Berkeley smells like flowers and the crosswalks flash at night.

Mark first told me that Berkeley smelled like flowers on the phone, when I was still in Chicago, a few weeks before I left its frozen hellscape for sunny California. 

And it’s true. Even in this drought, flowers are blooming. Bright, deep, vivid. Blues, reds, whites. It’s verdant here, with shades of green. There’s a part of my walk back from the BART station in North Berkeley where the leaves of bushes encroach on the sidewalk, forcing me to sidestep around them. It seems odd, to have this cornucopia of flora when there hasn’t been rain. I suppose a lack of water can’t strip Berkeley of its flowers.

The sun shines nearly every day here and, when it’s light out, you rarely need a coat. Though the temperature drops once the sun goes down, the air feels cool against my skin. It’s wonderful, like my skin can breathe, not cocooned and suffocating in a heavy Patagonia jacket and under a thin layer of sweat. 

I left Hawaii nearly half my life ago, and I’d forgotten what it was like to live with natural beauty around me: mountains, flowering yards, the sun setting over a bay. I’ve only been here for six weeks.

And six weeks in, there are still novelties I encounter nearly every day. Cars stop at crosswalks for waiting pedestrians. These same crosswalks flash at night when someone crosses the street. Abandoned electronics litter the sidewalk since Berkeley has no alleys, and there are compost bins everywhere — we even have a tiny one in our kitchen. On my way to work, from East Bay to SF, I hear fellow bus riders behind me say 'good morning' to the stranger who plops down beside them. Mark and I have bought baked beet chips from our local grocery store — twice.

I passed by a two-chair barbershop in Inner Sunset with a real-live piano player playing a song, entertaining people during haircuts and beard trims. The Muni busses — with their steel antenna sprouting from their roofs, connecting to wires above the street and keeping them leashed to certain paths — don't seem to clog traffic. The Muni is on the honor system — someone could hop on without paying their fare. 

After 15 years of living in Chicago (with a few months spent in free-spirited Barcelona and pastry-filled Paris), I’m getting to know the character of a new city, one I feel I belong in. Chicago is the city of my formative years, the first place I lived away from home, where I first appreciated the leaves changing from green to orange to brown and where I first fell in love with the silence after a snowfall. But I’ve become habituated to the murders in the news, to the dog shit on the ground, and to the plastic bags hanging on apartment fences as makeshift trash bins for the neighborhood.

Here in Berkeley, there’s a bag full of plastic bags tied to a sign outside our place — I think it’s there for people who forgot their doggie bags when taking their pups on walks.