Alastair Cameron's Letter from America

News, views and opinions from the one kiwi expat sent to New York University on a Fulbright Scholarship to study his masters of law.

Monday, August 08, 2005

California Dreaming

While this post is about my time in the Golden State, it's actually beaming out of East Coast Canada, Montreal to be precise. I'm here with Kirsty, staying in her and Manue's cute little loft apartment, slowing preparing myself for the final trip to New York.

And remember, I’ve put some photos on the web - there's a link off to the side that will take you straight to the site (" go with the words").

As far as California goes, I definitely knew I was in America:

  1. Everything is bigger – the cars, roads, houses, shops, malls, food, hair and of course the people themselves, even though California is supposedly one of the thinner states. As one American put it to me “Big is the point”...
  2. The waitress wasn’t allowed to serve lemonade after 8pm but she could serve Sprite - huh??? (and then she tried to charge for the lemonade anyway!)...
  3. Several people heard my accent and spoke back to me in a slow drawl as if English was clearly my second language...
  4. Almost every car has either a pro-Bush or anti-Bush sticker on its bumper; my personal favourite is “Lies, Hate, Greed: The Republican Way”...
  5. The newspapers almost have half a page of international news (although admittedly I haven’t been reading any of the major city dailies)...
  6. Every bar plays Hip-Hop/Rap, which drives me crazy!

It really is like a different country/planet!

But I enjoyed myself. For those who don’t know, Fulbright sent me on a four week course entitled “Orientation to USA Law”, which was held for three weeks at the University of California Davis and one week at the University of California Berkeley. The course itself was interesting, although a little basic at times. Each day consisted of lectures running from 9am-4:30pm on a certain area of American law. Much of the teaching was for students from civil law countries, so coming from a common law country myself many of the concepts were very familiar. Nonetheless, it’s been a useful refresher and helped me get my head back into the study of law.

As for the people, there was about 85 students in the course from perhaps 30 different countries. The group included 12 other Fulbrighters, two of whom are going to New York as well. Around half the 85 were Japanese; the next biggest groupings came from Germany and Brazil, and then a grab-bag from the rest of Europe, Central and South America and few from other parts of Asia. Including me, there were only two other native English speakers: a girl from Ireland and a guy from Australia.

Ironically, the unanimous verdict from others in the class was that we three native speakers were the hardest to understand! It’s actually quite logical when you think about it – we speak too fast and use odd words and colloquialisms. While most people’s English was really good, to make myself understood, I had to slow my speech right down and try to use reasonably uncomplicated words...

Putting such a diverse group together presented a pretty unique set of opportunities, both academically and socially. Academically speaking, I gained a fascinating comparative look into other countries’ law and legal systems. The only thing everyone had in common was that we were all lawyers, so naturally people discussed the differences and similarities between their home systems and those of others.

Socially, the experience was equally unique. Navigating each others’ cultural norms, boundaries and language was a challenge. For example, ten lawyers from eight different countries organising themselves for a weekend away at Yosemite National Park (more later) provided a series of useful insights into cross-cultural interaction. Someone could write a thesis on the communication – or mostly miscommunication – that occurred that weekend! But it all transpired in good humour, and by the end of the course, we were a pretty cohesive group.

As my photos show, I’ve tended to spend most of my time with the Europeans, and to a slightly lesser extent, the Central and South Americans. I got to know a few of the Japanese, although mostly the women, who on the whole seemed more socially outgoing than the guys. The major exception was the soccer game – Japan v the World – where the men’s competitive spirit came out. Against my recommendation, I played for the World was pretty bad but not a complete disaster.


Davis itself is a small university town about 2 hours north of San Francisco, 20 minutes south of Sacramento. While it felt a bit sleepy and out the way, it was an ideal start to my time over here. The town itself and the huge UC Davis campus were very easy to get around. Since the weather was consistently fine and calm, we hired bikes and then cycled everywhere. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, so I could get used to driving/biking on the right side of the road with relative ease. I still haven’t quite worked out who gives way to who, but that’s just details, right?

And as I said in my last email, it was hot hot hot – daily averages of 38 degrees – so there was plenty of opportunity to swim and work on overcoming my Southern Hemisphere serious lack of tan. Of course such pursuits were only pursued after class each day...

