I’ve been living in the country (note: posh* people never say ‘countryside’) for nearly three months now and I’ve always said that it takes about that long to get used to anything new – relationship, job, house. After three months you should have that inward sigh of small happiness when you get within a certain distance of the front door. That safe feeling you have when at home begins to extend to a further point – the last street corner you turn, the bus stop you get off at – where you feel ‘if anything tries to get me now, I’ll be ok’. (Funny really we should feel like this when most accidents happen within a three mile radius of your home.) You should have got your bearings now too. You know where the nearest dry cleaners is; you’ve finally registered with the doctor. At work after three months, you’ve sussed the quickest commute, you know the right bit of platform to stand on to get your preferred tube carriage. And in a relationship, three months is pretty much the point at which you know whether it’s a goer or not, how many sugars they like in their tea and which friends of yours they don’t like much.
So here I am and yes, I’ve got the dry cleaner sorted. Got my Waitrose layout nailed and know the best place to buy sausages. I’ve met the neighbours, too. In fact, I met my neighbour the very first night I was in the house, when she popped round with a card and a bottle of wine, because that’s how they do things in the country. I remember wanting to invite all my neighbours round for a drink when I first bought my flat in Notting Hill, one of nine in a converted house. “Don’t,” said a friend. “No one will come and they’ll earmark you as a nutter.” Which was probably true. We all know you don’t say hello to people in the city. The shorthand for ‘goofball character’ or ‘alien from outer space recently landed in New York’ is always achieved by having said weirdo/alien relentlessly smile at all the passersby who bury their faces even further into their turned up collars. In fact, so used to this was I that when I first got together with my now-husband, then living in Suffolk, after one walk I remarked that he seemed to know an awful lot of people because he’d said hello to everyone we’d passed.
A Londoner born and bred I grew to love the anonymity the city gave me. Round my flat, where I lived for almost eight years, I had enough local friendliness – the launderette, the cafe that knew how I liked my coffee, the market stalls on a Friday – but also the ability to disappear on a whim. No one to question my whereabouts, my mood or just what I was doing having breakfast with this bloke when I’d been having breakfast with quite another last weekend. The thought of losing all this to a village life that might be cosy and supportive but also nosey, bigoted and judgemental frightened me out of my cynical urban wits.
I was wrong.
First of all, we are not really in a villagey-village, although there’s one nearby. So I don’t feel in any way watched. But even if we were, I doubt there would be many who would take much notice. Turns out, people who live in the country, have a life too, you know? And, what’s more, I’m not sure I would mind all that much even if they did notice. After a lifetime of strangers on the street turning away if you ever so much as hint at needing some help – falling over, say, and bleeding – it’s actually been a rather surprising comfort to find that I like people caring. Thanks to utter strangers taking a kind interest in me, I have real, live neighbours who do things like give my son presents, buy me tickets for the local literary festival and bring round gluten-free brownies (I don’t need them, but they do). I had a sitting-room full of people I had never so much as heard of three months ago, let alone met, and I was truly happy to have them there. That’s been a new one on me. Just as you think you know yourself…
Secondly, the thing of physical proximity, the feeling of being invaded is much, much worse in the city. I only realised this when I got the train down yesterday and then had to get a packed tube, having stupidly coincided my cross-city trip with rush hour, and found myself nose-to-armpit with both savoury and unsavoury types. Nothing was threatening it was just a bit, you know, close. It’s not just that the country has wide open spaces and to bump into someone on a walk you’d have to target them with the efficiency of a drone, it’s the fact that there’s none of that arty-farty city kissing and hugging either. We all nod hello and maybe shake hands first time, but that’s about it. Passing in the car might merit a wave, but more likely a lifted finger or two from the steering wheel and a barely perceptible nod. All acquaintances and best friends are treated alike. It’s not unfriendly, not at all – it’s just a respectful distance. God, I love it. And my predilection for smattering even a note for the milkman with xxx’s is being shown in comic relief here. My new bezzie mate here may have told me the ins and outs of her marriage but she’s not put so much as an x at the end of a text to me.
There is one unexpected thing, however. I’ve noticed that the class divide is blown much wider in the country. That great cliche, the melting-pot of London, is true. When everyone’s a blow-in, there are millions of people who are reinventing their story, building their platform, ironing out their accents and all living cheek-by-jowl. We all live on the same street, go to the same schools (apart from that tiny percentage that go to very exclusive ones), travel on the same tubes and buses, see the same movies, eat at the same restaurants. Of course you can see class divides in London, but out in the country it feels much more pronounced. I think it’s partly the size of the houses, partly the rustic accents are thrown into sharper relief (not so many BBC voices here). It’s harder to pass yourself off as proper country, than it is to be a Dalston trendy, say, within a week of arriving. (I know I’m failing in keeping up appearances out here but then, I’m not trying. More on the clothes and other giveaways another time, I’m still spotting them.)
I’m not in what many would call proper country anyway – it’s ‘lunch-country’ (you can get here and back from London just for lunch). I’m sure in Devon or Dorset it would be a different story (anyone care to enlighten me?) and certainly in Oxfordshire, most of the people I’ve met are ex-London and still say they’re going ‘up to town’ pretty frequently, and they don’t mean Abingdon or Oxford. But, still, that’s how it’s been for me. The best thing I can say? I’m pleased I made the move. So thank you neighbours. See you in the pub later.
*Hmmm. I’m not THAT posh. But, anyway.