Confessions of an Albany ex-pat

By Nicole Messier

soapbox badgeAs my plane left San Francisco in 2008, a host of premeditated, depressing songs were set to play on my iPod. One of them was "The City," by Sara Bareilles. The chorus of the song embraced my feelings at the time:

"Here in these deep city lights;
Girl could get lost tonight;
I'm finding every reason to be gone;
Nothing here to hold on to."

Exhausted and burnt-out from Silicon Valley, I had booked a one-way ticket to Albany. The new job I had lined up fell through just months after my arrival. And the adventure that ensued has made me keenly aware of the nuances of "SmAlbany."

The culture shock I experienced after coming back to the Capital Region practically warranted a passport to live here again.

As I moved from city chic to suburban simple, even the tiniest of things compounded on each other -- from not being able to buy alcohol in grocery stores, to the fact that every restaurant menu featured breaded chicken fingers as an entree. You can't sue a girl for liking a nice drink at Sunday brunch and personally I'm a fresh sushi girl.

I remember thinking, "How could I feel like such an expat, when I didn't even cross a national border?"

When unemployment was thrown my way, I hit up Facebook looking for freelance work. It spawned an opportunity, as social networks have the tendency to do; so much so, that WTEN ended up featuring a story on its success. When little ol' me warrants prime-time news, that's one thing, but when using Facebook is news, I became aware how behind Albany was at the time, at least digitally.

I started to realize that all the things I had just accepted while growing up here were now remarkable to me: Whose brilliant idea it was to slap a highway on the Hudson waterfront, instead of more development? Do people really buy Hyundais because someone says they're "huge?" Why is it the "Northway," even if you are heading south (and why is there no Exit 3)? Why does it seem like everyone rejects something different before they know what it actually is?

Fast forward a year and one thing the Capital District has afforded me is the capability to expand on my passion for technology -- but learning the business landscape here is daunting when everything to me is ass-backwards.

We have very tangible examples of a booming tech environment, but there are more people ankle biting to get the slightest recognition for it, instead of actually collaborating to grow the scene. I've never seen so many committees, chambers and economic development groups for a 45-mile radius of 800,000 people. What if these resources and budgets were consolidated? What if these groups banded together and helped promote their towns' businesses to the greater Capital Region community and held conferences that had financial backing to bring leaders to our region. All I'm saying is come together, and market the Capital Region as exactly that -- a region.

I know there are thousands like me who lived here, went somewhere else, and have returned. I'm sure they're also dealing with these changes and challenges, one-by-one. And to those people I say: I see light at the end of the tunnel, and I hope you do too.

veggie mobile sideBeyond the billions in tech investments, my "light" consists of examples where problems existed and people are providing solutions quickly. Health comes to mind first. Things like mobile "veggie vans" hitting our impoverished areas and our newly-elected Governor's "plus one," Sandra Lee, taking the Mansion to the starved food banks. Because, if there is one sad thing I see day-in and day-out here, it's how unhealthy our children eat -- and how hard it is for us to open restaurants with fresh food, at affordable pricing.

The arts have really come around in the last two years, maybe we're getting more cultured as a whole. We've seen Proctors really step up its community relations and bring great national acts in. New leadership at our symphony and The Palace are similarly driving the same improvements. In Saratoga, SPAC has embraced budget crisis and survived concert goers' critiques to come out on top, even embracing younger professionals with their winning junior committee ensuring awareness of the arts and succession for aging SPAC supporters.

At the end of the day, the Capital Region has turned me into a devoted fan. Our region offers what no where else can -- great public education, more resources for higher education than most metropolitan cities have, a lifestyle so perfectly in tune to what families and singles want today and an affordable quality of life rooted in values.

Albany has provided me a professional and personal adventure. Above all, it has afforded my daughter opportunity and it has connected me with heart-warming and amazing people. But, don't shoot me if you see me chuckle the next time I hear an advertisements for water cannons at a dance club -- or when the waitress explains to me what edamame is when she puts it down at my table.


Last week on the Soapbox: The Fantasy Lark Street


Ah, another Bay Area foodie cool guy back in town. Letting us know how cool everywhere else is, how our food sucks, how we don't know what's cool yet and how far back in time we live here in dusty old Albany. I always get a kick out of people who compare Albany to enormous, metropolitan cities.

Maybe you could move back. There's also another ex-Bay Area foodie/Albany complainer who we'd love to see go back with you.

Those Albanians, heh-heh. So quaint. So backward. Check 'em out, trying to get some culture! Cute!

Also, nice summation:
'Why does it seem like everyone rejects something different before they know what it actually is?'

