It’s only 19 hours, I kept telling myself. 19 hours of travelling and you’ll be in heaven. It was daunting, super exciting and completely surreal to think I would be taking this trip all by myself.
About 3 months ago, it was time for me to submit my placement preferences as part of my MSc in Health Economics. It didn’t take long for me to put Sacramento at the top of my list. The promise of sun, guacamole, and an impactful project to work on was all I needed to convince me. When my allocation was released and I read “UC Davis” next to my name, I couldn’t believe I’d be spending three whole months in sunny California. Me? Who’d never flown for more than 4 hours? Impossible.
I started planning right away and hoped to God I wouldn’t miss anything out. My visa application was particularly painful, but I don’t think anybody’s ever enjoyed applying for an immigrant or non-immigrant visa. It’s an administrative procedure that requires you to answer really obscure questions about your religious affiliations and pay large amounts of money to attend a 2 minute interview at an embassy, and maybe shed a few tears of frustration along the way, but you know what? It was worth it! My passport came back in the post a week later (because yes, they take your passport!) and I frantically finished packing up my life, sat my last ever exam at York, sold my furniture and tried to get some headspace before this huge adventure.
As you can imagine, I barely slept the night before my 24-hour journey to Sacramento. I went to sleep late, making sure I had all my valuables and papers (you know, in case the immigration officer asked me for my birth certificate or my most recent bank statement… They don’t actually do that. I’m just paranoid.) and stepped outside my front door for the very last time, slid my keys in the letterbox and waited for Nicky and Mark (nimaconsultancy.co.uk) to drive me to Manchester airport. It was a super fun road trip; we yawned a lot and watched the sun rise, I read the sweetest good luck card they wrote me and I had a 5am chicken wrap, the first of many random meals in the next 23 hours.
First it was Manchester to Heathrow. Then navigating Heathrow terminals. Then security for the second time. And then the long flight, Heathrow to Dallas. Ten hours in the air. I got extra lucky (maybe because no one goes to Dallas?) and had a whole row to myself for the entire flight. I watched Red Sparrow (probably a 3/5) and Ladybird (probably a 4/5), which is set in Sacramento, ate all the mini pretzels they gave me, and the snacks I brought, and the meal they gave me. [Would you like me to write a post on surviving your first long haul? Let me know!] 9 bathroom breaks later and we landed in ultra dry Texas, and I couldn’t hide my excitement because omg I finally made it to the US of A. A 2-hour connection and 4-hour flight to Sacramento later, my travels ended at last. I could barely remember my name, trust me.
I decided to spend my time in Sacramento living with a host family; I call it a host family because that’s what they’ve become, but it was advertised as an en-suite room in a family home, and I initially thought that’s all it would be. But the more we spoke on the phone, the more I realised I would receive an immersive experience; they offered to share meals with me, drive me to work, pick me up from the airport, take me on weekend trips and show me where to shop for groceries! I was sold and super excited to live an authentic California life for the summer.
I’ve settled in so well. And it’s thanks to them, for being so accommodating and making me feel part of the family! They’ve given me the nicest, aluminium frame bike (and if you know me even just a little, you know cycling is religion to me), which I use to cycle to work, the yoga studio and Insight Coffee. I had a week to get settled in before starting work, so I prioritised (a) going grocery shopping, (b) trying out the top-rated coffeeshops, (c) finding a yoga studio and (d) figuring out my bike route to work. America is not generally bike-friendly (we’ve all seen how hilly San Francisco is, and busy the highways are, in like every single film), but Sacramento is extra flat and has plenty of bike lanes, so I’ve only had to use the light rail twice.
(a) went really well; we went to Raley’s and Sprouts (my favourite) and I stocked up on plenty of snacks (especially Simple Mills and Mary’s Crackers, which I was hyped to try), avocados and sourdough (which is also religion to me). (b) went even better, with Insight Coffee, Temple, Chocolate Fish and Dantorel’s pretty much on my doorstep. Everywhere sells cold brew. I’m doing good. (c) went also well, although I wasn’t sure at first – I found Zuda Yoga, a 15-minute bike ride away, offering Ashtanga classes almost every morning of the week (which is so hard to find anywhere else!) The crowd seemed a little too lululemon to me at first, but the more I go, the better it gets! The service is amazing, the studio incredibly well-kept and the teachers really friendly. (d) was challenging at first – there’s a scary, really fast road I’ve gotta cycle through, which is just not happening during rush hour, so I’m still figuring out a way around it!
Sacramento, the low-down
Sacramento is a pretty quiet, moderately large town in Northern California – it’s the capital of California (I know, I was surprised too), has plenty of trees and green space, has lots of farmers markets, a huge hospital which is part of UC Davis (the University) and is cheaper to live in than the ‘Bay Area’, i.e. San Francisco and surrounding area. Microbreweries are a big deal, as are outdoor festivals. Downtown is busy during the week, with state workers rushing to work and meetings, and Midtown has some great places to eat and drink (so I’ve heard!). It also has a golden/yellow bridge (which I have yet to see) crossing one of the two rivers; the American River and the Sacramento River. It gets much hotter than SF, because it’s further from the coast (about 2 hours), but it’s quite dry (less than 50% humidity) and always, always breezy (thank you Delta Breeze). It always cools down at night; even if it’s been 40 degree heat, you can expect to wake up to around 15 – no sticky, sleepless nights trying to adjust the air conditioning. Many Bay Area locals are fleeing the area due to rising living costs and moving over to Sacramento, bringing with them all the cool stuff, like longer shop opening times, guys wearing Birkenstocks and places to brunch. It’s also an ideal mid-way point between the madness that is San Francisco and some beautiful national parks, like Tahoe and the Sierras, where people spend summer weekends hiking and go skiing in the winter. That’s right, you can ski in Calfornia!
Working & finding my pace
After an amazing week discovering what California was all about (mostly Mexican food and single-origin coffee), it was time to get to work. I met my supervisor for lunch (we had a really good chicken salad) at the Medical Center, where my office is. He gave me an overview of the project, and I quickly realised I would be highly independent, would need to be resourceful and very pro-active. I’ve got a cute corner office, adjacent to where most of the employees work, and a few feet from my supervisor’s office. I don’t have a window, so I’m considering bringing a succulent. There’s a Starbucks down our street, which is ideal for a mid-afternoon pick me up (and before you ask, I’ve got my own reusable cup at the ready!).
The project we’re working on mostly involves people from Chicago, with the ‘modelling team’ (i.e. me and him) in Sacramento. It’s a pretty technical project; estimating the range of costs and benefits of introducing treatment for an ultra-rare disease. I’ve spent the past few days figuring out how much a wheelchair costs and debating whether the time lost to caregivers should be included in the model. It’s pretty stimulating and actually a lot more creative than I expected it to be, which I deem essential in a job. This project is not only a chance for me to work in the field for a few months, but also the basis of my MSc Dissertation. By the end of September, I will have written 10,000 words on our model!
I’m finding my pace and my comfort zones as time goes on – I’m trying to make friends, slowly but surely, which can be tricky at first. I’m figuring out where to have lunch, and how to fit yoga into a working life. And of course, I’ve been enjoying the gorgeous weather, which ranges anywhere from 24-40 degrees in the afternoon. Needless to say – I don’t want to leave!
Stay tuned for more of my Californian adventures – I can’t wait to share all my experiences with you all!