If I’m honest, I knew there was something wrong the moment the plane descended on that snowy January evening. It was just before dusk and the downtown skyline was silhouetted against a fuzzy pink sky. As I craned to see out of my little portal, I caught my first glimpse of the place that was to contain me. It should have been beautiful.
I don’t know if you have ever visited downtown Columbus, but it’s not what dreams are made of. Columbus is kind of brown. I have loved America all of my life; I studied it at University, I read about it whenever I could, and I always defended it against the British onslaught of derision. I thought I understood something. What I realized when I travelled past the concrete blocks of Nationwide Arena was that knowing isn’t feeling.
The first fortnight in Ohio was spent in the flat lands of malls, university campuses and questionable car lots. I explored the side streets of Short North. The wooden houses were as enchanting as I had hoped they would be, but there were plenty of regular brick ones too. The snow fell thick and fast like the movies, but the efficient gritters left it just out of reach. It was business snow, not for frolics. I kept thinking I’d found a way to connect, and then when I got up close, it would dissolve.
Then the time came to travel downtown.
Driving down North High – a street that seems to run the full length of populated Columbus – I spotted shops I’d missed first time round. “I should give them a chance,” I thought to myself. I reached the coffee shop that had marked my previous expedition limit – the cake had been too sweet – and drove on. The skyscrapers loomed. I felt a knot in my stomach – I’d belong here, I was sure.
It is quieter than you expect downtown – no shops to speak of, few cafes, and only busy at lunchtime. No hustle or bustle, no hum. I stared up at the shining towers and tried to soak in the significance of the chocolate-box statehouse, but there was no reverence to be found. As I turned the corner at Columbus’s answer to Times Square, the sun sprang into my eyes and the letters of the Columbus Dispatch seared themselves into my vision. I stopped.
I wanted to feel something, but it was as though Columbus and I were repelling magnets. The harder I tried to find a way in, the harder it pushed back and left me pressed up against a smooth surface, blocked by air. The coffee shops, the crossings, the air, it all began to swirl around me. All was at a distance. My vision blurred with tears and my breathing quickened: I left.
The moment I was blinded by that Ohio sun, glinting off the wet, wide roads of downtown Columbus, I knew I would never be a part of the city. Of course I tried to disregard the notion, to remain open to everything I was yet to encounter, to hope. I even discovered some nooks and corners where I felt more comfortable in Columbus – Caribou Coffee, The Chocolate Café, Johnny Rockets – but comfortable was not enough. I didn’t become part of the city. It did not become part of me.
Nora Ephron once wrote, “if the shoe doesn’t fit in the shoe store, it’s never going to fit.” It was in a list entitled ‘What I Wish I’d Known’. The same is true of cities: if you do not feel at home at once, if you struggle to find the hum and the rhythm, then you never will.