Song of Charlottesville.

By: Jen Shoop

I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to collect my thoughts on visiting Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend. I see first the wide delta between the Jen who lived there in college and the Jen who presently taps here at her computer, but also find myself more deeply endeared and connected to the place than I did on my last visit five years ago, when I was pregnant with my son, and experiencing the routine dislocations and heart-swells of expecting a second child. Worrying about whether I would still be able to show my firstborn as much love and attention when the baby arrived exacerbated my experience of outsidership as I watched college students in blithe postures of youth wind their way along the Corner that no longer belonged to me. Everything was changing, and changed. How was it possible that I had called Mr. Magpie “baby” for the first time at The Biltmore, feeling my way through the early days of our relationship, and now I was lumbering my way past it, carrying his second child? My worries felt inapt for the venue. The angles were all wrong.

This visit, I saw still the long kite string between Jen of college years and Jen of now, but in a pleasant way, as though I had occasion to visit with an old friend, and look indulgently on her preferences and peculiarities. When I stood in front of Bryan Hall, where I took most of my classes as an English Major, I felt a benign kind of vertigo. How many hundreds of times had I walked this exact route, carrying problems and preoccupations of now-minuscule scale? Rushing to class, fretting over the final paragraph of papers, dodging rain storms, trying to avoid being seen, and also, principally, sinking into whatever I was studying. I stood there on a March morning in 2024 and a micro-canon’s contents exploded: Fin de Siecle — Charles Baudelaire — maladie flaneurspleen — Bathsheba — A Rebours — Wilde — Dorian Gray — aesthetes. That particular class on Fin de Siecle literature and culture had transformed me; I learned to read in it. When I was in high school, I wanted desperately to have the kind of discernment my smart friends seemed to carry around with ease: movies they liked, books they hated, all couched in adroit reviews. I, on the other hand, had a difficult time knowing what to think. Wasn’t everything good in some way? In that FDS class, I began to listen, and grab a hold of tiny strands of opinion, modeling myself after my brilliant professor. I stood at the balustrade that overlooks the Amphitheatre (currently under construction) and felt grateful for that class: one of my many comings of age. I sometimes look back at earlier versions of myself in shades of condescension, but the truth is: that Jen raised this one. I owe a lot to her strivings. And I bore fresh witness to many of the ones I’d forgotten about this past weekend.

Standing by Bryan Hall, I also thought about the strange boomeranging quality of life: how desperately I wanted to have opinions, to speak intelligently and critically about things of weight at the age of nineteen, and how now I find myself running in the other direction: how might I unstrap myself from judgment, from pre-formed opinions, and look at the world with green eyes? (And so which version of Jen had it better? The one learning or un-learning?)

There is also the magic of Charlottesville, the way it always feels like Saturday morning there. The air is still and clear, and people move about as though possessed by pleasant thought rather than urgency. Cars will stall a good hundred feet away so that you can cross the street without sprinting; cashiers will send you on your way with a warm “y’all have a good day.” Even if you aren’t the type, you feel as though you’d probably throw some bikes into the back of a station wagon on a weekend morning, or sit on the Downtown Mall with your dog, chatting with a friend, in the languid unfolding of an afternoon. And the topography! I am pre-conditioned to love it as a born-and-bred Mid-Atlantic girl, but there is nothing like the hills of Virginia, their lushness and easy slope, the way they seem to hold gently their fields and trees. Everything moves with grace, even the slow three-syllable trickle of its name, and its quieting opening digraph: Charlottesville. Hard to abbreviate anything down there. Hard to want to. It’s a place that spreads out and around you, and you think to yourself: just sit still.


+Another great class I took at UVA.

+What was your first big rejection?

+Midsummers at UVA is a special time.

Shopping Break.

This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through the links below, I may receive compensation.

+If you’ve never dabbled, can I implore you to try one of J. Crew’s swimsuits for the season ahead? I own two that I reach for any time I need to not worry about what my swimsuit is doing — ha. (Think: chasing young children, water sports, etc.). I’m obsessed with this gingham one! Good amount of coverage and great silhouettes. I usually go up one size in their swimwear.

+This floral lace midi is spectacular, and under $160. I love the idea of dressing it down with a denim jacket.

+I keep hearing rave reviews about OSEA’s products, especially its body butter and marine cleanser. Is anyone here an evangelist? What should I start with? Leaning towards the body butter. I really love my Hanni products, but sometimes also want the experience of applying a thick cream after an “everything shower.” (Have you heard about that trend?)

+But speaking of Hanni: this cute gift set is 50% off!

+Patio chair covers you never knew you always needed. Along the same lines: a chic way to hide an ugly hose.

+And speaking of small outdoor improvements: I really want to get a birdfeeder this summer. I love birdsong, and my SIL introduced me to the magic of “birding” two summers ago. I have my heart set on this one.

+Longchamp’s mesh bags continue to allure — I picked up one of the ultra tiny sized ones last summer and found it woefully impractical (the moment you place anything in it, it looks bulgy and misshapen), but I have to say the larger sized ones intrigue. They’re more like a true accessory (think a scarf or a belt added for texture/color/contrast) than a functioning solution for corralling miscellaneous items you like to keep on your person. If you’re more practical, consider their beautiful Epure line. Absolutely beautiful bags!

