My secret love affair with the country

October 1 | Guest post by Karie
Picking wildflowers in the meadow. Photo taken by Lewis Gauthier.

This summer we spent part of our vacation at my parents' beautiful six-acre property in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. We took our daughter to the Valley View Little Animal Farm to feed baby goats and ride a train through corn fields. We travelled to Hemmingford, Quebec to visit a friend's family and pick apples. And I'll admit… all of this country-living may have made this high-heel wearing, nightlife loving, die-hard city girl a little nostalgic.

The country and I have always had an on-again/off-again relationship. My partner and many of my friends grew up in small towns and speak of their origins with pride, whereas I find the question of where I grew up a little awkward, like I'm being made to talk about a failed romance that needs explanation.

I spent a good chunk of my younger years in Ottawa on the Rockliffe military base, which at the time was a strange hybrid of a place. It was like a small town, with its own general store, a single school to which all the kids walked and a strong sense of community. It was somewhat secluded but the busy Montreal Road was up the hill and downtown just minutes away.

When I was 10 we moved to the village of Russell, about 30 km south-east of Ottawa. We did the country-living stuff, but truthfully, I was never a full-fledged country girl. At 14 I decided I couldn't fully commit and opted to commute to the city for high school. At 18, my best friend I moved to an apartment near the nightlife of Elgin Street. I loved that small town but it was time to see if the city and I could finally make it work.

We worked well; however, two years later I went back to Russell. I worked at the local weekly newspaper but again commuted to the city for school. My job had me immersed in the goings-on of small town life, while my social life brought public transit and nights in the Byward Market. I was always somewhat caught between my love for the lights and noise of the city and the crickets and cow manure of the country, never quite sure to which I belonged.

When I graduated from university the country and I again parted ways with no ill will. It had been nice but it was time to get back to the city.

The city is where I've been since and where we intend to stay.

Yet this summer I find myself remembering my 12-year-old-self frolicking through the forest, biking along streets with no traffic lights and meeting friends at the annual fair.

Watching my daughter pick wildflowers and hide under my parents' willow trees, talk about pigs and horses and eat too many freshly picked apples makes me wonder if maybe I walked away from something good. Is she, am I, missing out on a wonderful life? Maybe the country and I need to make another go at it…

But then I remember how last weekend we rode our bikes along the Rideau River (which flows through downtown) and stopped for an impromptu dip; how the weekend before that we joined our neighbours in a backyard BBQ and trip to an urban light festival; and how this winter I'll teach my daughter to skate on the Rideau Canal. With that I know that it's in the city, this city, we belong.

I love the country because it's an occasional treat. I love it because it's an escape, a special and sometimes almost magical place that I'm never in quite long enough. If I want to preserve that feeling I need to stay here. I know that with the country I'd grow restless and bitter because despite its good looks and free spirit, the country and I were never meant to be more than a summer romance.

  1. I'm the exact opposite of you – I grew up in a close suburb of Detroit and whenever I tell people that, it's like I have to tell the story of how my dad was going to grad school, had to drop out because of finances and then had to find a job and Detroit was where it was.

    I am currently going to school in an area with a population of ~10,000. The next biggest city is 2 hours away. I love it. But I do miss the city occasionally – but only occasionally!

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  2. As a 100% city girl who grew up in the country (the seaside even) I understand a lot of the sentiments in your story. There's some nice nostalgia when you don't have to deal with long muddy driveways and limited access to things on an everyday basis! Growing up in the country taught me I am in no way cut out to live there. I love the city, and am pleased I have that experience so I don't have any "what if…" longings for the country life.

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  3. As an Ottawa girl who spent a fair chunk of my childhood in the surrounding country towns, then left for a small-town rural Maritime university, and moved back to the capital for family, I love this.

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    • As a Perth, Ontario girl who moved to Boston at nine and now lives in Montreal I just have to say… ooh, you're from Ottawa, do you know Perth? ;)

      I've loved living in the city for now, but the Gentleman and I intend to move to the country to have kids. We both grew up in the country, on the outskirts of small towns, and wouldn't trade it for anything. (though seeing my niece grow up in the city, I wonder what an urban childhood would've been like, what I would or wouldn't trade for it)

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      • I know Perth! We did some camping in that area this summer and it was lovely.

        Kids really do make you reconsider things. We've definitely given the issue a lot more thought since having our daughter. I love giving her a very urban childhood, but often wonder if she's missing out. For now I think we'll just have to contend with some extra visits to the country-dwelling grandparents.

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  4. I need the intellectual stimulation of a city, but I'm happiest and most at peace when I look out my window and see nothing but fields and trees around, and bright stars above.

    My dream land would be a small, picturesque (of course!) farm about thirty minutes outside of a university town. Best of both worlds – I could work in town, then drive back into the deepening trees and be home.

