of home and hospitality

At about 4:15 p.m. yesterday we exited I-91 North and drove through a monochrome dishwater grey Northampton, where our dog, Shoshi, not knowing if we had been gone four weeks or four minutes, welcomed us home with tail thumping.  My time away enabled me to appreciate so much of what this New England college community offers that was in short supply in some of our southern destinations—-organic food, beautiful country for cycling, accessible bike paths, food and entertainment within walking distance, and, of course, a progressive and cultured community.

It’s easy from this vantage point to berate southerners as being a bunch of backward, right-wing, homophobic, sexist, anti-immigrant, evangelical hypocrites, who can’t speak proper English and eat too much pork.  However, I need to give credit where credit is due.  We headed south to shed our parkas, hats, and gloves; to trade in black and white for tropical colors; to pedal hard into ocean breezes.   What we didn’t anticipate was how warmed we would be by the graciousness of the people we met.  Southern hospitality is alive, well, and apparently very genuine.  We basked in it wherever we went. On my early morning walks around the streets of Key West, every person I passed greeted me with a robust, “Good Morning!”  This warm cloak of kindness engulfed us everywhere—-from Mordi’s cousins, Sam and Helen, who filled our hearts and bellies with comfort food and lively conversation, to the wait staff at The Cottage restaurant in Siesta Key, who happily offered to trade my first mojito, which turned out to be my last, for a familiar cosmo, which they then doubled when Mordi accidentally knocked our table, spilling a few drops of the pink liquid….The inn-keeper in Charleston, who greeted us with cookies and a smile and the owners of the 1895 House in Savannah, who left me with a hug and chocolates; the receptionist at Tropical Shores Beach Resort in Siesta Key, who chased us down because he noticed our bikes and wanted to make sure he told us about some great cycling opportunities in the area; the retired electrician from up North, now manager of the Ivey House in Everglades City, as an antidote to boredom, who made sure he approached us several times a day just to see how we were doing…. I will never forget the shock I experienced when the owner of the Atlantis House in Key West, who tended to his gardens with the same kindness he showed those who stayed at his guest house, approached us one night as we sat in his lighted gazebo, “I just made some ceviche and fish pate.  Can I bring you out a plate?”  (The previous night, he greeted us with two huge pieces of key lime pie!)

Indifference seems absent from the warm southern breezes below the Mason-Dixon line.  My cynical husband says it’s because we are white.   I do know that “hi y’all;” “mornin’;” and “How ya’ doin’?” were spoken by people in all colors, shapes, and sizes.   I don’t deny the racism that lingers like a humid summer afternoon in Savannah; the statue of a confederate general that adorns a seaside park in Charleston, along with the occasional confederate flag and posters for Civil War revivals, and restaurants where black means your job is filling water glasses and replacing the fork that fell to the floor.  Yet, like the north, changes are happening—a new Savannah monument to the Haitians who fought in the revolutionary war and a black waiter I notice at the exclusive Old Pink House Restaurant are clues that change is in the air.

We’re expecting some more of that heavy, wet late winter snow in Northampton tonight.  I’ve switched back from cotton to fleece and don’t go out without my burgundy wool gloves.  Yet, while I dodge the early morning black ice camouflaged on the sidewalk of Elm Street, I feel an extra layer of warmth, a souvenir of southern hospitality, as real and as comforting as a plate of southern friend chicken, corn bread, and grits.  I affix these memories into my mind’s scrapbook of this most amazing journey.

 

 

Bearing witness

“I was born in Savannah, lived my life in Savannah, and I’ll someday be dead in Savannah,” said Mrs. Levy, in a beautiful Southern drawl, which until recently, I would never have attributed to someone Jewish.  If she could have stood up straight, she most assuredly would not have been more than five feet tall.  Her oversized wire-rimmed glasses magnified brown eyes and her most notable feature, besides a pencil-like, yet warm smile were her perfectly manicured irridescent red nails.  She spoke with quiet authority as she pointed out the wealth of photographs, journal entries, ceremonial objects, letters and other items that chronicled the history of Temple Mikveh, the third oldest Jewish congregation in the U.S., housed in an elaborate neo-Gothic building, more cathedral than synagogue.   When she read the shock on my face as she pointed out a picture of Robert E. Lee, who had paid a visit to the Temple, Mrs. Levy quietly confessed, “I do believe that if I were the owner of a grand plantation, I would probably do everything I could to protect my home too.”  I could feel my own sense of discomfort with her words, which had been preceded by her admitted uneasiness with the idea that Jews had supported the confederacy.

