Why is Leaving a Place I Hate so Hard?

I may have a soft spot for San Francisco after all.

Anyone who has had the misfortune of spending time with me over the last 2 years has heard me firstly lament about Facebook’s (my employer at the time) relentless insistence that I relocate to the Bay Area, secondly vehemently denounce everything about San Francisco (hereon fondly referred to as SF) and thirdly yearn to move to New York City. Well, my wish has finally been granted and I’m escaping a city I hate! So, why do I still have mixed feelings?

I spent the first 19 years of my life in Harare and in the 5 years since I’ve lived in 5 different cities across 3 different continents. The constant change has repeatedly invoked the question of what it means to call a place home. How do I find comfort in places so far both geographically and culturally from where I grew up? What does hominess mean to me?

My apartment in San Francisco

I’ve always had difficulty adjusting to a new space. As a woman living alone, you can never be sure if a creak in the ceiling is the your new home welcoming you, or a potential murderer breaking in. I called 911 on my first night alone in a shared home in Philadelphia after hearing voices on the roof. The police discovered the neighbouring lacrosse boys drinking and stargazing. I frantically dialled a friend at 3am on my first night alone in an apartment at Berkeley, hearing noises and believing someone had broken in. ‘You need 5 keys just to get in, there’s definitely nobody there’, he reassured me. This was technically true: a key to get into the complex, a key to enter the building, a key to use the elevator, a key to enter the courtyard of the top floor where the apartment sat, and yet ANOTHER key to enter the front door of the apartment. My irrational midnight brain was still unconvinced.
Wielding the only weapon handy at the time, a broom, I cautiously ventured outside to investigate. Creeping around the open air courtyard between mine and the only neighbouring apartment, the rhythmic rumbling grew louder and louder along with the thumping in my chest. The realisation struck me with the red-hot embarrassment in my cheeks, my neighbour was a VERY loud snorer.

My first weeks in my San Francisco loft were no different. Situated on the ground floor with a view facing the highway, my landlord warned me before signing that the occasional homeless person would camp right outside my window. ‘Never had anyone try to break-in, and we were here for 7 years’, he asserted. At first, a twinge of fear would creep up my spine every time a shadowy figure wandered outside my window, but with time, these were replaced by warm feelings of familiar comfort at recognising my elderly neighbour take his dog out for their twice-daily strolls, the skater kids racing down the steep incline of the highway ramp and the building manager watering the hedge that borders the building. Hominess is different to everyone, but for me, this comes when the unknown starts to become familiar.

My first California driver’s license, a true marker of residency

As a creature of habit, a place feels like home once I’ve recognised my fellow comrades of convention. Routine is a trait that I inherited from my father, along with a disdain for tardiness and a keen observational eye. In order to arrive at school by 6:50am, we needed to leave home by no later than 6:40am. If the newspaper vendor was still setting up his stand, then we were well on time. If we saw the shiny yellow Volkswagen Beetle of one of his colleague’s daughters was crossing the intersection, then we were late (and so was she, but she was always late). I’ve carried this forward by identifying similar pattern markers in my routine here in San Francisco. My favourite gym instructor kicks off his classes at 7am sharp, meaning I have to be out the door by no later than 6:40am. If the artist outside my building is still taping his uniquely mystic oeuvres to the fence, then I’ll have time to stretch before class. If the street cleaners have started power washing the excrement from Market Street by the time I turn the corner, then I’ll be huffing and puffing before the workout class even starts from running just to make it on time.

Hominess to me is more than my individual experiences of a place, but being able to fit myself into the collective experience of my community. It’s debating the San Francisco 49ers chances of making it to the Super Bowl with the bartender, or shouting ‘Go Warriors!’ at the large group crossing the street wearing Steph Curry jerseys (an act that would be perceived as deranged if I didn’t live right by Chase Stadium and if there wasn’t a Warriors game that evening). When I begrudgingly moved to San Francisco, it was easy to add things that were uniquely San Franciscan to my list of ‘Reasons to Leave‘, but I’ve come to realise that leaning into these eccentricities is how you make your own magic in a place that seems devoid of it. Reframing how I view these quirks allowed me to stop feeling like there were clouds hanging over my head (figuratively speaking, there are literal clouds over my head as San Francisco often has dreary weather), and start appreciating the city.

