Sweet Home Alabama

As a lifelong resident of North Carolina, I always thought of myself as being from “the South.” My friend, who was born in Alabama, and grew up in North Carolina, but came back to Alabama via a brief stint in Florida, has always tried to explain to me how “the South” is not just “the South.” He has always said the “Deep South” is different, and I always blew that off as nonsense stereotyping. He said that to people in Alabama, North Carolina might as well be “the North.” And I thought, “Oh, please.”

After just a week in Alabama, I can safely say that I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. Things are different down here. Probably in some ways not for the best, but in many ways, better, at least in my mind. Here’s a brief list of things I’ve noticed in just one week.

1) Everyone is so friendly. Now, most people who visit anywhere in the South from anywhere else would say this. But I would say that it is all very dependent on the specific area. In Asheville, I found that people were much more ready to have a conversation with a stranger than in Winston. And certainly in Rutherfordton you will get someone’s life story (as well as that of their son-in-law) while standing in line at the Walmart pharmacy. One of the first things I noticed here was that everyone makes eye contact, smiles, and says hello. Retail clerks genuinely wish you a blessed day or confide something personal in you for the two minutes you stand before them. People are also very nosy. If you go to the post office, you should be prepared to report the purpose of your business in front of everyone else in the post office, before you get to the counter. Someone comes around and asks. One of the first things friends told me was to get ready to be asked insanely inappropriate questions in public on a regular basis and figure out how to deal with that. Their approach is to basically make shit up all the time, so that they appear to be cooperating but never divulge any real information. The people they work with know next to nothing about them, but they all think they do, and they all have a different idea as to what it is. This is because they never confirm or deny anything and let people make their own assumptions. They find this very entertaining. They enjoy testing the philosophical concept of “It doesn’t matter what the truth is; it only matters what you can make someone believe is the truth.”

2) It is much, much warmer here. The day I left Winston, I was bundled to the hilt in a down parka, fleece hat, gloves, and coffee for added warmth. There was still snow on the ground from the last storm. Since I’ve been in Alabama, I’ve been completely comfortable in a light fleece jacket. During the day, one could conceivably wear shorts right now. It’s only when the sun goes down that I need anything for additional warmth, and even then it feels like one of North Carolina’s chilly spring days right before it bursts into summer. I’ve been here in the summer, and I know this is not going to be a good thing when the humidity hits and all the gum and chap stick in my car melts into mush, and when you step outside and can hardly inhale because the air is so heavy and wet. But right now, it’s very nice.

3) Corn fritters. I had never in my life even heard of a corn fritter before. I thought it was something like a hush puppy. But no, it is a ball of creamy corn — whole kernels of yellow corn floating in the creamed corn soup — then breaded and deep fried, and it is heavenly. We had this as an appetizer at Niffer’s Place, an Auburn institution, and I thought it was specific to the restaurant. Then, I saw frozen corn fritters at the grocery store alongside the mozzarella sticks and pizza bites. Whaaaaat?

4) Alabama-style barbecue. North Carolina is pretty famous for its barbecue, and there are several different styles depending on the region. I like the vinegary Eastern NC barbecue the best, as opposed to the tomato-based Western style of my home region. There’s also a mustard sauce particular to the low country of South Carolina that I like a lot. Alabama has a couple different types of barbecue sauce — a smoky-sweet hickory that is reddish brown but still involves no tomatoes, and a mustardy-vinegar, like a cross between Eastern NC and low country SC, but thicker and creamier. As much as I like NC barbecue, I would have to say that at this point in time, Alabama barbecue is the best I’ve ever tasted. That mustardy-vinegar cream sauce that was ladled on my plate of sliced pork at Mike and Ed’s was divine.

5) Crazy rain/storms. It rains here quite a bit, maybe because it’s close to the coast. But it can be a torrential downpour one minute, and half an hour later, it will have stopped, and it’s fairly dry. Also, this place brings new meaning to “severe thunderstorm.” Wind, hail, rain, so powerful you can’t see through it, like a warm, wet blizzard. Approximately six hours and a few downed trees later, it looks like a blue-sky paradise again.

6) Alcohol. Alcohol costs more here because there is something called a “sin tax” on things like booze and cigarettes and other sinful indulgences. And yet, there is more alcohol being consumed here than anywhere I’ve ever lived. Yes, it’s a college town, but I’ve lived in college towns before, and never have I encountered the level of picked-over beer that I have seen here. If you go to buy alcohol after 5 pm, be prepared to settle for crap, because that’s what’s left. Party preparation has to begin early.

