A Californian in Exile: Coping with the East Coast

Last fall I decided to move from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. Like thousands of Californians who flock to the District each year, I was very excited by the power, prestige, and the renowned ratio of four single women for every man. I told my parents to expect a picture of me with the President in a few days.

I quickly discovered, however, that finding a job in Washington is no easy task. “It’s who you know,” everyone told me. The problem is that I didn’t know anyone. Consequently, I was forced to talk to strangers and try to persuade them to give me a job or contact someone else on my behalf. I immediately began to feel as though I was doing an American Express commercial: “You don't know me, but....”

The first response people in Washington have to a Californian is: “Why did you come here?" I would patiently explain that I figured DC was the place to be for someone with a Ph.D. in political science. They would then express their heartfelt desire to help me before lapsing into a Jackie Mason-like monologue. “I don’t have a job for you. I don’t know of any jobs. There are no jobs. If I knew about a job I would tell you, but I can’t imagine ever hearing about one.”

In the course of job hunting, it was obvious that the pace of activity and the intensity of people in Washington differed from California. Perhaps the most succinct explanation of this difference was expressed by a lobbyist who had also moved from Los Angeles. “In California,” she said, “people spend all week talking about what they did on the weekend. In Washington, people spend all weekend talking about what they did during the week.”

Besides learning to communicate with people whose jobs were their recreation, I had to cope with Washington weather. I was accustomed to Southern California’s occasional 100-degree summertime temperatures, but was unprepared for DC humidity. No matter what, after two minutes I was sweaty, my clothes were ruined, and I smelled like the inside of a bachelor's refrigerator. Going to interviews under these conditions made the job search especially challenging.

Summer was not nearly as difficult to adjust to as the severe cold of winter. I bundled up in the clothes I used when skiing at Mammoth: down coat, scarf, and mittens. Natives laughed at me, but I was determined to avoid frostbite even if I did look like a lost polar explorer.

People may have thought I looked stupid, but it was strange for me to see some of them carrying umbrellas in snowstorms. Washingtonians use umbrellas all year round, rain, snow, or shine. They even use them at the beach. This last use is important because there is no interest here in tanning and few people venture into the water.

One place to keep warm year-round is the subway, or Metro as it is called here. Angelenos tend to look down on public transportation as something for the lower classes, but when one tries to park in Georgetown it becomes apparent the Metro is more valuable than a Mercedes.

Before I could ride the subway like a native, I needed to learn a few rules. First, never stand on the left side of the escalator. That side is reserved for walking and nothing makes a Washingtonian surlier than being stuck behind someone standing in their way. Second, don’t talk to anyone. If you do, people will think you’re a tourist or worse. Third, adopt a blank facial expression. If anything, make people think you are the one with the cleaver.

After driving everywhere since I was 16, I had difficulty getting used to such mundane experiences as buying groceries without a car. Unless you are in good shape from pumping iron at Venice Beach, walking home from the market carrying several bags can be a painful experience. There is a temptation to buy a shopping cart, but I didn’t want to look any older or nerdier than I already do.

With such a good system of public transportation, I rarely miss the Trans Am I sold before leaving Los Angeles. I have discovered, however, that a lot of interesting sights are beyond the Metro stops. Consequently, one of the first rules of living in Washington is to find someone who owns a car.

Having a friend with a car is also beneficial because you don’t have to try to navigate through an area no less confusing than Los Angeles. At least when you get lost in L.A. you are always in the same state. Here you can quickly find yourself lost in DC, Maryland, Virginia, or West Virginia. Even within the District, it is easy to get confused by the four quadrants: Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest. When I first moved, I sometimes forgot where I was and told people to meet me in the wrong quadrant.

But, once acclimated, I began to take pride in my adopted home. I still make constant comparisons to California and sometimes question my decision to leave, but when guests arrive, it is fun to show off my newly acquired knowledge of American history and shepherd visitors around The Mall (the area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument where the Smithsonian museums are located - not a galleria). Most tourists are impressed, but occasionally someone’s only comment about the awe-inspiring Lincoln Memorial is that it has “too many steps,” a remark that reminds me of the Emperor’s complaint to Mozart in Amadeus that his opera contained “too many notes.”

My guests also often have difficulty adjusting to Washington’s cuisine. The only way to find something with sprouts, for example, is if the menu says “California style.” It is particularly embarrassing to disclose that I travel 20 miles just to go to a Taco Bell because there is no good Mexican food.

The food may not always be good, but it is cosmopolitan. That is probably because no one is actually from Washington. Everyone has a story about where they came from and where they are going to. With few exceptions, the place most Californians are going is back to California. When I tire of working here, I, too, plan to return to sunny, dry Southern California.

Speaking of work, you might be wondering how my job search is going. Well, I got a job in classic Washington fashion. I sent a resume to an editor whom I had written an article for and she passed it to someone in the Bush campaign who hired me as an analyst.

After the election, while waiting for George to call and reward me for my contribution to his victory, I was contacted by the publisher of Near East Report. He asked me if I’d be interested in being the editor. Since my Ph.D. dissertation concerned U.S. Middle East policy, I jumped at the chance and was interviewed the same day. Now I may not work for the President, but I cover his activities and occasionally find myself in the White I louse.

I might just end up with that picture with the President for my parents yet.