As I write, I am sitting somewhere north-west of Nashville, Tennessee, on the second of a three-day stopover in the state. It’s been a little more than 12 years since I was last south of the Mason-Dixie Line and it’s still as polite as ever. I’m a sucker for cowboys and that southern drawl, so to borrow a moniker from the ribs joint near Centennial Park, I’m in hog heaven.
This trip, three things have struck me so far.
I’ve banged on before about manners making the (wo)man and here in the South, they are very much part and parcel of the complete Southern package. On any of the tours we’ve done, we’ve been ‘graciously’ asked not to sit on the furniture, or take pictures, or think aloud. When standing in line at the grocery, people with trolleys or baskets have stood back and let us and our couple of items go in front, answering our thank you with a ‘my pleasure, ladies’. Doors are held open, hats are tipped, and there’s a general air of gentlemanliness about the place that I’ve missed.
Americans have an innate ability to feign a polite interest in people that nips at the edge of familiarity and draws a person out. Once a casual conversation is initiated, you can measure the amount of information you divulge according to your mood and taste. You can give as much or as little as you please. The resultant sense of camaraderie, however fleeting, can only stand the country (and its tourist industry) in good stead.
Mind you, for those with a limited bandwidth, like me, it’s important to delete any unnecessary information gleaned during a conversation at the checkout, or in line at the airport, or even in the loo. The American tendency to share personal and private details of their lives with total strangers has long since bemused me – and perhaps, to my chagrin, even rubbed off on me a little. Mmmm… food for thought there!
Speaking of food, I bought a fridge magnet that reads: I went on a diet for two weeks and all I lost was 14 days. I don’t need to weigh myself to know that I’ve piled on the pounds since I first set foot stateside. Despite my best intentions and daily remonstrations, it seems as if the American food industry is conspiring against me. To say that portions are huge is an understatement. Yet years of indoctrination about the necessity of clearing my plate leave me struggling valiantly to do just that. And each time I clear my plate, my stomach gets a little bigger and a little greedier. Its ‘full’ marker moves a little higher up the scale and satiation removes itself by one more degree. Add to this the fact that being in the South, food is fried. And fried food is so good. Finger lickin’ good.
In an effort to distract myself from the physical act of eating, I’m left wondering if it’s possible to trace the characteristics of a nation through it attitude to food. For instance, the larger-than-life US portions nicely embody the larger-than-life US personality. The stylish complexity of French cuisine mirrors two key traits of the French. Mmmmm… I wonder.
I wonder, too, at how long people’s memories are. Although the American Civil War was fought back between 1861 and 1865, for some it may as well have been yesterday. That North/South divide is talked about, referenced, and seems part of everyday speech. Those from the North are still referred to as Yankees – or even damn Yankees. As one chap told me: ‘I was twenty-one years old before I learned that ‘damn’ and ‘Yankee’ were separate words’. Another explained: ‘A Yankee is someone from the North who comes to the South for a visit and then goes back. A damn Yankee is someone from the North who comes to the South and stays here.’ While the Northerners refer to the Civil War as that – the Civil War – here in the South it’s still referred to as an ‘act of Northern aggression’. However much tongue-in-cheek this all may be, this bantering (if, indeed that’s all it is), creates a faint expectation that one should take sides.
I know memories are long and transgressions not easily forgotten or forgiven. Hungarian psychiatrist and Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at the State University of New York in Syracuse, reckons that ‘the stupid never forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.’ History is full of acts that have been, should have been, or will never be forgiven. The first Apologia Politica I could find dates back to 1077 when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV apologised to Pope Gregory VII for church-state conflicts by standing barefoot in the snow for three days. There is so much to apologise for that it would be nice if someone would simply draw a line and let the world move on.
First published in the Budapest Times 22 June 2013