Tag Archives: travel

In the Sweet

I have always been particularly attracted by happy lovers and attached to them: Lawrence and Frieda were more than twice as attractive to me together than they would have been separately. 
—David Garnett, from the forward of Love among the Haystacks by D.H. Lawrence

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The concluding book of my trip to Rome this summer was D.H. Lawrence’s Love among the Haystacks. I bought it in an English-language used book store in Trastevere. The book itself was appealing. A yellow paperback of old thick paper stock. It was published by Phoenix Public Co Ltd out of Berne and on the bottom of the front cover was printed, “not to be introduced into the British Empire or the U.S.A.,” which I read on the tarmac of JFK, so maybe not technically U.S.A.?

During my time in Rome I took many photos. I was alone after all, and through my lens I relished being the observer and used my photos to communicated to my friends at home. When I read the above quote in the forward of Lawrence’s charming book, I realized that I too have always been particularly attracted to happy lovers. The proof was there to see in my photos.

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We were both still. She put her arms round her bright knee, and caressed it, lovingly, rather plaintively, with her mouth. The brilliant green dragons on her wrap seemed to be snarling at me (“Once” 173)

I had not thought I would get to this last book in my plastic bag, but events overtook me. We took off an hour late from Stockholm so landed at JFK at 9pm instead of 8:00. An hour before landing, the airline brought coffee and some packaged bread-like substance to wake us up. I was seated in the middle of the middle of the plane and when the steward reached over to put my coffee on my tray I had a moment of distraction and suddenly the cup was sliding down, off the tray, onto my lap. The hot coffee scalded my legs and I hopped (as much as one can hop while seated and pack like a sardine) and quietly (so as to not wake the baby sleeping in her mother’s arms next to me) cried out “oh! oh! oh!” But what could I do, really? I was trapped in my seat until everyone else was finished and had their trays cleared. So I sat in a literal hot mess for about 30 minutes.

There it was damp and dark and depressing. But one makes the best of things, when one sets out on foot (“A Chapel Among the Mountains,” 115).

Finally, I was able to get up and retrieve my bag. I went to the bathroom, changed my pants for a skirt, asked for a blanket to cover my wet seat and sat back down. It was at this point that I settled in with Lawrence. I thought I might just get a few pages in, but reading is my relaxation go-to.

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His lips met her temple. She slowly, deliberately turned her mouth to his, and with opened lips, met him in a kiss, his first love kiss (“Love among the Haystacks” 98)

I was very much mistaken however, because the night that I landed in JFK was the night that the terminals were shut down due to rumors of a shooter. We sat for hours on the tarmac before anyone even told us what was going on, although, as we all had half-dying cell phones we knew something was up.

The young woman looked at Geoffrey, and he at her. There was a sort of kinship between them. Both were at odds with the world. Geoffrey smiled satirically. She was too grave, too deeply incensed even to smile (“Love among the Haystacks 63).

I ended up reading the entire book. We sat in the plane for just under seven hours. Seven hours. Seven. Luckily, Love among the Haystacks is a collection of endearing love stories. Endearing, that is, in Lawrence’s usual strangled way. Lawrence’s lovers are never fully able to express the raging waters in and between them. Their attempt are often thwarted, frustrated, bitter, and even angry. But when the waters meet—it is sweet.

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All that and a bag of books

Oedipa headed for the ladies’ room. She looked idly around for the symbol she’d seen the other night in The Scope, but all the walls, surprisingly, were blank. She could not say why, exactly, but felt threatened by the absence of even the marginal try at communication latrines are known for.
—Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (65)

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I brought Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 with me to Italy. It met all the requirements: it had spent way too much time on my book shelf unread, I had never read Pynchon and felt the need to remedy that situation, and my paperback copy was small and lightweight. This last point was actually the sine qua non of my reasoning as I had a 10 kilo limit on my carry-on and no check-in luggage in order to save a few bucks.

I left Rome at 5:00am on a Sunday morning. I flew out of CIA which is like a domestic airport except it does travel to EU countries. It was the day before fiere which is when the entire country takes a two week holiday. I had the feeling I was leaving in the nick of time as all the local stores I relied on for nontourist-trap foods (read—fruits and vegetables) were closing, but the airport was a madhouse which was lucky for me since the check-in man was so flustered he forgot to weigh my bag.

