Photo by Jill Kimball

Different spokes: Test-riding Seattle’s three new bike shares

Photo by Jill Kimball

 

 

Seattle is a famously bike-friendly city, yet in the five years I lived there, I probably went on a grand total of five bike rides.

I have numerous excuses for this error in judgment, some of them silly (exercise is too hard; I don’t have any padded shorts) and some legitimate (the weather is terrible most of the year; the city is famously hilly; Seattle isn’t quite as bike-friendly as many would have you believe). Since moving to Colorado and becoming a full-blown cycling addict, I’ve wanted to return to Seatown and rectify the mistake…but I haven’t quite known how.

Until now.

This summer, it became insanely easy for anyone–visitor or resident–to cycle around Seattle. No fewer than three bike-share startups popped up in the Emerald City this year, and they’re so eager for your business that they’re practically giving bike rides away. (By “practically,” I mean “literally”–my husband and I took about 10 rides in three days, and the companies’ generous free-trial policies meant we never paid a penny.)

All three of these companies–Limebike, Ofo and Spin–operate in much the same way: They’re all dockless, meaning their bikes are scattered across the city, parked on sidewalks, in parking lots and along multi-use trails. Once you’ve unlocked one with a simple QR code scan or smartphone tap, you’re free to ride as long as you please. When you’re done, you can leave it pretty much anywhere that doesn’t obstruct car or foot traffic. Well, except in the middle of a lake or up a tree.

So, to recap: It’s easy. It’s convenient. It’s cheap, if not free. In other words, there’s literally no reason not to try out a bike share the next time you’re in Seattle. (Well, except for the helmet issue…which I’ll address later.) But which bike should you choose? Read on to find out what I thought about each company!

LIMEBIKE

If you live in Seattle and haven’t yet seen LimeBike’s green and yellow frames gracing the sidewalks, driveways and trails of the city, you probably live underground. Back in the summer, LimeBike boasted the biggest presence of any bike-share company in the city by far.

Limebikes are classic cruisers with swept back handlebars and Dutch-inspired step-through designs, which means it’s easy to hop on and off whether you’re in slacks or a skirt. A Limebike comes with eight gears, and shifting between them will be painless and intuitive for pretty much anyone who’s ever ridden a bike. The bike comes with a loud, satisfying bell, and it too is easy to use.

There were a few things I didn’t like about LimeBike. For one thing, I had to add payment information as soon as I downloaded the app, even though the company immediately granted me five free rides upon download–and that slowed down my momentum a bit. For another, the suspension on LimeBikes is terrible…although they’re not alone in that regard. And finally, there’s my least favorite feature: the seat post. While the seat of a LimeBike is adjustable, it doesn’t move up high enough to comfortably fit anyone who’s even remotely tall. I’m 5’8″, and I sat so low on my LimeBike that every little hill was a slow, laborious climb. (Update: Limebike has now fixed this issue, and biking around town is much easier! However, pedaling will still feel a bit laborious to anyone who’s used to sitting up high on a road bike or hybrid.)

COST: $1 per 30-minute ride. Your first 10 rides are free, and you can earn another few free rides by swapping promo codes with a friend.
BEST FOR: People who love the feel of a beach cruiser
BAD FOR: Tall people

OFO*

Unlike the other two Silicon Valley startups, Ofo is based in China and already has robust dockless bike share systems in 170 cities worldwide. Ofo differentiates itself from LimeBike with a solid yellow frame and black handlebars, boasting a look that’s a bit more sophisticated and less cartoonish. The design is something between a Dutch step-through and a commuter hybrid, which appealed to me–I’d love to see more companies designing cute commuters. I thought adding a cup holder to the basket was a fun touch, especially considering Seattle’s coffee fixation.

Ofo impressed me in the areas where Limebike fell short: Its seat actually adjusts to fit a variety of heights, making for a much less physically demanding ride. And rather than asking for payment upfront, Ofo let me get on a bike immediately after I downloaded the app.

However, Ofo, too, had its drawbacks. Like LimeBike, the suspension was terrible. The basket was too shallow to hold my purse. I found the handlebars to be a bit too close together for someone of my height. The gear shifters worked fine, but they were a little bit less intuitive than those on LimeBike. I didn’t like that the app asked me to enable Bluetooth, and I found it annoying that I had to shuffle between my Settings and the app to give Ofo permission to use my camera, when for the other two all I had to do was press “allow” within the app.

