at home in the unfamiliar

I’ve been feeling challenged by our new neighborhood. In New York you can move a couple of miles and be in a different world. And I am.

Our part of Crown Heights is mainly Caribbean and the corner stores carry unfamiliar foods: stacks of dried fish, pickled meats in open buckets, eight kinds of yam, as well as roots I don’t recognize. Things smell strange to me, and I don’t feel at home.

Last Saturday we were plopped on the couch, watching TV, when we heard gun shots. I turned to M and said “There’s nothing else that sounds like that, right?” When we looked out the window there were people hanging out on the street corner, chatting. Some cops ran by. Street life continued. End of story.

When I traveled in Italy, I kept trying to figure out whether the people yelling in the street were fighting. I’m doing the same thing here, struggling to understand what the street life dynamics are. I don’t so much feel unsafe as unskilled. I don’t understand what’s going on around me, I can’t read the signs, it’s as if I don’t know the language, and I can’t quite relax.

A friend told me that in every place she’s moved to – “EVERY place”, she repeated – she has felt like she’s made a terrible mistake and simply won’t be able to tolerate living there.

I don’t feel that way. I love the apartment, and there’s no question that it was the right choice to move here. But I can’t stop vigilantly attempting to understand what is going on around me. I want to make the pieces of this new world fit so that I can file them away and stop paying attention. I think it’s going to take me a while, like learning a new language.

7 Responses to “at home in the unfamiliar”

  1. Barb Says:

    Unskilled. I have felt that with every move. It takes time and listening. You’re up to it!

  2. Julia Says:

    This is hard,but I think it’s just a matter of time.
    I’m experiencing some of the same thoughts about where I live (but for different reasons), and it’s only about 30 miles from where I was born! It just seems so different from city life.I don’t know if I’ve quite accepted that it is ‘home’.
    Because you are so aware of the details about your new surroundings,that surely means you’ll piece it all together very quickly!

  3. Ellen Says:

    What I LOVE about hearing this from you is how aware you are of being the stranger in a strange land…. Your writing is beautiful, thank you.

    Sometimes the famillar becomes a kind of sleeping through life in a series of routines and habits. The usual, the status quo…When I am awake and aware and at ease though, even the ordinary has a new cast of light to it, a freshness. This moment has it’s own unique cast of light, it’s own adventurous joy.

    The other night I awoke from a deep sleep to several loud cracks and a series of big booms…someone had set a car on fire outside my building. It was important to get up and to see if the building I live in was safe from harm and what else was needed to protect myself and my neighbors…In the early morning hours I stood in the hallway of my building, with my neighbors (we have known each other over 17 years now) — most of us in make shift pj’s and sweatshirts remembering 9/11 and feeling that communal fright, then relief and a slow protective kindness come around.

  4. jude Says:

    go slow and stitch it all together….

  5. Eliza Says:

    We have been in our “new” diggs for over a year now and are still startled by the events outside our window. A fatal car accident, a shooting, a 24 hour long parade featuring steel drum bands.

    It’s hard to know how to interact with what is outside- does one close the windows and order in? or do you venture out into the unknown and become part of it? The latter is the more daunting, but I’ve also found that it’s the more rewarding. And I’m constantly surprised how friendly and generous my neighbors are, and that weird fish/yams/whatever are probably pretty tasty!

  6. Katy Says:

    Do you remember the scene in Wayne’s World where Garth says calmly “We fear change” and then starts beating a prop with a hammer? I’m with Garth.

    There’s a great line from an article about coalition building by Bernice Johnson Reagon, she said if you’re not uncomfortable – it’s not a coalition, “if you feel the strain, you may be doing some good work” and

    “There is nowhere you can go and only be with people who are like you. Give it up.” Heh heh.

    The full article has some funny moments, I think it was written at the women’s music festival and basically says – you people say this space is for all women, but actually it’s only for women who are comfortable with naked white women.

  7. pinknest Says:

    it’s really crazy how you can move a few blocks or a whole neighborhood in nyc, and life is completely uprooted. i know how you feel because a strong sense of place is so important to me. anyway, it’ll just take time. long or short! who knows. pickled meats are excellent!

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