Last year I spent the 17th of May, Norwegian Constitution Day, in what must be one of the prettiest little towns in Norway.
It was a sunny day, and while the surrounding mountains were still white with snow, the valley was already full of blossoming trees. Travel writers say never to use the words “charming” and “idyllic” when describing a place, but guys, that’s what this town was.
I ate ice cream with Dan in the town square and watched the 17th of May parade, which ended with all the graduating high school students driving down Main Street in their russ overalls. And that’s when I spotted one of the students holding a sign that read “I’d rather die than end up here.”
Dan and I laughed, because only would an angsty teenager find a way to complain about living in one of the nicest towns in one of the nicest countries in the world. Didn’t he know how lucky he was? And then we laughed some more, this time at ourselves, because we’ve thrown this very accusation at each other.
We both moved abroad around seven years ago. Dan left London, one of my favorite cities in the world, while I left the US, a country Dan always used to dream about living in. I think Dan is crazy for dismissing England the way he does, while he thinks I’m crazy for dismissing the entire United States of America.
And he’s right, it is ridiculous how much I love to travel, yet how little interest I’ve had in seeing my own home country. I’ve been to over 80 countries around the world, but have visited only around 25 US states, only two of which were west of the Mississippi.
Why is it that I’d rather fly across the world to hike the Pamir Mountains instead of across a few states to the equally stunning Rocky Mountains?
In my defense though, while the US might have some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, my hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts is not one of them.
New England’s second largest city, Worcester was a major manufacturing center until the 1950s, when its factories moved to cheaper areas of the country and abroad. So the Worcester I grew up in always felt like sort of a has-been, and since I had no real roots there (my parents had moved to Worcester for work) I always knew I would leave.
But getting out of Worcester wasn’t enough – I wanted to leave the US, forever. I can’t really explain why, but I do know that I’m not the first person to have felt this way.
My parents both left their homes as teenagers and never looked back.
My dad grew up one of fifteen kids on a tobacco farm in Kentucky, so I guess you could say he was escaping a life of poverty – or maybe he was just being a rebellious teen, pursuing the college education my grandmother feared would turn him into a communist – but I’m less clear on why my mother left home.
She grew up on one of the prettiest mountaintops in Norway, and while the World Happiness Report wasn’t a yet a thing when she left, it sounds like Norway was already well on its way to become the happiest country in the world.
And yet after leaving at 19, she never moved back to Norway. In fact, while many people have asked me how I was able to move to Norway, or how I ended up there, my mother was the only person who responded to the news of my move with a puzzled why?
Or at least she was the first person to ask me why. As soon as I got to Norway I started hearing it all the time.
“You’ve lived in how many countries, and you chose to move here?!”
And they stare at me like I’m insane, and I stare back at them like they’re the insane ones, because don’t they know that Norway tops basically every standard of living report ever, and don’t they know what’s going on in US politics right now, and guys, we are literally having this conversation with the Northern Lights dancing above our heads, are they blind?!
And I wonder if they are blind, and if I’m also blind. And if that’s what’s going on here, can I get my vision repaired?
My best friend loves living in Worcester. She also enjoys travel, but her wanderlust usually takes her across a state or two instead of across the world. And so I wonder, why don’t I appreciate the US as much as Anna does? Can I blame genetics?
I mean, of course traveling abroad is different than traveling domestically. And while the US has a lot of beautiful landscapes, travel for me has never just been about seeing pretty places.
In fact, I might be a sucker for beautiful nature, but I’m actually even more of a sucker for ugly cities. My list of favorite European cities includes Lodz, Pristina, and Yerevan, none of which are exactly famous for their beauty. I love grungy industrial cities – or even better, cities that used to be major hubs but whose glory days are now long gone.
In a word, Worcester.
No really, when I think of my favorite cities around the world, what I love most about them are the things they have in common with Worcester, Mass, the hometown I couldn’t wait to leave. The hometown that, if it were anywhere else in the world, I would surely adore.
It’s not all bad. The same love for foreign adventures that might blind me towards the beauty of the US has also given me the drive, courage, and stamina to see the world. And it helped me find a home that I do love and appreciate.
