One bleak winter afternoon in 2013, I typed the words Rustic cabin on the water, North Carolina into a search engine. I had never heard of Harkers Island but the salt-stained, wooden cottage with its floor-to-ceiling windows and views across open water to Shacklelford Banks, looked perfect. Shackleford is home to a herd of wild horses. According to local legend they are the descendants of shipwrecked Spanish mustangs from the 16th century.
For the next few years, I would spend two weeks of every year on Harkers Island, a 12 hour journey from my home in North Hertfordshire.
The island has a strong identity and a long tradition of oral history. In 1987, a group of local women from the Methodist church decided to write a book. Ostensibly it is a cookery book but it is also the story of the island and how its people got there. Those born and raised on Harkers Island speak a dialect that has its roots in Elizabethan English and they are affectionately referred to as ‘Hoi toiders’. The community has lived by fishing and boat building for more than 300 years but, new regulations, pollution and the importation of cheap fish from Asia are all contributing to a slow decline and the closure of many of the fish houses. The sense of community, however, remains strong and questions such as You from off? (ie. not from the island) and Got anybody in the graveyard? (ie. how long has your family been on the island?) help determine who belongs and who doesn’t.
Of course the locals weren’t the first to settle on Harkers Island and when their ancestors arrived from England in 1701, they chased off the Coree People, an Indigenous American tribe, so tiny that they only lived in this particular area of the Carolinas.
In May 2015, I was researching the role of religion in my ancestry and I decided to visit both the Pentecostal and the Baptist churches on the island. In England you can slip into a church service and be largely ignored, so I was surprised to be greeted at the door by a very short lady with a very tall beehive. When she heard my British accent, she was enchanted and rushed me down the aisle to meet the deacon. He too was thrilled to bits and wrote down my name and the town where I was from. Soon I was standing in a sea of people, all wanting to know how I had got to the island and why I had come. ‘We’ve never had a visitor from England before’, declared one.
Before Brother Anthony began his very long, very rousing sermon, I was given a ‘Harkers Island’ welcome. While I sat, slightly embarrassed on my velvet pew, the entire congregation got to its feet to clap and cheer my arrival. Afterwards my picture was taken ‘for the church records’ and everyone waved me a fond farewell. The following Sunday I went down the road to see the Baptists and they too were overjoyed to meet me. This time I was slightly better prepared and explained that my grandmother had been a Baptist and I was interested in knowing more about her faith.
During the sermon, which, like the Pentacostal homily was well over an hour long, my thoughts drifted to other things. Suddenly I was tapped on the shoulder by the lady behind me, alerting me to the fact that the pastor was addressing me directly. His question was more of a statement and related to the challenges of living amongst Muslims. ‘You must have a lot of Muslims in London and so you will know just what I’m talking about’, he said, nodding sympathetically at me from the pulpit. He then moved on to an even trickier topic – the transgender bathroom bill which North Carolina was actively opposing at the time. I prayed he wouldn’t invite my opinion on that one. These were kind people who had welcomed me into their church because they assumed that I shared their views. How could I show appreciation for their generosity and respect for their community whilst remaining true to my own ideas, beliefs and confusions. How could I avoid being outed for what I in fact was – someone from ‘off’; someone who didn’t belong; an outsider. Two hours later when it was all over, I hurriedly explained that unfortunately I couldn’t stay for coffee and donuts because I was heading down the coast to visit an old plantation house. I left feeling a little embarrassed but also relieved that, on the face it, I was still in everyone’s good books.
Two days later I was shopping at Walgreens off the island when I heard someone call my name. It was Dianne from the Baptist church, working at the check-out. She was visibly delighted to see me again, introduced me to her co-workers and then ran all my purchases through her personal discount card. I wanted to hug Dianne and thank her for remembering me. I wanted to tell her that I’d miss her and would talk to my friends back in England about the kind people I’d met on Harkers Island. I also wanted to tell her that I worked with Muslim families in London and that many of them were kind and generous, just like her, making their way in a challenging world, just like her, wanting what’s best for their families, just like her. But I didn’t, because I couldn’t. I wouldn’t have been able to explain myself in a way that Dianne and her friends would understand. But, in truth, I also didn’t want to snap that thread of momentary belonging, that feeling of being included in something that felt so real and so very kind.
I am sitting under a tree in a small area of woodland, thinking about life and death and my friend, Herman. On the other side of a wire fence I notice a group of school children. They are on litter-picking patrol and are spread out across the field, eyes to the ground, in search of sweet wrappers and crisp packets.
Suddenly, I hear a voice calling to me. I look up and see a line of small boys standing along the fence line.
First Boy: Excuse me …. what are you doing?
Me: I’m sitting and resting for a while.
First Boy: Is this the first time you’ve been here?
Me: No, I used to come here with my dog.
First Boy: Where’s your dog now?
Me: He died.
Second Boy: Awww that’s so sad.
Third Boy: My grandpa had a dog, a Jack Russell and he died too. He was 16.
Fourth Boy: My fish died but fish don’t live as long as dogs.
