California: First Impressions

 

Twenty-nine years ago, when I headed off to Istanbul as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, the executive director of that outfit instructed me to send back a newsletter soon after my arrival describing my first impressions. “You will forget that which left you wonderstruck,” he observed, “as you get used to the place. That fleeting sense of wonder is invaluable.” And so it was.

With his advice in mind, I intend to write a post or two on the People’s Democratic Republic of California, in which I just arrived and where I intend to spend the next ten months, reading, writing, and keeping my eyes open.

Let me preface what I have to say with the obvious. California is beautiful. The mountains to the East — through which we passed on our way from Nampa, Idaho to Rancho Cordova, California — are formidable. The Central Valley is impressive, and the coastal range, within which Mountain View is nestled, is simply stunning. We drove down to Big Basin Redwoods State Park yesterday, and it knocked our socks off. It is, as we were told by some locals, more beautiful than Muir Woods and less crowded.

There are other aspects of California life that are no less striking. We live in an apartment complex situated amidst a myriad of apartment complexes. Nearby is shopping — Walmart, Target, Trader Joe’s. The list goes on. In the vicinity of the nearby shopping mall are a series of cross-walks, and when they are open to pedestrians they light up — i.e., lights flash from the crosswalk, warning drivers to stop. I have never seen the like, but I expect to see it soon everywhere. It is ingenious, and I salute the People’s Democratic Republic for inventing the practice.

There is another strange practice I have observed. The advertised price of gasoline varies widely. On one corner, it is sold for $3.73 a gallon; across the street, it costs car-owners $3.95. Chevron seems to have the most expensive gas; Arco, the cheapest. Valero comes in somewhere in the middle . . . except when it does not. Connected with this economic anarchy is the fact that the price, depending on whether one uses a credit card or pays cash. To be precise, if one uses a credit or debit card to pay, one is charged a fee. Nowhere else have I encountered this practice.

There is yet another strange practice — this one, absurd. In Mountain View — and presumably elsewhere as well — merchants charge one for paper or plastic bags: 20 cents in the former case, a nickel in the latter. The stores do not do this by choice. There is a statute. I presume that the global warming scam is here regarded as Holy Writ! Undoubtedly, this is the case at the Church of Self-Realization that we stumbled across.

Here is another difference. Just outside Hillsdale, in Jonesville, there is a Walmart. Shopping there involves taking a tour of rural poverty in America. The trucks parked outside are rusty in the extreme; the folks inside are quite often obese; and nearly everyone uses WIC (Women, Infants, Children) or Food Stamps to pay for what they buy.

In Mountain View, there is a Walmart as well. The other night it was crowded to a degree unknown elsewhere — except in the week just before Christmas. Every race in the world, every people was represented. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I heard twelve different languages being spoken; it would be an understatement. Some I recognized — Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabic; many I did not. After leaving, I felt like saying to my wife, “We are no longer in Michigan, Toto!”

At mass, at St. Athanasius Church, we had a similar experience yesterday. The language of the liturgy and of the sermon was English. That was only because two of the six masses said between 5 p.m. on Saturday and 5 p.m. on Sunday are said in Spanish — for the number of Anglos in the congregation at the non-Latino masses was perhaps one in ten. Mass was said in English because for folks from India, Africa, Indochina, and the Carribean English is the lingua franca (and, yes, I know that the phrase was coined long ago to refer to French. Sic transit gloria!). The music at mass was livelier than the norm — but alas, less dignified. The pastor of this church comes from the Philippines; the associate pastor, from Vietnam.The Catholic Church really is catholic.

What can I say? There are places within the United States that are American and not. New Orleans comes to mind. So do the Spanish villages between Santa Fe and Taos and Mormon Utah. These uncanny places could not exist anywhere else in the world . . . and yet!

Living in Mountain View is like being an extra on the set of a sci-fi movie. More anon….

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Foxman

    “To be precise, if one uses a credit or debit card to pay, one is charged a fee. Nowhere else have I encountered this practice.”

    This is common practice in the Detroit area.  I assumed it was across the state.

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    @jarhead

    Hillsdale, Jonesville….  Ahh, Professor, you’re too closeted there in the hills of southern MI, you should try to get out more to the big cities of Jackson, or Battle Creek, or Lansing, or even Grand Rapids! 

    I’ve been to Hillsdale once, for an ISI summer seminar about 1975 or 76, but wouldn’t want to live there long term.  But then, neither would I want to live in Mountain View long term either, and I’ve been there a couple times on business or vacation trips to the area.  Enjoy your ten month sabbatical.