I didn’t get to Pynchon until I arrived around 11:00am in Gothenburg, Sweden. I was mildly surprised to find myself in Sweden because I had only paid attention to my airline: Norwegian Air, and so had figured I would be going to Norway first before my second layover in Stockholm. Needless to say, traveling produces a lot of anxiety in me and traveling alone is about 17 times harder than having someone to helpfully say, no idiot—we are on Norwegian Air but going to Sweden! Not that it matters much, one airport is like any other, although Swedish airports do sell a bevy of those cute orange horses and I am after all half-Swedish so I recognized my people straight away and was glad I was a proper Scandinavian and had not been tempted to be overly friendly or talk to my fellow travelers commenting about how beautiful Norway was! Lesson learned:look at other info provided on ticket besides flight number. So, it was there in Gothenburg, in a haze of acute travel panic suppression, that I began The Crying of Lot 49. 

Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (13)

I managed to make my connecting flight to Stockholm by sitting patiently in a glass box of a waiting room hoping that the glass wall which was standing between me and my departing gate would magically open. After about two and half hours, it did. I got to Stockholm around 2:00pm and upon disembarking the plane, stood in the middle of the terminal, which was in constant, steady motion with two thoughts in my head: 1) I have been traveling for 9 hours in the opposite direction to my final destination and that is depressing; and 2) Do I want food badly enough to justify torturing my shoulders and back with these over-packed and yes! I admit it and I am sorry! over-weight bags—it was so bad I had a third bag, a cheap plastic bag with five books in it that I figured I could sacrifice if called upon to do so. And I didn’t even buy that much stuff while there—true, I have five children so just buying them little trinkets at the excellent Porta Portese flea market did me in, and then, yes whatever—there were the few books I bought—but I had also LEFT books in Rome too (and that was a project! No one wants free books it seems!). My bags could not fit so much as a sewing needle by the time I was done, so the books were in the sacrificial bag. At least that was the plan. In reality I would have descended into a pit of madness without a book to read all the long hours of sitting and waiting for tubular flying machines to take me to the next sitting and waiting place. So it was a ‘no’ to food.

Either you have stumbled indeed, without the aid of LSD or other alkaloids, onto a secret richness and concealed density of dream; onto a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system; maybe even only a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know, and you too, sweetie. Or you are hallucinating it. Or a plot has been mounted against you, so expensive and elaborate, involving items like the forging of stamps and ancient books, constant surveillance of your movements, planting of post horn images all over San Francisco, bribing of librarians, hiring of professional actors and Pierce Inverarity only knows what-all besides, all financed out of the estate in a way either too secret or too involved for your nonlegal mind to know about even though you are co-executer, so labyrinthine that it must have meaning beyond a practical joke. Or you are fantasying some such plot, in which case you are a nut, Oedipa, out of your skull (165/6).

And I think that pretty much sums up international travel on the cheap these days. As I mentioned, I have had this book hanging around for years waiting patiently, as books do, to be read. So the fact that I eventually read it in Sweden—or better—in that never-never abstraction and parody-land of international airports—was so brilliant on my part I could not have actually planned it. The craziness of the Pynchon perfected a loop in my head which was struggling mightily to make sense of the mystery, quagmire, and relentless conspiracy to frustrate and discomfort beyond human endurance—that thing we prettily refer to as flying. Trying to solve Oedipa’s puzzle was a highly entertaining and magically perfect thing to do at the moment I was doing it.

By 6:00pm I was on the plane waiting for take-off to New York. I finished The Crying of Lot 49 and decided a little sleep (such as it was crushed between a nice woman and her near tw0-year-old baby on my left and a man and woman who had presumably said goodbye to his mother, perhaps for the last time judging from his tears, to my right). What happen next, I’ll save for the last book I had yet to read in my pseudo-sacrificial book bag.

*photo is actually taken over England on my way to Rome, but since I was in the middle of the plane, on all three flights coming back from Rome, this photo will have to do.

