I know, I know. I haven’t really been around much, but I have a very good excuse. I’ve been traipsing through North Carolina for the past week or so. There’s a lot to share, so I’ll do a series of posts on my adventures, but I’ll start out with chatting about spending some time in the thriving metropolis of Durham, NC.
Of course, the immediate response to telling people this is “Why?!?!”, but it’s kind of funny the way things worked out. I initially had hoped to take 2 weeks’ vacation in June to travel to NYC and Philly as I always do, but thanks to the inner ear disorder, I can’t fly. I’m also still not strong enough for spending 20 hours on Greyhound. Conveniently, I have a friend in Durham who visited me in ATL a few months back, and with whom I wanted to spend more quality time so we might get to know one another a little better, and since that city is the approximate halfway point to NYC, I thought I’d stop there.
As it turned out, plans didn’t work as well as I’d have wanted them to. The Chinatown bus line shut down, and the extensive travel I wanted to pursue in mid-summer is something I’m still not strong enough to handle, from a physical perspective. Also, if you’ve been reading my blog over the past months, you’ve seen that things with this potential new friend have been chaotic, to say the least. Yet, I still decided it was worthwhile stopping by to visit, even if the attempt to spend time together was disastrous and we ended up never speaking again. (yes, there was reason to consider this as a possible outcome, but friendship drama is another blog for another day.) I also made plans to stop and visit a few friends in Charlotte on the way home to Atlanta (also another blog entry for another day.). Charlotte isn’t very far from here, but it’s one of those cities that you pass through, rather than purposely go to *visit*…so, I decided it was time to do so. The result is that, within the span of a week, I saw many, many small towns and medium-sized cities throughout North Carolina.
Durham is an interesting little city. It’s home to Duke University, and about 20 minutes away is the town of Chapel Hill, a pretty vibrant area dominated by the presence of UNC. I’ve been to the Raleigh-Durham area before; this was actually my third or fourth visit. However, in the past, my travels were confined to the Raleigh side of things, and the Research Triangle area. I never actually made it into Durham or Chapel Hill, because I didn’t have much reason to travel that far. Like Atlanta, and most of the Southeast, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill is obnoxiously spread out and suffers from urban sprawl that seems designed just to make people buy more gas and newer cars, and only have friends who live within a 10 mile radius. The entire Triangle area is larger than the state of Rhode Island, so for a non-driving Northeasterner like myself, it’s indeed culture shock.
I have a lot of stories and adventures I could share, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll list the things I do and do not like about the Durham area. (strangely, for a big city girl, I found it WAY more charming than I expected.)
Stuff the Durham area has going for it:
*People are really nice. Yes, you might say people are nice anywhere, but it’s not true. I’ve never spent much time in Southern small towns, but this one had a level of friendliness I’ve only seen before in New Orleans and Biloxi. Strangers will talk to you. Everywhere I went, I met someone. People carried my bags, opened car doors, bought me drinks and coffee shop items, and wanted random pictures of or with me. Perhaps it’s just a natural openness about those who live in the area, or perhaps it’s because I’m a little bit of a novelty for the area…I can honestly say I didn’t find one person who looked, acted, or had a type of energy that resembled mine. When you’re a little different, people will either love or hate you, but I overwhelmingly felt a sense that everywhere I went, I encountered someone who was charmed by me. Being a little narcissistic, I can’t say I didn’t appreciate that.
*You feel a little like you’ve stepped out of “Pleasantville”, and it’s charming. Unlike many cities who once served a different function, Durham hasn’t torn down the old buildings of its small-town tobacco roots in order to build skyscrapers and condos. Near where I was staying, there was a pharmacy within a one block radius, and it was a 1950′s style pharmacy. No CVS, Rite Aid, or large chains. Similarly, all the coffeeshops, cafes, and bars were independent, one-of-a-kind places. I didn’t see a single Starbucks. I mentioned to my friend that I half-expected to see a milkshake shop, and I wanted to go there. He responded by telling me there was one, and now I’ll have to visit in the future to see a number of things I didn’t get to see this time around, but that is one tourist experience I am holding him to. *laughs* There was even a vintage shop that made me wish I’d brought nothing but one outfit and a a mostly empty bag. For someone like me, who is decidedly urban and modern but charmed by the attractions of time periods long abandoned, the combination of old and new delighted me.