    As far as the debit/credit card fees, thank Sen Durbin and friends for that piece of stupidity.

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    @DonTillman

    Welcome to Silicon Valley, Paul!

    I’m very familiar with this exact location.  I live 3 miles north, my dad lives a block from there, I have a music studio a block from there, and I’m in that area almost every day for some errand.  So, “Hi  neighbor!”  If you need anything, feel free…

    I’m expecting there will be a Ricochet gathering announced very, very soon.  (Nudging the guys… certainly Peter, George and others have stuff on their schedules.)

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    @BillThom

    Welcome to the peninsula, Dr. Rahe! Mountain View is a nice little town and its proximity to Palo Alto is very convenient as well. The diversity here is pretty neat, being down by silicon valley and Stanford you definitely get a cosmopolitan population. If you are looking for some more white bread environs to check out come on up to Burlingame, its a cute and pretty poshy ville not too far north of Mountain View, Belmont and San Carlos are nice areas as well. San Mateo is a good mix of culture and socio-economics, it’s got a really great downtown (especially if you like Japanese food) with lots going on there all the time.

    cont.

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    @BillThom

    If you have to venture up to San Francisco the drive along 280 is wonderful. Popping over to the 1 is nice as well, driving along the PCH. It will remind you of driving along the Riviera. Mountain View is also nice for it’s relative proximity to Monterey and Carmel. Wonderful spots with great beaches where you can’t go in the water without a wet suit. Your children will love the Monterey Aquarium, but like everything here it is EXPENSIVE. San Jose has a lot to offer as well and you’re very close to that, too. 

    All in all, I bet you’ll find South Bay living pretty great, except for that pesky cost of living which is really quite unbelievable. Remember to always have a jacket with you – always – especially if you are going north into the city. Mountain View is a bit more moderate and warm, but the micro-climates and big temperature swings throughout the day take some getting used to. On the bright side, literally, you will have a lot of sunny days and little rain. A little fog, but down by you nothing to complain about. Good luck with everything!

    • #5
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    @Dave

    The church I belonged to in Orlando was similar. It was plurality Hispanic with three Spanish weekend masses.

    The next largest contingent was English speaking Americans, principally transplants from the northeast I guessed.

    Then Asian, both Filipino* (there was a Tagalog mass once a month) and Vietnamese.

    The next largest group were black, though whether African-American, African, Haitian, or other Caribbean I couldn’t be sure.

    There was also a small Indian community. For a time, they also had their own mass once a month (it was a different, Eastern Catholic liturgy).

    Last Christmas at the Lenten confession service, the pastor began by running down the language abilities of each priest. Almost everyone had at least two.

    Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever visited a church in Orlando that wasn’t bilingual–and masses in three languages wasn’t unheard of.

    If I remember correctly, one church had regular masses in English, Spanish, Polish, Latin, and Tagalog.

    *It was really funny on St. Patrick’s Day to see a Filipino family sitting in front of me wearing bright green “Everybody’s Irish Today” shirts.

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    @LockeOn

    Given that list of stores, the locals can pinpoint your neighborhood!  That Walmart is the most crowded, multi-ethnic I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in dozens nationwide.

    Some more MV orientation exercises:

    – Check out restaurant row on Castro St (MV).  Along with University Ave in PA, it’s the culinary mainstay of the area.

    – Get a monster burrito at La Costeña.

    – Walk, run, or ride the Baylands.  (Shoreline out to Google and just keep going.)

    Big Basin is an excellent start on the Bay Area natural wonders.  Some others:

    – Montebello Open Space, on a clear day.  Park at the Page Mill lot, and hike up to Black Mountain for a view of the whole South Bay and beyond.

    – In September or October, when the coastal fog lets up, McNee Ranch State Park near Montara, and hike to the top of Montara Moutain (fairly strenuous.)  Stunning coastal view from Marin down to Año Nuevo.

    – This winter, visit the elephant seals at Año Neuvo

    – In the spring, wildflowers at Edgewood Park near Redwood City, and hike to the top of Sunol Preserve in the East Bay.

    • #7
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    @Misthiocracy
    Paul A. Rahe:

    “You will forget that which left you wonderstruck,” he observed, “as you get used to the place. That fleeting sense of wonder is invaluable.” 

    This should be well-distributed aphorism, it is that profound. 

    Even the feeling one had when visiting a different part of one’s own home town for the first time is impossible to recreate.

