An Angelena adopts Palo Alto but misses home

palo-alto-apple-store.jpgThe Apple store on University Avenue in Palo Alto. LA Observed.

When I left Los Angeles for Palo Alto a year ago in December, I needed a break from the city where I'd lived nearly all my life.

I wanted a time out from the thrum of the 405 just blocks from my house, so close that on clear nights we could hear the truck axles bounce. I hoped to escape the catalytic converter thieves trolling our neighborhood, the homeless vans parked along Sawtelle Blvd., the graffiti and billboards, the trash in the streets and the concrete grayness of the city I had so long defended to outsiders as my exasperating, loopy hometown. And I desperately needed respite from the traffic, the maddening crawl to practically anywhere at practically any hour of day or night.

For five years my husband and I had commuted between LA, where I had a job I liked,and Palo Alto, where he had found work after his last job cratered during the recession. One weekend he returned to LA, the next, I traveled north. And so it went.

But when my LA job petered out, we leased our Westside home of 32 years, and I too found work at Stanford. We rented a bright third-floor apartment near campus overlooking a creek.

Life here is sweet. We bike to work and most everywhere else on dedicated bike lanes. It now takes me a month to burn through a tank of gas. My new running route takes me past redwood and fir trees, a huge improvement on the dreary loop around Mar Vista Park and up the Palms Blvd. hill where avoiding a nasty fall from jagged sidewalks required constant vigilance.

Street parking is free in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, the "village" shops are upscale, and crime is so low that the local police send out bulletins when a laptop is stolen or someone is reported exposing himself on University Avenue.

Cows graze a short bike ride away and dozens of mountain hiking trails are within an hour's drive.

The nights here are still enough that we sometimes hear the creek running. Egrets occasionally swoop past our windows and the full moon rises so bright over our patio that it wakes me up for a look.

Returning from trips to LA, I am struck each time by the deep greens, the wood smells and the quiet beauty of this area. My breathing slows.

But a year in, I miss Los Angeles in unexpected ways.

There are of course dear friends of 30-plus years, a circle not easily duplicated at our age.

More than this, people here can take themselves quite seriously. The tech folks insist they are changing the world and the academics have made it to Stanford University, for heavens sake. In Palo Alto, it can feel like one's worth is measured by proximity to the campus's legendary Palm Drive. Grown men routinely sport Stanford logo-wear around town, a muted, middle-aged version of rapper bling.

It's easy to feel like I'm living in the West Coast version of Lake Wobegon, where every dog is a golden retriever, people are remarkably fit, and all the children do seem "above average."

The adults are also well above average. Awhile back we saw a campus production of "Copenhagen," a fictional account of the 1941 meeting between physicists Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr, who argued over the ethics of atomic power against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Bohr's homeland. We'd seen the same play many years before in LA, but watching the Stanford production was different. The crowd of physics students in the first two rows nodded at the lines about mathematical formulas and applauded the inside physics references.

Still, I miss the sense of humor, whimsy and just plain zaniness of LA. Back in town for Thanksgiving, we stopped at the Ralphs on La Brea at Third to pick up coffee and cereal for breakfast. It was 10 pm and the place was buzzing, an only-in-LA mix of purple-haired hipsters, gym rats straining their muscle tees and Chasidim in long coats and shtreimels. That Ralphs isn't nearly as luxe as Menlo Park's flagship Safeway on El Camino Blvd., where I've watched Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman choose her tomatoes, but that night it was a visual feast of a different sort.

I miss the actors and artists hustling for their break, LA's rich tapestry of immigrants striving for their economic footing, the old political rivalries and the shifting alliances. I miss the banquet of movies, concerts and museums, the jumble of stores on Melrose Avenue, and even, sometimes, the stoned jewelry vendors along the Venice boardwalk.

So we're torn. Soaring Silicon Valley rents may soon force us to plant our flag in a less expensive Peninsula community--or return to Los Angeles. When we headed north last winter I knew that every place has its pluses and minuses. I still don't miss the traffic and the billboards. I just didn't know how much I'd actually miss the energy, the crazy salad of Los Angeles.


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