 

 

Propaganda Deshabille

It’s a poor world where we are impartial through ignorance, prudent through impotence, and equal through mediocrity. – Freya Stark, Dust in the Lion’s Paw (271)

Eric Ryan in his Studio at Colgate University

Eric Ryan in his Studio at Colgate University

I came across an old newspaper article recently in which my father’s art was being reviewed. In the article he spoke about the conceptual aspects of his work and related it to the sort of literature which is something of a travel guide in the vein of Lawrence Durrell or Freya Stark. I have written about Durrell and his wonderful Alexandria Quartet, but I had not heard of Freya Stark, so I sought out her books and settled on Dust in the Lion’s Paw.

The fascists are bringing all their guns to bear against me. Nagi says ‘their hearts are boiling’ – long may they boil. But, dear Stewart, I do dislike this job. (28)

“This job” was her work as a propagandist for the English government throughout World War II in the Middle East. Stark was fluent in Arabic and slightly less so in Persian and so, despite her sex, was very easily employed in the seemingly unsavory line of work.

“A main obstacle was the unfortunate word propaganda itself. (64)

That’s probably more true now then it was at the time, but Stark makes an eloquent and impassioned defense of what she really considered to be persuasion. She had three rules of thumb she lived by:

1) To believe one’s own sermon.
2) To see that it must be advantageous not only to one’s own side but to that of the listeners also.
3) To influence indirectly, making one’s friends among the people of the country distribute and interpret one’s words. (65)

Number 3, was “not quite as vital,” (although led to a wonderful manifesto on words, translations, and humanity: Perhaps it is language, more than any other shackle, that circumscribes our freedom in the family of men? (48)) and barely merits a direct mention again, but 1 and 2 are rules to live by. Again and again in her dealings in Yemen, Egypt, Palestine and India she is true to her philosophy- the simplicity of which is profound and as far as I can tell, unarguable. Admittedly she and I have both been accused of naivete.

A woman asked if I didn’t think it time for us to give up using our lipsticks but I mean to be killed, if it comes to that, with my face in proper order. (102)

Stark is a marvelous writer. Punto.  Her sentences are gorgeous, with perfect clarity. While her oeuvre was by and large travel books, this was an autobiography full of letters and diary entries concerning the period between 1939-46.

The subtitle: The personal story of an extraordinary woman whose gift with words became a tactical weapon of war, struck me odd at first- I wondered a) who wrote it, and b) how true it would play out in the book. Still not sure about a, but on point b I can say, it’s all true. An old school humanitarian, her forthright English charm at once makes one sit up straighter in the chair, while her intellect and respect for the intellect of others disarms absolutely.

‘Most of my life is in the Man’s world,’ I find written in a rather morose note of my diary at this time. ‘Women are apt to think of it as the real one, but it is not so to me- filled with jealousies and now bloodshed. If women live more in the spirit, theirs is the real world-but I don’t know that they do.’ (51)

The heart of her book is not her struggles as a woman in unfriendly times and places. She doesn’t hesitate to mention the attempts to minimize and dismiss based on her sex, (unequal pay was a constant bother she never deigned to knowingly accept) but one feels through her words and view of the world all that is or could be good. All that really matters.

Art in objects or words- these are the markers that guide us through each other’s hearts, exciting us with fresh views in the familiar terrain of our humanity.

We have debased our words and pay for it by seeing nothing but counterfeit coins. They are forcing me to become a Press Attaché here in the north.[…] I hope to get out of it and sit quietly and move softly and love mercy and forget the atom bomb and all- and perhaps write a book or two about non-controversial matters such as the human heart. (260)

*Punto is Italian for period. Stark lived in Asolo, Italy before and after the war.

The Regiment of Pleasure

Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We imagine that with decision and audacity
we will change the blow fate deals us,
and out we stand for combat.

But when the major crisis comes,
our decision and audacity deserts us;
our soul is shocked, it trembles, paralytic;
and circling the walls we run
looking for our safety in our flight.”  – Constantine P. Cavafy, from Trojans

Painting by Eric Ryan

I met a lovely woman recently, and although I may never have cause to speak to her or see her again, she did give me this- “Oh, you must read Constantine Cavafy,” her eastern European accent rolling the words extravagantly off her tongue lodging themselves in my head.

