Emotional rollercoaster of the big city move

Last updated 12:11 02/09/2011

I've been reflecting on how when you're new in a big city, things can go wrong and you're not at your sharpest to deal with them mentally. 

It's a strange voodoo for the first months: you're fresh on the scene and you don't know your way aroundBoston skyline the place, but you are still energetic to try new things and tuck into your big list of life tasks. All the while your senses are heightened through a mixture of new surroundings, fresh insecurities and trying to keep homesickness at bay. 

You are a vulnerable explorer.

When I was 19 I moved to San Diego for four months (where I met my fiancée LP). The international studies office at Victoria University had forgotten to mail in my on-campus housing application. Arriving in town a month before school began, eager for adventure and travel, I still needed to find a place to live.

On my second day in town I set out flat-hunting. The day dawned foggy, so I dressed warmly. Each flat took twice as long to get to as expected. The fog burned off (it was late summer) and I began to sweat profusely. I made it to my third flat in seven hours, coming upon an appalling cave of a 10-bedroom house owned by an elderly Ukrainian man who rented grungy-looking rooms to what I could gather was mostly Eastern European visitors. My hopes for my overseas experience were crumbling. I had spent over two hours getting there on the bus. It was 30 degrees. I was hot and frustrated, and my head was spinning a little. I walked out on the street, and without even really considering it, cried for a minute about as hard as I ever have as an adult.    

This wasn't the worst thing in the world to happen. I eventually found a place in a university-run dorm and forgot about my housing woes. But these strange situations are heightened by the process of adjustment you're going through. There's no safety net in big cities.

There remains something vivid still about being that upset that is burnt into my memory. 

ikeaLet us fast-forward six years. LP and I had been in Boston a week and needed furniture. IKEA, our global Swedish overlord of interior decoration, is 40 kilometres south from us. We had sorted out a Zipcar membership a day or so before, allowing us to rent a car for three hours. Proudly for us, we found our way there without incident. But IKEA was larger than we expected. After navigating the cavernous shop floor, we had to find and fetch our chosen furniture from the stock room. We started to run out of time. We were smug about having found our way easily and weren't paying attention as closely on the way back.

We then discovered that arriving into Boston, if you miss your exit you can shoot helplessly over the town on to a bridge exiting the city centre. By this stage we were running very late. The car needed to be returned; Zipcar makes its money off the hopeless naivete of people like us returning their cars late, stacking on fees and penalties. We were in a scary part of Somerville, a suburb we were not familiar with. We also had a trunk full of furniture, driving a car we didn't own and were paying out the ear for.

It was only a moderately expensive error in the end, $100 or so. It wasn't a big deal. We got home unscathed physically, put the furniture together and admired our new possessions. But there's something striking about how intense that feeling of being lost, panicked and disoriented in a strange town was (so much yelling!). And there's something a little more crazy about how quickly we slipped from feeling proud of ourselves for navigating a new town and shopping confidently, into plummeting into a pit of despair. 

These misadventures can be smaller, too. In a new city, you're more enthusiastic to explore than ever, but you're not keyed into word of mouth. The only way we had to find out that the Chinese restaurant at the end of our street is a gigantic letdown, or to stay away from Zaftig's for dinner, and that Kelley's sandwiches were not as good as hyped, was to go and pay good money for bad food.

We've made great discoveries: superb restaurants, farmers' markets, new foods, and amazing bookstores have been part of the joy of having this big new city at our fingertips. But conversely, as you're sitting with a mouthful of overpriced Chinese food that tastes like cardboard, it is easy to feel homesick and overwhelmed, vulnerable to the size of this unknowable new city.

It is a double-edge sword of risk and reward. It amplifies the highs, but boy, it can really magnify the lows as well.

I wonder if any of you are familiar with this fragile phenomenon?   

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15 comments
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Regan   #1   12:48 pm Sep 02 2011

I'm pretty good at finding my feet in a strange town. Initially it's all about exploring on foot for a couple of months, finding out from co-workers/neighbors about the best places nearby, or if they're further out, public transporting it then getting the stuff delivered. I find in a decent large city I've never needed a car unless I was going away for the weekend. Never really had a bad experience, especially now in the age of dashboard gps.

OK, once. Getting to Meadowlands Stadium the first time. For all the 21st century transport infrastructure NYC has, training it over to New Jersey to see a Giants game is like travelling to another country (including the time spent going thru customs). It takes far too long, is far too crowded, the service is incredibly poor and the whole system is atrociously integrated. ESPECIALLY on Game Day. These aren't subway cars where you can enter/exit quick. They're essentially long-haul cars with single exits at either end. Packed to the brim.

