Charlottesville: 10 Ways to Put a Ring on It

After almost two months of traveling around Europe, I picked up a new book on my last rainy weekend here in Budapest. It’s called This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, by a fellow transplanted Virginian, Melody Warnick.

The initial draw was that I wanted some inspiration for my final book chapter (“how to craft a great staycation”). But This Is Where You Belong immediately hit a nerve on a much deeper and more personal level. Because I miss home. I’m romanticizing home. Want proof? I went on and on about it just the other day!

I want to be more engaged, to make home feel like HOME. Like, where the heart is. So I ended that post with a challenge: “What are you going to do about it?” Honestly, my fear is: Nothing. Nada. I’ll fall back into my old habits as soon as the joy of being home again dissipates.

So, to help move me from big talk to action, I thought I’d apply Warnick’s 10 place attachment behaviors to help me zero in on what, specifically, I might be able to do more of to build my attachment to Charlottesville. I even gave myself a report card.

Let’s break it down. The 10 behaviors are:

  1. The wonders of walking Charlottesville in spring

    The wonders of walking Charlottesville in spring

    Walk more. I’m very fortunate to live in one of the most walkable parts of Charlottesville. On a scale from 0-100, North Downtown gets a Walk Score of 85 (Charlottesville in general is a 58). 85 translates to “very walkable. Most errands can be accomplished on foot.” Yep. I’m three blocks from the Downtown Mall. I can walk to countless bars and restaurants, my gym, a small grocery store, a great wine shop, the post office, the library, four theatres, an arts center, two weekly farmers markets, and more. Walking just makes sense; driving does not. (And FWIW, I usually rock my 10,000 steps-per-day Fitbit goal.) Certainly, I cannot walk to work, but on days I don’t drive to Harrisonburg, I usually get in my car only if I need to go to Trader Joe’s. GRADE: A- . But this brings me to…


  2. Buy local. I love my Trader Joe’s. I love my Target. Lululemon. Anthropologie. BAY-SIC! Why do I love these generic chain stores? Fear of awkward interactions. While many people seem to be deterred from buying local because they equate “local” with “expensive,” my problem is that I fear the social interactions that can occur when people care. I can go into Target, look around, and buy nothing (err, hypothetically). The clerk doesn’t take it personally! The clerk doesn’t give a rip! It takes the pressure off. But in a local business, where I could easily be interacting with the person who carefully selected and artfully arranged the merchandise, to me it feels hugely insulting to walk out without buying something. Like, I’m entering someone’s home, sizing it up with impunity, and saying to their face, “No, I really don’t like what you’ve done with the place.” I’m probably overthinking it. I realize that Charlottesville has some amazing local businesses (I mean, hello!) and I do need to get over this weird thought process and start patronizing them more. GRADE: C

  3. Get to know my neighbors. This one is always high on my list of How to Make My Life Better. I know it would make a huge difference. And, maybe because the opportunity exists every single day, it’s something I can easily put off until tomorrow. Plus, for all of its walkability and easy contact, I swear, my neighborhood is just not social. Even the people in the five other units in my house are strangers to me. Except for the nice couple next door, no one says hello, smiles, or talks to one another. I truly don’t know why. Is it me? I need a burst of motivation here. Or something to facilitate contact. A neighborhood block party? A puppy? GRADE: D

  4. Do fun stuff. Here, I’m pretty good. Local theatre, Fridays After Five, local races, the occasional Tom Sox game. I could always do more – maybe taking advantage of all the stuff popping up at IX – but I have my share of fun. Walkability helps, for sure. GRADE: B
    Wine and music at Jefferson Vineyards.

    Wine and music at Jefferson Vineyards. Fun stuff.