Many weeks later at the library, hoping in vain to find a translation of History Of The Peloponnesian War that I might enjoy a little more than the one I am currently reading, I thought to myself, “Cavafy.” I knew nothing about this poet. Just his name and a lovely woman’s ardor. The fact that he is particularly acclaimed for his poetry on Ancient Greece, I was ignorant. I found a book of his complete poems Before Time Could Change Them, translated by Theoharis C. Theoharis.

The book’s forward is written by Gore Vidal. At any other time that would not be so very interesting, but given that Vidal just died and was in my mind as well, well, what can I say? except – what a harlot coincidence can be.

Ancient Greece, love, Gore Vidal- I am sure mine is not the only mind to hold all three at once, although Cavafy could not have had Gore Vidal ever in his mind as his death predates probable knowledge, however, the man could not have given the other two subjects more thought, and so, he more than makes up the deficit.

Che Fece….Il Gran Rifiuto

To certain people there comes a day
when they should say the great Yes
or the great No. An instant shows who holds
the Yes ready in himself, and saying it

he crosses into limitless honor and confidence.
The naysayer does not repent. If asked again,
he would repeat the no. But he’s brought down
by that no – the fitting one – for all his life.

In many of his poems, Cavafy does not simply embody the spirit of his subject, he becomes the subject. Speaking as or to the subject with clarity and absolute fidelity to the character and historical or mythological event. Naturally there is a German word for this- what isn’t there a German word for?  Einfühlen. According to Vidal, J.G. Herder invented this word to describe the act of entering and “inhabit[ing] other times.” The poem Ithaca is a wonderful example, “As you set out toward Ithaca, hope the way is long…” It’s a wonderful poem conveying the sine qua non of the journey; then, now; be you Ulysses or not, it’s all an odyssey – if you let it be.

Maybe it’s the water: I would swim anywhere, but given the choice, it would be in the Aegean. When I was in Greece, I would swim out as far as I could, turn on my back and float. Just float, suspended in the water…until an inhibiting feeling of the scandal of total freedom would make me raise my head to check on the distance between my body and the shore. The cool green water, bright sun, and intense salt is what I still crave and often dream of. Cavafy’s poems are just that – cool, bright, and intense.

In the Same Space

The houses and cafés, the quarter,
surroundings that I’ve seen and walked through; year after year.

In joy, in sorrow I created you:
with so many episodes, with so many matters.

And you have made yourself entirely a feeling, for me.

– Constantine P. Cavafy

 

*The title is from a poem that laughingly imagines an army of pleasure:

The Regiment of Pleasure

Do not speak of guilt, do not speak of responsibility. When the Regiment of Pleasure passes with music and flags; when the senses shudder and tremble, whoever stays far off is foolish and impious…..

Pellucid Prose

“Two thirsts that cannot be long neglected if all one’s being is not to dry up, the thirst to love and the thirst to admire. For there is only misfortune in not being loved; there is misery in not loving.” – Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa

Lyrical and Critical Essays by Camus, translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, is a book that sheds a limpid, lovely light on the world. Camus, the “sad and pessimistic” philosopher is really not after all, as anyone who has read The Myth of Sisyphus can attest. The first half of this book is comprised of lyrical essays on travel. Camus’ ability to recover one’s deepest feeling of love and admiration for the environment, city or country, is unsurpassed. In particular his love of Algiers expresses a universal passion of place that strikes the core:

When Algeria is concerned, I am always afraid to pluck the inner cord it touches in me, whose blind and serious song I know so well…No, you must certainly not go there if you have a lukewarm heart of if your soul is weak and weary! But for those who know what it is to be torn between yes and no, between noon and midnight, between revolt and love…a flame lies waiting in Algeria.” – A Short Guide to Towns Without a Past

The effect that Camus’ writing has is to reawaken a passionate love of love and passion. As he writes, “It is futile to weep over the mind,” and “Too many people confuse tragedy with despair. ‘Tragedy,’ Lawrence said, ‘ought to be a great kick at misery.'” Of course my heart always perks up at any mention of D.H.Lawrence, but the point is – the absurdity of pertinacious pessimism. We can despair at the state of the world only when we truly love the world simultaneously. If all of one’s sensibilities are dead – that is tragedy.

