After a decade living in Southern California, here’s a report on all its stereotypes—the true and the truer—for those who want to move here, to dream about it, or just to have a good laugh at our expense.
Better weather than heaven
The annual days of sunshine in SoCal are unseemly. Our weather is unfair to everyone else. Even following the rare rain showers, the sun promptly shines, and kids shrug at yet another rainbow. When colleagues in another state or country ask about the weather, the most compassionate answer is silence. The real answer is: it is always sunny, the skies are always blue, and the temperature is always great. Every day is a day for hiking, playing outdoor tennis, surfing, and even lounging on the beach. The only thing stopping you is your own heat and cold tolerance. Those who were born here still whine and hide their kids from the occasional sprinkle. They understandably mistake drizzle for ice and sleet. Those who weren’t born here came here too late.
SoCal style is a lifestyle
Here there are no puddles, rain, cold or wind to cramp your style, yet there is hardly any style to speak of. It’s hard to call it fashion because it’s more of a mindset. Women here believe that expensive black yoga pants impart the figure. That means we run a daily risk of seeing way more information than we want to. Otherwise, the SoCal style is pretty much anything you can walk, run, swim and surf in. Add sunglasses and an optional hat, flip-flops year-round, and you’ve got it. When you’re not in flip-flops, wear boots. Southern Californians love their boots, including fur-lined Uggs, even if there is absolutely no need for them. When you are not pretending to be active, wear whites or shades of cream and brown, and you will instantly blend in.
If you want the popular gold-digger look, add anything that dangles, sparkles, or smacks of cougar leather or animal skin, and you’re good for the hunt. Fake nails, highlights, and boobs are all great SoCal accessories.
If you want the surfer look, well, start by taking up surfing. That is the one thing you cannot fake. Those guys have been lifeguards saving lives since you were still learning to name the five oceans. Surfers are recognizable less by what they wear than what they fail to wear. Even the girl lifeguards can cause you to accidentally swallow seawater with their red-hot bikini bottoms. Think of the neoprene suit as a modern fig leaf: only Davids and Venuses can get away with it. Everyone else will look like the Michelin Man dipped in ink. Buy a neoprene suit only if you plan on surfing till you look good in it. This could take a while, as surfing involves using all of your muscles to defy gravity atop a moving liquid. Not that far from walking on water. Save face and try body-boarding instead.
On a SoCal beach the idea is to disrobe to the max on the sand, but cover yourself head to toe when you enter the freezing ocean. Don’t be fooled by the palm trees and tropical birds of paradise, the Pacific Ocean here gets its water from Alaska. So to swim, dress like you’re skiing: a long-sleeved neoprene jacket; optional water pants made of lycra especially for the winter (the thighs can usually withstand cold); add neoprene socks and river shoes, the former for the cold, the latter to avoid bleeding if you accidentally step on a sting ray. Sting rays hide on the ocean floor. You may step on one and be lucky enough to get scooped up by a lifeguard in a skimpy bikini. These amazing lifeguards spot you bleeding before you have time to understand who could have possibly stabbed you in the ocean. Dress for the arctic, and you will actually enjoy the crisp cold water, ride the waves, and catch glimpses of dolphins, seals—and the occasional surfing duck. Yes, our ducks surf.
You will pay for every ray
If you move here, you will pay for every ray of sunshine, thanks to California’s income tax and harsh property taxes, which can amount to the salary of a lazy personal secretary coming right out of your bank account. You get something out of it: you don’t have to travel as much. You never need to go anywhere else for better weather. The summers are great, spring and fall are postcard-perfect (think live flowers, not dead leaves), and the winters are the best in the world—if you don’t care for winter weather. So really, you only need to travel for culture, curiosity, and a bit of snow, though you can still ski an hour from LA, or an eight-hour drive to Northern California, Utah, or Arizona. Everything in California is more expensive—except the booze. There is less need to tax alcohol when we tax sunshine.
Come hither sooner
Many Americans dream of retiring here. They spend their entire working lives saving their dollars under the rainy and icy climes of more industrious cities like Chicago, Seattle, and New York. These imports bring their share of top-dog mentality, resulting in ex-CEOs who are now in charge of home-owner associations with hostile takeover mentalities. They happily drop their life’s savings on mansions, oceanfront properties, ranches, overpriced golf memberships and citrus orchards with infinity pools. These modern castle-dwellers have one problem. They often got here too late. Too late to look good in a bikini, to learn the grueling sport of surfing, to throw big carefree parties on their impeccable lawns and in their silent infinity pools and giant outdoor hot-tubs. And so, dear hard-worker-bee, stop dreaming, collect the pennies you’ve got, and get on a plane. It is better to enjoy many years in a 70s beach bungalow than to die in a new mansion.
