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- I moved from Connecticut to San Francisco more than 30 years ago.
- I was surprised by several things about living in San Francisco, like the chilly summers and people’s shyness about crossing the street.
- I’m still not used to all the cultural differences between the East Coast and the West Coast.
I visited California just once before I moved from the East Coast in 1987.
It was December, and I was delighted by how much warmer San Francisco was than my home in Connecticut. So I reasoned it would be really hot when I moved west in August.
More than 30 years later, I realize I was completely wrong about that and plenty of my other assumptions about the West Coast. I love living in California, but my first couple of years required some adjustment.
Here are the things that surprised me the most about San Francisco.
It was easier to be a beach bum in New England.
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I spent my last year in New Haven scheduling work around peak beach times. I put lemon juice in my hair to bleach it in the sun and lathered myself with baby oil for maximum tanning. I loved everything about the beach: the crust of sand on my feet, the salt left on my skin after swimming in Long Island Sound.
San Francisco, I assumed, would be my beach paradise. I would frolic in the surf and get a year-round tan.
What I didn’t know is that the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco is not at all peaceful. Sleeper or sneaker waves drag unsuspecting waders away from shore. Even on calm days, the water is too cold for all but the heartiest to swim in.
On top of that, the beach is often cold and windy. Sitting on the beach doing the Sunday crossword and watching the waves crash on the shore sounds romantic. But I’ve spent more beach Sundays huddled under a blanket, the cold wind blowing sand into my teeth. This is not how I pictured beach life in California.
Sunny California is somewhere south of San Francisco.
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Before I left New England, I sold my warm polypropylene long underwear. I have regretted that ever since.
Though San Francisco rarely freezes in the winter, the dank cold seeps into your bones. That’s especially true if you live in a Victorian flat with loose windows, no insulation, and very little heat.
Summer, it turns out, it not much warmer. I moved west with my lightweight summer clothes. Within a week, I called my old roommate and asked her to send my winter wardrobe because I was freezing.
The warmest month in San Francisco is October, where it can occasionally reach 100 degrees. But summer weather is more often foggy and cool.
I’m acclimated now. I complain if the thermometer goes below 65 or above 80. But when I moved west, I found a climate that was different from the rest of the country in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
Winter is beautiful. Summer is brown.
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During a childhood on the East Coast, I got enough of the snow and cold for a lifetime. Spring is my favorite season, because it means the end of winter.
In San Francisco, to my delight, spring comes early. By February, the winter rains have brought lush greenery and gorgeous blooms to the city’s hills and valleys. The days are still short, and the weather can be bleak, but a riot of color brightens winter in the Bay Area.
Summer, on the other hand, is a season of brown, dried grass. It rarely rains, and living things shrivel and dry up. Summer in the Bay Area is nothing like the lush, green of East Coast summers. On the positive side, the Bay Area doesn’t suffer through the biting bugs that come with warm weather.
No one gets my jokes.
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I like to think I’m funny. I developed a wry sense of humor that made my East Coast friends laugh. When I moved to San Francisco, my new friends just thought my jokes were mean.
I’ve learned to temper my snarky humor after 30 years in California. But I still feel a sense of relief when I visit New York City, where I can be blunt and slightly rude (by Bay Area standards) and no one will take offense.
Nobody parks in San Francisco.
When I lived in Connecticut, if I wanted to drive somewhere, I got in my car and drove. Other than New York City, I drove everywhere when I lived on the East Coast.
In San Francisco, parking is so tight that any trip by car is a calculation. Will I be able to park at my destination? Will I be able to find a spot when I return home? In most cases, the answers were no and no. When I lived in the Castro and had to park on the street, a parking spot was so precious that I usually took the bus.
The city is a celebrity.
San Francisco is a star in its own right, and after I moved west, I became starstruck. Every time I passed Waverly Place in Chinatown, I got chills. I was a huge fan of Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club,” and that was the alley that Waverly Jong was named after. It was a real place!
I found a favorite Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem at City Lights Bookstore, which was not a surprise, since he’s a part owner of the storied bookstore. I walked the same streets as characters from a favorite movie, “What’s Up Doc?“
A few years later, I was puzzled by the strange graffiti that had appeared on Church Street until a friend told me it was for a movie. So I went back that night and stood with the other gawkers while Whoopi Goldberg filmed “Sister Act.”
People don’t know how to cross the street.
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On a crowded sidewalk in San Francisco’s Financial District, people quietly waited for their light to turn green before crossing, even when no cars were coming. It was insanity! I pushed my way through the crowd to cross against the light, barely able to hide my disgust at their sheeplike refusal to jaywalk.
On the East Coast, we crossed when it made sense. Traffic lights were merely suggestions.
A few years later, on a visit to New York, I needed to cross Second Avenue. While I waited for the light to change, the other pedestrians at the corner crossed the street, one by one. When the walk signal came on, I was the only one left who hadn’t crossed against the light. That’s when I realized I’d become a true Californian.