Ani Vrabel is an Associate Blog Editor at The Huffington Post. Although she has lived in -- and even loved -- plenty of cities, including Honolulu, Atlanta, Paris, Chicago and New York, she'll always have a soft spot for small towns.
Sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like to drive into town for the first time -- to park alongside the General Store, walk past the two gas pumps out front, slip inside, pour myself a $1.50 cup of coffee and feel my eyebrows rise as the cashier accepts an IOU from the guy in front of me because he's left his wallet back at that boatyard.
But I can't quite picture that. I can't imagine there ever being a point in my life when I didn't know the slap of the store's screen door or the best place to catch the caramels tossed from antique cars during the Fourth of July parade or which tide pools at the end of Naskeag Point are filled with marine life.
I have to confess: I've never actually lived a full year in Maine. But seven generations of my family are buried in local cemeteries. When my mother read me E.B. White's Charlotte's Web as a child, she would tell me which characters were based on our family members or other people I knew from town -- except for Templeton the rat. "We all suspect who he's supposed to be," she said, "but I won't tell you. That's mean."
After five summers working in the General Store, I could rattle off the preferred newspaper, sandwich order, pizza toppings and cigarette brand of most people in town, as well as tell you if they drank their coffee from Styrofoam or paper cups, and with how many sugars. I learned to drive in the school parking lot and turned 21 at a party thrown for me on an icy January night.
I've used the word "home" to describe a lot of suburban houses and small apartments in my life -- my parents and I moved six times before my 11th birthday, and I've racked up at least 13 different addresses since leaving for college -- but the only time I've said it with any kind of conviction has been when I'm talking about Brooklin.
With the exception of a couple of new crosswalks and improved cell phone service, not a whole lot has changed in the town in the 25 or so years I've been going there. The less than 900 residents still have to drive 30 minutes for the opportunity to stop at a real stoplight (although as of a few years ago, there's a blinking yellow and red one town over). I know plenty of people who will honestly tell you they couldn't locate the key to their front door if they tried. If you're visiting town, you'll have a hard time getting anything resembling helpful directions. It won't be because whomever you've asked doesn't know how to get to where you're trying to go, but because you don't know who lived in every house in town 50 years ago, and lines like, "Turn right after so-and-so's old place" won't mean anything to you. Yes, it was mandated a while back that every house have an official address for emergency purposes, but no one paid much attention to the new street signs and house numbers. There just didn't seem to be much of a point when everyone, including all the members of the volunteer fire department, already knew where everyone else lived.
And people do visit Brooklin, for many reasons. Some come to take classes in boat-building or sailing; others just seem to be led to one of the town's inns after a Google search for "peace and quiet." Then they go into the store and rave about how relaxed they are, how perfect last night's sunset was, how quaint and quiet everything is and how they never knew seafood could be so fresh or delicious.
These are lucky people. They have the chance to see the Maine coast at its best: Brooklin's scenery merits every laudatory descriptor attached to it, from "breathtaking" to "postcard perfect." These visitors could only be luckier if they could get to know the people who live there and call the town their home. The people who respond to sickness and tragedy by hosting benefit dinners to raise money for the families that need it. The people who built a playground in the memory of a beloved teacher who passed too young from breast cancer.
When I was last in Maine, a lot of locals seemed surprised to hear that I was happy living in New York City. That's fair. Most people in town have only seen me in the small-town setting and to them I will probably always be 16 years old, emerging from the General Store's kitchen covered in pizza flour with a streak of tomato sauce across my face.
They can't imagine me any other way.
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