A Newcomers Guide to Life in Southern California {Guest Post}

When we drove away from Fort Leavenworth for the last time, I waited until we were through the gates until I opened the note Allyson handed me after our last hug goodbye. And then I promptly cried. And laughed. And then cried some more. Allyson is one of those friends that everyone feels lucky to have. Almost everybody loves her – well, except for administrators of the online military spouse group she was kicked out of last year for insubordination.  She appreciates my dirty sense of humor and I absolutely love her wit and writing over at her blog Magnolias & Mimosas. She and her family recently moved to Southern California, courtesy of Uncle Sam, so I asked her to share some observations she’s made thus far. And like always, she didn’t disappoint.

I’m sure that Karen would be the first to admit that moving every 2 years or so will absolutely shatter most of the preconceived notions a person grows up having about other regions of the country. From what the women wear in Manhattan, to how flat Kansas is, to the size of a waist in Los Angeles, once you live there for a month you realize that most of what you thought you knew is just plain false. While Karen and her family are learning how divine the Indian food tastes in England and that no picture can actually do the Eiffel Tower any justice (especially at night), I am going to share with you 5 myths I’ve busted since moving to L.A. in May and 3 things that turned out to be spot-on.

  1. Everyone here is blonde, a size 0 and tan.

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So, no. Although he is undoubtedly tan, he’s not a size 0. And the women aren’t either. I’m a size 14-16 and most women look like me. Sure, when you go to the beaches you will see teens and early 20’s flaunting their assets in bikinis and thongs, but you also see plenty of moms in one piece bathing suits and skirts. In a way, it is a surprisingly judgement-free zone. Every bodyis different and you don’t see anyone paying extra attention to someone in a plus size bikini (and I was the only one snapping a pic of this guy – but I knew it would come in handy someday. Also kudos to you, sir).

  1. Everyone either surfs or is in “the business”.

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Yes, there are plenty of surfers spread all up and down the California coastline. If surfing is your jam, you just can’t get waves like this on the East Coast. Surfers show up in VW buses and Jeep Wranglers with their surfboards strapped to the roof and wet suits slung over shoulders. That is a thing that happens daily. Likewise, while many people are trying to catch a wave, just as many are trying to catch a break on the big screen. I attended the red carpet premiere of Hotel Transylvania 3last weekend (which is not really as impressive as it sounds – but more on that in a minute) and ended up chatting with a gentleman who is in voice training. But there are also everyday people doing everyday jobs, just like men and women in North Dakota and Maine and Texas…but with better weather. I can say with 98% certainty that my dental hygienist, my vet tech and the cashier I see all the time at Costco are not auditioning on the weekends.

  1. Seeing a celebrity on the red carpet takes a lot of planning.

Nope, not at all. Movie premieres are held at 4 theatres around the city at either 1 PM (for children’s movies) or 5:30 PM (for PG-13 and R). Simply check this website (hyperlink to www.seeing-stars.com) and look at the calendar for upcoming movie premieres. The website lists the movie, the location and the start time. Stars in the movie (and not all the stars – Adam Sandler couldn’t be bothered with a sequel premiere even though he voices one of the main characters) begin showing up (in blacked-out Escalades, no less) about 30 minutes ahead of the movie start time, but you will want to have your spot staked out at least 2 hours in advance, depending on the hype surrounding the movie and where the theater is located. I assume it’s harder to secure a good spot for a premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater than it was at Westwood Village Regency Theatre. (We were right up against the barrier and we were there 2 ½ hours ahead of time – bonus: this theatre has a Chick Fil A one block down.) Find the group of people who are sitting in their camping chairs, photos and Sharpies in hand. They are the ones who sell autographs on the internet. The stars will come over to them, but these folks also have no problem shoving you out of the way in order to get their autograph. Find a spot next to them, not amongst them. You may not get an autograph or a selfie, but you can see the celebrities and may be able to snap a good picture.

