Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 17, 2017
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Georgia's Jewel

Secretive little Savannah reveals itself by degrees -- if you take your time

"I recall my fleeting instants in Savannah as the taste of a cup charged to the brim." -- Henry James

It doesn't matter how much time you spend in Savannah -- for some mysterious reason, it always feels, as James put it, like fleeting instants. There's something maddening about the place, some odd mist that seems to settle over your senses. The city is more of an impression than a place, a frame of mind which eclipses the landscape.

It's fair to say there's no other American city like it. In this way Savannah belongs to an illustrious and dwindling list of unique US cities -- New York, San Francisco, New Orleans. All cities which have no twin either in North America or abroad; cities which are immediately recognizable and have an incomparable flavour.

Very few American cities have managed to hang on to true individuality, and even those towns which have much to offer have seen the lines of distinctiveness blurred over time, especially in these last few decades of giddy, faceless construction. The glass towers in every major city centre have eroded the feeling you used to get that you were in a new place, a different space. As your plane lands, that faint delicious shudder of otherworldliness is dead on arrival, lost to universal homogeneity, a casualty of global village architecture. Chicago is still a great place but now there are parts of it that look like Houston or Philly; LA looks like every other place and no place at all. Atlanta's rich antebellum past is relegated to memory, to Gone With The Wind vistas available only on DVD. The city burned and with it went all traces of the south as metaphor.

Then there's Savannah, one of a handful of southern cities which survived the Civil War unscathed. And this is key: perhaps what makes a city unique is firmly anchored in its past. If that past is demolished, immolated, razed, renovated, then so is the heart of the city. It doesn't make for bad cities, it just makes them predictable, vapid -- dull.

The new and the old
Now don't assume from all this that Savannah's reputation for beauty and magic is absolutely untarnished. The city may have survived the American Revolution (barely -- it was trashed instead of razed) and the Civil War, but no North American city has been entirely successful in resisting the relentless push of progress.

When I first arrived at Savannah International Airport, still shaken from every traveller's nightmare -- Atlanta International Airport -- I sat outside on my suitcase and cast a beleaguered eye on my surroundings. It looked like any other airport in any other American city, with its requisite bushes and flowers, a little generic but a joy nonetheless for any eastern Canadian in mid-February.

The journey to Savannah from the airport takes you through a typical American horror show of malls, fast food joints and cheap motels. I wound up by default (my travel agent's default, really, since I'd insisted on anonymity at the cost of charm) at the Marriott Riverfront, an architectural monstrosity whose most alluring feature is that being inside it is the only way to avoid seeing its exterior and the blemish it casts on the historic district. The hotel was built for the 1996 Olympics during an inexplicable lapse in good taste when Savannah hosted some of the boating events. However, it's a great hotel on the inside, with fabulous views of the river and waterfront area, impeccable service and well-appointed rooms with balconies.

At first glance, even from the enviable vantage point of my top-floor balcony, the Savannah River looked like an ordinary little river -- a mere creek by Canadian standards -- and the historic waterfront like a tarted-up Old Quebec. The strip had "tourist trap" written all over it and why shouldn't it? Tourist traps are what we North Americans do best, for the simple and compelling reason that most tourists like them. Hell, we expect them. There's something oddly safe and predictable about a good tourist trap; it's a great way to test the waters, dip your toe in the familiar before plunging into the uncharted depths of a new town. Even seasoned travellers know this: start where the other tourists go, bask in everyone's shared discomfort and wonder, congratulate yourself on how much hipper you are than the other guys, those two-bit tourists in tacky t-shirts and plastic visors, neon pink fanny packs and farmers' tans. Feel vindicated if vaguely guilty (because deep down you know damn well you're a tourist too), take a deep breath and head for the "real" sites, the ones the locals know.

Of course, you'll have to find them first.

The search for Savannah
The good news is that Savannah may well be one of the nation's last remaining towns designed for walking, which makes the search much easier. It's a pedestrian's paradise: Savannah is an invitation to meander, roam, amble, stroll and dawdle. Take a minute to sit on one of the hundreds of benches in the benevolent shade of a massive 300-year-old oak, its branches dripping with moss so that it feels like a breathless cliché, a horror movie fantasy, a mezzotint of creepy southernness.

