the south

MISSED

DAMPI suspected this might happen. In our quest to take in as much of the South as we could, we tired ourselves out and ended up missing a little of the charm. Also, it rained. I'm referring of course to Chattanooga, an old railway town we passed through in Tennessee back in November.

Above is a glimpse of the twenty or so minutes we spent there, and I think you can imagine how well I liked it (though I did manage to get a lovely and warming bowl of Greek lemon and chicken soup with rice). But here I find (through the glory of Pinterest) a very lovely and talented lady over in Chattanooga making wonderful food and singing the praises of this here little town. It was bound to happen I suppose, and we did only have lunch there, but I'd love to have caught a glimpse of a little more.

At any rate, I'm pleased I can head over to Local Milk for recipes, pictures and some lovely Tennessee stories anytime.

THE FRENCH QUARTER

NOLAI’ve taken to thinking of New Orleans as part charm, part history, and part very strong drink. The charm is the old buildings with tall balconies and bright shutters, the sunny afternoons, and street music in cobblestone laneways and public parks. The history for me, I suppose, is the writing and the sound – Faulkner House Books and the memory of The Grandissimes, the House of Blues and almost anything with heavy brass or a hint of Dixieland. The very strong drink is the crowds on Bourbon St, pouring out of seedy clubs and bars wearing cheap plastic beads, cups of brightly coloured daiquiris in hand, shouting and fussing and making a scene. It’s not pretty, or not in my mind anyway.JESUS

I liked a few of the old bars off Bourbon St, deeper in the French Quarter. We stopped by Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, the oldest drinking house in New Orleans, I’m told. We had a ball listening to live music at dba on Frenchman’s Street, one of the many making noise on a Thursday night. Timing was perfect as we were able to meet up with friends in town from Brooklyn just for the weekend, and we danced to bad music beside a dirty pool table till 3 AM. We spent evenings in the candlelight of our very well-stocked hotel bar, chatted with Ole’ Miss graduates, and drank plum gin fizz and Johnny Adams (something with whisky, a little herb infusion and quite a bit of a kick).

SHINE

I liked the food a whole lot – the red beans and rice and shrimp gumbo at Coop’s Place, and the Po Boys at Mother’s. I liked the beignets at Café du Monde - soft, toasty, sweet, warm and a plate of three gone in a minute. I especially liked Cowbell, a place out of town along the river that we found when we were driving out to visit Jordy’s family. We lounged in the sun drinking iced tea and guava mimosas.  We ate, of all blissful things, lobster mac and cheese (a dish so good I smiled for days), gulf fish tacos, and asparagus grilled to perfection. Cowbell is what I think a restaurant should be – friendly, unpretentious, good value, full of character, sustainable and yummy as hell. The food is mostly local and seasonal, and fairly simple. The old building sits at the end of Oak Street, in a quiet neighbourhood with kids playing on the street and radios on porches. If you were to have a late, slow, Sunday lunch in heaven, you’d most likely be at Cowbell.

LOBSTER

COWBELL

GRACELAND, GRACELAND

GRACELANDHeaded out of Nashville, we drove south to Memphis. We were intent on all things Elvis, but ended up singing Paul Simon most of the way (or I did, for a good ten minutes till Jordy calmly asked me to put the radio on). It was yet another stop on this road of plenty where we felt obliged (though by this stage, a little less inclined) to eat dry rub ribs and Tennessee BBQ. We washed it down with a cold pitcher of beer and went to bed feeling full and content, hoping it would prepare us for the day ahead, at the home of the King.

Graceland at anytime must be amazing, but at 11 AM on a bright sunny morning it had us giggling like school children. The tour was as cheesy and full of relics as you could hope, and the volume of shagpile carpet (floor and walls) and high density print fabrics (couches and ceilings, too, actually) was nothing short of spectacular. We loved the audio tour for it’s interviews and live recordings, and I sighed at the wonderful movie posters in all range of pastel and technicolour.

It was amusing and interesting and sad all at the same time. It was also home to an overwhelming array of giftshops – I suppose everyone wants a little piece of the King, my shiny little fridge magnet included.

