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You have to know the language here. It's English when it isn't Gullah, but it is still not entirely what it seems. South of Broad is not just an area of the city, it's a social and cultural description. And an abbreviation.

Broad Street runs across the Peninsula that makes up the old city of Charleston. Outlying areas over the Ashley and Cooper Rivers are called West Ashley and East Cooper respectively. As a tip, that name Cooper is pronounced "Cupper", but don't think that by pronouncing it this way anyone is going to mistake you for a resident. Even if you speak with a genuine Southern accent rather than my wildly out of place Aussie accent, you're still not going to fit in. You've got to know the language.

South of Broad is where the older, richer, more culturally significant Charleston families live. It's a roughly triangular shape defined on the north by Broad Street, on the east by the Cooper and on the west by the Ashley. South of Broad has the views out across the water. And the breezes. And the b igger, older houses. And a certain something that you can't get even if you have the money to buy a property here. The collective memory goes back centuries here, and if you spent a hundred years, you'd still be a newcomer.

My guides led me to the less refined side of Broad Street. A sign advertised a restaurant - "Slightly North of Broad". It's a statement, I was told. And another abbreviation.

Broad Street separates one segment of Charleston from another, though to be honest, I couldn't pick any visible difference. King Street is another important thoroughfare, not because it divides the city, but because it is the city's main shopping street, and a walk along it is an education in what the fashionable Charlestonian is wearing, eating and drinking. Other major streets are Greeting Street, Coming Street ("is there a Going Street?" I asked, my logical mind kicking in. No, replied my beautiful female guide, and I kept my logical mouth shut for a while afterwards). And Market Street, where the old city markets run block after block, tourists gawking alongside, and topped at one end by the Daughters of the Confederacy meeting hall.

Go far enough south on King and you get to South Battery, which is where an area of parkland on the very tip of the Charleston peninsula. Here South Carolina's cannons fired on Fort Sumter and the anger of the Civil war began. The citizens sat on the balconies and rooftops of the elegant mansions lining the park, watching the show. There are still guns and mortars along the waterfront, but they are for the tourists, and lines of historical markers mark the places where the soldiers paraded.

Fort Sumter itself is still there, a small blocky shape on the horizon, well out in the harbour. Tour boats go back and forth and I esolve to catch one next time I'm in town.

For the moment, my guide, a genuine Southern belle, leads me up and down the old streets. Some of the grandest houses were built for the sea captains who brought in the cargoes that made Charleston rich. Their houses remain, each one slightly different in colour, shape or texture from its neighbours so that the captains could look through their sea telescopes and pick out their own dwelling as they came sailing home.

Some of the streets have a curious stone bases. Somewhere between cobbles and flagstones, these streets were once the ballast in ship's holds. I look at them and wonder what stories they could tell.

We talk a short cut through a graveyard. Here in the middle of the city Charleston's citizens take their eternal slumber in a semi-overgrown garden, all lush green foliage and bright spring flowers. Magnolias bloom above the old grey gravestones, and birds flutter in the branches overhead, while above all another tall spire points the way to heaven.

We break for lunch in a deliciously over the top French restaurant, sitting in a tiny alcove at the rear of the crowded room. Each time the chef in the adjacent kitchen swings around with his ladle we have to duck, but the food is excellent, and the atmosphere unparalleled.

We rise and take a swing through other districts. Here is a park where egrets nest in the trees each May. One year the city, in a sad miscalculation, held an art show beneath, and the contributions of the birds added an extra dimension to the paintings. Another park is dedicated to Marion, the famous Swamp Fox, and I chuckle to see that the memorial fountain honouring this guerrilla leader of the Revolutionary War has a central segment containing swamp plants. Naturally I have to wrap up a book in two plastic baggies and release it into the fountain..

We leave the city and return home. My guide is also my hostess, and we take our cups of coffee down to the small lake behind her house, where we sit on a wooden dock on the edge of the water and just sit back and watch the world go by. Ducks splash down in pairs, creaming wakes along the green water. Egrets and herons flap lazily past, and a turtle pokes his head up to take a look at us. Fish jump out of the water here and there, and I am told about the alligator living at the far end.

"You can tell when he's nearby," I was informed "because the ducks get out of the water and stand nervously on the bank."

That described my posture very well indeed a few minutes later when I noticed a small creature swimming across the surface of the lake. Little white face, dark back wriggling through the water, it could only be a...

"A snake. A cottonmouth. Poisonous, you know. You're very liucky to see one."

Even luckier to be bitten by one, I thought, and when two more appeared in the next few minutes, I began to think that this might well be my day!