The second half of the book consists of critical essays and interviews. One of the books Camus critiques is Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone. I happened to read this book a few years ago right after I read The Stranger, and was well into it when I noticed the back cover describing it as a book considered as a trio of sorts along with 1984 and The Stranger. I had inadvertently read them all back to back and taken as a group there is much to consider about the state of the world then and now. What authors such as Orwell, Camus and Silone try to tell us, warn us, remind us of…is the preciousness of feelingBread and Wine is a wonderful book in its own right as a novel with an anti-fascist heart that breathes with a humanitarian’s sorrowful love of the world.

“The anguish that grips the Italian revolutionary is precisely what gives Silone’s book its bitterness and somber brilliance.” – On Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine

For Camus, the beauty of the world is what holds us to it. Although he grew up in poverty, he acknowledges his advantage of spending those years under the sky of the magnificent Mediterranean sun. As an adult he sees with perfect clarity that poverty is never as debilitating as when it is accompanied by a lack of beauty, “Everything must be done so that men can escape from the double humilation of poverty and ugliness.”  

Most of the essays in this book were written at the inception of Camus’ career as a young man, but this edition compiled in 1958, proves the inspiring passion and simple truth of his philosophy. It shines through, and remains –  true.

“Once you have had the chance to love intensely, your life is spent in search of the same light and the same ardor. To give up beauty and the sensual happiness that comes with it and devote one’s self exclusively to unhappiness requires a nobility I lack.”  – Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa

E ‘Cussi Tuttu Lu Munnu Va

Sicily, 2003

One of my favorite authors is Andrea Camilleri. He is responsible for the wonderful detective series Inspector Montalbano. I first came to know the series when I lived in Italy and watch the T.V. movies which were also wonderful. I recently found them at my library and practically- no, actually sang the whole way home. I was so excited to spend the weekend with Salvo Montalbano. He just makes me happy. I can relate to his morose sense of humor, and fatalistic acceptance of the world as it is.

I am not much of a mystery reader. I didn’t even know it was such a huge genre – I was kind of  shocked in fact at the space dedicated to the subject on the shelves of libraries when I first bothered to notice. But, it is not so much the detective aspect of the stories that I love, it is Salvo. Camilleri is a master of character study, atmosphere, and… old world cafard. Also, the books take place in Sicily which is an enormous treat.

Taormina, Sicily

There is a similarity, in my mind, to Lampedusa’s The Leopard. The sumptuous feast that is Sicily comes alive in both authors’ renderings. The lugubrious opulence of the landscapes, towns, and people has the weight of centuries. And then there is the food, oh the food. The memory of an entire day spent lying motionless in bed from the sheer excess of food that confronted me in Sicily does not stifle my longing for more. It could have been the heat and general lack of decent refrigeration practices as well, but still- what I wouldn’t give for a panelli.

Both writers infuse their stories  with such a precise feeling of the uniqueness of Sicily, I am surely limited, but I can only think of two other authors that seem to capture the feeling of a place so well: Camus’ The Stranger, and Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. I don’t know if it is because the places they are writing about are so thick with mood, or because that is how they write, but I love it. It is so easy to slip into these books, to feel present, in the room, or on the street corner with the characters.

And then, everything that you could love about Sicily is embodied in Salvo Montolbano. He is a good guy, in a place where there is really no incentive to be so. In Camilleri’s hands, Salvo’s humor and strict fidelity to a good meal make every book in the series a pleasure to read.

Marettimo, Egadi islands, western coast of Sicily

All of the English translations are written by Stephen Sartarelli who does a marvelous job of conveying the complexity of the insinuations and linguistic connotations.

Cu’ pò nun vò, cu’ vò nun pò, cu’ fa nun sa e cu’ sa nun fa, e ‘cussi tuttu lu munnu va.   (Sicilian proverb)

Who can, won’t; who wants to, can’t; who does it, doesn’t know how; and who knows how, doesn’t do it; and that’s the way of the world.

