I’m one of the many twenty-somethings that have ventured far afield from the nest. My condo is precisely 1,138 miles from my parents’ house and I’m acutely aware of the distance as the season changes and the holidays approach. It’s not as far as my friends who headed off to Los Angeles or the many Aussie ex-pats I’ve met here in Nash Vegas (I’ve met a lot of Australians since moving here), but it’s a different time zone, a different climate, and a pretty different culture than where I grew up.
In college, Boston seemed far enough. At the time, my family still lived in Connecticut, right on the New York border and – as a Yankees fan – I was suddenly living in the heart of enemy territory. The accent was dramatically different to my tender Tri-State ears and it was my first time living in a city. At eight-teen, it felt like a paradigm shift, like a different world.
Nashville, on the other hand, is in an entirely different region of the country. This is a dramatically different accent. At a party the other day, a guy was telling me how he’d ditched his West Tennessee accent for an East Tennessee accent when he moved in an effort to sound more local. I nodded knowingly, but I seriously can’t tell the difference. To me, you either sound less Southern or more Southern, but I couldn’t tell you where you were actually from. I imagine this is how the rest of the country feels about Boston, New York, and New Jersey accents. My mother can tell you what Borough someone is from with just one conversation. I’d joke about the painfully slow Maine drawls I would hear at my telemarketing job in Boston. Attractive Young Man is very particular about how far Up- or Downstate other New Yorkers sound. Here, no one cares. I’m that guy at the party. To everyone here, I just sound Northern.
Returning home last week, I was more aware than I have ever been of everyone’s speech. Growing up, I had always considered my town to have a neutral accent. Now, with the longview of distance and maturity, I can confidently say holy shit we have an accent. And it is not neutral. I can’t imagine how jarring it must seem to someone who’s unaccustomed to it. I can’t imagine how foreign actual New Yorker’s must sound to natives of literally anywhere else. Well, I can, because – after a year and a half in the South – it’s fairly jarring, even to me.
A large portion of the residents of my corner of Southwest Connecticut (which is basically just New-York-Lite) are NYC and Long Island ex-pats. We’re only an hour-and-a-half to two hours out of the city, which is considered close enough for a daily commute to many people who want the luxury of semi-rural, suburban living without giving up their urban job. Many never completely lose their accent nor stop identifying as New Yorkers. The accent, the dialect, and the culture are a stark contrast to Nashville’s subtle twang and southern demureness.
But I expect that contrast when I go home now, and I’m dissappointed when I don’t get it – the way someone visiting Hawaii from Minnesota would be disappointed if it snowed on Oahu. I want to hear the accent, I expect it to be bracingly cold in November, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get some good Jewish deli food. Last winter, the North East had a fairly warm holiday season and I was majorly pissed off. I think the bitterness radiating off me was so intense it caused the Snowpocalypse that hit New England later in the season. I created my own El Nino effect through the power of crushed dreams.
It’s a kind of hometown tourism. I want my town to be so extremely my town that it’s practically a caricature of itself when I visit, just as visitors to Nashville expect cowboy boots, honky-tonks, and a Country star on every corner. The streets should be dripping with New England charm. The trees should either be exploding with vibrant autumnal color or blanketed in snow – nothing in between. It should looked unchanged and yet more distinctly itself than it has ever looked. The same faces should be in the windows of the same houses, wearing an expression that says “Welcome to scenic Ridgefield!” Everything should be obtusely and picturesquely “Ridgefield.”
Since Ridgefield is fairly obtuse and very picturesque, this isn’t hard to accomplish. From time to time, I find it less than up to my ridiculous standards (usually due to weather or foliage), but mostly going back is a nice break from reality for me.
And that’s the root of it: my reality isn’t my home-town anymore. Is it still really my home even? I approach it the same way any tourist would. I want the highlight reel, the condensed soup version of it all, the manicured and curated edition. It’s still an essential part of who I am; attending my high school reunion made me realize that I saw the same kids in my classes from the first day of kindergarten until I graduated high school. The people and places and culture of the place shaped me. But it’s like visiting a memory or walking through my past. It’s vivid, but I can’t quite touch it and it grows a little more distant with every year that passes.
With that bitter-sweet thought, I pass the mic to my fellow young people. Do you feel this way if you’ve moved away from your hometown? Do you feel this way if you still live in your hometown? Do you get that same eerie feeling of standing in the past when you head home? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook.
Peace and love.