I left my heart in California

19 June 2012
Ace Hotel, Palm Springs

It came as little surprise when I learned recently that a somewhat well-known, American expat couple had packed up 10 years of life in Paris and moved back to America. I was taken aback that a pair so anchored and involved in the community would jump ship, but I was unsurprised by the desire to turn the page; start a new chapter. After the last two weeks, I can honestly say I get it now.

Muscle Beach, Santa Monica
We billed our trip to the U.S. – several days in Philadelphia to visit my family followed by a week in California- as an adventure in both place and love. It was an opportunity for C and me to shake off the taxing days we’ve had since the start of the year and grow closer through the discovery of a new place. While the trip certainly delivered on that front, it was heightened, somewhat unexpectedly, by the friends we saw and the people we met along the way.

Santa Monica Pier

After less than 24 hours in Santa Monica, and blanketed by sunshine, C was hooked. No humidity, crisp blue skies and athletic locals of all ages wherever we looked. “Everyone is so… fit”, he remarked. He marveled at the ocean views, the beach volleyball players gearing up for an early morning practice, how serious the runners and cyclists looked and just how easy it would be for him to adapt to this seemingly active lifestyle.

As we walked along Muscle Beach, passing groups of Lululemon-bedecked new mothers jogging with baby strollers, the comments continued. They only stopped once we reached Venice Beach and were accosted by young people in neon green outfits offering medical marijuana evaluations. Bizarre, we both agreed. We definitely weren’t in Paris anymore. But all that sunshine and energy portended trouble.

Palm Springs

The drive from LA was monotonous but drastically improved as the sprawling San Gorgonio Pass wind field came into view. Towering turbines ushered us into the heart of Palm Springs where the temperature immediately registered above 100°. We knew that our two day retreat would likely be the only version of summer we would have at all this year so we were ready for it.

Blistering though it was, our mornings were spent nursing iced coffee and reading by the pool at the Ace Hotel, also the setting for my college friend’s nuptials. Guests flew in from Philadelphia, Connecticut and New York, where the couple lives and works, for an imaginative (synchronized swimmers!) celebration befitting the backdrop. The bride and groom publicly branded  us as “the ones who came alllll the way from Paris” and introduced us to Francophiles in the wedding party – we made new friends by virtue of our connection to France. We were, comically, a bit exotic.

Out at sea
Santa Barbara, our next ethereal stop, was more commercial than we expected but we fell under the charms of the sea, the Spanish style homes and bungalows that lined the hills and the mellow attitude. “Couldn’t you get used to this?”, C’s questions resurfaced. “We have Normandy, it’s kind of similar”, I argued. He wasn’t buying it.

sunset in Carmel

Our Santa Barbara experience was over in a blink; we had to keep moving north. I visited Carmel and Monterey with my parents as a kid but could hardly recall specifics. It was nearly sunset when we parked along the shops in Carmel after a long, magical drive on Route 1. We made a beeline for the beach and immediately stripped off our shoes, digging our feet into the chilly sand which tickled our toes. I sat with my head on C’s shoulder and watched children skipping through the water, dogs chasing sticks and families laughing wildly. I felt lighter. It took me so long into the trip to feel relaxed but just then, I could feel the tension release in my shoulders. I wanted to stay in that moment forever.

Golden Gate Bridge from China Beach
Painted Ladies, San Francisco
But San Francisco awaited.

Though it wasn’t my first trip, the City by the Bay was even grander than I remembered. Between the architecture, the food, the kindness of locals and the astonishing vistas, it was impossible to deny the city’s magic. And by some miracle, we had picture-perfect weather all four days of our stay (take that, June Gloom!). Actually, we weren’t sure we’d get a chance to see that fabled fog roll in but on our last night, just as we finished a bottle of champagne at Alamo Square before dinner at Nopa, we watched the city transform.

Greens, San Francisco

Each day’s itinerary was planned entirely around where we would eat (few things motivate me to explore more than my belly). Jordan Ferney introduced us to Tartine, the city’s cult bakery, and took us all around the Mission, pointing out the best taco places, the gourmet markets, the top notch ice cream (Bi-Rite!), and the unique indie shops. After, we parked ourselves at the top of Dolores Park and looked out at the skyline before us. C closed his eyes, leaned back on his elbows and proclaimed San Fran our next home. It wasn’t until our sunset dinner at Greens, a vegetarian standout, that he set a time frame. “By my 35th birthday, I want to be here”. I rolled my eyes and regaled in my farro risotto.

Prior to that meal, we had spent the day driving around in a mini cooper – from Lombard Street and China Beach to the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge (and everywhere in between) – with two incredibly generous readers. Nick and Michelle reached out to me when I announced my California trip and offered detailed recommendations. But they went above and beyond mere recommendations. Nick emailed me once we arrived in San Francisco to offer to play personal tour guide with his girlfriend for an afternoon. We had never met, never spoken on the phone and yet they were both willing to take time away from work to show us around. We were overcome by their kindness and promised to return the favor should they return to Paris (no surprise here, they’re unabashed Francophiles). 

La nature
And that act of kindness, among everything else we saw out West, made us feel like it could be a viable place to live down the road. But feeling that way and admitting it, even now, saddens me.

C’s fervent declarations of love for California and its perennial sunshine weren’t all that surprising. His appreciation for Paris had been eroding for months. But he denigrated his home city endlessly during the trip – the perpetual gray, navel-gazing and closed-off locals, demotivating salaries and “uninteresting” architecture -and I found myself resolutely defending the place that has shaped so much of my life.

But I understand how expats, like the couple I mentioned before, could reach a saturation point.  Where the gray skies, navel-gazing Parisians, demotivating salaries and bureaucratic black holes become too much to bear and where an easier ride becomes attractive. I was seduced by California, likely as much as C. But I prefer to keep it high on a pedestal, right where non-expats place Paris. Yes, I was more relaxed and with a somewhat sunnier disposition. But I can’t leave this home behind. Not when there’s still so much I have to see, do and feel. But more importantly, it’s where our story began together and where I truly hope our story will continue.

Thank you to every single reader who shared recommendations with me, you’re part of what made this trip so spectacular (and eye-opening!).

{Click here for loads more photos from California}