For much of my adulthood, I thought of myself as hometown-less. Although I was born and raised in lovely San Diego for my entire 18-year stint as a dependent, it didn’t always feel like mine. “Where you from?” was often followed by, “But you don’t seem like a southern Californian.” I learned to take the strange but consistent observation as a compliment. If the rest of the country imagined Californians as the “shaka brah”-ing surfers on TV, then I was happy to defy expectation.
They say that you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. I’m more impressed with the way this idea translates to geography. If you’re lucky, you do get to choose your college town. I was 21 when I transferred to Guilford College, a medium fish looking for a medium pond. But the life that I found in Greensboro had surprising depth.
Four years later, I was ambushed by a very punctual quarter-life crisis. Job bashing is a favorite pastime of millennials, and my job was no worse than anyone else’s. In fact, I’m certain it was better. I had kind and skilled coworkers, thoughtful management and often interesting work. I was able to practice my “craft,” the thing I like to do best.
But eventually, landlocked Greensboro — the town that I had defended so fiercely to friends shipping out to New York — began to feel a lot like the cubicle where I spent most of my days. After a year dressed in business casual, spinning in my swivel chair, I was bleeding beige. At just the wrong time during this period of catastrophic boredom, my workload waned and I cannonballed into an imaginary life of oceans, sunshine, and travel. I went west.
Returning to San Diego, I found that in spite of years of thinking otherwise, I do have a hometown. The sights and smells of southern California carved grooves onto my heart that had been dry for years. Little things got them flowing again: the street signs were the correct font, the tortillas tasted like my childhood and the colors of the sunset were painted in a familiar palette. The very mundane things of life were right in the sort of arbitrary way that only a hometown can offer.
My problem now? I’m homesick again. This time, for my college town.
It’s been a year since I left Greensboro for my native California. In that time, the city has gone from the place where I went to college to my beloved college town. The transition was sometimes quiet — remembering fondly the circumference of a Smith Street Diner biscuit — or uncomfortably loud — an 18-wheeler tearing past on I-40 West.
When I tell friends that I’m looking for a “Greensboro of the West” in my next city, it’s hard to unpack exactly what that means. Some qualities are easy to replicate: I’m looking for a place that isn’t too big or too small, a spot of blue on the political map, affordable neighborhoods with historic architecture.
Then there are the things unseen by a visitor’s bureau. Greensboro is where I know the most people willing to help me move in exchange for pizza; it’s where my hairdresser would make emergency house calls; it’s where New Years can go forgotten, but a dance party will appear in your living room on a Wednesday; it’s where you have to factor run-ins with friends into the time it takes to walk Elm Street; it’s “Cheers”-esque bars where everybody knows your name — and your dog.
It’s easy to lose myself in rose-colored nostalgia for my college town. But these days, I prefer to get lost in my very real admiration for the friends who have stayed in Greensboro to build their lives. From my vantage across the country, I’m watching them re-imagine their college town as a new hometown.
My friends are buying old houses, running book stores, saving lives in hospital wings, recording albums, getting married to each other and starting up businesses. These things may be mundane to the stranger, but feel so new when it’s your friend who’s having the baby (a baby!); when it’s your old classmate’s voice on the stereo; when you’re eating pizza among unpacked boxes in the house you own. These are the little things that, over time, carve grooves onto your heart. They bind you to a place.
The people who have stayed make Greensboro more than the town I went to school in — and more than my college town. For me, I now have two cities that I love, and home is somewhere in between.
Hannah Sherk is a is a West Coaster turned East Coaster turned West Coaster. She is six feet of travel-writing, burrito-eating, terrier-loving lady.