We looked for a new place to call home, we didn’t find it (pt. 2)

The first thing I should admit is that it was a huge financial mistake to take a week-long vacation. It was a decision I made on a whim, after getting my first sizeable stock payout and a raise from work. A was not really into the idea and instead of slowing down and listening to him, I went ahead and splurged. We hadn’t been out of the city for 2.5 years so I felt it was high time for a vacation and well-deserved.

My stock payout felt like lottery winnings, in that unreal sense that tiny little black pixels on a screen =/= actual money. I used half of the payout for useful things, like paying off some credit card debt and putting aside a month’s worth of rent and daycare expenses as a buffer, but the rest of the cash was burning a hole in my pocket. Bought in short order: New TV to replace our boob tube circa 1998. A weeklong vacation out of town.

After booking an Airbnb for 6 nights and renting a full-size car for a week, I almost immediately regretted my decision. A tried gamely to be okay with it but I felt guilty and selfish for wasting all that money on something pretty useless.

Better things we could have spent money on: paying off more debt, buying nice work clothes, saving money for moving expenses, getting new pots and pans, having fun in the city we live in (NYC is largely unexplored for me, since we mainly just go to work and hang out in our neighborhood).

So, with that basis of context, it’s not a surprise that Portland, Maine did not end up being the land of dreams for A and I. It wasn’t a terrible trip, and it was somewhat relaxing, but Portland is definitely not the place we want to live.

Leaving NYC behind

Fantasy

A dreamy car trip, wind breezing through the windows, beautiful vistas of trees and countryside, fresh air, tiny little northeastern villages and roadside diners.

Reality

Intense anxiety while navigating the twisty, speedy deathtrap highways of NYC with a baby in the backseat and no insurance coverage for accidents in which we are at fault. Finally hitting the open road of I-95 North – not a very picturesque stretch of highway. Occasional glimpses at medium-sized towns in CT, RI, MA, but nothing I’d describe as beautiful or charming. Lunch at Boston Whole Foods was a highlight.

A tiny house on Cape Elizabeth for a week

Fantasy

A quaint little house perched near a rocky beach, waves crashing, audible through the windows. Lungfuls of pure salt air. A mournful lighthouse standing in solitude. A cozy place to rest, read, decompress. Dusty little antique shops, maybe some seaside seafood shacks that we can meander to for every meal. Buy some copper kettles and old books. Fresh, farm-to-table food and quaint little diners full of interesting characters. Just like, tons of cozy-creepy vibe everywhere you look.

Reality

Pulling into Portland, pretty little townhouses, a harbor, and a bridge. Turning onto the bridge and driving down to Cape Elizabeth, the landscape becomes suburban. Strip shopping centers that close early, houses with yards. A and I feel immediately, intensely uncomfortable. We joke about turning right around and heading back to Brooklyn. It’s not really a joke. It feels like we’re back in the suburbs of Atlanta, a place we worked hard for two years to move away from. We decide we’re being ridiculous and determine to enjoy the stay.

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We finally pull into the driveway of our tiny house, which turns out to be someone’s converted garage, right next to someone’s actual house. It’s okay inside. There’s a few spiderwebs in the corners and the loft bed is three feet away from the ceiling and the sheets are pretty humid and the mattress is two twin mattresses pushed into one, so good sex is pretty much off the menu. There’s a Pack N’ Play for the baby, which we set up in the living room, and we head out for lobster. There’s a lobster shack just down the road, although actually it’s just slightly too far and dangerous to walk there, so we have to rig up the car again. The line is 45 minutes long and the restaurant closes at 8 PM.

We wind up living the suburban life for the next week. We drive everywhere, have to wait for restaurants to open and get to the store before it’s closed. The lighthouse is just down the road, but is ensconced in “an exclusive neighborhood”, which we stroll through out of boredom. We go to the beach a few times and it’s pretty nice. We get slightly tanned. The seafood is undeniably delicious, but after a lobster roll, lobster BLT, and lobster pasta, I’m so done. We do make it to some local diners, which are full of old guys who make googly eyes at the baby and hit on the waitresses. The diners are probably our favorite part.

