Thursday, February 26, 2009

Travelogue 263, February 26
The Matthew

The day is a replica of the last, grey with a chilly breeze. Jet lag has
kept me up until 3am. I’ve got that cold medicine-like buzzy feeling
from lack of sleep. But this is our only free afternoon to sightsee.

Pey and I take the train to Bristol. This will be my first visit to that
town, though it’s only about fifteen minutes on the train, and it’s where
Giles has his office. Disembarking from the train, a difference is immediately evident. We’re in a real city. The population is about five times that of Bath.

The train station in Bristol is named Temple Meads. The entire district is called the Temple district because there was once a circular temple of the Knights Templar here. That was built over by a large Catholic church, but even the church retained the memory, being called Temple Church. It stood for almost six hundred years before the Germans bombed it. And it still stands, though gutted.

Bristol was the fifth largest target of the German blitz because of its harbor and the airplane industry. So today you see a relatively bland modern city. Not that there aren’t vestiges of the old. Not far from the train station, you’ll pass a crude statue of a local hero, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who contributed much to the old city which we can still catch glimpses of. Personally, I think he deserves a statue for just his name, let alone his achievements. The old town owed much to this 19th century architect and engineer. Perhaps his primary claim to fame is the Clifton Suspension Bridge high above the Avon River as it heads toward the Severn estuary, that huge waterway separating England and southern Wales. Brunel designed the bridge, but never saw it completed. Construction took over thirty years.

Brunel also spent some time working on the locks and the docks of Bristol. This city has been a major port for England since the time of the Normans. Earlier port towns were closer to the great estuary. Bristol is a few miles inland on the Avon, presumably because of the powerful tides of the Bristol Channel and estuary. Locks built in the 19th century created the stable ‘Floating Harbor’, Bristol’s calm waters for docking ships. Walk along the Avon today and see calm waters. The river has been so engineered and supplemented with canals that it hardly seems a river. Does a river take neat ninety-degree turns?

Here you can ogle boats and visit history. Another famous product of Isambard’s genius floats here, the SS Great Britain, built in 1843 and once the largest ship afloat. It was not the first ship built of iron, but the first iron ship to employ a screw propeller and take to the open seas.

I admit, it’s not the SS Britain that attracts my attention. It’s the Matthew, symbol of an earlier age. It is the replica of John Cabot’s vessel, which crossed the Atlantic and discovered – for his age and his people – North America. The replica followed the same path some ten years ago. It’s a beauty, built in late medieval style, square-rigged with a high forecastle and aftcastle. And the gangplank is down! It happens that the crew is on board for a luncheon that has finished by the time we arrive. We are able to board.

The first thought in boarding a ship like that is: my God this is small! Nineteen people spent seven weeks on this vessel, crossing the ocean? It boggles the imagination. One of the old crew members spends some time talking with me. ‘When I grew up,’ he says, ‘I was taught to pronounce Cabot in the French way, dropping the ‘t’. But of course that was wrong.’

Approaching the Matthew, reading that it was a replica of Cabot’s ship, the date 1497 leaps into my mind. I turn out to be right, and Pey graciously acknowledges my boast. It’s a child’s number, and for the first time I reflect upon it with an adult’s mind. Wow, that’s only five years after Columbus set sail. Friendly competition?

Cabot’s real name was Caboto, which apparently means ‘seaman’ in Italian. He was Italian, as were many captains and seafarers at the end of the fifteenth century. Many of them were farming themselves out to the new sea powers: Spain, Portugal, England, and France. The Atlantic was the new sea to be working.

The old man on the boat says Columbus spent some time in Bristol. I haven’t seen that corroborated anywhere, but it’s certainly possible. He travelled widely in his youth, and could easily have stopped here. What if they met? What if they shared ideas? Small world: isn’t it always?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Travelogue 262, February 23
Signs (NOT directed by Shamalamadingdong)

Four signs that you’ve arrived in England...
Indoor Birds: Disembark from the Northwest jet airliner after three movies and a protracted battle over the armrest with an oversized and twitchy man, and make your way to the Tube for a lift across the sprawling suburb called Heathrow Airport. Follow the signs to the Central Bus Station. Stand in line for fifteen minutes for the only functioning elevator.

The bus terminal isn’t huge. It’s a sales window, a WH Smith, a digital departures board, rows of benches for several hundred, and most importantly a Caffe Nero, where you go to exorcise the phantoms of sleep deprivation and close range video imagery.

