A Southern Belle in Ireland: Bringing Memphis to the Emerald Isles

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A Southern Belle in Ireland: Bringing Memphis to the Emerald Isles

Katie McKenna, Writer

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There were few things I knew about Memphis before I met Katherine: it was the birthplace of Elvis, B.B. King had his blues club on Beale Street, summers were hot, and I assumed they talked with that same slow, drawn-out southern twang that makes Tennessee sound a bit more like Tennessaaaay.
I assumed, when I opened up a letter that said I would be sharing a room in Ireland with Katherine from Tennessee, that she would sound much like an old character on The Amanda Show in a skit called “The Girls’ Room.” This skit was known for its character Tammy and her classic line, “My name’s Tammy and I’m an exchayynge student from Tennessaaay.”
When I told my friends – almost all of them from Massachusetts, or at least New England – that I would be sharing a room with a girl from Tennessee, they added their own intellectual, well thought-out ideas about what she’d be like.
“She’ll either be a southern belle…or she’ll be wicked fat because of all the fried food,” was actually the general consensus, because, for all we know in Massachusetts, that’s what the south consists of. When I later told Katherine that this was how we perceived the south, I expected her to laugh at how ridiculous and stereotypical my friends had been in predicting her personality. Instead, I got a different response.
“Right,” she replied, “And I’m a southern belle.”
I had a lot to learn about Memphis.
Before we met in Ireland we’d exchanged some number of emails where I noticed an occasional “y’all” and friendliness in her voice as her first email to me, a complete stranger at the time, began, “Hey girl!”
Later I would find out a few more differences in our language – she’d call sneakers “tennis shoes,” or, more correctly, “tenna-shoes,” cole slaw was simply “slaw” and “all” was thrown into funny places in her sentences.
“What all are you doing today?”
Of course I had my own quirks that she called me out on as well, as I tried to keep it to myself but let the occasional “wicked awesome,” which apparently made me sound a lot like a surfer dude. When I asked if there was a “bubbler” in sight, I then realized that there are sane people in America who actually call the thing by its proper name, a water fountain, which sounded all too polite for my liking.
Massachusetts can be associated with a lot of great words, but I’m not sure one of them has ever been “polite.” I’d always heard people in the south were “nicer” with “better manners,” but to me, this only sounded like a longer line at the grocery store.
This so-called southern politeness meant a few other things, though, that I’d never thought about before. It meant making meals for friends and walking them to the door at the end of the night. It meant being kind to strangers instead of avoiding them completely. A friend of mine from Wisconsin actually found it absolutely ridiculous that no one on the T ever offered anyone else their seat, and another friend from Mississippi never let someone else stand if he were sitting down. I tried to picture people in my own life – my brother, any of my male friends from Massachusetts, giving the same gentlemanly treatment.
“I mean, can you picture Michael offering his seat to me? To anyone?” I asked my parents over a phone call the following Sunday.
I could barely finish the sentence because I was laughing, picturing my little brother act in such a way, and so were my parents. Michael lived more of a “Get out of my seat or I’ll karate chop you in half” way of life. Maybe Massachusetts was a little less polite, a bit more competitive, or even unconventional. We didn’t entirely adhere to that southern kindness; there was never a polite settlement for kids who’d spent their lives fighting to the death for the last Oreo. We were always without a calm way to decide who did what – unless, of course, the middle seat of the car was unoccupied, in which case, he would allow me in before him, graciously adding, “Age before beauty, Katie.”
When Katherine and I first met some Irish girls, we were describing the differences between Massachusetts and Tennessee.
“Everyone from her part of the country is really mean!” Katherine said, and I shrugged. Boston is often considered America’s meanest city, although we know that’s just how people perceive our impatient no-nonsense genuineness, and in a way, I think some of us – maybe most of us – actually find some enjoyment in that “mean” stereotype because we see it as a point of pride, an irreplaceable and unique part of ourselves and our tie to the state of Massachusetts.
Later we’d learn that some, but not all of our preconceived notions were true. I like to think I changed that opinion of Massachusetts as a cold state filled with even colder people, and the manners she exemplified came off to me as so much more than an inconvenience, but an investment in friendship.
Even though I’d never try southern “cheese grits” and she’d never know the thrill of Fenway Park, we’d find similarities against the odds: the love of late-night pizza and sleeping in, the soft sounds of Sufjan Stevens, an appreciation for whiskey and all things warm in an Irish city that was so unrelentingly damp.
For the most part, though, she wore tall shoes; I wore flats. She ate Indian food; I lived off of peanut butter sandwiches. She was confident and outgoing; I was more of a wallflower. She represented all things young and carefree, as I was the old soul who liked to ponder.
“How are you two such good friends?” people would often ask, noting that we had very opposite personalities. The most valuable thing Katherine taught me was that friendships don’t always have to make sense – and some of the best ones never will.

Katie McKenna studied abroad at the National University of Ireland Galway in spring 2013 and is a senior Journalism and English double major.

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