Monday, September 7, 2009

Texas, Betwixt and Between

Texas may be situated at the southern end of these United States, but for me, it was first found sandwiched between the end of one story and the beginning of another.

It’s a funny destination, Texas.  Specifically, my destination is College Station, home of the fiercely proud Aggies and a sea of football fans clad in maroon and white.  I say my destination is College Station because it still is.  I’m not there yet—the ink from my signature on a lease is barely dry—but I was there last week, a Northerner in a strange and interesting Southern town.

I arrived in Texas still dazed and dazzled by the idea that I am done with graduate school, minus a few odds and ends.  The big stuff—namely, the thesis defending in private and public forums—is complete, and that’s really about 95% of the task I set out to accomplish.  The remaining 5% I will finish this month before taking a one-way trip to College Station.  Squished between my thesis defense and cleaning out my desk was last week’s trip to Texas.  After all the chaos of my public thesis defense, visiting Texas seemed like a vacation, a trip during which I had but one serious task: finding a new home.  An agenda like that left plenty of time for eating and drinking, gossiping and soaking in a hot tub, and pondering what life with a PhD will be like.

When I tell people that I am moving to Texas, there is a certain fraction that feels compelled to warn me that Texas is a land that will shock me with its heat, its culture (or lack thereof, depending on how snooty one feels about these things), its politics, its lack of vegetarians, and its isolation.  I am amused by these doomsayers, in part because they do not understand how much Texas has to offer me.  They do not know that I experienced the worst depression of my life last winter and spent most evenings curled up in a ball on my couch, desperately sad about the bitter cold, the abyss of dark nights, and the answerless questions about my future that swirled around me like an arctic wind.  Texas feels like a warm tropical breeze upon which answers floated like so many seeds from a dandelion.  Life will be different in Texas.  Of this I am sure.

But different does not translate as bad.  It just means not the same.  The things about Texas that worry me are never the issues that other people bring up.  For example, I am kept awake by the fact that there’s no Whole Foods in College Station.  No Whole Foods!  The thought makes me shudder in fear.  I may get a car just so I can drive to Whole Foods in Houston or Austin.  In general, I am ambivalent about getting a car, but I belong at Whole Foods and I cannot imagine life without it.  My new boss thinks we should start a movement to convince Whole Foods to build a store in College Station.  Apparently I’m not the only one with a fierce devotion to my grocery store!

Speaking of my new boss, I cannot tell you how kind he has been to me since I began the interview process with him and his lab.  Hubi (short for Hubert) paid for my trip last week and did everything he could to make me comfortable.  In two days’ time, we shared three meals and a menu’s worth of tasty information.  I now know that if I’m looking for a great cappuccino and an even better chocolate truffle served in a pool of raspberry sauce, I need to visit It’s a Grind!, a coffeeshop just blocks from my new home.  Hubi now knows that I am a vegetarian, but I’m fond of a carnivore for whom I purchased two pounds of gourmet bacon.  Very few people know that last part, which I was trying to keep between the carnivore and me.  This story indicates just how much information I shared with the person who will be paying my salary starting in October.  Like I said, things are different in Texas.  I know that Hubi’s wife, Raquel, who is starting her first faculty position(!), shares my feelings about making an enormous and exciting transition in her career: a need to focus on the big picture and the essential tasks so as not to panic about all the other stuff. 

As I was looking at apartments to rent in College Station, I was torn between a gorgeous and comparatively expensive two-bedroom apartment and another two-bedroom option that wasn’t quite as pretty but was about two hundred dollars cheaper a month.  Oh, such wrenching decisions!  I defied my frugal upbringing and signed a lease to rent the gorgeous apartment, which is still cheaper than the place I rent now in Evanston!  That last part just kills me.  How guilty can I feel about choosing the more expensive apartment when it will cost less than I pay right now on a graduate student’s income?

But oh, my new home.  It is so beautiful.  Right before I signed my lease, I went back to look at it one more time and I was filled with absolute delight.  That’s how a new home should make you feel, right?  Thrilled and anxious to move in this very second.  My glee over this apartment, with its open floor plan, kitchen with barside seats for keeping the cook company, ceiling fans in every room, and enough space to accommodate guests when they come to visit me, will propel me through the horror that is moving.  I haven’t moved in six years!  It’s going to take a miracle to get me packed up and out of my current apartment, which feels so much like home to me that I cannot imagine living anywhere else.  My current home and my future home are having a turf war in my heart.  I know who will win by the end of this month, but still, the battle pains me.

Besides cheap housing, there are other treats that Texas has to offer.  I really didn’t expect to find such delicious food in College Station.  What a marvelous surprise!  In addition to my new favorite coffeehouse with its addictive chocolate truffle, Hubi and I had dinner at a very, very campy Mexican restaurant that served very, very tasty food.  I ask you this: why do so many Mexican restaurants feel compelled to make their interiors so silly and bizarre?  At Los Cucos, they’ve placed giant fake palm-like plants in the middle of the room—it doesn’t get much worse than fake palm trees.  The rest of the decor must have been so hideous that I just blocked it out because I don’t remember.  But the food—that I do remember.  I ordered the Rancheros Mexicanos, a fancy name for what looked to me like tostadas, dressed up in their going-out clothes.  The kitchen was gracious enough to accommodate my vegetarian request: they covered crispy fried corn tortillas with spoonfuls of refried beans instead of chicken.  On top of this base were thick shreds of juicy cabbage and a creamy something-or-other to tie the whole thing together.  Was it slices of avocado?  Sour cream?  Both?  Apparently I remember the food less clearly than I’d like to admit.  But please don’t take that as a negative review—my shoddy memory is a result of too little sleep and too much excitement last week.  I really liked Los Cucos and plan to return, as soon as I’ve caught up on my beauty rest.

