A Reverse Study Abroad: One New Yorker's Lockdown in the Heartland

A Reverse Study Abroad: One New Yorker's CoronaTrail Through the Heartland
Cassandra Csencsitz is a proud member of the SteamLine Team, providing copy and branding consultation since 2016. She is a New York-based writer, editor, and adventuresome mother of two. For five months her family's SteamLines accompanied them through the Heartland, providing dignity and delight no matter where they called home. *And please note, all masks were removed for pictures in the making of this blog!

The Great Escape

On March 30th, my two children and I fled New York for a journey that took us to seven states, over a dozen beds, and an emotional ride that proved vital at turning points for our family and the world. During the two weeks prior to leaving New York, my husband’s Greenwich Village restaurant permanently closed, my contract work was halved, the children and I were WFH (that’s working from hell), and Harlem stores were all but stripped of their essentials. It didn’t take long for me to decide that I’d rather be trapped outside my home of 16 years than within it. We were unfortunate in the bleakness of our economic moment, but fortunate to have widespread support and every reason to hope.

After a flurry of debate over which lucky state would get three blighted New Yorkers, we decided to safely travel and “quarantine” before seeing grandparents. The kids and I awkwardly donned those early masks and were shocked to find ourselves alone on flight to Knoxville, where a saint-like cousin had offered her support and, critically, the tennis courts remained open. It was instant summer and for ten days we played house in an Airbnb the size of five New York apartments while discovering my cousin's world and the lush beauty of Tennessee. (Thus began a series of “we could live here” thought experiments that would continue over the next five months.) From there we took $30 flights to my brother’s in Boulder where an Easter snow intensified the surrealism of our new placeless time warp. The days and seasons blurred while we shared in the joy of my brother’s new home and baby on the way*.

So much depends upon the kindness of family. Cordelia plays at yard work on our study abroad in Longmont, Colorado. *Said baby is now healthily here!
So much depends upon the kindness of family. Cordelia plays at yard work on our study abroad in Longmont, Colorado. *Said baby is now healthily here!

The Twin Ports

The home-school "grace period" seemed over; it was now time to buckle down and ride out the cyber school year in one stable place. All roads lead to home, and my birthplace in “Minnsconsin,” the Twin Ports of Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wisc., boasts very cold coordinates but warm grandparents who wanted us in spite of the risks. If I had once fled home for New York, this was now a reverse study abroad, a trip forward and backward in time, and a chance to more closely examine how people are doing things where I came from, what life and America feel like outside our New York bubble. Nostalgically, I got to rediscover my hometown on foot, initially still training for the 50th running of the NY marathon (and my first!) that would never be. I got to speedwalk and talk with my mom, sing with my daddy’s band, organize yearbooks and notebooks from twenty years of scholarship, and reconnect with relatives and old friends in deep and important ways. I spent Mother’s and Father’s Day with my parents for the first time since 1997, as well as their 45th Anniversary in between. It bordered on an absurdly meaningful time that, while not without its challenges, simulated security for us during a most doubtful hour.

I like to say I’m from a border town. This shot is on the Minnesota side of Lake Superior, in exquisite Duluth with our beloved Aerial Lift Bridge in the distance.

In June as states dabbled with reopening, my little family became the beneficiary of many tentative hosting firsts. Even when uncomfortable and afraid, many old friends and family members were compelled to issue their first invitations post-quarantine to us. We talked from six feet, gestured hugs, shivered on decks, were sprayed down before entering to use facilities, got in the habit of BYOC (bringing your own cups). We learned a lot about the real meaning and sacrifice of hospitality, that ancient offering of shelter from the storm. While everyone had it hard in different ways, our community knew that we were indefinitely displaced, living out of our luggage in my grandparents’ old bedroom. They were curious, concerned, and generous with love.

Those first months free of New York, which overnight had started to resemble something out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, had a good-riddance feel to them. I glorified suburbia and space, and most of all my getaway car, a Subaru I had panic-purchased to ensure our escape as the city rattled shut. But to tell the truth, the New York I loved had long been receding in memory, as the tag-in/tag-out of two working parents who still couldn’t really get ahead approached burnout and the reality of growing kids and increased cost of living collided with our former dreams. It was time to understand if, why, and how we wanted to keep fighting to live there.

