If your only knowledge of small towns came from what you saw and read in popular culture, you might be under the impression that all small towns are picturesque, sleepy havens with tree-lined streets and waving flags. Towns where high school football, backyard barbeques and Sunday morning church services reign supreme, and the teenagers hang out at places called Chubbie’s or Arnold’s while their parents lounge on the patios of nearby bungalows and split levels, sipping chocolate milk under red and white striped umbrellas and watching the sun go down.
Having spent the better part of my life in a small town, I can tell you that, like any good “based on a true story”, this is only partially true. Our teenage hang-out was not a friendly neighbourhood burger joint, but rather a clandestine clearing in the woods known as “the chill”, where 2 litre bottles of wine cooler could be safely consumed far from the watchful eyes of parents- and more importantly- the fuzz. Our high school was much too small to support a football team- unless we were to recruit all of the teachers, the custodial staff and that creepy guy who hung out in the parking lot selling cigarettes to minors for 50 cents a piece. We did have a hockey team though, and every Friday night the local arena was filled with excited young painted faces, holding ratty, mismatched pom-poms and cheering on the Warriors. And while some of us may sit at glass-toped tables watching the sun go down, you can bet your ass it’s something stronger than a chocolate milk in our hands.
Fast forward 8 years, and I’ve left that small town and boisterous hockey rink behind. I’ve gone from a town of 5,000 people to Canada’s largest city. Instead of the sprawling, four bedroom house I grew up in, I live in a 500 sq. ft apartment with “condo size” appliances and a view overlooking a questionable Chinese orthotics business. Every morning I board the impossibly crowded subway, venti starbucks in hand, and make my way to my office in the sky, where I push paper all day and gaze down at the traffic-filled streets below.
It’s my last night of vacation here with my family in Nova Scotia, and I’ve just taken a shower and washed the last bit of sand from my hair. As I prepare to trade in my swimsuit and the sweatpants from grade 9 I’ve been wearing all week in favour of suits and stilettos once again, I can’t help but feel a little sentimental and reflective. I know it’s not forever, that I’ll be returning soon, but every time I leave this place I feel like I’m leaving a piece of myself behind.
Figuratively, of course. Literally, there’s probably more of me, considering the amount of seafood and local cuisine I’ve enjoyed since arriving here. (Seriously. I’m like a bear preparing for hibernation.) Anyway, figuratively, a huge part of me will always be in Nova Scotia. My whole family lives here. As do my childhood friends. It’s the setting for most of my fondest memories.
Thinking about all of this makes me realize how alone I am now in Toronto. How my roots there extend no further than my local Starbucks on one side, and Holt Renfrew on the other. And it hits me- why did I leave this place?
This place they call “Canada’s Ocean Playground”. Where a four bedroom house costs less than a Toronto bachelor apartment, and the beach is never more than a 20 minute drive away. A place where fresh seafood abounds, and there is so much fresh air and green space, it’s almost ridiculous. What’s wrong with me?
It’s not that I didn’t appreciate this before. I was never one of those kids who longed to “Escape”. In fact, I loved growing up in a small town. Being surrounded by family and community always made me feel secure and confident, like a big, warm (albeit, sometimes suffocating) embrace.
And then, when I hit my 20’s, something changed. When it came time to choose my career, I found myself drawn by the bright lights, big city. With blind faith and ambition, I moved to a city I had spent a total of 5 days in my entire life. Don’t get me wrong- I don’t regret my decision. In fact, it was probably one of the best of my life. I love living in Toronto- the culture, the food, the entertainment, the energy- it’s a constant source of inspiration, and I feel lucky to be there. But it’s still not home.
I try to tell myself when I come back to Nova Scotia that nothing has changed. That it’s still the same place I knew and loved as a child. But inevitably, I notice that things are different. My young niece, a child at my last visit, now wears Katy Perry temporary tattoos and has a Justin Bieber poster hanging on her bedroom door. I’m surprised to learn that So and So has gotten married to So and So, securing the last remaining seat in this game of musical chairs we call life. One by one, many of my favourite childhood establishments- including my high school- have closed up shop, victims of the dwindling, blue-collar economy. Overtaken by big box chains, the once charming, small town esthetic is slowly being replaced by suburban sprawl.
It sort of makes you feel like a displaced person- living in a place that’s too new to call your home, yet feeling disconnected from the only “home” you’ve ever known. Like the kind of thing they’d make a made-for tv-movie about. Or maybe the next installment in the Bourne series. (Probably not, though)
Anyway, I realize I’ve gotten pretty emo on you guys here, and that this post doesn’t even include a single gif of anyone making a stupid face, or any Real Housewives jokes. Sorry
I’m not sorry for that. I was going to end by paraphrasing some John [cougar] Mellencamp lyrics, but although, like John, I was born in small town… I’m not quite sure whether I’ll die in a small town, too. I can tell you this though: I feel lucky to have grown up the way I did, and while I like where I live….I love where I’m from.
And if that’s not a song lyric already… it should be.
……..And just for good measure: