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Leaving Your Heart All Over the Place
Revisiting, reclaiming, and reconnecting
“You can never go home again.”
Isn’t that how the saying goes? You can’t go back because home won’t be the same. Because you won’t be the same. Time has left its ticking tracks all over the both of you.
Marido, Filha, and I went back to the States for a visit in June, and didn’t return to the safe embrace of our Portuguese quinta until July… 21 days and 1,243 miles all up and down the West Coast from Seattle, Washington to Palm Springs, California.
The inciting event was a wedding. Marido’s niece got married in Portland, and we wanted to celebrate in person. Since we were traveling all that way anyway, we thought we might as well take the opportunity to reconnect with as many familiar and beloved faces as we could.
So there were reunions at restaurants in Portland and dining rooms in Vancouver and coffee shops in Issaquah and a sleepover in Seattle. Then there was a five-part road trip in a weird Chrysler rental car we named Miguel. He couldn’t decide if he was a sedan or a muscle car, but he was steady as we drove from Seattle to Portland to Redding to San Rafael to San Francisco to Santa Cruz to Monterey to Palm Springs.
Everywhere we traveled up and down the coast, we found pieces of ourselves that we left behind, bits we had tucked into hideaways and handholds for safekeeping while we reoriented ourselves an ocean away from the places and people that had always been home.
We reunited with bits of ourselves as we trawled the treasured stacks of Powell’s City of Books. As we basked in the glow of Marido’s sister’s infectious laugh. As we chowed down on pulled pork sandwiches and settled into the ease of constant English. We found ourselves again in long, long hugs with longtime friends—the kind of hugs where you rock back and forth and murmur unintelligible endearments into each other’s hair. We had forgotten how much joy there is when an old dog friend remembers you well enough to greet you with happy yips and frantic tail wags (we missed you too, Cookie girl!). We savored every moment of pad prik king, of Giants baseball, of the Pride parade, of Sutro Baths, of the shark tank at Monterey Bay Aquarium, of driving south on Route 1, of saltwater taffy at Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, of the sight of Joshua trees and the taste of thai milk tea with extra tapioca balls. We got a bit verklempt, all three of us, at that first glimpse of the northern tower of the Golden Gate Bridge when you come out of the Robin Williams (rainbow) tunnel heading out of the Marin headlands into The City — those orange-red columns signaling You’re Almost Home! You’ll Be There Soon. And the city itself, oh San Francisco, Fog City, there is no other place like you, not anywhere the whole world ‘round.
It was San Francisco I was most curious to see again. The city that welcomed me in my 20s and showed me what it meant to (finally) belong. The place where Marido and I built a home and a chosen family and sunk our roots miles deep into the sandy soil. The place where Filha joined us, at 7:58 one Labor Day morning as the fog trickled down the slopes of Mount Sutro.
Until the summer of her 10th year, San Francisco was the only home Filha ever knew. Our orange and blue seahorse cottage on 46th Avenue was the only home she’d ever lived in. The bedroom she slept in was the same four walls, the same cypress tree view since we brought her home from the hospital. Her best friend lived two blocks away. Her preschool was a short stroll down the hill. Her elementary school was 20 minutes by bicycle. She learned to walk on the Ocean Beach dunes, learned to ride her bike on the sidewalk where our neighbors gathered to share beers and gossip. Golden Gate Park was home to blackberry hunts and coyote cub sightings and birthday picnics and dog romps and the biggest eucalyptus tree ever.
Marido and I have left home before, many times. We know what it’s like to pull up stakes and drive them down again in a new place with new people. Filha had never done that before, not ever.
“It feels so much smaller than I remember.” Filha muttered, mostly to herself, as she stood on the grounds of Lakeshore Elementary and gazed around. The rock garden, the playground, the art room, her second-grade classroom, they were almost but not exactly as she had remembered.
Filha spent nearly every second of our five days in San Francisco with her best friend B. She had a list of places to see (and things to eat), and with the joint efforts of B’s mom, Marido, and myself, we ticked off all her old favorite haunts.
Whenever I was with her, my eyes kept darting to her face searching for clues. How was she feeling? How was she dealing? She was loud and laughing, rolling down the sand dunes with B, sucking down every boba tea she could wrap her hands around. When we returned home to Portugal I asked if she would write about her experience a little bit, and if I could use her words here. She said yes, and yes.
“What did it feel like?” I asked. “Did the city feel different? Did you?”
The city felt the same and different. It felt like it got vaster and smaller at the same time. There were places that I would go to all the time, like Golden Gate Park or Fort Funston or Ocean Beach or my best friend's house, that felt like home, but also felt like clothes that were too small.
I walked past two playgrounds that I used to play in. I remember looking at both of them and thinking, "That slide is so small! I can't believe that it was a towering mountain when I was 8!"
I walked in my old elementary school with my friend, and I looked at the things there, the classrooms, the halls, the playgrounds and the gardens, and it was like I was zapped back to 3rd grade.
I definitely felt different. Going back felt like going home, but a weird, warped version of home, like I'd stepped into the place I lived in for the first ten years of my life, but the place had time traveled to the 1800s or something. It was home, but now I have another home.
“Do you miss it?” we were asked. Again and again. “Do you miss the US? Do you miss San Francisco? Do you miss us/this/here/now?”
The answer is Yes. And No.
No, I do not miss the United States as a monolith. Sure, it was easy to pop into the Post Office on Irving Street and mail a package to my sister *boop-be-doop* just like that. I didn’t have to navigate the language or the customs, I just did it without even thinking because I’ve been doing it all my life. I know how the systems work. But I’m learning how the systems work in Portugal, and every time I pop into the CTT on Avenida da Liberdade, it gets easier and easier.
The things I do not miss about the country of my birth are plentiful and obvious and that’s not what this particular post is about. Suffice to say no, I do not want to move back. No, I do not miss the things I miss enough to make a U-turn. No, I do not feel as though we have made a mistake. No, this is not a lark, not a fleeting fantasy. We are setting down roots in Portuguese soil, two years and counting.
The things I do miss about the United States are so specific: a good burrito from the Mission district. That one hike I used to do with Vila in Golden Gate Park. Arizmendi breadsticks. Ocean Beach sunsets. Green Apple Books on Clement. Moments and flavors that can be revisited and reclaimed, if only momentarily. Then there are the things that I miss in the background, like a constant hum. Things not easily (or ever) replaced, like easy and plentiful time with friends.
The greatest joy of this trip was reconnecting with our people and reminding ourselves (us and them) that distance does not deplete us. The friendships we forged remain true, and though it’s been years in some cases since we last laid eyes, the time felt like a blink, felt like yesterday.
On our last night in San Francisco, there were ten of us gathered around the dining room table sharing takeout from Marnee Thai. Conversation flowed in all directions, laughter rattled off the windows and my friend Eric, who I’ve loved since I was 25, leaned over and murmured, “It feels so normal to be hanging out with you, like you never left.”
Those are the friendships I cherish forever. The ones that feel like there was never an ocean, never a goodbye party, never a tearful embrace at the ticket counter. Like we never left. Like we’ve been here all along. Like we’ll be here and you’ll be there but this thing strung between us, it’s unbreakable.
When the hours grow small and the food’s grown cold and everyone begins to stand up and gather themselves, we don’t say goodbye. We stand on the steps and let the N-Judah clatter past and we wrap our arms around each other and say, “Love you. See you again. See you soon.”
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How about some bonus trip pix before you go?
(If you’re reading this in your inbox, you may have to click through to this post on the substack site to see all the pictures.)
Copyright © 2023 LaDonna Witmer