Archive for May, 2014

SOTM World Tour – Deep South

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

10001357_10153958967535241_686955898_nThe Southern belle-style accents of the Deep South have always been my favourite manner of speaking in all of North America (much to the bemusement of the other Americans I meet).

It’s what Europeans would consider to be the classic US tone, along with the more aggressive, nasally New Yoik way of hailing a taxi cab. My Muvver has a story about American GIs giving her cocoa powder during WWII and whenever she recounts what they said, it’s in a Southern accent.

So getting to yomp across the Deep South on a road trip was terribly exciting for me. On the plus side I ate the oysters and key lime pie of my LIFE, saw some beautiful beaches and discovered magical, incomparable Savannah.

On the minus side I realised I don’t like iced tea and didn’t hear anyone say: “Well, I do declare!” But it worked out well overall.

Kate and I visited Pensacola beach, and were utterly bewitched by it. The beach houses were like movie stars, waiting to emerge on the hallowed carpet – only one that was pure white, not red.

And I mean white – this sand was the brightest I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world.

This shot has an Instagram filter on it, as do the others, but while they remain pretty accurate, this one darkens the sand.

Still, I like the photo and it got retweeted by the @VisitPensacola twitter account. Which was nice.

Spotted this truck in traffic. I liked the slogan at the bottom (if you pardon the pun).

While in our Ocean Springs hotel, just one of those available through the excellent Country Inns and Suites chain, we were advised by the manager to visit the Half Shell Oyster House, a joint in Biloxi. This turned out to be a brilliant bit of advice, as they were the oysters of my LIFE.

This is the platter that Adventurous Kate and I fought ove… I mean, shared lovingly.

One of the most beautiful parts of this trip was one we visited at the very start, at the Oak Alley plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. The main house, built in 1837 through slave labour, famously appears through the tunnel of oaks that you can see in this post’s top image and which were planted in the early 18th Century.

It is unclear who planted the oaks, and they were rooted in the earth long before a house was there to complete the picture, but they do so magnificently now. Here’s another look at them.

However, the beauty of the Deep South is always tainted by the horrors of slavery and it was reassuring to see that this plantation does face its horrible past head on and with dignity for those who suffered here.

This charming spot was built and its fields tended by slaves, humans who were dehumanised by – at best – uncaring owners and quite likely violent ones. A museum area reminds everyone of this and shows the names of those who worked here. Names are important, it points out, because they show that each of these individuals was a human being after all.

To further demonstrate the point, some of the chains and shackles used to restrict the slaves are on show. These were used to restrict a child when they were being transported to or from a plantation.

There were lots of people inside the plantation house, so it was difficult to get clean shots of the main living areas, but I went to the back of the group and grabbed this one.

This was a roped-off area and is half of a bedroom. The furniture is of the relevant era, but not original to the house.

This item was inside the house, and caught my eye. It’s a courting candle, and when a young man wanted to spend time with a young lady from the household, her father would twirl the candle to a certain height.

When it burned down to the top level the courting period was over, so the higher Big Daddy wound the candle, the longer he wanted the two spending time together. And if he wasn’t particularly keen on the young man in question, the candle wouldn’t get wound up much at all.

Elsewhere on the trip we stopped off for a couple of hours on Jekyll Island, once the playground of the uber-rich of America. JP Morgan, Rockefeller, Pulitzer and their like were members of this exclusive club, the main house of which can be seen here.

It was at this spot that the first transcontinental phone call took place in North America, in 1915, organised by AT&T. Ironically my AT&T sim card didn’t have a signal on the island, but picked one up just as we drove off it.

Elsewhere on this little island are some lovely stretches of sand, and while leaving footprints in one of them Kate and I spotted a dolphin gambolling among the waves. This is actually the second time we’ve seen wild dolphins, having spotted some in the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

This one in Florida was much closer, and with my long lens I got a bit of a look at him. Or her, I was too polite to ask.

1976956_10153958981670241_869412230_nElsewhere in Florida we found Seaside, a gorgeous if manufactured little town which looks idyllic, because it fairly is. There’s not a leaf out of place and its eerily perfect looks are perhaps the reasons why it was used for the Jim Carey film, The Truman Show.

Incidentally this blog post claims that TV executives are developing the film for a TV series. Wonder if they’ll return to Seaside for the filming, should it get off the ground?