+A great Target score — under $40 and a perfect date night look.

+Doen just launched their second spring collection, full of springy Liberty florals, silky beauties, and ethereal white.

+Currently obsessed with this Lizzie Fortunato necklace.

+Dries Van Noten’s FW2024 collection just waltzed down the runway last week, and you can already preorder from it on Moda Operandi. Does that not astound you?! I have never owned anything from DVN but I think the shapes, especially of its outerwear, are predictive of what we’ll see in the fall: coats that riff on the opera jacket silhouette in rich fabrics and colors (ahem!), skirts and tops with artful draping. (I feel like we’re seeing similar styles already with canary Khaite — c.f. this top, this dress.) COS is a great retailer for capturing these trends early for a fraction of the price: this swingy, opera-esque trench is perfect!

+I saw this dress and thought: that is what I want to wear for my 40th birthday this summer. Just beautiful. In reality, I’ll probably do something more like this (more reasonable!), which looks like Johanna Ortiz, but maybe 1/3 or 1/4 the price.

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12 thoughts on “Song of Charlottesville.

  1. I loved reading this post. Like you, I really started to become myself during my college years. There is something about spending those 4 years in a quintessential college town (for you, C-ville, for me, Chapel Hill) that never leaves you. The memories can blur around the edges, but the magic remains intact and cellular. I wanted to run down to UNC immediately after reading! Thank you!

    1. Love this – yes, the college town energy is something unto itself. It really envelops you in the college experience.


  2. When my husband and I talked about moving back to Charlottesville, I worried that living here might taint the magic of Charlottesville that you describe here so well. My 4 years at UVA – giggly and awkward and fun and hard – were perfectly preserved in my mind, and I didn’t want to move here and experience something like the feeling of a child learning that Santa Claus isn’t real. Almost 3 years in, and I can confirm that the magic is still here. Not that life here is without hardship, but everything is just, I don’t know…soft around the edges?

    Would love to hear your thoughts on Keswick Hall – and where did you eat?! Sounds like it was a lovely trip.

    1. “Soft around the edges” – yes! Just a gentler pace, and the landscape stretches out, and nothing feels bunched together or harried. Beautiful place to live – envious. We loved Keswick! Attentive and friendly staff; beautiful, gracious common spaces; high attention to detail (like cool embroidered napkins at the bar); well appointed rooms. I will say the new Keswick did not retain MUCH of its old Keswick feel — this feels like something that could be in California as easily as Virginia. They did have some nods to the old version (kept the library, had Albemarle books on the coffee table, etc), but it felt a lot less like “the old time club” it once was. I don’t think that’s to its demerit, though, necessarily? Just a luxe experience overall. We loved it.

      For dining – we did Marigold (solid and a beautiful space) and then skipped breakfast and just did Marco and Luca dumplings on the corner after a walk through the grounds. Nothing fancy but we were feeling nostalgic and in a bit of a time crunch. We did check all the restaurants on your list and none of them were open for lunch on a Monday except one, and it opened at noon (too late for us, as we wanted to be on the road by then). Anyhoo – noted your recs for future visits!!


  3. “Everything moves with grace, even the slow three-syllable trickle of its name, and its quieting opening digraph: Charlottesville. Hard to abbreviate anything down there. Hard to want to. It’s a place that spreads out and around you, and you think to yourself: just sit still.” Oh, this is lovely! I feel this whenever I return to my hometown and childhood home.

    1. Thank you 🙂 I love that you have a similar feeling of slowness/stillness in your home town. Such a gift!

  4. I also had an extremely impactful and wonderful college experience. When I reflect on it, I am struck by how short college is (only 4 years!) I have been out of college more than double the time I was ever in it, but those 4 years shaped me just as much or more than the 10 following have.

    It is so interesting to think of when those “coming of age” periods are for me. College is right at the top, for sure.

    1. I completely agree — I came into myself in college. Do most of us? Maybe it’s the perfect storm of age, first time (for many) living independently, finding new friend groups when you’re a bit less awkward, etc? My time at UVA made me.


  5. Love this reflection. I recently realized that the main chapters of my life (childhood, college, adulthood) have taken place in three different geographic areas with three different sets of people. They feel entirely separate from one another with no overlaps, and the only throughline is me. In many ways I feel I have been exactly the same person all my life, but if I have the rare occasion to step back into one of those prior chapters, I think the fact that I find the experience so incredibly jarring is evidence that I have actually changed in many ways.

    1. So fascinating, Anna — I can imagine how jarring that must be to reflect on. I had a whiff of this when I moved back to Bethesda (DC area, where I was born and raised), and I came into contact with old friend groups and communities I’d not been closely in touch with for years. I felt like I was either remolding myself to the Jen I used to be, or re-introducing myself as a new Jen, and it was such a bizarre experience. I feel more settled now but it took awhile to get my sea-legs there.


      1. As a fellow UVA alum who also feels the pure magic of Charlottesville, I couldn’t have articulated all my same feels better. Spot on! I hope to retire there one day and relive all its beauty and charm at a much slower speed, the pace it deserves.

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