Albany, NY: Its better than Meadville, PA
It is hard to believe we have almost lived here for three years. Anyone who has seen The Five Year Engagement can appreciate how hard the academic job market can be, and how little choice people in those professions often have as to where they end up (what was stupid about that movie was that I spent half my life thinking Ann Arbor was the coolest city in the world, or at least right up there with Paris, but the movie portrayed it like it was North Dakota so that was weird). Three and a half years ago, my now husband and then boyfriend, who lived in a different borough of NYC and who I went out to dinner with a couple nights a week, had a job interview in Meadville, PA. He flew into Pittsburgh, PA, drove over an hour and a half in a rented car. This wasn't an adorable, idyllic college town like Williamstown, MA, it was a decaying milltown with a college in it. The professors at the school said that it didn't matter there wasn't anything to do there, since everything was so cheap that he could just spend his summers in Paris. We laughed at the housing ads that said you could buy a house with 6 bedrooms and 2 separate guest houses for $60,000. I was just finishing up my Master's in Library Science, and I had had quite a bit of museum internships. The public library was open about 3 hours a day and paid librarians about $9 an hour. I thought maybe I could drive to Pittsburgh (90 miles each way) and work in a museum or get another Master's in French or something. This didn't seem promising.
Then, when Scott came back from his interview in Albany he was actually surprised. Mahar's! Cool architecture! Professors actually live in the city that they work in! A sense of community that never existed when most of his coworkers lived way out in Jersey! It seemed with the government and the proximity of Saratoga and the Berkshires there seemed a chance I could get a job I liked. So we moved up here, and you never know how things are going to work out. I believed a lot had to do with attitude, and I thought that was a problem with the character in The Five Year Engagement. If you are going to do something for somebody else you should either have a good attitude about it or not do it at all. No one made him move to Ann Arbor with her if he really didn't want to. Here is a picture I took from the train the day I left NYC and moved up here, as I rode into the unknown.
I long felt like I grew up in the movie Clueless. Or more seriously, like the movie The Upside of Anger. There was nothing but chain restaurants, a lot of pressure to succeed but not be too fancy, not much diversity at all (I never even met a Latino person until I moved to NYC), racial tension, endless suburban sprawl, and to me, not really a sense of community or a sense of privacy (the suburbs straddle many characteristics of small towns and cities and end up the worse for it). I guess I need to defend my home state a little bit by saying it has beautiful shorelines and lakes, the Tigers, and Bells, and of course I get nostalgic, but the truth is I also chose to leave. For me, the dream of NYC held all the promises of fulfilling wishes for diversity, exposure to the arts, and the sense that you can be anyone you want there. After four and a half years though, it got hard to ignore the crazy guy yelling at you about Jesus on the train when you really just want to get to work at 8am. It got hard to ignore that every place I ever lived there had horrible plumbing despite them all costing a fortune. Add onto that, horrible experiences with dentists, competitive job markets, the lifestyle of going out almost every night of the week - it all added up to complete exhaustion.
I proclaimed that I was going to come up to Albany to bake pies! My friend said that sounded like I was being put out to pasture, that I was coming up here to die. And almost three years later, what do I have to say? It isn't all about attitude, you have to actually like a place. A few weeks ago we were out with some people, and I met a guy in a bar who was also from Michigan. He thought it was the falling down buildings in Albany that reminded him of Detroit and made him feel right at home, which was funny. I know that my experience or the experience anyone has in any place is only based on their specific circumstances. We don't know anyone who lives in Arbor Hill, for example. We are of a certain age group, with certain interests and education levels, and of course it comes down to personality too. But for me - moving here has really turned out well. It feels a lot more real to me than the Michigan suburbs, and I have yet to have any moment of frustration like I constantly felt with NYC trains. You can function here in a low stress way without it feeling boring or stifling. Everyone knows each other in Albany in some one or two degree removed way, but it isn't like Williamstown, MA where literally everyone knows each other and every last little bit of gossip about everyone else. It is a great balance in size, and there is a sense of community that I just didn't feel in other cities I lived in. I also know that perspectives are different for people who live in the place that they grew up. For me, it is lower stress than NYC, but not as materialistic or conformity driven as the Detroit suburbs, but without having those other places to compare it to, people who are from here might have a different point of view.
I write this from North Adams, where I am dogsitting again. I know my experience is unique in the fact that I work in the Berkshires. It is no surprise that this county is a tourist destination for people in NYC and Boston. Sometimes I think it is just as beautiful as the Napa Valley. The culture is so relaxed and artistic. I know that if I ever stopped working out here I would really, really miss it.
So here is to almost three years, to me coming up to Albany to bake pies, but upon arriving actually working at an art museum, being involved with a literary festival at the Mount, attending a book club, going to food swaps, joining a CSA, throwing theme parties, making lots of new friends, visiting interesting sites like the Empire State Plaza Art Collection, and yes, in fact baking lots of things. I don't feel like Cher Horowitz and I don't feel like those characters on Girls. I feel like I can be myself in a place with cool architecture that is near beautiful rural areas, and never short of cool things to do or interesting people to meet.