Notes From An Expat

Making a go of it.

Sorry for the absence. This will be a long post, so better use the bathroom now.

Note 1: On returning to the blog habit

The Michael Jackson revival (such that you can’t go to a radio station, wedding or random block without hearing “Billie Jean”) recently celebrated its one-year anniversary; meaning, he’s been gone a year; and so has been my presence from this blog. And while I can’t resuscitate MJ, I can write something once in a while, dammit.

As luck would have it, I’ve got nothing but time these days. So let’s rock.

Note 2: On moving to San Francisco

I’ll skip over the ins and outs of the how and why, because it’s about a job and that’s boring—but wait. Who doesn’t reach a point in a settled and happy life when the thought springs out: If I become unsettled, could I become even happier? When Rawle first introduced the prospect of moving, I thought “No no no.” Tears were shed. But, much like tepidly jumping into cold lake water leads to one saying to one’s still-on-the-dock friends, “It’s really nice once you get in,” the idea grew on me, to the point that thinking we might not be moving was too heartbreaking to bear. At the time, I was working in the travel industry, but I felt a little untraveled, a little static, etc.; so even though I was largely a stowaway (always playing the little sister role, I am) in this westward endeavor, I had my reasons. When you’re a small-town Delaware girl whose largest move ever is from Wilmington to Philadelphia, your figurative wings feel a little like flying, word?

Enough with the Dear Abby response. Here we are in San Francisco, and the reactions are numerous and varied. For instance.

Note 3: On the food

Back when my job was to report on such things, I read a piece on Philadelphia’s dining scene, written by a San Francisco food blogger. “Shoot,” he gushed. “I wish we had stuff like this in Frisco.” So I was nervous that the food in San Fran would pale in flavor, diversity and sheer volume as compared to the cheesesteak, Garces and pierogie palaces of my native city.

Well! One word: Burritos. Another word: Skewers. Two more words: Citrus Club. Four more words: Where have I been?

For the food here is bountiful, plate for plate; inexpensive, just about everywhere; and fresh, as any farmers’-market-crazed city should be. And so effing tasty. My first burrito in San Francisco—not including one I had six years ago, before I had any palate to speak of—was found at Puerto Allegre in the Mission back in April; the three-pound monster bulged (nice) with shrimp and rice, topped with the red enchilada sauce that’s the San Francisco burrito staple. One bite, and I knew the SF move was the right one. And. AND! We were serenaded by Mariachi singers. Such outfits!

The more refined diner in me was ecstatic to find the same freshness at The Slanted Door and Scala’s, two of the city’s most famous dining posts. It’s nice when you discover famous things got that way for a reason.

So, we’re eating well. And not just by way of being waited on; I have been cooking. Prior to this trip, there were three truths about me: I love Bruce Springsteen; certain curves exist on me; and I can’t cook (as the legend goes, the 12-year-old Mary had to call best friend Lesley’s mother to ask “How do you boil water?”). Well you can cross out the third, because I can apparently make stir fry, salads, omelets, more salads, pasta and—Rawle’s favorite—bowls of cereal. So I’m a cook now. Thank the big kitchen (and its dishwasher!), thank my open schedule, whatever. I cook.

Note 4: On the alcohol

You know what’s a fun thing? When you run down to the corner store and discover that they sell six packs and wine (of the store’s three aisles, one is devoted—with annotations—to vino). Then, upon taking your liquid loot to the cashier, you discover the behind-the-counter bounty of cold, hard booze. Mouth agape.

Well, it’s a fun and a dangerous thing. To the Pennsylvanian in me, the ability to procure alcohol so easily feels like that part in Lost when they could make anything they wanted appear (e.g. Locke’s dad). But while the idea is a little Utopian, it’s a little Lord of the Flies, too. I don’t think California should trust me to pick up Knob Creek whenever the mood strikes. Or even wine, for that matter; since arriving, we’ve gone through perhaps 15 bottles, because it’s there, and dinner’s a time for enjoyment, and evening’s a time for alcohol. Well everyday brings another evening, and every meal brings another trip to the store, and…you can see how the need to put on the brakes could arise.

That said, I’m looking forward to working on my wine knowledge and sampling the local brews. That watermelon beer everybody’s so found of is pretty wonderful. And I’m becoming a sake addict. Not addict! Enjoyer. Oh brother.

Note 5: On the weather

It’s cold. Will it always be this way?

My pitiful penguin.

Note 6: On the events

There is always something to do here. Always! My acquaintances in town (guys, I know we’re friends on Facebook, but I won’t be so presumptuous as to think we’re real-life friends. Oh, we are? Great.) are all very creative when it comes to free time. So many baseball games, barbecues, craft nights (I made the worst felt penguin of all the felt penguins at craft night), dinners out, sake bombs, cocktail hours, movies, fireworks shows, hula-hoop outbursts, pinball games, walks in the park, yoga classes, ice cream cones.

