I grew up in a suburb, but a very small suburb, with a population of about 18,000. Its history was, for the most part, fairly rural; I played in fields called 'The Cow Fields' and town institutions included a large farm where you could pick your own strawberries, and a country store in the midst of an apple farm. That country store is long gone, alas, but I can't smell mulled apple cider or feel the sharp bite of a blue autumn day without remembering it.
For these reasons, I always considered myself something of a country gal. I knew I didn't grow up in deepest countryside, but the city always seemed a large, scary place. Boston – the nearest city as I grew up – was always a bit of a mystery to me.
I've lived in London, or the surrounds of London, for the past 20 or so years, but still haven't really thought of myself as a ‘city mouse’ (even though, according to an infuriating newspaper I saw over the weekend, I am of the Sex and the City Generation…but that's a rant for another time).
When I go out into the country, though – like, the proper country – I realise that I am, indeed, a city mouse.
This weekend just gone, a friend and I went to the Hay Festival. Hay-on-Wye is a tiny village on the border between Wales and England, which, once a year, hosts a huge literary festival in which the city mice come to the country. My friend Rachel and I have visited the festival every year for the past 4 years, and very enjoyable it is too. But I always experience a bit of a culture shock when I go.
As we don't have the budget or forward planning skills to book a B&B or hotel, Rachel and I take advantage of the rooms being offered by locals in their own homes. These homes are usually in deep countryside. When I look out the window before bed, rather than seeing my neighbours, I see more stars than I ever imagined possible, shining against a black velvet sky. Instead of hearing the constant hum of traffic, I hear my own tinnitus whining against the silence of night. In the morning, instead of being woken by the crash of dustmen and the roar of commuter trains, I hear sheep and cockerels.
And the country lanes. Dear god. The country lanes. For someone who grew up in the US – the nation of the car – British country lanes are a thing of true horror.
Allow me to explain to my American readers: country lanes are the width of one car. In fact, not even one car width, at times. My car bears the scars of hedges that reached out from the side of the lane to scratch its paintwork. The country lanes are winding and twisted, hemmed in by solid, towering hedges. The speed limit on these things, which an American might call a narrow footpath, is 60mph. You have no idea what is waiting for you around the next bend, or over the next brow of a hill. It could be another car, being driven by a complacent local at the speed limit; it might be an achingly vulnerable biker; it might be a lorry bearing down on you like Death itself. It might be an innocent animal; a fox or badger; a pheasant of breathtaking stupidity that strolls along the road as though danger is a foreign country. I'd rather have a convoy of tailgating Audi drivers on the motorway, frankly.
‘I feel sorry for you, living in London,’ said the slightly eccentric woman who hosted us this weekend, regarding Rachel and me with genuine pity. She lives alone with 2 cats, a dog, 4 horses and a clutch of hens. Her house is about 400 years old, and rehabilitating it has taken her years. It seems at once bucolic and ideal, and terrifyingly isolated. I mean, her house isn't even on SatNav!
To round off my sense of isolation, I couldn't even get a phone signal, the entire weekend. Addicted as I am to my iPhone and all it offers, it's amazing that I didn't have the shakes by Monday.
There are times when living in an urban environment drives me nuts. Too many people. Too much noise. Too much dirt. I love the gentle British countryside. But after a few nights there, I find myself itching to return to ‘civilisation’ – to a taxi service that doesn't take advance booking; to roads that aren't like a terrifying and life-threatening roller-coaster; to shops that are a 2 minute walk rather than a half an hour's drive.
In the Country Mouse and the City Mouse stories, the conclusion is that the country is altogether a more pleasant place to live. One might have luxury in the city, but one also has cats and mousetraps. For me, though, the life of the Country Mouse has a life that's too slow, and too inconvenient. It's the city life for me, for all its annoyances. The country is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.