There’s something ad hoc about the terminal space, like it was a convenient, if awkward, quadrangle of concrete that was converted by one of those balloon roofs and some glass doorways into an interior space. The doors are propped open day by day, allowing hungry, grey pigeons free access. Watch your pan au raisin; they might launch from that chair back. Pigeons are just as ubiquitous in, say, New York City, but in Europe they are real citizens, as essential an ingredient to any plaza or piazza as the timeworn flagstones themselves. Now they’ve been invited in.

Complexions: Scan the faces; listen to the voices. The musical scales have shifted, and so has the spectrum of complexions. The Anglos bustle by in their restraints, singing their light and rounded syllables. At the cafe counter, meet the Eastern Europeans issuing questions as orders in nasal curlicues that never stray far from sarcasm. South Asians add spice to the swirl of pink cheeks and blondes, translating motion itself into diffidence, turning wide eyes on the clock, on the clerks, on the walls.

Buckles: Board the ‘coach’. It’s tidy. The seats are high. The driver is a friendly chap with a warm and booming voice, a shaggy coif, and a well-aged cardigan. Before setting out, he cheerfully fulfills his duty of addressing the customers, much like an airline stewardess: seat belts are mandated; exits are at front and back; the lavatory is in the rear of the coach; and please come up front if there is any way I can make your ride more comfortable -- I’m up here, on the right.

The Press: Pick up the abandoned ‘Metro’, a free London rag, handed out at Tube stations. Two stories will stand out, one on the front page and one in the back among sports news. The latter story concerns a world celeb that registers negligibly in the American consciousness. (This is itself a jarring phenomenon. How do Americans manage this kind of blithe impenetrability?) Said celeb is the unflappable and eminently photogenic Jose Mourinho, once invincible coach of Chelsea and now generale at Inter Milan. A Champions League match approacheth: Inter vs. Manchester United. Mourinho has a few wonderful quotes to offer us, wonderful for their luminous vacuity, poetic indications of nothing, reminiscent of JCVD in his youth. Mourinho is confident of winning. Beyond that, we have only zen color: the match will be a sensation on several etheric planes.

The front page celeb is none other than our faltering PM, Gordon Brown, portrayed in exaggerated toad-like glory as he puckers up to kiss the cheek of cousin toad Angela Merkel. The accompanying photo captures Ms. Merkel wrinkling up in disgust, presumably post-contact, though the paper is suitably ambiguous on that point. You’ve got to love the British press -- though God preserve us all from their attentions.

The evidence is in: I’m in England.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Travelogue 261, February 14
A Valentine’s Toast

In conversation, a friend refers to Valentine’s Day as a holiday, and I laugh. But later I consider the point: yes, it is a holiday. Judge by the way people celebrate. We’re downtown, and people are as sloppy as I’ve ever seen them. The bars are rammed. Block E roars with chaotic good cheer.

Block E is a block-sized entertainment mall downtown, occupied by bars and movie theaters, and a five-star hotel. It’s been a mall since 2001, despised from its inception by all city hipsters, especially those with long enough memories to recall the seedy legacy of the block before its demolition in 1988 -- when it was home to such classic mid-century establishments as the Moby Dick, Brady’s Pub, the Rifle Sport Gallery, and Shinders. And truly, how is one supposed to feel about the complex that houses a Hard Rock CafĂ© downtown? But I have to confess to a lot of time spent at Block E. What are my options? I don’t have a car, and I can’t see a movie unless it’s on a huge screen with blasting sound.

In any case, the mall and the street are in an uproar. People are shouting, even if they’re strolling right next to each other. A beggar is asking passers-by for a stimulus package. Limos with dark windows cruise by. Excitement levels are high: isn’t this a holiday? It’s an odd one if it is. Are we celebrating love in the middle of winter? I’m not seeing much that I would recognize as romance.

Holidays are platforms for the collective voice of a people to speak. So what are our holidays? I don’t mean the empty spots on the calendar, the long weekends and days to sleep in. I mean the ones we truly celebrate. In the U.S., would they be Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, July 4th, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s? With the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas, they all look the same, don’t they? Get drunk and be loud. Throw in birthdays as another holiday, then. The two exceptions are sweet but tedious celebrations of family. Sure, there are people who commemorate MLK or Veteran’s Day, but they are usually bound by some experience or conviction that separates them from the herd.

So where is the mass civic mindedness that quotes poets, poets like Henry Timrod, who wrote,

Sleep, martyrs of a fallen cause;
Though yet no marble column craves
The pilgrim here to pause

though he himself is now memorialized by marble in a park on Broad Street in Charleston. He wrote these lines just before his death in 1867, about the laying of wreaths for the Confederate dead. The park is entirely devoted to Civil War memories, and is empty of visitors on the day I stop by. Aside from the monument to Timrod, there’s one to General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, who oversaw the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston’s harbor in April, 1861, the first engagement of the war. And there’s a column erected in memory of all the men who lost life’s breath in support of the Confederacy. A plaque declaims South Carolina’s motto, ‘Dum spiro, spero’, which means while I breathe, I hope.

