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An Island Is Like a Fishbowl

When our friends Alex and Hulda visited us last fall, we went a little nuts with crabs at the fish house. We bought 24 crabs, which is a lot for 4 adults and 4 little kids. A couple of hours later, we went to the store to buy other ingredients for our crab feast. Someone said, “I heard you bought 24 crabs.” For me, who had spent most of my life in big cities, that was a bit of a cultural shock.

Coming to a small island, we of course expected that everyone would know each other’s business. But the speed at which news travels is astounding. As we started to settle in last year and get to know people, we realized that the new people we met already knew a lot about us. Not long after I arrived, a complete stranger gave me a ride in his car. I tried to explain where our house was, and he said, “I know where you live.” He never asked what was my name. Like a fishbowl, everyone pretty much knows what everyone is doing.

Also like a fishbowl, it’s hard to escape. You don’t like someone? Too bad, you’ll have to deal with that person one way or another. You don’t like the guy working on the store? Too bad, because it’s the only one on the island. (Everyone happens to like the store and the people who work there, to be clear.) Want to blow off some steam? You need to wait for the next ferry. In a bigger place, you can hop from one job to another, one school to another, one neighborhood to another. Here, your ability to “leave”, both physically and mentally, is drastically diminished.

Lack of privacy. Lack of choice. How un-American! Well, I think privacy is highly overrated, and so is choice. These things bred bad behavior. With rare exceptions, everyone here in Rødøy acts very civilly to one another, because you don’t have the luxury to throw nasty fits and leave. You have to try your best to get along. You learn to accept people. You have no choice but to trust everyone.

If you’re a nice person who gets along with people, island life is wonderful. Friends drop by unannounced. People drop off fish at your door. Help is a phone call away. But if you’re someone who have left a trail of destruction through your life, an island is not a pleasant place to be.

Many years ago we visited Catalina, an island in southern California. A local there told us about how the island “expels” bad residents. Your mail suddenly stops coming. Your garbage stops getting picked up. Your neighbor stops greeting you in the morning. On Rødøy, we haven’t heard of people deliberately getting together to kick someone off the island. But if you can’t get along with people, life can be very uncomfortable. Like a fishbowl, you eat your only shit.

  1. Kirrily #

    What is the population of the island? We live near a small town (official pop 300, but with 15,000 living in surrounding hills) and although it sounds much bigger than where you are, we had to make the same adjustment. Learn not to say that the builder wasn’t very good to someone you met at a party as it might turn out to be their brother-in-law, etc.

    Some things are both good and bad – jemima’s class size is seven which is not ideal, but I love that the whole school is 87 kids (grades kindy to year six). It will be interesting to see how the kids feel as they get older. We both hope that they will want to explore and try big city living but will have fond memories of growing up here.

    After eight years, I have certainly seen the negatives of such a small community (whatever the intentions people don’t always get along and bad behaviour can cause fractures that have huge repurcussions in small social circles) but I also love the connectedness. I love being greeted by name in shops. I love stopping to chat numerous times in a short row of shops. But I also am glad we live near a bigger town (35,000 perhaps) that offers a bit more anonymity.

    March 5, 2012
    • This island is much smaller. I don’t know the exact number of residents. My guess is it’s just under 200. The school has 28 kids from grade 1 to 10 and 5 teachers.

      You’re right. Smallness does have some downsides. Conflicts, when they do arise, are very disruptive, because you can’t get away from them.

      March 7, 2012
  2. Rosa #

    I’m from a village where people still call each other by their great grandfather’s/mother’s nickname -not only they have to like you, they have to like your whole lineage-, I totally understand….

    March 5, 2012
    • That’s the downside of a small place. A reputation — in your case a generational one — is hard to shake once it’s established.

      March 7, 2012
  3. Angela #

    Well, this is a bit naive…. “Bad behavior” in a small place can be anything that the majority of the community will consider so, and it may have absolutely nothing to do with how good of a person or how civil you are. Try supporting the wrong political party in a small village in the Basque Country…

    March 7, 2012
    • Of course the size of the community is not the only determining factor in civil/uncivil behavior. I never said such a thing. But my point – anonymity of a big city breeds bad behavior – is unquestionably true. I miss many things in Boston, but not its general rudeness. The one-finger salute from other drivers, for example. That just doesn’t happen here. Is it Norway, or is it the smallness of the island? Maybe it’s both. But even in Boston you don’t see the one-finger salute in a work parking lot as opposite to a supermarket parking lot, because you can’t hide behind the mask of anonymity in a work parking lot.

      March 7, 2012

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