  1. Fashion is the name of the game in this town.

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No one likes a pair of leggings, an ironic tshirt and a trucker hat like folks in L.A. From hiking in Runyon Canyon to hitting up The Farmer’s Market at The Grove, most people are wearing whatever is comfortable. I get compliments all the time on my $25 bamboo watch from Amazon and the Sunshine & Whiskey baseball cap I take to the beach. If anything, Los Angelinos err on the side of casual and comfy, especially around the beach towns. You may be dining in a 4-star restaurant on Manhattan Beach, but rest assured most patrons have some sand between their toes.

  1. If you want to see the famous landmarks in L.A., you will be in gridlocked traffic for hours.

OK, this is true if you are trying to visit Santa Monica Pier at 3 PM on a Saturday, but for the most part, you can get around L.A. (even the most heavily trafficked areas like Griffith Observatory and Rodeo Drive) with relative ease. It helps to have a small car and confidence in your ability to change lanes. But drivers in L.A. will let a person merge into traffic or change lanes, which is more than I can say for a lot of people driving on I-75, I-65 or I-81. Turn on Waze or Google Maps, anticipate your next 2 turns and you will be just fine. Once you arrive, parking is a whole ‘nother animal but the parking meters take credit cards and the garages aren’t as outrageously priced as the ones in NYC. If you can drive in Atlanta, Kansas City, Indianapolis or Louisville, you can drive in L.A.

Some myths I couldn’t bust:

  1. It’s always sunny in Southern California.

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It hasn’t rained since we arrived on May 15. Every morning is overcast but the marine layer burns off around 10:30 AM and the sun shines, without a cloud in the sky, for the rest of the day. I forget to water my plants and my kid and we are all living in a constant state of drought. Plus my arms are at least 4 shades darker than the flesh that never sees the light of day. Florida needs to hand over its title as the Sunshine State because Cali totally has this one in the bag.

  1. A. traffic sucks.

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It’s true. It’s not quite as bad as I had built up in my mind, but getting on the 405 or the 110 can look, at first glance, apocalyptic. But it moves and I’ve not yet sat in traffic for more than 14 minutes (and I’ve yet to come to a dead stop). Traffic apps have probably helped, but still…there is no such thing as “rush hour” in L..A. …it’s ALL rush hour. 24/7. OK, Sunday morning at 8 AM isn’t bad. My rule of thumb: one mile = one minute and then multiply that by 3. That’s how long it will take you to get somewhere. It hasn’t failed me yet.

  1. California is a “green” state.

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There are HOV lanes and if you have an all-electric car, you get to travel in the HOV lane regardless of how many people you have riding with you. Stores charge for bags so everyoneis walking around with reusable bags tucked under their arms. The International Bird Rescue is here and they focus on cleaning and rehabilitating birds after sickness or disasters, such as oil spills. Every car licensed in CA must undergo smog testing and there are extensive directions about how to pump gas into your tank to avoid making the smog worse. And anything bigger than an SUV is rarely seen on the freeways.

Moving from Dutch Amish PA to L.A. County has been an overwhelming adjustment but it has forced me to realize that no travel is impossible. Even when you feel like you’ve leaped from one universe to another, there is still a way to get from point A to point B and you may be surprised by what you find when you get there.

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What Living in 10 Homes Has Taught Us About How We Want to Live

Talk about a mouthful of a title, right? Since making it legal in 2004, Clay and I have shared ten addresses together. Over the years, we’ve lived in apartments, townhomes, and single family homes. We’ve lived in homes with just one bathroom and we’ve lived in homes with up to four bathrooms. We’ve lived in historical homes, we’ve lived in brand new homes, and we’ve lived in everything in between. We’ve had gas heat, we’ve had electric heat, and we’ve had no air conditioning. We’ve been under BAH (Basic Allowance for Housing), we’ve been at BAH, and we’ve been over BAH. Over the years, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and the life we wish to build together. And the ten homes we’ve lived in thus far has taught us a thing or two about how we want to live.

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In my post about how we became accidental landlords, I talked about the two homes we bought and currently use as investment properties.  We don’t consider either one of these houses our ‘forever home’ and will likely never live in either one of them again. Ahhh – the concept of a forever home. It’s not unusual for military families to talk about their forever homes. When you’re forced to live in places and homes you wouldn’t otherwise choose to live, the idea of being able to have 100% control over those aspects of your life becomes such a romantic notion that it rivals Rachel McAdams in a blue dress jumping onto Ryan Gosling in the rain and kissing him hard as with her legs firmly wrapped around his waist.

