First Last Impressions


The process is in full gear now.

Barring any unforeseen impediments (and there’s always the risk…), I have an apartment locked down in Seattle.  My plane ticket is bought, my itinerary is set.  Friends are discussing how we’re going to celebrate a going away party (the location can’t possibly match the roof of my apartment building in Chicago).  I’ve still got plenty to do, though, including selling or trashing any possessions I don’t need or want in Seattle.  I plan to dump a lot, as usual.

Just today, the leasing agent of my apartment sent me an email to let me know they want to start showing my apartment to potential renters.

And that took me back to my own first impression of this apartment.  Which, as is always the case, was my first day in the city.  I had stepped off of a plane, found a taxi and directed the driver where to go.  Tellingly, he was not familiar with the area.

I walked into my empty apartment to find the landlady still performing some last minute cleaning duties.  The refrigerator was plastered with faded Garbage Pail Kid stickers, which I would eventually spend a couple afternoons scraping off.  Otherwise, it was an empty apartment.  10 1/2 months later, it’s still pretty empty.

Thinking about my first impressions of a city as I head towards my last impressions, I’m always struck by how wrong they are.  I’m not referring to the people or even the ineffable vibe of any particular city.  I mean the more basic sense of place that one gets with first impressions.  My sense of direction was wrong, my sense of distance, my sense of my own location within the city. 

Hell, even something as simple as where my local grocery store is located is staggeringly revelatory when compared to where I thought it was located in relation to my apartment.

I experience this feeling in every city, a kind of superimposed mental image of the map of the city as it really is over the map of the city I had imagined when I first walked its streets.

You experience the geography of a city very differently when you’re walking as opposed to driving, even when you’re going down the same streets.  As the year has passed, I’ve received rides from many friends (as well as taxis and buses) and that’s helped me get a larger view of Nashville’s layout.

Look at Nashville:

Downtown Nashville is smack dab in the middle of the map.  As you can tell, the streets don’t run East-West and North-South, but rather, Southwest-Northeast and Northeast-Southwest.  This tilt might seem academic, but it’s actually pretty important, because despite it, Nashville locals still think of their city in terms of North/East/South/West. 

Look at the bottom left corner of the map and you’ll notice a prominent street labeled West End Avenue.  West End is actually a major area of the city (notably where Vanderbilt University is located) and an important point of direction.  Except, it’s not actually west, it’s southwest.  That might be an insignificant distinction if you know the city, or even if you’re driving, but if you’re walking the city, as I was for most of my first few months here, believing that West End is west of downtown as opposed to southwest is pretty misleading.

Getting lost is half the fun of walking a city, though.  It just happens to be half the misery of it, too.

This far into my year, I know the city pretty well and I can walk from one end of the city to the other without much confusion (luckily, I don’t have to walk all that often).

It’s always a wonder to get to this point of my year in a city and realize not only how much I didn’t know when I got here, but how much I now know.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty more for me to know, plenty more I could have (should have) experienced that I inevitably won’t.  But, after nearly a year in the city, I no longer feel like a stranger to its twisting streets and sectioned neighborhoods.

Which, of course, means it’s time to go.  Time for new first impressions.  Time to be wrong again, to get lost and to feel the familiar frustration of anonymity.

Well, almost.  There’s still time for my last impressions of the city, and maybe even a few more firsts.

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2 thoughts on “First Last Impressions

  1. Interesting point, the best means to learning a city’s directions is to become a pizza delivery driver. I visited Tallahassee recently and, having occupied such an esteemed occupation for several months, was able to direct my mom around the town as if I’d lived there all my life and had never left. I guess what I’m trying to say is be a pizza boy in Seattle!

    Also, I was just thinking, once you’ve completed the ten years, are you planning on living in one of these cities long-term? Which of the previous seven (seven, right?) cities is most full-time liveable (sp?) to you?

    • Well, I don’t own a car, so delivering pizzas probably wouldn’t be an option (I actually did look into it in a couple of my first cities). I think the job would be kind of fun, though.

      The plan, as it has always been, is to live in NYC when it’s all said and done. It will be the 10th city, so I’ll move there and then stick it out. Though, ideally, I’ll never stop traveling, so it would be more like a home base rather than a permanent home.

      Of the cities I’ve lived in so far (only 6, Seattle will be the 7th), I could see myself living in Chicago or San Francisco long-term. Both cities were places where I felt I had way, way more I could have explored that I never got the chance, and both cities have a vibrancy and population that I need from city life. But, NYC is my dream…

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