The place chefs flee
California is the fruit and veggies basket of the US, and so produce here is super fresh. Mexico is also close enough that the tomatoes and avocados are allowed to take in some extra sunshine. But don’t expect the produce to become gourmet meals even at five-star restaurants with five dollar signs. For mysterious reasons, the state’s best chefs prefer to stay in Northern California. I’ve entertained many theories and concluded that in SoCal, great chefs either leave out of frustration or avoid living here because they can’t get a great meal on their days off. SoCal food is too bland, too light, and tailored for old people who are done with experimenting. Everybody is eating like they need to look good naked, so the salads are barely dressed. There are few exceptions and they mostly center around gastropubs and ethnic restaurants. Don’t expect good Mexican food either. Another unsolved mystery, why we border Mexico but have some of the worst Mexican food in the world. I have found better Mexican in Australia.
Southern California is really a desert by the coast—rattlesnakes, termites, mountain lions and all. The marine fog layer keeps the coastal vegetation miraculously alive despite very little precipitation. But that same marine layer could ruin your vacation—or your sunny retirement plans if you buy a coastal property. So make sure you understand that the coast can feel like dreary Paris weather by the beach. December is sunnier than “May Gray” and “June Gloom.” And if you want to bake and burn, go a little inland. Keep driving East and you will find dunes like the Sahara, date trees, a camel farm, and a sea of salt water.
The rule is simple here. If it’s outdoors, it’ll be great. If it’s indoors, you will be disappointed—unless you count movie theatres. Theatre, concerts, opera, ballet exist in SoCal, but generally, the “A” performance teams go to more discerning global cities. Expect to find nothing to do at night in SoCal, even in LA. Watching the sunset at the ocean or at a winery is your best bet. Opt for venues where outdoor spaces and weather are a plus. Think of the Getty Museum and the Getty Villas, or Hearst Castle near San Louis Obispo. Balboa Park’s attraction is not its museums, but its lovely architecture and gardens. The San Diego Safari feels like you were transplanted to Africa because of its inland desert climate, Southern hemisphere trees, and free-range animals in wide sunny spaces.
SoCal is for outdoorsy people, who are happier walking than their dogs, who love an icy ocean and trekking in sauna-hot dry air. It is not for those indoor intellectual types who prefer crossword puzzles to exercise, and who conceal their pasty skinny bones in black designer wear. Such people, when they come here, get sunburnt, bored, and stand out like a witch’s broomstick. California is the land of muscles, curves, and brown skin (God-given or acquired by natural or unnatural means). Here, we eat avocados by the crateful, and we drink margaritas by the bowl.
We are friendly to all, but friends with few. We must admit, Californians are just not the most polite bunch. People here are surprisingly Type A and competitive, given the laid-back lifestyle. It is as though the gold rush has never gone away. Californians will not be told what to do—unless it is by the State of California. If you ask them to turn down the gas on their firepit during the bone-dry windy fire season, they will tell you to go back to the polar vortex you came from. If you ask them to stop speeding or downing minibar cocktails while driving, they will flip you while passing you. However, they will readily accept intrusive mandates from their nanny, the State of California, such as forced hour-long naps for their preschool kids; the specific shade of lightbulbs that must go in their kitchens; or warnings about their risk of dying from cancer and earthquakes before they enter their own government buildings.
California has a history of picking its governors by their looks and star power. Think Reagan, Schwarzenegger, and now, Newsom, who is better at modelling men’s suits than running the world’s fifth-largest economy. The State with its forty million people acts like a colonized country: vast, rich, and strong, but with no clout. The leadership is too swayed by special-interest groups, which leads to absurdities galore. Covid vaccines were given to workers in the cannabis industry before people with serious medical conditions or the many homeless people in crowded shelters. Public school teachers were allowed to keep middle and high schools shuttered for a whole year, but gyms and nail salons remained open because everybody knows, you are judged by your figure and nails more than your kid’s IQ. Meanwhile, private schools were allowed to expand to 100% capacity during the worst covid surge, because there isn’t anything here that money can’t buy. The governor tells people to stay home, but then attends a party at the most expensive restaurant in the state. Like I said, the most competent professionals in the state are the lifeguards. During the hard lockdown, tourism boards were actually spending millions encouraging domestic and international travelers to vacation in SoCal. We closed the schools and playgrounds, opened field hospitals, and secured extra morgue trucks, but don’t worry, the bars are still open, as are the liquor stores, hotels, restaurants, tennis and golf clubs, strip clubs, and casinos. Stupidity remains an essential service.
So, come on over, bring your dollars, your dreams, and your yoga pants if you have to, we’re open for business—and we can always shrug off ridicule because our sun is always shining, our liquor is always cheap, and every day is a beach day.