7) Ladies and Gentlemen. Gender roles are apparently much more strict here than elsewhere in the South. Much to my surprise, I like it very much. Whereas my independent self once would have taken offense at someone’s insinuation that I was less capable as a female in the world, I now actually appreciate it when multiple men vie for the opportunity to open doors for me, let me go ahead of them in line, pump my gas, or even tip their hat. Because I am a lady, and apparently that’s how gentlemen are supposed to treat ladies. It’s a little like being in the 19th century. But maybe I had a past life during that era that really suited me, because I am totally down with it. No, please, go ahead and dote on me just because I’m a girl. I enjoy being catered to, and I have never experienced that before. I believe that the men see this behavior not as a slight to my inferior gender, but as a sign of respect and safekeeping. Something akin to the respect for the divine “goddess,” the sacred female, that primitive peoples enjoyed. At least, that’s how I prefer to look at it, and I don’t think it’s far off the mark. I am woman, hear me roar? That’s good, but “You are woman, and beautiful, and sacred,” is a little better. Respect is actually a concept that people talk about. I was at a party last weekend and mentioned that I have one male neighbor who will only talk to me when he knows my male roommate is home. A number of the guys at the party responded very quickly in saying, “That’s being respectful.” I agree, I suppose, but it still struck me as strange until they explained it. And now that I know people actually think about stuff like that here, I appreciate it.

8) Central Time Zone. It’s a little weird to be living in a different time zone from most of my friends and family. At this point, my body is still on Eastern time, so I am staying up later and sleeping later than I think I should be, but then when I realize what time I physically feel like it is, it all makes sense. We are very close (about 20 minutes) to the Eastern/Central border, so depending on where you are, sometimes cell phones have a nasty habit of resetting themselves to what they perceive to be correct. This proves to be problematic for detecting when exactly you may have missed that last text message or if you rely on your phone as an alarm clock, which I have done for a long time. I may actually need to buy a real alarm clock now that plugs into the wall. The main weird thing is the light. The light is the same as in Eastern zone, but just at different times of the day. That’s been a bit weird to get used to. Three pm doesn’t look like it’s “supposed to” outside.

9) Slow driving. Although some people like to say I drive like a bat out of hell, I maintain that I drive no more crazily than anyone else. I am not a speed demon, particularly. But if I am in a hurry, I will punch the gas maybe a little too hard trying not to be late. Around here, everyone drives so slow. I consistently go five over the speed limit, and I am flying past people at that speed. I’m lucky if I get behind someone actually doing the speed limit, instead of a few miles per hour under the limit. I keep wondering why this is. A different type of respect for the law? An attitude towards life that allows one to slow down and enjoy being alive instead of rushing to the next thing/place as quickly as possibly? I have to say, even though I have been known to talk about wanting to live in a big city and do enjoy that fast pace of everything when visiting them, I kinda like living in a place where life goes a little slower. I never really noticed that slowness growing up in a very small Southern town. I don’t think we had that, particularly.

Other great things so far…Auburn is an awesome little college town that reminds me a lot of Chapel Hill, and seems to be pretty cultural and diverse and open-minded so far. There are actually hippies here, and places that remind me of Asheville (like little bookstores and coffee shops and bead/yarn shops with creaky wood floors), tons of cool bars and restaurants, good places for walking dogs (parks), tons of old houses with character, and lots of people up for hanging out. Auburn has a preeminent veterinary school, so there are tons of animal lovers and vet offices, and anywhere that has an abundance of animal lovers is all right with me. Politically, I was a little worried about being in the middle of red-state America, but today I drove by a local mechanic’s shop whose sign bore the words “infowars.com” on one side and something about a sale on the other side. As someone who knows that website well, I was pretty happy to see them promoting their support publicly, and to know that there are people everyone who are seeking out their own information instead of relying on mainstream whatever to guide them. You never can tell where you’re going to encounter an open mind. I probably wouldn’t have thought south Alabama would be the place that would come closest in my experience to the liberal bastion that is Asheville.

But all this sums up to…I love it here so far! And I am very happy with it as a landing spot for the time being. Never know what the future will hold, but so far this is just what I needed. I feel like the universe leads us to things/experiences/places/situations/people. I feel like I was led here. Maybe the reason(s) are not yet clear, but I’m listening. And enjoying the ride.

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