» (Despite what Gena says) evidence of sunshine, Berkeley University photo: flickr/wallyg

It’s not always (just mostly) sunny

Gena-mour Barrett is back at the Boar telling of her American year abroad

I write this because I, like many, was once a naive, inexperienced traveller, who viewed California as a paradisiacal land in which rain was only something a queen did. A haven for British citizens, whose culture, fashion and speech, I’d been told, were revered by hundreds upon thousands and that I would only have to open my mouth and whisper ‘tea and crumpets’ for strangers to come flocking at the marvel that is a British accent. On departing for the US, I was inundated with anecdotes and barely-based-on-actual-knowledge advice that only added to my perception of the US as a country where only dreams were made. Now that I have actually arrived in California and have been here for two months, I feel it is my duty to clear up a few misconceptions. After all, nowhere is perfect…not even California (although it comes pretty darn close).

I am going to be honest and confess that I was very much under the impression that I would be somewhat of a novelty in the US. British friends who had previously been on years abroad told me how they’d been stopped in the street for their accent and could rarely utter a sentence without someone shouting ‘Oh my God, are you from England?!’ Needless to say, I was intending to rely solely on my accent to make friends. Why be funny and engaging when I can just lie and say I’ve met the Queen in my best posh accent and get the same amount of friends for free? However, I have had a mixed experience in terms of this interesting idea that Americans are obsessed with British accents. On the one hand, my accent either goes unnoticed or unmentioned, leading me to believe that maybe I’m not quite so much of an alien as I first believed and that perhaps my accent isn’t so obvious. I thank a cashier for serving me and she does not gasp; I speak in class and nobody stares in wonder. It is almost as if my sporadic bursts of “innit” and “bloody hell” slip completely under the radar.



On the other hand, my accent sparks untamed excitement in some people. I have been speaking in a shop and heard a girl in front of me whisper ‘omg, she’s British!’ to her friend, I have thanked a girl for holding the bin open and she has jumped back in amazement and proceeded to tell me how much she would love to go to London, and I have had children tell me they love my accent whilst shopping. It is, without a doubt, one of the strangest experiences, particularly because I think my accent is terrible. Indeed, some people do appear to be on the obsessive side in their reaction to a British accent, but unfortunately not everyone cares if you are from England. That being said, there is not a day that goes by where someone does not mimic my accent or laugh at the way I pronounce certain words, which is a never-ending joy (spot the sarcasm).
Admittedly, as a person who comes from a country where snow can still be seen in April, the prospect of any weather other than freezing was beyond exciting. Having been told incessantly that I was incredibly lucky to be going to California because ‘it’s like 40 degrees over there all the time’, I packed my suitcase almost identically to the way I’d packed my bags to go on holiday two months prior. Filling it with “essentials” like flip-flops and crop tops, not a cardigan or jacket was in sight. Who has time for coats when you’re relaxing in the Sunshine State, sipping on a piña colada and swapping childhood stories with the cast of 90210?
For those of you who have been told similar things about a place they’re potentially travelling to, specifically California, do your research. Do not make the same mistake as I did and work purely on hearsay. Indeed, places in Southern California, like San Diego and LA, are hot, but I was going to Berkeley in the North. When people talk about Californian weather, nobody seems to mention the North’s crazy, temperamental weather. On my first day waking up to my new surroundings, I was met by a completely grey sky and a chilly start. I reached for one of the only jumpers I’d brought and left for my first day in Berkeley.
By noon, the sun seemed to have popped its head out from nowhere and proceeded to fry me for the rest of the day, until I could get home and change into something cooler. Using my lesser sense of judgement, I left my house for dinner in nothing but a sun dress, convinced it wouldn’t get colder because the heat at that moment was unbearable, but by the evening the temperature had dropped so much that it was freezing. If any of your non-Californian acquaintances have told you California is always hot, take it from me, they are liars. In fact, delete them as Facebook friends now because those same people are the reason I left my five cardigans back in England. Given my numerous failed attempts to adjust to the sporadic temperature changes, I learnt the hard way that the “Sunshine State” is not always as sunny as you might assume.
In addition to the weather, American food was an endless topic of conversation. It is no secret that America has the unfortunate reputation of being home to some of the biggest people and portions in the world. I was endlessly warned about my future as a whale, returning to England twice the size with only a Twinkie and a couple of Poptarts to my name. A family friend even bet me £10 that I would put on weight, just because she was so sure that I’d balloon into the Michelin man.
However, the US is actually missing some key staples from its bacon-obsessed diet. The most shocking of which was the absence of squash. As students who know how little they can afford to splash out on bottles and bottles of actual drinks, squash is a God-send. For the days when I physically could not fathom another glass of water, squash was my go-to substance. It was cheap (42p from Tesco cheap) and it seemed like it never ran out. It was only until I was met with blank stares and asked if by squash I was referring to the vegetable, that I realised that there is absolutely no equivalent here. How can a country with inventions like chocolate covered bacon and “cronuts” not have squash? Although I was crushed by this unfortunate discovery, there is a plethora of food to choose from. Mexican restaurants are pretty much on every street corner in the Bay Area and $2 ice-cream sandwiches have become my new best friend.
They also seem to cater to a lot more food preferences. There are vegan specialist restaurants, various gluten-free options, good dairy-free products and numerous fat-free frozen yoghurt places, so if you make good decisions and have a mind of steel you can get by without transforming into a Teletubby. Plus, gym membership on campus is only $10 a semester (Warwick Sport, please take note).
Finally, the people. I don’t particularly like to say this because I think British people, particularly Londoners, get a bad rap from apparently being “cold”. However, it is true what they say: people in California are nice as hell. In some cases it is actually laughable how nice. When I first arrived I was so shocked at the sheer tone of some people’s voices, where a simple ‘hi, how are you?’ could sound as happy as telling someone you have won the lottery. My roommate’s first words to me were ‘are you a hugger?’ and no one seems to be shy about exchanging numbers within the first five minutes of meeting.
Of course, I have met my fair share of rude people. However, I find more often that I am caught in random conversations with people on the bus and, despite my London-esque tendency never to smile whilst walking down a road, people generally tend to smile at me. In many shops they even have a specific job title for a “greeter”, who welcomes people in when they enter the store and ask you how you are. Find me a greeter in Te sco and I will give you a hundred pounds.
All in all, California is beautiful and that, if nothing else, is 100% true. Although Warwick will be sorely missed, I am excited to spend my year here and am thankful for the huge reality check. Beyond everything, a year abroad is meant to be an adventure, not a fairy tale.

To read more about Gena’s adventures visit londoncanyouhearme.blogspot.com


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