There are a million things I love about living in middle Tennessee, but it has taken some time to adjust culturally. I wouldn't have believed it until I experienced it, but the south is, in many ways, much different than the north. I moved here with a few misconceptions about life in the south, but after five years I feel like I understand this place better and better each day. In that spirit, I present to you three truths and a lie about life in the south.
Truth #1: Climate is a big deal in the South.
It should come as no surprise that Al Gore lives in middle Tennessee. There's a reason the man obsesses about melting polar ice caps, but secretly I think it's more about covetousness than science. The weather is WAY different in the south. It's not like I didn't know it was hot - I've seen Gone with the Wind and I remember how the women were always fanning themselves. While we only moved about four hours south, our temperatures seemed to increase exponentially. The term "hot" has a whole different connotation once you pass the Mason-Dixon line. I thought I knew hot (I am, after all, married to Mark Kimmel), but I didn't know "hot" until our first summer in Tennessee.
While the degrees on the thermometer can reach impressive numbers (we have had many 100+ degree days in our time here), the phenomenon of air so thick you can chew it is something you have to experience to believe. There is hot, and then there is hot and humid. One a hot summer day, you can feel your skin tingle as the carcinoma grows. On a hot and humid day, your skin tingles and nearly bruises from the pressure of the humidity in the air. Having grown up in an environment that periodically got hot and uncomfortable and never had air conditioning, I thought I could tough out the summers in the south. Some days, I just cannot. It is literally a mad dash from the air conditioned house to the air conditioned car to the air conditioned movie theater to pass the sunny hours.
The flip side of the summer heat is the mild winters, and from October to April I am certain the heat and humidity is worth putting up with for a few months. And it is. Unless it snows. There is nothing quite as entertaining to us northerners than when the weather folks call for "snow showers". Immediately, schools begin cancelling, people begin to panic, and all the bread, milk, and toilet paper disappears from all store shelves. These folks will be totally ready for the Apocalypse as long as someone on TV refers to it as an impending "snow shower".
Truth #2: Food is a big deal in the South.
The South has a very distinct culture, and most of those social norms take place around food. It is like one big Swedish Lutheran family down here - if there is a gathering, someone is bringing food. Of course, the type of food we congregate around down here is different from the north. One of my favorite mottos of the south - if it can be eaten, it can be fried. And they are not kidding. It sounds horrifying at first, but some of my favorite foods come fresh out of the fryer. Case in point? Fried pickles. At first, I was disgusted. Then I became curious. Now? Give me a plate of fried pickles and some ranch dressing to dip those bad boys in, and I am one greasy, happy camper.
Barbecue is big here. While living up north, I thought barbecue was what you made when you baked a chicken breast and pour some Kraft sauce on top. Oh no. How wrong I was. Barbecue is a way of life down here. I have yet to learn how they make it, and I have no intention of finding out. There are some things that should always remain a great mystery. Mark and I didn't really get on the barbecue band wagon until friends of ours opened up a barbecue joint. It has changed our lives. Until you have had one of Tom's brisket sandwiches, you have not lived. We went to the restaurant the first time to be supportive. Now we go because we are addicted. There is just really good food in the South.
Truth #3: Jesus is a big deal in the South.
This was probably the biggest cultural adjustment we had to make when we moved here. Religion is big here. Well, let me rephrase that - Christianity is big here. Middle Tennessee is referred to as the buckle of the Bible belt, and that is a very accurate description. The religion of the south is evident in obvious and some not so obvious ways. Obvious - you cannot spit on a windy day and not hit a church here. Not so obvious - when first meeting people from the south, they will ask you what church you go to. Even if you've only been in town 35 minutes.
That one really struck Mark and I as a huge difference between North and South. Every time we met someone new when we first moved down here (literally every time), one of the first questions we were asked after the "nice to meet you"s, was "Where do you go to church?" We have tried to explain to our southern folks that up north, you just don't ask people that. They are shocked. What else would you say after "how are you?" they wonder. Down here it is assumed that everyone goes to church, and if there is fresh, un-Bible belted blood in town, it doesn't stay that way for long. Church and Jesus is a part of the language, the culture, the traditions, the everything in the South.
Now let me gingerly clarify something. This does not mean that the South is full of saved people. It is full of people who know all about Jesus. I think the buckle of the Bible belt is probably one of the most difficult mission fields there is. It is easier to convince people they need what they don't have than to convince people they need what they think they already possess. It's a double edged sword in a lot of ways.
And now for the lie.
Lie: The South is full of redneck, uneducated, bitter, war-losing rebels.
There is a stereotype about folks in the South, and I admit, before we moved here I was a little nervous about who we'd meet. But I am pleased to report that not everyone down here plays the banjo, skips dentures, wears overalls, and chews. After five years I can tell you, some of the coolest, most educated, loving, and fun folks live near us. (Coincidence??? Hmmm...) We live outside of Nashville, in a very middle class community. There isn't country music money living next door. But there are good folks here. Really kind, salt of the earth folks who don't let a lot of little things cloud their joy of life.
The pace in the south is slower, more relational, and more family oriented. People love first, and worry about social cues later. When we experienced the flood a little over a month ago, I couldn't believe the response of folks. Everyone just got in there and helped. Didn't matter if you didn't know the people. Didn't matter if you had problems at your own home to fix. If you saw someone worse off than you were, you went there and helped first. It nearly brought tears to my eyes. Helping others because that's what you do describes the actions of folks in the south. That isn't to say that up north we don't help people too. But here there is no asking for help. If you are hurting, someone (actually several someones) are going to show up at your door and start helping you out. Serving and helping each other is as cultural as Jesus, food, and humidity. It is beautiful.
Now. That is not to say that there isn't some yahoo who doesn't drive around our small town in a beat up pick up truck with a giant confederate flag blowing in the breeze behind him (a chronological oxymoron if ever I saw one...). And, yes. For sport Mark and I have razzed our southern born and bred friends about the final outcome of the "War of Northern Aggression". We even have a friend or two who chew. But the people we have met living down here are nothing like the stereotype of southerners you see in movies ala Deliverance. They are good people who may talk funny, eat fried foods, and freak when the snow flies. And we love 'em.
So there. Three truths and a lie about life in the South.