When I came back to Milwaukee, I slunk back waving my white flag. I didn’t choose this city at all! Far from it; to come back even temporarily meant I had failed. That was a decade ago this summer, and one of the worst periods of my life. Everything about this town upset me – the lack of cool neighborhoods, the meh food, the uncultured people, the lack of diversity.
I met a woman recently who’s from Milwaukee, has to be here sometimes, and she hates it. She lives in a metropolis that far outstrips this one and clearly feels like she’s being dragged to a backwater by her hair every time she gets off a plane. It made me recoil. “Doesn’t she realize we all choose to live here, and may be insulted by her opinion?” But I remember getting off that plane, and feeling like this town equaled everything at the bottom of the bin of misery I found myself in.
Then I got to know the real people and corners of this place- the bright musicians and entrepreneurs, the interesting people who’ve lived elsewhere and come back; the cool theaters and street festivals, the amazing cocktails, Neapolitan pizza joints and Korean spot. And I realized that you have to wander Milwaukee, gathering recommends and leads like breadcrumbs to find that awesome yoga place on the river or the school built around fairy tales. I found the cool neighborhoods for people watching and great coffee. I found the parks, and the friendly people who use them. God, we’re friendly here! It’s absurdly refreshing how genuinely open people here are. And the food! Dear lord, how did I not know you could eat so well in this city? And I became a Milwaukee evangelist.
This town has many flaws, but it has heart. There’s pride here, and hurt, experimentation and tradition, there’s stadiums and performances, molecular gastronomy and fried cheese curds and pickles. There’s first generations and sixth generations here, English speakers and people who speak languages I hadn’t heard of. We’re not New York or LA. But we can match them in intelligence, characters, and wit. Milwaukee’s sly sense of humor and gruff demeanor may charm you or turn you off. I frankly don’t care. I’m in love, and demand a modicum of respect for my home. What an astounding thing to discover from a formerly ashamed native!
To test this, we are just wrapping up a trip to my former home, Montreal. I lived here for ten years, and discovered Quebec, tasting menus, the markets and bookstores, nooks and crannies filled with amazing artisans and history. I loved being a part of this city, and felt this would be my home forever. So I sulked the first day back, frustrated at being a tourist here. So much has changed! Then I got a bit depressed – and it didn’t help that I lived here as an unfettered adult. I wanted to do MY favorite stuff with the kids. They had other plans.
But then we ended up exploring Montreal from their perspective. They loved wandering the caricature booths in the Old Port, and checking out the piles of bikes everywhere. Dim sum was right up their alley, and as a speed tasting dinner, it worked for me too. They quickly recognized that almost everyone here speaks both french and English, like them, and spoke up to the adults around them with shy but huge grins. And once I let go of my carefully curated list of wants, we had a lovely time bombing around.
Montreal could stay a nostalgia visit for me and a drag for the kids, or we can embrace it as who we are today – a family full of bilingual, curious little kids with short attention spans and shorter legs. We will not power walk from the plateau to Westmount. Cool. I can slow my roll as long as I know that’s the plan. Or accept that as the plan.
We got to see Jess, a lifelong friend who has been in Montreal, Vienna, and Milwaukee with me get married in a little town called Deep River as the meat in our Canada visit. She mentioned how amazing it was to have people from all over the world (seriously! Venezuela to Germany) in her parent’s town – it blew her mind. And I could see how she can love living abroad and love coming home.
So I’m done comparing cities, and feeling like my love for one means denying another. I’ve lived in a lot of places, and Montreal, Vienna and Milwaukee all feel like home in some ways. I want to spend more time in Montreal with my family as they grow up, but I am equally grateful to go home to Milwaukee. I’ll enjoy the kids on the playground across the street in the sun, my mom or sister popping by, a craft cocktail with friends with some great eats in Bay View, and head over to hear my favorite orchestra come back into season in a few weeks. We’ll load up on French books before we leave today, and I’ll miss the friends and streets we don’t get to visit often, but I’m ready for home.
It’s complicated now. I don’t know if this is part of our 40s or just life in general, but trying to find stability and adventure and balance the two is tough. Our (my- Dave does this naturally) goal is to let go of our “musts” and itineraries so we can enjoy what we can fit in, without making ourselves or the kids nuts. Tomorrow Tess and Remy go back to one of their favorite camps from last summer. Dave and I go back to work, and this tiny Canadian whirlwind of stirred-up feelings will settle back down a bit. But we’ll be back sooner rather than later, ready for a childsize adventure or two.