Certainly the highlight from the three weeks in Davis was the trip to Yosemite National Park. What a stunningly beautiful place. Our specific destination was Yosemite Valley, much of which we got to see over the couple of days we were there. On the Sunday, me and two others tackled a 13 mile hike, which took us up a 1000 metre incline and right around the top of the valley. It was exhausting, but well worthwhile. The photos say it better than I can describe, so I’ll let you look through those.

The other fun outdoor pursuit was the course organised trip to Lake Tahoe, a deep freshwater lake high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Again, there are some photos to give you the gist. We spent our day kayaking, swimming and sunbathing. Three large pina coladas from the bar on the beach before we left knocked me out for the long bus ride home. I have to give it to the Americans, while the drinks can be expensive, especially when you add the tip, the bartenders certainly don’t skimp on the spirits!

The course also organised some field trips to various legal institutions. The most interesting was the California State prison in Vacaville, about 20 minutes south of Davis. The prison was built in the early 80s for 2700 prisoners and currently holds over 6000 – can you believe it? Congress passed legislation forcing judges to give longer sentences and the result was, naturally, a huge increase in the long-term prison population, leading to gross overcrowding.

According to the Lieutenant who showed us around, the inmates have “no right to privacy” so there was no problem with trekking us through their living quarters. Many of them were showering at the time, and yes, there were women in our group. We could see the triple bunking, where there was supposed to be only one bunk. The guys weren’t in cells because they were only Level 2 (out of 4), which meant a few came up and asked us who we were and what we were doing. Not aggro at all, even though we were invading their space as if they were animals in a zoo. The prison guards made no effort to explain who we were.

We saw where the inmates ate, although “feeding” had not started (that’s literally what the guard called dinner time). They were allowed out for the their afternoon’s exercise while we were there; it was hot with no shade, so none wore a shirt – almost every inmate was incredibly fit, since all they had to do, it seemed, was run around and play sport. 95% appeared black or Hispanic; the oldest inmate was 85 years old. The prison held about 2100 “lifers”, ie. inmates who were almost certain to die in prison. The trip served to strengthen my belief that in 200 years or so history will judge our criminal justice system very poorly.

It’s worth noting the unbelievable resources these university campuses have. They are, essentially, small towns. UC Davis alone has 26,000 students, so the services and support facilities for them are the same as those for the population of a town like Masterton. The gym at UC Davis, for instance, is enormous. Consider weights and cardio spaces as big as the first two floors of Les Mills on Taranaki Street, and then add three basketball courts, four badminton courts, a volleyball court, eight squash courts, group fitness areas including a Spin/RPM room, a wrestling mat, a climbing wall and a four-lane running track built around the top of the basketball courts. Any equipment you need for any of these activities is lent out free of charge. The resources do seem incredible to me, but I guess it’s not that surprising when you consider the kinds of fees they charge every student; upwards of US $30,000, which gives them an annual budget of at least US $780,000,000!!

So while there wasn’t much activity going on in Davis itself, the three weeks there were great fun. I think it’s almost certain that if they had taken us to Berkeley first, with its close proximity to San Francisco, the group wouldn’t have bonded. Everyone would have splintered off and done their own thing. At Davis, we were forced to get to know each other. As such, I'm definitely keen to look-up some people in Europe next year, and told them they should contact me if they come to New York in the short-term or New Zealand in the longer-term.


Next stop was Berkeley, or more specifically, the campus at the University of California Berkeley. Having been fed a diet in Davis consisting mainly of Mexican food, pizza, hamburgers and (thank goodness) fresh fruit and salad, we made a b-line for Telegraph Avenue in downtown Berkeley for some decent Indian food. Telegraph Ave and Berkeley is all you’d expect – street stalls selling tie-dye by the metre, pan-handlers, Hari Krishnas dancing with flowers in their hair, grungy music stores specialising in used hard punk/rock, piercing and tattoo store after piercing and tattoo store, a series of divy, cheap eateries and mixed in among all of this a few decidedly “normal” looking students.

The campus itself is attractive with lots of trees and lawns, a stream running through middle and some interesting old buildings. Unfortunately the law school, known as Boalt Hall, appeared to be the exception. It’s very functional, but looking a bit tired these days.

