I had this idea. I had this grandiose idea that even deep down in my gut I knew was probably a long shot. I’m not a city girl, despite my love of the series Sex and the City and thinking I could totally live in Carrie Bradshaw’s manolo blahniks dining out three times a day, writing one column per week and living a lavish lifestyle that in actuality her salary would never realistically afford. Most days, I feel so bereft of who I really am because I am living in a city rather than in the country. I try so hard to juggle it, a balance between the city and the real world. Allow me to clarify that a city is not the real world to me, the real world is that which is abundant in nature, fresh air and quietude. Sure there are parks, but you can still hear traffic, you can still inhale the second-hand smoke from someone else’s cigarette as they walk by you. For a girl who has lived out of a tent in Alaska, who has lived in houses with big vegetable and flower gardens that I created on my own, and who has typically felt the most at ease out in the middle of nowhere rather than in a dense populated area, this whole city living thing has been quite possibly one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced.
Moment: A few months ago, I was sitting in my friend’s apartment on a brilliantly sunny day watching the shadows of tree branches shimmy across the floor. An aurora borealis of sunlight and shadows. They moved slowly like calm lake waves and I was mesmerized by it, a captivated cat intent on staring, every atom concentrating on the destination where its eyes lay. Everything else dissolved until it was just my gaze and the lilting tree shadows. I realized I couldn’t remember the last time that I watched leaf filtered light, dappled sun and shade push its way into an apartment and make fleeting designs on the floor because the vast majority of apartments in Barcelona are placed without a tree in sight. When I look out of my bedroom window, I have a slice of sky like a piece of watermelon, the juice dribbling down your arms but too fast so you can’t lick it. The rest of the view is other apartment buildings. Outside our living room windows you could spit onto the small balconies on the other side of the road. There are no trees in sight. The kitchen window looks out onto my roommate’s bedroom window and the neighboring apartment building. There are no trees in sight. At least, thank god, we get natural sunlight in every room as our apartment is on the corner of the building. But still. There are no trees in sight.
Moment: During the school year I was teaching in a small town called Granollers thirty minutes by train outside of Barcelona. By the time classes were over and I was back at the train station waiting to go home it would be about 10PM. I would sit on a bench and stare into the darkness across the tracks and listen to the crickets and other night creatures. If there’s one thing I have always loved about the places I have lived in Vermont and upstate New York it’s that on any given summer night I could sit outside and listen to the night descend. The symphony, the rhapsody, the harmony of a thousand and one night peepers making melodies. This does not exist where I am in Barcelona and I found that every Tuesday night I looked forward to waiting at the train station simply so I could listen to the crickets. When the tracks started to hiss their first indication that the train was approaching my heart would sink as I bade farewell to my mini violin players.
Confession: Sometimes there are days where I don’t leave my apartment. I am so tired of feeling overwhelmed by all the noise, the traffic, the people, the smells of rotting garbage, human urine and dog shit, the exhaust fumes, the cars honking that I’d rather hide away in my apartment than go outside despite the fact that it might be a beautiful day. The idea that moles make underground tunnels to get from one place to another starts to make a lot of sense to me. If I could walk through a system of tunnels from my apartment and be in the middle of nowhere at the end and not have to battle crowds and traffic to get there I certainly would.
Sure I leave sometimes on the weekend to get out of town but the high quickly dissipates as soon as I’m back in the city. And it’s not enough. A night or a weekend away is something but it’s not enough. It’s like being on a violently fast merry-go-round and I jump off for a spell, enough to forget the dizziness and then suddenly I’m back on again against my own volition and will. There are days where I feel so far beyond the end of my rope that I am grasping at the last frays swinging back and forth between internal combustion or outward explosion. I am not a city girl. I wake up to the sounds of traffic every morning and I feel even further from the essential me. I could go days in a house out in the country not seeing or talking to anyone and be in absolute bliss. In fact, I’ve done it in Panama and Costa Rica, house sitting gigs where I was so content where I was that I just didn’t leave for a few days. Why would I? The trees and mountains there held such reverence what was the point in leaving?
Moment: Earlier this spring I was the stage manager for a play and it meant that I didn’t have one free weekend from March until the end of May. All through April and May I wasn’t able to leave the city and I was so tired, so so tired of breathing in city air I felt my lungs were in agony. When the play was over, my first free weekend I went camping and hiking along the coast north of Barcelona. I couldn’t stop taking gulps of fresh air, sucking it down into my lungs like I had been stuck underwater drowning and by the time I broke the surface every other iota of life disappeared but the visceral need for fresh, real air. Here in this city with multitudes of amazing opportunities and an endless list of interesting nooks and crannies to explore I felt like I was suffocating from polluted, stagnant shit air. The smell of pines on the cliffs I was walking along and then the smell of the sea when the path would bring me down to the shore was like I had never smelled anything so sweet and so pure before. It reminded me of the raw feeling of euphoria I would have when I held my best friend Ashley’s newborn baby when we were all together in Mexico. It was something sacred and whole, something not to be disturbed or messed with, a perfectly blown bubble leaving the little plastic wand and drifting upwards towards the sky. I could literally feel all the molecules in my body settling for the first time in months. They had been a soda bottle shaken and ready to burst, all of the carbonation swirling around haphazardly until someone finally set it down and opened the cap ever so slowly so that the bubbles dispersed in order one by one. I’m not sure I’d ever felt that sensation before, frenzied and harried to calm and settled.
Even when I had an apartment in the city of Rochester there was still a huge garden next to my place and a backyard with a mulberry tree and currant bushes. Despite the loud music blaring from car stereos and the occasional domestic brawl outside my window (it wasn’t the best part of the city, I admit, but it still felt like home to me) I could still hear the crickets at night and there were looming trees outside every window.
How do you find yourself when you are not where you want to be? It’s not that I dislike Barcelona, that’s not it at all, it’s that I don’t feel complete here and it’s not for lack of friends or things to do. I am not lonely or depressed. I am simply and utterly bereft of one of the truest and most essential components that makes my life and me complete.
I am not a city girl.
I leave you with a Mary Oliver poem that another one of my best friend’s Kate, (who knows my penchant for poetry perhaps better than I know it myself) sent to me recently. It struck a chord. Read it. You will understand why.
Sleeping in the Forest by Mary Oliver
I thought the earth remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.