@Save Pine Hills - Well I can't speak for everyone, but this former Bay Area foodie has been spending a whole lot of time lately finding and promoting the best soft serve, best mini hot dogs, best espresso and other tasty delights from around the region.

Whomever it was that you were speaking of, just give them time. I'm sure they will come around.

That said, the region does itself no favors when the annual Times Union poll comes out and proclaims the best sandwich in the area comes from Subway. So perhaps you will join me in celebrating the truly great things in Albany and become part of the coalition that is rallying around some of our best local businesses.

I may be picky, but alcohol IS in grocery stores in Albany! Beer! When I moved from Virginia to Maryland (7 miles between apartments) I went from buying chips, salsa, and beer in the same place to making a second trip to the specified liquor store for the brew.

Anyway, if we whittle down what makes a place great into "beer in grocery stores," then the DC suburbs in Maryland (which have metro stops and downtowns and farmers markets and walkable city-like green happiness) are ass-backwards, and Albany is great!

I moved here from Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is about three times the size. I agree with the comment that comparing Albany with San Francisco or (as is VERY common up here) NYC is kind of silly. Of course we won't have sushi as good as the Bay Areas. Duh.

However, if you are comparing this region to similar sized (and bigger) cities in (god help you) the middle of the country, yes, Albany pretty much rocks.

Glad to see Im not the only person annoyed by the author's unrealistic comparison of upstate NY to the Bay Area. Sorry we can't compare to arguably the most progressive cosmopolitan area in the nation. Hey, have you ever been to the Midwest? The food there is wayyy worse than Albany... and we are years, possibly decades, ahead in the local food loving, farmers market attending front.

Nicole is right. Lots of defensive comments. Funny.

Ever heard of Chicago? Kansas City? Denver? All great cities with great music, food and culture. It's fine to stick up for Albany, but there's no need to knock the Midwest in the process.

I am from upstate New York, and when I say upstate I meant a bear ate my cat, and I find Albany to be parochial, old-fashioned, behind the times, etc. etc. even in comparison to places that I lived before that had mountains instead of backyards. It is hilarious. I think it's because the only real industries here are politics and service. are absolutely right! As a native Midwesterner who has lived both in the Bay Area, as well as upstate New York, I think you need to embrace wherever you happen to be hanging your hat at the moment. Living all the different places I have makes me appreciate where I am at in the moment all the more!

@Michele - The blog is called All Over Albany. I highly doubt the writer was unsuspecting of the defensive comments she would receive in response to this article. Here's one more: in my mind, there's nothing worse than Capital-District bashing carried out by a native-born. One could possibly argue that makes her more entitled to criticize than someone who moved here for the first time, yet I see it as disrespectful and just plain obnoxious.

Whether she is correct or incorrect is trump by the patronizing tone of the article.

Thanks alot SF-ite for being the Cpt Kirk on our quaint little planet and making a report. We do have one thing San Fran does not have...a homeless person on almost every corner and morailty.

As for networking on Facebook? When does chatting up guys on FB and playing farmville equate to job seeking?

Funny thing is, Nicole grew up in Clifton Park.

So it seems the majority of Nicole's negative criticism is focused on the Capitol Region's food culture (or lack thereof). To which I respond thusly: if you are planning where to live primarily around what types of restaurants are available in that Just, wow. What an empty, shallow, meaningless existence you must have.

Now, regarding the article's overall vibe of patronizing arrogance I ask a question: Nicole, are you trying to tell us that there is actually some other place on this planet where things are different (and in some ways...BETTER??) than they are here? You mean to tell me that the way of life in this particular geographic area is not the same way of life in all other geographic areas?? Never considered that.

I'm not originally from this area, but I've been here long enough to hear it endlessly criticized and sh!t upon for not having the blah-blah-blah that This Town does, of the yada-yada of That Town (if I hear the phrase, "...yes the [insert noun here] is good, but only by Albany standards..." or any variation of this phrase one more time, so help me). The painfully obvious bottom line is that some things suck here and some things are good here. One particular aspect of our Region that I personally enjoy is the general toughness of character in our people; not sure if its the weather that does it or maybe its the constant defensive attitude the residents have been forced to take after years of being ridiculed by visitors and locals alike. Who knows. Whatever it is, around here real life has a tendency to force itself upon you, whether you like it or not. Like me, writing this.

Or if food is your thing, maybe if you go to someplace like Gus's, or Perreca's, or The Fountain, and tell them how they should improve their business - you know, to stop being so "simple", as you so eloquently put it - you can see first-hand what I mean. The reaction you get, that IS "smalbany".

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