Excited to be leaving a grey and drizzly 60˚F Massachusetts for a sun-soaked 90˚F South Carolina, my anticipation heightens with the words of my Southern mother-in-law ringing in my ears, “The South will rise again”, said with clenched fist punching the air.
Arriving in Charleston is like a happy homecoming. As the taxi drives me to the hotel, I feel myself beginning to uncoil. Lush sub-tropical vegetation, puffing oxygen, is everywhere; fat cypress trees, live oaks and eucalyptus shrubs abound and the floppy branches of the palmetto trees flap in the breeze waving us on and I feel safe, welcome and at peace. Unlike other tree-lined streets I know, here their tops meet midway with no sign of cutting or reshaping and the sweet fragrance of jasmine mixed with honeysuckle hangs heavy.
Settling my belongings in my room with its greeting card and note saying it was serviced by Alethia, I head out. My scamper lessens to a saunter in the steamy midday heat and beguiled by the dreamscape, I readily conjure a vision of Southern belle Blanche DuBois draped across a doorway clenching a glass of lemonade with ice-cubes chinking.
Houses whitewashed by the brilliant dazzle of sunshine on their white fronts nestle like afterthoughts amidst the verdant setting. Most have tall colonial columns or balconies with elegant balustrades supporting their rails. Verandas known as ‘piazzis’ are south-facing to catch the sea breeze, decked out in rattan sun loungers and fans, they look languid and inviting. Some have joggling boards – pliant wooden benches for children to bounce on.
Drawing closer to the old town, houses form a continuous row and I’m distracted by a break in the brickwork revealing a footpath through a graveyard. The sunlight filters between overgrown leafy boughs throwing dancing silhouettes across the track. Entering this secret garden belonging to the Unitarian church – the oldest in the South, I stumble upon 200-year old headstones wrapped in virginia creeper. A wind chime slices the still; its hollow tingle warning the spirits to stay airborne.
Further along I approach King street, the original trading thoroughfare from Charles II’s time. A Parisian-style lingerie boutique boasts delicate champagne-coloured silk petticoats and crisp linen nightdresses, perhaps a legacy to its Huguenot past. Twice I see ladies smoking portly cigars. A brazen Art Deco theatre salutes my road to the bay.
All the while, I listen for the lyricism of a true Southern accent. Unsurprisingly it seems lost in a homogenous swirl but then I do find it. By the side of another of Charleston’s many churches, local women shaded by parasols perch alongside trellis tables displaying sweetgrass baskets. Fat fingers braid these spindly marsh reeds with mobile phones cupped between shoulder and cheek, ‘God gives you life’, one says to her listener in soft angelic melody.
A cool quayside gust beckons urging me to sample more of this sumptuous city. If cities have genders, Charleston is unquestionably a She.