  5. Explore nature. Within the immediate Charlottesville/Albemarle area, I’m getting out there. Running on the Rivanna Trail, walking the Monticello Trail, SUPing on Beaver Creek Lake, biking around the county (although less so lately; I’ve gotten scared of cars). Even yoga on Carter’s Mountain a couple of times. My commute takes me over Afton Mountain, where I get a scenic view of the Rockfish Valley. BUT: the nearby Shenandoah National Park and trails off the Blue Ridge Parkway are virtually uncharted territory for me, wonderful as they are. Yet another thing on my list that is always being put off until later. GRADE: B

  6. Volunteer. I know this research and I’ve felt the good-feels during and after volunteering. I have the time to do it. But I don’t do it nearly enough. Why? There’s the confidence problem – what could I bring to an organization? Plus, I’m often unsure how to start getting involved. Given all of that, it’s far too easy to just do nothing. These are lame excuses. (And I’d say that musical theatre is technically volunteer work, but – let’s face it – I pretty much do that for myself.)  GRADE: D

  7. Eat local. I eat out a lot and at chain restaurants very infrequently. I preemptively pine for img_5991certain Charlottesville dishes and restaurants even in advance of a trip, and I’m already agonizing over what my first meal back will be. But I can’t take too much credit: eating local in Charlottesville is easy. Toss an heirloom tomato in any direction and you’ll hit some locally-sourced something-or-other. (Now, if drink local is in this category, my grade is bumped up significantly. Local wineries are one of my favorite places to spend an afternoon and brewpubs are a close second.) I do love my Trader Joe’s standbys and I could go to the farmers markets more often and buy more local food to cook at home. But sometimes you just need your Cookie Butter and Three Buck Chuck. GRADE: B+

  8. Become more political. I vote in all the elections. I watch the local news a few times a week. I went to see Obama when he was here a few years ago. That’s about it. My politics mesh well with the majority of Charlottesvillians. I have no major gripes, apart from the notable absence of water fountains at Riverview Park. (Right?) Until something (volunteer work?) shakes me from my blissful ignorance, I’m not sure this one will change anytime soon. #notproud  GRADE: D

  9. Create something new. I have friends who create and innovate: Staff and volunteers at arts organizations. Tireless fundraisers. Small business owners. Architects. Can I bask in their glory on this one? No? Fine. The closest I’ve come is working to create a local musical theatre production or concert. And I’ve created new courses and research projects at work, but that’s an hour away, not in my immediate community. This counts for something. But without kids, and knowing that generativity (passing something on for the future; leaving a legacy) is a primary challenge of middle adulthood, this is one worth thinking about. GRADE: C

  10. Stay loyal through hard times. To my knowledge, Charlottesville hasn’t really had hard times since I’ve arrived. I mean, there’s been stuff. But it’s mostly a wonderful place to live. See this, this, and this. So, I’m happy to say I have no data on this one! GRADE – ??

Looking at this list, I see some themes: I’m very tied to the physical and material aspects of home. Nature. Activities. Food and wine. But, my overall engagement-GPA sucks. Why? Several major deficits jump out, and they all have to do with people. I don’t know my neighbors. I don’t volunteer. I’m not involved in politics, and I seldom collaborate to create something new. Why? Honestly? Introversion. Okay, mild social anxiety. Saying hi to neighbors is kinda scary. Asking “how can I help?” might result in the realization that…I really can’t help: I have no useful skills. Awkward! It’s not time, energy, or lack of interest holding me back; it’s just straight up fear that keeps me from building a greater bond with home. A pretty useful realization, actually. Something I can work with.

I’ve lived in four states on two coasts. After grad school, I felt pulled back to Charlottesville even while living in two decidedly fantastic places, Santa Monica, CA and Portland, OR. And now I choose to live an hour from my job just so I can be there. Time to get over myself and start making the most of it!

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The Little Things You Miss.

Today marks Day 45 of a 52-day European adventure. It’s been mostly great. I love the walkability of European cities. I love that most places aren’t overly air-conditioned. I love having a minuscule wardrobe. And here in my Budapest neighborhood, I love how even the most mundane apartment or convenience store is housed in something old and ornately detailed. I love how you can walk down the street openly drinking a really inexpensive beer, but there’s a zero-tolerance policy for drunk driving. I love that my adorable Airbnb is two minutes from Parliament and the Danube, yet completely protected from street noise by a courtyard. Most importantly, I love where I am mentally, writing with focus, seeing my book’s end draw near just ahead of my July 31st deadline.

