…it will probably want to hang out at the Walmart.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This past weekend I bit the bullet and faced one of my irrational fears: renting a car from NYC and driving home to what I
lovingly refer to as “Trump Country,” aka Western Pennsylvania. Though I grew up in SoCal from middle school through college, my family moved back to my hometown of Middle of Nowhere, PA in 2009 and I’ve been making the return journey ever since. Usually said return journey is via the cheap-o Megabus which involves waiting in line in inclement weather for a bus that is 45 minutes late for a 5-and-a-half hour-long cramped journey next to someone playing music without headphones (*cue water mysteriously dripping down on you from the roof above). And that’s just to State College, where my parents pick me up – from there, an hour and a half of the journey remains, though at least it’s from the comfort of the family car.
Adopting Charlie, however, means that spur of the moment (and economical) bus trips are nearly impossible now; I can’t bring myself to leave a dog – especially one who was adopted, and from an environment where he was neglected – at a boarding facility, where he has no idea what’s going on and probably thinks I’m leaving him there for good. Overnight pet sitters are a much more comfortable, yet expensive option – ranging anywhere from $75-100 per NIGHT. The most affordable option would be asking someone I know to stay in my apartment – but this time, my first-choice person was coming with me.
So with that in mind, I decided it was time to get over my fear of renting a car, pack up my little family, and drive home. The fear wasn’t necessarily the renting itself, though I do know that car rental agencies tend to considerably amp up their prices or tack on a lot of hidden fees that make renting a car cost-prohibitive after the fact. No, the fear was navigating LaGuardia airport with a dog who hates his crate and who may or may not do well on car rides, and driving through NYC in a car that is not my own as the only person capable of operating the vehicle (fun fact: my boyfriend is a “true New Yorker” and as of now does not have a Driver’s License!).
Long story short, we all made it in one piece, renting from the Hertz LaGuardia was a cinch, and I would willingly repeat the experience the next time I need to get out of the city.
Now for me, a city girl at heart, I find the woods of the rust belt to be peaceful for a few days, but am usually ready to get back to a place where people actually want to be and where stuff actually happens. On the other hand, my boyfriend – who I suspect is a country boy at heart – had never really been somewhere quite as remote as DuBois, Pennsylvania. Watching him go through some low-key culture shock reminded me of the days when I was in Italy, sharing my experiences with my Italian friends and realizing that while we were all people with the same wants, needs, and core values at the end of the day, the starkly-contrasting structures in which we were raised ultimately resulted in a different way of thinking and experiencing life.
Meaning, while I would never return to this small town if my parents didn’t live there, my boyfriend LOVED DuBois.
So what exactly were some of the culture-shock moments that made me realize how our upbringings in such vastly differing places have shaped our worldviews?
- Cracker Barrel is a destination some people have only ever heard of
Growing up in Pennsylvania and going on road trips to North Carolina or Ohio or pretty much anywhere on the East Coast meant that trips to Cracker Barrel were just what you did when traveling. Stop in, grab some chicken ‘n’ dumplings, and beat your brother at the game with the pegs in the triangle (does anybody know what that game is called?). Afterwards, take a quick peek around the country store selling old fashioned candy, clothes (who buys these?), and beanie babies (we do). For a New Yorker, Cracker Barrels don’t really exist, unless you count the one on Staten Island, which you don’t. Wanting to stop at the Cracker Barrel on our drive down to experience this classic Americana road trip stop was at the top of my boyfriend’s “to-do” list – and for those buttermilk biscuits, I was only too happy to oblige.
