Heavy Traffic in a Cornish Village

Wild Thing and I were walking the dog the other day and we’d just turned off the main road when a car made the same turn. We moved to the side of the road, stood in the weeds, and corralled the dog so that she did the same. She’s convinced that if her nose is out of the way, that takes care of the problem.

The car passed. The driver waved. We waved and moved back onto the road.

Then another car came past. That’s roughly two cars more than we usually see on this stretch of road.

“So much traffic!” Wild Thing said.

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Irrelevant Photo: Fall Berries of Some Sort of Other

You need a little background here.

First, what I just called the main road? It has two lanes, goes from no place in particular to no place else in particular (I’m going to catch hell for saying that), and no one’s even bothered to give it a name or a number. That’s why I call it the main road. What else am I going to call it? Marlena? Suzette? It’s as main a road as the village has. Everything else is even smaller.

Second, Wild Thing and I are both New Yorkers. I was born and raised there and she lived there for ten years. So it’s not that we’ve never lived with traffic. But human beings are adaptable. When I lived in Minnesota, I noticed that 40 degrees F. was cold in the fall and the most blissful warmth in the spring. So we’ve adapted. Two cars in a single day on the road past the ford? In the off season, when the emmits have gone home? Outrageous!

And we’re not the only ones who resent seeing two cars in a row. Someone who shall not be named, nay, not even by initial (okay, I’ve forgotten who it was), set out a Road Closed sign on one of the back roads. For years. Long after whatever was once wrong (if anything ever was) had been fixed. He didn’t like the traffic.

The locals all knew to drive past it, and when I became a local I taught myself to do the same, although the first time expected to find that the ford (this is a different ford) had risen out of control; that a downed tree had left the power lines sprawled across the road; that a herd of wild elephants had set up camp by the ford and were scavenging downed limbs for firewood. Even though I knew better.

In one version of the story—and no story in the village has only one version—he got tired of people with long vehicles taking the road and getting stuck at the ninety-degree bend where the road narrows down. In another version, a delivery truck got stuck and its cargo had to be off-loaded onto a smaller truck. In a third version, the company kept sending big trucks and they all got stuck—one, two, three pretty trucks, all with the same logo and all stuck where the road bends. It’s a wonderful image. Sadly, it’s the least likely of the versions. A single truck could get stuck there if it was long enough, but by getting stuck it would sacrifice itself for its fellow trucks, who’d have to back up a long way and then cross the ford backward before backing up some more, but they wouldn’t be stuck. That’s village gossip for you. Whatever story you hear, you have to figure it’s related to something real, but you can’t necessarily tell what the relationship is.

Anyway, it’s the off season here in the village, and the traffic’s horrendous. If you were thinking of visiting, wait till it calms down a bit.

The Emmits Come to Cornwall

Summer in Cornwall and the place is full of emmits.

What’s an emmit? A tourist—or in British English, a holidaymaker. And it’s not a compliment. In Cornish, it means ant, and when I asked a friend why tourists were ants she said, “It’s because they line up on the cliffs and look out to sea.”

I’ve never seen ants line up on the cliffs and look out to sea, but I’ve only lived in Cornwall for eight and a half years and all sorts of things happen around here that I don’t know about, never mind understand.

I can’t remember who told me that, but I suspect it was the same person who, when I asked what twee meant, said, “It means”—brief pause here—“twee.”

After that, I bought a dictionary of British English, and just to be on the safe side, one of British slang. Twee, they tell me, means “affectedly quaint.” They don’t mention this, but it does also means “twee.” You just can’t argue with that.

The beach at sunset

The beach at sunset

Anyway, the place is full of emmits. And that’s good, because now that the mines are closed and the seas are damn near fished out, the tourist industry makes up a huge part of the Cornish economy. Emmits rent cottages and flats and rooms. They buy art and ice cream and little plastic spades for the beach. They buy groceries and funny hats and touristy stuff that they’ll throw out in six months. So we need them.

They also drive us nuts.

Wild Thing was driving to Boscastle last week, on a narrow road that for most of its length is too narrow to have lane markings. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t wide enough for two cars to pass. In the winter, we barely slow down to pass each other. But summer brings us traffic jams. The car in front of Wild Thing stopped every time it saw an oncoming car.

This isn’t a bad thing to do, really, and Wild Thing and I are the last people who should be snotty about it, although that doesn’t stop us. When we first came here, we snuggled our rented car into many a hedge and cowered there while other drivers judged the width of the road for us. Not because we’re not timid drivers—we’ve both driven cab for serious lengths of time—but because we weren’t used to the roads. The lanes (where there were lanes) were narrow and almost every turn was blind, on top of which we were driving on the wrong side of the road. It was better to pull over and annoy everyone than to scrape another car.

Now that we’re part of the everyone who’s being annoyed, though, it’s easy to forget all that.

Eventually, the emmit-driven car ahead of her met another emmit-driven car and both of them stopped, each waiting for the other driver to judge the distance. For several long minutes, it looked like a World War I battlefield, with both sides dug into their trenches and no one able to gain ground. Wild Thing was about to get out and ask if she could drive the closer car past when, finally, someone inched forward and, at long last, the deadlock was broken.

She told the story yesterday, when M. and M. and J. all dropped by our house, and J. said that there was plenty of room for two cars to pass. Except, she added as a sort of footnote, in a couple of places.

That’s what we’re like, the everyone the emmits annoy. There’s plenty of room except where there isn’t. What’s the problem? A car and a bus can pass in most places, we agreed, and so can a car and a tractor. You’d have thought it was a highway, the way we talked.

I should now confess that when I’ve written for Americans planning to drive in Britain, I’ve suggested pulling over on the narrowest of roads if the driver’s not sure there’s space to pass. It may drive us nuts but we don’t want an accident either.

Do you notice how neatly I’ve slipped into saying we? Wild Thing and I, with our unreconstructed American accents, don’t think of ourselves as emmits anymore.

When I put emmit into Google to double-check the spelling (I worked as an editor for much longer than I worked as a cab driver, so yeah, I would do that), I was first led to a Wikipedia entry that claimed the word was ancient British. I wasn’t sure what that meant, since ancient British was several languages, so I looked further. Under the spelling emmet, though, I found an entry that defined it as (and I’m quoting from memory), “Holidaymakers who sit their fat asses down on our beaches.” I thought about providing a link but figured someone would edit that out pretty quickly. It now says nothing about beaches or fat asses, but it does say some of the “local Cornish Folk” use the word to describe anyone who hasn’t lived here for twenty-five years.

It’s okay. I drove cab. Believe me, I’ve been called worse.