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Sweet Caroline

Hola from Carrboro, North Carolina—the first place I have ever visited without a return ticket. What brought me here? Well, tomorrow, I’ll be starting a new job as Assistant Professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. That’s right: in twenty-four hours, I’ll be nomadic no more. A radical life change, to be sure, but if there is a place on this planet where I am capable of settling, this is it.

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Getting here was quite the journey. Late June, I packed all my books, files, and shoes into 64 boxes and watched three strangers load them into an eighteen-wheeler and haul them away (along with my credit card number). A few days later, a friend and I piled in to Kimchi (the little red Hyundai I reluctantly purchased last summer, after a lifetime of auto-avoidance) and commenced an 800-mile road trip from the North Country to the Deep South.

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One stop of note was Ithaca, New York, a place I’ve wanted to visit since my Austin co-op days in the mid-nineties, when one of my sixteen housemates opened up a Moosewood Cookbook and introduced me to the marvels of quinoa and tofu. Before that, my cooking repertoire mainly consisted of fried bologna sandwiches (just as it sounds, between two slices of white Wonderbread and a squeeze of Frenchy’s). Moosewood was the first stage of the culinary evolution that morphed me into a foodie, so I was psyched to pay homage with an order of coconut crabcakes and a red cabbage salad at its original home in downtown Ithaca.

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The trip’s gastronomic highlight, however, was a visit to Suzanne’s Fine Regional Cuisine on the Finger Lakes of Lodi, New York, which just so happens to be owned by the family of one of my dearest students at St. Lawrence University. They opened the restaurant just for us and an epic five-course meal ensued: six kinds of cheeses paired with local wines; greens with walnuts and goat cheese; mushroom risotto; a savory bread pudding that left us weeping; a lemon tart and chocolate mousse; and a final round of cheese. It was the kind of sensory pleasure that alters you on a cellular level, making you giddy and full of conviction that life is utterly beautiful.

Sar (the friend), Kimchi (the car), and I made it to Chapel Hill in time to catch the annual fireworks display at Kenan Stadium, and then my mom flew out from Texas to help me settle in. Having lived on the road for the better part of two decades, I had never invested in “real” furniture or appliances before, so the prospect of filling a two-bedroom apartment was daunting indeed:

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Was I buying the bed I would be sleeping on for the rest of my life? If so, should I be opting for the $500 mattress, the $1,000 mattress, or the—Dios mio—$3,000 kind? Did bookshelves have to match? What about towels? I already had two, purchased for my first apartment back in Austin in, oh, 1998. They still worked perfectly fine. I mean, I was wet when I wrapped them around myself and dry when I removed them. Wasn’t that the point of towels, to dry yourself, and not, say, to match your bath mat and shower curtain? And wait, what was this? I couldn’t just buy a shower curtain, but also a liner and twelve little rings to hang it all with too?

But after ten days of stalking import stores, antique shops, consignment stores, and clearance warehouses, I now own not only a “real” bed (that is, one with a headboard) but a three-wheeled Chinese tea service and an antique Venetian liquor cart to boot. I have also “surrendered” my Texas driver’s license and New York license plates for North Carolinian ones and signed up for services with a new doctor/gynecologist/optometrist/hair-dresser/dentist/mechanic/Internet provider/bank/co-op/library. It seems I’ve developed post-traumatic moving disorder too: the mere sight of boxes makes me tremble now. And no wonder: this was my sixteenth cross-country move in twenty years, and that’s not counting my wholly nomadic years, when I switched locations every few days or so.

So all of this furniture-buying and hair-dresser finding is a big life change indeed. I would probably be freaking out if I couldn’t, within fifteen minutes, walk to all of the following: the best food co-op anywhere, a legendary music venue, a community arts center, the farmer’s market, an excellent yoga studio, biscuits galore, biking trails, hiking trails, and a fleet of taco trucks. Within forty minutes, I can be at the door of my new office (recently painted “obstinate orange” and “laughing orange” and decked with vintage blue chairs and army barrack filing cabinets) at the loveliest university campus I have ever known.

So this is where this August afternoon finds me, on the verge of a brand new life. I could be here anywhere from seven years to always, and am already hoping for always. Here’s wishing you the best with your own transition as summer turns to autumn. Thanks for stopping by, y saludos.

