For those who don’t know, I’ve been MIA for about 10 days because I’ve been doing some traveling. While the original plan was to head up to the Northeast this fall, because I’m not yet well enough or strong enough to handle a holiday visit (and honestly, don’t mind celebrating the holidays with my “adopted” family of friends here in Atlanta, and The Guy I Am Currently Dating, rather than the blood relatives that like to chain smoke and show endearment via verbally abusive commentary.). However, the plan didn’t work out due to timing reasons, and financial reasons, the two being extraordinarily related.

It can safely be said that October has not been a stellar month for me. When I began planning my travels, I was still working full-time for a company in New Orleans I’d been with for over two years. By the end of September, I’d lost my job, but had non-refundable tickets and hotel bookings. I’d been working doing freelance work when available, but I really felt my heart wasn’t here. Friends suggested working on putting the finishing touches on my upcoming book of poetry (still set for publication in December, 2012) or taking the time to work on creative projects. Yet, I mostly felt uninspired, lost, heartbroken, and as if I were that person for whom nothing is ever destined to work out. I felt amazingly stuck, unloved, under-appreciated, and uninspired. I started to feel neglected by the people in my normal sphere of life, and as if those who truly care about me are all scattered across the globe. I started to feel like nothing I was working on was worthy of finishing. In short, I had this revelation: I’m not a particularly good writer, I’m not a particularly fascinating person, the days of relying on a certain type of charm and irresistible spirit to make things work out have long since passed me, and I have no particular talents and prospects for the future. Even those who genuinely love me don’t always believe in me or take me as seriously as I should. People in my life seem to be moving forward with their own lives, as planned or otherwise, leaving me behind.

Some things never change, so I did what I always do when I feel as if the world is against me and I am lost and alone. I packed a suitcase and headed for somewhere that wasn’t here.

In this case, it took a lot to even get me to that point. In addition to getting fired, my dog had been sick for a number of months with a skin condition that was continually worsening. It took a vet bill of over $300 to cure her, and since no friends were available to watch her, I had to hire a friend who is a pet-sitter (who luckily agreed to charge half her normal fee for taking care of Trixie.). Travel is expensive, and while I used to manage to travel with $20 in my pocket at the age of 23, it turns out I’m no longer quite so low-maintenance, nor am I that energetic. So, money was an issue even before I left. Yet, I still felt I needed to go. With a Northeast visit out of the question, I decided I’d visit a place I’d always wanted to visit but have never gotten around to seeing: Savannah. I’d heard it was beautiful, but never made it there, mostly because all my attempts to get someone to go with me have failed. Friends are always busy, and one of the major incompatibilities between me and The Guy I Am Currently Dating is that he doesn’t like to spontaneously travel, whereas I find it one of the most romantic activities on Earth.

Since I can only handle bus travel for a few hours at a time (although it seems to be growing with the passage of time, I suspect it will be awhile before I can do the straight-through 18-hour trip to NYC again.), my first stop was Charlotte. As I mentioned last time, it’s not my favourite city in the world—I find it a bit corporate and straight-laced, and tends to take itself too seriously. In fact, I call it “Atlanta Lite”. However, it has a number of charming spots, good restaurants, and bits of local flair here and there that seriously make the city. This time, I stayed with a friend who lived in a more colourful, off-the-beaten path kind of place. While on my last visit, I stayed with someone who had a gorgeous, theatrical house with a private lake, but was located in the suburbs of the city. This time, I stayed with someone who had a one-bedroom apartment in an area that looked lovely and residential, but she honestly described as a recently gentrified area.

Not one to be deterred from walking around the city by myself at night, unless it’s where I live, I was pleased to note that it was only about half a mile to some bars and pubs. After pizza at a well-known Charlotte eatery called Fuel, I made my way to an art gallery that was doing loud music, hors d’oeuvres, and drinks. The girl with whom I was staying, Kaitlyn, happens to be more of the tattooed, punk-rock kind of girl, and she suggested I go see a few bands playing at that location, one of which happened to consist of friends of hers. Me being me, I happily stumbled upon the rather pretentious art gallery/lounge space next to a vintage store. As it turns out, the place I was looking for was *behind* the art gallery.