 

Two previous encounters with Jewish tourist sites on this trip have focused on Jews as victims.  While through Francis Marion (a.k.a. Swamp Fox) Park in Charleston a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a large circle of wrought iron posts.  Wandering over to the site, I discovered this was Charleston’s Holocaust memorial.  What appeared to be a stray, crumpled black garbage bag lying in the middle of the site,

turned out to be a huge, bronze tallit, its fringes twisted in three corners—-a silent, yet deafening shroud.  Several days later, on a warm, amazingly sunny Saturday morning in Miami Beach, we walked through two rows of palm trees standing at attention, their roots encased in a beige cement walk-way that opened onto to a huge forearm emerging from a pond of water, its hand outstretched.   As I approached this surrealistic object, I was engulfed with horrific sculpted images of men, women, and children covering the forearm’s surface; reaching for each other in a death grip, their faces etched in fear and horror.  On the ground below were more victims, their expressions and postures frighteningly real.  It was as if I had come face to face with the unimaginable and was paralyzed to help, my camera lense affording the only shield of protection from this almost unbearable scene.

 

As a child of Holocaust survivors, I am compelled to remember.   As part of remembering, my legacy orders me to bear witness to human suffering.  My unease with Mrs. Levy’s confession came from the questions it forced me to ask myself, “What would I do if my Savannah home were threatened?  What would I do if I had been raised by house slaves, who cared for me like their own children?  What would I do if Union soldiers threatened to take it all away?”

 

We left Mrs. Levy as the cloudy Savannah morning gave way to a drizzly, chilled afternoon.   An artist in City Market, who captured my imagination with her paintings of Gulla women, who inhabit the barrier islands off the coast of South Carolina, responded to my curiosity with a  brochure advertising an African-American Heritage tour of Savannah, led by what turned out to be an occasionally arrogant, but nonetheless brilliant Dr. Jamal, who reframed victimization into strength by unearthing a gold-mine of information about slavery, as well as the wealth of African culture that seems to have been kept a secret from most of us, black or white, who walk the streets of Savannah or anywhere else in this country.   I left his van three hours later, wondering what to do with the realization I couldn’t turn away from; that this beautiful town I had been smitten by less than 24 hours ago, was built on the backs of tortured laborers, who filled their mouths with African sand, all they could take with them, as they were yanked away from their homes, to become a commodity, like cattle or cotton, in an alien world.

 

Black and Jew; so much shared, yet we are separated by a gulf of misunderstanding

as wide as the ocean that holds our journeys.   Jamal showed me the hand-made bricks built by black hands that became the cobblestone streets I strolled on today.  I want to take him to Egypt and show him the pyramids made by a mortar mixed with Jewish blood and sweat.  I have learned how slave ships stole children from their mother’s arms, who emerged half-dead from the Middle Passage.  Can I show him the outstretched hand in Miami Beach that holds shaved-headed, starving almost- corpses?  He highlighted survival through underground schools and songs and a culture that revealed itself in secret.  I want to take him to the Savannah temple and show him the menorah sitting in its glass case, with its eight small trays for oil that could be dumped out and hidden when the Marranos heard the sounds of Spanish soldiers bursting through the doors.   We could talk of lost countries and survival and freedom, bearing witness to adversity and triumph, bearing witness, bearing sorrow, bearing pride, bearing hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florida: hate and love

Florida is flat, like a half-drunk bottle of champagne that sat open too long, devoid of sparkle, like the infinite bike lanes adjoining the highways that never, ever, provide a moment to coast.  Florida is beige under a blue sky.  It’s a blur of primary colors whizzing down a four lane boulevard, passing infinite numbers of businesses to meet every need from botox to burgers; from a billboard announcing a 7 minute wait for those who patronize the local E.R. to an offer of shingles vaccines on a digital sign outside of Walgreens, to endless larger than life faces of lawyers and plastic surgeons.   Florida is streets that say “no outlet” and the security guard at the booth who will press the button that lifts the wooden bar to permit your entrance, as your car slides past the wrought iron spikes that protect the residents from the outside world.  Florida is row upon row of coral stuccoed homes surrounded by golf-courses and man-made lakes with names like Palmer’s Ranch Drive and Avenida Bourganvilla; where side-walks sit empty in a post-apocalyptic stillness, the only motion a palm tree swaying in the breeze.

Florida is a game of connect the dots, where island oases with names like Sanibel and Siesta Key are strung together like a necklace, each bead parted by a chain of avenues, roads and boulevards that run full day and night, converging onto bridges that bear the weight of snowbirds and refugee families from the North fleeing winter’s wrath.  Florida is bald heads, sagging breasts, chin hair, stomachs that topple over swim trunks, navy capris dotted with red anchors, and madras shorts.  Florida is grandparents waiting in second-floor condominiums for a grandchild’s arrival; for a game of cards or a game of golf; for art classes, a lecture about flora and fauna, a bingo game; for a bus trip to Tangers’ Outlets; waiting for an answer; waiting for meaning; waiting out the years; waiting for April or May and the college student who will drive his grandpa’s car back to Boston, while grandpa flies Jet Blue.  Florida is pure white sand, snowy white egrets, and throngs of very white folks, who avoid Miami, which is really not quite Florida.   Florida is Ft. Meyers, the most segregated city in the United States, where a waiter recalled applications to join the Klan distributed in his 10th grade classroom.

Florida is a paradox; its pages filled to the brim with exhaust fumes, condominiums and kitch, but the margins where the roads end are teeming with exquisite beauty.  Florida in the margins is turquoise gulf waters, a pelican riding a morning wave, a great blue heron meditating on a branch of a mangrove tree.  Florida in the margins is an alligator sunning itself on the edge of a bike path; a morning stroller on a beach gathering scallop shells that will sit in a glass jar on her night-table in Au Clair Wisconsin and make her smile each night before she turns the light out.  Florida in the margins is an Everglades wildlife refuge that says no to cars; it’s the water under bridges; bays and bayous, creeks and gulf shores and a clarity of light that beckons.  Florida in the margins is pedaling a bicycle up and down Key West’s quiet streets, away from the sound of The Conch Train and the drunks getting wasted in the afternoon’s darkness of The Green Parrot or Sloppy Joes.  Florida in the margins is a tall slice of key lime pie, shrimp ceviche and a fresh-caught fillet of local grouper, swimming in bernaise; it’s tropical lushness in infinite shades of green, spell-binding bromeliades and the bark that weaves itself around a palm tree. Florida in the margins draws me in; its warmth; its light; its surprises around every corner on a boat edging through the mysteries of a mangrove forest.  It holds me until I cross the margin, where it dumps me on my ass, and I swerve my bike, jumping to the sidewalk to avoid the  automobiles, choking on exhaust, as I swear I will pedal far, far from this place, never to return.

Afterword:

Last Sunday, while eating a scoop of Sanibel Crunch Ice Cream outside of Pinnochio’s, the island’s prized ice cream establishment, I saw, standing alone in the parking lot, a willowy snowy egret.  Expecting it to spread its wings and disappear momentarily, I grabbed my camera, and proceeded to follow its delicate steps, like a ballerina’s pas de deux, until it stopped and paused, studying the driveway’s EXIT sign for an unusually long moment.  “Even the birds….,”  I thought as I pressed the shutter.

Beach stories

Among the array of colorful stores and restaurants, looking like rows of lollipops along Periwinkle Avenue in Sanibel, Florida, sits a solitary, lime colored shop with a turquoise sign that reads, “She Sells Sea Shells By The Sea Shore.”  A couple of miles further along the bike path that provides cyclists with a reprieve from traffic congestion, I saw the second such store.  Odd, I thought, that people would choose to spend their money here on an island whose claim to fame is its shell-covered beaches.  Sort of like dining in the island’s expensive sea-food restaurants, when I could cast my line out into the waters teeming with grouper, snapper, and mahi-mahi.

I have always been drawn to beaches.  There is something about the expanse of water, waves, and tides that pulls me in, like a magnet.   My relationship to the ocean has transitioned along with my own evolution from child to dare I say it, older adult.  In the pre-bikini 1970s, when my stomach was trim enough to wear a two-piece, keeping my belly-button unexposed, my college boyfriend and I would occasionally take his aging VW bus to Mentor Headlands State Park, on the shores of Lake Erie.   No beach chairs.  No boom boxes.  These were minimalist times where I spent hours baking first on my back; my only exercise was repositioning to my belly, attempting to transform my pale Eastern European flesh to a more Mediterranean look.   The finished product, unfortunately, generally turned out to look more like a blushing lobster than Sophia Loren.

Wingersheek Beach stretches out on the edges of Cape Ann on the Massachusetts North Shore.  Even though my move to New England in the late 70s, in an unsuccessful effort to follow that same college boyfriend, led me to settle more than two hours from the coast, I joined Nancy, a co-worker turned close friend,  on her treks to a beach house on Cape Ann, a family summer home that had traveled through several generations of New Englanders and now belonged to her friend Tom and his now husband of 40 years, John.   It was here that I became a runner, well, at least a jogger as I discovered the thrill of gliding barefoot along a beach for miles.  When I wasn’t running, I was walking for hours, gossiping, chatting, and sharing my soul with Nancy, now a lifelong friend. Her tall, lean figure, and waspy blonde hair that stretched straight down to her mid-back, were made for her assortment of leopard, zebra, and black string bikinis that she wore so easily.

My two year old daughter, Rachel, like a sandpiper, runs towards the water with light, airy footsteps,  screaming joyfully as she allows her toes to just sample the froth of the tiny breaking waves in Rockport’s town beach, before she would turn and run wildly back to my arms, only to repeat the dance in multiple successions.   Our mother-daughter vacations would take us to beaches up and down the East coast and on to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera.  With each changing location, like a hawk, I maintained watch over this child, who so easily became friends with a sea that I increasingly viewed as dangerous.  I studied each wave with a pounding heart, wondering if the next cresting wing of water would claim her.  I am not a swimmer, but I wouldn’t allow myself to imprison my daughter with my fears.

In 2009, a beachfront condo on the Jersey Shore’s Long-Beach Island served as home for an affordable pre-season week in June, in which I scheduled each activity always in sight of the coastline, beginning with morning yoga, followed by a fast walk along the beach, which was repeated in half-time and half-distance with my husband, whose arthritic back waged a constant war on his ability to exercise.  Ultimately, having completed my edict to exercise, I would carry a lounge chair the short-distance to the water’s edge, where I consumed novels and scribbled pages of mediocre poetry about seagulls, sunsets, and the soul.

This morning the beach at Sanibel became reality television, as low tide revealed a host of activity more stimulating than a walk through Time Square.  A coffee klatch of hundreds of seagulls and sandpipers feverishly stood in groups, bobbing their heads and squawking noisily, some, I noticed, sporting tufts of black feathers atop their heads, looking like 70s punk rockers.  Grey-haired couples ambled along in sneakers, sipping from Styrofoam coffee cups, occasionally bending down to examine one of the millions of mostly white, half-mooned scallop shells.  A dark-haired couple pointing their camera towards the water gave a clue that led my eyes to the triangular, shiny black dolphin fin, that would rise and submerge several times before it disappeared.  What I assumed to be a pair of grandchildren, of two of the mostly older inhabitants of this island retreat, scooped up handfuls of shells mixed with sand, dumping their contents into a sun-yellow, green-handled bucket, while a young girl with a single auburn braid, like a fishtail, lying against the back of her t-shirt, wildly motioned for her parents to view a starfish she discovered, lying helplessly in the fine white sand, like a beige-snowsuited child of New England making a snow angel.  The water changed its hues as the sun attempted to pierce a slate-grey cloud, while a mob of pelicans simultaneously dove head first into the water, the winner emerging with a silver fish held tightly in its long beak.

At 63 I have traded in my two-piece for a t-shirt and a pair of capris.  I revere the ocean.  I am hungry to take in all that lives, to embrace it, to make sure I don’t miss anything that the sea reveals.

What’s a picture worth?

IMG_0768There is a photograph of a family of bears that decided to pay a visit to the backyard deck of the home we lived in Florence, MA.  As soon as I saw mama and her cubs loping towards our slider, I lunged for the camera and then told my daughter to STAY INSIDE, probably in that order.  I later inserted one of the photos of a very hungry bear pouring the contents of our bird feeder down her throat, while her children looked on, into a magnetic frame, where it adorned our refrigerator door until we moved to a new location.  I  thought about that photo yesterday while downloading the 600+ pictures of Florida kitsch, hotel bedrooms, dinner entrees, bicycles in all shapes and sizes, waterfowl, alligators, dozens of palm trees in every weather condition we’ve encountered, and of course, portraits of my husband sitting on benches with his cell phone and leaning back in the armchair of his recumbent bicycle.

What is it that compels me to see the extraordinary, as well as the ordinary through the viewfinder of my brand new Canon Rebel T-3?  Is it the compulsion to be able to savor every experienced moment?  Or a need to illustrate my journey for those I’ve left behind?  Perhaps I need to document everything as an aid to fading memory?  What I remember when I recollect the image of the attempted break-in by creatures who are becoming all too common a sight in our small town are not the details.  I don’t recall the color of the sky, or how many cubs accompanied their mother, although I think there may have been two.  I don’t remember whether mama bear was downing bird seed on our deck or whether she was eating as she was making a getaway towards the wetlands that surrounded our backyard.  What I do remember is the feeling of excitement that connected the three of us as we watched our uninvited guests; a little anxious about a potential break-in, but mostly we were spellbound!  Yesterday, as the tiny images magically appeared, row upon row across my computer screen, I experienced an array of emotions triggered by each photograph.  A photo of a great blue heron in flight against billowing clouds mounted on an azure sky took me to the moment when I discovered the bird, its legs, like knitting needles, perched on a delicate branch of a mangrove tree.  The moment of discovery was a mutual one, and seeing it begin to take flight, I clicked the shutter; the expansive wings in flight that looked back at me from my screen that evening brought with it a feeling of pure satisfaction.

The wonder of travel is the joy of discovery that rewards  us when we look through the viewfinder with focused attention.    Never knowing what surprise will await us as we turn a corner, we thrive on the anticipation and rejoice in the moments when the shutter clicks.  What an amazing gift to conjure up such feelings of wonder days, weeks, or years later.

Key West: at the tipping point

Even though it was just a little more than five years ago, the details of my only other trip to Key West are sparse in my memory.  Watching my daughter, Rachel, and our exchange student from Kiev, Taya, get their turn at steering the schooner we rode on a sunset cruise, going for my morning walk in the company of the street cocks and hens, while the rest of the town slept, having an argument with my daughter over her need to eat a bag of potato chips (a bad mother moment indeed) at Ft. Zachary Taylor State Beach, and the endless crowds parading up and down Duvall Street, their serving steps and boisterousness attesting to the alcohol allure of this town are the residue of a vacation that was good enough to lead me back.

The reward of a defective long-term memory is that I currently feel as if I am experiencing a virgin visit to Key West.  Having bicycles in tow this time enabled Mordi and I to explore the island more completely than before.  The beauty of Atlantic and Roosevelt Avenues was breathtaking, and it was great to commute to dinner and even a late-night movie in a town with a steady stream of flashing bicycle tail and headlights.  I walked long and fast and pedaled hard in order to justify the time spent in Cuban and Caribbean eateries feasting on garlic shrimp, hogfish, and key lime pie.  The Atlantis Guest House was our personal Shangrila, where we have spent many hours lingering in the gardens reminiscent of the rain forests of Costa Rica.

Amid all the beauty, however, a simmering irritation has gnawed at me like a growling stomach each time I find myself among the crowds of tourists in a traffic jam of open-air tour trains and trolleys that seem to appear from every narrow street corner, each one crammed with people listening to the stereo sounds of tour guides pointing out the watering holes of the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.  Our innkeeper remarked that the town tried to block the newest bus on the block, but the owners of the Key West Duck Tour sued the island for 23 million dollars for their right to join the party.

Key West, I have noted, is not the only destination to succumb to the lowest common denominator of tourism for the masses.  Even towns like Charleston, South Carolina, with its colorful array of local shops and restaurants now sports a King Street with blocks of mall venues, such as The Gap, Cache, and Banana Republic.  On my Friday night walk down Lincoln Road in South Beach, where I’m sure Mordi and I were the oldest members of a continuing parade of partying tourists, I noted about a mile of nothing but mall establishments  on both sides of the road. No sooner had I exclaimed, “They should call this the Lincoln Road Mall,” then I looked up and found the sign that told me indeed, this was the namesake of this famous street!

I was disappointed, but not surprised, when walking down an almost empty Duvall Street, on my first early morning in Key West, to discover in succession a Claire’s, Chico’s, Subway, Wendy’s and an old movie theater whose red neon marquee letters announced the newest occupant: Walgreen’s.  Duvall Street is not exactly fashionista avenue, but I can tolerate the tacky t-shirt and souvenir shops, that share the block with colorful art galleries, like the one where I bought a watercolor of a Caribbean sunset splashed with the turquoise, corals and clarity of light that make this island so special.  I can’t fathom buying a souvenir pair of earrings at Claire’s or a Key West gift for my daughter at Chico’s.  My husband says, “There’s a market for these places,” and I have to admit I don’t get it.  Yet, increasingly local businesses everywhere are falling victim to the lure of high rents that only big name “chains” can afford.  We are at a tipping point, where I fear that the demand for sameness threatens to make places like the Old Town Bakery and Sandy’s Original Cuban Sandwiches relics of a time when travel was a voyage to feast on the local vibe, a chance to experience the uniqueness that adds to our experience of a diverse country.

I live in a community whose motto is, “Buy Local,” yet Starbucks, Urban Outfitters, Eileen Fisher and CVS are flourishing on Main Street .When I take my daily walk downtown, I pass the many cafes, art galleries, and local restaurants, wondering which of these local establishments will be alive five, maybe ten years from now.  Who will take up the cause to rescue the endangered Main, King, Lincoln and other local streets of the U.S.?

Bicycle Madness in South Beach

“At last, sane biking in Florida,” I said as we happened upon a bike trail hugging the sandy ocean beach just about a block from our no frills North Beach Baltic Hotel, which could definitely have its roots on the famous budget street in Monopoly, which I always managed to acquire along with Mediterranean Avenue in my slum landlord days.  We eagerly started pedaling toward South Beach on the terra cotta path.  In less than a mile our hopes were dashed as the path abruptly betrayed us by turning to sand.  Always diligent Mordi insisted that we missed a turn.  Retracing our steps, we discovered he was right.  The path made a sharp turn to the right, ultimately morphing into a wide sidewalk along Collins Avenue, where four lanes of traffic sped past us in the opposite direction like a school of killer fish. Pedaling onward, I remembered the the southern highways lined with pines that gradually grew thinner and sometimes taller, and cement grey skeletons of Spanish moss, looking like ancient women with matted hair covered in cobwebs.   Collins Avenue was lined with a forest of high-rise apartments, condominiums and hotels dwarfing anything that nature could produce.  Eventually these monstrosities gave way to a herd of polished white yachts showing themselves off on the Intercoastal Waterway, like the Botoxed, nipped and tucked dyed blonde, cleavaged women I would see parading down Collins that same night.

We pedaled forward, dodging uniformed wait staff, security guards, construction workers, waiting at bus stations, all speaking Spanish.  “Excuse me,” I yelled in a desperate tone, swerving to avoid colliding with two white-uniformed women jumping out of the shelter as the doors of a bus opened.  Further on we were challenged by a series of palm tress cemented into the middle of our path at regular intervals, shiny black SUVs with attitude pulling out of hotel driveways, oblivious to Mordi’s flashing red tail-light, and a whole host of others claiming their right to the sidewalks we were desperately trying to navigate.  When Collins became a two-way street as South Beach officially began, we jumped off the curb and lay claim to the right-hand lane; leaving SoBe to our ultimate destination, SoFi, South of Fifth, where the streets end and the water takes over.

A coal-black cloud which was quickly overtaking the sky, followed by a startlingly loud clap of thunder signaled a new set of challenges for the ride back, not the least of which was avoiding the throngs of scantily-clad beach-goers, scattering in every direction as we bicycled down the SoBe boardwalk.  When the rains came, they pelleted us like cold bullets.  In ten minutes it was all over, except for the flooded sidewalks that sent us back into the streets, where I noticed a young boy, with back-pack emerging from a yellow school bus, headed into a monolithic building, somewhere in the vicinity of the Fontainebleu Hotel.  Really?  Schoolchildren live here?  I thought school children only came to Miami Beach to visit their Bubbies and Zadies!  Ultimately, we found the terra-cotta trail that lead to the bike path.  We arrived at The Baltic looking like the losers of the wet t-shirt contest; soaked but smug, and very happy!

