I am in Nancy France visiting relatives and will return to London for two days and then I will be off to New York, LA and possibly Mexico City for two weeks. I tell you this because being in Nancy in contrast to these other places has made me think a lot about the word “provincial” and what that might mean and reflect. On first glance provincial has a seemingly negative connotation. By definition it means a person who lives or is from a place that is far away from a large city. It is usually used to describe people that lack something; education, class, worldliness etc. This is all true to some extent but I have been thinking about both the upsides and the downsides of what is provincial and who that person might be.
So I fib a little. I am not in the center of Nancy proper but a bit outside of it in the heart of Lorraine and its many horses. My relatives say they are from Nancy though as it is the closest city to them. Nancy is not itself small but it has that small city feel which can be both charming and defensive. I know this feeling well as I grew up in a suburb in New Jersey and the contrast of how Philadelphia feels in comparison to New York is palpable. I think growing up in New Jersey leaves one more attuned to what being provincial means. Yes, of course in the grand scheme of things New Jersey is not an isolated country backwater but the distance between it and a place like New York or even Philadelphia can feel light years away. New Jersey lacks its own proper metropolis so one can’t even be vague and pretend to be from this place or that by proximity. Meaning, so many people I know who grew up an hour plus away from a larger city hub for the sake of ease or alliance will say they are from this or that place when in reality they grew up in a field or suburban sprawl more then a commute away. Anyways enough of Jersey. What I’m trying to touch upon is that proximity doesn’t necessarily reduce what or who is provincial. It is rather a mindset that is produced by geography but is nurtured by other factors.
One of these factors is of course family. Family, family, family is the tie that binds. It can be the center of nurture but it can also be the black hole of self-actualization. Either way you swing it, it defines and I think that one’s past, youth, growing up, is the thing that makes or breaks you. What I have experienced in provincial sort of settings goes both ways. One is the renunciation of small town life, which in a few years or few decades time later may possibly be reflected with nostalgia. The other is submersion and replication of provincial living. I have reflected on this before, the issues around travel and why and who does this, and this is true of living in one place or another. Most humans stayed in one place and this tendency continues still. Moving down the street or to a town or two over seems to be the trend for most that stick around where they grew up. This can be very sweet in a way though. This is how community, history, and the reassurance of longevity can sculpt a town and neighborhoods. Within this there can be a special type of openness but also a specific type of isolation and privacy.
The sense of nosey privacy is something that the provincial has total knack and training in. It is like miniature politics and the focus and energy spent on it is astounding for those not involved. This ability is of course inherent in everyone regardless of city living or not but in the small town there is a certain focus and drama that is fascinating to witness and must be captivating to be a part of. To talk of one’s neighbor is almost always to refer to oneself. To measure oneself in contrast and comparison seems addictive but the openness in which provincial people do it is actually refreshing. The desire for illusion and discretion seems to run so deep that there is complete transparency to it.
The measuring of oneself against another seems to be the modus opperandi in provincial places. The appendices of wealth get deferred into buyable and showable objects such as cars, houses, and furniture. But it is not just these basic things. The way to flex wealth the most is through little things like the certain type of light, coffee maker, sink fixtures. Most people have the same exact things, or near to it, so the difference is measured in the little things. The extension, the new gadget, the extra trip out of the blue. This is most drearily and also stunningly done through children, if one has them. The desire for near replication of progress yet the animal desire for prominence through one’s offspring is probably the most rudimentary impulse and seeing it reveals so much about human nature.
Quickly back to material objects as I think it is very related to aesthetics. What one surrounds themselves with is a reflection of oneself. It is about style, taste, station in life, interest and abilities in financial and other ways. For one who is provincial this is the maximum way in which to present and to orientate who they are and where they stand in proximity to others. Most décor for these homes fulfill a certain type. They recall an era, theme, decade, and reference that to them is an epitome in one form or another. City dwellers of course do this as well but the provincial has more time, space and energy to spend on this then most. They are fixed and many of what they possess is inherited. If it is new there is a whole other context of possibility in replicating nostalgia or an ideal. There is possibly something amazingly sincere about this gesture though. To be surrounded by irony free tackiness or misinterpretation can be refreshing and charming. I know this tone seems to be patronizing but I swear it isn’t. I have grown up and been surrounded by this type of replication and there is something so unaware about it that in looking at it and being around it in 2015, after all these years of blah-de-blah art-insiderness, I can honestly say there is something sweet to it albeit it can also make one cringe.
Being provincial, being from a provincial place, and loving and knowing those that are provincial doesn’t change much but it is defining. It is a separation of certain things. Things that are big like art, culture, open-mindedness, pursuit and curiosity but when it comes down to it it’s not that big of a difference. There are those that live in little places that have the most complex minds and hearts and as cultural hub livers know there are those who inhabit what is considered cosmopolitan with the most basic of personalities and interests. Although the provincial has its obvious positives I must lastly say that it is something to recognize in yourself and others. Provinciality can be fine if you are open and invested in one thing or another but it can be awful as well. The saddest thing to me is seeing the maintained façade of dysfunction or the aimlessness of energy and potential. Being in Nancy (or nearby) has been a breath of fresh air as my relatives are generous, are aware of the world and have hearts more open and pure then most I have encountered. It also makes it very clear to me that I have always been and will always be a city mouse.