When, in 2002, Mr Pict and I relocated from the commuter belt of London to Lochgilphead, with its population of just over 2000, one of the things I had to adjust to was everyone knowing everyone else, virtual strangers knowing things about us we had not told them, and the constant thrum of the village grapevine. The town we had moved from was essentially a dormitory for people who worked elsewhere. Weekdays it was all but a ghost town. It was functional but anonymous and was completely lacking in anything approaching community. Having had that anonymity, therefore, it was peculiar to pitch up in a place where people would encounter me in the street and announce, “Oh you must be Laura!” and then go on to tell me what things they knew about Mr Pict and me already. Actually it was a bit perturbing.
Then, shortly after our move, I had my oldest son and I welcomed the random encounters when I took him out for a daily walk in his pram, the casual encounters that staved off isolation. There were lots of people who, like me, had a bit of a daily routine so I soon found that I was passing the same dog walkers, the same old buddies taking a stroll down to the Co-Op, the same cyclists powering along the canal each day. We became nodding acquaintances. Sometimes we would stop for a chat. It was nice. It was friendly.
Over time, pretty much nobody in our town was a stranger. They were people who I recognised in passing, acquaintances, casual friends and good friends. The other thing that gradually happened is that I moved from literally knowing not a soul but my husband when we first moved there to being able to forge connections to pretty much anyone whose name was mentioned in conversation. A name could be mentioned that I wouldn’t recognise and I would declare I did not know that individual. I would then be informed that I did surely know them, they were X’s wife, the brother of Y, the parent of A, B and C, they worked at this place or that place…. and the penny always dropped and I always did know who they were talking about. Six degrees of separation in action. Sometimes the gossip could get a bit much, a bit claustrophobic and annoying, but the grapevine was usually harmless. As I became used to forming a web of connections between everyone in the area, I found I rather liked the way it underpinned the sense of community. It was one of the things that gave me most pause when our thoughts turned to leaving and moving to pastures new.
I will declare it: I miss the sense of community we had in Mid Argyll.
This morning, I popped into a local, independent supermarket where the staff are always chatty. It is one of the things I enjoy about shopping there. At the checkout, I happened to mention that I was enjoying shopping without kids now that they have returned to school. The lady operating the till asked which school my kids attended and it turned out her grandchildren went to the same Elementary. Furthermore, three of them were in the same grades as my three younger kids. As soon as she named them, I realised I knew her grandchildren and their mother. Not only had they been in the same classes as my kids but the youngest had attended preschool with my youngest. I had also hung out with one of the adult grandchildren when accompanying second grade on a field trip as she was there with her little brother.
As I walked back to my car and packed the bags into the boot, I realised I was grinning. Why was I grinning, I wondered. I was grinning because, for the first time since I moved to America almost two years ago, I had been able to make a connection between a random person I had encountered and interacted with and some other people I vaguely knew. It is nowhere near community building but it’s a start. I am maybe beginning to map out a web that ties the people together in our area. Maybe I know more people here than I think I do. Maybe some day we Picts will be part of that web.
It also reminded me just how much I miss being part of a community.