What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open.Charles Beaudelaire
Back in 2018, when Justin and I were first planning our three-week northeast road trip, we had a conversation with his mom, who lives in a farming community outside of Sioux Falls and who loves road trips as much as I do. We showed her our planned itinerary, all of the cities we would pass through and the ones we’d sleep in: DC, Philly, Boston, Salem, Portland, Vergennes, Montreal, Toronto…. She said it sounded awesome, but that if she and her husband were to go on the same trip, to the same states, it would look very, very different indeed. They love national parks, and have gone on some amazing drives full of the most beautiful scenery. Their version of our northeast road trip would have featured mountains and hiking and natural vistas in some of our country’s top parks. They would have driven away from the noise and crowds that we sought.
As we drove along the highways during that trip, with lots of window gazing and getting lost in thought, I kept wondering what our route would look like in the hands of another planner. I thought about how my mother-in-law would probably not have as much fun on our northeast road trip, and vice versa. And how some people much prefer the scenic solitude of nature-filled exploration while others prefer the hustle and bustle of metropolitan areas. I definitely fall into the latter category.
I get it though. I understand why cities, especially large ones, don’t appeal to everyone. They’re noisy, often dirty, can be prohibitively expensive. There are often too many people, the pace of the streets can be chaotic and stressful, traffic can be a nightmare. Some cities put you up close and personal with homelessness and poverty in a way that could make you uncomfortable. Sprawling US cities like Atlanta, Dallas, or LA present potentially intimidating traffic while walking cities like Manhattan, Paris, Barcelona present public transit options that could confuse, and don’t even get me started on the biking cities! (We only braved riding a bike in den Haag *once*, at the very end of our visit, and we still thought we were going to die.) The urban pace can definitely be a huge adjustment that leaves one feeling very out of their element.
But for me, amongst the throngs of people, in the middle of towering buildings, walking from neighborhood to neighborhood, I feel very much smack dab in the middle of my element.
I had a sort of epiphany a couple weeks ago, as we were pushing the stroller down Monroe St in downtown Chicago. Standing at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change, I looked around, taking in the moment. The blue and grey buildings stretching towards the clouds… the bustle of business people and tourists and locals heading to the beach on their day off… the hordes of folks on rental bikes… the screech of the nearby train tracks. I took a deep breath and smiled. I felt so at peace. Despite being in the middle of a major metropolis on a Friday afternoon in the summer, when the kids are all out of school and everyone’s flocking to the lakeshore or rushing back to the office after lunch, with traffic to dodge and busted ass sidewalks to navigate, I felt at home.
Having been raised in pretty typical Floridian suburbs, I’m not entirely sure where this kinship with the city comes from. My dad, a born and bred New Yorker, did take us to his hometown once when I was in high school. But I don’t remember much from that trip, to be honest, except that it was freezing (because we went in December), that we only saw one Broadway show (the travesty!!), and that we visited the John Lennon memorial in Central Park. So I’m not sure how much of an impact that trip had on my preferences.
My first real taste of urban living was during my year abroad in Paris. Not only was it the first time I lived on my own but the first time I was lived somewhere that I didn’t need a car, that I could walk to class, where I shared walls with non-student neighbors. It was scary, 10000000%. I had plenty of homesick moments and tears of frustration. The language barrier only added to the challenge, especially when communicating with the gardien of the building, whose North African French was as impossible for me to understand as my American French was to him.
BUT. THE CITY. MY GOD. Ug. I love it so much.
I adored the cobblestone streets and crooked alleyways that make up the meandering streets. I loved that you could eat dinner in a building from the 1600s while paying for your meal with a credit card. I loved the parks and the gorgeous architecture, the never ending supply of baguettes and the fact that you could walk down the street eating one fresh from the boulangerie without anyone looking at you funny. I loved hearing French everywhere, but also hearing Japanese and Arabic and British English and Italian. I loved seeing kids playing soccer in the park next to the old men playing bocce ball. I loved the metro system, and how I could stumble home drunk without worrying about driving. I loved that I could take the train not only anywhere within the city, but out to the Loire valley to sight see ancient castles. There was plenty I didn’t like or that frustrated me about living there (wait ’til I tell you about what I had to do to secure my student visa!), and sometimes the language barrier made simple things less so. But I loved — and continue to love — that beautiful city.
Paris is one of those places that will forever be imprinted on my heart, a map I know well, and a city I feel completely comfortable navigating by foot. I came of age in that town, I lived on my own, thousands of miles away from all of my friends and family. I had to be an adult. But I also did alone. Yes, I made friends, but most of them were temporary. My family, both genetic and chosen, were all the way across the sea, seven timezones away. So, as much I love that city, there will always be a slight bittersweetness to it, something that makes me feel far away from the rest of what I love. For this reason, Paris won’t ever truly feel like home. But it is a place that conjures so much joy and nostalgia, I will never *not* want to return. Ug, I just love that town with all my heart, but that’s another story for another day.
Cities have so much to offer… the food and dining options! The art, theatre, and history! Shopping and retail! The bookstores! Museums! Festivals! Street entertainers! Live music! The variety of activities! Parks! Street art and murals! The markets! The playgrounds! The lights and colors and sounds! The people! The sheer energy of it all combined.
