Yes, okay. I know Part Two was supposed to be done a couple of months ago. Now, what was I saying? Right, small town life.
Last August I did one of those huge, stock-up-on-everything grocery runs at the big IperCoop about half an hour from my house, which I never get to do. I never get to do this for two reasons:
1) I almost always shop alone with my son, and shopping whilst simultaneously playing “I spy something blue”, intercepting breakable items as they are about to be chucked from the cart, and convincing a two year old that all that candy and gum some childless idiot decided to display right by the checkout line is “yucky, sweetie. You don’t want that yucky stuff!” isn’t really conducive to performing the mental calculations needed to determine if the two for one 150 ounce shampoo is a better deal than the three pack economy sized 250 ounce, based on cents per ounce. You just toss in the shampoo closest to your outstretched hand and make for home.
2) Despite being the proud owners of 17 hectares of land, four rental apartments, a 250 square meter home, a barn, hayshed, machine shed, hen house, rabbit hutch, and abandoned World War II ambulance that my father-in-law keeps in the woods to nap in, we have no storage space. None. So completely bereft of storage space are we that our shopping is a zero sum equation: we run out of one tube of toothpaste, and we purchase a single replacement tube. None of that bulk buying that has made Sam Walton a rich man.
But it was August and my husband was off of work, so we headed out the three of us. And, since a husband being off of work is translated by wives the world over as “Great, Honey! Now you’ve got time to clean out the garage and/or basement and/or shed!”, we had just recently concluded our annual Let’s Get This Damn S**t Out Of Here campaign (to steal a phrase aptly coined by my friend Nina), and quite successfully. I had actually liberated two shelves for sundry items like spare toilet paper and light bulbs.
It was to be a grand outing.
When we got to the store, we found that they had set up one of those big inflatable kiddie slides out front, so I sent my husband and son over there to kill time, and went on my merry way. (The fact that I was so beside myself to be grocery shopping in peace is kind of depressing, now that I think about it. I’m sure it was like this for Princess Di and Madonna when their kids were little, right?) Anyway, there I was in the checkout line with my basket so full to overflowing that it was reminiscent of a Central American cross country bus, and up behind me walks a Non Shopper Dad with his toddler.
I immediately recognized this Non Shopper Dad because he was gripping his squirming, tugging son with one hand and holding on to about half the candy and toys in the store, plus one quart of milk with the other. Even my husband, who is a Non Dresser Dad (orange shirt and red pants, anyone?) and a Borderline Feeder Dad (pimento olives are a vegetable) knows the two fundamental rules of shopping with toddlers. Always, always — even if you are just stopping in for a package a dental floss — put your kid in a cart. A cart is not a mode of transportation, but a child restraint device. Never, ever capitulate. You appease the whining with a box of Tic-tacs, and the next thing you know you are committed to a six foot high stuffed Pooh bear, triple stuffed Oreo jumbo pack, and a new home entertainment system complete with subwoofers.
The Non Shopper Dad got in line behind me, and, seeing that his son was seven seconds and counting to complete meltdown, I let him pass ahead.
Ten minutes later, I caught up with my husband and son at the slide thing, and found my husband talking to the Non Shopper Dad (our son was nowhere in sight. My husband may have shopping down to a science, but the concept of child snatching is still quite hazy.). Lo and behold, Non Shopper Dad was a cousin!
Now, in a large city the subsequent conversation would have been liberally peppered with phrases like “… incredible coincidence!”, “…small world!” and “…can’t believe!”.
But this is small town Umbria, and I have been here for long enough to know to keep my exuberance to myself. Non Shopper Dad sagely nodded. I nodded back. Cousins.
You see, everyone here knows each other. And everyone expects to know everyone. There are no six (or is it seven?…I can never remember) degrees of separation. Really pushing it, there may be two. So no one really raises an eyebrow to come across relatives half an hour from home, or even three countries from home.
I remember when we were in Paris about five years ago, and walking down the Champs-Elysées my husband suddenly lifted his hand and casually waved to a guy on the other side of the block. “Who was that?” I said. We didn’t know anyone in Paris. If we had, we would have been mooching a bed off of them, rather that paying way too much money in the hole of a hotel that we were staying in. “Oh, just a cousin. You’ve never met him,” he replied offhandedly. It didn’t seem to occur to him that the chances of us running into a cousin in Paris was roughly the same as hitting it big in the lottery. You can hardly spit in Umbria without hitting some blood relation on the shoe.
There are, of course, positive aspects to this vast network of friends (or even just nodding acquaintances) and family.
