My sister Donna is the organized one, the reasonable, sane one, the positive, friendly one, and the best GPS interpreter on earth. Or I could say GPS translator, or I could say we were never lost on this entire road trip!! I did all the driving and she related in a clear, timely way (easily understood Oklahoma-plus-New Jersey accent) everything that the annoying GPS bitch was yapping about! For my own part, I managed to never put the automatic gear on the rental car into park at stoplights thinking I was putting it in first gear, like my stick shift in Brazil, and I didn’t run into anything or run over anything.
Charleston is an older city than Savannah, existing since 1670 in the English colony of Carolina. Its very active port began exporting deerskin supplied by Cherokee and Creek natives for European trousers, gloves and books. Once African slaves disembarked at this port and brought knowledge of rice and indigo cultivation, these followed as huge exports. After the Revolutionary War and the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, cotton became the most important export, as in Georgia.
The wealthy merchants and plantation owners of this region developed a rich cultural heritage, building the first theater in North America (and I’ll mention here that the city was preparing for the international Spoleto Festival while we were there). The Charleston Library Society was founded by colonists who wanted to stay abreast of the scientific and philosophical developments of the era; they also founded the College of Charleston in 1770 (and I’ll mention here that this erudite spirit helps to set this city apart from the rest of the state to this day). There was a diverse and tolerant array of colonists, not just from England, but from France, Scotland, Ireland, Germany – representing an array of denominations and religions, including Sephardic Jews. By the beginning of the 19th century Charleston had the largest and wealthiest Jewish community in North America. The largest segment of the population was enslaved Africans.
I know that not all of you used to travel to the Podunk Junctions of South Carolina, as I did, to print at the textile printing mills, and may not be curious about the reason so many motels are called “Palmetto Something.” South Carolina is the ‘palmetto state’ because the fort built at Charleston out of the hard wood of the palmetto tree proved impenetrable by the British cannons early in the Revolutionary War. Fortunes were eventually reversed: the Siege of Charleston resulted in the occupation of the city by the British for almost three years near the end of the war. Then fortunes were reversed yet again.
After another eighty years of mighty charming and graceful southern life in Charleston supported by cotton and the labor of slaves, the Civil war “between the states” began with the surrender of the Union’s Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Charleston had much rebuilding and regrouping to do when the Union prevailed in 1865. A 7.5 earthquake in 1886 didn’t help. Eventually over the decades, through the Civil Rights era, economic slump and even Hurricane Hugo (the eye came ashore in Charleston Harbor in 1989), cultural and economic institutions were re-established and a significant commitment was made to historic preservation. Today the city enjoys designations such as “the most polite and hospitable city in America” (Southern Living magazine). I will vouch that the citizens are a friendly lot.
I’ll get back to my trip with Donna: we had decided to splurge on a bed and breakfast inn for one night in Charleston to fully immerse ourselves in the charm and grace of the historic center. We arrived at the lovely Meeting Street Inn in time for the charming and graceful wine and hors d’oeuvres reception for guests in the lobby and beautiful courtyard. We were flattered when a young, handsome couple we had met at check-in sought us out in the far reaches of the patio (well, the alternative was a large tour of even older people, rather stern looking). The couple was from an island near Savannah and celebrating their anniversary. We had a wonderful conversation with the personal trainer wife (she literally continues a regimen with clients after they return home from vacation in the South, through Skype workouts) and with the husband, who is a high school teacher for emotionally disturbed students. He had one hand bandaged up from intervening in an altercation between two students. I relished our conversation about education, the environmental pitfalls of raising children, and the challenge he loved of simply having to be on the spot and ready for anything each day.
Donna and I enjoyed a champagne and oyster dinner after wandering around in a light rain. The meal ran a little high with around 11% in tax (there is a 2% hospitality tax added in the city). It was worth it.
Our walking self-tour the next day was under a bright sun. We visited the Nathanial Russell historic house from the early 19th century. He was a wealthy shipping magnate and slave trader. The furnishings here were historically appropriate or reproductions, not actual furnishings of the original family, though the Historical Society took great pains to replicate the exact, exquisite wall colors and the architectural detail. Most notable about this house is the engineering wonder of the free-floating staircase that curves up to the second floor from the foyer. It has flummoxed architects and engineers for two centuries!
We made our way to the waterfront houses, enjoying en route the southern colonial style that prevails…oddly placing the homes sideways against each other in order to have shade on the open verandas and balconies. The lots are small and the homes a bit jumbled up because of this sideways orientation, though most have lovely gardens in back. These homes are all inhabited today. I only have photos of houses that face the water, so you’ll just have to take my word that many elsewhere face sideways…or just go to Charleston and see.
Donna and I had a seafood lunch on a pier in a most pleasant ocean breeze. And to live up to the requirement of great cities, Charleston offered up a most unlikely coincidence: notice the brunette woman’s bent head in the left corner behind Donna. Imagine the shock when Donna heard her named called out and discovered a fellow-retired friend from home (Lawrenceville, New Jersey), who taught at the same school where Donna worked in the administration!
We continued walking and shopping at the famous old market and along King Street until too late to realize how exhausted we were. Our reservation was just outside of town at a chain hotel on the way to our next destination. Here I am, bleary-eyed and physically spent, having had peanuts and a protein bar for dinner since we were too tired to go anywhere, about to fill the bathroom wastebasket with ice from the hallway ice machine to chill the extra bottle of wine leftover from the cruise. We were watching “American Idol” on television – my first ever. This photo is really more about the shoes than how ill-suited I am to prolonged shopping. Donna brought several nice pairs of shoes on the trip, but continually opted for these too-silver ones because of their superior comfort (aluminum foil?…or the material I had recently seen at Cape Canaveral on the exterior of the space capsule?). We had a lot of laughs by me making fun of these shoes and Donna agreeing while wearing them every day! She offered them to me for my pajama-clad corridor ice trip. Sure enough, superior comfort.
In the meantime, Newton was visiting the Great Wall of China:
Donna and I recovered and hit the road towards Ashville, North Carolina the next morning.