Back to Savannah
I initially went to Savannah because I was bored of school. Being aged 16 in rural Scotland was too small, or too plain, or too repetetive, or too whatever adjective expresses pretentious teenage ennui. Thus, when I saw a poster in the school library advertising US study programmes, an aspiration formed. I would go to America, taking whatever destination was delegated.
There are many tales from my five months there. Some were rather southern, like calling on a friend and being told by his mum he was out back shooting the gun. Others were the America of TV, such as the party at which the gymnasts and the football players competed at somersaults and half the house was smoking weed.
Without wanting to be insulting, there was also a fair bit of stupidity. The US History test was take home and open book, and yet two of the three 100% scores belonged to me and my roommate – so a Scot and a Brazilian. Whereas bored students back home coasted by doing just enough, Georgia was different. Not graduating high school was a genuine possibility, whether for social or personal reasons, for multiple people.
Yet the strongest nostalgia for that time is bound to the host families. One, short-lived, was at the Hunter Air Base, where the wife stayed up all night pretending to be a vampire online. I lived there with a German who loved basketball but was an atrocious player, his lack of skill even more apparent in playgrounds in which 16 year olds have dunking contests. However, the majority of my time was spent at the house of Mr & Mrs Mason, a baptist preacher and his wife, where I moodily lived with them, their young son, and a Brazilian roommate who loved pepperoni Papa John’s and pornography. It was a curious house of god.
I returned to Savannah because I had seen so little of it. Living out in a suburban cul-de-sace called Whitfield Park Circle, my weekdays were spent attending a suburban school, supplemented by weekends visiting people in the circle, playing Playstation, or occasional trips to the mall. It was an American teenager’s life, from My So Called Life, rather than exploration. There were exceptions, but I never saw River Street, and only once the river.
It was therefore enlightening to arrive back, older, and see a new place from the very first taxi ride. Whilst conversation from the airport was primarily about me being over-dressed – I had taken a morning flight out of Wyoming – my mind was on sights I had not previously seen. Some elements on the outskirts were familiar, such as the low wooden bungalows with large front yards that are so prevalent in the hot states, but once within the city it was all novel. So this, I discovered, was what Savannah actually looked like.
Or perhaps it did not. Perhaps my life with the Masons was, quote unquote, the real Savannah. This sense that central Savannah is the fraud arrived on my very first exploration out of the hotel, because the riverside district is a manufactured longing for a bygone era. Horse drawn carriages clip-clop between the city parks, beautiful spaces within which Spanish moss falls from the trees that crest above walkways leading to ornate central fountains. Yet there are no southern belles in corsets and gowns, just tourists with fat legs in shorts. The environment is simulatenously delightful and a theme park.
The jewel is Forsyth Park and its excellent fountain. Luxurious greenery, mixing trees and grass, are leisurely all around, and in the constant sunshine of the south it looks magnificent. There is a graveyard here to Confederate soldiers – not the most popular fighters now, but still granted the peace of the deceased – as well as a few statues. This spot, which I had never known, is one of the first stops any visitor should make.
My wander met a few other interesting locations, and the type of garnish that elevates a stroll. On the corner of East Harris and Habersham streets, outside his church, a plaque commemorates James Lord Pierpont’s writing of Jingle Bells in Savannah. The feat is incongruous considering the weather, and debated by a town in Massachusetts. Twenty minutes away, TV chef Paula Deen, who never made it to the UK, has a brick restaurant named ‘The Lady and Sons’ that devours an entire street corner. Deen herself is a debate: a millionaire by selling her southerness, she has admitted using racial slurs in less enlightened times. Whether that is unforgivable, or admirable honesty, is one for culture commentators and sponsors to chew.
The river itself is the Savannah River. It ought to present an infrequent paddlesteamer befitting the city’s marketing, but in fact the Atlantic-bound waters host some substantial vessels. They are waters that also give rise to the great Savannah myth that the river is dyed green for St Patrick’s Day. I was told this even when I lived there, alongside Savannah’s Paddy parade being the third largest in the world, as if the city actually believed. In truth, whilst Savannah was the first city to attempt to dye its river, in 1961, the swift current made the attempt a failure. Dying the fountains has been the compromise ever since.
All this was all very well. In a single afternoon I had set matters right by finally seeing the city that I never had. But I knew the lure on the second day was returning to Whitfield Park Circle, or it would have been if I knew I had lived on Whitfield Park Circle. All I could remember were the first two words, and the map contained Whitfield Park, Whitfield Park Drive, and Whitfield Park Circle. To confuse matters, the principle road south-west was Whitefield Avenue, a Whitfield with an extra e. With unspoken honesty, I did not truly know where I was going.
I decided to walk, unsure of the public transport and unsuspecting that it was a lot further than the map suggested. The presumption was I would just arrive at the first Whitfield and knowledge would flood through the dams, but a part of me knew I was never going to find the right place. I was myself still young and stupid, and although memories of the events were clear, the locations had always been vague. Aged 16 I had no idea where I was, nevermind where I was going. In that respect, this modern walk was very much similar.
The stride south lasted about an hour, but again nothing looked familiar except the architectural style. One highlight was the barbershop with a large painting of Boyz II Men on its exterior wall. Whether the Boyz II Men barbershop was, and still is, paying homage to the singers of ‘End of the Road’ is unknown to me. Yet whilst certainly interesting, and a reminder that I had not listened to Cooleyhighharmony for many years, this was not the purpose of this expedition.
Quite what the purpose of this expedition was was as vague as my directions. Even if I could reach a spot in which geography and memory met, it was all a little silly. The Masons might still live there, because adults are settled, but I would be a stranger to them now. My peers were, I presumed and hoped, somewhere else entirely. They wouldn’t remember me any better than I remember people from my own teens: fuzzily, inaccurately, and without the enthusiasm to rekindle relations.
I gave up and headed back, a second hour to the hotel. Savannah is not a walking city outside the centre, a fact I learnt one day when I trudged home from school to the air base, encountering streets with no sidewalks and concerned glances from drivers. To walk even further, and find no better highlight than a barbershop, was an activity in which no actual resident would partake. Eventually I reached my sanctuary, and only now bothered to research where I should have been going. After considering street layouts, which triggered belated memories, I concluded I wanted Whitfield Park Circle. It was bloody miles away, to the extent that the Masons not taking me into central Savannah was almost excusable.
Thus the search for nostalgia had failed as miserably as endeavours to dye a river green, and as it was hard to imagine another time I would be back in Savannah, that would be the end. The people I knew would just be memories of a brief moment. The blonde sisters Kelly and Kimberly who lived round the corner. Rodney, from the only black family in the neighbourhood outside the Masons, who called me ‘Scotland’ but was mortified when the Brazilian and I turned up at his home. Eddie and Timmy. Actually, I only knew five people.
Five people and the Masons themselves, who I now know exist online, preaching the gospel to those who want to hear it more than a sixteen year old skiver from the UK. In that curious house of god I’m quite convinced I offered little to their life beyond introducing them to Trainspotting (“Wild. Absolutely wild.”), and, in turn, Mr Mason used to wind me up something chronic by calling me ‘professor’ and making me teach his son. Yet over time I have grown to appreciate those months, evidently enough to make me want to walk hopelessly in their general direction. That said, I might not have gone at all if they had they taken me to the city centre just one time.