I’ve felt it almost all my life, the pull of something greater and somewhere far away. Growing up I felt out of place in my hometown of Columbus, Georgia, and lamented the 5-hour drive to Florence, Alabama every holiday season. When Christmas time rolled around and my friends would invite me to holiday parties I would decline their invitation because I would be “out of town.” I cringed every time the inevitable follow up question would ensue: “oh where?” Quickly I would utter, “ Florence,” and then, to avoid the piqued look of interest when they would mistake this small town of Alabama for the art capital of Italy, I would blurt out “Alabama,” as if it were one mumbled, shameful and conjoined word, “Florencealabama.”
I spent so much time wanting to leave the South. So much time wishing I wasn’t from the South to begin with. This is why when I had an offer to intern in New York City for the summer, I jumped at the opportunity. It felt more like the life raft I had been waiting for all my life to pull me out of “y’all’s and grits” to the epicenter of fashion and culture, to the ambiguous North I swore my whole my life would suit me better.
My mother went up with me to get me settled in. We unloaded my belongings into the too-tight room and I felt expansive rather than cramped as I looked out my window at the towering buildings and businesses. The weekend with my mom went too quickly and it wasn’t until we stood in that same little room hugging goodbye that I felt something I had never felt before: true loneliness. While I had felt pangs of loneliness before, those feelings felt puny and unwarranted in the face of this moment. I was truly alone. There was no one I knew within miles of me and the feeling was crippling as if all the tall buildings had turned inward to collapse upon me and I alone was taxed with holding them up.
As I began my internship and made friends with some girls in my apartment building things got better. My days were quick and full of work, walking and exploring all to the soundtrack of honks and sirens. On weekends I would explore with my friends and get my fill of the food and landmarks and my favorite of all: the museums. The Met became a place of comfort and retreat. It is funny how even in a city so large I found places to disappear. There was this coffee shop in Chelsea I would tuck myself into. It was in a hotel lobby and I liked the warm welcome of the bell boys dressed in nice uniforms. The taxidermy on the walls, the dark floral wall paper and decorative rustic typewriters reminded me of the quirkiness of my college town of Athens. When I was there sipping my coffee to pleasant hotel music and settled into an antique sofa, I could have easily been below the Mason Dixon Line.
It is in New York that I truly learned what it was to be homesick. Going away to college I had missed my parents and family, but not like this. It is as if there is some comfort in just knowing they are a 3-hour-drive away looking at the same sun and moon as me experiencing the same weather. Here it didn’t feel like they were just a plane ride away, but worlds away. It was a painful feeling of distance that I hadn’t foreseen and that sat heavy and in my stomach the whole summer. Mostly it sat dormant there as I refused to acknowledge it and busied myself with the rush of the city in summer. Then the 4th of July came. Two of my closest friends I had made boarded southbound planes, and it was then that the homesickness boiled over within me. I thought of my family driving to Florence without me. This would be the first year I wasn’t going to be there and it pained me so much to not only be missing it but that I physically wasn’t able to go. I had no plane ticket, and I was expecting my college roommate that weekend for a visit.
In that moment of unquenchable craving for home I realized something: I liked the South. I missed it in a way that the foliage of Central Park couldn’t mask (I am brought to a memory of my mom’s visit when walking through central park, I starved with desire for greenery and instantly impressed, she looked around and said “my garden is prettier than this”)
What I came to learn that summer of museum hopping, walking, honking and constant companionship (welcome or not) is an appreciation for the South that I would never have developed otherwise. I am proud to know my neighbors and that my local coffee shop is a short drive a way where I can have a friendly chat with my barista without being surrounded by the buzz of people demanding instant caffeine. I am happiest when surrounded by trees and can trade man made facilities for sap and serenity. The South has certain charms and comforts not accounted for in the North and not to be discredited. I am extremely thankful for that summer in the city and for what it taught me: appreciation. I love New York and desire to return, but I am eternally grateful to it for ironically giving me pride and appreciation for my Southern roots.