I’m now old enough (and have moved around enough) to know that there’s no way to form an objective opinion on any place I find myself. This is true on vacation, when I allow myself to fall in love with a city just because I’m experiencing all the good times it has to offer and spending time with Adam and not working. It’s also true, in a more complicated way, each time I visit my old college town. The first few times I visited Davis after graduation, I felt such a palpable sense of nostalgia— for the close friendships I was forming, for the way I freely expressed my creativity without career-related motivation, for the daily pursuit of intellectual growth, for the spontaneity that having little-to-no responsibilities made possible, and for Davis itself, that small-town-Bohemian-utopia I grew to know and love during my four years there.
Three weeks ago, Adam and I packed up our car and drove that long, flat stretch of the I-5 Freeway from Los Angeles to Davis for a quick visit. I love this drive— not because large quantities of livestock and unremarkable, yellow farmland is my particular brand of scenery. It’s because I get to slip into that meditative trance that only very long car rides can induce and just think. Inevitably, I think a lot about Davis— how I was when I went to school there, my idea of happiness, my expectations for the future, my ideas about friendships and soul mates— and how those things have shifted (or sometimes, radically changed) over time.
I also anticipate the rush of nostalgia that washes over me when we exit the freeway and drive through downtown Davis, past the Art Building where I spent countless hours in the dark room, the mossy-green creek at the Arboretum, old apartments, and the farmer’s market structure where I bought my groceries on Saturdays. It’s not that any of those places are particularly remarkable. It’s that Davis holds a snapshot of who I was at that moment when I was naive and learning about my creative self and understanding how to love others (friends and Adam) with abandon and finding out that the world makes more sense when I write about it. Since Davis is a small town, I can basically map this entire intellectual/emotional/creative journey within an eight-block radius. It’s like a nostalgia minefield.
But it didn’t happen this time. Not even as we walked through downtown, with its kaleidoscopic murals and eclectic public art installations. Or as we stopped for coffee at Mishka's, a bright orange café that I could always count on to keep hours as late as mine and serve me killer coffee and lemon bars while doing it (Mishka's gets credit for assisting 95% of my creative output during college). It sounds easy to fall in love with all that, right? And that’s the the thing— I do still love it. The feeling I got from being in Davis this time was more one of warm familiarity than nostalgia. I think there’s something about having enough distance from a place that allows you to grow apart from it, in a healthy way. I’m no longer the person I was when I lived here, nor am I longing to be (as I was in those scary first years after graduation). I was able to appreciate all the things I love about this town and the memories I have here without wanting to dive back into my life here.
Here’s one thing about Davis that evokes strong memories: Davis Noodle City. As a college student separated from her parents and the comforts of home, I quickly learned to self-soothe via their Chinese 5-spice beef noodle soup. There is something universally understood about the comforts of red meat that tastes like good broth and easily falls apart when prodded with a spoon (or fork or chopsticks). The French have boeuf bourguignon. The Vietnamese have pho. Davis has Noodle City 5-spice beef noodle soup. Bright, earthy cilantro and spicy chiles help cut through and refine all that salty, fatty, broth-y goodness. The result is everything you needed to nourish yourself, physically and emotionally, in one bowl. If you ever go try this soup, you’ll understand why I lean on the table with my elbows when I eat this— it melts your heart (I mean, emotionally. Probably also physically— but in an enjoyable way).
Farmer’s markets shouldn’t fall under the “guilty pleasure” category of activities— but this is what the Davis Farmer’s Market was for me. I had a small grocery budget during college and, for practicality’s sake, should probably have been shopping at the local Safeway. But I quickly learned that buying the brightest, snappiest snap peas and floral-scented stone fruit picked only a day earlier was my splurge of choice. I would come to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings, as often as I could, and let my senses decide what to cook that week. If it smelled, tasted, or looked the best, I would find a way to use it. (Thanks, Food Network and Bon Appétit, for giving me all the recipe inspiration I needed during those years.) I also came for the apple juice. Because there isn’t anything else as cold or sweet or apple-y as this apple juice.
Thanks, Davis— for a good time and a lesson in what it means to really love a place from your past with clarity and perspective.