When I was 20 and living in New York City, I dated a man whose mother was a very wealthy art dealer. She owned a vacation home in Long Island, a nineteenth century, wrap around porch house that, more than the short-lived relationship, sticks with me — its slate colored floors, its high ceilings, its antique finishing, its spare, elegant, protestant charm.
We visited it most in autumn, and what I remember vividly about each visit are the bike rides, the shafts of lights coming through all those leaves, the big, old houses moving slowly past us like film stills. And the conversations that ensued:
“It’s quiet here.”
“I know. I like it.”
“Maybe we could leave the city.”
“What about this yellow one?”
“Yeah, I like it.” And I’d smile, knowing that, for me, it was a fantasy. He was older, wanted to settle down, buy a house. I was 20, and imagining –perhaps irresponsibly—what that would be like.
One of my favorite things to do when I’m traveling is look at houses, to walk aimlessly through an anonymous neighborhood, surveying not so much the people in their homes, but the spaces themselves. In my head, I empty them out, ready for fantasy’s taking. Then I arrange a life for myself there.
I admit, it’s a strange activity for a traveler — especially for one who believes that she’ll probably never own a home, who shies away from domestic nesting rituals, and who has never lived in one apartment or house longer than two years.
Or maybe not. I wonder if, in all my travels and moving, that’s what I’m secretly hoping to hit upon — the right house, in the right place, at the right time. Or maybe it is just one aspect of a long-term traveler’s deepest impulse, the impulse to understand what it would be to live in a place, to know its underbelly, its routine, its annoyances, its quirks of character. Part of that, for sure, is about the fantasy — the need to imagine yourself out of the tedium of your own life, the thirst I felt at 20 for the space and freedom my broke, cramped lived in New York couldn’t give me.
But aside from the fantasy is the actual story. What I love about neighborhoods is the quiet histories they tell. I spent a good deal of my recent trip to Newport Beach, CA just walking through neighborhoods, guided by my friend who has spent most of her life there.
There’s an odd, disembodied feeling to being in Southern California — the wide, perfectly paved expressways, the empty sidewalks, the weather’s sameness. Like you’re floating, with eerie ease, atop a mirage of a world.
What makes that feeling even more intense is the strange way the new houses and developments there are trying to trump the unique landscape, trying, with their three-lot-five-house-wide-stucco-imitation-ranch-style-BRIGHT-color -choices to say: Land? What land? Don’t look at those silly palm trees and crystal water. Don’t smell the gardenias that waft through the air everywhere you go. Look at me. Me is what Southern California is all about.
As Nouveau Riche as this all is, this typically Californian in-with-the-new, out-with-the-tasteful tells us more about the history of place than it means to. As it always does. There, sitting next to a modest, pale blue one story, that lot-swallowing monstrosity tells us a lot. Tells us about the way the beach town used to be, and where it’s going. Tells us how the people’s lives, values, and desires have changed. And that little beach house, just built in the 70s actually inspires nostalgia, a hankering for a quieter, more nuanced time that maybe never existed. But it at least creates the vision of history, and the sense of loss that goes along with it.
Maybe it’s just this impulse towards story. The strange need to take details and make them into a narrative, imagined or real. A kind of travel of its own.