When the realtor and I finished our hot and humid day of househunting, and I poured myself a cold glass of water and sat down alone in the quiet house, I felt so disheartened and down that when M got home and immediately asked me what was the matter, I couldn’t put it into words and only shrugged my shoulders instead. The matter is that I clearly have not managed to express to the realtor what it is I want in a house and that he comes from such a different (that is, American) cultural perspective that what is instinctively appealing to him is all wrong to me. He had worked hard to find the right houses and it had all been a waste of time.
I want what I am used to, but which doesn’t exist here: I want a house within walking distance of the (functioning) Main Street of a small self-contained and self-sustaining town located out in the country. This is what I am used to, it is what I knew growing up, and it is what I sought out when I lived in Britain. Now that I am back in the US, it is what I am hoping for again, but I cannot find it, and no one seems to get what I am looking for.
What I find instead around here is that I have three choices: either to live near into the city where there are walkable shops and cafes, or to live way out in the countryside where all the towns are essentially dead and you have to drive to everything, or to live in the suburbs where you have neither the advantage of walkability nor the space of the countryside and so live right next to your neighbours but still have to drive to everything. If I can’t have both countryside and walkability, then my second choice is an option that has one or the other. But it is the suburbs — which have neither — that seem to appeal to most people here and I am finding it very difficult to get people to understand that they are truly not to my taste. Unsidewalked streets of tidy house after tidy house as far as the eye can see, each with its driveway and a grassy yard backing onto its neighbour, but with nowhere to walk to and the nearest shops a strip mall which always includes a supermarket, a Hallmark store, and a McDonald’s at one end… These neighbourhoods and the houses in them do absolutely nothing for me. Nothing. Nada. I know they are exactly what most people want, but they just don’t work for me.
The town we are in at the moment is an old suburb of the city, which means it is close in, quite urban. The houses are all about 75 years old and so have old-fashioned layouts to them: no powder-room (downstairs toilet), small bedrooms, smaller kitchens, odd (or no) garaging arrangements. They are built back to back to back with not much space between them — front, back, or sides. But this area is one of the posher urban neighbourhoods — much sought after and pricey, with really top-ranking schools, safe streets and low crime figures, and a wonderful Main Street filled with cafes and art galleries and restaurants. Walking into town on a weekend night is such a buzz, the whole street alive with happy people tripping in and out of the bars, or eating at tables set out on the sidewalk, talking and chatting and laughing… This town doesn’t have the rural aspect that I am looking for, but the walkability and lively Main Street are a good trade-off. We’d both be happy to buy here, if only we can find a workable house in our price-range.
When I emailed the realtor with a list of houses that I’d like to see, he said that we’d get more house for our money in some neighbouring boroughs and suggested we look there instead. I agreed reluctantly, guessing that — while he was undoubtedly right about the value of the houses — these other suburbs probably wouldn’t appeal to my peculiar tastes. We trouped doggedly through eight houses — a couple of gems, two complete horrors, and the rest neither here nor there. He waxed lyrical about the neighbourhoods: weren’t they just so nice? Look at the mature trees. And the big yards! The houses all so tidy, the streets so pleasant and respectable. Oh, weren’t they lovely neighbourhoods?!?
Indeed they were. Lovely. And completely and utterly not for me. As I explained to my mother, every house I saw felt like nothing more inspiring than someplace to put our furniture so it didn’t get wet when it rains. She pulled a pitying face, “Awww… I’m sorry. But you know, those areas are very near to here — you could just pop the girls in the car and drive over here anytime you wanted to walk along the Main Street!” She doesn’t get it. The realtor doesn’t get it. I feel like a naive fool for wanting something so obviously impossible. And the whole day seemed like an utter waste of time.
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