The American South

Charleston, SC fountainI’d been driving around “The South” for three weeks and was using this opportunity to give the area a chance. Where I’m from, the South doesn’t connote great thoughts. My preconceived notion of the South was that it was a land of rednecks, racists, and raging bible beaters. It thought the Civil War was still going on, and it was filled with trash, trailer parks, idiots, and the occasional poetic sage. Aside from a few major cities, nothing of worth was there, and letting them secede from the Union might not have been such a bad idea.

I know it was a harsh opinion, but it was a view reinforced by what I saw on TV, things southern politicians said, the fact that the South pays the least taxes and gets the most federal aid, and because it has the highest rates of abortion, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, child and spousal abuse, and drug abuse in the country. All in all, it seemed like a cultural wasteland, and I was glad to never really have gone there.

But I was traveling the country, and, for better or worse, the South is part of my country.

Travel is about seeing new places, experiencing new people, and letting go of your baggage. This was my opportunity to see the area and give it a chance, to see what was right and what was wrong. Was it as bad as I thought it was? Or was it all hype?

Like all stereotypes, there was a bit of truth and a lot of exaggeration.

After driving through a good chunk of the South, I have a somewhat new, less negative opinion of southern living. While driving, I noticed many cultural differences I knew existed—and some I didn’t. One thing I noticed is that everything on the radio is either country, Christian, preaching, or conservative talk radio. There are only one or two stations that play new rock/pop/rap. You can definitely tell by the radio just how far “south” you really are. Once pop gets relegated to one station and country gets seven, you know you’re in the deep South. When the opposite is true, you’re heading north.

An old home in Savannah, GeorgiaThe food down here is a symptom of the suburban lifestyle they’ve mastered. I noticed that outside many of the major cities, a lot of southern residents live in cookie-cutter developments. This is especially true east of Alabama. All those developments look the same. (Florida was the worst offender.) Everything was a modern suburban nightmare, and that sameness spread to their malls and restaurants.

Up North, even outside the cities, we tend to have more local and unique restaurants. Sure, we have our Applebee’s, Chili’s, and fast food, but that isn’t “good” food to us. Down here, it seems that those chains are the “good” cuisine. When you ask people here about their favorite restaurant, it’s usually a chain. “I love Chick Fil A.” “I love Cracker Barrel.” We go to those chains as a last, cheap resort, not a first pick. It was only in the big cities that you tended to see the nicer, non-chain restaurants.

Despite all of that, the South has great qualities, and I walked away with a better opinion of it than when I came. The weather is hot, the cities hot, the women hot, the accent hot, and the Creole food even hotter. People were very friendly and polite as well. It was weird to this Bostonian to be walking or standing on the street and have people come up and talk to me. They also move at a slower pace in the South. They aren’t in as much of a rush as their northern countrymen.

Going through the South was an eye-opening experience that taught me a lot about my own northern attitudes towards people, time, and places. It also shed light on a part of my country I had only ever criticized.

I found out that the people here aren’t so backwards and that some are living in the 21st century, despite not having any real form of public transit anywhere. (Atlanta, I’d love you more if you had a train!). There were some amazing cities I would return to visit, especially New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston.

That’s the beauty of travel. It opens your mind and breaks down stereotypes. It forces you to confront preconceived notions and helps you understand other ways of living. I’m not in love with the South, but I understand it better now, and it’s a place I’d be happy to visit again.

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  1. I had the same preconceived thoughts about the South. After college I lived in small town Texas for 9 months, only leading me to further some of these notions. But in other parts of the South that I’ve visited- like South Carolina they have a version of Southern Hospitality that is almost mind boggling. We never get treated that well in the North.
    My favorite thing about the south is the food (not from chain restaurants). Find a local mom and pop place that serves chicken fried steak, fried chicken, cornbread, mashed potatoes, green beans, peach cobbler. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
    And instead of asking people their favorite restaurant, ask them where they usually eat. The mom and pop type places are inexpensive and small and so they probably don’t think of them as favorites because they visit so frequently. The more expensive chain restaurants are where they may go for a special occasion or Sunday brunch. You want the place they eat for breakfast every morning.

  2. Matt-

    I’m glad you confronted the ugly stereotypes about the South and went for yourself. The South is a complicated place with a shady history, no doubt, but it’s also full of really interesting and friendly people, some of the country’s most unique cooking, and some gorgeous scenery, especially in the coastal lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina.

  3. I moved to North Carolina from New York for school a few years back. What an adjustment. I agree there are things I love about the South and things I can’t stand.