The Twin Cities

While working both on our NY return and an elusive Plan B, we said a tearful good-bye to my parent-hosts of three months and headed south to Minneapolis/St. Paul, home to another supportive cousin and my twin best friends (we call it Twinnesota), where we had found an exceptional tennis camp and lovely short-term rental. As we immersed ourselves in local culture, it didn’t take long to discover that Minneapolis should get credit as the world's most extraordinary quality of Lake-City life. Winter looms large, but in the meantime natives go after summer like their lives depend on it. We were staggered by the bounty of beaches, parks, and tennis courts—it’s like one big resort and metropolis combined. For five happy weeks we played Minneapolitan, yet at the same time I was extolling that lifestyle, I finally began missing New York, a permanent place of our own, and the complete lives we had in place there. It seemed my husband’s restaurant might be reborn and that we could have sound reasons to give New York another go.

I'll take Minneapolis. At least that's how I felt when living out of my Yeti in peaceful Golden Valley, where for five sweet weeks my best friends and I got to pretend we were raising our children together.

When in Chicago...

Packing up this time, I had some denial about our adventures coming to an end. It’s hard to get off the coronacoaster. Had I gotten addicted to the geographical cure? To the catharsis of packing, purging, moving? The simulated clean slate? Possibly. To soften the blow, we planned a nostalgic stopover in Chicago. I had lived there after undergrad, over 9/11 in fact, and my mom was born in adjacent Evanston when my grandfather was at Northwestern. It’s one of our family’s homes-away-from-home, and I hadn’t been since 2004. My visceral reaction to re-experiencing the Windy City (fact: nicknamed for its windbagginess, not its wind!) is that we could have no greater symbol when seeking faith in America and its cities than Chicago. Even with its recently looted downtown on curfew and fortressed by lifted bridges, this most "muscular" city, as my grandpa called it,  could not but shine. In just over 36 hours of exploration, we fell in love with Andersonville and its fabulous Guesthouse Hotel, had a “fancy” dinner en famille at the lovely Bar Roma, and praised the gods of good restaurants and cities. I hunted old addresses in my running shoes, and we boarded a Shoreline Architecture Tour from an eerily vacant Navy Pier, all before being hosted once again at the home of another childhood best friend. We had officially nailed “When In Rome…”

Our umpteenth Rome away from Rome, The Guesthouse Hotel, were once luxury condos converted after the crash of 2008 into absurdly spacious suites. With its vintage lobby, our SteamLines also felt right at home.

As we ferried into the belly of Chicago, the emotions of our entire journey came to a head, embodied in the very existence of this tour. Our guide, no doubt a Chicago actress missing her stage, gave the tourist performance of a lifetime...to all ten of us on board. That the tour was operating felt intensely moving, a show-must-go-on mentality that made you want to live up to its nobility. The day was a marvel of still sunniness, and we were awed by one building after the next while choice anecdotes deepened our appreciation for the risks, mistakes, and corrections it takes to build a skyline. My eyes smarted as we passed Lyric Opera, where I’d once worked in the box office, and I was filled with a sense of deep human pride inspired by the grandest notions about what people can pull off. 

The Canary Mini takes an Architecture Tour of Chicago
My Canary SteamLine Mini carried me through summer! Here it looks out on Chicago's Merchandise Mart, the largest building in the world when it opened in 1930.

New York Sweet New York

Once again, I was loathe to leave, but it was time to rip off the band-aid. And by now the euphoria of packing had turned to panic—it was getting old. After a short but sweet overnight in Pittsburgh, we finally pulled into New York half expecting a city on fire. It didn’t take long to see that the contrast between the view of New York from the headlines and the vibrant city I returned to was incongruous indeed. I kept looking for signs of ruin and not finding them. Upon a “comeback run” along my favorite Central Park loop our first day back, I saw a park full of masked abiders, friends, and families walking and playing together. There were notably more dads than nannies, and everyone seemed both to be moving slower yet more fit, having used their furloughs well. I had two fabulous dinners in Harlem where our new normal of muffled order placements and temperature checks before bathroom visits felt like acts of unity rather than pains in the neck. Maybe Rome wasn’t falling after all.

