A Complete Guide to Moving to…Santa Cruz, California

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Don’t listen to Wikipedia: Santa Cruz is, and always will be, the real Surf City USA. Along its miles of coastline, there are waves to catch for beginners and experts alike, from the easy currents at Cowell’s Beach to the tall, terrifying tubes at Mavericks, the home of a world-famous wave-riding competition.

But even if you don’t surf, there are plenty of ways to live the Hang Ten lifestyle in Santa Cruz. The county boasts a temperate climate hovering in the 60s and 70s year-round, a mellow, laid-back vibe among the locals and university students, and an ideal location between hip San Francisco and scenic Big Sur. Add to that a burgeoning food and beer scene and an iconic beachfront amusement park and it’s no wonder millions of visitors fall in love with Santa Cruz every year.

If you’d like to trade pantsuits for wetsuits and boots for Birkenstocks, get ready to pack your bags. Here’s what you need to know before relocating to my hometown of Santa Cruz, California!

West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, California, photo by Jill Kimball

COST OF LIVING

As effortless as life in Santa Cruz might seem, prospective residents won’t find it easy to get a foot in the door. In 2016, Santa Cruz was named the second most unaffordable place to live in the U.S. just behind Brooklyn. Rent will set you back an average of $2,742 for a two-bedroom apartment, and it’ll cost you even more to live near downtown or within a mile of the ocean. The farther inland and south you travel, the more money you’ll save–so if you’re willing to commute, try the rural, picturesque hills above Soquel and Aptos or the increasingly vibrant city of Watsonville, where the Mexican food can’t be beat!

Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, photo by Jill Kimball

THE SCENE

Considering its size, Santa Cruz has a bustling and varied nightlife–and it’s mostly thanks to downtown’s proximity to the University of California Santa Cruz. If you’re looking for sleek, upscale lounges serving manhattans and martinis, you’re in the wrong place–Santa Cruz is all about laid-back pubs, funky, dimly lit clubs in converted Victorian houses and hip new breweries lined with long tables. Some of the most popular watering holes these days are Beer30, The Redroom and 515.

Despite its many good bar options, Santa Cruz isn’t known as a party destination. Its residents are more concerned with eating healthy (and often vegetarian), staying politically active and getting outside. On weekend mornings, you’ll see them congregating at the farmer’s market, waiting in line at a packed breakfast joint or jogging along the waterfront, fog or shine. Rather than spend the afternoon watching football, they’re more likely to hit a hiking trail in the Santa Cruz Mountains, take a mountain bike up to the trails at Nisene Marks or play a little frisbee on the sand.

If you’re new to the area, the best way to make friends is to join a hiking, running or beer-tasting meetup online–check out all the options here.

A van on East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, photo by Jill Kimball

THE PEOPLE

Santa Cruzans feel such intense hometown pride that they’ve covered their cars, surfboards, skateboards and bodies in locally-branded merchandise. If you want to blend in, you can find your own Santa Cruz clothes at Pacific Wave or the O’Neill flagship store–and while you’re there, pick up a pair of the über comfortable Reef flip flops all the locals sport.

Santa Cruz has long had a reputation as a hippie town, second only in fame to the People’s Republic of Berkeley. If you live in Santa Cruz, you’re guaranteed to know at least one vegan, stoner, ultimate frisbee player, militant political activist, deadhead, avant-garde artist and surfer–and one of those people is probably you. That said, the rising profile of nearby Silicon Valley is rapidly changing the vibe; every year, more and more tech workers move in, driving out downtown’s scuzzy clubs and patchouli-scented stores and ushering in new gastropubs and chain clothing stores.

Like other Californians, locals tend to be friendly and talkative, but they’re known for an aversion to “Vallies,” the nickname we’ve given inlanders who clog Highway 1 on summer weekends to visit the beach.

