Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sweet Savannah

Savannah. Even the name evokes a romantic image of a moss laden canopy draping from the outstretched limbs of ancient oak trees. I love this town. I fell in love the first time I stumbled aimlessly down the uneven brick sidewalks and peered through private gates into lush courtyards of horticultural oasis. Spring time in Savannah is particularly magical. The dogwoods and azaleas paint the landscape of every street, park and corner, making the historical town cascade with even more charm (if that’s possible). Savannah was the first planned city in Georgia. (Its history is so deep and significant; I won’t even try to paraphrase. Please, do yourself a favor and explore it, you won’t be disappointed.)
The city is nestled against the marshy coast and within its boundaries lays a meticulously planned grid in (near) perfect balance of nature, residential living and commercial enterprise. British General Ogelthorpe conceived of this city wherein an equal number of houses line the streets and perpendicularly the shops, restaurants and churches complete a grid pattern. In the center of each square - a beautifully landscaped park, with gloriously mature oak trees whose limbs seem to skirt the sidewalk and ascend heavenward.
This allows a wanderer to meander leisurely in any direction without feeling too far removed from the greenery of Mother Nature, the delight of window shopping, nor the comfort of home. The romanticism of the city is present in 360 degrees, and in how ever many dimensions you believe exist. Ghost tales of mystery and tragedy cloak the streets like a dark cape on a cold damp evening. Beautifully restored mansions glow with impressive luster and lighting, but hardly compare to the hallowed and eerie houses that they neighbor. Vines grow up and around trees, wrought iron fences, and through broken window panes. High society, antiques and art of every form is appreciated here. So to, is the history that lies beneath its tabby houses and stone streets. The cemeteries are truly some of the most alluring I have ever seen. Exploring them is like stepping into a page of ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’.
We had planned to spend most of the winter here. Well, as you know, our best laid plans rarely come to fruition, but alas, we arrived. Just in time for the Savannah Music Festival. Let me set the stage for you: the venue is just the right size to accommodate a few hundred appreciative guests, while still capturing the intimate feel of a small music club. There were candlelit high top tables lining the room and the only décor were a few sashes of black curtains that draped down the brick walls behind the stage. The lighting was subdued and cast hues of blue in the shadows. The prefect stage for some blues…or jazz…or bluegrass, whatever your pleasure, this festival has it all. We heard men with voices that boomed like thunder and others whisper tunes as smooth as silk. There is a place in many a hearts that talking cannot reach. Thank you, God, for music.
The wail of the guitar against the sob of the bass was sweetly seductive and we found ourselves swaying without intention. We heard a banjo blend harmoniously with a piano and got carried along by a steady jiving drum beat. Every cell in our bodies came alive as we felt the musicians swell in their energy. One concert ended with a version of ‘Oh Happy Day’ that had every foot in the place stomping, every hand clapping and every soul shouting for redemption. Oh happy day, indeed.
We received the welcome of southern hospitality that can only be offered by….Midwesterners? (Of course.) We struck up a conversation with a couple of retired teachers from Chicago who now live in the heart of historic downtown Savannah. Fred and Susan Johnson invited us over after we shared a table at one of the performances…….. The universal laws of attraction were well at work that evening. The Johnsons are as adventurous as Torben and I, perhaps more - instead of driving across the country, they opted to sail across the Atlantic and live aboard their sailboat. We instantly hit it off and could hardly absorb enough of their traveling talks. Did I mention Susan is a writer?! She was the first to be simultaneously nominated for best fiction and non-fiction writer of the year in Georgia…but as she claims, she was the first to lose the nomination in both categories. Humble humility.
She belongs to a writer’s group that includes such well known authors as John Berendt and yes, Pat Conroy has sat in her living room. It was hard for me to keep from gushing all over the place. She told of a time when she first moved into the home and looked out her front window and thought about other women who had looked out the very same window two hundred years ago. Their house is one of ten antebellum homes remaining in the city. Built in 1790 it oozes with historical charm. She started researching the history of her house as well as the others and just knew there was a book waiting to be written. (I have already ordered a copy of her book and cannot wait to delve into it, check out if it tickles your fancy.) Their home is to be on display as part of the Home and Garden Tour next month. We sipped gimlets in the garden (watching no less than six species of birds come to feed) and enjoyed the true art of conversation. Susan even loaned us copies of the articles she wrote regarding their sailing expedition. (If you think I’ve got it bad with an occasional broken sewer hose, imagine being hoisted up the mast, in the face of an oncoming storm, to unravel a tangled sail - and spotting a dark fin circling in the water!) To say I was inspired is to say the sun is a little star. Our meeting felt ethereal, like uncorking a bottle of Chianti…and the promise that its aroma offers. From the first drop to your tongue that does not disappoint…down to the last sip from the glass that lingers with sweet intoxication. Our whole experience in Savannah was pure bliss.
Regretfully we are headed back to Florida. Mary Jean, Torben’s aunt, passed away after having a stroke. It was unexpected and the family is understandably shaken. We will return to the family’s homestead in Largo, Florida for a memorial service.
We wish you all well and hope you are beginning to feel the blossom of spring, where ever your feet may be planted. Namaste good friends.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mardi Gras!!