Yet even with all these drawbacks, I’d choose Ofo over Limebike in a heartbeat for the better seat adjustment alone.

COST: $1 per hour, with a first-timer promotion of five free rides
BEST FOR: Tall people and coffee drinkers
BAD FOR: People who carry large purses

SPIN*

At the time of my visit, Spin’s bright orange bikes were probably the most difficult to track down. For every dozen LimeBikes I encountered, I’d see a handful of Ofo bikes and just one Spin. Yet I was the most interested in trying this company, as their bike design probably hews closest to that of a standard commuter bike, my preferred model.

So you can imagine my frustration when my search for a Spin was unsuccessful.

It’s true–I never actually got to ride a Spin bike at all. After a pleasant Ofo ride to Golden Gardens Park one afternoon, I downloaded the Spin app and spotted one of their bikes near the beach parking lot. But when I arrived at the bike and scanned its QR code, I found out someone else had already reserved it.

With reservation capabilities, Spin has made itself a two-wheeled Car2Go, giving it an edge over the competition. It’s great for, say, commuters who want a solid transport plan in place before they head out the door. But it’s not so great for spur-of-the-moment riders or first-timers like me–people who don’t yet know the rules and are destined to be confused and annoyed to find the only bike nearby is already taken.

Like Ofo and unlike LimeBike, I didn’t have to provide my credit card information up front on Spin’s app, which was a plus. I liked the bike’s nice deep basket–it’s perfect for a purse or a grocery bag. My husband, who was able to ride on a Spin, noted the gear shifter was a bit sticky (a common complaint); I, panting behind him on a LimeBike, noted with envy that his bike frame was larger and his seat higher than mine. But given I didn’t actually give Spin a test ride, there’s not much more I can say.

COST: $1 per 30-minute ride. Over the summer, Spin was giving away 10 free rides to new customers.
BEST FOR: Commuters and regular riders
BAD FOR: One-off riders

Photo by Jill Kimball

THE HELMET ISSUE

That visitors and locals alike have taken to bikes with abandon thanks to dockless bike share is really exciting. That none of these companies plan to offer helmet rentals in the future is…mildly concerning.

There’s always been a debate about whether wearing a helmet while biking really is safer. But regardless of what you believe, the irrefutable fact of the matter is, it’s illegal to bike without a helmet in Seattle.

That obviously poses a problem for almost every potential bike share user, from local residents looking for a spur-of-the-moment ride home after a night out to tourists looking for a fun way to cruise between sights without the hassle of traffic and parking. Most people don’t pack helmets in their carry-on luggage, nor do they stash one in a purse or backpack on the way to work every day. I admit that even I didn’t wear a helmet during any of my rides around Seattle, and I felt a bit on edge without one–back home, I wear one every day during my commute to work.

There’s a huge disconnect between the city’s bike laws and its open-armed welcome to these three companies–and that has to be addressed sooner rather than later. Until then, tourists and casual riders will have to choose between flouting the law or making a temporary investment in a helmet.

Jill Kimball

My Seattle biking getup.

Have you ridden any of Seattle’s shared bikes? What did you think? Sound off below!

*Update: Both Ofo and Spin announced in August 2018 that they would leave Seattle, citing high permit costs. For now, that means Limebike is the only bike-share option in the city — however, Curbed Seattle has noted that electric Jump bikes may soon be available there.

A Complete Guide to Moving to…Santa Cruz, California

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Don’t listen to Wikipedia: Santa Cruz is, and always will be, the real Surf City USA. Along its miles of coastline, there are waves to catch for beginners and experts alike, from the easy currents at Cowell’s Beach to the tall, terrifying tubes at Mavericks, the home of a world-famous wave-riding competition.

But even if you don’t surf, there are plenty of ways to live the Hang Ten lifestyle in Santa Cruz. The county boasts a temperate climate hovering in the 60s and 70s year-round, a mellow, laid-back vibe among the locals and university students, and an ideal location between hip San Francisco and scenic Big Sur. Add to that a burgeoning food and beer scene and an iconic beachfront amusement park and it’s no wonder millions of visitors fall in love with Santa Cruz every year.

