There was a time, not so long ago, that I would’ve sworn to you I’d never leave the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But Hurricane Katrina ran us off to Atlanta, and since then my wandering feet have carried me to Europe. Of the last two years, I’ve been there fifteen months.
Of late I seem destined to spend my something-oh birthdays away from home. I turned 40 in Seattle, commuting to the farthest corner of the lower 48 in the months following Katrina. And only a few months ago I turned 50 in a country village in England. Both were pretty darn good substitutes for home, but not quite.
Dad had a bad case of wanderlust, too. He left us for a heavenly destination back in 2011. He must like it, because he hasn’t come back complaining about the traffic or the rates at the Hampton Inn. I miss his unconventional wisdom about now. On getting old he’d impart some profound wisdom like, “never forget how to drive a stick” or “remember that when the seagulls huddle up close together on the beach, a hurricane’s coming”. No matter that hurricanes are rare in England, standard transmissions aren’t.
Hurricane lore being rather important, I remember Camille and Frederick and Elena and Georges and Katrina. If they were friends on Facebook I’d block them instead of unfriending them because even after all these years I still don’t want to get on their bad side, yet I don’t want to hear what they have to say. It’s a bit of poetic justice that when I mention those names out loud at a café in Zagreb or Warsaw or Amsterdam. or wherever my wanderlust takes me, the people around me don’t have a clue who—what, really—I’m talking about. And it’s not because I’m speaking a foreign language: the whole world speaks English now.
Well, maybe not my particular sort of English. In one moment I speak that unique convergence of New Orleans, southern, and Slavic accents one can find only in and around Biloxi. In the next moment I speak the proper tongue my Mom instilled in me and hundreds of other Gulf Coast natives she taught through the years. I’ve perfected a chameleon accent, from blending into a boardroom at Harvard to dismaying Californians with the admission that I’m from the deepest of the Deep South of Mississippi where, if you went any further south you’d get wet.
You know, if I had a doubloon for every time I’ve been told, “You don’t sound like you’re from Mississippi,” I could start my own krewe. I’ll tell you what: let me spend a minute with my brother-in-law in Gulfport or my Godfather in Pascagoula, and man, oh man, you ain’t never heard somethin’ lain on so thick. But it just sounds so right.
No matter where I am, I see that place, those people, their food, and their language through the eyes I grew up with on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And the older I get, the more I realize that’s just the way it’s supposed to be. So if ya’ll back home will keep an eye on the seagulls on the beach for me, I’ll try not to forget how to drive a stick.