Home is…?

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Montreal’s Habitat, a legendary bit of architecture

 

By Caitlin Kelly

If you’ve moved around a fair bit — as every child in a military family knows well, like the author of Small Dog Syndrome blog — it’s sometimes challenging to decide where home really is.

I’ve now lived decades in the same one-bedroom apartment in the same building in the same suburban New York town, by far the longest I have ever lived anywhere.

When my adult midlife peers lament the final sale of their beloved childhood home, I think: “Huh.” Not me.

I’ve moved a lot and have lived in five countries. But it’s now been a long, long time since I last changed residences, absolutely worn out after changing my home location six times in seven years.

It takes time to settle in, to get to know a place and its rhythms.

And, sometimes — despite all your highest hopes and best intentions — it’s just a really poor fit.

I did not enjoy living in Montreal, even with the nicest apartment anywhere ever (fireplace, 15 foot ceilings, spacious rooms) — the winter was too cold and long and snowy and the professional possibilities far too limited. Plus incredibly high taxes and, then anyway, a disturbingly high crime rate. Our building was broken into a lot.

Same for my 1.5 years in small-town New Hampshire, before the Internet, with no family/friends/job and an exhausted/absent medical resident for a boyfriend.

 

My homes:

Vancouver

Born, lived to age two.

London

ages two to five, with my parents, while my father made films for the BBC.

 

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The Ex, an annual event in Toronto

 

Toronto, ages five to 30

— a gorgeous huge house with a big backyard. Parents divorced when I was seven.

— boarding school Grades 4-9 and summer camp (four of them) ages 8-17

— a downtown apartment shared with my mother.

— a second apartment in the same building, shared with my mother.

— an apartment with my father and his girlfriend.

— a house (owned), also living with with them, in a lovely neighborhood, facing a park.

— a ground-floor, back alley studio in a bad neighborhood, until a man tried to pull me out of the bathroom window while I was in the bath. Lived alone.

— a sorority house, for the summer. Shared space, very comforting!

— a top floor studio apartment near campus; alone.

— a top floor apartment in a downtown Victorian house; with boyfriend.

— the top two floors of a (rented) house; with boyfriend, then alone.

 

Cuernavaca, Mexico

— six months with my mother in a rented apartment, age 14

 

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Montreal has some amazing  buildings!

 

Montreal, Quebec

— one year, with my mother in a rented apartment in a downtown brownstone, age 12

— 1.5 years on the top floor of a luxury 1930s-era rental building in downtown while a Montreal Gazette reporter; alone.

 

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Now that’s my kind of delivery! The Marais, one morning…

 

Paris

— eight months in a tiny student dorm room in Cite Universitaire while on an EU-funded journalism fellowship.

 

Lebanon, New Hampshire

— two years in a rented apartment on the main floor of a farmhouse, with boyfriend-later-husband.

 

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A walk along the Palisades, on the western shore of the Hudson River

 

 

Tarrytown, New York

—  current residence; married, divorced, solo, now re-married.

 

I know people here now.

I run into D, the amiable Frenchman who helps choose stock for our local thrift shop and notice he’s still limping, months after he broke his ankle.

I chat with M, a hardware store sales associate I interviewed in 2009 for my retail book, and who works for a man whose great-grandfather started the company.

I say hello to Hassan, who hands me shards of ham and bits of candied pecans at his gourmet shop.

I bump into friends on the street and at the gym and the train station and the grocery store and at church.

When I return to Montreal and Toronto, I’m also delighted to spend time with old friends and to enjoy familiar foods and sights and sounds and all our shared cultural references that none of my American pals will ever get.

 

So I feel lucky that so many places have been my home. I feel as bien dans ma peau speaking French in Montreal and Paris as I do hablando en Mexico as I do ordering a bagel with a schmear here in New York. 

 

Will we move again?

When?

Where?

Why?

 

Where is home for you?

 

Aaah, country life…where, in the U.S., suicide rates are higher

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s not easy living in a rural area, as some people discover when they move to one.

This deeply disturbing New York Times story discusses the suicide rate in rural America — twice as high as in urban areas:

The C.D.C. reported last year that Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the nation, almost 30 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012, far above the national average of 12.6 per 100,000. Not far behind were Alaska, Montana, New Mexico and Utah, all states where isolation can be common. The village of Hooper Bay, Alaska, recently recorded four suicides in two weeks.

In one telephone survey of 1,000 Wyoming residents, half of those who responded said someone close to them had attempted or died by suicide.

In September, mental health experts, community volunteers and law enforcement officers gathered in Casper to discuss possible solutions. Among the participants was Bobbi Barrasso, the wife of Senator John Barrasso, who has made suicide prevention a personal and political mission.

“Wyoming is a beautiful state,” she told the crowd. “We have great open spaces. We are a state of small population. We care about one another. We’re resourceful, we’re resilient, we cowboy up.”

…The realities of small-town life can take an outsize toll on the vulnerable. A combination of lower incomes, greater isolation, family issues and health problems can lead people to be consumed by day-to-day struggles, said Emily Selby-Nelson, a psychologist at Cabin Creek Health Systems, which provides health care in the rural hills of West Virginia.