If you’d like to trade pantsuits for wetsuits and boots for Birkenstocks, get ready to pack your bags. Here’s what you need to know before relocating to my hometown of Santa Cruz, California!

West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, California, photo by Jill Kimball

COST OF LIVING

As effortless as life in Santa Cruz might seem, prospective residents won’t find it easy to get a foot in the door. In 2016, Santa Cruz was named the second most unaffordable place to live in the U.S. just behind Brooklyn. Rent will set you back an average of $2,742 for a two-bedroom apartment, and it’ll cost you even more to live near downtown or within a mile of the ocean. The farther inland and south you travel, the more money you’ll save–so if you’re willing to commute, try the rural, picturesque hills above Soquel and Aptos or the increasingly vibrant city of Watsonville, where the Mexican food can’t be beat!

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, photo by Jill Kimball

THE SCENE

Considering its size, Santa Cruz has a bustling and varied nightlife–and it’s mostly thanks to downtown’s proximity to the University of California Santa Cruz. If you’re looking for sleek, upscale lounges serving manhattans and martinis, you’re in the wrong place–Santa Cruz is all about laid-back pubs, funky, dimly lit clubs in converted Victorian houses and hip new breweries lined with long tables. Some of the most popular watering holes these days are Beer30, The Redroom and 515.

Despite its many good bar options, Santa Cruz isn’t known as a party destination. Its residents are more concerned with eating healthy (and often vegetarian), staying politically active and getting outside. On weekend mornings, you’ll see them congregating at the farmer’s market, waiting in line at a packed breakfast joint or jogging along the waterfront, fog or shine. Rather than spend the afternoon watching football, they’re more likely to hit a hiking trail in the Santa Cruz Mountains, take a mountain bike up to the trails at Nisene Marks or play a little frisbee on the sand.

If you’re new to the area, the best way to make friends is to join a hiking, running or beer-tasting meetup online–check out all the options here.

A van on East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, photo by Jill Kimball

THE PEOPLE

Santa Cruzans feel such intense hometown pride that they’ve covered their cars, surfboards, skateboards and bodies in locally-branded merchandise. If you want to blend in, you can find your own Santa Cruz clothes at Pacific Wave or the O’Neill flagship store–and while you’re there, pick up a pair of the über comfortable Reef flip flops all the locals sport.

Santa Cruz has long had a reputation as a hippie town, second only in fame to the People’s Republic of Berkeley. If you live in Santa Cruz, you’re guaranteed to know at least one vegan, stoner, ultimate frisbee player, militant political activist, deadhead, avant-garde artist and surfer–and one of those people is probably you. That said, the rising profile of nearby Silicon Valley is rapidly changing the vibe; every year, more and more tech workers move in, driving out downtown’s scuzzy clubs and patchouli-scented stores and ushering in new gastropubs and chain clothing stores.

Like other Californians, locals tend to be friendly and talkative, but they’re known for an aversion to “Vallies,” the nickname we’ve given inlanders who clog Highway 1 on summer weekends to visit the beach.

The nautical parade at Capitola's annual Begonia Festival, photo by Anthony Swagerty Dei Rossi

Photo: Anthony Swagerty Dei Rossi

Local Traditions

All summer long, this town’s beaches swarm with sunburned tourists, but locals don’t mind–they know the best time to soak up the sun is in September, when the crowds are long gone but the temperatures are warmer than ever. Santa Cruz ushers in the real summer season with a dizzying series of festivals, where residents can take in art, wine, classical music, creative sand castles and a peculiar but beautiful nautical parade with floats made entirely of begonias.

During the holidays, Santa Cruz lights up the dark days in style with a giant menorah in its main plaza and twinklers on the trees. But the winter’s best tradition by far is New Year’s Eve, when, at sunset, thousands of locals in outrageous costumes take to the street for the DIY Last Night Parade. Hours later, people young and old spill out of the bars just before midnight and run toward the clock tower for an all-night dance party, complete with DJ, light show and lots of bubbles.

