I’ve never claimed an allegiance to any particular part of the country. I don’t sound like a local, well, anywhere, so the question of where I’m from is inevitable. If I’m feeling spunky I might toss out someplace obscure like Omaha, but mostly I respond with a shrug and the short but sweet “I’m a Navy brat, so pretty much everywhere.”
Can one be from everywhere? Or does that really mean I’m not from anywhere at all? Sounds like an existential question to me.
At any rate, I spent the majority of my formative years in three locations: northern Virginia, New Jersey, and Virginia Beach. While these areas weren’t exactly identical they did have a lot in common, giving me thirteen years of continuity (if you can call three moves in K-11 feeling stable). Moving from the familiar comfort of these relatively similar areas to a tiny New England town for my senior year was akin to being dropped into a dunking booth filled with ice water.
It was the summer before my senior year when we packed our things in Virginia Beach (population 448,479) and drove up the coast to New England, land of the pilgrims and horrifyingly cold winters. We moved into our house in Cohasset, a remarkably small town (population 7,542) that was settled in 1647 and incorporated in 1775.
I’ll just repeat that one. 1775. Lawd.
Cohasset is everything you’d imagine when I say “small New England town.” Quaint. Quiet. Boasting a pretty town square with a white steeple church and even (hand to God) a duck pond. Most of Cohasset’s residents were what I’d call well entrenched – their ancestors’ ancestors’ ancestors had walked the very same streets and stood on the same rocky shoreline, holding town meetings about horse trading and land rights. (Okay, I made that part up, but it was probably stuff like that.)
In 1988 I experienced the extremely surreal adventure of simultaneously stepping back in time while being surrounded by wealthy people driving lavish cars. Moving from a city of more than 440,000 people (that hosted a huge influx of summertime tourists) to a town with a total population smaller than two Virginia Beach high schools…well, you might say it was a bit disorienting. For starters.
Then there was the atmosphere overall. It’s a little hard to describe, but I imagine the feeling is similar to a hard core Southerner moving to New York City. It’s not that I was an unusually friendly person; I never was the type to hop the train and have a new best friend by the end of the ride. But the New Englander attitude that permeated everything was a “you mind your business and I’ll mind mine” kind of thing. The sort of attitude that got me strange looks when I met a stranger’s sneeze with bless you.
Even if I could have barreled my way through all of that culture shock, there was still the accent to contend with. I lived there an entire year and I swear, by the end I was no closer to understanding someone with a Boston accent than when I’d unpacked my room. Quite frankly it’s a miracle I managed to pass chemistry my senior year. That man was born and bred Boston, and I didn’t understand a single word he said all year. My only saving grace was copying notes off the kid next to me. As a matter of fact, I’m fairly convinced it would have been within my rights to demand a translator.
365 days in an alternate universe, not unlike a foreign exchange student in a very cold, very snowy land. One trip around the sun in a world so alien to me, so different from everything that had come before, there should have been passports involved.