We started our day today just outside of Charlottesville, VA (C’Ville) at Thomas Jefferson’s famous home, Monticello. The rain held off as we walked through the gardens and took in the view. As we toured the home itself, the place that Jefferson loved more than any other, a quote from Jefferson about his home struck me. “I am as happy nowhere else and in no other society, and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.” This is how I want to feel about the place that I live, at least most of the time. It should be enriching and inspiring, while providing a venue for both the social and recreational activities I enjoy. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
In addition to exploring ourselves, the United States and the National Parks, one goal of our road trips has been to seek out places that we someday may want to live. Each new city or town we enter goes through a review process either openly or in our minds. All locations are ultimately compared to the New Hampshire Seacoast. Why the Seacoast? Aside from it being our current home and a familiar place, it has several characteristics that we look for in a home base: Not too crowded and not too rural (our ideal is somewhere between 8,000 and 100,000 people), great places too run (long roads with low traffic, low risk of crime, beaches and/or bike trails), an arts/music/literary scene, and a downtown with quality independent restaurants and coffee shops. Our current hometown has most of these characteristics, but given our recent freedom, we enjoy entertaining the idea of moving to new places.
One mistake we’ve made during our travels is to build up new places in our minds before actually visiting them. No town is perfect, and unrealistic expectations can ruin a place before even getting there. The first example of this for us was Portland, Oregon. We had built Portland up to be the ideal place to live: progressive, artsy, West Coast (sort of)…it sounded perfect. When we arrived in Portland, it was raining, gray, cold, filled with homeless people and nothing like the place we wanted it to be. Although we eventually grew to like Portland, we were disappointed by its inability to live up to our escapist/utopian expectations. It’s easy to overlook the flaws in one’s hometown. They are familiar, which by nature makes them less threatening. The flaws in a new place stand out, especially when you haven’t imagined there would be any.
Before we came to Virginia, a friend recommended that we check out Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia. “You’ll like it,” she assured us. We asked our host, B, about it, and he concurred, mentioning the pedestrian mall, Friday night live music, yummy pizza, etc. as highlights. Despite the threat of severe storms, we left Monticello and continued to downtown C’ville, anxious to give it a look before we headed out of Virginia for a few more stops on this leg of our journey.
We started our visit with a walk hand-in-hand down the pedestrian mall, taking in the mix of independent and chain stores, shops and restaurants. So far, so good. We stopped at the most highly recommended pizza joint in town, Christian’s, for a slice and a local beer. Lots of veggie options and definitely delicious! We sat by the window and enjoyed our late lunch while watching the eclectic mix of passers-by: business people, students, children, grandparents and homeless folks, and they all seemed right at home in this downtown center. It’s a welcoming place.
After lunch, we waited out a downpour in a used bookstore called Blue Whale Books. We chatted with the cashier, a UVA poet, and picked up two used books for $2 (a biography of Rilke for J and an analysis comparing Jungian philosophy to Tibetan Buddhism for me). We left the pedestrian mall and headed for a drive around the UVA campus where the academic buildings were right across the street from the coffee shops and pubs…my kind of town.
The final test for C’Ville, and any town, was the grocery store. As vegetarians who do our best to cook and eat healthy, local, organic food whenever possible, the quality of the grocery store is a key factor in determining the livability of a city or town. When it comes to grocery stores, a town with a Whole Foods is pretty much a sure thing. With the exception of higher prices, Whole Foods is like a candy store for vegetarians. It’s a place to buy the specialty items that most grocery stores don’t carry. Tack on a weekly supplemental trip to a regular grocery store for staples and a farmer’s market for seasonal items, and you’ve got everything you need. The C’Ville Whole Foods was clean, bustling and close to downtown, rounding out the Words Per Gallon livability checklist.
So how did C’Ville stack up? We could definitely see ourselves living there. For now though, there are so many other towns to explore, more roads to run on and more National Parks to visit. Plus, our new place on the Seacoast beckons; it will be ready later this summer. Maybe we’ll move next year… -M