Too hot, but I'm still whistling Dixie

8th September 2006 at 01:00
It is four weeks since I returned from America's Deep South and I'm missing it already. The wide open spaces, the southern drawl, the air-conditioning, country music ... the air-conditioning. Lovely Luton isn't quite the same.

I've spent the past two years teaching in Georgia and I absolutely adored it. Funny thing is, at first I didn't want to go. "Too hot!" I protested, but went along anyway. With air-con, I soon became oblivious to everyday temperatures of 90C-plus and at the flick of a switch my classroom was as cool as Condoleezza Rice.

One thing I loved most was the experience of living in the Bible belt. And that surprised me too. Hands up anyone who remembers that naff 1980s film Footloose? Remember how we pitied those poor, repressed American teenagers having to fight for the right to party? Remember how we all thanked the Lord we didn't live in Dixie?

Well, guess what? The Deep South joined the 21st century some time ago.

Sure, one or two southerners think the Civil War hasn't ended and, no, they haven't surrendered yet either. Yes, you will still see the rebel Confederate flag flying proudly outside redneck ranch houses.

But states such as Georgia have managed to blend modern living (and a fair dose of partying) with old-fashioned traditions, family values and southern charm. And it feels real good.

Being in the Bible belt, we used to joke that rush hour was on a Sunday when everyone was driving to church. Seriously, congestion was so bad that traffic cops were regularly posted outside beautiful white wooden churches to prevent parking mayhem.

The only graffiti we ever saw was "Jesus is Lord" spray-painted very neatly by the railway track. And as far as kids swearing in school was concerned, "Hell" and "Damn" were as bad as it got.

The only downside of living in the Bible belt for us was the "No alcohol on a Sunday in the state of Georgia" law. Hubby and I were caught out a few times; when you really fancy a bottle of plonk with your fried chicken, but Wal-Mart refuses to serve you because it's Sunday, you soon learn to stock up on Saturdays instead.

It is also illegal to have booze on school premises, even in the boot of your car. I had a close shave when a friend from Luton planned to send champagne as a surprise for my birthday. The UK supplier asked for my school's phone number, which she didn't have, so she ended up sending flowers instead. Phew! Me in my classroom clutching a contraband bottle of bubbly could have been a difficult one to explain to the cops.

Family values are big in Georgia and the old chaperone system is still going strong. When a friend's 16-year-old daughter was going on her first date, Dad went along too. Chastity and abstinence are promoted as viable teenage lifestyle choices and, with far fewer teenage pregnancies than the UK, there has to be something said for this.

Of course, it's not all perfect. The Deep South has its problems too. There is a stark divide between rich and poor - the two extremes. We were fortunate to be living in affluent Metro Atlanta - clean, open spaces and middle-class families who have never heard of an anti-social behaviour order.

Thanks to the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta benefited from a huge financial boost and has prospered considerably ever since. Other parts of the South are not so fortunate or so affluent. There are pockets of poverty and crime, as there are in major cities around the world. Some of the students attending my school were transported daily from south to north Atlanta for a "better" education, spending up to five hours a day on a yellow school bus.

It can be a tough place to live, but the lifestyle can also be fantastic.

Americans have to work hard (for those in professions beyond teaching, two weeks' holiday a year is standard) but they play hard too. Forget Footloose. Believe me, when school's out, 21st-century Georgians sure know how to party.

Deep down in Dixie it's a very different world. And, to be honest, I think my heart is still there.

Mary McCarney spent two years as a visiting teacher at an elementary school in Georgia, United States of America

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