Tag Archives: Boston

Going Back (to Your Furniture)

The other day I went to a secondhand shop in Cambridge and saw a piece of furniture I used to own. It was a stingingly cold day and I was looking for a small bookcase to sit in the kitchen and solve my cookbook problem. The MIT Furniture Exchange is a volunteer-run warehouse-y space a decent walk from Central Square, and in the summer we struck gold there when we bought our massive, quirky antique bookcase (at a very reasonable price).

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The bookcase of champions

Like any secondhand shop, the FX is hit or miss. Occasionally you win, and most times you do a quick ten-minute loop and realize it’s not your lucky day. This time, I had done the ten-minute loop and was heading for the door when a little table caught my eye.

It was small and painted forest-green, though this was certainly not its original hue. Spindly wooden legs belied what I already knew—this is an antique sewing table, and it weighs a ton. They’d put a decorative cloth on the top, but if I lifted it up, the top would fold out to one side, revealing the heavy (and nonfunctional) machine. The front of the table is a door, and I popped it open to reveal the little caddy holding the original manual and bobbin box—currently kept in a Ziplock bag that I believe I provided. It was all still inside.

At first it seemed too radical to believe that this was the piece that once sat in my bedroom(s), back in my early Boston roommate days. But there was no doubt about it; this wasn’t some IKEA generic. The FX woman saw me poking around, and wandered over. “A unique piece, isn’t it?” she asked.

“I used to own this,” I said. “Years ago.” Surprised, she tried to recall the provenance by which it had come into the shop, but couldn’t. I tried to summon the provenance by which I had acquired it, and my memory was hazy, too. I said I’d owned it five or so years back, but I later realized that this was way off. I’d sold this table (on Craigslist) more than seven years ago, when I moved in with Tim and we had too much furniture. I’d owned it three or four years prior to that, having—I think—bought it at a yard sale on my own street in Somerville. It was a fun piece, but moving it around got old, and I moved a lot back in those days.

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In the top left, bearing the hideous television, you can see the table in question, in my shared apartment in 2005. (All the nicer furniture belonged to my roommate.)

Sighted: at the FX, January 2015

Sighted: at the FX, January 2015

It was somehow comforting to see that the thing is still in the neighborhood, almost like it stayed in the family. I didn’t feel any urge to reacquire the sewing table, but it was one of those experiences that leaves you going “huh.”

Moving back to Boston has been a little like running into your old sewing table. I moved to Boston for grad school in 2003, and was here until Tim and I moved to Europe in 2010. We met here, got married here, got degrees here, and I had my first jobs here. Tim finished his PhD and we moved away. After our four years as expats, his job search could have taken us anywhere in the world (or in the US, really, since that’s where he was looking). And a work opportunity that seemed (still seems) like the perfect next step brought us… right back where we’d been.

Boston—and when I address Boston, I mean the entire area here—some of the shine has worn off. I loved Cambridge in my 20s. All I wanted was a crappy little apartment there (and trust me, I had them). I still like Cambridge, and I half-wish we lived there, with the walkability to cafes and restaurants and bookshops. But I used to think that was (for Massachusetts) my Dream Place. My perfect spot. The one it turned out we couldn’t afford. And now when I’m there, it doesn’t seem as perfect as I remember. It seems dirtier. A little more crowded. People seem a little more rude. And yes–I’m not a twenty-something anymore, and it still feels like a city of twenty-somethings, which then takes a huge jump upward to wealthy middle-aged academics. There’s not a lot of room for thirty-somethings who haven’t made it big.

Watertown has its pluses and minuses for us. The big pluses are our church and Sofra Bakery. The big minuses are the car dependency and the aesthetic starvation of my soul. We talk a lot right now about if we’ll stay here. And we talk in the bigger picture about if Boston is “it” for us, for a long haul. I’m not sure it is.

Sometimes I think there might have been more of a spark to returning to the US if we’d returned to a new city, where we’d be more charged by learning a new place, discovering its little pockets and gems. Here, although the city has changed plenty while we were gone, we don’t feel the same curiosity, the same wonder at making a new find.

But enough about us. One of the questions expats—and non-expats—try at some point to answer is: Can you go back? To your hometown, to your college town, to the place you lived ten years ago? Will you struggle to fit your grown self there, when an earlier iteration is there following you around? And can you return to a place you loved before, without being a little disappointed?

Our experience has said it’s hard. That it’s like trying on an old pair of jeans. You might be able to get them on, and you might even discover that you don’t look bad in them—but you + they together are not the same glory combination you equalled two summers back.

But as fashion experts (and my grandmother) always say, clothing trends–and furniture–are bound to come around.

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Finding

I write a lot of things down. In journals, when I feel disciplined; in random notebooks I buy because I like the covers; on loose scraps of paper and receipts and whatever was at hand when a thought struck. The paradox of the note-keeping is that I do it so I won’t forget an idea, an impression, or the fact that we’re out of toilet paper– but despite the distrust of my memory, and an overall lack of organizational system, I rarely forget the pages themselves.

