I Left My Heart in California
I never loved going to the beach.
I didn’t hate it, exactly, but I could take it or leave it. It was a nice place to watch the sunset. It was also a bit of long drive to go and spend all day with burning sun and biting wind in your face. To wade around in brackish water that, after about five minutes, ceased to be exciting. To sit in the sand and eat soggy sandwiches that, no matter what, always managed to have as much sand and grit in them as ham or peanut butter. In fact, the sand was everywhere. Sand in my teeth, sand up my nose, in my eyes, in my hair; in places that never see the light of day. My parents were usually pretty keen on beach outings, and I never fully understood why. I just chalked it up to me not being a “beach person.”
Then I moved to California, and I had a realization: I am a beach person. I’m just not an East Coast beach person.
Pacific coast beaches are beautiful, from the rocky shores of Washington and Oregon to the sun-drenched sands of San Diego. I’m personally quite biased in favor of the California beaches. And yes, they have just as much sand, but I learned a marvelous little secret that makes the whole experience ten times better — DBYOS (Don’t Bring Your Own Sandwiches)!
What’s more, California ocean water is blue, not brown, and it actually sparkles. Thanks to the cold currents that flow down the Pacific coast from Alaska (as opposed to the warmer Atlantic currents that cycle upward from the Gulf of Mexico), it’s also cool and refreshing, even during the hottest days of summer. If you go to the right beach at the right time of day, the waves are big enough for some amazing surfing. You can even watch the dolphins playing. On the Atlantic side — at least, until you get to south Florida — the ocean looks like my dishwater does at the end of a massive kitchen clean-up. It’s also chock full of all kinds of nasty stuff: sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, giant crabs, piles and piles of seaweed and kelp and unidentified slime… the occasional plastic Kool-Aid bottle…
“But California beaches are so crowded,” someone invariably objects.
To which I say, yes, that is true. There are quite a lot of people on California beaches. However, there’s also nothing lurking in the water that wants to eat you for dinner. If you ask me, this really counts for something.
It’s not just the beaches that are different in California, either. The culture is different, too.
It’s not what I would call nice, exactly, but it’s not hard to deal with, either. You don’t have the aggressive, in your face, cut-you-off-in-traffic-then-flip-you-the-bird antagonism that you have in the Northeast. You also don’t have the more subtle, condescending snobbery of the South, where everybody secretly (or not so secretly) seems to think they’re better than you. No, in California, people are simply… indifferent. Laid back. They won’t go out of their way to help you, but they won’t go out of their way to give you a hard time, either. You’re also less likely to be cut off in traffic, because on a gridlocked sixteen-lane freeway at rush hour, everyone just kind of understands that doing so wouldn’t help them get where they’re going any faster.
Dressing on the casual side, even in business settings, is more acceptable out west. I never, ever saw anyone in SoCal wearing a wool suit or a turtleneck sweater. Since it’s so blisteringly hot most of the year, this suited me just fine (pun intended).
I was never on the receiving end of any negativity or judgment (even from, ahem, older people) if I wore short skirts or tank tops. (In all reality, most of the Christian kvetching about modesty seems to originate, conveniently, from colder climates. Except for parts of the South, like Texas, which are not only unbearably hot, but muggy as well. I’m still trying to figure that one out.)
No, when the highs are in the 120’s in mid-September, no one bothers you about whatever you have to wear — or not wear — to stay cool. Although I did get a horrified look or two and an “Oh, dear, aren’t you freezing?” for wearing flip flops on an unseasonably cold, 65 degree day in January.
The lack of predatory insects is an undeniable bonus, as well. In two and a half years of living there, I only ever saw one mosquito, and it came off a bunch of celery I bought at the grocery store. I also never encountered any spiders.
Speaking of the grocery store, one thing I did not like was walking into a store and seeing cancer warning tags stuck to absolutely everything: “This product is known to the state of California to cause cancer…” It was unsettling, of course, but I always figured I was okay, because the tag says that it causes California cancer (I’m from Connecticut).
But I loved having so many ethnic markets around me (and they didn’t have any cancer warnings). I loved being able to spend only $25 a week on groceries and have almost anything my heart desired. Including fresh jackfruit, which I have a feeling I’ve had for the last time — a shame, because it’s my favorite. I loved driving downtown and feeling like I was in China, then in another few blocks in India, then in another few blocks in Vietnam, then Korea, Africa, Mexico… It was incredible. You could travel the world without leaving downtown. It was like Epcot, only… not staged.
I also loved having loquats, guavas, lemons, and a fig tree in my yard that produced figs as big as my hand.
I loved the huge, snow-capped mountains; I didn’t love altitude sickness so much.
I loved the dry weather; I didn’t love the state-enforced water rations.
I paid one visit each to Disneyland and Catalina Island, and had a great time at both. Perhaps I’ll return one day when my oil well comes in. It’s the only way I could afford the price of a Disney pass, or fare for the Catalina ferry on a day that isn’t my birthday (they let you go for free then).
California is expensive, oftentimes prohibitively so, and their state income tax forms are a nightmare. They will take all the money you have and then some. Yet if the growing population is any indicator, many people consider this a small price to pay for living in one of the healthiest, happiest, most fun, most diverse, most amazing places in the country.
In short, the West Coast is a like a lover you never forget; someone you can’t stop thinking about in spite of their quirks and flaws and annoying habits. I deeply regret moving away (though I would for sure be living on a park bench if I hadn’t), and I’d give my right arm to be able to go back. Well, maybe my left arm. And I’d have to have a really, really lucrative job, maybe two of them.
I mean, seriously. How else could I pay five dollars a gallon for gas?