When Dan and I first moved to Norway we had no money (or more importantly, no credit history!), no friends, and barely enough language skills to get jobs working at a supermarket in the middle of nowhere. It should have been a low point in my life, but because we were in Norway, I felt like I had finally made it.
It doesn’t make much sense – I mean, I do think life in Norway suits me better than life in the US ever could have, but anyone would be lucky to be able to call either country their home.
So, if you’re wondering why I’m writing about this right now, it’s because I’ve spent this past week back in Worcester visiting family and friends. And while I have been back to visit several times since moving away, this is the first time that I’ve made a real effort to appreciate not just the people I love here, but the city itself.
Yesterday Anna and I went downtown and as we drove past old factory buildings freshly painted in street art I thought about how if this were in the Balkans I would be obsessed.
Tomorrow Anna and I are going to visit all my favorite Worcester haunts (plus a bunch of hers, since I actually don’t have many favorites here) and my mission is to enjoy the city without having to pretend that it’s in the Balkans, or anywhere else in the world besides Massachusetts.
And it turns out my bucket list for the US is really long! I’m dying to road trip out west, finally see New Orleans, and explore more of this gorgeous country that I once called home. So where in the US should I visit next?
When I was in Belogradchik, Bulgaria – I climbed to the top of the rock formations at the fortress. I sat down and gazed out at how insanely beautiful this was, how excited I was to be here, you know the drill. Then came a couple from France who began speaking to me. They could not understand why I would come so far to see this, when I could see similar scenery in Utah. Why would I go to Utah when I could go to Bulgaria!? It is just so much more exciting to go to Bulgaria. The couple kept debating with me about how it would have been easier for me to go to Utah. But it probably wouldn’t be as I do not have a driver’s license (I live in NYC and never needed one) so that would be a huge issue. Plus, I would not have as much space between myself and my home in Utah as I did in Bulgaria.
So it isn’t just about the scenery, it is about the escape. For me anyway.
I think it’s definitely about the escape for me as well.
Kristen Sarah ✈ (@HTGlobe) says
This hit me in the feels especially after exploring my home country so much over the past few months. It’s strange that we choose to travel to places that are so far away when we have so much at home too. Thanks for the reminder and the insight!
I really do need to explore more of my home country – good that you are doing it already!
Isn’t it funny how where you live is always the biggest case of “the grass is greener on the other side”? I can totally relate, as I’ve moved again and again, only to seek out “adventures” to small towns around me reminiscent of the town I left behind.
It’s so true, that grass is always greener! Interesting that you also seek out places like your hometown – there’s something really sweet about that.
Ahhhhh I relate to this so much! I live in Michigan but I’m from California and most people (even people here) don’t get why I’d live here instead. And the town I live in here is even kind of similar to where I grew up, but for some reason, I just can’t bring myself to be excited about living in California, even though I know so many people desire to be there. I wonder if the whole familiarity thing is genetic like you said, if some of us just can’t do it even though there are similarities. Like living here feels relatively exotic in comparison. And then when I think about living abroad? My oh my it’s even worse! Sometimes I can’t think of anywhere in the US I’d want to be but I think of like 15 cities in Europe in a snap. Maybe it’s all the subtle differences on a deeper level? I dunno! But I definitely relate!
Yeah that’s so interesting, since sooo many people dream of living in California! But I guess it’s the same with me – I know so many people who would love to live in the US, but I just really don’t want to.
So interesting! I look forward to reading what Worcester is like if you try to be a tourist there. (and is it pronounced Wooster, like the English one?)
I too couldn’t wait to leave my village as an adolescent, and I’m still glad I don’t live there anymore (it’s small and I never had any real friends there), but whenever I visit my parents now, I do really appreciate the landscape that I used to find sooo boring. Here’s a pretty picture of what our very flat polders are like (hope that’s okay!) http://groningeninbeeld.rtvnoord.nl/content/groningeninbeeld/pics/winsum/DenAndel01.jpg
BTW, typos: only would, toward’s, faired.
Yup, it’s pronounced the same as the English Worcester! Your village looks so lovely and peaceful! And thanks again for the typo catches 🙂
I feel that. There’s something.. exotic, I guess? Plus you have the different cultures and languages which does mix things up a bit.
