A friend recently made an interesting observation: “In the city, the most private place is the public.” When he wants to retreat into anonymity, he heads out onto the streets of Toronto where he lives. That’s where no one will notice him, approach him, or remember him; he becomes just another face in a sea of strange faces. I remember what that’s like from the years I spent in Toronto. It’s almost eery to ride a crowded city bus that’s silent because everyone is using headphones. Nobody makes eye contact and, if someone does, it’s considered creepy. My brother-in-law once described how nervous he felt walking behind a girl on the sidewalk for several blocks because he didn’t want her to think he was following her. It’s exactly like this joke sign from the London underground says:
Despite the irony of being surrounded by more people than I could ever meet in a lifetime, I found it surprisingly hard to make friends while living in the city. Maybe it’s because most people are truly seeking privacy in public, often wanting to be left alone. Or else it’s considered creepy or impolite to strike up random conversations, unless it is an official social gathering. And even then it’s hard to make lasting connections because the likelihood of bumping into that person again is almost nil. You either hit it off and commit to staying in touch after a few short minutes of conversation, or else you’ll likely never lay eyes on each other again.
By contrast, it’s the complete opposite in the small town where I live now. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere without meeting someone I know. If I crave privacy, I hole up at home and hope no one comes knocking. The upside is that it’s far easier to make friends. Because we’re all stuck together in this community, becoming friends is almost a necessity. As stay-at-home moms, our kids go to the same nursery schools, parks, and play groups, and will likely grow up together. Many of our partners work at the major employer for the region. We all frequent the same two bars, four restaurants, the single library, two coffee shops, three gyms. Inevitably paths cross again and again until friendship, or at least acquaintance, cannot be avoided. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started a conversation with a sheepish, “Hi, I know I’ve seen you around a lot, but I’ve never formally introduced myself…”
While there are days I wish I could go downtown and be anonymous, there really is nothing quite so wonderful as belonging somewhere — and that’s certainly something I never felt in the city. Here in this town I have a place to inhabit, a place to call my own. The librarian checks out my books without a card because she knows who I am and doesn’t mind when I forget it. The café owner comments on my latest blog post. The postmaster tells me my sons are growing up too fast. A real estate agent compliments me on a recent violin performance. Someone else appreciated my letter to the editor. I am surrounded by people who know me, know about me, and know my family. I have a context. Urbanites might find that creepy, but I actually find it tremendously satisfying. It’s said that a community is safest when neighbours know each other, and that’s how I feel about raising my kids here. So I’m really okay with home being my private place.