Since June, I’ve been on a plane at least twice a month. I’ve hit New York, San Francisco (twice), Kansas City, Columbus, and I’m currently in the Phoenix airport returning to Austin after spending the weekend in Portland. Now, don’t let all the travel talk go to my head. I had to get up before 5AM to catch a taxi, and I’m sitting in the airport a bit delirious from lack of sleep. Now I’m blogging those thoughts instead of passing out ingloriously in the airport furniture.
I forgot how much being in different cities can teach you about your identity. Just the simple act of being in another city for the weekend, experiencing its variety, understanding its preference or not for the Mexican food you love (or don’t); appreciating the local climate and then observing how said climate affects the way the locals treat one another, and by default YOU, the stranger; comparing your home city to the new city you’ve found.
What has taken me by surprise is how much variety I find from city to city. The variety is wonderful. In Portland this weekend, I felt like a man at a banquet of culture. The chef was serving up another slice of a great American city, this one, a bit heavy on the tribal tattoos and coffee shops, incredibly walkable, rather liberal, and more populated by bicycles than even Austin, Texas.
Compare that with Kansas City, where I was a few months ago. Instead of tribal tattoos and punks from the 1990’s, I found young families with conservative-leanings, plenty of cars, fewer coffee shops, but a similar number of artists and entrepreneurs.
Each of these cities has a different feel that becomes more and more pronounced as I develop a palate for experiencing their variety. Much like appreciating the subtleties of indie rock requires a hipster-like intensity to spend hours pouring over the tracks until, with Pitchfork-esque aplomb, you become capable of claiming that Arcade Fire’s second album was heavily influenced by Springsteen, himself, and that Santigold is a wholly underrated musician.
When I travel from city to city, everything changes. I am the only constant. When I arrive in Portland and notice how clean the streets are, and how the trees that fill downtown make me feel, I’m experiencing the city in direct contrast to all the other cities.
I’m the same person, but I am having close encounters with widely different cultural segments of the United States; cultural segments that I took for granted three months ago.
It’s not all just “The United States.” There are enormous differences, and nuances from city to city.
I’m not talking about the painfully obvious political ones. This is a lot more subtle than me saying, “Golly, San Francisco sure is more liberal than Dallas, Texas!”
Without a doubt, political differences are part of what I’ve been experiencing, but they are just the most obvious differences. I’m asking more interesting questions than “which cities are liberal or conservative?”
More interesting would be, “What makes Portland a mellow city, fully of people content to get around on bicycle when cars would be faster?”
Does the climate that gets plenty of rain part of it? Does the lack of sunlight for 8 months of the year slow the pace of the city down dramatically?
Here’s another question: “Why is Portland better known for it’s bicycles and for the dream of the 90s than startup companies like San Francisco is?”
At this point, I start making biased conjectures. I have inferences about each of the cities I’ve spent time in over the past few weeks and months based on what I’ve observed. I’m not sure I can put my finger on any of it. Other than I can tell you where I would live based on the things that I might want to do with my time.
What I can tell you is that each city changes certain surroundings, but I remain the same. There are more bicycles in Portland than in Austin. How do I feel about this? Do I jibe with the values of biking instead of driving? Would I give up my convertible for a bike?
Do I want to come back to Portland on vacation?
What about Kansas City? When I spent my weekend there, I felt palpably how well-suited the city would be to start a family. Apart from the WordCamp, all I saw were young couples learning how to raise their first child. Part of me soaked that up.
And then what about a city like San Francisco? Surrounded by its Bay, the city is a pressure-cooker for Startups. Austin, Texas has an incredible startup scene, but in San Francisco, you’re forced to fit everything in your life, including your business, into less space. I think this makes the people more focused, more intense, and it makes the results more volatile.
It’s funny how each of the three cities that I’ve mentioned, I have also injected with a bit of purpose or utility. Want to have a family? Go to KC. Want to start something and make it huge? Head to SF. Want a bit of both? Come here, to the ATX.
Each of the cities calls to me in a different way, and I learn something about my own desires by experiencing the city.
When I spent 6 months living in South America, in Santiago de Chile, I was forced to question a million assumptions about what “normal” meant, and how different different countries also had different cultures.
Staying inside the United States means the cultural differences are less extreme, but still important. You realize that you can make your life look like whatever you want if you choose to move from where you are to where you want to go.
I talked to a friend recently about wanting to move from a bigger city to Austin recently. It was a happy medium for her between the career she created for herself, and the life she wanted to have outside of work. She was looking for balance that didn’t exist in her current city. Austin fit the bill, and she was ready to leave the rest of it behind.
Actually, leaving certain things behind is part of what you’re doing when you create new opportunities. You’re leaving the things you don’t want. Only then do you have enough space for the things you do want.
What we want and don’t will change in our lives. I think the point is being able to move when what you want changes into what you don’t want, and the things you do want are the next city over. Or the next country.
Once you’ve realized what you might change by making the move, it is courageous to realize you actually can. Suddenly life becomes a new adventure again. Ripe with your fear bubbling to the surface along with new opportunities.
Are you ready?