Just spent a week visiting family in my hometown, Nashville, Tennessee. Then headed back to my adopted hometown, Washington, DC ( NoVA, really). This is an 11-hour drive on I-40 and I-81 through some of the most beautiful countryside on earth.

And, by European standards, practically a wilderness! I am still wondering who actually owns all that land along I-40 between Nashville and Knoxville. There are like, THREE towns in 180 miles. Most Europeans would probably be sure they had driven right off the edge of the world.

You do a lot of driving in Nashville, and anywhere else in the South. That’s because there is practically no public transportation. You get what you pay for, and you don’t pay for much south of the Mason-Dixon. This can’t last. It will be interesting to see what it takes to finally convince people to invest in infrastructure. $10/gallon gas, maybe?

Nashville, in particular, is laid out well for buses, trams, or light rail. It is a giant wagon wheel, with several “spokes” radiating out from the center. Most of these four-to-six lane boulevards were originally designed to accommodate streetcars. My parents live in an old “streetcar suburb” from the turn of the last century, a couple of blocks from one of the spokes. The busy downtown area, including the freak show tourist mecca of lower Broadway, is at one end of this street, and the biggest shopping center in the city is on the other, with two universities and a major hospital in between, not to mention Music Row.

An Elvis Tribute Artist on Lower Broadway. I think we saw this guy when we visited Hatch Show Print to pick up posters. Photo by Tom Stanford from the Tennessean newspaper website.

There are infrequent buses running along this corridor, but I don’t think I saw one the whole week I was there. In Vienna (or any European city) there would certainly be a tram line running the full length of this street, with trams running every ten minutes, and stops connecting the tram route with bus routes on the secondary streets.  Now that’s how to get people out of their cars. So, points to Vienna when it comes to public transportation.

(Oh, and for public bathrooms. Some seriously nasty bathrooms along I-81. The only clean one was in a gas station run by some nice folks with no teeth in Strasburg, VA. In Austria, they would be able to charge for this cleanliness. I think this is a brilliant system. People with no teeth and minimal skills get paid to do something and we all get clean bathrooms. Win-win.)

All that said, it has recently occurred to me that possibly the reason Viennese drivers are so aggressive is that in a city with great public transport, only diplomats, taxi drivers and assholes drive cars!

It was so nice to drive around Nashville and not get honked at, tailgated, cut off, etc. Not that these things never happen, but wow, the pace is just so much more relaxed. My kids noticed this, too. Now I remember why I used to like to drive. There is one quirk that can kind of get to you, though. No one in Nashville uses a turn signal. Ever. It is what it is. You adapt or die :)

Strangely, though people are chained to their cars, they also spend a lot of time outside. At least in my parents’ neighborhood. Unlike in DC, a little heat (or even a lot) does not keep anyone from sitting on the porch, walking the dog, jogging, or working in the garden. It may be different out in the new, treeless, McMansionized suburbs, but where the houses were designed for indoor/outdoor living, people take advantage of the arrangement.

The porches are wonderful, and got me thinking how I can add one to my little house in NoVA. (Note to HOA: you do not want to get between a Southerner and her porch. You have been warned.)

Points to Nashville for the comida Mexicana. It’s so funny. I never thought when I left Nashville 24 years ago that the first thing on my list for every visit back would be to get me a good margarita and some refritos. In my grandmother’s East Nashville neighborhood, of all places. Nashvillians have a big appetite for Mexican food, served up plain. I even saw a place that is called simply “Mexican Restaurant.” Well, what else do you need to know, really?

People in Nashville are friendly. No, really, they are. It’s not an act. They have figured something out: it’s just as easy to be nice as it is to be “ugly.” Plus, you never know who might be packing heat, so it pays to be polite.

And open. OMG. You have to be careful, or you’ll get pulled into a conversation about some total stranger’s female troubles or no-count nephew.

The only problem is that when you grow up in such a friendly place, it sets a high standard that most other countries can’t match. It’s probably not that great a stretch to go from New York City to a city in central or eastern Europe. But coming from the South? You never quite shake the feeling that you are not entirely welcome in a place like Vienna because people are so standoffish. I’ve been told it is just a big city thing, but I don’t completely buy that. Nashville is a pretty big city, and people still manage to be friendly. Heck, most people are friendly even in DC. I think it’s an American thing, and big east coast cities are the exception that proves the rule.

Oh, and by the way, have y’all found a church yet?

Christians marching to defend everyone’s freedom of religion.  Unless, of course, you happen to be a Muslim.

Nashville is the Buckle of the Bible Belt: a major religious publishing center and the headquarters of the ultra-conservative Southern Baptist Convention. You know, of Richard Land fame. There is definitely some narrow-minded ignorance going around. But, it is also a university town, and while a churchgoing place, not anywhere near as conservative as you might think.

I never realized this when I was younger, but it’s pretty clear to me now that Nashville  is a progressive island in a conservative sea. Obama won by a landslide in Nashville/Davidson County in 2008, for example, while losing 90 of 96 counties in the state. Even the Republicans in Nashville are pretty moderate by comparison to the rest of the state. Rick Santorum lost Davidson county in the 2011 primary, but won the state—to the embarrassment of most Nashvillians I know.

Some Southerners of my moderately liberal political persuasion run screaming from their hometowns and never want to go back. I am not among them. I would never want to live in the small-town South: the towns where my recent ancestors came from, and where I spent plenty of time as a kid. Nice places to visit, but I know wouldn’t last long before pissing off everyone in town with my opinions! And, let’s face it, most of these places are boring as sin.

But, there’s a lot to be said for the college-town South. It’s the best of both worlds, in my opinion. I’d move to a town like Nashville, Charlottesville, or Chapel Hill in a heartbeat.

Leaving for Vienna tonight. It’s a great place to live, and we’re having a lot of fun there, but this trip has reminded me that there is no place like home.

Three years ago, when we started bidding for this tour, I told myself that this was not going to be my life. It was going to be a nice three-year excursion—as if my husband were a visiting professor at a foreign university, for example. When the State Department makes me crazy—as it does about once a week—I take a deep breath and say: this is not my real life. It’s only temporary. Before too long I will be back among my own people, soaking up the sun, puttering in my garden, fixing up my house, and not having to go through my husband to do anything. I will be my own person again. This keeps me sane.

Whatever works, right?

And we’re off!

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