Philly is a vortex that I cannot escape (for now) and I'm okay with that.
The first time I ever left the country, I was eleven years old. My mother, grandparents, and I were going to Poland for two months. The trip felt a bit like a pilgrimage, and in a way it was: it was my family's first time back in decades. We each had two full bags of luggage, plus some empty bags to bring back souvenirs, which mostly ended up being nesting dolls, all sorts of Polish dolls in various states of traditional Polish dress, and enough salted cheese to last us through a nuclear fallout.
During those two months, it was easy for me to forget that I had ever lived anywhere else. It was a feeling I'd feel repeatedly in my life with just about every place I travelled or lived for any length of time. Before I'd ever hit middle school, I was convinced I had been born on the wrong continent.
For years, I thought that my destiny was Europe. Later on, it would be South America. It was always a vague elsewhere where I thought I belonged. I was embarrassed by my fellow Americans. We were loud, we wore flip-flops and college hoodies everywhere we went, and we didn't speak a lot of other languages (never mind that I didn't, either). I thought I was better than them. I beamed with pride when people told me that I didn't look American, or that I didn't dress like an American. I developed an out-of-control collection of scarves in the process. The problem only got worse when I began teaching English; as a result of working with so many non-native speakers, I'd naturally started talking slower, and my careful enunciation often led others to think I was British or somehow a non-native speaker myself.
Naturally, for a self-proclaimed traveler like myself, Philly wasn't part of my plan.
Eight years ago, I almost didn't move here. I had spent most of my summer with a volunteer organization in Peru, and I desperately didn't want to go back home. If it wasn't for the fact that I had already put in the security deposit on my lease, I probably would have stayed until my money and my Cipro ran out. In other words, until my body finally succumbed to whatever was in the water or until I could no longer afford the alcohol to kill it with. I thought that I was making more of a difference there, and that I didn't belong in my own country. I was meant for greater things, and greater things meant places where I could test myself and my language skills.
But I moved to Philly anyway, knowing my parents probably would've killed me if I bailed on grad school. Nevertheless, I harbored carefully laid futures in the back of my mind. I was going to join the Peace Corps and move abroad once I got my Master's. If that didn't work, I would work in one of several countries that I'd selected somewhat haphazardly: Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, and India seemed far enough away. I was going to travel the world and never come back.
Other than being a city and not the suburbia or the rural upstate New York campus I had come from, Philly didn't have enough merits to entice me into calling it home. It was a stopping point on the way to more exotic locales.
I entered a serious relationship. I got a full-time job immediately after grad school. I thought that surely things would fall into place, that these plans were temporary and then I'd be on my way abroad.
And then I got a different full-time job. The relationship ended. At this point, five years in, the reality was starting to sink in: I lived here now. Nothing and no one was holding me back but myself, and why? Because I actually liked it here. This was not a temporary resting place. I had to decide what it really meant to integrate myself into this place. I realized that the greatest challenge in my life wasn't to move abroad and acclimate to a new culture and language, but to understand and accept the city that, despite my best efforts, I couldn't seem to rid myself of.
The thing is, Philly's personality is a bit like mine. It values diversity, but in the process of encompassing so many different people, it's sloppy and it's full of anxiety and anger and impatience. It pretends not to want to impress anyone, but it totally does. Really, most of the time it's just hangry and all it wants is really, really good food. It doesn't want your exclusive Manhattan clubs or your expensive Fifth Avenue. It wants some hoagies and a beer and the occasional artisanal cheese board. The city has brought out all of these qualities in me.
For me, the biggest challenge in finding a home has been accepting that I might have a home after all, and even though it's not what I planned, I absolutely love it and all of its flaws. Even SEPTA, and even our angry neighbors and the parts of me that are now roughened and cynical because of all of the time I've spent here in one of the most belligerent cities in the nation. Slow walkers, I will fuck your shit up. Or more likely, I'll angrily speed-walk past you and when we inevitably both get held up at the same stop light half a block later, I'll compliment your shoes.
Philly makes me more accepting of things like fighting over meatballs and careless drivers, but it also makes me a bit more incisive. And for that, I thank it.