Just Folks: Jennifer Harlan

This post first appeared on Zelda & scout on 8/18/14.

Mondays on Zelda & Scout are all about you! In a series we call “Just Folks,” we talk to Southerners who have found their way to New York about where they’re from, where they are now, and what home means to them.

This week, to kick things off, we have one of our founders, Ms. Zelda herself, Jennifer Harlan!

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Jennifer Harlan


Louisville, KY



Current City:

Brooklyn, NY

Who are you and what do you do?

Currently I’m a Bushwick-dwelling journalist, with aspirations towards more creative non-fiction. I’m also a Red Sox fan (a rare breed in this city), a total Francophile, a Shakespeare lover, and a compulsive baker. Since graduating from college, I’ve taught small French children to speak English, baked and decorated fancy cakes and other goodies at a cake shop in Paris, and made many, many cups of coffee. Also I can quote every line of “The Princess Bride” by heart.

Time north of the Mason-Dixon line so far?

11 months, 49 weeks, and 6 days, but who’s counting

What brought you to New York?

After I graduated from college, I moved to Paris for a teaching program sponsored by the French government (see adorable children above). The program was a one year gig, and although I probably could have stayed on at my school for another year, I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher. I wanted to be somewhere where I could pursue more writing-related endeavors, and I missed my family and my friends in America. After Paris, I knew I wanted to be in a big city — and I had always said I wanted to live in New York at some point — so when a friend messaged me that spring about a room opening up in her apartment, I pounced. The job thing I didn’t figure out until I was already here, which was stressful, but 11 months later I’m working at one of my favorite publications in the world, so things are working out pretty well so far.

What’s the most common reaction when people learn where you’re from? What’s something about life in the South that you have to explain to non-Southerners?

Hands down most common reaction: “Why don’t you have an accent?” It’s like I’ve betrayed them somehow with my lack of twang.

Louisville is a very quirky city that defies categorization; since moving to the Northeast, I’ve come to think of it as Southern, but in many ways it does not fit with the rest of the region. I often find myself explaining to people that it is, in fact, a city, and a very liberal, artsy, foodie, cool one at that. I’ve basically made it my life’s mission to spread the word of Louisville’s awesomeness to the rest of the world.

Describe life in NYC as people at home picture it. Describe life in NYC as it actually is.

A friend once described it to me as “Sex and the City, but with cheaper shoes.” In general, I think people think it’s a lot more glamorous than it really is: everyone going out to crazy clubs every night, taking cabs everywhere, running around in stilettos. Then there are shows like “Girls,” which offer a whole new trope of New York life where we’re all disaffected hipsters who sit around reading Foucault, living off our parents’ money, doing drugs, and having lots of meaningless sex. Also, even when we have no money, our apartment manages to look like an Anthropologie catalogue, and it’s the size of a small house.

In actuality, New York is a very big, bustling city, and I find it can be hard to carve out your niche in it. People talk about how great it is that there’s so much going on in New York, so you have tons of options for what to do or see or eat, but I find it’s actually harder to figure out what to do when you’re overwhelmed with a deluge of options and no way of discerning which ones are better than others. I have never been clubbing in New York. I spend most nights in my apartment watching Netflix (or at work). Seamless is the greatest thing ever, but you often won’t be able to afford take-out. The theatre scene is fantastic, but you often won’t be able to afford tickets. Everybody is working all the time, on completely opposite schedules, so you won’t see most of your friends even half as much as you thought you would. And the Union Square Trader Joe’s at 5 pm on a Friday is the closest you will ever get to hell on earth.

Where do you consider home? Why?

Louisville is home, no question. Unlike a lot of my friends, I wasn’t born there –we didn’t move there until I was 11 — but I’ve lived there the longest out of anywhere in my life. It’s where my puppy and my kitty are, and I know every twisting street like the back of my hand. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a chunk of every summer there, until this one, so in addition to my old high school haunts I have friends and memories in the city from college and post-college. In fact, a lot of my favorite things to do and places to go in the Ville nowadays didn’t exist when I was growing up there, like Nulu or the Walking Bridge or Downs After Dark.

So Louisville is my one true home, but there are other places that I consider home as well, just not quite in the same way: Chocorua, New Hampshire; Providence, Rhode Island; Paris (France not Kentucky); Florence, Italy. New York hasn’t quite reached that level, but I’m working on it (the Polar Vortex did not help matters: in such a big and expensive city, nice weather makes a huge difference in how much I go out and interact with other humans).

