It was the summer of 2005. I had just graduated from high school and was shopping for my college necessities at everyone’s favorite Target. I had been lured by the newly added Dollar Spot, a ploy which continues to tempt me. While digging through small metal baskets of pencils, notebooks, and individually wrapped greeting cards I came across a set of ceramic bowls–one white and one black, each bearing the names of four world cities: New York, London, San Francisco, and Paris. I swooped in and added them to my red plastic shopping cart.
They had been made for me, I decided. Not only were they my favorite colors–white and black with a small splash of red, the colors of my imagined future kitchen for nearly a decade–but they seemed symbolic of the sort of life I wanted: something big and exciting, the kind of life that people would read about in our family Christmas letters and follow on Facebook (though Facebook did not yet exist in my life). I nearly picked up the matching dishtowels and coasters, but reasoned that I was on a budget. I moved on to bath towels and bed sheets, which in some ways were not nearly as important.
I treasured the bowls all four years of college. I ate cereal from them every morning and filled them with popcorn on occasional evenings. I brought them to “all hall” snack breaks and took them on picnics with my college boyfriend. When they were clean they lived on the middle shelf of my yaffa blocks and when they were dirty I washed them in the community bathroom sinks. When they were full I didn’t take much notice, but when they were empty I looked past the rings of milk and melted ice cream, stared longingly at the names of those four cities, and dreamed of the day I would travel.
New York was the only city I’d already been to when I came across the black and white bowls. It had been the summer of 2002, less than a year after the destruction of the Twin Towers, and my family was on the second of the four large vacations that the five of us would take together (the first had been to Florida when I was 10 years old). It was my first time in a city larger than Denver and I was mesmerized by the lights, the energy, the sounds, the movement, the sheer number of people in a such a concentrated area. We saw The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, ate dinner at Sardi’s, went to a Yankees game and rode the subway. Walking down 5th Avenue, passing Tiffany’s, Gucci, Armani, and Versace I felt like a character in a TCM movie. New York City was bigger than life. Bigger than anything I’d ever encountered. It was the first city I really fell in love with, but it wouldn’t be the last. I would visit New York two more times before graduating from college. Once during a spring choir tour in 2008, and then again the following summer when my family took a trip to Boston (big trip number four) and finished with a few days in New York.
We took our third big family vacation in the summer of 2006, to the west coast city of San Francisco. It was one of the few places my parents had visited in the US, and they were eager to share it with us: the Golden Gate Bridge, Pier 39, clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, Scoma’s seafood, Fisherman’s Wharf, the cable cars, Ghiradeli Square. I enjoyed San Francisco, but I had bigger sites to see. After that first trip, I didn’t know if I’d ever return. I certainly didn’t imagine that I would go back with a boyfriend five years later, that he would move to the Bay Area six months after our first visit, and that I would spend nearly a year flying out to San Francisco, falling more in love with the city and with him each time I did.
London was the first of my international cities, and for that reason alone it will always hold a special place in my heart. It was the fall of 2007, the semester that the black and white bowls were packed away because I was studying abroad in Oxford. Over the course of my four months abroad, I visited London roughly half a dozen times. I saw shows on West End, spent afternoons in the British Museum, the Tate Britain, and the National Gallery, took a walking tour covering both banks, and celebrated my 21st birthday at a magical restaurant on Drury Lane. I fell in love that semester–with Oxford, with England, with the whole idea of living abroad and traveling widely throughout Europe. I envied my classmates who were taking part in less academic programs and had the luxury of traveling on weekends that I spent wrapped in scarves reading stacks of books in the Bodelian Library. Don’t get me wrong, I loved studying, I just loved the idea of traveling more. I was hungry for it. Starving for the experience. It was a hunger that would stay with me for another six years.
By the time I got to Paris, I was down to one bowl. A roommate had broken the black one the second semester of our senior year. She saw that I was upset, but didn’t realize what it meant to me, that it held my dreams as much as it held her fried eggs and hash browns. I arrived in Paris in May of 2011. I was living in Kansas City at the time and a group of my friends had been musing on the idea of an international adventure. Originally there were six of us planning a trip to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (we referred to it as the GAS tour). In the end it was just me and my boyfriend of five months (though I wasn’t really calling him my boyfriend at the time) spending a week in Paris and another elsewhere in France. It should have been all kinds of romantic, and it was, but not in the way it could have been. I’d been waiting to see Paris for years, dreaming of it ever since I first saw Gene Kelley dance his way across the Seine. I was afraid of sharing it with someone else. Someone who might not always be there in the future. Someone who might make the memories along with me and then later break my heart, which he did. (And as it turns out, not fully sharing Paris or myself in the first place did not make this any easier).
