There are innumerable things about living in a small town that can inspire or infuriate. Because I happen to love my small town (nb: Levanto, Italy), I usually tend to find myself on the inspirational side.
Today, after schlepping up four flights of stairs to the offices where I hold an after-school English class, only to find the door locked, I remembered the advice of the office manager on the first day of classes: if the door is locked, go to the café across the street and ask for the spare keys. Unconcerned that the café owners don’t know me from a hole in the ground, I saunter across the way to get the spare. The barista is unfortunately apologetic: “The keys aren’t here. They must not have brought them back from the courses last night.”
So I call the office manager. “Don’t worry, just go to the hardware store and the secretary will throw another set down to you … she lives above it.”
You could write volumes on the social and cultural significance of this phrase, but I will limit myself to the following: she said “the hardware” because there is only one and everyone knows exactly where it is; she has no doubt that the secretary is at home because her kids have the flu (and everyone knows who is healthy or sick at the nursery school here); and it’s logical even to me that the secretary lives above the hardware store because she is married to one of the brothers who own it.
And so in fact, after a 60-second bike ride, I am standing in front of the hardware when she sticks her head out of the window and chucks them down, sending me off with the advice to leave them at the cafè where this adventure started.
Time elapsed between finding the locked door and recovering an extra set of keys on the other side of town? 6 minutes.
If you’re looking for anonymity and social seclusion, small towns are the wrong place for you. You”ll feel suffocated and see gossip and vindictiveness around every corner. But for me, life in Levanto is exactly what I want, something that the Italians call misura d’uomo: human-sized. Everyone knows everyone, and so you are always just a few yards away from someone who can lend you a hand, get you out of a mess, share a cup of coffee, or simply give you a smile an a friendly ciao!.
And that’s exactly what an elderly man did, evidently recognizing me as I pedaled back down the main street from the hardware. I have no idea who he was. What a sense of belonging!