When I first arrived in Berkeley, I did something I’ve never done on any of my other vacations: I headed straight for a laundromat.
My two coworkers and I finished up our lunch in Oakland’s Chinatown on Sunday afternoon, we said goodbye to our hosts and hopped on the BART to Berkeley. We all went our separate ways, which for me, meant checking into the Hotel Shattuck Plaza and settling into this new town for a few days.
After seeing the things I saw at our Oakland hosts’ home, I knew I wouldn’t be able to wear the clothes I wore in that house until they were washed. In fact, I didn’t even want the clothes I wore in that house to be anywhere near the rest of my possessions. I started unpacking and separated out The Clothes I Wore In Oakland from Clothes Without Any Oakland On Them. My hotel room was so beautiful and white and clean and essentially the opposite of where I just came from. I didn’t want to contaminate this sanctuary with anything I came in contact with at my previous accommodations.
Of course, in the midst of unpacking everything, I discovered that about 50 of my ant friends found their way into my suitcase (to be more precise, inside the Ziplock bag holding all my toiletries). Upon discovering these ant hitchhikers, I proceed to mumble expletives underneath my breath while I went on an ant killing spree. I took my toiletries into the bathroom and washed out the bag, plus the toiletries compartment of my suitcase, and then the outside of the suitcase. Just to be safe. Because gross.
I stuffed my Oakland Clothes into my backpack and paid an atrocious $6 to speed wash and dry my clothes in a small laundromat. There were college students milling about the laundromat, doing their homework at the little tables while clothes spun around and around in the washers and dryers. I stood around anxiously, ready to get on with my day. When my clothes were clean at last, I shoved them back in my backpack, drop them off at the hotel, and set off wandering the streets of Berkeley on my own.
There are few places I’ve truly explored entirely on my own. I drove and hiked around Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula when I was a teenager. At college, I spent more time solo-wandering the streets of Ann Arbor than anywhere else. This is one of the biggest reasons Ann Arbor is such a special place to me: it was fully mine, with my own secret getaways and favorite places. When visiting Greece with my best friend in 2008, I spent some early mornings wandering around Paleochora in Crete and Perissa in Santorini because he likes sleeping in more than I do. I also spent a week one summer at a choir retreat at the base of the Swiss Alps, just outside Neuchâtel, and I loved roaming the countryside before rehearsal started in the morning or during our breaks.
Other than those few instances, though, I tend not to be by myself. Like, ever.
It’s a personal choice, I suppose. I like being around people. I like sharing experiences with others around me. I like conversation, traveling with friends and family, and having someone that I can laugh with later and say, “Hey, remember when…?” To me, those are the memories worth creating, and having someone to share them with validates that they happened.
But, I also understand it’s important to do things alone. It’s not something that comes naturally or comfortably to me, and therefore I know it’s something I should do more often. Setting up in my Berkeley hotel room and browsing the internet was definitely an option, but it was only 4 pm by the time I finished doing laundry. I made the choice to go and see what I could see with this time instead of wasting it inside.
Walking up and down the streets of Berkeley, I felt an almost instant similarity between Berkeley and Ann Arbor. The streets, the campus, the droves of college kids, the hippie-isa vibe, the emphasis on arts and culture, and even the homeless people milling around. All these things felt eerily familiar, but also comforting. I made my way to different parts of town and got a sandwich for dinner. Sitting in the cafe by myself, eating my dinner and people-watching other patrons, I saw something on the TV that caught my attention.
The Orlando shooting.
It was the first I’d heard of it, even though it happened almost 24 hours prior. I texted Sam and asked if he knew about the shooting in Orlando, to which he basically responded, “um, yes, everyone knows about that.” Things like this happen to me a lot on vacation: I’ll remove myself so much from the world in the midst of my exploring that I’m oblivious to monumental current events everyone else knows about. I didn’t know Anthony Scalia died while we were in Utah and Arizona earlier this year until talking with a stranger on the plane ride home. Reintroducing myself to reality is strange after spending days drifting in my own thoughts and new experiences.
I tried to wrap my mind around the hate and terror of the Orlando shooting, but I couldn’t. It was too much, too painful to take in right then. I finished my meal and headed back out on the streets, squinting into the sunshine with New Knowledge About Current Events sifting through my mind. The world felt small and strange now after a few days of adventuring on my own.
I found a cool sock store and wandered onto the Berkeley campus for a bit. Dessert took the form of the most incredible Belgian waffle I’ve ever tasted. As the sun began to set, I made my way back to the hotel and snuggled up in my big, clean, fluffy, ultra-comfortable bed. Sleep came fast and hard, and I was so grateful to be exactly where I was in that moment.
On Monday morning, bright and early, I headed up the long hill to the far edge of the UC Berkeley campus. It was the first day of the True University conference and I had no idea what to expect. Greeted with lots of swag, an incredible spread of breakfast foods, and a riveting keynote speech to kick off the day, I knew pretty quickly that this was going to be one of the coolest things I’d ever done in terms of personal and career growth.
The next two days were a total blur. I mingled with lots of fantastic people from startup companies located all over the country. I learned from some of the best and brightest minds in the Marketing and Customer Experience spheres. I discussed interesting things with strangers and discovered all kinds of new, fascinating things I’d never even thought about before. I watched a California sunset from the balcony of UC Berkeley’s football stadium and saw the entire span of the Golden Gate bridge dazzle in Golden Hour light. I went back and got myself another Belgian waffle at that waffle place because I wanted one. I pushed myself outside my comfort zone in so many ways, even though I was drained from full days of learning and socializing. I knew I only had a short time to take everything in, and I wanted to soak as much of it up as I could.
Tuesday morning was the only other time I really had to myself, before the second (and last) day of the conference began. Replicating my morning routine from home, I opted to run to the top of a hill to a place called Indian Rock. The views up there were more stunning than the gorgeous houses dotting the hills above downtown Berkeley. After resting for a few minutes at Indian Rock, I ran along to the UC Berkeley Rose Garden and back down the hill with plenty of time to prepare for the last day of the conference. I felt alert, refreshed, and energized to tackle another full day of exploratory learning.
When the conference came to a close on Tuesday evening, I decided it was ok to relax again and let myself ease back into reality. I check up on some work emails and chatted with Sam on the phone for the first time since I left on Friday. I packed up for the plane ride home on Wednesday morning and tried organizing my thoughts about the trip as a whole.
I still don’t have my thoughts organized very well, as you can probably tell from this post, but I do know that it was really important for me to take this trip. It made me think a lot about my personal goals and my career goals. It allowed me the space and time to be an individual and travel alone, which is something I hadn’t truly done before. It was a short trip, yes, but also really vital in terms of confirming things I’ve held in my heart and dreams I’ve chased for a long time.
I know part of my heart is still in California, but I also took a stronger sense of myself back home with me. That’s what really matters.