Maybe it's part of my love of reading and writing, or maybe it's just my nature, but I've always been rather daydreamy and fanciful. I'm often more in my head than in the moment, and I've found over the years that how present I am is closely tied to my surroundings. The atmosphere of a place is something that carries a lot of weight in my daily life, which is why I'm so determined to make sure my home is full of character and things that bring me happiness. Sometimes I get too caught up in it, and I end up romanticizing places more than they deserve.
Over the years I've lived in five different zip codes in the Roanoke valley, but the vast majority of that time was spent in my parents' big farm house on a mountain road in the county. I always loved the privacy, the big yard, the beautiful barn, and the creek. In fact, it's such a lovely spot that we had our wedding there. But my husband and I knew pretty early into our relationship that we really wanted to live within the city limits. He grew up in a town with lots of sidewalks and a 24 hour gas station. Being close to ten miles from the nearest walkable neighborhood felt a bit like captivity. For me, I wanted access to coffee shops and little stores. Places I could poke around and feel like a regular.
When it came time for us to start hunting for our first place, we focused mostly on the Grandin and Old Southwest neighborhoods of Roanoke, both known for their strong sense of community, and – Old Southwest in particular – distinct architecture and beauty. When I toured a second floor apartment in Old Southwest I swooned over the tall, narrow double front doors of the house. They were painted green, with lots of glass, and opened into a foyer with a fireplace and a grand stairway. The apartment itself had a strange, serpentine layout, and one room was almost unusably small. But there was a colorful stained glass window in the hall, looking down over the common stairwell. There were beautiful hardwood floors and old fashioned button light switches. I was charmed, and I knew immediately I wanted to live there.
The neighborhood was enchanting. All those beautiful houses with porches and balconies and elaborate architectural details. All the tree lined gravel alleyways, from which you could see the old carriage houses that had been converted into small apartments. There was a shady park, and a little market on the corner a few blocks over. The market is a great place. The aisles are so narrow I always had to hold my bag out in front of me as I walked through. The walls and ceiling are absolutely covered in kitsch and memorabilia. But every time I went in there, I felt like a tourist.
At first we walked around a lot. Made the 25 minute trek downtown on the weekends. On rainy days, I would spend hours staring out the bedroom window, watching the ruts in the alley collect water. Watching the heavy trees turn darker green against the gray sky. It seemed so romantic, imagining the carriages that used to bounce down the alley after dropping their wealthy occupants at the front door.
But I spent all my time daydreaming, feeling trapped in a place that held no joy, always looking out. In the end, the apartment felt suffocating. Like a burden we would be weighed down with interminably. We thought we'd be out in the neighborhood more, but we had one troublesome neighbor who made us feel like we couldn't even enjoy a quiet evening on our front porch without having to hear some insult wrapped up in the guise of southern politeness. Our neighbors in the house were strange and loud. Every day our apartment felt smaller and less functional. Less and less like home. We stopped exploring the neighborhood. Stopped going outside. As much as I'd wanted to, we never quite felt at ease. We weren't desperate to get out of the neighborhood, exactly. Just out of that house and off that street. Even a block over people seemed friendlier, more relaxed. Most of the neighborhood is absolutely lovely. But we felt stuck, and we were just biding time until we found a way out.
It was neither simple nor easy, but we found our way out, across the river into the Wasena neighborhood. A few months ago, we moved into a duplex, which has no character at all from the outside, but inside is a sea of emerald green carpet and 70s fixtures. Our tub and bathroom sink are olive green. I am in love. We have so much space I've yet to find the most logical ways to fill it all, though the dirty laundry tends to find those empty areas well enough. I love our home. I love our backyard. We have a backyard! I didn't realize how badly I'd craved outdoor space until we had it. I still stare out the window on rainy days. Watching the rain now means flowers - my flowers! - will bloom. Means the enormous cherry tree behind our house will grow greener, and the hillside will look like it's alive and wriggling. Often one brave bird will peck around at the base of the hill, searching for seeds the squirrels overlooked. There's even a functional window in the shower, which is a luxury I could not have guessed I would enjoy so greatly.
Our new neighborhood is more modest. The houses are brick bungalows and foursquares instead of sprawling Victorians. The houses are a bit further apart, the roads a bit wider. More room to breathe. Kids go down the road on scooters and bikes with training wheels still attached. Our neighbor in the duplex is quiet and friendly. She's lived in this building for 36 years. I can still walk to a little convenience store, which maybe has less character than the old one, but has a surprising selection of hard-to-find candies. There are two wonderful restaurants within a short walk, The Green Goat and the Wasena City Tap Room. Well, we haven't been to The Green Goat yet, but it always smells amazing, and they have a patio with a fire pit outside. There's a stretch of quaint storefronts, the slightly shabby picture of small town Main Street, slowly coming back to life.
My favorite part of being in Wasena, though, is the Greenway. We love to go out on cool nights, after dinner, to walk along Wasena Park, and cross the big, rust colored bridge over the river. The river kicks up a forceful breeze, and sometimes it even smells a bit like the ocean. I don't want to think too hard about why that it is, but it's pleasant. We always see squirrels and robins, and lately a few families of ducks. One afternoon I even saw a bald eagle, barely visible at the top of a high, dead branch. Everyone is so friendly, and says hello to the baby or wishes us a good afternoon. There's often an ice cream truck parked near the bridge. It simply feels right.
In the last couple months, I've found I'm less daydreamy. That I spend less time staring outside, thinking of things I'd rather be doing, writing stories in my head. When my thoughts do start to wander, it's usually about painting or fixing up the garden out front. Instead of daydreaming, I go outside to feed the birds. I walk down to the park to let my daughter try the swing. I've even walked on the Greenway over to the Grandin neighborhood, with its shops, restaurants, and historic theater. In two months, I've already explored this area almost as much as I'd explored Old Southwest in eighteen months.
On Saturday my husband and I walked to the convenience store. He bought a green tea and I bought a tall can of ice cold grape soda, something I hadn't had in years. We walked down the road, looking at the houses and the squirrels sneaking into bird feeders. We found our way to the street side of the park, an angle which made the entire space seem smaller, friendlier. It reminded me of New England. We crossed the overgrown railroad tracks that run right through the park and made our way down to the Greenway, and headed home. We could smell the burgers grilling at the Tap Room. I pressed my face into his arm and told him, for probably the fiftieth time, that I was in love with our new neighborhood. For the first time in what feels like a very long time, I can breathe. I can stop daydreaming about what life might look like, and go out and live it. I can't wait to learn more about this neighborhood, and you can bet that I'll share it with you as I do.