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    • May I suggest Madison, Wisconsin? I went to school there and its this awesome university town with decent jobs available (plus the largest farmers market in the country!)and it's so easy to live out in the country and have access to it. My parents lived about 40 minutes outside of Madison in the country, and it was this 100 year old house and a old red barn with lots of rolling corn fields surrounding them. It was one of the most peaceful places I've ever been to. I'm on the East Coast right now, but plan on moving back to the Madison area (maybe even rent a little home in the country!) this summer. I can't wait! Good luck with your search!

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  5. I grew up in the country – my parents thought it'd be a good place to raise kids, and we'd grow up understanding all the great things the country held.

    Nope. I was into reading but the library was paltry, school library not much better, and bookstores were a 30-minute drive away, and expensive! Other than reading and TV, there wasn't much else to do that I enjoyed. I never got into gardening, and I was too young to drive, but you had to drive to all the good hiking trails. Cooking was a fine hobby until I wanted to start experimenting with different spices and ingredients I could only get my hands on in the city (think cardamom powder, aamchoor, teff flour, shaoxing wine, kaffir lime, NIcaraguan cheese, Bengali mustard oil). I was into art but at that time mostly paper craft, and the "nearby" Michael's, if you could call it nearby, didn't carry the range of paper I wanted. I had few friends – I will never say that people who live in the country are backwards (they aren't!) but I will say I found them conservative and we had few mutually interesting topics of conversation and fewer common interests.

    There are plenty of folks like that in cities, too, but at least with a greater population you have a greater chance of meeting people you click with – at least I did.

    And so, much to my parents' dismay, I've lived in a few different cities since I was 17, but never the countryside. I want to take advantage of concerts, museums (and that's not just talk as my "how often do you really go to museums and concerts anyway" parents – I really do those things), availability of good cooking and art supplies, a nightlife – especially one that doesn't require driving to get to – public transit (I hate driving!) and proximity to an international airport.

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  6. I should also note that I live in one of the most convenient cities in the world. Less than a three minute walk from my apartment are two grocery stores (one of which stocks fancy cheese and Belgian beer), two 711s, two Family Marts, a hardware store, a home goods store, two locksmiths, several restaurants, at least four drycleaners, a bakery or two, two Indonesian import stores, five or six small pharmacies, probably at least 20 ATMs, at least one organic food store, several banks, two massage centers, a diner with Western food*, a few bars and two Starbucks – which I don't love, but hey, it's coffee, and buy one get one free with high speed rail ticket stubs of which I have many as I use it for work.

    So when I get locked out, a locksmith can be found in three minutes. When I am cooking and run out of something – almost anything – I can send my husband out and he'll be back with it in five minutes. I don't need to "run errands" as when something happens – a lightbulb goes out, I need money, I need something cleaned, we're out of soy sauce – it can be dealt with immediately.

    In the country, just imagine. If mom is cooking and doesn't have something she needs, and she can't substitute anything, she has to stop everything, turn everything off, cover what she's started (or throw it out if it is half-prepared and won't keep), get in the car and drive at least 10 minutes to the nearest mini-mart, 20 to the supermarket, get what she needs and drive home. 45 minutes to an hour later she can resume cooking.

    I can do it in 3.

    So yes, I totally prefer this life.

    *I live in Taiwan, so all the 711s are not weird, and the diner with Western food, while we don't go often, is a great thing to have nearby.

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    • i totally understand what you are saying (and am happy that you are happy where you live!)- but since i live in rural vermont, i do feel i need to do a little defending of the country!
      i haven't always lived here- i used to live in a small city in ny, so i have had to learn to live in the country. i've found that having stores further away has been wonderful. i don't shop when i am bored, i don't buy things i don't need. if i can't get something i need right away, i have to come up with a creative solution. i tend to reuse things more and have gotten better about seeing things in a new light. also, while this is not true for all tiny towns, we have a general store which is great for those- whoops i forgot something i need for dinner moments.
      also, while our closest locksmith is a ways off, i live in such a small close-knit community, that it's not necessary to lock my door. there may be less people, but i have found them to be way more friendly than those i have encountered in the city.
      overall, i have found that i have been able to make do with much less than i did in a city, and have become much more creative in finding things to keep occupied, and am much happier for it!

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      • Me too! Hear hear for the small town life. The vet in our town will make midnight house calls, the farmers market is a social occasion, we share power tools with neighbors, we stay home more. I love it. I feel like my investment in my little community is way more than it ever was living in the city.
        I grew up in the country/ never cared for it then. I love it now though. Yes, there are less choices. I am so grateful.

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        • I love what Briana and Miss Trouble are saying. I think for me that is part of the country's allure…Deep down I know that I'm calmer and more friendly and appreciative in the country. We live in a wonderful downtown meighbourhood with an incredible sense of community (socializing and sharing with neighbours, everyone knows my kid's name, etc.) but that country "warmth" is still missing. It depends on the city too. There are a few Canadian cities I could never live in and would readily chose a small-town farm house over moving to one of them.

