We recently passed the 6-month anniversary of our move from Berkeley, CA to Middlebury, VT. Having lived here a full half-year, I now consider myself an expert and feel qualified to spout generalizations and stereotypes concerning the differences between the San Francisco Bay Area and Central-Western Vermont. So, here goes; my 6 observations (one for every month, get it?) on life in Berkeley vs. Middlebury:
1. The weather here is crazier.
Well, DUH, you’re probably thinking. But I don’t just mean that Middlebury is colder than Northern California; we certainly expected THAT. It’s that it’s almost impossible to predict what the weather will be doing 5 minutes from now. In Berkeley, you could pretty much predict that you’d have sunny days with highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s for 6 months out of the year; the other 3 months, it would rain. Here, it’s gone from the 90s to the teens; it rains, snows, sleets, blows. And one of the most surprising things is that it’s been a very mild winter so far. I will likely eat these words by February, but I’m about ready for some more snow already!
This unpredictable weather affects life in countless ways, but one that we’ve certainly noticed is that the reduced cost of real estate in Vermont is counterbalanced by the cost of the sheer amount of GEAR that’s required to get through the seasons comfortably. We could have never afforded a house that would hold our family in the Bay Area, but there we could get by with the same wardrobe year-round. Here, our wardrobe runs the gamut from the sleeveless shirts and shorts needed for the hot summer, to the snow boots, snow pants, insulted coats, gloves, and hats needed for freezing temperatures and snow. Plus the snowshoes, sleds, and skates needed for enjoying the long winter. Times 5, in our case.
With all that winter gear and 3 small children, I’ve learned to allow at least 30 minutes for getting out the door. Even so, I’m still constantly sending Fiona to preschool under-dressed. There are two paths to take when dressing your child if you move to Vermont from California: over-dressing and under-dressing. Apparently, I fall into the latter category. The other day she had to borrow gloves from the school stash because she didn’t have any. (Actually, she did have one surgical glove in her coat pocket, but that’s a long story). In fairness, it was 40 degrees, which I think is an acceptable temperature for bare hands. But apparently native Vermont parents feel otherwise.
2. The kids here are tougher. And blonder.
They might wear gloves when it’s 40 degrees, but the kids here are pretty tough when it comes to braving the elements. During the rainy months in Berkeley, there were entire weeks when we didn’t leave the house. In contrast, Fiona’s preschool sends the kids outside in all weather. And I mean ALL. They’re always out on the playground when I go pick her up. Last month, as I drove to her preschool I thought, “Hmmm, it’s 38 degrees with a freezing drizzle. They’re probably inside this afternoon.” Nope. There was my child, mucking around in the cold rain with a stick in the woods (yes, the school playground includes woods). I actually think this is excellent.
Also interesting is that, when we’re at gatherings of local children, our girls tend to be the token brunettes. Now, in the Bay Area, it felt like you were pretty much in the minority if your background included fewer than 2 ethnic groups; if one of these was “White,” you were even odder. But here, Fiona is one of 3 children with brown hair in a preschool class of 18. (It actually took me 2 whole months to get the boys in her class straight, because all those little blond boys look the same to me!)
3. The contractors here are waaaaaaaay more laid back.
We’re in a bleak economic period, and one might imagine that contractors in small-town Vermont are hurting for business a bit right now. Yet, invariably, this has been our experience with local contractors:
FAITH/ERICK: Hello, we are considering paying you a substantial amount of money to do something to our house. Can you come give us an estimate?
CONTRACTOR: Sure, I’ll be in your area later this week and I’ll stop by.
Without fail, they will show up NO SOONER than 2 weeks later. That’s assuming you get them on the phone the first time; otherwise you leave a message and they call back 2 weeks later. And it’s another 2 weeks before they show up.
Take, for example, the contractor who did our roof. We LoVe him, he’s basically a member of our family by now, and we are planning to have him come back in the spring to do some more projects. But when he presented us with the final invoice and we totaled everything up, we realized that somehow he’d managed to spread 3 weeks worth of work over 3 months. That takes effort, like taking off the entire month of November because it’s deer hunting season.
4. We spend more time in the car now.
This is counter-intuitive, because we moved here from the land of the 8-lane freeway. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve driven on a road with more than 2 lanes? You guessed it: 6 months. But the difference is that in Berkeley, which is a city, there were sidewalks (and bike lanes, for that matter) everywhere, so we were mostly strapping the girls into the stroller and walking places. Here, the only sidewalks are right in town (and even then it’s spotty). We live about 15 miles outside of town, and there are no sidewalks anywhere. Nor are there things to walk to. So, to do anything – go to the park, the library, the store – we have to hustle everyone into the car and drive. Being able to walk most places is what I miss most about Berkeley.
That said, every time we are in the car, we are moving. Which is not the case throughout most of California. We’d been here a few weeks when Erick noted that you never hear a traffic report on the local radio. That’s because, barring an act of God, there is never, ever any traffic. The worst it gets is about 3:30 PM along Court Street, because the Middlebury elementary, middle, and high schools are all in a row and let out around that time. I’ve also never, ever, in 6 months, had a problem finding great parking.
5. I get more sympathy here.
We have 3 girls under age 4, each separated from the next by about 19 months. So sometimes things get a little crazy, like just about any time we leave the house. This was no less true in Berkeley than it is here, and perhaps even more so since our girls were younger when we lived there. But shortly after we moved to Vermont, I noticed that almost everywhere I went, people would look at us, smile, and say, “Boy, you sure have your hands full!” Often they’d do something helpful while they said this, like hold the door open or prevent a Gong girl from hotwiring a motorcycle.
Nine times out of ten, the person saying this is about 80 years old and looks like they’ve probably raised 5 children while also maintaining a dairy farm. But what made me really notice all the sympathy (support?) I was getting was that NOT ONCE can I remember a stranger saying this to me in Berkeley. I’m not exactly sure why, but I’d venture to guess that it’s the culture. In Berkeley, most people are running around with their head buried in a mobile device, assuming that they have their own hands more full than anybody around them. Here, there just seems to be more time to look around, notice other people, and support them if they need it. Also, mobile reception is pretty spotty.
6. It is quieter and darker here.
The other night, I woke up with a start at some ungodly hour. There was a noise, a loud and unusual noise. It took me a couple minutes to identify the disturbance as: an airplane. Yes, an airplane was passing over our house. That level of noise is unusual here. (And bear in mind that we live about 1 mile from the “Middlebury Airport.” This airport has one runway and, as best we can tell, perhaps one private plane per week either lands or departs there).
And it’s also dark. I’ve commented in an earlier post about the general lack of streetlights outside of downtown Middlebury. However, because we have 3 young children and because there aren’t really any places to go at night anyway, the full extent of the darkness didn’t strike me until the days began getting shorter. Before moving to Vermont, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d had to use my bright headlights in my adult life; now I need to use my brights anytime I’m driving home after about 4 PM.
So, there you have it: the very happily accumulated wisdom of 6 months as a Vermonter.
COMING NEXT: PART 2: If You Buy A House in Vermont….