IS IT GONNA BE DENVER?

The Challenge of Picking Our Next Home

Almost two years ago, I met somebody from Kansas with very similar career interests. She was about to graduate, and already had her eyes set on a Masters program in International Human Rights at University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. When I was in South Africa last year, trying to decide where to apply for graduate school, that memory resurfaced in my mind. I did my research on the Korbel School, and it was an impressive program.

I wondered if I would even be able to get in, but, lo and behold, an acceptance email came in mid-January. That in itself felt like an accomplishment– however, it came with a few complicating factors:

The price tag for the program was pretty steep. About $80,000. Even with the school offering me a bit of scholarship money, it was still a pretty hefty price tag.

Also, I had another pair of acceptance letters from the University of Oregon and from Portland State. I always envisioned myself living in Oregon, particularly Portland, and I already had several friends in the area.

But I liked Colorado, too. And strictly in terms of career, the Korbel School would probably be the best move. Among the many diplomats and ambassadors they’ve produced, Condoleeza Rice was among them.

Then again, career wasn’t the only influencing factor on my decision. So I decided to do what would probably be the most predictable thing for me to do– I scheduled a trip.

I had only been to Denver once before. On tour. As is the nature of tour, I only got to spend eight hours there. It was enough to for me to decide I had discovered the best iced coffee I ever tried at Larimer’s Marketplace, but I still wanted a better sense of what it would be like to live there. It just so happens that a few weeks before, I was browsing Twitter. I follow a few accounts that regularly post bargain flight discoveries (as frequent travelers should.) I discovered that Southwest’s $69 flight deal was enough to get me there and back for less than $200.

Feeling somewhat spontaneous I took the flight and brought along Deanna and my mom.

The people of Colorado were some very nice folks.

That impression was made very quickly. Denver was a very friendly city. For the most part, people were very welcoming and enjoyable to talk to. I’d even say they out-niced Minnesota in my experience. The strangers we met and interacted with seemed friendly, willing to talk but not too nosy, and down-to-earth. All good qualities that make it seem like people enjoy living there, and largely the opposite of L.A. Deanna and I kept noting how nice everybody was to each other all throughout our trip.

Politically, Colorado is one of the most purple states, and I think that’s a good environment to be in if you like to expose yourselves to different thoughts and viewpoints and to become a learner. I can get a little tired of a single train of thought, which would be much more of the case in Oregon. Of course Colorado also has the legal pot and all, and Denver is trying to turn into Amsterdam with cheesy pot-leaf tourist magnets and what not.

The heart of Denver was a fun, energetic place to be.

Each little district had its own vibe, from the trendy LoDo, to the active Colifax area. The city had some interesting architecture, and I enjoyed the lively feeling of being around the red bricked exteriors that gave most of Central Denver a uniform look still loaded with personality. Larimer Square may be the expensive and somewhat touristy part of the downtown area, but it still has its charm, with the canopy of lights and flags up above.

We spent half of a day wandering the shops, restaurants, and bars downtown. It was especially great to see how easy it was to get around. The free mall shuttle provided transport everywhere along the main shopping strip of 16th street, and from there we walked to the Colorado State Capitol.

There is also a strong presence of local institutions. We meandered Twist & Shout Records, a multi-room record shop with an impressive offering. The record shop is right next to the Tattered Cover, a local bookstore I spent hours wandering.

While Denver’s surrounding landscapes open up a lot of opportunities for outdoor adventures, there are a ton of well maintained spotswithin the urban areas to stay active even during busier days when you can’t really get out of the city. One of our first visits was to City Park, the large central area that hosts the Denver Zoo, a duck pond, and a civil rights memorial statue. Deanna and I went geocaching for a bit.

We sat atop a hill in a park in LoDo for a while and watched people go by walking their dogs. That was another good quality. Denver is a very dog friendly city, and that matters to me since I own to have one soon.

The whole time I felt pretty good about Denver. And I hoped Deanna felt the same way. I mentioned to her that the city kind of reminded me of Portland, especially with the old brick industrial area in the downtown area, and with all the trees and nature surrounding us right beyond those buildings and streets.

