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).
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.
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.