What - or who - is a Vermonter?

To be taken for a local obviously takes more than just enjoying apple pie with cheddar cheese. It is a process that evolves slowly over time.

DUMMERSTON — When I moved to Vermont, 56 years ago, one of the things I was told by many locals who have been living here for years was that you are not a Vermonter until you enjoy apple pie with cheddar cheese and sugar on snow, accompanied by a doughnut and a pickle.

I thought, “How strange!”

All these years later, however, I can now say that I actually enjoy apple pie with a slice of cheddar cheese and, as to sugar on snow, I like the caramelized maple syrup and the doughnut but I can skip the pickle. So, perhaps I almost qualify to be a Vermonter.

Actually, the first persons I met when I first came to this area in 1966 were not really Vermonters. With the exception of my landlord in Putney (Henry Bentley), most others who worked at The Experiment (now World Learning) were not natives of Vermont.

This was true of the organization's founder, Dr. Donald B. Watt, who was from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and many others who came from cities like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, as well as from nearby Keene and Walpole.

Of course, there were also a few “natives” like Archie Whitney, Don Hazelton, Ed Cassidy, Les Ward, Mary Mitchel, Shirley Harlow, and Jim Atema, who also worked in our first headquarters at our Putney campus (now the The Greenwood School), adjacent to The Putney School.

I became friends with several women from other countries, like Blanche Moyse (Switzerand), Hanne Steinmeyer (Germany), Toshiko Phipps (Japan), and Iedje Hornsby (The Netherlands), among others. We all shared a similar experience: adjusting to life in southern Vermont.

For Vermonters at that time, we were almost as foreign as those others from Philadelphia or New York, except that we had an accent.

* * *

Not long ago, I asked a neighbor, a native Vermonter, what he thought of all these people who, like me, came from so many different places.

His answer was surprising. He said that he did not think much about the differences among people but he did acknowledge that they brought many new ideas: different ways of doing things, different customs, and different foods.

I asked him if he thought that was a good thing or not. He thought for a while and said that the things “imported” through outsiders were not necessarily good or bad, but just different from what he was used to.

“Some things are easier to adapt to, he added, like, for example, when technology arrived on the farm and cows were now milked by a machine,” he said. “That was good and it saved a lot of time. Other changes are not always as easy to accept.”

* * *

Vermonters, of course, are not just farmers, as some city people think. And many Vermont young people often leave the state after graduating from high school to seek an education, a new experience, or a job elsewhere. Happily, many also return, with a profession, possibly a spouse, because they recognize the beauty and tranquility of this area.

I appreciate the same as well as my neighbors here in Dummerston.

One of my neighbors, for example, a native Vermonter, became quite a mentor to my family. Through the years we learned a lot from him, about trees and plants and animals, as well as how to preserve food in our crawl space through the winter.

He seemed to know everything and everyone and he was happy to share his knowledge with ”flatlanders,” as he called those of us who came from elsewhere.

One day, however, I told him that I actually came from the mountain areas of Bolivia, from La Paz, which is actually about 10,000 feet above sea level, and therefore I could hardly be called a flatlander.

He responded that “anyone who is not from Vermont is a flatlander.” I found this to be humorous.

* * *

Nonetheless, I have felt privileged to be able to work and live in Vermont and to be able to raise my children here.

Attending Dummerston School was a happy experience for my children. When we took them out of school on various occasions during the school year to visit my parents in Bolivia, the local teachers accommodated by giving my children assignments compatible with what they were learning here so they would be able to continue their education while in Bolivia.

Better still, they were also required to send back tasks performed in and about Bolivia to share with their classmates back home in Vermont. Everyone in both locations was able to benefit.

Living in Vermont has allowed many individuals, like me, to share our cuisine with others, while at the same time we learned about many local foods. Today, of course, there are many places to obtain foreign foods in the area.

When I first arrived, I had purchased two cookbooks by Beatrice Vaughn, which focused on local dishes that are both healthy and tasty. Back in the '60s, many started to seek natural and non-processed foods - back to the basics.

For me, this was actually like being back in Bolivia, where I would have longed for frozen vegetables, instant foods, and packaged items. And when I had first arrived in Vermont, it was perhaps a novelty to enjoy such things here, plus the fact that such food was easier to prepare.

I no longer had a cook like back home, so practicality and convenience were both strong factors that influenced my preferences. Yet, when I prepared complicated Bolivian dishes for my friends, they were always surprised to know that I made pumpkin stew, pumpkin soup, and many other common dishes in Bolivia from scratch.

After so many years, of course my attitude toward nutrition and natural foods has changed.

* * *

Adjusting to dress like a Vermonter was another big change for me, and, I am sure, for others as well. My high heel leather booths were stylish but obviously quite impractical in the snow.

At first, I thought I would never wear Sorel boots, but it was not long before I found how practical they were, even though they still looked awful to me. Buying from LL Bean and Sam's in Brattleboro soon replaced my extensive trips to stores like Bloomingdale's or Wanamaker's in New York and Philadelphia.

Some 56 years later, I believe that I have adjusted quite well to Vermont culture while still preserving some of my own customs. Nevertheless, despite a lengthy process of acculturation and having two children born in Brattleboro, I don't think many will ever mistake me for a Vermonter. To be taken for a local obviously takes more than just enjoying apple pie with cheddar cheese. It is a process that evolves slowly over time.

From the 1960s up until the '90s, many foreign students were also present in this area. These students came from all over the world to study English at the School for International Training (SIT). In addition, there were also summer exchange students who came through programs with the Experiment in International Living. Foreigners wearing sari from India, colorful dresses from Guatemala, or white robes from Saudi Arabia would be out and about on the streets of Brattleboro. Everyone knew they were visitors, here for a period of one to three months. Local residents were accustomed to seeing these students and, in many cases, local families often provided them with home stays.

* * *

And beginning in the late 1970s, Brattleboro also witnessed the arrival of many new residents - not just from other states, but from other countries as well. Crises in many other places abroad have caused people to leave their homelands and seek opportunities elsewhere.

Brattleboro has welcomed many - people from places like Cambodia, China, Peru, Mexico, the Philippines, Venezuela, and Vietnam. In addition, during the past year, the town has witnessed the arrival of refugees from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Guatemala, Haiti, Russia, and Ukraine.

It is likely that more refugees may continue to arrive. Many will remain in this area and make Vermont their home; others, however, will move to other areas of the United States in accordance with their professions, skills, and the possibility of contact with relatives elsewhere.

For all of these individuals, like for me, assimilating to a new culture becomes a challenging and lifelong process. The most immediate challenge, of course, is to learn a new language - English. But perhaps even more difficult is to learn about a new culture, especially when new values contrast or conflict with those learned at home.

Unlike many immigrants who arrived in the early 1900s who often joined relatives already in the United States and who were able to reside in ethnic neighborhoods that provided them with an immediate support system, today most new arrivals are few in numbers and they are immediately immersed directly into the new culture and separated from their own communities.

Will they become Vermonters? It is hard to tell.

Most, like myself, I believe, will always want to preserve some part of their own culture and share it with their children, while also adjusting and living in a second culture.

It might seem a simple matter for many who have not had this experience to just dive into the new culture and forget the past. However, it is always a difficult process to completely give up the initial culture one was raised in from childhood.

In today's world, perhaps, we are becoming accustomed to more and more individuals who have become bilingual and bicultural, and who adapt with some facility to new circumstances.

As a result of contact with new arrivals, moreover, local people are also learning about new customs, new foods, new places.

Through this process, hopefully we are all learning to develop tolerance, respect, and understanding of all human beings - such that will allow us all to live in peace and harmony with everyone.

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