On not popping to the shops

When I was a kid, I used to sometimes go and stay with my grandparents. They did their food shopping on foot and they went out to buy something almost daily. So I’d go with them. We’d get a few yards down the road – and we’d stop, because someone wanted a chat. Then we’d go a few yards further, and we’d stop again, for the same reason. It would take a long time to cover the short distance to the shops.

As an adult, I worked on a deprived estate where everybody I met kept banging on about “community”. One of my colleagues told me with pride that it could take her over an hour to buy a loaf of bread from the corner shop because of all the people she bumped into on the way there and on the way back.

I now have relatives who live in an ex-pat community in Spain. They have the same experience when walking through their village. If they have to be somewhere by a definite time, they sneak along the back streets so they’re covering more distance but bumping into fewer people.

I’m really torn about this phenomenon. On the one hand, I think the isolation wrought by car culture is a terrible thing, and it’s wonderful that there still are so many places where people do their food shopping on foot (or bike) and bump into acquaintances on the way. It’s wonderful that those little connections happen naturally, in the course of going about your daily business.

On the other hand, I found it fucking boring and irritating when I was a child, and…I still do. And I don’t know if I’m alone in this.

I won’t call myself an introvert. Because apparently the introvert/extrovert thing is discredited, because people are too complex to fit into such a simple binary. (Where have I heard that before?) And apparently introverts-talking-about-being-introverts is the new vegans-talking-about-being-vegans. Just toooo boring, darling. So instead, I will just say that I have limited energy for social interaction; situations where I have to talk to multiple people are draining rather than energising for me. (There! So much quicker and more concise than describing myself as an introvert!) So the idea of having to talk to five or six people every time I want to grab a few groceries is my idea of a nightmare.

But I feel that a healthy place to live is one where you have unplanned interactions as part of your daily life. It feels like a more natural, organic way to build a community. The idea of planning your socialising online, going to meetups, travelling significant distances to socialise – that all feels sterile in comparison.

This is my dilemma: my idea of a healthy, car-culture-free community is not a place I would want to inhabit in reality. In fact, I would find it anxiety-inducing and exhausting to live somewhere like that. Sometimes I need to plan my days, especially work days, very tightly, so I can’t afford to routinely lose an hour over popping to the shops or stepping outside to get ten minutes of sunshine. And I want to socialise with the people I actually choose as my friends! I can’t do that if I’ve spent all the day’s social spoons on telling Mrs Noseypants from number 47 how my new garage conversion is going.

I know people in these kinds of communities who have days when they can’t deal with talking to people, or days when they really need to get something done on time. Their secret weapon is the car, because nobody ever expects a car driver to delay their journey out of politeness.

I don’t really have a conclusion here. I’m just wrestling with the question of how you set up spaces to reduce isolation and promote unplanned interactions while also making them good spaces for the kind of people who sometimes really, really need the option of leaving the house and getting something done without talking to anyone. Do we just set up the spaces to engender chit-chat and then expect introverts to hide in cars when they can’t face it? (If you’re, like me, an introvert who can’t drive: tough shit.) Or is there a better way?

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