Being the "new people" in a small town is exciting and awkward. Nouveau-Iowan Julianne Couch struggles to answer the question, "What brings you to Bellevue?"
Not long ago my husband and I made final our two-year plan to relocate to a small town on the Mississippi River in northeastern Iowa. Our reasons for leaving jobs, friends, landscapes and lifestyles more than 20 years in the knowing are at once private and complicated, public and simple. But we did it – we said so long (not goodbye) to Laramie, Wyoming, and hello, Bellevue.
In this town of 2300, most folks are related to one another, grew up at school together, and now work together or frequent each other’s restaurants, hardware stores, and gas stations. When we moved here we knew only the realtor who sold us the house, the folks who rented our spare garage, and a few helpful neighbors.
Everyone here is quite friendly, don’t get me wrong, but they already have lives. When ours intersect with theirs, for example at the ends of tangled dog leashes along the river walk, they ask the natural thing: “What brings you to Bellevue, then?”
Depending on how well the dogs are getting along, I’m tempted to say things like, “deep existential angst” or “I needed to renew my creative soul.” But usually we skip that part and move on to “We were literally driving through the area and the dog had to pee so we stopped here,” or “we thought it was important to be closer to family,” or even “we saw the house and thought somebody needed to fix it up before it was too late.”
All of these answers are right, but none is really true. How much simpler it would be if we were here for a job. But my husband is a semi-retired self-employed artist and designer whose clients are still in Wyoming. I have backed away from fulltime teaching so now work as a freelance writer, meaning I interact mostly with virtual strangers.
Neither of us is a church-goer, so there goes another ordinary venue for finding a way to fit in. We did attend a social at someone else’s church about a month ago, however, driving 20 miles into the country to eat chicken and potato salad on a church lawn hollowed out of a cornfield. Everyone there seemed to take us for tourists rather than new residents — a fine distinction really, as together we swatted flies off apple pies and clapped along to the music of the Iowa Corn Fed Girls performing in their matching corn stalk tops.
So jobs, church, all the ordinary ways people become part of a new community are not particularly relevant for us. Instead, we’ve entered the community via the Home Improvement portal.
Half of Bellevue has been called upon to help restore our house already, and we’re far from finished. The folks we’re meeting in this way are a jolly sort. Our contractors are a trio of brothers who exponentially can call into service any number of sons or nephews when a task demands their expertise. Our plumbing and air conditioning folks are part of another family. Each morning I peer out my second story office window at the street below, hoping to spot one of their white pickup trucks pulling up to our curb. Not only do I value their work, I value their company. I try not to seem clingy – sometimes I feel them trying to ease away as I chatter, their wrenches waving vaguely like divining rods in the direction of bathroom faucets or basement utility sinks.
Almost everyone we have met so far is a painter, carpenter, electrician, or plumber. As we sit over a leisurely lunch on our shaded front porch, we watch them drive up and down our street in their work trucks headed for their own mid-day meals. They nod, we wave, and we marvel at the large percentage of people in town who seem to do things for a living.
Short of stalking all of these fine skilled people and following them home at night to enjoy their company, we’ve started to seek out other ways to meet folks whose interests we share. We bought a small fishing boat from the man across the street. He’s showed us where to spot wildlife along the river and what wing dams are and how to avoid them. He’s active in the community in a Rotary club/economic development way. He’s promised to invite us to a Rotary meeting and heck, we might just join the club if invited – the sort of thing we’ve never been part of before.
Meantime I’m finding other ways to meet people: one Tuesday a month will find me at a Zumba class at the American Legion. And of course we’ve done a sampling of the several local bars, narrowing down our choices to the one we’ll declare our “local.” In a few weeks we’re headed to a hamburger dinner hosted by our local bank. Yes, we’ve already received our free tickets.
This weekend we attended a community event in Bellevue called the Fish-tival. This festival combines boat tours on the Mississippi River, led by DNR fish biologists, and an art show. To seal the idea of the Fish-tival in people’s minds, the Bellevue Arts Council asked local artists to paint or otherwise decorate a metal fish. These were placed on display at a local gallery and were available for bidding via silent auction. The proceeds were to benefit an art education program for area children.
Being a bit cash-strapped these days, we planned to confine our financial contribution to voting on favorite fish with a few dollar bills. I didn’t intend to purchase a piece of fish art through the silent auction with the required $125 opening bid. I just thought I’d write my name at the top of one of the bid sheets to break the ice. I selected the fish to bid on pretty casually, without giving it more than a glance. I was chatting with the artist and thought she was very nice. I suppose connecting with someone not on my payroll made me giddy. But it turns out the fish she painted is perfect for me. In bold colors across the body of the fish she’d written the words “Mississippi River.” (At the last second, I was outbid.)
Even so, when the next person asks what brings us to Bellevue, then, I can summon up an image of that decorated piece of metal. I can let art do what it does so well: communicate the complicated.
“Mississippi River,” I’ll say simply. “Fish.”
Julianne Couch is settling into her new home, Bellevue, Iowa. She’s a journalist and author of Jukeboxes and Jackalopes, a Wyoming Bar Journey.