When Chris called me about San Francisco, I couldn't stop thinking about this pail and shovel set my sister bought for Noah for Christmas. She'd asked me what he needed; I told her we didn't have any fun outdoor yard toys and that we were really looking forward to getting him a little sandbox for our backyard in Portland. So suddenly when Portland was looking like San Francisco, I thought a lot about that pail and what could have been.
Parenting is difficult for me because sometimes I feel like I'm trying to replicate the best parts of my youth for my son in an entirely different environment. Maybe you feel the same way. When you raise children differently than you were raised, it really is like speaking a foreign language. It's clunky and stressful and the nostalgic moments are few and far between. We didn't have space in this Brooklyn apartment for a Christmas tree the past two years and while we made do with paper decorations, it felt like bullshit Christmas. Real Christmas is like how things are at my parents' house, with a tree and cookies and a big table for family to gather for a meal.
So for the first few days that I was processing this move, I was mad and sad and bad. I don't feel bad admitting that here because I'm in a different head space today, and I think it's important to say it. In those early days I was desperate to read blogs and experiences in which people were raising children in small spaces, so I spent a ton of time Street Viewing SF from afar and digging around in archives.
Then two things happened to change my perspective.
The first is that my friend Kelley offered to babysit Noah on my birthday for a few hours so I could go to the Tenement Museum (which I'd been dying to investigate!). I took the first tour they had, which focused on the shops that existed in the first floor of the tenements. We started in what used to be a German pub and I listened to the stories of the family who ran the pub, as well as those who came on Sundays for dinner and drinks.
"Back then, the apartments were so small that people didn't have living rooms or salons," the tour guide explained. "So they would meet up in these pubs and use them as their living rooms. German expats would play board games and participate in societies and read the newspaper together."
Something clicked for me when she said this. I'd always felt slightly guilty for heading out to the local cafe when I wanted to read or blog or whatnot (cheaper to brew coffee at home and all that...), but now I realize that Chris and I have been using public spaces to compliment our small living space. Noah and I practically lived at the park last summer, a fine substitute for a back yard. And our frequent visits to the bookstores down the street are solid alternate versions to a library or study or office at home.
I felt a little better.
Then, during our long flight to California last Friday night, I watched about 6 billion episodes of House Hunters. They told stories of a bunch of Americans who were transferred abroad for jobs: to Portugal, to Berlin, to the south of France. I watched Texans encounter tiny German fridges and Californians consider dishwasherless kitchens. I knew what that felt like; I've been an expat many times. And when I realized that, I remembered that I took on my French apartments with a very different set of expectations. Rather than compare them to my living spaces back home, I was always excited and intrigued by the newness and ready to embrace the way they did things locally.
So! What if I thought of our sejour in San Francisco as if I were an expat? Instead of expecting to recognize myself on the streets of Berkeley or Oakland, what if I approached it as a foreign place, prepared to find the best aspects of the area. I imagined myself as an old woman saying things like "when we lived in San Francisco those few years, we didn't have the money for a yard but we did visit the Exploratorium every week!"
This made me feel a lot better.
So now that's my approach. It's possible that we'll get out there and never want to leave, but it's also possible that we will touch down for a few years and then find another place to call home. What I find increasingly true about unexpected change is that I need to allow myself time to process it and time to bounce back. Visiting the city last week sure helped, but time has helped too.