Country Versus City

Country versus city: The age-old debate.

In a previous post I talked about knowing what you want. And how, if you live in a constant state of ambivalence, you’ll just keep getting what you’ve always gotten, regardless of if you want it or not. If you want something different, you have to choose. Even if choosing means the exclusion of all other options.

Those are nice words to say, and I stand by them 100%. That doesn’t mean I’m a pro at decision-making. Decision-making is a huge area of weakness for me. I’m barely evolved beyond being able to answer “What do you want for dinner”, let alone answering larger, more life-changing decisions.

One area that I’ve struggled with for years is the decision between city and country. Michael and I have had countless conversations on the matter since we started dating in 2012, and we’ve never settled the matter.

Each time we chat about it, I hope that the conversation will unearth a strong opinion in him. I hope that, after some deliberation, he’ll declare, “I’m all for city life. Let’s do city life!” And I’ll be tugged along with the gusto of his decision. My own ambivalence will be transformed by his certainty.

I’ve basically been hoping that he’ll make the decision for me.

Alas, our most recent conversation about city versus country yielded no such fruit. Even when I asked “If you had to choose one right now – gun to your head – what would you choose?”, he still didn’t give a confident answer. We just kept deliberating the pros and cons.

Small Town Life

Right now we’re not living the city or country life, but a weird hybrid: small-town life.

It’s not such a small town. A little hamlet or village would be equivocal to country life, I think. No, our town is townly enough to have a Wal-Mart. It’s not country living.

But, even though by definition it’s a city, it’s not city life either.

Back when we used to live in Toronto, we learned that the perspective on what constitutes a “small town” there is very different. In Saskatchewan, a small town is something like Radville or Milestone – a little place with no grocery store and less than a thousand people.

In Toronto, I had a piano student who purportedly grew up in a “small town”. When I asked him what town that was, he said, “Niagara Falls”.

Niagara Falls has a population of 88,000. I’m not saying it’s a thriving metropolis, but it certainly isn’t the grassy, deer-filled expanse of Radville, Saskatchewan, population 860.

For the last four years we’ve lived the small-ish town life. Michael grew up with this life, but it’s new to me. I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Ultimately I think I’d rather dwell in a place that was either definitively a big city, or definitively country. A town just sort of feels like it’s half-assing it. A town is ambivalent, unsure of what it wants to be.

But when I used to live in Regina, the second-largest city in Saskatchewan (population 200,000, give or take), I used to say the same thing. “If I’m going to live in a city, I want a city,” I would declare. “This city is too small. There’s nothing to do and you always run into people you know.”. Besides, it was too big to afford the unlocked-door safety of a smaller town.

(True fact: Regina used to be ranked in the top 5 most dangerous places to live in Canada. Anecdotally, I always felt much, much safer in Toronto despite the significant difference in size.)

Big City Life

Michael and I, having debated the merits of city versus country life early in our relationship, decided on city life in the summer of 2013. We were in our mid-twenties and were passionate musicians. We had fantasies of “making it big”, and had all kinds of plans, from playing rock shows to teaching cooking classes together.

Nothing panned out the way we had dreamed. Looking back, we lacked an essential component of bringing dreams to life – action. We only half-heartedly searched for a guitarist and bassist to complete our rock quartet, of which I was the singer and he was the drummer.

If we’d been really passionate, we would’ve written music together. Keyboard, vocals, drums. People have done more with less. But we didn’t bother.

After spending a month or two planning a cooking class that we ultimately didn’t get enough sign-ups for (despite having a space and getting a write-up in a local news column), the cooking class dream died. Really, it was cowardice. I didn’t want to teach cooking classes. I was too scared. I was secretly relieved when we didn’t have to do it

Playing Pokemon cards in our tiny apartment, in which my keyboard and Mike’s electric drum kit took up half the living room. I loved that little place.

But there we were, in Toronto, the best city in Canada. In a great, well-connected neighborhood, we enjoyed our 450-square-foot apartment and all the amenities of city life.

…In theory. We were mainly too broke to enjoy the nightlife, and while I loved small-space apartment life (and could even tolerate the silverfish that sometimes surfaced in the bathroom), Michael didn’t. He’s the kind of guy who wanted a yard and a mortgage.

So after a couple years of Toronto, we moved to a small town, where we’re debating city versus country all over again. It’s as though we’ve been in a holding pattern the last four years, a waiting room. Life is asking, what’s it going to be next? And we’re twiddling our thumbs.

It’s not all bad. There are things I like about small town life. The fact that I’m able to both raise a child and work part-time without the exorbitant costs of a big city is nice. Michael and I see each other more because he doesn’t have a 90-minute commute to work. Our life is good.

