Exploring the Familiar

A great journey can happen, from start to finish, quite close to home. It can happen three blocks away. In fact, it can happen in one’s home, or one’s new home as the case may be. I am moving. It is not the first time I’ve lived alone, but it will be the first time I’ve done so in a space other than a shoebox-sized, cockroach-infested rooming house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That building is now being transformed from an SRO (single resident occupency) unfit for rats much less people, to either a boutique hotel or swanky new apartments. Such is my completely uninformed speculation. In sharp contrast, my new place is a real home with so much more to discover than the peeping tom who used to try to watch me shower. (Long story.) My new neighborhood is a precious little slice of Jersey City called Bergen Hill. It is a historic district on a hill, as the name suggests, and the view from my windows looks out from the summit north east toward downtown JC and Manhattan. Summit Avenue is the name of my new street. Perhaps it is the highest point in JC. I’m not sure, but on a clear day I will see Brooklyn. The heart of the “hill” is my new house. It is the oldest house in the hood, built in the 1860s by a man whose name and history I will have to write about at some other point as they escape me at the moment. Being a huge fan of old houses, and having lived in them most of my life, I am thrilled about this move. It took me approximately 30 seconds to decide that I wanted the place.

There is an enticing mystery about old houses. I like to imagine what life was like when they were built, what the challenges and the attitudes were of the people who lived there. But I don’t need an old house to get this excited about moving. Each time I move, I get a little hit of the travel rush. There are hole-in-the-wall spots that only the locals know about, hidden architectural gems around the corner and maybe even cobble stone streets waiting to be explored, to be trod upon. Yet this apartment is so close to where I live now that I am only changing my daily commute by a few streets, a few different buildings to drive past, a different main drag to stroll along. The wonder is in how much that does not diminish my excitement for my new territory. If I were a cat I would have untold number of creaky old basement windows to sneak into, trees to climb, and territorial boundaries to mark on moonlit nights as I wandered between houses in search of food. Exploration could go on indefinitely in this stunning neighborhood that I did not know existed only one month ago. The distance from my current home may not be far as the crow flies, but it is worlds away as my eager heart sees it.

I don’t want to imply that this is the perfect situation. There is no such thing and in fact part of what makes it interesting is its utter lack of perfection. There is no coffee shop on the corner and for the first time since the late ’90s I will not have laundry in my building, but I never really had a coffee shop on the corner, I prefer my french press anyway, and the upcoming laundry schlep is a small inconvenience well worth the price of my beautiful new digs. The house itself is in need of thorough exploration, but the neighborhood, the history and the tiny park across the street will be the primary targets of my wanderlust, at least for the first few months.

There is a more self-reflective piece to this story. This move represents a new phase in my life in more ways than one…physical, emotional, even intellectual. I am taking a semester off from school and exploring my own motivation, not just for academia, but for everything in my life. The travel analogy is useful here because when we travel, we notice things. Alain De Botton called this a “traveling mindset.” My expository writing students would surely appreciate that I am discussing this on my personal blog, but it is a useful and I think important thing to consider. When we travel to a place that is new to our senses, we are overwhelmed in many ways but we also notice details that locals take for granted. We notice colors and language and smells, the shapes of buildings, the way the streets curve or do not, and when we move to a new place, whether it is literal or figurative, we are stimulated in much the same way. The difference, the place where the analogy falls apart, is when we have been in that place for an extended period of time. Maybe it takes one month, maybe one year, but we reach a point where the newness fades and we may even forget all of those glorious details that at first drew us in and excited us. This is normal. We all do it, but maybe if we seek out a new route to work now and then, or get a drink at the bar on the corner that we always thought was too skeevy to go into, we can discover something extraordinary in our all-too-familiar surroundings. We can challenge ourselves in ways that enrich our lives. People who travel as a way of life often find that being in one place for too long makes them restless. Indeed, the more I have traveled over the years, the more quickly I find myself in this place. I crave newness, something to explore. And it turns out that there is always something new to explore, or something old, it is only a matter of looking, really looking, as if for the first time.