By Tom Lamia
Why “Notes from Away?” In South Bristol, Maine, where I live, I am identified as a person “from away.” The title I give to these notes is a tongue-in-cheek qualification of my expertise as an observer of life in South Bristol. My friends and neighbors up here would understand. A quick story may help.
Recently, I attended a regulatory hearing in the South Bristol Town Hall. The subject of the hearing was a proposed oyster aquaculture lease. Town officials, property owners, fishermen, environmental advocates, and the prospective lessee all testified regarding their knowledge of the facts and potential consequences. One of the witnesses (I’ll call him “Sam”) was a man well known to me. Sam was against this lease, because it would be in the wrong place, he said, but he supported aquaculture in general. He pointed out that he was born and raised in South Bristol and that his family had been raising oysters there for two generations.
Following the hearing, I chatted with one of the town’s three selectmen, who represent the town in these matters. I mentioned that Sam seemed well qualified to have an opinion here. “Well, yes, but he’s from away,” was the response, indicating that Sam’s views were likely to be discounted. “From away?” I said, “But he was born and raised here in South Bristol. Sam’s father started aquaculture here. How can he be from away?”
Here’s how: Sam had gone to college and graduate school in the Boston area, and though he was a lifelong town resident, he conducted his business from another nearby town, so he is “from away.”
South Bristol is a small town of less than 900 inhabitants. It is said hereabouts that on Christmas Day in 1614, Captain John Smith dropped anchor in a nearby sheltered cove. That “Christmas Cove” has, since the 19th century, attracted summer visitors from our major cities.
The full-year residents of South Bristol take care of the properties of these “summer people” during the months when they are gone. This distinction between “summer people” and locals tended to divide the community into “them and us.” Over time, however, cultural assimilation made it increasingly difficult to identify someone as a member of one or the other group. Inter-group marriages, relocations, social, and economic progress all led to a blurring of the lines.
So, now, all who have married into local families (like me), all who, like Sam, have acquired some polish by education or ambition, and pretty much anyone who does not do his or her own mowing and mucking, is lumped together with summer residents in the category of people “from away.”
As a person from away, my authority to offer a perspective on South Bristol has its limits. Where the perspective of a local person is necessary to the story, I will try to provide it, however vicariously. To be sure, I expect this commentary to be complimentary on all Maine matters. If on occasion it does not seem so, well I am from away and that explains everything.
The subject is clearly elusive, but these remarks should provide a working definition. In my experience, Mainers do not penalize those “from away” except in a narrow range of activities considered uniquely local. For example, in any competition over a traditional local activity (fishing rights, road maintenance, town management) a person from away need not apply. However, if there is a need for current, well-considered knowledge or an opinion on a non-Maine issue (Broadway plays, fashion, national politics), being from away is an advantage. Mainers know what they don’t know.
So, being from away is not always a bad thing. To say that someone is “from away” is simply to acknowledge an exposure to urban culture. If you are from away, you cannot assimilate through cultural osmosis. No amount of coffee and sharing of stories at the Bristol Diner will change your status. But, if you listen, show appreciation, and have an ounce of humility or humor, you will be accepted regardless.
To verify this inexpert analysis, I chatted up a trusted local sage, the most taciturn of philosophers I know—a man fully wedded to the earth, sea, and woods of South Bristol. I ran my analysis past him. His reactions on the subject (shrugs, shuffles, ah-yups, full frontal stares, brow wipes, and, finally, “uh-huh” and “I guess”) assured me that all was good, that I had it right.