Hi y’all (obligatory southern greeting). Time for an update on what’s been occurring in these here parts…
Without wanting to sound smug, my first week has comprised largely of lounging about, getting used to the bizarre new sensation of not having to rush anywhere… At once splendid and disconcerting. I’ve strolled leisurely to daily yoga classes, where the gloriously guileless instructor tells me to ‘show up for myself’ and ‘be present and accepting of my truth’ with the kind of wide-eyed earnestness that would be mistaken for sarcasm back in Britain. I’ve lounged by the apartment complex’s communal pool, never surpassing a lazy breast-stroke whenever the mood takes me to do any actual swimming. I’ve read and written and pondered and cooked yellow squash for dinner. Might as well say sod it and join the cast of the Real Housewives of Atlanta, would fit right in I’m sure… What a horrifying thought. Imagine the BOREDOM. Luxurious though it is, this little sojourn from Real Life must be, for me at least, entirely temporary.
Wandering between worlds. In other news, the temperature is sky-high, reaching around 32 most days (or 90°F according to local sources – celsius never caught on here, apparently), which necessitates darting between various air-conditioned interiors and spending as little time as possible outside in the merciless sunshine. Perhaps the climate is at least in part responsible for a marked contrast between inside and outside here in the south – one which I remember noticing in North Carolina, too. While walking through the neighbOrhood streets, or out alongside busier roads, I find it hard to shake an odd sense that I shouldn’t be there, somehow. There is practically no one around, and the humans I do come across are almost always seated behind the wheels of giant 4x4s (the human-to-car ratio being approx 1:1000 by my estimation). On the major roads, those who do venture out on foot are confronted with few pavements and convenient crossings, apparently this is not a city built for pedestrians. I also notice that fellow pedestrians are predominantly male POC. I smell social division.
Having picked my way across this strange No-Man’s Land in the blistering heat, I often continue my walk home through a nearby mall. A merciful wave of icy air greets me as I gaze up to the multiple floors of twinkling facades above immaculate displays of clothes, gadgets, cosmetics and products of every other description. These are intersperced with Starbucks, pretzel and macaroon stands, cupcake emporia (Sprinkles has even installed a ‘cupcake ATM’ into a side wall from which to withdraw sweet treats), artfully-placed indoor foliage and fountains, all of it stretching as far as the eye can see and populated with bag-laden shoppers, phone in one hand, grande iced green tea soya latte (or similar) in the other. Mostly white people too, incidentally. Such places and activities are not unique to here of course, but yet again, the US seems to have taken them to the extreme. For me, these malls are not so much shopping centres as entire villages, built to house the most STUFF possible, to provide the most superlative Shopping Experience to their visitors. Or at least, to act as a refuge from the sweltering nothingness outside. Without meaning to sound sanctimonious, feels like there’s a hell of nothingness inside these places, too.
Sweet Home Alabama (had to, didn’t I?). Chan and I decided to leave Hotlanta (as the city’s inhabitants have inventively dubbed it) behind for a weekend visit to her native state of Alabama, or ‘Alabama the Beautiful’, as the state slogan proudly announces. My initial impressions found in favour of this slogan; as soon as we were off the interstate and despite the relentless southern heat, the landscape was verdant, seemingly winning a war against human habitation in places. We sped past timber bungalows overgrown with kudzu, many complete with American flags, porches with rocking chairs and those classic mail boxes on posts at the ends of the driveways as per every American movie you’ve ever seen… We arrived in Amanda’s hometown of Weaver, and spent a fab few days en famille, wading through the heavily accented, lilting southern English to discover a delightfully warm and welcoming group of people.
America The Thrifty. For all the polished new products being churned out for sale at the aforementioned malls, it seems that if there’s one thing many Americans love more than new stuff, it’s old stuff. As Chan and I left the highway and headed down more local east-Alabamian roads, Amanda began to point out several roadside establishments offering all manner of second-hand wares, from tumbledown cabins given over to the reselling of damaged canned goods (the ‘Dented Can Store’) to giant thrift stores set up in industrial-looking warehouses (‘Center of Hope’ – a Christian organisation which pops a helpful pamphlet on how not to go to hell into your shopping bag when you pay). Yard sale signs also abounded (Amanda informs me that these are much more common and frequent than our sporadic car booties). Best of all, a leaflet at the state border welcome centER announced the Unclaimed Baggage Center as one of Alabama’s top attractions – yep, a huge marketplace where you can bag yourself a bargain at some hapless holiday-maker’s expense! GENIUS.
My impresson of this apparent fondness for rooting out a bargain was typified by Chan’s delightfully giggly mother, whose house was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of every kind of object you can imagine, collected through decades of careful yard-sale-combing… dolls, kitchen utensils, snow-globes, chairs, screens, cookbooks, lamps, mini electric fans (“Ah just picked this one up – ain’t it PRECIOUS?”)… Mama Chan had it all. By the time we left Alabama, we had visited two different thrift stores (three if you include sifting through Mama Chan’s latest finds) and had been saddled up with enough cast-off canned groceries to last until about 2050, as well as fresh yellow squash and patty pan, another member of the marrow family typically grown in the south. Gawd bless Mama Chan.
Although, as my dear sage friend Ruth reflected on our recent video call, this often unnoticed yet flourishing thrift-store culture may simply be the underbelly of consumerist culture here in the US; people are programmed to want more and more stuff, and finding it at a fraction of its original cost (albeit sometimes not quite in its original condition) may simply be a more affordable outlet for consumerist compulsions. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly heartened to see that under the pristine surface of the sparkling malls, accessible perhaps only to the wealthy, lies a layer of spend-thrifts, make-doers and menders, sniffing out alternative ways of getting what they need/want through more sustainable means. As someone who engages in the buying of new clothes only under sufferance, I appreciate this. Consumerism remains at large, but consuming the already-consumed seems a good option to me for now.
Our final stop before returning across the border to Georgia was the DeSoto Caverns, a stunning, sprawling cave network with a colourful history as Native American hideout, small-scale gunpowder factory and illicit speak-easy during Prohibition. Blissfully cool down there too – I wore a light jumper and everything!
That’s all for now, poppets. More news from Hotlanta soon. If you’re reading from the UK: good luck with hosting the Supreme Moron for a few days – no doubt there are many over here that are glad of a break! I am following the protests from afar and am absolutely there in spirit. Leaving you with a few other pics from the week for your perusal 🙂 Off to do some more lazing about now.
Peace out fo now x x x x x x x x