Sometimes I think I have moved to a foreign country, one where everyone speaks English but I don’t recognize the words. The rules are similar; the customs are familiar, but I’m missing some crucial piece of information that everyone else has. This creates some awkward pauses that I fill in with: “I’m from California.” Everyone nods, and I am treated with that special politeness accorded to strangers. I have traveled enough to know each region of the country is different. Heck, Southern California is another planet as far as Northern Californians are concerned. But one thinks of the United States as being one country, a seamless culture so my sojourn in this foreign place comes as a surprise. My parents are New Englanders. I was born in Massachusetts. Yet like Valentine Michael Smith, the hero of Robert Heinlein’s novel whose title I have borrowed, I grew up in a strange environment, learned a new culture, and adopted new philosophies. I find myself now in a new ecosystem, searching for my niche.
As a child, I found Southern California a strange hostile environment. The hills were green only in the spring. The rest of the year, they were brown with scraggly oaks and century plants scattered among the sage. The rivers had been replaced by concrete corridors or were dry. The place I loved best was the beach. While many of my friends were surfers, I preferred just to walk along the beach and look at the waves. I chose my college by proximity to the beach. And as a child of the seventies, I could speak Valley Girl even though I grew up in the valley on the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains. And then somehow I went to Ohio, moved to Northern California for a decade before ending up back in Southern California. As an adult, I had learned one essential truth: Southern California could be anywhere in the world. Watch a television show. Look for the sky weeds (palm trees). Those are not the hills of Kentucky on Justified. I taught at the high school where Mark Harmon confronts Jamie Lee Curtis as she arrives to pick up her son at school in an episode of NCIS this season. It is not in Washington DC. And Southern California itself is a diverse place, both geographically and ethnically. One can ski in the morning and surf in the evening. One can take the train to Union Station, walk to Olvera Street for Mexican food, then stroll over to Chinatown. Get in a car and the possibilities abound.
And while parts of Southern California could pose as New England, Connecticut is not Southern California. Connecticut is rolling hills of farmland and dense forests. The rivers are breathtaking, not empty. I am no longer living in a desert. I get my water from a well instead of having it pumped (stolen) from another state. The town I live in requires large setbacks from the property line, causing most property owners to leave a swath of woods. So where my woods meet the neighbor’s woods, a wildlife corridor forms. Unless the bear stays long enough to be a nuisance, no one is coming to remove him. And I better not harm him. This goes for the foxes, coyotes and bobcats. The environment lured my husband and I to this state.
The cultural differences make me feel like an alien. Today I drove to the Post Office. Along Main Street (every town in Connecticut has a Main Street), were flag poles. These were not the same flags that hung on the power poles over Memorial Day. These were five foot white poles with American flags. I was puzzled until I remembered that today is Flag Day. Old-fashioned Patriotism isn’t the only difference. In every town one sees small signs advertising community events: Boy Scout Pancake breakfasts, Spaghetti dinners at the Catholic Church, flower sale by the Garden Club. Every inch of land belongs to a town. No unincorporated areas exist. Volunteers seem to do small things that save the towns money: shelf read at the library to make sure the books are in order, plant flowers in the community areas, and maintain trails. Every town has a public library, but with a library card from one town, one can use any public library in the state. In contrast, the DMV is a nightmare. The state has four large hub offices and a handful of satellite offices. All new licenses (including out of state) and identification cards must be handled at a hub. No appointments except for teens taking driving tests. One waits forever and half the time something will be unacceptable with one’s documents requiring a second trip. Six hours total to get my license—I needed my marriage certificate. I am so looking forward to my next trip.
Small things are strikingly different. Each town funds its own schools. In my town elementary children are picked up at their driveway. Junior high students walk down the street to an intersection with a major road. The junior high is less than two miles from here. Traditions are different. Here lawn signs proudly proclaim that a high school graduate lives in that house. The graduates of the private schools, the graduates of public schools all have signs on their lawns. This strikes me as a possible ASB fundraiser back in So CA.
The towns are different; the shore is different. For my birthday I wanted to walk on the beach. We did. Used to long stretches of public access, I was surprised how little there was. On the other hand, I can aspire to a beach house here. I will have to go elsewhere for the long walks and pounding waves. We also learned my birthday weekend that people buy RVs or travel trailers and then park them in an RV park that they like and use them as a second vacation home. They are ‘seasonal’ renters. They never go anywhere with their vehicle except the resort where they are parked. They put out decks and lawn furniture. RV parks in popular locations can be almost all seasonal.
Seafood is also different. Wild salmon is very expensive. Cod is cheap. I have learned to cook soft shell crab. Dungeness crab is currently out of my price range. I still hesitate to boil a lobster but I have been trying different lobster rolls at restaurants. I didn’t know that there were two styles: Maine and Connecticut. I prefer the buttery Connecticut roll. Perhaps it is time for me to try fried clams.
The grocery stores in town don’t open until nine a.m. (which means they close). I can’t buy wine or liquor in a grocery store, just beer. No wonder there is only one Trader Joe’s in the area. Until a few weeks ago, I couldn’t buy any alcohol on Sunday; now I need to remember to make my beer run by five. I do most of my shopping at Fresh Market, a popular southern chain that competes with Whole Foods. The New England chain grocery stores are huge—one stop shopping unlimited. They may not sell liquor, but they sell almost anything you can get in a drugstore and then some. One can buy fireworks at a grocery store. It takes me an hour just to walk around.
America runs on Dunkin so they are on every corner instead of Starbucks (and they sell more than donuts). All the restaurants are Italian or have a wood burning pizza oven. I didn’t know what a stone pie was. I didn’t know what flatbread was. I didn’t know what New Haven style was. I still don’t know what the difference is. I miss thick crust pizzas. My daughter went to a bakery where they had truffles, not the mushrooms, but chocolate covered balls. She assumed that these were candy. They were very cupcake balls, pretty but disappointing. When I mentioned this to my hairdresser, she told me that truffles were always cake. I looked for a truffle recipe online—all I found were candy recipes.
In time I will ‘go native,’ forgetting that I was ever surprised by the differences. Right now I enjoy being the stranger, learning the culture, appreciating the traditions. Can’t wait for the fourth of July!