I’d like to think that when it comes to travelling in the USA, I’m pretty well-versed. I spent several months backpacking across the United States with my ex boyfriend, spending the majority of our time by chance in the South. (I say ‘by chance’ because we pretty much decided the route spontaneously as we went.) I love the fact that each state feels like a different country from the next, with unique cultures, unique attitudes and unique landscapes. But it wasn’t until I was invited to stay with my pal Rachel and her family in North Carolina, that I realised what a difference it makes to visit a place when you know someone in it. And, furthermore- that even when in a fellow English-speaking country, there’s a considerable amount which can get completely lost in translation.
An extremely brief introduction to North Carolina
Hi North Carolina, nice to meet you!
Let’s not beat around the bush here. You’re not likely to see ‘North Carolina’ pop up on bucket list USA tourism lists- despite the fact that the state is home to an absolute wealth of natural beauty. The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the most scenic drives in the USA (especially in the fall), and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is officially the most visited National Park in the States. On the Eastern side of North Carolina, is the beautiful Atlantic coastline. There are over 300 miles of sandy rugged beaches and islands smattered with beach towns and lighthouses to explore in the Tarheel State.
And this rugged coastline is where, back in the days when colonisation was de rigueur, Europeans arrived in droves. Cherokee, Tuscarora and Catawba tribes all lived in the area, but the English and European colonists gradually took over and started to build new towns and villages on native soil. Over the next few centuries the agriculture industry boomed- thanks to a massive slave population, which eventually made up about a third of the population of North Carolina- and the colony became extremely wealthy.
Eventually North Carolina got a bit sick of being a Royal Colony, and after the American Revolution it declared independence and became the 12th state to join the United States of America. Then Abraham Lincoln became president of the United States and started to really shake things up with his stance against slavery. Although the state was largely divided on the subject, North Carolina joined the Confederacy (ie the union of Southern states who were pro-slavery), and the Civil War began. Thankfully, the North won, the states were re-united, and the Reconstruction era began.
(PS- ‘Reconstruction era’ is the time when the South was being rebuilt, and the abolition of slavery and equal citizenship became official law. Not without problems even to this day, let’s be clear.)
So pals, whoever said that the USA doesn’t have any history, clearly hasn’t done their research. North Carolina is bloomin’ full of it!
Flying into Raleigh
‘People only fly into Raleigh if they know someone there,’ the old man next to me at the airport in New York explained knowledgeably. He was right, because if it wasn’t for the fact that my pal had invited me to stay, Raleigh would not have been on my radar.
‘But you’ll have a wonderful time. Raleigh is a beautiful city and the people there are some of the friendliest in the world.’
The old man clearly knew what he was talking about. I had a beaut time experiencing life in North Carolina, and it’s the people I met that made it. My amazing pal Rachel and her equally amazing family took me to all the sights around- from the North Carolina Museum of Art (which is downright beautiful, so if you’re ever looking for things to do in Raleigh, I recommend at least stroll around the grounds)- to Rachel’s old university at Chapel Hill. Which is not only a beautiful campus, but also happens to be the oldest public University in the USA, don’cha know.
Rachel and her dad introduced me to a staple beverage of the South- sweet tea. If you think sweet tea is something similar to iced tea, you are very much mistaken my friend. True sweet tea has to be tasted to be believed, and (surely) involves at least six bags of sugar.
And there was an absolutely brilliant escapade involving goats and yoga.
But these were all fairly urban adventures (with the exception of the goat yoga, to be fair). 40% of North Carolina is rural- way above the national average per US state- and it was when we ventured further South to Riverton, that I began to see more and more incredible but joyous differences between the life I’m used to and life in this wonderful part of the world.
It also brought out one of the most hilariously bizarre ‘lost in translation’ moments I’ve had in all my years of living.
Real Southern food in North Carolina
After a long drive from Raleigh, we pulled up in the car park of General McArthur’s restaurant- a little wooden building with a porch swing and a view across the flat green fields outside of Laurinburg. A sign on the front depicted a cartoon pig in military uniform and aviators. ‘Original Pig Pickin” was emblazoned underneath.
Well, quite frankly I was already sold. This was obviously going to be a BRILLIANT EXPERIENCE.
Several of Rachel’s family members had arrived already, and were sat at a long table in the busy room. On the wooden walls around us was a collection of old family photos, pictures of the local area, and wooden pigs, mixed in with inspirational quotes and funny sayings.
‘Forgiveness is not an option. It’s a command.’ ‘Don’t forget to pray today. Because God didn’t forget to wake you up this morning.’ ‘Missing! Husband, shotgun and dog. Reward for dog.’
Another North Carolina shenanigan: Goat yoga is a real thing, and here’s how you do it
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so English in all my life. My natural instincts were telling me to photograph everything IMMEDIATELY. But not wanting to look like a tourist at a family dinner (and in a restaurant where I feel like tourists are not a thing), I refrained.