But there are so many things I’m looking forward to getting back to. Small things. Silly things. In no particular order:

  • conversations. About anything. I spoke briefly to someone today on my English-speaking tour of Parliament, and my voice sounded straight-up weird. Since being on my own this past week, I’m not sure I’ve had a single conversation. Speaking is rare and comes in bursts of six syllables or fewer, “Americano, please?” “Do you have a bathroom?” and my favorite travel phrase, “Oops, sorry. Excuse me.” Let’s frame this as an intense period of vocal rest. Good for the cords.
  • the quiet comforts of home and the pieces of my morning routines: a fuzzy robe, coffee brewing, a stretch, a run, a Shakeology smoothie with ice and berries (not the sad clumpy version I’ve been making abroad).
  • humidity aside, Charlottesville’s running community and my well-worn running routes.
  • abundant produce. A good honeycrisp apple. Butternut squash and kale.  And even baby carrots, which seldom excite me, which often go bad before I can eat them all.
  • The Sunday New York Times and the crossword, which I pretend to be good at but I really just sit there while Joe does it. I occasionally answer questions about Broadway musicals.
  • the quiet of UVA’s Corner and the Lawn in summer.
  • driving over Afton Mountain on a clear day.
  • paddleboarding at Beaver Creek
  • my favorite wineries: Pippin Hill, King Family, Veritas, Jefferson…
  • and my favorite Charlottesville eats: Dr. Ho’s, Lampo, MarieBette, Bodos…
  • even Trader Joe’s. Crazy, crowded Trader Joe’s. Fine, and Target.

And then there are, inevitably, those things I miss and realize I don’t take nearly enough advantage of:

  • the Downtown Mall coffeeshops, just three blocks away.
  • ACAC’s many offerings, especially that weekly yin yoga class, which I went to for an unprecedented three weeks in a row before leaving on this trip.
  • hiking in the Blue Ridge.
  • farmers markets.
  • the opportunity to cook in my own (tiny) kitchen.

And don’t get me started on all the friends and acquaintances I see far too infrequently.

The question that follows is, “Ok, so what are you going to do about it?” Can I start walking more? Actually get myself to the gym, the market, and out to the Blue Ridge? When will the window of motivation close and old habits take over?

Of all the benefits of travel, renewed appreciation for the small joys of home might just top my list.

The Toughest Best Thing I Do

It’s been two weeks since I said goodbye to my second summer study abroad class. It’s officially called Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia, offered though James Madison University. Last year – the first time out – was hard. I mean, I was alone in a foreign country and in charge of eleven students, taking them places even I had never been before. Our hotels and restaurants hadn’t been vetted. I had never met the Malmo University staff who were to host us for a week. I didn’t understand how to use the JMU-provided Excel spreadsheet to document my expenses. I didn’t really understand how to use Excel, period. (Ok, ok. I still kind of don’t.) Shoot…I didn’t even know what I didn’t know!

Malmo bike tour.

This time, with my Excel-savvy boyfriend along and a year of experience under my belt, I expected it to be a breeze. I knew how to navigate the streets and the public transportation. I had a list of decent restaurants suitable for groups. I had class materials prepped. And everyone there speaks English. Yes, I was feeling fine.

But, guess what. It’s still hard. Like, really hard. In no other realm of life do I wear so many hats, trying to be an unflappable, savvy tour guide/professor/accountant/surrogate parent with a steel trap memory and encyclopedic knowledge of Scandinavia.

To be sure, some of the pressure I feel is absolutely of my own creation. For example, one night we were at a very fun and hip taco joint. I was required to pre-order our dinners because we were such a large group. A few days prior, I told the students they could choose between cod, steak, or vegetarian tacos. I dutifully emailed the restaurant our order, and as the food came out, I saw that it was not tacos, but full entrees. The students were pleased, actually: it looked delicious and the portions were huge. But I felt weirdly awful and incompetent. How did I screw this up? Even as I was surrounded by happy, laughing students, I seriously thought, I just can’t do this anymore.

