Having grown up in the Rocky Mountains, I distinctly remember the culture shock I experienced when I first moved to the south. It was November when I drove through a blizzard toward my new home 11 years ago and when I drove into Georgia a few days later the palm trees were swaying in the 80 degree breezes. My first night there I went to the Piggly Wiggly (that’s a grocery store, in case you didn’t know) where they had a massive display of gallon cans of boiled peanuts by the door (a taste for which I never acquired), huge piles of okra and other various greens (that get composted where I grew up), and a meat section filled with such oddities as frog legs (they came in packs of 2 or 4 pairs of legs), crawdads (you may call them crawfish or crayfish depending on where you grew up), alligator tail, ox tail, and chicken feet (a 5 lb bag of chicken feet). At the little local grocer you could also get squirrel, coon, possum, and armadillo meat any day of the week if that tickled your fancy and on occasion you could find snake meat, while their boiled peanuts were always fresh made, a slight purple-grey, slimy, and would explode in your mouth with salty goop that has never be attained by the canned variety. I had never seen any of those things before and sure as hell had no idea how to cook them.
“What alternate universe is this?” I thought to myself as I stood inThe Pig that day, “What fresh hell? What was I thinking coming here?!”
There are a great many things for which I was not prepared, including a shocking lack of sweater weather.
The food and palm trees weren’t all that threw me. There were cockroaches to contend with as well, so many colors and sizes and varieties. There aren’t cockroaches in the Rockies; it’s rare for someone to have heard of someone who knew someone whose brother’s roommate had them once when he was a kid. Now, in the south there are big, round, black ones that would dive-bomb you on the sidewalk on your way to your favorite bar (which was particularly dangerous when walking in stupidly high heels on nearly 300 year old cobblestones); they make a delightful crunch when run over by your car, by the way (very different from the pop of the tree frogs that seemed plague-like every time it rained, bless them). There are long, creepy brown and orange ones that would always sneak in when it was “cold” outside but that never survived either the cat or the lack of food and water inside. The school I worked in was infested with German roaches that would crawl up your shoes in the restroom and across desks when things were moved around too much inside. There are Japanese cockroaches that look almost exactly like the Germans except they are slightly lighter, narrower, and capable of flight; knowing these differences makes one able to distinguish between the indoor scourge and the outdoor creature who lost its way. I wasn’t prepared for any of them and in order to not seem like a complete and utter wuss I became an amateur entomologist, catching and identifying them so I could assure myself I was not, in fact, infested. Bug in someone’s classroom making children and adults run away and scream? There I was, plastic cup and pin in hand, ready to have a science lesson.
Oh, the bugs. *shiver*
That still wasn’t all I had to get used to, however, as the southern drawl posed a significant barrier in everyday communications when I first moved south. Before I lived in Georgia, I had the worst time trying to understand southerners because even though it’s the same language, it’s not. If you’ve never lived in the south, you may not be aware that there are different drawls in different areas.
North and South Carolina are quite different. North is an easier to understand dialect in general (think movie star trying to drawl) than South with its dropped inflectional endings, more nasally vowels, and wordsbeinsmooshed together. Tennessee is slow and smooth, that’s why they make the best whiskey and why sittin’ on a porch swing is so nice there. True story. Kentucky is a bit peppier than Tennessee and has a tempo more easily understood by the rest of us without losing that charming smoothness of the drawl, and consequently a good Kentucky bourbon makes an excellent hot toddy and delicious bourbon balls for a cold night. (Mmm… cold nights!) Alabama has long vowels, Gulf coast, good fishin’, and can be the easiest of the Deep South drawls to understand right off the bat but is not as easily imitated. Louisiana seems to have rounder vowels and less twang, especially compared to Texas and Arkansas, although Texas is a far more lazy drawl than any of the rest as if they have somehow lost the use of the whole tongue. Matthew McConaughey, anyone? Mississippi is the most musical drawl and probably the most recognized the way it hangs onto every deep vowel sound and drops many consonants in favor of an elongated vowel. Florida doesn’t really count, as far as I’m concerned, because the northern bit and panhandle really sound of Georgia and Alabama while the rest of the state is full of so many yankee transplants there’s little or no drawl left to distinguish. And the Virginias really depend on how close one is to D.C. or another major city as opposed to being in a very rural area. And then there’s Georgia.
