Berkeley is expensive. The rent is high. The clothing stores are trendy and cost a lot. If you let loose for dinner at a restaurant with homey decor and ethically raised ingredients, you can end up with a bill costing $45 per person. A year after arriving in Berkeley, I changed three things. First, I stopped comparing prices here with those in Houston, my hometown. Second, I started having a budget for the first time in my life. Finally, I started to cook.
The high-end restaurants in Berkeley might boast double-digit prices for small plates, and gratuity alone may equal a week’s worth of groceries. Luckily, in Berkeley, eating at home can be stylish. To begin with, Berkeley has no shortage of grocery stores, each of which has some restaurant-quality item for cheap. Whenever I enter the independent local market, Berkeley Bowl, I’m always blinded by the array of the freshest, cheapest and most interesting variety of produce. Trader Joe’s stocks nice, simple pastas and breads. If you don’t mind a quick bus ride to North Berkeley, the little Berkeley Produce Center has a multitude of Asian spices and sauces (not to mention that it’s right next door to The Cheese Board Collective, the most delicious pizza shop in the East Bay, in my opinion). What’s the harm in lugging a few grocery bags around from store to store to get the best of each world? Just some fit forearms and calves.
Speaking of fitness, although the campus gym, the Recreational Sports Facility, isn’t expensive, it’s almost always crowded. I can’t count the number of times my friend and I went there to leave only moments later because every square inch was occupied. Luckily, there is a hill just east of campus, and the lovely Tilden Regional Park is at the top. A trek uphill yields fresh air, many burned calories, a great view of the bay and of San Francisco, a rose garden and, if you’re lucky, your own pictures of some deer, too.
If nature is not entertaining enough, Berkeley also offers human-made entertainment at low to no cost, mainly on campus. Every day, Sather Gate hosts some a cappella group performing or a dance group practicing. Most of the movies at the Pacific Film Archive can be enjoyed for about $6 per student ticket. Student-taught DeCal classes, which can be taken for an extra one or two credits, are nothing but educational entertainment to satiate your curiosity or your hobby. From practicing Indian classical music to playing video games to analyze a player’s perspective, everyone can find something in a DeCal. One friend of mine took Chinese calligraphy even though she doesn’t know Mandarin, and another taught a class on traditional Asian tea.
What’s more stylish than knowledge and skill? Nothing. Because with knowledge and skill, you can make things. You can make your own style. You can even make your brand. Literally. I know someone who makes her own soap and lip balm. Another girl who makes earrings for sale has even been featured in a magazine. Berkeley fosters this type of free, creative environment where you can produce things and not just consume — an environment where you’re bound to have someone who’s interested in your ideas. There are plenty of art supply stores and thrift shops within walking distance where I can buy a dress for under $10 and not feel bad about “redesigning” it using scissors, needles and colored threads.
Berkeley might make you start recording your monthly spending and refusing a dinner out with friends, but it also provides the resources to let your creativity flourish. It makes you walk more because the buses don’t always come on time, it makes a car impractical because there is no parking and it makes you eat yogurt and granola for lunch because the line for fried chicken strips and burgers is just inhumanely long. At first, you might hate it, but you’ll get healthier. You’ll become more efficient and creative with the limited resources that you have. Life in Berkeley brings you closer to nature and cuts away the unnecessary expenses that you thought you needed all along. In fact, being frugal is the first step to being creative, and Berkeley forces you to watch where your time and money go.
At the end of the day, when your creativity runs low, you can always grab a book and maybe your laptop, sit near the window at Cafe Milano or outside at Caffe Strada. Style doesn’t cost much when you make it yourself.
Contact Mai Truong at [email protected].