Notes from an Expat: It Seemed Lame to Miss it So Much

A New Englander in Washington, DC, embraces her roots, recalling how easy it was to find a really good therapist—and the best ice cream.

This article originally appeared in our September 2015 print issue.

There are two questions everyone asks in Washington: What do you do and where are you from?

The first question is generally pretty easy for me: I’m a journalist-turned-consultant. It’s the second one that always trips me up a bit. DC is a place built on people whose identity is not from here. There are the midwesterners who smile too much, the Texans who wear cowboy boots with their suits every day, the southerners who fight over barbeque and football, and the Californians who just want everyone to chill out a little bit.

The fact is, I’d never really considered myself a New Englander until I had to move away to a place that asks me, regularly, to pick a regional identity. Massachusetts never really works on its own, because people always assume Boston—and let me tell you, I am NOT from Boston. I grew up sandwiched between Vermont and Connecticut, and sometimes I’d drive to New Hampshire to buy alcohol on Sundays.

My family moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, when my father took a job at a fledgling (and short-lived) magazine based in the Pioneer Valley. When that folded, he resumed working for publications in New York City; but my mother, understanding what a magical place we had found, refused to move us. Dad was thus banished to many years of commuting via the Springfield train station.

And so I got to grow up as a New Englander, without really ever understanding what that meant. I got to see Ella Fitzgerald sing at Tanglewood when I was very young. Kurt Vonnegut once performed with some members of Phish at an arts fundraiser (no big deal, right?). I was surrounded by writers and artists and thinkers practically all the time. The mountains were bright red and orange in the fall, and the secret watering holes were refreshing in the humidity of summer. A really good therapist was easy to come by, as was the best ice cream you could ever eat.

I was so spoiled by my surroundings that I barely noticed them until I left. I arrived in New York in 2007, shortly after graduating college with no money and no real direction. I worked for Trader Joe’s in Union Square stocking shelves and suppressing rage at customers. I moved on to working as an assistant to a fairly bizarre real estate broker and then to the front desk of a boutique divorce law firm where a steady stream of too-rich crazy paraded through daily.

I desperately tried to take on the identity of “New Yorker,” impossibly cool and uncaring about my constant flow of shitty jobs and unpleasant living situations. But I began covering crime for a daily newspaper there and started to answer the question, “What do you do?” And that became my entire identity.

When I got to Washington, I only knew a few people, but I was mostly a blank slate—a journalist in her early years ready to work in the political sphere. I immediately sort of assumed the persona of a New Yorker exiled to DC, complete with requisite complaints about bagels and a real lack of spirit.

“Yeah, I covered murders in New York,” was a constant refrain and one that inspired a lot of “Ooooh, that’s so intense” from the straight-laced political operatives I met. Somehow, “I’m from New England” didn’t sound quite so hard core.

I hadn’t been as badass as I imagined myself to be. When I was in New York, my home—my actual home in Massachusetts—was a mere train ride away. I went up as often as possible, so I never really had a chance to miss the place. When things got tough, I just escaped to the “Happy Valley.”

But now Congress kept me busy. Home meant flying back and taking time off. In the midst of Washington humidity, budget negotiations, and interviewing senators and congressmen, I craved the quiet afforded to me in my sleepy New England town. It seemed lame to miss it so much.

Then I was having breakfast one morning with a source of mine who worked for a member of the Democratic leadership. He asked where I was from, as everyone in DC inevitably does.

“Well, I moved here from New York,” I explained. “But I grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts. You’ve probably never heard of it.”

“Oh my God, my wife is from near there,” he exclaimed, nearly jumping out of his seat. We proceeded to spend the next hour extolling the virtues of really great sweater weather, the amazing music, the coffee, and the mountains in the fall. God, the mountains in the fall are the best.

These conversations became more frequent—with people from the area and the members of Congress who represent these places. It became a virtue to be from a place people so strongly identified with.

I felt like I knew an awesome secret that only a few of us in town shared.

The source with whom I had breakfast moved his family back to Massachusetts recently. He’ll post photos on Facebook of his kids watching quaint parades or running through the woods or eating farm-fresh ice cream. I also know they are going to get the kind of childhood I got.

I’m pretty jealous of them, but at least with that comes a sense that I know exactly what I’m missing and exactly where I’m from.

Kate Nocera – journalist
Washington, DC
Illustration by Sunra Thompson
Kyle BrownNotes from an Expat: It Seemed Lame to Miss it So Much

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