The nautical parade at Capitola's annual Begonia Festival, photo by Anthony Swagerty Dei Rossi

Photo: Anthony Swagerty Dei Rossi

Local Traditions

All summer long, this town’s beaches swarm with sunburned tourists, but locals don’t mind–they know the best time to soak up the sun is in September, when the crowds are long gone but the temperatures are warmer than ever. Santa Cruz ushers in the real summer season with a dizzying series of festivals, where residents can take in art, wine, classical music, creative sand castles and a peculiar but beautiful nautical parade with floats made entirely of begonias.

During the holidays, Santa Cruz lights up the dark days in style with a giant menorah in its main plaza and twinklers on the trees. But the winter’s best tradition by far is New Year’s Eve, when, at sunset, thousands of locals in outrageous costumes take to the street for the DIY Last Night Parade. Hours later, people young and old spill out of the bars just before midnight and run toward the clock tower for an all-night dance party, complete with DJ, light show and lots of bubbles.

If you’re moving to Santa Cruz for school, you can’t leave campus without witnessing or participating in the annual First Rain run–and you and your friends must snap a group portrait on top of the Squiggle, UCSC’s most famous sculpture.

A pedestrian path along East Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz. Photo by Jill Kimball

Ready to make your dream a reality? Check out more Santa Cruz resources below. 
Local Housing | Santa Cruz Sentinel | Job Listings | Hiking Guide | UCSC Academics | Local Events | Santa Cruz LocalWikiYou Know You’re a Santa Cruzan When…

 

READ NEXT: Five reasons to take a solo trip this year

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Confession: I Document Everything

An intellectual (or not) debate at Max's.

An intellectual (or not) debate at Max’s.

Six months into my college career, I came home for spring break and announced to a few of my friends that I was switching my major from music to journalism. I expected reactions of mild surprise, at the very least. Instead, I was met with impatient “duh”s and amused “I always knew it”s.

“That’s not a surprising revelation, is it?” They asked. “You always carry a notebook in your purse. You’re always writing down everything we say. You document everything. It’s actually pretty creepy.”

It was true. I could certainly save a lot of closet space by purging from my belongings a stack of 20 or so notebooks, some completely full, others empty, still others only partially used. I buy them habitually, whenever I head back to my old stomping grounds for a nostalgia tour, whenever I’m away from home and need to chronicle my frustrations somewhere, and of course whenever a notebook is too pretty not to buy.

I’ve never met anyone else who is quite so intent on recording anything and everything, but thanks to the power of the internet, I now know there’s at least one other freak like me: Alice Bolin. I’ve never met her, but her post on thisrecording.com makes me believe we are kindred spirits and were probably separated at birth. From the post:

I have in my pocket at this moment a note I don’t remember writing to myself that I found recently on my floor. It reads, “Landscape quote: O pardon me thou bleeding piece of Earth.” (Googling reveals this is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.) Also in my pocket is a note card where it says in my graduate thesis advisor’s handwriting, “Question / Is there a historical reason for the great number of rear/alley entrances/exits in Missoula bars?” Also: a stranger’s to-do list I found tucked in a book I ordered online; its only noteworthy item is “Return Cal’s pants!”

Similarly, I hoard written and verbal content constantly. I tore a page from one of my college legal pads that reads, in a list, “bastard food; misplaced football jerseys; acid dropping.” The Notebook feature on my phone offers this quote, squeezed between a flight confirmation code and a grocery list, with no context: “As soon as you’re sitting on a pokey thing, you’re like, damn, I’m sitting on a pokey thing.” And don’t even get me started on those little notebooks I used to carry everywhere from age 15, packed with funny-but-oft-nonsensical quotes from my closest friends, tales of strange adventures with acquaintances I no longer remember, and letters to ex-boyfriends. I once listed nearly 20 quotes from my college choir conductor in a LiveJournal post: “You need to get the L out.” “Make this violent word sound as sexy as possible.” “Sorry, taken over by an alien momentarily.”

The urge to document also manifests in photos.

