Learning to be Urban (Kind of)

I’ve been at my new place for about two weeks now and I’m really enjoying my new situation as an urbanite. Actually, the term urbanite might be a bit of an overstatement; technically, I’m still in the suburbs, about five miles outside of D.C. But overstatement or not, Alexandria seems like a city compared to Centreville. I like to think I have the best of both worlds right now: The perks of suburbia – parks, trails, relatively easy parking, safety – combined with the pros of city life – great public transportation, active bar and restaurant scene and an eclectic vibe. So I’m pretty happy. Right now, I’m at a Café, listening to low-key folk and rock music, happily blogging away. In front of me, there’s a young couple working on what looks like a school project, to the left of me a group of middle-aged women playing bridge (yes, bridge!), to the right, two old men solving math problems and saying “PREPOSTEROUS!” very loudly every few minutes and behind me an abnormally, eye-catchingly tall woman with vintage-style bangs reading a book. The walls are decorated with “ethnic” art and photography (think smiling Filipino children standing in a doorway) by local artists and the barista is appropriately awkward and emo. It’s like I’m living in an NPR dreamland. I’ve lived in cities before – Bogota and Panama City as those of you who’ve read my blog for a while already know – but this is my first urban experience in the U.S, so I thought I’d take a moment to write about some of my urban observations.

Snow-covered Del Ray townhouses.

Snow-covered Del Ray townhouses.

1.)    As a result of growing up in an attractive, picture-perfect suburb, I’m not naturally comfortable with incongruity. My new neighborhood is a combination of the new and the old (mostly old). Lots of low-rise and high-rise apartments, duplexes, townhouses, detached single family homes that are falling apart but still cost nearly $1 million, detached single family homes with costly renovations that cost well over $1 million, churches, restaurants, bars and strip malls. Across the street from some affordable garden-style apartments near my place there are a bunch of large, luxury townhomes.  I’m walking distance to Mom’s Organic Market, frequented by the kind of people who buy only organic food, and el Paisa Grocery Store, frequented by the local Salvadoran community and the culturally adventurous. If I walk a bit north on Mount Vernon Avenue, I suddenly feel like I’m in Central America…lots of Latin American bakeries, bars and restaurants…I can even get a corrientazo and hear only Spanish for blocks. 

 2.)    Narrow streets. The streets of the suburbs are gloriously wide. Even with cars parked on both sides of the street, two cars can get by quite easily. This is not the case in my new neighborhood. With cars parked on both sides of the street, there’s barely enough room for one car to get by on some streets. So when I’m faced with an oncoming traffic sitaution, I tend to panic, no plan in mind, and freeze in place until the other car somehow figures out a way to pass me, often giving me the evil eye as they pass. I really need to work on my sense of proportion and remember I have a little tiny Honda Civic.

3.)    Paying for parking and parking validation. I admit that one of the nice things about living in the suburbs is convenience. In Centreville, when I went to the neighborhood Trader Joe’s I have no problem finding a parking spot. I went to my nearest Trader Joe’s in Old Town Alexandria the other day and I felt like a country bumpkin released in the big city, left to her own devices. First of all, I had to grab a parking ticket and  park in this underground parking lot with little tiny spots and I had to somehow park my car without hitting the column (again, I need to work on the whole proportion thing…it’s not like I’m driving around in a hummer).Apparently, I was supposed to validate my parking ticket but didn’t know where, so Demitri, the parking attendant, had to validate it for me when I tried to leave and he didn’t seem very pleased. Then, feeling thoroughly stressed and inadequate urban, I was faced with narrow, one-way streets and strange, difficult left turns. If you’ve ever driven with me, you know I’m not exactly the world’s greatest driver, so making a left turn can take ages.

View from my apartment of the Washington Monument at Sunset

View from my apartment of the Washington Monument at Sunset

4.)    Young people. And I’m not talking about three-year-olds. My building is full of people around my age. Single young people. Sure, there are plenty of young families and older folks, but there are also tons of people in the 25-35 age bracket. I’m not used to seeing so many of them out in Centreville. Well, I guess there are young people in Centreville too, but a lot of the them are engaged, married or have kids. When you are fiancé-less, husbandless and childless, it’s kind of nice to be around people in the same boat.

5.)    Oldness.  I touched on this a little bit before, but I guess I never really realized before how new everything is out in the outer suburbs. Even in Bogota and Panama City, cities that have experienced massive population growth in the last half decade, there was a lot of newness going on. Here in Del Ray, most of the houses were built in the early to mid part of the 20th century, a lot of the apartment buildings look like old-fashioned college dorms and some of the buildings on Mount Vernon Avenue, the downtown Del Ray area, look like they date back to the 19th century. Also, there’s lots of color. In Centreville, most things are some shade of gray, white or pastel blue, but there seems to be more creative leeway when it comes to building/house color codes here.

 6.)    The closer to D.C you live, the more money you will spend. So I was spoiled for two years. I paid waaaaay below market rate rent (thanks Mom and Dad!), my brother, the family chef, had dinner on the table every day and I lived too far from D.C to actually go out and spend money more than a couple times a month. But now I’m near stuff and I don’t have the too-far-to-drive excuse anymore. For example, last Monday I met up with a couple of friends and dropped $35 on dinner and drinks. I can’t remember what I did on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, but I’m sure it involved spending money. This weekend I met up with a guy and dropped $30 on dinner and drinks (and had to pay for parking)! Sunday trip to Trader Joe’s resulted in spending $100 on cottage cheese and green tea (I’m sure there was more food involved, but I can’t remember…), Sunday afternoon I went to a little get together and stopped by Trader Joe’s (again) for a bottle of wine and Sunday evening my friend called me up and asked if I wanted to meet for dinner in Alexandria. I’m kind of afraid to look at my bank account right now, but it’s all about experiences, right? But I am in looking into finding a second source of income because I don’t want to live in perpetual fear of my bank account.

This has nothing to do with anything in this post, but my friend Kim made me this wonderful clay monkey and I love it so much I had to share.

This has nothing to do with anything in this post, but my friend Kim made me this wonderful clay monkey and I love it so much I had to share.

 7.)    Despite lots of going out, I’m thinking I’m going to get skinny. Well, not skinny, but definitely fit. You see, it’s no fun to cook for one. I just can’t get excited about that. If it can’t be microwaved or toasted, it’s just not going to happen. So far, my most exciting/intricate meal since moving out has featured brussel sprouts, toast and a glass of milk. AND my apartment is at the top of a hill and I can actually walk places, so there will be more of that going on.

I love novelty so I’m feeling pretty good and pretty appreciative about my life right now. At this moment, I’m living exactly the life I want to live, and that feels pretty good!



Categories: Alexandria, Me, Me, Me, Observations, Suburbs, The Urban Anthropologist Files

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  1. I like Nice Grocery Stores and I Cannot Lie. | My (Former) Nomad Life

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