I have lived in the big city of Vancouver for 7 years. When I was 18 years old, I left New Brunswick for British Columbia to attend UBC. The official anniversary is coming up in a couple of weeks. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been here my entire life. Other times I can’t believe it’s been that long. I definitely felt both of these feelings multiple times when I went to visit my hometown last week.
I grew up in the Kennebecasis Valley, which is an umbrella term for the two adjacent towns of Quispamsis and Rothesay. These are suburbs of Saint John (not to be mistaken for St. John’s, NFLD). Throughout this article I use the blanket phrases small town and big city. However, the experiences I write about are specifically drawn from the KV and Vancouver.
[Language nerd alert: I wrote the title for this post a couple of days ago. Current me is loving past me for subconsciously making it sound like “Sit Still Look Pretty,” by Daya, one of my current favourite songs. Just had to put that out there.]
The longer I live in a big city, the more interesting it is to go back to my small hometown. It’s so interesting the way a person’s perspective, and even personality, can change based on the environment they live in. There are things I used to love about my small town upbringing that I really dislike now. I do still miss some of the things I thought I would when I first left, like seeing the stars and having a backyard. However, I’m surprised to dread returning to some of the other aspects of a small town. Here’s a look at some of the things I’ve found to be very polarizing between big cities and small towns.
Things that are drastically different when comparing a small town and a big city:
1. Definition of traffic.
In a small town, people define heavy traffic/”rush hour” as “more cars than none.” It won’t affect your travel time at all; the added vehicles will only affect the amount of space you have around you as you drive. In a big city, people define heavy traffic/rush hour as traffic being stop-start rather than flowing. Heavy traffic in cities severely impacts travel time. I find this contrast amusing.
Because of this difference in traffic, measurements for distance are different. When measuring distance in a small town, people use minutes. It rarely ever takes a longer (or shorter) amount of time than usual to get anywhere. In a big city, you use literal distance, (here in Canada km). This is because even a distance as small as 10km (like my drive to work) can fluctuate as much as between 13 and 105 minutes. No joke.
As a rule, in a small town, people are too polite as drivers. Just this last trip, we were driving on a road with a 60km/h limit, and the car in front of us slowed to about 35km/h because he saw that someone coming from the opposite direction was waiting to cross our path to turn left. Just let that sink in for a second. He slowed to a crawl to let someone turn left. Was there a long line of cars behind us? No. The other car’s path would have been completely clear for him to make a left turn as soon as us two cars had passed. Unreal.
Also, the old “You go!” “No you go!” game happens all the time, especially at 4-way stops and in parking lots. That shit causes accidents. There’s a reason there are rules for those things. Honestly. You want to make me panic? Force me to play chicken with a small town driver who’s trying to be nice.
People really take their time as drivers in small towns as well – again on this trip, we had a person take a good minute to reverse into his driveway in front of us all the while completely blocking our path. And that’s not the entire parking job. That’s just how long it took them to get out of the way of oncoming “traffic” (aka us). In a big city, you need skill at performing precise maneuvers quickly, or you face the wrath of the masses. It’s made me a better driver, but also a sometimes more anxious one, especially when parking (usually parallel).
Also, more likely than not in a small town, a person will slow down at a yellow light. In a big city, you’ll get honked at if you don’t speed up and go through it.
Light and Sound.
Small, low-population areas are very dark. Both in homes and on the road. My street back east literally has zero streetlights. I find it very difficult to see while driving at night, even with my glasses on. In my bedroom with the light off, I can’t even see my hand in front of my face. This gives the bonus of being able to see the stars more often, which I like, but I’ve always been afraid of the dark, so the city glow of home is very comforting to me.
Light “pollution” is such a negative term – I’ve always found it beautiful. Although I do sometimes miss seeing the stars with ease, I have always loved city lights. I adore throwing open my curtains and revelling in their radiance. It’s also nice to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night without having to turn on a light. Rather than pollution, I like to call it illumination.
Just as they are dark, low-population areas are also very quiet. Living in a big city has really heightened my ability to sleep through noise. I used to wake up at every little sound, and now I can sleep through anything from drunken debauchery to emergency sirens and car alarms (but thankfully never my on-call ringer or my alarm clock). It’s very eerie to fall asleep in absolutely silence when I visit my hometown.
