I recently woke to a blue sky over a place I didn’t want to leave and I should have guessed that from there the rest of the day would take on the kind of proportions it didn’t fully deserve.

San Francisco isn’t supposed to be part of America, but I saw it as heartland visiting again after eight years living away and abroad.If there was anywhere I fit in, on any continent, it had to be this place with the blue sky white at the edges and fierce MUNI drivers and food choices galore and ideas forever coming to fruition and close, brisk ocean.Possibly, I just missed a place where I didn’t have to act like a grownup like I hadn’t for so many years of house parties and second-hand clothes. I’d convinced myself moving back might make my world less complicated. So I went looking for signs urging me to return and, if those didn’t turn up, I needed irrefutable reasons why my young family and I should live out the rest of our days here, within a country that was plummeting further, rising from the ashes or just realizing the dream.Until I confirmed which one applied, I was only on vacation.

My wife’s phone buzzed on the floor beside her.She sat up in bed to open messages from France, where we would be flying home to that afternoon.“Oh my God,” she covered her mouth.

Friends and family were asking about us.They wanted to know if we’d already evacuated the city.We were okay, yes?Where were we now?Call or write back, because an earthquake just hit Japan and a probable, potential tsunami was headed to the west coast.European media estimated the waves approaching California shores at thirty feet high.Nothing was verified but still we should get out sooner rather than later.Devastation could be here any moment.It sounded bad from a distance.

I looked back out to the blue sky and down onto the city below this large hill we were perched on.The surrounding peace was terrible now.

We checked the local news.The only available information described choppy waves on Ocean Beach.Authorities advised caution for surfers.From the far epicenter, the ruptures and the rising water had done colossal damage to wide swaths of Japan.There, nightmares were coming true. Just as others had in spots all around the tectonic map in the past year.

I thought of those signs I was waiting for.Did waves that may or may not be sweeping in mean we should flee and never look back again?What about the present fault line at the ground beneath our feet?It was, and always would be, too early to tell.

We had breakfast and coffee, given to us by gracious, old-friend hosts where the conversation slipped to breezier subjects.We discussed what was good about the Bay Area.We went over schools, housing and other practical subjects that never crossed our minds in our olden days here.I learned that true coffee had progressed past Peet’s into Ritual Roasters, Four Barrel and Blue Bottle.I pictured myself already at a loss placing an order at any one of their registers.We’d been marveling at the little things like this all week but hadn’t yet factored in the morning’s news and fresh reminders of all the shifting ground.

So my wife and I walked down toward the open city.We only had to send some postcards.And possibly make up our minds.

At the bottom of the hill, we turned the corner to a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty.She swayed in her gray-green dress on the sidewalk and waved at cars.As we approached, she ceded the sidewalk to us and winked.It turned out she only worked for a tax service that used the word “liberty.”The deal was off.

We passed a Pizza Hut, a credit union and a Locavore.We talked about how you can’t ever go home, of course.We went over what we’d leave behind if we did move back.We wondered if we’d always be torn over everything.Restlessness wasn’t going to get us anywhere and, on top of that, we’d never outsmart calamity, if that’s what we were worried about.

Having overshot our destination for mail, we asked a woman on the street where the post office was.She smiled and replied that she was going there herself and that we could walk with her to it.It was a conscientious gesture, one that I took as area-specific.

Ambling side-by-side in a trio, I had no idea what to say to this generous stranger.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?Shame everything’s getting so seismic,” was a tact I didn’t take.

“Whisper to me what you know about tidal waves,” was another I passed on.

“How about them Giants, several months ago that is?” yet another.

Finally, I just said we were visiting from out of town.I left out our former lives around these parts.

She was happy to hear it and asked more about us.She then suggested lunch places.I got the feeling that if we were to stick with her we’d never feel anything rumbling from below.We continued walking together as though we’d planned it this way.We even stood in line at the post office together and sent our mail, and then each other, on our separate ways.

By the time my wife and I huffed back up the hill, the premature tsunami warnings for the west coast had been called off.We ate one last meal with friends who buttressed the relative safety and shelter and familiarity of a place that resembled something close to home.Their goodwill was all I’d need to take with me.

Later, inside an aircraft, I got closer to the unchanged sky.We zoomed west first, looping wide out over the ocean.The waves below exhibited an unimaginable restraint as they broke over the same, fixed lines in the sand that they had for years.The world’s largest body of water absorbed the blow on one end this time.

