They Tell Me Savannah is Beautiful

No one is excited to hear you’re going to Kansas City. No one is jealous that you’ll be in Tallahassee. No one cares that you went to Lubbock. But people will tell you that Savannah is beautiful.

Park StatueI originally tried to find a couchsurfing host for my two nights in the city, but none of the hosts I talked to were available, so I opted for a nice campsite in a state park just south of the city. I set up my site and had a reasonably okay dinner followed by a mostly good night’s sleep, which is almost always the case when I camp. The next morning I got up early and drove into the city. Without a real human guide I was left to the recommendations Trip Advisor could give me, and Forsyth Park seemed to be a real crowd pleaser. I walked in the slightly cooler morning air among the walkers and joggers. Nothing makes you feel like less of a tourist than being up early in a city park. It was the end of July, which meant the perfect temperature of the day peaked at around 9:30AM. Anything after that was likely to feel a bit suffocating, as tends to be the case in humid climates.

Opening the ArkTwo blocks north of the park is Monterey Square, where I lucked into a tour of the Congregation Mickve Isreal, a fantastic and very old synagogue. My tour guide was a hunched, balding, old man who at first seemed mainly in charge of asking us where we were all from and turning on the audio recording that explained the building and its history. The tour seemed very concerned about dispelling myths. No, those seats up there were never used for women’s seating, that’s just the choir loft. No, this building didn’t used to be a Catholic church despite it’s shape, that was just the architectural style at the time. After the recording the guide took us up to the main altar space, where he opened the ark to reveal the beautiful silver pieces inside. He told us that upstairs in the museum they have terrific relics, including some very old copies of the Torah. I went upstairs with the others to the museum to look at the artifacts. I was hit by the extent to which the trappings of Judaism are wholly unfamiliar to me. Because the museum is designed for mostly Jewish patronage, many things are labeled with their age and original owner, but not what they are. I kept pointing to the cases and asking our guide what the objects were and how they were used. It’s a nice reminder that all traditions seem strange to an outsider. Consider the Christmas Stocking.

It was getting near lunchtime. One of the few things I had on my list for the state of Georgia was the phrase “Miss Wilkes in Savannah – all you can eat, they seat you with strangers.” I never keep track of who gives me recommendations, only what they recommend, so I have no idea who told me about Miss Wilkes. I do know that when I turned the corner towards the restaurant the line reached to the end of the block. One of the truisms I have developed on this trip is this: If there’s a line out the door, get in it. Unfortunately this was one of the few times when I had plans. One of the couchsurfing hosts I had contacted said he’d love to get together and show me some of the city, and I was supposed to meet him at a nearby coffee shop in just over an hour. I barely had time to eat, and I certainly didn’t have time for a long wait. I went instead to the expensive but adorable Olde Pink House. The restaurant is housed inside an 18th century mansion that is older than the country it resides in. My food was delicious and I found a certain relaxed enjoyment watching the fans spin above the bar. So long as there’s a fan going, the weather in Savannah is fine.

I finished up my lunch and lucked into a three hour parking spot just a block away from the coffee shop where I was supposed to meet CJ, the man from couchsurfing. As I opened the door I saw another man trying to leave the shop. He was dressed in bike clothes and was carrying an appetizing ice cold beverage. I held the door open as he passed and we nodded at each other. I walked inside looking for someone who resembled CJ’s profile picture. I took a look around the shop but couldn’t recognize the telltale expression of expectation I’m used to seeing on the faces of couchsurfers. From behind me I heard a voice.

“Katrina?” said the man in the bike clothes.

CJ and I shook hands and sat down at a table outside the shop. We were joined by Thor, a fellow traveler visiting from Denmark. We chatted for awhile. Thor told us about his plans on the east coast. I talked a bit about where I’d been thus far. CJ told us about the novel he’d recently had published, which had, “good characters, good mystery, and some good porn.” I took his card and he took mine.

