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Seven Hills

Boston-area exploration, travel notes, crafty things, and other Somervillainy.

Friday, April 14, 2006

What Do You Miss?

Isn't it interesting, when you move away from a place, the things you end up missing about it? It isn't always what you expect, or the things you would list as your favorites while you were there.

I lived in San Francisco just shy of ten years, and though we were back for a wedding this past October, it was close enough to when we'd moved that things were pretty much the same - friendships picked up about where we'd left them, neighborhoods unchanged. It was more disorienting than anything, and I found myself getting confused from time to time about where we currently lived, especially during the inevitable "East Coast vs. West Coast" conversations that cropped up with other wedding guests. It was hard to remember which side I was supposed to be defending.

This time it felt different - the city had time to move on from where it was when we left it. In our personal circle there'd been break-ups, babies born, friends planning to move away. And then, in the public realm, the inevitable new stores, the restaurants that were still there but suddenly past their prime. You can't help but feel a little jilted - "Wait! How can you all go on without me?" I thought about an essay written by Colson Whitehead in the aftermath of September 11th, "Lost and Found," in which he talks about only truly belonging to a city "when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now." (In his case that city could only be New York: "I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else." If you've never read this piece, check it out - it will give you chills.)

I don't know if San Francisco ever really belonged to me. We did have a giddy love affair of sorts during the dot come heyday - sure, I bitched and moaned about the ever-present callow yuppies talking loudly about their stock options at the next table in the trendy restaurant, but the fact is, I was right there at the trendy restaurant, too, and the only reason I wasn't talking stock options is I couldn't ever quite figure out how they worked. I said I was annoyed by it all, but since I hadn't really known the city before the dot com days, when it was over and everyone went home again things felt kind of sad, quiet, like the shine had worn off. And much as I loved my first mild winter there - no snow, no itchy skin, no static cling - I never really cottoned to the muted seasons of Northern California. No wonder ten years slipped by like nothing - without the clearly delineated seasonal cycle of my Midwestern childhood I had no way to know the time was passing.

Leaving it, I find I'm allowed to love it again. It's always easier to romanticize a place when you're not actually living there. The litter problem, the exorbitant real estate, the obsession with style - you don't own these things anymore, they don't impact you and reflect on you personally. Revisiting my old neighborhood I was finally able to take a fondly detached view of the perennial parade of punks, hipsters, urban primitives and hippies - "ah, same old Mission" - rather than feeling frustrated by the limited roster of favored uniforms and my old discomfort that I had outgrown the scene. I didn't have to fit in anymore; now I was just visiting, so I could relax and enjoy the spectacle.

In no particular order, these are some things I didn't know I was missing until I encountered them again last week:

- The smell of eucalyptus in the air.
- Really good eggs benedict.
- Beer and wine at every corner store. I didn't even need to buy any - it was just so nice to see it there again.
- Those wacky West Coast flowers that I had grown tired of. Lo and behold I once again found them charmingly wacky! I guess we just needed some space.
- Odd, perfect little shops like Faye's Video, purveyor of movies, good coffee, and not much else, shelves adorned by adorable little drawings of bunnies and things, courtesy of co-owner Mike, and serving as a sort of neighborhood community hub.

I left my heart in San Francisco, but I've left it lots of other places, too, and I don't think it ever totally had it until I, myself, left. The picture above is what I think of as an alternative San Francisco icon, a landmark unlike the grand Golden Gate Bridge in that only true residents know it's a landmark. Not Sutro Tower or Twin Peaks (though they're probably mostly known by locals, as well) but the big Safeway supermarket sign, marking the juncture of four neighborhoods and even inspiring the semi-serious district name "Safeway Heights." Until I saw it out the window of our friends' living room, I didn't know how much I'd missed it.

What do you miss?

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At 4/14/2006 6:53 PM, Anonymous Jeff said...

I live in SF, but I'm currently down in Texas. People are raving about the salsa here (in Austin, mind you).

I can honestly say I miss burritos. (and a certain someone, whom I'm sure to be reunited with. but that's neither here nor there.) I miss El Farolito burritos specifically, and their salsa.

I miss what I suddenly consider urban etiquette. Walking everywhere. It's hot down here, which, for now, is a pleasant thing. But I miss what I call "permanent air conditioning," which is what you get in SF, despite the weather of late.

Nice "the grass is always greener" post. Especially like how you incorporated "cottoned" as a verb. You're helping make me homesick.

PS: so great to see you last week.

At 4/14/2006 7:10 PM, Blogger Chrissa said...

Oh, I hear you on the burritos. Mexican food in general is such a looming loss that I couldn't even start to get into it. I didn't even like Mexican food before I moved to California, but maybe that's why. I tried to order a taco at a local chain taqueria here today and by the time I sat down with the soggy little heap they call food I was about to cry. I want my La Taqueria!

Permanent air conditioning - nice. I know I will be missing that, too, in a couple months.

Totally great to see you, too. I'm glad you're coming out here soon for Visit With Jeff round two.

