Notes on Athens, Georgia


Joan Didion wrote on the South in her book South and West: From a Notebook which was based on notes she took on a one month trip around the gulf states in 1970. She paints a backward and unflattering picture of the South when she compares Louisiana and Mississippi with California. Her main premise is that the South looks to the past, while California looks to the future. To me, her writing is dismissive and somewhat arrogant, and says, at times, more about her than the place she was writing about.

I have only been in Georgia and South Carolina for a few days and I didn’t go to rural and remote places as Didion did, so I’m not going to make generalisations like her. But I will follow her style of using notes she made along the way.

The first strains of a southern accent in the hotel lobby in Athens reminding me of John Goodman in that wonderful film In The Electric Mist (based on James Lee Burke’s wonderful book In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead). Perhaps it was the deep baritone voice. It’s a wonderful accent and we know it well from movies. It’s slow and the vowels are drawn out and elongated, giving an elegance and rhythmic style. Easily understandable. I won’t use the ‘d’ word, as it’s pejorative and somewhat dismissive. Listening to it, in that modest breakfast room, gave us that first sense of where we were, because we had arrived the night before after midnight, following a 12 hour drive.

A sense of sophistication and lightness on the morning streets that comes with university towns.

Two panhandlers sitting reading books with signs written on sheets of cardboard. Bearded men, white, maybe in their sixties, not looking undernourished or dishevelled. Not meeting the eyes of the passers-by nor engaging with anyone. Both books were hardback and thick. I wondered how well they did with the begging – they probably have a regular clientele.

Fried green tomatoes shared as a starter at dinner, just because. Crisp crust, fresh juicy bite of the tomato.

The brown unmoving water in the North Oconee River. The colour of milky tea. We were to see more of this colour and this liquid inertia later in South Carolina. When Joan Didion saw this she thought of water snakes.

The sign on the North Oconee River Greenway proudly pronouncing that Athens held back the northern invader Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864. Or at least caused some of his marauders so much trouble that they went around the city and so it was spared burning. Sherman later spared Savannah because it was too beautiful – thankfully.

A group of middle aged men, late at night, preaching at a corner that evolution was evil and must be denied. One man shouting about the greatness of God and another with a large banner pronouncing evolution a lie. ‘Don’t engage,’ Ciara said, and we walked past, not meeting their eyes.

The modesty of the entrance arch of The University of Georgia on Broad St. in contrast to the grandeur of the buildings in the campus inside. Recent graduates taking pictures with proud parents around the arch.

The prevalence of the expression ‘y’all’. Which I really liked because it’s so redolent of the south (Jenni uses it too) and because in Ireland we use our own derivation of the 2nd person plural address: ‘ye’. Our waiter, Lennon, in The Porterhouse Grill, took it one step further when he said: ‘I’ll be right back with y’all’s drink.’ I had some issues with ‘ye, yere, and ye’re’ in my book and I wondered how southern writers deal with that on the page so that it doesn’t look strange. The probably just write is like it is, as I did. I was sorry I didn’t ask Lennon about his name, presumably his parents were Beatles fans.

How taken aback I was when the chamber maid said ‘I am well’ and not ‘I’m good’ when I asked her how she was in my good morning greeting. Her face had that lined and hollow lived-in look and her eyes told of a depth of sorrow and struggle in her life. She was maybe my age, white; she was gaunt and her smile was real but sad. I plotted a life story for her featuring a high-school pregnancy and a trailer park and regression and transgression – probably none of which is true, and stereotyping on my part.

Swifts at dusk, visible from our 6th floor window; the first I’ve seen in 2018.

The cool, genteel feel of the antebellum Athens Welcome Center (in the fantastically named Church-Waddel-Brumby House Museum); the strange, painted wallpaper. The helpful young woman with the nose ring.

That comforting familiar feel of The Avid Bookshop on Prince Avenue – God bless independent bookshops. Small but intimate and interesting. I bought a collection of essays by Joan Didion. Like I need more books to lug around the USA.

The shock at seeing Sanford Stadium in the middle of the University of Georgia campus. This 93,000 seating stadium, right there, its stands glinting off into the high distance.  Construction drilling and engines pulsing out of it. Imagine that in the middle of UL or UCD. The idea that one can walk past these impressive neo-Greek architectured library and faculty buildings, with sandstone columns and elegant gardens and then this mammoth thing, just planked there. I’ll write about sport in the US later.

Then the ‘bookstore’ beside it, which in reality is a vast sports clothing store, dedicated to the cult of the team and servicing the thousands coming to games and to purchase the colours. It’s about three times the size of the Manchester United Superstore at Old Trafford. You can buy pyjamas or a helmet rotating magnetically in air, a silk scarf, a cashmere sweater, or an assortment of about 25,000 baseball caps.

A bottle of 1,000 Nurofen for sale in CVS. €22.95.

Sitting outside the Globe Pub on the corner of Lumpkin Street and Clayton Street, overhearing (we couldn’t help but) a policeman on patrol telling his life story to some locals.

A Confederate flag flying from the roof of a pickup heading up Prince Avenue.

The receptionist in the hotel telling us that there are really no more taxis in Athens, UBER has wiped them out.

‘The’ royal fucking wedding blaring out of some news channel at breakfast in the hotel. For the love of God, don’t they have anything better to report on, in Athens City, Georgia, on a lovely May morning. With grits on offer for breakfast, and me drinking Barry’s tea, a long way from home.