THE LOVELESS CAFE

APPLE JUICEOn our way out of Nashville we stopped by the Loveless Café for America’s best biscuits (again, pretty much a scone in my mind) with local house-made preserves and some more sweet iced tea. We like the tea, it seems. This place is a country diner, off the highway in the quiet hills and so heartwarming and full of love I hardly know where they got their name. The dull floors and faded wallpaper were as quaint as they were old, and the waitress was young, kind and a picture of domesticity in a floral apron.

That we weren’t really hungry didn’t seem to matter, we ordered more fried green tomatoes and a big side of okra and country ham. We managed to refuse the range of 12 different homemade pies, though I don’t really know how.LOVELESS

HATCH

HATCH SUNShould you ever find yourself at the Opry, or in Nashville at all, I’d say Hatch Show Prints is a must. This place is epic and historic, established back in 1879. It still produces letterpress prints of concert posters for venues all around the country from an old and crowded storefront on Broadway. I was in awe of the rich paper stock, the bold colours and simple print designs, and the range of country and rock favourites they celebrated. We watched the ten or so staff use the presses and select the letters from old blocks and ink stained drawers, the radio playing in the background and two old cats making themselves at home in the stacks. I bought gifts for some special people in my life, and a block-print Patsy Cline poster for myself. It’s just a small part of this music institution but I can’t wait to have it on my wall.

HATCH CAT

HATCH PRESS

HATCH PRINT

NASHVILLE, AND OTHER HITS

Climbing north a little, through the smoky mountains into Tennessee, we pulled out our coats and boots and some Justin Townes Earl. It was grey and misty with patches of rain and the trees were part red, part bare. Winter was closer in this part of the country, and we felt it. To say I loved Nashville is a bit of an understatement. It’s a city that feels like a town, with little to no traffic and lots of pick-up trucks. And, to date, by far the best coffee I’ve had in the States. It’s no secret that a strong and creamy latte is the way to capture my heart. We tried Crema and Barista Parlour and I fell hard for both. Crema was sweet and the staff wonderful, and it was close to downtown so just right for us. Barista Parlour, across the river and set back from the street in a converted garage, was just as delicious. The space was spectacular and clearly a hit with the local hipsters. I was smitten with my pumpkin and pecan muffin and fat cup of latte, and Jordy loved his sizeable pot of green tea. They also had a wonderful selection of coffee, from Portland’s Stumptown (a favourite of mine) to LA’s Intelligentsia and a few nice looking locals.

CAKE

CHAIRS

RED DOORWe ate far too well at Silly Goose, an amazing dinner find that was kindly recommended to us by the lovely Alex at Imogene and Willie. Imogene and Willie is a wonderful local shop and manufacturer we found, making what seem to me to be the best jeans going - I couldn’t stretch my budget to denim, sadly, but spent up on some sweet vintage jewelry they’d sourced. We drove out to their shop, in an old gas station, to have a peak at the brilliant work they do, cutting and making their clothing on site and ended up chatting to their sweet staff for ages. Meeting locals is the best way to get a feel for a town, especially when they’re so darn nice.

NASHVILLE

SCORE BOARD

SEWAnother nice introduction came to us by way of a few bottles of whisky. We found one of Jordy’s favourites, the Whisky Kitchen on a cold and busy Monday night. So busy, in fact, we ended up sitting at the bar, which, as it happens, is my new favourite place to be. We were able to chat to the bartender and try all kinds of rye and bourbon he thought we’d like. And like we did, especially alongside a plate of Southern biscuits (like an Australian scone, I suppose) with burnt honey, blue cheese and fried green tomatoes and a side of sweet potato fries with chilli ketchup.

