May 23, 2011


If I said I had no preconceived notions, I’d be lying

I can’t say that I was excited to go to Springfield, MO. Other than for the fact that I’d be seeing my friends Jim & Stephanie, I was probably about as jazzed to see the city as I had been to see Buffalo, NY— which is your first clue that I was pleasantly surprised. Again.

But first, a little bit more about my hosts. It was my second time seeing them on this trip, the first time being back in October, when Rennie and I stayed in New York City for nine days, the majority of those spent with Jim & Stephanie in the Park Slope brownstone they had been renting for about a year and a half. But here’s the kind of interesting thing about these two: I have never lived in the same town as them and in fact, our entire friendship is based on my visits to wherever in the world they are living. The first time I stayed with them was in 2005, when we were all expats in Europe. I was in Barcelona, Spain, and it was going to be my first Christmas abroad without my family; meanwhile, Jim & Stephanie were in Paris but before that, they had lived just down the street from my parents in Athens, Ga., and so my dad suggested I look them up, as I was considering a little trip to France to see another friend over the holidays. Jim offered a place to stay, so I accepted. Flight details and addresses were exchanged, and then it was time to go and I printed out some maps and planned my train route into the city, figuring they’d be expecting me to arrive around noon, based on my touchdown time— except they were ready for their usual out-of-town guests, who needed escorting from airport to welcome mat, and so they had not given me a floor, nor a door, to ring on the call box outside their apartment building, because they thought they’d be picking me up. I realized this when I rolled my suitcase up to the downtown building, just blocks from the Eiffel Tower, and thus began my usual travel charades in which I somehow never fail to embroil myself. This time, it went something like this: my Spanish cell phone was unusable in France; there was no pay phone in sight and the streets were apocalyptically empty; the occasional resident who did leave Jim & Stephanie’s building spoke not a word of English and the call box button that was supposed to summon the on-site caretaker instead roused a gaggle of tangle-haired kids who just stared at me through the glass. Finally, a sweet, little old lady who spoke English and who knew of this American couple of which I spoke led me inside, upstairs and around the corner to Jim & Stephanie’s flat. Imagine their surprise then when they opened their door and found scraggly me standing there. They’ve never gotten rid of me since.

The next time I saw them was in Zurich, Switzerland. Stephanie had taken a job there and I was leaving Europe for Latin America, so on my way out of town, I made a small detour to their house and stayed for a few days. Then Stephanie took a job in New York City and I got to see them twice in the Big Apple. But notice at this point that the cities I have named so far are all pretty high-profile in the world. You can probably guess then that no one in their circle of family and friends could really believe it when they announced that Stephanie had taken a job in Midwestlandia, USA, population 160K.

Turns out, Springfield is not as unknown as I thought it was. Among its handful of nicknames is The Birthplace of Route 66; it’s a great springboard to see the surrounding Ozarks and lots of famous people came from there, including Brad Pitt. Furthermore, you know that huge outdoor recreational equipment chain, Bass Pro Shops? It got its tiny little start in the early ’70s, when founder John Morris started selling homemade fishing bait out of the back of his dad’s liquor store in Springfield.

These days, Jim told me, the downtown is home to a lot of college students, as Drury University and Missouri State University are two of the larger institutions of higher education in the city, and so these young kids live in the loft apartments above the mix of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, offices, theaters and the lone grocery store, all of which inhabit the ground floor spaces of the historic, renovated buildings. And oh my god, I have never in my life seen so much free parking in a thriving metropolis. All over the streets and inside of a huge parking deck, they are practically paying you to leave your car there.

The running joke during my three-day stay was that I should move there, because it was a melting pot of people from all over, and they were bringing with them new ideas, and it was so affordable and yet, so pleasant. Stephanie kept bringing it up more than Jim, and while she also kept assuring me that she knew that I would never move there and that she was only just teasing me, she then said that maybe I should say “never,” just so that I would, indeed, find myself there one day. Because isn’t that how it always works? So, I kept refusing to say “never.”

