Live Elsewhere Experiment

We’re back.

(I hope you’re envisioning Michael Jordan circa 1995 and his famous two-word fax…)

In an effort to inject positive change into a year filled with oodles of negative change, at the end of December 2020, Best Friend and I changed zip codes from 60622 to 37402. Just for a bit. Temporarily. To try it on for size.

I wrote in the first post from the new Chattanooga digs, beneath a photo of our townhome —
“We’re doing something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, be digital nomads elsewhere. Ever since Snowmageddon a few years ago, we’ve talked about possibly moving. Somewhere. All the places. What better way to test waters than to test waters? Maybe we’ll 3 months here and 6 months there. Maybe forever. Maybe Snowbirds. Maybe maybe maybe…Why we designed our lives as we have, to be able to shrug and say Why not?! … Suck it 2020, you will not win.”

My last post from Chattanooga a month’ish later was video of wind dancing through flowering trees and over bayou’esque water with the caption: “A Sound On wandering today.” I didn’t know it’d be my last new home post. But when it came to actually leave, I didn’t want to capture the moment. If you leave a place and don’t say goodbye, it’s like you’re not leaving, right?

In some ways, I was ready. But in most ways, I wasn’t.

Our experimental getaway was weird.
It was rejuvenating.
It was addictive (or so we surmise; it’s hard to claim addiction if you’ve only done something once).

Weird

In our forty plus years, I’ve lived in Evanston (IL), Boston, and Chicago. He’s lived in Monroe (LA), Nashville, and Chicago. While we’re jet-setters when it comes to travel, we’re more couch-sitters when it comes to homes.

It felt odd to pack not for a trip but for every day life. Extension cords. Ring lights. Bathrobe. Slippers. Post-its. Scotch tape. White noise machines. Coffee creamer. Maldon salt.

It felt odd to be elsewhere but with days still filled with Zooms, email, managing people, and spreadsheets. Like we were still at home. But not.

We got a grocery store card. Mail.
We changed the car radio presets and our Google Maps default starting point.
We watched CNN daily (we were there for the Capitol riot, Georgia senate race, and inauguration).
We knew what St. Elmo intersection to avoid in rush hour and the back way shortcut to Food City.
We knew David and the white SUV guy and the guy with the Target-dog looking dog.
We gave directions to someone looking for a restaurant.
We ate at home, only eating out three times.
We were excited about the Publix being built on our side of the river though it wouldn’t be done till after we left (like, it’s still a hole in the ground).
We’d casually throw around “Chatt” — as in “How long have you lived in Chatt?” — and Ferger Place, Southside, and Ooltewah, as if we were local, wondering if they could smell Yankee.

There are cannons everywhere. There are alleys nowhere.

The skyline isn’t much of a skyline; for a girl from Chicago, it felt the most amateurs of amateurs.
My office window allowed me to stare at Lookout Mountain when I wanted to daydream; for a girl from Chicago, that felt exotic.

I don’t know why I found it so giggle-worthy that we could be in Georgia in minutes; people here can be in Indiana or Wisconsin in minutes and I don’t find that fascinating at all. But, Georgia! Part of the allure I’m sure was Abrams, Ossoff, and Warnock and the vote happening while we were there. Yet overall, I’m perplexed at my border giddiness.

Mostly because of all the signs, we became invested in the mayoral race. Kim White! Tim Kelly! Monty! The other Monty! Best Friend once screamed at me from downstairs and I thought he was dying but no, he just wanted me to see the Kim White commercial as we’d only seen Tim Kelly commercials and wondered when others would jump in the game.

Speaking of signs, nothing bursts the bubble in which you exist back home faster than confederate flags and Blue Lives Matter and Trump signs dotting home after home. Not in our neighborhood or in most of the ones where we envisioned ourselves living (surprise surprise, turns out we have a type — Subarus, craftsmans, BLM signs, belief in science and love signs), but just over yonder, symbols of hate were displayed with pride.

The gun on a customer in Walmart was startling. The lack of masks most places was disheartening.

