Considering the fact that I lived in the Midwest for the first 11 years and 9 months of my life before moving to the South, it wouldn’t seem like it should be such a big culture shock to be back up North. But I guess that over the past ten years, I’ve gotten more accustomed to being a Southerner than I realized. That is, I’ve gotten accustomed to being around Southerners. I’m not sure I ever entirely counted as a Southerner; I’ve gotten into the habit of interchangeably referring to myself as a Southerner or Northerner depending upon the context. For example, if it’s too hot, I can complain about it because I’m a Northerner and am not used to having temperatures exceeding a hundred degrees for weeks on end, but when it’s cold, I can complain about it because I’m a Southerner and don’t even know what’s happening when there’s white stuff falling from the sky. I can drink iced tea either with or without sugar. I can make nostalgic and affectionate remarks about both corn fields and cotton fields. I can claim that everyone else has an accent, and when someone tells me that I have an accent, I can attribute it to ancestors who came from fascinating distant places, even though those ancestors died years before I was even born. If someone asks me whether I consider myself a Northerner or a Southerner, I can tell them that I have the best of both sides. At the moment, though, I feel like a Southerner living in the North.
For one thing, the “Roll Tide” bumper sticker on my car is the only one I’ve seen since coming here, and I have not seen any Razorbacks references, either. I also haven’t heard anything about LSU, Auburn, or any of the other various teams whose names make up at least forty percent of conversational topics in the South. People around here aren’t as obsessed with college football as they are in Alabama, and any individuals who do watch college football are going to cheer for different teams and are probably not going to be particularly devoted to football this time of year, since it’s not even football season. Actually, I myself have never been a really big football fan. I think that the fan culture is actually just as important to me as the game itself. And really, I’ve been a Chicago Cubs fan for much longer than I’ve been an Alabama Crimson Tide fan, and I understand and enjoy baseball more than football anyway. But I’m sure that one of these days, I’m going to slip and use the phrase “Roll tide” in public, and it’ll come as a shock when no one knows what I mean. In fact, I’m a little tempted to start saying, “Roll tide, y’all”, instead of “Hello”, just to see how people react. In Alabama, this would not be a weird or unusual thing to do.
Another weird thing is that it’s cold here. I don’t mean that it snows more in the winter; that’s obvious and I’m prepared for the fact that next winter is going to feel long and cold to me no matter how mild it is by Northern standards. I mean that non-winter temperatures are surprisingly cold here. It’s still a bit chilly now, in the middle of June. There have been days that it’s been in the 60s. In Alabama, we have a word for this kind of weather, and that word is “freezing”. Admittedly, I’ve always been amused by the way that Southerners panic every time it drops below eighty degrees, but even I have gotten to the point that it really doesn’t feel like summer unless it’s so hot that you can bake things by holding them out of an open window for a few minutes. Okay, I admit that I’m exaggerating there, but it’s literally true that in the summer, you can brew tea in just a couple minutes using no heat source except sunlight. I’ve done that in my dorm room many times. Then I’d stick it in the refrigerator for a while and put some sugar in it. There’s something very satisfying and summery about a cup of sweetened iced tea, or, as we call it in the South, “tea”.
Then there’s the accents. I don’t have a Southern accent at all, and neither do I use the word “y’all”, but I no longer really notice Southern accents unless they’re very strong. Now, Midwestern voices sound unusual to me. For the first few days after I got here, I thought that everyone’s voice sounded clipped and harsh. But at least around here, talking takes little enough time that it’s a useful and efficient means of communication. In the South, it’s rather inconvenient to have a four-syllable first name because it takes the average Southerner about five minutes to get through each syllable. Each vowel is a meticulously crafted work of art, the kind that leaves the observer wondering what it’s supposed to be, but agreeing that it is certainly aesthetically pleasing. The stereotype says that Southerners are more talkative than Northerners, and I wonder if that idea comes from the amount of time spent talking rather than the number of words spoken. (Actually, Southerners probably talk more than Northerners according to either form of measurement. But I still think that the difference is much greater if we’re measuring time rather than words.)
If a random stranger does exchange small talk with you, that’s weird and kind of creepy around here. I had forgotten this because in the South, it’s perfectly normal for people to chat with people they see in public places. I’ve never been the type of person to strike up a conversation with a random passerby, but I’m so used to the normality of such encounters that I thought nothing of it when a random man who saw me applying for jobs one day stopped me to offer information about the town and to welcome me to the area. In fact, I appreciated his friendliness until I realized that he was flirting with me and thought that I was going to go on a date with him. Then he continued to follow me even after I said goodbye and told him to have a nice day. In order to escape, I had to give him a fake phone number and then pretend that I was in a hurry to go someplace else. Then I ran away and hid in my car and said to myself, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Alabama anymore.” I really hate lying; I am still very bothered by this even now that it’s been something like two weeks.
Something else I’ve noticed is that people drive differently here. I think that every single place in the world, with the possible exception of uninhabited areas such as the ocean floor, is known for the fact that people drive more quickly there than anyplace else. This would seem to be statistically impossible, but it would also seem to be true. I definitely have noticed that, both in Alabama and in Illinois, people drive faster there than they do in the other state. This is slightly less paradoxical when you take into account that the speed limit is drastically different; people are supposed to drive significantly faster in Alabama.
In my experience, Alabama drivers are terrible about changing lanes abruptly and not looking where they’re going when they do so, and indeed, I have seen for myself that Illinois drivers are much better about this. But they have their own idiosyncrasies here. (Which is fairly obvious considering that this is, in fact, what the word “idiosyncrasies” means.) For instance, drivers around here tend to pull so far forward at stop signs and stoplights that they’re actually in the intersection. They really will block traffic rather than give up that tiny little head start when it’s their turn to go. It annoys and confuses me, but absolutely everyone does it.
Drivers around here also aren’t very nice about letting someone make a lane change. If you accidentally get into a turn lane when you want to go straight, or don’t get into a turn lane when that’s what you were trying to do, your mistake cannot be rectified. Last-minute lane changes are not things that happen in Illinois, apparently. I am sure this relates to the aforementioned fact that Illinois drivers are slower and safer about their lane changes than Alabama drivers are, but it makes life very difficult for people like me who are unfamiliar with the area and don’t always know which lane they want to be in until the last minute. This issue has in fact inspired the song (To be sung to the tune of “Come Ye Thankful People Come”) which goes like this: “Let me over, let me by/ You don’t want to make me cry/ If I get lost I’ll be sad/ I am likely to go mad/ At this rate I’ll ne’er arrive/ I will never end this drive/ Let me get into that lane/ You are driving me insane.” Yes, I did make this up on the spur of the moment and sing it out loud with my windows open when it was entirely possible that other drivers could hear. I apologize for the irreverent use of a hymn tune, but I could not help it, for the song was so relevant to the situation that my conscious mind was not involved in its invention.
One thing that I do not miss at all is the cockroaches. I don’t think I’ve seen a single cockroach since I left campus, and that is definitely a very good thing. And there are fewer mosquitoes and wasps, as well. And the roads tend to go in straight lines and intersect other roads frequently, which makes it easier to get back on track if you’ve gotten yourself lost. Around here, there seem to be fewer car crashes, probably because of the aforementioned reckless lane changes in Alabama. Also, there is no risk of hurricanes in this area, and storms can usually be predicted somewhat farther in advance. So these are all good things.