People actually get out of the way of ambulances
Now, I went to Driving School when I was 16. I know what to do if an ambulance is in your vicinity: pull over immediately. You do this, everyone else does this, the ambulance speeds by on its way to save a life, and we all get on with our business.
Not so in Nola!
In New Orleans, I lived near one hospital, and I worked next to another. Suffice it to say that encountering ambulances on the road was a frequent occurrence in my daily life. The first time it happened while I was driving, I dutifully started to pull over. AND NO ONE ELSE DID. Suddenly I found myself practically creating an accident as every other driver attempted to get around me in any way possible, and stuck as I was at an awkward angle (on Napoleon, where the street dramatically slopes away at the sides) I could do nothing but sit and watch as the ambulance crawled by, dodging cars as best it could. Inside, I imagined, a weary EMT sat back, defeated, hands to his exhausted brow: “We lost him. Oh, if only we could have arrived at the hospital two minutes ago!”
It turned out this day had not been a freak incident. In fact, I was frequently the only car that tried to pull to the side when I heard a siren, and since it is often impossible to get over to the right if no one else is, after a while I had to content myself with slowing down and making a halfhearted tug at the wheel. I had become a New Orleans driver.
(This was all confirmed by my non-driving friend Rachel, who once got to ride in the front of an ambulance accompanying a post-fainting friend to the hospital. “It was crazy – no one moved out of the way for us!”)
Fast-forward to the first time I encounter an ambulance while driving in New England. I do my usual – slow down, look in the mirrors. And suddenly, all the cars around me have swerved to the side, creating a nice lane down the middle for the ambulance to whoosh past. Frantically I jerk my steering wheel over to the right, reminding myself that I am back in the land where drivers actually move aside for ambulances, and inside the speeding vehicle my imaginary EMT goes, “We’re gonna make it! We’re gonna make it!”
No one makes eye contact
Being from the Northeast, I spent most of my life knowing that when you pass people on the street, the appropriate behavior is to look a little beyond them, focus on a point several feet from the ground with great intensity, and not acknowledge their presence. If they are so rude as to make some sort of salutation, it is acceptable to glance over your shoulder at who they might be talking to. Because obviously, they are not addressing you. A perfect stranger.
Then I moved to New Orleans, where eye contact, “How you doin?”, and a brief nod are de rigeur, especially in the neighborhoods where I spent most of my time working as a community organizer. I worked really hard on my “How you doin,” until I had it down to a nice, casual, two-syllable drawl. I traded “How you doin?” with folks all day long, inside, outside, in sun, in rain. And pretty soon, it became inscribed on my brain.
Asking “How you doin?” is just such a great idea! It removes all that awkwardness from the dreaded social calamity that is Strangers Passing Each Other and allows you to acknowledge each other as humans! And it makes me feel like a friendly, good person.
Since I’ve come back up north, I’ve found the habit (along with saying y’all) a pretty hard one to break. Being in New York City helps – there’s just so many people, and they’re all moving so fast and so obviously uninterested in interacting with you, that “How you doin” is clearly uncalled for. But when I’m taking a walk, and there’s not many people around, and someone is approaching me from the opposite direction, I can just feel that “How you doin” rising, unbidden, ready to tumble from my tongue, as my eyes rake the other person’s face for that brief eye contact that will give me the permission to release my greeting.
Most of the time I’m not too successful. But I persevere.
It’s frickin’ cold
There it is, folks. It’s COLD here. It’s really cold. Here is me in New Orleans and in New England at the same time of year:
“But Leah,” you may protest. “You spent 21 years living in the Northeast (with brief forays in the tropical locales of the Bahamas and South India). You KNOW winter. You’ve lived through SO MANY winters. What’s the deal?”
Here’s the answer: I don’t know! I don’t know how it is that I can have lived through so many winters, and miss just a handful of them, and suddenly have no capacity for handling a chill of any kind. Particularly not the windy, face-numbing kind.
This is really bad news since Morocco – who knew? – is apparently a freakishly cold place with no indoor heating whatsoever.
At least I know that I do have a high tolerance for heat. That should come as a comfort next summer. (Look forward to my upcoming blog post in July: Oh My God Morocco Is So H0t What Am I Doing Here.)