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I have yet to fully realize my Ryan Gosling house. I touched on it a bit in my previous post – Clay and I really don’t have any longterm goals in regards to where we want to live other than making sure that we absolutely love living there. Life is too short to choose a location based solely on job opportunities, family, taxes, cost of living, etc… We don’t have a forever home in mind like a lot of our military friends. Our forever home may be a two-room bungalow on the beach, a high-rise apartment in a metropolitan city, or a log cabin nestled in the mountains. Truth be told – I’m a little envious of my friends who already have a plot of land, who have Pinterest boards full of house ideas, and who have some idea of how they want to live post-military. We’re not there yet. And the jury is still out whether we ever will be.

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Outside of our first place together in Madison Barracks, Sackets Harbor, New York. {2004}

So what has the past 13+ years and living in 10 homes thus far taught us? First is that our priorities and outlook on life have changed since we were newlyweds in our young twenties watching HGTV and dreaming of a grown-up house. We wanted the stainless steel appliances, the granite counters, the dual bathroom vanities, and the hardwood floors. Living in a tiny apartment can certainly foster these dreams.

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The first home we bought. {2008}

But you know what? After living with all of these features in various homes, we’ve learned that at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. We crave simplicity, we appreciate historic details, and we understand that stone countertops have absolutely no impact on our day-to-day happiness. Are new appliances, non-laminate countertops, and gleaming wood floors nice things to have in a home? Of course. We appreciate them when we happen to live in such a home. We’re certainly not ripping up hardwoods to put down wall-to-wall carpet. But we also know that we are no happier than when we happen to live in a home that doesn’t have such features. For that reason alone, I am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity to move around as much as we do. I’m not sure if I’d have the same understanding about what truly makes me happy if we didn’t live in so many different homes.

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Infantry Barracks, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. {2015}

When we’re asked about our favorite home, there is little hesitation on our part. The apartment we lived in at Fort Leavenworth during Clay’s year at Command General and Staff College wins by a landslide. Yes, the front door would stick sometimes so I’d have to throw my body weight against it in order to let myself inside. The master bathroom was tiny (tiny!) and the laundry room was just a hall closet. There weren’t that many outlets. The kitchen had mismatched appliances and the top of the cupboards had a coat of curry that proved impossible to clean. The fire escape collected pine needless and we never could figure out how to open the kitchen window. The air conditioning and heat were old and tempermental. But the wood floors were pre-War and told the stories of families who called the place home before us. And our kitchen door was always open for the neighbors to come in as they like.

Of all the places we’ve lived, our 1903-built apartment has been our favorite thus far because of the memories made during those 11 months. Perhaps I am romanticizing the place too much and building it up to be my Ryan Gosling, but I don’t care. Our experience at Fort Leavenworth taught us that it doesn’t really matter how updated our home may be – it’s the people who surround our home and become our community that matter more. Living there made us realize that we want the place we call home to part of something greater than ourselves.

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But don’t get me wrong, we have also developed opinions on specific home designs due to our experience of living in ten different houses. For example, we don’t mind bathrooms with just one vanity – when we have two, we just end up using the same sink anyway. Toilet rooms creep me out – such a small enclosed space without a window…::shudder:: I don’t really care for open concept living, I much prefer cozy rooms. I believe that kitchens can be too big (our house in Texas taught me that) and I don’t miss a formal dining room when we live in a home without one – I’d rather have just one designated eating space and perhaps an informal counter in the kitchen with some barstools. I don’t like having more than 2.5 bathrooms because then they become a chore to clean. And anything more than four bedrooms is just too much for our little family. I also love a porch that is perfect for conversation and cocktails well into the night (who doesn’t?).

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Only time will tell where our 11th home together will be and what it will look like. However, I take comfort in the fact that as long as it provides shelter and gives us a place to love and to be loved, it will a good home for us. No matter what type of countertops happen to be in the kitchen.