I first moved to Mississippi from New Orleans when I was fifteen. My mother had enough of living in the city, and knew that land and houses were cheaper across the state line. Needless to say, I was less than thrilled at the prospect of moving in the middle of High School. I was starting to break into a good social scene, I was becoming comfortable with moving around the city independently, and I was learning to become a real local. The last thing that I wanted to do was to move out to the country!
Though Picayune, MS, is less than an hour from New Orleans, it felt like another world. I recall meeting our first landlord, an older gentleman native to Picayune, and not being able to understand a word he said since his accent was so thick. I felt like such an outsider. My accent, my upbringing (my parents are not from the region), my interests, were all foreign and I rejected the local customs. I told myself that I only had three years of high school to get through, and then I could leave Mississippi for good, and go far away forever.
Well, after high school, I didn’t get very far – about an hour north on the interstate to Hattiesburg. My thought was to make a pit stop there to get my degree, and then leave the state with a bang! I’ll admit that I didn’t think much of Hattiesburg when I first arrived. All I knew was William Carey University, where I lived on campus and took classes, and Hardy Street going to Hwy 98, which to me looked like one long strip mall, with nothing interesting or charming about it. I knew that it was going to be a long four years.
It wasn’t until the following summer, when I got a job waiting tables downtown at the Oaks Café, that I discovered that there was far more to Hattiesburg than I first realized. There were several little antique shops, several great music venues, a book store, and more, all locally owned and developed. All of a sudden, Hattiesburg became far more livable to me. That being said, I was still unable to feel at home in Mississippi.
After I graduated from college, I finally had my chance to get out, and I took it! The long awaited flight was finally at hand. I was giddy with excitement, relishing the opportunity to explore new lands, new people, to find my place! I spent the next year and a half traveling and living over seas, working in café’s and hotels. And as excited as I was to be out traveling, I invariably became homesick. But homesick for where? I had spent my time in Mississippi not accepting it as my home, but by that time I had spent a great number of my formative years in South Mississippi. I became homesick for Hattiesburg, and Mississippi as a whole.
What I came to realize was that I was even more of a stranger in another place. I had lived in MS for so long and even longer in the South. I realized that though I don’t quite fit the stereotype I am for all intensive purposes a Southerner. Despite what I thought, I had to realize that culturally speaking I have been greatly influenced by the South and its many charms. I realized that I was missing more than just my friends and family, Leatha’s BBQ, the Thirsty Hippo, Hoyt Tanner’s Hot Dog stand, pecan pie, and the rest of Southern Living’s recipe book. I was missing Mississippi. I was missing home.
A friend of mine, a local transplant from Austria, told me once that one can live anywhere so long as they have these three things: A good friend, a good café, and a good drug dealer. My friend was paraphrasing from Sigmund Feud, so that may explain the last part. This quote has stuck with me for a long time. Obviously, I take the final part in that quote to be open for interpretation. I suppose that it can be anything that provides recreation, whether that is golf, hunting, music, or anything else. When I returned to Mississippi last December, I was overjoyed. I had finally come home after 10 years of being a stranger.