I headed to D.C. to visit friends for the weekend after my workshop in West Virginia ended. Waiting at Union Station to pick up a friend, people in business suits zipped all around me on direct routes to their next destinations. Their pace and paths gave the complete opposite feeling of the meandering WV roads I’d been traveling over the past week. I didn’t feel overwhelmed—I know how to walk at that clip, and having lived in the capital for four years, I’m familiar with navigating the city—yet I felt removed despite being in the thick of it. Yes, I know the culture of D.C. by virtue of experience but after being gone from it for a while I returned with a heightened sense of observation. (Similarly, anthropologists often leave their field site part way through the research in order to reach fresh insights when they go back.)
Once upon a time I considered myself a city person. The primary criteria I used when considering colleges was their location in a major city. After growing up in the suburbs of Lancaster County, I found the pulse of urban life exciting and energizing. I had always loved being outdoors but being busy with college I didn’t notice too much my disconnection from nature.
The first crack in the belief that I’m a city person came when visiting my sister after working in Hawai’i during summer 2009. She lives in Portland, a city with more trees and green than most, yet after the incomparable beauty of an island in the Pacific I felt choked and closed in by the concrete buildings and prevalence of sidewalks where grass ought to grow. The cracks grew stronger in Palestine and India, where my favorite places were rural areas and the chaos of cities (Hyderabad especially) drained me. I relished the slower pace, lower population density, and space to grow food to eat in places like Beit Ommar and Vikravandi. And not in a way where I just wanted a respite from city life—in a way that made me long to stay.
Reflecting on those feelings and my once-insider-now-outsider view of D.C., I’ve come to realize that it’s not about whether I’m a city person or not, because of course there are still loveable aspects of cities. What it comes down to is that I love learning about new cultures, or that which I don’t know. Moving to a city in college brought a whole way of life I hadn’t experienced, and I felt stimulated by the challenge of matching its rhythms. Now I crave something else new and different, whether that’s a village in India or a small town in West Virginia.