If you’re moving to Santa Cruz for school, you can’t leave campus without witnessing or participating in the annual First Rain run–and you and your friends must snap a group portrait on top of the Squiggle, UCSC’s most famous sculpture.

A pedestrian path along East Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. Photo by Jill Kimball

Ready to make your dream a reality? Check out more Santa Cruz resources below. 
Local Housing | Santa Cruz Sentinel | Job Listings | Hiking Guide | UCSC Academics | Local Events | Santa Cruz LocalWikiYou Know You’re a Santa Cruzan When…

 

READ NEXT: Five reasons to take a solo trip this year

Confession: I Document Everything

An intellectual (or not) debate at Max's.

An intellectual (or not) debate at Max’s.

Six months into my college career, I came home for spring break and announced to a few of my friends that I was switching my major from music to journalism. I expected reactions of mild surprise, at the very least. Instead, I was met with impatient “duh”s and amused “I always knew it”s.

“That’s not a surprising revelation, is it?” They asked. “You always carry a notebook in your purse. You’re always writing down everything we say. You document everything. It’s actually pretty creepy.”

It was true. I could certainly save a lot of closet space by purging from my belongings a stack of 20 or so notebooks, some completely full, others empty, still others only partially used. I buy them habitually, whenever I head back to my old stomping grounds for a nostalgia tour, whenever I’m away from home and need to chronicle my frustrations somewhere, and of course whenever a notebook is too pretty not to buy.

I’ve never met anyone else who is quite so intent on recording anything and everything, but thanks to the power of the internet, I now know there’s at least one other freak like me: Alice Bolin. I’ve never met her, but her post on thisrecording.com makes me believe we are kindred spirits and were probably separated at birth. From the post:

I have in my pocket at this moment a note I don’t remember writing to myself that I found recently on my floor. It reads, “Landscape quote: O pardon me thou bleeding piece of Earth.” (Googling reveals this is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.) Also in my pocket is a note card where it says in my graduate thesis advisor’s handwriting, “Question / Is there a historical reason for the great number of rear/alley entrances/exits in Missoula bars?” Also: a stranger’s to-do list I found tucked in a book I ordered online; its only noteworthy item is “Return Cal’s pants!”

Similarly, I hoard written and verbal content constantly. I tore a page from one of my college legal pads that reads, in a list, “bastard food; misplaced football jerseys; acid dropping.” The Notebook feature on my phone offers this quote, squeezed between a flight confirmation code and a grocery list, with no context: “As soon as you’re sitting on a pokey thing, you’re like, damn, I’m sitting on a pokey thing.” And don’t even get me started on those little notebooks I used to carry everywhere from age 15, packed with funny-but-oft-nonsensical quotes from my closest friends, tales of strange adventures with acquaintances I no longer remember, and letters to ex-boyfriends. I once listed nearly 20 quotes from my college choir conductor in a LiveJournal post: “You need to get the L out.” “Make this violent word sound as sexy as possible.” “Sorry, taken over by an alien momentarily.”

The urge to document also manifests in photos.

The urge to document also manifests in photos.

The height of my recording craze was my senior year of college, when my amazing group of friends would essentially recreate a Cheers scene at our favorite local hangout three or more nights a week. We’d while away the hours commiserating about our jobs and classes, watching football games, playing cards and winning prizes in pub trivia. I must have filled four notebooks with inside jokes and stories borne from our nights there.

“I misread your mustache, sir.” (Courtesy of someone who judged my friend’s political views by his facial hair.)
“It crashed and burned, and then a dinosaur stepped on it. And then it killed a puppy.” (A friend describes her day.)
“They’re like the tacos of the feet.” (Your guess is as good as mine.)

Why the constant urge to chronicle every last funny, interesting and semi-brilliant thing? I guess I’m just a nostalgic person. In certain life situations for which a comprehensive record exists–like the trip to Eastern Europe in high school, or the night the power went out during my winter break reunion with youth choir friends–it’s likely I wrote everything down for nostalgia’s sake. Back then, I believed my future self would kick my present self for forgetting the Best Inside Jokes Ever.

I think the particular affinity for quoting my friends in our last days of college may have been a self-preservational instinct, a desperate attempt to log the here and now in some form or other–because I knew that less than a year later, I’d be in a strange new city trying to find a job and a new set of bar buddies.