Here’s a shot of the beach at Seaside.

And this is the key lime pie of my LIFE, available in one of the town’s many eateries. So many reasons to visit Seaside, and Kate and I later decided that one day we’d like to come back for a holiday, with a hired car, to stay and enjoy the beach and explore the areas nearby.

It was at this Very Important Moment in our lives that Kate and I decided we were Florida People.

Now then, let me tell you about Savannah, Georgia. It’s an incredible place.

There are many squares in a particular area, all within walking distance. These are a most splendid way of spending many an afternoon, because they’re covered in beauty, dripping with Spanish Moss, drizzled in sunlight and awash with history.

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The history of Savannah is remarkable. Sadly a lot of it involves them fighting the British, marked by many monuments dedicated to heroes from the American War of Independence, who were eventually shot by the British (sorry about that, chaps).

There’s so many remarkable events to recount in this city, not least about witches and murders and ghost hauntings, but let me just give you this snippet.

This is Savannah’s Unitarian church, and was once where a certain John Pierpont Jr was organist and musical director in the 19th Century. Among his accomplishments was a composition (possibly before he came to this church) of a little tune you might have heard of, at least during certain times of the year. It’s called Jingle Bells.

This building is one of those in the film Forrest Gump from which a feather is seen to fall. That film was partly shot here.

Speaking of Forrest Gump, here I am sat at the site of his famous bench, upon which he spoke those famous words about boxes of chocolates.

A tour guide told us that there really did used to be a bench here, where there’s now just earth and a low wall, but then people used to turn up with trucks and power tools and try to nick it. So eventually the city authorities removed it, and it’s now at the Savannah History Museum.

This is the site, to the right of this sign.

While I was taking pictures of the square, these characters pedalled round the corner. If they were British or Australian, they would have been drinking booze while they went round.

Elsewhere in Savannah we found Vinny Van Go Go’s, a pizzeria we’d been recommended. Kate and I duly chose a pizza, with half and half toppings to please us both. We asked for a large size.

Waitress: “The pizzas here are pretty big. You sure you want a large one?”

Me, confidently: “Oh we’re hungry, we’ll be OK with a large.”

This is what happened next (Adventurous Kate supplied for scale).

We did manage to eat all but a couple of slices, so we didn’t do too badly.

Finally on our trip, we had a sunny afternoon round Charlestown. It wasn’t quite as captivating as Savannah, but still quite charming.

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1458536_10153959007950241_157542505_nThe best thing I saw, however, was this furry fellow taking a drink, which resulted in a crowd of onlookers squeaking their adoration of the moment. He carried on lapping, regardless.

So those are the highlights of my time in the Deep South, a marvellous place that I look forward to returning to.

Next time, a roundup of my journey up the east coast of America, which included a reunion with old friends, meeting new ones and realising a life-long dream to visit Rocky Balboa’s stomping ground in Philadelphia.

SOTM – New Orleans

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

New Orleans is like Manchester United. Wherever you go in the world, someone’s heard of it and people are talking about it.

Difference is, everyone seems to love New Orleans, but you can’t have everything.

So it was with much excitement that Kate and I arrived in the Big Easy, just ahead of Mardi Gras.

I’d forgotten this rumbustious, anything-goes city had been given this nickname, but at one point a big SUV stopped to let us walk across the street.

As we scuttled on our way, the SUV drove past and through the open side window a sizeable, smiling African American chap yelled out: “This is the Big Easy. Y’all take your time.”

New Orleans’s French Quarter is undoubtedly the best part of the city. It’s iconic and instantly recognisable from so much screen time.

Other parts, it must be said, are poorer, rougher, like they haven’t recovered from Hurricane Katrina and maybe weren’t in mid-season form even before the winds and floods came.

These areas, neighbourhoods like Crescent City and Treme, have wild chickens and feral cats roaming around. The pretty but down-at-heel houses have a lot of their residents sat out front who are hugely friendly. Almost makes you forget that this is one of the most murderous cities in the United States.

“Y’all come from LONDON?!” an incredulous elderly chap yelled out as we got out a taxi. And as we walked through the streets, people lounging about on their porches wished us a happy carnival.

1488021_10153944585785241_667523191_nThe architecture all over New Orleans is remarkable, one way or another, and no more so than in the French Quarter.

