Rite of Spring

Few people in California will complain about the weather.  I make this claim having resided in both the temperamental climate of the Bay Area and perpetually sunny suburbs of the south.  Credence must be given to pasty European tourists who, in early April, assume that their Baywatch vacation spent in Los Angeles will be repeated the following week in San Francisco.  Yet after complaining to locals and shivering in shorts over donuts and coffee in their hotel lobbies, they often find redemption.  They discover something charming about the way the fog lifts with the late morning to couch their cable car rides in cumuli, blue firmament, and sun.

            During my college years, there were also high school friends who had moved to Ivy League campuses on the East Coast.  They’d come back for summers or Christmas and rave about the “change of seasons.”  They spoke of autumn colors, snow angels, and “spring fever,” phenomena foreign to the bulk of California life.  I would imagine hayrides, piles of crunchy orange leaves, and reasons to warm oneself over steaming cups of cider.  How those friends relished in the telling!  They spoke as if the rest of us back home were deprived of such luxuries wearing Bermudas and flip flops three-hundred-sixty-five days a year. 

            Having now lived in continental Europe for nearly a decade, I understand the romance of winter and the relief of spring.  When it started to get cold here around October, I enjoyed the crisp, dry, autumn air and musky pillars of smoke rising from chimneys.  When spring finally rescued us a few weeks ago, provisionally relieving us from months of rain, my mood soared and my hormones began to boogie.  But I did find myself having missed California in the dead of the European winter.  I admit to having daydreamed of throwing on shorts, a light sweatshirt, sandals, and sunglasses to drive over to Target for Christmas shopping.  As a wise friend from San Diego once said to me, “You can take the girl out of California, but you can’t take California out of the girl.”

            Technically, spring officially began on the solstice, March 21, which is the day after my third grade teacher’s birthday.  Miss Olsen was very strict and came from Wisconsin.  She won me over by reading our class The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a story that deals with a massive change in seasons in a place called Narnia.  She also had a thing for Snoopy.  She’d decorate the bulletin boards with happy, cardboard, Peanuts characters frolicking in classroom fields of crocuses, orange leaves or snow, depending on the time of year. 

            The crocuses began appearing here in the Hague a few weeks before the solstice.  While walking downtown with the baby buggy, we passed a field of purple buds that had sprung into life on the earthy plots in front of Hotel Des Indes.  They were so radiant, I almost walked into oncoming traffic.  While dressing my daughter for her swimming lesson that week, I monumentally abandoned her winter coat for a thick sweater.  All the doors in the house were open, because the heater was actually off, and she was free to totter from room to room in her newfound bipedal state while I put the rest of her bag together.  Sunlight streamed into every angle of the house, and the bay window in the bedroom was open. 

            While we walked into the park that houses the pool, I thought about how much easier it would be to dress her for outings in the summer.  I’d only have to pull a dress over a head, surrendering the layers that we had struggled with in the pool’s steamy locker room all winter.  It would be a season of sunblock, not mittens constantly dangling into the mud-covered wheels of the buggy.  By that time, she might even be running through the park on her own.

            Women on the path broke my reverie.  Dressed in what my Iranian-born father would call “chadors,” they were speed walking, completely unhindered by their full length frocks.  The cuffs of pants and tennis shoes peeked out from under their skirts.  I greeted them, and they nodded back and smiled at my companion.  They were familiar friends on the path, women who had followed me to the Hague from the park in Berlin where I used to run a few times a week.  I had spent German winters flying over the park’s snow-packed floors alone, mesmerized by the sight of frosted trees.  But when the white began to melt away and the wood was dry again, the cloaked women would re-emerge, walking and talking Turkish in droves.  Every now and then, in Berlin as in the Hague, one would even jog past, her face flushed pink under her headscarf.

            I stopped the buggy in front of a tree to point to a gander that had climbed onto a branch.  My daughter pointed, too, and I quacked.  Behind me, I heard a voice thick with accent.  “Pretty, isn’t he?”  A middle-aged, Asian woman beamed at my daughter, clearly hoping for a reaction.  Petite, she was dressed in a windbreaker and jeans.  My mother having come from Tokyo, Asian faces were distinguishable to me, and I guessed this woman was Chinese.  Her hair was cropped short the way my mother’s had been the last ten years of her life.  I wondered if this woman was going to the Chinese Restaurant in the park.  I wondered if she worked there.

            An older Chinese man ambled by on a bike.  They greeted each other and exchanged a sentence in Mandarin as he floated past, his hand waving forward as if to say don’t worry, he would be back. 

            I let their words dance around my ears and transport me back to California.  Early morning walks through San Francisco’s Chinatown warmed my memory, when the storekeepers would haul wet boxes of smelly clams and fresh fish out onto the sidewalk, running over their contents with new water from green garden hoses.  Part of me also hearkened back to the Chinese food outlet where my mother and I shopped in my youth.  Roasted duck had hung in shop windows, their eyes gouged out and baked shut.  I could still see all the animal parts lying under the glass at the meat counter, parts that had never surfaced under the glass at the local grocery store.  The stench of open, uncooked flesh had always made me sick.  Ironically, the crowds in the store provided respite.  They forced me to maneuver the cart away from the smell as my mother stood in line to pay. 

            My daughter looked at the woman standing with us and pointed back at the branch.  Satisfied, the Chinese lady waved and moved on.  We followed her for a few yards as the building with the restaurant and indoor pool came into view.  The path broke into a clearing situated on the lake, where the woman joined a small crowd of Chinese senior citizens, bending and stretching their limbs.  Of course, I thought.  These too, were familiar friends.  They were folks I’d run past all the months of the year I lived in San Francisco near Golden Gate Park.  They were the Tai Chi People, and they’d come all the way from California to keep me company.

© 2009 Anastasia Hacopian

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