I have ave lived in Decorah for over 20 years and I am, therefore, in a unique position: I have been here long enough to understand somewhat the ways and the lingo, but not so long as to have completely forgotten my big-city concepts and habits.
So here is Part II of a primer for any of you readers who have recently moved here from Chicago, or New York, or some other big city: (Part I appeared Jan. 26)
6. Personal inquiries. Don’t take them personally. Especially from the elders. Again, they’re just trying to “place” you. I’d rather have them ask me than spread their own conjectures.
7. Speaking of elders, here’s something I saw at Quillin’s which I swear I never saw when I lived in Chicago: birthday cards for the 100th birthday. What does that tell you?
8. Do your best not to bad-mouth anyone. Decorah is not in-bred, but to those coming from a huge metropolis, it can feel as if everyone here is related to everyone else, even though that is not actually the case.
In Chicago, where no one knows anyone else, you’re pretty safe in griping about a specific person, because it’s unlikely that the one you’re griping to knows the one you’re griping about. But in Decorah, if you’re not careful, you may find yourself, after indulging in a particularly vituperative tirade, on the receiving end of a frosty glare: “That happens to be my mother’s step-sister’s third cousin twice removed you’re talking about there.” At the very least they were in the same class together. The webs of relationship are old, convoluted, and buried under a vast array of sundry married and re-married names. Watch your mouth.
9. Politeness über alles. This comes up in countless ways, but I shall address only three manifestations.
a.) No one takes the last piece of anything at table.
b.) The sideways approach to getting what you really want. In Chicago, if you ask what time someone wants for an appointment, the exchange ends quickly, like this: “Gimme 11:00.” Here, it will go back and forth for a bit: “What time would you like?” “Anytime.” “We’ve got times open between 10:00 and 2:00.” “Whatever is best for you.” “OK. Let’s say 10:00.” “That’s fine, but 11:00 would work, too.” Translation from Small Town into Big City: “Gimme 11:00.”
People will eventually tell you what they want; they just sort of back into it. If you’re in so big a hurry that you can’t spare the time for a little back-and-forth, a small town may not be the place for you. Once you understand how things are done hereabouts, and if you decide to persevere, you’ll come to enjoy it.
c.) At the Vesterheim Museum gift shop there is a trivet which says, “Silence is sometimes an answer.” If you propose something silly or impractical, chances are it will be passed over in gracious silence, rather than eliciting the more vigorous response of “Are you out of your freaking mind?”
So, if you are super-enthusiastic about something and the response is underwhelming, take the hint. Do not make them tell you to your face that they’d rather be nibbled to death by hermit crabs than do whatever it is that you’re suggesting.
From my point of view, this is nice, because the corollary is, even if I write a really bad essay, I know that no one will come up to me on the street and say, “Well, that definitely sucked.”
d.) Gentle forbearance. Once I was working in an office and the radio was tuned to Minnesota Public Radio’s classical music station. One of Dvorak’s lesser-known pieces was playing, and the late Professor Weston Noble walked in, stopped, and said, “What is that?”
I, looking up, said, “What? Oh. Dvorak.” Slowly his eyebrows went way up and his eyes got round; and looking at me with the barely restrained amusement of an adult faced with an exceedingly ignorant but sincere and well-meaning child (I was in my 40s at the time), he bestowed upon me one of his cute, little, dimply, closed-mouth smiles, and then responded, laughing: “Yes, I know that. What radio station is it?”
Ah. Yes. Right. Of course he would know what music was playing. He probably knew the conductor. Personally.
He did not chide me, “You’ve known me for years, and you actually think that I can’t recognize a Dvorak piece when I hear it?”
Neither did he roll his eyes and say, “Well duh-uhh! Nice house, nobody home. No, you doofus, I want to know what station you’re listening to.”
Gentle forbearance. There just seems to be a wider vein of it in this small town than in other places I’ve lived.