On Moving to California



Four years ago, I moved to Brussels, Belgium knowing only one person who broke my little 22-year-old heart as soon as I arrived. Last year, I quit my steady job in New York to move down and travel around Central America on my own. Later, I moved back to Belgium to start all over again. Each time I started from scratch – Finding a place to stay, meeting and making new friends, taking care of bureaucratic formalities, and eventually carving out a life for myself. I never really thought of what I was doing as “adventurous” or “scary”, it seemed natural to want to explore and experience new things and a new way of life. I never thought twice about going off on my own, and the only time it truly bothered me not to have a partner was when I needed someone to put sunscreen on that impossible part of my back.

But seventeen days ago when I packed up that familiar suitcase and boarded a plane from New York to San Francisco, I was nervous. Really nervous actually. And I couldn’t put my finger on why, exactly.

Once I decided to leave school in Belgium, I knew I needed to move home to America, get a job, and start working again. People have been telling me for years that I’ve had enough travel, that it’s time to buckle down. I don’t particularly care what other people think about what I’ve done with my life up to this point, which is f*cking LIVIN’ IT, but I myself actually felt like buckling down, settling down, and putting down some roots for a while. It was time to go home.

The only predicament was that I didn’t know where to go home to – I knew I didn’t want to move back to New York, or the Northeast. There’s just got to be more to life than that, and the sub-zero winters I was reading about from abroad did not help its case. There’s just not enough upward mobility in New Orleans, Chicago’s too cold too much of the time, and I didn’t want to leave Belgium for the same weather in the Pacific Northwest, so that ruled out that faraway city of Portattle. I didn’t know where to go.



So I did what any girl would do on the cusp of a major life change – I started re-watching The OC. The first episode of that show is golden, it is absolute perfection from start to finish. My sister cries every time she watches it. “Hey [classic Marissa], who are you?” “Whoever you want me to be.” I’m just sitting there like YASSSSSSS – Sandy’s eyebrows, dewey from an early morning surf session; Marissa’s long tan legs; Ryan’s wifebeaters; Summer’s tube tops and lip gloss habit; Luke’s dope Range Rover with that turnt up sound system; Julie already throwing back the Chardonnay like the vineyard’s about to dry up. Mmmmmm! It was immediately clear that I needed to move to Southern California. I would flee the confines of rainy Belgium and shack up in a house a block or two from the beach in Santa Monica, I’d become a regular at the Peet’s Coffee down the block, watch the sun set from my porch where I’d hang those cool lamps I’d bought in Istanbul, and maybe get into crystals or astrology like that cute guy from 7th Heaven. It sounded perfect.

“But what about San Francisco?” I’d reached out to the one New Yorker, actually, the one entire person I knew in LA – my old neighbor Harry, who’s a screenwriter. To me, Harry and his family epitomize New York City and Greenwich Village, but he and his brothers all moved out one by one to the West Coast to work in film and TV, or as they say in LA, “the industry”. When I messaged him to let him know about my impending resettlement to the beaches of Southern California, he very nicely offered to chat with me about the realities of Hollywood living and what it’s like to live in a city where people keep their meds in their glove compartment, because their car is the one place they’re absolutely certain they’ll be at least twice a day.

Mark Twain allegedly once said, “In America, there is New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” I was born in New York, born again in New Orleans, and had spent my 26 years of life either completely oblivious to San Francisco or scoffing at the very notion of it. I have no family west of Illinois and no connection to California at all, everything I knew was more or less from TV. I’d only even met a handful of Californians in my life! I’ve learned since coming out here that a lot of them stay out here, and I can see why.

For me, it’s hard to be from New York – I don’t like living there, but it’s difficult to find a city in America that has the very things that I do love about it and which I require from a place I’m going to live: An insanely diverse population; an extensive public transportation system that cancels out any need to own a car; bike-friendly streets; tons of different bars, restaurants, museums, and parks in walking distance; proximity to open lands; and a unique culture that makes it stand out from anywhere else in the States, and let’s go ahead and just say the whole wide world. I definitely didn’t want to move to Cleveland, so I slowly began to toy with the idea of familiarizing myself with this little beacon of hope on a bay.

