The thing about living in a city for me is that when I’ve been away from it for a while and then come back, I almost immediately want to escape it. In case it sounds otherwise, I am not unhappy in Seattle. Sure, I miss my beloved rolling hills of east central Indiana and the lowing of cows and lack of EPCOT style shopping where I’m constantly navigating people from different cultures who have different ideas than mine about what a respectable amount of distance is to stand when you are thumping cantaloupe, but there is a lot here to love too. Eventually, I’ll cover some of my favorite things about living in Seattle, but for now, what you need to know is this: after a few weeks in Zimbabwe and the certain knowledge that being “home” would soothe my traveler’s brain, I am crazy with the desire to escape it again.
There are a variety of possible reasons for this. For instance, I hate unpacking, so in many ways, it is easier to shuffle things around in the suitcase, zip it back up, and zoom off to some other place. For another, when you are home you can’t escape your obligations or your to-do list, and my to-do list is long and I am not what you would call a high octane task-completer. And finally, it is easier to forget about how uncomfortable it is to adjust back into my old life after being absent from it if I make myself absent some more.
One of my oldest friends hates to leave her house. Jane is not, to the best of my knowledge, agoraphobic, but she has a peaceful sort of haven of a house and she likes being there. Other places do not pull her the way they do me. For three years now I’ve been trying to lure her out to my neck of the woods for a visit and she always politely ignores my invitations as if I never spoke. The night before one of my trips when I send her emails in all caps about how much I do not want to go on this adventure and moan about how much I just want to stay home, she is gracious enough not to remind me that this is exactly what she’s been trying to tell me for years: home is where my heart should be.
I consider her house and her life to be the height of contentment, but that is just not me. I am never one place without longing to be another. Like a good Gen Xer, I blame this on being a child of divorce, but the truth is it’s nature not nurture. For years I’ve carried various small journals with me everywhere I go and in the front of every new one, I write in bold letters: “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise you will miss most of your life.” (It’s a quote I read once that was attributed to Buddha, but I’ve never done the research to find out if that’s an accurate citation; I just know it’s true that if I could achieve this, I’d be more content.) It doesn’t matter if I read it before each trip or once a day. I could tattoo it on the backside of my right hand and I’d be no better at living up to that ideal. I seem to have been born to be mildly discontent with geographical stasis. (Though I’m happy to report I have stasis skills in the form of sitting still in front of electronic screens developed to an art form.)
On the second day after our return from Zimbabwe, in between scratching and calamine applications, I started poking around online and asking Z what I believed were surreptitious questions about how soon his Canadian visa would be ready to use. (Answer: not ready enough to make the one night cruise I’d hoped for up to Vancouver.) I didn’t want him to know that I was already jonesing to disappear for a few days when we’d only just gotten back from a pretty amazing trip. Plus, this is the first time in 18 years when I haven’t had my own personal paycheck rolling in to help supplement our trips, and though Z does not make me feel this way, I can tell already I’m going to feel less entitled to say, “I’ve got to get out of this place” right this minute while nothing is being direct deposited into our travel account. This is, perhaps, the single drawback to my year’s sabbatical away from teaching and toward writing.
I needn’t have worried though because Z’s brain was pretty much in the exact same place as mine. He had a work meeting on the Kitsap Peninsula on Tuesday, and he’d already been thinking about the ferry commute during rush hour and how much easier and more fun it would be to go early and stay a couple of nights.
One of the things I love about Seattle is the wealth of other places you can reach from here in under an hour. In the Midwest, where things are stretched out, an hour is going to get you to some place very similar to where you started. Here, you can go from the city to a little island or mountain getaway in hardly any time at all, with the added bonus that a lot of the getaways here involve some close proximity to water, a favorite of both of ours, which I attribute to the fact that we both grew up in places without a coast or even a navigable river.
His meeting was in Poulsbo, a little town of around 9,000 that was founded by Norwegians and is very proud of its Viking heritage. It sits on Liberty Bay, has an adorable historic downtown that looks a little Vikingy, a grocery where there is a wall of licorice and other Scandinavian delicacies, a variety of gift shops including two bookstores, a variety of restaurants, and a Norwegian bakery, Sluy’s, that is a personal favorite of mine. (Their “Krunchie” is beyond delicious, though apparently most of their customers are proponents of the cream-filled Viking Cup.) So it wasn’t hard to choose Poulsbo as our base, and when we found a little yellow cottage with views of the harbor on Airbnb.com for a price in our range, we started mentally repacking our bags.
We aren’t what you would call good bed and breakfast people. (The one exception to this for me would be in Ireland; I prefer a B & B in Ireland to any hotel.) In America , we like the anonymity of a hotel, though in small towns, those are usually by a major highway and lack quaintness and have horrible views, or if they have views, we can’t afford them. So our real favorites are small cottages with a view, wherein we might meet the owners who live elsewhere and have a pleasant conversation with them, but we don’t have to talk to strangers over bran muffins or worry if we’re too noisy.
Our little yellow Poulsbo cottage rental is not a disappointment on this front. The owners live in the big house and have the cottage out back for parental visits, and then rent it out when the parents aren’t in town. The owner lets us in and confesses that she rarely locks the door but we should feel free to; Poulsbo is that small town, where you don’t worry about vandals, apparently. Maybe it’s a Viking thing; who in their right mind would mess with the people who conquered big hunks of Western Europe?
