My husband, The Russian, and I are back in our old neighborhood in Bellevue, Washington this week visiting friends before departing on an Alaskan cruise with my family to celebrate my father’s 80th birthday. We lived in Bellevue for a little over two years and thought we might settle there until fate intervened and threatened to send us back to the dreaded Los Angeles. Not wanting to leave our destiny up to fate, The Russian eventually found a job in the Philadelphia area and we returned to my preferred time zone, only to have him transferred to North Carolina nine months later.
But that’s another story. This particular story is about what happens when a couple of rootless middle-aged gypsies return to someplace they once lived and try to make sense of their seemingly rootless existence. It’s a story of nostalgia and blind faith choices.
I’ve never been much for moving around. When my parents decided to leave the great Midwest and move our family to San Diego when I was almost thirteen, I was bereft. Southern California circa 1972 was an entirely different universe than Southern Ohio. I was always one of those geeky kids, somewhat lacking in the social graces, who’d somehow managed in seventh grade to find a set of geeks with similar interests and oddities. Being uprooted and moved across the country to the land of the tanned probably set me back a good two or three years, given that thirteen and fourteen year old girls are some of the nastiest creatures on earth, particularly to those of their own kind who are somehow too different to fit in seamlessly with the locals.
My bad experience of moving at age thirteen no doubt negatively affected my desire to move to new places. Let’s just say that I’m not adventurous by either nature or experience. Given a choice between staying and going, I almost always chose staying, content to deal with the evil I know, as opposed to taking the chance that a potential good thing I desire might be acquired only in some other location. The Russian, on the other hand, is all about adventure, all about moving on when the current environment no longer suits his needs. Change may scare the heck out of me, but it usually intrigues him, especially if he’s at all unhappy where he is. And he’s frequently dissatisfied.
This dissatisfaction lead him to leave his home city of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) when he was twenty-eight and travel thousands of miles across the globe to Chicago to start a new life. He barely knew any English when he got here but he learned more than enough to get by and to make a pretty decent living. He still has a unique way of conjugating English verbs and doesn’t know how to use “a” and “the” properly but, as he says, that’s not his problem. If someone doesn’t understand him, they can always ask.
The Russian has no deep attachments to his home country. Unlike many of his friends, he’s never been back and has no desire to return for a visit. His stock reply whenever anyone asks him why he’s never returned is “there’s a reason why I’m from there.” He doesn’t look back; he doesn’t regret; and rarely tries to revisit the past, even in his head.
I’m almost the complete opposite. The past has strong a hold on me. I don’t let go easily. If at all.
When we met, I was living in Rochester, New York. I’d been there for fifteen years. The Russian was living in suburban Chicago. I moved to the Chicago area to be with him because his kid, my stepson, was there and he didn’t feel he could move away. Love can make you do things you wouldn’t normally do. So, I took a huge leap of faith out of my comfort zone. I left the life I’d made in upstate New York to be with him under the impression that at least we’d be staying in Chicago and that it would become home, which it eventually did. Of all the big cities I’ve visited in this country, there’s something special about Chicago–the history, the architecture, the trains, the attitude, the rhythm. For me it was magical. I fell in love with the place because it made me a braver me–the woman who wasn’t afraid to get on a train by herself to go someplace she hadn’t been and trust that it would turn out okay.
As it turned out, Chicago was not forever. When the economy tanked after 9/11, the city tanked with it. The industry that employed The Russian was particularly hard hit and, when he lost his job in 2003, he couldn’t find anything in Chicago to replace it. What he did find was in Los Angeles, a city I’d hated with a passion for years. Los Angeles–that vast wasteland between San Diego and Santa Barbara (where I’d gone to college)–home to smog so intense you could sometimes barely see the buildings on the other side of the 405 freeway; land of crumbling stucco apartment complexes, far too many cars, and far too many people; a place where the divide between rich and poor is clearly drawn, outlines clearly visible in the bright and endless sun. I despise the place. With a passion. Living there didn’t make me like it more. The Russian, however, was entranced by palm trees, beaches, and perpetual sunshine.
For whatever reasons, personal and economic–I don’t really remember it now; nor do I remember why I didn’t just say “NO”–we didn’t think we had a choice, and off we went for five-plus miserable years. I was convinced we were condemned to count out our days there in some small, incredibly overpriced apartment until we could retire and escape to someplace far less expensive and far more humane. Mercifully, however, The Russian’s company decided to transfer him to the Seattle area. Liberated from Los Angeles, I was sure we’d find our bliss there. But life is never that simple. And just because you might desire to set down roots somewhere, it doesn’t mean they’ll take.
The Pacific Northwest is among the most beautiful places in the world. The smell of pine and greenery perfumes the air year round. If it’s not raining and the sky is clear, you can turn a corner and suddenly see a mountain range, peaks covered in snow. Water abounds, be it Lake Washington or the Puget Sound. If you live in the Seattle area, you’re never far from it.
We spent a lot of time outdoors when we lived here. Our townhouse complex abutted a nature preserve. We could walk from our place to a nearby blueberry farm and, from there, down past a waterfall or two to Lake Sammamish. Blackberries are the local weed. They grow everywhere. We could cross the street from where we lived and harvest them by the pound from the nearby trail, which we did. We picked lots of stuff in and around Bellevue. Raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries–all of which we ate, transformed into pies, froze, or preserved. The Russian once located a bunch of mushrooms near our health club, harvested them, and pickled them for New Year’s.
I learned all about the locavore movement here. We frequented farmer’s markets for pickling cucumbers, tomatoes, plums, nectarines, and apricots–all of which we also preserved. The Russian played lots of tennis; I practiced a lot of yoga and acquired a therapist; we made a few friends. But for some reason, our roots never took. The Russian worked in a small office where his coworkers barely talked to each other. Colleagues who were separated by a cubicle wall would email each other rather than speak. His attempts to find a different job took him to ever odder places. The long seasons of rain, mist, and cloud cover took their toll. We began to understand why people lived off coffee and anti-depressants. Yet, when his company changed hands and he was told he needed to return to Los Angeles, my “no” instinct took hold. Strongly.
And so, when The Russian found a job in Philly, we picked up and left for the east coast.
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All these moves over a few short years leave one giddy and discombobulated. As I sit here in our friends’ townhouse, looking across at the place where we used to live, I feel both a strong rush of the familiar and a sense of the distance travelled. In the past couple of days, The Russian and I have walked along the trails we walked probably a couple hundred times in the couple of years we lived here, picked and ate blackberries and blueberries from the same trees, and fell asleep at night watching the same pine trees we watched back then. It’s easy enough to imagine who we’d be had we stayed. We would have walked the same paths a couple hundred more times, made more friends, and still might never have felt quite at home. The feeling is similar when we visit Chicago–both of us can still imagine a life there even though we left nearly a decade ago. (If you’re wondering, my feeling about L.A. is the same as The Russian’s feeling about the former Soviet Union–there’s a reason why I’m from there and I ain’t never going back).
Of course we didn’t stay. We closed off certain possibilities by moving on and opened up new ones. At a point in their lives where most people stay put, we’ve taken flight. I hope we’re done now. Adventure is fine when you’re young but, once you get older, roots become a lot more important. We’ve found a place where we both feel at home and neither of us wants to leave. We’ll pick some more blackberries while we’re here and visit some more friends, but when it comes time to board the plane, we know we’ll be headed home.