Tourist in My Country

Being familiar with coastal California and New England, where variations in altitude offer dramatic scenery, I assumed that Florida, where I had never been, would be miles of flat, sandy beaches.

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Northern Florida, around the Jacksonville area, is in fact as picturesque as coastal California and Maine.

Bridges, and even drawbridges, straddle rivers, creeks, streams, and estuaries. The beaches may be flat and sandy but they beg you to find them at the end of a shady road lined with short, sturdy palm trees and crepe myrtles in full bloom.

I had to kill my misconception and open up to Florida.

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My husband who had already been several times to the Sunshine State suspected that I would like to visit Saint Augustine.

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Founded in 1565, this compact, pedestrian friendly town is the oldest permanent settlement in the U.S. Saint Augustine was under Spanish and British control until the Americans took over when Florida was ceded to the U.S. by Spain in 1822.

Although throngs of visitors stroll the narrow, cobblestone streets and alleys every day, mornings are quiet until ten A.M. since museums, stores, and attractions don’t open early.

After a walk on the beach we are the first customers at a shady and friendly café in the courtyard of the gorgeous Alcazar Hotel, City Hall in plain English.

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Anyone who likes history, architecture, and coastal towns will enjoy Saint Augustine. If you also like a serious dose of tourists’ attractions such as the Fountain of Youth (I didn’t go!), the very first Ripley Believe It or Not, or the many places that pretend to be the oldest in the state of Florida and even in the entire United States, then you’ll definitely want to spend a day in Saint Augustine.

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Two truly real nice things: you can walk everywhere in town and you won’t see any chain stores in the historic downtown.

Many small towns throughout Europe are actually very similar to Saint Augustine. Including the souvenir shops.

“Saint Augustine?” says a woman I meet later that day. “It’s a little…” she adds with a small grimace.

But she beams when she finds out that I grew up close to the Mont Saint Michel, a place she adores.

Like St. Augustine, the Mont Saint Michel is built on an outstanding natural setting and has also its share of tacky souvenir shops.

“I went there for class field trips,” I tell the woman.

“Lucky you,” she says with sparkling eyes.

Grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and quaint often better seen through foreign eyes.

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In Savannah, Georgia, the luscious oak trees and drooping Spanish moss arch above the streets, offering both shade and mystery to one of the most beautiful American cities I ever saw.

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It’s raining hard when we pull in town, but we haven’t seen rain since a long time so we don’t mind the lukewarm downpour that doesn’t really cool us off. Despite our umbrella, our shirts get wet and stick to our skins, which turn soft as silk.

On River Street, men are waving brochures to exhorte people for a cruise on the Savannah River aboard the Georgia Queen riverboat.

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A humongous ship from China, loaded with a heavy cargo enters the harbor, almost gliding on the water.

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Souvenir stores, restaurants, ice cream shops, and hotels follow each other on the riverfront and it’s a little unfortunate because Savannah is a historically charged town that needs quiet to allow reflection and reverie, too.

In the center of the brick-paved sidewalk, the African-American Monument stops me in my tracks.

A family of four, broken chains at their feet, stands on top of a thick granite base.

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It took seven years of labor to Dorothy Spradley, a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design to sculpt the seven hundred pound bronze statues.

Only a quote from Maya Angelou was fit for this moving piece of art:

 

“We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African continent. We got on the slave ships together. We lay back to belly into the holds of the slave ships, in each other’s excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together.

Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy…”

 

Only a step away from the riverfront, more than twenty public squares with monuments, lampposts, and benches grace distinct neighborhoods that remind me of France and Europe in general.

We search for Chippewa Square where Tom Hanks, seated on a bench, told most of Forrest Gump’s story. The prop bench is now at the Savannah History Museum, but the square located across the Savannah Theater (the oldest in the U.S.) is there with lovely wooden benches waiting just for you to listen to Savannah’s stories.

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Many renowned 21st century American writers come from the South. The great Flannery O’Connor was born and grew up in Savannah. Her childhood home on E. Charlton Street faces Lafayette Square, another beautiful square.

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Rain stops before dinner and we sit at the terrace of a restaurant in the lively City Market neighborhood. Horses, pulling carriages filled with joyful people, clip-clop on the brick-paved streets. The terrace fills with an equal mix of young and older guests. All are dressed a notch up in comparison to casual California style. Several women wear summer hats. I’m glad to have picked a pair of linen pants instead of my usual Levis. Yet the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed with everyone enjoying a gorgeous summer night after an afternoon of rain.

