Savannah took me by surprise. Driving from Atlanta America looked like any freeway. Georgia’s defining difference; the signs are taller. But, then the M25 in England is pretty depressing.
As we hit Macon for the first time it was no different. The La Quinta (think Travel Lodge) was directly opposite a Kia Dealership. A short drive away a petrol station, Starbucks, Baskin Robins; the thought we might find some unique ‘off-the-beaten-path’ Diner with idiosyncratic stereotypes feeding our pre-conceptions seemed unlikely (though finding The Gap was great as I needed a new pair of jeans.)
After driving the perimeter of Macon my stomach started to influence my mood and we settled on a Mexican Restaurant that easily could have been a TGI Friday. That’s where the fun began.
Sitting behind us was a woman eating alone. We were in a jolly mood despite being in Mexican version of TGI Friday; we were on vacation and very hungry.
We made jokes with the waitress. The lady behind us cracking up. We hadn’t ordered and we already knew how many children she had, that her husband was the guy at the bar who’d been motioning us to come in as we stood outside, uncertain.
We knew Mexican food. It wasn’t a hard decision to go in. After 30 minutes of driving around what could have been an industrial estate (if it wasn’t for the extreme fluorescence) there wasn’t much by way of choice.
We ordered a large Margarita and yes, it was large; large enough to mitigate the need to eat if evolution had taken a different course and given us the choice between a full bladder or a full stomach. By the time we finished eating the joint was ready to close and we were ready to crawl into thin blankets and lay our heads on the insult of a pillow these kinds of hotel have.
Where are those pillow made anyway? The fundamental transgression of every cheap hotel must have a factory somewhere, supplying poor sleep to travelers disembarking from long drives everywhere.
When I was a nipper, (well I was 17) I’d work for extra cash at a salad packing factory. I’d queue outside the pick-up location at 6am on a Saturday morning. Freezing we’d hop into the minivan and arrive at the factory, sign-in, walk to our respective jobs along the conveyor belt; from truck to wrapping (spitting at the food as it went through the wash cycle.)
Better supermarket chains would be packed first. The Radio and machinery was a cruel reminder of where we were. Slowly the expensive chains wrapping would be replaced on the reels with Tesco’s. The significant difference here was that by that time more of the food was being lifted from the floor than the baskets arriving from the washer. Somewhere there’s a factory spitting out saw dust pillows with poor little sods removing the extra stuffing from the pillows.
On the road the next day Savannah came as a surprise. In part because of the sleep deprived night the city hit with a slap to the face. Adjusting from highway to city pushed the adrenaline level up. All of a sudden a wide highway had streets whose narrow width forced hypnotic monotony into a sudden spasm of awareness.
It sure looked like The South on the outskirts. The ramshackle trailers strewn behind trees that hid them like the scalp of a balding man gave the impression we were somewhere else. This wasn’t a city.
Then we hit the Old Town and my driving got much worse. This is not a city for cars. Failing to understand what made a one way street, the narrow roads had enough space for parked cars and not much else. Later this proved to be a good thing, not while we were driving.
Savannah seems to have two things going on; tourism and an art school. But, between the two there are the locals, antique shops and a quirkiness that beguiles the imagination.
Blocks of old houses laid in a grid system with small parks focusing onto something green gives the city a novelty with every corner you turn. It didn’t seem that there was much else than walking here, but walking is just fine.
One of the nicest things about most cities is how easy they are to walk and how much you can take in when you do. Bing able to duck into a coffee shop between one agenda item and the next allows you to forget just for a moment and blend in. It’s part of the adventure. The more local the pit-stop the more appreciable the experience. No one wants to admit they went to the Louvre for McDonalds (which I have.)
The great surprise in Savannah is the fun you have doing nothing. Forget for a minute that one of its greatest sources of industry is tourism (along with its port, manufacturing and the military) and you’re left with a town whose immense walkability and people watching make for an imaginative adventure.
One night after exploring the backstreets of the old town, breathing in the air and admiring the old buildings around us we found a local pizza joint. With whole pizza sized slices of drooping cheese a calorie driven enthusiasm gave us a childish delirium. We wanted ice cream.
Yes, it was one of those late night decisions that one makes, the desire to cleanse one’s palette after gorging yourself. We made a trip to the local Kroger where we happened upon many varieties of ice cream.
However, we soon realized we had no spoons. Not wanting to buy a pack of 24 plastic spoons I took it upon myself to ask one of the customer service representatives if there was any chance they had spoons of some variety lying around. It was 11pm.
As I approached the lady I could feel the haze of confusion dawn over from a day’s sightseeing bolstered by food coma. I wasn’t quite sure how to phrase myself (and was about to enjoy just how ridiculous I was being.) I thought it best to break the question into two parts; a preface and the question proper.
As I approached the young lady cordially asked “yes sir, how can I help?” at which point I wasn’t sure if I’d over complicated the request I had to make.
“I have a question”, I proceeded “but it’s not as simple as it seems”… She stared blankly…. “I want to buy some ice cream, yes I know, this seems simple but, it’s not as simple as that” At this point I could see a look of bewilderment glaze over her face “I don’t have any spoons” I continued, “and I don’t want to buy a pack of 24 plastic spoons when I only need two” she continued to stare as I monotonously proceeded.
“You see, like life, my situation is rather complicated” I could tell by now she definitely thought I’d lost my mind. I continued, “so, I was wondering, if you might have any lying around?” Mostly I wanted perpetuate the delirium. I’m sure she thought I was on drugs, but she was polite nonetheless.
She went to a till to ask one of her colleagues if they knew if the deli or Starbucks had any spoons… They were closed.
Later we decided that doughnuts might be the way to go but, as we were leaving I saw a man near the Starbucks counter pushing trolleys and approached him. With a whisper and slight wink, I leaned forward and asked “excuse me?” He looked curious … I was in luck… “Is there any chance that you might sneak behind the counter there” pointing at Starbucks “and find me some spoons?”
His eyes grew bigger as he jumped from his task (realizing that I was really asking for something innocuous) and went on the hunt. Soon he was scouting in the back of the now dark deli where upon finding some spoons he leaped up smiling … Task complete.
By this point the decision had firmly changed, doughnuts it was… The good news was that I now had two plastic spoons.
And this is what typified Savannah. Yes, there’s a lot to say about hearing a different perspective on the civil war; in Savannah it’s not a story of won battles, it’s a story of local heroes. But, looking past the blonde tourist guides with a little little streak of bitch in their bob everything else is fair game. For all the pamphlets available Savannah felt like a town ripe for imagination once you look up from the tourist guide.
That trip I found myself staring more than once at a town house and seeing myself living a life infinitely more local and imaginative than I might find in a big city. Looking back the irony strikes me profoundly. There was a lack of pretension, and with that lack we were free to walk around at night and disappear from the vagaries that ironically make socializing in a bigger city so oppressing.