My husband and I have contentedly lived in the same two-mile radius of New York City for more than three decades. And while we certainly aren’t bored with life, in recent years the daily grind has somewhat inured us to its swellness. The winters had begun to feel more onerous, the leaks and creaks of our late 19th-century townhouse a little more problematic, the people and streets and buildings just a bit routine.
So when our youngest daughter left for college in 2008 and my husband was serendipitously offered a four-month residency at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, we jumped at the chance to experience living in a new place. Southern California beckoned us with everything New York was lacking: warmth in the winter, accessible natural magnificence of all sorts (hiking, swimming, aromatic flora and unfamiliar megafauna), and an abundance of exquisite mid-20th century architecture, which we both adore.
As writers, fortunately, we can work anywhere there’s an Internet connection, which at this point is pretty much anywhere on Earth, so that meant that our stint in Los Angeles would not be a vacation so much as a no-risk opportunity to experience what it would feel like to live in a radically different environment.
Friends offered us, at well below the market rental rate, their Rudolph Schindler house in Studio City, just over the mountain ridge of Los Angeles proper. In New York we lived vertically, on four floors; in L.A., horizontally, on one. The house was compact, filled with light, and a short walk from miles of trails through thousands of wild acres.
Rather than trudging along the treadmill in the basement of my grotty, urban gym, I began to hike in actual nature, coming across coyotes — within the city limits. Almost every daily pattern was jettisoned, and it was positively thrilling. By letting go of decades-long habits I started rediscovering the more fun, creative version of myself that had been buried under the weight of tasks, like managing tedious college admissions and keeping our household afloat.
It’s as if dormant synapses in my brain were suddenly rebooting. We developed new routines that didn't feel routine at all: breakfast in the garden, work until lunch, an adventure each afternoon, dinner with new people. Even driving had its upsides: My husband, a novelist who also hosts a public radio program, had the pleasure of listening to more of his colleagues' shows in real time during our four months in Los Angeles than in the previous several years in New York.
We began to find that everything from the most mundane — where we had our prescriptions filled or clothes cleaned — to the most awe-inspiring (a day spent in the Mojave Desert with visionary airplane and spacecraft designers or an afternoon wandering the Museum of Jurassic Technology) was fresh and inspiring. And 30-plus years into our relationship, my husband and I were experiencing this exciting newness together.
At the risk of sounding TMI New Age-y, it was sexy. We are not natural extroverts, but we made a decision to say yes to practically any invitation, which meant that we ate in a few subpar places and drove on some hellish roads. But saying yes also allowed us to meet some phenomenal people who have become friends, and to expose ourselves to very different ways of thinking and working and living.
The time together felt remarkably similar to the days when we were first dating, but without all the angsty “does he like me?” drama. It was plain old fun. By opening ourselves to the new, we stumbled into rich moments of enhanced happiness — “Wasn’t the hummingbird beautiful this morning?” “Didn’t the air smell amazing last night?” Even parking, like teenagers, on Mulholland Drive to watch the full moon rise — at a rate we would not have experienced in the familiarity of our adopted hometown.
Following the success of this first adventure in Los Angeles, we’ve since lived and worked for six weeks in Buenos Aires, another month in Los Angeles, and I’m writing this from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, at the end of a monthlong stay. Each time we’ve continued to work as hard — and more productively — as we would have in New York, where the obligations of a lifetime of commitments constantly squeezes our time and consciousness.
The location need not be exotic or expensive. Once, when our place was under construction, we stayed in the house of a friend who was out of town for a few weeks. Just living a few miles from our house was a complete novelty: Nothing was the same; everything seemed alive in a new way.
But we still love our exotic adventures. In fact, Hanoi and New Orleans and Rio are already calling out to us.
Tips for Successful Transformative Travel
- Let your heart guide you to the destination. Where have you wanted to go, what have you wanted to experience? You don’t have to be young or recently divorced to craft your very own Eat, Pray, Love journey.
- Rent or swap a house or apartment, go couch-surfing, but do not stay in the bubble of a hotel, where you'll meet only tourists. Immersing yourself in a new environment takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to interact with locals and the richness of their everyday life.
- Say yes to new food, to new vistas, to any activity you might not do at home.
- Do your homework. Before you leave, research whether there are any courses or schools that might have an interesting program — cooking classes, a painting or photography program, walking groups — and enroll in one.