“People in small towns, much more than in cities, share a destiny,” said the Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo. I would add a joint destiny.
There are clearly advantages of living and working in a small town. And one of those was highlighted (twice) to me last week. Whilst some people enjoying the anonymity of living in a larger metropole, and indeed I myself experienced that in one of the most sprawling cities in the world after living in London, others prefer the social interaction that smaller towns bring.
“It seems that everyone knows you,” said my mother as we walked through the old city together. Every corner was met with a new “adio” and every café bar a waiter who shook my hand. That’s the small town vibe. It is pretty impossible to live “off the grid” in Dubrovnik. Even if you don’t want to mix and be a part of the community, I guarantee you that the community will know about you.
This has never bothered me. On the contrary, I have embraced it. In fact, this community spirit has been eroded in many other countries and in many other larger spirits.
So last week I have an early morning meeting in the old city. I took up my position in Gradska and watched the city wake up. “Hello teacher, do you remember me?” said a voice. In front me was a tall, bearded man wearing a very broad smile. I looked blankly at him trying to search through my brain cells for recognition. He introduced himself. “A long time ago you taught me English,” he added.
Yes, my first steps in employment in Dubrovnik were teaching English. And during that time I had seen and taught hundreds and hundreds of adults and children. It is not unusual that I bump into a former student and that we exchange a few words. But, I hadn’t really taught for a good 15 years.
“I am sure you were shorter then,” I smiled. “I was, and I was only ten years-old,” he added. He certainly wasn’t ten years-old anymore.
“I finished university in Boston and then started working in London where I now live,” he explained his life story. We tried to work out when I actually taught him and it seemed to be around 20 years ago. I literally hadn’t seen this boy, sorry man, for 20 years. And yet here he was in front of me chatting away.
“I still remember those games in English that we all used to play,” he smiled.
Now, clearly I am not going to take any credit for the fact that me completed his education in the US or the fact that he was now living and working in my former town. But just to know that I maybe had a small influence on this was very satisfying.
He laughed and chatted and then his friend arrived and we waved goodbye. I spent the rest of the day thinking about that chance encounter. And how, if we both lived in a bigger city, it would never have happened.
Just the day after I was due to interview a director of a hotel. The name of the director didn’t ring any bells, but then I really have a terrible memory for names. I walked into the reception and was greeted by what seemed a familiar face. “Do you remember me?” said the director. “You used to teach my English when I was a child,” he smiled. Déjà vu!
“Ah, yes I though your face looked familiar,” I replied. Again it turned out that 20 years ago he sued to be my pupil. And again he clearly remembered the games and the lessons. So in just two days I had met one former pupil who was now a hotel director and one who was living in London and was working in microbiology. Now, you could say it is a small town. But it would probably be more accurate to say small city.
This joint history that follows us through our lives here is unavoidable. And to be honest I love it. On the other hand, these two experiences made me feel slightly old. Both of these former pupils were now adults and in responsible positions, I had first met them when they were still in primary school.
With today’s more nomadic lifestyle, especially in other countries, this joint destiny is impossible. And that’s a shame. I was really touched by both my encounters.
Who knows what tomorrow brings and which old students are waiting.
Read more Englishman in Dubrovnik…well, if you really want to