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fall 2006 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

If Not St. Louis, Why Not the Best Place to Live?
By Marijean Jaggers

At Christmas, I burst into tears at a friend's party when she asked if I was ready to move. "I don't want to go!" I cried, surprising even myself, a little.

"Have you ever lived anywhere but Illinois and Missouri?" she asked.

"No," I said.

"Oh, honey," she said, "it's time for you to go."

We — my husband, children, dog and I — relocated to Charlottesville, Va., at the end of 2005. We left behind family, with Mark's parents in St. Peters and mine in Springfield, Ill., and several friends who have become like family to us over the years. Our son suffered changing high schools in the middle of his sophomore year; our daughter, moving away from friends and the only home she'd ever known.

One huge part of the move that made it easier is that I was very fortunate to be able to keep the job I love in St. Louis and have been telecommuting since January of this year. Working in public relations proved to be a very moveable career; with a laptop and a cell phone I can work almost anywhere in my line of work, and was able to make the transition for clients and team members as seamless as possible.

I tricked myself during the two months that spanned from the knowledge that we were, indeed, moving until the unloading of the moving van, just after the new year. Knowing I'd be back to St. Louis somewhere between six and eight times a year, I fooled myself into thinking that it would be like I hadn't moved at all. In some ways, that's true. While in Virginia, I talk to people, (my clients and co-workers), in St. Louis every day. I read St. Louis publications both online and in print, on a daily basis. Monday through Friday, my head is, for the most part, in St. Louis. When I visit, I race at a breakneck pace through days crammed with meetings and dinner dates, determined to get in as much face time with people I care about as I can. I stay with my in-laws while in town, and they joke about how each night I slip in later than I said I'd be home. I return to Charlottesville utterly exhausted, but refreshed from spending quality time with friends, colleagues and clients.

The result of that, and working from home in a city where I knew no one, made the transition to feeling as if I truly live in a new city and state a bit more difficult.

downtown mall How did we get here? In October 2005, my husband was offered a position in Charlottesville, a place neither of us had ever been. We took two days and flew out to see the place called "the best place to live" in the book Cities Ranked and Rated by Bert Sperling and Peter Sander. During that trip, while my husband was in meetings with his potential new employer, he dropped me off for three hours at Charlottesville's historic downtown mall. This area is a huge pedestrian mall dotted with used bookstores, boutiques, coffee shops, cool independent restaurants and eclectic little stores. I found myself in heaven, wandering in and out of this place and that. I was on a mission, though, so I interviewed people, popping in at the Chamber of Commerce, the Department of Tourism and the offices of the C'Ville Weekly, one of two weekly alternative publications supported by the city.

Every person I spoke with that afternoon provided a ringing endorsement of their town. I heard how much there is to do, how alive the arts community is, how it is a haven for writers and readers, how the University of Virginia's presence brings so much to the culture and educational opportunities in the area. By the time my husband picked me up, I was on board.

At the end of October my husband made the move, two months ahead of the rest of us. I left it to him to buy a house in Charlottesville; it was up to me to sell our home in St. Charles. By Thanksgiving both deals were sealed and I moved with the kids into my in-laws' to celebrate Christmas.

I have traveled back to St. Louis six times since I left. My visits serve to remind me of the many things I do not miss about the area: the traffic; the high incidence of hoosiers and mullets (not mutually exclusive, of course); billboards; Manchester Road; Highways 94, 40 and 70; and lots of really overweight people (you don't notice it until you're away from it, but it's true.) Charlottesville, by contrast, has legions of runners, bikers and health-food fanatics so committed that the only Krispy Kreme in town closed due to lack of interest.

What I do miss about St. Louis can't be reproduced in Virginia. There are neighborhoods I love, with a certain architecture and population that makes me feel at home. There are restaurants and foods I miss, that outside of the region do not exist. Mostly, of course, it's the people I've left there, with whom I must make an extra effort to keep in touch, to see when I am in town, to call, write and e-mail so the distance does not seem as far for either of us.

I was surprised to learn how much I miss row houses, graffiti, the employees at the Shop 'n Save where I shopped almost every week for 17 years, the familiar faces of people to whom I'd never been introduced, and the anonymity of being able to dash out anywhere without fear of being seen by someone you know. In Charlottesville, one wouldn't dare, as in this semi-small community we're always running into people we know, even though we hardly know anyone.

Lego Monticello In my new home I've discovered new friends, great new restaurants and favorite places to visit. We've gone to Monticello several times when guests have come to town, and hiked mountains in the Shenandoah National Park, not far from our home. Our daughter walks to school every day and our wooded neighborhood, backyard pond, nearby lake and miles of walking trails winding throughout remind us daily that we're not in St. Louis anymore.

Marijean Jaggers is a WAHM living in Wahoo country. She enjoys high school marching band competitions and is obsessive about dental hygiene.

© 2006 The Commonspace