When you see a place through the eyes of another– in the space and time of their rendition and in the context of their worldview – it’s bound to be a slanted view. There can be no “truth” – only a coloured lens through which you choose to look.
For instance, it’s not so much Paris I want to see, but Victor Hugo’s Paris. For one traveller, maybe Paris is all about high fashion, good wine, and cigarettes. For me, it’s all about cathedrals and catacombs.That is how I came to have (what some might call) a bizarre fixation with Savannah, Georgia. A small town, it boasts no ultra-famous tourists attractions, no world-class spa; it is neither party-central, nor beach resort, nor slick big city. But when you read a good book, you get hooked.
That book was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994) by John Berendt. (If you’ve been a victim of the terrible movie (1997) by the same name, you have my pity. If you haven’t seen it, avoid it.) Midnight is a beautifully written, eloquently executed contribution to the field of New Journalism.
It tells both a story – complete with plot arc and denouement – but also paints a picture of a colourfully charismatic and charming town. It attempts in many ways to be a work of non-fiction (new journalism blurs the distinctions of fact and fantasy), and it is precisely because of this commitment to reality that Midnight’s spiritual leanings are so haunting and thrilling. It sticks with reality enough to make the story credible, but ties in the unknown so flawlessly that the reader can’t help but want to believe in powers greater than ourselves.
That’s the feeling I was chasing when my partner and I took our first-ever vacation to Savannah. Of all the places we could have travelled to, I had to see Savannah first. I had waited long enough. If you’ve read The Book (literally how they refer to it down there) then you know what I mean.
Of course, finding John Berendt’s Savannah is an impossible feat: I am not a man. I am not a journalist. I am not gay. I cannot experience Savannah the way Berendt did. I do not live in the 1980s. The town and its people have changed incredibly since the stunning success of Midnight, which brought droves of tourists to Savannah and re-invigorated the town’s economy.
Berendt’s Savannah was content to be overlooked; today’s Savannah is clinging to the tourist heyday of the mid to late 1990s. I went looking for quirks and charm – which I found in spades – but I realized only mid-trip that what I had really come for a spiritual experience – one that I didn’t totally find.
Things Nobody – Literally Nobody – Is Saying About Savannah
When it comes to Savannah, I think I can safely say I was one of the most prepared and informed travellers. Ever. I’d read The Book twice, studied The Book (at university), compiled a Pinterest board of over 200 pins, read countless blogs, bought a print travel guide… suffice it to say, tour guides told me a lot of thing I already knew. But there are a few things that really surprised me; things no one had mentioned on any blog, things the Visit Savannah tourism website failed to mention.
If you’re going to visit this beautiful town – whether for The Book or just for its rich history and charm – know these eight things that I didn’t:
Cabs are slow and finicky.
Panhandlers are pushy.
The quirky personalities are real and so is Southern hospitality.
There’s a bit too much “new” for my taste.
Forsyth Park isn’t as big as you think it is.
Bonaventure Cemetery is 0% creepy but 100% gorgeous in the summer southern sunshine.
That isn’t voodoo in Bonavenutre Cemetery.
Bring a trinket for Gracie.
They’re on “slow-vannah” time and they don’t really care if they get your business or not. Twice when we called a taxi, we waited so long that we almost gave up and called another company. I’m talking like 20 or 30 minute wait… for a taxi in the heart of the bustling downtown historic district in the height of tourist season. If I’d known this, I would’ve called them a bit earlier, or planned other transport. But the cabbies are wonderful – chatty and vibrant, each and every one.
With the influx of tourism after The Book came a slew of panhandlers – they’re all over the city and there are even permanent signs up – and a hotline – to try to deter them. Some of them are friendly (if pushy). We chalked up our first couple of experiences with them to those ‘big Savannah personalities’ we’d sought out – I have good memories of interacting with some of them. But some of them are aggressive and mean. At one point, we felt threatened, and it put a damper on our whole day; we even had to skip a few of the historic squares on the outskirts of town and change our walking routes.