And the green hills crested over cliffsides and the bridge spanned and, at the end of the still dry peninsula, the city consisted of two squares separated by the long strip of park and a crush of streets and neighborhood hills approaching its downtown port.It was a lucky seaside village.It was hard to grasp that so many people and pets and epiphanies and self-actualizations indeed resided at this contiguous tip.Leaving it behind again, it helped to see San Francisco as smaller.If I could keep remembering it that way, maybe nothing major would happen while I was gone.

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NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

44 responses to “Hill, Country”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Nathaniel,

    So what did you decide?
    Here or there?
    It’s not so easy to decide, is it?
    You have roots growing in both places.
    I’m sure you’ll make the right decision.

  2. This was so lovely.

    Totally made me want to revisit San Francisco AND Paris. (Sorry, I’m no help there. I love both places too…)

  3. you captured a quiet beauty and uncertainty in this piece…

  4. D.R. Haney says:

    I’ve occasionally wondered if I could make a go of it in San Francisco. Like so many people, I appreciate the look of it, but the Bay Area is notoriously PC — the term may be dated, but the practice persists, as any glance at the letters on Salon.com will confirm — and I have trouble with speech codes.

    It’s none of my business, but if I lived in Europe, I doubt I’d think often of returning to these shores.

    • You could make a nice go of it in SF I bet, you just have to find a way to pay rent three times that of LA’s. Plus, there are plenty of people with speech code trouble, they’re simply sentenced to releasing it all every year at Burning Man.

      If I do eventually return, look for me to post new pieces pining for the splendors of France. I’m hopeless.

  5. Matt says:

    Holy shit, dude. Your last paragraph here knocks an already good piece right out of the park.

    If I were to leave San Diego for another city in California, it would be San Francisco (in your face, L.A.!), even though the sight of hipsters makes my knuckles itch. Beautiful city, with so much character. Spent five days up there last autumn, and could easily have stayed for a lot longer.

    • Hipsters can make my knuckles itch too. During the trip I went into a store in the Mission selling clothes that my brother told me was referred to as “steampunk” (I had no idea). These clothes were second-hand leather stitched with various quirky add-ons. Glancing at the price tag, no item was less than a hundred dollars. I might as well have been shopping at Bloomingdales.

      So there’s that aspect to the city too, but then there’s all the rest. Maybe one day you’ll drift north. Thanks for the kind comment, Matt, glad you liked it.

  6. Joe Daly says:

    Whew. No easy answers, are there?

    It would have been great if you had bumped into someone who simply said, “Hey- just move back here and everything’s going to be cool- you’ll work here, this is your children’s new school, and here’s your new favorite little Italian joint where the owner will eventually beckon you by name and you’ll joke good-naturedly about the 49ers.”

    You capture that feeling so well- where you’re throwing your energy out there, looking for replies from the city. San Fran is one of those cities that most people seem to love, myself included. I was there in October, just as the Giants were clinching the NLCS, and the pride and vibe of the city were so powerful that I easily pictured myself as part of its fabric.

    SF has the international flavor, the culture, the grittiness, the intellect, and the open-mindedness that San Diego often lacks. Even when I lived in Sweden I thought that if/when I ever came back to the US, SF would be on my radar. As it were, I ended up bouncing between Chicago and Boston, but to this day, SF shines for me.

    Here’s hoping the right answers find you, Nat. Well done on a thoughtful, meditative read.

    • Yes, I need someone to force me to move back. Maybe if Nancy Pelosi could write me some sort of summons.

      Sf does shine, but at least in San Diego, the month of July doesn’t call for scarves and a knit cap.

      Thanks for the comment and encouragement for the right answers.

  7. Tawni Freeland says:

    It was interesting to read about how the potential tsunami affected you personally. I thought about my California friends when I heard about it, and wondered how it might impact them. I’m glad it was minimal.

    What a lovely decision you have ahead of you. Either choice you make, you will still be living somewhere beautiful. Win-win. (:

    • Indeed, in the end, it is a lovely decision and whatever beauty we’re able to make out of it probably doesn’t have to do with scenic views or good restaurants, which I probably need to remind myself about more than I do. Thanks for the comment, Tawni.

