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Southern transplants in Boston united by shared experiences

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  July 30, 2012 12:44 PM

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(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Ex-Southerners gathered at the Beantown Pub on a recent Friday.

On a recent Friday night, a group of friends and strangers came together in a bar near Boston Common.

They numbered around 20, and all were there for the same reason: to go not where everybody knows your name, but where everybody speaks in a drawl.

They are the members of the Ex-Southerners Meetup Group — Boston Region, a group founded nearly five years ago on the online community-building site Meetup.com to bring together folks transplanted from below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Bonnie Haymon, a 26-year-old lawyer from New Orleans who is the local group's current organizer, said many in the group are still new to Boston and looking to meet others who share common experiences.

“People feel more comfortable coming into this kind of environment,” she said.

Some have had trouble making friends in a region where social customs are different and strangers are less likely to say hey, while others just want to be able to reminisce about grits and gumbo.

Members came to Boston for a variety of reasons, but there is a considerable overlap. Defying expectations, no one interviewed at the July event at the Beantown Pub moved here to attend college. Some came for job opportunities, or to be closer to friends or relatives.

Several say they chose Boston specifically to try a different environment, one that is more ethnically and economically diverse and politically liberal.

Rachel Field, who moved from Charlotte, N.C., four years ago, said she wanted more out of life than what she saw for herself there, though she did have trepidation when the time came to relocate.

“You have to do this,” she recalled telling herself. “Going to Target and PetSmart on weekends cannot be your whole life.”

Since settling in Cambridge, she has found what she was looking for. She has met interesting people from all over the globe, including her first roommate, an Italian astrophysicist. She said the people she meets now have a different set of priorities.

“The South is definitely a little more about, ‘What church do you go to?’” she said. “And living here — at least in Cambridge — it’s a little more like, ‘Do you have your PhD?’”

Field and others said it was difficult to adjust to Boston winters and the price of housing. Some who were accustomed to living alone had to accept taking on roommates again.

When Renea Gooch moved here from Alabama in 2009, she slept for a year on the couch of a friend she met online. She had completed her master’s degree in biological sciences at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and came seeking a job in biotechnology but also to live in a blue state.

Gooch said her first sight of Boston during an earlier visit in 2004 was a gay rights rally on City Hall Plaza. She stepped out of the T station at Government Center to find hundreds gathered in support of same-sex marriage. Though she’s straight, Gooch said it made her feel like she was right where she belonged.

“I’ve always said I was a Southerner born in the wrong place,” said Gooch, 33. “I have more of a Northern mentality.”

But while the city felt right to Gooch, it wasn’t always easy to meet new people. For her and others, the ex-Southerners group has helped.

“I have to say that most of my friends were made through this group,” said Lori Hawkins, 29, who grew up in Montgomery, Ala. “I haven’t really met a lot of people from Boston. It’s really Southerners that I hang out with.”

Hawkins even met her boyfriend, Kenny King, at the group’s March event.

King, 25, grew up in a rural area outside Paducah, Ky., and came to Massachusetts last fall for a job at Boston Scientific. He isn’t sure how long he’ll stay in Boston — he said it’s “a little cold” for his liking — but Hawkins is working on that.

“I mean, I like it,” King said of the Boston area. “I wouldn’t say I’m in love with it.”

While most in the group avowed a fondness for at least some aspects of Boston, just as many agreed that they missed milder winters. Some missed Southern charm and hospitality, though at least one felt some of that charm was disingenuous while people in Boston were more sincere.

Everyone agreed that they miss Southern food, whether it’s Memphis-style barbecue, peach cobbler, grits, or more obscure regional dishes like Brunswick stew, a tomato-based soup of meat and vegetables, or hot brown, an open-faced sandwich smothered in Mornay sauce that’s popular in Kentucky.

Haymon, the group’s organizer, said food is one of the things that brings the ex-Southerners together, and some members get together in small groups to cook up a few of their favorites.

“I miss my po’ boys. I miss my gumbo,” Haymon said. “If I want that, I have to make it myself, so I’ve actually become a much better cook.”

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremycfox@gmail.com.
Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Downtown on Twitter: @YTDowntown.

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