We do relax at home and read – in creepy levels of deafening silence. We try turning on the radio but it’s like we’re in Nashville judging by the available stations — country, country, oldies, evangelism. Our TV gets one channel successfully, occasionally two. At night the lack of light coming in through the garage window-cum-stained glass appliquéd tiny house window is totally disconcerting.

The air was definitely fresher, though. The state park near our house was full of beautiful little glens and trails, and walking on the rocks next to crashing waves felt amazing.

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It might have been a snap judgement, but it seemed like the Northeast is called New England for a reason – some sort of variant of English culture seems to permeate everything. People stick to themselves. You can order a full English breakfast, only it’s called a Maine breakfast, and it comes with an egg, beans, toast, and is totally delicious. I mean, I’ve never been to England, but Portland seemed very different from NYC in a very distinct and Englishy way.

Also similar to England (?), Maine seemed to be populated by Scandinavian-Irish stock who were the farmers and the fishermen and a certain type of dark-haired English-y person who were the owners of very large vacation homes.

We got to meander around downtown Portland, which felt almost scrubbed-clean and devoid of population compared to NY. We hopped a ride on the mailboat ferry which services the populations of neighboring islands that lack road access to the mainland. I spied a group of hardworking local men on the mailboat eyeing us up in a not-too-pleasant way, and realized we stuck out obviously as not being from there.

Portland is not our home

The Fantasy

While walking the streets of Portland, I begin to feel the dawning of a deep sense of belonging, and of being home. I look at the houses and happily imagine our lives flourishing here. We’d buy a converted loft warehouse with a metal spiral staircase and a rooftop balcony looking out on the harbor, or we’d find an 1800’s farmhouse inland and begin laying in the garden and fixing the place up. We would snuggle into the soil of the town and our roots would take hold. We’d be able to live affordably enough to pursue things which truly interest us, art and writing, and our children would grow up in a lively household filled with culture.

The Reality

Portland is a small, practical, mainly conservative, working-class city with a tiny population of urban, liberal creative imports from places like Brooklyn, and another small population of homesteaders with a slow-living, hippie kinda vibe. A and I are not searching for the lifestyle of any of these communities. I guess we’d come closest to “liberal urban creative import”, but that has a certain yuppy-ish connotation neither of us are comfortable with. Slow-living hippie homesteader sounds nice in fantasy, but the reality of living an isolated, rural life is not something I think I can currently handle. Portland’s population is also almost entirely racially homogenous which made me feel uncomfortable in ways I can’t put a finger on.

Coming back to NY

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We drove back overnight so the baby would sleep the whole way. Finally making it back to the NYC highway deathtrap in the early hours of September 12, two lights were streaming upward from the Twin Tower site in downtown Manhattan. Cars zipped in front of us, unmarked white delivery vans were honking their horns and puttering along, late night revelers blasted deep basslines that reverberated out of tinted windows.

The amount of total relief I felt as soon as I saw the skyline took me by surprise. Feeling a small rush of adrenaline and realizing “hey, I live here, this is my home” was one of the best feelings I’ve experienced in a while. Groggy with lack of sleep, stumbling out on the curb in front of our building at 5AM, seeing our little street already full of people – a girl saying goodbye to her visiting mom, a jogger, a man outside with his dogs, a couple early morning pacers – I was immersed in a place where things were Happening. People were living. We were Doing Things, even though it is often a very tough slog.

That sense of belonging dawned on me then, and even though NY is barely affordable and we wear ourselves to the bone keeping up with the daily demands of living here, I am happy to call it home (for now).

I’m sort of glad we went to Portland, even though I also deeply regret wasting our hard-won resources for something that didn’t turn out to be fruitful. I never want to move there, but I’m glad I saw that for myself. New York is our home, for now, for better or worse. Next time I get a stock bonus we’ll know how to spend it the right way. And next time we go on a vacation we will know what to do differently.

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