Monthly Archives: September 2015

Washington DC, Friday 25/09/15

I left Nashville by Greyhound bus. I thought I was going to Charleston on the coast of South Carolina. After a stop at Wytheville I realised that we were going in the wrong direction. In fact I had bought a ticket to Charleston, West Virginia. 

This was a really stupid mistake. I had not noticed that there are two Charlestons, and that both bus routes pass through Wytheville. Though I had checked the ticket, I had not noticed the tell-tale WV, identifying the state. Doh!

So when I arrived at the other Charleston, I had to buy another ticket to my intended destination. The girl at the ticket office was very kind, let me leave my backpack without fee and told me how to get around town. 

I had a thirteen hour wait and there wasn’t much to see. I hung around in cafés and the mall and went to see “A Walk in the Woods” at the local cinema. Not a great film, but it filled in a couple of hours. 

Another nighttime bus journey and I was actually where I wanted to be. 

Charleston is charming, in many different ways. The first thing I noticed was the design of houses, typically with first floor verandas around the side, or balconies in front.  

   The official buildings can be very grand. This is the old Customs House, which is right by the old market, a popular hangout for tourists.  
 There are free trolley cars to get you around the city and they are used by the locals as well as sightseers. 

They eat a lot of seafood and “grits” and other things which are not vegetarian, but people were very accommodating about my diet choice. (Grits is a kind of maize porridge, but I was warned it contained lard). 

In fact, the people are what makes this place so pleasant. They say hello to you as you walk down the street, often with an unexpected compliment. They talked to me in the street cars and in the restaurants and thus introduced me to what they call Southern Hospitality, which feels completely genuine. 

Charleston has a bit of a dark past. This was laid before me in the museum, which dealt with the War of Independence, the history of slavery and the city’s role in starting the Civil War. 

There was a great deal I did not know about American history and I found the museum most instructive. I will not discuss all that here, but the exhibition continued into the more recent past, including the Roaring Twenties and onwards. This, for example, is Gershwin’s piano, as this is where he wrote “Porgy and Bess”. 

 I did explore Charleston’s history further. This Old Slave Mart was used to buy and sell slaves who were born within the Southern plantations after it was prohibited to transport slaves from Africa. 

 I also visited Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, the only property of its type which remains in the hands of its original family owners. Although Spring would be the best time to visit, because of the magnolias and azaleas, it still exuded a sense of the old South.  

   Charleston is an attractive and lively place, as I discovered while taking a “pub stroll” one evening. However, I also read about a shooting at Mother Emanuel church which took place on 17th June this year. Nine people were killed in a racist attack. I was shocked and appalled to realise how divided this nation still can be and I suggest you read some of the details of the case and its aftermath. 

I wanted to move on to Savannah, a little further South. Yet I was once again having a problem. All available accommodation was very expensive and it was not easy to get in and out of by public transport. This was also true of New Orleans, which I had always intended to visit. Eventually I just bought a plane ticket directly there, which cost an arm and a leg as far as I was concerned. I managed to find a cheap but pleasant hostel, but on the shuttle from the airport people were descending at the Hyatt, the Sheraton and the Marriott, places which cost £150-200 a night. 

I had a great time in New Orleans. I spent two nights in the NotSo Hostel, (say it out loud and you may understand the Southern accent). Then two more nights with a lovely family who were my Servas hosts. 

My first night in the hostel I went out to the French Quarter with all the people in my dorm. We ended up in Frenchmen Street listening to some live jazz. This involved walking through Bourbon Street, which is seriously weird. You are allowed to walk around carrying alcoholic drinks as long as they are in plastic containers. They sell pre-mixed cocktails from large pump containers. Girls are apparently given bead necklaces for flashing their breasts, though many of them were not wearing much in the first place. It was a bit like Newcastle, with sweat. 

The feel of “Nawlins”, is unique, however. People hang over the beautiful ornamental balconies. They relax on porch swings and rocking chairs.  They ride the trams. Everyone talks to you, all the time. 

Here are a few images from my time there.  

    
   I took a tour out in the swamp, something I was really looking forward to. The boat went out on the Pearl River and through the bayou. The weather was not the best, as it was chilly and overcast. Also I was a little upset that the guide of a supposedly “eco”tour fed the animals with hot dogs and marshmallows. Nevertheless, it was a dream come true.  
   

  

 My last evening there was one of the best. My host family took me out to a jazz bar under the stars, where the food was great and the live music even better. They were utterly congenial company and it was a sensational ending to my time in the Deep South. 

