I don't like large cities. Actually, I don't even like cities. Once I used to like large cities, back before I actually had to live in them. In college I studied abroad in Vienna for a semester and actually switched housing assignments to be downtown and not in the suburbs - a place I had lived my entire life and was destined to be stuck in for the rest of it. Little did I know.
And now, after living two years in one of the biggest cities in the world, I can say that I really don't like living in large cities. Too many people breathing the same air, living on top of each other, vying for the same parking space, and watching me. All of those big city amenities are probably nice for other people - shopping, cultural offerings, restaurants, social gathering spots - otherwise why would there be cities? But they're not nice for me.
So when we moved to Baku, I was so happy to be in a 'small city' of about three million people. For a US city, three million is pretty big, but everywhere else three million isn't too bad. It helps when everyone lives on top of each other. And it really has been nice being in a smaller city - when the traffic isn't bad you can get across the whole city in thirty minutes. Good luck doing that in Cairo. You'd probably get to the next neighborhood in thirty minutes there. I hardly ever use the GPS to get around because there are only so many roads in the areas of town I go to and I know most of them by now. And it doesn't take very long - about twenty minutes - before you're out of town. It's nice. I'm looking forward to scaling down even more next time.
I've also discovered that I like smaller embassy communities also. The Cairo mission is one of the largest in the world, with about ten times the number of mission members as here in Baku. It definitely had benefits - a grocery-store sized commissary so extensive you could even buy bagged ice from Germany, a good-sized med unit, Maadi House, and church that met in a building instead of someone's house.
But when we were leaving after a two-year tour I was still meeting people for the first time that had been there as long as we had. The embassy had two towers and an entire complex in another part of the city, so you pretty much knew people from your section and that was it. That definitely afforded anonymity if you wanted it, but there wasn't a strong sense of community (at least for me. And this may have had something to do with me being a hermit for two years).
I think there are some people here that I've never met. But most people I've met and even had a conversation or two with, which I like. I go to lots more community events because I know I'll see friends there and not be stuck in awkward getting-to-know-you conversation for the next few hours. At our last Fourth of July party, I looked over to see my children plying the ambassador (and then his wife) with custom decorated cupcakes covered in M&Ms, paper umbrellas, cookies, and I think I saw one with potato chips. In a larger mission, I would have been horrified with embarrassment, quickly shepherding my children somewhere far away from the Important People and hopefully out of their sight. But here, I just laughed and told them to hold the cupcake with potato chips. The ambassador knows my children by name, and has hung out with them on a few Saturday mornings when we've invaded his pool for swimming.
There are constant all-call invitations for zoo trips, restaurant nights, craft nights, beach trips, and weekend trips not organized by the CLO. Since the mission is so small, if you're breathing and available, people are happy to have you come. I like not having to be cool or wear the right clothes or even be that interesting to be invited to lots of things. There might be cool kids here, but they're so cool that I'm not aware of their club that I'm not invited to.
Some people may call it a fishbowl - everybody knows what's going on with everybody else - but I call it a community of people who care about each other and are always happy to have new people to care about.
So, that's my plug for small posts. Sure, we don't have world-class shopping (maybe we do?) or tourist destinations or even that many weekly flights in and out. Most people I talk to haven't even heard of Baku. Azerbaijan will never be France. But that's okay. Because the Eiffel tower doesn't take care of my children when I have to take one of them to get their chin glued. And the pyramid don't have me over for craft night to chat and gossip every month. And not even mangoes make me feel that despite living so far from family, I still have something close to it here.
Hooray for small places.