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My Thoughts On Life In the Triangle

I've got Carolina on my mind lately. We've lived in "The Triangle" of North Carolina for more than a decade and I'm reflecting on our time here. As we get ready to move, I'm thinking about all the things I've enjoyed, all the things I'll miss and, well, the things I won't miss.

"The Triangle" - or "Research Triangle" - is otherwise known as Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill. The three major universities UNC (Chapel Hill), Duke (Durham) and NC State (Raleigh) form a triangle shape on the map, hence the name. Overall, life has been very good here. The lifestyle is laid back and the weather is nice. It's a comfortable existence without too many complaints. But if you're thinking of moving here, there are a few things you need to know. Every area has its pros and cons, and the Triangle is no different.

So what are the good things about life in the Triangle? Here's my list:

1. The weather. We get more than 300 days of sun. It's why the UNC Tarheels wear light blue (blue skies, get it?). Winters are relatively short, running from the end of November through early March. It's hot and humid June through mid-September, with the heat peaking around the first few weeks of August. Spring and autumn are delightful. It can be 70 degrees and sunny on Thanksgiving Day.

2. The cost of living. If you're moving from a top-10 metro area, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill might seem relatively cheap and reasonable in terms of cost of living. You can find a 3-bedroom, 2 bath home in the Chapel Hill area for less than $300,000. A big house in a planned HOA Chapel Hill subdivision such as Southern Village will cost more but if you've sold your shoebox square footage in a major market (congratulations) and have dreams of a McMansion, this could be your chance to live the dream. Here's a rundown of state tax rates.

3. Everyone is a transplant. North Carolina issues only one license plate for the back of the car, so everyone leaves their old plate on the front of the car. You can see where they moved from, and everyone seems to be from somewhere else. With so many educational institutions and companies, you're guaranteed to meet people from every state and country. The melting pot of people keeps life interesting.

4. Everyone is highly educated. With three major universities within 30 minutes of each other and the Research Triangle Park smack dab in the middle, it's not surprising the Triangle is home to more advanced degrees per capita than anywhere else in the United States. It's not uncommon to find yourself following a car with three or four college stickers on the back window. Needless to say, places such as the Durham Museum of Life and Science are very popular hangouts for overly-educated parents who want to geek out with their kids.

5. It's demographically young. The median age of the Triangle resident is 34, so it feels like the land of Gen Y and Gen X couples with young kids. Everyone seems to be popping out babies right now. Stroller brigades populate the malls and every other car has a car seat or two. The baby product aisles at Target are a popular destination.

6. North Carolina is changing. North Carolina is now the tenth largest state, thanks in large part to all the Northerners relocating here. The state's politics are changing right along with its demographics: North Carolina was a blue state in 2008 and it will be a sought after toss-up state in 2012. The influx of new people combined with North Carolina's rising profile make it an exciting place to live, especially in an election year. P.S.: Never, ever confuse North Carolina with South Carolina. There's really no comparison.

7. College basketball. The natives would say this should be first on the list. Hoops are a religion here; anything less than a national championship trophy is considered a bad season. Even if you've never watched much basketball you'll become a lifelong hoops fan. Welcome to life on Tobacco Road, where UNC, Duke, NC State and Wake Forest battle it out on the basketball court every winter. ACC basketball is magical to watch. When your favorite team is in the running for the NCAA championship title, March Madness can be more fun than Christmas. Seriously. Beat Dook!

So that's the good stuff. But what about the Triangle's drawbacks? Here's my take:

1. It can feel strangely provincial.
Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham are all within 15 to 25 minutes of each other but people don't seem to venture much outside their backyards. One person who lives near Raleigh who told me she hasn't driven up to Chapel Hill in three years. It's a 20-minute drive. Another person told me recently that she's thought about making the 10-mile drive to the Costco in Durham but 10 miles is too far to travel. This mindset is more typical than you might think. I've always found this lack of local adventurousness very strange, but I grew up on the West Coast where people back down their driveways to get the mail so what do I know.

2. It's a driving culture. Of course, people's provincialism might stem from the fact that getting between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill requires a car. There's simply no way around it, because this area has neither a subway nor truly reliable bus service between the cities. Chapel Hill offers free bus service all around town that is subsidized by the university, which is terrific for employees and students. But if you need to hit the big malls in Durham or Raleigh, you won't be doing it without your own car, a Zipcar or a ride from a friend.

3. It's very suburban. If you love the energy of a big city, you might not like it here long term. That's because the Triangle tends to feel like one giant, sprawling suburb without a vibrant city center. Now the people in Raleigh will say they're the Triangle's version of "bright lights, big city" but Raleigh is fairly boring. If you want a dose of true big city excitement, you'll have to head either south to Atlanta or north to Washington D.C. Charlotte, which is two hours away by car, works in a pinch.

4. It's a radio wasteland. The Triangle is where radio stations go to die. Every time I turn on the radio I'm instantly transported back to the 1970s. Internet radio, satellite radio and iTunes are a lifeline to the modern music world. It's very strange that the Triangle has thousands upon thousands of college students and Gen Xers yet it lacks a major alternative radio station akin to a KROQ or DC-101. You're more likely to hear a Faith Hill or Lady Antebellum disco remix. Please God, make it stop. At this point I've heard the Four Seasons' "Oh, What a Night" and Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" once too often. The radio stations here have both songs in heavy rotation at all times and I've never understood why. To twist a Christopher Walken line, I've got a fever and the prescription is less cowbell.

5. There's no IKEA. Okay, I'll admit this is a nitpicky thing to list but to me it's a symptom of what's missing from the local shopping experience. The Triangle is making progress in adding new retail stores: Trader Joe's started making headway into North Carolina a few years ago and it's opened stores in Cary and Chapel Hill, which is great. But there's still something lacking. For example, we don't have a large electronics retailer similar to a Fry's -- we only have Best Buy and Radio Shack -- which is odd since the Research Triangle is one of the nation's top high-tech business areas. Sometimes it's a variation on a theme that's missing. We have a Nordstrom but not a Nordstrom Rack. Not yet, anyway. Maybe someday. Besides, is an Ikea too much to ask for a demographically-young urban area verging on 2 million people? I think not.

6. Schools vary in quality. Like anywhere else, the quality of public K-12 education depends on where you live. The schools in Chapel Hill-Carrboro are generally very good and you really can't go wrong with any of them. The Wake County Schools (Raleigh-Cary), however, seem to be in a permanent state of controversial redistricting. If you have kids and are thinking of moving to Raleigh or Cary, you might want to do some research on sites such as Greatschools.com or you could find your kids taking the bus 20 miles one way to school.

7. Service is sloooooow.
You can forget you're living in the South only to be painfully reminded whenever you're waiting for service. Southerners aren't great at multitasking and they'll get around to helping you when they goddamn well feel like it, okay? Actually, Southerners are incredibly friendly and it's just as likely they'll want to talk your ear off as they (very slowly) ring up your order. Either way, you can feel yourself growing older as you wait in line. It's enough to drive many fast-paced Northerners insane. I've seen Northerners have meltdowns in line and it's not a pretty sight. Fast food isn't fast here. Allot an extra 10 minutes for standing in the coffee line on your way to work. Save gas by turning off your engine while you wait for your turn at the drive-thru window.

Like I say, every area has its pros and cons. The Triangle is a wonderful place to live if y'all can handle its particular quirks.

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