I met Alex the Parisian while sitting at the bar of a fish restaurant, enjoying a drink and a plate of mussels with chorizo that screamed for a large piece of grilled, dense bread to mop up the excellent sauce. Alex the Parisian, sitting in the stool next to me, offered me some of his bread, oily and smoky, that he had ordered a few minutes before.
“It’s too much for me. Take it”
The fact that he looked like the spitting image of all those tv Jesus I grew up with, and that he was offering me bread in a fish restaurant was not lost on me, but I resisted the inner joke: long honey colored hair, a long beard barely tinged with grey at the temples, simple clothes and even barefoot.
“Do you surf?” I asked. We were enjoying our food a stone’s throw from the Pacific after all.
Of course he surfed, and he lived in Santa Barbara, where he practiced yoga: a sort of mystic, if not of the Christian kind. We got talking about our respective home countries, how beautiful Paris is but how unfriendly Parisians are – his words, not mine. “In any restaurant in Paris, people would deem me crazy for striking up a conversation with a stranger, even more so for offering to share my bread. Here in America people are much friendlier, you can be whomever you wish to be, no questions asked” he said in his pleasantly accented English.
Alex is not wrong of course. Parisians are considered unfriendly, not just by foreigners, but by the rest of the French too. Yet, probably a quarter of Americans, at some point or another, have fantasized about relocating to Paris. A few do, and learn to cope with, and even find charm in the restraint and aloofness of the locals. Alex, like many others – like me, after all – chose to live in a place that was more congenial to his personality.
There are two phases in life when we are more likely to uproot ourselves: in our 20s, looking for economic opportunities, a different life or just prodded by wanderlust; and when we approach retirement, when maybe we built a little nest egg and, in the wake of a downsize, or just wishing to let go of some of the factors that kept us moored, we start thinking of places better suited to our new lifestyle.
But how to go about choosing a new place to live? The possibilities can seem infinite: we can reminisce about trips we have taken and places that lived on in our imagination or we can be driven by children’s or friends’ relocations. According to the multitude of quizzes that periodically appear on my Facebook page, there are criteria and algorithms that can help you decide whether you are more suited for a metropolis or the country; seaside or mountains; old world or new. After all is said and done, and we have completed our dutiful research, picking a place to live, to me, is much more akin to the imperfect process of falling in love. When you want to be with someone more than anything else, you will make adjustments – so it is with a geographical location.
My drive has always been curiosity. I thrive in places that have the potential to surprise me, and often large cities are more adept to doing that. Or smaller cities with a very intricate past that still percolates. Settling down in a small village, or even back in my hometown of Bologna, probably would turn me into a caged tiger a few months in. I also love nature and animals so a city with vast swaths of nature readily available, and animal friendly, would work best: Tokyo or Beijing probably wouldn’t be for me. From there, it becomes a balancing act: I can live without the sense of history Europe afforded me and under the constant threat of a major earthquake for the privilege of walking on the beach whenever I feel like it, or eat weird Korean food if I am so inclined. I would deal with the ever-present rain and the shifting political landscape for the pleasure of stepping into London every day, and spending weekends in the English countryside.
My environment has to satisfy me the way a lover would – the one experience of living in a place that did not mirror who I was turned me into a woman trapped in a failed relationship, plotting an escape. I can mediate, compromise and deal with less than perfection if my basic emotional needs are met. I flirted (Capri, the Greek Isles, Mexico), had occasional flings (Venice, Cape Town), and a major mistake (San Diego) along the route of settling down. I even went out with a best friend for a few years (Milan) but when it came to deeply satisfying love affairs, only London and Los Angeles have come through for me: multi-faceted, deep, stubborn, forgiving, unusual but always generous. Just like the best men.
What do you look for in the ideal place to live in?
Direction Paris image by Adam Roberts – spottedbylocals.com
London map image courtesy of the Londonist.com
LA Freeway image courtesy of moco-choco.com