People in Chapel Hill are friendly. Really friendly. It’s like The Truman Show. But, for a Berlin dweller like me, it’s heaven to find people being courteous and genuinely happy to help. Right now, I’m sat in a cafe in a slightly weird part of town called Meadowmont. Their website calls it ‘an interconnected community that mirrors history with its narrow, tree-lined streets and old stone walls’. In reality, that seems to mean looking like a suburb in a computer game. My hosts, Derick and Jennifer, call it Pleasantville. There’s absolutely no dirt or litter. Grinding my cigarette butt under my shoe on the street feels like a subverse act of teenage rebellion here.
But then this cafe, with its middle-aged customers, is playing the weirdest music for its crowd, and the mumsy woman behind the counter is humming along to Hewlett’s Daughter by Grandaddy. It’s like how you’d imagine a cafe in The OC, but with the kids replaced by their parents. As I type there’s a guy in sunglasses which are way too trendy for him glancing clandestinely at the arse of another middle-aged woman with too much make-up on; who has, admittedly, a great arse.
The friendliness is infectious. I’m making the most of it, asking directions to toilets that I know the directions to just to experience more friendliness. Last night, I went to yet another baseball game, and on my way to the smoking area, a friendly guy offered me the most detailed directions possible for my journey to the correct zone, which was about 30 seconds away. The woman selling beer called me ‘hon’ multiple times, advised me that the beef jerky she was selling is the best in the country (and it was really tasty; like spare ribs-flavoured toffee). And the accent down here is really lovely too. Not in a ooh-listen-to-the-southerner way, it’s genuinely pleasant to listen to.
Baseball has turned from a happy extra incorporated into my holiday to its central theme. After the two Yankees games I saw last week and the tour of Yankee Stadium, I went to a batting cage yesterday afternoon. Americans know what one of those is, and I’m sure most of you have seen one on an American movie at some point, but this is what it is like: you get a stack of tokens for your five dollars, pop them in the machine, and stand there in an area surrounded by netting while a machine shoots baseballs in your direction for you to hit. It’s not easy. Bearing in mind that Major League pitchers can chuck a ball at 90-odd miles per hour, I found it incredibly difficult to hit balls at 70 mph. I was a bit better at the 55 mph pitchs, and I could imagine with a bit more practice it’d get easier, but I certainly have a lot more appreciation for the players after trying it out. And I’ve now got three blisters on my hand to go with the blisters on my feet from pounding the streets of New York.
In the evening, Derick and I went to see his local Triple-A Minor League team, Durham Bulls. They are the farm team for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and they were playing the Boston Red Sox’s farm team, the Pawtucket Red Sox. Obviously, as a Yankees fan, I wanted the Bulls to beat Boston’s farm team, which they duly did, not without a few jitters in the 9th innings, though. But it was a whole different experience than seeing the Yankees. It was far more a ‘local’ event, with every half innings being punctuated by little competitions for kids. It was one of those ‘fun for all the family’ events. I even got to try my hand at pitching. Not on the field, but they had a fairground-style game in the stadium where you could see how fast you can chuck a baseball. With as much effort as I could muster, I only managed to throw a ball at 41 mph. Yesterday I learnt that I’m not built for baseball.
Finally, for a smoker, this part of the country is perfect: it’s tobacco country. Cigarettes are half the price of those in New York, and even cheaper than in Berlin. Next to the Durham Bulls stadium are these very cool adverts on a water tower and chimney for, graphically, the most beautiful brand of cigarettes.