Do you miss where you’re from? Do you see yourself going back?

Absolutely. I miss Louisville every day (although I also miss my other second homes, especially Paris — I’m totally a nester and tend to get very invested in wherever I am, which I suppose means I’m always going to be missing somewhere). I also feel like Louisville has grown in such exciting and interesting ways over the past several years. It still has a long way to go, and I want to help shape that process. That being said, I don’t think I’m quite ready to leave New York yet, and there are still many other places in the world I want to try (San Francisco, London, Amsterdam, maybe New Orleans?), and I have a sense, justified or not, that moving back to Louisville means settling down there for good, so we’ll see where my wanderlust takes me before then.

Do you consider yourself a Southerner? Do you consider yourself a New Yorker? Why or why not?

I do consider myself a Southerner, although it took me a long time to get there. I love bourbon and Southern comfort food and horse racing. I listen to more country/bluegrass music than I might care to admit. Even though I’m not a big sports person, I always make a Final Four bracket: that’s just what you do in March (Go Cards!). And I genuinely believe in being kind to people; it never hurts to be nice.

I don’t see myself ever really calling myself a New Yorker. I’m very proud of where I’m from, I like being a Louisvillian and a Kentuckian and a Southerner, and I don’t want to give that up.

Which food/drink/song/book/movie/artwork/quotation/gif/etc. defines New York for you?

Food: bagels, Shake Shack, red velvet snack cakes, and boozy brunch (quite possibly the best thing to ever come out of New York)

Drink: Stumptown iced coffee (I spent my first eight months in the city making and drinking a lot of this stuff), picklebacks, and Westbrook Gose (a Southern beer, but one I discovered in New York and am now obsessed with)

Songs: “New York” (The Milk Carton Kids), “Murder in the City” (The Avett Brothers), “Landslide” (Stevie Nicks), “Bleecker Street” (Simon & Garfunkel), “Sight of the Sun” (fun.), the “Inside Llewyn Davis” soundtrack

Books: It’s not its own book, but Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That.” Also “The Goldfinch” (Donna Tartt, especially since I read it shortly after moving here) and “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (E.L. Konigsburg).

Movies: There are too many to count. When I was little, it was “Annie” and “An American Tail.” Now it’s “You’ve Got Mail,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and “Annie Hall.” “France Ha” did a scary good job of encapsulating my first year here. And TV-wise, it’s “Friends” and “Sex and the City.”

Quote: “I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later — because I did not belong there, did not come from there…I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.” -Joan Didion

Which food/drink/song/book/movie/artwork/quotation/gif/etc. defines where you’re from?

Food: Derby pie, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, green beans with salt pork, jambalaya, modjeskas

Drink: bourbon, either on the rocks or in mint julep form; Heine Brothers iced chai; sweet tea

Songs: “Louisville, K-Y” (Ella Fitzgerald), “Prettiest Tree on the Mountain” (Ben Sollee), “Palmyra” (Houndmouth),“Wagon Wheel” (Old Crow Medicine Show), “Chicken Fried” (Zac Brown Band)“City of New Orleans” (Steve Goodman), “Cowboy Take Me Away” (Dixie Chicks), “Moonshine Lullaby” (Irving Berlin), and of course “My Old Kentucky Home”

Books: “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” (Carson McCullers), “Light in August” (William Faulkner), “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (John Berendt)

Movies: “Gone with the Wind,” “Steel Magnolias” (the play more than the movie), “Waitress”

Quotes: “The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved.” – Hunter S. Thompson

“All the Southerners think we’re Yanks, and all the Yanks think we’re Southerners, and all the Midwesterners think we’re east. Everybody’s always wrong about Louisville. That’s kind of why I love it so much.” – Jim James

What is the best cure for homesickness?

Watching one of the aforementioned movies or dancing around your kitchen to one of the aforementioned songs (in my experience a good kitchen dance party can cure most of the world’s ills), barbecue and macaroni and cheese, a long phone call with your mom, and having one of those New York days that reminds you why you moved here in the first place: wandering around Central Park or rowing around the lake, getting rush tickets to a show (and cookies from Schmackary’s for intermission), hanging out with friends who have become your surrogate family, and finding a spot across one of the rivers where you can check out the night skyline (Long Island City and Hoboken will both do the trick).

I also always feel better when I wear my Kentucky necklace or any of my Kentucky for Kentucky gear. Especially when I worked as a barista, it was a great conversation starter and an excuse for me to talk about how great my hometown is.

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