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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Home is...Somewhere

Last week I was in Eastern Connecticut visiting family and friends. I was born in New Hampshire and have visited my grandparents in Stonington, CT every year since I was born. Despite the fact my family moved to Kansas City when I was 5 years old, New England still feels like home to me.

I know U.S. Routes 1 and 1A like the back of my hand. I know that clam chowder should NEVER involve tomatoes, that you should always buy your gas in Rhode Island, that going to the package store means you're buying booze, and that sprinkles should rightfully be called jimmies. I know that "ayuh" means "yes," "Downeast" means coastal Maine, Spring equals snow, and asking for directions frequently results in being told "well, you can't get there from here." I may not have the right accent to talk the talk, but I can still walk the walk.

However, this past trip was different. For the first time, New England didn't feel fully like "home."

A week before my trip my friends were wanting to nail down details for my visit, despite the fact it was a holiday weekend and no one had any plans except roasting on the beach. I couldn't wrap my head around why a detailed itinerary was necessary for a casual weekend...this just isn't something that's done in the Southeast. A casual get together with friends is almost always spur of the moment. One time a friend showed up unexpectedly at our house with a bottle of bourbon and an hour later we had 12 people over for a barbecue. Asking someone over for dinner a week in advance elicits suspicious looks and non-committal replies of "might could." All this planning was stressing me out.

Fast forward to my arrival...

The scenery and smells said "New England"...
My second night in Connecticut my grandmother took me out to dinner at a new restaurant in a boatyard in Mystic. Before you even ask: yes, Mystic as in "Mystic Pizza."

The restaurant's patrons were dressed in the typical New England uniform: button down shirts with red shorts or dresses with nautical prints. The air smelled like seaweed and, despite being the end of June, there was a chill in the air as the sun set over the masts of the docked sailboats. It was New England perfection.

Then our waitress brought us mason jars. The cocktail menu featured mint juleps and moonshine Moscow mules. A bit crankily, I ordered a Nor'easter. If I wanted Southern drinks I would have stayed in the South, thank you very much.
...the presentation and menus said "Southeast."
Then we got the dinner menu. It had shrimp and grits and jambalaya alongside more standard fare like lobster rolls and steamers. I looked around suspiciously to make sure we hadn't been transported to Charleston, NC via some space-time rift.

Lest you think I am overreacting, I am well aware that the South no longer has a corner on the moonshine-mason jar-grits market. Those staples have long since become trendy, and therefore fair game for everyone. However, in 30 years of spending time in New England I had never seen these Southern influences so blatantly displayed.

And here's the kicker:

My northern family and friends are bemused by the idea of going south of the Mason Dixon line (except Florida...half of Florida's population is actually from New England which makes it acceptable). Some are even alarmed at the prospect. They see the South as racist, uneducated, and backwards and Appalachia as the land of inbreeding. I exaggerate a bit, though not much. Many jokes were made by friends and family about having to come to Knoxville for my wedding. "Will you be serving squirrel?" "If I hear banjos I'm out of there." "Should I pack lace gloves and a fan?"

And after all the grief I'd been given for moving below the Mason Dixon line and loving it, here everyone was enjoying grits and moonshine like it was no big deal. I guess can't blame New Englanders for knowing a good thing when they taste it, but it was WEIRD. And I LIKED it. At that moment, I felt both more at home and more confused about where home is than ever before.

I missed these faces
while I was away.
I am happy to be back in Knoxville with David and my fur-children and my little house and my non-planning friends, but I do feel like something is missing. I am itching to finish my PhD and go in search of that missing piece. This trip made me realize that I want my lobster and my moonshine, too...and that it's possible to have both. If I can just find some of that New England seaside charm in the Southeast, I know I'll have found heaven on earth.

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