Wow, in light of the tragedy in Japan it feels a little superfluous to be gleefully describing our recent merriment. But, maybe in the face of such worldly sorrow some lighthearted entertainment is exactly what is needed. In any case, that’s all I have to offer, so let's get on with it… I feel like we have just run a marathon. We have engaged in a journey of celebration though a time honored tradition shrouded in mysticism, merriment and mayhem. I can only explain this experience by naming it so: Mardi Gras. And I think Andrew Lloyd Webber might say it best: Masquerade! Every face a different shade… Masquerade! Hide your face so the world Will never find you! Masquerade! Every face a different shade… Masquerade! Look around- There’s another mask behind you!

Masquerade! Burning glances, turning heads… Masquerade! Stop and stare At the sea of smiles around you! Masquerade! Grinning yellows, spinning reds… Masquerade! Take your fill- Let the spectacle astound you! I’ve had the blessed fortune of going to Carnivale in Italy and now Mardi Gras here in the states. The two are comparable, right down to the bright costumes, feathery head décor and eye masks disguise the common face. The pageantry is spectacular. The floats are surreal. Some slither like dragons, winding down the street, swaying to and fro, breathing smoke into the cool night air while children of all ages delight in its passing. Others advertise satirical banners with over the top cartoon characters portraying the backside of modern political circumstances. The crowd is hungry with shock, horror and disgust, but cries loudly for more. A Joker dances around a pole and bashing large golden balls against the float, tries to thwart of death for another year. The balls are suspended by a short rope and eventually fall into the crowd, who eagerly converge to consume these precious gifts. Masked men and women become as revered as Santa Claus and the tooth fairy as they toss treasures and trinkets to the masses.

As a stander-by I too delighted in the experience of raising my arms high in anticipation and feeling the blanketed satisfaction that came when treats fell from the sky and landed in my outreached fingers. The beat of drums kept the pulse of the parade on high. The blare of the horns infused a lightness into the air, while the shimmer of beads flying through the air became as mesmerizing as fireworks on the Fourth of July. Every color in the rainbow, every sound in the world, all in one moment, all in this party.

It’s overwhelming to say the least. One parade would have your senses buzzing for hours. We did it in pro fashion. Twenty parades. No joke. They are a seemingly endless trail of music and mayhem, one quickly followed by the next. Sure there were several themes, but ask me if I could tell the difference. . It culminates on Fat Tuesday (the literal translation of Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. The tradition of Carnivale, or Mardi Gras as it is known in this country, is as ancient as the Catholic religion it was founded in. It is the last unrestricted hurrah before religious devotees forgo something of significant value for 40 days until Easter. We learned that the entire Gulf coast shuts down businesses and schools for days to accommodate this annual festival. In other words it is a church sanctioned, government approved party to shed inhibitions and partake in mass gluttony. I never knew such a thing existed with such flare and (seemingly) moral support in this country.

