I took time off over the last several days to spend time with my brother, (who is visiting from Boston where he is attending law school), and a friend of mine from high school, (who has been working for the USAID office in Budapest and hasn't been back to visit the States in 7 years). I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with each of them, not only because I enjoy their company, but also because they helped me see my surroundings through new eyes. Certainly, Boston and Budapest are entirely different places--culturally, geographically, etc--but the perspective of these two Nor Cal ex-patriots remained pretty consistent. I've put together the following list of things big and small that Ray and Suzi particularly missed about our state.
Diversity: California is a diverse place. I brought Suzi to the annual Jazz Festival in Old Sacramento, and we came across the Syncopating Sea Monkeys, a great high school jazz band who apparently hail from the high school a mile from my house. The set we heard was performed by a white female vocalist, an African American male drummer, and a brass section consisting of an Asian female, a Russian male, and a white male. Where we were standing a middle-aged hippie invited a senior woman to swing dance and a Latino couple with a baby was swaying to the beat. California has been a "minority majority" for years, but recent studies have also shown that we have more age diversity than the rest of the country, resulting from aging baby boomers and fewer immigrants and young families.
Food: I have never seen a place that had as many Farmers Markets as we do here in the Central Valley. We have a huge ag sector that ranges from small family-run operations to small organic teaching farms to extensive commercial farms. The Pacific Coast and our rivers have excellent fishing opportunities (well, when we aren't having water wars, but that's another story), and in my personal opinion Ghiradelli chocolate, Its It Ice Cream Sandwiches and San Francisco sourdough can't be beat. Blend all that with a plethora of ethnic foods and spices represented by our many immigrant populations and ad a dash of world-class chefs from places like Napa and you have a recipe for amazing! I'm getting hungry just thinking about it all!
Santa Cruz: Lake Tahoe. Crissy Field. Mount Tamalpais. Half Moon Bay. The American River Parkway. Thanks to the movement of tectonic plates and the efforts of generations of conservationists, we have breathtakingly beautiful place to get our nature fix.
Sunshine: 'Nuff said.
Smiles: Blame it on the weather--Californians are nice. When Ray and I went for a jog passersby smiled and nodded to acknowledge our presence. The waiter gave recommendations on margaritas to Suzi with a friendly grin. The deli staff at the grocery store and I swapped stores about our toddlers. At McKinley Park I stumbled across a drum circle and participated in an impromptu game of Capoeira interspersed with playing frisbee with a 4-year-old boy.
So what if our state budget is a travesty and our former-action-star-turned-governor has a trail of illegitimate children? So what if I have to pay a whopping 10% in sales taxes in SF? I am so fortunate to be able to take day trips to the multitude of festivals, national parks, and world-class cities within 100 miles. In 50 years politics and the economy will be a small footnote to the memories of people I've met and places I've seen right here in my own backyard.