Stranger in a strange land

It’s hard for me to believe, but I’ve been living in California for almost two years. This has been a great adventure, and everyday I find something new to marvel at in this strange land.

I’m a Southern girl through and through. My dual-citizenship, a benefit from being born abroad, ended a long time ago. My memories of being a German girl are non-existent, liebchen. So indulge me while I compare Cali living to my southern trifecta of abodes: Tennessee, Virginia and Mississippi, in that order from greatest to least in length of residency.

Here’s what I’ve noticed in NorCal that’s different from the South:

1) Vegetation: I still get a kick from every palm tree I see, from picking lemons and limes off the trees in my neighborhood, from the vicious ice plant that spreads along roadsides instead of kudzu. And the avocados, the garlic and giant strawberries! If I knew how to deal with artichokes, I’d be raving about them too. I’m not much of a wine drinker, so the grapes don’t get my adoration.

2) Vistas: When driving over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco, the cityscape is thrilling. The fog determines whether you can see Twin Peaks, the top of the TransAmerica pyramid, the Golden Gate Bridge. The Ferry Building and Alcatraz are easy landmarks to spot at 40 miles an hour. It’s amazing to see the engineering marvels of the new bay bridge construction. And even just putting around Alameda, the egrets in the estuary on my way to work are beautiful!

3) Shopping: It’s easy to see why Shabby Chic was born in Cali. The availability of vintage-cool at area flea markets, boutiques, warehouses is this semi-pro shopper’s dream. I go to the Alameda Vintage Flea Market religiously the first Sunday of every month, and love Treasure Island Flea, Alemany Flea, Marin Flea, Sacramento Flea, and I have made pilgrimages to the Rose Bowl flea in Pasadena, Santa Monica’s market, and other hipster pop-up markets in Greater L.A. In comparison to Nashville’s antiques/consignments/flea markets, I find California’s prices to be 30% less, and about 15 months ahead of the trends. Then there’s the Renegade Handmade craft shows in summer and December… cutting edge crafts. And I haven’t even talked about the farmers markets or food trucks (although the South is getting more of each every week)! Or the Talbots outlet in San Leandro!

Side note Trend-spotting report: moustaches have come and gone, bow ties and pig-related items were hotter eight months ago. I’m still seeing lots of hand silk-screened snarky t-shirts, tote bags and posters, succulents and terrariums are classics, as are burlap, wine crates and vintage Le Crueset cookware. Trailer/AirStream/camper rehabs are way cool (see Sunset magazine this summer) so stock up on vintage utensils, oil cloth, lanterns, fishing poles, and board games to go glamping (glamorous camping) in California’s great outdoors.

4) Rehabbed old-school movie theaters: this is Hollywoodland, even up here in NorCal, and appreciation for the homes of the silver screens is apparent. Alameda’s theater is gorgeous and gilded, to the tune of several million dollars. I adore the neon signs and art deco style of Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater, the California theater in Berkeley, the SF Casto theater (I hear they have organ music before some shows), the theater down in Long Beach and several others I’ve stumbled upon. I’ve taken photos of all I’ve seen and will try to post here so you too can ooh and aah.

5) Head west young man: It’s obvious that California is still in the Gold Rush. The multi-million/billionaires are here, thanks to cutting edge technology and innovation. There is a much-talked about “start-up mentality”and it’s palpable. Everyone here has big dreams, they’re just looking for their angel investor. You can reinvent yourself here, and you’re just so much closer to Asia, where your innovative idea becomes reality. In the past two years, I’ve often thought that I should have studied computer science, that I wish I could code, then maybe I’d have a clue how to break in and make it big. Where’s my golden nugget?

6) Baseball: Nashville doesn’t have a pro-team, and it’s been decades since I’ve been to a Sounds game. Here. I can’t get enough of the Oakland Athletics or the SF Giants. I’m sure it’s because I arrived just in time for the “Gigantes'” World Series, and the release of “Money Ball.” So cool! I love both teams. And when I take the ferry that drops me right off at AT&T Park, I think I am truly living large.

7) The lack of humidity: my skin and hair have improved, and I haven’t broken a sweat just from stepping outside in the 22 months I’ve lived here. (Southern women aren’t supposed to sweat anyway, we glisten.) I also attribute the fact that a loaf of sliced bread lasts for four weeks on my counter to the lack of moisture in the air. I keep looking for mold, and it’s just not there! Amazing. And economical.