CJ drives a pedicab, one of those bicycle-drawn two-seat rickshaws you often see near tourist-friendly downtown areas. He offered to give Thor and I a tour of the city and we hopped in the back. CJ told us about the genius of the Savannah city planners, and how they’d planned for a public square every few blocks. He drove us from one square to the next, pointing out how each one is just a bit different from the last. CJ is in love with the architecture in Savannah. He says there’s no where in the world where you can see so many different styles of architecture in one place, and certainly no where that they would all seem to fit together so well. No single house stands out as strange, even if it was built in a style 200 years older than the house next door. I think it’s the Spanish Moss that does it. It gives a common drape to the whole city, like putting coordinating curtains in every room of an otherwise mismatched house.

The Beat Goes OnCJ asked us if we had ever read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. We had not. I told him I’d heard of it, and he pointed to a house just off of the square. “That’s the house the murder takes place in,” he told us. He circled around some more and pointed to a theater. The marquee read “The Beat Goes On,” indicating the 1960s-themed song and dance show currently playing. CJ gave a dispirited sigh. “Used to be a great place. Now this is all they do there.” He turned back to me as he had been doing for most of the ride.

“You did theater, right?”

I nodded.

“You probably can’t believe this, but we don’t have a theater company in the city of Savannah. Not one.” He shakes his head.

Gump ChurchWe turned another corner and he pointed to a church steeple. CJ asked us if we’d seen Forrest Gump. We had. “That’s the steeple in the first shot of the movie,” he said. “The feather started up there, floated around in the sky,” we followed his figure as it traced the feather’s path down towards the square, “and landed right there on the ground. There was no signature bench in the spot, and I asked CJ if there used to be. He shook his head. “Movie magic,” he said. “What’s more, if you remember in the movie the bus came from the right side of the shot, but this is a one way street in the other direction.” He pointed to the traffic signs. “But they had to have the bus entrance be right next to the bench, so they drove the bus down the wrong way.”

He showed us a duplex split down the middle with opposing paint colors and told the story of an old family feud. He pointed to an iron gate and told us to check out the fantastic map shop in the basement. He pointed to his own house and explained that he’s never had an air conditioner. “Ceiling fans and cold showers, that’s all I need.” He does, however, have a fireplace. Thor couldn’t believe you could ever want or need a fireplace in a place this hot. But CJ says he loves it. “In the winter it’s just enough to take the chill off.”

As we drove past a few homes in slight disrepair CJ explained that there are many people in Savannah that over the years have come into possession of old houses and “can’t be bothered” to do anything with them. So they sit vacant or end up with long-term house sitters. He says it’s nice that they don’t tear down the old places, but he thinks it’s a shame to have such beautiful properties sitting around, only getting the most basic level of care.

100_0009CJ dropped Thor and I off in what he described as the touristy section of town, the kind with t-shirts and fudge. We thanked him for the excellent ride and he parked his cab next to the other pedicabs to wait for paying customers. I walked around the block, checking out the shops, and trying to figure out my plans for the day. It would only be a fifteen minute walk back to my car, but my parking was paid until 5PM. I circled around again and found CJ still waiting. He asked how I liked the City Market area and I told him it’s exactly as he explained it – touristy. He laughed and told me that I was very different than he expected. I asked what he meant, and he said that from my profile on I seemed much more intense and focused, not so inclined to go with the flow or change my plans on a whim. I asked if there was anything specific that gave him that impression, and when pressed he realized it was mostly the photo. My profile photo on Couchsurfing is me proudly standing on top of Arthur’s Seat in Scotland, a huge hill in Edinburgh where the wind and the landscape make all your photos look like they belong in some middle-earth epic. I thought the misunderstanding was pretty funny, though I could tell that this was probably the reason he was “unavailable” to host me. He thought I would be too determined and exacting.

I told him I was in the mood for some ice cream and CJ said he knew just the place. He told me it didn’t look like much but it was the place to go. I walked into Ice Cream Ectetera and ordered my cone. I figured the whole thing would melt if I stepped outside, so I took a seat at the only open table. As I sat there I saw several firefighters come inside to order, as well as employees of the nearby restaurants. CJ was right, this was the place to be.

