She walked up to me at a mall. A big mall. The Opry Mills Mall near the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville Tennessee. Her youthful face, shiny blonde hair, hooded sweatshirt, and bright smile said late teens, maybe early 20’s.
She reached out as I passed, as if to touch my arm. “Can I pray with you over something today?!” she chirped, eyes serious and locked on mine.
I told her the truth.
“Sorry, but I’ve really got to pee!” I tossed her a smile as I rushed in the direction of the bathroom signage.
Over the two weeks I spent in the American South (thanks to my free flight!), the Christian intensity for which it is known showed itself many times. Billboards made declarative statements about God or Jesus, including the surprising double entendre, “Surely I come quickly” in Cookeville, TN.
Our Nigerian AirBnb hosts watched evangelical preachers on television for most of each day, except when they were at church. At the Trump event I attended, preachers on electronic megaphones stood screaming at the crowd regarding their need to repent, the man’s speech heavily peppered with things like “You sinning whores are going straight to HELL!” Driving through the Great Smoky Mountains, we passed Baptist Churches more often than we did other vehicles – about one every three miles. One even offered an ATM.
The “we” in this scenario is myself and my lovely friend Nelienne. We met five years ago traveling in the Philippines. Since then, we’ve regularly kept in touch. We met up again three years ago in Sweden, and I visited her two years ago at her home in Amsterdam. She’s originally from Aruba – yes, just like in the Beach Boys song. However, she’s spent her adult life (when she wasn’t traveling) in the Netherlands. I loved getting to see her reactions to American and Southern things I might not have noticed for myself.
Guns & the Grind
Her two biggest fascinations were the sheer number of weapons outlets and the punishing work-schedule most Americans almost automatically maintain.
Tennessee has no shortage of pawn shops and guns & ammo stores. Having grown up in a household with so many guns they wouldn’t all fit in the locking gun cabinet and so were stored aunloaded and far from any ammo! under my bed, weapons don’t phase me. I have good friends and family who are gun owners and enthusiasts and are easily misunderstood by other good friends and family who are horrified that guns are allowed to exist in our modern world. Nelienne didn’t have a particular sentiment, other than the surprise I feel when visiting countries that issue assault weapons to the law enforcement and even to security guards at malls. It’s pretty strange to have a coffee within range of a both a Victoria’s Secret and a man wielding an AK-47. So for Nelienne, it was pretty strange to be walking through a store that sells laundry detergent and yogurt and then come across the gun-sales section.
I can tell you when the foreign visitor was genuinely horrified: every time she met a real-life incarnation of the typical American worker. At a bar in a small Tennessee town we chatted with the bartenders, one of whom worked 40 hours at another bar in town and picked up an extra 20 hours at the current joint. A lovely man we stayed with has a day job, a night job, and a weekend job. Over and over we encountered people who were working 50, 60, 70 and 80 hours a week. Over and over her jaw dropped. Especially for a woman whose country actually has a law against anyone in her exhausting profession bsocial worker working over 32 hours per week, American work schedules are pure insanity.
Not to mention the lack of vacation time. She was flummoxed that many jobs don’t even offer vacation at all, and that most places would frown on you taking more than a few days of unpaid leave. Asking for a month off in America is pretty audacious and ludicrous move. Most people are living paycheck to paycheck (another shocker for her) and couldn’t afford it anyway.
The non-American was also horrified by Nashville’s work scene – primarily that the performers of the music that everyone travels the globe to hear… are working for free. Instead of being booked by the venue that charges a cover to pay the band, musicians in Nashville have to hustle their rent money, passing the hat after every few songs. For what it’s worth, I, too, thought this was a pretty mediocre set up. Of course no one likes to pay a cover, but it does make me sad that our culture approves many scenarios where people work and still have to grovel for their pay. ce.g. waitressing. Newsflash for some Americans: our tipping system is not normal. In fact, it’s arguably unethical. It drives foreign visitors mad that American wait staff are basically contractors working for whatever their real employers – the customers – are willing to pay them. Having arrived in Nashville straight from learning why whiskey isn’t bourbon, I wondered if we’d see lots of folks drinking Jack. Nope – Bud Light abounded.
In spite of the potentially unfair system in the music industry, I loved Nashville. Being a farm girl, I didn’t expect to have any serious affection for a city. But Nashville isn’t a city. Okay, sure. There are some tall buildings and some neon lights. But it’s no more a city than the quiet enclave of Portland, Maine. The audience-captivating female singer at one bar we visited (oh what a set of pipes!) wore a loose, faded, rumpled men’s t-shirt and a messy blonde ponytail – not sequins and makeup and hairspray. Spectators also followed the wear-whatever-you-want ethos so common to small towns. Even at the fanciest hotel in Nashville, the elite were seen coming out of their rooms to hit the town in sweatshirts. Our awesome couchsurfing host took us to a posh bar tucked into an old boiler room hidden down an alleyway: patrons of the luxurious surroundings were not dressed to match. I loved it! More small-town-ness: bus services shut down right after business hours. And the infamous “Music Row” turns out to be a nondescript street full of old houses that happen to have recording studios in their remodeled interiors.
