City and Country: Place and My Problems

I’ve lived in the countryside for two years next week.

In those two years I’ve exchanged convenience for wide open views of hills and trees. The air is cold and crisp here. When you crane your head towards the dark night sky, you can see the stars as clearly as if they were painted on your ceiling – there is only one street light in this village.

There’s no pub here, and there’s no shop, not even a post office that sells single pints of milk or the odd Crunchie, so there is nowhere for the villagers to congregate, unless you count the two churches, and because of this we hardly ever have to speak to our neighbours.

At first I approached this change of scenery as a giant, fresh-aired adventure. I dug my wellies out of storage, I walked, I spotted hares and badgers and woodpeckers. I felt safe, cocooned by a blanket of rural space that deterred most visitors. I relished the quiet head-space. I curled up with books whilst the wind whipped round the sides of the house and the road flooded outside.

The first year of living here flew by in a caffeine fuelled haze whilst I struggled to complete my PGCE. I barely noticed my surroundings and since I was heading to uni or school most days, I didn’t feel the isolation of my country retreat.

country and city

But eventually the fog cleared, the honeymoon period ended and I began to notice that country life wasn’t all The Archers had it cracked up to be. There were surprisingly few jam making competitions and only on one occasion has there been loose livestock on my driveway. I resented having to plan the shopping meticulously because running out of toilet roll late on Sunday evening could be disastrous. I started to lament never being able to walk down the road for a quick pint, or a pub quiz, or just to get away from the four walls that, after a week of thick rain, had become oppressive.

It didn’t help that for months and months I was unemployed, stuck in the house with no occupation, or money, or friends nearby. The fields became claustrophobic – the sheer expanse of green seemed to be hemming me in, keeping me away from jobs that I could have had, or successes I could have achieved. Instead, I became increasingly frantic, stomping up and down hills, cleaning the gazillion spiders out of the high corners of my rooms, praying the cat didn’t bring home a dead baby bunny clamped between his teeth like a prize, all the while thinking, “what am I doing with my life?”

I thought about people in cities, people in London and when I did that I felt my life was very small. “What is happening here, in this tiny village, in this rainy valley?” I wondered. And then I would worry that because nothing was happening here, because there were no people here, because some days I feel like I’m a small mouse tucked into a crack in a wall, hiding whilst all the world thunders by, that nothing would ever happen to me.

I’m from a small town and all through my childhood and teens I was desperate to escape it. I spent rainy afternoons sat in my attic bedroom imagining a future where I travelled the globe. I saw myself in New York, London, Paris. I dreamt of tropical beaches, frozen lakes, writing at a small wooden desk in a narrow room, overlooking a green canal.

When it was time to go to university, I picked the one that was the furthest away which happened to be in Cornwall. The distance was exhilarating, the proximity to the sea a delicious, ocean scented bonus. After three years it was time to move on. London dazzled tantalisingly in the distance but was always out of reach – too expensive, too far from anyone who could help me. So I moved back home briefly and then to Manchester, where the jobs were.

city or country

In a city I felt more possible. There were options. Things were close – even far away places were easily accessed. Jobs could be lost and new ones found. There was never any anxiety about where to go for a pint, or a decent curry, or a roll of toilet paper on a Sunday evening. But we soon filled our tiny, expensive house with things we didn’t want to throw away; heavily annotated books, bundles of vintage dresses, unusual cookware that was hardly ever used.

I missed the salt air of the seaside. I missed walking up marshy hills. I missed seeing wide open spaces.

The countryside, then, seemed like the solution. A bigger house, with more space inside it and more space outside, uncluttered by buildings and people and cars. There will be space to think, I told myself as I loaded up the moving van. I could dream up a thousand possible selves and become the best one.

But your possibilities are limited in the country. You can have the job that is available, not the one you want and it will take you forever to get there and back on public transport so eye-wateringly expensive it’ll put a dent in your finances so severe you won’t be able to enjoy any of the few lack-lustre leisure activities available in the area (mainly pubs and the park).

So what’s the answer? I lived in a city, decided to move to the country and wasn’t satisfied with either. Very Princess and the Pea of me, I know. Well, I think I just want to do it all. I want to travel but also settle down, I want a high-flying career (that ship has likely sailed) and a relaxed, sedate life, I want the beach and the mountains, I want bright lights and a thatched roof, I want to be surrounded by people and at the same time surrounded by a silence only penetrated by bird calls.

living by the beach

Here’s the thing though: you can’t have it all. And it’s exhausting and unfruitful to aim for it. I spent three years setting up a life in a city, then I tore all that down and moved here. Two years later, I contemplate ripping it all up and starting again. But what if after another two years of getting to know a new area, the sea, the mountains, the moon, wherever I decide to lay my hat next, I find that’s not right either?