My body refused to acclimate to EST and would not arouse at the desired 7AM as it’s been doing for years. An 8AM start is too late of a start and had me feeling, every morning, that I had lost time. An alarm clock and forcing myself out of bed at 7AM EST was not an option. I haven’t used an alarm clock since I started Mac & Cheese in 2004 and plan on being able to claim that on my deathbed. 7:30pm Jeopardy and 11:30pm news felt unnatural, wrong, and illegal. Also, I’ll never get used to newscasters in other cities. They also feel unnatural, wrong, and illegal.

The hills were hilly. The mountains were mountainy. I am not used to those heights. On foot. By car. My stomach dropped and heart raced multiple times. Mostly it was manageable fear, cloaked in appreciation for breathtaking vistas. But when sweat drips in your eyes after walking up a neighborhood hill, you question, “Could I live here?” You also remind yourself to get in shape, as you do every day. Tomorrow, I’ll start tomorrow.

Cars parked any direction they wanted on the street. 65 felt like the normal accepted speed limit. Cars are a must. Public transit exists but barely. They do have a bike-share and it seemed a pretty good size for the size of the city. While certain areas are very walkable, the areas aren’t connected. Highways, hills, industrial parks, and busy streets make for impossible or at least unpleasant long walks. I’m used to being able to walk for hours without a second thought, without having to be strategic. I came home with blackened feet every time we’d do a neighborhood walk; I wear flip-flops or Keens all day every day weather permitting at home and never have dirty feet.

We missed our kitchen. Bed. Pillows. Comfy couches and armchairs. Space to spread out. Desks. Sonos. A bathroom on the first floor. A bathroom on the same floor as my office. First floor, no stair life. Quiet — though not a surprise as the listing and reviews highlighted the noise, the street traffic, trains, and fire station led to a cacophony trifecta. My big city snobbiness tripped me here; I live in Chicago, how bad could it be?! We live in a busy neighborhood on a quiet street, which I took for granted; not anymore. Though close to the El, we can’t hear it, and even if we could, it doesn’t blow its horn incessantly at 11 o’clock at night. I don’t know if the sirens had a southern drawl that gave them volume, but hot damn, those fire trucks be screeching. I missed a soaker tub, he missed a sauna. I mean, we don’t have a soaker tub or sauna but we felt if we’re living our dream life, we should have our whole dream.

There’s things that you tend not to notice or care about on vacation but when it’s every day life, they matter. The kitchen garbage can was tiny and we filled it up in a day. There was only one skillet, one large pot, and a few bowls; it’s not fun to have to wash items during cooking so that you can use them to cook. The cleaning supplies were not up to Saya Standards. We ended up buying pot holders and a large trash can, the kind of purchases that kill you because you have five trash cans and thirteen pot holders at home.

“Y’all” had already crept into my lexicon due to marrying a Louisiana boy. Chattanooga spread it to all corners of my mouth musings. I’ve always liked the low-key, friendly vibe it emits and how easily it rolls off the tongue. In current times, as we strive for inclusivity, I’ve found it also to be a wonderful alternative to “Hey guys…” “Hi ladies…” Win-win.

We had wanted to use this experiment to see how it’d feel to live elsewhere. And we partly succeeded. But one of the biggest parts of a move is community. Meeting people. Making friends. Creating business connections. Activities. Groups. Museums, concerts, the movies. Feeling the vibe in coffeehouses, at the bar, on a weekend night. Obviously, none of that happened. So while we can tell you what areas we’d live, where Whole Foods is, and our favorite building on the UT campus, jury’s still out on one of the most important factors. Could we belong?

Chattanooga was good weird, bad weird, exactly what we needed, and one of the loveliest experiences of my forty-two years.

Rejuvenating

Wherever we would’ve gone would’ve been rejuvenating in the sense that it would’ve been anywhere but the place we’ve been quarantined for nine months. Add in that it’s actually a lovely place, REJUVENATING.

