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Twenty-nine years ago, when I headed off to Istanbul as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, the executive director of that outfit instructed me to send back a newsletter soon after my arrival describing my first impressions. “You will forget that which left you wonderstruck,” he observed, “as you get used to the place. That fleeting sense of wonder is invaluable.” And so it was.
With his advice in mind, I intend to write a post or two on the People’s Democratic Republic of California, in which I just arrived and where I intend to spend the next ten months, reading, writing, and keeping my eyes open.
Let me preface what I have to say with the obvious. California is beautiful. The mountains to the East — through which we passed on our way from Nampa, Idaho to Rancho Cordova, California — are formidable. The Central Valley is impressive, and the coastal range, within which Mountain View is nestled, is simply stunning. We drove down to Big Basin Redwoods State Park yesterday, and it knocked our socks off. It is, as we were told by some locals, more beautiful than Muir Woods and less crowded.
There are other aspects of California life that are no less striking. We live in an apartment complex situated amidst a myriad of apartment complexes. Nearby is shopping — Walmart, Target, Trader Joe’s. The list goes on. In the vicinity of the nearby shopping mall are a series of cross-walks, and when they are open to pedestrians they light up — i.e., lights flash from the crosswalk, warning drivers to stop. I have never seen the like, but I expect to see it soon everywhere. It is ingenious, and I salute the People’s Democratic Republic for inventing the practice.
There is another strange practice I have observed. The advertised price of gasoline varies widely. On one corner, it is sold for $3.73 a gallon; across the street, it costs car-owners $3.95. Chevron seems to have the most expensive gas; Arco, the cheapest. Valero comes in somewhere in the middle . . . except when it does not. Connected with this economic anarchy is the fact that the price, depending on whether one uses a credit card or pays cash. To be precise, if one uses a credit or debit card to pay, one is charged a fee. Nowhere else have I encountered this practice.
There is yet another strange practice — this one, absurd. In Mountain View — and presumably elsewhere as well — merchants charge one for paper or plastic bags: 20 cents in the former case, a nickel in the latter. The stores do not do this by choice. There is a statute. I presume that the global warming scam is here regarded as Holy Writ! Undoubtedly, this is the case at the Church of Self-Realization that we stumbled across.
Here is another difference. Just outside Hillsdale, in Jonesville, there is a Walmart. Shopping there involves taking a tour of rural poverty in America. The trucks parked outside are rusty in the extreme; the folks inside are quite often obese; and nearly everyone uses WIC (Women, Infants, Children) or Food Stamps to pay for what they buy.
In Mountain View, there is a Walmart as well. The other night it was crowded to a degree unknown elsewhere — except in the week just before Christmas. Every race in the world, every people was represented. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I heard twelve different languages being spoken; it would be an understatement. Some I recognized — Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabic; many I did not. After leaving, I felt like saying to my wife, “We are no longer in Michigan, Toto!”
At mass, at St. Athanasius Church, we had a similar experience yesterday. The language of the liturgy and of the sermon was English. That was only because two of the six masses said between 5 p.m. on Saturday and 5 p.m. on Sunday are said in Spanish — for the number of Anglos in the congregation at the non-Latino masses was perhaps one in ten. Mass was said in English because for folks from India, Africa, Indochina, and the Carribean English is the lingua franca (and, yes, I know that the phrase was coined long ago to refer to French. Sic transit gloria!). The music at mass was livelier than the norm — but alas, less dignified. The pastor of this church comes from the Philippines; the associate pastor, from Vietnam.The Catholic Church really is catholic.
What can I say? There are places within the United States that are American and not. New Orleans comes to mind. So do the Spanish villages between Santa Fe and Taos and Mormon Utah. These uncanny places could not exist anywhere else in the world . . . and yet!
Living in Mountain View is like being an extra on the set of a sci-fi movie. More anon….