Sunday, February 14, 2010

Stranger in a Strange Land

It comes as no surprise to those who know me that neither I nor my husband are huge fans of living in the South, and yet, I am committed to enjoying the rest of our time here. I've spent the last year and a half trying to explain what it is that we have found so unpleasant and I have always been aware of how flimsy our reasoning has been. So toward a happier experience here in this strange land, I will try to explain and excavate all that anti-South baggage.

For starters, it's a thousand little things. This is what I've finally come to. There are a thousand little things that are different about the South that make me feel like an interloper, an other, a conscientious objector.

Word Choice and Fun Expressions: I can't tell you how many times my heart's been blessed. Southerners really love to "bless your heart." This is not a complaint. It's just different. I don't think anyone in Michigan has ever blessed my heart. And Southerners call grocery carts "buggies." And when they have completed something - like, say, fixing a leaky pipe under the sink - they say, "Alright, that's got ya'," which is a great turn of phrase, though strange.

Nevermind the accent. I don't hear that anymore at all unless it's a particularly thick one. It's the different phrasing and word choices that pull me out of my daily routine and remind me that while it is nice here, I am not home.

On the Subject of Snow: A few weeks ago, a terrible hardship fell upon Knoxville. A smattering of fluffy snow that was too light to stick to the ground came down from the sky. Schools closed. Malls closed. Grocery stores crowded over and then closed. I was in Marshall's to decompress, enjoying a few scarce moments on my own, when over the intercom I hear the words, "The store will be closing in 15 minutes due to inclement weather."

Inclement weather? Are they serious? I looked out the window. Clear parking lot. Clear roads. Light snow falling. To no one in particular, I uttered, "Seriously?", then put down my potential purchases and walked out into a clear day no Michigander would come close to describing as inclemental.

Southerners defend this by saying
a) they do not have the equipment to clear snow,
b) the North does not have mountains like they do, and
c) they do not know how to drive in the snow.

In response to these arguments I say
a) there is no snow on the ground for a plow to clear away,
b) you live in a valley, and
c) go slow and drive more cautiously.

Slow and slow, that is the tempo: When we first came here, I thought my head might explode. I had heard all the cliches about the South living a slower paced existence, but I didn't think they were actually true in our oh-so-modern world. They are. Go to a bank, any bank in the South, and you will experience the Southern way to its fullest. All one may need to do is make a quick transaction - in and out and on to the next thing, but the teller has different plans. "How you? Oh, did you just move from Michigan? How do y'like it here? Well, you'll love it come late February and March. Oh, I cain't stand the snow."

And on and on. It took me a while to slow down, to welcome the random and constant stream of conversation from strangers. Now I can jump in the middle of a conversation with the best of them, but this is not a northern trait or tendency. We are saved by our ruthless efficiency.

Friendy friendy: This is related to the previous point. It isn't just that everything is slower, it's that everyone is friendlier. The South is superfriendly and if you are a northerner, this takes a little while to get used to. I don't want to suggest that the North is not friendly because that's plain wrong. It's just that generally speaking we do not want to bother you or otherwise impede the progress of your day. If you need something, directions or a restaurant suggestion, we northerners are only too happy to oblige. But if you engage in a conversation with us that lasts longer than five minutes, we will likely start to become suspicious of you and your intentions. Do they want to get us in their van, we wonder? Are they trying con us? Is there a second player involved? It's confusing. We are not bad people. We just have certain social expectations of strangers.

In the South, the social expectations of strangers is quite different. Everyone is fair game for conversation. I cannot tell you how many conversations about celery, soup stock, chicken cuts, or milk expiration dates I have had in Kroger with my fellow shoppers, strangers all of them. I am everyone's friend here. This is nice, but it would be a lie to say this did not take some getting used to. My husband is not at all used to it and his inherently shy and guarded self has had to invent all new defense mechanisms to accomodate this uniquely southern tradition.

And lastly, the worst thing about the South is the fact that my family does not live here. This is its grossest crime. It is likely I will be here for another year, perhaps two, and it's time to stop beating up the South for my mother not being around the corner.

So to the South, I apologize. I am ready to have my heart blessed, to return my buggy to the buggy corral, to discuss recipes with you at the grocery store, and to be your friend in all things.

But this snow thing --

Oh dear South, you must know it makes you a horrible wuss, and I will continue to make fun of you for unnecessary school closings and for shutting down the malls at the slightest mention of cold, white precipitation. On this point, I will ever hold true to my Yankee status.

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