When I ran out of notebooks...

When I ran out of notebooks…

Why do I still do it? Because my post-college years thus far have been predictably tumultuous and subject to change. My entire world has changed almost annually as I’ve moved to new apartments, started new relationships, said goodbye to old friends and awkwardly courted new ones. As much as I try to live in the moment the way older adults advise, I can’t help but look toward the future to an older me, contentedly flipping through five thousand notebooks of strange memories.

The Book City

Even if you’re not attending the current AWP conference, and even if you’re not a writer, hop on over to The Stranger’s article about the average Seattle resident’s penchant for reading…and hanging out in places where reading material is purchased.

From the article:

Part of the reason I moved to Seattle from the East Coast was for the rain and the clouds. There’s nothing more annoying than the pang of guilt that comes unbidden when you choose to stay inside with a good book on a beautiful spring day. With its relentless cloud cover, Seattle minimizes the opportunity for that kind of guilt. In fact, it rewards people for reading and writing, which is part of the reason our city always hovers near the top of those (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) “most literate city” polls that circulate around the internet every year or so.

Whether we’re literate because it’s raining or the rainy climate naturally attracts bookworms, it’s a fact: Seattle loves to read, and it always has.

Elliott_Bay_Books_(Capitol_Hill)_interior_pano_01

Ever since my dad read novels to me at bedtime (Goodnight Moon got old fast, so we moved on to Watership Down), I grew up with my nose buried in a book. I started with classics, including the Nancy Drew series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. My childhood guilty pleasures included Animorphs and Sweet Valley High.

In high school, between the engrossing Harry Potter books, I devoured science fiction, fantasy, period literature and more, still discovering my literary tastes. During the week, I sat in English class wondering why in hell The Odyssey got top billing over The Aeneid in my classroom and a million others, while on the weekends I happily made my way through the 850 pages of Bleak House.

Then, in college, I discovered the wonder of contemporary fiction and its endless possibilities. There was nothing better than studying, discussing and writing about the books I would have read at home anyway.

Today, I miss the discussions and the feedback. Sometimes I convince a friend to read a book with me so we can get into lively debates like we did in college. In the last year, among other things, I’ve marveled at the Dickensian parallels in A Fine Balance, I’ve dissed Eugenides’ self-indulgent latest effort, I’ve read Zadie Smith at her best and her worst, and I’ve made it halfway through Colum McCann‘s canon.

It’s heartwarming to be reminded that I’ve done all this in a city full of like-minded folk, that I bought these books at some of the best book-buying institutions in the country…and that there’s so much more to discover.

On Being Real

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way my relationships with others have changed in recent years. I’m not a social butterfly, so I was glad to see Facebook’s continuous rise in popularity while I was in college. It was the perfect tool for those of us who wanted to keep tabs on old friends but lacked the courage to pick up the phone or even write an email often enough to do so.

But after more than seven years of Facebook use, I realize the site has not given me what I wanted. In Facebook I looked for insight into the daily ups and downs of those I used to see every day. It has instead provided me only with the highlights of my friends’ lives: the engagements, the exotic vacations, the new job announcements and the best home-cooked dinners.

I’m thrilled to see my friends doing well, but I know these updates don’t tell the whole story. In addition to their good news, I’d like to hear about their pipe leaks at home, their struggles at work and the recipes that failed. Balancing news of the positive with the negative, the quirky, the funny and the everyday paints a more accurate picture of someone’s life–a picture that does more to educate friends on one’s life rather than to simply induce friends’ jealousy.

This year, my life was filled with lovely sunsets, craft cocktails and exciting adventures. It was also filled with frustration, sadness, anxiety, confusion and sleep deprivation. And that’s okay.

I read a blog post last week that called for a New Year’s resolution almost all of us can keep. Rather than resolving to get fit, eat healthier, save more money or clean more often, we might first and foremost promise ourselves to be more honest with ourselves and with each other.

So in 2014, for better or for worse, I vow to stop Photoshopping my life. I’m done with humblebrags. I’m finished with heavily filtered selfies. I’ll leave the self-promotion at work, and I’ll spend more actual facetime with those whose friendship I value.

I’m ready to be real.

