“Good morning. How are you?”
If you’re smart, this is the first expression you’ll add to your verbal repertoire upon arriving in Bermuda, followed very quickly by “good afternoon” and then, of course, “good evening.”
These simple phrases are the accepted conversation starter on the island and the official preamble to any social exchange, however brief. Ignore the rule at your own peril – as I did on my inaugural visit to the grocery store. After spending nearly a month’s salary on food and supplies, I was expecting a bit of warm banter from the checkout clerk. At the very least, I figured that a big fat thank you would be coming my way.
How wrong a girl can be.
Confused, I related this strange silent treatment to a Bermudian friend. She said, “Well, what did you say to the woman?”
I explained that I had said, “Hi!” and not without a fair amount of enthusiasm.
“Not enough,” said my friend. “Did you say ‘good morning?’” she queried.
“No, I didn’t,” I said, “but….”
My friend, who is an expert on all things Bermudian, put up her hand to stop my useless chatter and explained that it was vital to engage the woman, to show a sign of respect, civility, and hospitality. Well, thank you Amy Vanderbilt!
But my friend persisted. “You must say ‘good morning’ first.”
“But what if it’s afternoon?” I pleaded.
“Then,” she said with an exasperated sigh, “say ‘good afternoon’.”
Hey, I’m no academic slouch. Confident in my newfound knowledge, I again strode up to the grocery clerk and let it rip. “Good morning,” I sang out.
“Good morning,” she sang back.
It was a verbal symphony of civility. I had just discovered the Bermudian equivalent of “open sesame”.
It was a lesson my poor husband was to learn too a short time later. He walked into the dry cleaners, looked at the manager, and made a simple request: “Can I get these shirts back by the weekend?”
Oh, I don’t think so, her eyes seemed to say in response. He must have wondered if his usual dose of English charm had abandoned him. Without missing a beat, our dry cleaner, steadfastly ignoring his request for clean clothes, said, “Good morning, and how are you today?” No dummy, my husband. He profusely apologized, responded in kind, and received his laundry posthaste.
I always tell off-islanders that conversation and socializing are Olympic sports here in Bermuda. Traffic comes to a virtual halt when you see someone you know. And horns are honking all the time, not in anger, but as a drive-by salutation. Our favourite taxi driver seems to know just about everybody on the island based on the amount of horn honking, waving, and huge shout-outs from the driver’s side window I observe. Needless to say, our journeys together are always festive, if not just a bit noisy.
The culture of human interaction here can only be described in epic terms. I remember the first month we arrived on the island when friends of friends invited us for Sunday brunch. They very kindly picked us up on their boat at ten-thirty in the morning. By six o’clock that evening, we were still at their house. I was panicking! We had consumed breakfast, and lunch, plus many bottles of wine before hearing a promise that dinner was on its way. We fled, worrying that a surprisingly pleasant social occasion had started to feel more like a hostage taking.
Soon after, that very same new friend informed me that I was simply going to have to buck up and get with the program. She then led me through an intensive training regimen, which included attendance at many social affairs and introductions to dozens of new people. Months of tutoring have yielded fine results. I think I can say, with confidence, that I am no longer a social pariah. I can chat it up with the best of them. Science magazine says that we human beings speak an average of 16,000 words a day. Lightweights. Clearly, they have never been to Bermuda.
Recently, I was back at the grocer’s. No longer a glutton for punishment, I cheerily chatted away with a most fabulous clerk. She packed my groceries, and then we continued our conversation right out into the parking lot as we loaded the bags into my car. That task accomplished, I then learned that she had travelled all over the world, just because it was there. Once, just before she was ready to return home from Europe, she realized she had never seen a bullfight. So she jumped on a plane for a 24-hour visit to Spain. She also confided that she always travelled solo, as she didn’t want any tales told out of school. What happens on the road stays on the road, as the saying goes. The woman was utterly enchanting, and I would never have heard any of her intimate, funny, and inspiring stories had I not used the proper key to unlock the magic – a simple but sincere, “Good morning. How are you?”