Where will it have got me? I’d be in a new place facing down the same old demons – that somewhere else would be better. That I would be better in a different place. That the things that are wrong are wrong because of location – because of the distance to the sea, or the nearest place that serves really good Japanese food.

Sooner or later I have to admit that the problem isn’t place. The problem is me. By constantly yearning for somewhere else, something else, I’m missing out on enjoying my here and now. I have a real issue with wanting to run away, or ‘start over’ as I put it whenever I float the idea of moving house again to my boyfriend.

My favourite daydream to indulge in is one where, on a bad day, I step onto a train and out of my life. I get out somewhere down the line, far away, and start again with a completely new identity, in a new place, where everything is possible.

For now, I’m going to try not to fret about whether I live in the right place and what’s possible for me here. Instead, I’m going to work out what I want and how to get it. There is no perfect place that I can pack up and move to and all my problems will be solved. Problems get solved because you sit down, and do the work and solve them.

How about you? Do you live in the city or the countryside and which do you prefer? Where did you want to live as a child? Let me know in the comments or email hello@terriblypersonal.com.

Things I Wish I Could Tell My Teenage Self

Once, when I was 19 I turned to my friend and said, “I was so worried last night that I haven’t slept at all.”

We were sat on our filthy rented house sofa. I was wearing a huge baggy jumper, clutching a glass of vodka and blackcurrant squash, I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept. I’d been up worrying about the three things that took up most of my brain space as a teenager: how fat I was, how stupid I was, how uncool I was. It had taken an immense amount of courage to utter those 12 words.

My friend rolled her eyes and let out an exasperated sigh.

“You’re always worried,” she said without even looking at me. She was on her laptop, looking at impossibly cool things on the internet because she was cool.

Then she went back to being her apparently self-assured self whilst I continued to worry, now with the added anxiety that I was annoying. I would worry that I worried too much for the next three years.

I spent most of my teens being a scared little mouse. I was scared about who I was, I was scared about what I might never be. I worried about fitting in and to combat that, I decided to just be like everyone else. I listened to the music they liked, I watched the films they raved about, I wore the clothes the magazines told me to wear and I spouted the same opinions my friends did.

Another worry crept in to my nightly rotation: that I didn’t like this person I had created. I didn’t like these bands, these films, these opinions, these clothes.

Looking back on poor, scared, teen me with the perspective of a decade, I wish I could go back and tell her a few things and save her a few dozen sleepless nights.

Firstly, your body is so much more than something for other people to look at and assess you by. The width of your hips is not a visual representation of the depth of your kindness. The gap between your thighs will not diametrically increase your confidence. You are not just the rolls of flab on your stomach and swell of your buttocks.

The hours and hours you spend now, looking in the mirror, pinching inches of fat until your skin goes red and sore, writing down calories, frantically doing sit-ups in the dark, those hours could be spent doing something worthwhile. In the time you spent agonising over your body you could have written a book, learnt to play the piano, watched Gilmore Girls a third, fourth and fifth time through. All these things are more enriching than measuring your thighs with a tape measure and worrying that the tap water has sugar in it.

Also, this is the thinnest you’re ever going to be, so have sex with the lights on, wear the crop top, take up space – be proud of your body, don’t punish it.

Secondly, you are a person all in your own right. You have your own likes and dislikes and talents and weaknesses. If all your friends are pretending to like the same band, same hairstyle, same thoughts then let them. There is so much value in being different, being the one voice saying something true. There isn’t safety in being the same – it just leads to the panic of being caught out as an impostor and misery over denying your true self.

Even when I did ‘all the right things’ – wore the correct clothes, listened to the right music, went to the right bars – I couldn’t enjoy myself because I had the constant fear of being found out. That any second someone would turn and scream, “she’s not meant to be here! She’s not one of us!”

Finally, just because somebody else says something with certainty doesn’t make it true. I’ll tell you what sort of people speak with authority about matters that do not concern them: MORONS.

People will tell you that you are too worried, that you are too boring, that you should hang out with your boyfriend less, that you should hang out with your friends less, that you should go to festivals (you hate festivals!). You will tie yourself in knots trying to please everybody and you will rarely please yourself. Don’t. As long as your actions aren’t hurting you or anybody else then the correct thing to be doing is WHATEVER THE HELL YOU LIKE.

What I’d really like to say to teenage me is this:

Be brave. There are lots of things to worry about in this world but what people think about you should not be one of them. I’d say, eat the cake and don’t worry about it, wear the weird dress that no one likes but makes you feel like Kate Bush, decline invitations to parties you do not wish to attend, if you want to see your boyfriend then see your boyfriend and if you don’t then don’t. I’d say, listen to the song you like on repeat, go for a long walk on your own, cry if you’re sad and do not feel compelled to wear low-rise jeans just because everybody else is.

This is your life, I would say, it’s yours to make what you want out of it and you won’t do that by letting other people make your decisions for you.