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Stand in the place where you live | May 13, 2003 06:50

My incredibly grown-up baby brother just went and bought a slice of heaven -- ex-state house, creek at the bottom of the garden, view of the water, nice mixed neighbourhood, walking distance to schools -- and I'm suffused with a strange mix of envy and nostalgia. Not just because he gets to do the M-word first (as Billy Bragg might have put it but didn't, "rent is just a moment of giving/ but mortgage is when we admit our parents were right"), and not just because the house reminds me of Nana's place, but because we've just committed to a move ourselves -- and it's not back to New Zealand. Not yet. Our hearts may be there, but our careers are here, for the foreseeable.

Such a luxury, if you think about it, choosing where to live. Not everyone gets to. But I didn't get where I am today without someone -- several someones, in fact -- saying something like "ooh that was a long sail, but this bay looks nice, good fishing, huge trees, let's stay!" or "ooh look dear, it says here in the paper 'friendly natives and cheap land'! Let's go, I can't stand this pea soup fog and grinding poverty any longer." Moving between countries, hemispheres, is my ancestry and, so far, my life. Adapting, too; I have a pretty functional set of cultural shock absorbers these days, honed on the similarities that surprised me in Japan and the differences that have blindsided me in the U.S.

So it's been interesting over the last couple of weeks, figuring out where we'll live next. If I had my druthers I'd stay in the city for a while. I always expected to love it here, but I'm surprised by the degree to which it feels like home. But we live a charmed life in subsidized housing, and the job that pays for the housing is of finite duration. The mood of the city is changing, too, as the post September 11 slump continues to make itself felt in everyone's pockets: subway fares are up to $2 (and in the process the venerable subway tokens have been consigned to history and an afterlife as key-ring fobs and earrings), public library hours are being cut back further, and last week there were five bulletins posted in our lobby detailing the forcible swiping of wallets in the neighbourhood, occasionally assisted by guns and knives. Extra coppers now patrol the streets around Columbia University, making them safer for fee-paying undergrads and, presumably, less friendly for anyone who fits the category of "black male, average height" as detailed on the posters. As always, a lowering tide sinks some boats faster than others.

Anyway, the physicist in the family has been mulling over a couple of exciting job offers, and it was surprising to both of us how important place was in our ruminations. Not just climate, accessibility, affordability, but how it actually feels to be somewhere. The lodestone, the baseline, the ancestral vibe is always Aotearoa, of course -- but it's important to be specific. On a drive from Hamilton to Wellington a year or so ago, looking in the window of a real estate agent while on a bathroom stop somewhere in the middle, we were stunned to realize we could have bought a house, free and clear, for what was in our not especially plump savings account. It was in Taumarunui, not that there's anything wrong with that, and it was the cheapest one in the window (Shania Twain needn't fear a competitive bid from us lot). In my dreams the snug hills of Wellington, where I spent my early childhood, and the warm chaos of Auckland, where I survived high school, both appeal, but the cities as I knew them are to some degree gone -- because they've changed, and so have I. As someone -- Julia Kristeva, I think -- wrote, an exile is an exile in time as well as space. You can go back, but you can't go back, if you see what I mean.

But I like to think that there's a portable sense of place that keeps us grounded while we continue our tour of duty over here. My domestic vision is equal parts "pretend we live in Auckland and slap some tapa on the wall" (pretty much self-explanatory), William Morris, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. The latter is pretty much how I was raised -- Little House on the Papatoetoe, sorta thing, albeit a modified 70s version that included bikes, vast amounts of bad TV, and the occasional family holiday at a nudist beach. I love that whole "Pa built a chair, and this is how he built the chair" pioneer self-reliance - all they needed was trees out back and a good sharp axe, not forgetting Ma's sewing basket (and oh yeah, an evil president willing to overrule the Supreme Court and relocate the Indians the heck out of the way).

And nineteenth century Arts'n'Crafts hero William Morris is the aesthetic leaven in my heavy hippie bread, with his legendary dictum "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful" (although it turns out that this fantasy comes at a price, too: in Morris's utopian novel News from Nowhere, it transpires that his appealingly cosy artisanal 21st C London was only achieved after a bloody civil war in which everyone who wasn't completely into the beautiful/useful paradigm was smited rather heavily). I still use the Morris rule when garage saling and thrift shopping: hmmm, that's a funky magazine rack, but am I gonna use the thing? A ten dollar couch is a bargain, true, but does that colour do me any favours when I lounge on it?

