Almost six years ago, a man I'd been seeing for a few months told me he was in love with me.
Stunned, I responded with a string of apologetic, incomprehensible ramblings. While I liked this guy — a lot — I didn't love him yet, and I didn't want to lie. But I felt bad. I was sure he'd be hurt, take it personally, perhaps recoil from me, and that would have been awful. Because while I didn't love him just yet, I knew that I could. I saw the potential in our blossoming relationship and felt that if he could just give me a bit of time, I could say "I love you, too," and mean it. Before I could spin myself into a panic, he said with a gentle smile, "It's okay if you're not there yet. I just wanted to tell you."
Today, that man is my husband. Eventually (and it didn't take long), I did find myself in love. Last year we got married, and just three months ago, we embarked on a new adventure together: We moved from New York City to London.
The process of learning to love a new city is a lot like learning to love another human: It doesn't always happen right away. Sometimes you're not sure. But if you're patient, persistent, and willing to be a little bit vulnerable, you might just fall head over heels.
The first city I ever loved was Rome. I was young, a college student spending a semester studying abroad, so this was a whirlwind romance — an intense infatuation to rival any teenage obsession. I reveled in the novelties of Rome: the culture, the art, the beauty, the food, the history, the people, the language. I was so enamored with the Eternal City that I could overlook its little flaws: the tiny showers that clogged constantly, the fact that nobody cleaned up after their dog, the language barrier. None of it mattered because I was in LOVE! It was new, invigorating, thrilling.
My semester abroad ended while that relationship was still in its honeymoon phase. The city and I parted, reluctantly but amicably, and to this day, I often feel like Rome was the one that got away.
A few years later I moved to New York. My first few weeks there were heaven. Once again, I was infatuated. The lights! The energy! The Empire State Building!
But about three months in, the honeymoon phase ended. My infatuation faded, only to be replaced by a nearly debilitating homesickness. The things that made me happy about New York before weren't working. The city lights kept me up at night. So did the noise from the street. And no matter how much I looked at the Empire State Building, I couldn't muster the same butterflies as before.
At the same time, the city's flaws started to show: the heaping piles of hot garbage on the sidewalk, the suffocating morning commute, the mouse-infested third-floor Harlem apartment with a windowless living room and no elevator access. All of it was made worse by the fact that I didn't really have any friends yet. Things got really lonely really quick, and those charming novelties became alienating unfamiliarities. New York isn't for me, I thought. I've made a terrible mistake.
For a while, going home to Indiana seemed like the easiest way to ease my discomfort. But I made myself stay. I reminded myself of all the reasons I'd moved to New York in the first place: the opportunity, the culture, the people. Didn't I realize how good I had it? How lucky I was? Yeah, things were going to be rough for a little while, but relationships often take hard work.
I made myself go out. I took any and every invitation I was given. I spent the weekends wandering Manhattan, going to museums, immersing myself in the sights and sounds and smells, really trying to get to know this new home of mine.
One Sunday I decided to go in search of the Union Square farmers market. On my way there, I stepped on a ketchup packet. Like some pathetic cartoon character, and in defiance of all known laws of physics, I managed to squirt the red stuff all up and down my legs and torso. Without so much as a crumpled napkin at the bottom of my purse, I spent the commute feeling sticky and smelling like a hamburger. And I arrived at Union Square only to realize that the farmers market is on Saturday, not Sunday. I went home, defeated.
I had been so optimistic! I'd been brave enough to go out on a limb, be vulnerable, put myself out there. I'd been eager and excited, and the city left me hanging.
But at least I showed up.
Eventually, my persistence paid off, and New York started showing up for me, too. I learned the intricacies of the city — the charming side streets and hidden dive bars. I learned to navigate the subway system with my eyes closed, and took silent joy in being able to identify which stop I was at just by recognizing the tile pattern on the tunnel walls. I knew which car on the C train was the least crowded in the mornings. The noise from the street stopped bothering me. I put down some mouse traps and got a few house plants. I made some incredible friends. And one day, I no longer felt like a transplant. I felt at home. That shift was so subtle, I barely noticed it had happened until, when I finally did go home to Indiana for a visit, I found myself missing New York. My love for the greatest city in the world was deep, and it lasted for six blissful years. Leaving was really hard.
But it was time. We were eager for a new adventure. So when my husband was offered a job in London, we jumped at the opportunity. Now, three months in, all those familiar feelings of frustration are back. I am homesick. I feel alone. I miss the Empire State Building. I miss Mexican food and bagels. I miss my friends. I miss American optimism and earnestness, which can often get stifled here by British angst and cynicism. I find myself stalking my ex-city, reading local news stories about my old borough, and even (this is going to make me sound like a complete lunatic) virtually wandering around my old neighborhood on Google Maps. I ache for New York.
Relationships — with other humans, and with physical places — are really complicated. They require vulnerability and persistence and trust. You cannot just wait around hoping one will blossom before you. The only way to truly foster and nurture a long-lasting stable romance is to experience it with an open heart and an enduring sense of optimism. It takes time, but that's okay. Eventually you get to the really good stuff.
I don't love London yet. But I think I can, someday.