At times, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that being a nomad isn’t just about the freedom to go anywhere we want, but also about the opportunities we have to learn about all the places we visit – in essence to get to know the world. Nowhere is this more relevant than in your own backyard. In your own country, you may assume you know about a place that you have never even visited. That is why, when we started to play with the idea of a major US road trip this past year, we knew we wanted to drive through ‘The South’, a place that seemed as foreign to us as Guatemala, Laos, or Russia.
It was time to break through some of our stereotypes. It was time to find out what The South was really all about.
The first major Southern stop was Charleston…a city as classically Southern as it gets: the friendly locals with pleasant southern drawls, large front porches wrapping around grand antebellum homes, humid weather that makes you move slow as molasses and the plantations we had only read about in books or seen in films. In fact, dozens of our Southern stereotypes clicked right into place, but what we discovered was that by paying attention to the details, we could pick up so much more of an understanding about southern life, past and present.
Making the trip to a plantation was a must for us both. To a couple from the northern US and Germany, the institution of slavery seems such an intangible concept and a plantation visit is the easiest way to really to create a deeper understanding of southern life in pre-Civil War America.
After driving past miles of South Carolina golf courses, we arrived at Boone Hall Plantation just outside Charleston. What first registers is how peaceful it is, just the sounds of cicadas and we drove through the Avenue of the Oaks – the long, dirt driveway lined with 88 oak trees each over 300 years old. After the 30-minute house tour it is easy to imagine ourselves sitting on the front porch sipping peach iced tea, fanning ourselves and sharing the gossip of the ladies of Charleston.
That is, until we make our way to the gut-wrenching, yet gripping, Black History in America exhibit set up inside the eight remaining slave cabins on the property. The exhibit yanks guests right back to reality. Rather than reading about life as a slave in a book, standing inside the four by five foot cabin meant for two families makes the injustice incredibly palpable.
We also learned an interesting detail that drove home the key role that slavery played in building the South. Before the Civil War, Boone Hall Plantation produced handmade bricks for the city. Take a close look at the older buildings in town, and you will see the slaves’ hand prints in the bricks. This physical connection, no matter how far removed by time, left a huge impression on us about what life before the Civil War in the South must have been like.
Classically Southern Experience: Visit a historic home
Detail: Joggling Boards
We were immediately attracted to the regal beauty of the homes in the French Quarter and visited the Edmonston-Alston and Heyward-Washington homes. These visits are always similar: A woman dressed in a historic costume, her graying hair in a bun, greets guests at the door with twinkling eyes, a drawn out Southern speech and a palpable passion for bygone eras.
At first, the tour feels stiff; we always fear being bored to tears. Eventually we are won over when it becomes clear the tour is about more than its construction or furniture. We revel in details like what people would have eaten for dinner or how evenings were spent. It was at the Edmonston-Alston house where we learned that, in the 1800s, much time would have been spent on the joggling board. This long, pliable wooden board – almost always painted green – was originally invented for sufferers of rheumatism, but there may have been quite a few marriage proposals made on them as well. If unmarried young adults sat on either side and ‘joggled’ their way to the center, the experience would have been considered so intimate, the boy would have felt obligated to propose to the girl. What a difference to our concepts of personal space and intimacy today!
People in the South really are so friendly and everyone called us ‘sweetie’, ‘baby’ or ‘honey’ – sometimes all three in one sentence. We had random conversations with strangers almost everywhere – parks, restaurants, on the street, at the hotel. But one circumstance in particular really impressed.
At one point we were happily wandering through the cobblestone lanes of Charleston’s French Quarter, and we heard a shout and saw a wave from a cheerful lady. Could she be talking to us, we wondered. Sure enough, she struck up a conversation and we got to talking about life in Charleston. After a few minutes, she invited us to her gallery. Called The Pink House, it the smallest gallery in Charleston. She did not want to sell us anything, just wanted us to see it. She talked about when it was built and by whom, just wanted to teach us a little bit about Charleston and told us a ghost story or two about the attic. We went up to check it out, but saw no ghosts that day.
I am not sure where this ‘water’ stereotype of mine was formed…maybe country singers like Tim McGraw, who sang about Johnny’s daddy who was always taking him fishin’ or Alan Jackson’s nostalgia for his teen years spent on the Chattanooga river. Somehow I always picture southerners out on the water whenever possible. Some of the beaches, even on a Tuesday afternoon, were packed when we pulled up, others less so. Either way, what was so refreshing was how unpretentious the entire beach experience was. Going to the beach seemed to be about relaxing, not to showing off six pack abs or drinking overpriced fruity cocktails with little umbrellas in them. Instead, beach-goers included young couples with kids, octogenarians in speedos, kite-flyers, kite-surfers, sandcastle builders and large groups of friends or family having lunch under the sun.
Stop in to the Charleston Visitors Center. It is an interesting tourist attraction itself, located in a former railway station, but the Visitor Center has hundreds of maps and itineraries and the staff is genuinely interested in helping you plan your time in town. You can also watch an introductory film to Charleston to get your bearings and a visit a small museum inside dedicated to the history of the city.
We got around much better using the GPSmyCity iPhone app, which has been a great help for us in quite a few cities this year.
Have you been to Charleston? What are some great little details you remember about the city? Share in the comments below…