Goodbye To All That
What is it really like to move Upstate full time? Sara Elbert, one half of the beloved restaurant Brushland Eating House, gets real about leaving Brooklyn for Bovina with her husbad, Sohail Zandi.
“Wait, is this it?” We veered onto a narrow two-lane highway, a stack of chimney smoke to my left and a tiny blue road sign announcing the proximity of our new town to the right. Having enthusiastically popped pistachios and scanned AM radio in search of NPR for the majority of the three-hour ride from New York City, panic rushed over me in a way I had not prepared for. If my creeping anxiety was audible, no one—including my neurotic miniature pinscher—wavered. They were so ready for our Catskills adventure: Sohail, because he had just made a real estate purchase that would soon become a restaurant, and my dog, because, real grass. But I suddenly started regretting what I had signed up for; my stomach full of nuts now in knots.
I had signed up for moving from big city Brooklyn to Bovina, a tiny town, population 633. And much like the Brooklyn noob who finds herself in the depths of Prospect Park at the exact moment it turns from magically dusk to paralyzingly dark, I was transported to the opening scene of a crummy horror film. The ‘scary’ of both silver screen and reality, of course, is the unknown. The what if’s. What if no one shows up to eat? What if our staff doesn’t show up to work? What if we can’t even find staff?
I was leaving a city that I had yearned for, stacked dollars towards, and swore up and down I’d never leave once I got there. This made an exit perplexing, not only to myself but also to those who had endlessly cheered me on each time I would swing for the fences, from Central Park West, to the end of 14th Street, over to Brooklyn Heights, or wherever else the A train might drop me. When I told my parents about our plans to hit the road, to move Upstate and open a mom and pop eatery, their genial chit-chat quickly downshifted to nervous whispers and eventually gave way to a unified, cartoonish GULP.
When I was about eight years old, my mom and I boarded a Greyhound from my birthplace of Reading, Pennsylvania and headed east to Times Square for a girls’ weekend away. Although I don’t remember this part, she swears I sang “All That Jazz” for the entire nauseatingly jerky ride, while clutching a ceramic whistle painted with black and yellow check that I’d use to hail us a cab. The part I do recall is when we slid out into what might be the busiest intersection of North America and, like the moment in Middle School when you talk to your crush for the first time, my legs stopped working. I felt my knees get wobbly, my hands sweaty, and my sight hazy. I was falling in love with the Big Apple. I swore this would be my home someday. My mom would remind me of this dizzying, fateful afternoon constantly, right up until the moment I closed the front door on the last apartment I’d ever inhabit in the tri-state area.
For many of us, moving to New York City is accepting that someday we will move out of New York City. Manhattan and its boroughs are a Mecca of creativity and energy, power and prowess; the confines of which are also burdensome to those that yearn for a piece of land and the ability to dig deep into the soil, wishing to plant and grow roots that know no bounds. This truth was what sent me up I-87 with a car full of mismatched flatware, a collection of deactivated gym fobs and wide, weepy eyes—the culmination of seven hard-fought years.
What New York City gave me was the openness to let people in and the fortitude to weed others out. It allowed me to broaden my perspective on love and religion and magic, while forcing me to narrow my focus on what actually mattered and why. The city redefined my ‘normal.’ It was there that I pushed and got pushed, chased and got chased, was literally hit by a taxi then driven to the hospital in that same taxi. The city broke my heart and then sent me on a scavenger hunt to put all of the little pieces back together. I, like so many others, was put to the test there and failed, put to the test again and failed, failed until I passed. Winning at living in New York is not your ability to stay forever, but to know when to say “Thank you, but I’ve got to go.”
Even with all of this propelling me forward, the “going” felt a little bit like failing. Leaving New York made me feel like I didn’t fit the city anymore. Would I know my way into and out of the nooks I loved so much if I left? But arriving at our new home in the mountains and unpacking all of my belongings, I realized it was the opposite—the city didn’t fit me. As I took inventory of all that I learned and gained (and apparently hoarded), it was clear that it was me who outgrew it all. I can still go back anytime I want and with little to no notice. I can hop on the subway and still get to my favorite neighborhood garden, cup of coffee, ramen, or movie theater. My friends are there, right where I left them, ready and willing to welcome me back for a night. What has changed is the way that I want to live life, the way I want to spread out and stake my claim in a quaint village that has a community longing for industry.