After getting past the door guy, I started laughing. The place she sent me to (she didn’t accompany me because she was having zombie movie night at her house, an invite I politely declined) was not just a dive bar with loud bands, which I might have rather expected. It was a PIRATE bar. Seriously. Everything was pirate themed, including some of the patrons, and it cracked me up.

The bartender had no idea what was in a sour apple martini (I’d probably have had success if I asked for vodka and apple pucker in a glass.), and served me some weird green concoction in which I clearly identified Midori and watermelon. (when asked what else he put in there, I was told “apple vodka and Sprite”.). However, people were friendly in that emo sort of way, and drinks were $4. (I learned to stick to vodka tonic). One of the most interesting things was the band that Kaitlyn’s friends played in, called something along the lines of “Lucyfer’s Angels”. They were clearly goth/industrial, but played guitars and bongos, and only did covers of 1950′s and 1960′s doo-wop songs. I definitely felt like it was one of the more surreal experiences I’d had at a bar. Expect the unexpected.

As much as I know enough about Charlotte to identify my clear lack of interest in living there, and that cab fare will kill you if you’re anywhere but downtown (just like Atlanta), I will likely continue to make stops for a day or two during my travels. I always stay just long enough to have an adventure or two, and head out. It’s four hours from ATL, and conveniently, has a MegaBus that will get you to Durham in closer to 3 hours than 4. From Durham, you can MegaBus to DC, and if so inclined, Philly and NYC. I have to say, I’m pretty fond of MegaBus. It has twice the room of the Greyhound, although you’re taking chances if the bus is full, and you don’t wish to ride on the top of the bus. (someone suffering from vertigo does not.) I hesitate to recommend and sing the praises of MegaBus, because I don’t really want too many other people taking it. Suffice it to say, however, I was pleased.

After Charlotte, I took a few days to stop in the Durham area to visit with a good friend of mine who is finishing up his degrees in that area. Surprisingly, I won’t share much in terms of gossip or personal details regarding visiting with said friend, as he’s a very private individual who has asked me more than once not to turn him into a character on my blog, or to use the blog as a space for venting about our friendship (which does have a history of being rather complex and occasionally blog-worthy). While I could probably get away with it, since said friend does not read my blog, I’m one of those types that respects and honours promises. So, you don’t get to hear about all the drama that did or did not ensue. :P (There was actually no drama at all, which is not to be confused with a lack of interesting experiences.)

In all seriousness, I will say I did in fact have a lovely visit with my friend. He’s one of those types of people I always, always delight in seeing, perhaps because we don’t get to see one another that often—or perhaps because it’s just an unfortunate example of how many of my favourite people in life are not geographically well-placed in my world. I am blessed to have a lot of special people in my life, but the flip side of the coin is that so many of them do not live anywhere close to me. It’s a testament to my ability to listen to my intuition when it comes to other people that these friendships are typically amazingly strong, despite the distance, and have gone on for between a quarter and a third of my life. They are often the type of friendships that leave me wondering what kind of different path life might have taken, had we ended up living in the same city. Would we end up being closer friends, or just casual social friends? Would we have inevitably become enemies, lovers, changed the other person’s life path simply by being in every day proximity? Do people simply like me better at a distance, because I am perhaps easier to enjoy or to idealise or to tolerate in short-but-intense bursts of AlaynaTime? *laughs*

As for my friend in Durham, it occurs to me that every time we’ve spent time together in person, our interpersonal dynamic has always been slightly different, as have the circumstances and level of trust and communication. It is a friendship that constantly keeps me on my toes, whereas with a different sort of person, it would likely keep me on guard in a way that would prevent a friendship from actually developing. I’ve noted to him that some people seem to have a rather indefinable chemistry and connection, and regardless of how convenient or sought-after or well-understood that happens to be, or how or if it is addressed, it exists nonetheless. There have only been a few people who have passed through my life with whom there’s actually a tangible feeling of connection that isn’t based in something simple that I can make sense of and consequently dismiss as easy to “get”—like physical chemistry or having everything in common—and those people have turned out to be the ones that have affected my life deeply in some way. It is most unlikely that I share this rather persistent sense of connection and chemistry with this friend, who seems so unlike me at first glance, but is actually very much like me in a number of ways. Sometimes, there’s simply a strange balance between how you and another person interact, and it is very multi-faceted, yet natural. I suspect it is just the way in which the Universe lets you know in a number of tiny ways that you’ve encountered a special person who is likely to remain an important being in your sphere of existence, no matter how complex that turns out to be throughout the course of time.

