Emotional rollercoaster of the big city move

00:11, Sep 02 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 around 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. 

Let 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?   

Email me if you'd like to say hello or have questions or requests for what you'd like me to cover on this blog. And feel free to follow me on Twitter.