Moving to Villa Villekulla

This piece  first appeared on my blog at shareable.net.

We were moving from Texas to northern California, under economic duress. There is something about driving long distances (as opposed to flying) that makes it easier handle the change from one environment to a vastly different one. In the course of your journey you can see the land swell and flatten, observe the terrain and climate change from curving mountainous roads to vast swathes of desert, and note the commensurate architectural adaptations. These are microhabitats, with each community and household navigating a different course.

We were leaving an exurban planned community that had seemed as desolate and unwelcoming as the lunar surface. When we arrived in the house we had chosen and rented by proxy, what was immediately surprising and thrilling to me was how urban it felt. Railroad tracks were a few hundred yards away from our small one-way street, and the corner strip of businesses included a mortuary, pawn shop, donut shop, and a narrow convenience store with two small aisles stacked high with Mexican pastries and cheap wine.

My positive reaction was short-lived. Although our house had a lovely rock facade, a deep and cozy front porch, and an apple tree whose blossoms were in full flower, when we went in, our economic downturn took a shift to the visceral. The walls were cheaply paneled, the aged carpeting was a matted and mottled light brown, the appliances were vintage early-eighties, and the windows either had rotten and water-logged wooden sills or cheap metal frames.

We sat on the decrepit spiral staircase (which looked hand-built by a carpenter of dubious abilities) and snapped a family portrait. Day One. Our faces in this photo are tired and apprehensive, the kids in a weary cluster at our knees.

Your home is wherever your bed is, and that very first night, we were all tucked into clean linens in our strange, new, small and oddly shaped rooms. But in the light of day, we still saw the funky junky-ness of this new dwelling of ours. There was a moist quality to the air, and a noticeable whiff of Dogs Who Had Come Before. Where once a balcony had been, there was plywood attached with foam goo forming a new “wall.” The backyard was shabby, with one side of the privacy fence leaning at a near forty-five degree pitch.

There had been a beige luxury to the house we lived in during affluent times. The carpet was so plush, you left perfect footprints squished into its thickness as you made your way (barefoot, naturally) across the room. There was a garden tub with large corner windows inside an expansive master bathroom, quietly humming central heat and air, and appliances with a heavy luster to them. The walls and ceilings met at right angles, with no softness or crumble to the plaster and drywall. Just the crisp reliability of a brand-new home and the suburban neighborhood in which it sat–gated, landscaped, predictable.

In the new/old house, creaky as a wooden ship, you can drop a marble in the farthest interior corner, and it will take a hilariously random path through the rooms, down invisible slopes and channels, until it finally clicks to a stop in the corner that tips deepest into the earth. And there’s even a basement, which is unusual in California. There are Christmas lights swinging from dusty cords down there, and the walls smell like soil and wet concrete.

One room is too small for furniture. But it is not a closet. It HAS a closet.

We added the magic little-by-little, as we went through this transformative journey from the comforts of what we had back then, and into our new, low-income recession life. Like the marble in the corner, we slid down . . . over . . . and through until we came to a stop and stayed. And that was when we painted the walls yellow–an acid citron, like the world’s ugliest crayon, because that’s the best kind of pretty. Against that went aqua furniture, and pink fabric in great swaths over the windows that don’t quite close. Red shag rugs, lamps from thrift stores, a multicolor dollhouse we rebuilt as a family. Silk monarch butterfly ornaments hang from mirrors and door frames, and cuckoo clocks from my husband’s German childhood occupy much of the wall space.

The man who owns this house is mostly a name on an envelope I mail every month. He has a beard and his eyes twinkle when he smiles. He remembers raising his sons in this house, twenty years ago. They kept rabbits in the backyard, and chickens like we do now. We eat oranges, pears, and apples from the same trees that they harvested and turned into jams and sauces.

Wild Bill watches over everything on our block. He’s the big, bald tattoo artist across the street, and a minor celebrity in this town. He leaves gifts on our porch: a fruit-picker, a pint of leftover soup, a wagon for the kids.

When everything is rough and ragged, the logical course is to festoon it with as much multicolor madness as you can muster. At least that’s my instinct. There was an untouchable sterility to the perfection of “success,” like if you made too sudden a movement, you’d disrupt the delicate balance that held it all together. The beige walls stayed beige, all rooms were regulation size, there were no chickens anywhere nearby, and a dropped marble made a small spiral and sat, solemn and as still as a stone on the kitchen floor.

