Monday, May 24, 2004

Go Tigers!/War Eagle

I've done a fair amount of traveling in my day. I've been to both coasts and all around the world to Japan. Still there is so much of this place that I still hope to see someday. I think China has to be a must see. The Middle East intrigues me almost as much as Australia/New Zealand (the place that exists in a faraway fantasy). And the book I'm currently reading, Theresia Lewis and Louis Bittrich's Betrayal in Mexico has certainly opened up my heart to that sunny dreamscape.

Yet in this mindset of wanting to be someplace else I have to admit I never thought I'd find myself in the American Deep South. Further I must also admit that I am a less than wide eyed bigot because just about all my thoughts about that region of our country have been influenced by Gomer Pyle, Green Acres, Jeff Foxworthy, and the Dukes of Hazzard. Thus when my boss and employer paid for and sent me to a class at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama my nagging (and growing) bout of agoraphobia hit me stronger than ever before.

Part of my anxiety was due in part to having to fly into Atlanta alone and rent a car to drive two hours to Alabama. It was the most economical route to take. My first big break came in arriving at the Atlanta airport (billed as the busiest airport in the world) and asking the gal at Thrifty Rent a Car if they had anything with a CD player. (I needed to blast Ike Reilly as some kind of northern-rooted statement). All they had was some type of SUV and a Sebring convertible. I chose the latter though I'm not the type anyone will ever miss going topless.

On my way down I shunned Ike and blasted Liz Phair instead. The drive through the mostly tree-lined landscape was pleasant although I noticed that there were more than the usual fellow travelers that didn't seem to grasp the concept, the importance, especially on a four lane interstate, of slower traffic staying to the right. Danger came once in awhile as a large barreling semi tried to weave through the unnecessary congestion caused by someone unwilling to get over to the right.

Auburn is a city that is certainly centered on its university (and its university centered on its football team). The university is right smack in the middle of town and all the shops and restaurants are in walking distance of the campus. I stayed at the Auburn Hotel/Conference Center that was located across the street from the college's library. I arrived late in the afternoon and walked into town to try and find a bite to eat. I found a Chinese restaurant that had a most excellent shrimp dish- a combination of two dinners, one spicy the other tastefully spiced and I brought it back to my air-conditioned room and watched an awfully English dubbed TNT presentation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Still etched in my mind were the embedded stars in the sidewalks of town that honored Auburn alum. Far from Hollywood I was glad I came across stars for Charles Barkley, Frank Thomas, and Bo Jackson. If only I had a camera.

The class I was taking was about the history and philosophy of democracy and not only did I find it endlessly fascinating it also reinforced the importance of my day job as an election official. Still what played on my mind was a question. What is the deal with none of the local TV anchor people having southern accents? If I were from that region I'd be offended that the Northerners got the better jobs while my Southern kinfolk were mere reporters at best.

I did have one hidden agenda on my trip. I wanted to for the first time taste grits. TV's Flo used it as an expletive and now I can honestly say I understand why. I had a side order of the dish with my over easy egg breakfast and I must say I wasn't too impressed. My cheesy grits were like really gritty malt-o-meal only with less taste. Later on I had some Cajun flavored crawfish that more than made up for that other southern based food. I was equally impressed by the hotel staff that demonstrated where the term "southern hospitality" came from. The attractive young southern belle who was the hostess of the hotel's restaurant remembered my room number (that they used to charge my meal to) by the third day of my stay. Yeah perhaps it had to do with I was the only Asian face in sight but she sure was nice.

At the hotel was also a group of Russian speaking guests and I really wondered why they were there. I didn't wonder too hard as I breathed in the intoxicating perfume of a rather attractive Russian blonde with more than Bullwinkley drawn good looks who sat close next to me on the hotel lobby couch one evening. Trotsky has nothing on me.

On the last day of class I had to give a presentation of a chapter of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Knowing nothing better I nervously stepped to the podium and made a lady from Louisiana nearly hack up a lung when I opened my presentation with, "Chapter five is a short chapter so I have a short summary to give and I'm a very short person."

The return trip home to Minnesota was marred by the folks at Northwest Airlines. I arrived back in Atlanta two hours before my flight home and waited in the airport watching the folks walk by. About forty minutes before takeoff there was an announcement that the flight had been canceled. The airline put me up in a room in the nearby Sheraton and gave me some vouchers for food. I was able to enjoy one more memorable meal- a seared tuna fixed to perfection. But my rescheduled flight was scheduled to takeoff at 6:40 a.m. Eastern time meaning I had to wake up around 3 a.m. Central time in order to get back to the airport and get through security temporarily shoeless to catch my flight.

Thankfully the waiter at the Sheraton restaurant sensed my state of mind and alleviated my agitation and tenseness. Being one of the few dining and with a slight delay in getting my food the waiter came over and told me the reason for my wait was that the tuna I was going to get was "this thick" (holding his forefinger and thumb more than an inch apart). Sure enough when my last meal for the trip arrived it was as advertised. "You were right it is thick," I said more out of trying to be socially polite than anything else. "Yup that's Charlie," he said making me chuckle in a rare moment of knowing in this life exactly what someone else meant.

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