‘Carolina!’ Timrod wrote at the beginning of the war,

Fling down thy gauntlet to the Huns,

And roar the challenge from thy guns;

Then leave the future to thy sons,

Across the street is St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, a church orginally founded in the late seventeenth century, though most of the current building dates to the mid-eighteenth century. Its graveyard is the real item of interest. Walk its peaceful grounds and gaze at stones carved centuries ago.

Stoop, angels, hither from the skies!
There is no holier spot of ground
Than where defeated valor lies
By mourning beauty crowned!

Anyway, the graveyards are quiet now, and the monuments are unattended. Let’s head down to the mall for some brewskies.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Travelogue 260, February 5
Oysters and Gumbo

Howard corrects me immediately, before we’ve driven a mile. ‘They’re palmettos,’ he says with the smug authority of a local, though he’s only been living here for five years. I stand corrected. They’re not palm trees, they’re palmettos. It is the Palmetto State, after all. How callous am I? But really, the names are not what matters. What is outstandingly urgent right now is the GREEN. There is green grass by the side of the road. There are oak trees reaching over the road with branches full of green leaves. Moss – not so green this time of year – hangs from those branches like stockings blown from the clothesline. Sunshine warms my cheek through the car window.

It’s late afternoon, and Howard drives us straight to his favorite Mexican place, where he orders us two 46-ounce margaritas. We launch into reminiscences. It’s been six years since we’ve seen each other. The memories become funnier as the big, round glasses empty.

It’s night by the time we drive into downtown Charleston. We cross the Ashley River, over some sleeping yachts, and drive down the east side of the city’s central peninsula. We arrive at Battery Park and take a walk along the harbor-side. The water is calm. The night is wonderfully comfortable, with only the hint of a southern chill in the air – something Howard calls ‘cold’. What are the evening sights waterside in Charleston? To the left you’ll see the new Ravenel Bridge lit brightly, its cables spread like delicate fans. Behind you, you’ll enjoy a row of nineteenth century beauties, residences of the rich and genteel, all columns and balconies, Renaissance and Colonial, redolent of plantation culture. Out to sea, you’ll be able to pick out the lights of Fort Sumter, squatting out in the harbor, protecting memories of the war that still seems to define this city.

Walk east and you’ll enter the French Quarter, where the oldest architectural relics of Charleston stand firm against time, relics of the city that was one of the first ports of the British colonies, founded in 1670, and one of the biggest cities of the early republic. Keep going; you’ll find some nice bars and restaurants.

This vacation is destined to be a culinary excursion. Everything Southern, I want to try. That includes ‘Firefly’, an inimitably Charleston liquor: vodka brewed with iced tea. That includes grits and succotash with breakfast, and barbequed ribs for dinner. My favorite meal, consumed with delight on my last night in Charleston, is gumbo complemented by ‘oyster shooters’. An oyster shooter is a shot of vodka with a raw oyster, horse radish, and hot sauce. The bartender and Howard nearly had me convinced that I was supposed to slide the whole concoction down my throat without a gag, but these oysters are not the rubbery little nuggets I’m used to in northern ports. These are like whole eggs swimming in vodka and hot sauce. I savor each shot.

My second favorite meal is more than food. It’s sitting in the full afternoon sun on the highest deck of a bar called Red’s in Mt. Pleasant, set right beside Shem Creek, a wide, marshy creek that sluggishly flows toward the harbor. The meal is a basket of fried scallops and a basket of huge, delicious shrimp. Howard and I catch up on politics and religion, and we work our way through beers and food just about as slowly as the sun is dragged toward the earth. About five degrees from sunset, we clear out and drive to Sullivan’s Beach, crossing over the Intracoastal Waterway, which looks like any other creek in these marshy lands, just wider and straighter. Humble creek, it’s part of a venerable American institution that stretches uninterrupted from New Jersey to Texas.

Access to the beach is between rambling beach houses, wooden and bleached, and over some dunes populated with reeds and low scrub. The beach slopes down very gently to the calm ocean. Gentle describes everything about this landscape, flat and warm and watery. The view is not striking; its beauty is spacious and calming. The sands are not dazzling, tawny rather than white. The ocean is not sparkling, but dull and sleepy. We stroll contentedly among the wet sands for a mile or so, until we’re ready for the next meal.