I shouldn’t poke too much fun at Los Cucos’s campy interior because I have a history of taking Matt to the campiest restaurants in Evanston.  I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I was sitting in The Lucky Platter with Daphna and Ian, thinking about the terrible tackiness of The Lucky Platter’s decor and remembering the time that Matt and I went there for lunch.  It was the first weekend we spent together, and we ate crispy thin-crust pizza and a gingery fruit salad laced with cilantro leaves.  I remember feeling so happy to be with him but also not quite sure what to do with him.  But with Matt a plan turns out not to matter too much—the important thing is that we are together.

But!  I may break my long-standing tradition of taking Matt to restaurants with good food and questionable decor.  On Friday night, Hubi, Raquel, and I went to dinner at a lovely restaurant in nearby Bryan called Square One.  I imagine this restaurant is the kind of place Matt might visit when he is in the mood for excellent food and charming ambiance.  With Hubi and Raquel, it was an evening where the food, the wine, and the conversation were so good that the details have slipped away from me, but no matter: I hope to return, perhaps escorted by my carnivore.

I am still brimming with curiosity and optimism about my impending move to Texas.  It’s a great relief to experience a hint of what life outside the lab might be like.  Surprisingly, the thought of doing science in Texas has brought me tremendous comfort.  Throughout graduate school, science was the great challenge—science, that fickle mistress who bats around experimental hopes and dreams like a cat torturing a mouse half-dead from its injuries.  I think science means something different to me now.  Unlike Texas, science is something I understand, something I feel well-equipped to perform.  It’s still hard work, but I don’t feel afraid of it.  Texas scares me as much as it intrigues me.  I don’t expect Texas to ever feel like home the way the Midwest feels like home to me.  I think that’s okay.  If home is where the heart is, my heart is already split into quarters, divided between my family in Detroit, my Chicago family, my Albion family (who have divided it even further to take it to places like Boston and Plymouth), and a certain carnivore (who, I should add, is not really a carnivore but does eat a big steak after every visit with me).  And soon enough, home will be a little apartment in Texas, where I will bake batches of granola and stir pots of soup to conjure up a feeling of contentment that is the magic of being at home.


ammie said...

Kudos on choosing the more expensive but more beautiful apartment! Space is very important, and I want you to be very happy down there in Texas :) Also, I just wanted to say again how thrilled I was to watch your public defense last week; you are a SUPERSTAR! I am so very, very proud of you.

Rosiecat said...

Ammie, you are such a great friend. I can't wait to have you come visit me! Come to Texas when Chicago's endless winter is too much and we'll cook together in my new kitchen :-)

Thank you for coming to my public defense. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me. Words just aren't enough.

Shannon said...

i am SO happy to hear you already have great things to say about your new mentor! It bodes well for this next journey:) I must say my experience has been quite different, but i'm sticking with it until the next paper. loved your description of Rancheros Mexicanos :) oooh, so many adventures to be had in your new kitchen!!!! i had a similar experience looking for apartments, except with a very diff price tag... gotta love where you live!

Rosiecat said...

Shannon, if I weren't really excited about the job waiting for me in Texas, I'm not sure I could muster up the energy to move down there! But I think my new lab is going to be a great place to work. I feel very, very lucky to have found Hubi and his lab.

But I am also excited by the good food and exploring new grocery stores, food stands, and farmers' markets. Hopefully the next time I write about Texas food adventures I'll actually be able to remember the details ;-)

Happy autumn! I look forward to some seasonal cooking over at Tri to Cook--apple pie, perhaps?

Laurie said...

My sister moved to Texas for her first job out of nursing school. From her descriptions, I'm fairly certain you're not allowed to move there without a car. That should resolve your Whole Foods situation. Besides, how can you be from DETROIT and not have a car? I'm from Windsor, and I'm sure they'd revoke my hometown status if I didn't have a car.

Your move sounds so very exciting. With such positive first impressions, Texas will be home before you know it. I love having multiple "homes", but it certainly makes conversations confusing. I'm sure your move will go smoothly, particularly when you know there's a chocolate truffle with your name on it just around the corner.

Rosiecat said...

Laurie, you're from Windsor? That's Detroit's sister city across the river! Very cool. It's true that it's very un-Detroit of me not to have a car, but that's the way things are. I'm going to assess my Texas situation before plunking down the cash for a car.

I like having multiple homes too. I have a very strong sense of place, and when I've spent a significant amount of time in a place, those feelings of home don't disappear.

The chocolate truffle shall be my not-so-secret weapon to convince any visitors that Texas hospitality is second to none ;-)