This story hit home for me.

In 1988-89, I spent 18 months living in Lebanon, New Hampshire (now, shockingly, plagued by an epidemic of heroin addiction), a small town of about 10,000 close to the much more affluent town of Hanover, NH, home to Dartmouth College. I moved there to follow my then boyfriend (later husband) in his medical residency at Dartmouth, a four-year commitment.

Port Hope, Ontario. pop. 16,000
Port Hope, Ontario. pop. 16,000

I was excited. I had only lived downtown, and/or in large cities like Toronto, Montreal and Paris. I was really curious about small-town life and looked forward to trying it — but barely lasted a year before I was really in fear of losing my mental health. No exaggeration.

It was the worst time of my life.

We were broke, trying to live (and own two cars) on his salary of $22,000, the nation’s poorest-paying medical residency and my savings. I had no job and there were none to be found.

There was no Internet then. The winter was brutally long and cold. We had no friends or family nearby and every social overture I made was ignored or went unreciprocated.

Everyone was married or pregnant and/or had kids. We were “only” living together, not yet even engaged, which (!?) seemed scandalous to others our age, even students who’d moved there from other large cities.

The only time our phone rang, a voice would say “I need a windshield” — we had inherited the former number for Upper Valley Glass.

I know. That sounds funny.

I'd rather be surrounded by a horde of dancing strangers, thanks!
I’d rather be surrounded by a horde of dancing strangers, thanks!

I became almost agoraphobic because everywhere we went, alone or together, we were socially invisible. Plus, ambitious as hell, I was professionally dying on the vine. Journalism is incredibly competitive and staying out of it for even a year or two is never a great idea.

I had left my country, close friends, a well-paid newspaper job and a gorgeous apartment.

For this?!

The stifling pressure to conform to some really weird 1950s-era ideal of behavior was crazy. I was criticized — by a friend! — for choosing bright green rubber boots instead of sensible brown or black. And coming from Montreal, a vibrant, bilingual, sophisticated city, the region’s dominant ethos of Yankee self-denial was alien, all these women wearing no makeup or perfume or anything with a visible shape to it.

I had never felt so out of place, not even when I lived in France or Mexico.

Yes, we had a nice apartment. Yes, the countryside was gorgeous. Yes, I actually enjoyed attending the local auction every Friday and learned a lot about antiques.

But I fled to New York within 18 months of arriving there; I would never have made it through another three years there.

For the past 25 years I’ve lived in a small town, but one only 25 miles from Manhattan. It gives me the best of both worlds, easy, quick access to one of the busiest and most challenging cities in the world — with the beauty and silence that also recharges and refreshes me. I know enough people here now I’m always seeing someone I know at the gym or the post office or the grocery stores. but without feeling stifled or excluded.

London -- much more my speed!
London — much more my speed!

Do you live in a rural or isolated area or small town?

How is it working for you?

Simple pleasures

By Caitlin Kelly

Some of the past week’s small town pleasures have included:

Walking two blocks to a local cafe for breakfast

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The local variety store — owned by the same man for 31 years

Walking past heritage homes

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Boxes filled with penny candy — even if it’s now five cents a piece

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Patting a gorgeous 11-week old puppy outside the pharmacy named Otis

Patting a huge white Bernese dog in the park named Sugar

Chatting to a stranger in the park and learning more about this town, where he was born, raised and now works

Saying hello to people walking and cycling past

Butter tarts!

This is a butter tart. Yum!
This is a butter tart. Yum!

The frogs’ singing from the backyard pond

Watching the robins and doves lining up — bird spa! — to bathe in the backyard pond

A cold beer and a bowl of peanuts

The best!
The best!

Reading a great new novel given to us in a stack of free books

Naps

More naps

Not driving

Tulips in the park across the street

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Washing cars in the driveway (and spraying Jose “by accident”)

Climbing the stairs (we live in an apartment)

Having to holler across the house to be heard (ditto)

A big backyard

Sitting on the verandah and staring into the sky

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Not needing to know what time it is

Beating Jose at Bananagrams

Being able to keep up with my freelance writing work even while sitting at the kitchen table in Canada

Blueberry pancakes for breakfast

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The haunting sound of passing train whistles

Meeting our old friends for a long lunch

The warm sun on bare skin after an endless and bitter winter

A Canadian farmer’s market specialty (which Americans call Canadian bacon)

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Tossing a softball in the park at sunset

Silence

Having the maitre d’ at a local restaurant remember me from our last visit

Hitting a big bucket of balls while listening to a nearby woodpecker

Finding a 1960 black Ford pick-up truck for sale

$8,000 Canadian or best offer...
$8,000 Canadian or best offer…

Small town life — bucolic relief or isolating hell?

By Caitlin Kelly

I love to visit them --- this one is in Florida -- but not sure I want to live there again
I love to visit them — this one, Appalachicola, is in Florida — but not sure I want to live there again

As a scarred survivor of 18 miserable months in a small New Hampshire town, this recent New York Times essay resonated with me:

In November 2012, I flew out to start work…We bought a house for maybe one-fifth of what we would have paid in San Francisco, less than what my parents paid for my childhood home in rural Pennsylvania.

