Em and Stu do America part 6: The Southeast

The view: great when you own it.

After so many big cities a house-sit at Lake Norman, in the small college town of Davidson, North Carolina, was just right: luxury townhouse, adorable dog, breathtaking view. Americans seem to lack Australians’ feeling everyone has equal rights to waterfronts, and fragmented public access sucks for a sweaty traveller trying to walk around rich areas.

But when you find yourself on the other side of the fence, exclusive waves lapping at your back steps, all seems well! And after gazing at this view with our adorable charge, Ollie, at our heels for a week we hired a Chevy to take us on to Atlanta, Georgia.

It's my blog and I'll add lyrics from obscure musicals if I want to.

It’s my blog and I’ll add lyrics from obscure musicals if I want to.

“Why Atlanta?” Ollie the dog’s mum and dad politely asked, and they weren’t the only head-scratchers. I’ll explain. To me, Atlanta was the setting of one of my favourite musicals, Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, which made me want to see the “old red hills of Georgia”. Note to self: walking up hills is harder than listening to songs about them.

Atlanta homes 5.5 million people. A lack of natural boundaries allowed massive urban sprawl (sound familiar?) and the city isn’t particularly attractive or pedestrian-friendly.

Downtown Atlanta

Downtown Atlanta

Lucky then we stayed within coo-ee of Olmsted Linear Park designed by the celebrated landscape architect who created NYC’s Central and Prospect Parks. The heritage homes alongside were jaw-dropping and the whole area, Olmsted’s vision of “the ideal suburb”, was another world to hot, grubby downtown.

Here we found the peace we never quite achieved in Central Park

Here we found the peace we never quite achieved in Central Park

While “embracing” civil rights is probably glossing, Atlanta was the only state that didn’t get too het up about the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The city self-proclaimed “too busy to hate”, eventually Atlanta led the south by supporting the achievements and messages of Martin Luther King, who grew up and preached there in the same church as his father and grandfather.

Atlanta now honours this history with the King Memorial and Center for Nonviolent Social Change, both by this church, and also the Center for Civil and Human Rights, a museum covering both the 1960s movement as well as global human rights situations today. Sobering, with terribly sad histories of the casualties of the fight for rights in the USA, but ultimately inspiring.

In memory of four little girls killed in an attack on a church during the fight for civil rights.

“They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism…” In memory of four little girls killed in attack on a church.

Now I’ve bored the casual reader with how worthy we are I can admit that we were really here because ZOMBIES. All who gave up on AMC’s The Walking Dead in Season 2 should rue the day. Stu and I have been steadfastly committed for eight years – longer than our relationship!

Atlanta, “Hollywood of the South,” is now one of the world’s biggest screen production locations, eclipsing both LA and NYC. The business now rakes in about $9.5 billion annually for the city, I hear, which offers generous tax incentives for studios to film there and hence has new ones opening all the time, such as Pinewood – maker of Harry Potter, James Bond and cash cow Marvel.

Way exciting moment for Team StuMy.

Here, in the first episode that screened in 2000, Rick – working out an apocalypse has happened while his back was turned – rides along the empty highway into Atlanta (right), observing the road out beside him, a parking lot of abandoned vehicles after everyone tried to get out of the city.

Movie tourism is burgeoning but we had eyes only for TWD, journeying downtown on a sizzling day to Jackson Street bridge. We had no CGI (or horse) to recreate the spine-chilling scene, but thought we did well to get this approximation.

And the real jackpot was Atlanta Movie Tours’ bus tour of Senoia, an hour’s drive south. The town is home to TWD studio and now many cast and crew. Apparently Norman Reedus, who Stu and I know as Stealth Mode but otherwise known as TWD’s heart-throb, has had to move four different times, because fans keep finding him.

The safest place to hide during zombie apocalypse is behind Stealth Mode. We took this shot in the house that was used for Morgan's apartment in Season 1.

The safest place to hide during zombie apocalypse is behind Stealth Mode. We took this shot in the house that was used for Morgan’s apartment in Season 1.

Most of the show since season 2 has been shot in and around Senoia ((Woodbury, Alexandria, the prison, the woods, the railway to Terminus, etc…) and the tiny town now supports numerous different TWD tours, with apparently insatiable tourist demand and endless sites to visit.

According to our guide Stephanie, a local mum whose awesome job for the past four years has been as zombie extra on set, TWD and related tourism supercharged the economy. A main street with a handful of shops has become a spick-and-span town, housing 50-plus businesses, with a big new shopping village opening now. Real estate is booming and you feel the love everywhere – just about every shop has a sign out the front telling you zombies are welcome.

Another freaking cool TWD setting.

Another freaking cool TWD setting.

