Monday, September 1, 2014

Steinbergs in the Southland:

View from the porch, River Dance bed & breakfast, Marshall, North Carolina.

      Today is Labor Day, and while I considered looking at the bad news about labor, the truth is I did that last year and, alas, the bad news has not changed.
      Besides, there's our two week trip to the South in early August to recount. 

     "Do we have the truffle mousse?" asked Ross, from the backseat, as we departed Northbrook and headed on our two-week summer vacation, a tour of the Southland. 
     My wife said we did. And the onion jam. We've gone on enough road trips that we've learned: pack lunch. I haven't eaten at one of those godawful highway burger stops in years.
     We had packed up the car the night before, brewed coffee that morning, filled the CD player with tunes and set off. The ritual swing up to Deerfield Bakery had been executed. My cinnamon cake donut and almond horn awaited in a crisp white bag. Vacation had officially begun. 
     His remark was made during a discussion of aspic, the jelled substance used in elegant cooking. My boy considers himself refined. I wondered if the South was ready for us and we for them. If we do not seem the sort who would cross the Mason-Dixon line, well, thank my wife. Six years ago she suggested we go hiking in Tennessee. I thought it was a terrible idea. Like many Northerners, I viewed the South with an ignorance-soaked condescension bordering on contempt, my image fixed in 1954, formed by history books and Neil Young songs. It helped that, excluding New Orleans and Florida, which don't quite count, I had never been anywhere South.    
     But I am trained to do as she says, so went on the trip. 
     Tennessee was great. Beautiful and friendly, with good food and lovely mountains to hike. We visited Andrew Jackson's home, the Hermitage, and slept at the LeConte Lodge, inaccessible except for a six-mile hike. They bring the food in on pack llamas.
     Thus when our incoming high school senior, Kent, decided he wanted to visit Southern colleges, starting with Vanderbilt in Nashville, I did not resist or complain. We had gone to the colleges his older brother wanted to visit last summer; we would now kick the tires on his choices. His life, his call.
     "Still, shame he isn't interested in the University of Hawaii," I muttered.
      So we would be hitting Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. Not the Deep South. Not Mississippi. But close. My requests were two: since we'd be in Virginia, I wanted to visit Monticello, Jefferson's home. I'm a history geek. And I wanted to spend a day lolling on the beach. I work too much and loll too little, the ocean is a kind of enforced idlement, since not planting yourself on the sand and gazing at its majesty seems a rude gesture to nature. Compulsory lolling.
      We visited seven schools, which I will describe in detail Wednesday.
      Not much time in Nashville—just enough for me to do a morning jog through Centennial Park with Kitty, and remind myself that yes, they really did build an exact replica of the Parthenon out of beige concrete. At the beginning of our run, I posted a picture of the place to Facebook, and a friend scoffed -- she insisted I was lying, the photo a fraud -- so vehemently that I took a few selfies with Kitty before the structure, to prove the thing is really there. It wasn't open so early, so I couldn't see the statue of Pallas Athena, but I savored the irony anew that the heart of the Bible belt had erected a pagan temple with a 42-foot-tall, gilded goddess inside. 
Marshall, North Carolina
      After that it was three days in Marshall, North Carolina, at River Dance, a bed and breakfast up a remote mountain road that my wife had found. It was everything a bed and breakfast should be -- capacious, friendly hosts, a comfortable chair with a staggering view (see above). We hiked the first day, Kent and I spent a morning white-water rafting on the French Broad River the second. The third we ventured into the town of Marshall itself, population 872, which no doubt is a few derivations above the truly desolate small towns, but shocked my boys nevertheless, particularly after we popped into a hardware store to ask about charcoal, and the clerk answered in an unintelligible deep-in-the-hollows slurry. We didn't quite back out slowly, but we didn't press the issue.
     "The educational opportunities here must be very limited," Ross said gravely. I thought about going back and shooting a video of the clerk speaking, for anthropological purposes, but decided that would be a Bad Idea. Back at the bed and breakfast, our hosts  explained he was a beloved local personality, known for his chicken dancing at local musical events, and probably would have welcomed the attention. 
     Driving away from Marshall, the boys in the back had this exchange.
    "There is a certain existential sadness to this town," Ross said. 
     "There is an existential sadness to any town," retorted Kent who, newly 17, has been challenging his brother more frequently.
     "I miss my well-off suburban enclave," Ross said, sincerely, regarding Marshall's deserted but not too ramshackle streets. "It reeks of entropy."
      I would be more embarrassed to recount this little exchange of privilege, but  youth is the time of certainty and they'll need a full tank of self-regard to dig through the mountainous half decade or so of education between them and where they want to go.
     It is true that we didn't feel we were on the cutting edge of American society, but that's why we were there. If we wanted dynamic bustle we could have stayed at home. And the South was not without its excellences. People were more polite, particularly in Virginia, and we enjoyed the process of buying things in stores and ordering meals in restaurants more than in the eat-and-get-out North. People really did say hello more, pedestrians in the street whom you didn't expect would.  If you made eye contact they greeted you, and sometimes even if you didn't. My wife and I found ourselves lingering before the windows of realtors, seeing just how much bang for your buck you get down here. And they have grape soda everywhere.
      With lunch in Marshall, I ordered a Nehi Grape. My wife was surprised. I never drank soda that wasn't Fresca, or at least diet soda. Wither Nehi Grape? "We're in the South," I explained. "You're supposed to drink grape soda here."