The urge to document also manifests in photos.

The height of my recording craze was my senior year of college, when my amazing group of friends would essentially recreate a Cheers scene at our favorite local hangout three or more nights a week. We’d while away the hours commiserating about our jobs and classes, watching football games, playing cards and winning prizes in pub trivia. I must have filled four notebooks with inside jokes and stories borne from our nights there.

“I misread your mustache, sir.” (Courtesy of someone who judged my friend’s political views by his facial hair.)
“It crashed and burned, and then a dinosaur stepped on it. And then it killed a puppy.” (A friend describes her day.)
“They’re like the tacos of the feet.” (Your guess is as good as mine.)

Why the constant urge to chronicle every last funny, interesting and semi-brilliant thing? I guess I’m just a nostalgic person. In certain life situations for which a comprehensive record exists–like the trip to Eastern Europe in high school, or the night the power went out during my winter break reunion with youth choir friends–it’s likely I wrote everything down for nostalgia’s sake. Back then, I believed my future self would kick my present self for forgetting the Best Inside Jokes Ever.

I think the particular affinity for quoting my friends in our last days of college may have been a self-preservational instinct, a desperate attempt to log the here and now in some form or other–because I knew that less than a year later, I’d be in a strange new city trying to find a job and a new set of bar buddies.

When I ran out of notebooks...

When I ran out of notebooks…

Why do I still do it? Because my post-college years thus far have been predictably tumultuous and subject to change. My entire world has changed almost annually as I’ve moved to new apartments, started new relationships, said goodbye to old friends and awkwardly courted new ones. As much as I try to live in the moment the way older adults advise, I can’t help but look toward the future to an older me, contentedly flipping through five thousand notebooks of strange memories.

The Book City

Even if you’re not attending the current AWP conference, and even if you’re not a writer, hop on over to The Stranger’s article about the average Seattle resident’s penchant for reading…and hanging out in places where reading material is purchased.

From the article:

Part of the reason I moved to Seattle from the East Coast was for the rain and the clouds. There’s nothing more annoying than the pang of guilt that comes unbidden when you choose to stay inside with a good book on a beautiful spring day. With its relentless cloud cover, Seattle minimizes the opportunity for that kind of guilt. In fact, it rewards people for reading and writing, which is part of the reason our city always hovers near the top of those (admittedly somewhat arbitrary) “most literate city” polls that circulate around the internet every year or so.

Whether we’re literate because it’s raining or the rainy climate naturally attracts bookworms, it’s a fact: Seattle loves to read, and it always has.

Elliott_Bay_Books_(Capitol_Hill)_interior_pano_01

Ever since my dad read novels to me at bedtime (Goodnight Moon got old fast, so we moved on to Watership Down), I grew up with my nose buried in a book. I started with classics, including the Nancy Drew series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. My childhood guilty pleasures included Animorphs and Sweet Valley High.

In high school, between the engrossing Harry Potter books, I devoured science fiction, fantasy, period literature and more, still discovering my literary tastes. During the week, I sat in English class wondering why in hell The Odyssey got top billing over The Aeneid in my classroom and a million others, while on the weekends I happily made my way through the 850 pages of Bleak House.

Then, in college, I discovered the wonder of contemporary fiction and its endless possibilities. There was nothing better than studying, discussing and writing about the books I would have read at home anyway.

Today, I miss the discussions and the feedback. Sometimes I convince a friend to read a book with me so we can get into lively debates like we did in college. In the last year, among other things, I’ve marveled at the Dickensian parallels in A Fine Balance, I’ve dissed Eugenides’ self-indulgent latest effort, I’ve read Zadie Smith at her best and her worst, and I’ve made it halfway through Colum McCann‘s canon.

It’s heartwarming to be reminded that I’ve done all this in a city full of like-minded folk, that I bought these books at some of the best book-buying institutions in the country…and that there’s so much more to discover.

