Where the Heart (Mostly) Is

I thought I was pretty well prepared for our 6 week road trip across the US. I expected the vast distances we’d drive (on the right, ideally), the constant barrage of lights and sounds and Fox news. I knew to expect the “don’t get ahead of me” urgency and mix of exciting new things and uncomfortable new things, because I lived there for 14 years. And actually, I was looking forward to being in a country where you can buy kids shoes. And Advil and produce. In the same place, at 3am, on a Sunday.

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The Route

We set out on this trip without a set itinerary on purpose. I wanted the flexibility of going where we felt like and I wanted the kids to research places and determine where to go, ultimately because I wanted them to be part of how we ended up at the place, our new home.

So every night we’d discuss the three options – West, South or East – and the cities, attractions and historical things along each path, before plotting our course for the next day and booking our next hotel. In other words, if you ever want to drive across 13 States along the most inefficient route, give me a call, I got this down pat.

 

The Mission

I knew there would be no way to take the kids – the girls particularly – from Anguilla with it’s tight knit community to Anonymoustown, USA, so we focused on going through smaller cities between 50 – 100 thousand people, hoping to find at least trace amounts of community.
I had previously spent about a year, trying to find the best place to move to according to data, overlaying maps on crime rate, diversity, education, cost of living, average age, weather and “number of hours to the nearest international airport”. (I know, don’t judge me.) This road trip was actually bornout of the realization that finding a home on paper is about as as absurd as finding a husband on paper, although I’ll admit to knowing nothing about the later. Essentially, “home” isn’t about matching a list of criteria but rather about a feeling when you get there. And if that feeling is right, the criteria list usually gets tossed out the window anyway.

 

The Surprise Element

Backed by a year of research, I was sure I knew what we were looking for til about 10 days into our trip, which is when the girls pointed out that basically only white people live in America, which is the moment “diversity” got put on the priority list.

We’re used to being the minority here in Anguilla and they’re totally right, as soon as you go North of.. let’s say Miami, any significant amount of racial diversity tends to fade away until you get into bigger cities again.
How people interact, especially with those that are different in some way, shape or form is very important to me as “being open to new and different things” bleeds into so many parts of life, including how kids treat each other in school. I’m convinced that living in a place where you can walk around without fear of judgement for what you look like or who you chose to be has more than a few positive benefits, although I don’t have statistics for that one and you definitely do not want me to go down that rabbit hole again.

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MacGyuver This!

Armed with a bucket full of statistics, I knew where to go to find diversity, but the flaw in that theory became obvious quickly as it’s not actually diversity I’m interested in, but rather how diversity is accepted, which is both something you can’t quantify and something there are no charts for. Bummer.

So how do you look for something you can’t quantify? Not sure, but spending some time on any random bench in any given city is a most excellent start. Sit still, turn off your hearing, and look for variations in facial expressions as people walk by and you can get a pretty good sense of how people react to strangers or those that aren’t like them.

That Japanese tourist, that tattooed couple with the dog, that black woman pushing a stroller, that homeless guy, that Grandma-type. Who makes eye contact with whom, who gets seen but then immediately avoided and which type of person doesn’t ever get acknowledged at all. Fascinating stuff. Sometimes sad stuff. Clearly not an exact science but as good a “diversity acceptance meter” as I was able to come up with in a pinch.

 

The Hypothesis

My best case scenario for the trip involved being swept off my feet by Randomtown, USA at some point along the 6 weeks. Fast and furious, maybe even causing us to scrap the rest of the road trip and just coming back to pack. Love is love. Game over.

At the very least, I figured across 22 cities we’d at least find a few we’d like, which would simplify the selection process significantly.
Either way we’d have a proper adventure at a minimum, even if things didn’t go as planned but come on, how hard can it be….

 

Harsh and Cold for $500, Alex 

What I wasn’t prepared for, was driving 4500 miles and ending up with merely one place we all could imagine living in, which is basically a small step above finding a place we “didn’t dislike”.

What an embarrassing and arrogant thing to admit, much less feel. To have the support of the most patient employer ever, have so many generous friends open their homes to us, show us around their cities… only to drive away, somehow deeming them all unfit for us, which made it impossible to not feel like an over-privileged asshole, i.e. “incredibly disappointed” for the easily offended among you.

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The Conclusion

In the end, there was one place we liked, or rather that the girls and I liked and the boys didn’t have anything against. A place called Greenville, South Carolina where people readily made eye contact, not just with us but with those who didn’t look alike. A small city with a surprising amount of international flair, obvious diversity, a big performing arts center, music and good schools. One place we felt welcome and comfortable that had – gasp – free wifi downtown, which almost makes up for the occasional snow. Almost.

Update: Crappy video of a random concert we came across in Greenville, a reggae band singing “Down by the river”, on the river going through downtown, with granny types square dancing along. In the rain, as you do. Pure greatness!

The Timing

Trying to decide when to move ended up being like pulling (rotting) teeth – everyone agrees it is needed, but nobody wants to do it. For one, sitting down for this conversation would mean the end of our road trip, which meant the end of our Summer together.

Not moving right away would mean the boys would go back to live in Texas again.
Deciding to move half way through the year would mean the the girls and I would have to spend 6 months in the US alone, while the boys finish their school year in Dallas. And if you saw how those teenage boys would sit there for hours answering questions about what it’s like to go live in America, then you’d know that moving to the US alone would be the same as moving into the deep end of the pool. Not a good option.

So in an annoyingly rational call, mostly fueled by annoyingly valid arguments the kids made, we decided to move at the end of this school year, meaning June 2014.

Sigh.

It’s taken me a while to digest and accept this part, still not sure I’m fully on board with this yet, mostly ’cause it’s inconvenient and leaves way too much time between now and actually acting on it. The truth is, I wanted to fall in love with a place because then all I’d have to do was react. Reacting is easy. Deliberate effort is hard. Waiting is the hardest.

 

Bonus Badges Unlocked

There were many occasions the kids blew me away by being way more capable and creative than I had previously thought. Saying things like “do we have to go a park? can’t we just get in the car and drive some more” after 80 hours of driving is one of those instances.

Watching the 10 year old girls correctly pick metro lines, read maps to get us to museums, asking for help when needed, figuring out which way is West (and hence North) and actually getting us to where we needed to go is another. Although I’ll take credit for dealing with all street vendors, homeless people and those 13 half used paper metro cards. (Shout-out to the DC metro system!)

Between “learning to navigate”, “making lunch for 5 in a moving car” and “getting checked out, packing 5 people’s stuff into 3 carry on’s and getting it to fit in the car in the ONLY configuration possible, in under 20 minutes”, my kids are basically really for the zombie apocalypse. You know, just in case.

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The Real Lesson

In the end, we spent 44 days together in the same room and the same car, all without killing each other, which is perhaps our biggest accomplishment. We learned so much about navigating civilization, people watching and talking to strangers. We learned how to adjust when things don’t go as planned, how to deal with moods, spilled milk and bad pop music.

In our pursuit of “home” we learned about claiming the space in this World that we are given, showing up in places where you may or may not belong, and making it yours anyway. (Having the luxury of) pursuing that which makes us feel vulnerable and alive, while being grounded by the strength and safety of each other. Kind people that love and accept unconditionally, even when you screw up. Especially when you screw up.

Perhaps that’s what “home” really is about.

Author: akafrancie

Originally Swiss, recovering Caribbean island inhabitant. Amateur zoo keeper. Probably under-caffeinated, always hungry and curious. Interested in technology, collaboration and connecting people. Resourcefulness is my super power.

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