Which of course it was. Charleston may be a city of a thousand stories, but the pace of life in this mellow Southern town is slow and relaxing nowadays, and even if I'm not a local, and I miss some of the unspoken language of the place, I'm at ease here, and I cherish these days before I have to climb back aboard a jetliner and hurry off to another destination.

I make a promise to myself to come back and spend a week next time. Here in Charleston, that's probably worth at least a month of rest.

Say Hey

Apr. 20th, 2006 09:03 pm
skyring: (Default)
I'm in heaven. And South Carolina.

And I'll leave my World War Two kick aside for a while, because when they talk about the war here, they aren't talking about anything that happened in the last hundred years. Not by a long chalk!

Speaking of chalk, I felt like there were chalk marks on the Frankfurt pavement. Go here. Follow this path. Stand here. Mindful of my appalling error in Shrewsbury the previous day, when I had gotten on the wrong train and almost missed my flight, I was glad of Elhamisabel's careful research and directions in how to get from my hostel to Frankfurt International, and after the debacle in Welshpool, I made sure of my movements.

Everything went well, and before I knew it I was on my way to Texas on a plane with more than a scattering of US service folk. Clouds for the first few hours and it wasn't until we were ov ver Iceland that they vanished astern. Iceland is well, named, I'm here to say, and Greenland, an hour later, is not. But both are beautiful in their white blankets.

After Greenland, the land vanshed and the icebergs began. First they were small, sparse lines across the ocean, and then larger and more numerous, flocking and herding together into huge floating carpets. It was a weird landscape. Home to polar bears and whales, but nothing visible from this height, of course. My imagination was good enough to conjure up what I might see and feel if I were down there in my BookCrossing t-shirt.

Land and civilisation appeared under us, in that order. This time around I had brought along a swag of maps, pulled out of an old National Geographic road atlas I'd snapped up in a thrift shop. The Great Lakes came and went, Sault Sainte Marie somewhere off in the distance, Chicago out of sight and Peopia below us. And then my heart lifted, as I traced our path. We would cut the Mississippi a little further south and west, and the name of the town was Hannibal.

To those who have read Tom Sawyer, this small town is known as St Petersburg, and as we came closer, I stuck my head out of the window as far as it would go and went floating off down the river with Huck and Jim. I could see the town, the wide river, the islands on the Illinois shore, and my minds eye provided the boys, the girls, the schoolteacher, the adventures, the riverboats and the whitewashed fence.

I was in heaven. Literally, I suppose, as I looked down from eight miles up.

They had to nudge me to bring me back into this century. "A drink, sir?"

"Mmmm, yes please! Are Mr and Mrs T aboard?"

It turned out that they, or at least their spiced tomato juice, were a comforting presence aboard, and I spent the rest of the flight depleting the stocks as the midwest unrolled beneath us and Texas appeared, green and wide and friendly.

Dallas/Fort Worth is immense, but I felt very much at home as I stepped back onto US territory. Immigration was all high-tech, electronic fingerprints and look into the camera, please sir. An hour in the lounge with freebie internet, and then I set off in search of my plane - the gate number had changed two or three times over, and the airport was absolutely littered with the small commuter jets, one of which was to be my aerial chariot to Charleston.

I found my gate, walked across the tarmac to my plane, and in due course we leapt off the runway, rolled right and aimed for the edge of America and the heart of the South. Not a great deal to see in the darkening haze beneath, but the sunset was spectacular, and our arrival into Charleston took place in the mellow warm of a perfect spring evening.

And here was a genuine Southern belle waiting for me. MartiP, tall and blonde and a smile that lit up the terminal. I hurled my carry on luggage into a corner and my body into her arms. When I surfaced for breath a long while later, Marti introduced me to her husband, standing a little way apart, and perhaps a little bemused at my behaviour woith his wife.

But he surprised me with a hug, and then I stood back and looked at the two of them. When the good looks were being handed out, MartiP and MrP must have gone back for seconds. And thirds. Marti is heart-stoppingly beautiful and MrP is the perfect image of a pirate captain, complete with gold ring and flowing dark locks. Tom Sawyer would have stood in awe of his dashing presence.

And they were both here for me - was there ever a pudgy, balding middle-aged Aussie so lucky to be greeted by such delightful BookCrossers?

This being the South, our vehicle was a pick-up truck, and I was grateful for the room to stow all my baggage. But my eyes were outside the vehicle, taking in the sights of Saturday night in downtown Charleston.

This is a downtown where the skyscrapers have steeples. The highest buildings in town are the churches, and they are delights to look at, from collonaded portico to slender spire. I love looking at old buildings, and Charleston is crampacked full of architecture to make the heart sing. One intersection, MrP informed me, was known as the "Four Corners of Law". Here, one on each corner, were city hall, State courts, and a Federal building. I looked at the fourth corner, occupied by yet another church.