On Being Real

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way my relationships with others have changed in recent years. I’m not a social butterfly, so I was glad to see Facebook’s continuous rise in popularity while I was in college. It was the perfect tool for those of us who wanted to keep tabs on old friends but lacked the courage to pick up the phone or even write an email often enough to do so.

But after more than seven years of Facebook use, I realize the site has not given me what I wanted. In Facebook I looked for insight into the daily ups and downs of those I used to see every day. It has instead provided me only with the highlights of my friends’ lives: the engagements, the exotic vacations, the new job announcements and the best home-cooked dinners.

I’m thrilled to see my friends doing well, but I know these updates don’t tell the whole story. In addition to their good news, I’d like to hear about their pipe leaks at home, their struggles at work and the recipes that failed. Balancing news of the positive with the negative, the quirky, the funny and the everyday paints a more accurate picture of someone’s life–a picture that does more to educate friends on one’s life rather than to simply induce friends’ jealousy.

This year, my life was filled with lovely sunsets, craft cocktails and exciting adventures. It was also filled with frustration, sadness, anxiety, confusion and sleep deprivation. And that’s okay.

I read a blog post last week that called for a New Year’s resolution almost all of us can keep. Rather than resolving to get fit, eat healthier, save more money or clean more often, we might first and foremost promise ourselves to be more honest with ourselves and with each other.

So in 2014, for better or for worse, I vow to stop Photoshopping my life. I’m done with humblebrags. I’m finished with heavily filtered selfies. I’ll leave the self-promotion at work, and I’ll spend more actual facetime with those whose friendship I value.

I’m ready to be real.

Fall

I visited Seattle for the first time in the fall. The weather was still temperate and sunny, the days were still long and the late afternoon light was perfectly golden. The city’s natural beauty was fully on display, and I fell in love.

ImageI know what you’re thinking–how can you possibly make it through another rapturous essay on apple picking, pumpkin spice lattes and changing leaves? But while I’m a sucker for all these things, I love fall because it’s been the season of so many good memories.

I’m sure I’m not the only one with fond memories of my first college term. I had no idea what to expect of the campus, the people or even my major, and I was pleasantly surprised to immediately love everything about the University of Oregon–even its retro student union, overly enthusiastic football fans and giant lecture halls. All of us who start college in the fall probably think of autumn as a time of year for fresh starts and self-discovery.

ImageTwo years later, I had one of the best autumns of my life studying in Paderno del Grappa, Italy. I spent much of the semester traveling all over Europe, and one of my most vivid memories is of the varied weather. It was practically summer one weekend in Florence, but two weeks later, my soaked ballet flats squelched all over Dublin during a daylong downpour. We wandered Paris in mostly T-shirts in October, but we needed to buy more layers and lots of mulled wine to  keep from freezing a month later in Köln. It was thrilling to experience Europe while the seasons were changing.

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ImageThree years ago, in the fall, my favorite people came together on the scenic rooftop of my first Seattle apartment.

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ImageAnd the next fall, when there was no more roof, we settled for a cramped kitchen.

ImageAnd to start this fall, some of us made a pilgrimage right back to the place where my love for fall started…at the University of Oregon.

Image…We were a little overwhelmed.

An epic American night…in Italy

It’s now 2:30 p.m. in what will probably pass as one of the most important political days in my young adult life, but there’s a good chance I won’t remember a minute of it.

Last night, I stayed up without sleeping until 6:30 a.m. (9 p.m. on the West Coast) to watch all the states’ returns come in and to see what everyone already knew was coming–Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. I’ll remember the excitement I felt every time a new state flashed on the MSNBC virtual map, leading us closer to a conclusion to the stat-packed night, and I’ll remember watching the interesting patterns developing in the form of blue and red clumps in the counties of battleground states. And I’ll most certainly remember the first address of the first black president, one delivered with such determined fervor that I could tell Obama knew the serious trouble he was getting himself into and knew he could conquer it all.

