Berkeley diary: The way of the tortoise

I’m sitting at Berkeley’s Caffe Strada on a sun-washed April morning, surrounded by the clamor of students and espresso machines. In front of me, a trio of young men is conferring earnestly in Korean and English over biology textbooks; to my right two women — one clearly American, the other fervently French — are planning their weekend en francais; and behind me what must be a hot-button seminar is unfolding in a flurry of flying hands and impassioned outbursts in Spanish and Ingles.

A week ago I sat at this same table, cloudy and clouded, recalling an afternoon almost a decade before when I stood on a hilltop in Umm Qais, Jordan, looking out over Syria, Israel, the Golan Heights, Lebanon, the Jordan Valley and the Sea of Galilee. I remembered thinking how indistinguishably the landscape of one country flowed into the other, and how confounding it was that people raised in such similar environments, confronting so many of the same challenges of soil and climate, could be so intractably divided.

“Intractable divisions,” I wrote in my journal, “delineate our world still.”

I recalled a scheme I’d dreamed up a few years ago: I’d called it The 1000 Dinners Project. The idea was that we would bring 500 families from Iran to the United States and 500 families from the U.S. to Iran. Each family would spend the day with a host family, going to the market to select the food for the evening’s dinner, then preparing that dinner in the host family’s home and finally sitting down together to enjoy it.During the course of the day they would learn about the ingredients and routines of each other’s everyday lives; they’d share concerns and dreams and hopefully little jokes as well. And slowly, slivering cracks would appear in the stereotyped images each had brought to their encounter, and by the end of the day they would have formed a bond, however frail and fledgling, with someone who had once been branded the “enemy.” And some of them, at least, would return to their villages and towns and tell their friends, relatives and neighbors that those foreign people were not so foreign after all, and seeds of tolerance and peace would be planted.

Of course, it was impractically hard to organize and fund this dream, and it fell by the way.

But on a deeper level, that dream has inspired and defined my life as a traveler and as a travel writer. For the past quarter-century I have been dedicated to the proposition that travel seeds understanding, and that understanding nurtures open-mindedness and compassion — and that these pave the pathway to peace and progress. As a wandering pilgrim, I have come to worship in the church of insatiable inquiry and unconditioned kindness.

Still, last week I looked at the world’s headlines and wondered: Are we really learning anything? Are we any closer to the catechism of kindness than before?

Then in the ensuing days my wife and I attended the screening in Berkeley of a wondrously moving documentary called The Miracle of the Colored Light, by Japanese filmmaker Fumiko Irie; Irie-san had flown from Japan to attend the screening and graciously opened her heart to the audience afterwards, answering questions in Japanese and English. David Farley flew to Oakland from New York and we dined a block from my house in culinary Italy, savoring authentic salumi, porchetta and arancini at a corner eatery called Adesso. I toured Canada in San Francisco at a conference with more than 100 enthusiastic travel folks who had convened to convey the riches of their country, from Newfoundland to the Yukon. I edited dispatches that took me to France and Nepal, and read tales of food adventures sent from Syria, Mexico, the Netherlands, Morocco, the Philippines, Sweden, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Japan, Wales, and the Micronesian island of Fais. And I taught a writing workshop where students were shaping life-changing journeys in Brazil, India, Germany, and other far-flung places.

Now I sit at the Strada reflecting on this gloriously global week and realize, once again, that the world is interwoven all around and through me in a way that would have been unimaginable even a half-century ago. I look around this sunny cafe and see tangible evidence that the world is growing closer. It’s just that when change is tectonic, molecular, you have to be attuned to the slightest movements.

I open my journal and write: “Hard as it sometimes may be to discern from the headlines, I have to believe that humanity is evolving, plodding tortoise-like across the Galapagos of time, toward some enlightened end. Step by step, we lumber, a moving film here, a bridging encounter there, seeds of goodwill and understanding borne around the globe. The end is not in sight, but on this April day, I’ve found renewal of spirit to keep plodding on the way.”

Cafe du Monde: Savoring Berkeley’s Caffe Strada

For many years I have been talking — dreaming — about writing a book called Café du Monde. The book would be a collection off some two dozen essays, each one set in a different café around the world. The underlying notion would be my long-held (and repeatedly confirmed, latte by latte, croissant by flaky croissant) belief that spending a few hours in a café and really closely observing, absorbing, the small world there can inimitably illuminate the larger world around it. My plan would be to choose one great café in two dozen locations – Paris, Tokyo, Venice, Cairo, Istanbul, for example – and plant myself there for a few hours over a few days, and watch and listen and write. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?

So it seemed appropriate to make my Gadling debut with a piece about a café. And I couldn’t think of a better café to begin with — and in — than the Caffe Strada in Berkeley, right across from the UC Berkeley campus at the corner of College and Bancroft avenues.