RECORD STOREVINYLAside from the eats, we were of course charmed by the music of Nashville. We spent an evening at the famous Grand Ole Opry radioshow, recorded at the Ryman Auditorium. The Opry has seen it all, from Patsy Cline to Hank Williams and is a tradition in this part of the world. A tradition since 1925 and one we loved and sang and drank beer with. That we went on to Tootsie’s, a seedy bar across the lane and continued singing and dancing till 2 AM is a whole other story.BRICK

SAVANNAH, GEORGIA

We found Savannah on a Friday evening, just before dusk. Having had such a wonderful and slow morning in Charleston we were pretty content to have a quiet time of it. And I have to say, after a couple of weeks of eating and drinking our way down the coast, we were also hoping to get a good fill of fresh fruit and vegetables and lots of sleep. What made Savannah so amazing to us, so perfect and all around dreamy, was our little studio. It was a bit of a picture; quiet, private, clean and so damn cute. And not cute in an overly-floral cottage way (blah), but in that every detail of the space, from the clawfoot bath tub in the window alcove to the obscenely comfy antique cast iron bed and Danish leather lounge, was amazing. The front of the room was all window and all aglow with soft morning light. Pretty much the nicest thing you could imagine to wake up to. Our AIR BNB host, Richard, was out of town, but he was so kind and efficient, that it trumped any fancy hotel I’ve ever had the money for. His upstairs neighbor Harriet was an artist, and told us that he had built parts of the studio himself, originally an old stable to the main house, and she loved it for the light and beautiful garden. I loved it for the detail and the climbing wisteria and small magnolia tree in front that managed a flower so late in the season, just for us.

TABLE

RUGSavannah itself was full of storybook houses, wide public squares and old trees, dripping with Spanish moss. The trees shaded café tables and walkways, and even in the last days of autumn, were a nice pause from the heat. We did as I’d hoped and drank sweet iced tea and had old fashioned crabcakes. We made time for afternoon naps. I liked the way things felt Southern and soaked in tradition and more than a little grandeur.

CAFEThe days were long and warm - just right for a morning drive out to Tybee Island. We sat on an old wooden porch swing and watched children chase seagulls as we got salty, sandy feet.

It was two days of much needed down time and charming at that.GULLS

TYBEE

THE GOOD LIFE

CHARLESTONCharleston has my heart, easy as that. I've had romantic notions about South Carolina since I started singing along with James Taylor as a child, so driving down the few hours from Raleigh to Charleston had me smiling already. We've managed to have sunny autumn days almost our whole trip and this was no exception. We had found a place just out of town, on the Ashley River, which is wide and spills into flooded rice fields. The banks are shaded and leafy and dripping with Spanish moss like an old postcard. Our room had a wall of windows neat with shutters and an open fireplace, if we fancied. But it was gloriously warm, and for the first time in weeks we left our coats behind  and rolled our shirt sleeves, and I squinted at the sun trying to take pictures of near every corner.

I'd done some reading, mostly pouring through local lovely Olivia Rae James' pictures and recommendations, so we could make the most of our two little days in town. Things started out well, started out amazing, with a late breakfast (which I suppose was actually just lunch) at Butcher and Bee. We shared a Brussel's sprout and apple salad with crispy bacon, and a smoked butternut squash, slaw and pickle roll. It was hearty and sweet and so more-ish. Jordy had a mug of strong tea while I sipped on a tall and sweet iced coffee. We talked about travels and truckstops with the guy sitting across from us - he was all smiles and kindness as I've discovered most people around here are. We wandered the historic quarter, browsed markets and laughed and sunned ourselves so much walking along the waterfront that we forgot where we left the car.BUTCHER

PEACHY

We found it later, after a glass of wine and some creamy French cheese at Bin 152, which was candle-lit at dusk and a perfect corner of Paris here in the South. Later we ended up with the widest selection of whisky and bourbon I've ever known at Jordy's new mecca, Husk. The service was sharp and the list of drinks long, and he smiled all night at the banjo music and exposed brick of the old barn. We spent the next morning wandering the plantation and gardens our hotel neighboured, and I was amazed to learn how their indigo grew and was harvested for dye. We found Two Boroughs Larder for our lunch and ate a plate of fresh clams, cooked like a dream with oxtail, tomato and green olives and a side of lemony, garlic collard greens. It was a lunch of a lifetime, a near-perfect moment I'll keep always, washed down with a glass of Portugese white and good talks with our waiter. He had two sleeves of tattoos, a cheery beard and about the best Southern drawl I've heard yet. He told us about Clammer Dave, the purveyor of our delicious lunch, apparently an old man who looks like the sea and harvests the best and most sought after clams in the region, all sustainable and local. And if that wasn't wonderful enough, we stopped by Sugar for some, well, sugar, before our car ride south to Savannah. I sighed over my sweet potato and ginger cupcake, and Jordy declared his molasses cookie the best he'd ever had, and you really can't ask for more than that.