It seemed like as good a time as any to #ThrowYourO.

But my memory will probably go fuzzy after the time that I fell into bed at 6:30, especially considering that I had to wake up a mere three hours later. All the more reason, then, to document my findings from newspapers from all over the world in this blog.

I looked up the online translated version of Il Messaggero, the most widely read newspaper in Rome, and my beliefs were instantly confirmed: that most of Italy was overjoyed by Obama’s victory. The paper proclaimed Obama won “by an avalanche of votes”; a reader in support of the outcome wrote in a comment “long live REAL democracy.” European leaders hailed the new president’s election as “a turning point” that made the year a very strong one for democracy in the U.S. and the world (EU president Jose Barroso), a “wonderful example of democracy given from the United States to the world” (Nicolas Sarkozy), and a testament to new “progressive values and a vision for the future” (Britain’s PM Gordon Brown). Even Russia welcomed Obama with open arms, assuring him a “full partership of trust.”

It’s a shame I couldn’t have been right in the middle of the action–say, celebrating on campus with fellow U of O students or dancing on tops of cars with other Santa Cruzans (yes, they really did do that)–but in a way, being in a foreign country for these elections has made me see the importance of the perspective of the world, not just that of the U.S., in these elections. I think the American media focus so much on Americans’ reactions to the election results that they don’t immediately take into account what foreign leaders–and foreign equivalents of the average joe–are saying. Thus, had I been in the U.S. while this was happening, I wouldn’t have thought to read up on foreign perspective.

Thank goodness for the Internet–and thank goodness for study abroad!

Back in Eugene, just for a moment

Sure, it’s rained enough in the last week to rival Oregon’s rainfall record, but let’s face it: Paderno del Grappa, Italy is nothing like Eugene.

I know, I know, I’m not exactly in a position to complain. I couldn’t imagine a more idyllic place to study—right at the foot of the Alps, surrounded by villas dotting the countryside, an hour’s train ride away from the romantic canals of Venice. But even so, now that my time here is two-thirds gone and I’m stateside bound in just a month, I can’t help but think about everything I miss about Eugene, where I’ve lived for the better part of two years, and how excited I am to return.

In those moments when I get what I’ve started calling “hippie withdrawal,” I’m lucky to have more than 10 fellow U of O students to turn to. We all feel the same way, torn between the excitement of traveling and new experiences and the familiarity and comfort of our home away from home. We talk about our favorite cafés on campus, study spots we like and great professors at dinner sometimes, but even after getting some of it out of our systems, we still yearn to return.

But something fortuitous happened on Saturday night that eased the chill of the Alpine foothills and made me feel a little more at home: a barbecue. We all skipped dinner in the cold, cavernous cafeteria that night and instead broke out the barbecue. There were French fries, hamburgers, hot dogs and baked beans, and we gathered it all up on our plates like ravenous pigs. We chatted among ourselves as we dove into the all-American fast, and amid conversation, someone mentioned an Oregon game was scheduled to play on TV tonight. And suddenly four of us, decked out in Oregon shirts and sweatshirts, were parked in front of the television in the campus lounge. Then eight. Then 10. And then the Oregon faculty members were there too.

University of Oregon alumni at a CIMBA dinner in Italy

All the Ducks in a row…er, two rows

The game was at UC Berkeley, not on home turf, but what did it matter? We could see our team, up close and personal, and we identified our yellow-clad fans in the stands as if we were there with them.

We gave loud whoops when the game was in our favor and groaned, heads in hands, when our team let us down. We yelled in unison and held our hands above our heads in “O” shapes at the kickoff. We tried practicing other traditional game chants even though the band wasn’t there to back us up.

Practicing a U of O tradition, even when we were nearly 5,600 miles away from U of O itself, staved off my homesickness enough to make me feel buoyant even at the end of the game, when we lost to Cal and the rain in Berkeley fell harder than ever.