Even after hitting that fourth city (in addition to Chicago, D.C., Rome, Florence, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Derby, Nottingham, Birmingham and Zurich, which I’d also visited by that point), I still wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t just want to visit Europe, I wanted to live there. And I was willing to pursue that dream at any cost, even if it meant leaving my most meaningful relationships. I’d been trying to find a position teaching English overseas ever since I graduated from college in May of 2009. My efforts had been derailed by one thing then another, but by the fall of 2012, I’d had enough misadventure. I made plans to quit my job by the end of the year and travel. I booked a ticket to fly to Paris in January of 2013 and booked a return ticket from London for the following June. The return, I told myself, was flexible. I could change it at anytime or cancel it altogether. Who knew what might happen once I was on the other side of the ocean? The boyfriend who had joined me on my first trip to France (and who was then living in San Francisco) planned to visit me mid-way through my journey. We would re-visit Paris, a city that now meant so much to both of us, and then I’d show him England, the country where I’d first learned to love the art of travel.
But that plan did not come to fruition either. I did quit my job. I did take the flight to Paris. I did travel through France and learned to love many people and places in the process. But there was no boyfriend to visit me. There was no sharing of a second adventure in the City of Lights. Paris had been colored, not tainted but tinted, and in shades that brought me sadness even on the brightest of spring days. After three months in France, I spent a month in England visiting friends and doing research for a writing project. I took a week-long trip to Ireland and a four-day excursion to Prague. I ended with four days in London, and when I flew back to the States on the 12th of June (as scheduled) I knew it might be for the last time.
I began to make plans for one final venture–a cross-country move to the third city on my ceramic white bowl: San Francisco. It was a little counter-intuitive, to move myself and my entire life to another city in which I had made memories with a man who chose to stop loving me. I suppose I made the move in the hopes that this wouldn’t always be the case, that if so much of my heart was still with him then maybe some of his was still with me, maybe enough good had been shared between us that time and forgiveness could heal the rest. But that isn’t how the story turned out.
I’d applied to go to graduate school before I left for Paris for the second time. Of the six programs I’d applied to, I was accepted to three, all of which were in the San Francisco Area. It seemed to be destiny. And that is what I tell people when they ask me why I moved here. It isn’t the whole truth. But it isn’t a lie either.
A strange thing has happened to me since moving. I find myself not wanting to leave. Ever. Though I didn’t end up in SF entirely on purpose, I find I am building a life for myself and that I am happy imagining a future in which I never live outside a 50-mile radius of the Bay Area. I wonder how much of that is San Francisco, and how much of it is me finally realizing that I’m ready to stay put.
A couple of months ago, I met with one of my writing instructors to sip organic tea in Berkeley and talk about food writing, website development, and how to move forward with a writing career after finishing an MFA. Like me, she was in the non-fiction track at Saint Mary’s College. After she finished the program she got a Fulbright to write in the Philippines, taught English in Turkey, and spent six months living in Italy. Her one word of advice for me following graduation: leave.
“Do something to set yourself apart,” she said, her finger twisting around the string of her teabag. “If you have any interest in ESL, spend a year or two teaching. Pay off your loans and travel and get some good experience that you can use in your writing. If you aren’t attached to anyone, or even if you are, just go.”
Initially, I was stunned. Where was this woman four years ago when everything in me yearned to travel but my fear and logic reasoned that I should be more responsible? All I’d wanted in my early twenties was to explore, to teach English and live out of a suitcase and learn another language and see the world. Now I was being given permission, even a directive to do just that. But I didn’t want to.
My logic reasoned that traveling would be good. None of my relationships had panned out since moving to California, I might as well apply for a Fulbright, look into teaching abroad the way I’d intended to all along. But my heart heaved a sigh. It didn’t want to leave SF. Didn’t want to move or adventure or have a “once in a lifetime” experience.
I had lost my wanderlust.
Instead of looking into a Fulbright, I applied for California health care. I got a new driver’s license and registered my car. I joined a gym, picked up a Safeway card, and purchased a FasTrak toll tag . I made plans to stay in the Bay Area indefinitely.
You can lose your sense of wanderlust without losing the ability to wander (or to wonder for that matter). I still find the world terribly exciting–full of life and meaning and depth and story. I’ve just reached a point where I get more jazzed about reading the latest article in Wired or doing a profile on a new Oakland start up than I do dreaming of hiking through the Alps or sipping wine on the Riviera (both of which I’m sure I would still enjoy). I’m learning to be settled, and that is a good and valuable thing.
I still eat cereal from the white ceramic bowl that sits at the top of the stack in my kitchen cupboard. I’ve changed out my Raisin Bran and skim for Kashi and almond milk, but mostly the ritual of my morning is the same. When I’m down to the cinnamon-specked bottom, I look at the names of the four cities and think of all I have seen and learned and known and explored.
If I had a new bowl to paint, I wonder what it would say. If I would replace the four cities with four new destinations. Maybe Munich and Athens and Copenhagen and Madrid–destinations I’ve yet to check off my list. But more likely, I would sketch in a different kind of dream, of my life in California and what I hope it will hold. Something stable and reliable, like milk and cereal. Something that tells me it’s okay to stay put.