Restaurant In Harlem

A reunion dinner with besties at Chaiwali, a wonderful Harlem food and chai Indian restaurant whose team fell over themselves with kindness (in spite of our overexcited girls).

I bring back to New York an abundance of lessons from my study abroad. What defines your family when you are squatting for months on end? It turns out the same things that define you at home. We are all little more than snails who carry our values (and our failings) on our backs. By the end of five months, my family could pop-up shop in no time, unpacking with masterful efficiency, settling into new digs with the routines of musicians on tour. “Make yourselves at home.” “No problem!” As guests, we became even better chameleons. Each family is a micro-culture, and you learn to pick up on the habits and behaviors that keep your hosts comfortable. You become adept at pitching in and expressing gratitude. We learned to live with fewer things, to adapt and improvise without luxuries that once seemed “non-negotiables” but may be little more than overcompensation for more vital ways one’s cup is not being filled. I had to take a hard look at my ephemeral creature comforts versus my eternal human needs—and which I should really be investing in.

If you have to live out of your luggage, I wouldn't have it any other way! Our SteamLine served us beautifully as our mobile closet between doors.
If you have to live out of your luggage, I wouldn't have it any other way! Our SteamLines served us beautifully as our mobile closet between doors. These cases include The Editor, The Maisonetteand The Pioneer (whose comeback you can look for later this fall!).

People talk a lot about New York’s density and intensity. It is the epicenter of many things. While it may be easier to get COVID here, it’s also easier to meet a wide range of fascinating people engaged in things you love. As I examined the virtues of town versus country and whether or not city living was any longer right for our family—what New York even means right now—I pondered what brought us here in the first place. Theatre, museums, restaurants, yes, all the features of a city that are temporarily dormant or operating as shadows of themselves. But more fundamentally, as Jerry Seinfeld critically cited, it’s about energy. New York is the land of hopes and dreams. It is a den of aspiration where you unapologetically compete with others but most of all yourself, and fight hard to have it all. It’s our right to do “too much,” pay the price at times, and adjust priorities along the way. We own our choices and our souls here. And my critical discovery: those hopes and dreams can exist whether or not you “make it” in sensational terms, ever get to star on stage or earn so much money you feel fabulous for a while. Because you don’t ever have to quit dreaming. You do never know. You must keep surprising yourself.

Living in NYC used to be its own accomplishment, a badge of honor that you could afford to live here, even if barely. It has some brand damage now and needs to prove itself to the world again. Personally, this time around I want to approach things a little differently. Instead of “getting my money’s worth,” I want to contribute to meaningful work and behaviors that support the comeback, help get this wounded giant back on its feet, and better feet to boot. And if I’m going to be really honest, New York happiness for me at 40 probably exists somewhere between the bluster of dreaming big and the ability to cope when faced with uncertainty. It strikes me that these are the lessons of 2020 and travel alike. Like countless others, my family might have had to cancel our relatively glamorous summer plans (borrowing a friend's studio in Southern France), but we got to navigate the worlds of family and lifelong friends the likes of which we’ll never experience again. As for France, we’ll pick up where we left off in 2021. And as for New York, whatever fits and starts it endures before or after that eventual vaccine, I’m pretty sure we’ve got this.

Cassandra Csencsitz with her SteamLine Luggage Mini

This wonderful new exhibit, a collaboration between Nordstrom New York and Long Gallery Harlem, embodies the greatness of our city. I'm so proud to know Rosa Barney, who conceived and produced it.

Cassandra's piece kicks off a new SteamLine series, Our Worldview, in which members of our team share their personal experiences and revelations around travel in many forms.

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Further Reading From the Travel Beautifully Blog & Cassandra Csencsitz 

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