October 25, 2009

That small town feeling…

Posted in Between Us column at 2:28 am by dinaheng

The autumn leaves have turned color, but are still clinging to the trees in Oshkosh, Wisc., where a business trip has taken me for a few days. I’ve never been to Wisconsin, and am shivering a little as my colleagues and I walk through the campus at the university in town.

There’s something innately charming about college towns. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of remembering our youth, when life was full of unlimited possibilities and we didn’t know the meaning of limits.dinah-eng-21

I’ve never wanted to live in a small town, but the college campuses I attended felt like small communities, even though they were in the midst of large cities. The one small town experience I’ve had was living in a tiny town one summer while doing a three-month internship in Washington, D.C.

The town was Garrett Park, Md., outside the nation’s capital, and I rented the house of a University of Maryland professor who had left for the summer. The town was so small, the postal service didn’t deliver the mail — you walked to the local post office and picked it up yourself every day.

Everybody knew everybody… and their business. It was a little too close for my comfort, so when the internship ended, I moved to a high rise condominium nearby.

I guess I’m more of a city person. I like having a variety of entertainment options, restaurants with different cuisines, and an airport that connects you to the world without having to make multiple stops. I love meeting people of different races and ethnicities, from all walks of life.

To have all that, I tolerate traffic jams, higher prices, and rudeness from strangers who probably have no one to go home to.

As we drive past neatly kept homes around the Oshkosh campus, I think about the folks who have told us that their commute to work is 10 minutes, that people are so honest here, a local mechanic would never think of charging more for a repair than needed, and that everybody’s a Green Bay Packers fan.

They say most of the students in this small town want to stay close to home after graduation, and that even those who go off to a big city inevitably gravitate back to Oshkosh.

On the other hand, there’s a discomfort with strangers and newcomers. One resident, who’s lived in town for more than 10 years, says he still feels like an outsider. “People don’t just glance with curiosity at you,” he says. “They stare at you. They’re very friendly here, but you’re definitely expected to adjust to their way of doing things.”

Every place has its pros and cons. If we look, we can always find something of value wherever we go.

On our last night in Oshkosh, my colleagues and I worked through the evening, finishing up very late. We decided to try an Italian restaurant on the way back to the hotel, driving up just as the place was about to close at 10 p.m.

The wait staff took pity on us, and agreed to keep the kitchen open for four strangers who clearly were from out of town.

Dinner was delicious. If you’re ever in Oshkosh, go to Primo on Jackson Street. They’ve got the perfect combination of big city menu, served with small town heart.

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