I (Don’t) Want More Than This Provincial Life

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FADE IN on a rustic village in the French countryside. In the background, the sun is just clearing the distant hills. Somewhere a rooster crows. Otherwise, nothing is stirring. Yet. The cobblestone streets are clear for now. But the village isn’t sleeping, just standing by. Not empty, just offstage awaiting its cue. 

At the house at the end of the lane, a front door opens. Out steps Belle, our hero, carrying a book. She descends the stairs toward the street…and she begins to sing:

Little town

It’s a quiet village

Every day like the one before

Little town full of little people

Waking up to say—

The village clock is chiming now. Just as the clock strikes eight, the town comes to life. Villagers throw open their windows, shopkeepers their doors. “Bonjour,” they say. “Bonjour.”

Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour.

“This Provincial Life”

This is, of course, the opening song from Beauty and the Beast—specifically, the 2017 live-action version. The 1991 original is still my favorite Disney animated film. Thirteen years old when it was released, I was outside the target demographic. But, I related to Belle. I was a book person, a daydreamer, and a romantic. I was a newcomer to Gypsum, Kansas (pop. 365). And though I loved my quiet village, I sometimes struggled to fit in.

Yet the opening song didn’t quite land for me. Belle sings, “I want much more than this provincial life.” I never did. Like Belle, I wanted adventure, but it never occurred to me I needed to leave town for “the great wide somewhere” to find it. I dreamed in fairy tales, but they weren’t set in distant forests and foreign castles; I just assumed that Gypsum Creek, and the fields of winter wheat, and the abandoned high school, were crowded with their share of fairies and gnomes and ghosts. 

Later, I would hear in this song a creeping anti-rural bias. To be “provincial” literally means to be outside the capital. In Latin, a provincia was a territory under Roman domination; it was a place that had been conquered. Today we use the word provincial as a synonym for narrow-minded, unsophisticated, countrified. I never minded being countrified, any more than I minded my steak chicken fried. The description I really hated was “flyover country.” Though I’d been born in Oregon, and my extended family was all still there, and even though I proudly call myself an Oregonian again today, as a kid growing up in the Midwest I resented the implication that the people and places I loved (and found endlessly fascinating) were an afterthought on the way to someplace more interesting. 

The anti-rural bias is less subtle in the live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. At the end of the film, we learn that the same curse that turned the prince into a beast caused many of the castles’ other inhabitants to forget about their old life. They apparently moved to the village in a kind of amnesic haze. True love rescues the prince from spending eternity as a monster; it also rescues the courtiers from spending the rest of their days as yokels. 

“Little Town Full of Little People”

CUT TO…present day. I live with my wife and daughters in Silverton, Oregon (pop. 10,484). Pre-pandemic, Silverton was becoming a bedroom community for Portland and Salem. In an age of remote work, maybe that’s less of a factor. Now we’re just a place people want to live. We have a lot going for us: a downtown with potential; walkable neighborhoods; lots of nonprofits, clubs, churches, fairs, and festivals; and proximity to good farmland, the wilderness, and the city.

During the height of the pandemic, Oregon shut down tighter and longer than most other states. With the exception of a few weeks last summer, our indoor mask mandate was in place for two years. By the end I was speculating about the psychological and social effects of not seeing strangers’ faces for so long. (I’m not saying the mask mandate was a right call or wrong one. That’s not this article. Even right calls have trade-offs.) 

Yet since the mandate lifted last month, what’s struck me most has not been seeing the faces of strangers. It is seeing again—and being seen by—the friends and acquaintances who, through it all, are still quietly and reliably making our town work.

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