  8. Zara Potts says:

    So glad the tsunami threat remained just that…
    I packed up my van and fled the beach where I was living when I saw the news about Japan – after Feb 22, no potential natural disaster seems unlikely to me anymore.
    It’s so strange though isn’t it? To suddenly see something though different eyes? The sea has always been my companion, I have grown up with it, and love being near it and yet, in a moment it suddenly became something to fear.
    I understand your torn feelings about your homes. It would be so much easier if someone just made the decision for us, wouldn’t it?
    I do love your pieces, Nat. They always make think, wonder and smile.

    • This comment of yours, Zara, is especially meaningful to me. I actually hesitated to post this piece keeping in mind what you and others have gone through. Whatever little struggles related to the problems of place I’m working on pale so thoroughly by comparison. You have a special kind of large heart just to take time out to continue to read and comment on others’ work the way you do.

      I’ve always loved the sea too, but I sense, albeit faintly, in moments like I describe above the way coastal lives carry on at its mercy. We have precious little control in the end.

      But what we do have is what I can see from a window and what we can try to communicate to others. I know sometimes this site gets criticized for being overly supportive or what have you, but it all seems pointless when I see such generous words from someone like you. “Think, wonder and smile.” If I’ve made you do that, I consider myself a successful writer.

      All that is to say, we’re all still thinking of you.

      • Zara Potts says:

        I’m so glad you did post! It’s a lovely piece!
        And the thing is that, in the end, all experiences are relative. The struggle that you are having right now is no less important than anyone else’s and while it’s natural to compare and contrast, I think it’s important to remember that your problems and difficulties are just as valid and just as confusing and just as problematic as anyone else’s. It’s a huge thing to feel so torn about where you want to be. It really is.
        However, no matter where you decide to end up, as long as you keep writing your wonderful pieces, all will be good with me!!
        🙂

  9. Becky Palapala says:

    Oddly enough, was just talking with the husband about this the other day. About feeling like I/we/people tend to be always waiting around for something to decide things. To propel us forward.

    Waiting for a sign, waiting for the perfect time, waiting for a raise waiting for the tax return waiting for ___________.

    One of my favorite quotes, which is to me both a terror and a consolation:

    “Do this or do that. You will regret both.” I usually see it attributed to Kirkegaard, but it’s a great, tidy tidbit no matter who said it.

    I love narratives about place. I just love them. I could sit and read landscape/vista descriptions all day.

    • That’s a great quote. I’ve read of social psych choice experiments which found that people report higher levels of satisfaction when they are handed something, rather than when they are asked to make a choice between several things. Maybe this explains the sadness of mall food courts.

      I’m glad you like landscape vista descriptions, it’s sometimes hard to know where it can get tedious, because I could probably dive down and write about clouds or waves forever myself.

      Thanks for commenting, Becky.

    • Gloria says:

      You should write a landscape/vista description about Minnesota, Becky. I’ll bet you could sale even me on it, as you seem to love it so.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        I really want to. I do.

        I’m worried about two things: Hyper-sentimentality & Hypo-sentimentality.

        Like, I’m afraid I’ll just sound like a fangirl or, in trying to avoid that, not do the place justice.

        I’ll get to it eventually, but I have to sort of mentally prepare.

        • I say let it pour out. I find myself writing about place a lot, either places I’ve been or want to be, and have that same impulse to keep the gushing and poetic waxing in check. But most of the time, I learn later from feedback or from my own rereading that I could have expanded on it. For instance, I tried to write accurately about a visit to the Grand Canyon. Superlatives and sentimentality weren’t even coming close.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, like any gushing, it’s not the gushing itself that’s really the problem. It’s the way it manifests. If I don’t have my emotions or some part of my brain in check to some degree, for me at least, the writing itself suffers. I tend to fall into stale imagery, cliches, etc. The stuff of true and shameful maudlinism.

          At least part of me has to be operating in a fairly detached way. Objective enough to act like a translator, maybe, for my emotional/sentimental exuberance.

          That goes for writing about anything that conjures up strong feelings, though, not just place.

        • It’s true with gushing, you have to remain objective and avoid heading into Reader’s Digest territory. I suppose you have to find a way to gush about the dark sides of your subjects too, at least that’s the tactic I try to take when writing of place. Regardless, something sentimental and close to home needs an accompanying Tire Kicker (to borrow/steal a term I like) coming from the writer’s head to keep the work honest.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Yeah. I’m kind of on an Eliot-esque “not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion” tear today.

