Our boomer generation is nothing if not flexible, right? Like Jill Thomas, who now lives in Pensacola, Florida. That would be no big deal if she hadn’t come from an altogether different country. But she has learned to live with Sweet Tea.
Salt Spring is a hippie kind of place. It’s ‘open-minded’ and liberal (sometimes to the point of absurdity). Pensacola, by a twist of illogical mapping, is in Florida, but culturally it’s in Alabama. It’s conservative and Republican (sometimes to the point of absurdity).
When the opportunity to move presented itself, I loved the idea of living in ‘Alabama.’ I’ve always had an idealized fascination with things Southern. My favorite books are To Kill a Mockingbird and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I love Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Bluegrass, and Dixieland Jazz. I imagined the south as a languid graceful place running amok with art, music, home cooking, quirky customs, and people with a story to tell.
While many people share my idealized ideas about Southern culture, others malign the South as socially backward, racist, and xenophobic. I’ve found the South lives up to its stereotypes (both good and bad) but at the same time, defies them all.
Southerners are crazy friendly. During my first week as a southern resident, I was in the grocery store, arms full of food, ready to drop everything. A young man looked at me and said, without hesitating, “Ma’am, please take my cart,” then turned the cart over to me and walked away. Nothing beats the feeling of somebody improving your day without expecting anything in return and in the South, that happens every day.
Neighbors are neighborly in the South. They talk over the fence and bring you food for any reason. I had a cold the first month I was here and by the end of the week, there was a pile of Tupperware on my counter waiting for a return to neighbors who fed me while I was sick.
Southerners love to party. Costumes, crowns, beads, and ball gowns are wardrobe requirements. There’s a festival every weekend. Mardi Gras lasts a month. Parading is a verb as in “Are you going parading this weekend?” Only south of the Mason-Dixon line will you be hit in the face by a moon pie hurled at you by a 75-year-old woman wearing a tutu and a jester hat in a dive bar.
Southerners share a deep respect for family and tradition. If you don’t have family nearby, they’ll adopt you. I know my southern neighbors’ parents, siblings, grandparents, brother-in-law’s mom, and nephew’s girlfriend. I know them better than I know my husband’s extended family.
Southerners are there when you need them. I had house guests this spring who I dreaded hosting. My neighbors took shifts entertaining them. When I expressed my astonishment, they said, “It is important to spread around the taking care.”
Southern kids are crazy polite. If you ask them a question they look you in the eye and say “Yes Ma’am.” While I was lugging lumber out from under my house one day, the 13-year-old boy who lives four doors down came running over (without being asked) and offered, “Can I help you with that Miss Jill.” I felt like a failure as a parent.
Southern women know how to look good. They sport perfectly painted nails, pressed clothes, and salon-styled hair every day. Moving to the South has made me keenly aware of my wrinkled shirt and my inability to tame my frizzy hair.
Southerners are fearless and passionate. They ride bikes without helmets, drive cars with a cocktail in one hand and a smartphone in the other. They light off fireworks like birthday candles. They are zealots about their college football teams.
Best of all Southerners are accepting. I’ve blundered my way through every Southern courtesy and convention. I plow into the back of men who’ve stopped to open a door for me. I am too casual about how I address new business associates. I call my boss by his first name because I can’t say the word ‘sir’ without feeling silly. Southerners are forgiving of my social faux pas.
While every day I find new reasons to love the South, there are some things I find baffling and disconcerting.
Segregation is alive and well. Thirty-one percent of the population of Pensacola is African-American, but black people do not live in my neighborhood or hang out in the places where I play and socialize. White and black Southerners have complicated relationships — a potent cocktail of familial love, hate, terror, tradition, and history. It is relationship defined by complex social customs and unspoken rules. It’s difficult for outsiders to understand, and navigating racial relations in the South is fraught with land mines.
It is evident in daily life in the South that slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movements are recent history. Tributes to Confederate war heroes share the landscape with memorials to Martin Luther King. The scars run as deep as Southern traditions.
Politics, patriotism, religion, and militarism are more points of fissure for me. The majority of the people in my daily life think the polar opposite of what I think about most topics — whether it be gun violence, climate change, immigration, spirituality, or current events. Holding my tongue is a full-time job, and it is hard work.
My southern neighbors and colleagues are gracious about our differences. We get to know each other before we bring up controversial topics and then we are delicate and respectful. Many of my Canadian friends on the other hand are openly disdainful. I’ve been asked many times how I can stand living among Republicans.
I feel the need to remind liberals that being open-minded doesn’t just mean embracing progressive causes like racial diversity and kale chips. It also means finding common ground with people who fundamentally disagree with you — like Republicans.
The North American political landscape is polarizing around partisan politics. Political differences are not new. What is new is that it is no longer just single-issue polarization. People are choosing sides (red or blue) and then aligning ALL of their opinions along party lines.
Where parties in earlier periods may have found many areas of agreement even as they fought bitterly over some issues, parties today disagree on virtually everything. Universal polarization makes it very difficult to find common ground. Common ground is likely the foundation for solutions to complex and critical global issues like climate change.
What is also new is that demographic studies show that people are moving to live with people who share their political and cultural values. Interacting only with people who think like you breeds closed-minded extremism, whether you are aligned with the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to live with people who are culturally opposite in so many ways. Living in the South is smoothing my rough edges. I’ve learned to curb my cynicism about matters that are close to the heart. I curse less, bring homemade food to a party, and ask my neighbors if they need anything before I go to the grocery store.
And I am starting to fit in. I say Y’all (and sometimes even All Y’all). I know that if someone says, “Bless Your Heart,” it means they think I’m an idiot (probably for wearing a backpack with both straps on my shoulders). I also know that if someone says “You’re Fine” after I spill wine on their carpet they like me … and I like them.