    Your statement about restaurants is dead on. It’s even worse if your working in the food industry. I would never advise anyone to wait tables in the South. Back home in New York I made descent money waiting and was shocked at the difference when I moved.\

    The slower pace is nice; not as slow as Uruguay has been, but it was a good change from New York

  4. Fran

    Nice to see a northerner speak nicely about the South (says the guy from Philly who now lives in Birmingham). A couple of points: I’ve found that for its size, Birmingham has amazing local food. We have multiple chefs running restaurants here who have won James Beard awards, a significant slow food/local food movement, a restaurant that was named top five in the country in recent years (Highlands Bar and Grill), and many examples of fine southern cuisine (both the high society kind and the BBQ shack kind). I truly hope you experienced some of that along your trip. I eat at chain restaurants far less now than when I lived in Philly, DC, St. Louis or Florida (which is not the South).

    The other point is that Atlanta does have a train, it just doesn’t go anywhere useful. :-) For that matter, from a Birmingham perspective, Atlanta doesn’t have much useful at all, except for more traffic, more expense and more headaches, but less Southern charm.

    Another point which you didn’t really touch on: the South of today is not the South of the 1960s. I’m an atheist, pro-life, and an ultra liberal, and I have never, not once, been treated rudely here as a result. As far as race relations go, yes, there are problems as in every urban center, but I can say without doubt that there is more integration and harmony between races here in Birmingham than in any of the other major cities I have lived in. Birmingham has seen the worst, and the lessons are not forgotten.

    It took a long time for this northerner to get used to life down here, but now that I have, I have a visceral, negative reaction any time I venture back north to DC, Philly, NYC or Boston. The people are so much more aggressive, in so much more of a hurry, and there is so much more negative energy in the air. Down here, sure, it’ll take you forever to get through the grocery store line what with all the small talk the cashier is making with everyone, you truly do need a car to get around, and you’re not going to find the fantastic slice of pizza, but it’s a price worth paying for the excellent quality of life, cost of living, and decency of those around you.

    Thanks for shedding some positive light on the modern South!

  5. NomadicMatt

    @all: I’m glad I am not the only convert. There is a lot I still don’t like about the south (like their red leaning ways!) but there are a lot of good things down there and I think it’s important to show people that , just like in other parts of the world, not all stereotypes are true. As travelers, I think it’s important we break down negative images of people and places.

    @elizabeth: the food was yummy! I went to some great places in South Carolina and though it is a chain, I love waffle house!!!

    @fran: I agree- Atlanta is pretty useless! :)

  6. NomadicMatt

    @Theresa: When I was in Norway, my cousin showed me the TGIF’s. It was the most popular and trendiest after work place in Oslo. People went there in suits. I couldn’t believe it.

  7. As a northerner who spent more than a few years in the South, I have to say that you’re pretty spot on with your assessment.

    The thing about southern hospitality that most people don’t realize until they live in the south is that some of it is a facade. Some of those southern folks can be quite nice to you in person, but cut you to pieces behind your back. Not all, mind you, as I don’t mean to generalize that way. But I did learn that some of that friendliness is faked until they come to accept you (if you live there — it’s different with visitors that aren’t staying). Some never did. I worked with one woman in Atlanta who kept wishing all us Yankees would go home to the north and leave the South in peace.

    The restaurant thing is interesting too. Although Huntington, West Virginia is not part of the deep south, they have that same sort of mentality when it comes to eating out. A Friday night out usually meant going to Cracker Barrel or Shoney’s for dinner.

    Ron’s right about Savannah and Charleston, though. One could gain a lot of weight in those cities. And of course, there’s the Cajun and Creole food of New Orleans. :)

  8. NomadicMatt

    @Robin: I’ve had some other people tell me about the “fake nice” too. I saw some of that and one of my issues with some of the south. We maybe cold here but once we are friendly, we’re bonded for life.

    I find the restuarant thing funny too. When think of going out to eat, a chain does not come to mind. Talledega Nights hit it on the head when they always went to Applebees.

    @Theresa: btw- I’ve heard it called the war of northern aggression :)

  9. Ron

    Savannah is an amazing food town, pound for pound, maybe the best in the country. Charleston is pretty cool too.

    R(etc… )

  10. Theresa

    The very first week I lived in Greece a group of young Greeks came over and took me and my housemates out to show us the best of Athens. Our first stop–and their self-proclaimed favorite restaurant–Fridays. It’s not just a Southern thing after all :-)

    Anyhow, there’s tons of great food in the south, so long as you aren’t worried about your cholesterol. And don’t diss the Chick-fil-a. There is no better fast food in existence.

    I’m not technically from the South. I’m not quite sure how Kentucky is categorized…a little Southern, a little midwestern…but I’ve always found the misconceptions about the south, especially as perpetuated by the north, to be so obnoxious. When I studied abroad in Germany, a girl from Mass. repeatedly asked me if I was taught that the Civil War was called the War of Northern Aggression. She absolutely refused to believe me when I said no, and in the end I found it much more obnoxious that she would seriously think that than if I had, in fact, been taught that.