8) More about The Weather: I like it and I hate it. It’s nice that it is never so hot here that I can’t take my dog along in the car, leave her resting comfortably while I pop in on an errand. And the bay breeze that makes the wind turbines into steady sources of power–that’s neat. But here’s where my praise for the SF Bay turns into some nay-saying… I mean, I can’t remember the last time it rained (and I love a good storm with electricity in the air!) And as soon as the sun goes down, you better have a sweater! No sultry summer nights here.

Okay, here’s where the things I miss about the South come out…

*I’ve already told you how I miss the rain–it’s disconcerting to have such a dirty car. There are inches of dust on my windshield because I keep waiting for Mother Nature to give it a bath. No such luck.

*I also pity the California children who will never know the joy of an unexpected snow day. It’s weird that y’all know precisely when the school year will finish because you don’t have any days to make up due to surprise inclement weather. Where’s the fun in going to school every January and February day?!

*I miss the fireflies… but maybe not the mosquito bites. There aren’t many flying insects in California at all. And not very many small birds, like blue jays, hummingbirds, cardinals, etc. Disclaimer: my dad is an avid bird-watcher and keeps his bird feeders stocked, and my childhood home was once a nature preserve, so maybe I’ve been spoiled with lots of lovely wildlife in my own backyard?

*High prices and homelessness. Do they go hand in hand? I don’t know how any middle-class person affords to buy a home here, nevermind if you wanted some actual property for a grassy lawn and a garden. A million dollar abode is typical around the Bay and that equals craziness in my book. The number of homeless people residing in the underpass I take to and from work in Oakland seems to grow. I don’t know what the answer is… I’m thinking a nice $100k condo in Green Hills (Nashville) has my name on it, if I can save a down payment.

*The beaches and water are cold! I am craving a Florida Panhandle vacation with warm, white sandy beaches so badly! By the way, FL gulf shrimp are huge… and the SF Fisherman’s Wharf shrimp are tiny. Shrimp cocktail isn’t the same.

*The accent and the attitude leave a little to be desired. I hear the “valley girl”sound in the way folks talk here, and prolific use of the word “like.” Not enough “please” and “thank you” for this Southern girl. And there’s the “Bay Bubble” attitude to contend with, like “Why doesn’t the rest of the world get it, that we should legalize marijuana and standardize health care and eat strictly organic” and so on. I consider myself a fairly open-minded, tolerant liberal, but this hippy-dippy superiority complex can be off-putting. The rest of the country doesn’t have to agree with California on everything, right? Wrong.

* The state is bankrupt, and I notice it in all of the potholes and trash along the roadway. I’ve been spoiled by TDOT– Tennessee’s highways are as smooth as a baby’s bottom. And if you drove as old a jeep as I do, you certainly notice every bump and dip in the asphalt. I’m not sure why the state is so broke. I know CA has high sales tax, an income tax, and I have to pay that pesky 5 to 10 cent fee on every bottle or can I drink. Surely I make a dent in the state deficit with my diet cokes?!

* Parking is ALWAYS an issue. Thank the good lord I don’t live and work in SF and have to strategize for a parking place every time I get in my car. I would surely become a hermit for fear of losing my parking space. There’s parking for me on my Alameda street 80% of the time… but I strategically choose where to shop and when I will go into downtown based on parking availability. Ugh. Yet, SF’s public transportation system isn’t quite easy enough to ditch the wheels altogether. BART doesn’t stretch across San Fran, and my clipper card doesn’t work on MUNI. To get it fixed, I have to go to a certain window in Civic Center during weekday hours so… that means I will never have a convenient clipper. Oh well.

* Earthquakes and fires. I now see why SF people love their firefighters so much, they build monuments like Coit Tower in their tribute. With no wet stuff falling from the sky, apartment fires and forest fires are real threats. And any day now, there’s going to be the BIG ONE… as in the earth moving under your feet. I don’t want to experience either one. I know how to survive tornadoes and floods, that’s just the way I was raised. No biggie. Nashville– can’t drown that town. But I say a prayer everyday that my California adventures will be fire and earthquake free. Pray for me, please!

Yep, I’m a stranger in a strange land. Yet this Cali adventure makes me appreciate home even more. After all, how can I say I’m a cultural studies expert (that’s the handy master’s degree in Southern Studies, y’all) if I’ve only ever known my own country? Just keepin it real in the East Bay… it’s so ratchet, yo. Hella. Did I say that right?


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