Living In Silicon Valley

How is it like to live in Silicon Valley, California as an expat? Reflections from my two years stay.
2014-02-20 – ⁠2022-09-08 finished
⁠certainty: log ⁠importance: 1

It has been nearly two years since we moved to the US. This post is about some of the little things that we have noticed living in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, California.


We do the laundry in a laundry room outside of our apartment, and we have to pay $1.50 plus detergent every time. On the one hand you spend more money, on the other I think it’s good for the environment because it reduces usage. Loes doesn’t seem to approve of my last statement, thought, and she doesn’t seem to be grateful of my underdeveloped sense of smell either.

Supermarkets are super sized, hardware stores are super sized, cars are super sized. There are so many options for everything that shopping becomes a very effective way of draining your willpower. For maximum effect try going to the supermarket right before lunch.

Marketing is much more aggressive than in Europe and frictionless buying is the norm. Add to that the willpower-exhausting mind numbing options mentioned above and you have the solution to low consumption levels. Even being aware of these forces is not enough and I find myself buying significantly more useless stuff than I did before.

Most people have at least one car and most people use it. But a consequence of this car-culture is that you don’t see people on the streets. Even though the US is bigger than Ireland or Spain it’s population density in these areas is lower. Biking through the streets and not seeing people makes you feel like you are living in a village in the Wild West. Another consequence of the lower population density is that distances are longer. In Dublin I could go to a fish and chips around the corner and be back in five minutes. Here I need to take the bike and ride it fast if I want to be anywhere in five minutes.

Every day I see a lot of people running and biking on the nearby trails or on the streets during weekends. And you can see fit people and people that are not yet fit. It’s really motivating.

I have had more things break on me here than I had in Spain or Ireland. Before moving to the US I had the preconception that everything was top notch quality.

At first I found all the rave about organic and raw food a bit snobbish but then Loes taught me how to read food labels and what I saw enlightened and scared me. The following is the list of ingredients for one of the few cheat foods that you can find at our place:

Whole grain blend, enriched flour [wheat flour, reduced iron, niacin, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], canola oil, invert sugar, inulin, sugar, raisin paste, glycerin, dried cranberries, cornstarch, dried blueberries, baking soda, soy lecithin, salt, dried raspberries, natural flavor, grape juice concentrate, ferric orthophosphate, niacin amide, blueberry juice concentrate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin, thiamin mononitrate.

Those are supposed to be cookies. I have seen sandwich bread with lists of ingredients twice or three times longer than that. Actively looking for organic and GMO free alternatives doesn’t look that snobbish anymore.

Silicon Valley is very multicultural. Most of the people I meet outside of work are Asian or Mexican. And at the office the majority of them aren’t caucasian either. Like in Dublin, this makes the world feel smaller.

At the gym I go they have some TVs and when it’s not set on the sports channel I see news about shootings, car chases or politics, health insurance, car insurance, cialis and viagra, or gadget ads. Something that I didn’t see much in Europe: many programs have subtitles so that even when the TV is muted you can know what’s going on.

Cars with subwoofers that make walls tremble are not just an invention from Grand Theft Auto. In my book that’s slightly above than people who remove silencers from their tailpipes but still below animal intelligence.

People are more impatient. I remember sharing an airport van ride with a guy who was mad at the van company for picking up Stanford students because going through their campus delays the trip by twenty to thirty minutes. I have seen similar scenes when renting a car or at the supermarket.

You hear a lot of Spanglish. There is a big Mexican population in this state. Actually my favorite Google cafe stand at the office is run by a great Mexican guy (“¡Roman, me encantan tus quesadillas de vegetales!”) but I’m sure Quevedo turns in his grave every time someone says “Ya te llamo babe. Thanks, adiós.”

Drivers are gentler, which I appreciate given that cars here look like tanks. If you’re walking or riding a bike tanks will patiently wait for you. Of course this could be just an effect of living in a society where suing is the norm but I like to think that it’s because people are more civilized.

Health insurance, which is highly related with the human need to feel safe, is nightmarish. We have good insurance by US standards but we still have to spend a significant amount of time reading the small print every time we go to a doctor and choosing an approved doctor, and a significant amount of time afterwards replying to inquiries by the insurance company. If you don’t have health insurance you can find yourself paying $6,000 for an afternoon at the hospital, an ambulance ride and a couple of shoulder X-rays. Or you could find yourself paying $36,000 if you happen to give birth at a hospital. Without a health insurance you are at the mercy of whatever price hospitals want to set. To add insult to injury, hospitals, among other institutions, routinely ask their patients for donations.

As opposed to Spain or Ireland many shops are open almost twenty four hours. Banks close at 5pm, not at 1pm, Supermarkets open from 6am to 11pm.

The weather is fantastic, although this is more specific to California. Being able to have lunch outside with a t-shirt mid-December is a delight.

Cell phone plans are expensive and you pay when you receive calls and SMSs. Receiving spammy SMSs or calls takes on a whole new emotional load when you have to pay for them.

The online banking experience is pretty poor. There is no easy way to transfer money from one account to the other and cheques are still widely used.

Internet access is roughly twice as expensive than European equivalents. We are paying $72 for the equivalent of a €30 to €35 internet connection in Dublin or Madrid.

There is a lot bureaucracy and government bullying, particularly against immigrants. A few months ago I had to spend a day and $400 flying in and out of the country just to go through airport immigration because of work permits. (Almost) everybody would have benefited if I had been able to pay $400 and be done in ten minutes.

Schools start very early in the day and there is a lot of pressure and homework. Kids are expected to take on many extracurricular activities which leaves them little time to live life. On top of that because of the way the public school system works you don’t get to choose to which school you send your kids, where you live determines where they can go.

The US is a suing culture. Loes had a bike accident soon after we arrived and people asked us if we sued the guy who caused the accident. There are probably many valid reasons for suing but for me a culture built on suing is a step backwards among civilized people.

The credit system penalizes people who always pay from debit, that is with money they have. Examples of this: if you don’t have a credit score, meaning that you have never paid on credit, you have to pay higher deposits when you rent an apartment, you get an Internet connection installed or your utilities set up. If you don’t have a credit score you may even be rejected when you want to rent an apartment, this almost happened to us.

I realize now that most of the notes sound negative or critical but living here also has big and important pluses: an incredible range of career options, in particular for software engineers, the healthiest lifestyle that I have been able to enjoy so far, the amount and quality of food variety after you restrict to organic and GMO-free food and the wide variety of people and cultures that you can find here.