A few weeks ago, my daughter Julia and I discovered our black cat Bagheera in one of her new hiding spots – a bare space between two thick bushes from which she had a great view of what was going on, but where she was practically invisible. As soon as she realized that we had found her spot, she got up and left. My daughter asked me why. “It’s because Bagheera likes hidden places, and once she’s been discovered, she wants to find a new one.”
People are a lot like Bagheera, though our hidden places don’t serve for actual hiding. What we seem to crave are those places that few people know about, those places that make us feel at home, or make us feel unique, or make us feel like part of a smaller community of other people like us who know something special. A special dive bar with great live music on Thursday nights. A restaurant in a small town in the Plains that serves world-class food. A beach on an otherwise busy coast that no one goes to. The secret path to get to a prolific trout hole.
Most of the time, these hidden places are reveal themselves to us because of local knowledge, that inimitable and priceless quality of knowing something about a place because of time and experience. There is no replacement for it. In ten seconds or less, I can find out the population of Chinguetti, Mauritania (4,711) because of the velocity of the internet and the genius of the people who program it, but while that information may be useful, it means nothing significant without being able to contextualize it. Local knowledge puts you inside a place so well as to really understand what is going on there. The drawbacks can be that you discover all of the crap underneath an otherwise shiny, civilized veneer. The advantages can be those hidden gems that give you pleasure in your daily life. And like jealous dragons, we often guard these gems, keeping them close to our breasts.
But at times, the desire to keep hidden places hidden can devolve into egotism. A friend of my in-laws who grew up in a town high above Parma in some of the best Porcini mushroom grounds in Italy, if not the world, always asked his father, a renowned mushroom hunter, to show him the spots from which his father would unfailingly return with pounds and pounds of superb mushrooms. His father refused, and the secret went with him to the grave. To this day, his son is still bitter about it .
Before moving to Levanto, my wife and I came here for weekend getaways off and on for ten years. Though we thought we knew a lot about the town, in truth, we were dilettantes. The only thing I had really gained any knowledge about in that time was olive farming, but it would arrogant of me to suggest that I have more than a fingernail’s worth of knowledge compared to someone who has been doing it all their life. That kind of expertise take generations. But since moving here, we have discovered all sorts of hidden places that we would never have found without that important equation of curiosity plus time. Places that make us feel at home, places that give us a sense of belonging, places that we have stumbled upon all by ourselves.
It will take even more time to see whether we will be jealous of them.