28 April 2009

Loving where you live

Sylvie just came by to deliver today's baguette ordinaire, and I realized I had been sitting here thinking about California all morning. I lived there for 18 years and never quite got used to it. I didn't actively dislike it every day — au contraire — but California never lived up to my expectations.

What did I expect when I went there? The idea of moving from Washington DC to San Francisco didn't even appeal to me at first. But San Francisco was on the edge of wine country, so it had that in common with a lot of France. I thought I might end up working in the wine business. But I ended up in the software industry instead.

San Francisco in 1999 — one of several old photos
that I'm posting

People said the California cuisine was good. There had been significant immigration to the West Coast from France (and Italy). In my mind, I came to believe that San Francisco would be much more like Paris, where I had been happy for eight years in the 1970s and early 1980s, than Washington DC had turned out to be.

No, this boulanger didn't deliver, but he did have an old 2CV.

I moved to Washington DC in 1982 when I decided I needed to leave Paris and go have a "real"career in America. You know, retirement funds and all that. After many years of thinking that I would enjoy living in "the international city" that was the U.S. capital, I realized after two or three years there that I didn't want to stay.

San Francisco had a French veneer...

...over a very American structure.

I had a great Washington job thanks to CHM. We were a good team as translators, with complementary skills. I worked in a French environment. I had opportunities to travel all over the U.S. and to Africa and Switzerland, to observe important people in action, and to see the inner workings of the U.S. government. I had never dreamed I would have such a life. But, of course, those were the Reagan years. The Washington environment — the prevailing mindset — wasn't exactly the same as mine back then.

Le Soleil, not French but Vietnamese, in S.F.

In 1985 Walt and I went to San Francisco for the first time. He wanted to move out there. When I got there, I saw everything French — restaurants especially. Cafés. French on signs. The streets downtown were narrow compared to streets in Washington, Chicago, or New York. The City, as they say out there, was definitely compact and urban, like Paris. Bustling. Confident. Self-important, even.

Seen from our front windows in San Francisco.
I figured the plane was probably going to France.
Why wasn't I on it?

I went to Fisherman's Wharf. There I smelled the ocean. Salt air. Low tide. Mud. Fish. For a minute, I felt like I was back on the coast of North Carolina. A hint of France — good food and wine, varied fresh produce, fine restaurants — with the smell of coastal North Carolina in the air. What was not to like? Somehow I felt I had been transported back in time by 10 or even 25 years. There was a definite familiarity about it all.

The streets of San Francisco (not downtown)

We moved out in 1986. I would have forged a special bond with other recent immigrants to California, except there were all immigrants. It was hard to find a native Californian. There was nobody to blame the nature of the place on but ourselves. Besides, we all spoke the same language, just with slightly different accents. There was really nobody to complain to or commiserate with because, after all, we had all chosen to pull up stakes and move our lives to California (swimming pools, movie stars...).

This street was near our house. Quite steep.

If you did find a native Californian, he or she just looked at you like you were crazy if you weren't ecstatic about living in paradise. The natives knew it was paradise because all these refugees from Back East — not to mention Mexico, Central America, and many Asian countries — kept streaming in. And most of the immigrants thought it was paradise too. Despite the lousy weather (at least in S.F.) and the earthquakes. If you didn't agree, there was something obviously wrong with you.

Well, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, as Joni Mitchell sang. And miles and miles of... freeways. Not to mention suburbs. I'm just not a suburban kind of person. I didn't want to live just anywhere in the Bay Area — I wanted to live in The City if I was going to stay in California.

That's me, and no, I wasn't a doctor and I wasn't really in jail.
I was at Alcatrez doing a modeling gig. It's a long story.

Besides the commuting and the traffic jams, which I couldn't seem to escape because my work ended up being in Silicon Valley, what I didn't like about San Francisco was, fundamentally, that it wasn't Paris, and what I didn't like about California was that it wasn't France. It wasn't California's fault. I have come to understand that it was my attitude that was bad. I enjoyed so many days, so many people, so many jobs, and and so many leisure-time activities out there... but I was never able to just let go and feel comfortable. I think I was afraid I might never escape if I did.

This was my California most of the time:
parking lots and office buildings.

It didn't help that I didn't really like my work. It wasn't work I had ever imagined doing. It was exciting to work for well-known software companies, to learn how to use computers — which I couldn't live without now — but the work never thrilled me. I enjoyed the people I worked with and admired the good work they did. The work in Washington had been much more interesting.

For many reasons, it took me 18 years to figure out how to make the big move. And in the end, leaving was Walt's idea, in fact, or at least the timing was. It's just not that easy to just pick up and quit a place. You have furniture, maybe property — all the material possessions that you accumulate over 20 years. A car. A dog. And you have a professional network — not to mention good friends.