Everything was laid-back and low key in Nashville, just the way I like it. Even motorists on the freeways took things easy. It’s the first place I’ve traveled in America where drivers drove a solid five miles under the posted limit, instead of over.
When I asked for North Carolina recommendations, the hive mind voted loudly and clearly. It’s impossible to put ambiance into words. But Asheville, North Carolina is what happens when thousands of thoughtful, passionate people choose to live side by side. You get dynamic downtown areas, incredible businesses turning out only the best products and services, people actually stopping to smell roses, and an art-covered landscape. The place so nurtures creativity, you can almost feel it – like a heartbeat. People here are awake and alive and happy. dIt’s what New England could be if not for its cold Puritan culture. Of course it felt like “home” the second I pulled off the freeway.
I learned on a Lazoom tour (so fun!) that in 1889 a super rich dude (George Vanderbilt) moved over 200 architects to the area to work on his mansion-in-the-making. Turns out super-rich people aren’t the only types of humans who like to be in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. After the job was done, many of the architects stuck around, seeding the region with creatives and diverse perspectives.
One can now actually go walk around rich dude’s mansion. I didn’t, thanks to illness gained from standing in the cold for 5+ hours trying to see Donald Trump speak in Nashville. But I did drop my companion off at the front door of the Biltmore mansion on an estate so enormous that driving or giant-tour-grouping is essential to a visit.
Thanks to Asheville’s amazingness, on arrival I began begging my trip companion to stay an extra day. Or two. Or three. She dreamed of attending a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Charlotte and hadn’t yet fallen under Asheville’s spell. It didn’t take too long for the vibe hit her, though. We launched into gourmet food, breweries, yoga classes, dinner parties, hilarious tours, dance parties, and many delicious cups of tea and butter coffee during early morning and late-night convos with our dynamo of a couchsurfing host, Britney.
Georgia on My Mind
One of my favorite childhood country songs is about compromise. But back then, I thought it was about a couple of kids getting away from the tyranny of parents and out into the woods where they could drink in a sense of autonomy. It was 700 fence posts between their houses, neither was old enough to drive a car, and they wore out that gravel road meeting up in the great outdoors.
“I’ll start walking your way, you start walking mine. We’ll meet in the middle, ‘neath that old Georgia pine…” crooned Diamond Rio.
“Yeah,” I thought. “That would be so awesome to live in the countryside and saunter off toward the neighbor’s house to meet up with my friend under a big tree.” I guess I ignored the part where the kids meeting up under the Georgia pine went on to get married and build a resilient relationship from figuratively continuing to meet in the middle. At the time, I thought the song was called “Georgia Pine.”
“Uh, yeah, Jema. Nice reverie, but I’ve got Facebook newsfeed to scroll here pretty soon, so let’s get on with it, hey?”
Sorryyeahsure! Georgia. So. Many. Pines. I should have known. But I didn’t expect Georgia to feel like the Black Hills of my youth. Or to have the same ambiance of Australian towns, most of which are built on the same type of delta soils that cover Georgia.
Savannah dominated my experience of the state, its warmth, humidity, and tree cover pleasant given our springtime visit. I could see locals likely aren’t fond of summers. The town is known for its Oglethorpe Plan leafy squares – a design feature meant to both create community space and provide reprieve from the giant cobblestone (and now asphalt and concrete) oven. Walking along Savannah’s riverfront felt just like other tropical river cities of the world – Bangkok, Thailand; Vientiane, Laos. I loved the purple wisteria everywhere. While regularly swatting away insects, I gave thanks I wouldn’t be around for proper bug season.
We rented an AirBnb from a white woman in a mostly-black neighborhood. On my morning run, I crossed a magic line just a few blocks away, where suddenly the faces were Northern-European pale, the lawns were tidy and embellished, and the houses weren’t in disrepair. Thanks to conversations about typical American work hours over the course of our trip, it provided a thought-provoking sharp contrast. Despite living in the same geographic location, the people who are set up culturally to attend well-funded schools, to easily make connections with people in the right places, and can walk a pretty clear path to a middle-class income clearly either had more time or more money to care for their properties.
Along similar lines, it struck me when I headed downtown that I was the only white person taking public transit. Also, the only African-American folks downtown – save one lone couple – were there under the guise of employment. While no longer officially policy, in some ways segregation seems to be alive and well in the south.
We wrapped up our trip in mid-town Atlanta, enjoying our AirBnb and the best-decorated brewery I’ve seen. The morning of our departure, I cracked into the running goal I’d been meaning to start on for months. It took me fifteen minutes of being both confused and inspired by the plethora of happy park goers – “Wow, maybe Atlanta has a bit of Asheville’s magic?!” I thought – before I realized… oh. It’s Saturday. Now it all makes sense.
Which got me thinking… what if the week had a few more Saturdays in it? Would our world be a happier place? But… I digress.
Happy Travels! ♣
References [ + ]
|a.||↑||unloaded and far from any ammo!|
|c.||↑||e.g. waitressing. Newsflash for some Americans: our tipping system is not normal. In fact, it’s arguably unethical. It drives foreign visitors mad that American wait staff are basically contractors working for whatever their real employers – the customers – are willing to pay them.|
|d.||↑||It’s what New England could be if not for its cold Puritan culture.|