We keep in touch through phone calls and text messages, but visits are rare and special Consequently, even when things take a turn toward the awkward or the dramatic or the thoroughly unexpected, we always manage to have a great time spending time with one another. This visit was no exception, which can be summed up in the following sentence: I went to the North Carolina State Fair

This may seem like the most mundane of stories I have in my arsenal of travel stories to choose to relate to you, but it’s actually not. I’m a city girl, and have never been to a state fair. I’m usually up for trying something that I would never do anywhere else, with anyone else, so of course I wanted to go check it out, picturing a place where people competed by eating pounds of butter and Aunt Ida’s homemade jam won a blue ribbon.

Strangely, I had the opportunity to cross something off my bucket list, something that’s been there since I moved to the Southeast: Eat a deep fried Oreo. Not only that, but we also had a deep fried cupcake, deep fried pickles, and deep fried praline pie. After that, I bought a bag of cotton candy. I haven’t had cotton candy since I was like 8 years old, and though we gave it a shot, my friend and I were unable to eat the bag of cotton candy over a fairly extended period of time. It’s like it regenerates.

We also walked through a lovely garden that kind of resembled what you’d think Alayna’s Faery Garden would look like. Seriously, if I lived in the middle of nowhere, this would be my backyard. Lots of pretty flowers, bridges lit up with tiny lights, trees lit up with tiny lights, butterflies, benches, gazebos and as if to punctuate just how much this location was designed for me, they started to set off fireworks. Being a city girl, I don’t think I’ll ever have the opportunity to have this sort of Alayna’s Wonderland Escape, and I’m sure building such a thing might cost more than the house. But still, it was delightful.

In the end, I was so hopped up on sugar and good company and more sugar and deep-fried sugar, I was able to walk a rather significant distance back to the car on a rather chilly night, and my body cooperated with the endeavour.In fact, for the most part, it tolerated the crowds, the neon, the spinning rides (not going on them, of course, but being near them), which gave me hope that I am improving. If all I need is a consistent supply of sugar and delightful company, there’s no reason I should not have made a full recovery by now. *laughs*

As a post-script, I’d like to say that I maintain my stance on cows. The brown ones are NOT cows. The only ones we spied at the fair were clearly Chick-Fil-A cows. :P I joked they should be dressed in rainbow garb.

Aside from spending time with the aforementioned friend, I genuinely enjoy visits to Durham because I really and truly like Durham. I know my friend finds this strange, being a big-city kind of person who can’t wait to get out of such a small town, and me always bitching that Atlanta is too small to keep me happy, but Durham is a strangely fun place. I never fail to meet interesting strangers or have something fun happen to me. They have a performing arts centre that would make most larger cities jealous, and the atmosphere is a strange mix of the academic, the artistic, and the liberal…all things I like. It is not fancy, it is not pretentious—unless you purposely seek it out—but it is really a charming place filled with positive energy. I am far more impressed with it than Charlotte, Richmond, Savannah, Jacksonville, Tampa, or any other small-to-medium sized city in the Southeast, with the exception of Asheville. (I also really love the culture and people in Asheville.)

On this visit, I spent my last day in NC in Raleigh. Prior to knowing the friend in Durham, the only visits I’d made to the area were to another friend in Raleigh, or to stay in the Research Triangle Area. Although it’s only 20 minutes apart, Raleigh is significantly more conservative and more upscale than Durham. The people are also much more reserved, although once I got to know a few people, it seemed they were more than willing to open up and befriend me.