Tuesday: Would you like some smoked bacon with that peach?



  1. Your kids seem awful smart. I wonder if the normal teenager would understand what they were talking aboiut.

  2. We did a "southern swing" of schools too so I'm looking forward to Wednesday. Quite an adventure. We did eat on the road though. Trip advisor and a phone or I pad helps one avoid those burger places.


  3. Very nice. I'm glad I took a second look. Earlier this morning, I encountered yesterday's blog, which was today's column and felt a bit cheated, no matter that I enjoyed the insight into boy bands' popularity -- didn't get the "...and I love you" reference until the third read.

    By the way, if you have any interest in linguistics, anything (even a textbook) by Anne Curzan would be enlightening as to regional speech differences.


  4. Enlightening. A Midwesterner by birth, upbringing, & choice, I've never been South. In Iowa, grape Nehi was the beverage of my youth (& orange for Radar in MASH). Glad to see it still exists.

  5. I bet it would be fun to travel with your family. Did they have Orange Crush anywhere?
    Barbara M. P.

  6. You're supposed to eat grits in the south, too. I always do, at least once.

  7. "...excluding New Orleans and Florida, which don't quite count, I had never been anywhere South."

    If you were in North Florida, you were in the South. It's more like South Georgia than what you find along either coast. I spent a couple of years in Gainesville, home of the UF Gators, where the airport had a sign reading "Welcome to the Other Florida"...the Florida of enormous decades-old wooden houses with high ceilings and whirling fans. Wide verandas and sleepy quiet side streets shaded by huge live oaks, dripping with Spanish moss. If this sounds like I miss it, there are moments when I do. Big summer clouds and insect sounds can still bring it all back.

    Most of what I grew to love about mid-Seventies Florida has been erased, and replaced by rows of Yankee apartments and condos without any porches. And yeah, I ate grits every day at the waffle shop down the street. Learned to love those, too.

    There was also another slogan: "Come to Florida before it's gone." Surprise surprise...the Florida of 45 years ago is gone. Long gone.

    1. Grizz, next time you're in Gainesville, take a drive just a bit south to Micanopy. If that town ain't old Florida, I don't know what is. Also, old-time Florida tourism is alive and well at Silver Springs near Ocala.

    2. Gotta wonder if they still tell that old joke about how the town got its name...the one in which the Native American replies to the bill collector: "Mi-can-no-pay"...gave me a chuckle the first time i heard it. I'm easily amused.

  8. Nice compliment to you in the paper today from some reader under feedback.

  9. It may be Preckwinkle or McCarthy, the others do seem like "chuckleheads."


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