 

 

 

 

 

THE ST. AUGUSTINE KITCH TOUR

THE KITCH TOUR

“Here’s a map.  It has everything YOU will need to know.  And don’t miss St. George Street.”  The platinum haired, black-spectacled proprietor of the Cozy Inn Motel, handed me the geographical placemat, compliments of Hardees.  There were not more than 10 streets listed.  The map was color-coded: green for parks, blue for water, brown for streets, and red for the Trolley-Tour stations, the latter seeming to be the most popular attraction in St. Augustine, given the throngs of silver-haired tourists filling the many trolley cars.   In spite of threatening clouds and temperatures that had dipped down into the sixties from the high of 74 that our automobile registered at Jacksonville, we took the bikes from the car and headed out to explore what our tour book deemed to be the oldest settlement in North America.  Our first stop—The Fountain of Youth, which could be accessed only by those willing to pay the steep $12.00 entrance fee.  We settled for a photo of Mordi, on his 65th birthday posing for two shots:  one under an enormous horseshoe sign that read, “Welcome to the Fountain of Youth!” and the other shaking hands with an armored replica of Ponce De Leon.   “Aren’t you a little too tall for your era?” said Mordi as he peered at the explorer nose to nose.  “Look,” I said.  “He’s alive and well and narrating that movie inside the tent.”  We turned toward the figure in the flat-screen t.v. monitor, picked up our bikes and pedaled to our next destination.

Old Town is the remaining part of the first settlement that happened some 500 years ago.  Today, visitors can see the remnants of the entrance to the city whose founding name escapes me.   Walking through, however, one enters a world of fast food and cheap souvenirs—-New York Pizza by the Slice, pashminas, incense, and any Chinese import you would care to take home as a souvenir, and an ancient wall turned into toilets.   At the opposite end of Old Town, an imposing Spanish Cathedral stands guard, its coral-colored spire rising above the throngs of tourists, too focused on shopping to notice its stately grandeur.   If it could speak, I wondered, how would it describe the changes it has witnessed.  As I write these words, I am aware of how little I learned about the history of St. Augustine on the two-hours we had to explore this town before twilight would make cycling even more dangerous than it already was on the busy boulevards, where shoulders had not yet appeared to have been invented.

Taking out the map that was stuffed into my windbreaker pocket, I noticed a bridge connecting Old Town.  On the other side, there were a couple of roads and a big green circle—a park, surrounded by blue, and a lighthouse.  “Let’s do it!” I said, and taking our lives into our hands, we dodged the traffic and crossed over the Intercoastal Waterway, only to end up on the four-lane Anastasia Boulevard, teeming with fast cars, and sidewalks lined with a carnival of Florida kitch.  I pedaled fast, hugged the curb, and took in the scenery…..in less than a mile, there were more than half a dozen stuccoed coral, orange, and even gold motels advertising their $39.00 rooms—one even boasting its special Mon.-Thurs. $6.00 (an hour?)  There was the proverbial mini-golf world, an establishment boasting the Best French Fries on EARTH, and my absolute favorite, The St. Augustine Alligator Park, featuring a larger than life paper-machied alligator sitting in a camoflauged jeep.  And then, in the middle of it all, a huge carrot painted on a building identified as, “Nancy’s Natural Foods.  Vegans and Vegetarians Welcome!“  I laughed out loud, as my husband yelled, “That pick-up truck was an inch from hitting you!”  When Mordi and I finally made it back over the bridge, as the Cathedral bells chimed 5:00, he faced me as we met at a red light and yelled, “This town is horrid!”   “All you need to love this place is a sense of humor,” I said, as the light turned green and I pedaled off down San Marco Boulevard.

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THE TOUR STARTS HERE

THE TOUR STARTS HERE!

