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Interview with Former National Geographic Writer and BestPlaces Member


About the Member

With all the attention that the novel coronavirus is getting, we decided to focus in this newsletter on something different: the experiences and insights of an award-winning former senior staff writer at National Geographic Magazine. Allen has traveled the world over and reported on everything from insects, ancient tombs, lasers, and environmental issues to life under a South American dictatorship. Retired now, he resides in Tucson, Arizona, with its dry and sunny Mediterranean-type climate and geographic and cultural resemblances to Santiago, Chile, where he lived for 13 years after his Geographic days. His top advice is to visit, if you can, the locales you’re eyeing as a new home before you make a move. But because non-essential travel is out for the moment, he was kind enough to share some of his other tips with us! 

Interview with Allen
The following is a lightly edited transcript of a phone interview with Allen by BestPlaces Newsletter Manager Emma Butterfield, conducted with Douglas firs outside her window in Portland, Oregon.

BestPlaces: What are important things to keep in mind when exploring a move to a new place? 

Allen: A “sense of place” is very high on my list. It can outweigh statistics, which are important to gather,  but don’t show the full picture. Employing the City Compare tool is very useful, but you do yourself a disservice if you stop there. If you’re smart, you’ll allow the information that the tool provides to raise as many questions in your mind as it answers – and then dig deeper.

For example, if you’re checking crime rates, call the police department in a city that’s caught your eye, and ask someone what’s driving crime up or down there, and why. You might think they wouldn’t have time for you, but tell them that you respect their profession and their expertise, and you’ll be through their door in no time.

Don’t overlook to write reviewers on BestPlaces and to ask them lots of questions  – the freedom that BestPlaces gives you to contact reviewers is one of its most useful features. And for truly helpful answers, ask open-ended questions. Rather than “What’s the best supermarket chain in your town?”, try “Does your food dollar stretch as far there as where you used to live?” The second question is far more likely to get you a genuinely informative response. It's also crucial to make a few final inquiries like, “What have I not asked about that you think I should know to form an accurate picture of your community?” and “Who can you refer me to among your neighbors, friends, and coworkers, to get an even deeper idea of what life is like where you live, or maybe even a completely different angle on it than you present?” By the way, saying a “deeper” rather than a “better” idea is important, because you don’t want a reviewer to think their input wasn’t valuable. 

 

BestPlaces: What key aspects make a town worth a visit or qualify it as a place to live? 

Allen: Some are solid and obvious, like safety, schools for kids, and job opportunities. More touchy-feely things carry weight too, such as whether sunsets are beautiful and people are neighborly. It’s good to  know if people like to go out and eat. Or if they prefer to stay home with family, and if that’s the case,  how you’d get into their loop of intimacy. 

But what towers over all for me is whether a town gives you the sensation that it has a unique and sometimes even pressingly felt presence – that’s the “sense of place” I mentioned earlier. It’s invisible, like the tug of a magnet, yet you’ll feel it, if it’s there. And if it really resonates with you, it can make of a town the place where, if you already lived there and left, you’d pine to return – and finally would one day, grateful to be back. This implies examining your feelings, of course, what I call traversing your inner landscape, to see if the outer landscape suits you.

BestPlaces: What’s the hardest part in deciding where to live, and how does “traversing your inner landscape” relate to it?

 Allen: There are three aspects to this. First, you’ve got to find time to research in depth and ask correspondingly deep questions. But that’s the lowest hurdle. A higher one is deciding how much weight to give the hard facts that you uncover and the subjective opinions that people in the know may offer you. 

The biggest challenge lies in ‘traversing your inner landscape.’ Because if you do that and do it thoroughly, you’ll be exploring memories and emotions that may suddenly disclose to you something that you never understood before about yourself, where you grew up, or the people who raised you. And that can be unsettling – it may move you to tears of sadness or joy. But if you scale that wall, you’ll be on the other side of having a very clear picture of what in you will make you feel happiest in some place new.

BestPlaces: Is there anything else or a final tip that you'd like to share with our members? 

Allen: You’ve taken my advice to ask someone – like a reviewer – a wrap-up question to make sure nothing important has been overlooked! Good!

In response, I’d say that while it’s great that BestPlaces enables you to contact reviewers, you may not have the time, or you may prefer to just read what they’ve written. In that case, start from the oldest review and work forwards, jumping ahead every now and then until you reach the latest. As you read, ask things like, “Do I see patterns?”, “Is this reviewer describing their town only at its best?”, “Is she or he retired, or working and putting kids through school?” Consider all the angles, and you’ll eventually get the best angle on what could become your next home.

The Highlight Reel

  • A "sense of place" is an important aspect to consider when exploring the prospect of moving to a new town.
  • Statistics are important, but using them as a catalyst for exploring more questions in your mind about the towns you're looking into is essential as well.
  • Doing all your homework and really digging into all the important information about a city before you move is crucial.
  • Start by searching where you live now in comparison with where you want to live, you may be surprised by what you learn.
  • In general when you are exploring a new area and you discover something interesting, find out about the source of that information, and then research with that source. At BestPlaces we get our information from 45 organizations and government agencies such as the National Climatic Data Center, the National Association of Home Builders, and the National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Using the BestPlaces "reviews" section can be a very useful way to gauge whether or not a town would be a good fit for you. Contacting the reviewers and asking the right questions is a smart idea too.
  • Although at times it may be difficult and emotionally taxing, "traversing your inner landscape" prior to moving to a new town can be just as important as traversing the physical landscape of this town.
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