Walt in his Jeep with Collette in 1999

I never really told anybody besides Walt that I didn't like California very much. Or at least I don't think I did. Somebody like Cheryl, Ginny, or Susie might contradict me. Walt loved San Francisco, I know. But he's a much more positive person than I am, in many ways. Now he says he loves the life in Saint-Aignan too. He's been back to California, but I haven't, since leaving there exactly six years ago.

So here we are in France. What a relief! Six years and counting. I don't foresee another big move in my future.


  1. Moving country is an excellent way of getting the zip back into life in my opinion. Worked for us, anyway, and so far, nothing to indicate it won't work again (and I am not listening to that person crying 'famous last words' in the distance...:-)

    My rule of thumb is that it takes 3 years to know whether you are really going to fit in and stay in a place, and about 10 before you want to move on again.

  2. Remember those words of Isak Dinesen about her beloved Africa? "Here I am, where I belong." So many mornings I've gone outdoors and had that thought. It sounds like you do too.

  3. I think there are just places where we belong. We know it when we see it, our hearts yearn for it. Surely part of your unease in SF was your profession and daily commute. I think if we really listen to that still small voice we know where we belong.

    I love northern CA. I could see myself living there however my bank account would disagree. I would love to live in France however my husband would hate it so I read all you expat blogers and live vicariously!

  4. I wonder if someone, (with a chrystal ball) had told you that you'd end up happily living in Saint-Aignan, you'd have believed them?


  5. GG, for several years we explored a plan that would have had us living in Paris. But then we realized that Paris was too expensive for us anyway. In the Loire Valley, our idea was Amboise, but I'm glad now that it didn't work out that way.

    Linda, California is so expensive that we realize now we could never go back even if we wanted to.

    Carolyn, yes, there are places where we belong. I like living in Central Illinois, and I love the N.C. coast (or at least used to, before the over-development), but I fell in love with France in 1970 and am still enthralled with it.

    Susan, I agree with you about zip. We are racing toward 10 years but at this stage in my life I think I will stay put.

  6. Yes, as much as I wanted you to stay, I knew in my heart that you were unhappy. You left a big hole when you moved, and I still miss you and our talks. But your blog has shown me how much more content you are, and I'm so grateful for that. I just wish you weren't so far away...

  7. Wauw Ken,
    I didn't know that you've had a career as a model. You look very professional on the cover of that magazine. Did you do anymore modelling before or after that? Martine

  8. You told Jill and I the first time we met that you didn't like California and the Bay Area, but I think you were already planning your move by then.

    As both a native Californian and native San Franciscian, I can agree with much of what you say about the Bay Area. My experience is that people who move in from the outside never quite learn how to make the area their own, and are always being buffeted by the forces in the ether here.

    My current next-door neighbor has lived there about 5 years and 11 years in Carmel before that. They are from the Boston area—used to be Julia Child's next-door neighbor—and are in the process of moving back. They never could quite keep comfortable here. Happens all the time.

  9. I think it was pretty obvious to anyone who spoke with for any length of time that California was the wrong place for you and that France was the right one. You were literally allergic to the Bay area.

    The funny thing is I had the same sort of experience as you (and contrary to what Peter says) on my first trip to San Francisco. I was all of 11 and fell madly in love with the place. We've been here for 25 years -- far longer than I lived anywhere else -- and I can't imagine leaving. Those East Coast cities where my relative still live? Much as love many members of my family, I can barely bring myself to visit, much less return.

    It's all about finding the place we were meant to be. If we're lucky. You and Walt clearly are. Even if you have, like Ginny says, left a very big hole in our hearts, I wouldn't wish anything else for you. I wouldn't mind, however, if France wanted to move a little closer to San Francisco.


  10. Now, you don't really think we're all going to let you get by without telling us the story of the Alcatraz modeling job???

    Yup, I know what you mean about knowing where you need to live. I think I'd be afraid to move to France (because it's another country), but I could SURELY see myself spending a month, or the summer there now and then (or every year). I don't love Missouri, I'll say that for sure, but I've grown to appreciate the city of St. Louis and its history. It has an easy cost of living, too.


  11. I'm a native Californian now living in the Dordogne. I'm one of those persons who loved my home area (Berkeley) but I loved it here more, fell in love and dreamed and pined for years before finally taking the leap.

    I can't think of much I disliked about California, more a case of loving it here more. c'est ma vie!

  12. I just spent ten days in Santa Barbara for a business meeting and a week vacation at a friend's place who lives 3 mn from the beach in a natural preserve area: what a beautiful sensation to walk there in the morning with just birds in sight for a mile! But then, my friend, who moved there 15 years ago from the Mid-West, never adapted, while admitting to the beauty of the place. He's now retiring for good and with relief to an apartment he has in Paris...

  13. I'm coming in a little late to this, but this post struck me since I spent four years in the Bay Area for college. My aunt and uncle were living in SF and I loved going up to see them. But after four years, I somehow couldn't wait to get out. It seemed like such a magical place when I arrived, but it never really fit somehow.


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