Reasons to Leave Just SF Things

  1. Insufficient public transportation system leading to bad congestion on the roads and traffic
    A chance to make small talk on a long ride with an Uber driver and hear about their slice of life
  2. Miserable, foggy day after miserable, foggy day
    Karl the fog, San Francisco’s most mysterious (and most dramatic) resident, making an appearance
  3. Creepy teddy bears peering out from one too many houses
    A rich musical history that fills the city’s residents with pride
  4. Every party conversation leading to the No-Through Road Topic also known as Web3
    A front row seat to brilliant minds enthusing about the next technological evolution
  5. More men than women in the city
    A city brimming with eager dating prospects for a young, single gal

That being said, I can’t romanticise my way out of the less trivial criticisms of the city. A charming candlelit dinner on the waterfront interrupted by a passer-by stealing spoons off the table is a sobering reminder of the opioid epidemic. A breezy stroll in a picturesque neighbourhood detoured by the tents and human faeces littering the sidewalk is indicative of the dire homeless situation. A beautiful apartment tour soured by sticker shock at the egregious rental price demonstrates the sheer lack of affordable housing.

Coined ‘the emptiest downtown in America’ by the New York Times, my first months in SF were plagued by a pervasive feeling of loneliness. As I lived in the downtown area of the city, I watched the city wind down each day at 5pm as the sidewalks and parking lots became vacant and the bustling city noises came to a halt as traffic left the city. Weekends were the worst – with few restaurant and entertainment options in my neck of the woods, Market St was often devoid of foot traffic. I couldn’t meet new people as COVID was still rampantly infecting the nation and the Bay Area enforced strict stay-at-home orders. Bounded between my apartment and the gym, I found it impossible to make new friends and felt isolated in a city where I could count my friends on one hand.

Market St at 1pm on a Saturday

Come my 1 year anniversary in the city in August 2022, I had become complacent. It wasn’t until a work trip brought me to New York City that I remembered what it was like to be in a living, breathing city. Fabulous people rushing from Lilliputian apartments to endless dining and entertainment options with their immaculately dressed acquaintances on the dingy but comprehensive metro system to the sound of aspiring subway musicians against the backdrop of the shiny, towering skyscrapers and the —

You get it, the electricity of NYC is infectious. The streets pulsate with excitement, beckoning you to explore. I struggled to fill my time in SF, but in NYC it felt like there was never enough of it. I was going through the motions in SF, futilely scrambling on the hamster wheel; in NYC I was living purposefully, walking with a spring in my step. I may have accepted San Francisco as home but hominess also implies living in your comfort zone.
There was no question about it: I needed to move.

See, in the 5 years since I left Harare, I’ve been torn between my restlessness and compulsive drive to experience different walks of life in different places, and the innate human desire to settle and seek the feeling of hominess. Even as NYC enticed me from across the country, I had finally settled into life in SF, formed a group of friends, fallen in love and found my groove at work (and started going to the office!). Like Gatsby, I could only gaze fondly from afar. I had found hominess in a place I initially resented.

Rather (un)fortunately, life thought it appropriate to hand me some lemons. I was laid off from Facebook in November along with 11,000 employees. By Christmas, I’d made lemonade: a new job in the Big Apple. Moving 4,000km across the country was a no-brainer, but I still found myself packing with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes. I’d been released from the job that brought me to the city, but in the 15 months since, I’d found so many other reasons to stay.

I’m elated about departing this particular pitstop on my life’s journey, but at the very least, I know I can look in the rear view mirror at Fog City with fondness.

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