An Appraisal of Values (and More on Walking)

Since we came back to the US and felt our lives completely fall apart and run off the rails, our car has always stayed with us. The first thing we did after leaving the Volkswagen dealership was install super fancy Maxi-Cosi carseats for two-year-old toddler Coco and not-yet-born baby Theo. When it was clear he would make his grand entrance, we parked our car in the hospital parking lot and in true American car-culture fashion, we were given free parking as a bonus and congratulations. We kept the parking ticket stub and put it in Theo's memento box. The date stamp says August 1, 2014, 6:07 pm. Two days later, we took Theo home from the hospital in that same car. All four of us, buckled up safe, gliding along a tree-lined street in a sweet, quintessential American town. And when that town failed us miserably, it was that same car that carried us (and a U-Haul trailer) out of there. During hot Spokane summers when our kids wouldn't sleep or calm down, we'd all get into our air-conditioned car and take long, relaxing drives in the Palouse. There could be no greater symbol of our American life than our beloved car. It's been like a home to us in a way.

As much as I love our car, I also deeply resent it. The aforementioned carseats quickly became the bane of my existence and what seemed like such a smooth ride and enjoyable driving experience at the dealership quickly felt stodgy and frustrating when punctuated by constant parking, getting in and out and car seat buckling. I especially hated it when compared with the seamless walking and stroller pushing I missed in Zurich. Heated seats and Bluetooth connectivity can only make you so happy, it turns out. Despite the popular opinion that having a car is convenient, I'm resolutely unconvinced. Drive-thru's are not the answer and yet for so many months, when I felt the stinging of tears in my eyes as my three-year-old cried and begged, "Can't we walk instead?! Please can we walk!" on the way out to the car, they absolutely were.

I cannot tell you how utterly ridiculous it felt to pull our car into our garage when we first moved into this house. "It's like our car has a tiny house of its own!" I would exclaim to others, jazz hands out in front of me, nodding excitedly, only to be met by puzzled expressions and the shaking of heads. We have a detached garage that doesn't even have a remote opener, but it seemed extravagant and unbelievable to me. And it still does, honestly. It's bizarre, because one of my favorite books when I was little was about these personified cars who loved to get into their garage at night and rest their tired wheels, cool off their hot tires after a day of driving and just rest and unwind in their happy place, which of course was their garage. I'm not even sure what to make of this.

The thing about walking here that frustrates me so much is that even if you live in a place that's a bit walkable, it's still just out and back trips. Right now, we can walk from our house to the grocery store - and back. Or we can walk from our house to a coffee shop - and back. In Zurich, it was a constant mix of buses, trams, trains, even boats, but mostly walking. We can't do that here. Things aren't close and clustered and it doesn't make sense to walk most of the time.  It's only out and back trips, which are something we have to make time for, and that drives me nuts. I can't live this way.

And yet all this time in Spokane, I've been trying to get behind the house and yard and garage idea. When we first got here and went around with a realtor that very first weekend, I was ready to dive in and do it. By the end of that weekend, and after seeing a dozen houses, I was less enthusiastic. And by the end of that week, we concluded we were not ready to take that step. Thank goodness for that! The word mortgage comes from French and literally means to engage with death. Still, as the months went by, and I would catch myself noticing "for sale" signs as I drove through certain neighborhoods, I wondered if maybe I was just scared of buying a house - in a good way. After all, lots of things that are wonderful and good are frightening in a way, too. But I just couldn't get excited about the whole package and overall lifestyle. Even if I had a house I loved, a space I enjoyed and could tend to and make my own, I always came back around to the fact that it would still be car-based living.

A few weeks ago, I heard through the grapevine that one of our favorite houses in town might go on the market this spring. I got thrown for a loop because it's a beautiful house. We've been inside it because we know the owners and it has just about everything on my list. Hardwood floors, gorgeous, well cared for original 1940's kitchen with white cabinets and a newer gas stove, stainless refrigerator and dishwasher. A window in the bathroom, a window above the kitchen sink. Nice yard with a hot tub. Fireplace! Maybe this is it, I thought to myself. Maybe that little house would be a place where we could settle down and finally go all in on this Spokane life. I drove by. I imagined our kids walking to the park and to school. I imagined our furniture inside and wondered what colors we'd paint the walls. I thought of birthday parties in the backyard and breakfasts in the little nook off of the kitchen. I thought of pulling our car into the garage.

Ugh. Deal breaker.

I wish I could do it. It seems like we're supposed to do it. We just need to accept that once we're grown up and have kids, we have to give up certain things. We have to move to the suburbs or a smaller city and accept car-based living. But I can't. Just as I would rather have dinner all together every night than more money in our bank account, I would rather live in a small apartment in an urban setting than have a house and a yard and a garage. This is proving to be quite the stumbling block, but if nothing else, I'm grateful for all that we've been through since we got back to the US for identifying our values. I'm not sure where that leaves me, but at least I know, right? What are your values? How do you align your life with them?