And for some reason Deanna didn’t really like the comparison to Portland. I was surprised and asked why.

She told me she still held out some hope for Portland, thinking that it would keep her closer to home and family. She had been there before to visit friends and already formed a warm relationship with the city. I agreed with her on this– Portland would feel more like a continuation of the life we’ve been building in California and the relationships that we had formed. Denver would feel a lot more like a reset.

That was a strong thing to consider. Especially as Denver was winning me over quickly.

So we decided to grab something to eat.

If anything, that would sway us towards Denver even more. We found some good spots to eat in just a couple days in town. These included–

The Hornet: A busy restaurant on a Broadway corner that is both a sports bar and a comfort food grill. They had an amazing lobster mac and cheese that I was able to try. Their portions were large, but my appetite was proportionate on that day. We also got an order of fried artichoke hearts and I ordered a Breckenridge Ale, because it’s pretty much obligatory to try some local brew while in Denver.

Makan: A little, trendy Malaysian place that was awesome. Malaysian food was a bit unfamiliar to me, but this place made a great impression. It managed to combine authentic cooking with artsy presentation.

Park City Burgers: A gourmet burger place. I ordered a lamb burger, figuring that Colorado and lamb go together. They definitely did in this case

Weathervane Café: A cozy coffee shop near city park that welcomed us in when we first arrived and it was a little gray and sleepy. I’m pretty sure this café is simply a renovated house. I had an excellent lavender latte. My only lament is that the “Irish Car Bomb Cronut” which they offer was only available on Sunday.

The Corner Office: A snazzy downtown restaurant and bar that offers Sunday Disco Brunch. I had a fantastic pork belly and biscuit dish, and Deanna and I both enjoyed the build-a-bloody-mary bar, with all the fixings. My mom’s only complaint was due to the fact that she mistook the restaurant’s name as “The Coroner’s Office.”

And after all that, we decided to walk it off.

Living for such a long time in Southern California has instilled such a deep longing to be near woods, rivers, mountains, and the like. It so happens that people in Denver live for the outdoors.

While we didn’t have time to get out to Rocky Mountain National Park, which is pretty close by, we did make a trip out to Roxborough State Park. It was gorgeous, with textured golden fields and jarring red rocks bursting out of the ground. We attempted a hike, but light snow in the morning had made the hiking trails a bit muddy and the air fairly cold. It was still a beautiful scene.

Then the next day, we flew back to California.

I had a lot on my mind as we got on the plane. Denver was a great city and I could see myself thriving in it. It was just the right size so there would always be more and more to discover, but it was also collected in such a way that you could quickly find your neighborhood and gain a sense of familiarity with what’s around you.

I thought the city offered a lot in terms of food, in terms of the outdoors, and in terms of the sort of life I’d like to live. The culture was moderate in many ways, and that’s the sort of place where I could see myself establishing a good community. I had mental images of us getting comfortable in Downtown Denver, established in a rhythm of life, doing well for ourselves.

Deanna still wasn’t as convinced as I. Even though I didn’t think the distance between Denver and Southern California wasn’t that much greater than the distance between Portland and Southern California, she felt it a lot more. She felt the added miles created by the mountain ranges, and the way the Rockies created a barrier to relationships, not just physical space.

Ultimately, she wanted me to make the decision. She said she never wanted to stand in the way of me becoming who I was supposed to be, so letting me pick was her way of holding to that decision.

We landed in Southern California. I still felt myself leaning towards Denver, always being willing to take more of a chance. I decided that before I made that decision finally, though, I would need to spend a lot more time talking to Deanna.

We started driving back towards Bakersfield, Deanna behind the wheel. As I scrolled through my phone to pick out a song to put on, I felt it give off a quick buzz.

An email from the University of Oregon informed that if I were to attend school there, I would be given a year of free tuition plus a $15,000 living stipend– and the following year I would get the same perk for assistant teaching. A really good offer.

Philippe Lazaro2014