And if you ever want to buy a place in this part of town, always check to see if it’s occupied by someone else first. Especially if they might be dead.

Speaking of the supernatural, that was the theme for plenty of people during the annual Mardi Gras festivities.

This city’s heartbeat is its population, both the locals and those it adopts with a warm embrace and cocktails that’ll make you forget your mother’s name.

The costumes on display were pretty cool. At the top of the page you’ll see me with a couple of guys in full on Breaking Bad meth lab gear. And I came across giant green soldiers, just like the ones I had when I was a boy, which I really enjoyed seeing. If only I’d met these chaps when I was eight…

I told this young lady I liked her sling, and she told me she liked my accent in return. At that point her boyfriend, seen here in the top left, interjected  and hurried her along.

Just in case you didn’t realise these are a New Orleans voodoo couple, they carry a sign.

Now here’s a collector’s item – the Naked Cowboy, usually seen in New York’s Time Square, but clearly on his holidays along with his wife, seen below.

I spotted her having her picture taken with a number of guys who were fondling her bottom while their friend photographed the moment. She seemed to be quite enjoying it and stuck her bottom out even further. Clearly a good sport.

This city was built not only on a swamp (it’s the only American city below sea level) but also on music. And when it comes to Mardi Gras, there’s music in most places, even the middle of the street.

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This bass player was big on orgasmic facial expressions. He could play, too.

And this guy could be the human version of Animal from the Muppets.

1795494_10153944655225241_902536361_nBut it’s not just the musicians who claim the streets. This is Cubs the Poet who sits on Royal Street, across from the Court of Two Sisters, and bashes out bespoke poems on a 1912 typewriter.

He did one for Kate and me called Two Nikons after he spotted the cameras around our necks.

Food is as much a fingerprint of New Orleans as its architecture, music and copious vampire stories. That would warrant an entire, meaty blog post of its own, so I’ll just choose one – beignets.

I’d never heard of them before but soon Adventurous Kate was sternly forbidding me from having two sessions a day at Cafe Du Monde, a staple of this magnificent part of the city since 1862 and which sells the best beignets and coffee in town.

They taste like a little bit of heaven, being a sort of fried dough, and the coffee served with is lovely, a mild, smooth blend, very pleasing to my pipes.

Beignets are also served covered in a liberal explosion of icing sugar, which amusingly gets everywhere – across the floor, all over the tables, over the staff and you too, no matter what precautions you take. Be aware that you may emerge from the premises looking like a drug lord who’s sneezed into a bag of his latest shipment.

Now then. Let’s talk beads. At this time of year, they’re the lifeblood of the city. Money, sex, food and drink take a back seat. When it’s Mardi Gras, it’s all about the beads.

This is how it works. People stand on balconies and throw beads to the crowds below.

The aforementioned crowds then go nuts when the beads are thrown down to them, as this lady is doing above. This moment you see below actually captures a feather boa being chucked down, just for a change.

Once safely in their clutches, the party people then proudly display all the beads they’ve collected. They get pretty heavy, let me tell you, but these lads didn’t seem to mind.

1185125_10153944649505241_1082909453_nBut there just aren’t enough necks to hang all those thousands of beads around. So they also get draped around the front of houses…

…or end up on the floor.

Go home, Mardi Gras bear. You’re drunk.

There’s so much mess, child labour has to be employed to keep on top with the cleaning effort.

282985_10153944647435241_1680710128_nWhile in town I managed to rattle off a few SOTMs. This one was a highlight – the excellent Israel told me a fascinating story about an elderly, long-standing customer at his bank who gave him this advice one time. Israel told the story brilliantly too, and you can hear it via his audio clip – click on his photo to go to his page on the SOTM site.

And I also attended a burlesque night in New Orleans, something every man should do at least once in life. I got the lovely Tallulah to share a story about her beloved grandmother.

16042014Finally, here’s a bit of trivia from a city teeming with remarkable facts. This is the house that Richard Simmons grew up in.

If you’re not American and don’t know who he is, go ahead and click that link. He’s like a camper Leo Sayer, only a fitness instructor for those who aren’t good at exercise. Simmons, incidentally, went to the same New Orleans school as Lenny Kravitz and Lee Harvey Oswald. Not all at the same time.

Next time, I take off on a Deep South road trip. Oysters and grits ahoy!