I was born and raised in Southern California. Before you jump to any conclusions, I am more desert-dweller-turned-slightly-crunchy-Bay-Area folk than beach-and-bikini folk. In early 2002 I met a boy from Cincinnati, Ohio who was and is beer-making-and-drinking-healthy-eating-mostly-but-still-loves-the-Reds-and-chili-dogs folk. We’ve traveled from California to Cincinnati every year since 2007, usually at least twice per year. In these years of travel, I have come to expect a few things to happen during every visit. Our recent trip out for Christmas was no different.
Since I have over a decade’s worth of Ohio travel experience under my belt, I thought it wise that I catalogue some pointers I have for my fellow West Coasters who might be planning a vacation to the United States’ beautiful Midwest. While I tried to keep it general some of my points are pretty California and Ohio specific, so please pardon the nuance. Either way, I hope you find the following four points helpful.
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1. You are the coldest you’ve ever been and you’d better not say otherwise.
Admit it, you’re cold. You aren’t used to this, are you? This has to be the first time you’ve even seen snow. This Ohio weather gotcha, did it?
Midwesterners desperately want you to be more cold than they are. It doesn’t matter if you are wearing the exact same number of layers as everyone else, you absolutely must be freezing and you can’t say otherwise.
I get it. Harsh winters are a badge of honor. I lived in North Dakota at age 22 and all of my coworkers were practically salivating over my first winter. “Let’s see how this California girl fares,” they said. “Is she going to survive?” they wondered. I don’t know much about George R.R. Martin but I’m 99.9% sure Winter Is Coming was inspired by the foreboding messages I received starting in August of that year. Despite having grown up 30 minutes away from a popular ski resort and visiting snow every year, I didn’t disappoint. I mistook the first snowfall as cotton covering my car. I comically slipped on ice regularly. I cussed a lot that winter. When it was all over I expected to get my hotdish Girl Scout patch, but it turned out my winter was mild (it only got to -20°F a few times). I still call BS on that but I’m not sure where to submit my petition.
Despite all of this, it is evidently my responsibility to behave as though every visit to Ohio is the first time I’ve felt a temperature below tepid bath water. I throw everyone a bone on this one; it’s not worth putting up a fight. Plus, I might actually be a touch chilly anyway. In the meantime, I’m seriously considering buying a Winter Is Coming sweatshirt to pay homage to the winteriest non-winter I’ve ever had.
2. People are not shy about their opinions on the West Coast. Be prepared for how you’ll respond.
Something about the West Coast—especially California—causes a visceral reaction in many. Why, just over Christmas dinner one relative vehemently scoffed, “I would never, ever live in California. Your wedding in Santa Barbara was nice, but I don’t think I’d even go back to visit.” Another enthusiastically agreed, declaring with pride that he’d never live in California either, harumph. In casual conversation Midwestern friends and family have called it the “land of fruits and nuts” (which might be clever if you ignore the derogatory language part); have said, “everyone is wondering what the hell is wrong with your damn state”; and disparaged everything from housing prices to traffic to state politics to the very residents themselves. If you’ve ever wanted a test of your social grace, then get yourself in a room of similarly emboldened people with an axe to grind about a place over 2,000 miles away and consequently has very little impact on their lives, which you also happen to call home.
I’ve really strained my noodle on this one. Why the vitriol, fellas? My conclusion is that most of this is a reaction to the general perception of the West Coast, conflated by the media and the false pretense of the California Dream. Folks either embrace the notion of a glittery Shangri-la where people hike daily through Redwoods and dine nightly with Denzel Washington, or they shove it away to enforce their sense of identity and related state pride. I am very certain there is a sociological term for this but I only took Soc 2 in college and I say that in the loosest sense possible (read: I had a slight problem with regular attendance). Whether you agree with this hypothesis or think it’s something else, decide if you’ll tackle these conversations with guns blazing or by gently steering the conversation to more neutral topics like women’s rights or affirmative action.
3. Everyone assumes you are liberal.
On a related note, you are assumed liberal even before walking through the door. Never mind that party majorities vary by region across the state of California, and never mind that individuals often have a mix of conservative and liberal positions (though according to the Pew Research Center a mix of positions is less likely among Americans than in the past). If you are from the West Coast you are decidedly an easily-triggered snowflake who needs a safe space every time you are given a healthy dose of reality.
To be fair, you my dear West Coaster, need to also check your assumptions. Not everyone in a Bengals jersey is a fake news fascist who waves a Y’all Qaeda flag.
On this point, let’s all give each other the benefit of the doubt and start from the basic premise that we all vaguely know what we are talking about and can benefit from getting to know each other better without immediately jumping to stereotypes. Walk in from the poles and bring it in for the real thing, people.
4. Food is just as good as on the West Coast, except for the produce.
One major misconception about the Midwest is that it’s beer, cheese, and brats 24/7; ketchup is too spicy; and ethnic food diversity means you have a choice between German and Irish cuisines. OK, there may be a sliver of truth to that when it comes to potlucks but I ain’t mad. Thanks to Cincinnati dinner parties I am the connoisseur of many a cheesy dip including buffalo chicken dip, beer cheese dip, and Skyline Chili dip. I’ve served these dishes in California and they translate well despite the cross over the Continental Divide.
The Midwest isn’t just meat and cheese products heated to delectable perfection in a crock pot. There is a pretty vibrant foodie scene in most major and many minor cities. Especially in the past few years there’s been a lot of change in the Over-the-Rhine (OTR to you cool kids) area of Cincinnati (this Politico article has a great synopsis). The demographic and financial implications of gentrification are TBD but you can get some great grub that rivals many San Francisco restaurants. So don’t even pretend to be a food snob until you’ve given your Midwestern destination’s restaurant scene a whirl.
All that said, one thing we can all agree on is that fresh produce from local grocery stores pales in comparison to most fruits and vegetables you can get your hands on in the western part of the U S of A. This is probably more of a summer edition point since I live and die by stone fruit—a nectarine is on my self-designed family crest—but it’s something you need to be aware of year-round. It is also likely why some Midwesterners think avocados are gross. In my mind this is sacrilege but if one’s experience with a fruit (actually, avocados are a berry whaaaat?) is a hard, brownish mess of a thing that ripened via transport then who can blame them? Until they get their hands on a perfect avocado that will surely make them see the light, consider wearing some avocado gear in the meantime.
I think love for avocados and nectarines is a good stopping place for now. I can’t go anywhere but down from here. I have many more observations that I’ll be sharing in a later edition, probably some time in spring.
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Tell me about some pointers for intracontinental travel within the U.S. and beyond. Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments!
If you really do want to tackle some hard political topics, I recommend the book, Frame Reflection. It was one of my favorites in graduate school (where I thankfully had improved attendance habits) and helped me learn how to approach policy stalemates. The image is an affiliate link to the book on the Amazon website.
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