There are college towns and then there are college towns.
Athens, Ga., is the latter. What I mean is that the college – the University of Georgia – was founded before the town in 1785, making it the oldest public university in the U.S. and A. (Pipe down, North Carolina – facts are facts.) Plus, it’s outstanding by college-town standards – even Southern college-town standards.
I went there recently on business and fell in love. Actually, it might have been lust. No matter, it proved to an excellent place to spend 48 hours.
Let me fill you in on the key points:
* The campus has character. There are all sorts of trees turning all sorts of colors this time of year, and they dot hills and winding roads. Even the football stadium has foliage in the form of hedges around the field. Frat row is a site to see, made up of massive, pillared plantation-style houses, including one boasting a spray-painted sign reading, “Dawgs, yall.” Disclaimer: I’m hoping those weren’t actual plantations. Regardless, they convey the area’s deep history – both good and bad. That’s real if less than ideal.
* The weather is just about perfect. Temps in the 70s and legit humidity on the backside of November? Yes, please. Athens seems to be far enough south to avoid snow yet far enough north to stay away from the extreme heat. I imagine it to be the San Diego of the South except with fewer sailors, no access to Tijuana and less Ron Burgandy.
* Education seems to be engrained in the culture. You could tell by the number of visible Confederate flags: zero. Other Southern college towns aren’t as good at hiding them. (That said, Athens reportedly was unreasonably slow to get up to code with the end of segregation, finally caving in 1970. Think about how recent that is. Mind boggling.)
During my stay, there was a small Occupy Athens movement going on, consisting of maybe 15 dudes, a few tents on a sidewalk and a sign promoting a Web site. Honestly, at first I wondered if it was a camp-out spot for football tickets. To be fair, being a part of the Occupy Movement could be viewed as a sign of intelligent or stupidity, but at the very least it indicates a sort of general involvement.
There’s also a pervasive local music scene, which has produced the likes of R.E.M. Again, seems to convey introspection. At least, I think R.E.M. is considered a group of thinking men; I never really paid attention. My favorite Athens artist is Bubba Sparxxx. (Time to use Google to see if he’s still alive.)
* There are food and drinks aplenty. BBQ, soul food, hot dogs, waffles, fried chicken, grilled cheese, pimento – all readily available in Athens. And, while there certainly are upscale options, most joints in the College Station area seem to skew toward the college crowd – flavorful and affordable. Dig that. As you might have heard, journalists aren’t exactly flush these days.
Even the fast-food spots are unique: The Varsity is the an old-school drive thru billed as the world’s largest. Its specialties include hot dogs (seriously, just normal ones, too) and chocolate milk. Hardly fancy, but just weird enough to make you feel obligated to indulge. Beyond that, there’s a Chik-Fil-A on every other corner – they invented the chicken sandwich, you know – and a Waffle House on the rest. Yes, chicken and waffles.
Need to wet your whistle? Sweet tea is a tad, well, sweet to drink more than a little bit (it’s like prescription for diabetes). Cheerwine is a Carolina-based soda that’s like a throwback cherry soda (and is not to be confused with the strawberry wine of that awful country son).
Local beers Terrapin (brewed right in Athens) and SweetWater (made in Atlanta) are excellent alcoholic bets. The SweetWater Blue was especially excellent; it’s got just the right amount of blueberry to prevent it from turning into a wine cooler. (I’m talking to you, Berry Weiss.) No idea how they pulled that off, but my palate thanks them.
And, boy, do the folks in SEC country like their booze. One of the bars I checked out on a Tuesday was still essentially tapped out from a home football game three days before (a blowout win over Auburn), empty cups marking the empty kegs. I doubt that, say, Lawrence, Kan., rolls that hard.
* The dress code is either sexist or chivalrous. For starters, not nearly as much Justin Beiber hair as I expected. Actually, there might have been, but I’ll never know because most of it was covered up. Yes, the dudes in Georgia seem to favor ball caps and t-shirts. That’s about it.
This wouldn’t stand out if the ladies didn’t take such a different approach. They seem to be dolled up all the time, the unofficial uniform consisting of skirts and boots. In fact, maybe it’s not even unofficial. Perhaps fines are handed out for being seen outside after 8 p.m. in anything other than skirts and boots – it’s that prominent. (And, no, I didn’t take pictures. I’m not that much of a creep.)
Needless to say, it creates quite the dress disparity between the sexes. I wound up feeling bad for the ladies, thinking that they deserved better. It seemed almost disrespectful … or was it genius? There’s a chance – albeit scant – that the boys have decided to go grubby in an attempt to make the ladies feel more beautiful. As long as everyone complies, that would be the ultimate act of a gentleman, far better than opening any number of doors. Or maybe they’re lazy and prying on Southern female sensibilities. Either way.
In the end, I found myself wondering if I could live in Athens, an urge that only increased this week when temps in South Dakota dropped into the single digits. Yeah, I think I could. But I probably won’t. In fact, it’s unlikely I’ll even visit again. Athens is a college town – there’s little reason to go there unless you have business at UGA. That’s part of the charm.
The grass forever will be greener in Athens.