I can’t fathom life any other way now, which tells me I’ve arrived at my final destination. I don’t pine for any other terrain, long for a different position or career, and I certainly don’t see myself doing all of the above with any other person. I’ve been asked on numerous occasions if being a a business partner with your romantic partner was something I had ever endeavored to do. I don’t think anyone really has that on their agenda—that’s more time spent with the same person than most can stomach. But life handed Sohail and me the opportunity to work together as we were falling in love, and our shared ethos of both these things allowed us to continue forward, hand-in-hand.
But I’d be doing a disservice to anyone reading and yearning to be in a similar position if I didn’t say that this has been one of the harder roles I’ve taken on—and that includes babysitting newborn triplets and working at a Trump Golf Club (there are very few options for part-time work in Jupiter, Florida when you’re 26). The ebb and flow of our work lives can’t—shouldn’t—take a toll on our personal relationship, but keeping romance and business compartmentalized is a constant; something I turn my mind towards often. I am not your boss, you are not mine—we are a team. Ego, pride, and power in business need to be checked at our bedroom door, the way that jealousy and guilt in love has to be pushed aside at the restaurant’s kitchen pass.
The grit and grind of our daily life is often masked, sometimes purposefully but other times because it has been handled before we open our doors for dinner service. For most of the city folks who visit us, the Catskills means a weekend trout-slaying mission, tequila-fueled brunch-hopping, gathering fireside for the holidays, or hunting for elusive barn sales. For me, the Catskills means heaps of laundry saved for our day off, making 13 trips to the post office for one roll of stamps, dutifully tucking top sheets under mattresses at our rentals, and fishing tiny bits of Crayon out from under the dining bench in the restaurant. It is not a hard life, but it’s a much different picture than those colorful grids on Instagram.
That’s because we decided to set up a business where many seek to escape. It’s complicated having a wildly different Saturday morning than the sleepy-eyed, late-night revelers staying just next door. We would love to join the masses in hitting the snooze button and meeting friends for a mid-afternoon beer, but we’re on a Wednesday through Sunday cycle—the exact opposite of everyone else. What is great about our opposite schedule is how we can make it in and out of the grocery store in 20 minutes because it’s Monday at 2:45 p.m., and that the matinee movie on a Tuesday is more like a private screening. We are discovering all of the ways we can enjoy this place on our own time, which so many people do while we are on the clock.
While running errands in the city with a girlfriend recently, I wondered out loud where we should head for a coffee. Without hesitation, she began to Google crowd-sourced options. It’s reflexes like these that remind me of how our surroundings—and proximity to resources—define how we handle the daily grind, especially, and laughably, the basics. If I run out of purple shampoo tomorrow or my dog chews off the heel of my most practical Muck boots (which he has done before), I’m going to have to wait at least two days for new supplies—and that’s with expedited shipping. “Prime” means nothing when you live in the sticks. But way out past familiar road signs and far beyond the sheltered confines of anonymity, what you will find in abundance is integrity.
Some of the fear I felt while rambling up the highway and onto the narrow dirt roads was stirred by a need for honesty, for baring our truths and really getting dirty. Our new community wanted it from us and we needed it from them. To trade the indulgence of speedy Thai food delivery every day of the week for the sustained pleasure of peanuts and beer on a neighbor’s porch on a Sunday in summer is the best parallel I can draw. When was the last time the city told you to slow down; to breathe? To sit and watch children run through sprinklers and think about the animal each cloud resembles? Four years in, many neighbors-turned-friends later, it should come as no surprise that the intimidatingly scarce terrain that once elicited my mental breakdown is now my favorite kind of skyline. A horizon unmarred, a future bright, a present perfect. This is it—and it’s wonderful. All I had to do was trust that I had already taken all I needed from the city and if I hadn’t? There’s a bus for that.
By Sara Elbert | Photography: Sidney Bensimon