At 4/14/2006 10:05 PM, Blogger marshmallow soup said...

perfectly said. I miss the J train of all things. I also miss the San Francisco air, the sun drenched quality of the light there (particularly in the mission and noe valley), and i think I miss most of all being able to run into people from long ago parts of my life, e.g. oh right, you were that annoying customer at Stacey's bookstore who always made me do special orders for you. :)

At 4/15/2006 12:17 PM, Blogger Chrissa said...

I can see how one would miss the J - I always liked the part when it goes past Dolores Park, and then up between the houses on the hill into Noe Valley. I remember when I first moved to SF, running into people I recognized on the street was the thing I missed about Boston, and now I'm back here, rarely seeing anyone I know but running into familiar faces when I go back there. I guess that's what happens when you're always on the lam ;)

At 4/15/2006 8:00 PM, Blogger Neal Grigsby said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 4/15/2006 11:07 PM, Blogger Neal Grigsby said...

I lived mostly in the East Bay for 10 years or so, but worked in SF for most of those.

It's been said before, but I'll say it again: how can such a big city (Boston) so get wrong an entire cuisine? I've been to the grocery stores, I know they have jalapeno peppers, avocados, and cilantro, so why isn't the Mexican food any good? I actually think it has more to do with the expectations of the folks around here - they seemed to have lumped all their spicy foods into the same category, so you get "Mexican" restaurants where half of the menu is Cajun food. Jack of all spices, master of none!

Also miss my weekly soccer games in Mosswood park. Scones and pizza from Arizmendi (I've had to make the scones from the Cheeseboard cookbook on a few particularly desperate occasions).

Becky has expressed a renewed appreciation for a kind of California baseline friendliness, which before came off as flat and superficial, but now seems comforting.

At 4/17/2006 12:21 PM, Blogger JessRedRose said...

I'm still here in SF, so I can't say I miss anything... although I have been feeling a bit blah about the place lately, so it was nice to read your nice comments. I've been here 12 years, far longer than I've lived anywhere else (I'm a navy brat) so there's clearly something that keeps me here... I think if I ever left I'd miss it terribly. What's funny to me, though, is I can't really imagine what I'll miss. I guess I'll just wait and see, heh.

Oh wait - I know what I miss - all the ex-Bay Areans - you, Neal, Becky, Brian, etc. It's not the same without y'all.

At 4/17/2006 1:07 PM, Blogger Chrissa said...

I felt the same way, Jess - I had no idea what I would miss when we left. And it felt good on this visit to enjoy the city again - I felt bad to have tired of it as much as I had.

And of course the unspoken Number One thing I miss most of all is all the nice people I met during my SF career. I had to try not to think about it too much when we were moving - too sad.

Neal - we have a taqueria candidate for you and Becky to try in Somerville. It is by no means excellent, but as Daniel says, "it is not worse than the worst of San Francisco's taquerias." We think that if we hone our ordering strategies, we might come up with something decent there.

At 4/21/2006 12:02 AM, Blogger Brian P said...

This thread is heartwarmingly heartbreaking. I almost couldn't read it all. Like Jess said, I miss all the ex-Bay Areans. And the current ones, too. Other things I miss about SF:
-The abundance of trees, yet relative lack of palm trees.
-Specialty's cookies (Neal, we never got around to cracking that recipe)
-Various bars, especially trivia nights at Mad Dog in the Fog
-The fog itself--always invigorating, somehow.
I think SF is to me what NYC is to Colson Whitehead: it ruined me for anywhere else. And maybe the memory of it is better than the actual place now.

At 5/08/2006 10:18 AM, Blogger RBG said...

I think you said it all, Chrissa, and the folks who left comments. I continue to get confused about where I live, perhaps because the neighborhood we live in here (Dorchester) is a lot different from the prototypical Boston scene I walk through when I go to work and school. When I come out of Copley and walk past the BPL I have to remind myself, "oh yeah, we live in Boston now." I get really sad when I realize I'm 3000 miles away from Arizmendi, not to mention my Bay Area friends. They're the things I miss the most.

There is one thing I don't miss - the fog. Sorry to ruin the romance, but the fog was one thing I never particularly cared for. Maybe that's why I preferred the east bay to SF.

At 8/24/2006 9:21 AM, Anonymous Jan said...

Hi Chrissa! I miss you! And guess what? When I go visit SF in December, you won't be there, will you? I hardly think that is fair.

Who is this friend who misses the J train? I lived on that line four years and I think I never got to work on time. Once I waited 45 minutes (could I have walked?) before it arrived. Once I was dumped off at Market Street after the announcement was made that the train would not be going to Embarcadero (following shouts by the cranky driver at EVERY stop before that that the train was indeed going to Embarcadero)... Hmm... I do miss writing to the mayor to complain about the Muni...

I miss seeing something new every time I come to the top of a hill and look in a different direction.

I MISS BURRITOS! Do they taste better ANYWHERE? BTW, I have finally, after seven years, found a reasonable burrito in Barcelona, but get this: it's about 1/3 the size of one at say, El Farolito, and costs about four times as much. So, burrito consumption is saved only for yearly visits to SF, and since I missed one last year, several will have to be consumed this year.

OK, I'll stop now because I'm getting myself all homesick.

Chrissa, meet me at Puerto Alegre for margaritas and burritos the week of December 15. Don't be late.


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