I was astounded, by several facets of the experience. First, and most impressive is my husband’s rejuvenation and stamina for eagerly dragging me back to parade after parade. Without his persistence I would have given up the goal way before the finish line. But we finished, tired and bruised, but remarkably we finished. Second, if you believe there is an economic crisis or national slump…come to Mardi Gras; the sheer quantity of STUFF is enough to sink a small island in the Pacific. Third, the pleasantry of southern hospitality is a current that flows through Mobile; people are courteous and there is always enough food and drink to go around, so long as you don’t mind the wait.

We have all heard Mardi Gras stories of women showing boobs for beads and mass chaos exploding in the crowd as some yahoo brandishes a weapon, so I was expecting to be confronted with these scenes. But surprisingly, I wasn’t. It is actually a $500 fine to expose the ya-ya sisters for beads, not that a few guys didn’t try. And the motorcycle cops and sheriff’s mounted posse kept the crowds from getting too out of control. I could not even begin to count the number of law enforcement officials present. Their lights preceded every parade and made the streets flash like rays from a disco ball. Parades lasted 16 long days and nights. SIXTEEN. They don’t take this stuff lightly. Over the years the party has morphed some and each little neighborhood or association has their own spin on it. We saw elegant men and women dressed like Lord and Ladies in white tuxedos and hats that stretched the length of the block. We saw kids parades with little children fiercely throwing candy that barely made it off the edge of the float.

