“It’s Ne-Va-Duh, not Ne-Vah-Da.” That’s a bumper sticker. I’m not kidding. Nevadans are serious about the pronunciation of their state’s name. It’s also the first thing we were told when we moved here. My sister and her husband had already been living in Reno for a good six months before we came, and I guess they had to learn it the hard way. If we wanted to fit in, we better learn to say it correctly.
We did, but we still haven’t shed all of our New York accents. My students like the way I say paragraph. One time while working with some elementary school kids at a summer camp, my friend and I were teaching the children to write haikus. This kid asked how many syllables the word orange had. The two teachers couldn’t agree on the right answer. She insists it only has one; I say two. (You say tomato, I say tomato.)
Having the name Sara has also lead to some confusion with pronunciation. When I tell people my name, they hear it differently than they would pronounce it. Yet when they say it back to me the way they think they heard me say it, it sounds funny. “Sah-rah?” Ultimately, I end up spelling it out for them. Maybe I should have my name turned into a phonetic bumper sticker? Or a personalized license plate…Those are big here too.
2. Anything Goes in Virginia City
You can race camels, ostriches, and even outhouses. You can pay a man in long-john pajamas one dollar to feed a carrot to his mule. You can go to the Rocky Mountain Oyster Festival and get sheep testicles as a chowder, in a taco, or on a stick.
I had just had my second daughter and my parents were still in town. It was the weekend of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Virginia City which coincides with the Rocky Mountain Oyster Festival. I stayed home with the baby while my husband took my parents and our then four-year-old to Virginia City for the festivities. As he was leaving, I begged him: Don’t let our daughter eat balls. You can feed her all the gluten, candy, hot dogs, and ice cream you want, but I draw the line at animal genitalia. Needless to say, husbands don’t always listen. And that was the day I learned, anything goes in Virginia City.
3. Lake Tahoe can Rival the Ocean
When I first left Long Island, people from home would ask me, “Don’t you miss the ocean?” This was a reasonable question, after all, I grew up at the beach. I spent the better part of my teenage years in the Hamptons. Before we were married, my husband and I lived in a small cottage directly on the bay, and before that I lived in a condo that sat atop the bluffs overlooking the Long Island Sound. So when I moved to the desert, I was a little worried.
And then I went to Lake Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I know I’m not the most well-traveled person to make that assertion, but I feel confident that this is a truism nonetheless. Even Mark Twain called it “the fairest picture the whole world affords” and said that “to breathe the same air as angels, you must go to Lake Tahoe.”
These summers you’ll find me and my family at Sand Harbor, catching crawdads, swimming in the crisp Caribbean blue waters, climbing on rocks and building elaborate castles. Since moving here, I’ve not once missed the ocean.
4. Chop Meat Doesn’t Exist
Anytime you move to a new geographic locale you will find the local lingo changes. Is that sandwich you’re eating a sub, a hoagie, or a grinder? It depends where you are. But we had already been living here for five years when I learned that chop meat doesn’t exist. Well, technically it does, but they call it by its more formal name: ground beef.
We were shopping in Whole Foods which is not our usual grocery store, but I was pregnant at the time and they sold these pre-natal vitamins that didn’t give me disgusting vitamin burps and I needed to stock up. We had just come from the appointment with my obstetrician where we got to see the baby’s heartbeat and so I told my husband we should stop and get the vitamins and something for dinner. I decided we would make tacos since it would be quick and easy for when we got home.
As we stood at the butcher counter, I found myself asking the young man behind it for a pound of chop meat. He stared at me quizzically. Maybe he didn’t hear me, I thought.
“Chop meat. A pound of chop meat, please.” I said a little louder this time.
That same confused stare.
Maybe he’s new, I thought.
“Chop…Meat,” I said a little slower this time, like he was from a foreign country.
The silence hung in the air. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. I turned towards my husband with that “WTF” look on my face. He shrugged. I turned back to the clerk. Then I tried another approach.
“Yes, Ma’am” and he turned hurriedly to package it up and get the crazy lady away from his counter.
After we got in the car, I replayed the scenario a hundred times over. Do they not say chop meat here? How could I have lived here for five years and not know this yet?
How? That’s easy. I never ASK for chop meat. Or if I do, it’s just my husband I’m asking as in, hey hon, go to the store and get some chop meat, and HE knows what I’m talking about since we both grew up in New York. But then I got to asking myself: Is it not just a New York thing? Is it, perhaps, a white trash thing? I mean, we don’t say “chopped meat.” Was it one of those things where if you couldn’t afford the real ground beef, they just chopped up some scrap meat and voilà?
So I did what anyone does when they find something perplexing and worrisome: I called my mother.
What I learned is that no matter how long you live somewhere new, you are going to find some things that don’t compute. No matter how long I live in Nevada, I’ll always have a touch of my New York accent and I’m always going to refer to it as chop meat.
5. Education Gets a Bad Rap
Nevada is ranked last in education. We are literally at the bottom of the list. Of course, there are a lot of different factors for this ranking, but it still makes me cringe at times to be a teacher in a state that is nationally publicized as being the worst. Yet having come from being a teacher in New York, a state that is ranked among the best, here’s what I know to be true:
I am a better teacher in Nevada than I was in New York. I have had more professional training and more opportunities to hone my craft than I ever did as a teacher in New York. I have become Nationally Board Certified, which yes, teachers can do in New York too, but for the five years that I worked there, I had never even heard of it nor did I know anyone who had done it.
When they make these rankings, they take into consideration factors like how many parents of students have gone to college and how many graduates are college-bound, and I get it, there are way more colleges on the east coast and there are more professional families. Here in Nevada, there are cowboys and casinos and two main universities: UNR and UNLV. There’s not as many resources for education either. We don’t have the same funding that they have for schools in New York. But to put us last on the list gives the impression that what is happening in the classrooms across Nevada is also sub-par. Speaking as someone who spends every day in one, I can attest that that just isn’t true.
In the decade that my husband and I have resided in Nevada, we’ve learned a lot. We enjoy living in a place where there’s always something happening, whether it is waking up at 4 in the morning to watch hundreds of hot air balloons ascend in the pre-dawn sky, floating lazily down the Truckee River, or sampling some of the best ribs from around the nation.
We also enjoy the spontaneity that comes from living in a place where, if you don’t like the weather, you can wait five minutes and it will change. This year, it snowed on our spring break. It was late March, which might not seem crazy but we’ve seen it snow here in June. I woke up and started laughing out loud at the foot of white that blanketed everything. Within hours, the whole family had built a snowman and we spent the rest of the afternoon sledding down the hill in our backyard.
It’s not always easy to move away from your roots, to leave your network of family and friends, but we have found a place that we enjoy calling home, a place that makes us appreciate the life we have built, a place where our chosen friends have become like family. We picked Reno, and for better or worse, we wouldn’t have it any other way.