Conversations climb up, too, when waiters and waitresses bring plates of fried green tomatoes, crab cakes served with tomato jam, and bourbon caramel bread pudding to the tables.

The inimitable southern accent sings in the air as we eat food that tells of the difficult yet rich history of the south. I am in another country, although the same language, which I made mine, year after year, is spoken all around me.

 

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P.S. In a recent post, Kimberly Sullivan has published the answers to the questions she so kindly asked me about my novel Trapped in Paris and my upcoming projects.

My time in Savannah reminds me of an interesting post Kimberly wrote recently about writing authentic-sounding dialogues for characters who may speak the same language but live in different countries. French language, for example, is different in France and Quebec. Not only different idioms but also different accents can make a common language appear almost foreign.

Kimberly knows something about the topic since she’s an American who lives with her family in Italy. From Rome, she blogs regularly and beautifully about writing, reading, traveling, and living abroad.

 

Comments

  1. Thank you 🙂

  2. That quote, it hits you right to the heart. It’s powerful with the experience it tell.

    On architecture and sights though, absolutely beautiful! 🙂

  3. Beverly Broughton says:

    You are taking your readers on a beautiful journey…places I visited years ago…thank you for sharing and taking your readers with you!
    Fondly,
    Bev

    • Thank you, Bev. I’m glad to take you for a ride with me. At least a virtual ride! This country is gorgeous and I feel fortunate to be able to discover new states and cites, which still sound mythic to the French woman I still am (a little bit!)

  4. I am not a fan of Florida, but I really did enjoy Saint Augustine. In general, I find it too hot and humid. I am enjoying your travelog very much. Thanks for sharing your impressions, the fun facts to know and your photos. Enjoy the rest of your trip.

    • Glad you enjoy the trip, Dan. Since I have lived on both coasts of the U.S. and different parts of California, I’m fairly immune to weather changes. Yet I agree that humidity and heat are difficult to tolerate. I feel fortunate to experience the diversity of this country. It’s a wonder we get along so well when we consider how differently we live, depending of our state. That’s one of the amazing qualities of American people. Resilience under any circumstances. See you soon on your blog.

  5. Florida (like California) is really two states. The north and the south of the state are so different, culturally and geographically. Massachusetts is so small, I think we forget that bigger states are different.

    I fomd northern Florida more interesting than the south. It’s got history, though it’s culturally a bit too deep dixie for our taste. Great post!

    • Thank you, Marilyn. Big states have often two distinct parts. I still have to explore southern Florida. As for Massachusetts, it is one of my favorite states. The fact that it is small makes it easier to discover. New England is in general a gorgeous state to explore, loaded with history and natural beauty.

  6. Great post, thanks. If I ever come to the US, I know where I’ll have to go!

  7. Evelyne, you must be having a wonderful time, because your posts about your vacation are delightful! Living my first few decades in and around Georgia, this post was like a walk down memory lane. As a child, during many summers my family went on vacation to the Gulf Coast of Florida. I always wanted to go to St. Augustine, but I never have. I think you captured the charm of the Sunshine State very well. Hugs!

    • You’re too kind, Teagan. I love places and people so it is indeed a pleasure for me to drive through the United States. Often I need to see a flag to remember that I am still in the same country. That’s how big it is! I’m glad to bring you some good memories. See you soon on your blog.

  8. Wonderful post on FL – it has so much going for it. St. Augustine is a great place and I love northern FL.

    • Thank you, Mary. I was glad to visit this part of the country and the state. I need to return and explore more. That’s always how I feel when I drive through the States. I want to go back and spend more time. See you soon.

