Sentimental in Sacramento

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If you look at a map of the United States and draw a straight line west from Baltimore, you'll end up, relatively speaking, somewhere just north of Sacramento, Calif. Due to circumstances almost as arbitrary as this, I found myself, after an eight-year idyll in Charm City, schlepping my collection of John Waters videos, two packages of Berger cookies, a family-size jug of Old Bay and $500 worth of hand-me-down Ikea furniture 3,000 miles in a rented van.

I've lived here for a full year now, so I can tell you that, although the cities share the same latitude, a large gap in attitude exists between the two. How so, you ask, other than the fact that my governor once acted the role of a machine -- and yours wants to install thousands of them in public places?

Let's start off with a simple one. Sacramentans don't party the way Baltimoreans do. Whether at the Fells Point Fun Festival, Preakness Stakes or St. Patrick's Day in Canton, Charm City folks are not afraid to talk to strangers and drink until their livers swim away. I have yet to stumble upon these types of celebrations in California, where people typically forgo such debauchery for yoga, bicycling, hiking, snowboarding, surfing or shopping for organic produce.

Fresh produce is definitely a perk of California living. I can buy strawberries in November and asparagus in February, and figs and lemons literally fall from the trees in my back yard. Believe me, when Nor'easters pound Baltimore and residents of Federal Hill use folding chairs, traffic cones and small animals to "save" their shoveled-out parking spots, I laugh all the way to the farmers' market.

But since I typically cook with powdered cheese products and boxed pasta, I don't often use this wonderfully fresh produce, which could explain the rotten smell in my kitchen. I tend to rely more on the local restaurants and takeout for sustenance, and in this regard, I'd say Baltimore and Sacramento are sister cities rather than polar opposites.

Like Baltimore, Sacramento overflows with small eateries. Authentic Mexican, Japanese, Thai and Indian predominate here, although I have yet to encounter a restaurant with the scruffy eccentricity of or the affordability and flavor of .

In Sacramento, food, fun and cultural activities are not concentrated in any clear-cut neighborhoods, but distributed among the downtown grid like the last remaining pieces on a chess board. One might leave a restaurant and walk for 10 blocks before passing another one. It makes my feet ache for the compactness of Canton and the artistry of Mount Vernon Square.

However, all this walking invites an intimacy with a city that is pleasantly peppered with trees and refurbished Victorian houses -- which define the residential architecture just as rowhouses do in Baltimore. Some of the oldest buildings in the city, these homes are mere infants compared to Baltimore's historical edifices. In fact, Baltimore (incorporated in 1729) had a 110-year jump-start on Sacramento. By the time James Marshall discovered gold here in 1848, Francis Scott Key's poem about the bombing of was already written, set to the tune of a British drinking song, and installed as our national anthem.

Baltimore it is not, but some sights in Sacramento still give me pause. Especially the pretty state capitol building and its 40 acres of lush gardens and orchards, illuminated by the moon on a clear California night.

And that is where we've got it all over Charm City. Baltimore, unlike Sacramento, isn't the state capital, which drastically reduces the chances that you will bump into your governor when he's out filming his next movie.

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