When you grow up in the rural Midwest, you become accustomed to answering the question, “So where are you from?” not with any direct answer but via triangulation, using successively more specific points of reference others may know. I honed this positioning of my hometown as a tour guide at Mizzou. There was little chance most parents and students from in-state, let alone all the visitors we had from out of state, knew where Rogersville, Missouri was. Generally, my answer went something like,
“I am from a small town about thirty minutes East of Springfield.”
That was normally good enough for fellow Missourians, many of whom came from even smaller towns, but for most other visitors, my origin became even more generalized. I was from “3 hours South of Kansas City.” or “Southwest Missouri” accompanied by the shape of an L held up to demonstrate the approximate area of my hometown.
When I arrived in Ireland, the process of answering the deceptively simple question “So where are you from?” became even more abstract. If the accent (although as a true Midwesterner, I feel obligated to contend I have no accent) didn’t give it away, the answer always began with “America.” For the curious, the follow up was “Oh what state?” A proud “Missouri” was the response. Unfortunately, that was often too specific. “And where is that?” inevitably followed.
The Irish can be forgiven for not knowing where Missouri, let alone any town in the middle of the country, is at. After all, Ireland could fit 11.5 times in the US, and two Irelands could be placed in Missouri with room to spare. But it wasn’t just the Irish who couldn’t place Missouri on a map. Fellow Americans I met in Dublin didn’t know either. Flyover country indeed.
At a doubles handball tournament last weekend in one of the many villages surrounding Galway, I encountered a different response. “I know Missouri.”
“Really?” I asked, a bit incredulously.
“Ya, we flew over for a handball tournament at Missouri State University in Springfield. Do you know it?”
Do I know Springfield? It was a bit odd being asked if I knew the place I had grown accustomed to anchoring a part of my identity on. “Funny enough, I actually grew up in a small town right outside of Springfield.”
As I got to know the other players and fellow DCU teammates, I realized we had something in common: many of them were also from flyover country. As they described where they were from, they used the same technique of positioning their origins in relation to places I may have heard of before. Dublin; Galway; Cork; Sligo. Most hadn’t grown up in those places, just as I hadn’t grown up in Springfield. Most grew up in small villages in the Irish countryside, like the one we were in.
When I flew to Ireland, I flew over many of the places the people I met last weekend are from. I looked down on those places as pastoral landscapes, but I was headed to Dublin—the exciting international capital—what did those places have to offer that could possibly beat the excitement of the city? It turns out, new friends, great craic, and some handball. Handball is how my teammates in Ireland learned about my piece of flyover country, and I hope over the next year it might teach me about each of theirs. Now if only they could teach me how to not be bad at handball…