There’s always something to do! Music, theatre, comedy, dining, festivals, bookstores, museums, art shows, community events, fashion shows, flea markets, street markets, store openings, tours, parades, party busses, group activities, bars, clubs… if you don’t want to be bored, you don’t have to be. There is always something interesting to do or something unusual to see. Better yet, in a city you have a better chance of stumbling upon fun and unique situations just by walking around. Just off the top of my head, I know we’ve randomly stumbled upon a music festival by a castle in Budapest, a live film set in Chicago, a science fest in Montreal, a feminist demonstration in Paris, a small riot in Santiago, a wine tasting in downtown Cincinnati, an impromptu Michael Jackson tribute in Nashville, and a late night dance party in Barcelona. The sheer possibility that ANYTHING can happen in a city thrills me!
Beyond the general ambience and the fact that anything is possible, I feel comforted by the fact that in an urban environment I can get whatever I need whenever I need it. Hungry at 1 am? Likely not a problem. Lost your phone charger or need to take your laptop in for repair? There will be a place to go. Need a handyman or two-hour grocery delivery or a rideshare to the train station or a last minute birthday gift or someone to assemble all of the IKEA furniture you just bought? You can get all of that quickly and pretty easily within city limits, and knowing that all of my needs could be easily and quickly met in worst-case scenarios comforts my anxiety.
When I daydream about traveling the world, I visualize all of the big, walkable cities I haven’t yet visited. Prague. Berlin. Singapore. Sydney. I imagine revisiting cities from my youth with my own child: Tampa, Manhattan, Vegas. I think about the people I could meet in Johannesburg, the stories I could hear in Rio, the weird ass shit I could see in Tokyo. I want to experience the cultural dichotomies of Istanbul and the immensity of Mexico City. I want to eat my way through Bankok and Laos, and witness firsthand the futuristic architecture of Dubai.
There are of course outdoor nature-based experiences I’d love to have (a safari!) and iconic natural monuments I’d love to see (the grand canyon!). I want to visit the rest of the Hawaiian islands, freeze my ass off in Iceland, drive along the Pacific Highway. I haven’t yet seen the Redwoods or Halong Bay or Mt Fuji. I need to visit an Aztec ruin, see some bioluminescence in action, and figure out why my Grandmother was obsessed with the Greek isles. I want to cruise the Mediterranean and road trip along Route 66, and I can not wait to introduce my child to theme parks; I already have our first Disney trip planned!
But cities, y’all. Cities speak to me on another level and make me feel so comfortable, so at home.
Of course, I wonder if I’d still love the idea of city life if I was living it 100% of the time. Some might think of Nashville as a big city, but with a metro population of only 690,000 (the greater Nashville area is 1.9 million) and the fact that you must have a car to get around town, I do not consider the life we currently lead to be all that urban. As it is now, true city life is an escape for me, something I get to experience a few times a year if I’m lucky. I’m sure the annoyances and challenges would wear on me after a while — especially if we had to live in a smaller space! — and the cost would slowly eat away at our bank accounts. But then, everything’s relative and there will always be daily frustrations and obstacles to overcome in any environment and living situation, so maybe I’d still love it once the novelty wore off.
I love living in Nashville, after all, and this town suffers from a lot of problems. Our schools suck, our roads need help and our urban design is severely lacking. We have a major housing crisis, and our government prioritizes businesses over people but cant get its financial shit together. There’s still a stench of racism that will be hard to erase in the South given the history and deep-rooted conservative culture of the area. We’re not doing nearly enough environmentally and our public transit is basically non-existent.
Even though Nashville is not a truly walkable, bikeable, or public-transit-able city in the least, this town offers much of the convenience and fun of a big city, as well as a lot of history, a diverse cast of neighborhoods with unique personalities to discover, and one of the best entertainment scenes in the country. I love how those individual neighborhoods are becoming more strongly defined; that’s one of my favorite things about Paris and Chicago, for that matter. They’re cities of neighborhoods, each area having its own culture, character, and vibe but together creating a robust personality for the city as a whole. I feel this happening in Nashville and absolutely love it.
I love living in Nashville so much, and unlike many of the natives or local residents, I love watching this city grow. In the 12+ years that I’ve been here, it’s already changed so much. (And when I think back to the few years of my childhood that I spent living in Donelson, on this very same street!, it feels like an entirely different place.) While many may argue that New Nashville is a travesty, I feel very much the opposite. The inspired and hilarious Instagram account @musicshitty put it best when recently asked if there was anything they particularly enjoyed about new Nashville:
And the food. The food is so much better (and varied! and diverse! and interesting!) than it ever was. Nashville may be a drinking town with a music problem, but it’s also now a foodie town so visitors, please: venture beyond hot chicken and lower Broadway; we have so much more to offer!
I adore this small, burgeoning city with my whole being, much in the same way and for the same reasons that I love Paris. My love for this town goes beyond what it offers as a city, as my family is rooted here, some of my best friends live here, the cost of living is manageable, and so many of the good things about my life happened to me here. Even as a kid, our regular pilgrimages to visit family in Nashville felt like coming home.
In another life (or several of them) I am certain I moved to a walkable city, and am living my best city life to the max. In this life, though, I’m very content to live the semi-suburban city-adjacent life that we have built in Nashville. I doubt we’ll ever live full-time in another town, and I’m 100% a-okay with that because every year, we get so many wonderful opportunities to get out and about on foot in urban environments. Even though each experience is brief, too short to allow us to truly settle into a routine, it’s enough for me now. The bursts of urbanity should sustain my need for a walkable metropolis, and fuel the fire of my love for those urban experiences. After all, don’t they always say absence makes the heart grow fonder?
What cities have you fallen in love with? What do you love and hate about urban life? What cities are on your bucket list? Do you prefer urban experiences or more nature-based, rural experiences?