If you’ve left the US to live abroad, it’s likely at some point you’ve considered a return. It’s only normal to occasionally long for your left-behind life. Or maybe your family’s telling you it’s time to get a life and come home. Or your overseas living experiment has run its course and imploded under the weight of too many tradeoffs and an honest reckoning that you just might not be as flexible as you thought you were.
I’m a second-generation native Californian and my family carries a 100-year history of living in the Golden State. I left in 1990. A full half of my life I’ve been away from California. Coming up on my eighth year living in Mexico, a recent two-month visit to explore a US return promised to be challenging. But even my love of the state and my nostalgic reconnection with places I consider mine were not enough to overcome the humbling conclusion that a return to the America of my birth has me questioning what’s foreign and what’s familiar.
It’s not just the housing prices. Homes have risen some 40% in value since 2018, putting the simplest of what I grew up calling “track homes” at jaw-dropping starter prices. Homeowners simply sat out the home cost inflation wave. Yes, paying higher property taxes, but realizing wealth windfall that’s unprecedented. Rents have undergone a similar blast into the stratosphere, dragging along on the joyride long-term lodging rentals and even roadside motels.
It’s also not just the cost of food, either a home kitchen or the pleasure of an occasional meal out. The $50 breakfast for two and $100 lunch leave you numbed by $20 bowls of clam chowder and $18 glass of wine. One quickly succumbs to this sobering reality. My routine begins to yield; to the $5.49 egg McMuffin or buying a cheap 12-pack of macro-brew or $9 wine that’s consumed in places I never thought of as a premeal setting. I’m not proud of deferring to a parking lot, beach, or city park for a pre-.79meal adult beverage. Or a $4.79, 24-count container of peanut butter cups has saved me hundreds of dollars and thousands of calories for skipped desserts.
It’s a surprising and humbling California calibration I really wasn’t expecting.
It’s not the $6 buck gallons of gas or car rental prices that make one consider actually buying a car as a smarter option for a multi-month visit. Or how without a US mobile number, a US landline, a US verifiable address, and a valid US ID that matches your credit card credentials you can be stopped from some pretty basic reintegration tasks.
The weight of all this carries an even darker realization that California’s politicians and planners have waived the surrender flag when it comes to making the state livable. And I really love this place, having lived in small towns, big cities, and rural areas both north and south. California is one of the world’s treasured landscapes, but it’s more and more a land for the privileged who toughed it out, stayed put, and now decide to cash out or stay put.
While in the state’s central county of San Luis Obispo, it’s clear there’s no plan whatsoever to address housing affordability. Community after community says no thanks to building their way to a solution. Permits, zoning, a historic water shortage, the California Coastal Commission and NIMBY sentiments are all in a cabal of sorts to stop anything that smells of growth. I suspect if I was still living in California, I might have joined the choir of “not here, not now” sentiment.
All this makes California dreamin’ a bracing reminder that you can’t always go home. The state of my birth is a land I’ll recall with the fondest memories. Nice knowing ya.