Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse. Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Nicole’s latest novel, “Stepdog,” was published last summer by HarperCollins. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to OnIsland@mvtimes.com.
“Where are you off to?” If I could count the number of times I’ve been asked that on the ferry. Do people really care? Nicole, I feel like since we live on an Island, a lot of people feel like they have a license to probe as soon as they see someone making an escape. Am I just a misanthropic curmudgeon, or do I have a point?
As with many of the either/or questions I receive, the answer to this one is a resounding “Both.”
Chances are they’re simply engaging in the reflexive ritual of greeting — it is the onboard equivalent of “How are you?” so I suggest you be as curmudgeonly about it as if somebody asked “How are you?” in line at the grocery store. It’s not as if you’re crossing paths in an oncology ward, or the lobby of the courthouse, or a rehab center. It’s not as if the boat you’re on is trying to cross from Turkey to the island of Kos. When I was a kid, every night at dinner my dad would ask me how school was, and I’d always say, Fine; sometimes we did this on Saturdays. Similarly here, the likeliest scenario is that they’ve hardly registered that they’re even asking the question, and aren’t going to register your answer. Let it go.
But maybe they are not on autopilot; maybe they corner you making more-than-Yankee amounts of eye contact. In that case, consider this. They are also on the ferry (they must be, or they couldn’t be asking you the question), which means that they are going somewhere too. Maybe asking you is an opening gambit to tout their own upcoming adventure. They are following social protocol by being polite and asking you first, but really what they’re hoping for is a chance to brag about their upcoming trip to Venice, or Disneyland, or a Bernie Sanders rally. They know the basic rules of conversation; if they ask you, then you’ll ask them. If they didn’t want to talk about their own trip, they wouldn’t be asking you about yours. Give ’em a super-short answer, ask “And you?” and then let them tear. You will be doing them a favor, and isn’t that a nice feeling?
On the other hand, maybe their own off-Island sojourn is nothing to write home about — a trip to Trader Joe’s, a John Kasich rally, dental work — and you are correct in the tone of your question: They’re asking you in the hopes of being entertained. We’re all a little winter-weary this time of year; we seek opportunities to stir our souls emotionally, and they might be hoping to get that from you. They hope to feel either a pang of envy, a little vicarious thrill, or (if they are generous of spirit) simple delight. All of those are benign, fleeting pinpricks of intense emotions. Benign, fleeting pinpricks of intense emotions are better than what happens to most of us during March on Martha’s Vineyard.
So be kind, and indulge them. I’m not saying tell them where you’re going. If it’s private, you should not feel put on the spot, you should not have to say, “I’d rather not say,” or “What’s it to you?” That’s a lose-lose: you feel terribly awkward, and they feel terribly awkward (as well as cheated of their vicarious thrill). In your place, I would lie to them — but I would make it an obvious, glorious, delightful lie, that will give them not a pinprick, but a great big wallop: “I’m going to Timbuktu to teach yaks how to juggle so they can stop climate change.” “I’m going to meet with the superdelegates from both parties about being named the surprise nominee at each convention.” “I’m carrying a portable time machine in my coat, and I’m actually on my way to 1862 to prevent the sinking of the Santa Garlicia off the Gay Head Cliffs.” (Bonus: When they say they’ve never heard of the Santa Garlicia, you can smile and say, “Great, that means I was successful!”)
They will either think you are on something and sidle away giving you the hairy eyeball, or they’ll play along (that could be really fun!), or they will be utterly bemused and speechless. In the highly unlikely event that they actually believe you, they will spread the news to fellow Vineyarders as soon as they get home (or sooner, via Facebook), and you will have made a fabulous contribution to the winter population by giving them the best-ever fodder for the rumor mill.
Best of all, you can do all that while remaining a misanthropic curmudgeon, if you’re committed to self-identifying that way.
That’s my take.