At some point during last week’s visit to Charleston with my family, my husband reportedly commented to my sister that all the mosquito, chigger, ant, and who-knows-what-other-insect bites tormenting me were probably not helping his idea of convincing me to move there in our retirement. He was right, though not just because of the insect issue. There are actually a host of cultural reasons why the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia are not on my short list of future places to live…which is not to say that I didn’t absolutely love Charleston, because I did! The architecture, the history, the church steeples, the food, the sunsets, the slower pace, the friendliness, the wildlife, and the light reflected off the water make it a fascinating part of the country, and different from anyplace else I’ve been. I had always wanted to visit, and I was not disappointed. “Charming” may be overused when describing the South, but it is the best word that comes to mind for Charleston.
However, there is also a heaviness that makes me think I would never fit in or be happy there. The same history that I find fascinating I also find oppressive. Not that race relations in my native Colorado are perfect – far, far from it! – but I felt the overarching injustice and legacy of slavery every day during my visit. And the issues that erupted in a Civil War seemed to me to still be simmering under the surface. Each beautiful home I toured had me thinking about the enslaved people who had built it and worked there under cruel and inhumane conditions. And while the ghost stories are fascinating, they also underscore a violent and troubled past that I could really sense, even if I never “saw” anything. (Well, I might have a few orb pictures from my tour of the Old City Jail…) Several people I chatted with who had moved there from elsewhere commented that they never really felt accepted, were always viewed as outsiders. In fact, the only place I felt free of this was on the water, especially kayaking along Folly Creek our last day. (And I’m finding it interesting that despite my love of the humanities, I have been at my happiest since I retired when I’m in nature, marveling at orcas or bighorn sheep or dolphins or egrets.)
Often when I travel I try to bring along reading that relates to or reflects where I’m going. On last week’s trip that was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt (Knopf Doubleday, 1999). While not set in Charleston, its Savannah location seemed close enough in proximity. Even though the book is somewhat dated, I had been wanting to read it since enjoying Berendt’s book about Venice, The City of Falling Angels. I was not disappointed. This is excellent non-fiction writing, reading almost like a novel. And the author does a fabulous job of capturing the eccentricities and undercurrents of life in the Low Country. There’s even a witch doctor (which I loved) and, yes, a ghost! While Berendt mentions differences between Savannah and Charleston several times, I had the same feeling reading the book that I did experiencing Charleston, that of a charming, lovely exterior masking deeper passions and secrets.
Would I go back to Charleston? Yes! In a heartbeat! There is so much there still for me to see, taste, and experience. Would I live there? No, I don’t believe I would.