SG | I always figured there were things about the South that I liked and would miss if I left. On a college summer trip to England, for example, a friend from Alabama and I became obsessed with turning a pot of hot Earl Grey into something akin to iced sweet tea. That project saw only mild success, and within another couple of months we were back home with the real deal.
But in 2003, I really did leave, not to return until the spring of 2016. During most of that time I didn’t fully realize I was truly out of the South — my wife and I spent about nine years in Northern Virginia operating under the veil of Southerness. (It is decidedly NOT the South.)
So now we’re happily settled in Raleigh, and wouldn’t you know that as of day one things started happening to remind me of what makes this place — that is, all parts South — special.
At any polite gathering in mixed company, sweet tea and lemonade are typically pre-poured and awaiting pickup.
1. Sweet tea.
Times have changed since I was desperately straining tea bags across the pond, and now you can pretty much find decent sweet tea anywhere. Milo’s has some serious reach these days, and McDonalds latched onto that kitsch about 10 years ago, with $1 sweet tea being marketed to the masses. So I didn’t miss access to sweet tea. No, not access: what I missed was sheer volume.
Here, the stuff is everywhere. If you’re at a barbecue or chicken restaurant — even KFC — and your order strays a bit too far toward “family meal” proportions, you will be offered a half-gallon of sweet tea. At first I resisted, but this so confused the servers that I just started accepting them and stowing them away in the refrigerator.
At any polite gathering in mixed company, sweet tea and lemonade are typically pre-poured and awaiting pickup. I went to an early evening reception at the Governor’s Mansion (for adults, mind you), and the only beverage options were sweet tea and lemonade. I took the sweet tea and relished the hell out of it.
2. The finger-wave.
This is most purely defined as the one- or two-finger salutation given from the wheel of a truck when passing another driver on a quiet country road. I’ve been doing it compulsively my whole life when in rural enough areas. But once out of the South, your friendly finger will go unnoticed, returned only by the stony, forward-cast glares of passersby.
Now people are waving at me all the time. Full hand waves, too, not just the too-cool country finger-wave. I’ve heard northern transplants marveling at the phenomenon, completely dumbfounded. But I get it. We’re friendly. We’re passing each other and made eye contact. What animal wouldn’t wave?
3. We’re friendly.
It annoys me when Southerners complain about others (typically New Yorkers) as rude. From much experience further afield, the rest of the world is not rude. Even New Yorkers. (There are exceptions, of course — I’m talking to you, cab drivers everywhere.)
That said, Southerners are just exceptionally friendly. Remarkably and sometimes awkwardly friendly. Like when the old-timer stands holding the door for you for way too long as you are forced to half-jog in from the parking lot to close the distance. Or when everyone everywhere wants to stop and take a few minutes to talk about any random thing. Checkout lines are a killer. But I’m learning to bottle up my constant sense of urgency and just go with it. I’m sure before I know it, I’ll be that guy, retired and picking up something from Home Depot on a Saturday morning. Desperate to share my deep knowledge of rain gauges with that young, harried-looking dad behind me.
4. Hush puppies.
Yes, hush puppies. A year ago I never would’ve dreamed hush puppies would make a list like this. You get hush puppies when you’re at the beach, right? With the fried seafood platter. Well I will give North Carolina credit here for just doing what everyone was thinking and serving them whenever.
On day one of my new job in Raleigh, my boss took me to a barbecue restaurant. The second we sat down, the server had a cardboard basket of hush puppies on the table. You can get them as a side with your burger meal at a good 60 percent of drive-through restaurants here. Just be careful with them; they pack in quick and can leave little room for the entrée.
5. The weather.
It is HOT down here. Like can’t go outside hot. Growing up I was acclimated, able to do manual labor in the middle of July as a summer camp counselor, eager to retire for the night in the un-air-conditioned bunk house with nothing more than a box fan strapped to the footboard of my cot. Now I’m ruined and can only marvel at the blast-furnace like conditions as I move from one indoor space to another. The humidity is an entirely different beast that few would understand unless they’ve experienced it. And out of respect, I will address it at length another time.
But then there’s spring and fall and winter. The glorious “winter weather” that makes shoveling snow not a means of survival but a novelty to pass the time on a day off. The ability to go barefoot across the cool, damp lawn to get the paper on Christmas morning. Year-round yardwork. Shorts in February. September beach trips. Need I go on?
Editor’s note: Atlanta is excluded from this point.
Before I moved to the D.C. area, someone laughed at me and said they had to move away because of the traffic. I just nodded politely and continued my oblivious forward advance into the absolute hellscape that is the D.C. metro area’s transportation network. I was on the road roughly three hours each weekday trying to get to and from work. I tried buses, trains and carpools before giving up and just inching along in my car. I actually felt years of my life slipping away.
Now, this isn’t to say the South is devoid of traffic. It’s out there. This is a popular spot, after all. But in comparison to other parts of the country I’ve driven, it’s bearable. What makes it so is much of what I’ve listed above: You may be stuck in traffic with us for a while, but I’ll be damned if we’re not going to wave you in with a smile as we coolly pull from a go-cup of sweet tea.