The Long Island Pilgrim
The Long Island Pilgrim By: Christine Latchford I was born with a profound craving, or better yet, an addiction. I was addicted to dreaming. Specifically, I was addicted to dreaming of the day that I would finally leave Long Island and explore this often-forgotten and wondrous world that we are constantly surrounded by. I dreamt of getting lost in different cultures, experiencing new ways of life, and discovering where I stood in this world. Since my dreams involved learning about humans and human cultures, it only made sense that I chose to tackle the unique path of studying Cultural Anthropology. Before my studies and travels, I was just a naïve and ignorant girl. I viewed my life, and the world, in a very narrow tunnel-vision perspective. In the beginning of my journey, Long Island was merely a geographical location that I was uncontrollably born and raised on. It wasn’t until after my dreams became realities, and after I evolved into a more enlightened young woman, that Long Island’s significance was unveiled to me. With every flip of a page, my excitement grew in learning about the study of Human Beings, in studying Anthropology. My textbook pages were covered with vibrant pictures of humans from all corners of the world practicing elaborate rituals, honoring various religions, and expressing their culture in varying ways. I grew envious of how rich and meaningful all of these peoples’ cultures were to them. What culture did I have? Where were my significant rituals? I felt helpless, I felt clueless, and above all, I felt culture-less. Little did I know, opening my first Anthropology textbook planted a seed in the depths of my soul that was about to experience water and sunshine for the first time ever. It was in my first year of undergrad that I realized I had a cultural stereotype. When asked where I was from, I always got smirks after I frankly stated, “Long Island.” I was mostly met with, “Oh, you don’t seem like a Long Island girl at all.” I guess if it were up to their stereotypes, I would be extremely tan, plaster my face with foundations of makeup, where skirts and UGG boots in the snow, and have permanent pout-lips as if someone was going to take my close-up photo at any moment. It was for the first time in my life that I realized that something now set me apart from others around me. Was it my culture? But what is my culture? After a few in-depth core Anthropology classes, I began to put the puzzle pieces together as to what ‘culture’ meant. I could read about it a million times over in a textbook, but I still wasn’t satisfied. I needed to experience it. With hard work and a sharp determination, I seized an opportunity to study abroad in Cardiff, Wales. Even though I knew virtually nothing about Wales and even though ‘Google Images’ would only describe it with pictures of sheep, I wasn’t deterred. I knew it was my only chance to experience a new and exciting culture. My adventure to Wales sparked and ignited the cultural flame I was looking for. After college, I still had my bottomless hunger and thirst for exploring, so I decided to go for my master’s degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology at a university in London, England. Doors continued to open for me and I didn’t even hesitate to take the plunge. Like a sponge, I just sloshed around soaking up as much culture and knowledge as I humanly could. Classrooms are great learning environments but the real key to learning is by getting out there and by getting your hands dirty. Drink wine with the natives, kiss a notorious rock even though you don’t believe in its superstitions, pray with strangers in a ritual that you’ve never even heard of, climb a mountain in a thunderstorm just because Norse Myths of Thor rest upon the land, dance to a foreign rhythm even if you feel embarrassed, and laugh with strangers even if it is at your own expense. These are the tools that we need to conduct, experience, and retain true knowledge. It was through these experiences and through this time of my life that I finally understood my culture, my home…my Long Island. Long Island, like a long-lost love, returned to beautifully haunt me and remind me of my own culture and home every adventure and every foreign ground that I stepped on. I was standing in awe as I gaped at how incredibly beautiful the Great Pyramid was. All of the pyramids were indescribably and infinitely impressive. As you gazed upon it, it was as if you had the wind knocked out of you and couldn’t quite catch your breath. I was ecstatic when I heard the pyramids lit up at night and upon inquiring about it to a native, they recommended that the best view of the pyramids at night were on the rooftop of the Pizza Hut. I had to blankly stare and blink a few times as I tried to comprehend what they were telling me. Best view of the pyramids is…at…the…Pizza Hut? I was instantly thrown back into a memory, thrown back into a pizza hut in Riverhead on Long Island. When I was a kid, when it was my dad’s weekend to watch my brothers and I, he would take us to stay at the Peconic Sportsman Club in Manorville. We always knew the itinerary by heart because it was always ritualized. First came fishing on the pond, then came hours of complaining that we were bored of waiting for the fish to bite, then came mini-golfing where we’d try to get a whole-in-one so that dad would have to pay us five dollars, and last to come was the epic and long-anticipated trip to pizza hut where we would ravenously engorged ourselves in epic deliciousness. Looking back, it wasn’t just a memory. It was a profoundly special tradition and ritual my family shared when I was a kid. My father’s father passed the fishing tradition onto him, just as he did to us. It was during those moments that he would show us the values that lie within our family and culture. I had to travel thousands of miles, drown myself in a sea of culturally different people, and stand in front of one of the ancient wonders of the world to finally discover my own culture. I was running from Long Island and running from my past in hopes to find out what defined me. To my own surprise, the answer was with me all along. My home, my culture, my Long Island, they were all the same and they surrounded me everywhere I went, no matter the distance. When I was driving through the winding roads of Tuscany, Italy, overlooking the vineyards, at heart I was driving on Route 25 enjoying the view of open fields and stopping to taste flavorful red wine at Pindar while listening to the live band play under the gazebo. When I was halfway up a mountain during a thunderstorm in Norway, at heart I was watching the thunderheads roll in across the sky on the south shore as I hastily packed up my beach bag and got ready to head home. When I walked through Regents Park in the middle of a London autumn and sat on my favorite bench surrounded by crimson leaves, at heart I was watching the trees turn auburn as I drove past the farms on the east end trying to decide which one had the best looking pumpkins for my front steps. While I pricked and prodded my tender feet as I walked along a beach in the south of France that was covered in unforgiving rocks, at heart I was yearning to feel the soft and comforting sand of the south shore squeeze between my toes. When I ordered my first Mediterranean fish dinner at a restaurant that sat along a gorgeous marina in Malta, at heart I was hoping they would bring me a warm bowl filled with amazing New England Clam Chowder from the one of the winners of the Montauk chowder contest. When I stood bundled up in the English autumn waiting to see the Guy Fawkes Day firework display, at heart I was sitting on the dock in Greenport dripping an ice cream cone while I anxiously waited to see the Independence Day fireworks awaken the sky. Every experience, like every ounce of blood that pumps through my heart, was infused with the essence and culture of Long Island, my home. I always found it so easy to leave my home without really missing it and now I completely understand why. Like a backpack, like a seal on my heart, I carry them all with me wherever I go so that I can always be reminded of who I am and where I come from.