1. Your friends (and not always the ones you’d expect).
It’s difficult to admit that you may not know how close you are with people when you are constantly surrounded by the same circle of friends. These people, through a potent combination of familiarity and convenience, can often seem far more committed and important than they are. And when you move away, and the onus on keeping things alive is on the both of you — and requires making a concerted effort to keep in touch and have things to say to one another outside of “What’s new with you?” — many of the people we assumed would be there forever can easily fall by the wayside. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just how the world works. Some of us have an easier time staying close, and some of us were never really that close to begin with. But the friends who prove themselves to be worth it, friends you may not have even realized were so caring when you had the privilege of being around them all the time, will now only highlight how sad it is to be so far away.
2. Having a concrete role.
There is something extremely comforting about knowing exactly where you fit in. You’re not famous, sure, but you have your place. You are known for certain things, have established a kind of reputation, and have a solid group to move around in. It’s hard to realize just how important it is to have an identity reinforced by (and in many ways created by) your surroundings until you no longer have it anymore. It’s like suddenly getting the script ripped from your hands and still being expected to perform — you just don’t know how things work. In your new city, you are just an anonymous face, free of purpose or background. And yes, it can be thrilling and refreshing, but it can also be a harsh reminder that you are not special. You are not different. Your force and presence is established — like everyone else’s is — with time and care, and intimately knowing your surroundings.
3. Knowing the people in your neighborhood.
The world is simply made so much more wonderful when you can walk down your street and know who you are going to encounter. You know your neighbors (at least some of them), you know the people who will be at your favorite bar, you know who works at your dry-cleaners and post office and print shop and hair salon. You had an established network that cushioned you and made you feel (rightfully so) that your presence was welcome and enjoyed. Having to recreate all these ties, and get used to different faces and dispositions and conversations is feasible, but makes you long for the days when things were simple and obvious. We don’t need a Cheers, per se, but it’s nice to feel like you are an appreciated customer and not simply a wallet with a body attached to it.
4. The way your senses felt.
So much of your old town (and the nostalgia that can overwhelm you when you think about it) isn’t even tangible. It’s a smell, a taste, the friendly din that filled a certain bar or the way the sun used to set behind one specific church on one specific hill. You catch a whiff of clove, maybe, and you suddenly remember that one coffee shop that made that spiced cider that people would drive from miles away to come drink in the winter. You hear a laugh and look around because it sounds just like your favorite waiter from that one restaurant you and your friends used to go to every Thursday night for their cheap pitchers and enormous burgers. You put your feet in sand and it feels like the sand you used to be able to walk to every night if you want to. You can recreate it, perhaps, but it will never be quite the same.
5. Being a big fish in a small pond.
Once you conquer your surroundings, once you feel like you know every nook and cranny of what a town has to offer, there is a feeling of invincibility — even immortality. It’s often what keeps people from leaving a town to begin with (or at least delays it significantly), this feeling of familiarity that wraps around you like your favorite blanket. There is nothing to be afraid of when you know what tomorrow is going to bring, who you are going to see, and where you’re going to go. If nothing ever changes, it feels like you’re never really having to grow old. And yes, this feeling can often take a turn for the claustrophobic — and become the impetus to leave for so many — but it certainly seems appealing when your new city feels completely indifferent to your presence.
6. Making mistakes.
There is a certain freedom to making mistakes in your old town. You have so much history there, so much youth there, that it feels like the place where experimenting is expected. When you choose to come to a new place, though, to establish yourself as an adult with their own agenda, the pressure is on to make it count. No one wants to fall flat on their face after they proudly announced to everyone that they were leaving and actually took the leap to make it happen. Your chosen city becomes the place where Big Things have to happen, where a lot is expected of you and you have to prove your adulthood. Your old town becomes even rosier in retrospect, forever a place where you were allowed to be foolish.
7. The version of yourself who lived there.
Above all else, you will miss yourself. You realize how much you have changed since you’ve moved — how much the act of moving alone tends to change people — and long to relive all of the things you used to be when you were back there. You were freer, you knew your surroundings and your place in things. You hadn’t yet decided where you were going to go next. You dated people who were wrong for you with no intention of thinking long-term. You made choices that now you look back on with mild amusement (and possibly a slight cringe). And yes, you know that you are not going to be that person again, and that you don’t want to. You are happy to have moved on, geographically and emotionally, and become someone more in control of their future. But it is nice to remember that you didn’t always have things together. It’s nice to remember the person you were in the little pond, the person you were before you realized how difficult leaving might be. It’s nice to love who that person was, even if they’ve changed for the better.