New in the Neighborhood
Those of you who have ever moved from a beloved home to an unfamiliar city perhaps know the tendency to idealize the region you left behind. You remember the pleasures of a routine reluctantly forsaken — your friends and co-workers, your favorite restaurants and supermarkets, the scenic walks and lovely vistas — and you convince yourself that nothing in your new neighborhood will ever bring you the same joy. The loss seems overwhelming, permanent. For some of us, pangs of sentimentalism are a recurrent theme of life, and this leitmotif repeated itself recently when my wife's new job prompted a move from our longtime home in northern Vermont to Portland.To say that we were fond of the Green Mountain State and saddened to leave it is putting it mildly. The years we spent in Vermont are among the happiest and most memorable of our lives. A native of greater Boston, I wasn't used to mountain ranges of verdant green or Belted Galloways lowing on hillsides. Crowded subway platforms and Formula One drivers who train, apparently, on Boston highways were my reference points. The move north was a revelation for me, as well as my first taste of the anxiety that a major geographical move can trigger, even to an area as beautiful as Burlington, Vermont.
My wife, a native of Mount Desert Island, found that transition easier than I, accustomed as she was to the tranquility and natural splendor of rural life. But she, too, had a bout of homesickness when her career took her away from her parents and toward the banks of Lake Champlain. One never fully recovers from homesickness, but we eventually discovered that northern Vermont's unique personality suited us well. With its proximity to cultural centers like Boston and Montreal and its seemingly limitless expanses of woods and farmlands for quiet country walks, Vermont was the perfect home for us. We considered ourselves Vermonters. We suspected that we would never leave.
But when my wife was offered a too-good-to-be-true opportunity for career advancement in Portland, we agreed that she should accept. We hired the movers, packed the books, rented a quaint home in Falmouth, and prepared for our new adventure. Our final days in Vermont were bittersweet — one last peek at the sheep and chickens at Shelburne Farms, one last stroll along the Mud Pond Trail, one last visit to our favorite organic market to stock up on foods that we were convinced we would never enjoy again, including, curiously, the most delicious raisins we've ever tasted.
Then the movers arrived and, in a matter of hours, turned our condo into an echo chamber. After one last look around, we began our tearful drive down Route 89, perhaps the most beautiful stretch of highway in the country. The mountains and barns and steeples that line Route 89 from Burlington to White River Junction looked particularly gorgeous that afternoon in late May. We had always felt at home among them. Now the unknown awaited us, and we couldn't help wondering if we would ever feel as comfortable again.
If you look hard enough, you're bound to find something you don't like about any place you live. Our emotional state during our first few weeks in southern Maine was such that we couldn't help making unflattering comparisons to Vermont. Although we have yet to witness the daredevil antics favored by many Boston drivers, motorists here tend to be more aggressive than their counterparts in the Champlain Valley. Interstates 95 and 295, though beautified considerably by the Presumpscot River at high tide, groves of stately conifers, and other lovely bits of acreage, also offer views of shopping malls, industrial parks, and, in the case of I-95, tollbooths, all of which are absent from the Vermont landscape.
And we missed the many farm stands that seemed, but really weren't, around every corner of our former home. Conveniently pushed to the periphery of our thoughts were Vermont's high poverty rate and the numerous stretches of run-down trailer homes in the foreground of the state's most scenic spots — as sure a test as any to separate the half-empty glass holders from the half-full. Except for my wife's new job, which was, and still is, a daily source of happiness for her, it seemed for a time as if everything was better the way it was before.
And then things began to change. On my wife's way to work one day, a driver slowed to allow her into an intersection and smiled warmly as he waved her ahead. There followed a series of happy encounters with store employees, garage attendants, town hall clerks, and others that has continued largely unabated. Never before had we been treated to such a pageant of neighborliness.
Before long, the pleasures of southern Maine, coyly hiding from us during our shy first days here, began to emerge. We stumbled across food stalls that sell everything from our favorite Belgian ale to hard-to-find fruits and candies. We found a local grocer who sells, among other delights, parmigiano reggiano as good as any you'll find in Boston's North End — a welcome discovery to a gourmet cook and her appreciative husband. We visited the maritime complex that is Portland Head Light; the well-maintained green of Fort Williams Park; and the five other lighthouses, from the stubby twenty-foot-tall Bug down to the Two Lights that stand like mighty chessmen over South Portland and Cape Elizabeth.
More pleasures followed: the museums and the restaurants and the theaters and the music venues, the views from the East End, the strolls through Monument Square and, of course, the Old Port. Perhaps best of all for us, we found used-book stores equal to our favorites in Burlington. A couple of them, with their floor-to-ceiling displays of antiquarian books or vast selections of obscure novelists, bring back fond memories of the musty, now-defunct bookstores I used to haunt in Harvard Square and Boston's Back Bay.
Our biggest concern upon moving here, though, was that we wouldn't be able to replace the nature walks that had provided our chief source of recreation in Vermont. Through tips from colleagues, Internet searches, and our own dogged investigations, we located trails and parks as splendid as our Green Mountain favorites. The Gilsland Farm Sanctuary in Falmouth, home of Maine Audubon Society, is a wonderful place not only to stroll through woods and meadows but also to watch the great blue herons, mockingbirds, cardinals, and other fowl that happen by. A community park in our neighborhood has rolling hills reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. There are dozens of walking areas, from little-known woods that locals like to keep secret to our favorite, Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park in Freeport. That anything could equal Vermont as a country ambler's paradise seemed too far-fetched to entertain. But the implausible, happily, has proved real.
My wife and I still love Vermont and always will. We'd never dissuade anyone from moving there. But we now speak just as enthusiastically about southern Maine. We're excited about making this area our home. And people will, no doubt, be happy to learn that the raisins here are every bit as good as the ones in Vermont.