I'm writing about the six years Richard and I spent living in southern California. As is usually the case in these things, I might not have loved living there when we initially moved down, but by the time we left I sure did. We both did. We still think about living somewhere hot. Never quite got over living in such a lovely climate, truth be told.
So here it goes: My Life In SoCal
Right after Richard and I got married we moved from our little apartment in a small town on Vancouver Island to a much bigger city south of Los Angeles, where Richard was to attend the University of California at Irvine. I wasn’t going to do anything, as I couldn’t get a work permit, and so I was feeling kind of jittery about moving to the States, especially as everyone we spoke to said the exact same thing:
Los Angeles has some really scary areas! The drivers are all nuts! Everyone has a gun! It’s really really smoggy! Are you sure you want to live there?
Despite the fact that I’d spent several years living in tents, trucks, and the odd isolated cabin in the woods, I was soon feeling uneasy about moving to such an obviously dangerous place. Guns, mad drivers and smog? I had a bad case of the eeks. Nevertheless, move there we did. We drove down, all our possessions jammed into a truck and one of U-Haul’s finest. The noise, dirt, and sweltering heat of the California freeways were a disappointing revelation. Drivers careered around in oversized SUVs and the freeways were always jammed. The HOV lanes, which in BC required a minimum of 3 occupants, only needed 2 people in the car to be considered “high occupancy.” As we drove past one smash up after another, most involving an unnerving number of ambulances (and eventual morgues), my heart sank, especially when I heard on the local news that there was a freeway shooter targeting women driving alone in small white cars. Did I mention that our car at that time was a small, white Toyota Tercel? And that I would likely be the lone occupant most of the time, while Richard was at school?
Things didn’t look up when we arrived at the student housing complex where we were to live. It looked like something out of The Prisoner, a British TV program I loved. Well, I loved it until I moved to that housing complex. All the worker guys drove around in small electric vehicles, just like they did in The Prisoner. All the units looked identical, just like in The Prisoner. There were clean, winding pathways between units, just like in The Prisoner. And the courtyards were empty and quiet, just like in The Prisoner. Richard thought I was being melodramatic, but I could just see myself being bundled into a large white floating balloon and being drilled by some anonymous man with a No. 2 badge pinned to his striped jacket, just like in The Prisoner. I practiced saying “I am a free woman! I am not a number!” (just like in The Prisoner) while Richard, who had never seen an episode of The Prisoner, rolled his eyes but had the good sense not to say anything.
Then there was the strange method of naming streets and roads. In B.C. roadways take conventional names like ROAD, STREET, or CRESCENT. In extreme cases there’s also CLOSE or DRIVE. Not in California. Everywhere we went the roads seemed to be called CYN. I pronounced this “sin.” It confirmed what I knew about Americans: they were obsessed with sex. This extended to television, where, no matter what was going on in the rest of the world (if indeed you ever heard anything about the rest of the world) the news would always lead with a celebrity story of some kind, even if it was a grade C celebrity. (I bet you didn’t know there are grades of celebrity in Los Angeles, now, did you? Well, there are)
The saving grace was the weather: it was always sunny. Even when it was cloudy it was sunny. It was also weirdly warm all the time, even at night. We never wore socks. Or coats. Rain boots, a staple in the Wet Coast, sat in the back of the closet. We had the doors open at night and best of all, there were no mosquitoes. This was the turning point for me for I am that most tragic of things: a mosquito magnet. If there is one within 50 miles it will find me. Predictably they tend to prefer my face. I end up looking like the Elephant Man until the swellings subside. I have endured many humiliating moments thanks to the mosquito. Until we moved to southern California I had no idea there were mosquito-free places in the world. It was a thrilling discovery that greatly offset my Being Sucked Into A Large White Balloon worry.
Things really started looking up when we drove back to Canada for Christmas and realized how cold and wet and dark it was up there. I started prefacing everything I said with “In California it’s —” much to my Canadian friends’ dismay. Yes, I had become an American Apologist. You see, in Canada scorning all things American is a bit of a national sport. A quiet, polite one, true, but it’s there. We Canadians grow up feeling superior to America by virtue of our smaller cars, nationalized health care, good libraries, sensible gun laws, expensive junk food, and well-maintained highways. An anti-American ethos runs through our (clean, drinkable) water. It surprised me a little that I had become an American Apologist. If I had to be honest, I was also a little horrified, but that could be offset by an hour in ROSS Dress For Less or the liquor section of Costco. Or even better, Trader Joe’s. I loved Trader Joe’s. I loved the cheap food, the lack of Bovine Growth Hormones in the dairy products, the friendly staff, and the slightly inferior imitations of well-known products. Plus, their slogans on all the packaging was brilliant. My Canadian friends no doubt found me irritating but they were too polite to say much, other than “can we come and stay with you?”
We spent six years living in SoCal, had three kids, and grew to love living in such a hot dry climate. When we eventually moved back to Canada my eldest son and I cried as we raced north in our cramped, air-conditionless little white car. I had made a cassette tape of music for the road and we listened to Everybody Wants To Rule The World at full blast as we careered along the freeways with everyone else. It seemed appropriate, somehow. I had avoided the Freeway Shooter (who was never found but killed 4 women in small white cars), learned to drive on busy freeways and lived in Prisoner-like housing complexes. Richard graduated one year too soon to have Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature (as California’s Governor) on his PhD diploma but that was okay - I'd had six mosquito-free years AND escaped the Mysterious Floating White Balloon. But Richard had a job in Vancouver and it was time to move on.
Oh, and the roads in California? The ones named CYN? I learned that it was actually an abbreviation for CANYON. No sin in sight, although I did miss seeing grade C celebrities leading the news hour. Canada doesn’t have quite the same obsession with celebrity as Southern California does. Which is probably a good thing.