The Strada is appropriate partly because it’s one of my favorite cafes in the world, and especially because it’s the very place where I sat and composed ninety percent of my book Travel Writing, a how-to guide in which I tried to compress everything I’d learned in a quarter century as a travel writer and editor. When I was writing that book, I came here three or four days a week, installed myself at a table, fanned notes and journals around me, and climbed the mountain of my manuscript, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter.

The Strada was the perfect setting for such an endeavor. The cafe’s L-shaped terrace wraps around the corner of Bancroft and College. On cool days I’d sit on the Bancroft side, paralleling the campus, where twenty-some tables are set under a high ceiling graced by a fanciful, globe-lamped wooden chandelier for inspiration and two powerful heat lamps for warmth. On really cold days I’d park myself at one of the dozen indoor tables, where classical music fills the air. And on sun-warmed days like today, I’d sit on the College-side terrace, under the flowering boughs of plum trees, whose white petals drift down like snowflakes on this late February morning.

Inside, the Strada is simple and spare. In a space roughly 60 feet by 40 feet, a friendly foursome presides behind a cedilla-shaped counter. Wooden panels mounted on the wall behind the main counter serve as menu, showing a standard selection of coffees and teas, milk, hot chocolate, cider and the specialty I always order: the Strada biancha mocha, a creamy confection that injects just the right mind-jolting mix of caffeine and sugar. This main area, where orders are taken and cash handed over (no credit cards, please), displays croissants, scones, pastries and madeleines, with baskets of apples, bananas and fruit cups for the health-conscious. More ambitious concoctions – chocolate and carrot cakes, banana cream pie, cheesecake – are showcased on the left. If you’d prefer more substantial fare, there’s a ham and cheese croissant. That’s it – no fancy sandwiches or salads. One doesn’t stop at the Strada for the food.

The Strada is an extension of the university without being the university. That’s why it was the perfect place to write a guide to travel writing – a profession that essentially brings the classroom into the world and transcribes the lessons of the world-as-classroom.

Or at least, I don’t. I come here because I love the cafe’s convivial community of students, professors, and professionals – plus the quartet of people I have come to think of as “the residents,” who seem to be here whenever I come, whatever the hour or weather. I come here because at this very moment in one corner a tweedy professor is lecturing on archeology while six students scribble intently in their notebooks, and in another an editor for a school publication is summarizing the fine points of editing for a new copy editor. I come here because at 10 am gaggles of undergrads are huddling over tea and laptops preparing group reports, teaching assistants are dissecting papers with earnest English majors, professors are breaking bagels with colleagues, and sweet, slow-paced couples are perusing the Times over steaming lattes.

An hour ago, students paraded past on their way to class, spanning the spectrum from just-got-out-of-the-shower to never-made-it-to-bed. An hour or two from now, cops and postal workers will gobble croissants on coffee breaks, and city maintenance workers will devour danishes and crack jokes. Members of fraternities and sororities will evaluate anxious pledges, jotting notes in ring binders; foreign students will cluster with their compatriots, creating a mellifluous music of French, Japanese, Spanish, Mandarin, Italian and Korean; awkward seniors in suits and ties will interview for internships; and club leaders will commandeer tables to sell their groups to prospective members.

The Strada is an extension of the university without being the university. That’s why it was the perfect place to write a guide to travel writing – a profession that essentially brings the classroom into the world and transcribes the lessons of the world-as-classroom. The atmosphere of intense inquiry still sizzles here just as it does on the campus across the street, but the Strada is also a bridge to the town beyond the gown, a place where office workers stop by for an americano on their way to work and suburban spouses bring their kids for cupcakes and lemonade in the afternoon. Sealing its appeal, the Strada spans coasts too, commingling east coast intellectualism with west coast hedonism – two poles that are integral to my own Connecticut-meets-California make-up.

Over the years, the Strada has come to feel like a second home to me. I like the way the terrace’s leafy boughs filter the sunlight; I like the comforting cosmopolitan chatter, the combination of marble bundt cake and biancha mocha, the easy mix of old and young. I like the staffers who always have a smile. And on a springy day in February, I like luxuriating under the plum petals reading Paul Theroux and Peter Hessler, tapping on my laptop, and occasionally glancing up to watch the unceasing stream of students surging by in sweatshirts and blue jeans, t-shirts and thigh-high skirts. They hug and laugh and banter about classes, parties, what they did for dinner last night, where they’re going for spring break. The air is infused with their innocent energy.

I love the optimism that pervades this place, an optimism I still associate with Berkeley as a whole, even in this cynical age. I sit on this sun-dappled stage and think: There is so much still to be learned, so many adventures still to come. The world looms large.

On a fine February day, the possibilities bloom like plum blossoms on the terrace at the Strada cafe.