“Have you seen,” I’ll be asking Tim, “a yellow sticky?” 

“There are yellow stickies everywhere.”

“I know, but this one has a note on it of something I saw at Coffee Company. The other day it was by the cucumbers.”

So there was a piece of paper I knew went missing circa nine months ago. It was a sheet of A4 printer paper I’d pulled out of my bag and scrawled some notes on, on the last day we visited Amsterdam. I wanted those notes, to preserve the city as it was to me that day, and so that I could turn them into a blog post. I wanted the notes because—on what seemed like such an important occasion—I’d forgotten our camera; I remember realizing it as we walked to the train. It was a weekend day just before we moved, and structure was somewhat less than normal. By the time I thought to search for my paper, it seemed too late to track in the chaos a plain white sheet. I combed meticulously through stacks created after I gave away my desk to a friend, accompanied by a bottle of wine because anyone who took an object from our house that week also received a bottle we couldn’t take with us. (So did anyone who helped us move an object from our house.) The notes never surfaced, and my last guess (aside from being recycled) was that they’d been mixed into the folder of pages we left for the incoming tenant of our apartment. I could only hope I hadn’t written anything too embarrassing.

This morning, on the doorstep of 2015, I picked a book off the bookshelf that I wanted to give away. I’d started it months ago and lost interest. I thumbed through it and a paper slid out: white, soft, littered with my handwriting. And as I squinted at my own appalling scrawl, scenes sprang up so vividly I thought I could breathe their air.

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It had been tulip season, and from the train we saw the fields ablaze. The sun came out warm, I wrote, and Amsterdam was mobbed: throngs of tourists, tornadoes of pot smoke. We wandered down the Haarlemmerdijk taking in the usual sights: boats, bachelorettes, stylish Amsterdammers and a shirtless man drinking a beer by the canal. We stopped at Two for Joy, my favorite cafe, where I would often write when in Amsterdam. In honor of our last day, I touristed myself and bought one of the cafe’s logo espresso cups. The server couldn’t find one of the matching saucers new and asked if I would be OK with one that had been in use, taken from the drying rack of the cafe itself. I couldn’t have liked it more.

We continued to the Noordermarkt, bustling and sunny, where we sampled pears and bread. We spent fifteen minutes at a vendor of old postcards: places we have been, places we haven’t. I bought one of Delft, intending still to frame it. We lingered near street musicians; I watched a girl pass with Obama stickers on her Dutch bicycle. I want, I wrote, to remember this.

The last night we were in Amsterdam, we ate at a little Italian restaurant we’d visited several times before. Friendly, warm, gezellig, and neighborhood-feeling. The kind of place we always insisted we wouldn’t consume a whole bottle of wine, and then did. That night a man wandered in, one I could recognize right away as hoping to sell something. In cities all across Europe, we’ve been approached at restaurant tables while a man, smiling, wordless, seemingly always in a dark jacket, holds out a rose and waits until we become uncomfortable or say “no, thank you,” enough times. I have a complicated soft spot for these people, always curious what their lives are like and how much money you can really earn selling flowers table to table.

But this man didn’t have flowers. Or Kleenex, or cheap greeting cards, or any of the other variations we’d seen. He had a camera.

It was an old Polaroid, hanging around his neck, and as he approached our table he held it up, asking if we wanted a photo. I almost shook my head by default and then realized–yes. Yes, we want a picture; how perfect is this? I scooted around to the other side of the table, next to Tim, and the man snapped a single shot, waved it a little, and walked away with a few Euros before the image had even appeared.

By many definitions, it’s not the greatest photo. We weren’t dressed up; we look like we’d been out all day. I’m wearing a drab sweater and scarf. My hair is short; I can’t believe how much it’s grown. Tim sports his Euro-goatee, which got the razor shortly after. In front of us on the table are a half-eaten pizza and a wine glass. The image is framed in such a way that we could be anywhere—the main background is a boring white wall—but out the window behind my head you can make out bike wheels in the dark. Amsterdam.

As soon as I saw the photo I remember thinking it already looked old. The vintage style helps, but it was as if even in the moment I could feel that day slipping, belonging to a chapter that would close. Before months had elapsed we’d pick it up and say, “We look young,” or, “Do you remember when…”

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This December we brought a tree home on our car. This was quite the shift from previous years. We decorated with ornaments gathered from our travels, resulting in that wintry mix of joy and nostalgia. Over the holiday a relative told me that she checks my blog, but wondered why I hadn’t been writing. I’ve wondered that, too; all I’ve got is that there hasn’t been a lot to say. Closing a chapter is hard, and there are no notes you can find to help you through.

The best analogy I’ve had for the time since our move is that it has felt like someone has died, or like a relationship has ended. At first it was unbearably heavy; then gradually it lightened, but the loss will catch me off guard on any given day.

I didn’t make many resolutions for the new year, but most of the goals I’ve thought up involve writing. One is to use this space again, to talk about moving or travel or anyplace in between. Happy new year, and thanks for reading!

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