We chat with her and as soon as she is gone, we spread out. We’re like Thing 1 and Thing 2 in The Cat in the Hat when we arrive in a new place. Within two minutes, our suitcase has unzipped itself and what seems like all of our worldly belongings are now strewn about the place. Normally, I try to take “before” photos to show people how nice our digs are before we unleash our chaos, but because it is raining and we are damp and chilly and looking for socks and sweatshirts since we packed thinking it was still summer, there is no photographic evidence that this was initially a cozy, tidy space.
The focal point is the huge picture window above the kitchen table that can be seen from the living room. It looks out on the cottage’s deck, dock and onto the marina at Liberty Bay. It’s a misty day, so the shore on the other side is dotted with patches of fog.
This is exactly what I wanted. I can’t do anything in this space but read, write, and stare, because all the projects—like putting our wedding photos from 2009 into an album and stitching up one of Z’s threadbare shirts or weeding books—are back in Seattle. We check our email, hope the rain will abate, and the minute it looks like it’s clearing up, we walk down the hill to the historic downtown.
This is a place we bring visitors on day trips, so we aren’t unfamiliar with the offering, but because we’ve paid for a place to put our heads for two nights it feels a little more like we belong here for the moment. The historic Luterhan church on the hill chimes and even though there are Volvos zipping past us and a lot of retired couples in Eddie Bauer rain gear milling around, it’s not hard to picture how the place looked a century ago. The city website mentions that people didn’t give up Norwegian for English until after the first world war, and it is easy to believe. There might be urban dwellers in our midst, but it really does feel like a small, self-contained village.
Our destination is the bakery, where we make our selections and then sit on a bench out front and watch sparrows gather around, hoping for crumbs. I’m not normally a huge bird watcher and often have to pretend to be more interested than I am when talking to people with bird books and binoculars, but these are very young, hopeful sparrows, that almost look like baby chicks, and I want to scoop one of them up and take it home with me. I feel really selfish for not offering them half of my Krispy, but they can have the crumbs of one on almost any given day, whereas I am only in Poulsbo a few times a year. And also, I’m notoriously selfish with baked goods.
Z and I saunter around the town, peering into the windows of shops that are closed because it’s Monday, which we’d probably pass over if they were open, but because we aren’t granted entry they seem more intriguing. We look for a likely supper candidate from the restaurants, and walk down to the water, at which point it starts raining hard. Since I’ve been whining about how much I miss damp weather for three African weeks, I spend several minutes attempting to feign delight, but it becomes apparent we aren’t going to outlast this downpour and the flip flops I’m wearing seem like a really dumb choice for a cold late September rain in the Pacific Northwest. We slosh through puddles, heads hung low, until we get back to the cottage. We’ll venture out later for supper at a pub, and hopefully by then the rain will be back to a drizzle.
Z makes the unfortunate discovery that the rain coat we bought him from LL Bean when we were in Maine two years ago apparently had a life expectancy of only 18 months. The white lining has flecked all over his neck and shirt and he’s mostly wet. I make a similar unfortunate discovery that my rain coat, while fully functioning, has extra wide pocket openings and pretty much all the rain of Poulsbo has pooled inside them, drenching my Kleenex and wallet. We’re cold and wet and wish we’d brought a Duraflame log to put in the stove, which would take the chill off.
Later we have supper at a place that boasts the best breakfast in Poulsbo. We’re the only people there and the English guy who seems to be running it zeros in on Z’s accent almost immediately and asks where he is from. Z tells him, tells him we’ve just returned from Zimbabwe, and the man explains that for several years he lived in South Africa. We chat briefly and I’m torn between wanting to know what makes people move from one place in the world to another and wanting to have a quiet dinner with Z. I opt for the latter. Sometimes the stories I make up for people are more interesting than the reality anyhow. When we leave, it’s pouring with rain again. The kind of rain I always insist never happens out here. Instead of stopping for the ice cream we’d been planning, we splash back up the hill to the cottage as quickly as we can.
The cottage itself is not as cozy and glorious as I painted it earlier in the day either. We’re both allergic to something, and so we sneeze and wheeze. We want the windows open to help curtail this, but it’s cold out, so I spend the evening wrapped in a blanket most of the time and Z is having to stretch two pairs of socks into three days of sock wearing. There is no TV, which is fine, but when it’s dark and rainy, I like to warm myself by the glow of one, even if I’m not paying attention to it. We will later discover that the bed is smaller and harder than ours, and the shower is the size of a vertical coffin. Then I remind myself of the nearly identical shower set up on the Tambonette only on the houseboat water was cold and was from the lake. Suddenly I’m aware of things like how awesome the water pressure and shower head are instead. By the time we will leave, the only real beef we’ll have with the place is that both the bedroom and bathroom doorknobs have fallen off trapping one of us at various times during the stay and the other had to come to the rescue.
I still have no idea why I can’t be content at home after three weeks away from it, why I spend too much of my life longing for whatever place I’m not in, but as I sit next to Z at the big table that belongs to us for two nights, both of us writing, and the boats in Liberty Bay floating in and out of our line of sight, I can’t deny I’m content right this minute.