8 thoughts on “Moving to Villa Villekulla”

  1. Hi Corbyn, I just read your great “Broke, But Not Broken” article in my newest MORE magazine and had to look up your blog. Reading your article gave me the chills because the similarities are remarkable (other than age, I am 57). Hubs and I both lost our steady and satisfying jobs last May, he is now a cashier and I am bringing in what I can by writing at home. Was a lifelong dream to be a writer but the fun is missing when we feels so panicked about not losing our house.
    Anyway, so many of your words here resonate with me, the whole getting soft, giving up sensation. Last week we went into a county office as clients looking for help…the same office where I used to volunteer with helping out “poor” families. We are now the “new poor”, lots to digest!
    Thanks for expressing what is in my heart and still too embarrassed to let out.
    Susie

  2. Me again….btw, in that county office we had good news and bad news. Good news is that we easily qualified for assistance. The bad news was the same as the good news. Sigh

  3. Dear Corbyn,

    I just read your article “Broke, but not Broken” in More magazine, which I thought was wonderful and moving. It was sad but at the same time uplifting. What I was thinking while reading it was “Good for you” and “they will be alright because she is a superb writer.”

    Although I am not in the same situation as you, there is a lot I can relate to. Originally from New York, my husband and I have been living in Greece for the past 12-13 years (we’re Greek-American) and after being unemployed for about a year, we decided to move back to the States. We came in March and have been interviewing and trying to settle here. It’s been emotionally hard because our immediate families are in Greece and we feel “forced” to make this move and leave them behind.

    We have friends in Greece, who although they can find work have difficulty getting paid. It’s pretty scary.

    My parents went through some difficult times. They too emigrated to Canada and later to the US in the late ’60s, because my dad couldn’t find work and they were eating chickpeas every night for dinner. They’ve told me stories that were hard for me to relate to because it was nothing I had experienced – or expected to experience – in my lifetime.

    The difference is that that generation (my parents are now 80) grew up with hardship. They lived through a war, the German occupation, hunger and poverty. After that, the only way to go was up.

    Our generation (I’m 43) grew up with expectations. We had everything as kids, we went to college, got graduate degrees and considered some things to be a given. We were NOT prepared for this. Especially in Greece, which still has a strong family culture, you never thought there would be soup kitchens or people rummaging through dumpsters for food or kids passing out in school because they don’t have enough to eat.

    I do hope that things will change for you and your family soon. Congratulations on your strength of spirit, perseverance, and beautiful work. And no, don’t take the bus for that overnight fast-food job!

  4. Dear Corbyn,

    I just read your “Broke, but not Broken” article in More magazine and wanted to congratulate you on your wonderful writing. The article was both sad and uplifting at the same time and all I could think of while reading it was “they’re going to be okay because she’s a superb writer.”

    While I am not in your situation, there is a lot in your story that I could relate to. Originally from New York, my husband and I have been living in Greece for 12-13 years (we’re Greek-American). But after being unemployed for about a year now we decided to return to the US. We came in March and have been job hunting and trying to settle here. The whole endeavor has been emotionally hard since our immediate families are in Greece and we feel “forced” to make this move.

    We have friends in Greece who are literally living hand to mouth and while they can find work, getting paid is another story.

    My parents have lived through much hardship. They’ve told me stories that I hadn’t experienced – nor did I expect to experience – in my lifetime. They emigrated to the States in the late ’60s because my dad couldn’t find work and they were eating chickpeas every night. But their generation (they’re 80 now) grew up under worse circumstances than that. They lived through war, a German occupation, hunger and poverty. The only way was up after that.

    Our generation (I’m 43) grew up with expectations. We had everything as kids, we went to school, college, earned graduate degrees and considered certain things – like a decent-paying job – as a given. We were not prepared for this. Especially in Greece, where there is still a strong family culture, you’d never expect to see soup kitchens, people rummaging through dumpsters for food or kids passing out in school because they don’t have enough to eat.

    I hope that things will change for you and your family soon. Congratulations on your strength of spirit, perseverance and beautiful work. And no, don’t take the bus for that overnight fast food job!

  5. I seriously need to know where I can get the picture of the Safety Dance lyrics! I love that song!!!!!!!!!!! I followed a link to your blog from AOL, and I am hooked on your stories.

    1. Girl, I literally stumbled across it on etsy. Thank you for your incredibly enthusiastic and kind-hearted support. Be sure to share my writing with others. It’s so thrilling to have readers! I can’t even tell you!

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