I grew up right smack in the middle of downtown Toronto, c. 1980s (pre-crack-smokin’ mayor).
We lived in a neighbourhood that had been built 100 years before that, where all the houses were quite close together.
We didn’t know all our neighbours, but we knew some of them. My focus at the time was on the boy next door and the girl across the street. Though they were three years younger than me, they were the only kids. Age didn’t matter.
My mother is a sparkly, happy social person, so she befriended a number of our neighbours as well. My father is, well, less that way. He didn’t really know many people on the street. And that suited him.
They bought the house before I was born and my mother only sold it after I had grown up and moved away to Ireland. My point being that I grew up in a downtown residential neighbourhood in a largish city, knowing some but all of our neighbours. Each of us in our family enjoying the level of anonymity we chose.
Fast forward a few years and I found myself living in rural Ireland. Lovely, but certainly no anonymity. Everyone knew everyone, and they all knew what everyone was doing. I liked the feeling of belonging but shrank a bit from the sense of constant watchfulness, and constant judgement. I enjoyed walking down the street and knowing people, going into a cafe or shop and knowing those who worked there, chatting with them and with the patrons, who I also knew. It was a novelty. It felt like a small little manageable world.
But live at close quarters among the same people for long enough and the idea that you can’t please all the people all the time comes into sharper focus. Especially if you’re like me and easily given to insecurity and self-judgement. Nevertheless, I did enjoy it for the most part. And the only reason I left, the only reason I ever would have left, was because I couldn’t get a decent job in the countryside and I didn’t want to move to the city. It wasn’t because of nosy neighbours or anything like that.
When I decided to move back to Canada, I chose Ottawa. I thought that after rural Ireland, Toronto may just be too much, too fast, to pressured.
I think I chose wisely. Ottawa is a small, manageable city. It reminds me in some ways of the Toronto I remember from my childhood. For a while, I tried living in the outlying countryside but that really didn’t work. Perhaps it was the strange little village but it wasn’t like rural Ireland. It had all of the nosiness and judgement without any of the feelings of belonging.
So, after a few years, I moved to Ottawa. Downtown Ottawa.
Some would say it’s boring but I really like it. I enjoy the constant festivals and events that come with living in a national capital. And I feel right at home in a neighbourhood that, much like the one I grew up in, allows a level of anonymity combined with a level of familiarity and friendship.
We have neighbours we don’t know at all, neighbours we smile and wave to and neighbours we socialize with, ski with, chat to at length.
Unfortunately, right next door, we also have unbearable neighbours. But that comes with the territory, I guess. They are so cantankerous and strange, as were their predecessors (maybe it’s the house?) that I tried to write a story about them, to better understand them. I couldn’t do it.
It’s too bad we have to share a wall and a front porch, but it’s still far less uncomfortable than living in a rural area where you know everyone but feel comfortable with no one.
I would choose the difficult neighbours mixed with the lovely ones over living out in the middle of nowhere with no one around, no one to visit, no village to get to easily.
I need neighbours, somewhere out there, preferably not too far away. And I’m lucky I’ve managed to land exactly where I’m most comfortable.