So, you can do the antipodean grassroots elegance thing pretty much anywhere, but how does home beautiful fit into neighbourhood, city, country? I've been obsessing lately about the relationship between personal space and public space, especially since I got hold of an eccentric little book called A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander. The size of a very fat little paperback, it's a nutty, brilliant, compellingly strange utopian manifesto for how people should live in order to be really happy (you can browse a not quite as charming online version here). The project came out of Oregon in the 1970s, so it resonates perfectly with my own hippie-fascist tendencies. It doesn't so much prescribe as suggest very strongly what the world should look like, all the way down from the macro level (exactly what size countries and cities and neighbourhoods should be), to the micro, like why it's crucial for children to have cubbyholes around the place and a wilderness at the bottom of the garden, why you need a great big welcoming farmhouse kitchen, and what to do with the shady side of the house.

Some of the suggestions are, by conventional standards, kooky but appealing -- sleeping nooks in a common room rather than private bedrooms (can we say wharenui?); a 'children's bike path' through the town that takes them past the educational back windows of edifyingly busy businesses so they can learn where things come from (Busytown to the life). Others are brilliantly obvious: preserving green spaces and bodies of water so the town or city feels alive, making sure houses have a window or a balcony that looks out on the street so that you can feel yourself to be part of the town, and constructing public spaces that draw people in rather than scare them off. It all seems to be based on an analysis of what makes charming little Euro villages so charming, but what surprised me was how well a megalopolis like New York measures up to this template for humane living: it's a wonderfully social town, eminently walkable, and better supplied with parks and playgrounds than most other places I've been. You can live life on a human scale, walk out your front door and get places using just your own two legs, with pleasant chit-chat guaranteed along the way. Like I said, very hard to leave.

Luckily, both of the places we had to choose between were fine, liveable small towns, both of them vouched for by friends and relations who'd moved there and thrived. In the end we plumped for New Haven, a beautiful, troubled, interesting old industrial town about an hour and a half north of New York City. The decision was made mostly for job reasons, but one of the appealing factors was how familiar it feels: after mumble-mumble years in the Northeast it seems I'm a New Englander as much as a New Zealander. The houses hereabouts look like houses, to me, and the wee corner shops and little parks appeal to this urbanite more than the largely suburban, footpathless and thus car-driven culture of North Carolina. Both places are conceptually centered on a university, but New Haven more tangibly so: there's a village green in the centre of downtown, next to the Oxbridge-meets-Disneyland campus of Yale University. [Oddly enough, a Google search for images of "new haven green" also threw up this ad for Pakatoa Island, which appears to be for sale again. Hang on a minute while I empty the change jar and see if...nah, not even in $NZ].

Back to New Haven: the town and gown divide is starker... there are steadily gentrifying areas in which the university sponsors investment, and less fortunate neighbourhoods that offer a mute indictment of the castle-like bulk and colossal wealth of the university. But, this being the Northeast where forthrightness often trumps politeness, all those politics are out in the open, which can only be a good thing. Sure, the winters are colder up here, but the seasons are rewardingly dramatic -- spring erupts in an orgy of magnolia, dogwood, and cherry blossom; and if you've ever wondered why Americans call autumn "fall," you've never walked home through knee-deep drifts of dead leaves, admiring the fractal geometry of bare black branches against a glowing sunset.

Besides, when I'm desperate for an urban fix -- like, say, Friday's errand, which took me through the sheer visual spectacle and noisy chaos of midtown on a weekday in search of the perfect angular architect-style glasses to replace my woeful ten year old pair (recently bent beyond recognition by nascent spectacle fetishist Busytot) -- I can just hop on a train! New Haven will be a fun place to live for the next little while, I tell myself... meanwhile making a note to write and ask Aunt Betty whether one can grow flax or feijoas or kowhai or a cabbage tree in Horticultural Hardiness Zone 6.

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