Georgia likes to pronounce all the vowels, make short words long by adding syllables that aren’t actually there, and talk slowly enough that the untrained ear can keep up despite the thickness of the drawl. Georgia is sweet and sassy and has the ability to get a girl out of trouble, into a VIP section, out of a ticket, or into first class like it’s nothin’. It’s my favorite and anyone who knows me personally is probably not surprised.
As if the accent wasn’t enough, I had to figure out what the hell they were saying once I understood the way they spoke:
Y’all look like ya might could be needing a carriage soon!
(Do you need a shopping cart?)
I’m’a’git mah pitcher made.
(I am going to have my picture taken.)
I’m fixin’a do’me a cook’up.
(I’m about to cook dinner.)
That there’s slap’yer’mamma’good!
(That is really delicious.)
As amusing as it was for me to try to get used to all the things the south does differently, the most difficult thing I had to contend with was the weather. While I will concede that the humidity made cool days chillier, it also made hot days hotter. If you’ve never stood on the cobbled streets of some old southern town in the middle of summer you may not have ever made a puddle of sweat beneath you. If you haven’t endured any sort of outdoor activity any time between February and October, you might not get the appeal of carrying a fan or actually using a parasol (15 degrees cooler is 15 degrees cooler). In the south there was never sweater weather.
Ah. Sweater weather.
That blissful chill between late summer and proper winter. The halfway house between wanting AC and needing an actual jacket. The magical place where it is cold enough all day to enjoy a bit of cashmere against the skin, never needing to strip down because it warmed up and you’re too hot and never needing to layer on more than perhaps a scarf or a pair of mittens because it’s too cold.
Blissful, perfect, sweater weather.
In nearly 10 years in the south, not once did I enjoy a perfect day of sweater weather. There were mornings that were perfect for a sweater, and even some that were perfect for a yummy pea coat and heated seats in the car, but they were followed by afternoons warm enough that people coming from where I grew up would have no problem sitting by the pool in a bikini or enjoying the surf at the beach. There was BBQing in shorts and Hawaiian shirts for Christmas, mosquitos for Boxing Day, and baby ducklings on New Year’s.
But no sweater weather!
Moving south was an adventure. Looking back, I laugh at myself and how comical my acclimation was. I loved the years I spent living there and I hope someday to return permanently. When I do, what I will miss are days like today where a sweater is all you need to keep the frosty chill at bay.
Post Script (October):
While my home care nurse was here today she asked about what my latest post was about. I told her only that I wrote about the one thing my beloved south doesn’t have. This began a 45 minute conversation wherein we laughed heartily at our shared experiences with moving to Georgia. When I said something about the grocery store, she immediately mentioned the boiled peanuts in a can. We both made gumbo within the last week and left out okra because no matter how much you cook it, it just makes us think of snot. The accents, the phrases, all of it.
It’s not just me.
Post Post Script (January):
I have been informed by a friend in Tennessee that there’s more to okra than just being goober-peas and so now the mission is to find fresh okra here so he can teach me how to fry and pickle it. Those are (apparently) delicious iterations I need to try. He tells me fried pigs feet is also delicious, but I think giving okra another shot is already quite the limb for me to be out on.
Post Post Post Script (July):
Whole fresh okra fried with bacon tastes delicious. Yes it is bacony but it actually has a nice crunch and no snotty texture!
Post Post Post Post Script (August):
I learned last night that okra grilled is very delicious even though there’s no bacon involved.