 

The historic district was laid out very deliberately by city founder James Oglethorpe and it seems likely that the city's signature squares, little verdant parks aptly referred to as "Savannah's jewels," were part of a master plan to bolster the city's defences. A survey of the city's buildings published by the Historic Savannah Foundation in 1979 confirmed that "military considerations certainly played a major role" in Oglethorpe's original city plan. The small size of the squares and lots surrounding them "made the town more compact and easier to defend." Also, the squares served as convenient meeting places for colonists outside the city to gather with their families and livestock in the event of attack by Indians or Spaniards.

Some people insist that Oglethorpe was guided by esoteric principles and indeed the mathematical precision of the city grid is quite startling as is, to the uninitiated eye, the strange similarity of the squares -- so much so that you often feel as though you've doubled back and landed in the same one again, with the identical statue of some long-dead dignitary. With a little time, though, you begin to see subtle and not-so-subtle differences; here's a statue of Oglethorpe himself, gazing proudly on the domain he left behind, and there at Chippewa Square is an unlikely tribute, at least this far south, to an American victory in Canada during the War of 1812. There are squares dedicated to Washington, Lafayette, Ben Franklin, various governors and generals, even an English Prime Minister (William Pitt). In all, 21 squares remain out of the original 23 -- not too shabby in a land where entrepreneurial worker bees endlessly venerate function over form. (Locals are particularly irate and ashamed over the destruction of Ellis Square to make way for what is truly a stunningly ugly parking garage.)

As you stroll the streets and squares, the true and rare beauty of Savannah begins to insinuate itself under your skin. It has to do with the sheer mathematics of the place, since the precise dimensions of the city grid seem to satisfy some primitive need for order amid the chaos we suspect is inherent to the universe. But the town's real allure lies in something much more subtle, more archetypal -- it has to do with the whole of the place, the attitude of its people, their oddly British correctness, the dignified charm of its architecture and the accessibility of its scale, which is refreshingly human.

I've rarely met a more fascinating bunch of people. Tight-lipped and proud, secretive about what they feel is their business yet cordial and charming to a fault. They're a proud people who defend their own. For example, despite the brouhaha over Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, that singular book and inferior movie which led to mass hysteria and brought hordes of plastic- and cash-laden tourists to town, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone here who'll discuss the real events upon which the book is based. Jim Williams was a respected antiques dealer, by all accounts a truly sympathetic figure, who was in the process of restoring the famed Mercer House where he lived when he was arrested for the murder of his companion, Danny Hansford.

It's a great, if tragic, tale of jealously, rage and passion, and it captured the popular imagination thanks largely to the skill of author John Berendt. Williams was a distinguished member of Savannah high society, famous for his lavish parties. The people of Savannah, with true aplomb, took full advantage of the cult success; leaf through any local book about the town, though, and Williams is rarely mentioned by name while the incident itself is usually referred to as "that unfortunate business."

That's the other thing. Locals don't talk and if they judge they do it in private. You get the feeling in Savannah that anything goes as long as you're discreet and conduct yourself in good taste. I was there for a week, which was just long enough to discover that there's a lot of skeletons in closets here -- which, frankly, is the way any town worth its salt should be.

Then there's the bizarre Britishness of the place. The incredible tea houses with lavish high teas which would make the Brits whimper in shame. The pubs which are as English (and Irish) as any I've seen on the islands themselves (although you'll forgive, I'm sure, the substitution of mushrooms for kidneys in most of the "steak and kidney pies" -- American palates just can't deal). The hoopla over St. Patrick's Day rivals New Orleans' Mardi Gras, except that, naturally, it's in much better taste. The lost little bookstores in ancient buildings, complete with creaky floors, groaning dishevelled shelves and dignified grand dames who rule supreme behind counters with toppling stacks of dusty hardcovers only marginally younger than they are.

Then there are the incredible Victorians (houses) and Georgians too (fittingly), plus a hodgepodge of other styles which grace every corner, replete with gingerbread trim and redolent with magnolia blossoms, hibiscus and dense secretive ivy to ensure that all skeletons stay sleepy wherever they are. Every house has its ghost story, every event its myth and legend. The cemeteries are simply a gorgeous and organic continuation of this serene setting, a seamless venture into another realm distinguished only by the fact that there the skeletons are truly at rest.

This is how Savannah captures you -- by degrees, by the infiltration of your senses and sensibilities. Never mind the tourist traps -- the true city lies waiting, not really hidden, just coy. Sit beneath an oak tree and wait; talk to the locals and show respect. It will reveal itself in time -- when it's good and ready.

 

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