New Girl in Town

Image on a City of Saint Paul trash can. Photo: Patricia Bour-Schilla

Each year, a small group of immigrants makes its way into Saint Paul from a foreign and misunderstood land. They may come for love, jobs, the promise of more house for the money. Willing to face great adversity, they pack their belongings and take a giant leap of faith across the mighty Mississippi.

These brave souls move their lives from Minneapolis to Saint Paul. I am one of them; this is my story.

In the spring of 2004, I crossed the Mississippi to begin my new life. I was scared beyond belief. Who knew what went on over there? I’d heard stories about a city where downtown was dark by 8 p.m., baseball included a pig, and the only water around was the river that meant to keep me away. My fiancé, Steve, a hometown boy, assured me I was doing the right thing. We had, in fact, found more house for our money, and to my delight, it had both electricity and indoor plumbing.

My west-metro friends promised to visit often. A few of them shied away from discussing the topic. (I did not hear from this group until the emergence of Facebook a few years later, when they could stay in touch without crossing the river.)

Soon after we moved in, friendly neighbors stopped by to introduce themselves. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” they would say. “Where did you move from?”

“Minneapolis,” I would answer, alongside Steve’s reply, “the East Side.” I would be met by a blank stare, while heads rapidly turned to engage Steve in a conversation about his past and what brought him to this neighborhood. Steve was among his people. Me, not so much.

By summer, I knew I had to claim my place as a Saint Paulite. I planned to prove myself with a trip to the Farmer’s Market at 290 East Fifth Street. My Minneapolis brain told me to find the corner of Second Avenue and Fifth Street. Avenues would run north and south; streets would run east and west—just like in Minneapolis. So not true. I panicked when I realized that downtown Saint Paul had not been built on a grid; it had been built according to the curve of the Mississippi, the river that sought to break me. (If not for the kindness of a Saint Paul police officer who led me home, I might still be lost downtown.)

As the months passed, I was reminded that I did not belong in this town. I longed for a chain of lakes and a downtown I could navigate without a compass.

Yet this quirky town grew on me. I found myself trying to fit in.

By autumn, I started reading The Villager. I drank coffee at Nina’s. When people asked me why I had moved all the way to Saint Paul, I told them I had fallen in love with someone for whom I would have crossed an even greater divide. When they asked me if I liked it here, I lied and said that I did.

When winter came, I did not know the rules for snow emergencies.

(I fit right in with my neighbors, who did not know them, either.) I took my kids skating at Landmark Center during the Winter Carnival. I read the medallion clues but didn’t know where to search.

By spring, I knew people meant the Saints when they said they were going to a ball game.

Five years have passed, and I’ve made great progress. I’ve traded Lake Calhoun for my friend, the Mississippi River. I let myself enjoy A Prairie Home Companion—in the privacy of my own home, with the windows closed. I have eaten at Mancini’s, marched in the Fourth of July parade in St. Anthony Park, and cheered for marathoners on Summit.

When asked where I’m from, I proudly answer, “I’ve lived in other places, but Saint Paul is my home.”

Share