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May 28, 2021

Over Yonder and Back Again: My life in Southern cities

Celebrate Hilton Head Magazine

Photography By

Growing up, my immediate family did not seem overwhelmingly Southern. We were Catholic, after all, and we never cooked traditional Southern food at home, preferring Lebanese, our ethnic cuisine. We also did not plant window boxes full of flowers or sit on the porch at twilight, drinking sweet tea with lemon slices. Being young and unaware for the most part about what “Southern” even meant, I had to rely on the stereotypes I gleaned from pop culture—that is, until the day I left South Carolina and lived in a few other cities in the South.

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By the time I left my home state in my late 30s, I’d lived in a few of its towns and cities, and I’d visited pretty much all of them on various road trips. Charleston was where I lived longest, with the Lowcountry’s fun-loving lifestyle drawing me in for years after graduate school ended. My writing and editing career was doing okay there, and Charleston was close to other points of interest, including other cool towns like Beaufort and Hilton Head, plus Pawleys Island, the location of our family beach house.

Did Charleston qualify as Southern? Sources said yes, but it still didn’t fit into those Southern stereotypes, not exactly. Locals cussed up a storm, skipped church to drink champagne all morning, and, even if they had that ubiquitous Lowcountry-style home facing a body of water, it was more often than not built by someone from Pennsylvania. Charleston, with its global appeal and gimmicky shrimp-and-grits charm, was not the South I carried in my head like a form from Plato’s cave—though it had its moments. During day trips to Awendaw or Johns Island, I could feel myself standing on the Southern corner of a map. And certain people did fit the mold, though many more did not. I loved Charleston for its blend of culture, but I eventually found myself filled with a bit of wanderlust. Not enough for me to move to Oregon, but, well, maybe another city in the South would suit me.

In early 2018, I decided to relocate to Birmingham, Alabama—on a whim after a breakup. I was already itching to leave Charleston, and the breakup was just the catalyst I needed to pack up my stuff and make it official. Birmingham was only seven hours away by car, but it felt exotic upon arrival. Turns out, Alabama is pretty different from South Carolina. At my first job in town, which I kept only a few weeks, I felt sheepish not knowing the different “cultural variations of cornbread”; people seemed intent on inviting me to church; and the media scene was far harder to break into than Charleston’s, since I was not part of a “good ol’ girl” network.

Furthermore, everywhere I went were symbols of a much deeper South than what Charleston offered. My new best friend Anna literally threw up in the bar bathroom when her football team—University of Alabama, naturally—lost a championship game. I fell for a guy from Mississippi who went to the hunting club practically every weekend and quoted Faulkner just for fun. People didn’t use the F word as freely; people didn’t drink during daylight as freely; people talked about God and recipes and their grandmothers.

In other words, Birmingham, though it was lauded for an excellent food scene, small business opportunities and other perks of city life, was different from what I expected, and I wasn’t sure I fit in at all. Suddenly, my lack of experience baking a pound cake from scratch, saving the grease leftover from bacon or creating the perfectly fluffy biscuit was embarrassing, whereas in Charleston, it had not been. I did my best to rise to the occasion, trying my hand at cakes and biscuits with decent success. Still, the guy I was smitten with openly poked fun at my horror over the number of giant mosquitos biting my legs during a trip to Mississippi. In fact, he told his dad about it, and his dad reportedly shook his head, saying something like, “It’s not her fault. She’s from South Carolina.” I was flabbergasted. Was South Carolina not the South?

After a splendid year of keeping my bacon grease perched on the countertop in Birmingham and storing actual grits in my freezer for the first time in my life (not the instant kind, either), I was offered a job in Jacksonville, Florida. Again, I had no idea what to expect. I’d spent time in the “vacation” parts of Florida, like Key West and St. Pete Beach, but Jacksonville would be new to me. People talked about the city being “practically Georgia” and how it still “had some winter,” so I was curious about its Southern quotient.

In some ways, Florida was similar to Charleston: the farther you got away from the “hub,” the more the Southern seeped in. And sure, there were scraps of Southern here and there in downtown Jacksonville—an art museum and accompanying garden, named after a benefactor; a park by the river with sweeping trees; stately homes; ringing church bells. Downtown was decidedly more Southern than the beaches, but overall, Jacksonville was not Birmingham. That said, I felt much more familiar with my surroundings; having a cocktail during lunch while looking at the ocean was practically second nature to me. I met a few ladies who readily became my friends, and I’d gotten a few writing assignments too—more proof that Jax was welcoming to transient types, not side-eyeing me and wondering where the hell I came from (with the exception of Anna).

Interestingly, this familiarity applied to both sides. Friends and family back home in South Carolina somehow seemed more comfortable with my living in Jacksonville than in Birmingham, not even counting the closer driving distance. Most of them had driven through Jax on the way home from Disney at least once, and, if they hadn’t been there, they at least knew it was a beach town—something they understood on a cultural level. Overall, while they’d mostly wrinkled their brows at the idea of Birmingham (and Alabama in general), they were happy to hear that I was once again living near Mother Ocean.

But despite the fact that I liked Jacksonville and that life was pleasantly simple there, I missed the challenge and unfamiliarity of Birmingham. Deep down, I knew I wanted to leave Florida — after all, I had a beach at home. More than one beach, in fact.

As I write this essay, I’m living in Atlanta, Georgia, my third new Southern city (and state!) in the three years since I left Charleston. I departed Jacksonville around the year-and-a-half mark in January 2021, COVID-19 be damned, determined to inject my life with something other than seaside culture. So, here I am, in the big city. How does it rate on the Southern meter? I would say that Atlanta, like Jacksonville and Birmingham, has its Southern and non-Southern qualities. You can get any kind of international food you want here, of course, but the history, architecture and flora are unmistakably Southern.

Right now, at the two-month mark, I’ve put together a modest social life, consisting of the neighbor and a few pals I’ve met randomly in the city. It’s friendlier than Birmingham, but somehow still more private than a beach. And I feel … welcomed but also challenged, a good combination, considering the experiences that brought me here.

Here is what I’ve learned by transitioning between four Southern cities in such a short amount of time: The South is not the idea I had in my head. Stereotypes of the South and of Southern life are best left to people who live elsewhere, or, I suppose, who haven’t tried daily living in more than one Southern city. Now that I have experiences working and socializing in Charleston, Birmingham, Jacksonville and Atlanta, I love them all for different reasons. They are all Southern, but in their own special way—just like the Southerners who live there.

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