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Extended Local Networks, Hometowns, and the Travel Trap

Posted on 26 July 2011

Last week, I was biking from downtown up to the university. At one intersection, I saw someone I know driving and gave a wave. I passed someone else waiting at a bus stop, and had a brief chat. Then in the parking lot of the university, a third acquaintance and another brief exchange.

The last few times I’ve gone to the grocery store I’ve run into people I know. Fellow volunteers, a former landlord, a friend of my parents. Not deep friendships, but friendly “hellos” and a brief update on what we’ve been up to.

This is the sort of extended network that can only come out of actually setting down roots in a place. These are people that I’ve met at different points of my life, or have met through other friends and family.

I’ve been having this sorts of encounters more and more, and it’s a pleasant, albeit unexpected side effect of making the decision to live here and stay here as much as possible. Maybe you can get that in new cities if you’re extremely social, but even then you’re not going to have the same number of mutual acquaintances or shared history.

I recently saw a quote from Christopher Hitchens that’s said to go “A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realisation that you can’t make old friends.”

This applies to people and it applies to places, too. At a certain point globetrotting gets in the way of being rooted. Historically, human beings have been rooted. There just wasn’t a choice. But over the last hundred years or so, things have altered to the point that it’s basically a rite of passage to spend at least some time overseas. I did it. And I liked it, but I saw a darker side to it, too.

People who flitted from place to place without ever setting down roots or actually having real stakes in any particular part of the world. In extreme cases, they substituted actually DOING something with their lives with simply changing cities or countries every few years. Because their locale had changed, they felt like they had changed.

Don’t get me wrong– there’s lots to be said for travelling. And there are important purposes served by travellers who build up extended networks. But one of my biggest pet peeves is the notion that simply by buying a plane ticket and staying in a hostel you’ve become a better person. Worse is the person who feels like they’ve done something simply by moving to a bigger city, regardless of what they’ve actually DONE there.

I think we’re getting some pushback on that front. As travel becomes more routine, the mystique wears off and we start to question what the point is. One of my favourite TV shows right now is Parks and Recreation, and an emerging theme is the importance of working for your community, not just yourself. In one of the episodes, the central character is offered a job in another city. In a discussion about whether to take it, she’s told “you’ll get a lot of job offers in your life but you only have one hometown.” I don’t know if it’s OK to have a good portion of your philosophy summed up in a low-rated half-hour sitcom, but there it is.

Travel is great. But so is having a home. The problem, as I said, is that the more you travel or change locations, the less of a home you have. I hope to travel more. But at the moment I’m investing my time into having a home, as well. I want my city to succeed. I want to have family nearby, and I want to have old friends, and I want to have a strong, local, extended network, as well.

I’ve never understood people who live in a place for years, raise kids there, make friends there and then, upon retirement, move to a community where they know virtually nobody. Maybe it works for them. Maybe it’ll work for me one day, too, as I get older and my views change. But right now I like running into people I know at the grocery store, even if I haven’t had a conversation with them in years. It makes me feel at home.

Filed under: ideas, personal

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