When I first mentioned to my boss that I had an opportunity to rent a house in Napa, he seemed amused. “Let me get this straight: you’re moving California and you’ll be living in Napa. That’s just great,” he said with a chuckle. I didn’t understand his reaction, but when I mentioned it to someone else who lives in California (like my boss, who is a Los Angeles native) it was explained to me that he likely found it amusing — and perhaps enviable — because many Californians look at this area as a place to vacation.
While I am living in what may be considered “vacationland” even by other Californians, there are quite a few year-round residents here and they typically fall into two groups: those that are somewhat wealthy and likely retired, or those that support the tourist and wine industries.
I was invited to a party yesterday afternoon, and the other guests skewed mostly in the former group. That wasn’t a total surprise to me considering that the hostess was throwing a big open house to show her neighbors the results of an extensive (and expensive!) remodeling of her house. There were servers filling glasses, passing around hors d’oeuvre, and tidying up as guests came and went. It wasn’t exactly haute, but most of these people didn’t seem to be struggling to pay their bills. Although I know it’s sometimes true that some seemingly prosperous people are carrying a lot of debt, and I did meet one woman who started bemoaning her recent layoff from the local hospital and observed that she may be forced into an unwanted early retirement as a result.
Around town I see this dichotomy reflected quite a bit. I’m living in an area full of older homes, and not far from downtown. Most of the houses are small, but still pricey. Sister and I viewed a house just down the street that isn’t much larger than the cottage I’m living in and listed for $550,000. The house next door which is about as big as that one and sits on a fairly large swatch of green lawn was finally occupied (briefly) this weekend. When I met the owners (an older couple, one of whom is retired) they explained that their primary residence was on the Peninsula, which was why they weren’t around very much.
A few blocks away, the Health and Human Services department — the agency administering food stamps, WIC, and programs for low income families — is so large they have a veritable campus of permanent buildings and trailers, and there is a busy Head Start program based in the large park just up the street. There are neat houses with landscaped lots sitting next to houses that are more disheveled looking and occupied by people of more limited means.
Some houses still sport “yellow tags” from the earthquake that hit here last August, and about two short blocks away I saw a severely damaged, red-tagged house.
There was still a lot of broken glass on the sidewalk leading up to the door.
It’s no surprise that there is a large Hispanic population here. After all, this entire area used to be part of the Spanish empire. I see plenty of markets and businesses that serve a predominantly Spanish-speaking population, based on their signage and ads. For six years I lived in a Chicago neighborhood that had a large number of Spanish-speakers, and seeing the panaderias, tacquerias, and lavanderias brings back memories. It seems I may have plenty of opportunities to practice my Spanish as I stop in to pick up a tamales, fresh salsa, avocados, and other items that experience has shown are better purchased in ethnic markets.
As I meet people and seek out services, I’m careful to note that I’m a working resident here. While looking for a massage, for example, I told people I wasn’t seeking a “vacation spa” experience, merely a way to work out the kinks in my back that developed from many days of stress and driving. I enjoy the fact that there are upscale restaurants in town and nearby, but I can’t afford to eat at them regularly (or perhaps not at all…I suspect a meal at The French Laundry will forever be outside my means). Nonetheless it’s nice to know I have the option.