A taste of home in Padova

It had been quite a confusing day, first with the difficulty of orienting ourselves in Trieste long enough to catch some of the sights before afternoon, when we stumbled through the town in search of the train station, where we’d catch a regional train to Padova. Our confusion was only temporarily abated on the short hour-and-a-half train ride between the two cities; at the Padova station, it all started again. We were to catch bus number 19. I couldn’t remember how to say “nineteen” in Italian. Lynn and Mark couldn’t find the bus stop. If we ever got on the bus, we realized we wouldn’t be able to find the “big blue bridge”, our cue to request a stop, in the dark of the night.

A half hour later, we stumbled down a quiet alleyway a mile outside the city center, with very little streetlamp light to guide the way, to our bed and breakfast. An Italian couple greeted us at the door in broken English, and I greeted them back in the best Italian I could muster in my exhausted state. Ten confusing and not entirely grammatically correct minutes later, we had our room keys and directions to two of the nearest restaurants: a traditional pizzeria and Le Chevalier, an Irish pub that also served Italian food and cheeseburgers.

Somehow the idea of a French restaurant with an Irish theme serving Italian and American food didn’t seem appetizing, so we opted for the more predictable option. Though it was 9 p.m., a fairly typical time for Italians to eat dinner, the pizzeria was almost deserted; as we ate our pizzas and sipped on our two-euro water, we couldn’t bring ourselves to talk above a whisper for fear of disturbing the two other couples quietly eating near us. I glanced wildly around for something that might inspire a conversation topic, but only one sentence came to mind: “This is good pizza.” Lynn and Mark nodded. That was the end of the conversation.

The next day was a whirlwind of churches, outdoor shopping, public transportation and frescoes; it was a day in which we explored all that was unfamiliar to us. We returned to the bed and breakfast with the collective desire for a louder, less strained dinner than last night. We were wary to try the pub in all its cross-cultural oddities, but we were so hungry that we went anyway.

We were greeted warmly by a twentysomething Italian woman in Chanel glasses who was pouring beer from the tap into four two-liter containers. It was fairly early for Italians to be eating dinner, but at least half the wooden tables and benches were filled to capacity with young people. We took seats at a table and gazed at the menu: Cheeseburgers! French fries! Fried mozzarella! Chicken Caesar salad! Fruit bowls! On television: American pop stars! Was this home?

No, but it was a taste of home. I realized that this weekend, and this entire semester, I thought I’d completely immerse myself into the unfamiliarity of Italian culture as entirely as possible. I wanted something new, something un-American—and I got it. But even though I was willing to throw myself completely to the mercy of foreign people, places, and things, I needed that little bit of familiarity to get myself through the day.

“Meet me at the bell tower!”

This weekend was blissfully uneventful. I made my way through an entire P.D. James novel, borrowed from the tiny CIMBA library, in two days. I also picked up Paul Theroux’s “Chicago Loop” and an Elizabeth George mystery, though I doubt I’ll have any more time to read for pleasure again before the travel week, when I’ll have time to fill on plane trips and train rides.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball

The only breaks I had from solitary, transfixed reading were during meals in the cafeteria–in which there were only six of us, because the vast majority of people had headed to Cinque Terre and Oktoberfest or were participating in a leadership program on campus–and last night, when we hired Fabio, a local cab driver, to take all of us to Bassano del Grappa.

We were surprised at the size of Bassano. It was a legitimate city, the same population as the city of Santa Cruz packed into a smaller geographical area. And it was Saturday night, so everyone was out on the town.

We went to Bassano specifically to meet up with Jake, a resident intern and fellow student who’d spent a day in Venice. When the cab dropped us off at what seemed to be the main traffic artery, we called Jake and he told us to “meet me at the bell tower.” We rolled our eyes. Between Paderno and Crespano del Grappa, which had a combined population of 6,000, there were four bell towers. Imagine how many there were in this comparative metropolis.

