Learning the Local Language

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, March 5, 2006.

Recently, I moved to Olympia from “flyover country” (FC) — that place east-coasters fly over to more important places on the other coast. My specific spot in FC was Lexington, Kentucky.  If you’re a fan of racehorses or bourbon (or both), you know it. Now that the dust has settled, or been subdued by rain, I’m noticing some language differences between FC and Olympia.

First off, I’ve learned new meanings for familiar words. I’ve heard these words before, but here I’ve come to know them on an, uh, intimate level: septic tank, power outage, and the most critical — generator. In FC, these terms were spoken only by people “in the country” – three more words that now apply to me.

Other words I’ve had to rethink include that ubiquitous phrase uttered by salespeople everywhere: “Have a nice day!”  Salespeople in FC say those words constantly, but they have a different ring here. Shopfolk seem to mean it and look me in the eye when speaking. The cashiers at Safeway even pronounce my name correctly. That’s one advantage of being on the West coast. With the Asian influence, my surname doesn’t seem foreign. And yakisoba is easy to come by.

Naturally, I’ve come up against the vocabulary for ordering coffee in the Pacific Northwest. But I don’t drink the stuff, so I can plead happy ignorance of the terms. The closest I’ve come to a double mocha latté is chai, but I can’t tell you what’s in it. I enjoy seeing espresso huts on every other corner, drive thru ones at that. In FC, you can drive-thru for money, dry cleaning, drugs (the legal sort), and even beer, but not latté. That’s a true measure of the culture.

Certain terms I learned as oddities in FC are common here, especially those associated with yoga:  plank, warrior, and anything ending with –asana.  If I shouted “down dog!” in a crowded theater, everyone inside might actually assume the position. Those street corners lacking espresso huts harbor yoga studios, and my kids even learned the tree pose while standing in the school bus line.

On the other hand, the meanings of some current terms here have already been decided back in FC — for example, smoking ban and water rights. I’ve found the image of a place doesn’t always reflect reality. East-coasters joke about FC, but the folks there are, on occasion, a step ahead.

I’ve also become attuned to the visual language of Olympia, and much of it delights. The Mountain. The calming presence of the water. The sharp outlines of trees against the sky, a scene made possible by clear air.  More men in grocery stores, shopping and working checkout. That booklet in my mailbox detailing issues on the ballot, so I could actually cast an educated vote. Older couples hand-in-hand in a lively downtown. Olympia’s downtown thrives at a level larger cities should envy.

For all the new meanings I’m discovering here, though, there are two visual terms I’m glad not to encounter.  Big hair.  Power suits.