In Raleigh, I had the misfortune of getting rained on multiple times, and people mistaking my normal, everyday appearance for a sign that I was part of a theatrical production. However, I also saw a comedy night, met the Organizer of a local Meetup that basically does what I do for the same sort of group as I organize in Atlanta, and was “singled out” by one of the comedians for his act. After the show, I spent time talking to another comedian who performed that night, and found him very pleasant company. (Chivalry is not dead when men want to buy you a drink and enjoy your conversation, and are intuitive enough to know not to hit on you.)

The women in Raleigh didn’t seem to gravitate towards me as much as the men; I’m very familiar with that look of judgment that says “Why do you have to go around looking and acting like that? I don’t appreciate you being you.”. I received that look often, usually after an attempt to introduce myself to a stranger. However, I did meet a very sweet girl who was at the bar we started off the evening hanging out at, who was funny and personable and in a wheelchair. Her husband, who seemed absolutely devoted to her, told a story about how they met in college, only to find out they grew up about 10 minutes apart. It was so sweet, and for about 20 minutes, I believed in stuff like “things that are meant to be” and “true love conquers all” and “human beings are all designed to be monogamous and grow old together.”

All in all, I may not agree with the politics of many, but there’s no arguing that the people of North Carolina are “nice”, at least to me, and I’m not exactly conventional or low-key. I was pleased to see that Duke’s campus not only got rid of Chick-Fil-A, but was flying rainbow flags out of windows, as were many independent establishments in Durham. Once I got up to Raleigh, though, if I heard one more pro-Mitt Romney ad, I was going to start cutting TV connections. *laughs*

There’s no doubt I’ll visit all three cities again in the future, likely on my way up to D.C. or NYC in the Spring. In the meantime, however, I informed my friend in Durham it was his turn to visit Atlanta on a winter road trip, since it is also the season of the holidays, my birthday, NYE, and my book release party. I don’t travel when I have to wear clothes with sleeves or wear socks. *laughs*

After my adventurous night in Raleigh (and no sleep, since I was up at 7 AM!), I headed off to Savannah….but that story is long enough to be a blog in itself, and will have to wait until tomorrow. Spoiler alert: Absolutely nothing went the way it was planned! :P

For those of you who know me “in real life”, you know that I have a terrible habit of launching into a long and seemingly amusing story, only to have a minor detail completely derail my train of thought halfway through, leading me to then tell another story entirely. People who aren’t exactly enamoured of my personal social style find this one of my more annoying traits, as it can be seen as a little self-centred and monopolises conversation. People who consider themselves friends and are generally amused by my blog-length anecdotes wonder why they hear stories that never have a conclusion.

I have a number of friends who are like myself, and tend to think and communicate in a largely tangential fashion. In one-on-one interactions, this works out well. It may take two hours and five other topics of conversation, but we eventually come full circle, and I remember to punctuate my original story with the courtesy of an ending. In social situations where people don’t really want to invest more than 15 minutes in listening to you, it’s less successful.

This blog suffers from the same dilemma. In mid-June, I took a trip to North Carolina, and broke down the discussion of my adventures into three or four potential blog topics. After writing two of them, people started sending me other ideas for blog topics…and, well, weeks later, my story about my random travels was never completed.

Last month, I put up two blogs about a visit to an old-yet-new friend in the Durham area, and exploring the smaller side of the Triangle, as I’d only really ever spent time in Raleigh on previous visits to the area. I also spent time discussing the complexities of friendship, and how spending time with someone in that person’s world is one of the best ways to gain a very real, honest, non-idealised sense of who another person is and how they live.

After leaving Durham, I stopped to visit a few other people in Charlotte, North Carolina. The experience was quite different, because while my visit to Durham was largely about spending a lot of one-on-one time with someone I’d been getting to know well and exploring a new city, Charlotte was about being more of an extrovert and taking the time to discover a place I’d passed through many times before. I happen to have a number of friends and acquaintances in Charlotte; not only is it a vibrant city in the South, somehow, performing artists and touring companies always seem to end up with extended tours in Charlotte. In fact, I almost ended up there for a month or so myself, before deciding I’d rather not. *laughs*

However, while I’ve passed through the city on bus and plane layovers, met up with a friend for dinner or lunch before heading onward, I never had occasion to spend any time there. Charlotte is a large city that’s rapidly grown due to the banking and business industries, and in so many ways, is what I call Atlanta Light. The city is structured in the same way; without a car, it’s tough to get around, it can take 45 minutes to drive through the Metro area, there’s a very corporate vibe to it— excepting for small little enclaves where “alternative, artsy types” frequent and a surprisingly impressive live music scene—and like Atlanta, the tallest building is courtesy of Bank Of America.

