1. Everyone knows you.
I still remember, after moving to a little town on the Vermont-New Hampshire border from New York City, just how taken aback I was by the realization that people seemed to know and even anticipate my movements before I could. My then fiancé had been recently interviewed for a piece in the Valley News (not a big deal, apparently, as everyone in the White River Valley area has been in the Valley News at some point or another). A woman carrying a copy of the newspaper pointed me out to her friend. “That’s him! He’s dating the boy in the paper. They wait for the bus together in the mornings.” And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
These were the sorts of people who’d yammer away into my ear while trapped in a hermetically sealed subway car at the height of the evening rush. What was I thinking?
2. Certain colloquialisms reign supreme.
Nothing says “You’re in Vermont” like having people tell you “Thank you much!” or “Thanks, boss!” when you’re performing your basic duties while working retail. I heard both of these (or some variation thereof) most days. I was ensured this was a common New England thing. My time in New England had before been limited to summer trips to our favorite lake in Connecticut, so I took everyone else’s word for it.
The way people talked with each other though, the familiarity, really struck me. It’s not that New Yorkers are inherently rude. Some of the most beautiful, warm, kind and tolerant people I’ve met in my life are from New York. But in New York, everyone has a strict definition of their personal space, their boundaries. It’s something you develop as you’re on the defensive and always on the go, always keeping ahead. That didn’t exist here. It took a lot of getting used to.
3. Public transit (if there is any) can be a total nightmare.
I admit, I took New York City transit for granted my entire life. I grew up on the subways and buses and know them like I know the back of my hand. Residents of the town were taken aback when I mentioned I’d never driven a car in my entire life (still haven’t). In New York, like anywhere else, it all depends on your needs, but why would you need one? I grew to understand that in a small town, the difference between having a car and not having a car meant having a job or not having a job. In NYC, when we think “cars” our minds immediately go to Long Island (and property taxes).
In small towns, entire paychecks are lost to commutes; and if public transit exists, it’s not particularly reliable. There was a system of buses. One of them could have dropped me off in front of my job. But I preferred to walk. I absorbed the beauty of the scenery and the crisp mountain air. On occasion, someone from eighteen towns over would drive by and wave hello (and sometimes give me a ride). Then I’d see them later at work or at the gas station on the way back buying a carton of Pall Malls.
4. Every line of work has been exhausted.
Practically everyone had worked at the Wal-Mart or the Dollar Tree. Or the drug store. Or the gas station. Or the Kohl’s. Or the JC Penny. Or the K-Mart. And practically anyone can do these jobs.
Get the picture?
Practically everyone had an application filed away at any single one of these place at any given time. There were only a few businesses and they had to sustain an entire community. When I arrived, I was told that being fresh and new and from New York (and being engaged to someone everyone else already knew and had grown up with) would work in my favor. It did: I worked steadily almost from the moment I arrived. And I admit I felt a tad guilty. This brought “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” to a different level.
Small towns are, by nature, a little cannibalistic. Nepotism is a distinct survival tool.
5. You’ve been spoiled.
I experienced a bit of culture shock, I admit. I’d done a lot of traveling. I didn’t consider myself ignorant. I have always welcomed new experiences. They say you should “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” It’s an old and tired saying, but it’s true. It’s an ancient maxim and a “go-to” for a reason. I saw how time moved at an entirely different pace. I saw how my idea of what was “convenient” was totally different from someone else’s. I confronted my distaste for delays (MTA service is both the joy and the bane of a New Yorker’s existence). It was in this little town that I first learned what it truly meant to “breathe easy” despite having chided myself in New York many times for not doing such a thing before. The lack of immediacy, the instant gratification of being able to get a bagel at 4 AM (even the gas station here locked its doors and shut down the pumps by midnight) had been removed.
The experience made me a far more tolerant and patient person.
6. The community will draw you back.
Some things don’t work out, alas. My fiancé and I broke up a few years ago and I packed my bags and went back to New York, the city that never sleeps. We’re still best friends: My mother considers him a member of the family; he may as well be one of her own children.
When I needed to unwind and escape for a little while, I found myself hopping on a Greyhound and working my way back up there for a weekend or two. I made some wonderful friends there, to be fair. I found myself growing wistful, which stunned everyone who knew me. It was incorrectly assumed that I was speaking through the shroud of heartbreak. True, the end of our union, of the four long years I’d spent with a good man, hurt. It hurt a lot.
But I learned that in leaving the city allowed me to plant my roots elsewhere, even if only for a time. The town had been my home for a while and it had taken a piece of my heart with it.