Savannah is a town that is built for leisurely strolls; we found it hard to stroll around and feel relaxed while being vigilant at the same time. I wish I’d been forewarned and forearmed about this issue – not a single blog, nor the official tourism website mentioned it. And, I wish the town would take a more active role in deterring the problem.
Everywhere we went, people were chatty and open with us; the first cabbie we encountered basically gave us his life story. A young server at a restaurant went above and beyond to help me understand and enjoy a rare drink. The concierge at our hotel could be heard loudly sassing some customers who were rude to her – but since we were always grateful and polite, she spoiled us rotten with kindness, great advice, and exceptional Southern care. Your attitude and outlook will influence how much of the Southern love you receive.
Savannah is working hard to become an “it” destination – and that means there are a lot of new businesses; chic boutiques and salons, hipster-style restaurants, and the like. The new blends with the old in Savannah; many of the businesses in the downtown are housed in historic buildings that capitalize on the charm of days gone by. Still, the taste of 2016 is unmistakable. Let’s just say Savannah has its share of tacky souvenir shops, chain restaurants, traffic, and noisy and competitive tour groups. But it’s really not a bummer; there’s plenty of quaint, historic, and quiet to go around.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a gorgeous park and that fountain is fabulous. We sat in the shade and just stared at it for over an hour. It was so relaxing. But I had imagined we could spend an afternoon strolling through the park and that the fountain was the highlight – not the sole – fixture in the place. Granted, there was a special olfactory garden designed for the blind, but it wasn’t open when we were there. Just don’t go thinking that Forsyth Park rivals Central Park NYC in terms of size or number of “attractions”. Nevertheless, it’s the kind of place you stroll around several times in one Savannah trip – you wouldn’t go just once. It’s too beautiful. (And I got engaged there. So that’s pretty awesome.)
This is where I was thinking I’d have my spiritual experience – but it’s kind of hard (for me, at least) to listen for ghosts in the bright hot June sun. Bonaventure is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and you can certainly feel serene and in awe walking through its squares, but if you’re looking for spine tingling, heart-pounding, now-I-know-there’s-an-afterlife jitters, try to book your travel around their rare (I think once monthly) night tours.
(On our day visit, we also encountered a seguay tour: one guide and two tourists. I found it a little distasteful but it truly wasn’t very disruptive – now you know, so you won’t be disappointed if you run into one. If it was ever a question, Bonaventure is a place where you walk. Slowly. Respectfully. In awe.)
Having read Midnight, I was on the lookout for the kind of magic the character Minerva conducts in the “garden” – some of which involved shiny dimes and water that hadn’t been through any pipes. Out at Bonaventure, we found some graves that were adorned with rocks, pebbles, glass stones, sea shells and yes – one dime. I flipped out. But as it turns out, it isn’t voodoo; it’s actually a Jewish custom to tell the person they haven’t been forgotten. I feel pretty ignorant that I didn’t already know this. Heed from my example! Even though it isn’t voodoo, it’s still touching.
Had I known that it’s a long-held Savannah tradition to bring small toys and trinkets for Gracie, I absolutely would have brought one. I regretted when we saw her grave that we didn’t have anything; though I have to say, some of the items scattered there looked more like litter than an offering. If you go, I suggest something small and classy – perhaps even something biodegradable, like an apple or a rose.
Is It Worth It to Chase Literary Ghosts?
So I didn’t meet any spirits – and I didn’t get any answers about the conclusion of Midnight or Jim Williams (The Book’s central protagonist). The town is as divided as it was when the crime was committed. In my experience, working-class people and those who openly profess “strong Christian values” claimed and continue to believe Williams was guilty; is this correlated to that fact that he was homosexual? I believe so. But I noticed many others, especially those liberals who are interested in the historical preservation, art, and architecture of Savannah were less quick to condemn him. Guilty or not, they still see how much good he did for their town and by proxy, the state of Georgia. Savannah is a historical and architectural gem – and Jim Williams played a part in preserving that history.
So does chasing a literary picture of a place lead to disappointment? After all, I didn’t really find what I was looking for. I’d say not at all – and I plan to head to Yorkshire, England, and maybe one day Bombay, (to name just a few) in pursuit of the stories I’ve read.
What books have inspired you to travel? Let us know!