Give my poor heart ease – or I will just explode !

Most of you will never have heard of the man I met last night, but for me to sit and have dinner with him, and his adorable wife, in a ‘speak easy’ sort of restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina was undoubtedly up there with the best of my life’s experiences.  Bill Ferris (author of the book ‘Give my Poor Heart Ease’) is one of the most noted authorities on Southern culture in the U.S.  He is of worldwide fame and he sat and ate dinner next to me talking about Wales, about folklore, about history, about how thrilled HE was to meet ME.  You know, sometimes in life you just are left humbled.

We headed south out of D.C. on Sunday after a memorable few days.  I met up with the (now retired) Director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Diana Parker and her delightfully humorous hubby, Dick, at their home out in Bethesda.  She honoured a long time promise of making me a pound cake which was quite exceptional (apparently, hubby says, she NEVER does that !) and talked with us long and generously.  The last afternoon was spent finishing off the visit to the American History museum and in particular the ‘America at War’ exhibitions, which I found very interesting, particularly the view from this side, of modern conflicts.  After a brief discussion with the ‘hosts’ (who had been away skiing) we loaded up and headed out (as they say here) toward the Shenandoah  National Park hoping to run down the 150 mile ridgeway that runs through it, alas ice had closed the road so instead we drove through the valley which was, to my mind, more fascinating.  The rolling fields and small woods were dotted with farmsteads of timber built houses and old style barns.  Now and then some old tractors or machinery was spotted in some ramshackle outback kind of place, just my kind of ‘poodling’.  We were heading for a museum I had heard about from a friend at the National Museum of Wales, St. Fagans.

The Virginia Frontier Heritage Museum has brought out to that part of of the State, complete farmsteads from Ireland, England, Scotland and Germany, and rebuilt them as they would have looked in the early 1700s.  What they have then done is to move similar American homesteads from a slightly later period – right through until the late 1800s – and rebuilt them to show how the earlier ‘cultures’ and building styles had been gradually immersed into the ‘New World’ farms.  It is a very fascinating place,  I of course, was particularly taken with all the old tools and equipment as well as the traditional breeds of animals.  I got to see my first Tunis sheep which I had heard about but as they don’t appear in Britain, they were unknown to me.

A short hop to Charlottesville and another culinary extravaganza at a berrito house (my food lore will keep on coming !) preceded a morning stroll around the University of Virginia with its amazing classical Georgian style architecture.  Thomas Jefferson created this University (UVA) after he was President (which ended in 1808) and it is one of the best to this day.  Nearby, on a prominent hill stands his old home of Monticello.  This old plantation and its un-pretencious Mansion, is one of the U.S. musts-to-see  (not withstanding my host had never been there !).  I found it a very worthwhile visit,  I even enjoyed the ‘Tour guide’ (normally something I would never engage in) and the eclectic (eccentric even) collection and ‘gimmicks’ of architecture and science is well worth the visit.

Onward towards Durham which was to be the base for the next 3 days, about 4 hours again – everything seems to be 4 hours apart down here !  For 2 days we were building a dry stone fire-pit at the home of one of Whitney’s close friend.  It was exactly the sort of homestead I had imagined, a wooden house with a porch (and a swing of course) sitting in mixed woodland, set back off the road.  Strange brightly coloured birds and ‘critters’ flitted about and it felt like real ‘pioneering’.  Deer are everywhere and every now and then a Possum or Racoon is spotted – often dead unfortunately.

It was in nearby Chapel Hill, where Whitney had completed her Masters Degree, that I got to have  my long anticipated meeting (and an exquisite steak au pouivre) with Bill and Marcie Ferris.  It’s not often I’m nervous about meeting someone ‘important’  (partly because I rarely do !) but I felt slightly apprehensive here; a silly notion indeed, like all ‘great’ men he was as nice and normal, unassuming and gracious as could be and I had a wonderful 3 hours or so discussing folklore, southern culture and topics such as Ireland and Welsh heritage and landscape archaeology.  A certainty for my list of highlights.

Another highlight and food extravaganza came the next night when a house party was held to introduce me to the close inner circle of friends which I had heard much about over the last couple of years.    It is the hallmark of everyone I meet here that politeness, genuine interest and immediate comfortability exudes, with the added pleasure of home made pizza (and toppings of vegetables which I had never heard of ), it too was a great evening with young and enthusiastic people.

A day of tantric driving was to follow; 4 hours south to Whitney’s home town of Greenville in South Carolina – of course driving through a new country (or NOT driving but sitting in the passenger seat, as in this case) is as intersting as anything else.  Just looking at the landscape, the architecture, the funny road signs and advertising hoarding, old machinery of course and vehicles, all of it captivates me.

That, however, was not the destination, just a half-way halt.  Joining up with her folks we set off on another marathon drive (6 hrs) down to Atlanta and on to the old city of Columbus.  The driving is steady on the inter-state highway, a speed limit of 65mph or 55mph is good I think – but that’s because it’s my favoured speed at home – it does leave me wondering why everyone seems to want to drive a V8 engined pick-up or sedan.  Not that I wouldn’t like one of them mind you, especially the new highway patrol’s Dodge Charger, but somehow I think driving the little lanes of home would be problematic, to say nothing of the huge fuel bill.  Fuel prices over here are causing some complaints,  I mean, I’ve seen it as much as one pound eighty a gallon ! (it’s also strange to type on a keyboard with no pound sign and to constantly have my spelling corrected by auto-spell, like when I try to write flavour, and it wants me to put flavor ).

The trip to Columbus was long but interesting, especially as we got a little awry of the planned route and lost the inter-state to run on some ‘main roads’, it’s then you get to see the real landscape and homestead – and lots and lots of old tractors and trucks !  The city of Columbus, from the little I saw, has some superb old architecture and wide open boulevards (it retains the French influence) and the restaurant we ate in that night had THE most stunning tin ceiling I have ever seen.

Early the next morning we headed out to the event that was the reason for our (and the whole extended family) visit, the graduation ceremony of a younger son of the family.  This was no University parade of gowned scholars however, no sir.  This was a full-on military display and ceremony at the Ranger Training School located within the bounds of the massive Fort Benning military camp.  Rangers are an elite element of the U.S. army and to get through training and selection is quite an honour (sorry honor !) and an immense achievement.  To wear the famous Ranger badge on the shoulder is to stand apart, not just here but universally.  We were entertained by some examples of what Rangers can do, rappelling, helicopter insertion and extraction and lots and lots of big bangs.  It is a slightly strange type of ceremony by the normally reserved British standards but impressive none-the-less.  I gave Aeron a little bit of Wales by presenting him with a wooly ‘beany’ hat on which the word Ranger appears in its Welsh form too ‘Ceidwad’, which amused him greatly.

A family lunch gathering at a Mexican food house, where I had the most incredible fajitta, was followed by an en-mass visit to a store which supplied the soldiers of Fort Benning with all their extra, privately purchased gear, called (unsurprisingly) ‘Commando’.  I confess I could have bought a great deal, Lord knows I need some new goretex when I get back (Wales looks to be very wet just now) but I resisted, well almost….

A long, long beat home up interstate 85 was spoiled by heavy rain but a welcome restful night at the very comfortable home of my guests set the scene for the next few days here in South Carolina.  I’ve a bridge to design and build and some flea markets to visit before heading out to the coast at Charleston.  It does mean however, that I can upload some photos and get them out to you,  I know you are all just desperate to see what it is Welshwaller is enduring !!

In truth it is overwhelming, my senses are being satiated, the food, the scenery, the southern welcome, all too much, my poor heart indeed needs some ease or I will definitely explode !!

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