Southern life

Last year, some friends and I traveled to the South for a vacation in parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. A lifelong northeasterner, I am accustomed to a culture in which people are forever rushing, always looking for something, constantly busy.

The culture south of the Mason-Dixon line is markedly different. Anyone traveling in the South will notice several things immediately. One is the language. They have their own vocabulary in which there are very few one-syllable words (we-ee-ee-ll), a lot of idiomatic expressions (I ain’t funin’ ya), and no such words as “rush,” “hurry,” or “quickly.”

I often could not understand people. My cousin, a Tennessee native who attends college in the Northeast, translated for me a few times, but quite often I just nodded and smiled. One woman at a museum told me about a big “pahn.” I thought she was telling me about a pine tree, but she actually meant a pond. My Yankee accent and choppy speech were just as foreign to her.

I met another cousin for the first time, a woman who was born and bred in Tennessee. She asked about my grandfather, to which I responded with my typical “well…hecameherefromEasternEuropeintheearlytwenties.” She gave me a blank look and said “You gotta slow down…Ah’m southern.”

Everything slows down in the South. It took us over an hour to get our rental car, even though we were the only customers at the time. If there was one person standing in line at nearly anything, the line was already too long. If I went to a fast-food counter or to buy a souvenir, I would often wait in line as the cashiers talked to other customers or to each other. They were in no obvious hurry to attend to my needs. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a cultural difference. There’s something to be said for not rushing through life, for taking your time to enjoy it.

Another thing about Southerners: they are a friendly bunch. As a Yankee, when someone gets in the elevator with me and has a big smile and a “how y’all doin,'” I get suspicious and wonder what they want from me. I was not familiar with such friendliness. Down South, no one so much as snarled at me, and most everyone made eye contact. My cousin told me that even if Southerners run into someone they don’t like, they are liable to give them a hug and make small talk.

But that seems like a colossal waste of time. I’d rather ignore them and save my energy for people I like. Maybe that’s just my Yankee background talking. There was a show in our hotel one night for $65 per person, and an ad in the elevator telling everyone about it. There was many a time when I heard what sounded like “what…sixty-fahv dollars? Whoooweee, I ain’t never payin’ that much for a show.”

Unreal estate

New Yorkers, who could easily pay $65 for dinner and almost twice that for a Broadway show, can understand the big difference here regarding the cost of living. My cousin pointed out a nice house in Tennessee that her friend had bought for $85,000. Granted, it wasn’t a mansion, but it was a decent-sized place. Try finding a passable apartment for even twice that in New York City, never mind a house.

It’s not just real estate, either. At a grocery store in Mississippi, I bought a half-liter bottle of water for exactly 36 cents. That is not a typo. I was so stunned that I twice asked for verification before requesting the receipt. I remember this incident every time I go into a New York grocery store or bodega.

Now, think of the average person in the Northeast. Is he or she a relaxed, easygoing, friendly (to everyone, including strangers) person who enjoys a low cost of living? Does he or she make eye contact with strangers, smile, and nod hello? Does this person seem to enjoy life, taking it slowly?

Maybe sometimes, but certainly not always. Not like our brethren down South, where friendliness and common courtesy are a way of life. They undoubtedly have their moments, like everyone else, but generally their attitude about the little things is that they’re, well, little.

Nearly 150 years ago, the South almost became a different country. Thankfully, it is still part of the U.S., and its cultural and social mores are a welcome counterbalance to the hustle and bustle up North, where we rarely stop our busy lives long enough to appreciate the beauty of a local “pahn.”

Eric Kabakoff


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