I've lived in the south for more than half my life now, though I don't think of myself as a southerner, never have. This is not to say that I think of myself as a Yankee, though I'm not sure anyone, no matter what place north of the Mason-Dixon line they hail from has ever self identified as a Yankee, World Series victories not withstanding.
There is a difference between the North and the South, though. It is not, as many would have you believe, a vast cultural rift. There is no great gulf in thinking between the people of Chicago, New York and Boston and those of Atlanta, Charleston and New Orleans. The divide we tend to think of as North/South is really Urban/Rural, the south's urbanites are just a bit more accepting of our rural counterparts', well rural-ness.
No, the difference between the old Union and Confederacy is bound up in tens of thousands of tiny little differences, the bulk of which we barely notice but, in the aggregate, make for a completely different experience of locale. It's in the taste of the water and the styles of civil planning. It's in the speed limit and the expectations of the weather. It's in the iced tea for sure. There's one thing that, in my experience, defines the difference between the North and the South.
Not so much the ceilings at the dentist's office or the ceiling of your kids' high school but the ceilings of your residence. Up north, in Milwaukee, specifically, residential ceilings are smooth and flat, just like the walls. They are made from the same plaster as the walls and, presumably, are smoothed using a similar process. This was true in our old house and in the houses of my childhood playmates. It was true in my grandmother's apartment and in my sister's old house.
In the south the ceilings in homes and apartments is textured, sometimes is a sort of popcorn uniformity, as if someone had washed hundreds of layers of paint over a field of coarse gravel or, more often, in a sort of pattern of starbursts, each about the size of an open hand regularly arranged about the ceiling. This has been the case in every home I've had in Atlanta and I'm pretty sure in virtually every home or apartment that I've ever even seen in the southeast.
I've heard this is because building codes in the south are more lax than in the north on account of the fact that the structures do not have to withstand the same annual shift in temperature. The texture conceals the fact that the ceiling is not actually flat. I've also heard that the texturing allows the plaster to absorb and release moisture more easily and thus keeps the ceiling from cracking as the humidity changes throughout the year. Finally, and most likely, I've heard that it's simply a matter of regional habit.
This may seem like an irrelevant detail, probably something beneath notice. We are, after all, much more similar from North to South than we are different. Point being, its the little things that make a place a place, that give it its feel, its ambiance, its soul. There's a bit in the architecture, a bit in the food, a bit in the gait and a bit in the manner of speech.
Here's to the little things and to looking up once in a while.