I write from the oldest city in Western Europe, inhabited a millennium before traders rested their feet in what would become Paris, and 500 years before the fabled Romulus and Remus established Rome.
The city is Lisbon, Portugal — the latest in a string of idyllic cities where my wife and I have lived for my job as a linguist and translation consultant. As I write, I’m sitting in an outdoor cafe in the middle of winter. But it’s 60 degrees outside, same as every day. My Minnesota friends and family tell me I’m living a dream. Yet I find myself dreaming of the City of Lakes.
Isn’t it a bit absurd to be dreaming of Minneapolis in Lisbon? Shouldn’t it be the other way around, with those stuck in cold places dreaming of Barcelona or Lisbon or Paris? But here I am, dreaming of a faraway home.
When we’re back in Minnesota, my wife and I can see the awe of adventure in the eyes of those who ask about our lives. We get it; adventure is glamorous. But when you’re on the other side, the mystique fades, and you long for rootedness.
People must be planted to bloom — and the world’s sexiest cities aren’t always good places to be planted.
The pre-eminent cities of the world may be great for twenty-somethings to begin their careers. But when you’re a touch older — more mature and wanting to start a family — you find yourself paying 60 percent of your salary for a one-bedroom apartment while watching your community turn over biennially.
So, from time to time, I find myself peeking at Zillow.com’s housing listings in our favorite Minneapolis neighborhoods. I’ve never looked for real estate in Cape Town or London or Lisbon or any of the other “world-class” cities where we’ve lived. I only look in Minneapolis and St. Paul — places I like to call “whole life” cities.
Here’s something I’ve noticed while living abroad: There are many qualities that make big cities great, and the Twin Cities often has more of them.
The Twin Cities metro area is the 16th largest in the country, but measures Top 5 on almost every discernible quality-of-life or cultural metric.
We’re rated among the happiest and least stressed. We have high wages and low rents, high education and low poverty, great work-life balance, consistent community and world-class art institutions. Our cultural offerings punch far above our population’s weight class, bested only by the older global-size cities on the East Coast or that great city on the Third Coast, Chicago.
I guess that’s why Minneapolis and St. Paul have some of the lowest measured outflows of any American cities. When people move here, they don’t leave. There’s no reason to. If you stumble into paradise — even if it’s a bit frosty — you’d be a fool to leave.
Of course, the joke has it that people stay because their cars won’t start.
Back in Lisbon, my wife and I take a stroll with our son. It’s 62 and sunny in January. We saunter through parks filled with retired Portuguese men in Irish flat caps playing dominoes at fixed tables, swearing with slang we’ve not yet learned. Elderly ladies chastise us for taking a child outside without a stocking cap. “Faz muito frio! Tem frio!” And they add a shiver to drive home the message, thinking we don’t understand. Our 1-year-old smiles at their little show, content as can be. He’s a Minnesotan, after all.
My wife and I smile and think of our hardy youths, years spent bundled (or not) while the mercury plunged far lower than on this beautiful day. January might be brutal back home, but it’s still home.
Home is filled with our people. People who know 62 is warm and our son is perfectly fine without a hat. People who know that if cold weather made you sick then we wouldn’t be one of the healthiest states, Canadians wouldn’t outlive Southerners and broomball wouldn’t be so fun.
Now, quality-of-life stats make for fun discussion points (read: bragging rights) with other Americans. But the truth is, they’re not enough to turn the needle of the human heart.
For in that frosty tundra of Minnesota lie a thousand hearths of family — and friends so close you’d think they’re family. They are the ones who saw us born and baptized. They stood by through soaring joy and tragic loss. Minnesota is our heartland.
That’s why a University of Minnesota sweatshirt, spotted somewhere around the world, sends us running across the street like fools to meet a retired couple hailing, invariably, from Bloomington. Turns out, they know somebody we know.
We forget the elixir of Minnesotan air until we fly home again and step off the plane and that tonic lights up our whole beings. We enter the familiar terminal and it speaks to our soul, prodding at the catch in our throats.
This is the only city where somebody awaits us at baggage claim.
For now, the Zillow e-mails keep coming. I’ve spent the past eight years living and working all over the world, but Minneapolis or St. Paul will claim us once again.
Jordan Monson is a linguist and a translation consultant working with communities, churches and governments in the former Portuguese empire in Africa. He and his wife, Aubrey, come from Minnesota. They don’t know where they’ll be living in six months.