Friday, April 2, 2010
Villages: What's Gained or Lost?
This week I spent part of a day in a small village in the Carpathian mountains. Like most Ukrainian villages, it's a pretty tough life with a host of contradictions. No indoor plumbing, but satellite dishes on some of the houses; crumbling Soviet era brick communal farm buildings down the road; each house here accompanied by small traditional outbuildings constructed of traditional squared-off logs; not many jobs; and a shrinking, aging population.
I've been in villages here, in Hungary, in Peru, in India, in Ireland--and of course all over the US--and I live in a village of only 250 people at home (which seems unbelievable to many here). I realized yesterday that there's one big difference between villages in the United States and villages almost everywhere else. No, it's not that yesterday's Ukrainian village has cell phone reception and Treadwell, NY does not. It's that people are outside: waiting for the now rare bus or ride to hitch, walking to the little market, walking home from school, or up to church, cleaning up for Easter, getting the plots ready for planting, and if you're a teenager, spending your after-school time in that timeless way of standing in a group, giggling, and sort of kicking at the dirt. I don't want to romanticize this--it was not winter yesterday; alcohol is a major problem in many villages; and the lack of opportunity--and of basic services-- is common everywhere.
But, that out-of-doors connection with your neighbors is a rare thing at home. After-school sports, those big yellow school buses, the decline of small farms, big supermarkets instead of small markets (though I treasure Barlow's, Treadwell's general store); television and the internet, and most importantly, our own big cars have all meant that we're much more liable to retreat behind our own doors. I don't want to say that villagers (or others) in the US don't go outside--we do, but it's for pleasure. When I see walkers at home, they're walking for pleasure or exercise, not to somewhere.
So although I won't be moving to a Ukrainian village any time soon, it was a little reminder of a way of life that's virtually disappeared in the United States. And for museums--how could we interpret this particular kind of past without freezing it in amber? and how can we interpret that for increasing numbers of fully Facebooked and Tweeted audiences?