At this party, anything is a delicacy and everything is desirable. At first I was content to observe the festivities, taking a few pictures from the sideline. Then the infection set in, and there I was, shouting with the rest of them, hanging over fences, wearing a silly hat and begging for beads. Shameless. The moment I knew I totally sold out was when Torben tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the nearby T.V. camera crew who had focused in on my hooting and hollering, or the three pronged light-up jester hat I was hearing, in either case I had succumbed to the greed of the masses. I was addicted: Beads! Beads! Beads! I wanted more beads! We toted backpacks to carry home our spoils. Spilling over sweet tarts, oatmeal cookie pies, light up swords, Frisbees, t-shirts, cups into the streets as our bags couldn’t carry it all and our pockets were filled to the brim. Truthfully, it put Gasparilla and all of the other Tampa Bay parades to shame (sorry guys!).
We even attended the MLK parade, despite recommendations that we wouldn’t “fit in”. And we didn’t. But Torben and I learned some critical parade skills that helped us assimilate into any parade crowd: make friends with your neighbors; only after you know their name can you then proceed to throw elbows in their faces as you grab for beads and be assured a riot will not break out. Worked every time. Ironically, it was the MLK parade where we made the most friends, had the most fun and brought home the most beads!
As we left I felt a little ball of guilt bounce in my stomach…I hadn’t done anything illegal or sinister, but looking around at all of the carnage made one feel, well, a little dirty (literally and figuratively). The streets and sidewalks were littered from two weeks of constant spillage. Broken bead strands hung from tree limbs, feathers floated in fountains and a river of God knows what flowed steadily down both sides of the road. The store fronts looked like a bomb went off. Squashed moon pies were indistinguishable from the mounted patrol’s droppings. Port-o-potty’s were filled and in many cases spilling over. Cars were parked on every median, in every direction…their owners lost somewhere in the crowd. One street became a parking lot, with cars parked three wide and forty deep. Nothing in my view escaped the wrath of Mardi Gras. Well, I guess I now better understand this holiday’s place in the calendar. Clearly after a celebration of this careless magnitude some time of good old structured abstinence is warranted, even welcomed. I have no earthly idea how long it will take the city to clean up the mess or for that matter to return to a state of normal (whatever that is).
On another note, we experienced a miracle. I still feel like I am dreaming and want someone to pinch me. Three days, that’s all, three days. I feel like we’ve won the lottery! We took a break in the middle of Mardi Gras (who wouldn’t?) and headed back to northern Alabama. We made what we have come to call our “annual pilgrimage” back to Red Bay. For those of you who were along for the ride during our first introduction, no second introduction need be necessary. For the rest of you who’ve hopped on somewhere mid-journey Red Bay is the comical vortex that held us prisoners for five agonizing weeks. It was ground zero, a place from which we could not escape. When we courageously tried, something in that two light town kept pulling us back in. After 11 months and half the country, it was time for a visit back to the red dust of Red Bay. Can you pick out our motor home in this picture?
Neither could my husband. He almost came home to a new wife and quickly learned to look for the Gator license plates before walking in the door. No major breakdowns this time, (thankfully) just annual maintenance and some small repairs (like where I broke the screen door & where the laundry drawer took a derailment from its track). We also replaced an a/c filter and cover that I managed to lose while washing them in my parents’ driveway (yea, I’ve got skills). At arrival our list included 31 items, but we had a little something that we didn’t have before: friends. Torben has a gift for putting people at ease. He remembered almost everyone’s name and with a casual greeting and some good ol’boy camaraderie the garage doors opened and we were in. This time around there was no f*-ing around. I have to give the town credit. Perhaps after traveling for a year and learning a bit more how this business goes we have wider eyes and more appreciative hearts. The town goes to work at 7:00. The whole town, every business, now granted they close up at 3:30, but most days I couldn’t even recite the ABC’s at 7:00 am. And in an effort to get us in/out/on with life – they came in at 6:00. Yup, that’s right, 6:00. That’s not the only amazing thing…they stayed later, allotted us a few extra hours in the express bay (limit is three, we took 6). Seriously? And they did it with a smile on their face and a cute little “yes ma’am” in their adorable southern drawl. One guy even took us to his house to wash/wax our RV after his day shift. He completed the task under the moonlight (and a spotlight). Perhaps in my maiden voyage to this town I was overrun by my own impatience, because this beautiful work ethic was previously lost on me. This time was a night and day difference. These skilled workers could pull our RV in and park it in the tightest of spaces, do their thing, back us out and to the next bay we went. Torben exclaimed that our home is in better condition now than when we bought it!
We had some bodywork done (courtesy of a picnic table that hitched a ride in San Francisco) and had to spend one night parked inside the garage to let the paint dry. It was a weird feeling at first, I’m used to big open spaces and this was a little claustrophobic, even in the daytime it was as dark as a moonless night. But they plugged us in and we at least had power. Satellite coverage was not an option. But did we care? Of course not! We just turned up the music, busted out the drums and sang/danced our hearts out. Even the dogs got in on the play and chased us around in circles, taking turns harmonizing their howls. I swear a living room dance party should be on everybody’s agenda. Not only is it a great workout, but it is so much fun to open yourself up, shed your inhibitions, lift your heart and spin yourself in circles. My best advice this week: Lose the T.V. for a night – it’s amazing what fun you can create.
The best part about our second visit to Red Bay? You’re not gonna believe this – I’m still having difficulties believing it - besides that it only took THREE days and we were actually able to leave without being pulled back in – we were just outside of our warranty –and they honored it! The noMadsons final bill at the Tiffin Allegro Service Campground = $0.00! I wish I knew what the actual amount would have been, I feel like I need to donate that much to charity. What a blessing!! We did pay for some private maintenance services, but the repairs were a whopping zilch, zero, nada. I reaffirm our decision that this is the best brand of motor homes on the market! Next we’re headed to the East.
We've stopped in to see Ericka and Momma Madson, just long enough to pick up our mail (undoubtably the trickiest thing about life on the road)
and long enough for me to spill a full banana milkshake in my mother-in-law's lap. (I am nothing if not predictable.) We have tickets to the Savannah Music Festival and I cannot wait!!
Sending lots of love and hugs to everyone. Remember: living room dance party! Get your boogie on!