When friends tell me they are traveling through the midwest, I always suggest a detour through Farmland, Indiana. My hometown is not too far from the main highways, and the quaint downtown is an icon of life without traffic lights, in a small village in the beautiful flat middle-of-nowhere.
And the travelers return to me, describe their reactions as their eyes grow wide. Did they stop at the Thrift-E to meet Bob-the-butcher, as I suggested? Was he serving ham salad that day? Did he offer a sample? (None like it, anywhere, and Bob refuses to share the recipe.) Did my traveling friends see the old wooden floors, aisles sagging a bit with wear, and the long pull-strings on the florescent lights?
More often my traveling friends stop by the upscale coffee shop, where the owners roast the beans themselves, and customers can sit at a polished bar with a latte. My friends bring me back a bag of my favorite Columbian. And everyone steps in The Chocolate Moose for a fancy ice cream—it was a practical “drug store” when I grew up. Now it’s for out-of-towners, mostly, and special occasions. The travelers didn’t know such places exist outside of movie sets.
Then we parse their astonishment. Didn’t I tell them it was a small town? Yes, but they didn’t expect it to be that small. Most people describe themselves as being “from a small town.” They think they know what a small town is. And then they drive through my small town—so small the definitions change. So odd it’s undeniable. I have a great affection for the place. But then I moved away 25 years ago, and affection is easy from the distance of a thousand miles. (It would be even easier with Bob’s ham salad.)
Thus my New York sojourn leaves me baffled, mystified. The city never ends. The weather outside is slightly cool, perfect, thus the trains, the buildings, even the Starbucks in Manhattan are ALL MASSIVELY OVERHEATED. Do city people hate themselves? Or do they just dislike me and want to punish me? Everywhere else I go in the world, J.Jill is a nice brand of clothing (I packed ALL J.Jill except for my Ex Officio travel pants), but in NYC I feel underdressed, careless, and every change of clothes is sweat-through after even a short ride on public transportation, or a short moment in an office building. The convention offered a free mini-makeover, which I accepted, but eye makeup makes me look dreadfully old, as though I’m trying Very Hard, and my eyes sting and turn red the next day. My hip Haiku bag is very summery, and it’s fall now. Blah, blah—in Boston, would I care about any of these things? In New York it’s fall and everyone is wearing tall black boots with low heels. And I kind of wish I was wearing them, too. (I outgrew my tall black boots with low heels when I was pregnant, and I miss them terribly.)
Haven’t I shrugged this slight discomfort off, the last ten times I’ve been in New York? Did I even notice it?
I really can’t blame Farmland, Indiana for my fashion-discomfort, or even for the piece of hayseed in my hair. I didn’t blend in well there, either. Is "blending" a skill I'm missing? Or is the real skill in feeling "at home" in the world? If only the real, real skill was missing the things I love so dearly, like Bob-the-butcher's ham salad, and that set of brick Victorians at the no-stoplight intersection, Main Street Coffee, Farmland in the autumn months, the perfect months for wearing flannel shirts and jeans and having no one notice anything, ever, at all.