Reflections on Charlotte
The last month of the decade began with a road trip to Charlotte, North Carolina. An old college roommate, Swami (all my friends refer to him as Swami for reasons that will not be explained in this blog) moved to Charlotte a little over a decade ago and he has been harassing me to come and visit him ever since. Last September he married his second wife, whom I had not yet met. Since I missed the wedding (his fault, not mine – he changed the date at the last minute) and since I had defended my doctoral dissertation the week before, it seemed appropriate to head south, do a bit of celebrating, and reconnect with an old friend.
Although I drive by the city twice a year, I have not actually spent any time exploring Charlotte in over a decade. Serving as home base for a number of large American corporations such as Lowe’s, Goodrich, Bank of America, and Time Warner Cable, it comes as no surprise that the city has grown immensely over the previous ten years. The traffic is evil. I was delayed getting into the city because of a wreck on I-77 South and had the great misfortune of slamming into town right at rush hour on a Friday evening. I’ve driven through several major cities during rush hour and Charlotte is definitely a frantic hodgepodge of jumbled cars and trucks rivaling any place I have ever been. As I made my way to the southern end of town towards Swami’s home, I was amazed at how everything from the city to the South Carolina border has become a major suburban sprawl. The entire area is a confusing maze of housing developments and shopping centers. If you do not know your way around (and I didn’t) it is easy to get lost.
Over the next two days, Swami and I spent a lot of time reminiscing about our undergrad days while making a few new memories. I love to explore and so, we went exploring all around the city. Downtown is filled with good restaurants and tons of nightclubs and pubs. The streets are pretty clean and the architecture is modern. Unlike other southern cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, where the rich history pervades everything from the sweet tea you sip to the stones on the sidewalks to the lazy drawl on a southern belle’s voice, Charlotte flows with youthful energy and everything feels new – even if it isn’t. Nothing exemplifies the feeling of modernism and energy more than the Calvary Church. This massive, gleaming, imposing structure, while not exactly extolling a message of Christian humility, certainly stands as powerful symbol of Protestant Christianity’s strong influence on the culture of the American South. It looks like a castle of mirrors. Swami pointed out that Dale Earnhardt’s funeral was held at the church. Fitting, I thought. I have always maintained that the Holy Trinity of the South is Jesus, Robert E. Lee, and Dale Earnhardt … and not necessarily in that order.
But the real texture of a place is found in its culture, which has a distinctive richness from the rest of the south; at least from the places I have been. People greeted me with typical southern friendliness wherever I went and it is impossible not to notice that the cultural differences between southern and northern women in the east is profound. While much of the south spends a lot of time looking at the past (being a historian, I fully understand), Charlotte appears to be looking to the future. For Charlotte, the future looks more metropolitan and multicultural than ever before. The Latino presence has arrived in full force. Nowhere is this more evident than in Swami’s own home where his new wife hails from the South American country of Columbia. Her name is Monica and she is one of the most adorable and instantly likeable ladies I have met in a long time. Swami is crazy for her and he should be. The man has taken his lumps over the years with some bad luck in love and it does me immeasurable good to see an old friend finally end up as happy as he deserves to be. It even gives a cranky and cynical academic like myself a tiny glimmer of hope.
Both Swami and Monica are migrants. Swami is among the many people who have reluctantly left the mountains of Appalachia looking for a better job and a better life elsewhere while Monica left the mountains of Columbia for many of the same reasons. Happiness is not determined by where you are but rather, who you are with. Sometimes people move away from the homes of their youth because they can’t wait to escape a small town, or run from a poor family life, or whatever. Others move because they simply do not have enough opportunity in the place of their youth. Whatever the reason, the culture that we come from is carried within us and is transplanted wherever we go. Monica could not stay in Columbia and have the same economic opportunities as in Charlotte, but she brings a little bit of home with her. It is found in her accent, her cooking, her clothes, and her worldview (as an aside, I teased her all weekend because I came to her home with great expectations over the exotic Columbian coffee I was certain she would serve only to find that all she had was Maxwell House).
One of the ways Monica shared her culture with me was to take Swami and I to her favorite Columbian restaurant, Los Paisas (visit their website at http://www.lospaisasrestaurant.com/). When we arrived in the parking lot and exited the car, I could immediately hear the lively Columbian music bursting from speakers by the front of the restaurant. Two lovely Latinas were outside dancing to the music and holding fruity drinks in their hands. Even though the sky was grey, they were determined to make their own sunshine. Inside, I experienced one of the most pleasurable meals I’ve enjoyed in a while. Their empanadas, fried plantains, and pork crackling were wonderful. The green sauces had me sweating with joy. But the real treasure of the meal (and the weekend as a whole) was the company. An old friend, a new friend, and transplanted regional and international culture all wrapped up in the modern metropolitan south. The Charlotte of the early 21st Century feels like one of the more interesting cities in the south and it is so because of the people, not necessarily the place. Thanks for a great weekend guys. I look forward to many more. Adios y Feliz Navidad!