We had huge fun getting insider info on the show, actors, makeup, sets and so on. And Katie Lou’s diner in Senoia, where we landed afterwards, offered the best example we’d yet had of the South’s signature dishes: slow-smoked barbecue meats. And oh, the cornbread! The Brunswick Stew!

Since we’re now talking Georgia food, I should skip to Savannah, where we spent several days hanging out with the coolest AirBnB hosts we’ve met, Lisa and Tammy, who installed a tiki bar in their backyard and party there with friends and guests alike.

Wait, first, just another bit of TWC. Look! The zombie-proof fence (Alexandria) is still set up in the town. People actually live inside there, including a family who has nothing to do with the show. Apparently they have to sign non disclosure contracts.

Wait, first, just another bit of TWC. Look! The zombie-proof fence (Alexandria) is still set up in the town. People actually live inside there, including a family who has nothing to do with the show. Apparently they have to sign non disclosure contracts.

Driving into Savannah was its own experience, mid-rainstorm, an endless avenue of enormous live oak trees draped in Spanish moss, stepping from the car into a steam-bath. Stu described it best: like driving into Jumanji.

The otherworldly feel continued downtown with historic buildings including Pirates’ House, whose past as a pirate magnet was made famous in Treasure Island – its author Robert Louis Stevenson actually took his last breath in an upstairs bedroom there.

Savannah's Forsyth Park

Savannah’s Forsyth Park as seen on a Stu-led walking tour.

Such buildings face on to 22 stately public squares, far more open space than any modern government would allow as developers circle such areas like sharks. One is where Forrest Gump sat, telling his life story.

Right, the food. Mrs Wilkes’ Dining Room was reluctantly opened by said matron at her boardinghouse in the 1940s when her cooking became so famous people started beating down the door. Since her death in the 1970s it’s been run by her grandson, who could not bear to let the legend go. Little has changed. There is no sign outside, so you find the right street then look for the line of people. You wait, sweating, half an hour or more. When finally admitted to the dining room (the first lot traditionally says grace after a dinner-bell clangs) you are seated with a bunch of strangers around a big table and given a tumbler of sweet iced tea.

Typical public square in Savannah

Typical public square in Savannah

This is minimally awkward as immediately an avalanche of dishes hits and it is all you can do to pass it around and get some of everything. No one is there for small talk. We ate fried chicken, two different corn breads, meat loaf, heavenly sweet potato soufflé, “red rice” with sausage, dill pickled cucumbers, squash casserole, barbecue pork, rutabanga, buttered cabbage, beans, creamy potato mash, and many more delicious things I cannot remember or identify.

Then, a berry pudding and a banana pudding were served. You will all be convinced of how good these were by one astonishing fact: Stu not only finished his berry pudding, but snatched the banana one from under my nose and devoured that too.

Pirate building. Piratical!

All for $22USD a head. Needless to say, I bought the cookbook. It’s being posted home for Juji to practice with until we return, demanding fried dishes. I should also mention that we have now discovered hushpuppies (balls of sweet dough deep fried) and grits, a wheat dish that should really be eaten for breakfast but because they are Americans, they put cheese on it.

On to Florida, with tightening waistbands.

StuMobservations Part 7: The SouthEast

  • The ideal number of US to AU power converters is 3.
  • 22 Garden Squares is about 12 more than necessary.
  • 100% of Mrs. Wilkes food consumed is StuMo approved, even the desserts.
  • Iced tea is stupid. Give me a second option.
  • Savannah is cool with open alcohol in the streets.
  • Stubbie holders are called koozies.
  • Pet sits need the option of keeping the pet upon completion.
  • ½ pound pulled pork, ½ pound beef brisket, two serves fries speaks to my heart.
  • If you order a sandwich they replace two-thirds of your meat with a bread roll.
  • Order rum, not beer, at a pirate house.
  • A walker (zombie extra) gets a $50 pay bump when they get killed.
  • There is only one set prop tank in Georgia, they just paint it different colours.
  • Popcorn container refills are $1.
  • Office chairs and small round tables make great cinema seating.
  • “We are having salad for dinner, what else does it need?” “Beer and potato chips”.
  • Put bourbon in your vanilla shake.

What we’re reading
Em: The Book Thief, Marcus Zuzak; The School of Good and Evil, Soman Chaibani; Man Size in Marble, E. Nesbit; The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy and The Ersatz Elevator, Lemony Snicket; In the Quiet, Eliza Henry Jones; Swing Time, Zadie Smith; Kill your Mortgage by Hannah McQueen (facts are good too).
Stu: Rage, by Richard Bachman

What we’re listening to
The Farseekers, read by Isobelle Carmody
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, read by Jim Dale

What we’re watching
We saw The Dark Tower movie! In a cute weird little movie theatre in Davidson – cabaret-style seating but with office chairs. Rather weak made-up plot only vaguely resembling anything from the books. But a fun couple hours if you don’t get hung up.
Trailers! The Walking Dead season 8, IT, Ready Player One
TV show: Adam Ruins Everything. Like ABC’s The Checkout, for minimalist nerds.

