Philadelphia Metropolis

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A Leap of Faith

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By Marianne Ruane

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"So what, you just moved to Philly on a whim?" Pretty much, I had to admit. This weekend in particular I was smarting from that decision. I'd only been in Philadelphia about a month when I broke up with my boyfriend, and the reality of my situation - no friends, no job, no local community to support me in my emotional duress - knocked me down with a thud. What had I done?

The 9x9 room I'd fixed up so cozily now chafed like a prison cell. The great city of Philadelphia which I'd imagined to be teeming with job possibilities now seemed surrounded by an impenetrable fortress. The few contacts I'd made in the city had taken my resume and mysteriously disappeared, like victims of a Soviet purge. I decided that rather than bemoan this conspiracy, I'd go to Washington, DC, for a weekend of TLC. A friend of mine was having a birthday party for her children, and several mutual friends from our former days living as expats in Russia would be there.

It was my friend's father who asked whether I'd moved to Philly on a whim. Had I? It certainly happened quickly. I arrived at my cousins' place on a Monday evening, found a place on Thursday, got it all settled with the landlord on Friday, and moved in a week later. I'd been considering Philadelphia for a while, but I hadn't done much research or scheduled preliminary visits. It just felt like the right choice, and I didn't want to find out anything that would dissuade me. Philly was only two hours from my family in Scranton, and I did want to be closer to them, but that wasn't the only reason. I wanted to stay in Pennsylvania.

It seemed silly to attribute my decision to nostalgia, to a kinship with the soil for heaven's sake, but I'd been hiking and camping around the state all summer and fall, and I wasn't ready to leave yet. As I traversed rocky paths through thick foliage, past views of sleepy rivers snaking around green mountain mounds, along barren coal fields and crumbling railroad tresses, I felt at home. The lack that had always accompanied me (so familiar as to be almost unnoticed) - no family of my own, no financial success, no deep roots in any one location - dropped away. Its shadow of neediness vanished as well, and I was left with only contentment. Just being outside was enough. I joined up with various hiking groups, and for the first time in my life, I didn't feel awkward not knowing anyone. It didn't matter whether people were interested in me or not. I felt liberated.

Of course it's not like I wouldn't have experienced a similar sense of peace hiking in another state, and day to day life in Philadelphia, the city, didn't exactly conjure up those feelings. I could have moved to Washington, D.C., where I would have found a ready-made community among 20 or so friends who live there. But that would have been too easy. No, it was time for another transition, a life challenge, an adventure - and it needed to be somewhere unknown and unexplored like Philadelphia. I wanted to memorize the character of every neighborhood, imbibe the city's history, devour all the pork I could get my hands on. I wanted to live fully - finally - in Philadelphia.

Seeing all of my friends did give me the boost I needed. A few of the guys had guitars, and we sang Russian songs, party favorites from our old days in Moscow. I had spent eight years in Russia as an educator and a non-profit worker before I returned to attend grad school in 2000. Singing the Russian songs with them was enjoyable, but I wasn't moved to tears as I used to be. (I know that sounds sort of pathetic, but Russian songs are really sad. Made all the more melancholy, of course, by alcohol.) I think I connected with the pain, the suffering, the loneliness of the country and its people expressed in their music, and I experienced a kind of happiness, contradictory though that seems, in sharing them. I felt that I belonged.

Perhaps it isn't that I really belong in a particular place but that I'm choosing a place that reflects my inner state back to me, and so I feel comfortable. Certainly I feel at home around people who share my values and empathize with my feelings, but can an outside source really give me what I need to feel content? Wouldn't the acceptance and validation that lead to a feeling of belonging be better cultivated from within? Sadness over my breakup aside - okay, I didn't eat for two days - I'd like to think that the Russian songs don't induce crying now because I no longer need to share in Russia's fatalistic suffering. Back in the U.S., and now in Philadelphia, I have found more room for optimism.

 

 

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