Thursday 24 November 2022

Coming Home

I have been drawn to the city since I was a child. The glamour, the serendipity, the everyday unknown. From as young as three, family friends would tell me, ‘You’ll live in a city one day.’ People saw me being precious about my shiny red boots and my love of performing and thought instantly: city girl

How funny, then, that I am as country as it gets. Born literally on a mountainside in a small village in Snowdonia, the midwife had to walk up a track with a torch to welcome me into being. I grew up there, cradled by the valley,  going to the primary school that housed thirty kids at most. I played in the rivers and hills, sneaked cigarettes in the barns, watched sunsets and snowstorms from our centuries-old home. Idyllic? Not to me. Friends from towns or cities would come to stay and beg to go up mountains. I couldn’t think of anything worse. Why was walking seen as fun? Walking was a chore, something I had to do sometimes after school. It was boring. My idea of fun was watching TV indoors or going to a cafe or a shopping centre. And views? What was the big deal? The scenery was unbearably static to me: the same wall, the same tree, only the seasons offering any kind of variation. I wanted streetlights, strangers, the white noise of traffic. 

No surprise that I moved to the city as soon as I could. From the claustrophobic fishbowl that was my teenage years came the vast expanse of foreign streets and 24-hour possibility. My studies took me to Cardiff, Norwich, London. My travels; all around Europe and South America. Home to me became a postcard. A warm, romantic orange glow that I could dip into now and then. It was a sanctuary from the hedonism of my twenties.

The last city I lived in was Granada, Spain. I moved there on a whim - or a calling - and found myself enchanted by the Moorish architecture, the history of gypsies in caves, the network of travelers. I stayed there for two years and thought I could not be happier. 

We all experience breaking points, most likely more than once in our lives. My big one came in the form of chronic fatigue that creeped over me slowly - the cloudy head of a virus overstaying its welcome. After losing the ability to work or socialise I was forced to move back home. There I was: twenty-six, single, jobless, utterly exhausted and cut off from the world. My identity as a jetsetting adventurer was shattered. The following two years were the most challenging and humbling of my life, consisting mainly of sitting, lying down, reading, and wondering if I would ever feel normal again. 

Then came Covid, and with it, even more restrictions. When my health improved, I found a house in the local area, accepting that I would be staying here for the foreseeable future. My travel plans were on hold. 

I’m fortunate enough to look back at that period of lockdowns and be largely grateful. It forced me to be patient. I had always found comfort in the escape plan of travel, knowing if things got too grey and complicated, I could always go to a new country. If relationships didn’t work out, I could always meet new people. The world, I felt, had an endless supply of second chances. The downside, however, is that you’re always expanding upwards and outwards, there is a grabbing, moreish mentality. Down below, foundationally, your roots are stunted. You miss out on the subtle, committed quality of staying in one place.

Now, suddenly, I was able to afford my own house. The subsidised rent on the rural estate meant I could make a home on my own terms, working for myself as an English teacher. I was surrounded by family, old friends and new. Life was just as intricate as living in the city, if not more so. The difference was the focus. 

Imagine a wide-angle lens. This is what you use in a city. You get the impression of a place by taking in its vastness: the buildings, so tall you barely notice their roofs; crowds of people blurring into one; shop signs, indecipherable as hieroglyphs. In a small community the lens is telescopic. You zoom in on the people around you, dynamics shifting with the weather, backstories constant in their surprise. 

I’ve learned that living in a small community tests your resilience. People imagine rural life as cosy, sheltered, easy. The truth is, you are tested. Think about your social life in the city. Chances are you will spend the majority of your time with people of a similar age and similar interest. It’s easy to let relationships fizzle out when there are hundreds of other people who promise to be better suited. But in a small village, you are stuck with who’s there, and that means patience, that means effort. In these politically divided times, it’s tempting to shut off anyone who disagrees with you, but you can afford no such luxury here. Even if it’s just exchanging small talk at the village shop, those interactions count, each one a subtle thread stitching up our differences. 

This valley is now in a particularly fertile period. Many young people like myself have moved back to the area, bringing with them partners and friends. Many are having children, solidifying the community even further. This fresh energy has sparked new ideas and projects, from social spaces to women’s circles, to art classes and exhibitions. Who knew so much vision could be concentrated in this tiny patch of land? When you are granted space in the form of mountains and freedom in the form of low rent, you are more inclined to contribute to society in your own unique way. You have the headspace to do so. That to me is utopia: everyone using their natural, joy-giving talents to enrich the lives of others. 

Though I did not necessarily choose this life, I can now recognise the privilege of what I have been given. Those with community are the true billionaires - the ones with fresh air and palpable connections. Living in different places has given me the grit and perspective I needed to dive, ready now, into this earth, these mossy ancient forests, ice-clear rivers, sheep-trodden paths, and recognise the beauty in the known, the depth of getting-to-know-more. The curiosity that lies in the familiar.