We were betting on the fact that we wouldn’t be alone in fleeing the big city for a small town. Urban living has become unthinkably expensive for many middle-class creative types. A 2010 study from the Journal of Economic Geography found a trifecta of reasons some rural areas have grown instead of shrunk: the creative class, entrepreneurial activity and outdoor amenities. In 2012, a University of Minnesota research fellow called the influx of 30-to-40-somethings into rural Minnesota towns a “brain gain” — flipping the conventional wisdom on the exodus from the boonies to the big city.

Predictably enough, they end up abandoning what initially looked like a great choice.

I know another writer, fed up with the cost and craziness of New York City life, who fled north to the Catskills for silence, low rent and creative freedom. She lasted two years.

Another writer friend recently quit her job and traded a major American city for….the Catskills:

It’s remote. The other day I had to drive 45 minutes (one way) and pay $2.00 in tolls to get to my bank. So much is done online these days, it might not be that much of an issue, but it’s definitely an adjustment. I’m thinking I’ll have to coordinate trips into the larger towns to coincide with other errands.

It’s clean. I haven’t seen one piece of litter or trash — which is not to say I haven’t seen junk in people’s yards, but that’s different.

It smells good. The air is pure and fresh. On rainy, chilly days like today the air was filled with the scent of burning firewood and wet grass. The other day I walked by someone’s house and smelled the sweet buttery scent of an apple pie baking. I actually paused in front of the window and when the lady inside looked at me, I waved. “Smells delicious!”

It’s really dark at night. The other night I drove home after dark and needed my high beams the whole time. I try not to think of slasher movies when walking at night. Actually, I try not to walk at night.

It’s friendly. Some people are quicker to talk to me than others, but those who have were extremely friendly. People have given me their phone numbers, invited me to events and introduced me to other folks within minutes of meeting.

It’s intellectual and creative. I’ve received more bookstore and library recommendations in the past five days than I have in 19 years living in Los Angeles, and heard there are many other writers and artists up here.

It’s cheap. Not only are the prices of necessities and services lower, but there are fewer opportunities to spend money. I’m not eating out, going to the movies, walking by stores or cafes. I literally haven’t reached for my wallet to buy anything in three days.

I had that fantasy too.

In January 1988, I followed an American man I met in Montreal, where he was finishing medical school and I was a newspaper reporter, and moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, a small town two hours north of Boston best known for Dartmouth College, one of the most elite and costly universities in the nation. I worked there for three months on a visa, then moved permanently, expecting to stay there for the next three years while he finished his medical residency.

Yes, please!
Yes, please!

I barely lasted another year.

Summer was heaven: sailing, hiking, canoeing, soaking up the beauty and silence of the Upper Valley. Fall, with the leaves turning color and the smell of woodsmoke in the air, was glorious.

By January, though, I was ready to shoot myself: completely bored, lonely, broke and isolated. Unlike virtually everyone around us, I didn’t have a job and wasn’t married, pregnant or already a mother. I didn’t jog nor have the slightest desire to do so.

We had a great apartment, the main floor of a big old house in Lebanon, NH. I loved our large kitchen with its deep wooden flour bin and 1950s stove. It was a beautiful part of the country, and I loved exploring its backroads and rivers. Every Friday I took a folding chair at a local auction house and got a great education in antiques.

But my boyfriend, (later husband), was gone most of the time working and when home was exhausted and withdrawn. We struggled to live decently on his $22,000/year salary and my meager savings. Oddly, for being in the country surrounded by open land, there was nowhere to go for a walk, because all that land was privately owned.

I hate to admit it, but I also had no idea how to connect with anyone there; my primary identity, then as now, was my work. Not there.

And rural economies, I quickly learned — having only lived in large cities like London, Paris, Toronto and Montreal — were two-tier: you were lucky enough to find a decent, solid job (teacher, nurse, government) or toiled for pennies in a low-wage position.

In utter desperation, I once called a maple syrup farm that had advertised for workers, but was dismissed out of hand for having no prior experience.

(Here’s a sobering piece about rural homelessness in Missouri.)

Our phone rang all the time, each time a wrong number, and each time with the same request: “I need a new windshield”; ours was the former number for Upper Valley Glass. No matter how many times I entertained his co-workers, almost no one ever reciprocated. Without a job or friends, life was grim and lonely. There was no internet then, no Skype.

We moved to a suburb of New York City in June 1989, to a Hudson river town, and I’m — very happily! — still here. I know the people who run our coffee shop and gourmet store and hardware store. I’m at our YMCA a few days every week so have friends there as well. Even though it’s officially a village, it never feels claustrophobic.

On our main street, a terrific concert hall
On our main street, a terrific concert hall

I’m not sure I’d ever live in a rural small town again. I can see Manhattan’s mid-town towers from my street and be walking among them within an hour. I know how badly I need that balance.

How about you?

Do you live in — and love — a small town?

Have you tried it and abandoned it?