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      • Sometimes you can't substitute though. If I've decided to make doro wot, I need paprika and allspice (among other things) and there's nothing I can do about that: without those ingredients doro wot doesn't get made. If I've just realized I'm out of Sichuan flower pepper and about to start a kung pao chicken, I'm stuck: I know most kung pao chicken in the USA doesn't use it, but after living in China, I won't eat it without flower pepper. It's an essential ingredient and nothing, not even black pepper, can substitute (those who have tried flower pepper will understand). Forget not even being able to find flower pepper in a rural community – because you generally can't – Sichuanese food is not something that can be left half-done on a cool stove while you run out. It's got to be cooked quickly or it all goes wrong.

        I don't mean to bash the country too much – really, when I visit home, I quite enjoy my stay! – and I totally appreciate that some folks prefer it that way or don't share my obsessive need for flower pepper and the ingredients for berbere among other things – but it'll never work for me.

        If I define it narrowly, I'd say I find people in my hometown nice (as in your home is safe) but too conservative (an atheist sorta-hippie like me made few friends)…while city folks I've met aren't quite as nice (got to lock your door) but more openminded. I'm specifically mentioning my hometown because I do understand that not every town is like that, and people are more likely to be far more openminded in, say, Vermont than where I grew up (which was New York State, but a more conservative part of it).

        Although you'd be surprised – I live in Taipei and the people here, even though it's a big city, are as nice as any small town residents in the USA. I don't have to lock my door – I do, but I don't actually have to.

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  7. I think this is why people have cabins and summer homes! A lot of people I know in Russia live in apartments in the city, then take a train to their dacha, to enjoy nature, pick mushrooms and grow veggies etc. Here in MN it's similar, but we don't take a train, and usually we end up on a lake.

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  8. I feel like I've managed a solid "In-between" lifestyle. I grew up in a Toronto suburb, then later moved to a bedroom community of Toronto. But all the time, my family had a cottage, and every weekend between May and October, we'd be up there. So on the one hand, I've always lived on the outskirts of Toronto. It's not quite the downtown bustle, but for a teenager, being able to hop a train for an hour and wander around downtown is awesome, as is having a mall within 20 minutes of your home. You can buy almost anything in the world in a city as big as Toronto, and it's a regular stop for any touring artists. I've seen some bands and singers perform multiple times on the same tour, just because they'd do several shows in the Greater Toronto Area.

    But on the other hand, most of my spare time growing up involved driving way out too the edges of the civilised Ontario, and enjoying nature. And I loved that. I love it so much, I used to think I'd enjoy living there full time. It wasn't until I really stopped and considered the implications of living their full time. With the nearest mall being over an hour and half drive away, and the nearest grocery store 30 minutes away. The only clothes being in the small general store or a tourist-y shop. And never being able to just catch a bus to where I need to go. And really, I love going to concerts and musicals often.

    Over the weekend, a friend moved to Toronto from living in Nova Scotia. And I took her to see a concert downtown last night. Which I think is when it sunk in just how much I love having easy access to the big city. I'll always love the country, and I might fantasize about one day living in a small town with all the cozy, snug feelings everyone here has mentioned. But for now, I love being able to get a little of both worlds, whenever I want it.

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  9. Honestly, I've lived in a small town my entire life and hated it, but my interests are more involved in art, museums, and books rather than camping, hunting, or drinking by the river (the top activities of the country socialite I guess). I love living in a city. I love not having to drive an hour to get to a book or crafts store. I love being able to do almost anything on my weekends. I love the shear variety of people. I love being able to meet people with my own interests. I love being able to go in a bar and buy a drink (my home town was dry).

    And I hated how apathetic and judgemental my home town was. It was very religious and 90% of social activities were church themed, but then my hometown is in the deep south so maybe that's normal? The biggest problem is that it was a factory town and most of the factories had left, leaving us in an economically and emotionally depressed state community wise. So yeah I'm a touch jaded when comes to living in a small town. I would almost always go with a city rather than a small country town.

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  10. I can really relate to this post. Where I do like country life, I think there might be some sub-categories of rural life I like. I like living a good 10-15 miles from civilization on a quiet country road where you have to go a few dirt roads to get home. I like that seclusion from the world and free to think and dream and create what I want. I, unfortunately, lived in a rural town where I rode my bike to school, my grandmother worked literally 500 yards away from my classroom, and god-forbid if I went to the grocery store by myself, my grandmother would get 50 million calls,"WELL Miss Glenda, I saw Ariel out yonder at Mickey's gettin her some yahoo and funyuns. I didn't see not no one with her so I wanna let you know she safe! I rode behind her up to Old florida road so I know she be home by now. blah blah blah" I could NEVER get away with ANYTHING when EVERYONE knows your family and you're related to half the town!I was afraid to date to find out if it was a cousin I crush on or not. >_< Eghh gross. So Yes I like COUNTRY life, NOT small-town life. So far living in the country near the gulf coast in Alabama where NO ONE knows me has been awesome! =) Lived in Atlanta with my mom for a little while when I was a pre-teen and hated it. Seems too stressful for me. Its nice a lot of people have their preferences though.

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