          I’m sure it will all end with me erupting into a tearful, sentimental treatise about a childhood pet or something.

    • I’d love to hear Minnesota descriptions, there are ten thousand lakes, right?

      • Becky Palapala says:

        More like 15,000, but who’s counting?

        There’s some crazy trivia bit out there, noting that MN has more miles of shoreline than California, Florida, and Hawaii combined. Near 100K, I think. Not sure if that includes rivers (of which there are many) or just lakes.

  10. Thanks to Hitchcock, I’ve always wanted to live in San Francisco. When I did finally make it there on a visit for the first time, I wondered why everyone in the world didn’t move there — it was gorgeous, ideal. I loved it. And I still love to visit, but I’m a sucker for living near family ever since I had kids. Which explains my move from the also-gorgeous upstate NY to Texas not so long ago.

    So many subtle things at work in this piece, though, with the tsunami, the ever present fault lines, the indecision, the city evolving in your esteem. Nice!

    • Hitchcock did get some good footage of the city, didn’t he? And the nearby redwoods too.

      I try to have it both ways and convince family to follow us to the out-of-this world places like SF.

      Thanks for the always thoughtful comment, Cynthia.

  11. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    It’s the uncertainty that I’m drawn to in this essay. What’s going to happen to the West Coast in the next few hours but even beyond that? How is one’s decision influenced by what cannot be controlled–weather and earth shifts?

    After the last big hurricane where I live, I decided I’d had it. The hard beatings between 2005 and 2008 may have been part of a cycle, and there could be a good break before the next big one. We’re biding our time because we know the moment isn’t quite right to move…but we’re dealing with WHEN, not if.

    Like Duke, if I lived in Europe, I’m not so sure I’d come back very much.

    • Thanks, Ronlyn. I imagine from your neck of the woods, you can relate to unpredictable natural disasters in otherwise gorgeous locales. Good luck finding the next backdrop for yourselves. We’re probably working on our own when, not if.

      While people in the States say they can’t imagine ever wanting to leave France, friends over here can’t imagine why we wouldn’t immediately jump at the chance to live in the USA. We’re capable of falling into either camp, depending on the day.

  12. DF says:

    I dreaded leaving a good life in Seattle to move back to San Francisco. Then, someone suggested we have a look in Brisbane, about 10 minutes south of the city. If I’d known how much i would love it here, I wouldn’t have feared. It’s peace and quiet and good schools and yards and artists and families and a rockabilly bar all 15 minutes from the city. Drive thru next time…

    • I don’t know much about Brisbane, though I once drove by every day on a commute down the peninsula. I should get off the highway next time for a closer look. The airport proximity would make for easier trips to and from Europe.

      Thanks for coming by to leave a comment.

  13. Gloria says:

    Beautiful piece, Nathaniel. And what a strange time for you and your family to have been in San Francisco – I mean, if you’re the type to actually find “signs” from nature. But, yes, you can’t avoid natural disaster anywhere you are. I was talking to a friend about this – if it’s not tsunamis, it’s earthquakes, if not that then hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, wild fires… We’re at the mercy of nature everywhere. You can hedge your bets, sure. But still…

    I hope your flight home was safe. Was this the girls’ first visit to the U.S.? What did they think? Was everything as strange to them as you describe France being for you sometimes?

    Good luck with your decision.

    • Thanks, Gloria. It was a strange time to be visiting the city and I’m still trying to decide if it’s ridiculous that I go looking for portent in these things.

      Our kids weren’t along on this one though. Just the two of us, which was an amazingly sweet break. But the kids have done the back and forth before, starting from the time they fit in the bulkhead attached bassinet. It’s always an action-packed journey for them and I think they view the US now as one large holiday playland.

  14. Erica says:

    “Possibly, I just missed a place where I didn’t have to act like a grownup like I hadn’t for so many years of house parties and second-hand clothes….”

    Wow. This sentence totally sums up what I’ve tried to articulate, unsuccessfully, for years. I grew up in San Francisco, a city for which I do have a great fondness…..However, with every trip back there I’m overwhelmed by the initial dread that I’ll never make it back out of there in one piece–that all the progress I’ve made since leaving will disappear down the drain. Now I understand why.

  15. I think Tarantino said the mark of a good action film is you wanna dress like the stars of the show, you certainly pull off a similar effect in terms of depicting SF in terms of making me want to return.

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