phase of their life and start having concerns about clogged arteries, sagging skin and urban safety?

And a few miles later I got my answer. We stopped on the highway around Portola Valley and had something to eat before hitting the road again. We sat on the terrace and watched. Dozens of cars followed ours. Old people at the wheel. Old like white-hair/white poodle/fanny pack old. Here they are. Hidden somewhere on the hills, in low houses covered in green, sitting on a shabby-chic bench in the front garden. Big SUV filled with baseball-capped kids and hockey mums came in at the same time. I guess it was the friday afternoon errands time. I felt relieved (that they don’t shoot you after 30 in the Silicon Valley) and terrified (that they confine you in suburbs) at the same time. Wisteria Lane, it’s not exactly my thing.

A couple of hours of fog later we arrived in Big Sur and went for a Carmel Wheat beer. A beautiful 20 years old waitress warned us:

“Do you know that Carmel and Big Sur are among the 1001 places to see before you die?”.

Fine. We did it. Death may come today. 

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Naples? No. The original say goes: “See Carmel, have a beer and die”. Cheers.

The California Diaries – getting a taste of San Francisco

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So here I am. After much babbling about sinking Europe and dreaming about faraway lands, I finally got on a plane and landed, almost a day later, on the other side of the planet. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds: I had to place children and dog before even packing and it wasn’t without a pinch of anxiety that I left all of them behind. The day I brought the small ones to their grandparents seemed exciting at first: after all, they had been waking up at impossible hours for the past two weeks and with my husband we started fantasizing about wonderful things we would do once alone. Watching 2 movies in a row at the cinema. Having sushis at midnight. Waking up naturally at 7:30 and not being screamed out of bed in the middle of the night to bring some hobbit  to the loo. It sounded like the best holiday ever. Truth is, when I came back home it was snowing again and I didn’t feel relieved. I felt lonely, and so did my husband. Two almost middle-aged persons in a deadly silent house. We ended up watching TV and eating pizzas instead.

24 hours of loneliness later we finally were on the plane. First consideration: California is FAR. I mean, really far. Way further than it looked on the map and definitely further than in my imagination. By the time we got to Washington I was already tired of being on a plane. Six hours later, squeezed in the middle seat on an audio-entertainment free airplane (I didn’t know they still existed!), I was starting to lose my sanity. But then the lukewarm California breeze made it right again.

We are staying in a lovely room in Potrero Hill, a sweet neighborhood not far from downtown San Francisco, all community gardens and young families and organic restaurants. The concept of ORGANIC has been the first one to surprise me in California. It’s actually just a label here. I mean:  European organic is a lifestyle, on top of being a label. An organic restaurants serves healthy food, mostly steamed or raw. In California, organic looks like a label they put there to make you feel better. It certainly certifies the natural and pesticide-free nature of the things you’re buying but that’s it: it doesn’t preserve you from the deep-frying or the char-grilling.

I have the impression that food wise Europe is someway ahead. All the Starbucks display the number of calories of any pastry they sell (nothing below 370 calories, if anyone’s interested) but they don’t have a fat free version of anything. I imagined California as the realm of vegans, vegetarians and extremely healthy people and…well, they maybe are compared to the rest of the States but they really aren’t by European standards.

Apart from food considerations, San Francisco is a livable, medium-sized city (I expectd New York with sun but it’s actually way smaller) where everyone on the streets seems to be young (but then in Europe everyone seems so old), hi-tech and laid back. I had never been on the west coast and all I knew in the US were New York and Boston. Two very European cities, where people are stressed out and yell a lot (espacially in NY). Well here in SF everybody’s calm. No yelling, no stress, no endless lines to get a table at a restaurant. Surprising. Awesome.

Today we leave the city and start our journey to Los Angeles. I haven’t figured out yet if I could actually live here. I have to admit it hasn’t been love at first sight but it certainly is another world compared to the one I grew up in.

PS I had taken lovely pictures of the art-themed cakes at the SF Moma (there was a Mondrian cake, a Rothko PB&J toast, Frieda Kahlo biscuits and so on..) but clumsy as I am, I managed to lose them while doing a back-up. I will take more in the next days, hopefully.

Some countries do care about children

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This is my brand new passport, with optical something and fingerprints. If you have small children and are thinking of claiming Italian citizenship because your great-great-great grandfather was born in the Belpaese, think twice. It turns out that Italian parents of children under 18 can’t get a passport without the written agreement of the person they had the children with. Which, in english, would be their…co-parent? I don’t know the appropriate word for that.