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    @DonTillman

    A mere 1-1/2 miles south of you is Castro Street, which has the most insanely huge collection of ethnic restaurants this side of the United Nations.  You’ll enjoy ethnicities, sub-ethnicities, and combinations of ethnic foods that you’ve never imagined.

    It’s completely typical to order a Kung Pao Tostada with Curry Sauce from a Polynesian waiter.

    • #9
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    @JimBeck

    Morning Mr. Rahe,

    Having landed in the People’s Democratic Republic of California, I am making a long held request.  At one time you started to sing a parody song about Stalin based on “Do You Hear What I Hear”.  A full set of lyrics would be a frosty toast to California. 

    Thanks also for the lectures from Hillsdale.

    Jim Beck

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    @captainpower

    If you care enough about gas prices to shop around, check out gasbuddy.

    Personally, I try to stick to Chevron or Mobil because I know they take credit card and I don’t use cash. Arco usually does not take credit card but they seem to be ubiquitous.

    Running a car on fumes and finding the nearest gas station only to discover they don’t take credit card is the worst.

    Oh, and I don’t use debit cards because there is a much bigger hassle on you the consumer in the case of fraud.

    • #11
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    @kiwikit

    I left CA in 1980 so this may no longer be there, but we really enjoyed picnics at Ridge Winery in Los Gatos.  

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  13. Profile Photo Member
    @LockeOn
    kiwikit: I left CA in 1980 so this may no longer be there, but we really enjoyed picnics at Ridge Winery in Los Gatos.   · 13 minutes ago

    Yup, still there and excellent (if pricey).  There’s also Pichetti Winery lower down on Montebello Road: a winery in an open space preserve – only in California!  Show up at the right time and you may get a serenade by a jazz quartet, and you can always admire the peacocks.

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    @GADean

    Welcome to the neighborhood! A couple of points about CA that are worth thinking about before you become acclimated…

    That population diversity you observed at WalMart is very typical of many communities in the area and indeed much of the state, and not just WalMart shoppers.  Wander over to one of the major tech firms in the area and see who is coming in and out. You can appreciate the distinction Californians place between legal and illegal immigration. This state could not function without immigrants, and foreign nationals on work visas. It’s unfair to characterize Californians as “anti-immigrant”, but the troubles imposed on the state by undocumented workers are also real. This state is amazingly generous and welcoming to immigrants, but we have a real problem to deal with.

    And also, think about how the typical American discussion on “race”, which defaults to a whites and blacks perspective, plays out in a community made up of the variety of people in Mountain View.  How many of the folks you saw in Walmart have any stake or personal perspective on racial politics as usually played out in America.

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    @LockeOn
    Paul A. Rahe: Many thanks for all of the comments and advice. I hope to meet the local Ricochetti soon.

    Incidentally, the Church of Self-Realization is just off the Stanford campus. I cannot imagine that any of the immigrants (legal and illegal) who throng to the Walmart attend. That species of narcissism seems to be a trait reserved for the native-born. Alas. · 54 minutes ago

     I used to have an office a couple of blocks from that place, walked by all the time, and I can assure you that the folks going in and out looked as ‘miscellaneous’ as the Walmart crowd.  It’s the descendent of a 1960’s guru/meditation/yoga cult and is pretty well integrated into the local community, for better or worse.

    • #15
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    @PaulARahe
    G.A. Dean:

    And also, think about how the typical American discussion on “race”, which defaults to a whites and blacks perspective, plays out in a community made up of the variety of people in Mountain View.  How many of the folks you saw in Walmart have any stake or personal perspective on racial politics as usually played out in America. · 24 minutes ago

    That crossed my mind. Black and white are meaningless where there is such a spectrum. My bet is that interracial black-white marriage is more common here than elsewhere. Would that it were the norm!

    • #16
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    @ScarletPimpernel

    Your comment about the poor in Michigan reminded me of something I have been pondering lately. America is starting to take on some of the character of the old world.  One can discern class, often, by physical characteristics.   Not a good sign for the republic.

    Oh, and on church names. I was amused to see the “Happy Science” center in my end of California the other day.  It’s, apparently, Eastern in origin, albeit modern, but what do they call the German branch? Would Nietzsche be amuesed or horrified?

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    @ScarletPimpernel
    Paul A. Rahe

     

    That crossed my mind. Black and white are meaningless where there is such a spectrum. My bet is that interracial black-white marriage is more common here than elsewhere. Would that it were the norm! · 16 minutes ago

    For some reason, I suspect that that will, ultimately, lead Blacks back to our side of the political spectrum.  Were it not for the centrality of government employment in the Black middle class, the trend would be stronger, however.

