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.

Alone Not Lonely

About four years ago, I lived near to a Buddhist Temple that offered a ‘meditation for beginners’ course one evening a week. I’d recently attended a meditation day course with one of my friends and this seemed like the next logical step. I wanted to learn more about meditation and deepen my practise, and most importantly this course was free.

I knew that my boyfriend, who believes that meditation is a nonsensical waste of time, would not want to go with me. My friend who I’d gone to the last course with was busy on Thursdays and I didn’t think any of my other friends would enjoy it. No matter, I thought, I’ll go on my own.

And off I went, alone, to the first class. There was an introductory talk and then a short guided meditation that to my untrained mind seemed to last forever. Afterwards, there was a chance to meet the other people on the course and have a drink and a snack. We all crowded in the small kitchen space, grabbed cups of tea and biscuits and formed small groups. I stood on the edge of one of these groups, cupping my mug of tea, staring off into the middle distance in the hopes that no one would talk to me. But someone did. Someone always does.

“And who are you here with?” A lady of about forty, with short, shiny black hair asked me.

“No one,” I answered.

The lady looked aghast. She went on to tell me how she absolutely could not face coming here on her own,

“I’ve come with a friend, would none of your friends come?” She asked rudely. Something in her tone implied I didn’t have any friends.

“Er, well I don’t have that many friends locally. My boyfriend and I have just moved,” I felt the need to explain to the lady. She was so shocked at my lone attendance that I felt it was my fault.

“Couldn’t your boyfriend come?” She persisted. When I explained that meditation wasn’t really his thing, she said that if it were her, she’d have forced him.

“If no one would come with me, I wouldn’t bother coming,” she said, shaking her head at me.

Trying to placate the lady, I told her I did lots of things alone and I was used to it. I explained that I’d recently been to Norway on my own and really enjoyed it.

Well, her head nearly exploded right then and there. No matter what I said she never lost the look of absolute pity she regarded me with. To her I was friendless and lonely.

But to me, that lady who couldn’t go anywhere alone had the shitty end of the stick.

Imagine being unable to go to an event or a place just because you had no one to go with you? Imagine never knowing the quiet pleasure of sitting outside a bar in the sunshine, ordering a massive glass of wine and pulling out a book. Imagine never experiencing the smug satisfaction of navigating an airport and a foreign public transport system completely alone and arriving, intact, in your desired destination.

When I told people I was going to Norway alone, they generally reacted in shock. Why on earth would I want to go anywhere alone? But some people understood me, my brother’s girlfriend was inspired to spend a weekend in Belgium alone – not because she didn’t have anyone to go with but because she wanted to feel the sheer joy of knowing she, a woman in her early twenties, could travel the world alone. Another friend of a friend who had heard my story gossiped over across a sticky pub table decided to go on a solo trip as well.

I realised that people actively want to travel alone. Women actively want to travel alone. It’s empowering to know you can navigate the world by yourself, that your own company is enough, that you can make all the decisions.

Since that lady stared at me, aghast, in the Buddhist Temple, I’ve done plenty more things perfectly alone. I’ve relished a quiet weekend exploring London, taken myself to restaurants, enjoyed glasses of wine in total solitude, and visited museums, galleries and cities.

I’ve got lost and found again, I’ve stayed in tacky hotels and hostels on the sides of mountains, I’ve wandered around familiar places and new places – all quite alone.

This alone time to me isn’t a hindrance or something to be wished away. It isn’t time to kill. It isn’t something to be waited out from the safety of my home. It’s precious independent time. It’s time to luxuriate in, time to crave, to seek out, to cherish.

Sometimes you want someone there with you – to take photos of your gorgeous outfit, to laugh with when things go a bit wrong, to ask, “is this the right train?”

But sometimes, you want to be alone to experience the world through your eyes only, to spend as long as you want in a gallery looking at only the paintings you like, to read your book and drink your wine and to not share your Danish pastry.

I’m no expert on solo travel, other women have been far further than me for far longer – but the small amount I have done has convinced me that I want to take more trips on my own in the future.

Have you travelled alone? Do you spend time by yourself regularly? What’s your favourite thing to do by yourself? Let me know in the comments or email hello@terriblypersonal.com.