Georgia NeSmith
5 min readMar 21, 2019


I have an idea of what you are talking about, being an “ex-Pat” Californian who has lived in the Midwest & in central upstate NY [which is the furthest East Midwestern region] since 1984, with a few forays back to California, each time counting the days until I can get back “home.”

None of my friends or family nor anyone I might strike up a conversation with when in California understands why I’m happy to put up with awful winter weather [which is only really awful 3-4 months out of the year] in order to live in a place where I feel like I’m part of a community. Even in Rochester NY I could get anywhere I needed to go in 15 minutes, and “rush hour” was “rush half hour.” [For one job I had in California I had to commute 1.5–2 hours each way…to go 35 miles.]

Iowa City [where my Midwestern adventure started…for graduate school] was even better as far as community goes…tho unfortunately, because it is a mostly student population, the community is quite transient.

Still the snark can go both ways. For instance, I had to go back “home” to California for several weeks after my first semester at the U Iowa. I started my grad program in January because I was too eager to move & start my program to wait for Fall. I was in-between apartments in the summer & had some stuff I needed to store until I got back. A friend offered her grandparents’ shed with their permission.

When we brought my stuff over of course I had a chat & some tea with the grandparents. Later my friend told me after I’d left that her grandparents said, “Are you sure she’s from California?” “Yes, of course!” They shook their heads incredulously and said, “but she’s so POLITE!”

A stereotype of Californians burst.

But I’d never go back to California to live. Aside from the culture there’s also the unbelievable COST & everything being so spread out so you have to pay a fortune in car expenses to get around. I have a tiny retirement fund & a small social security income, & I rely on Sec. 8 and Medicaid to help me make it. [I became disabled & unable to work more than part time in 1995.]

In Rochester I bought a 4BR 1920s house with hardwood floors & leaded glass windows for $63K & payments of $620/mo. at 8.5%. I had a good teaching job then but as my disabling conditions erupted I held onto it for a while, but was unable to keep up the payments when I had to take a break from work, & I lost it. But I lived in that house 8 years & it was lovely for that time, in spite of having to shovel the driveway & sidewalks. Nicest place I’d ever lived in my life. The summers I spent sitting on my papasan chair on the front porch reading for hours were among the best times of my life. [Iowa City was the VERY best time.]

When I finished my dissertation [1994] I looked at Calif. state university campuses & interviewed at San Jose State. When I was there in what was familiar territory because I’d lived in the area as a child & later for a few years as an adult, I also looked around at housing. For what I was paying on my mortgage in Rochester I’d only be able to get a studio or small 1BR apartment an HOUR’S drive away. I’d be making a lot more money but would have SO much less to live on & less time to enjoy it because of the commuting. Other basic costs were higher, too. So I said no, don’t bother making an offer.

I was still able to keep my house for 4 more years working only part time & renting out two bedrooms until I became unable to work at all for a year. Were it not for my disabilities I could have kept the house indefinitely as long as I had two housemates.

Right now I live in a lovely small town [13K people] about 15 minutes from Madison. I moved here after my daughter’s husband committed suicide so I could be a 2nd parental figure for my 5 grandkids. Their being only 3 miles away is a huge plus of course.

Tho higher than in Rochester, the rent here is still relatively reasonable compared to California rents. And I can get pretty much everywhere I need to go in about 5 minutes, so I save hugely on car expenses as well. The free Food Pantry is a “trip” w/all sorts of great stuff so you don’t feel like you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. Sometimes there are gourmet foods from Whole Foods, donated because they were near their expiration dates. We get fresh fruits & vegetables in the summer & there’s even a group of medical staff at the local UW clinic who plant a vegetable garden for Pantry users. There’s a terrific senior center w/all kinds of activity & services [including a van for transporting seniors locally]. There’s a wonderful set of dedicated bike paths I use from about April 1 till Thanksgiving. And an indoor community pool where seniors get free admission.

I’m pretty sure there is no place like it in California, at least not one that is affordable for someone with a low income.

Last time I was in California was in April 2013, when my mom died. It was so exhausting just to get to a supermarket & stand in crowded lines. My sister lives in a condo that was built in kind of a “pocket” of similar housing about 1x2 miles square…surrounded by nothing for a mile or two. Not exactly bike riding or walking territory. I couldn’t wait to get back home to Wisconsin.

In addition to all the rest, people are friendly and helpful. The first week I was here I had problems with my car battery. The couple in a car a few spaces over came over and asked if I needed a jump. I said no thank you because I’d already called AAA. But the fact help would be offered without me even asking floored me.

Funny thing. Rural Wisconsin is about as red as you can find anywhere but there are large pockets of liberals/lefties in LaCrosse, Milwaukee, and of course Madison. The whole of Dane County is so liberal that GOP don’t bother running for some offices. Of course, much of it is white [I miss the colorfulness of Rochester], but there are still pockets with POC as well as some sprinkling in other areas. Like everywhere else there are problems with racism but you rarely see the harsh, overt racism you see in other places. Even the rural areas aren’t overtly racist. [Of course, I am sure that, buffeted by my white privilege, I don’t see as much as POC would see. But that’s the same everywhere.]

It’s by no means idyllic, but compared to a lot of places I’ve lived [all over the SW United States in my 1st 35 years], absent the bad weather in winter, it’s a terrific place for low income seniors to live. The University even offers courses to seniors for auditing FREE.

Seven to nine months out of the year, even the weather is gorgeous.

So, California, you were a nice place to live when I was a child, but I’ll never go back to live.



Georgia NeSmith

Retired professor, feminist, writer, photographer, activist, grandmother of 5, overall Wise Woman. Phd UIA School of Journalism & Mass Communication, 1994.