You wait at the single gate at Penn Station for the first NJT train (90mins before gametime) to take you over to Secaucus where you change again and wait for a loco pulled carriage to take you to the Stadium. You get there with barely 5 minutes spare where you then join one of the multitude of queues for the body & bag search (separated by gender obviously).

After that I never took another train to Meadowlands. It cost me much more, but I took a taxi everytime.

missd   #2   02:30 pm Sep 02 2011

I'll never forget being super sick within my first week of my student exchange, I couldn't yet speak the language, and just couldn't get across what was wrong. All I wanted was my mum, and english speaking doctors!! Fast forward a few months and I took a daydrip to Venice, I ended up getting lost and missed my train home, the dispair and panic that set in ment I missed the next two trains and only just managed to catch the last train back to my hometown... the angry host father waiting for me at the other was terrifying, the fact I could only understand half of the lecture I receieved was even worse! I was down for a good week after that, bounce back rate was a lot longer when everything was so unfamiliar. In saying that though, all the good times (of which there were many) were simply unforgettable and worth all the downs!!

Becky Morrow   #3   10:45 pm Sep 02 2011

This reminds me of my move to Sydney. That displaced feeling; a mixture of loneliness and intrigue...no frame of reference or familiarity... your description rings true, especially then throwing into the mix a trip to IKEA. Wow, that really had me sobbing. Love your blogs - keep it up - they are such a good read!

LP   #4   01:50 am Sep 03 2011

Happy to see you finally admit that Shanghai Gate was a bust!

Ana   #5   04:18 pm Sep 03 2011

Moving out of home from Whangarei to Wellington to study at 17 was an eye-opener. Dad dropped me off, gave me $200, said good luck and that was it. I arrived a couple of days early to the student hall, was the only one there, and experienced that helpless inner voice saying "if something happens to me, no-one would know or be able to help..." I found that a good night's sleep usually gets rid of homesickness pretty fast

Minnie Moo   #6   10:57 pm Sep 03 2011

When I first moved to the UK (London initially), I hated it. I hardly knew anyone and felt very vulnerable. I kept wishing they had turned me away at customs! While trying to find the hostel I ended up taking a wrong turn and got a bit lost (not very, as it turned out). I sat on my backpack in the middle of the street and bawled my eyes out while people just walked past. Then I had another go looking at the A-Z, and it was just around the corner after all that!

I remember crying on the phone to my Dad as I was terribly homesick. The phone at the hostel was on a stairwell, and with me crying and people running up and down the stairs, my Dad couldn't hear what I was saying. I ended up having to shout down the phone that I hated London and wanted to come home! Everyone on the stairwell just stopped and stared! Fast forward several months, and I was in another part of England and having the time of my life. After two years, I was well and truly settled in and didn't want to come back to NZ, but I had to. The first seven days or so in the UK were awful, but I'd do it all over again!

Love reading your blogs!

Steve the US Kiwi   #7   09:12 am Sep 04 2011

Got through the new in town thing relatively unscathed, one memory that sticks out is getting lost at night on one trip back from shopping. We were familiar with the way we needed to go but then there was a detour, with a few signs pointing the way, streets got narrow, no street lighting, detour signs disappeared, and we found ourselves in a none too safe part of town. In Memphis that is not good. Stop signs became suggestions. Eventually found our way home. Got a GPS soon after.

In a couple of weeks, I will be going through the whole new in town thing again by moving to a new country/city. Looking forward to it, more new adventures, should be fun.

Blair   #8   01:52 am Sep 05 2011

I feel like a refugee of my own country, city and scene maan.

Laura   #9   01:51 pm Sep 05 2011

Crying hysterically on the phone to the removal company who had lost my bed in transit from NZ was my memorable lowpoint. I feel like moving cities gets easier the more you do it, im hoping this is true with move number 3 coming up.

Miss Peach   #10   04:50 pm Sep 05 2011

I had a VERY similar experience to you whilst flat hunting in Wellington (I'm originally from the US). Although it was late Summer, I remember walking about town when it started raining. I couldn't quite get comfortable with the clothes I was wearing because it was hot and humid but somehow still cold with the Wellington wind. At this point, I had visited flats for the better part of a week and growing more and more frustrated with each viewing. No flat seemed to suit me and as each disappointment grew, security dissipated. Like you, at the end of the day, I had a good cry. I agree that your emotions are heightened with the unavoidable adjustment and it can definitely stifle rational thought.


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