I happened to stay with a friend who is a fellow artist and Burner, and he had a house located about 15 minutes from Downtown Charlotte. I’m not exaggerating when I say this is possibly one of the coolest houses I’ve ever had the good fortune to stay in, because it’s exactly my style—quirky, modern, with a few touches here and there that express the love of eras gone by that were a bit more aesthetically focused. I have an ex, who is an architect, and he would have been endlessly fascinated by this house. The more impressive thing is how many personal touches were reflected in the space, as my friend designed much of it himself.

To its credit, a lot of architecture in Charlotte is focused on angles, which I love. It’s a very modern city that still has plenty of trees and trolleys, but is genuinely interesting to look at (and photograph). In my opinion, it’s a much prettier city than Atlanta, and the downtown area is far more pedestrian-friendly. Then again, they have far fewer people to manage.

My friend’s house was no exception, with lots of nooks and angular corners, including a spiral staircase leading up to the second floor, which is a loft. The main area of the second floor is open, while the part that isn’t visible is well-suited for a guest bedroom (including a library/window seat), and a well-designed guest bathroom. It was a mix of old and new, with the art on the walls being romantic and ornate and the space perfect for creative endeavours. Yet, the downstairs had lighting everywhere that clubs would envy, from being able to dim the lights and change it to any colour while turning on faux-candles installed in the wall, to adding bright red/purple/blue floor lighting that announced it was time to party. On top of it all, my friend is more well-traveled than I am, and completed the decor with chairs from Japan, a table from Peru, and feng-shui touches everywhere. I was just a little tiny bit impressed. Being in the suburbs, the property even had two lakes, complete with ducks and geese.

I joked around with my friend from Durham that it was a good thing that I wasn’t staying with him when I was in town, as I suspect we have a lot of incompatibilities regarding how we live and how we’d co-exist in one space. Opposite personalities tend to have that problem. However, I’ve now come to realise just how adaptable I can be (one of the few positive traits I’ll take credit for), because it was a little bit of a shock to learn the friend who offered his hospitality was a raw food vegan. Even mixing a vodka cranberry was an adventure, as the cranberry juice was 100% cranberry, and had to be hand-mixed with sugar and lime juice, and was still quite tart. It’s a good thing I’m a fairly good bartender. *laughs* There’s incompatibility, and then there’s incompatibility..and someone who doesn’t eat anything I’d consider tasty enough to be edible, and is essentially a hipster who showed up at a swanky bar in a t-shirt and shorts, might be seen as an incompatible friend for me. Yet, we still had a great time. :) I think I mostly enjoy the company of anyone who is open-minded, interesting, and doesn’t roll his or her eyes at me as if to say “I’m judging you because you’re really weird.” :P

Being me, I wouldn’t spend time in a new city without meeting up with people at various establishments for food and drinks and entertainment. One of my favourite places was a little coffee shop called Amelie’s, a quirky French-inspired place where even the mosaic tables are hand-made, and the atmosphere leaves Atlanta’s charming Cafe Intermezzo looking downright boring and corporate. I visited both the original, and the smaller downtown location, and would love if Amelie’s would consider expanding to Atlanta. I think they’d find a welcome home here.