 

Down the rabbit hole with: Jane Austen

One of my favourite things about the world of books and movies is the way they lead you around by the nose, back and forth between them.

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An author, genre or entire series can form a rabbit hole, some I emerge from in a matter of weeks, others forming a whole warren that can take years to traverse, interconnecting with other related authors, genres and series. I fell into a warren of Stephen King books and adaptations about five years ago I’m yet to clamber out of, blinking. It doesn’t help that he is master of the cross-reference, meaning new works constantly lead you to back catalogue. Nice sales tactic, King!  

My most recent rabbit hole, literary biographies, saw me off crashing down side route after side route, and I have emerged from one as convert to the cult of known as Janeites.

Three literary biographies survived 2016’s Minimalist Challenge and 2015s Curing of a Bibliomaniac. My experience over the past year writing my own first novel has led me to poke with increasingly greedy interest into the lives of the authors I most admire.

So I devoured A. N. Wilson on the life of C. S. Lewis, Peter Ackroyd on Charles Dickens and my beloved Carol Shields on Jane Austen with gluttonous pleasure, wondering how did they write even one book, which bitter experience now informs me is a gruesome, impossible task?

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Deserves its own post. A standout biography.

All these were outstanding and made me determined to fill in the blanks of my reading and to re-read favourites. Starting with the blanks, I’m two-thirds through Oliver Twist and have now read Lewis’ sci-fi novel trilogy. Yes, he wrote space books! (They are a bit heavy. Strictly for extreme Lewis or sci-fi nerds).

Knowing the depth of the rabbit hole Lewis’ non-fiction list represents, and ditto for re-reading the entire Dickens canon, I tackled Austen first, since she was the only  one I’d never read at all. 

Another profoundly affecting book.

Another profoundly affecting book.

The story of her life – and untimely death – moved me and captured my imagination. Lewis and Dickens, while they certainly struggled, at least were born men. All the world wanted from Jane Austen was for her to get married and procreate, but with the encouragement of a lovely Dad she forged her own path, sometimes a lonely and difficult one, and in doing so gave the world gifts it still treasures.

And all to be struck down in her prime. This author who had suddenly hit national fame with just a few works of brilliant insight was struck with sudden illness and wasted quickly to a death at about 40 years old, without so much as a diagnosis. They now think it was perhaps breast cancer, the Shields biography explained.  

It’s hard for a modern soul to comprehend how such a woman, famous, beloved and blessed with a rare genius just flowering, not to mention committed to succeeding despite some serious odds, could simply be permitted to expire without any fanfare or medicine or even a knowledge of why she was dying. And yet this is what happened to Jane Austen, who was denied life and whose further works were hence denied to humanity. 

Struck by these ideas and by the social constraints that inspired Austen as much as they confined her, I picked up a giant omnibus and worked my way delightedly through Sense and Sensibility, then Pride and Prejudice. I found their intelligence and wit, their painstaking evocation of a world complete in and of itself, as utterly worthy of inclusion on any required reading list of English literature – and a damn sight more enjoyable than many other books on said list.

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A very large book.

I stopped here, however, having failed to get through the omnibus in six weeks, but now dying to see it all recreated on screen. I had a stab at Mansfield Park, on Netflix, which utterly failed to hold my interest, then turned to the BBC Pride and Prejudice.

This is in itself required viewing, as Bridget Jones’ dedication to Mr Darcy in a wet white shirt shows, and hits the jackpot. Glorious escapism and a near faultless adaptation, with excellent scripting, casting and story transmission. It even preserved the essential humour. The Ministry, who I was by episode three confident enough to drag into it, turned to me and said, “Is this supposed to be a comedy?” “Yes!” I replied, joyfully.

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My cheat sheet to get the Ministery up to speed on the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

Next we debated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I don’t want to go there. It might ruin my pleasure in the BBC series. It got 5.8 on IMDB, encouraging for a zombie movie, but all things considered it’s low priority. After all, there is The Walking Dead to provide zombies as required when the interminable mid-season break ends. 

Next I’ll probably read Emma, then re-watch the film for 90s nostalgia purposes. I’ve discovered the Ministry hasn’t seen it; terribly remiss, since his only reason is an irrational fear of Gwyneth Paltrow. He hasn’t seen Sliding Doors, either, so we’ve clearly got some remedial work to do these holidays.

Then maybe I’ll hunt out a good screen adaptation of Oliver Twist.

See what I mean?  The rabbit hole is a delightful place to be. It’s amazing I ever come up for air.