The urban condition – that in-built terror of small town life that makes city folk twitch when they try a new life in the country – is sometimes thought of as a new disease.
Listening to Anton Chekhov’s 1900 play Three Sisters, all about three sisters who once lived in Moscow and are now reduced to the desperation of life in a small provincial Russian town, the following line rang out:
“In Moscow, you can sit in an enormous restaurant where you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you and yet you don’t feel like a stranger. But here, you know everybody and everybody knows you, and you’re a stranger.”Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters
Oh, to be anonymous!
It’s a catch 22 that many will be familiar with – I want to feel connected to a community, but I don’t want everyone I meet to know all my business. I want an element of mystery.
The allure of the city – as I found when first living in London – is that despite having a close circle of friends, you can still walk out of your front door and simply disappear, for days on end, into a mass of humanity in which you are unknown.
There is clearly a certain liberation and freedom in this very act. Sitting in a busy pavement café, surrounded by life, watching everything go by, part of and yet apart from it. This is the great gift of urban life, one that all provincials like myself discover as such an unexpected delight.
Some existentialism with your coffee, monsieur?
The trouble that lurks in every city since civilization began is alienation. The risk that in being able to move freely, and unmolested, among strangers, one loses all connection with a tribe, and becomes so adrift that life begins to lose all its meaning.
No doubt Chekhov grappled with this dilemma in Russia over a hundred years ago, as it ran breakneck into modern life. And it is still the great dilemma facing us today. To sit in that enormous restaurant, or to go home where everything is known and familiar…
City life sounding a bit tough? What Would A Soft City Feel Like?