A few years ago, my father-in-law was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. He underwent surgery and ended up being in the hospital for a month due to a series of irritating, though non-life threatening, complications. For example, he developed a case of hiccups which lasted 10 days. And not those delicate ladies-who-lunch hiccups, either, but those huge, spasmodic, body wracking hiccups that make the bed jump every few seconds. Funny, right? Hilarious.
Well, we thought so too for about the first three hours. Then we realized that spasmodic, body-wracking hiccups render quite a few essential activities almost impossible. Eating, for example. Drinking. Speaking. Sleeping, or getting any sort of rest. My father-in-law took the news of his cancer with aplomb. He awaited his impending surgery with acceptance. But after five days of hiccupping, he was sobbing in desperation.
But back to the story. As I said, he ended up being hospitalized for a month. I was at the hospital every day from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and I can tell you that there was never one solitary minute during those 30 days that my father-in-law did not have at least one visitor, if not three. Playing cards. Talking crops and weather. Bringing fruit (which he couldn’t eat) and chocolates (which I did). At least two hundred people must have filed through that room in that month, and at least that many over the next six weeks of his convalescence at home.
Not only that, but we had a constant parade of neighbors come through to help with the chores on the farm while he was laid up. And with the funniest excuses, too. Once I came out to find Quartino from next door sawing firewood. I said, “Gosh, Quartino, that’s really nice of you!” and he mumbled something about having this new blade on the chainsaw and having to break it in and not having enough wood lying around at home to do the job right, which was the biggest bunch of BS I’ve ever heard. We also had people mill feed for us because they “just happened to be passing by (with their tractor and mill hitched) and thought they’d enjoy this nice weather (rainy mid-December) to be outside and mill for a couple of hours” and show up at midnight because they saw the light on from down the road and thought they’d stop by for a visit (in their calving boots, because the light was on in the barn and that can only mean one thing at midnight). These were kindnesses offered casually and received matter-of-factly (though not without many thanks), because this sort of thing is still commonplace in our corner of rural Umbria.
However, it is not all wine and roses. Tight knit communities, I have discovered, are also breeding grounds for gossip, grudges, and cliques that last generations. The complete lack of anonymity means you can’t pick your nose in your car, be rude to the lady at the dry cleaners, or run out for a quart of milk in your bedroom slippers without it coming back to you sooner or later (usually with baroque embellishments).
There is also a very definite line separating those “from around here” and those “not” (i.e. originating from two hours south of here, or half a world away) and it is difficult if not impossible to form real friendships with the locals if you are, well, not. In fact, most of my close girlfriends here in Umbria are not Umbrian. Some are ex-pats, but most are Italians who have moved here from other parts of Italy — Sicily, Le Marche, Rome. It is reassuring to hear them complain at times about the insularity of the Umbrian social scene; I thought for a long time that it was just because I was foreign. It’s nice to know that my friend Nadia from Rome and Luana from Sicily are no less fish out of water than I am.
But more than good or bad, this knowing of everyone just produces quirky behavior. So many times I have had people say to me, “Hey, I passed you in my car this morning and waved, but you didn’t notice.” It took me awhile to realize that I don’t routinely look at other drivers when I am out in my car. I just don’t have that habit, because having grown up in a metropolitan area of 10 million people, I don’t expect to recognize the folks stopped in the lane next to me at the red light. Here, not only will you often know them, you’ll roll down your window and halt traffic for the next ten minutes while catching up.
It took my husband years before he stopped automatically turning around every time he heard a car honk within a three block radius in downtown Chicago. When you grow up in a small town, a car beeping behind you means that someone is saying hello, so you better stop and wave. I finally convinced him that the probability of it being Zio Franco and not someone pissed off at the folks in the Saturn with the Wisconsin plates who don’t gun it as soon as the light changes were pretty slim. (This was before the Paris incident.)
People in small towns look at each other. They notice other drivers, they people watch with purpose, they examine every new passenger on the bus with an intensity that took me years to get used to. They spend a good amount of time greeting each other, catching up, gossiping or kvetching, depending upon their age and gender. When you’re in a rush it can drive you nuts, but I think that it has forced me to slow down a little, participate in society, be a little more human. It has definitely forced me to stop wearing my bedroom slippers to the grocery store.
And this is what it all boils down to. The sport of story telling, the speed with which news spreads, and the general interest in it. The vast, convoluted ties of blood and history and the importance of knowing who you are and how you fit in, and who everyone else is and how they fit in as well. Small town life is, well, life. A slower life, a life on a more contained scale where every single person constitutes an indispensable part of the whole. It may not be for everyone, but I have discovered … to my shock and surprise, I may add … that it’s for me.