What the pandemic reveals about temporary permanence

By Cece King | Jun 25, 2020

I keep getting asked: “How does living in Camden compare to New York City? It must be a huge change.” Questions like this one imply drama, so you’re supposed to have something exciting to say in response. The truth is, I’m as comfortable here as anywhere else I’ve lived or visited for more than a month. When we travel for extended periods of time, as opposed to short touristic vacations, we are amenable to new ways of being and thinking, because we expect to need to be. Living in a pandemic requires a similar mindset.

Tourists experience other cultures like an audience consuming a Broadway show. This is how I experienced Camden before the plague. Growing up, I spent a week here every other summer or so. When I was little, my aunt took us to the Smiling Cow and it was tradition to boil lobsters and serve them with French and Brawn’s broccoli salad. These once-a-summer rituals made Camden feel like my secret corner of the world. Now, the broccoli salad is a regular in our fridge and Maine is much more than lobster and Whoopie pies.

As much as I’m no longer a tourist, I’m also not a local. Expat or traveler feels more appropriate. If tourists comprise an audience, expats and travelers are an orchestra, not quite in the play but close enough to form relationships with the cast so the actors become people, not their characters. After our requisite two-week quarantine, my sister and I got jobs in town and have been adapting to the rhythms of this community. As mundane as that sounds, my experience has been exciting. If I told you I spent the last months roaming the streets of a quaint, seaside town with pretty architecture you may assume I was talking about Antibes in France or Cadaqués in Spain, but the reality would be our very own Camden.

Travel writer Pico Iyer observed, “we are optimists abroad as readily as pessimists as home.” I am not on vacation, nor am I home, so my frame of mind falls somewhere in between Iyer’s binary. On vacation, the clock is always running out, so there’s rarely enough time to understand what is real versus constructed for tourists. At home, the illusion of permanence means we’re often too jaded to explore. I now know Camden better than most neighborhoods across the City’s five boroughs. If I can travel in my hometown and set up home in a place that was once a vacation spot, it’s our attitudes towards places that define how exciting they feel and not the places themselves.

The idea of putting down roots in a specific, unmoving location hasn’t always made sense to me, and even less so during a pandemic. Right now my friends and family are scattered among Hong Kong, South Korea, Paris, Boston, Burlington, New York, Nantucket… You name it, they’re there, and with them are my proverbial roots. Of course, I’m currently living with my parents and sister, and if there was a cliched metaphor for something deeper than roots, that’s what our family would be. My point is, we construct the idea of “permanence” to make ourselves feel secure.

My “permanent” bedroom is in the City, but in 2020, I’ve spent more nights in my college dorm and in my borrowed bed in Camden than at home. In New York, my room is bright and colorful and my paintings hang alongside a vintage poster and my postcard collection. In Camden, my borrowed bedroom has simple furniture, a white bedspread, and two photographs of loons. While I have nothing against the loons, they clearly deviate from my personal decor preferences. Our stuff may represent us, but we aren’t the culmination of our accumulation. The same thing goes for where we reside, whether by choice or circumstance. I may have grown up in Manhattan, and as much as that island has shaped who I am, it also hasn’t.

There is no clear timeframe for how long our lives will revolve around COVID-19. I’m not sure when I will return to New York or go back to campus to resume my education. So, for the first time in my life, the illusion of permanence can’t apply. However, if we consider mom-and-pop shops going in and out of business or building over parks and demolishing buildings to build new ones as the natural evolution of cities and towns, what about those spaces is permanent even in normal times? Nothing is new aside from my perception of what it means to live somewhere.

By this point you have probably gleaned that I am part of the hordes of city dwellers who flocked every which way out of those congested spaces and I am incredibly grateful to my aunt and uncle for lending us their house. It’s ironic that the best way to handle a pandemic that has impeded travel is to adopt a traveler’s mentality. Because of that, transitions that seem scary become fun. And that’s my long-winded explanation for why I don’t have a more interesting answer to “How does living in Camden compare to New York City?”

Cece King is studying geography, Middle Eastern Studies and Spanish at Dartmouth College. She also attended The School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Washington, DC, and was a contributing writer with Straus News publications in New York. She is writing for The Camden Herald and Maine Women magazine this summer.

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