dimanche, juillet 16, 2006

Old South/ New South

I come from a family of middle-class intellectuals who didn't care a lot about material wealth, but chose to roam, picking up ideas and people instead of staying at home and raking in the bucks. My maternal grandmother and grandfather flew to Mexico and South America in the depths of the Depression, bringing back blankets, silver and a cosmopolitan attitude that has served future generations well in this global world. Hopping a flight to Europe was a treat, but not remarkable-grandma, by then a widow, came to see us when we spent a year in Italy. After all, she and grandpa had survived a shipwreck, the sinking of the Mauretania. Besides, she didn't scare easy, that one. Dad's parents journey from Russia was just as intrepid. But I suspect that though there were some things they missed about the home country, they weren't eager to return to take pictures and eat the local cuisine. My dad and mom took us to Italy for a year when I was in second grade. We lived in Bologna, where my sister and I went to a Montessori school ( my brother, who was two or three, was doted on by the Italians, who seem to love children), and I struggled to learn the fundamentals of Italian-which I never mastered. Although I don't have the money or the time to travel much, some instinct kicks in when someone offers me a chance to hit the road and learn something new...even when that place is the heart of North Carolina's furniture-selling industry! Thanks to the generosity of a friend, who needed to furnish a home she and her husband are buying, I recently came back from a couple of days in the Piedmont area. That middle area of North Carolina, between the beach and the mountains, doesn't offer the spectacular terrain of the Smokies or the beauty of the Outer Banks. Yet the stories it tells are probably as compelling in some ways. High Point is apparently the furniture capital of the US. When we drove through it that first day, we were struck immediately by the poverty surrounding the fancy furniture stores. Inside the buildings, some of the stores were empty, and outside, in the scorching Southern heat, the streets were quiet. Many businesses had moved out to the surburbs, which are growing like crazy. Apparently that area around Greensboro is still bringing in businesses, as the furniture and textile mills have outsourced manufacturing overseas. Walking through that city one evening, we strolled past the boarded-up Woolworths where the students had their famous sit-in at the lunch counter during the early Civil Rights years. Kris noticed that there appeared to be some kind of work going on inside to renovate the old store. I wondered how many Greensboro residents still remembered those days. There may be racism still beneath the placid surface, but Greensboro, Durham and Raleigh seem to be well integrated towns. And there are other benefits to living in this cosmopolitan part of the South. The cost of living is much lower than in the East. The people we met were lovely. There's a lot to be said for courtesy and warmth. I have to admit that part of me was disappointed that we didn't have time to visit any monuments or see any battlefields. With that explained, you might see why, when we visited Raleigh the last day we were there, I was hot on the trail of the "Old South." I dragged Kris to an historic house billed as a "plantation"...the plantation part had been sold years ago, but the house was lovely. Raleigh is a fascinating city, and well worth a lengthy visit sometime. We just had time to take a bus tour, and to drive by the Capitol building. As we drove by I saw a monument to "our Confederate dead" and discovered that North Carolina debated secession in that very building. Given that we didn't have a lot of excess time, we couldn't get out and visit the Capitol. I would have to be satisfied with our taste of Southern life and the statues mute testimony that, 150 years ago, that city was not as much of a civilized haven for people of all colors as it seems now. Oh, in case you are wondering what happened to the birthplace of Andrew Johnson? He was the only other President to be impeached, apparently over a debate about Reconstruction. It's been moved. It now resides near the Mordecai plantation, where it offers the visitor a hint that it is never fair to judge a man by whether he was impeached or not. In some cases, it might actually have turned out to be a badge of honor. I must learn more about President Johnson!

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