Fall

I visited Seattle for the first time in the fall. The weather was still temperate and sunny, the days were still long and the late afternoon light was perfectly golden. The city’s natural beauty was fully on display, and I fell in love.

ImageI know what you’re thinking–how can you possibly make it through another rapturous essay on apple picking, pumpkin spice lattes and changing leaves? But while I’m a sucker for all these things, I love fall because it’s been the season of so many good memories.

I’m sure I’m not the only one with fond memories of my first college term. I had no idea what to expect of the campus, the people or even my major, and I was pleasantly surprised to immediately love everything about the University of Oregon–even its retro student union, overly enthusiastic football fans and giant lecture halls. All of us who start college in the fall probably think of autumn as a time of year for fresh starts and self-discovery.

ImageTwo years later, I had one of the best autumns of my life studying in Paderno del Grappa, Italy. I spent much of the semester traveling all over Europe, and one of my most vivid memories is of the varied weather. It was practically summer one weekend in Florence, but two weeks later, my soaked ballet flats squelched all over Dublin during a daylong downpour. We wandered Paris in mostly T-shirts in October, but we needed to buy more layers and lots of mulled wine to  keep from freezing a month later in Köln. It was thrilling to experience Europe while the seasons were changing.

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ImageThree years ago, in the fall, my favorite people came together on the scenic rooftop of my first Seattle apartment.

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ImageAnd the next fall, when there was no more roof, we settled for a cramped kitchen.

ImageAnd to start this fall, some of us made a pilgrimage right back to the place where my love for fall started…at the University of Oregon.

Image…We were a little overwhelmed.

An epic American night…in Italy

It’s now 2:30 p.m. in what will probably pass as one of the most important political days in my young adult life, but there’s a good chance I won’t remember a minute of it.

Last night, I stayed up without sleeping until 6:30 a.m. (9 p.m. on the West Coast) to watch all the states’ returns come in and to see what everyone already knew was coming–Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. I’ll remember the excitement I felt every time a new state flashed on the MSNBC virtual map, leading us closer to a conclusion to the stat-packed night, and I’ll remember watching the interesting patterns developing in the form of blue and red clumps in the counties of battleground states. And I’ll most certainly remember the first address of the first black president, one delivered with such determined fervor that I could tell Obama knew the serious trouble he was getting himself into and knew he could conquer it all.

It seemed like as good a time as any to #ThrowYourO.

But my memory will probably go fuzzy after the time that I fell into bed at 6:30, especially considering that I had to wake up a mere three hours later. All the more reason, then, to document my findings from newspapers from all over the world in this blog.

I looked up the online translated version of Il Messaggero, the most widely read newspaper in Rome, and my beliefs were instantly confirmed: that most of Italy was overjoyed by Obama’s victory. The paper proclaimed Obama won “by an avalanche of votes”; a reader in support of the outcome wrote in a comment “long live REAL democracy.” European leaders hailed the new president’s election as “a turning point” that made the year a very strong one for democracy in the U.S. and the world (EU president Jose Barroso), a “wonderful example of democracy given from the United States to the world” (Nicolas Sarkozy), and a testament to new “progressive values and a vision for the future” (Britain’s PM Gordon Brown). Even Russia welcomed Obama with open arms, assuring him a “full partership of trust.”

It’s a shame I couldn’t have been right in the middle of the action–say, celebrating on campus with fellow U of O students or dancing on tops of cars with other Santa Cruzans (yes, they really did do that)–but in a way, being in a foreign country for these elections has made me see the importance of the perspective of the world, not just that of the U.S., in these elections. I think the American media focus so much on Americans’ reactions to the election results that they don’t immediately take into account what foreign leaders–and foreign equivalents of the average joe–are saying. Thus, had I been in the U.S. while this was happening, I wouldn’t have thought to read up on foreign perspective.

Thank goodness for the Internet–and thank goodness for study abroad!

Back in Eugene, just for a moment

Sure, it’s rained enough in the last week to rival Oregon’s rainfall record, but let’s face it: Paderno del Grappa, Italy is nothing like Eugene.