  1. Gosh, I think I am still solidifying my values, our values, but one thing is for sure, my husband and I are not exactly on the same page when it comes to our place of residence. I kind of want to live somewhere urban and walkable in an apartment, but my husband wants a big piece of land where we can build our own house. I get it because that is such a lovely idea. I love the idea of having a garden and a greenhouse. I love the idea of living one place and creating stability for our kids by setting down roots, but I can't shake this feeling I have of living a globetrotting kind of life. Good thing is, I am happy with how things are right now. I am not ready for the globetrotting life, and maybe with time, I will grow to love the idea of owning our own home. But, yeah, the in and out of car seats situation blows.

  2. I think our values change when we have children. My husband and I always wanted a home in the town where we are now. Great schools, big backyard, suburbs blah blah blah. But now I'd like to be closer to nature. Maybe the beach or the mountains. Or at least in a more walkable town. I don't know if it's just me with a grass is greener mentality, or if my values have just changed to recognize how important nature and movement is to me.

  3. I'm wondering if you think you guys could settle in to a more walkable, urban US city like San Francisco, Boston, etc? Or a very small town where you can walk everywhere? Or is it the European factor? Granted the Swiss have done an amazing job of connecting EVERYthing. I also miss how hiking trails are nestled in everywhere, even backing right up to the cities.

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  4. We are in such a similar situation right now - just cannot commit permanently to the kind of lifestyle we are currently living. Our community is comprised entirely of planned, HOA-managed neighborhoods. We are still in our first year here and I knew it would be very hard for me going in, but I am struggling more than I anticipated.

    The next town over is the complete opposite. It is on the commuter rail line, so it developed in a more organic, walkable way over time into a charming town. I spend as much time there as I can, but it is nowhere near the same as simply being able to walk home from the library, or walk to the corner store when I realize we're low on milk. When we were moving to the area, I desperately wanted to move there instead, but because it is a more traditional small village there just isn't the depth of rental options that you find in corporation-planned and -managed communities like the one we currently rent in. The houses are owned by people, not companies, and those people mostly live in their houses. So we had to put that town on hold until buying is an option, which would give us access to a much different market.

    My son, so happy on our daily walks into town from our old apartment, used to sob every time I went to open the car door, when we first moved here. He doesn't do that anymore. I don't really know which makes me sadder.

    The hardest part for me is not a disagreement with my husband about this issue, but a difference in priority. He grew up in a community similar to this one and he works an insane amount of hours and is mostly home late in the evenings, so he does not really care about the walkability and the "community" feeling. He thinks it is pleasant to have a nice walkable neighborhood, but it's not a life-changer for him like it is for me. So I struggle with the feeling that if I don't advocate for this priority, it may get lost in the shuffle of all our other priorities and feel less urgent or important to him. I struggle to balance "choosing to be happy here" (because I do believe that happiness, to some extent, is an active choice just like love is - that you DO it as much as you FEEL it, and some days or phases involve a lot more DOING than FEELING) and therefore finding ways to be as happy as I can be and to gratefully enjoy my life here; and feeling like if I appear too happy, he may believe that I have settled into a level of comfort here that makes moving a much less urgent priority. For me, I want to be done here as soon as I can be, BUT I don't want to live every day kvetching about how I can't wait to be done here. For him, if he doesn't hear active complaining, he mostly convinces himself that the status quo is working pretty well and there's no need to go through the hassle of changing everything.

    A few months ago I sat him down and told him that I will be actively working on feeling the positives in my life here and that means I will not be focusing on things I dislike. Complaining about unchangeable things is not how I want to spend my life. BUT I can only do that IF I can trust that he will always understand just how important this priority is to me and how difficult it is for me to be happy here, how much energy I put into it. I felt like I needed to "free myself" of the need to make my feelings known in order to let go a little bit of the complaints and make peace with our current home.

    I think I would be happier in a fully rural setting than I am in a stereotypical American suburban setting. I could cope with not having a town to walk around etc if there were SOMETHING to walk to. A creek. A path in the woods. A treehouse. etc. I could deal with clustering errands into "drive into town day" if my days were spent roaming or playing in the great outdoors. It's the in-between that truly feels like the worst of both worlds to me - cut off from both civilization and nature.

  5. We made a huge lifestyle commitment when we moved to what, to Brits, is an isolated rural area. No shops, no gym, no restaurants for 6 miles, no cinema, clothes shops or museums for 25. But we wanted a truly rural life and we were ready, having lived in a smallish city for 7 years. We wanted especially to give our children a countryside childhood where they could run wild. 5 years on from the move we are totally happy with the choice we made and the values that espouses.

    There is so much pathos (I hope that's the right word) in your written voice whenever you veer near this subject. I wonder if you will ever be ready to commit to a garage? Is there a compromise anywhere? I know Sandpoint prides itself on being a "walking town" but that's not my experience as a visitor. Could somewhere like that up in the Panhandle or whereverwork for you? Is the SF trip a wolf in sheeps clothing scout out?

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