Later, I remarked to Joe, “It’s just so hard being responsible for everyone’s happiness all of the time.” And then it hit me: no wonder I was a stress-case! Part of my job is to set the stage for happiness, yes. To create a feeling of safety and comfort and acceptance. But I can only get them so far up the hierarchy of needs. While this job does require many hats, “perfection ensurer” is not one of them.

So, this time around one of several lessons I learned was that it’s really hard to be a die-hard people-pleaser in this role. I can only control so much. Food orders will be wrong, buses will be late, it will rain at inopportune times, and wifi will sometimes be spotty. Very little of this is my fault. Self-compassion is essential. So are head-clearing, early-morning, pump-up runs. img_7488

I also learned that taking students abroad will probably always be really hard. Maybe it should be. A big group, in a foreign country, with goals of connecting, learning, and feeling safe but also challenged. It’s not something to be cavalier about.

No one's favorite.

No one’s favorite moment.

But it’s also the most rewarding thing I do: sharing fascinating and beautiful places, hearing the appreciative and awestruck reactions of my students, helping to set the stage for new friendships, teaching techniques for happiness, exposing students to new ways of living, and maybe even instilling a lifelong love of travel. So, when I step back and big-picture it, botched food orders and slow wifi fade from view. Instead, these recent memories mesh with my first time abroad and the way it shaped me. The fact that I might have some small role in doing the same for these students is both humbling and a great privilege.

And when the students want a key class concept permanently etched onto their bodies, I have to consider it a success, right?

 

“The Good Life” Comes to an End.

As I write this, I’m three hours into a five-hour train trip, heading south from Stockholm to Copenhagen. A few cars up sit twelve drowsy college students who are probably alternating between napping, snacking, working on their final course presentations, and – quite possibly – reflecting on the fact that it’s almost over.

We’ve just spent the past 16 days touring Sweden and Denmark on a study abroad called “Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia.” We have just one last evening together in Copenhagen, and then they all start to disperse: some are off to Norway, one to Iceland, another to Berlin, and still another to Amsterdam. Others are going back home, back to their parents, siblings, graduate school prep, and summer jobs. And two of them graduated last month, don’t really know what comes next, and – understandably – really don’t seem to want to think about it.

While our main objective was to study the well-documented high rates of Scandinavian happiness, we also did a Color Run, learned to make moose meatballs, biked through Malmo, and cruised through the Stockholm archipelago. We played hilariously bad beach volleyball, danced around a maypole on Midsommar’s Eve, and visited the Christiania commune just one day before it was infiltrated by cops on a drug bust. We found a cure for culinary homesickness at a TGI Fridays, laughed through a border crossing snafu at the Copenhagen airport, celebrated two birthdays, survived the rides at Tivoli Gardens, took a ghost tour of Stockholm, and sang karaoke at a Swedish dive bar. And I’m sure they would add things to this list that I will never know about. As it should be.

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What I do know is that three weeks ago, these twelve were virtually strangers, but now, I see the potential for life-long friendships. The time has been brief but intense. They’ve shared experiences that no one else will really understand. They have inside jokes and nicknames that would be lost on anybody on the outside. And they are united in the knowledge that their experiences here will never be replicated.

I hope their transition is an easy one. Because as nice as it might be to see their families and friends, to return to comfort and predictability, no one back home will really get it. They’ll try, asking questions and expressing interest at the photos and stories they are bringing home. But it’s just impossible to bridge the psychological gap this trip has created. Reverse culture shock is very real and experiencing it doesn’t make anyone an ingrate. (But the guilt associated with that belief, like “I shouldn’t feel so unhappy when I just had this amazing experience,” can actively heighten the distress.)

As for me, I’m equal parts relieved that a stolen cell phone was our biggest disaster, happy to be free and responsible only for myself, and sad to be saying goodbye to this thoughtful, curious, and hilarious bunch. A few of them, I know I’ll probably never see again. A few will be in my class this fall. The rest may pop into my office once or twice. Maybe we’ll try to put together a reunion dinner. But, the cold reality is that we will never be together again, as a group, in this part of the world. This experience will never be repeated.