"God's Law."

In between the churches and grand public buildings, out on the sidewalks and street corners, Charleston had come out to party. Everywhere were happy people in bright clothes, walking through the evening, lined up outside nightclubs, listening to the music that leaked out onto the streets.

We walked among the throng, down to the old slave market. A narrow brick building, obviously ancient, cutting along several blocks. Inside were stalls selling trinkets and souvenirs. We looked at a table full of baskets, woven from local fibres and, according to my guides, patterned from old African designs. My thoughts poked their heads up, chasing each other around Charleston's corners. What sort of society had people owning other human beings? Here in this long, red brick building people had been auctioned off to the highest bidder, men and women stripped down for the inspection of buyers, families broken up, lives changed in an instant.

The labour of slaves had built many of these grand old buildings. These churches had been founded on the unpaid efforts of people shipped across the sea against their will, their lives a misery. How did slavery square with the words of Thomas Jefferson. Or Jesus?

I couldn't take as much pleasure in these wonderful old buildings as I might. There was a sad taste in my mouth. Sure, slavery was long gone, but even after the Civil War supposedly freed the slaves, bitter discrimination, hatred and violence remained. Even into World War Two segregation was a fact of life in many military units.

Forgive me, but I set these thoughts to the back corners of my mind. Nobody else seemed to be fussing over such things. The old market was just a tourist institution, the carriages and limousines part of the industry that kept people like me coming into Charleston. The smiles around me were genuine, and the cheerful commentary of MartiP and MrP, lifted my spirits as I learnt about the history and culture of this bastion of the old South. MartiP seemed to navigate by the restaurants, and every such place earnt a few words about the house specialities and history. I couldn't reconcile her reed thin figure with a love of fine dining, but she spoke with authority and even passion. And no denying the savoury fragrances percolating out onto the street.

Restaurants and bookshops - MartiP's landmark map of Charleston. Her husband filled in the blankls, and for a few minutes he told me about the uniform of the "South of Broad" set as we studied the window display of a menswear shop. Seersucker suits in pastel colours, stripes and even checks. I looked at one particular garment, the rainbow plaid searing my eyeballs. In a range of sizes.

"Back home if they caught me wearing that, they'd stand me up against a wall and shoot me. This is fair dinkum clobber, hey?"

I was assured, after we untangled my Australianisms, that yes indeed, this was bonafide clothing, and the locals indeed paid the hefty asking price for the privilege of wearing a seersucker suit in cream and pink. In public.

MrP reckoned that my "G'day" greeting wasn't working here. "You'll just confuse people. Say 'Hey' instead!"

He won't get me into a seersucker suit, but he might get me saying Hey. Charleston's that kind of place.

After we'd done walking a while, and let me say this, friends, this wasn't for a considerable time. I was the perfect tourist, eyes everywhere and if I bumped into someone while I was examining the details of a church steeple, I just looked at them and said "Hey!"

But in due course it was midnight, we were done, and here we were at BookCzuk's cathedral church, where the Easter vigil had just finished. I'd been waiting for a long time to meet BookCzuk.

"Hey," I said "G'day!"

Oh I gave her such a hug! Everyone loves BookCzuk.

I also got to meet MrCzuk, who is tall, elegant, dignified. And can reduce me to a helpless mass of laughter on the floor with a couple of well-chosen words and a lift of an eyebrow. He had been singing in the service, was wearing a tuxedo, and all the women were flocking around him. He doesn't need my fictional "BookCrossing licence to hug beautiful women". He's got it built in!

BoyCzuk, a tall teenager with curly hair and a lazy grin. He's going to break as many hearts as his father. Starting right now. He reminds me a bit of my own teenage son, except maybe a bit more articulate. Hard to tell with teenagers. For every word that escapes, there's usually a million thoughts whizzing around inside.

And sometimes it's the other way around, but you have to be fifteen going on fifty, like me.

The czuks picked me up after a round of introductions and supper ("Hey, this is my Aussie friend I brought along to eat shrimp and crab sandwiches.") and took me home. They also did the same with my luggage, a somewhat more difficult operation. No matter how you stack 'em, a bag full of books is still going to be heavy.

And then they noticed how I'd kind of stop working in the middle of sentences, pointed me into the guest bedroom and said "Sleep. We've got a lot of sightseeing for the morning."

And on that note, I'll save the sightseeing for the next report. Let me just say that even though I spent four days in Charleston, that wasn't enough and I'll be back for next year's BookCrossing Convention!

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