Charleston. Short Story.

I have spent the last week in Charleston, South Carolina, a beautiful city if ever there was one. I was visiting my aunt and uncle: enjoying their city and most especially their company.

It all began with William Trevor. Both my aunt and uncle have an earnest ardor for books. My uncle has a passion, in particular,  for short stories and thought I would enjoy the subtle poignancy of William Trevor. I read Teresa’s Wedding and was a convert. Office Romance, Afternoon Dancing, and the ironic Last Wishes all quietly shinning a light on some of life’s saddest aspects.
What could easily have passed for massive door weights, were two volumes presented enthusiastically to me of V.S. Prichett essays and short stories. The essays were almost exclusively about writers and were wonderful. I just had to read his story entitled Sense of Humor, how could I pass up a title like that? I could not. Lovely reading all.

Things to do when you’re not reading:

Charleston is a beautiful city, surrounded by rivers, lakes and of course the ocean. Sea kayaking  is a beautiful sport that my uncle loves. The zeal with which people embrace kayaking is infectious. I innocently believed that one simply got in the water and paddled, hopefully in a forward direction at will. Oh dear me no! There are strokes to learn, techniques to master, celebrity paddlers to marvel over, and don’t even get started on the rolling. It’s one of the those wonderful (if sneakily expensive) activities that offers endless permutations and advancement, but at each stage a full measure of enjoyment can be drawn. A most excellent sport that captures (by the hips) the primordial pleasure of gliding across a surface.

“He tasted the almost preverse pleasure of disengaging himself line by line.” – Continuity of Parks, Julio Cortázar

Next we were onto South American writers. My uncle was a professor of Languages (Spanish and Portuguese). A mutual admiration of Jorge Luis Borges led to Julio Cortázar’s wonderful short stories Axolotl, Letter to a Young Lady in Paris, Continuity of Parks, The Night Face Up, Blow-up, and my favorite, The Yellow Flower. His stories are presented with a light tone that belie the metaphysical under-notes that linger.

Other sights to see:

Charleston has America’s only tea plantation. What look like endless rows of perfectly manicured hedges are tea bushes which get a haircut every 20  days by something called the “green monster,” it brings the top leaves in for processing. After chopping up the leaves it’s just 50 minutes oxidation for black tea, 15 for oolong and naught for green. Maybe it’s not so puerile, simply an evocation of watching Mister Rogers factory tours as a child delighting in the hidden processes, but learning about these sorts of things brings out a certain…elation in me. We all really enjoyed the tour.
A fruit is nothing
picked out of season.
Even a brute’s praise
won’t stand to reason.  – Antonio Machado (Proverbs and Songs #5)

The weekly market on the downtown green was a wonderful finish to a week spent enjoying some of the fantastic food and restaurants that Charleston is known for. The flowers, fruits and vegetables in all their colorful bounty exemplifying all that is wonderful about the south.

Walking the piquant streets of the city with my aunt, lounging on the beach, visiting the Gibbes Museam of Art where we saw the incredible skill of artist Mary Whyte (Working South watercolors) and  wonderful, whimsical, mysterious photographs of Traditional African American Gardens of the South by Vaughn Sills, coming back each day to sit, chat and read enjoying the lovely order of my aunt’s home- her former life as a master (doctorate, in fact) librarian the leading aesthetic which, naturally, I keenly appreciate-

“I who always imagined Paradise
To be a sort of library.” – from The Gifts, by Jorge Luis Borges

The wonderful abiding quality of short stories is the condensed presentation of feeling and ideas. Every moment matters, every tone has purpose and meaning. These very same attributes define the ideal vacation. If you are lucky enough to visit a beautiful spot in the world generously hosted with love, intelligence and grace, then you, as I,  have experienced the perfect short story. Edited to perfection.

A las palabras de amor
les sienta bien su poquito
de exageración. 

– Songs, Antonio Machado

For words of love
a bit of exaggeration
feels good.

“Angel Oak”

but I never exaggerate.
Here is some incredible music that has nothing to do with South Carolina apart from my first hearing it there: