And how relaxed am I right now? Very. The whole idea of a vacation is not to always rush around on a schedule, but to enjoyably do nothing for long stretches where possible. And while Terrastock was great and all, the fact that a schedule was a key part of it was inevitably a bit wearying! So it was with due happiness I was able to leave Louisville, connect in Cleveland, deal with a slightly bumpy flight south and end up in a state I’ve been to before — 25 years ago — but a city that I’ve always heard about but never once really been near.
My connection to the city is through my aunt and uncle, who have lived in South Carolina now for almost three decades; there’s no direct connection they have to the place — my aunt, my mom’s sis, was born in California, while my uncle is from Tennessee — but they ended up here after a Northern California stint and since the early eighties I’ve always thought of them in terms of the state. Greenville is where they lived for a while, and that’s where I saw them in the early eighties on my one previous visit here — my cousin Chris, who’s around my age, and my sis and I all palled around, and I still remember the visit to both the Biltmore Estate and, alternately, a location of the Po’ Folks chain (in retrospect something that’s a little unsettling all around, but I need not dwell on that).
It’s 25 years on and I’ve been meaning to head out here for some time — my mom and dad and my sis and her boyfriend have all been out to Charleston, but for me it was a matter of both timing and wanting to sync it up with other things to make a real vacation out of it. In that regard Terrastock was a godsend, timed as it was right after the school year and essentially meaning that since I was most of the way across the country anyway, why not get down here and see what’s up? I’ve seen my aunt and uncle plenty of times since 1983 — they now regularly visit California and plan on a second home somewhere in San Francisco — but it was long past due for me to see them on-site, as it were. Similarly it would be good to see my cousin Andrew and his girlfriend Leigh again — Andrew’s some years younger than me, being born later that same year I last visited, and like his dad is looking at a law career, and I’d seen them both only one time in the past during a visit out to California with his parents in 2005.
Having a place in any city where you can simply stretch and do nothing at all for a long spell is a blessing and a joy, and heaven knows I’ve been living that up to the full. There’s a photo or two of the place already up on Flickr via the iPhone — more will have to wait after I’m back and loading up everything from the main camera [EDIT: and you can see a few here now!] — but their house is the middle level of a large one built in 1859 by a successful Swedish shopkeeper immigrant. Now split into various units, it’s all very tastefully done and essentially means a condo setup that doesn’t look like one — their level has high ceilings, well-appointed furnishings, the lot. I almost get the feeling, to quote my friend Grady in Honolulu about certain things where he’s at that are just part of life there which would surprise most everyone else, that it’s the equivalent of ‘Hawaii mundane’ — ‘Charleston mundane’ is all about fancy old houses, beautiful gardens and overall more-genteel-than-thouness. Not a complaint, I note, merely an observation!
And it stands for a lot of the city as a whole. Charleston is one of those places where there’s an interest in maintaining things as they were which verges on the obsessive — for example, there’s a city ordinance which limits the height of buildings so that ‘peninsular Charleston’ as the heart of the old city is called has a pretty flat skyline which lets the many church spires stand out as they’ve done for years. It had, apparently, the earliest city preservation society in the country, there’s tons of tours for houses and heritage setups throughout the area…combined with the strong humidity, it almost reminds me of no other place I’ve been more than Venice, which similarly thrives on a combination of heat, water, the need to keep going in large part (but not entirely) through tourism and a wish that there wasn’t so much of the trappings of tourism around at the same time.
Andrew’s extremely wry sense of humor — he’s had me near-collapsed in laughter more than once in just a couple of days — has been suited to this kind of ambivalence that can be summed up as a simultaneous pride in location — he is, of all the family, the one full-on ‘Southern boy’ as my aunt describes it — and an appropriately gimlet eye cast on all the folderol about ‘heritage’ as packaged and sold. It’s the sense of the passionate local historian at work in him — which matches the family very well! — while possessed of the sense of humor that means we can talk about the upcoming Pineapple Express with distinct enthusiasm (as we did last night, drawing in one of the food servers at the restaurant as well — I love instant bonding moments like that).
So yesterday when we did the Fort Sumter visit — one of those wonderfully obvious things a tourist can do around here, but which I admit I had an actual interest in to start with being a history buff as I am — it was a treat because we took it easy, wandered around at our own pace and all while I was very pleased to hear Andrew’s stories and observations not simply about the sites surrounding the fort — the points of bombardment from other forts and locations and so forth — but also stories about boating in the harbor, past gatherings with friends in the general area and the type of enjoyable detail that makes a place not simply where one visits, but where one understands how others live. I could do the same with my neck of the woods, however unprepossessing it might be in comparison.
My uncle had to cut out of here to head upstate yesterday afternoon so it’s mostly been my aunt, Andrew, Leigh and myself in various combinations of hanging out, and right now my aunt and I will be going out to breakfast shortly, then there’s other stuff that’s been planned through the rest of the day — not overplanned, simply worked in as possible. A house tour or two is on the horizon and I’ll enjoy that [EDIT: and I did, very much — the Aiken-Rhett House], though it does bring me to a larger point — rightly and wisely, I think, there’s been a clear emphasis in most of the material and discussion around that I’ve encountered that brings home that these houses didn’t simply emerge fully-formed out of nowhere, nor did its society consist of happy merchantmen who sat back and did little other than entertain. It was a slaving port and slavery’s cruel compulsions and distortions underscore so much of what is here. To dwell on this fact would almost seem tendentious, maybe, but it must be brought to the forefront. I admit as I was seeing many of the houses on the day driving around I thought to myself, “And how many of them weren’t originally built and created with the profits or help of slavery to one extent or another? The merest handful?”
But like I am entirely one to criticize — the history of California, after all, is one of its own displacement of power structures and the ascendancy of a English-language society, and I can see evidence of that throughout Orange County anywhere I choose to look. The difference is ultimately one of degree. And so much of human history as we take it all in, interpret it, use it, is to look on decisions made and great works created by blood, sweat and death. St. Petersburg, the Great Wall of China, two examples of many. Charleston’s piece in that puzzle is comparatively small, if no less painful and worthy of consideration.
It’s worth noting that after the Civil War much of the city was ruined — and that many of those old houses around here are in fact reconstructions within the larger scope of that same period of that name. A ghost of a past, redone and reconsidered, and the longer we move from it all in time, perhaps the less raw and present it will all seem. But not at this stage of American life still, not yet.
But I can admire all the aesthetics for what they are — and they are all quite something — and the sense of Charleston’s collective inherited haughtiness as something that one who lives here can both feel pride in and poke fun at. All the interesting observations one could make about class, location, etc. would take too long to go into — and I’m getting a bit hungry now myself!
Which leads to a concluding point — yeah, the food around here is pretty grand [EDIT: and the Hominy Grill, which I ended up at twice, just had its chef land a James Beard award a few weeks back]. Andrew’s noted, in his usual fashion, that there’s plenty which I would need to try in order to hit all the cliches properly, but I’ve already made an initial foray here and there. (Shrimp and grits at Water’s Edge restaurant in Mt. Pleasant? Yup.) I’m a touch glad I’m not here too long just because I can feel the pounds kinda starting to add up, just a hair — need to walk more if I could! But there again, it’s so humid most of the time one almost doesn’t want to…
Perhaps more to say about Charleston as well in a later post, but if this all sums it up, then I’ll simply say I’m glad I came, I’m terribly happy to be among family who I love very much, and there are few feelings better than sipping on bourbon and lemonade on a piazza in the late afternoon, unwinding and thinking idly as to what to have for dinner that night. Especially when one does not have to worry about cooking it.