A guide to making your new city home
After the honeymoon of settling in, finding permanence in a new place can be overwhelming.
“We have so many little lifetimes that we live, and our geography can make clear distinctions between those lifetimes. Look out for those.” — Chanel Miller
2020 has been a wild one. The COVID19 pandemic has accelerated social, technological and economic changes around the world. Remote work is a norm, parents are wrangling care and career like never before. Headlines abound about people leaving their city apartments behind; looking for greener pastures. We’re rediscovering what matters.
Humans thrive on the ‘new’. It’s been said that novel experiences even affect our perception of time. Our collective COVID-driven experience indicates how true this can really be.
Day after day, your routine drums on and before you know it, your calendar is a page behind. It’s a weird feeling.
Such dramatic circumstances are not a requirement in the quest for the new. As long as there have been humans, there have been those who leave the comforts of their homes to pursue things undiscovered. My partner and I are among them.
Spurred by a curious feeling hard to put into words, we left our lives (and our respective very-San-Francisco-share-houses) behind, taking off to Sydney.
Our new home in Australia would be far from my friends, my family, my past, and as I’m often reminded here, quality Mexican food.
Three years later, amidst a global pandemic and cyclical lockdowns (we love you, Victoria), reflection has felt a sort of respite.
What follows are some of what I’ve found valuable in redefining my home, and learning to love a new place.
This isn’t a checklist to pull out as you disembark the plane. It’s to help you take that next step, once you’ve settled. Even if you’re staying put, there may be something valuable for you too.
Just as you can learn to love someplace new, you can always rekindle what you once felt.
Walk, ride and roll. Everywhere.
Using your own energy to get around is beneficial to your health and happiness. The oft-overlooked bit though, is that being able to stop any and everywhere invites serendipity to your life.
You’ll try that cafe, you’ll pop in that funky vintage shop, and most importantly, you’ll get to meet more dogs.
It’s hard to describe how much more intimately you can experience a city via her sidewalks, traversing public spaces like parks, plazas and making use of those pesky bike lanes that the people who neglect the magic of the wind in their faces love to shake their fists at.
You’ll gain more appreciation for the little things, planned and unplanned that make a city beautifully complex.
Cycling is having a renaissance right now, but the push for last-mile transport innovation has also seen the introduction of electric scooters, better infrastructure for skateboarding, motor scooters, or whatever your preferred flavor may be.
Have conversations with strangers.
I took the abundance of small-talk in the US for granted. Passing conversations, even if brief can be educational, open doors and encourage you to immerse in the subtleties of your new home. This can be weird and scary, but I encourage even the shy introverts amongst you to give it a go, even if it feels unnatural.
Ask your barista where the best park to lay out and read is, or stop for a chat with the woman tending that community garden. One of the best places to have a chat is a local market. You’ll get to try more food that way too.
Appreciate the strange in stranger. In an increasingly tribal world, we could all strive to spend more time with those who don’t look or think like we do. I find it interesting that I’m more drawn to exploring a cathedral in Mexico City than the one in downtown Sydney. With a traveler’s perspective, our home has more richness than we might give it credit for.
Here’s a pro-tip if you want to meet some new people. Get a dog.
Find your community.
While low-stakes conversations are great, it’s perhaps more important to fully immerse yourself in the community. Plot a rough course with whatever you value; having fun, branching out or giving back. It’s all good.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” — Mahatma Gandhi
In San Francisco, a city resting precariously on very active geological fault, I became a member of the SF Fire Department’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT). The certification and activities were a great way to learn valuable emergency response skills, meet neighbors, understand how city agencies operate and even learn some local history. There’s a reason Van Ness Avenue has a stark East-West division in period architecture. That’s where the 1906 fire was stopped.
Just like volunteering, your pursuits can be easily tied to your interests. Friends have started book clubs, joined public speaking meetup groups, and started running, bouldering or hoopin’ in the park. For me recently, it’s been gardening with local groups. It has been such a great way to learn new skills, connect with people, and refresh my mind.
Quit relying on Google reviews.
You can usually tell if a restaurant is worth a go by employing your senses — there’s a decent crowd, and it’s not over-selling itself. Don’t overlook the hidden gems in your ‘hood and beyond, be they pub or grub. You might even wander to your phone after the fact, and realize you found a 4.6 star spot on accident.
In his Six Rules for Dining Out, economist Tyler Cowen encourages us to get out of the city and into the strip mall. Not every country houses something perfectly akin to the classic American strip mall, but you get the idea.
Low-rent restaurants can experiment at relatively low risk. […] As a result, a strip-mall restaurant is more likely to try daring ideas […]. The people with the best, most creative, most innovative cooking ideas are not always the people with the most money. — Tyler Cowen
Maybe I’m a romantic, but a culinary life guided entirely by the masses and The Algorithm is not one worth living, even if you end up with a really chewy Pad Thai every now and again.
Observe through a historical lens.
One of my favorite things about greater Sydney is how much the integration of cultures has defined it. Indigenous land and tradition is honored through ceremony and in the names of places. Elders past present and emerging are acknowledged with respect.
Waves of immigrants and generational refugees and have defined neighborhoods and the social fabric that colors them. I love how Australia’s diverse representation can be followed through the 20th century as the nation welcomed refugees from conflicts around the world; Greece, Lebanon, Vietnam. These immigrants have left their own mark on the country, and their stories can be traced like tree rings in time.
These threads are all woven into the remnants of colonial Britain, seen in architecture, urban planning (it’s bad), and the fact that so many streets have the same uninspired names.
By examining your surroundings with a thirst for history, you’ll learn why things are they way they are, and be encouraged to speculate on the connections between things, people and places in your new home. Conversations about how to grow and heal communities are always better when they’re rooted in the context of the past.
Become an urban naturalist.
Of the things that can inspire us to live more fully, nature tops the list. Being one with your environment does not mean that you need to climb mountains, swim in rivers, or explore a jungle. You can do it from your street and even your window. The senses we’re blessed with are so wonderfully attuned to discovery and appreciation.
When it rains, what do the insects do? Which of the trees on your street are native? Notice the weeds, shrubs and flowers. Understand what happens in which season, how the light changes and how it makes you feel. Spend some time learning what your area would have looked like before it was developed.
You don’t need to start making your own Eucalyptus-infused oils or adding dandelions to your salad to appreciate and integrate the outside world into your home. Those are extra credit.
The ‘Meat Eater’ Steven Rinella describes so much more beautifully what I mean here. In his conversation with Tim Ferriss, he explains that tuning into our local nature is done by acknowledging solstices, counting the species of birds you can hear from your window, and understanding where the water coming out of your tap really comes from.
Take a few minutes and listen here. Timestamp around 92:35 (or -12:39)
Good luck on your adventure and welcome home.
The quote at the top from writer, artist and activist Chanel Miller hit me hard. She shared her thoughts on moving on a superb episode of The Cut (another great podcast). The episode is about the COVID-driven migration of young people to and from New York City this year.