(And naps, after all that.)

I’ve been doing the Groupon thing, and the FunCheap thing, and the Google thing, looking for good stuff that jobless folks can enjoy. Well, it’s endless—somewhat offsetting the exorbitant rent fees. I’m currently enjoying three weeks of bottomless yoga at Yoga Garden for only $33, total. Next up: an $11 bootcamp session at AT&T Ballpark. Hurling, on the cheap. Can’t wait.


Note 7: On the rock

Since arriving, we’ve seen shows by Stars (at The Independent), Pavement (at Berkeley’s Greek Theater) and Damien Jurado (at The Bottom of the Hill).

Two reactions, other than that the shows were very good and fun:

1) All the acts vocally expressed how super excited they were to be in San Francisco. So even stars (no pun intended, I guess) can get starstruck about this city. Completely reaffirms our excitement about being here.

2) Not many young people! At all three shows, 27-year-old me was one of the youngest in attendance. Why? Because young people can’t afford to live here. That’s my $0.10 theory, anyway.

Note 8: On driving

We have to get California licenses and a California license plate for the old Jetta. Now, I’ve been holding onto my Delawarean status, driving-wise, since age 16, despite living in Pennsylvania since I was 18. So, when I pass that Schwarzenegger-mandated written driving test—and I will pass that test—a decade of stubbornness and refusal to evolve will be wiped away. (“Thirteen years, down the drain.” –Jerry Seinfeld.)

Another sub-note on the subject: So far, California drivers have been terrible. I’ve never seen so much tailgating and swerving and lack of blinker-using in my life. As a native of the First State—where I spent my underage years with nothing to do but drive around—I take some pride in my work behind the wheel, and I’m not really sure I want to be part of this Californian clan of road ragers.

Mary commits sacrilege.

Note 9: On sports

I recently experienced one of the most awkward moments of my life: I went to an Oakland A’s game (see also: Note 6), and I cheered for them. (Especially when they played the Yankees, and A-Rod fell on his ass trying to catch a perfectly catchable foul ball. I howled! And yelled “Cheater!” And the little kid in front of me, wearing a Jeter jersey, glared at me. I glared right back.)

As a devout follower of the Philadelphia Phillies, it pained me greatly to cheer for a team other than the Fightins. Did this mean I loved the Phillies less? Was I a bad fan? Well, moving to San Francisco is kind of like having the “we’re getting a divorce” talk with the kids. Phillies, I live far away, but it’s not your fault; and I don’t love you any less. (Not that this means Philadelphia and I are on a “we just don’t love each other anymore” basis; bad analogy.)

But the thing is, people here aren’t fanatical about the Bay Area teams like Philadelphians are about their guys in red, green, orange and red/white/blue. The sports fervor isn’t nearly as palpable here as it is at home (for more on “home,” see Note 12). I love sports. Love sports. But it’s just not the way it’s done here, and I’m a little freaked out by it. Poor Rawle is inconsolable about it.

Why the lack of SF sports fever? Well…

Not from here -- is it obvious?

Note 10: On being a transient

The majority of San Franciscans are not from here. A city of transients, it is. From my perspective, this has its good and bad points.

Why it’s good: I’m making an effort to let the mood of the city—mellow, all-embracing, cheerful, fun-seeking—overtake me, because 1) the laid-back approach is a good change of pace for me—e.g. I’m no longer dependent on ponytail holders, the hair-in-the-eyes look I’ve so detested now my way of saying, however forcibly and without much conviction yet, “I’m care-free!”; and 2) I’m trying to fit in. I don’t want to look like an outsider, or—god forbid—a tourist. But when everyone I meet appears to be from other parts of the country (the folks I’ve met are from Norristown, Cincinnati, Philly, Detroit, Connecticut, New York and the Jersey Shore), it’s easy to blend into the sauce.

Why it’s bad: I come from one of the most fiercely loyal cities in the world. If you’re not from Philly, we can tell. Want to become a true Philadelphian? You have to prove it. Here, eat this sack of beef and cheese in five minutes. Conversely, it seems a little too easy to become a San Franciscan. Isn’t there a test I need to pass first? Is that what the driving test is for? And if so, could that explain why the drivers here are so terrible?

Note 11: On looking for work

Since most people ask about this first, I’ve saved it for last. No pain, no gain, guys.

I always know when the dreaded question’s coming: “Do you have a job lined up?” Those seven words, over and over, in that exact order. It seems most people consider my moving here without the security of a job kind of like I’ve been going out with the city for an extended period of time without putting a ring on it. You want to know what my intentions are. Well, I intend to wine and dine the city, get it shamefully drunk and make a truly valiant attempt to go all the way. That is to say: I’m going to enjoy this unemployed, untethered period of my life as much as I can. That, to me, means going to museums during the day, taking buses with no destination in mind, drawing, watching cooking shows, actually cooking, going to concerts, going to yoga class, calling my friends, getting some sun, reading books, writing things down, making plans, keeping plans, making friends, keeping friends. I will love the city, but I won’t be employed by it—not until I’ve played the field a bit.

