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  • So often when we venture out of our comfort zones, we go with a group of friends. These friends act as a buffer between you and the folks you don't know. You can avoid conversation with those who you're totally unfamiliar with and always have conversation with those you are, so even if you're in a totally different environment, your friends make it seem a little less different. So when I ventured into a part of town I've been ferociously curious about for countless years, and my friend who was my buffer dropped out of the little day trip, I was determined and I went alone. The day was too perfect to forget about the trip: sunny, warm, perfect. I've planned this trip in my head for days, I've scoped out the area on Google Maps and Bing, so I knew what I was dealing with, a little bit. Based on my observations, I was going into a part of town that was artful, expensive, and sophisticated. What my observations didn't tell me was the colloquialisms and unsaid rules that make this part of town what it is.

    In the morning, I dressed carefully- I wanted to fit in. No jumbo sized jeans, no t-shirts. I was myself though. I always dressed well, I was curious about everything, I tended to speak in a refined, intelligent voice. A standout in my daily community, but fairly anonymous here.

    I drove towards the city. I hadn't really planned on a specific route, but I knew enough from my nights of tracing the streets on Google that I could weave through the streets at a brisk pace with my Ford SUV, named Dirty Cloud (It's white with a thick layer of dust dirtying the lower parts of the car. It's also a contender for worst gas mileage in the entire world) I nearly ran into every other parked car because I was too busy gawking at the magnificent architecture. At this point, I began noticing things that I've come to accept and expect in my own community, but done completely differently here (take a look at Vahram Muratyan's book comparing Paris and New York on things from coffee to jardins, two things present in both cities, but designed totally different.)

    First of all, the streets. So narrow, so packed. I almost struggled to squeeze the Dirty Cloud through them. I had grown so accustomed to the generously sized lanes of the suburbs, where cars could choose to park on the street or on driveways, a luxury the residents of this area don't have. I also noticed parking halfway on the sidewalk, which, had no one done that, big SUV's like mine probably wouldn't have made it through. A quick thing about the speed limits and "NO PARKING" signs here- they're irrelevant. No one seemed to respect either warning and no officer seemed to mind. During the whole trip, I saw no cops. I was surprised how fast people drove through the hills, though. A Mercedes-Benz convertible zips by at 50 mph in a 30 mph zone. An Audi behind it going about the same. A BMW SUV doing at least 60 in a 45. I was shocked, but I grew immune to it. If that SUV could do it, I could, too. So I embraced this speed. I began punching it on the hills, a thrilling experience. I began moving in and out of lanes with no turn signal, squeezing in parking spots I shouldn't be able to fit into. And while in my sleepy part of town cutting someone off is next to a sin, here, it's not even though twice about. A simple wave seems to clear everything up. The biggest, most uncomfortable change was the lack of road markings: signs and painted lines. For about two thirds of the driving portion of my trip, I wasn't sure when the road I was traveling on was one lane with no parking or two lanes with parking or two lanes until five pm, where it became 1 lane and parking. I was confused and would eventually find myself behind a car that I thought was waiting to turn, but was just parked. I even honked a few times at the parked car, which garnered a few stares, and that's when the joys of being a outsider really set in. No one knew me and the only thing they could possibly know me was as "the kid who honked at a parked car", which was enough for me.

    I parked about a mile from the art museum and ran up the street. I had no idea whether I parked legally, but I wasn't really concerned at this point, I was ready to see some art and I was tired of trying to park. One thing I love about the suburbs is the many free parking options.

    A run through Mt. Adams as a hard one only because it's hilly and cramped with a million cars. Cincinnati is such a driver's city, I knew, but I still couldn't understand how so many cars could possibly be around here. The ratio car to human was at least 3:1.

    The art museum was great. Some young students played several classical selections on strings which complimented the art. I took notes on Picasso's prints, work by Monet, the mid-century "everything is art" and Nick Cave's tremendously innovative work that ties fashion with 3D collage and sculpture. I always feel at home here, but the curators are overbearing and all have thick accents, making them especially difficult to manage.

    After the museum I skipped the car and ran to a cafe I had visited a while ago. The cafe was in the basement of an apartment building and is small and warm. It's not a chain or part of a corporation, something I had grown so used to in the suburbs, so the little features such as the white board that dominates a wall where a "question of the day" is popped and doodles and thoughts are scrawled by guests throughout the day and the "drink of the month" which is invented by a barista here are just two very welcomed things.

    I walked back to the car which was thankfully still parked in the same spot and lacked a ticket. I again weaved through the streets and made my way towards another part of town. The one-way street, simply nonexistent in the 'burbs, are common here, another little thing to adjust to.

    At this point, I wondered if I was attracted to this area because it was so vividly different from what I was used to. It seemed to be the perfect inverse of what I had grown up with. Absolutely nothing was as I'd expect it.

    Unlike the area surrounding the art museum, Hyde Park Square was somewhere I hadn't been before, ever. The square itself isn't too big. About a dozen stores line either side. I overpaid for the parking meter, also a missing fixture in the suburbs, so whoever parked after me, the free hour from me will also be your last from me. I wondered down the street, peeking into the stores, galleries, and furniture stores. I hadn't been used to all this walking and the closeness of everything. It wasn't an issue and I enjoyed it. I was so used to driving everywhere, though. Here, I could park, walk to all the shops I needed, then leave instead of the "park, shop, drive to next store, park, shop, drive to next store" regimen I was so used to. I walked into a men's clothing shop. Instantly I was greeted and we carried a conversation the entire time I was in the store. I expected a greeting then to be left alone, like I am at Macy's or T.J. Maxx, but the fellow complimented me on my outfit (I figured this would pay off!) And helped me shop around. This guy convinced me to buy a $45 bow tie. Was he pestering me? No. I felt like I had a friend. Now that I think about it, was I guilted into buying it? Probably, but I hadn't experienced shopping like this before.

    I next visited an art gallery, also supremely expensive. $4,000-$25,000 pieces of art. Again, the lady, also the owner, was totally friendly and welcoming. She even offered me a glass of water during my viewing of the gallery. The next shop was a furniture store, again with terrifically friendly people, interested in my business, interested in me. A older woman in the back of the store smiled and shouted, "Don't just stare, dear. Enjoy the couch, use the couch. Are you just going to stare at the couch when it's in your home? Of course not! Take a seat!" We ended up having a conversation about fabrics and our favorite eras of design. Was it all just to sell something? Maybe. But it felt good. I was going to miss this.

    I returned to the car and began to drive home, while looking at the houses and dodging parked cars. In the suburbs where I'm accustomed to, no house is older than 10 years. Here, you could have a midcentury contemporary next to a 19th century mansion next to a brand new, chic loft. I drove through Mt. Lookout square and decided to get a haircut. I was planning to go to a Great Clips in a strip mall and have a trim for ten bucks, but I wouldn't have gotten the expert tips and a fantastic shampooing from a stylist who "really understands short hair" and who managed to coax me into moving from a disheveled look that I had maintained for at least five years to a more conservative look, a significant change, which, according to him, "is in complete sychronyzation with your wardrobe, darling. What are you, six years old? No. Time to grow up." I thought demanding, in-your-face stylists only existed in movies.

    I uttered, "Well, uh, I'd like you to just trim a little around-"

    "No darling, mommy and daddy might like it messy and long and nest-like and I'm sure it keeps them feeling nostalgic, but it doesn't match you and your personality. I will transform you into a young man and you will love it."

    The craziest thing? I do love it. He was completely right.

    I finally went home. I already miss the areas I visited today. I can only wonder how these people will handle the suburbs if they ever encounter them.
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