LARDER

CLAMS

SUGARShould it come to it, I'd quite happily pack up and move to Charleston. I loved the old houses with their long porches stretching down one whole side, and the vintage bikes peddled around town, and found leaning against lamp posts and shop windows. I imagine high-summer, with miles of beaches and islands and inlets, is something else again. I told Jordy we should come back in summer, come back with friends and books and a deck of cards and rent an old house by the beach for a week.

A week of the good life.

ROAD OF PLENTY

MAPI bought an oversized map of America a few months ago. It’s all muted colours and wriggly lines, and sits on the wall by our bed. I ordered it online, so I can prepare for our roadtrip. Our being Jordy and mine. He is American, so has a first-hand idea of the distance between California and Iowa, having driven it time and time again. Iowa is where he grew up, and California is where he calls home. I, on the other hand, know vaguely my Carolinas, and the specifics of Manhattan, but not a whole lot in between.

Having pinned it to the wall and opened a bottle of red, my first words were: ‘Texas is big’. Overwhelmingly so. This coming from a girl who grew up at the bottom of Australia; the stretch of nothing above and beyond Adelaide is enough to make your eyes water, trying to focus on a town or landmark that isn’t dusty or red. But still, Texas seems dominant.

We live in a very small studio in Sydney and I can glimpse the map from where I sit now. And there’s Texas. I have to squint to find Iowa almost every time.

We’re not actually going to Texas, though, as we head out on this road of plenty. It seems an omission, but of the fifty states and my twelve weeks approved annual leave – already a stretch of my boss’ patience – something had to give. And that something was the great expanse between the seas.

We have our sites set on the East and West, mostly. New York because we could think of no better place to start our journey. New York for me will be about bagels on the Lower East Side, and bikes in Central Park. I like the dispalys at the Natural History Museum and the cheap beers in Brooklyn. It will be three years since I met New York, three years almost to the day, and I couldn’t be happier to close the distance.

From New York it will be onwards to Washington DC and our fill of culture and history and democracy. We will walk the halls of power at the White House, or at least the touristy bits, and exhaust ourselves with Smithsonians, having only three days to master this heritage we have inherited (albeit vaguely filtered, on my part).

On the road again we head south to what I think and hope to be an absolute picture of the good life in Charleston and Savannah. This part of the drive pleases me and I want to take it slow and notice the change of pace as we skirt the Appalachian Mountains and find that dappled coast. I want a few days of calm and iced tea, of sitting on porches and long afternoons.  Some quiet, before things get loud and we head to Nashville and Memphis, straining my lungs singing out just as hard as I can to Hank Williams, and scratchy old Woodie Guthrie recordings I’ve prepared. I hope my man is ready for his share of Johnny Cash and Elvis and beautiful Dolly’s Coat of Many Colours. After all this singing, we wind our way down the Mississippi to New Orleans herself. I’m reading Tennessee Williams and Kate Chopin in preparation, and dreaming of wild trees and sweet whisky and hoping it all tastes as good as I imagine. The idea of beignets alone pleases me. That I get to have them for breakfast seems like a whole other kind of wonderful.

From New Orleans we will fly out to California.  California, I all but sing. I’m longing for this state like a memory. Like I know its dry hills and salty waters. As it is, I’ve hardly been, just five slow hours at an airport terminal a few years ago, sometime before sunrise.