If you are married and see your husband/wife everyday it’s just a matter of paperwork and signatures as it was in my case and everything’s done in a few minutes. If you have a more complicated personal life and – say – had your children with partners you no longer talk to..then it’s better to resign to live at least a decade without much traveling.

I discovered all of this while queuing at the consulate to get my new passport and couldn’t be more surprised. First you have to consider the fact that the Italian consulate in Brussels is still the mirror of what Italy was in the 50s: a impoverished, post-war country whose less fortunate citizens emigrated to work hard jobs, as coal miners in southern Belgium. The building is frozen in the early XX century: endless queues, officials shouting, no privacy and a very mediterranean uncertainty on times and procedures. So I finally get in front of the passport official (it all looked very much as the American embassy in Teheran in the 70s as pictured in Argo) and she starts examining the paperwork. “Well, let me see…you have children…mmmh…but the father gives you permission to have a passport, that’s fine”.

I think it must be a joke. “Excuse-me, why do I need the father’s agreement? Isn’t that a bit…how can I say, pre-feminist? Or prehistorical?”

“Well, you need it in case you decide to abandon your children. You can’t leave the country without him knowing it”.

“Ehm…why doesn’t he need it though? He’s belgian and Belgium doesn’t ask my permission to give him a passport”

“Well, Italy cares very much about the future of children and aims to protect them from unresponsible parents. Probably Belgium thinks that children can end up in foster care while we want parents to take responsibility for them”. 

It’s exhilarating and deprived of any logic but the passport official is very, very sure of herself.

So sure that she doesn’t hesitate to give a cold shower to the guy next in line: he was half Italian (judging from his accent probably never lived in the country) and needed a passport. Too bad he also has two minor children with two different women residing in France and Africa. Even worse, he was barely talking to them.

“You don’t have the mothers’ agreement so I can’t give you a passport”, said the very confident passport lady.

“But…my children aren’t even italian! They have a French passport”

“Of course they are Italian! Aren’t you? Did you recognize them as your children, didn’t you? So, for us, they’re Italian and you need their mothers’ consent to have a passport”.

The guy was speechless. I felt for him, thinking of how he had to contact these past loves just to get out of the country. It is a very, very strange country.

But the good news is, I got a new passport to go to California! I’ll spend a couple of weeks between SFO and LAX, officially accompanying the husband on a business trip and unofficially scouting and visiting and discovering to see if I could actually imagine myself living there in a hopefully near future. I’ll try to post as much as I can once there, I’ll definitely have the time to. Wish me luck.

100 years of feminism and a little boy

8th of March, International Women’s Day. Around 8.30 am, I am strapping two reluctant kids into the car for the daily, exhausting, school run when something makes us have a surprising conversation. We cross our next-door neighbor, en route for work, power dressed and sort of stressed. Orange-haired by some incompetent colorist who probably took her seriously when she asked to go straight from a dark brown to a sun-kissed californian blonde, she is pregnant with her second child and I don’t like her. She has the lack of social skills a good number of career focused persons (men and women alike, but I always found it worse in women) show these times, her house smells of trash and her kitchen floor is full of empty glass bottles she apparently can’t dispose of. These few lines to give you a honest though maybe slightly biased description of the facts.

So, we cross the orange-haired career gal and my 4 years old asks: “where is she going so early in the morning?”

“Well, I guess she is going to work”

“To work? Where??”

“In her office”

“A office? Like a dad? That can’t be”

“Yes, of course, an office. Like a dad. Why are you surprised?”

“Because only dads go to work. Mothers have just a laptop at home. They don’t go out”

“Well, she does have a real dad’s job in a office with other people there. And many mothers do as well”

“Do you have an office?”

“No”

“Why not?”

Because I quit my job when i had you and never really got in the business again and so I’m stuck at home drinking way too many caffelattes and writing.

“Because I want to spend my afternoons with you and be there after school”

“Really? I thought mothers couldn’t have real jobs”.

That means at least a couple of things:

I am raising my boys as if they were born in the 50s

Belgian society is actually still in the 50s, where most of the mothers don’t work while their children are in pre-school and sometimes resume a career in their mid-40s to escape the empty nest syndrome.

My feminist side was in some shock after yesterday’s school run. And what an irony, to discover two more male chauvinists in the house (beside their working-a-real-job-in-a-real-office dad) on Women’s Day.