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Comments

  1. Mary Jane Tejeda

    That sounds lovely! I visited N.C. briefly as a child, when we drove up there to retrieve my cousins from their father. I’ve always wanted to return. At the moment I’m quite fond of some folk bands out of Asheville. And boy would I love to visit the Mast Farm Inn, a Bed and Breakfast in Valle Crucis. However, my husband, like me was born and raised here in TX and a bit weary of how Latinos/Hispanics may or may not be received up there. He had some negative experiences while training for a job a while back (TN, OH). I wish to be like you-a citizen of the world. But maybe you’ve had some past experiences from your travels you’d like to share or can touch on how its like while living there. Well, best wishes on your new position and new radical life change! Can’t wait to hear more about it! <3 from MJ in Corpus Christi, TX!

    • aroundthebloc

      SO lovely to hear from you, Mary Jane! I really appreciate your concern about the treatment of Latinos here. Would you believe: I find myself speaking Spanish far more often here than I ever have in Corpus Christi? There is a strong first-generation community here in the Research Triangle, and I have been quite heartened by all of the Latino community centers and Spanish-language media I’ve seen. I hope to start writing about it soon. Thanks again, y saludos.

  2. Stephanie Jaeger

    I hope you continue to love Chapel Hill/Carrboro as much as I did. I was always so busy and poor that I never got to take advantage of all it offered and I made do with the two towels. You can always continue to be nomadic during semester breaks and summer vacation unless you have to teach summer school. I found the area to be a liberal oasis in a racially prejudiced and very repressive South in the early 1970s. I hope it hasn’t changed. Have fun!

  3. One of you pootacious-est fans

    What a gorgeous story and moment of marking time! You are amazing and I can’t even begin to imagine what this new chapter will bring! Here’s to deep, exciting adventures without ever leaving the state you’re in! Imagine that!

  4. Hi Stephanie,

    I’ve never been to North or South Carolina, but Joseph’s movie took him to a North Carolina Film Festival and he told me it’s a beautiful area. Sounds you are at the beginning of a wonderful life. Lucky your students who will watch, listen and learn from an amazingly creative teacher. Have a great year and Welcome to your new Home.

  5. Amy

    OMG, I can’t believe your first day is tomorrow. I can not wait to hear more of your adventures in a non-nomadic life. Good luck Prof. Griest!! xoxo

  6. Baltazar Acevedo

    Querida Amniga,

    The description of your relocation is a hoot! I would have enjoyed Travels with Charlies more if it has been co-written by you and Steinbeck.

    Best wishes and much health, peace and success.

    El Yaqui

  7. Stephanie, first of all: SO MANY CONGRATULATIONS!!!! It is hard to surrender the nomadic lifestyle but I know you won’t surrender a nomadic heart. I love North Carolina so much and am excited to see your adventures there–especially with teaching. We knew we were settling in Michigan for the long haul when we bought an actual bed as well :)

    • aroundthebloc

      Thanks, everyone, for the beautiful comments! I so appreciate your support.

      Saludos,
      Stephanie

  8. Chuck Whitney

    Welcome home. Cannot WAIT to visit. Also, regrettably, cannot tell you when that will be.

    C

  9. Ines Brand

    Hi Stesha,
    funny to read your arrival story…I was really remembered to my first little flat in Berlin …wish you a good start and many adventures in your new job and home!
    Besos from Berlin!

  10. Willa Schmidt

    Hi Stephanie,

    I’m just finishing your wonderful book, Mexican Enough. It’s taught me so much about Mexico and is helping me understand a very sweet person with a hard life whom I’m tutoring in English. As a child of German and Austrian immigrants, I went to those countries in Europe on the same search you did, learned German and met relatives and many other nice people but came to realize I am much more American than German.

    Good luck in North Carolina! I loved Asheville, would visit it again in a heartbeat. And yes, the UNC campus is lovely.

    Saludos and keep up the good work,
    Willa

  11. Maggie

    Welcome to NC! You will love Chapel Hill and Carrboro! I just picked up your book Mexican Enough, TODAY!!! I can’t put it down, and here I am, already on your website! The book is wonderful….I have lived briefly in Mexico, and visited many times. I LOVE that country. Now, I am an English as a Second Language teacher, and every day, my students inspire me! I am right down the road in Raleigh! Welcome to the Triangle. I hope you like it!

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