In a small town, you literally can’t go anywhere without seeing someone you know. It’s necessary to factor into your excursion time the extreme likelihood of meeting someone or several someones and having a chat or three or four. It’s often hard for people with anxiety to deal with spontaneous social situations like this. Going back east is hard for me in that respect, especially because everyone hasn’t seen me in a while and wants to hear my life story. It’s a lot easier to just say hi and be on your way without feeling bad if you regularly encounter a person. There’s a lot of guilt involved in trying to avoid having a conversation with a person you like and haven’t talked to in a long time.
In a small town even when you don’t meet someone you know, people are always striking up a conversation with you anyway. The usual culprits are the cashier or another person waiting in line. Can’t I just buy my bananas in peace?!
It’s really nice knowing that in a big city I can do groceries and the only things I’ll have to say are “No thanks I have bags,” “Mastercard please,” and “Yes, thank you.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s a novelty to meet someone you know when you’re out running errands in a big city. It’s fun and I usually get a huge kick out of it. Especially if it’s someone I didn’t know moved out here, like old high school acquaintances – it’s happened three times as far as I can remember.
In a small town, pretty much everything requires a car. Want to go to a friend’s place? Car. Need groceries? Car. Going to work? Car. Going to school? Car (or bus). Need to go to the pharmacy, mall, or to get takeout? Car. Want to go to the gym, for a walk (YUP), or to the beach? Car. Want to catch some Pokémon or capture a gym or two? Car.
My husband and I have lived together in Vancouver for 6 years and we only just got a car a year ago. That’s not to say that there weren’t times it would have been convenient to have one. We definitely love doing our groceries and Costco runs with a car now. But it wasn’t necessary. We have hiking trails, beaches, gyms, banks, grocery stores, malls, schools, work, restaurants, coffee shops, clothing stores, art galleries, movie theatres, sports stadiums, Pokéstops and gyms, and more, all within easy walking, biking, or super-fast, cheap, and convenient transit distance. Everything is within reach.
This last one is a little trickier to define. People just seem to have a different outlook if you compare small town to big city. There are so many less options in smaller places. People have to settle all the time, and they’re just fine with that. Here in Vancouver I have everything I could ever want right at my fingertips – and often multiple options for the same thing.
A great example would be Starbucks. There are about 5 within 10 minutes’ walking distance of our apartment. Out east, there is one, and it’s about a 20-minute drive from our family homes. I looooooooooove Starbucks coffee, but when I visit KV, I don’t go there. Tim Horton’s is only ~5 minutes away in the car. Plus, the SJ Starbucks always gets our order wrong. Sometimes in multiple ways. A NF Vanilla Latte and an Iced Grande Coffee with Milk are really not difficult.
Ordering issues at coffee shops and fast food places really trigger my anxiety. That’s another reason we don’t go to Starbucks back east. In Vancouver, I’m able to choose the Starbucks that best suits my needs – a) most friendly baristas that b) always get the job done in c) an efficient and d) correct manner, and e) close by.
I often feel that in a small town, the mindset is Oh well, it’s my only choice. None of that out here. I don’t have to compromise my comfort, values, convenience, or money to get what I want in a big city. It enables me to avoid anxiety triggers, get better deals on things, have better experiences, and just be happier in general.
There is one issue with that perspective, though – I find that in a big city companies have so much competition that they REALLY try hard to sell you things, and to give you the very best all the time. Most of the time, this is great. In radio, however, it’s annoying. The amount of times I’ve texted my mom about this FANTASTIC “new” song she just HAS to listen to, only to have her reply that she’s been listening to it for months, are innumerable. Radio stations here tend to play the same top 20 songs over and over simply because they’re the most popular. They also won’t début a new song until they’re sure it’s a major hit. My favourite radio station in my hometown, 97.3 The Wave, is constantly introducing super new music and has really great variety. I often listen to it online from Vancouver.
I’m not trying to say that big cities are better than small towns. Each has their pros and cons, and different people like different things. I do, however, find it very interesting how environmental changes can seemingly change a person. As a child I LOVED my small town. As a teenager it was stifling and I couldn’t wait to get out. When I left, I found the transition to Vancouver very difficult, but loved the city so much I decided not to leave it as an adult. Now, I find it difficult to go back east.
Has living in a big city made my anxiety worse? Quite possibly. It is easier for me to avoid the things that trigger my anxiety. You’re also potentially more likely to have issues with your mental health if you live in a big city. I’m probably going to talk about that in a future post. But you could also say that being able to avoid triggers is a good thing, and I definitely feel more anxious when I visit my hometown than I do when I’m at home in the big city. That could be circumstantial, but at the very least it’s interesting.