Non-Fiction

Sunshine and Soul Food

In the same way that people believe in soul mates, I believe in soul cities; places at which we’re destined to arrive in order to grow into the people we’re fated to become. These cities offer that elusive balance of enchantment and challenge in order to teach us things about ourselves we’d never have known otherwise. They’re the places where our hearts reside even when our bodies are far, far away.

New York City is my soul city.

Of course, it’s possible to have multiple soul cities. It’s also possible to deeply love a place at which you’re not destined to arrive and especially not destined to remain. This is because, as with soul mates, soul cities aren’t always capable of fulfilling our every need. If they were, we’d have no reason to leave, no reason to experience what the rest of the world has to offer, and therefore no reason to return. Our soul cities know this, which is why they periodically push us to our breaking points.

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Overcrowded NYC subway via Huffington Post

A few weeks before my 24th birthday, I reached one such breaking point. It happened while I was riding the L-train from Brooklyn into Manhattan, drowning in a sea of plaid with my nose dangerously close to both the subway car door and a neighbor’s armpit. Everyone in my vicinity was wearing headphones and staring blankly into the overly air-conditioned ether. It felt like we were approaching Bedford Ave, but I couldn’t be sure since turning my head would’ve most certainly resulted in my nose touching things it shouldn’t.

I tried focusing on the song blaring through my own headphones, but it was a song I hated (or more accurately, it reminded me of someone I hated) and I was incapable of changing it due to the awkward positioning of my bag and arms. Forced to stare into the reflection in the subway car window, I was met by the cold gaze of a stranger. There was a look of contempt plastered across her face with a matching set of dark circles hanging beneath her eyes like two bulls-eyes. She looked tired. She looked old. She most certainly did not look like someone about to turn 24-years-old.

I don’t remember whether the next statement was merely a thought or perhaps something I yelled inadvertently as another flood of hipsters threatened to trample me to death, but it resonated so clearly in my mind that it felt like a command: You need to get the hell out of here.

And that’s how–on the eve of the eve of my 24th birthday–I found myself walking down King Street in Charleston, South Carolina, sporting a lobster-red sunburn and a yellow jessamine in my hair.

Photography by Samantha Willner

Southern style on King Street

I could not have chosen a more starkly different destination. Life moves snail-like in Charleston, but it’s not the irritating sloth of a tourist stopping mid-stride to stare upwards as you’re running to catch the train. It’s more like the lazy trot of a carriage horse–of which there are many on the uneven streets of Charleston–whose sole job is to get you where you need to be without the obligation of doing it quickly.

The same concept seemed to apply to Charlestonians. Everyone around me appeared to have perfected the art of wandering aimlessly, so much so that I questioned whether any of them actually had jobs or families or even errands to run. (Or errands to walk, rather.) Having never visited South Carolina, I found myself wholly unequipped for southern living. As the days went on, it became increasingly apparent that New York City had robbed me of my abilities to slow down, stay put, and most glaringly, speak kindly to strangers.

Photography by Samantha Willner

Carriage horse in Charleston, SC

“Beautiful day!” chimed a man wearing salmon-colored slacks and an enormous grin as I–for the dozenth time–lapped a horse drawn carriage that had passed me minutes earlier. I chose to ignore the man and his pants and his grin. In Manhattan, this comment would’ve undoubtedly segued into one of three requests that I wanted nothing to do with; money, directions, or my phone number. The stranger, trying to keep pace with my stride, cleared his throat and repeated, “beautiful day!” and this time I was forced to say, “yeah, sure” before veering into City Lights coffee shop to escape any more unwarranted cheerful exclamations.

But rather than feeling relieved to be rid of his presence, I felt guilty. For the second time, I heard the voice that initially compelled me to come to Charleston, but this time it was saying, “what the hell is wrong with you?” In New York, such coldness and detachment is necessary for survival. Nobody would ever get anywhere if they responded to all the people, advertisements, lights, and sounds vying for their attention. In Charleston, however, it was hardly a survival mechanism; it was just plain rude. I made a mental note to quit being such a miser, but after my third day in Charleston the resolution hardly seemed necessary.

Within me, a silent transformation was taking place. It might’ve happened while I was wolfing down fried chicken and okra at Jestine’s Kitchen, or perhaps searching for dolphins along Waterfront Park with my amicable Couchsurfing host, Mo. It could’ve been the shrimp ‘n grits at Hominy Grill or the day I spent sunbathing and swimming at Folly Beach. It might’ve been triggered by the marine in uniform who passed me on the street and commented, “that’s a beautiful dress, ma’am,” with a heart-melting southern drawl. A strong argument could even be made for the moment a teenage girl in Blue Bicycle Books asked me if I was a French student as I thumbed a rare copy of Le Barbier de Séville, which segued into a twenty-minute conversation about my study abroad experience in Paris.

Regardless of when, how, or who, all it took was a few days of sunshine and soul food to turn me from cynical, mean-faced New Yorker into a genial southern belle. It was less a decision so much as a natural adaptation to my meridional milieu. Whereas New York requires detachment, Charleston promoted complete awareness. I noticed sounds I hadn’t heard in years; a fountain babbling from across Marion Square, the rustle of the wind through Palmetto trees, ocean waves crashing on the beach. I found peace in “the going”; the act of getting somewhere was equally, if not more enjoyable than arriving, which naturally transformed my speed-walk into that seemingly aimless Charlestonian stroll. Between the warm weather, delicious food, and friendly (not to mention attractive) locals, there seemed to be no reason for me to ever leave South Carolina.

Photography by Samantha Willner

Charleston Battery

Which is why, on my fifth and last day in Charleston, I seriously considered staying. With my mind and body more at ease than they’d been in recent memory, it seemed like the logical decision. I could find a new job, a new apartment; it’d certainly be easy to make new friends. I could do anything, so long as I got my daily dose of sunshine and soul food. The mere thought of having a Magnolia’s barbecue pulled-pork sandwich forever at my disposal was enough to convince me to stay.

Yet as enticing as the idea sounded, as much as my mind and body felt at peace in Charleston, as much as I’d fallen in love with the southern lifestyle, my heart was elsewhere. It was in New York City–my soul city–where I’d left it the whole time, and it was telling me it was time to come home.

For more pictures from my trip to Charleston, click here.

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4 replies »

  1. Lovely post. Yes I firmly believe that we each ‘belong’ somewhere. Maybe we haven’t been there even, but you know for sure once you have. You continue to paint a great picture of Charleston. I’ve no wish to travel but I enjoy other places through good travel bloggers.

  2. Ah, yes. When I moved to Chicago in my early twenties, I loved it. Still do. But I developed a “city face” and a much tougher demeanor–and eventually found a way to combine my softer side with it. Best of luck in doing the same in the Big Apple.

    • Thanks Kay! I like that term, “city face!” I think escaping NYC every once in awhile helps me stay aware of how I respond to other people and the outward impression I’m giving. But man, is it easy to fall into that don’t-care-don’t-talk-to-me mode.

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