The California Experiment

Let me start at the end. I’m not in California anymore. I moved back home to Massachusetts at the beginning of August after a very long, confusing, and painful month of July. I’m finally able (I think) to write about the whole experience and why I left, so here goes.

My decision to go to California was based on a lot of different things. For one, I’ve been hearing for quite some time from many different people how much I would like the West Coast. My dad is from NorCal, but most of my time spent there was before the age of 12 (it gets expensive to fly a family of 4 across the country more than every couple of years!) and my memories of it were scattered and few, making it a new place to explore. After living Italy – and moving back here – I found I was craving that sense of adventure, of exploring another culture, and that prospect was very exciting to me.  It’s also the birthplace of the sustainable food movement in America, so it seemed like a good place for me to continue my whole good-food-career journey. When I got the internship with MESA, it seemed like the right choice, or at least one of many right choices I could make: it would give me greater depth of knowledge about the agriculture side of sustainable food, I could build an organization’s social media strategy from the ground up, and it was in Berkeley. Visions of Chez Panisse danced in my head.

I didn’t go there with it in mind to “recreate” my experience in Florence, but I think to an extent I expected some similarities between the 2 here and there, not the least of which being the enjoyment of a little independence. Ok, ok, and really good food. (And by good, I mean local & sustainably-raised. Delicious is redundant.)

I went to Florence to heal, to get away, and ended up finding myself. I came to California hoping to find more of myself, and ended up getting more lost than ever.

I spent the month leading up to my move mentally preparing myself for the transition, something I’ve trained my introverted & highly-sensitive brain to do in such circumstances. I prepared to learn a new public transportation system, to find some kind of job, to learn as much as possible about the non-profit I was interning with, and to search for a little more clarity regarding my career path.

What I didn’t prepare for – the horridly uncomfortable living situation, the stress of managing 2 internships in one of the most expensive areas of the country, the fact that I had to do everything completely and fully alone – caught me off my guard.

But I have learned a great deal, and it has made the experience worth it.

  • I process things at a ridiculously slow rate. It’s annoying, but it’s also not changing, so I better learn to accept it and deal.

I’m pretty sure this is something everyone does, but I only just became cognizant of how incredibly slow I am with sorting out my feelings and thoughts about, er, most things. We’re talking months. And it’s a real bitch. It often means not taking chances and thinking a LOT before doing, and possibly missing some great opportunities in the process. But now that I’m aware of it, I can give myself the necessary time to deal with things. I’m sure there are people who disapprove, but this is important for my sanity, so I really don’t care.

  • Your gut is right. If you don’t love it or it’s not right, move on. Doesn’t matter what ‘it’ is.

I experienced some pretty intense culture shock, which is not something I’ve really ever come up against. And this was perplexing for many reasons, including 1) I’ve traveled to 9 different countries (and all over this one) and have never really felt culture shock before and 2) I did NOT think it would happen when I’m still in my own country, but it does and it did. And when the culture shock receded and I started learning more about the culture itself, I experienced something else completely new: I did not fit. I felt like a puzzle piece that was being shoved into the wrong part of the puzzle, and this was a very interesting feeling. There is plenty about Italy (and Florence) I could have done without, but it felt like home from day 1. Same happened with my college in South Carolina. They weren’t perfect, but I always felt more or less at home. But the entire 4 months I was in California it just felt…wrong. I don’t really know why. It’s a lovely place to live. The people are very nice. It just wasn’t the right place. And when you’re getting paid next to nothing and living in other people’s subletted living room, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to stay there.

  • I FINALLY understand why people don’t leave their hometowns.

This might make me sound like an asshole, but I swear I don’t intend this to sound condescending: I never really understood why so many people never leave the area where they grew up. And part of this is the fact that both of my parents did leave – my dad is from California and my mom is from Georgia – so I kind of grew up thinking they were the norm, and then I found out they were NOT, and I was kind of…confused. (Until second grade I also thought it was the norm for everyone’s mom to have 2 sisters and everyone’s dad to have 2 brothers like my parents, so I probably should have put 2 and 2 together a little sooner. Like I said…slow to process.) But when I went off to college, I was very specific about wanting to try living in a different part of the country. And I thought of studying abroad as a kind of requirement. I’m very pro-try new things/live in new places. And then I moved to a place where I really didn’t feel like I could identify with the culture, where I felt completely out of place, and I got it. Feeling like that, like a permanent foreigner, is HARD. Building a new network, a new friend group, a new life in a place that you don’t completely get, especially if you have to do it alone? It’s a unique kind of hell, and I do not blame anyone for avoiding it. It sucks. Really, I think I understand how important “place” is; even if I don’t stay in Boston, I do know that where I end up will have to be somewhere I can comfortably and confidently call “home.” It seems I just wasn’t Berkeley enough.

What it’s really come down to is that I simply can’t handle living my life on a temporary, month-by-month basis anymore. And maybe I should be able to. Maybe some think I should suck it up and accept this stage of my life, but I disagree and in this particular case, my opinion is the only one that matters. For the last five damn years I haven’t stayed in the same place for longer than 6 months. A very significant chapter of my life closed when I graduated college, and I was completely unprepared for the emotional side effects of that transition. Seriously, NO ONE told me that it was like dealing with a death. It is. It has taken me a full year to come to terms with that.

I am finishing my internship with WiserEarth virtually. At the moment I’m looking at all my options, including AmeriCorps, Teach For America, teaching English abroad, and of course, grad school. I am trying (but mostly failing) to be optimistic, but the ugly truth is I don’t know what I want to do. I may love food, but the movement behind it doesn’t seem to love me back, and I feel like it’s time to go back to the drawing board. I really, really hate being 22.

Instead of leaving it on that note, I’ll leave it on a better one. Frank is so much nicer to listen to.