Friday, August 13, 2010

The Adventures Continue - Now in Southern Flavor!

About two weeks ago we ended our field season and moved to the south. Now there's an adventure for you. I've never in my life lived below the Mason-Dixon line, and now my accent clearly defines me, identifies me, in a way that it never has before. It's strange.

The people here in Greenville, North Carolina are very nice. They smile and say hello as if they mean it - no, as if they know you, recognize you specifically. Their eyes will light up. "Good morning, ladies." A woman greeted my mother-in-law and I as we sat waiting for coffee. And she meant it. And so it became true. When I was caught in the door of the library by a sudden downpour, a teenage girl offered to walk me to the car underneath her umbrella. I'm accustomed to Minnesota Nice, where people smile and hold doors and are earnestly indeed very nice to you, but this is an entirely new brand of niceness. I can't deny I like it.

Greenville is Pirate country - symbolically and literally. We're on the Tar river (what's the pirate's favorite river? The Taaarrrrrrr. I made that one up), which empties into the Pamlico estuary just twenty minutes up the road. The Pamlico estuary ends up in the Pamlico Sound, which is the Atlantic ocean. Across from the Sound are the Outer Banks, delicate etchings of island that stretch protectively along the coast. The Sound is shallow enough to walk across in some areas. Technically, we're in the Inner Banks region of North Carolina, although we're a bit inland for that.

Pirates prowled these waters, including the big guy himself, Blackbeard. He was killed on Ocracoke, on the Outer Bank nearest to us as the seagull flies. It occurs to me that I've lived at the beginning and the end of Blackbeard's - Edward Teach's - life. He was probably born in Bristol, England, where I lived for a year, and he died here.

We've been brought here by East Carolina University's Maritime Studies program, where Leland will be working towards his Masters. ECU is currently excavating a sunken wreck tentatively identified as Blackbeard's ship, Queen Anne's Revenge. The school mascot is the pirate, and Greenville has names everywhere that sound like a theme park - Pirate's Point, Buccaneer Bay Apartments, Jolly Roger Convenience Store. The garish school colors, purple and gold, are everywhere.

I've never lived so close to the ocean. The Outer Banks are more than a day trip, sadly - they're geographically near but a long way to drive, as the roads skirt the long fingers of North Carolina that jut out into the Sound. But at Goose Creek State Park there's a free swimming beach. It's on the Pamlico, far enough inland that the estuarine mixing of the salt water with the fresh is quite dilute, but if you put the water in your mouth it tastes salty. And it smells like the ocean, but faded. The beach is sandy and the water brown but free of the slimy guck that makes swimming in rivers generally so unpleasant. The water is warm, and shallow, and calm, and the trees on shore drip with lacy Spanish Moss.

Our neighborhood is quiet and well-located, filled with retirees. We went to a neighborhood association meeting yesterday evening - we saw the signs and thought we should attend. After reading the minutes from the last meeting, the chairman began to move on to old business. "Wait," his wife stopped him. "Don't we need to vote to approve the minutes?"

"Don't see why." He drawled. "Everyone here heard 'em. That's what happened."

The resolution to approve the minutes passed with a chorus of murmurs.

The accent here is by no means impenetrable, but at times the words get so chewed on, so slurred over - like the speaker has a mouth full of caramel - we have to ask two or three times for something to be repeated before we understand it. I went to the Pitt County Farmer's Market with Leland's mother last Wednesday, and we came across a cake-like concoction in a plastic take-out container.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Pih pih pi." The kid working the booth informed me.


"Pih pih'ih pi."

"Oh." I said, to be polite. Then Leland's mom Phyllis bent over. "What is this?" she asked him.

It took three or four more repetitions before we puzzled it out - pig pickin' pie. At least, that was our best guess. The kid made no attempts to slow his speech, to sound it out more closely for us ignorant Yankees, just patiently repeated the phrase identically each time.

"There's no pig in it." He said. "It's pineapple and whipped cream and stuff." Then he added, more mysteriously, "Usually the guy who makes 'em makes chocolate, but he decided to make this one today."

"And you didn't buy any?" Leland asked us, incredulously, when we told him the story later.

A week later we learned from a mattress salesman that pig pickin' is what I'd call a pig roast. Roast a pig for hours in a split drum or fire pit, then sit around pickin' off the tasty meat. Pig Pickin' Pie is a traditional dessert at these affairs. I'll have to figure out a way to get invited to one.

Leland and I just got back from our second visit to the farmer's market. We picked up fresh local peaches, shrimp caught this morning in Pamlico Sound, and some other odds and ends we'd never heard of before. "Po beans." The farmer told us. "You know, they grow up a po'."

"Pole beans." I said.

"Yes ma'am."

I've never been ma'am'ed so much in my life, by girls younger than me and by men of every age. And I find myself doing it too, throwing out ma'am's and sirs whenever speaking to a stranger and especially after replying to a question, in either the affirmative or negative.

We also purchased field peas, a kind of bean, and raw peanuts. Feeling dumb, we caught the attention of the farmer and asked her what you did with raw peanuts. The woman laughed, while her daughter and a customer looked at us incredulously. It was the sort of response you might imagine if you held up a tomato and said, "now what do you use this for?", but it was gentle.

"Boil 'em." The daughter said, a girl of about 11. "Then put salt on 'em."

"Is that it?" My husband asked.

The farmer recovered from her laughter and appraised us with the kind of benign expression reserved for the unbelievably uninformed. "That's it." She said.

I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You know Daddy often uses ma'am and sir when speaking to others. I don't remember him doing that so much when we were living in Pennsylvania as he does now. Maybe those trips to South Carolina and Alabama are having an effect. It always seem so genteel and respectful. I should require my students to start using it. Uncle Tom can do a very good Georgia accent.

    Edit: I hate it when the only way to fix a typo is to delete the comment.