I know, I know, I’m not exactly in a position to complain. I couldn’t imagine a more idyllic place to study—right at the foot of the Alps, surrounded by villas dotting the countryside, an hour’s train ride away from the romantic canals of Venice. But even so, now that my time here is two-thirds gone and I’m stateside bound in just a month, I can’t help but think about everything I miss about Eugene, where I’ve lived for the better part of two years, and how excited I am to return.

In those moments when I get what I’ve started calling “hippie withdrawal,” I’m lucky to have more than 10 fellow U of O students to turn to. We all feel the same way, torn between the excitement of traveling and new experiences and the familiarity and comfort of our home away from home. We talk about our favorite cafés on campus, study spots we like and great professors at dinner sometimes, but even after getting some of it out of our systems, we still yearn to return.

But something fortuitous happened on Saturday night that eased the chill of the Alpine foothills and made me feel a little more at home: a barbecue. We all skipped dinner in the cold, cavernous cafeteria that night and instead broke out the barbecue. There were French fries, hamburgers, hot dogs and baked beans, and we gathered it all up on our plates like ravenous pigs. We chatted among ourselves as we dove into the all-American fast, and amid conversation, someone mentioned an Oregon game was scheduled to play on TV tonight. And suddenly four of us, decked out in Oregon shirts and sweatshirts, were parked in front of the television in the campus lounge. Then eight. Then 10. And then the Oregon faculty members were there too.

University of Oregon alumni at a CIMBA dinner in Italy

All the Ducks in a row…er, two rows

The game was at UC Berkeley, not on home turf, but what did it matter? We could see our team, up close and personal, and we identified our yellow-clad fans in the stands as if we were there with them.

We gave loud whoops when the game was in our favor and groaned, heads in hands, when our team let us down. We yelled in unison and held our hands above our heads in “O” shapes at the kickoff. We tried practicing other traditional game chants even though the band wasn’t there to back us up.

Practicing a U of O tradition, even when we were nearly 5,600 miles away from U of O itself, staved off my homesickness enough to make me feel buoyant even at the end of the game, when we lost to Cal and the rain in Berkeley fell harder than ever.

Tales of an expat

Everyone thinks the best stories come from the wildest adventures, like getting lost in the Himalayas or kayaking down a hundred-foot waterfall in the Amazon. But sometimes a great adventure story comes from the simplest act of moving outside one’s comfort zone. In the case of Dominic Standish, this act was moving from England to Italy and getting married four days later.

To be fair, it’s not quite as adventurous as it all sounds. “All the men wondered how I’d managed to find a wife in four days,” Standish said, “and I pointed out to them that I’d met her a while ago in England.”

Still, a permanent move to a country whose culture and language was at the time totally foreign to him was adventure enough. Though he knew little about the way Italians behaved and could barely communicate with them, his eyes helped him discern the subtle differences. “Because I was coming to a new culture and a new country, I was making observations all the time,” Standish said.

And he began to write about them, shedding light on the interesting quirks of Italian life that Italians themselves weren’t aware of. Shortly thereafter, he was offered a position as a contributing writer for the International Herald Tribune by an editor interested in input from a fresh pair of eyes. The fact of his expatriatism was, then, the secret to his success.

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Starting out a writing career as an international reporter, Standish said, “gives you the chance to get our foot in the door because you’re immediately perceived as having a different perspective on things,” something publications always look for in a prospective employee.

Hearing Standish’s story made me think about the role of the expatriate journalist. While expats in general are enthusiastic to immerse themselves in a different culture than that of their home country, to what extent should journalists living in a foreign country do so? Do they have a responsibility to retain vivid memories of their upbringing in their respective former homelands for purpose of cultural observation? If they become completely immersed in another culture, will they lose that essential talent for observing culutral differences once they take life in their new home country for granted?

I wonder this because, if I were to move to a different country permanently, I’d want to truly immerse myself and be one with the community. Perhaps in the process, though, I’d forget things about life in the U.S. and consequently stop spotting the cultural differences that were once what made my writing stand out.

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But maybe there’s no cause to worry: Dominic Standish said he still feels like he never wears the right leather shoes to fit in completely with his Italian friends, and he still expects his children to sit at the table until they’re done with dinner even though sitting down to dinner as a family is no longer a common practice among modern Italian families.

