I have a joke that I'm going to get cards for my husband and me to hand out at dinner parties. "Hello! Lovely to see/meet you," they will read. "Please note we are happy to talk about anything tonight except real estate and house prices."
It's meant to be funny, but I mean it. Lately I am terrified – not to mention exhausted beyond tedium – by the prospect of anyone broaching either topic. It's not only that they can be boring (does anyone actually care about the intricacies of anyone else's house deal except how it relates to their own?), but also because of the rifts they often cause between otherwise like-minded friends.
Real estate is the new religion of the modern middle class. People act as if they can discuss it dispassionately and without judgment, when really most of us are incapable of doing so. That's because the choices we make so thoroughly define us. Are you a cool, edgy, downtown superdad or the sort of mom who raises chickens for fun? Do you have a padded rec room or an illegal loft? SUV or zip car?
Where you live and what sort of place you live in brands every aspect of your outward life. It isn't only a personal choice – it's also about unchoosing a whole bunch of other stuff, much of which some of your good friends are probably going to great lengths to defend.
Take the problem of geography. I suppose this isn't such a fraught topic if you're one of those lucky people who was born in the same place where you wanted to attend school, build a career, raise a family and eventually kick the bucket. But for most, life involves some schlepping around. First there's the move from hometown to university town, then the move from school to whatever place you're most likely to get work, and then the move to the city you'd like to "settle" in (i.e. become complacent and middle aged). For me, this involved several moves from small town to city, back to small town, to city, and some continent-hopping in between.
Now, in the thick of my 30s, I find myself firmly ensconced in a city. A big, bustling city where the cost of living is shocking and property prices are swelling. I am happy here but … it's impossible not to wonder what it might be like to have a big backyard or one of those vast industrial-carpeted basements where you chuck all the crappy plastic toys so guests don't see them. It's great to have access to nightlife and high culture, but wouldn't it be better if we actually went to a nightclub or the opera more than once or twice a year (or, let's be honest, never)?
Friends in this age group, who want to "properly settle down" (by which they mean find a house in which they don't have to listen to the drunk neighbours fighting), are leaving London in droves. In the past year I've lost a dozen good friends to the suburbs or their home countries. The same is true in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver where real estate continues to boom, pricing young families into the nether regions and beyond (the average selling price in February on Toronto's Multiple Listing Service was $553,193, up 8.6 per cent from a year earlier; in Vancouver, it was $609,100, up 3.2 per cent).
The awkward thing is how we talk about this situation. It's as if these choices aren't based on cold hard economics. "It's so nice to finally have some fresh air," is code for, "The commute's a bitch but we couldn't afford 2,500 square feet in the city." And, "We want our kids to grow up in a more European way," actually means, "We bought a two-bedroom condo at the height of the bubble and now we're stuck."
Spring is the season when people tend to break the news they're leaving. They hunker down over the winter, then poke their heads up at the first thaw. Before you know it they've plunked down a deposit on a seven-bedroom fixer-upper on 10 acres north of James Bay. The deal closes just before the new school year. "There's a top-notch French immersion program just down the road," your soon-to-be-former-friends trill. "You'll come and visit us right?"
"Oh sure," I reassure them, "I'll bring the kids for a week in the summer." The sad truth is, even as I say it, I know it's usually a lie. People who move to the country like to insist they want visitors, but after a few long weekends of cleaning up after other people's kids, they tend to get all hosted out. In a stage of life in which getting to the park for a play date poses significant scheduling challenges, it's hard to imagine the organizational skills it would require to haul the entire brood a hundred kilometres north of the city several times a year.
I have one long-lost friend I see quite a lot of, but she moved her family to a big house with a pool on the Spanish island of Majorca. So we make an exception, you see.
As for our choice to stay in the city, I want our kids to grow up in a more European way. By which I mean, I'd really love a minivan but we can't afford a driveway to park it in.