Mind-boggling to me —
We could in seven minutes be in the most beautiful nature. We could in fifteen minutes be top of a mountain. A mountain mountain. We hiked almost daily and barely made a dent in hiking options. My favorite hikes were the “We’re in a neighborhood, oops now we’re on a mountain path” trails, winding through people’s yards, overlooking grills, garages, and dogs. Housing prices, yo. What we paid for our 2 bed/2 bath condo could get us a brand new 3-4 bed/2-3 bath house, in one of our dream areas. People will often follow up this realization with “Yeah, but you have to live in [insert place you don’t want to live.]” Chattanooga doesn’t apply.

I’ve always lived by water. Lake Michigan and the Chicago River growing up and now. The ocean and the Charles River in college. I think it’d be difficult to not be by water. The Tennessee River that winds through downtown and the various lakes felt comforting. They made me appreciate what I have at home.

Chattanooga skies are breathtaking. The amount of sky talk in which we engaged was alarming; that is not a topic ever broached at home. I wondered if Chicago skies are also breathtaking, I just don’t notice them. I made a note to notice.

We were outside every day. In January. Voluntarily. Happily. That doesn’t happen in Chicago. On work days, it became tradition to take a break mid to late afternoon to wander. Sometimes we’d wander from our front door. Sometimes we’d drive a few minutes to wander elsewhere. There were a few days I didn’t feel like walking but the allure of new and the allure of limited time had me slipping on my Keens. We ranked houses. We pressed pedestrian crossing buttons. We got barked at by porch dogs and yard dogs. I was in a cemetery for the first time since my grandmother died in 1998. I see why people find cemetery wanderings peaceful; we wandered two actually. I was fascinated by the tombstone engravings. The street corner utility boxes are all covered in art. I smiled at every one. I’ve never smiled at a utility box before.

While I didn’t do anything new work wise, work felt new. I led a few workshops. I taught storytelling. I consulted with clients. I managed my cleaning crew and clients. I sent newsletters. I posted on social. Same ol’, same ol. But in a different space. With a different Zoom background. With a different view. With stairs to get a coffee refill. With adventures to be had once work was complete. This made Asana and email and Todoist yummier. What an absolutely glorious thing to be able to work wherever. I already knew this. But Chattanooga deep underlined the sentiment. There was wifi angst and wishing I had brought my ethernet cord so that I could hardwire in, afraid important Zooms would be compromised but it all worked out. It was never warm enough to work on the deck but I’ve lap topped on the beach and by the pool and on a balcony in winter in other locations and boy… That. Is. Everything.

I’m used to being around people not like me, being the biracial, six foot, non size ten, only child, single parented, tiny Jewish mostly Atheist small business owner I am. But I’m rarely around people not like me politically. And while I wouldn’t say it was pleasant, especially when the opposing side this go round supported such vileness, there is something to climbing out of your bubble and amongst different. You appreciate what you have. You gain perspective. You consider whys, whats, and hows. Instead of far away media caricatures or a mass category, the others become human, with Honda CRVs, Publix cards, and doggies. And humans are harder to ignore and hate. It was a good reminder.

Now that we’re back, we miss warmth. Elevation. Newness. Adventure. But we’re grateful for what we had. And wonder if we can have it again.

Addictive

Finding tiny joys makes life fulfilling. Fun. Easy. Stumbling upon a new coffeehouse. Craftsman. Vegan eatery. Riding the bus just to stare out the window. When routine and recognition are pats on the back and comfort, not ho-hum sighs. It was a delight to know if we took Broad Street, we’d drive right by a place we could get vegan cupcakes. If we were returning from St. Elmo, we could do a quick stop at the Food City on the way home. If we wanted Niedlov’s coffee, we’d have to avoid Sundays when they were closed. Our getaway provided a balance of shiny new and comforting old.

More outsideness, please. I don’t want to be cooped up three, four, five months of the year. We now own hiking poles. Sun feels good.

It was two-sided joy giving to bring people along. Social media and newsletter comments along the lines of “Thanks for taking me on your walk today!” “Adding this to my list of places to visit” “You’re glowing” “That house is gorgeous!” “It’s inspiring to watch this leap” were common and adored. The tiny influencer I am who gets huge butterflies when someone does something because of how I live my life could not get enough of the “You’ve convinced me to try this!” reactions.