But, Standish jokes, “we don’t have a bonfire in our backyard” on Nov. 5 to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day, nor does he yearn for the supermarket aisles of Marks & Spencer. He’s let some of the Italian culture seep in while retaining his own identity, blurring the lines between expat and Italian citizen.

Or, as he puts it, “My role is less defined by patriotism. I regard myself as a citizen of the world.”

The clash of the Italians

I had just finished my oil-covered bruschetta appetizer when the young waiter appeared to whisk our plates away and clear the table for our main course platters–gnocchi, rice, octopus. Before he could walk away, I stopped him by asking in my most polished Italian accent where I might find the bathroom.

I knew, however, all was already lost. It was clear by the way he silently appraised me with an up-and-down sweep of the eyes that to him I was just another foreign tourist. Perhaps it was my flared jeans, which had gone out of style two years ago in Italy, or the emerging holes at the hem of my black cotton v-neck t-shirt. To He Of The Impeccably-Pressed Black Button-Down, to this twentysomething Florentine waiter whose white apron remained spotless in the face of innumerable drink spills, I was an underling. He did not, nor would he ever, consider us kindred spirits.

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Nevertheless, out of politeness, he asked my parents and I where we were from and what brought us to Florence. My mom explained that she and my dad were on vacation from the States and that I was studying in Italy this term.

“Here?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “in a really small town. Near Venice.”

“Which town?”

You’ve never heard of it, I thought. “Paderno del Grappa? In the Veneto?”

At that last word he wrinkled his nose, as if physically repulsed. “The Veneto?” He waved his hand in a dismissive shooing motion. “Why would you want to study there?”

Florence, I knew he meant to imply, was the only place worth studying in all of Italy. And why not? It is, after all, the home of all the great Renaissance thinkers, painters, sculptors and architects and houses most of the relics of these great men within its city limits. Couple Florence’s historical significance with the fact that it’s cradled neatly in the heart of the rolling hills of Tuscany and that it’s made up almost entirely of red-roofed buildings and you’ve got yourself an extraordinarily inspiring place to think and create. Picture the perfect study spot, multiply it by a few square miles, add some mint-green and pale-orange stripes of marble, and viola! That’s Florence. A study spot for the ages.

I understood the waiter’s point, but the fact was, he wasn’t merely suggesting Florence was an inspiring city for scholars. He was suggesting the Veneto was ugly and drab. He wasn’t giving me helpful advice; he was introducing me to the subtle geographical warfare that’s present everywhere in Italy.

My friend Marco was born in Verona, a Veneto city whose residents unconditionally support their now-dismal home soccer team as a Chicago Cubs fan might have done in the 1990s. He was elated upon hearing I was to study in his home region; though he regretted I had to live in folksy Paderno del Grappa, he joyously announced Verona was a mere hour or two away by train. I told him I’d like to travel all around Italy while I was there: Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples…

“DON’T go to Southern Italy, whatever you do,” he warned me in an ominous tone. “Not Naples, and especially not Sicily.” As far as Marco was concerned, Italy got worse the farther south you traveled.

Why do people in different regions of Italy despise those in other regions? To an outsider, the entirety of Italy is beautiful and worth visiting. Why do they refuse to admit that parts of Italy other than their own hometowns contain spots of interest and beauty? I understand a certain degree of rivalry; after all, we Northern Californians always joke that Southern Californians are too shallow, fake and sun-drenched for our taste. But we certainly don’t hate each other. I continually tell people that San Diego is one of the loveliest and most culturally rich places in the state. So, Italians, what gives?

To understand these ancient rivalries, Americans must understand that Italy is just that–ancient. Roots here run deep; families raised in a specific Italian town may not leave that town for 10 generations. Thus, allegiance to an Italian region morphs into defense for that region and, ultimately, denunciation of the rest of Italy. We Americans, ever a mobile people whose culture is decidedly not formed from ancient history, don’t understand these multiple generations never uprooting. When I have kids, they will most likely leave the nest and start their own lives somewhere else; their kids will probably do the same. We move on. Italians stay put.

I never thought I’d say this, but maybe the Italians can learn something from us: geographic tolerance. That waiter doesn’t know what he’s missing if he’s never woken up to the sight of the snow-covered Dolomites out his bedroom window.