Yeah, I really do love languages, so I think the whole foreign language thing is a big draw for me.
Abigail Slater says
I can totally get behind this sentiment. Whenever I leave Alaska I seek out lots of places that I think are different from my hometown but which end up being eerily similar; laid back, fishing town with lots of artists and quirky locals. We always come home, in the end.
Oooh so it’s not just me! So interesting.
Tosh Bene says
I’m the same on this. I was born in, raised in and love Canada, obviously for a ton of reasons, but I’ve only been to two provinces in my WHOLE 33 years of life in this massive and beautiful country. It’s not that I don’t want to visit more places in Canada, I REALLY do, but to be honest, the thing keeping me from travelling through Canada is the COST. For the price of a round trip flight from Toronto to Vancouver, I can quite LITERALLY fly to and stay in Iceland for almost a week. That’s crazy, right!!? UGH!
That’s so true about the US too! My friends were just saying how my ticket from Oslo to Boston was cheaper than a ticket pretty much anywhere inside the US, which is just so crazy. Definitely a shame!
Steph Dring says
I always hated my hometown and growing up, dreamed of moving as far away as possible. Now I’ve achieved that, I love my hometown. I see so much beauty in it and so many incredible places. I now love returning and exploring the place I thought was a dump growing up.
It’s so interesting how that happens! I’m not quite at the “love” stage with my hometown, but I’m working on it, haha.
Victoria @TheBritishBerliner says
Ha! Ha! Ha! So true!
I live in Berlin and believe it to be one of the best places in the world. Indeed, I named my blog – The British Berliner – after it.
I’m actually from England, and Germans really can’t understand why I left Britain to live in Berlin, which by German standards, is grimy, ugly, and apparently, far too “crowded” and “huge!”
Oh this is so true!
I’ve grown up in Hungary and I’ve been living in Budapest for a while and when I meet foreigners who chose it as their new home, the question always comes up: why Budapest? why Hungary? why have you moved here? I am puzzled because I don’t get it why anyone would choose Budapest over so many amazing countries and cities in the world. They are puzzled, too, because I ask for a reason at all like it’s not obvious. 😀
But I also realized that the more places I see in the world, the more I love and appreciate Budapest and my own country. Every time I come home again I see it with a different eye.
But why would anyone who has the right to live in the US would ever want to leave, I’d never get that. 😛 😀
Such a thoughtful and interesting post! I can totally relate to the bit about not exploring enough of your own country – I live in the UK but haven’t been to Wales or Scotland! Not to mention all of the beautiful places in England I haven’t seen yet.
It’s interesting that your mother couldn’t quite understand your desire to move to Norway but I bet having a Norwegian parent was what sparked your interest in the country (amongst other things, of course).
I share your love / fascination for slightly grimey cities – Bucharest is a recent favourite although I have to admit that had some pockets of pretty!
Whaat you need to go to Wales and Scotland! Haha it’s so true though, places at home just don’t seem quite as appealing.
Enjoyed reading your post – but what is the name of this pretty little town?
Joy @MyTravelingJoys says
Interestingly, my parents travel very little outside my homestate of Nebraska and don’t even have passports. They see no need. I’m the complete opposite. I wanted to get out of my small conservative hometown where I feel confined and not free to express my opinions. Hence, I married a guy who has similar feelings and we’ve lived in four countries in the past 8 years and travel as often as we can. Going back home now I do have more appreciation from where I’ve come from, but I still have no desire to live there or in the US….at least until after 2020. Fingers crossed! 😉
Also, you’re the first person I met that liked Lodz in Poland as well! We loved the street art and the young vibe there. We lived in Warsaw for 2.5 years and traveled around Poland often.
Cheers from London
Ooh I’m jealous that you lived in Warsaw – I love the city! And I’m right with you crossing my fingers for 2020.
Hello! I just stumbled upon this post and I have to tell you I love it. There is a famous quote about returning to a familiar place you haven’t been in a while and noticing how you’ve changed. It’s one those beautiful things in life right? Evolving as a person but staying in touch with your roots. 🙂