Me: Death is sad, isn’t it?
At this point I wonder whether I might be getting them into trouble and I suggest they return to their teacher and their litter-collecting duties. I stand up to leave.
First Boy: Oh, don’t go. Please stay.
Me: I have to go home now.
First Boy: Will you come back another time?
Me: Maybe I will.
As I walk away, the children remain standing on the fence line and we wave until we can no longer see each other.
This August, the Swiss film director, Rolf Lyssy was given the year’s Career Achievement Award at the Zurich Film Festival. Die Schweizermacher, released in 1978, was judged the most successful Swiss film of all time.
I was in my second year at the University of Reading when The Swissmakers was released in the UK. Astonished to learn that a Swiss film had made it to England, I immediately gathered a group of friends and arranged a weeknight visit to the Granby cinema. The film was shown in Swiss-German with English subtitles. I laughed a lot. My English friends not so much.
The Swissmakers is a comedy about a pair of Zurich policemen snooping on resident immigrants who have applied for Swiss citizenship. Sergeant Bodmer instructs his rookie sidekick, Herr Fischer, to pay close attention to any deviation from the Helvetian modus operandi. Fraulein Vakulic, for example, insists on using brown bin liners instead of the standard black ones. When his co-workers at the bakery describe Signor Grimolli as “always happy”, Bodmer is quick to respond “Being happy is irrelevant. He needs to be adaptable. He needs to fit in”.
I lived in Switzerland for 10 years in the 1990s and even though I speak Swiss German fluently and, apparently, without a trace of a foreign accent, I often felt like a foreigner, someone who didn’t quite belong. I tended to make mistakes, some were relatively harmless and reflected my recent arrival in the country and others were more serious social gaffes. On one occasion, I asked my neighbour what he paid for his house, which is considered shockingly impolite in Switzerland.
One morning, the village postman stopped me in the street and scolded me for putting out my rubbish on the wrong day and in the wrong place. I was curious to know how he had identified me as the culprit. He was very matter of fact and explained that he’d opened the offending bag in order to look for evidence. I imagined him rooting around amongst the Earl Grey tea bags and the spaghetti sauce and I felt both repelled and impressed by his dedication on behalf of the community. Eventually he found an envelope with my name on it. He could probably have saved himself the effort and the mess because he must have known, even before he smothered his fingers in tannin and tomatoes, that no law-abiding, thoroughbred Swiss would have behaved so irresponsibly.
I also, however, experienced delightful customs that indicated a close-knit and trusting society. When I purchased our first household appliance, I discovered that I had 30 days to pay the invoice. “……but, you don’t know me”, I stammered, “you don’t know my address or my telephone number. How can you be sure that I’m honest?”
After our second daughter was born, I took a teaching position at the local Steiner school. I hired a cleaner and made sure to carefully follow the example of the few Swiss women I knew who had household help: I ran the hoover, splashed the bleach and had a jolly good tidy up before Frau Probst arrived. She was magnificent. She even used cotton swabs to remove dust particles from the keyholes. When her three hours were up, however, she told me that she would not be returning. My house, she explained, was too dirty. I felt ashamed but also furious. I wanted to tell Frau Probst that I had other gifts, other skills – a university degree and a bunch of students who liked me and worked hard in my English classes. But I didn’t tell her these things. Instead, I apologised for my unsightly home and waved her forever goodbye.
A few months later, I discovered that our neighbour had been coming into our garage while I was at work in order to top up the guinea pigs’ food bowls. She showed no shame about her trespassing habits, insisting that we were starving the poor creatures. I called the local vet for advice and he was clear – guinea pigs should be fed twice a day and no more. Over-feeding would result in obesity and early death. I thanked him and relayed this information to my fussbudget neighbour. She ‘tsked’ audibly and then shouted across the fence: “This is not England. We do things differently here.”
Last night I suggested to my husband, who is American, that we watch The Swissmakers. He reacted to the film exactly as my English friends had done 42 years ago. The humour, he thought, ranged from plodding to slapstick. The film struck him as two-dimensional. I laughed, although perhaps not quite as heartily as I had done when I was nineteen because, in the meantime, I had known the shame of feeling inadequate and wanting in some way.
In an interview in 2016, Rolf Lyssy spoke about the comic intersection between the two policemen: Sergeant Bodmer is simplistic and narrow-minded while his young assistant, Herr Fischer is engaging and open to new ideas. Lyssy made the observation that in the 1970s, immigrants to Switzerland were mainly Italians and they spoke a language that Swiss people spoke too. Similarly, Catholicism was a religion with which the Swiss could identify. Today, those applying for naturalisation come from much further away and from traditions, religions and cultures that the Swiss do not understand.
“This isn’t good or bad” Lyssy reflected. “It’s simply different but the difference is much greater now than it was forty years ago and some Swiss feel overwhelmed by it. The question is how does a civilised society deal with this situation?”
I waited to hear what he would say next.
“I have no answer”, Lyssy admitted.
He’s right. It’s a tricky one.