(Source)

But somehow we found our way into the city center, where there was a strange and noisy car show going on and where hundreds of Italians had converged. We stayed there for a while, but wandered back to the main artery and at the end of the night found ourselves at a hip new-agey bar that served drinks in all the colors of the rainbow and was decorated with neon signs that read edgy phrases like “a new way of thinking”–in English.

The bathroom was the only distinctively European feature of the place. The plumbing was complicated and quirky enough that I had to step on a pedal on the ground to wash my hands at the sink.

But I can’t forget the funniest part of the night: the city’s tiny amusement park, right down a few flights of steps from the historic center. All the familiar rides were there: the Pirate Ship, the chairs suspended from chains that swung out when they spun in a circle, the contraption in which people stand inside a circle, strap themselves in, and spin around and around. But the rides all seemed to lack the safety features we Americans have come to expect at our amusement parks. The Pirate Ship, at each end, had cages in which Italian teenagers could stand instead of sitting in the benches–except there was no safety equipment that strapped them in; they simply had to cling onto the bars of the cage for dear life. The spinning ride had no safety features at all–just benches where the kids sat (and fell) as they spun–and, even more alarming, two teenage girls stood in the very middle of the circle as it spun, stumbling to keep their balance.

There was also a crude soccer game set up in which, if you kicked the ball into the right net, you could win a variety of prizes: a jersey from your favorite team, a team scarf, a $10 phone card and, perhaps most disconcerting, a bottle of Spumante wine. (I should mention that all the boys playing this game looked somehwere between the ages of 12 and 15.) Jake hit the ball right into the center and the man gave him his prize: the Spumante. We all laughed.

Guys’ night out

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Fabio drives his taxi-van like a high-powered Silicon Valley software executive might drive his Ferrari. Even when navigating around the sharpest of hairpin turns, the speedometer doesn’t dip below 110 kilometers an hour. All the while his favorite Italian radio station blasts its ballads and American pop tunes, and over the din it’s hardly possible to hold an ordinary conversation.

But we try. “THIS IS WHERE I ATE DINNER WITH MY ADVISORY GROUP,” I shouted to crazy-eyes Mike as we drove through the outskirts of Bassano del Grappa and passed El Rancho, a lively and brightly-colored Mexican-Italian restaurant. “WHAT?” Mike said. I shook my head as if to say, “It’s no use,” and he once again fixed his eyes on the road nervously.

The group of us—five boys, one girl—was glad to be out of the van when we arrived at the traffic-laden center of Bassano, not only because we’d feared for our lives the whole ride but also because we’d clearly left the provinciality of Paderno del Grappa, population 2,002, far behind in just a 15-minute car drive. Just seeing the hordes of glamorous Italian sidewalk wanderers and the handfuls of Smart ForTwo cars hurtling at top speed through roundabouts and thoroughfares was alone worth the five euro price.

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Our first stop was Bassano’s historic center, just a few narrow and crooked blocks off the modern artery from which we had come. Right at the base of the huge, centuries-old white cathedral was a car show of souped-up Honda Civics revving their engines and backfiring with a loud CRACK every few yards. The main attraction, though, seemed to be a bar on the square where at least a hundred Italians in pressed Lacoste polo shirts and mile-high suede boots gathered at outdoor tables. The bar itself was smaller than my prison-cell college dorm, and once I was in the door, someone smashed me into the bar and within two feet of the bartender’s face. “Tre spritz!” I managed to yell before I was swallowed in a sea of leather jackets.

We took our time enjoying the drinks—we’d earned them—but noticed something peculiar almost right away. “Has anyone else wondered why there are so many men here?” Mark asked. Indeed, at least three-quarters of the crowd gathered around the closet-sized bar was made up of sweater-vested men in black frame glasses and carefully gelled dark hair. Within seconds of Jake’s murmur of the words “gay bar,” the historic center’s heterosexual American contingent was gone and never to be seen at that bar again.