Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Guide To Country Living - Part I

NOTE: This post originally appeared in my main blog, Weekend Pundit, a few years ago after a number of folks commented to some posts I made about the differences between rural and urban dwellers. I've updated the original posts, of which this is the first. I've also added links to other blogs covering different aspects of some of the topics I'm covering.

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It appears that once again I must delve into the mysteries of how urban dwellers and Flatlanders can adapt to life in a rural state, particularly New Hampshire. Much of what I'll cover also applies to Maine and, to a lesser extent, Vermont. You're on your own when it comes to other rural states, particularly those down south. Each area of the country has its own rules when it comes to country living, but there are also some universal rules that apply no matter which state you finally end up living in.

One thing most newcomers have to get used to is something called neighborliness. Bogie pretty much covers the subject of newcomer cluelessness in her tale about a new neighbor, who happens to be the living definition of 'clueless'.

It seems the person in question, before moving in, is going to have a security system installed. This is bad. It implies that he doesn’t trust the neighbors. This is a place where doors are not locked, even when people are gone on vacation. My customer [...] even leaves her front door wide open when no one is home.

This in a state with a very low crime rate. Usually the people we have to worry about aren't our neighbors, but people from somewhere else. (I lived up in the town of Plymouth for a few years and I never locked the door to my home the entire time I lived there. Not once.) It makes one wonder what this new neighbor might be up to. On the other hand, maybe it's the urban dweller paranoia, understandable considering some states where these former urban dwellers hail from make it very difficult to legally defend oneself in their own homes.

There are a lot of topics about 'country living' I can cover, many of which I've briefly written about before. But sometimes you have to repeat the lesson more than once before the information sinks in. Here's a list of Do's and Don'ts of country living. These are in order of descending importance, kinda sorta:

Once you've made the move to your new town, don't feel bashful about introducing yourselves to your neighbors, assuming they haven't already introduced themselves while they helped you unload the moving van. That's assuming of course that you actually have neighbors. In some places here in the Granite State your nearest neighbor might be a half mile or more down the road.

Make the acquaintance of the Town Clerk, Tax Collector (many times it's the same person), the Police Chief, the Fire Chief, and at least one of the Selectman (or Town Councilor, depending upon the form of town government). This helps grease the skids and let's them know you're not too snooty to mingle with the locals.

Go to the dump. Many small towns have no garbage pickup and it's up to you to haul you're own trash to the dump/transfer station/etc. Don't hire someone else to do it for you because people will think two things – 1) you're too damn lazy or snobbish to do it yourself; and 2) you really aren't interested in town politics/social activities/etc. The one thing you have to realize is that in many small towns 90% of all town business is conducted at the dump, not the weekly Selectman's or Budget Committee meeting. If you want to find out what's going on in town, the dump is the place to go. (I have to admit to some backsliding on this one, though recently I've started hauling my own trash and recyclables again. Frankly, it's now cheaper for me to haul my own than to pay someone else to do it, high gas prices and all.)

Read the weekly local paper. This is another place to find out when and where some of the social activities will be taking place. Also take close note of the Want Ads. You'll be amazed at some of the stuff you'll find there and can save yourself a bundle of cash when you're looking for that extra refrigerator or freezer or lawn mower or whatever.

Go to Town Meeting. This is very important. It only happens once a year so there's no excuse for not attending. Town meeting allows you to socialize as well as help decide what the town will spend in the coming year. Your first one or two years you should just listen and observe how things are done. If you can, latch on to somebody who can explain the whole thing to you. This will drastically shorten the learning curve.

Also, read the Town Report, usually mailed out to everyone in town well before town meeting. This gives you an idea of what the townspeople voted for and against the previous year as well as a list of what folks will be voting on this year.

And one last thing when it comes to town meeting: Never ever preface a statement with the phrase “Back where I/we come from....” This is the kiss of death for a newcomer. People in your new town don't care about where you came from, at least not during a debate over some warrant article. You're here now. If you insist on this kind of social suicide, be prepared to be immediately branded a “Flatlander” and never taken seriously again. (Note: There is only one exception to this rule – The phrase can be safely used if what you're going to say is going to be used as an example of why the town shouldn't vote for something. “Back where I come from, the town tried this and it was an utter disaster. It cost the town a ton of money to fix. Do you really want to do the same thing?”)

Find out which place serves the best breakfasts, then go there. Lots of people will dine out on Saturday or Sunday mornings. Ask them what place they'd recommend. You can make good contacts while schmoozing with the waitresses, cooks, or other patrons.

Use local contractors. Never mind that fancy construction firm, plumber, or electrician you've done business with in the past. Ask around and find somebody local. You'll find that they're just as good as the ones 'back home' and they'll probably cost less, too. They'll also be willing to come right out in an emergency. Sometimes the best places to ask is at that diner where you now have breakfast on Saturday mornings, or at town hall, or at the fire station. They'll know who's good and who to avoid.

If you're sending your kids to the local school, make sure you get involved with the school activities, and particularly the PTA or PTO. Get to know your kid's teachers. See them more often than just during parent-teacher conferences.