And of course there is San Francisco itself, only 20 minutes away on the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), so very accessible. Beautiful, although surprisingly cold. The western (pacific facing) part of the city is frequently under fog all day. It rolls in off the cold water that evidently comes down from Alaska in a jet-stream, and in the evening, the wind comes up so the city is freezing. With that weather, plus the city’s hills and harbour, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Wellington...

Still, what a great place. Incredibly diverse. In 45 minutes you can walk from Nob Hill and the palace like homes of the original railroad tycoons, into North Beach (Little Italy), down through China Town into Union Square, the glitzy shopping area. From there through the Tenderloin with all the beggars and prostitutes, and a little further on into the Mission (Latin) District and finally into the Castro, where the normal assumptions most definitely go out the window. You have to assume most people are gay rather than the usual assumption the other way around. The large rainbow flag towering over those below on the main intersection, and the smaller ones on almost every building, leave you in no doubt about which part of town you’re in!

On the weekend we arrived, I met up with Zack Allen, who I met through work when Marian and I travelled to New York in May this year. He had recently moved to the Berkeley area himself, because he is about to begin his law degree, so he handily picked me up in his car and took me into the City. It was great having a local show me around; he knew exactly where to go and what was worth seeing. We spent the afternoon wandering the Castro, before finishing up with a few drinks and dinner with a friend of his, Shawn (v. American spelling). From there they took me to a party of another friend’s place; the theme was 80s sitcoms, but luckily no one really dressed-up... It was fun meeting Americans in their own setting, and my accent provided automatic conversation: "where are you from", "what’s NZ like", "you do that dance before playing sport" etc etc. Zack and I went from the party back into town to meet-up with Zack’s boyfriend, Cassio, in a bar called Badlands. Fun place; a smattering nice young men one could have talked to if one was so inclined...

But every bar in California closes at 2pm; just as the party’s getting started in other words. Zack and Cassio dropped me back at the dorm in Berkeley, before which we had made plans for brunch the next morning (a world-wide phenomenon it seems) and some more sightseeing. We spent Sunday afternoon at El Rio, a run-down little salsa bar in the Mission District. It had a live salsa band, a free BBQ and a hundred or so people getting decidedly sloshed on the lethal margaritas being served. I can’t dance salsa, but after three of those margaritas I certainly thought I could!

I went in and out of San Francisco the following week, outside class time of course. Having said that, I might have skipped the day of tax lectures to hire a bike to cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County. I was in good company, though, with five others joining me. We lunched in the sun at Sausalito, looking back over the fog-shrouded City. The biking remained light exercise for a short time, and then took a harder turn up some very steep coastal trails... I learned it’s virtually impossible to stay upright on a bike when the hill is so steep that you’re in the lowest gear of 24, and your wheels are spinning because the ground is dry and dusty. I coped surprisingly well. Again, great fun, but exhausting when all was said and done.

And the week ended with a semi-formal "Graduation Dinner" back at Berkeley, and a long night of goodbyes. Some people I'll see again when I arrive in New York. Others, especially the Fulbrighters, will probably come to New York at some point over the next year, so we'll touch base again then. And hopefully I'll be in Europe within the year to see a few others. But some people I mightn't see again at all, or at least not for a long time. But the organisers did give us a "networking schedule" with each others' contacts, so the possibility is there!

And so from sunny California to francophone Montreal.


At 5:54 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Alastair: It was great fun to read your California Dreaming. All of those areas are my old stomping grounds. I grew up in Sacramento and attended Berkeley during the 60's - the heyday of student activism. Hippies ruled both Telegraph and all of Berkeley. Free speech was definitely the understanding - just as long as that speech was loose and liberal. I'm now a citizen of both the US and NZ and find your observations about California very close to mine. Everything is so big! Who needs all that stuff? Great blog. Many thanks, Peggy Tramposch, Fulbright NZ Senior Scholar Manager

At 7:34 pm, Anonymous Matthew M said...

Hey Alistair
Great to hear all your news - and glad to know you're having a good time. Yosemite looks beautiful! I already love San Francisco from the movies (Vertigo, Bullitt, Point Blank, Dirty Harry...) but now I'm convinced I've got to visit the place in person sometime. Keep well.

At 7:29 pm, Blogger Nisha Singh said...

Alastair: Being a SF native, I think you gave a very accurate interpretation of the city for its infamous areas. Many people forget to recognize the depth of San Francisco. Thank you.....


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