The more I talked to Harry and to other friends out in San Francisco, the more it sounded like it was the kind of city I was looking for. LA sounds awesome but isolating, and also like the kind of city that can really coax that laid-back, not-in-a-hurry, I’ll-find-a-job-tomorrow side out of you real easy, and I wanted to hit the ground running. And whether or not you roll your eyes when you think about Silicon Valley and disrupting this and scalable that, there’s a lot of thinking and innovation going on out here, and that means jobs! And one sure thing about NYC and SF is that they’re too expensive to be a scrub (well, unless you’ve sold your successful start up company and can coast for the rest of your life) and I needed that kind of push to make something for myself.

I left for San Francisco after two or so weeks at home in New York, trying to feel out if I’d want to stay there now that the wanderlust seems to have faded a bit. But I felt nothing in New York, and that is terrifying, so all of the sudden it really became California or bust.

I ordered an airport shuttle to take me out to JFK the morning of my flight to San Francisco. I hadn’t even taken all my stuff, I’d carefully placed the rest of it in another suitcase and two boxes that I left in a closet. Over the years I’ve done an amazing job at streamlining my worldly possessions. Maybe I would come back for them? I had a lead on some jobs and a place to stay with my dad’s best friend from college and his wife (who have been the best hosts ever, absolute saints) in a place called The Sunset, which sounded hyper-Californian, and that was all I knew.

Normally, not knowing a whole lot about where I was heading off to set up life for a while didn’t phase me at all, but as the airport shuttle dragged on through the 4am morning darkness, picking up more passengers strewn across the Upper East Side, I had a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach that I’d never experienced before. This seemed bizarre, given that this time I was actually moving to a city in my own country where I already had friends, where they speak my language, share more or less the same cultural values, and where the supermarket is always open on Sunday. This was supposed to be the easy move!

But I realized that what made this particular move different from all the other ones was this time, I was looking for a place to call home, to build a life either for a few years or forever if I feel so inclined. There’s no visa process I’d have to go through to live here, and can just snap my fingers and stay, work, and play, or not. I desperately wanted to want to stay, the only catch was I’d have to like San Francisco, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t.

And then all of the sudden, I realized it was light outside. I glanced at my watch. Well, actually, I haven’t worn a watch since 7th grade, I just looked at the time on my phone. It was 6am. My flight was leaving at 6:59! I inquired with the shuttle driver about when we were going to be at the JetBlue terminal, and that conversation did not end well. It dawned on me around 6:10am, with two other passengers due to be dropped off at their terminals before me, that I was probably going to miss my flight to San Francisco. Nervous still, I realized that I did very much want to go to California.

I’m not one for believing in omens or hidden meanings in life’s unfolding of random events, but I honestly believed that if I missed that plane to San Francisco, it was just not meant to be. I actually had no idea what I would do – Would I just say f*ck it and stay in Queens? Live at the airport like Tom Hanks in that movie? Wouldn’t be so bad, I’d at least have access to a nearby Auntie Ann’s pretzels (JFK Terminal 7). Or would I just cab it back to Mom and Dad’s and mope on the couch, not letting anyone else know that I hadn’t actually left so I wouldn’t have to say my goodbyes all over again?

But I made it. I f*cking made that flight, checking my bag even, and TSA let me slip past 100 people in line for security. I even had time to buy kettle korn chips and a People magazine. And now, almost three weeks later, I’m about to move into an apartment in downtown San Francisco, spend the weekend in Sonoma, and start my new job at a start up (I’m already a cliché!) on Monday. I’m kind of freaked out, everything seems too good to be true, but believe you me I am rolling with it.



About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in America., Cities, FYI, Just for Fun, Musing Articles, Musings, Portfolio, Travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On Moving to California

  1. jim egan says:

    Your ancient uncle Jim emigtated to San Francisco at age 24 in 1974 to experience the hip(py) generation. Unfortunately, they told me I was 7 years too late. The Summer of Love was in 1967. San Francisco is the same USA, and uses the same English language, but with a totally different vibe than the East Coast. It always seems a few years ahead of the rest of the country. I think you’ll like it, or at least will be enriched by experiencing it.
    Uncle Jim

    • alicestockwellegan says:

      Don’t worry Uncle Jim, there are still some people on Haight Street who think it’s still the Summer of Love, and they are way off! I was telling the Murphy’s about Newport Tower the other night, and their son Matt was like, “Oh, you mean like on that History Channel show?” He’d randomly seen it! You’re famous!

  2. CL says:

    And I’m glad you did, looks like SF is working just fine 😉 and seriously, f*&()^% to whoever tells you to settle down – you’ll do it when you’re ready 🙂

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