At long last, you are there. You have been planning, saving and working for this event for years, and it is finally becoming a reality. The beautiful home in the countryside is yours, and you couldn’t be happier.
As the giant moving van backs up to the front porch, your mind is abuzz with excitement. You can hardly wait to remodel the kitchen, have the hardwood floors refinished and hire a landscaper to tidy up the far edges of the lawn.
You notice the collection of junk cars just over the property line that must have been hidden in greenery when you first visited the place. Your spouse voices some concern, but you dismiss it. Surely the municipality will insist that they clean up the yard once you bring the problem to the attention of authorities.
At lunchtime, you check in at the local store and introduce yourself while you grab some drinks and sandwich supplies.
The scene at the general store is not quite what you had anticipated. There are a couple of elderly men seated in worn chairs outside the front door, smoking cigarettes, laughing together at an off-color joke. Indoors, a shirtless man and his unleashed dog are waiting in line at the cash register. There is only one brand of bread on the shelf, and you can’t find any of the kind of sandwich meat you like.
While paying for your purchases, you tell the lady behind the counter that you are moving in that day, and tell her the address. She looks confused until a bystander fills her in. It’s the old Haywood place – even though you didn’t buy it from anyone named Haywood. Nor did the sellers. It’s known by the name of a family that owned it three generations ago.
“Where did you move here from?” the lady asks politely.
You are eager to tell her all about yourself. About how you previously lived in a very upscale neighborhood next door to a famous artist, in a big city that is faraway.
She shrugs, seemingly unimpressed.
She gives you a sour look. That’s her sister’s place, she says. And those are her brother-in-law’s cars. And you can complain to the town’s elected officials, but she doubts they care.
“Well,” you bluster, “where I came from, there are laws against such things. And you can’t smoke in the doorway or go in a store without a shirt back home.”
“You are not back home,” she replies, her voice noticeably cool.
As you exit the store, you realize the lady was right. You are truly not in Kansas anymore, and it occurs to you that the culture here is very different from that which you left. You have been so busy seeking out the kind of place that would meet your expectations that you haven’t given any thought to how you might meet theirs.
The good news is you absolutely can fit in, make friends, and become part of the community. Eventually. And the even better news is I can give you a few tips to help that happen more quickly and less painfully.
1. Don’t try to turn your new community into your old one. If your comments at the town meeting always begin with, “Back home we did it a better way,” the locals will be tempted to retort that you should go back there if you loved it so much. Remember, you moved here for a reason. You wanted to live in a different kind of place than you lived before. Accept the fact that they have their own way of doing things here.
2. Avoid being ostentatious. Nobody here cares that a movie star frequented the coffee shop in your old neighborhood. If country folks were impressed by Hollywood, they’d move there. And your plans to glam up the old farmstead you bought by installing a garish steel roof and some glitzy fake gas pumps on the lawn will make people wonder why you bought an old farmhouse in the first place.
3. Remember that you won’t have the same services that you had in the city. The local store is not going to carry 13 flavors of artisan mustard, and there is no way that firefighters or law enforcement can possibly show up at your door three minutes after you dial 911. The shopkeeper is likely to try to keep your favorite products on hand if you ask, though. And as for services, rest assured that as you get to know the townspeople you’ll soon learn that you are better off calling on some of them in an emergency anyway.
4. Do the natives sound funny to you? Don’t bother pointing it out to them. You probably sound funny to them, too. They’ve heard commentary on their particular regionalisms since before you knew their town existed. And whatever you do, don’t try to imitate it. Unless you make your living recording audiobooks with characters from all over the world, you can’t pull it off.
5. With all those don’ts on the list, you might be wondering if there’s anything you can do. Take heart – there are plenty of positive things about your new country place. Don’t be afraid to be who you are, not who you think they want you to be. They’ll get used to you.
6. You don’t need to alter your goals or question your own values. If you came here to grow your own organic food, homeschool your kids or prepare for the apocalypse, you can. Just remember that others in town might have different ideals. You can do your thing, but respect them enough to let them do theirs.
7. Definitely join in on local projects. Be part of what’s already happening. And don’t just throw money at them – show up carrying a hammer or a casserole.
In the end, don’t worry about the junk cars. The next-door neighbors might well turn out to be the kind of people who will show up with a bushel of fresh tomatoes after you lose yours to blight, teach your kid how to knit, or run out and grab your dog when they see it following a snapping turtle. And someday it could happen that you gaze out the kitchen window at the beautiful homey vista that includes the neighbors’ junk cars, and wonder why you ever even cared that they were there.