“Is it possible for home to be a person and not a place?”
I play with a community orchestra here in the “Greater Washington, DC” area, and at our last concert I struck up a pre-show conversation with one of the other musicians, a young woman of around 30.
She had been living in DC since her early twenties and during that time had played with the orchestra. She is a skilled hand on a stringed instrument called a domra.
A little over two years ago, she relocated to Portland, Maine but continues to return three times a year to play with the orchestra.
As we talked, I asked about her life in Maine and specifically why she decided to leave DC.
“All the years in DC,” she explained, “I never felt that I made any real friends… Oh, I had a good job and a good social life, but everyone seemed so transient.”
She continued: “Even now I talk about my ‘friends’ as the people I care about and stay in touch with—as opposed to my ‘DC friends,’ who are people that I once knew in a fun way but never built any lasting bonds with.”
This admission surprised me. She is bright, accomplished, pretty, sincere, and has a great sense of humor. I just assumed she would be the belle of any ball, anywhere.
It got me thinking about my own links with the nation’s capital.
I came to Washington, DC, still known as “The Swamp” because of being built on one, in the late 1980s for what was supposed to be a two-week visit with old friends. I ended up staying for 25 years.
From the start, I never cared much for the area. Apart from the architecture and parks, nothing in the geography, weather, traffic and, especially, puffed self-obsession of its most lurid denizens—the political class—drew me to this murky locale.
However, while visiting back then, an exalted organization offered me a temporary contract, which turned into a 22-year stint. So, I became a resident—if moving to the Virginia suburbs several years later still qualifies me.
I met my wife while living here, she visiting from a faraway country. My bride settled in faster than I ever did and found a job, determined to make the best of it, even though it wasn’t “home.” Besides, she loved the good roads and the abundance of stores.
Most of the people I’ve known here over the years migrated from somewhere else. And almost every one of them came for the Job—whether in politics, government, or one of the so-called beltway bandit industries. And most of those left when the Job was over.
This was especially true where I worked: a large international development agency. Colleagues came from every point on the globe, and I loved the rich mix of languages, culture, and manners.
Yet even the best of work and social relationships always had a short expiration date, either from staff rotation, contract length, or because it was just time to go home, to whatever corner of the world that might be. You promise each other to stay in touch but never do.
I know that many fine people have set down roots in greater DC. All you have to do is listen to the high level of exchange on local media to convince yourself that the area has vitality, savvy, and lots of practical and cultural reasons for staying.
And my wife and I enjoy good times with lively friends, especially through her Eastern European network of settlers.
But even after hanging around for 25 years, we discuss where we’ll go from here. For us, DC is not the place to grow old. Even the friends I originally dropped down to see so long ago left within 2 years and never returned.
So, with all its arts, allure, attractions, and history, Washington still leaves many of us hungry for… what? Community? Connection? Spirit? Maybe we just crave the past.
In any case, it doesn’t matter how many times we sing “Hail to the Redskins.” For some of us, they’ll never be the home team.