I love Chicago. I don’t want to shit on Chicago. But I’m done with Chicago as is. As I’ve been doing it for so long. I penned Words I never thought I’d say: is it time for me to leave Chicago? in 2014. Our copious travel tampered my ready to leave proclivities. We went often enough that I’d return with renewed love for my city. Seven years later, Chattanooga has me itching again. Itching to leave. Back to the “Maybe we’ll 3 months here and 6 months there. Maybe forever. Maybe Snowbirds. Maybe maybe maybe…” in my initial Chatt post. We don’t want to sell our home; it’s the best. We don’t want to miss bike lanes that get you everywhere, Mexican food that isn’t Chipotle, and a street grid that allows for commonsense and being able to give “Go three blocks East” directions; they’re the best.

Can we be greedy? Can we be Life of Yes’y? Can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we Chicago and… ? Financially, not at the moment. Professionally, not at the moment. Potentially, potentially.

I know that “If there’s a silver-lining to all this…” is a phrase we’re all ready to retire. But, y’all. It just so fits here. Had quarantine not happened, Best Friend would not have been able to getaway for the length of time we did. His 9 to 5 is cut from a cloth of tradition where employees must be in the office. Er, was cut. Lump his work into the ever-growing category of companies reconsidering policies and practices. Not only was he able to work from home at a home 605 miles from home, quarantine has opened up conversations that had previously been non-existent. Past discussions about living elsewhere used to mean he’d have to quit. Now there’s possibility. I like possibility.

You Asked

I’ve gotten a few repeated questions from the welcome voyeurs —

How’d you find and pay for where you stayed?

We didn’t use any special long-term find a home service; we used Airbnb.

Make a list of what’s a non-compromise, what’s ideal, and what would be nice in a home. Reading reviews is key. We always scan for bits about noise, cleanliness, and bed comfort. Scan for what you care about. Keep in mind that what you care about when you’re Airbnb’ing every day life is different than when you’re Airbnb’ing a vacation. If it’s a vacation, you may only be home to sleep. You may not care about internet speed, work space, TV channels, or how stocked the kitchen is. Everything you need at home, if you’ll need it elsewhere, make sure you find it. I knew that the place I found wouldn’t be ideal for a real extended stay but for our timeframe, perfect.

You can make longer stays more affordable a few ways with Airbnb.

Many places will offer monthly price discounts of 20, 30, 40%. And if they don’t, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Long term guests are Airbnb gold; they lessen the owner’s To Do’s and gives them financial peace of mind. Have the mindset that you’re a gift to the host (especially if you’re clean and considerate, on top of longterm). What was really freeing in looking for lodging was our flexibility. We were open to dates, neighborhoods, staying in multiple places, heck even states. It was like interviewing for a job that’d be nice to get but that you didn’t need; I felt negotiation powerful. I asked for what I wanted and if I didn’t get it, onto the next. We didn’t have the stress of having to be somewhere by a certain date. Be wary though that some listings will require you have a clean every two, three, four weeks and that you often have to pay for the cleaning, usually around $75. If you decide to stay multiple places, that’s multiple cleaning fees, service fees, and taxes.

The listing price doesn’t mean its firm. My claim to fame in Airbnb “It doesn’t hurt to ask” was a two-week Portland, Maine stint where I asked the owner if he’d be willing to come down in price in exchange for our long stay and team-building for his staff, he said yes, and we paid $100 less a night than initially requested. (This was also the trip that snagged me a $900 flight voucher when I offered to get bumped which is how I found myself in a two hour cab ride to a Boston hotel, all paid for by the airline, where I’d sleep until my 6AM flight the next day.)

I’m the queen of referral credit and was able to put some of my Airbnb credit that towards our stay. Speaking of, want up to $50 off your Airbnb? If you’re a first time user, we can help each other out.