  9. What a wonderful road trip. I was very interested to read your thoughts about Florida as I’ve never been and loved how you said you had to ‘open up to it’. I admit, I would be the same but after reading what you share here I think you have already shown me how!
    A good friend of mine from CA now lives in the Jacksonville area and from what you describe it sounds wonderful. I was amazed to read about the similarities to the Californian coastline, I had no idea! St Augustine sounds very quaint but I love how you show the different ways we look at foreign places.’ Quaint often better seen through foreign eyes.’ How true, and how I enjoyed reading the way you captured the essence of your conversation with the lady about your home town, which just happens to be near Mont Saint Michel!
    Another friend moved to Georgia after I left and that is a place I would love to go. I was fascinated to read about the differences in dress code, ladies in hats, which actually I can well imagine. The south fascinates me.
    America is such a vast country isn’t it, with so many amazing places to visit. Thank you for bringing your lovely thoughts and photos of your trip here Evelyne, I thoroughly enjoyed it and glad you did too! Have a great weekend 🙂 😎

    • Thank you, Sherri, for taking the time to write such a detailed reply to my post and my travel experiences in general. This country is huge, you’re right! I especially enjoyed this last road trip since I had never traveled the southern road. I want to go back with more time. Georgia and Louisiana are especially attractive. Florida, at least the north, surprised me since I wasn’t expecting so much water away from the coast. So when I wrote that I found it as gorgeous as coastal California, it is not really to compare them. They are very different and CA remains more dramatic. But what I saw of Northern Florida was definitively much more diverse, charming and plain beautiful as what I expected. I am now in Maine where I will stay for several weeks. That’s another gorgeous state to put on your list! See you soon, Sherri.

  10. Evelyne, although I’ve only been to New York, America is the one country that’s always attracted me and there are so many places I’d like to visit, so this was a wonderful tour! I’ve never really been drawn to Florida so it was interesting to read that it isn’t exactly as I picture it. And Savannah, well, the name just conjures up such atmosphere, which you brought to life in your writing.

    • New York remains one or my favorite ciites in the world. Like you, Andrea, I had a certain idea of Florida and was surprised to see that it wasn’t exactly what I had expected. I like surprises so it was great. The southern states have a complex history and it is certainly part of the attraction. The architecture of Savannah is simply dead gorgeous. The good thing with road trips is that they beg you for more. Georgia and Lousiana need more time so maybe next year…

  11. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    A new blog for me but a welcome addition. Evelyne Holingue takes us on a journey through Florida and Georgia which I am sure you will enjoy.

  12. Thanks for the journey. It seems that this area is quite different of the rest of the US. I’d like to visit the US someday, but I have so many countries on the list !

    • The south was new to me as well. I definitely want to know more about Louisiana and Georgia. Lots of American history that is not as well known for me as the history of New England and the West. Thanks Mary for stopping by and I’m glad I tempted you to discover more of the US. So many countries, so little time, right?

  13. This was marvelous! Thank you!

    Linda
    http://coloradofarmlife.wordpress.com

  14. Beautiful post. I live in Georgia and also think Savannah is one of the most beautiful cities in the USA. Your piece makes me want to visit Saint Augustine again. It has been years. Really enjoyed this journey with you.

    • Oh, you’re lucky, Sabra. I never realized that Georgia was home to you. Savannah stole my heart. Really. I loved its American archictecture with a European twist. And the people in Georgia were welcoming so it does add to the experience. Thank you for stopping by.

  15. Well it was so nice to travel with you, even if it was in pictures and prose! We’ve been to St. Augustine and have visited family in Savannah. Both beautiful towns. I can’t wait to explore your blog! All the best! ~Karen~

    • Thank you, Karen, for your visit. I’m glad that you’ve enjoyed the virtual journey and that you share my appreciation for two lovely historic destinations. I would also be glad to see you again if you find anything you like in my little home that my blog is.

      • I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get over to your lovely blog, Evelyne. Truly. I will definitely be back, until then…all the best! 🙂 ~Karen~

  16. I feel like I am traveling with you! I am putting Florida on my places to visit list. I have a question? How do you pack and prepare for a trip like this? I know you are traveling by car so have a bit more space but I tend to take too much whether traveling by car, plane or even bicycle!

    • Ah the packing question! When we traveled with the kids, I used to have one big suitcase for them and a small for the parents. I packed what we would need for ten days on the road. When we stopped for the night we had two suticases to unload. Et voila! Dirty laundry went in a duffle bag, far back in the trunk, where we kept another suitcase with clean clothes for our arrival in Maine until I washed the dirty laundry.
      When the girls grew up, it became a little bit more difficult to limit them, but we managed to travel light. In a funny way, this year as we were only two we each had our suitcase!
      Thank you, Claire, for stopping by.

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