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expat life in San Francisco

Nine Things I Wish I’d Known before I Became an Expat in San Francisco

In March, my wife and I packed up our life in London, England and moved 5,315 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to San Francisco, California.

Moving to a new city, let alone a new country, is a hugely exciting experience – new people, new culture, and new things to see, do and eat. But it also comes with a whole range of details to figure out and cultural quirks to get used to.

So, after nearly eight weeks in San Francisco, what are the nine things I wish I had known in advance?

#1     San Francisco is Expensive

Before I moved to San Francisco I struggled to believe that anywhere in the world could be more soul-crushingly expensive than London. Oh, how wrong I was!

With the tech sector booming, demand for housing is sky-rocketing while supply is seriously restricted by a combination of geography and planning laws. The result? The average rent on a one bedroom apartment is now over $2,000 per month.

Aside from housing, the city actually compares quite well with London – transport and utilities are, for example, much cheaper (though the American trend for tipping can make mean the cost of eating escalates fast!). However, the rental situation is so extreme that San Francisco is easily more expensive overall.

#2     San Francisco is a City with a Huge Homelessness Problem

In December last year a San Francisco based web designer developed an innovative approach to tracking the city’s homelessness problem: mapping where people defecate on the streets. The map, which overlays faeces and urine complaints data with a Google map of the city, shows large parts of the city are affected.

Map showing homelessness in San Francisco

Of course, all major cities struggle with homelessness. However, I have never witnesses in Europe the semi-permanent camps of people that inhabit San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Civic Centre districts. Where people are forced into living outdoors it is inevitable that the streets become bathrooms.

So, watch where you step and, if you can, donate to support the work of the city’s homeless charities (Glide are a charity I’ve heard good things about).

#3     America loves paperwork

In Notes from a Big Country Bill Bryson writes a very funny 2,000 word long spoof set of instructions for filing a US tax form. It includes such utterly impenetrable instructions as:

“To compute your estimated tax, add lines 27 through 964, deduct lines 45a and 699f from Schedule 2F (if greater or less than 2.2% of average alternative minimum estimated tax for the last five years), multiply by the number of RPMs your car registers when stuck on ice, and add 2. If line 997 is smaller than line 998, start again. In the space marked ‘Tax Due’, write a very large figure.”

When I was reading this in preparation for moving I comforted myself with the knowledge that Bryson was writing in the mid-1990s. Surely, nearly two decades later, the most advanced country on the planet had automated and simplified its paperwork?

Not quite. You’ve got the visa itself, the accompanying entry forms, the travel history form, the tax form, the employment permission form, the social security number application form, the health insurance application form… all paper based and requiring postage. US bureaucracy is clearly yet to enter the 21st century.

#4     Fog

Sunny California? Ha!

You wouldn’t know it from those “Visit California” adverts full of endless blue skies that play relentlessly on British television, but San Francisco is in fact bathed in fog 98.5% of the time. Fact.

The summer has got to be great though? Think again. The hot inland air meets the cold Pacific Ocean and the fog becomes not just a high probability, but a meteorological inevitability.

It’s beautiful though and has inspired some awesome photography.

#5     Muni may be the world’s least efficient public transit system

Muni has the façade of a modern and efficient public transit system: it has a fairly comprehensive network, tidy shelters at stops, little digital information screens and smart cards you tap to pay your fare.

Don’t be fooled, though. It is only a façade. Of course, any public transit system that has to deal with hundreds of thousands of daily passengers traversing streets that were designed for tens of thousands is going to have problems. There are a few areas, though, where Muni really should do better:

Muni is slow. With an average speed of just 8.1mph, Muni is the slowest public transit system in all of North America. At these speeds it is hardly surprising that only 57% of vehicles arrive according to the timetable.

Muni is dirty. Big cities are, of course, dirty places but the variety of dirt on a Muni vehicle is something else.

Muni’s Clipper card system is pants. “You need to add funds to your card?” Just log in to their website, add you bank details and wait five to 10 workings days…

#6     The locals will tell you can walk everywhere (but they’re lying)

“It’s only seven miles wide, you can walk everywhere” they’ll say. While I do not doubt that they are theoretically correct, the reality of walking in San Francisco is blisters, shin splints and exhaustion.

San Francisco

In fact, San Francisco’s many hills have spawned a new trend: “urban hiking”. My advice? Bring comfortable shoes and don’t trust anyone who tells you somewhere is just a short walk away.

#7     San Francisco is the most casual place on Earth

Shorts in the office? No problem! Flip flops for work? Why not! Sportswear at a board meeting? No worries!

While most cities are becoming less formal (in London you can get away without wearing a necktie these days…!), San Francisco takes work-casual to a new level.

I’m so glad I paid excess baggage for those suits…

#8     America has no equivalent of the British pub

In Britain we have pubs: genteel, fairly quiet, relaxing environments. British pubs generally occupy charming old buildings and are conveniently dotted around urban areas such that you are often only ever walking distance away from one.

In America they have bars, generally prefixed with the word “sports”. These are loud, rowdy and filled with several dozen blaring TV screens. For reasons unknown these bars tend to be either underground or have their windows intentionally blacked out and are almost all inconveniently located in commercial zones far away from residential areas.

The closest American equivalent is, I guess, the coffee house. US coffee shops tend to be open fairly late into the evening and contain similar clientele – people working, reading, taking meetings or simply enjoying a drink – as you might find in a British pub. I’ll always prefer a pint over a low-fat caramel latte though.

#9     I’ll absolutely love it

Not least because of its wonderful tolerance of all lifestyles, its infectious optimism and its outstanding natural beauty I’ve quickly fallen in love with it.

Have you moved to a new city or a country? What are the things you wish you’d known before you got there? Share your views in the comments.


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