I took a leisurely stroll over to the map shop CJ had told me about, and lost an hour rifling through drawer after drawer of 100-year-old maps and pictures. The shop was the converted first floor of an old building. Huge wooden furniture pieces crowd in on you from all sides. It’s the kind of place you want to get lost in. I opened a few drawers to find drawings of exotic birds from the 1890s and maps of the city of Manchester from 1913. I looked at my watch and found that it was already after 5PM. I knew I had to put money in the meter, but I still hadn’t found the perfect map souvenir to take home.

“What time do you close?” I asked the large old man who sat near the front of the shop.

“We’re closed now,” he said. His smile and quiet apologetic tone explained why he hadn’t asked me to leave already.

I thanked him, and he led me out the side door where he began to unlock the iron front gate where he lets all patrons in and out of the shop. It seemed a bit inconvenient that he had to come open the gate for every customer.

“We have dogs,” he explained.

Jones StAs I begin the walk back to my car I feel a few fat drops of rain. The sky is starting to turn and I pick up the pace. By the time I get to the square where I parked, I am running because the rain is just about to turn from annoying to appalling. I slam the door of my car and wipe a few drops from my face. The downpour begins. CJ had mentioned that I should take a look at the gorgeous houses on Jones street, which he claimed were the inspiration for the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses.” This is patently false, but it’s a good story and the houses are gorgeous. I thought perhaps the rain would let up a bit and I might get to walk along Jones Street for a bit, but the reprieve never came. I looked up local coffee shops and found one just south of the park. I parked my car, ran inside, and settled in to some quality writing time with a large chai latte. Right around the time I had switched from writing to editing a man began to move the furniture around in front of me. “Are you staying for the movie?” he asked. I told him I didn’t know there was one, and a second man picked up the nearby ottoman and added, “It’s not really a movie.” The first man seemed a little taken aback by the sudden denial, but had to admit, “It’s just a few Ted Talks, really,” he said, “and then we’ll have a short discussion.”

I told the men it sounded great and asked if I should move. They told me not yet, and began puttering around with a projector. I watched them dart about the room, closing curtains and pushing tables, and eventually I picked up my things and moved to the back. I ordered some dinner and the presentation began. Apparently the theme of the evening was urban gardening. We watched two Ted presentations on ways that others have incorporated urban gardening into their cities, and afterwards everyone began speculating on how such ideas could or could not work in Savannah. I was in the heart of the South yet I felt like I had magically stepped into a scene from Portlandia. I had no idea how popular and widespread urban gardening really was.

I finished up my dinner and ducked out while they were arguing about how the city won’t let citizens collect rainwater. I saw that I had missed a call from CJ, and he’d left a voicemail. He told me he’d hate to have me camping in the rain, and offered his home for the night. I figured I’d have to go pick up my tent either way and drove back down to Skidaway Island State Park. The rain had finally stopped, and I nervously opened my tent. It was clear that the park had been drenched just like the city, and I feared my sleeping bag would be sitting in a puddle. I stuck my hand in – it was completely dry. My little two person tent had passed the test and survived the downpour. It was getting late. I could see that though it was dry on the inside, I would need to do some serious cleaning of the outside of my tent before putting it in my car. I called CJ to thank him for the offer, but that my tent was holding up fine and I’d already paid for the second night anyway. He said to let him know if anything changed, and I began to get ready for bed.

CemeteryThe next morning I washed my whole tent off in the camp utility sink and began heading down the road. In the car I listened to one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. It also happens to be a band my dad plays in. The song is called “Savannah,” and even though the song seems to be about a woman, the sentiment and mood is perfect for anyone leaving the city. I knew I wanted to recommend Savannah to my parents as they are starting their retirement travels. I figured I’d tell them to put on their walking shoes, park the car somewhere near Forsyth, and just waste the day away walking from square to square. Savannah seems like the perfect place to end up at some point in one’s life. Perhaps one day when my relationship falls apart and my job becomes a bore I can get rid of all my things and head back towards Savannah. I could get a longterm housesitting gig in some beautiful old mansion that no one seems to care enough about. I could walk through the park in the mornings before it gets hot. I could learn to draw by sketching the Spanish moss. And I could spend my lazy Sunday afternoons nestled in a basement shop corner, rifling through old maps of the state of Georgia.

Savannah really is beautiful. Even in the rain.