Monday, May 23, 2011

The Right of Return

That's it! I'm out of here; or, at least, almost out of here. Last week I stumbled upon the word "exurbs" in Jonathan Franzen's latest book, Freedom.  A quick search (Kindle-enabled) revealed that this apparently well-known term, which I'd never heard of before (mostly because it's primarily used to describe an American phenomenon), pretty well defines where I live. I did a quick search in the dictionary and discovered that "exurb" refers to that area beyond the suburbs; that region that is "beyond the beyond". For those in the know, this is one huge leap beyond Levittown! The term appears repeatedly within American publications from approximately 2003 and describes the new boom created by the loss of population in America's biggest cities and the aging of the inner suburbs. Its origins go back to a book published in 1955 by August Spectorsky titled The Exurbanites. According to Spectorsky, exurbs are "other than" urban areas characterized by prosperous communities with a large percentage of college-educated residents (more than closer-in suburbs) and generally high average incomes. Sitting here in my comfy house, gazing up at the diploma attesting to my own doctorate, I realized that I fit right in. That being said, I cannot for the life of me figure out how I got here!

Why would any super-educated person choose to live so far beyond, well, everything.  The fact that my life had been so neatly defined by what is now considered a well-documented geo-economic group has left me more than a little depressed. To add insult to injury, one of the areas upon which Spectorsky's now fifty year old book was based is that beyond Main Line Philadelphia which I, as a born and bred Center City resident attending a racially and socio-economically mixed school in Germantown, have always disdained. Venturing out to this carefully groomed, ever-green, area as a teenager, for a lacrosse game or a garden party, I would cynically mock its ho-hum boring pace, the overwhelming monotony of color amongst the residents and its remote location--distant from anything and everything. Could it be possible that I had somehow become a Mainliner?--that I was now a full-fledged member of one of the multiple exurbs that satellite major metropolitan areas and are so obviously twice removed from, well, life!!

The fact is: I’m a city girl. Just last week I drove into Tel Aviv to have breakfast with a group of local Caesarea women. Traffic was wretched and for the life of me I couldn't figure out why we couldn't sit down for an omelet and diced cucumber salad somewhere that didn't entail so much time staring at the back of a bus. The significance of my remoteness from bustling city life grew with every creep forward. The sludge of the morning crawl on the sole highway leading to the city weighed on more than my gas tank, creeping into my psyche. Upon arrival we settled ourselves in a pretty café in the city's port. As the conversation at the table moved from one subject to another I looked up and down the boardwalk. There it was: the world. Parading before me was an endless stream of types ranging in age, color and nationality. A typical 10 second glance might include a few people on Segways, obviously on some kind of tour, a 60 year old woman taking an exer-walk, an older man with a fishing rod, a young couple in their twenties holding hands and an assortment of runners between the ages of 25 and 55.

In short, sitting on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv, I had found life. Here it was. And soon enough I'd be paying the bill, taking a last sip of my cappuccino and facing whatever traffic lay ahead as I made my way back, gulp, to the exurbs. Talk about being stuck in the middle. Not only was I chronologically right smack in the middle of life but also physically wedged into the middle of the Israeli coastline--halfway between two cities: Haifa (if that counts) and Tel Aviv. I turned to the other women around the table and broached the topic of my "itch" for city life. Half were with me and half had no clue what we were talking about. This latter group was happy to return to the "beyond the beyond" after a quick Mimosa and Israeli breakfast. Those whose kids were virtually out of elementary school, heading to the army, or beyond, and approaching fifty-- in other words: beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel--were with me.

My sister in law recently announced that she and my brother are "this close" to relocating to the city. I am jealous; more than ready to turn in my wheels, give up the ceremony of raised waves to familiar cars passed on our town's one main drag, and the boredom of the same two cafés. When all of my chickens have flown the coop I am out of here! The question of how I ended up an exurbanite (I can't bear to even write the word) isn't all that important. Of greater significance is how the heck I'm going to get out of here!

Any getaway demands careful preparation, including a thorough assessment of what one's escaping--kind of a "know what you're up against" strategy. Accordingly, I consulted the ever-faithful Wisegeek. This source provided three characteristics of "exurbans" which I felt demanded address. First, exurbans specifically choose the isolation and remoteness of the exurbs in order to escape the political and social hotbed of the city. That would explain the extreme sense of boredom and somnolence which cloaks my little town and which I will be happy to escape. Next, exurbans seek smaller and safer refuges from city life where there will be more opportunities for their children to engage in nature.  I'm not exactly sure how to make peace with this assessment since my kids spend a minimal amount of time in the so-called "great outdoors" (especially now, during snake season, when we've got the house sealed up like Fort Knox) and a maximum glued to whatever screen enters their visual perimeter. Last, exurbans are under the assumption that the ex-urban perimeter offers their children better educational opportunities. While I'll refrain from addressing the overall quality of primary and secondary education here in Israel, I am firmly convinced that, unlike inner-city USA, in this country the best opportunities still reside smack in the middle of the three major cities.

In his "Take a Ride to Exurbia," David Brooks claimed that the move from the city, to the suburbs and then onward to the vast sprawling exurbs, was a way of breaking "free of the gravitational pull of the cities" which afforded people the ability to discover "their own world far beyond." That makes a lot of sense to me. Ending up "beyond the beyond" could only be the result of some vast disturbance of the natural law of physics. The problem remaining is how and when to take that one big leap into the vortex and let it draw me back toward the center. In some ways I feel a bit like the Palestinians--desperately claiming their right of return! While my banishment years back was voluntary, and could be rescinded without so much as a blink from any foreign government, the path back to where I belong would require careful negotiation.

How does one pick up an entire life and relocate it, albeit one quick 45 minute ride down the road. The fact is that by the time we've hit "middle" life, several kids up and running, established firmly in one community or another, it becomes all the more complicated to unpeel everyone from their present digs/life and move them elsewhere. Ironically enough the only consideration that doesn't come into play is work. A move to the city is almost always an economically better option; just how many hours does my husband spend jammed amongst other frustrated drivers on the highway--and my own work is entirely portable and might actually benefit from an audience bigger than a pea. But relocating will require my children to switch schools (or maybe not if I wait just a few more years); me to find a new triathlon group (unthinkable! But then again the statute of limitations on that hang-up will expire soon enough as I, a-hem, age); and a bit more effort to maintain my small, but select, group of friends (most of whom I presently engage with on the telephone or through the internet). Maybe this move isn't as complicated as I imagined! It certainly didn't seem to be for my parents who, in their mid-forties, moved us back to the city after 10 years in the, shhhhhhhh!, exurbs.

That settles it. The reality of my present "exurban" life is more than I can handle. It's time to escape Siberia. With my exit strategy nearly in place, there remains only one fly in the ointment: the question of relocation. Why stop at Tel Aviv when Philadelphia is just one hop, skip and jump away? Obviously this hurdle will take time to cross. In the meantime I'll enjoy another smashing coastal sunset, right in my backyard, and, like Scarlett, "think about that tomorrow." 


  1. Caroline, thanks for letting me know about your blog. I really enjoyed reading your last entry and plan to read my way through the rest.

  2. the grass is greener but so is the water bill.
    or as the gambler said through Kenny Rogers " every hand is a loser and every hand is a winner"
    i am on your wagon!!!!

  3. the last comment was by Rami Igra using Caroline's computer. oops