The idea of taking an automobile trip that avoids interstate highways is enticing, but not realistic, given time constraints.   Getting from Mordi’s cousins’ home in Norfolk to our bed and breakfast in Charleston, South Carolina took a good seven plus hours by way of four lane highways and interstates.   Not wanting to waste time listening to bad radio or repeating the same CDs until I was ready to tear my hair out, I stocked up on several audio books.  The journey to Charleston was spent listening to the newly released memoir of Sonia Sontomayor’s journey from the slums of the Bronx to the Supreme Court.  It’s a great “read,” or shall I say, “listen.”  Still, this is a road trip and attending to the road is an important part of the journey.   Alain De Botton in his book,  The Art of Travel, describes how most of us imagine our vacation destinations as depicted in travel posters.  The sky is always blue.  We are enticed by scenes of palm trees, ocean, and thin women in bikinis sipping pina coladas.  Vacation plans don’t usually account for the minutia of travel; on a road trip it’s the highway directions, the stops to pee, snack, and fill up the car, and the differences that demarcate one state from another.  Chain restaurants, gas stations, and strip malls have blurred the differences, but nonetheless if you pay attention, there is much to observe on Interstate Highways.  Today there were no photos of blue sky meeting deep blue sea.  The expanse of  cement highway spread out before us, surrounded by the bare bones of trees, their branches rising up to a dishwater grey sky; all devoid of color except for the green pines lining the highway.   As we crossed over the border from Virginia to North Carolina, the landscape gave way to a mass of billboards lined up on both sides of the highway, signaling such not to be missed sites as the best hamburger joint in Denton, N.C.  Could it be the only hamburger joint in Denton, I wondered?  A stream of invitations to South of the Border.com enticed us on both sides of the road for almost 100 miles, with the promise of a good night’s sleep, mini-golf, pork tacos, and free childcare.   At the one mile sign, I could barely contain my enthusiasm as I saw the monstrous tower looming in the distance, topped with a gigantic sombrero spreading over this carnival of faux Latino kitsch.  I opted not to stop.  The large letters that spelled, THE HOBBY SHOP, NEXT EXIT, brought me back to the Euclid, Ohio store where my brother spent  every Cent he had made delivering The Cleveland Plain Dealer and frying fish and chips at Arthur Treacher’s on his collection of enamel-painted model trains.  I bemoaned the over-abundance of exit signs noting DQs, Subways, and Shoney’s and the absence of any sign of real North-Carolina Barbeque.   South Carolina came into view with a mega warehouse exploding with color announcing in thick black letters—FIREWORKS—-Cheap—-all kinds!  Had I kept my focus on an audiobook, I would never have screamed with enthusiasm at the sighting of my first palm tree, as we headed into Charleston.   Listening to a great book still affords the opportunity to see the wonders of the road:  the expanse of marshland spreading out from Rte. 17 South, complete with snowy-white egrets emerging from tall green grasses that the Gulla women weave into amazing baskets that they sell in the markets of Charleston.  This was mindfulness, southern style—I was on the Subaru tour bus with the world outside my passenger window, just waiting to be discovered.

Rules for the Road

I am a techno luddite.  I’m not sure why I just can’t report on my travels with e-mail updates.  A friend told me recently that e-mail is passé and so under my daughter’s tutelage I am going to attempt to become a blogger.  It’s all part of the transformation from college professor to …….?  You can fill in the blanks.  I’m still trying to find the word that adequately describes this new chapter.  “Retiree?”  Hardly.  Fill in the dots. “Reinvention?”  “Renewal?”  “Transition?”  Where is the NOUN I’ve been searching for that will be the perfect fit?

My first official segway into this next chapter began at almost daylight on an oddly warm, and blustery Thursday morning, January 30th, when Mordi and I got into a car packed with clothing for any kind of weather event from blizzard to heat wave.  The going away photo in front of my Subaru never happened.  Excitement of what would be unraveled into anxiety over what might be waiting in the wings.  Less than twenty-four hours earlier, an appointment with an ENT to find the source of a recent hearing loss accompanied by a never-ending chorus of bell-ringing emanating from my right ear resulted in the following pronouncement.  “You need an MRI of your brain.”  Our meticulously planned journey had not even begun and already everything would be altered, as we made our way through the fog to our first destination:  Baystate Hospital’s MRI/Imaging Center.

The happy ending came about 25 anxious hours later, just a hair after noon, when the doctor’s office caught up with me exiting the Matisse exhibit at the Met.  “Your test was negative.”  A giant sigh of relief and release.  The journey had started, but the vacation could now begin!  I made my way down 5th Avenue, an icy wind slicing my face.  None of it mattered.  I had learned the first rule of the road:  “The itinerary is always subject to change.  Deal with it and keep moving.”