But it’s not our final place. Does anyone ever move somewhere and think, “Yes, this is it. I’m here forever.”? Really, I want to know. I’ve never felt that way about anywhere.

Country Life

I’ve had the experience of country life, too. Once when I was a baby. But that doesn’t count, because I don’t remember it. Though I suspect that my early unremembered childhood experiences have contributed to my feelings of longing toward country life – in a way it feels like home.

My second country experience was as a teenager. To the horror of my family, I had dropped out of my final year of high school. I was a degenerate.

After a year of aimless drifting, I decided to finish high school after all. But I didn’t want to do it in Regina, a place filled with, to my binary teenage thinking, mean girls and uncompassionate teachers.

I decided I wanted to finish high school in a small town, where my grandparents resided and had a beautiful acreage. It was close enough to town that you could walk if you really wanted, but far enough that, at night, it was quiet. And my goodness, the starry sky.

Everyone agreed to this arrangement, probably because they were desperate for me to resign my degenerate ways. And so I lived the country life for six months.

…Sort of. I didn’t do any country chores, such as gardening, landscaping, and lawn mowing that naturally go along with country life. It was more of an amuse bouche of country life.

I remember how the quiet nights always drew me into the deepest of existential questions. In the country is where I became fascinated with life’s mysteries, like Easter Island, Atlantis, near-death experiences and pretty much everything guys like Alan Watts wrote.

I remember gazing into my grandparent’s artful expanse of a yard, with neat hedges surrounding a gigantic, abundant garden. The edges of the lot were lined with poplars that permanently swayed in the breeze, the rustling leaves as liquid as a rushing stream.

If there’s anything you can say about country living in Saskatchewan, it’s that we have the best skies.

Armed with a notebook, a cigarette and some coffee, I spent many mornings on the patio overlooking the garden. I worked out my teenage angst on those pages. To the relief of my family, I began to heal. I became a little more like an adult, a little less like a delinquent.

When my grandparents sold that lot a decade ago, I felt like I’d lost the only real home I’d ever had. I spent my babyhood and a brief – but significant – window of my teenagehood there. The country was there for me at pivotal moments of growth.

And so, country life tugs at me, soft but insistent.

Country versus City

“I want a hobbit house,” I declared to Michael for the hundredth time in our relationship.

“You can have a hobbit house as long as it’s in the yard of a real house,” he countered.

I am obsessed with earthbag houses. They’re so cool.

“So if we lived on the country, then I’d get a hobbit house?” I asked.

And that’s how the hundred-and-first conversation about country versus city began.

One day I’m fantasizing about hobbit houses and having a dedicated grand piano room, complete with a sprawling library. I think fondly of putting my hands in the dirt and raising children who can spend most of the hours of their day outside.

The next day I’m daydreaming about living in Manhattan, one of my favorite places on earth. Living in a small condo above a bagel shop, being at the center of the universe. Finding energy and sustenance in the hustle and bustle, existing among the highest achievers.

And then I’m back to my fantasies of country life, finding energy and sustenance in the quiet and space. Cities are loud, polluted and expensive. The country is clean, quiet and affordable. On the country you have more time for meaningful hobbies, for family, for the things that matter most.

But you’re alienated. You can’t walk everywhere – you have to drive if you want groceries. There are the countless chores. You can’t rely on Skip the Dishes if you’re in a rush at suppertime. You don’t see your friends as much. And that’s not to mention the bugs, rodents and pests.

In the city, everyone’s so close. You can walk to all the stores and swing by a friend’s house. There’s no lack of fun, interesting and enriching activities to do. Kids have more schooling options, and those options don’t involve rural bus routes. You’re closer to every type of service, including emergency services.

But in the city it’s easy to get distracted by all the shiny things. You spend so much time coming and going, and not enough time being. It’s too easy to get caught up in the whirlwind and abandon productive and meaningful hobbies. You don’t spend as much time outside, and that outside time is spent marinating in the exhaust fumes of thousands of vehicles.

As Michael so succinctly said, city life is “rush rush go go fast.”

But then there’s the diversity in a city. People from all over the world, speaking all kinds of languages. And whatever weird niche thing you’re into, there are others who are too. The city is a great place to be a vegan. It would be great if I was a Wiccan scholar or a video game entrepreneur or any other random thing I could conceive.

Country life tends to bring with it a certain stubbornness of mind, a certain clinging to tradition and fear of the new. The city is open, where the country is closed. I fear that living in a town, and the country, would create a closed mind in me, too.

What they say about small town living is true – people are generally very friendly. But there’s a price to pay if you exist outside the norm. In a city, you can let your freak flag fly

So we oscillate, back and forth. How do you decide between country or city once and for all?

Is one or the other objectively better?

Or is there a clear internal signal that guides you in one direction?