The die was cast, however. Though I’ve had some fantastic times in the USA, seen some marvellous places and met some extraordinary people, I had bought my ticket back to the UK. I was tired of spending hours on the Internet trying to find a cheap enough place to stay that wasn’t a motel miles out from the city. I didn’t want to hire or buy a car on my own, because of the hassle and expense, but America is still the land where the car is king. I even found myself wishing I had lots of money – and isn’t that where the American Dream stems from? 

All around the world I have found happiness in the most unlikely places and here has been no exception, but it sucks you in and entices you with the consumerism. 

Many of the people I’ve met in the last two years have very little, but they are happy to share. They care about their friends and family. They know how to enjoy themselves but can stand in awe of the beauty of nature around them. They have been so enthusiastic about my adventure and have helped me in so many ways. 

Tomorrow I will see some of my own family again. I’m so excited. But as I learnt on a mindfulness meditation in New Zealand, with every step, and in every place on this wondrous planet, I have arrived home. 

New Orleans, Tuesday 22/09/15

It was a joy to spend some time with my old friends, Ed and Dolly, at their beautiful home in Montclair, New Jersey. 

The first day I was whisked off by Dolly and her daughter, Claire, to the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan to see an exhibition of fashion. Based on the theme of “Through the Looking-Glass” it showed Chinese costume through the ages, juxtaposed with more modern variations, many of them very beautiful and/or playful. As it was well-attended, the lighting was subdued and there were mirrors all around, it was difficult for me to take good photos, but these two capture a little of the mood.  

   We also took in an exhibition of portraits by J. S. Sargent and another on Lewis Carroll. The latter included a copy of the original story that was given to Alice Liddel by him, complete with his own drawings and with some distinct differences from the version we know. Then we met up with Ed for dinner. A lovely day with friends. 

Over the next few days I explored Montclair a little and met some of the neighbours. 

We drove out to Pennsylvania to view a property selling lavender, which may or may not figure in Ed’s retirement plans. We stopped in Doylestown, where literally the whole town was out to see an team of eight carthorses pulling a carriage delivering beer to all the bars. 

One day I took some time off from visiting gardens and having great food with the Rosens to take a trip in to Manhattan by myself. One of the things I wanted to do was walk along the High Line, a park of wild flowers built on a disused elevated train track. It was a popular place to be, with people having their lunches while sitting on the numerous benches or just taking in the scenery.  

 As you can see from this photograph, though, there is a large boardwalk which means I was not walking among the plants in the way I had hoped. Nevertheless, it is an admirable initiative and seems to be inspiring similar projects elsewhere. 

I visited the Chelsea Market for the first time, but after that I went on a nostalgic trip, visiting 52nd Street and First, where Chris and I had stayed for a few months when our daughter, Eleanor, was very little, and strolling in Central Park. Sadly, FAO Schwarz, the huge toy shop on 5th Avenue, (the one that features in the film “Big”), has been closed down. 

Finally I visited the memorial at Ground Zero. I found the twin squares, each  with water falling into a seemingly bottomless pit, quietly moving. 

It has been many years since I was last in New York and I may never be there again. Thanks to Ed and Dolly’s hospitality I was able to relax, enjoy discussions about the future, but also reflect on the happy times I spent in that city long ago. 

Partly at Ed’s prompting, I flew off to Nashville, Tennessee. It was raining hard when I arrived, so after the shuttle ride to the hostel, I only ventured out to a nearby Mexican restaurant for something to eat. 

Nashville is not a particularly easy city to walk around. Though there are sidewalks, many are closed for construction and others run along featureless roads. Because of the location of my hostel I had to walk beside a long flyover to get to downtown. During the day there didn’t appear to be much going on. It did provide me with this classic image, however.  

 After 6pm though, Nashville bursts into life and becomes a completely different animal. There was a free concert in a park, Live in the Green. I went with someone I met at the hostel. It was quite small, but the music was great. There were two local bands, both excellent, followed by Rodrigo y Gabriella, the acoustic guitar duo who play Nuevo Flamenco and even heavy metal. 

The next day I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Though a little costly, this was definitely worth it and I learnt so much. 

There was a section on Sam Phillips.  For those who don’t know, he was the founder of Sun Records, as well as a couple of radio stations. He discovered a few artists, including B.B.King, Howling Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and, oh yes, Elvis Presley. He advocated racial equality and opened opportunities for female artists. 

As you would expect in the museum, there were lots of memorabilia, and I also took the tour to the RCA recording studio, where an X marks the spot where Elvis would stand to sing during sessions. 