They’re living in a rental right now— one of those modern builds in a new development outside town that sells for less money than somewhere closer to the center. But in less than two weeks, they plan to close on a place that’s just on the edge of downtown. It was built in 1909 as a hunting lodge, back when two miles was a long way way to travel. These days, slightly off the beaten path but still close enough to bike into town, it’s a prime location.

“We’re looking at it going: ‘This is a total lifestyle conversation,’ ” Stephanie said. “This is not an investment, like we’re going to make a killing on it when we sell it.”

Hence the conversation to put in a pool this summer. When I was there, we got to go to the new house and walk around, meeting with both a landscape architect and an interior designer. The idea is to create a comfortable space to hang out, both indoors and out, and the plans include an outdoor fireplace, fruit trees and other edible plants to munch on, and maybe even a few chickens to lay eggs.

“But do you think you’ll stay here longer?” I asked. “Is this is going to be a long-term stop?”

“I think so. I think this is at least five years,” she said. “Who knows? We thought that when we were in New York. We really did.”

And that turned out to be two years total. But that was different. There are a lot of people in the Northeast, she said, which is fun and more efficient for seeing a lot of different friends at once, for example. Over time, though, she said that she started realizing she would rather visit than live there.

“Just at some point, I was like, ‘It’s expensive,’” she said. “And we can afford it. It’s not a matter of we can’t.”

Rather, it’s a question of: why do it? Basically, she said, it would have been different had her friends been closer. They were in the area but it was always still a train ride away and there was a lot of work involved in planning to see anyone. That is: it was not a quick skip down to a coffee shop. Now, she said, they have noticed that with the money they have saved by leaving the area, they can just as easily visit friends, take them all out for the weekend and maybe even have a more memorable time.

That can be said for her family, at least. When she lived in Brooklyn, she was a lot closer to her family, albeit not next-door, and still, it apparently did not take too long for her visits to become— how can I put it? More commonplace.

“I was not a special guest star anymore,” she said. “And I kind of like being the special guest star.”

In the six months since she has moved away, though, she said she has since gone back to visit and she gets to see all of her nieces and nephews and they will stay up late to watch TV with her and basically, to catch up more, because it’s a special treat again to have Aunt Stephanie come see them.

“And you’re a special guest again?” I asked.

“I’m a special guest again,” she said, laughing.

She had always wanted to live in New York, she said, because while growing up, she had lived nearby in New Jersey, she was always living in her parents’ house and commuting in.

“I always fantasized about living in the city,” she said.

Now she can say she has done it. And moved on.

On my last night there, we were sitting at a pub, talking about how to fix the world, and the liberals vs. the conservatives, and NPR vs. Fox News, and carbon footprints, and test tube meats, and genetically-modified food sources, and where it’s all heading, when talk turned back to setting.

“I like Springfield,” Stephanie said.

“I do, too,” I said.

Except I probably mumbled it, because I was distractedly casting my gaze around the bar, which also happened to be too loud for my declaration to reach the ears of everyone at the table, and then the recorder was turned off, per Jim’s request.

“What?” Jim said, purposefully trying to get me to repeat myself, so that Stephanie could hear this time. “What did you just say?”

“I said, ‘I like Springfield,'” I said. “But I didn’t get it on tape.”

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. SirenaSteve
    May 23 2011

    Abandoning Barcelona for Springfield?

    • May 24 2011

      Oh, you know. I just like to keep my options open.

  2. Pep
    May 23 2011

    Really? Pls, keep us informed 🙂

  3. May 24 2011

    Springfield sounds nice. I love the pic of the green building.

    • May 25 2011

      Thanks! I am assuming you mean the retro ’70s one, my personal fave, though I suppose you could also mean the older one with kind of crazy architectural details. Either way, Springfield is indeed nice.

  4. Momminerd
    May 24 2011

    Nothing wrong with the Midwest…the people are relaxed and friendly out there. There is the tiny matter of violent tornadoes, however, and Springfield is only 72 miles west of Joplin, so I hope you are long gone. Geat photos of the city, Marge. It looks interesting, at least architecturally!

    • May 25 2011

      Good point. And after running to the storage closet in the garage of my friends’ Dallas townhouse three or four times last night, all to the tune of wailing tornado sirens, I am maybe a little bit less enthusiastic about this part of the country.


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