- Amish people actually live/co-exist with “The English” (their term for non-Amish) in rural America
When you live in a place where the most exciting news to hit town is the opening of the city’s first Dunkin’ Donuts (an event which inspired the formation of lines going around the block at 6am), your options for entertainment are scarce. As such, when the rare out-of-towner comes in for a visit, you take him to see your city’s finest sites: The Elk and The Amish. It’s really amazing to be driving through the winding country roads, seeing the telltale large, white, simple Amish houses, singular curtains drawn back from the window, weaved in among the rest of the regular family homes. Often, you will see their almost-puritanical, traditional clothing – black/green/blue dresses and bonnets for women, black pants/suspenders/white shirts and hats for men – hanging outside on the clothes line. Sometimes, you may see Amish children outside playing, or get stuck in a 30+ car lineup behind an Amish horse and buggy. You may even see the Amish at your local Walmart:
- Walmart, like Cracker Barrel, is a novelty concept
Looking at the photo above, you can’t get much more quintessential “Western PA” than live bait, a “firearms return policy,” and an Amish woman inside a Walmart. Having lived in NYC for two and a half years, I can without a doubt say that sometimes, despite all of the people of Walmart, when I’m in the thick of spending $10 for a roll of paper towels at the grocery store, I miss the convenience, accessibility, pricing, and SIZE of Walmart. They have actual options, and not just one brand/one size/one color/one left. You don’t have to squeeze your way through a crowded, over-priced, under-stocked store to see that the last of whatever it is you need has been snatched off the shelves. If you’ve never lived in a place where this one-stop shop is a 10-minute drive away, it quite literally becomes a tourist destination – convenience, ease, and cheapness wrapped up in a yellow smile. I’ve taken both of my last PA visitors to Walmart for simple tourist excursions (at their request), and even returned a second time with my overly-enthused boyfriend so that he could buy souvenirs for his friends and family back home (yes, you read that correctly. He went souvenir shopping. At Walmart). Watching visitors get as excited as they do about the sheer size and quantity of the items actually puts Walmart in a new and entertaining light for me (A sentence I never thought I would write). And apparently, taking a well-documented photograph of your purchases is necessary – sort of like the photographs at the end of a theme park ride advertising either your sheer terror or delight (entirely dependent on the particular day’s Walmart crowd).
- Everything is sooooooooooooooo cheap
I was talking with a friend on the phone the other day, and mentioned that one of the local bakeries in Astoria sells “cheap” pastries at $2.50 to $3 each.
“Cheap?! That’s crazy!” she said. “People would never pay those prices around here [DuBois].”
She’s not wrong…
Walking around DuBois, or even just grabbing some donuts for breakfast from the local shop, my boyfriend was in shock at the prices of everything. $9 for an entire dozen donuts? And not even a plain dozen- a bakers dozen. We normally pay $23.50 for a dozen from my favorite place – and one time, my brother and I spent $30 on EIGHT at the fancy place in Chelsea. Needless to say, the cheap goods and services – and the fact that my parents’ pay less on their mortgage than I do on my monthly rent (!!) – was quite an eye-opening experience for my Manhattanite.
- The people are SO nice!
In Small Town, PA people are genuinely nice. In NYC, something as simple as not keeping to the right in all escalator/sidewalk situations, standing in long lines at local places overcrowded with tourist mobs, and the local deli either putting too much (or not enough) shmear on your bagel can invoke the ire and wrath of even the plainest of Janes. I myself have become irate over relatively minor occurrences, which tend to add up and compound until you throw away your $5 flat white in rage because the barista didn’t make it hot enough.
In DuBois, though, we “city folk” were an oddity – no one ever really goes there just to visit. The cashier wanted to talk to my native New York boyfriend for a good 20 minutes about the differences between NYC and PA, and also ask us if we were going to get married/where we would live/where we wanted to raise children – um, none of your business? HA! Of course it is, because your business is everyone’s business in Small Town.
You can actually see them! More than one of them! They’re beautiful and not airplane lights! And it wasn’t even a “good” night for stars – I’ve seen them when the entire sky is lit up, and you can see the Milky Way streaming across in the most humbling of ways.
In NYC, you feel like you are the real-life version of Downsizing.
When your grandmother takes your boyfriend on a tour of her house and passes over the laundry room because “every laundry room is the same,” you both smirk at each other because you know that in NYC, the mere existence of such a room in one’s own apartment means you are in an entirely different tax bracket.
- Chain Restaurants
In small towns, chain restaurants are actually nice places with decent food. Red Lobster is considered a higher-end restaurant, and people don’t think twice about dining at the Ruby Tuesday for special occasions and date nights. Olive Garden is by far the classiest of the chains, but you’ll have to drive an hour and a half away to State College to enjoy the establishment’s fine cuisine (hey, I’m not judging – I won’t say no to their endless salad and bread sticks!). But in NYC, with so many amazing dining options, you can figuratively eat in a different part of the world every night if you so desire – so why eat at a chain that you can find anywhere else in the country? New Yorkers are very proud of what makes their city unique! In Small Town, if you opt to bypass the chains for a local place, you’ll find that there is ONE Italian restaurant, ONE Chinese place, ONE Thai place…you get the drift. Chains diversify your options (and are more likely to stick around in a competitive market).
- Gas Stations
This one is just for me – I had to explain what a Sheetz gas station was to my boyfriend who, as a non-driver, has never pumped gas and can only vaguely recall going to a gas station. It really was a stark reminder of how even though we were raised in the same country, it’s almost as if we come from different cultural backgrounds.
As much as I love NYC, it’s nice to get a reality check that where I live is not like the rest of world. And it’s always great to come home and relax with my family, enjoy the trees and the lake, sip in the silence, and sleep in a bedroom larger than my studio apartment.