My California is thought out of John Steinbeck novels and watching Gene Kelly films with my grandfather on sick days. Mostly, though, my California is from Joni Mitchell songs. Some people grew up going to church on Sundays, their family in neat rows on pews hearing sermons. I grew up listening to Joni Mitchell on Sundays, all the windows open and my family singing and cleaning, gardening and reading, and always taking their time with breakfast.  Because of Joni I can hear the harmonies of the Ladies of the Canyon when I cook. I feel the heartache and joy of Blue in my romances and in embarking on these travels, feel especially inspired by Hejira. I’ve known all the words to her songs since I was five, but I find as I go through life I hear her voice and poetry echo not just in my head, but in my experiences. She is a familiar choir of truth, wisdom, strength, humour, vulnerability and kindness. She is what I am drawn to and what I am drawn by at the same time.

California also happened to be my man’s hometown for the years before I met him and I want to see his Silverlake, and the sprawling expanse of city from Griffith Park. I told him I want to wander the Rosebowl Flea Markets and the very last tip of the Santa Monica Pier. He says OK, but that there’ll be a lot of freeway in between. He is going to feed me $3 fish tacos from a food truck, the best I’ll ever eat apparently. Food trucks aren’t a thing in Sydney, so I take his word for it.

From LA we will follow the coast south, to a sleepy town called Encinitas that appears to me, out of photographs, as a world of bougainvillea and old houses on clifftops. Houses built just to put windows between everyday life and the wide stretch of ocean. Here we will spend Thanksgiving with family and friends. My first ever Thanksgiving. I sigh at the very idea of a holiday about family, home cooking and gratefulness, three things I hold above almost all else in life.  I feel excited to not only meet the people dear to him, but to share a table with them. I have an idea that we will all take turns remembering the things we are thankful for, as we pass roast pumpkin and red wine. I hope I’m right.

With our bellies and hearts full, we head north. North to San Luis Obispo and the dreamy scape of Big Sur and Monterey. My 17 year-old-self will be dreaming of Kerouac as we follow this romantic coast. Kerouac and Steinbeck again, because I can never seem to get enough of his words. I read and re-read and take it in all anew, each time wondering how he managed to write such a place, and such characters and humanity and hard work into the lives it held.

We’ll wind our way through Napa and lower Oregon slowly, so I can see the redwoods and sequoias. I’ve poured over National Geographic images and read museum-like descriptions of their majesty for years, but nothing will compare to the glory of their height and breadth in person. Years ago, when I was last in New York, I’d been told there was a sequoia cutting at the Natural History Museum. Late to meet friends I was wandering from room to room, glancing sideways through halls and hoping to catch a glimpse of it. I rounded into one room and the golden light from the reflection on the rich wood and the sheer size of the hollow actually took my breath away. I was humbled. The idea of miles of these on end, towering and firm to the ground as we drive north makes my heart flutter.

I understand the Oregon coastline is rough and grey and nothing short of spectacular. I of course know it only as Goonies-country, and will be smiling at every cliff and stormy beach like a 12 year old. As December continues and the temperature drops, we head further north, through Portland. I have friends in Portland, old and dear friends. Friends who make wine. Pinot noir and cold climate wines that my man and I happen to love.

To Washington state and Seattle and another old friend, an old friend of Jordy’s who happens to be pretty damn sweet. I know nothing of this town but I have a feeling he and his lady will paint it at its best. As a girl who’s grown to 31 with hardly a glimpse of snow, I worry about the cold and the wind off the sea in Seattle. This is to say nothing of our flight to Chicago, the original windy city, as it were. But we’ve only a few days there and then it’s on to Iowa and the small town of Fairfield for a white Christmas. I’m so happy to see the town where my man grew up and meet his oldest friends in the world. It’s a whole town that believes in quiet and spending time with your thoughts. Or without them, I suppose, which is a much harder thing to do.

For today, though, still in Sydney’s early spring days, my thoughts are entirely what boots to pack and what to read on the plane, where I left the list of addresses to send postcards home to friends, and whether I’ve lost any pieces to the miniature Scrabble set my aunt lent me.

Just a couple more sleeps till we fly…