We didn’t Airbnb or rent out our home. It wasn’t a long enough period to make it worth it or doable. So we paid a mortgage and an Airbnb stay. I wouldn’t say that was fun. Or sustainable. But it was feasible. Those Colombia and Puerto Rico and Boston and Philly trips that we budgeted for yet that didn’t happen due to COVID? Money still in the bank. Additionally, one of my favorite aspects to running a business and specifically offering the offerings I offer, I knew early 2021 was gonna be pricier than usual so I took on more consulting and cleaning clients and ran more events than I normally would’ve, and within weeks, I had made what I’d be spending on the Airbnb. That was empowering.

We had a Chicago caretaker for mail, plants, heat, a general eye on things.

Why Chattanooga?

We got this a lot. In case you’re like us and most of our world and Chattanooga oblivious, a few fun facts —
It’s Tennessee’s fourth largest city. Nicknames are “Scenic City”, due to the surrounding mountains, and “Gig City”, due to it having the fastest internet service in the Western Hemisphere. It was the first city to have its own typeface, Chatype, and is the sole production site of Altoids.

Beyond mouth mints, other reasons —

Nowhere colder, obviously.

We considered San Diego, Hawaii, LA, Nashville, Florida, Savannah, Charleston, Asheville, Athens.

A place close enough to drive and that wouldn’t take foreverrrr but far enough that we felt were actually getting away. The driving was important both because we didn’t like the idea of flying due to COVID and we knew we wanted to lug a lot more luggage than plane-approved. Best Friend brought his 55 inch monitor — not overhead cabin friendly. Bye West Coast.

We wanted nature. Culture. Diversity of people. Of food. We wanted less traffic, people, crime, trash, noise.

We visited Chatt for the first time in August, for a week, and were enamored with the idea of returning to a new yet familiar place. We knew we’d like it yet we had so much more explore. It’s also been on the Maybe List of places we’d move for a few years now. What better way to really test the waters?

If we move-move, it’s not just the actual place we’d be moving to but the surrounding areas. We’d like somewhere that has further adventure a few hours in any direction — Atlanta is two hours away, Knoxville an hour forty-five minutes, Nashville two hours, Birmingham two hours, Asheville three hours thirty minutes.

Chattanooga ticked all the boxes.

Would you recommend it? What’s next?

About a week into the experiment, I wrote on a picture of Lookout Mountain —
“Whenever you make a life leap, you cross fingers. That it’ll be what you wanted, that you won’t regret, that you’re not a dum-dum. I spend my speaking + teaching + consulting life preaching to others that there is no bad in action or trying, even if it doesn’t turn out as planned. That sadness comes into play when you live a life of What if I had or I wish I had… That said, I crossed fingers with this move. It’s human nature to self doubt even when you’re the least self doubt’y person on earth. First living in not-Chicago since Boston undergrad, 21 years ago. That felt big. As I ended the work day today, with an open window, looking at a mountain sunset, before joining Best Friend for a walk, while I have no idea how this adventure will go, I’m already leap-grateful. Even if it’s a leap from one quarantine to another, and we can’t explore exactly as we’d like, the change of scenery, the ability to be outside, and the trying of something we’ve wanted for so long feels like everything right now.”

I cannot shout loud enough the feeling it felt to cross an item off the list that had been lingering for so long. If you have an opportunity to draw that line, take it take it take it. Perhaps it’s zip code related. Perhaps job. Perhaps love. Perhaps health. Perhaps education. Whatever the perhaps, there is much potential joy to pocket if you choose to be an active participant rather than a passive bystander even with the risk. Because of the risk.

Can I live somewhere where there’s no Southwest Airlines or Trader Joe’s? At least for a bit I can. Especially if the tradeoff is trailheads instead of screens and January flip-flops instead of Uggs. Wherever we land, however we land, 2020 while you were the worst in so many ways, thank you for providing us with the opening and closing of a chapter of our marriage we’ve been forever jonesing to write. I can’t wait for the next one even though I have no clue the content.

 


Did you decide to make a zip code leap during COVID? From where to where? How’d it go/is it going? Would love to hear in the comments!