Monday, June 13, 2011

Living in the South

It's interesting how a place works on you when you live there a while.

When I moved here, some ten years ago, it was during a drought, mid-summer. It was hot, the cicadas sang endlessly, there were no clouds in the metallic-looking sky.

I was miserable. And it wasn't just the weather. I was far, far away from family. Far from friends. I knew almost no one, outside of the colleagues in my department (and I had met them only briefly during my interview) and the people I had met when I visited the church that I ultimately joined.

I would sit in my ugly little apartment (seriously: every apartment in this town has the same nasty tan-and-brown "Berber" carpet in it. Mine had nail polish stains on it in the middle of the living room floor - which I duly documented before move-in, so I would not be charged with having caused them later) and look out and what seemed like an inhospitable landscape (I had never lived ANYWHERE where it got over 95 for more than a couple days at a time) and cried.

It wasn't just loneliness; it was the strangeness and the upheaval of everything. People talked differently from me. I was obviously "not from around here." (Gah, how I grew to hate that phrase; it always seemed vaguely to hint of suspicion to me, to remind me I was an Outsider.)

I was also miserable because the town was so small. I had moved from a large, "twin-town" situation, where, both towns together numbered some 100,000 people. There were two malls. There were probably eight or ten grocery stores. There was everything a person needed right in that town.

Now, where I lived, there was a Winn-Dixie, a dodgy sort of warehouse-type grocery store (I was warned about it - that they didn't always check the expiration dates on foods) and a wal-mart (not a SUPER wal-mart, a plain wal-mart, with a sad little case of milk near the front door - a convenience for anyone running short on time - and things like cereal and crackers, but no produce, no meat, no frozen goods). The downtown was mostly shuttered businesses. People drove the half-hour to the next nearest city to go to the mall...and it wasn't that great a mall at that, in my opinion.

I started filling out applications. I wanted to move away. I wanted to move back to the upper midwest where there weren't giant grasshoppers flying around in the air (I had one land on my leg one day as I was walking out to class; its legs tore the hose I was wearing). I missed my family. I missed cooler weather. I missed being able to find everything I wanted right in my little town.

I remember I ordered something from a website that used FedEx Home as the delivery service. They added a $5 surcharge because I lived in an "inaccessible rural area." That made me feel even more I was living at the ends of the earth, in some outpost of civilization in the wilds.

But gradually, I adjusted. (None of those applications I mailed off came through for me; I didn't even get an interview with any of the places I applied.) I made it through the first year (I think the first year of a new prof's life is the worst are trying to stay at least a few weeks ahead of the students, you don't have the whole semester prepped yet, it's a terrible insecure feeling, like you're one bad bout of stomach flu from being NOT caught up).

The second year was a bit easier as I had stuff prepped and things started to shake down a little.

I began to think about buying a house - some aspects of living in an apartment began to be untenable (noise, cigarette smoke from neighbors....). I found a house that I liked and could afford and bought it. (And had my eyes opened to how some of the old-school lawyers here I started to work with on the process actually acted as if he thought it was somehow wrong for a single woman to be buying her own house.)

I moved to the house, felt more settled. Also, the town began to grow a bit and change...a few new restaurants. Finally we passed legislation saying it was OK to sell wine and spirits by the glass in restaurants here (so we got more nice restaurants). They built a new super wal-mart, just in time, because the Winn-Dixie went out of business (Actually, there were a few weeks one summer I was making weekly treks to the next city over, to go to their Albertson's, because I didn't like the other grocery choices in town once the Winn-Dixie closed).

One of the old, long-time groceries renovated and is much nicer to shop at now.

Our downtown started growing again, once a couple of restaurants moved in to attract people there. We now have a quilt shop, which is a giant wonderful thing for me. We have more businesses in general. Which is nice. Because sometimes I like to be able to shop without having to plan a trek out of town for it.

I've also adapted to some of the cultural differences. Making friends helps with this. I now have people who know me from church commenting that I "sound so cultured and educated" (by virtue, I guess, of my "golden triangle" (I grew up in NE Ohio, the dialect of which used to be the "received pronunciation" for newscasters and such) instead of having people look at me and going "You talk differently." I mean, both comments mean kind of the same thing, but being told I sound "cultured" or am "easy to listen to" is a lot nicer than being told my speech is "different."

I will say I've picked up a few vocal mannerisms from around here. I don't think I'll ever actually develop an accent - I tend to not have that happen, and also, I was 30 when I moved here - but I have picked up some terms, some turns of phrase. My parents laughed at me over break when I commented, "I got the clothes that need washed." Yes, it's nonstandard grammar, I wouldn't do it in formal written communication, but in very casual conversation it seems OK to me. (People around here say "need (verbed)" sometimes).

I also remarked, when my mom was sort of surprised over Paula Deen saying "might could" (instead of "might" or "may") that people around here say that too. I don't think I've ever said it, but it doesn't sound that odd to me now.

Also, another thing people say is "fixing to" or "fixin' to." I've said that a few times, mostly jocularly, but again, it doesn't seem so odd or out of place to me.

(And I know people who call what I would call the "burner" on the electric stove the "eye," just like Paula Deen does)

And the different foods, I've adapted to. (I still don't like fried okra, but that's OK, a lot of people here don't eat it, either because they don't like it or because they've stopped eating fried food). I actually prefer beans the way they're prepared in the south - usually only seasoned with an onion, garlic, cumin, and maybe a ham bone or ham hocks. (I'm guessing the garlic and cumin are southwestern influences. And at any rate, that's how I make beans, I think other people may leave out the garlic and cumin). Up north, beans are much more commonly prepared with a sweetener of some kind and maybe tomato sauce (usually ketchup), and I just don't like the sweet "baked beans" as well as I like the plainer "southern beans."

And I like sweet tea now. I never used to like iced tea, but that's because up North, they don't sweeten it, and it seems very bitter to me. But mix it with a sugar syrup, and it's much more appealing.

I thought of all these things as I was coming home from my last break. While driving home, I stopped for lunch at one of my favorite barbecue places. One of the choices of side dishes (you get two: meat and two veg, as they'd say in Britain) was black-eyed peas. Which I got, because I really like black-eyed peas. I never ate them before I lived here but I like them. And I think - I could be wrong on this but I think - north of the Mason-Dixon line, the only place you'd find black-eyed peas as a side dish would be in a "soul food" restaurant. Here, they're often just seen as a "normal" accompaniment to barbecue or other meats.

As I took a bite of the black-eyed peas, I thought, "I'm home again." Even a short decade ago, I would never have believed I would have felt that about this place.

I still don't like the hot dry summers much, though...


Kate P said...

That's a really nice tribute to where you live (your home!).

I think Western/Central PA also uses the "needs [past participle]" expression. I come across it every once in a while.

Joel said...

I use the "needs verbed," and I also say "might could" and "fixin' to." Both holdovers from my Missourah grandfather, I think. And I say "store-boughten," which infuriates my daughter.