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
Labels: san francisco, travel