    • #18
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    @BobW

    Welcome to the land of fruits and nuts.

    Monterey and Carmel are close and have many things to see and do and I’m sure you will visit here.  BUT, unless you are a car nut don’t come down this weekend (Aug 16,17 and 18) total gridlock!  If you are into cars it’s amazing though.  The old timers races are at Laguna Seca, concourse at Pebble Beach, Sotheby auctions, marks meet ups etc. etc.  But be prepared to set in traffic with Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porches and maybe a Duisenberg.

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    @BrentB67

    We’ve had the lighted cross walks in heavy pedestrian areas of Dallas as long as I can remember, but they are not universal in the city.

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    @BobW

    The best gas prices are usually at a Costco (if you are a member, if not I’d recommend checking them out).  There is one in Mountain View, check to see if it has a station.  A quick and interesting  trip is a visit to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose.

    • #21
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    @MikeHs

    As you probably have heard, Professor, Yosemite is sublime.  Some of the crowds are not, but a lot of times you won’t care.  It’s a big park, so don’t constrain yourself to the Valley, when you get a chance to go.

    • #22
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    @JGSJr

    The Costco in Mountain View does not have a gas station. The one in Redwood City does. There is also Sigona’s Market across the street, one of the many great produce markets in the area. As a plus, Redwood City does not have the insane “Bring your own bag” policy.

    Be sure to try Milk Pail, in the north east corner of the San Antonio center. It is another good produce market and multicultural experience.

    • #23
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    @Dietlbomb

    I have been to southern California a few times. I never was really impressed with the scenery. I wonder if northern California is an improvement.

    • #24
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    @DonTillman

    Check out the corner of San Antonio and El Camino (I think that’s two blocks from you):

    • Dittmer’s Wurst-Haus (fantastic sausage sandwiches) 
    • Pho Vi Hoa (Vietnamese soup)
    • Cafe Bombay
    • Su-Dam Korean Cuisine
    • Armadillo Willy’s (wonderful barbeque)
    • Chef Chu’s

    We’re used to it, but for outsiders that’s a mindblowing amount of ethnic diversity on a single corner.

    Edit: Actually, that’s half a corner.  :-)

    Edit: I suppose that’s two corners, half an intersection.  No matter, you know what I meant.

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    @LockeOn

    Thumbs up for Chu’s, Dittmer’s and Armadillo Willy’s (Texas style BTW).  No knock on the others, just haven’t tried them.  For Indian, I’d pick Amber, a little further down El Camino.

    • #26
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    @LockeOn
    Paul A. Rahe

    G.A. Dean:

    ….  How many of the folks you saw in Walmart have any stake or personal perspective on racial politics as usually played out in America. · 24 minutes ago

    That crossed my mind. Black and white are meaningless where there is such a spectrum. My bet is that interracial black-white marriage is more common here than elsewhere. Would that it were the norm! · 20 hours ago

    Perhaps as a %age of black marriages, but the overall black % in the South Bay is fairly low.  Just observing in the streets, stores, neighborhood, etc., I’d say Asian/Caucasian and Latino/Caucasian are the most frequent ‘mixed’ couples (including South Asians).  But that’s beginning to lose its meaning due to past inter-marriages.  Lots of Tiger Woods / George Zimmerman types around here.  Not to the extent of (say) Hawaii, but getting there fast.

    • #27
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    @BasilFawlty

    To be precise, if one uses a credit or debit card to pay, one is charged a fee.

    I believe this is incorrect.  You are not charged a fee to use a credit card; you are given a discount to encourage you to pay with cash.  Do you see the difference?

    • #28
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    @RetailLawyer

    Hey, I was in Big Basin yesterday, too!  And although I’ve lived here for years, I have exactly the same thoughts as you did upon entering the Wal Mart in Mountain View.  Try to take a stroll down University Ave. in Palo Alto on a working day to observe all those hipsters that irritate VDH so much.  If you are a good mountain biker, I’ll share the absolute best ride with you, and we could observe a hidden secret indian grinding rock.  Hope to meet you while you’re still out here.

    • #29
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    @PaulARahe

    Many thanks for all of the comments and advice. I hope to meet the local Ricochetti soon.

    Incidentally, the Church of Self-Realization is just off the Stanford campus. I cannot imagine that any of the immigrants (legal and illegal) who throng to the Walmart attend. That species of narcissism seems to be a trait reserved for the native-born. Alas.

    • #30

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