29 January 2006

Quitting California

First in a series about leaving California and moving to France. Click Next at the bottom of this article to jump to the next installment.

What possesses somebody to sell his house in the United States, sell most of his possessions, and move what’s left of his stuff to France? To a lot of people, it might seem to be an insane thing to do, I have to admit. Walt and I aren’t the only ones to take this drastic step, of course. We know two other couples from California who have bought houses in France over the past six months. And there is a lot of talk (and evidence) of the British invasion these days.

Some people might think Walt and I are “living our dream,” but for us it was a plan. The timing wasn’t planned, but we knew we were going to move to France one day. Or at least we hoped so and were planning for it. As it turned out, it happened a lot earlier than we thought it might.

A view of our San Francisco neighborhood from the hills above.

It was 2002. Walt had quit a very stressful job with the city of San Francisco and gone into independent consulting. Things were going very well for him. I had tried for years to find a good job for myself in the city, but had never been successful. From 1995 until I got laid off in early 1998, I commuted about 50 miles (80 km) each way to work every day. I worked in Silicon Valley, but I didn’t want to live in Silicon Valley, for a lot of reasons.

One friend of mine who had also moved out to California from what we came to know as Back East liked to say: “I didn’t move all the way to California to live in [insert name of suburb]. I want to live in San Francisco.” I guess that’s how I felt too. Living in a place where the most distinctive landmarks are Walgreen's, K-Mart, Safeway, and Longs Drugs isn't really my idea of living.

When I got laid off by my employer, Apple Computer, in early 1998, I took almost a year off work. That was nice until reality closed in and I could no longer avoid looking for another job. Big mortgage, you know.

View of San Francisco Bay from our living room windows.

From 1999 until early 2002, I worked at jobs in towns just 25 or so miles south of our San Francisco neighborhood. Life was good. It took me less than 30 minutes, door to door and without fail, to get to the office in the morning. Traffic was not really an issue. I was surrounded by people I respected and enjoyed working with. I swore to myself that I would never again work farther south, farther from home. It just wasn’t worth it. I loved being in San Francisco on weekends. Walt and I started going out to dinner on Friday nights in some of the city’s nicest restaurants (mostly French) and otherwise enjoying urban life in one of the most beautiful cities anywhere — concerts, shopping, markets, interesting neighborhoods, the gorgeous landscapes and views.

By 2002, the start-up company I was working for had been sold to a much bigger company located in San Diego. That big company had also bought a company located in the heart of Silicon Valley at about the same time. Then, after several rounds of layoffs, came the dreaded announcement. Our “site” was being closed down and we were all being transferred to other offices. Most of us ended up in the heart of Silicon Valley. For many people that was a blessing — they lived down that way.

Panorama of San Francisco on a nice day in January 2002.
I took this from an overlook near my office, 20 miles or so south of the city.

But not for me. For me, it meant a much longer drive in much worse traffic every morning and every evening. I never knew if it was going to take me one hour or two or even longer to get to work in the morning, in stop-and-go traffic on an eight-lane freeway. I was right back where I had started — almost literally, because the first place I had ever worked in Silicon Valley, in 1989, was no more than two blocks from my new office. I had that déjà-vu-all-over-again feeling: been there, done that...

My new managers asked me to take over day-to-day management of a group of eight or ten writers and editors working on the documentation for a major update to the company’s flagship software package. The product package included many hundreds of pages of technical documentation that had to be revised to reflect changes in and additions to the product’s feature set.

I was also wrapping up a project to update a 2000-page document set for a different software package. That project required me to participate in twice-weekly, early-morning conference calls with people working in the U.K., New England, and Florida for a major computer corporation. When it was 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. in California and my day was beginning, it was 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. in the UK and things were winding down. That’s when we all had to call each other and coordinate our work.

Life on the freeways in California.
These cars were probably all doing about 75 mph (120 kph).

The promise from my managers was this one: take on this new responsibility and finish up the old project. The company will give you all the flexibility you need to set your own work schedule. Work at home as necessary. Stay in touch by telephone and on e-mail. Be here to attend your meetings and to meet with the writing team as necessary. Under that arrangement, I could work at home until 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning, and then jump in the car and race south on the freeway without being stuck in rush-hour traffic. The drive took only 35 or 40 minutes, and I was in the office in time for my 11:00 meetings. I still had to deal with the traffic on the way home in the afternoon, of course.

That lasted about three months.
Starting now, all managers need to be in the building from 9:00 until 5:00 every day, they said. I pointed out to my manager that the original agreement about my working schedule was being thrown out the window. “Sorry, things have changed,” was the answer. I calmly mentioned that I didnt think I would last long under the new arrangement. Nobody was listening. Two months later I told Walt that I was seriously considering quitting my job. We spent a week talking about it. And then I quit.

The cold but picturesque waters of San Francisco Bay.

It was October 2002. I was 53 years old. I had tried for years to find a job in my field in San Francisco. Unemployment in the area was high. The dot-com boom had ended. What job opportunities I had were in Silicon Valley. Given my age and the nature of the software business, where I was already a dinosaur, I wasn’t optimistic. Besides, I couldn’t face the prospect of another winter in my car, in the dark, in the rain, in the traffic on the freeways. Over the preceding three months, I had seen one very serious car accident happen right in front of me, and another very close call. Did I really want to die on a California freeway trying to get to work to do a job I was less and less interested in?

In talking with Walt, the subject of our retirement plan — a move to France — inevitably came into the discussion. Maybe we should start looking into buying a house over there. If we found one we could afford, it would be good motivation for me to get a new job so that we could take on, if necessary, a second mortgage. It would be something to look forward to and work toward. House prices were sky high and rising in San Francisco, so we had some equity.

