I Tried Small-Town Life and It Didn't Work

Do you like being a big fish in a small pond or do you say "fuck ponds?"
Publish date:
December 26, 2011
moving, new york, cities, life is weird

In first season of Mad Men, Peggy Olson tells her off her date, a Brooklyn truck driver who insults her job in advertising. As she stands to leave she tells him that city people “are better because they want things they haven’t seen.” For most of my life I’ve considered myself a city person. Raised in a medium-sized town in Wisconsin, at 19 I moved to Chicago for art school, and since then I’ve lived in urban areas, most of them quite large. I bounced from Chicago to London, Tucson, Bangkok, Cairo, Portland, New York and DC. I loved living in cities for their diversity, for the street vendors, the oddly picturesque dilapidation, the massive multilevel bookstores, the erudite men, the ability to wear heels everyday without anyone commenting on how “fancy” you look (except in Portland, don’t you know it’s not cool to try so hard).

I loved that nobody knew my name but that it was so easy to meet people; mostly I loved that I could feel like I fit in to the craziness. Which is why it came as a bit of a shock to find myself turning 30 and suddenly living in a small town in the Netherlands. I’d met Tim in Bali while I was traveling and writing my way across Southeast Asia. At the time I was subletting my apartment in DC and didn’t really have any desire to go back.

Since I no longer had a home base, and because Tim’s work was in the Netherlands, it made sense I decided somewhere along the line -- though for the life of me I can’t remember when -- for me to move there too. Besides, in the last months of my time in New York I was weary and grumpy. My voice had developed “a not very nice edge” I was often told when I called my mom (whose own voice had changed to include more long pauses and words like “awesome” and “spiritual” since she’d moved to Ashland, Oregon, a sanctuary for independently wealthy hippies, crystal healers and pet communicators).

Maybe a small European town would be the antidote to the life I’d been living. Looking around the cobbled town square with its cafés and fountain, I told myself that maybe I could even learn to love life in the slow lane. I pictured myself loading my bike basket up in the market, laughing with neighbors I ran into on the street, being comforted by the easy monotony of my days. And perhaps, if I were a different sort of woman I could have been.

“This is not New York” I was told by the only other American girl I knew living in my town when I expressed my culture shock over coffee one morning. She said it nastily, as though I was not yet aware that I was meant to expect different things. She was clearly better than me for having molded herself so quickly into the town’s image. I was less successful on that front. I resented how she told me that I was supposed to act a certain way, and even more that if I were ever to fit in, she was probably right. Nobody puts baby in a box. I felt for the first time since adolescence, the same impulses that made me move to a big city to begin with.

Though I had made a small group of friends, whom I still feel great affection for, I quickly realized my very interests were at odds with the place. Even though before I moved I had been playing it pretty loose in the plans department, not even in the most divergent of the life paths I imagined for myself was my life supposed to go this way.

I kept trying though, returning for months at a time as we struggled to figure out a Visa which would allow me to stay, and each time I felt a growing panic in the pit of my stomach. I could learn Dutch fluently, and learn the proper response for every occasion, but I wouldn’t fit in there any more than I would blend into a tiny town in the US. And more importantly, I wouldn’t like my life. In November I sublet an artist’s beautiful apartment in central Amsterdam. (We didn't break up, I just went to Amsterdam so I wouldn't lose my marbles.)Some people are comforted by the routine and intimacy of small-town life. Ultimately, I’m comforted by the anonymity and unpredictability of the city. I don’t expect every place I live to be New York, but nobody can make me stop dreaming of something bigger than Maybury.