Faith in Vermont, California Sabbatical: This Old House

<p> <img alt="" src="" style="width: 400px; height: 300px;" /></p><p> About nine months ago, my husband and I decided to start looking for a place to live during our sabbatical in Berkeley, California. Sitting at home in Vermont, we assumed it would be no problem to find a furnished rental home for a family with four young children and a dog, within walking distance of UC Berkeley, on an assistant professor&rsquo;s salary.</p><p> The first thing to go was the dog. It quickly became clear that four children were four strikes against us; our dog would be a deal-breaker, and would have to stay in Vermont.</p><p> The next thing to go was our budget, which turned out to be unrealistically low for most two-bedroom houses within the Berkeley city limits. Our upper limit edged higher, then higher still.</p><p> Several times, we thought we&rsquo;d found &ldquo;the one.&rdquo; But multiple rentals slipped through our fingers, usually with landlords making excuses after we mentioned the children.</p><p> By late July, we were losing hope. Then my husband found an online listing for a two-bedroom house, walking distance to campus, at the uppermost limit of our budget. Without much optimism, he sent off an inquiry.</p><p> The email we got back read something like this: &ldquo;Four children! How great! I&rsquo;m the youngest of four myself, and we have two young children and live right next door. We&rsquo;d love to have your family!&rdquo;</p><p> That&rsquo;s how we found our house.</p><p> Our Berkeley house is on the north side of the UC Berkeley campus. North Berkeley is called the &ldquo;Gourmet Ghetto&rdquo; due to its status as the birthplace of California cuisine: the business district along Shattuck Avenue features Alice Waters&rsquo; Chez Panisse restaurant, the original Peet&rsquo;s Coffee, and the Cheese Board Collective.</p><p> To visit us, drive uphill from the Gourmet Ghetto. Keep going up. And up.</p><p> The city of Berkeley is slanted, plunging from the Berkeley Hills to the San Francisco Bay. Our house sits mid-slope, on the corner of Cedar and Euclid &ndash; a corner so steep that someone in Public Works decided navigating it would require two sets of stairs in the sidewalk at our corner. &nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p> The house is a semi-detached, two-story wooden structure, painted dark brown. Our landlords, Jake and Keturah and their two children (who are as wonderful as their initial email indicated) live next door; the two houses are connected by two garage bays. Both houses were built in 1939, which doesn&rsquo;t seem old by East Coast standards, but <em>does</em> seem old if nothing&rsquo;s been updated since 1939.</p><p> When you enter our house (which takes about 5 minutes, because the door lock hasn&rsquo;t been updated since 1939), you might notice the smell. It&rsquo;s a smell that evokes every house we&rsquo;ve ever inhabited in Berkeley, and that we&rsquo;ve only ever smelled in Berkeley: a sort of musty eucalyptus odor.</p><p> The next thing you might notice is that, even if the sun is shining warmly outside, you feel cold inside. Sitting at our dining table, you might even feel a breeze. This is another peculiarity of every Berkeley home in which we&rsquo;ve lived: they were constructed without insulation, and with single-paned windows. It&rsquo;s as if the early 20<sup>th</sup>-century builders in this area mistakenly assumed they were in <em>Southern </em>California. And the Bay Area is <em>not </em>Southern California: At the moment, high temperatures range from 50-60 degrees F, and dip into the 40s at night.</p><p> Once inside our house, it&rsquo;s impossible to forget that you&rsquo;re perched on a steep hill. You entered at ground level, but take ten steps from the front door through a narrow hallway and into the living room, and look out the window: you&rsquo;re 15 feet off the ground. Take a few more steps to the next window, and you&rsquo;re suddenly five feet higher.</p><p> Our living room is the best room in the house: It&rsquo;s bright and open, with five big windows. From our living room windows we can see the University of California&rsquo;s Sather Campanile to the south, and the San Francisco skyline and Golden Gate Bridge to the west. One corner of the living room is set up as a classroom in which I&rsquo;m homeschooling our two oldest daughters (more on that later.)</p><p> Our dining table is squished between the living room and the kitchen. The small kitchen, aside from the refrigerator and the stove, hasn&rsquo;t been updated since 1939. It has the original white wood cabinets, including one with a screened door opening onto the street that used to let in the milk bottles, but now only admits drafts and slugs.&nbsp; It has the original (and very chipped) white tile backsplash, counter, sink, and &ndash; from the looks of it &ndash; the original grout. Whether this is quaint or dirty is a matter of perspective.</p><p> That&rsquo;s the first floor, aside from the world&rsquo;s tiniest bathroom, which is tucked next to the staircase and contains a toilet and perpetually-dripping sink (both circa 1939, I&rsquo;d guess.)</p><p> The second floor has a full bathroom and two bedrooms. My husband and I sleep on a mattress on the floor of the smaller bedroom, while our four daughters bed down in sleeping bags atop two futon mattresses in the larger room.</p><p> We share a fenced-in backyard with our landlords, including a two-level terraced brick patio (that hill again), a lemon tree, and an apple tree. The laundry room, also shared, is accessed from the backyard. When I do laundry (which, with four children, is almost daily), I have to carry our laundry through the garage, down two flights of patio stairs, and through a locked door to a crawl space under our house. Every time I do this, I think, &ldquo;Thank God it never snows here.&rdquo;</p><p> We feel truly fortunate to have found this house, and to have such understanding landlords. &ldquo;Let us know if you have any problems,&rdquo; our landlord Jake told us as we stood in his living room on our first weekend in Berkeley. &ldquo;These old houses, you know, they&rsquo;re always shifting and moving.&rdquo;</p><p> &ldquo;See that crack there?&rdquo; he continued, pointing to a half-inch gap between the brick fireplace and the wood floor, &ldquo;That wasn&rsquo;t here when we moved in two years ago.&rdquo;</p><p> That&rsquo;s when we started noticing the gaps in our own floors, the cracks in the ceiling and walls, and the 30-degree downhill slope of our kitchen that prevents us from fully opening the broom closet. That&rsquo;s when we remembered that we&rsquo;re less than a mile from the active Hayward Fault, which the U.S. Geological Survey says is &ldquo;increasingly likely&rdquo; to produce a catastrophic earthquake within the next 30 years.</p><p> &ldquo;I&rsquo;m just putting this out there,&rdquo; my husband says, &ldquo;but maybe houses weren&rsquo;t really meant to be built up in these hills.&rdquo;</p><p> Then we look out our windows and see the orange sun setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge, and -- along with our neighbors -- we forget that we&rsquo;re all slowly sliding downhill.</p><p> &nbsp;</p><p> <em>Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle &mdash; and writing for her blog, </em><a href=""><em>The Pickle Patch.</em></a></p>

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Middlebury, VT 05753

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