You remember that children’s book about the country mouse who trades places with his big-city cousin and ventures to the city to see what it’s all about? It occurred to me this afternoon that I am that mouse. Despite having a rather big-city penchant for the opera, fine wine, fancy restaurants, and shoes, I think at heart I’ve always been a little more John Denver than Lady Gaga.
Growing Up – Definitely Country Mouse
I grew up in
strip mall hell the suburbs of Indianapolis. It is by far the biggest city I’ve ever lived in, and (apologies to all my Hoosier friends & relations) my least favorite out of the places I’ve lived. Part of that is undoubtedly reflective of a young person’s desire to get the hell out of Dodge after graduation, but part of it is definitely that Indy is just not my style. For a big city, it has miserable public transportation, and many of the urban renewal initiatives that have, thankfully, taken place occurred long after I left. And despite being in the city most of the time, most of my happiest childhood memories took place on a farm a few hours outside the city, where we spent many weekends when I was growing up.
My first true metropolitan experience came when I ventured to Strasbourg, France, for a semester abroad. At just under half a million people in the greater metro area, Strasbourg is tiny, but as the seat of the European Parliament, and straddling, as it does geographically & culturally, both France & Germany, it was my first introduction to city life. I could walk nearly everywhere I needed to go for day-to-day living, and could hop a tram or bus to venture further in the city, or a train to make the ever-more-frequent trips to Nancy that became part of my life in France. I got to know the local drunks who lived in the bus shelter outside my apartment, and who got me out of a scrape or two in my time there. I learned to shop in increments that were easy to carry on foot and up the four flights of stairs to my apartment. I got used to having options beyond seeing a movie on the weekend as dance, opera, theater and other cultural events were added to my repertoire.
But then it was back to small-town Indiana to finish up college and off to another university town for my then-fiances’ graduate school. Again, small town life suited me. And again, when it was time to move to Colorado, we chose locations (first Superior, then Lafayette) that were smaller, off the beaten path. We moved to Windsor, England, and found the perfect balance of a small town (~30,000 people) that was close enough to have us in downtown London in half an hour by train. In addition to rekindling our love of art, culture, and the culinary delights that a city like London provides, our desire to travel, to easily jump to Paris or Venice or somewhere new entirely, cemented in our psyches.
However, it was also in England that I really discovered my love of gardening, so when we returned to the US and started looking for a bigger house than our little bungalow in Lafayette, we took what some considered a drastic step in moving to Lyons, a town of about 2,000 people. A place where I could raise children in an intimate community. A place where I could garden to my heart’s content in a big new yard and an easily-accessible community garden plot. A place with its own culture–the culture of bluegrass, the great outdoors, the river, the mountains.
And I loved life in Lyons. I loved running into people I knew every time I went to the local coffee shop, went to the park, or went for a run. I loved that we could walk across town in 20 minutes or so, and that we could walk to open space in 5 minutes. The tight-knit community meant that everyone was in everyone else’s business, but in a good way–a way in which this extroverted country mouse thrived.
And then we got restless…
But then last year, Matt & I both felt a little malaise. An amazing trip to Seoul in February stirred up my wanderlust, and two years of job insecurity, layoffs, and uncertainty tainted our feelings about our nice new house and the nice big mortgage that came with it. So now this country mouse finds herself in an actual city for the first time ever. It’s small for a capital city, just over half a million in Helsinki itself and just over a million in the metropolitan area created by Helsinki, Espoo, & Vantaa, and the downtown area is definitely smaller than Boulder, just with twice as many people.
First impressions of life in the city
As with all things, there are positives and negatives. The population density instantly drops the carbon footprint of our family (although admittedly our numerous flights to and from the US have probably killed a baby seal or two). The municipal compost & avid recycling program helps that effort, as does not having a car and relying on walking, cycling, tram, bus, and Metro. And living green is important to us.
Living simply has also increased in importance to us recently, and downsizing our house, yard, and cars plays into that effort. We estimate that we offloaded close to 30% of our stuff when we moved. Moving away from the land of Target & Wal-Mart and to the land of the dreaded 23% Value-Added Tax (VAT) will hopefully help us remember to think carefully about our purchases and avoid the accumulation of stuff that we don’t need or love.
And don’t get me started on the cultural offerings. As if moving into a very international community (our flat is in the embassy district and Gabriel’s school boasts more than 30 nationalities) wasn’t enough, Helsinki is close enough for a weekend trip to several other countries (Sweden, Estonia, & Russia being the most easily accessible). We know relatively little about Finland too, which makes it that much more foreign and mysterious to us.
But carrying groceries in howling winds and sub-zero temperatures is indisputably a drag. Missing the bus and really having no way to make-up the time, therefore coming late to school pickup or drop-off is equally annoying. Tiny washing machines, tiny antique elevators (have I ever mentioned that I’m mildly claustrophobic), being unable to navigate by the sun/mountains/water due to all the freaking tall buildings (some of you have witnessed first-hand my inability to navigate without these natural signs), and dogs that piss endlessly in the snow piles that I have to walk by every single day all make the list of annoyances.
I’d forgotten, since my time in England, the gorgeous shop windows at the holidays. And the beauty of the symmetrical Christmas lights adorning city center. The joy of watching the streets slip by on the tram without having to pay attention to traffic had slipped my mind. So I guess I’m a hybrid, or a chameleon, or something, because I think I can thrive in this new life in the city. And exposing the children to all of this, so that they can, in some far-off distant future decide if they’d like to be country mice or city mice…I suspect that’s the real reward.