That said, if you’re my dream job, I won’t reject you. In fact, let’s elope!

[The truth is, I make a truly terrible unemployed person. The above paragraph is long and rambling because I’m not so convinced that I want to be unemployed. When asked “What do you miss most about Philadelphia?” the answer is (other than the obligatory “my family and friends” answer, which is true) that, with the security of a job, I wasn’t faced with the daily question, “What do you want to be?” Not being challenged is an easy thing; it’s much harder to deal with that old “potential” thing. And while I could just enjoy this free time, potential is nagging me when I read a book, when I go for a run, when I make new friends, when I do anything other than look for jobs. What I know but can’t quite accept is that “potential” doesn’t just mean “career”; it also means working towards making every day enjoyable and—to steal a little from Jonathan Safran Foer—illuminated. Relaxing and savoring the moment is a tough thing to do. But that’s my job now, pro bono though it may be.

Alright, enough with the Eat, Pray, Love mumbo jumbo.]

Note 12: On watershed moments

Giving up certain comforts—a job, living close to the fam, paying less than a king’s ransom for rent—can be hard. I’ve had days this month when I’ve felt lost, lonely and poor, and they sucked.

Don’t get me wrong; San Francisco is an amazing city. But I’m not here on vacation. This is my home now. It’s going to take a long time before I stop referring to Philadelphia as “home.” (e.g. “It’s 6:00 here, so it’s 9:00 back home.”) It’s going to be some time before I’ll really come to grips with the fact that I’m a Californian, license or no license.

This morning, I went for a long drive by myself after dropping Rawle off at his downtown office. I kept driving along the coast, making slight left after slight left. Creeping up a hill, the Golden Gate Bridge suddenly, and foggily, came into view. Parking the car, I walked up a wooded area, getting plenty out of breath, until reaching the high point of a cliff. The whole bay was in front of me, anchored by the bridge on the left and the curve of Fisherman’s Wharf on the right. A man was doing yoga about 200 feet beneath me, and a collection of men in heavy raincoats held fishing poles on a small dock jutting into the bay. Two miles north of where San Francisco ended and the bay began, the sun appeared to be shining over Sausalito.

It was then that all the amazement of living in San Francisco finally washed over me. It was my very own Double Rainbow, All the Way moment. And aside from the 2008 World Series celebration on Broad Street, I’d never seen anything so beautiful.


7 Responses

  1. I hate chu so much right now!


  2. Isn’t the availability of beer/wine/booze in CA amazing! It’s almost as good in Oregon, although up there, you still have to go to a liquor store for the hard stuff. Also, it’s okay to still refer to Philly as home. I’ve lived here nearly 9 years, but I still call Portland home. I probably always will.

  3. Your latest post is a great read. Especially for someone who has recently done much of the same. I stopped a few miles short over here in the East Bay however and so our worlds are slightly different although the distance from “home” is quite equal. The Mary/Rawle Philadelphia pride runs way deeper than the Seth ‘I like to move once a year’ lack of it. I pretty much abandoned my sports allegiance and picked up some new camping equipment (although I am still a total wanna-be in that realm). But what I am most happy about is that the loyalty and pride came to me. That you and Rawle are with me now on this bi-coastal adventure. I am so happy to able to feel my roots holding me more confidently here in the Bay Area because you are so near. As I read your blog entry and I sense the excitement with the slight sadness, I selfishly want you to know that this is ALL BONUS for me!! And for that I should be NOTE: 13 !!! Love you guys…

  4. Thanks for sharing, Mary. I remember many of these feelings when I moved to SF. We must hike soon, have a burrito and a watermelon beer afterwards.

    Welcome to the city, in all its crazy, cold glory!


    p.s. – #5: It is always cold here. You will have a few hot days (80 degrees is hot here) per year, but in general it is perpetually autumn. Eventually, you will adjust to always having extra layers : ).

  5. Mary – Reminds me somewhat of how I felt 37 years ago upon arriving in CA – bit lost, feeling like anyone I met would never bond as deeply as those I grew up with in NJ, but wide-eyed and in awe of how fantastic this place is. You and Rawle come for dinner again, anytime. Great to have more family here. And Tim loves the A’s – contrary to your belief that there is no sports fever….

  6. Mary, yeah, reminds me too of when I moved to Cali. well, only in my mind, but it was often… Thank you so much for sharing this. Keep it because I’m sure you’ll be publishing it some day. Remember us when you’re famous and back in DE!! XOXOXO

  7. […] nearly jumped when I read this passage because it so resembles something I’d written and experienced a few weeks after moving to the west coast. I was lonely, not sure what I was doing […]

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