*There’s a kick-ass performing arts center. As a performer, I tend to judge a city on the amount of culture it has to offer, an arena in which Atlanta falls sadly short, for a city as large as it is. My visit to Durham happened to coincide with the closing week of the 2nd national company’s tour of “West Side Story”, so of course I was excited to see that. What I did not expect was how expansive, modern, and downright cool the Durham Performing Arts Center is. It may be better than our Cobb Energy Center, in both design and acoustics. I also mentioned that I’d have to pay a return visit when it coincided with a show I wanted to see, because I *loved* that theatre. As it happened, I was staying at the same hotel as the company, and ran into one of the cast members during check-out, who thought she knew me. She didn’t, but we do have mutual friends on tours with different shows, so it is possible our paths had crossed at one point. It’s odd how small the world can be.
*There are a lot of cool places to hang out and explore for a small city. There were many things I just didn’t get to, especially in terms of restaurants and bars with interesting ambiance. Yet, there’s also places to go if you just want to chill and spend a low-key night hanging out with friends. I literally sat on a lawn (while sober) and talked with my friend as cars drove by and occasionally beeped or said hello to us. It was actually really fun, and the sort of thing the less extroverted side of me secretly likes. You just can’t really *do* that here in Atlanta–you’ll either get approached by people who creep you out, or a cop will yell at you for loitering.
Once I began to figure out how to navigate the area, and where things were located, I started to see Durham as less of a small town and more as a little city that happens to have retained a lot of small-town charm. People who know me will find it quite odd that I would enjoy the culture of such a small place, but I did. I found people to be refreshingly down-to-earth, open, and while there might be a soda fountain, an old-school pharmacy, and lots of places with the word “BBQ” in the name, there’s also a lot of what I enjoy: tapas bars with good martinis, independent coffee shops, people who appreciate art, music, and culture, and are open enough to talk to strangers or pay a compliment just to make someone’s day a little nicer. However, there were a few things that make me understand why my friend doesn’t necessarily intend to call the place home on a permanent basis.
*Everything is just so damned spread out. Strangely, it’s easier to get around and navigate without a car than Atlanta is, but there’s no subway system, and when you’re dealing with a city that’s really a metro area consisting of 4 cities, you kind of have to pick one part of town and stick to it. Being a non-driver, I couldn’t live there for more than two weeks without a LOT of friends to take me places. I wish that Southern cities, in general, were more accessible to other ways of getting around that don’t involve a car.
*It’s North Carolina. Seriously, every time I overheard two or more women my age having a conversation, it revolved around babies, day care, lactation counseling, husbands, the search for husbands, and biological clocks. Either that, or “Did you see what she’s wearing?”, “Look how tiny she is!”, and “My sorority sister just had this beautiful wedding…”. This drives me crazy in Atlanta, because I can’t relate in even the slightest, but is far more pronounced in North Carolina. I’m sure there are places in which the intellectuals, the free-thinkers, the hippies, and other “unconventional” folks hang out and talk about different things, but I had to restrain the urge to let the women of North Carolina know that feminism kicked in 50 years ago. I also ran into a contingent of perfect, blonde, blue-eyed Stepford Wives who I’m fairly certain mistook me for Lady Gaga. If I lived in North Carolina, I’m pretty sure I’d die alone with 50 cats. It and I just have different life philosophies. *lol*
*Pepsi. Yeah. Pepsi products are everywhere. When I finally went somewhere that sold bottles of Coke, I had that same feeling you’d get from discovering a 20 dollar bill on the street. I *hate* Pepsi. Enough said.
All in all, I have plenty of lovely things to say about the area, and will definitely consider a return visit in the future, on my way to NYC (talk about culture shock! *lol*). I felt pretty much the same way about Durham that I felt about Greenville, SC: that it seemed so contrary to my nature to find a place so small to be fun and charming. The thing that both places have in common is they both have downtown areas that are walkable and rapidly growing in terms of culture and restaurants/bars/coffeeshops. Both are decidedly un-corporate (unlike Atlanta and Charlotte), probably because the presence of academic institutions influences the culture more than large corporations. There’s something I really like about those kind of places; it’s why I largely dislike Atlanta, but find certain neighbourhoods, such as Decatur and L5P/Va-Hi to be places I could be happy living.
Maybe Seattle is more up my alley than I think….*laughs*