Walt was doing his consulting work and was busy and happy in his job. He worked at home a lot. I needed a few weeks rest while I decided what the next step might be for me. The prospect of looking for and maybe actually buying a house in France was exciting, of course, and I had two things going for me. I had time to do some research (ah, unemployment!), and I had the tool just made for the job: a computer with a high-speed Internet connection.

Our house in San Francisco — the white and beige one — looked small
from the street but was actually quite spacious.

We figured we had two options in France as far as location was concerned: Paris or the countryside, and nothing in between. We knew enough about Paris from spending vacations there over the preceding 10 or 12 years to realize that anything we would be able to afford to buy in the city would be a very small apartment.

We had lived in Paris in the early 1980s, and then in Washington DC for nearly five years before moving to San Francisco in 1986. We had a dog that we wouldn’t consider giving up. Maybe it was time to think about a move to the country. We didn’t really relish the idea of living in an apartment and having to walk the dog on city sidewalks morning and night. Realistically, and from experience, we knew how easy it would be to spend money in Paris. Even if we could afford to buy something there, we would be on a very tight budget if we ever decided to try to live there full time.

If I found a new job in California, we would stay in San Francisco for another five years or more. By then, we would surely be in the mood to flee the urban environment and set ourselves up somewhere in the country. The prospect of someday spending time outdoors, maintaining a yard or garden, and maybe planting a big vegetable garden, was very tempting. We would no longer have to put up with neighbor-noise. The dog would love being outside more. Okay, that was a decision. Let’s see what it might cost to buy a house in the French countryside.

Weather was another factor. One of the constant refrains you hear in the San Francisco area is a song of praise for the California climate. The fact is, many of the people our age or younger who live and work there moved out west from the U.S. Middle West or Northeast, where winters are extremely cold and snowy, or from the U.S. South, where summers are unbearably hot and humid. I’ve been lucky enough to try both.

In San Francisco, we used to brag that we didn’t need air conditioning because we didn’t have hot, humid weather in the summer. What we didn’t tell people, however, was that our furnace ran 12 months a year. On a typical summer morning in San Francisco, at least in our neighborhood, the temperature was between 45º and 55ºF — that’s 8º to 12ºC. A brisk breeze would be blowing in off the ocean, bringing in fog and mist. We needed heat, and the furnace would kick in every morning for a few hours.

A view of the city of San Francisco from the hills north of
the Golden Gate Bridge on a nice summer day.

If we were lucky the fog would clear by noon and we might have some sunshine until about 3:00 p.m., when the fog would blow back in. On many summer days, there was no sunshine at all, and the temperature would hover around 60ºF (15ºC). The furnace, with the thermostat set at 65ºF, would cycle on intermittently during the day, even in July and August. There’s some truth in that old quip attributed to Mark Twain: The coldest winter I ever spent was a month of August in San Francisco.

It’s true that winters were mild compared to most places in the U.S. In drought years, winter days were gorgeous — bright and sunny. But during normal winters we had quite a few days of cold rain. There really wasn’t much difference between winter and summer temperatures in San Francisco, in fact. Only in spring and autumn did we have a few days of warm sunshine (or even the infrequent hot day or two). I actually have an article I clipped out of the San Francisco Chronicle one year announcing that the city was experiencing its longest heat wave in history — the high temperature had been above 70ºF for 8 days in a row!

And did I mention earthquakes? I lived through the big one in 1989. That was enough, thank you, and a whole
nother story.

The centre-ville de San Francisco seen from the top floor of the Hilton Hotel.

So the prospect of warm summers in the country was thrilling. After all, we weren’t talking about returning to Illinois or Upstate New York, where we had lived through grueling winter snowstorms, or to Washington DC or North Carolina, where the summers are so hot and humid that you have to close all your windows and curtains and run the air conditioning full blast for weeks or months on end.

France was the answer, as we had known all along, and living in the country sounded just fine. A mild, maritime climate would do nicely. Warm summers. Real winters with a little snow now and then, but nothing hideous. Beautiful countryside. Good food — yes, good food and good wine. Good bread, of course. Good cheese. A yard big enough for a vegetable garden. Outdoor markets. No traffic. No earthquakes. Trips to Paris on a more frequent schedule than ever before. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Where in France?


  1. Ken,
    It's almost like you read my mind. And I'm probably not alone in thinking you have begun to answer all the back-of-my-mind kind of question that reading your blog brought up for me. Now I know (begin to know really)how you got to be where you are.
    I'm a Professor who teaches writing and from that POV I especially appreciate two things. One is the compelling honesty you bring to your writing. That bit on the weather in The City is priceless. The other is your writing voice, which is so distinctly you and that makes reading a real pleasure.
    You may not have followed the news story here in the US about a writer named Frey who has sold millions of copies of a memoir that turned out to be mostly a fake. You confirm again that the truth is always better and more human.
    I'm looking forward to more.

  2. Bonsoir Ken !

    Super ton "article" ! J'en ai appris des choses sur San Francisco, la vie là-bas, le boulot là-bas, et ta vie à toi, votre vie à vous ! Merci beaucoup d'avoir partagé autant d'intéressantes réflexions avec nous ! Et les photos sont très chouettes ! J'attends la suite avec impatience ! Bises. Marie (Normandie)

  3. i'm with you. a commute seems like a little thing, but it really is a soul murderer. somebody once said to me that the good life is marked by being able to walk home for lunch.


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?