At work the other day a conversation started about the great divide between two types of people in Northern Ireland. It's a conversation that crops up fairly often in an office full of people from different backgrounds. What starts out as gentle stereotypical banter can often escalate into downright insults being flung around with abandon. Offence can be taken and wariness remains about those on "the other side" of the divide. To what divide am I referring? Is it between Catholics and Protestants? Nationalists and Unionists? The rich and the poor? No, my friends, I refer to city mice and country mice.
I was born and bred in Belfast and I do take pride in being a "city girl", my only shame being that Belfast isn’t a slightly bigger city. I walk through the streets of the city centre pretty much every day and I thrive on the hustle and bustle of it all. I tut at people who walk too slowly or who stop dead right in front of me. I enjoy playing "chicken" with harried-looking businessmen who clearly (mistakenly) believe that they should always have right of way on the pavement. I like being able to give confused tourists directions.
I also feel secure in the knowledge that a lot of shops will still be open when I finish work if I need to pick up something for dinner or a last-minute birthday pressie, or failing that, I can always fall back on late night shopping on a Thursday night. I love that I can finish work and go get myself a cappuccino and abuse Starbucks' free Wi-Fi for while. It's fabulous that my gym is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It's also great that, if I want to eat or drink those burned calories back on again, there are hundreds of bars, restaurants and coffee shops ready and willing to come to my aid. I peruse those free "what's on" magazines and am always pleasantly surprised at the number of diverse events going on all across the city, even if I don't actually get around to attending many of them. Culture? Luxury? Tradition? We've got it all!
However those who weren't raised in Belfast (or any other big city) don't seem to feel the same. Many of them tell me that they find cities scary or dirty or noisy or too busy or confusing. Going "into Belfast" is a big deal to them, I guess similar to how I feel when I go to Dublin on the train, not because I think Dublin is bigger or scarier etc, but just because it's somewhere I don't know like the back of my hand, so it's like a little adventure when I visit.
My friends and colleagues who live in smaller towns and rural areas apparently know most of the people they pass when they go for a walk in their local area and even go so far as to stop and talk to them. They love the fresh air, open spaces and pretty landscapes. They can't imagine a life without their car. They get snowed in when bad weather hits. They have big houses with huge gardens and often lots of pets running around. They might have been in the Young Farmers Club. They may have to drive for miles to get to the nearest supermarket or to work but it's only a minor inconvenience for them and well worth the benefits of living in a more remote area.
I guess I sort of get it... a bit... but my own lifestyle and viewpoints are so different that it's perplexing to me how anyone can feel completely the opposite as I do. If I won the lottery this weekend (although it would help if I actually played the lottery) I would do what most people would probably do and think about investing in some property. However whilst my country mouse friends would be looking at seven bedroom rural retreats, I would be looking at city centre penthouse apartments. Taking care of acres of grass and cleaning four bathrooms sounds like a pain in ass to me and quite frankly I would wither away being miles away from anything and anyone. However show me a panoramic view of the hills and river by day and the glittering city lights by night and add in a good café on my doorstep and I'm pretty much in heaven.
My theoretical rural-based lottery winners might also think about buying a new car - something big and tough like a Land Rover, or a sporty wee number to race around those blind bends on country roads at a bazillion miles an hour - yet a car wouldn't cross my mind. That's not to say that if money were no object I wouldn't start ordering taxis or town cars to pick me up from my luxurious penthouse apartment rather than waiting for buses in the rain, but learning to drive and then buying a cute little convertible would be pretty far down my list of priorities because who needs to drive when you live in a city?
Even attitudes to holidays seem pretty different. We supposedly go on holiday to "get away from it all" but yet we all seem more comfortable with the familiar. My country-dwelling acquaintances all seem to prefer quiet beach holidays where they can meet some nice people (usually from "back home") and lie in the sun all day. Either that or they rent a little cottage somewhere out of the way (to look at some different grass and trees presumably). Whereas for me, I say bring on the bright lights and big cities. I'm used to being "on the go" all the time so I don't relax easily. For me to have a truly great time I need to have exciting things to see and do all around me and preferably be within a few minutes of a caffeine fix when I need one. It's rare to find a Starbucks on a sandy beach or in the middle of a forest (although give them a few years' more expansion and we'll see).
I guess it's just down to personal preference. I understand how someone can be overwhelmed in the middle of a big crowd, especially if they're not sure where they're supposed to be going. However that kind of thing just makes me feel pleasantly at sea - I love the anonymity of it all. I only tend to panic if I'm supposed to be somewhere at a specific time and I don't know where to go, but my blood pressure has definitely been higher than that when I've been sat in a friend's car in the middle of a dark country road with neither of us city mice having any idea where we were. Street lighting, people - it's the future!
I'll admit I do feel a bit superior sometimes, being a city girl, feeling at home in the busy urban streets, sufficiently au fait with the traffic light system patterns to knowingly start crossing the road just before the "green man" lights up, striding quickly down the pavement with my takeaway coffee in hand, etc. I feel that my experiences of having lived in and visited several metropolitan and cosmopolitan cities have made me more culturally aware than a lot of non-city folk who only really associate with people from the same background as themselves. I fear I do occasionally have conversations with my country mouse friends and find some of their viewpoints a bit backwards and ignorant, and I find that I often know more about a wider variety of issues.
I realise this does indeed all come across as very prejudiced and smug and judgmental. However I don't feel bad about it. Why? Because I know my "culchie" friends pity me in return. They don't want to live somewhere so impersonal and busy and impatient. They don't want to put up with annoying strangers on public transport or blowing cigarette smoke into their faces as they walk down the street. They don't want to live in a cramped two bedroom terrace with anti-social teenagers setting off fireworks and dealing drugs outside their front doors. They shake their heads with disbelief when I repeatedly say "I have no idea where that is" when someone mentions a place outside of the Greater Belfast Area. They care more about what's happening in their own community than in the wider world and look me as if to say "bless your bleeding liberal heart" if I start expressing my outrage at some political injustice or another.
These are of course sweeping generalisations and I do know people from rural areas who are highly intellectual and cultured, just as you only need walk around certain areas of Belfast at night to see people who are blatantly insular and small-minded, but in general those are my honest observations. But whilst I'm happy living in "the big smoke", they're happy to be well out of it, so I guess at the end of the day it really boils down to yet another case of "each to their own". Just don't be shipping me off to "the sticks" please - if I get any further than five miles from the city centre I start breaking out in hives.