Monday, 26 November 2012

The Sweet Memphis Hello

One of the things about travelling is believing in the ultimate good of people and that they will not screw you over. Obviously there are times when some skanky girl might try to steal your £6 battered Primark gladiator sandals that are patterned with the faint splatter of vomit (slore) or attempt to roofie you in a Cape Town dive bar, but most people are alright. Throughout our time in the States so far, we've experienced unparalleled hospitality whenever things got tough and we needed it the most.

A kind grandfather rescued us from the roaring highways of Toledo, a legion of MegaBus drivers have cheerily hoisted our backpacks onto our shoulders waving farewell as we tripped along yet another set of unfamiliar pavements. One Knoxville hostel manager readily winched us to safety from the seedy, spunk-stained sheets of a motel hurriedly booked the night before.
But so far nothing has compared to the sweet, syrupy hello of Memphis, Tennessee.

We arrived at dawn at the curbs of the North End Bus Terminal, rubbing sleep from our eyes and trying hard to discourage the two dogs riding with us on the MegaBus from marking their territory on my cherished Primark wheelie-bag. A security guard bloomed out of the darkness, letting us know in that we could wait inside the warm station. Once he'd discovered our status as backpacking job-chucker-inners, he couldn't do enough, pointing out the downtown trolley stop and batting the tramps away whenever they got too brave. He had sons about our age, so perhaps we reminded him of them. People seem to feel a sense of responsibility when encountering female travellers. It's nice, like finding an uncle in every city.

His kindness was not a quirk either. Everywhere we went, Memphites were displaying that famous southern hospitality and were genuinely thrilled that we'd stopped by, leaving us with that contented, looked-after feeling you get when your gran makes you a packed lunch to take to work at the age of 25.

A shuttle driver for Marriott Hotel, who gave us a lift back from the airport when we were stranded one evening, told us that the hospitality stems from a time when fields and farmland separated you from your neighbour by ten miles or more. So even if all you wanted was a cup of milk because your own cow was on the fritz, you'd go over to Neighbour Ned's and make a day of it. People would visit their relatives in neighbouring towns and stick around for a fortnight or longer, yet never outstay their welcome.

The New England states are a lot like home, with cobbled streets and European architecture, but it also comes with a bit of attitude. None of that down south, no siree. They all want to have a chat and you can see the excitement rippling across their faces when they hear the British accent.

Example. Leah and I were on our way back from Graceland on a packed public bus. We stuck out straight away by being female and non-black. The homeless (but friendly and hygenic) guy we were talking to at the stop stealthily told all and sundry that we were from England. We didn't clock on because the fast southern twang is virtually indecipherable to a Londoner's ears. As soon as the cat was out of the bag, that was it. Absolut chaos.

'WHAT?? Grrrl, you from INGLAN'?!' A drunkard stared in wonder at you've-left-the-Gasson. 'You the first English person I ever met! Sheeeiit. England? You a celebrity in my life!' He shook his head, 'WOW... England'. It looked like the proudest day of his life. The whole bus was agog. Leah blushed Irishly. Once the firing shots of conversation had been fired, there was no going back. Everyone wanted to tell us their stories about the time they went to the UK and discuss the finer points of Skyfall, everyone wanted to know where we were going and what we had seen in Memphis. And when they got to their stop, they came over to say goodbye and shake our hands and lament over how much they wished they could take us out to dinner, if only we were only staying one more night.
It was completely nuts.

This bus episode, again, was not an anomaly. We caught quite a few of them and every last one felt like joining a private members club. Compared to London where all commuters are experts at avoiding eye contact and masters of passive aggressive mumbling, Memphites board the bus with a 'hey, how y'all doin' today?' And they want to know. They might not know anyone on the bus or be addressing any particular person. They greet and joke with other passengers because it's normal, polite, genial. It only seems to be London where friendly conversation is treated with the kind of suspicion usually reserved for bearded men loitering around playground gates. 
Another time, we were sitting in a bar off Main St named Bar Dog, stacking up cheap happy hour drinks while telling a barman about our travels. He looked impressed with our 'insider knowledge' (visiting Clarksdale, eating at Gus' World Famous Chicken) and poured us two measures of Jameson whiskey - on the house. Because he said, he knew what it was like travelling on a budget. Sweet.

What's the likelihood of that happening in the UK? Even if happen to have an 'exotic' accent. About as likely as half past NEVER.

I felt as though Memphis had seen us coming up the driveway, thrown open the front door and tackled us to the ground in a fury of love, fried chicken and 'Heyaaawl!!'. It had adopted us, loved and entertained us and set us steady on the trek down the Old South towards New Orleans and beyond.

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