Even in the middle of sightseeing and eating eclairs, cupcakes, soul food, and everything else that would give my doctors a heart attack, I managed to set up a business-oriented meeting. I had dinner and drinks at a lovely establishment called Blue, where I had the opportunity to meet with the organizer of the largest Meetup in Charlotte, and discuss how we might work together in the future. While I wasn’t necessarily so impressed with the lack of chivalry inherent in him leaving me at the bar alone to hang out with friends, I try to remember that every member of the male gender I encounter is not required to be instantly infatuated with my company. Yet, I must admit, part of me resents it when I find myself in one of those situations. Although not all, or even many, connections with people in one-on-one outings are of a romantic environment, I do pride myself on being charming, and keeping people entertained. I’m a little more used to people blowing off other plans to spend more time with me than initially intended than I am being left in a bar…but, you know, what can you do. *laughs*

This was, in my opinion, rather indicative of the attitude of Charlotte as a city. If I’ve been repeatedly charmed by the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area and how friendly the residents are, and how easy I’ve found it to meet and strike up conversations with strangers, Charlotte was quite the opposite. As I’ve said, Atlanta Light. There’s an air of unapproachability, and while I met a few interesting people, on the whole, strangers were indifferent to my presence in their world. I’ve come to realise there’s a huge difference between cities dominated by business and corporate entities, and those dominated by the presence of academic institutions and research facilities, regardless of the size of the city. I seem to enjoy spending time in the latter far more than the former, which has always been my beef with Atlanta. We have enough people and things to do to have a balance between the two, but in the end, this place is not liberal enough, not intellectually inquisitive enough, not creative enough for my tastes. I’ve recently met people from small towns in the South who can’t believe this assessment, who look at Atlanta like it’s New York City. But if you’re from New York City, you look at it like Los Angeles Light, and may not feel quite as enamoured.

Anyhow, after checking out Blue, which has friendly staff and live jazz music (yay!) and made me very tasty drinks and a margherita pizza that didn’t survive long, I had to find something else to do with my evening. Fortunately, another friend was able to catch up with me, and I had the opportunity to check out three different Charlotte-area bars, before we ended up at a gay karaoke place called Petra’s. There, I finally found the liberal, exuberant atmosphere I was seeking. I met a number of people who were professional and semi-professional musical theatre performers, which was cool. The drinks were delicious, and the vibe was one that was very welcoming to everyone…regardless of what you look like, your sexual orientation, age, race, or relationship status, you simply felt welcome. It was a great note on which to conclude my trip (literally), although it did leave me boarding the bus to ATL with a major hangover the next day.

Much like I felt about spending time in Durham, I think a return trip to Charlotte is necessary at some point, because I get the sense there’s a whole other side to the city I didn’t have the opportunity to see. Charlotte is very much about soulful food, soulful music, and food and drinks hand-crafted with love. I’d love to spend the evening at a jazz club, and take the carriage tour of the city. Apparently, these are things one can only do on the weekend, however.

As you may have read in part one of my exploits, my random outing almost didn’t happen because the Chinatown buses were shut down the week of my trip. While Greyhound wasn’t terrible, they’re perfectly awful if you need to change buses in Richmond…as you inevitably do if you’re going between the North and the South. I was absolutely thrilled to hear from a friend that MegaBus (which I’d take to D.C. and Philly often when I lived in the NYC) is now in Atlanta, and will take me from Atlanta to Charlotte to Durham for less than $20 round trip. If I’m looking to go to the Northeast, getting myself to Washington D.C. or Richmond means I then have access to NYC or Philly or Boston in just a few hours. There are even trips to Savannah, New Orleans, Nashville, and other Southern cities I’d love to explore, for a fraction of what you’d pay on Greyhound. Since I am not allowed to fly, and can only manage travel for about 7-8 hours at a time (I’m still not strong enough for the 15 hours to NYC without a stop for sleep.), this is exciting news for me. It’s also uber-cheap, so if I’m heading somewhere to visit a friend who is amenable to me sleeping on their couch, it makes travel a way more accessible undertaking.

I’m thinking about a trip to NYC in October, and stopping in Charlotte, Durham, and Washington D.C. along the way. I know the chances of all my friends being in town and available to visit with me at the same time are small, and I may end up having less energy than I imagine I will…but if I can physically deal with it, it’s a good opportunity to review MegaBus and see if it’s worth it for trips longer than 3 hours.

I wish I knew more people who were like me, and just wanted to go off on a random adventure for a weekend. Then again, perhaps I’m just a very independent traveler who prefers it that way; I’m not really sure. I do know, though, that I like feeling as if my world isn’t confined to the Metro Atlanta area. :)

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. :P

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. :P

*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*