    In the end, the south has a lot of issues, and the deep south isn’t for me, but you seriously can’t beat the hospitality. The “I’ll avoid eye contact so I don’t have to talk to you” mentality of the northeast drives me insane.

  11. Anthony

    @ Fran: I live in Florida and although I don’t understand this whole “Southern” deal, I’ve gone to realize that Florida isn’t part of the “South” the rest of the country sees it as. I know enough to know that Florida doesn’t fit the “Southern” tag, though. I guess Disney World, South Beach and the Keys do that. The states north of Florida that are in the south have more history collectively whereas Florida is what it is because of tourism.

  12. I am so glad you hit the south. My family is from Robertsdale Al which is just near Gulf Shores. I would never live there but its a part of our heritage and definitely worth seeing!!
    I hate those dry counties… whats up with that!!!!

  13. Gabriel

    well, as a native Georgian, I have to say thank you for your open mind. The pace of life is slower than the North. The attitude is a bit more gracious.

    Yes, for some the Civil War was just yesterday, but then again, we lost the war and Americans dont take well to getting their butts kicked – think about the pain still felt over Vietnam or the ongoing strong feelings about Iraq or even 9/11 and you come closer to understanding the feeling…

    Yes, there is racism here, its just more overt than in other parts of the country. I have heard the n word come out of the mouths of white Northerners more than from Southerners. It never fails to astound me.

    True, we are sorely lacking in culture and infrastructure, odd for the amount of time we’ve had to rebuild. West Germany was able to rebuild East Germany in a matter of years without a detriment to their economy. Guess they wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic if East Germany had waged war on them or resisted progressive changes every step of the way like the South seems to have done.

    But, on a personal level, I’ve taken minority friends and Yankee friends home for family functions and they have been welcomed, even though even my family can be pretty dogged in their insularity. But then again, the North has words of prejudice that they use that we haven’t even heard of – dago, kyke, moolie, eggplant, spic. We only hear them in the movies…

    I’ve traveled a bit in Europe and oddly enough the Southern cuisine is actually pretty much British – fruit cobblers and custard pies and deep fried everything and our ubiquitous sweet tea (albeit iced in the hot South) are all thoroughly British, only the names have changed. Georgia was a Loyalist colony until dragged into the Revolution and the Brits even backed us during the Civil War, so that might be where the civility comes from. It might explain why we weren’t on fire to remain during the Civil War, too.

    Oddly enough, when traveling, I am constantly asked if I am German or a New Zealander or whatever. They never believe that I’m an American. I guess our attitude resonates more with the world at large a bit more because we haven’t ever been in the typical American Top Dog position and it shows.

    Hope you don’t take all this amiss, it’s just my own musings about the South. But you are right for the most part. And believe me, not everybody in the South is a rabid conservative bible-thumper. They are just the loudest voices here. I’m sure you have them in the North – parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania come to mind – but there they are the minority. And for that you can thank your lucky stars!

    Next time you come South, look me up and I will show you some of the more positive faces of the South!

    Take care!

  14. Crystal

    Way cool Matt! I am just about to embark on the very same trip, & am also a Bostonian (after spending 8 years there), and also have the same stereotypes running through my head!

    I’ve recently been shooting in cities a bit in the South (Nashville, Charleston, Knoxville, etc), and found the restaurant thing to be a real drag, but also the people to be often lovely & friendly. I’m looking forward to my 2 month road trip down the East Coast to the Keys, through the deep South, New Orleans and over to Austin, NM, CO, AR, NV & finally SoCA. Hoping I find some more good to mix with the – well – the very same thoughts that you started out your story with! Silver linings always exist, you just have to search! 😉

    That said, hey all you travelers out there, I am looking for a travel buddy who might be down with said road trip! I have the car, am leaving June 10th from NY area, and simply would rather go it w a laid back partner than solo. Have only ever traveled abroad & solo, so looking forward to seeing a bit of this country & doing it with a trav buddy! Feel free to find me on couchsurfer’s if your interested! :]

    Kind regards,

    P.S. Sorry for posting that on here Matt, but the offer extends to you as well! 😉 Happy travels all.

  15. I have been living in the south for a long time now – I was born out west, but my grandkids are here now, and they are taken to the oceanfront hotels in Myrtle Beach just like the kids were. The people are as friendly here as anywhere, and those same communities you speak of do spring up everywhere. Myrtle Beach hasn’t been plagues by them as much as other cities, maybe because it is a tourist boardwalk town, and the area around there hasn’t been built up much yet – let’s hope it stays just the way it is for the great grandkids!

  16. Dominique

    Wow. Talk about back handed compliments. Maybe get off your high northern horse for a moment cuz it’s negatives just like every other place.

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