One of the most informative displays for me was on the partnership of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and the producer, Bob Johnston. 

 Because Dylan chose to record three albums in Nashville, using session musicians as well as a group originally called the Hawks, who later became The Band, many other artists followed suit. They discovered the superb musicianship of the local talent and opened up Country music to new influences. 

So after an instructive day, I joined with some more people from the hostel and went to Broadway, where all the bars have live music. The first place we tried, the musicians were good but the set was pretty middle-of-the-road Country. The next place, the band playing were not particularly competent. But the third place was just right and I danced until 2.30am. 

Back to the hostel and the next day off to Charleston. 

Nashville, 12/09/15

From Ottawa I went on to Quebec City, via Montréal bus station. I stayed with another Servas host family in an area called the Sillery, a little way out from the city centre, or downtown. It’s a quiet, quaint area, with pleasant walks, but unfortunately at risk from the “developers”.

There’s an old, walled part of the city, which comprises many attractive buildings and La Citadelle, a huge fortress built by the British.

  
 This is an enormous hotel, situated below the Citadel and viewed from the esplanade in front of the river.

As you would expect, there are plenty of souvenir shops, restaurants and art galleries. The floral displays are as remarkable as they are elsewhere in Quebec. There was a good public transport system to get me around the various attractions. But. . .

On my first visit to the old city I was surprised to see a huge, block-like Hilton hotel very close to the old walls and the Parliament building. Across the river there is an oil refinery and in the opposite direction you can see smoking factory chimneys. Beside the old port there are rows of silos.

Of course I realise that this is a working city that needs to exist in the modern world. There are many places around the world that have been preserved as tourist attractions and this is no exception. I just wish there had been a little more discretion as to how they organised the juxtaposition of the old and the new or functional.

Perhaps the site of greatest historical significance is The Plains of Abraham/Les Plaines d’Abraham. This is now a large green park on the cliffs along the foreshore, but in 1759 it was the location of a battle between the French and the British. Though the British won on that occasion, the victory was not decisive, but eventually the French ceded New France. The conflict soon diverted to repelling the forces of the United States.

The importance of these events should not be underestimated. The motto of Quebec Province, displayed on all vehicle registration plates, is “Je me souviens”. There is some controversy as to the true implications of these words, but I believe that to all French speaking citizens the meaning is clear. I leave it to you to draw your own inference.

During my thoroughly enjoyable week spent in Quebec City, there were two experiences that particularly stood out for me.

One was an exhibition at the Musée de la Civilisation by a female artist, Karine Giboulo. Called “Cités Bidon” and inspired by a visit to a shantytown outside Port-au-Prince in Haiti, it consisted of several extensive models of daily life there. The figures are tiny but modelled in exquisite detail. The world of the slum-dwellers is contrasted with that of the wealthy, in this case fat marmots, not cats.

  
 The other thing was a free open-air circus, “Crépuscule”, recommended to me by Martine, my host. With a minimum of costumes and props, but loads of enthusiasm, this small team combined drollery with skill and artistry. As well as the troupe of trampoline artists who bounced off and onto the side wall, I especially admired a young woman who whirled around in an enormous hoop.

   Sadly, I had to say goodbye to my ecco sandals. These had served me through jungles and markets, mud, sand and streams. I’d been up mountains and was drenched by thunderstorms. They never came undone and they were super comfortable. While crossing a road, the back strap of the left foot snapped. Martine told me they could probably be repaired, (they still repair shoes in Quebec!), but there was a sale on in the city, so I’m now sporting a pair of cherry red replacements. Not suitable for “hiking”, but who cares?

Before heading off to the USA again, I returned to Montréal for a few days. I was welcomed back by Madeleine, (a long-term friend of Chris Golden), with whom I had been staying. She is totally charming, good fun and a has a wealth of information about the city.
I took the opportunity to visit the botanical gardens. I had already experienced their amazing flower displays around the city. They are particularly noted for their three-dimensional designs. This one is on a traffic island.

 Although people flock to see the Japanese and Chinese gardens, my preferences were for the alpine garden. . .

 and the specialist gardens, a feast for the eyes as they displayed vegetables, aromatic and medicinal herbs, poisonous plants and crop varieties, all artistically laid out in enclosed spaces. The herbaceous borders had audacious colour combinations which worked perfectly.

On my penultimate day in Canada, Madeleine took some time off her arduous work schedule to take me for a drive around and to show me the Oratoire St-Joseph, which stands on heights overlooking the city. It is more ornate on the outside than inside.

   Then, too soon, it was time for another fond farewell as I set off on the long train journey to New York.