We grabbed our plastic plates with little dividers and headed to the buffet station, which greeted me with the strangest selection of food I’ve ever seen outside of the crew mess. Thank goodness Rachel was there to talk me through everything, that’s all I’m saying. Biscuits, collard greens, turnips, baked beans (which are very different to your Heinz classics, FYI), at least three more varieties of bean, mac’ and cheese, chopped BBQ (in North Carolina, that’s pork), mashed potatoes, slaw, fried EVERYTHING, and something called ‘fatback’ which is exactly what it sounds like it is. Then all the puddings. Including my personal favourite- peach cobbler.
Guys. The food of North Carolina is not the classiest-looking stuff. (It reminds me of English food in that way). But it is downright bloomin’ DELICIOUS.
The Real Steel Magnolias of North Carolina
Next up was Aunt Sarah’s house. If you’ve never seen the MASTERPIECE OF A MOVIE that is Steel Magnolias, you need to hunt it down right now, just so you understand the magnificence that I am about to describe to you. These women are the real Steel Magnolias of North Carolina, there’s no two ways about it.
Aunt Sarah was sat in her armchair-throne, like a queen holding court, attached to a lengthy plastic tube which was draped elegantly across the floor. The way she held herself, the tube could have been a string of pearls as opposed to a vital piece of breathing apparatus.
The night before, in a dramatic turn of events, Aunt Sarah had suddenly been taken into hospital. She was discharged the next morning and recounted every minute detail of her experience to us, with the perfect balance of gripping drama and outstanding comedic timing.
The whole ordeal was clearly the perfect material for Aunt Sarah, and she had the whole room captivated in equal measures of horror and hysterical laughter.
She is my idol.
More adventures in the South: Three days in Nashville, Tennessee
Suddenly the back door swung open behind Aunt Sarah’s chair. BETTY WAS IN THE BUILDING, WIELDING A PAIR OF PUMPS.
Betty is Aunt Sarah’s neighbour, and the two have been friends for years and years. The kind of friends who bicker consistently but ultimately love each other very much, know what I’m saying? Betty was just popping by to see if anyone wanted the pumps; she refused to sit down in case she ended up staying too long, and then spent the next forty minutes standing, shifting slowly further in to the house and then slowly back out again.
She added to the stories of Aunt Sarah’s hospital visit, gave her all of the advice and then got on to the subject of:
Betty holds shagging classes for the locals, and a man had been attending these shagging sessions. Apparently he had absolutely no rhythm and shouldn’t have been shagging at all. Of course, shagging should really be done on the beach, Betty explained.
I was more than a little bit confused.
But then I realised that ‘shagging’ in North Carolina might not be quite the same thing as it is in England. (If you don’t know, google it.) In fact, I didn’t just think it, I hoped it too.
“Excuse me, but what is ‘shagging?” I asked.
Turns out, it’s a style of dance- the Carolina Shag- and Betty was very kindly only too happy to demonstrate.
So. I can confirm that Betty is indeed a skilled shagger.
Four things you’ll find in a North Carolina Walmart (which you won’t find in the UK)
As an English lass in North Carolina, Rachel felt that it was imperative that she take me to explore a Walmart. And Rachel was not wrong.
So when the rest of the family settled down with bowls of popcorn to watch the basketball game on TV, off we went for a guided tour of Walmart. Having stepped in a Walmart once before (on a rainy day in Florida City, Miami), I can confirm that it is genuinely beneficial to visit with a guide.
So here are four things I found in a North Carolina Walmart, which I can pretty much guarantee you won’t find in your local UK Tesco. Firstly, Bibleopoly. I’ve never seen a game of Bibleopoly FULL STOP, but I would genuinely be intrigued to play that game.
Secondly, gallons of ready-made sweet tea. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- the English notion of what sweet tea is, is completely and utterly wrong.
Thirdly, guns. All kinds of guns. Rifles and bullets and ammunition galore.
And fourth. THE ULTIMATE TURKEY KIT. For when you go turkey-hunting, obviously.
And on to the secret town of Riverton
The main purpose of our trip to Scotland County, was actually to stay in a mysterious place called Riverton. Rachel and her family had already told me all the tales of this magical little hidden community, and I was incredibly excited to be able to see it with my own two eyeballs.
Situated on a big old beautiful patch of land with the Lumbee River running through it, for the last few centuries the only people to live here have been the descendants of a Scottish couple who arrived in North America in 1807. So, although some of them aren’t sure of their exact family connections (Rachel uses the word ‘cousin’ to describe most of them), every person who lives in Riverton today is somehow related.
Which is pretty full on awesome when you think about it, don’t you think!?
So…for more of my glorious non-touristy, a thousand things lost in translation, English lass in the South story- head on over to part two of my stay, all about the hidden gem of Riverton, North Carolina.
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