I was acutely reminded of Thomas Wolfe’s novel “You Can’t Go Home Again” during my two day whirlwind trip to Washington, DC. In the days before I moved from DC to Johannesburg, I walked up and down 14th Street in my neighborhood marveling at the number of eateries and high-end condos that had sprouted up over the course of the last few months. I fretted that when I returned, my city would be unrecognizable. And so for the past year, I have poured over my favorite DC blogs, kept abreast of new restaurant openings, read reviews of plays opening at local theaters, FaceTimed with friends hoping that I would not miss too much.
This was not my first trip back to the U.S., but this was the first one that was laced with a small amount of dread. I had lived in DC for longer than anywhere else. DC was home, it was the city I had chosen instead of one chosen for me. For a kid who had moved eight times before 18, the decision to live in DC had been one of the first formative decisions that I made as an adult. My closest friends had lived blocks from my studio apartment and my weeknights were filled with social engagements – often two in an evening. In my year long absence, my friends lives had changed too. There were new boyfriends, jobs, apartments, weddings, and babies. I had been apprised of these events in emails, but they weren’t real to me. I was returning to a DC that differed from the one frozen in my memory.
With only two days in a city I had lived in for a total of nine years, I sketched out an itinerary in two hour increments that was packed with stops at my favorite haunts and dates with my favorite people. I even settled on the title of my blog post, ” A Few of My Favorite Things” about the palak chat at Rasika, tapas at Jaleo, the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection, gelato at Pitango, an Ethiopian feast at Lalibela, craft beer at Churchkey, Pilates at Fuse, the East Gallery at the National Gallery of Art, a massage at Nusta Spa, and salty oat cookies at Teaism. Apprehension crept into my thoughts throughout the planning process too. Would the multitude of interactions with friends be overwhelming or worse superficial? I don’t have any friends in South Africa and have become accustomed to being alone. Would I be able to cope with being surrounded by so many people? I wondered if I could keep up with my schedule given jet lag. Would I even be able to enjoy the visit?
The weather in DC was crisp and the city was overwhelmingly familiar. My expectations were high. I remembered addresses without consulting Google maps, but as I wandered the streets on some crazed march to see everyone and everything, I was gobsmacked with the realization that I didn’t belong here. Not only was this not my city, it may never be my city again. Eleven hours after I landed, I was convinced the trip was a mistake and contemplated leaving early.
On my last night, a friend organized a small gathering at her apartment. Knowing my love for bubbles, there were plenty of bottles on hand. Buoyed by the relaxed conversation and feeling of the ever elusive “home” I had been grasping for over the past 48 hours, I was glad I had stayed, but it was abundantly clear that despite living in Joburg for over a year, I still had one foot in DC. I think it’s time to plant both feet firmly in South Africa.