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  • Writer's pictureCatherine White

Vibing w/ Cat White

In 2010 I moved to Austin, TX after having lived the majority of my 35+ years in the Southern Tier. I was born at Arnot Ogden Hospital, grew up on the north side, went to Elmira Free Academy and auditioned for the original Mark Twain musical (the end of my acting career). Early on I worked for several local businesses in downtown Elmira and my last serious gig was as a features reporter for the Star-Gazette alongside such journalistic legends as James Pfiffer (Pfiff-Daddy), and Jeffrey Aaron (aka local blues legend Gerard Burke) and John Cleary (folksy yet reverential Neighbors columnist).

I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled the United States, extensively - from sea to shining sea. Mostly by car, bus or train. Boy do I have stories! I’ve spent short periods of time in southern California, southwestern Montana and visited several southern states, settling in one of the most independent and outspoken territories of the southern United States.

In my February Ex Pats column, I wrote about the similarities between my new and old hometowns. There are some differences, too.

Shortly after I moved to Austin, I recall telling a store clerk who’d asked, that I was from New York. Apparently, she’d noticed my lack of twang, and asked where I was from. Then she asked me if people from New York were “mean.”

Any New Yorker that’s traveled outside the state knows that, everyone assumes if you say you’re from New York, they think New York City. New York is much more than the Big Apple - as exciting as that particular feisty forbidden fruit is. I explained to the clerk that New York State is mostly small town farm country and mountain towns, and that, generally, Western, upstate New Yorkers were a friendly folk willing to help friends and strangers alike. Furthermore, I was sure to let her know that, in general, New York was as friendly as any other state. Just a bit more snarky. Even the small country cities and towns. Especially the small towns. Snark … with a dash of love.

Southerners have their sly sarcasm, as well. You’re familiar with the term “Bless your/her/his/their heart”? While it sounds nice, there’s a salty tinge to the saying. It took a year of a work colleague saying that to me whenever I asked her how to perform a task for me to realize that I was, politely, being called an idiot. Apparently, I was being told to my face that I was dumber than a bunch of rocks every day for a year while I smiled back, blithely, unaware. A New Yorker would’ve just asked me what kind of idiot I was point blank.

Actually, as time went on my coworker and I got close and she ended up being one of my first friends in Austin. Also, she wasn’t wrong - I was an idiot when it came to basic office software programs. I’m sure I asked a lot of stupid questions. I’m sure it was annoying. And with three little words - Bless your heart - my coworker could insult me to my face in her sweet southern drawl with me none the wiser. Pretty snarky, sis!

Moving to a different region can take some adjusting - perspective, attitudes and cultural mores may be very different. I like learning about all of it and have enjoyed expanding my knowledge and experience of this vast and varied country.

Yet, the Southern Tier is never far from my thoughts. Even after 10+ years away. Every summer I think of the public parks and camping grounds we’d visit, sunning and splashing the day away, or touring the small-town shops and wineries along the Finger Lakes. I took innumerable trips to the Watkins Glen Gorge to hike or swim, or driving across the New York-Pennsylvania state line into the northern tier to get ice cream or a tasty home-cooked meal at a family-owned restaurant, an endless view of green trees, waterfalls and wildflowers along the highways that connect this lush, enchanting region.

Growing up, my Grandmother made us visit Mark Twain’s grave in Woodlawn Cemetery every summer. I say “made” but, if you’ve ever been there you know that it’s one of the most serene solemn burial grounds in the country. A national cemetery with quite the who’s who of local and national historical notables. I miss strolling the paved paths, cooled by large shade trees, feeling the history of my hometown.

From a young age, I had an appreciation of growing up in the southern tier that only deepened when I worked for the Star-Gazette and got to meet incredible community people from all walks of life, doing extraordinary things in art, entertainment, local business, health and well-being, philanthropy and sports. I wrote about drag queens, musicians and artists, highlighted art receptions, local music concerts and comedy shows. I had the opportunity to learn about the rich, varied and creative tapestry of humanity that inhabited this region of New York.

Moving to the south, and Texas particularly, has presented a completely different perspective on many of the cultural assumptions I’d held about the south. Yet, I continue to find threads of connection between north and south, small rural farm country and large urban centers, in the shared experience as Americans.

I’m excited to write this column and share my observations and experiences from the perspective of a southern tier girl on an epic adventure to learn more about her country and her fellow citizens while searching for the issues and experiences that connect us. In addition to the column, I’ll be helping share stories of other southern tier Ex Pats who’ve ventured beyond the border of the Twin Tiers to make their mark and find their way in the world. The southern tier has produced powerful political figures, sports stars, journalists, filmmakers, fashion designers, writers and artists. I want to explore why they left, what they miss about the region and where their decisions have led them.

Although I’m halfway across the country, the southern tier has never felt so close. I look forward to cultivating that connection while sharing inspirational and interesting stories from myself and others.

“To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.” – Mark Twain


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