Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Californian Life

Warning: No science ahead
I am in Portugal for the holidays having just left San Francisco. It is a part of the academic life that we have to keep moving around with each new job and after Germany and the US (California) I am moving to the UK in a few days. Its not easy to keep rebuilding your roots in new places but it is certainly rewarding to experience new cultures. It has been great to spend almost 5 years in California and it was very (!) hard to leave. I decided to try to write down a few thoughts about life in the golden state. Maybe it will be useful for others considering moving there. I apologize in advance for the generalizations.

Geek heaven
It is impossible to live in silicon valley (I was in Menlo Park) without noticing the geekiness of the place. Just a few random examples: the Caltrain conductors frequently make geeky jokes ("warp speed to San Francisco"); the billboards on the 101 highway between San Francisco and San Jose often advertise products that only programmers would care about (e.g. types of databases); every time I went for a hot chocolate at the Coupa Cafe there was someone demoing or pitching an idea for a website or app. For someone that likes technology it is a great place to be. It is thrilling to find out that so many of the tech companies you read about are just around the corner. It is also very likely that the people you will meet know about the latest tech trends if they are not, in fact, actually developing them. Unfortunately, every nice thing has its downsides and there is so much money around from tech salaries and companies that everything is horribly expensive if you don't work in the tech sector yourself.

The "can do" attitude and personal responsibility

It is nearly impossible to pin-down what makes silicon valley such a breeding ground for successful companies but one thing that impressed me was their winning attitude. It is more generally an american trait and not just found in California. People often believe their ideas can succeed to a point that borders on naivety. To paint a (somewhat) exaggerated picture: it is not enough to be good, you should strive to be number one. There are many positive and negative consequences of this attitude that are not easy to unwrap. There are many obvious advantages that come with all that drive and positive thinking. This connects also to the notion of personal responsibility -  it should be up to each one of us to make our success. As a negative consequence, failure is then also our individual responsibility, even when in reality it isn't.

I don't want to go into politics but I will say that I have learned a lot also about the role of government. It was interesting to live in a place that emphasized personal responsibility so much more than Portugal. I think it served well to calibrate my own expectations of what the state should and should not be responsible for. As for many other things, I wish more people could have the experience of living in different countries and cultures.

Fitness freaks surrounded by amazing nature and obsessed with organic local food
Before going to the US I had many friends making jokes about how much weight I would gain and the stereotypical view of overweight america. In fact any generalizations of S.F. or silicon valley would have to go in the opposite direction. I had friends waking up at crazy hours to exercise and I even learned to enjoy running (yikes !). It helps that California is sunny and filled with beautiful nature like the state parks and coastline (do the California route 1). Also, the food is great although there is tiny exaggerated obsession with locally grown organic food. The constant sunshine and great food are probably the two things I will miss most when I get to the UK. I might have to buy a sun lamp. The interests for the outdoors was not that different from Germany but it is something I wish was more prevalent in Portugal. Portugal has such a nice weather and outdoors that it is a waste that we don't take better advantage of them. 

A thank-you note
Californians are amazingly friendly people. It is true that sometimes it feels superficial. In restaurants it can even be annoying when a waiter comes for the tenth time to ask if you are really enjoying your meal. Still, it was great to live there with the easy smiles and unexpected chit-chat or compliments. It was easy to feel at home and I never felt like a foreigner. As I have learned from these years of living in California, one should always send a polite thank-you note after an event. So thank you California for these wonderful years. It would be most appropriate to say that it was "awesome".