Thursday, November 4, 2010

Georgia on my mind

“The Dutch are nicer than the Americans,” my naturalized American uncle Neil told me just last week. I was knocked off my feet. Americans are very nice people in my book – and most will agree with that. But my uncle lives in a small rural village in Holland now, and that is probably more social then the new development in Florida’s Punta Gorda where he used to live. But let me tell you, don’t listen to my uncle, contact with Americans is usually a very pleasant experience.

I will not claim I know America. I visited about half of its states, but I must confess there is a number of states I actually only drove through. Like Rhode Island, when I finally found a place to park, I had already left the state. But add to that a couple of Canadian provinces, and I think I can have a general view of the way the people of North America socialize with their foreign visitors. The first impression is not always favourable, mind you... Immigration officers at airports all seem to suffer from a bad case of hemorrhoids, and only on occasion can afford a friendly word, or even a joke. Like the one at Atlanta’s Hartfield Jackson Airport, asking me if I was travelling alone. When I said “yes”, he replied, “so, on your honeymoon then?” Why I said yes, is actually still a mystery to me, since I was travelling with a companion.

Sandersville mansion - quessential south

America is a big country, and big countries have differences within their borders. Friendliness may vary. Bostonians are, to be honest, not that friendly to their visitors, and the Chicago area is not high on the top ten list either. They have probably seen too many tourists. It is said that New Yorkers are not the most social people as well, but standing in a square with a map, looking in all directions, immediately attracts people asking you where you want to go. But I can see the point – people in cities are in general more focused on themselves and too busy to give much attention to all those tourists with their backpacks. How different it is when you get to the countryside – and that is what I do most in the USA and Canada.

Canadians are probably – as a nation – the friendliest people I’ve met. The Canadian immigration officer warned me not to lose my US visa. “We don’t care, but as for them over there…”, nodding at his US colleagues on the other side of the street. A traffic policeman in Sault St. Marie welcomed us in his country and advised us to set up camp in the wild. And in Canada the Francophone community in the province of Québec is in a league of its own. I still remember how a maybe 18 year old waitress put her hand on my arm, expressing her concern that I could not be careful enough on a trip to the almost uninhabited east part of the province. And the employee of the Cartier railroad in Sept Iles said, with a very big smile and a heavy French accent, when we told him we were there to see the railroad: I do not believe you! A tip for anyone travelling there: always start your conversation in French, and when they will hear you making an effort, but butchering their language, almost all will immediately shift into English. And contrary to popular belief, I actually only met one lady who did not speak English.

 Tybee Island, near Savannah, has the most wonderful beaches

The Quebecois are extremely friendly, but their top position on my chart is challenged by the people of Georgia. I visited the South in 2008, and truth to be told, it is how you think it is. My images of the south were created by In the Heat of the Night, A Streetcar named Desire, The Dukes of Hazard, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – you name it. And it is that way. Sunny, warm, muggy, lazy, lustrous green, palm trees, good food and live bait vending machines, beautiful beaches at Tybee Island, the great historic town of Savannah, which is one of the prettiest US cities – and very, very friendly people. Totally unknown people wave at you from their cars, police stop to ask if they can help you and wish you a pleasant stay, wand when walking on the sidewalk other pedestrians say hello. Two hip hop teenagers passing me politely said “how y'all doing sir?” A waiter at The Olive Garden restaurant in Atlanta offered me an entire bottle of wine for free, because they were not expecting other orders for Pinot Grigio anymore that night.
I will never forget my conversation with the park warden at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s summer cottage at Warm Springs, not far from Atlanta. I was the first visitor that morning, and when I entered I busted her trying to hide a sub under the counter. I never heard an official laugh so loudly, when I said I saw what she just did. A very nice conversation followed, and she told me she came from New York, but was tired of city living. Moving to the south was like a warm bath, she said. Never expected people to be so friendly, and never going back to the Big Apple. Some unexpected encounters will always stick to you.

 Franklin Delano Roosevelt's summer residence in Warm Springs, Ga.

Now, Georgia was not only hallelujah, because the almost intolerable August heat and humidity prevented open-window driving for most of the day, and the RAV4’s climate control blowing at full force was needed. With my history of chronic sinus problems, and cold air on my face, a massive sinusitis explosion was the result. Once again, I had to visit an ER – in the town of Sandersville – but even there the friendliness of the people surprised me. When a nurse brought me my prescription, she also brought me a dozen of printouts with interesting spots and things to do in southern Georgia, which she had quickly checked the internet for. Can you understand that I have Georgia on my mind?


  1. Martin, you are correct, from what I have experienced across the US and Europe, as well as from what friends locally and abroad have endured. Europeans are often naturally skeptical, seeing the glass half empty and distrustful of the motives of others, rather than partaking of the North American attitude of seeing the glass half full and being openly optimistic seeing the good nature and innocence in others instead.
    My French buddy Sam was overwhelmed with our level of hospitality and immediate acceptance upon his arrival. He claimed that what we did for him would never be dreamed of let alone expected of anyone in France (we offered for him to have free reign of our beach condo and pool). He said it simply would never happen, even after knowing them, such as with family, much less with a stranger in France. He spent his first night at our place, rather than the condo, since it was closer to the airport than the condo, but he wished to stay with us rather than hang out at the condo during his first week visiting Florida. His final week, after his brother flew over, was spent at the beach condo.
    Sam mentioned that he experienced gracious people, friendly conversations, and a welcoming attitude during his nine visits to the US, and always comes back for more. He now has an American family, and I, for one, can state that we are not unusual in our extension of hospitality. Punta Gorda is inhabited by Chicagoans, New Yorkers, and others from the big cities up north, so they often have a bit of that European skepticism. I think it all comes from too many people crowded up on top of each other which breeds a "keep your distance" attitude. Outside of the crowded zones, people are much more welcoming. Either way, I think North Americans are much more open with their lives, sharing experiences, and extending a hand to strangers, here or abroad, over their European contemporaries.


  2. Great post, Martin! I enjoyed reading it.

    Come back over here anytime you can. ;-)

    MWJ (whoiskennyhoward)

  3. Cornelius KoelewijnNovember 4, 2010 at 10:42 PM

    I remember spending some hours on a bridge in downtown Manchester, about an hour and a half south of Atlanta. I was train watching and Manchester is a great place to do just that. Every driver that passed by in his car waved at me - even police officers - and pedestrians stopped to have a chat. Weird experience. Later I told to my travel companion I felt like the Dutch queen when she is riding around in her horse drawn carriage on Queens Day and has to wave back to all the people greeting her...
    One drawback of Georgia: I stayed there in August. With temperatures well over 100F this wasn't always pleasant...