Get rid of the Lexus/BMW/Mercedes/Jaguar and get a more practical vehicle. Or if you're going to keep it, use it only when traveling long distance or on special occasions. SUVs are OK to a point (no Cadillac Escalades or Lincoln Navigators and the like), but pickup trucks are better. (It also makes it easier to haul your trash to the dump). A 4X4 pickup is even better, particularly during the winter as well as mud season.

Get used to the idea of dirt roads. Most small towns have 'em and many have more than a few. Don't expect the town to pave them just for your convenience. Most times it's cheaper to leave dirt roads as dirt roads. The town will grade them a couple of times a year to keep them from becoming too bumpy or rutted.

Get used to the idea of dark. You won't necessarily find streetlights along roads in many small towns except near the town center and at a couple of intersections. It can get dark, and I mean really dark at night. When you look up you'll be amazed at the number of stars you can see. Please try to keep it that way. The last thing you're neighbors need or want is you lighting up your property like Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. It will just annoy them and spoil the view of the night sky. (Note: I covered this since the original post at Weekend Pundit. A Flatlander from south of Boston bought a second home just up the road from us. He left the outside lights on his new place all the time whether he and his family were there or not, lighting up his home and surrounding area just like the aforementioned Fenway Park. I finally got the chance to ask him why he did this. His answer was that he thought it would keep burglars away. My answer to him was that all it did was make it easier for the burglars to see what they were doing. If he was that concerned, he could put in an alarm system which, in the long run, would be cheaper than keeping all the lights on. Since that talk he leaves the most of lights off.)

There are farms in small towns and they sometimes produce interesting smells. Get used to them. They've been here a lot longer than you and this is their livelihood. They won't take kindly to a newcomer trying to tell them what they should and should not be doing.

Sometimes there are also logging operations going on in some towns out in the country. Sometimes you'll see very big trucks loaded down with lots of logs. Get out of their way. With a full load they aren't going to stop very quickly and unless you're also driving a logging truck any argument over who has the right of way will end with them winning and you losing, big time.

Hunting is a fact of life. If you're a bunny-hugger and think hunting is wrong, keep it to yourself. Hunting is necessary to keep deer, moose, bear, and other wildlife populations in check. If you don't want hunters on your property all you have to do is post the proper signs at the proscribed height and intervals along the edge of your property. Also, don't go traipsing through the forest or fields wearing brown and white clothing during hunting season. It's a good way to end up dead or wounded. If you insist on taking your nature hikes during hunting season, remember these two words – International Orange. Vests and hats of this color are your best friend. So what if they make you look fat. At least you'll be alive to bitch about it.

Snow tires, your winter friend. Despite having your car/truck shod with all-season radials, you'll find that a good set of snow tires is worth the investment if you live in a part of the country where annual snowfall is measured in feet rather than inches. All-season radials are a compromise at best. Snow tires just plain work better in the snow. They can mean the difference between making it home safely or ending up in a ditch waiting for someone to (hopefully) pull you out before you become a corpsicle. Investing in a good set of tire chains is also suggested, but not required.

Food, particularly baked goods are always appreciated at the local firehouse, police station, town highway department, and town hall.

Bean suppers and pancake breakfasts are a mainstay of country living, whether they're put on by church groups, volunteer fire departments, or organizations like the Elks, the Masons, Odd Fellows, or others. They are good places to meet other townspeople, get a decent meal, and support community charities or civic associations. It's what's called 'networking', only you're doing it on a more personal level.

And yet another food related subject, in this case pizza and Chinese food deliveries – Don't count on it.

Gasoline, home heating oil, and propane. These will all become far more important to you than they have in the past, particularly in the winter months. You will learn to keep your gas tank at least half full. There are a number of reasons for this, one of the most important being your survival if you get caught out on the road in a winter storm. You will also learn the true worth of home heating oil and propane. Deliveries of these staples can be few and far between if you don't plan ahead. And if you don't plan well enough, you'll come to know your plumber all too well (frozen and/or burst water pipes).

Wells and septic systems are all you'll find in most small country towns. Many don't have a municipal water supply or sewage treatment plant. Your well is your water supply and the septic system takes care of your waste water. You will also become familiar the following terms: leach field, distribution box, Rid-X, submersible pump, well head, water softener, dry well, and pressure tank.

Cell phone service- In your dreams....

Home security systems aren't really required unless your 'security system' consists of one or two middling to large dogs. As Bogie pointed out earlier, those fancy electronic systems send the wrong message to your neighbors. In this case it's “I don't trust any of you...” (See exception under 'Get used to the idea of dark')

I could go on and on ad infinitum, but I think you catch the drift. If, after reading this, you still want to move to 'the country', then you're probably cut out for it. If any of this gives you the heebie-jeebies, then I suggest you keep your experiences of living in the country to those one or two weeks a year when you're on vacation.

More to follow.....

1 comment:

Amy S said...

Great Post. Even though I have lived in a mountain resort town where a couple of those issues vary a bit (we tend to see BMW SUVS driving around town and have cellphones instead of land lines), many of the points are similar. This is a good read for the urban dwellers dreaming of a little cabin in the woods. I agree ... it may be a dream vacation ... not lifestyle people are looking for. It's definitely not for everyone to live in a town "where everyone knows your name". Personally, I love it!