Thursday, December 13, 2007

bye charleston, hello richmond

What a difference six hours makes. I might as well come out and admit that I spent the first hour of my car ride today crying. Not to worry, this has been a recurring theme every time I've driven away from Charleston this year. I get into my car and I'm fine, but inevitably the second I get on 26, no matter how hard I try to ignore it, I start to picture what it's going to be like when I make the drive in August, when I leave Charleston. Cue the tears. It was especially hard today because again, as hard as I tried to ignore it, I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that this could be my last Christmas in Charleston (or at least the last for a while). It's an ongoing battle not to spend my senior year thinking in terms of lasts. All it's going to do is make me a blubbering and sentimental mess. I know this, yet I still have a hard time with it, especially with Christmas, because Charleston, while lovely year round of course, is especially lovely at Christmas.
And it's hard to describe; because what makes Charleston so wonderful at Christmas aren't the obvious things. That's not to say that the obvious things aren't great. I love the James Island Festival of Lights, the giant tree in Marion Square, the trees lining the block of King Street, the lit Palmetto trees lining Coleman Blvd. out in Mount Pleasant. I love when the Budweiser Clydesdales come (by the way where were they this year. Are they late, delayed somehow, off delivering Budweiser and cheer to some other part of the world? I guess I may never know) I love a healthy dose of kitsch and tackiness and glitter along with my Christmas festivities. Yet the truth is none of these things really suit Charleston. It's sort of like dressing up a cat in a Christmas sweater and a Santa hat. The end result is not what one would call natural or even all that endearing. Charleston to me is like this fantastic old broad, someone who has never followed a trend in her entire life and doesn't even know the meaning of tacky or gaudy. People might try to force these things on Charleston, but what's honest and true about Charleston at Christmas aren't the lights or plastic Santas. To me Charleston during the holidays is best captured at oyster roasts in the cold night air, people huddled together holding beers and prying open the big, salty oysters while laughing and talking. Or gas lanterns, because even though they are there all year, there's something about Christmas that makes you notice the lanterns in places you normally otherwise wouldn't. Christmas in Charleston is people coming off their boats to warm up with hot chocolate (or a cold beer) at a waterside bar or restaurant. It's real candles in windows, not the plastic ones, or simple holly wreaths on doors along the Battery. Over the years I've found that the best Christmas traditions in Charleston are ones that you have to find upon closer inspection. It's applicable to Charleston in general as well. On the surface Charleston is post card pretty, with tourist trap seafood restaurants (ones that deep fry their crab cakes and serve crap dip with saltines) and crowded shopping districts. But anyone who truly knows this city, anyone who truly loves it, knows that the real Charleston can be found in quiet patches of marshland weaving between neighborhoods or in hidden shacks alongside creeks where the seafood is no-frills and served with boiled peanuts. Charleston is a city of many layers, and it has been one of my greatest thrills to dig deeper and deeper into this place and find what is honest and untamed. Finding Christmas in Charleston is simply a continuation of that. Yet to bring all of this back to my point, it was extremely painful, almost in a physical way, to think that I may not see Charleston at Christmas next year. Thus the car crying. I've realized that leaving Charleston is not, unfortunately, going to be like tearing off a band-aid, all the pain in one fell swoop. This year is basically going to be akin to having said band-aid (one that was super-glued to my skin) being pulled of inch by inch. It's going to hurt like hell. My goal is to let the hurt come only in spurts so that it never stops me from enjoying every second I have left of this beautiful town. And life is unpredictable. I could find myself here next Christmas, feeling foolish for shedding tears over nothing. Who knows.
So six hours after I left Charleston I arrived in Richmond, and several simultaneous things helped to ease the pain of leaving Charleston. First the Richmond skyline all lit up. I never really appreciated the holiday skyline until I left home. Now it's one of my favorite things to drive up 95 and see it looming in front of me, all of the buildings clearly defined against the night. Second, the cold air when I got out of my car. When I left Charleston this morning it was 80 degrees. When I reached Richmond, I stepped out of my car in a short sleeved tee and sandals and had to run inside and pull on a sweatshirt. Finally weather to match the season. The third thing that made me blissfully happy to be in Richmond was being able to run to Ukrops to grab dinner (I'm sorry Harris Teeter, I love you too, but you simply can't compare to the 'krops). The fourth thing that made me ridiculously, cheerfully happy was driving through Carytown and down Monument Ave and seeing both dressed to the nines in their holiday finest. As much as I love Charleston, Richmond will always be my first home. And there are these instant things about Richmond that always make me feel safe and comfortable, no matter how long I have been gone. My deepest hope is that it will be like that with Charleston too. I'd like to think that even if I stay away for month or years (okay I take that back, I can never stay away from Charleston for years, even if I have to swim, climb or hike to get to the lowcountry), but anyways, I'd like to think that all it will take is the sight of our beautiful bridge stretching over the harbor or the view from Coleman onto Shem Creek to bring me back home again. I really need to believe that, and until I've been proven otherwise I will.

Incredibly Random Side Note: So Project Runway this season is killing me! And the problem is that for the first time I genuinely like all of the contestants (okay well Victorya is a little cold and Ricky is the cryingest crybaby that ever did cry) but other than those quibbles everyone seems good natured and decent. Reality show contestants aren't supposed to be likable across the board. It's why America's Next Top Model is so enjoyable because half those girls are either crazy, severely deluded or just plain idiotic. When one gets sent home I can giggle and change the channel. But since Project Runway involves talented and creative people with actual ambitions for their lives besides being on television, it makes it very emotional to watch. Just this week I started out sad because Chris was gone and I loved Chris. Then I got even sadder because Jack had to go home because of medical issues and I loved Jack (and this is not just because the producers occasionally throw in a gratuitous shot of Jack in his underwear, I promise). Then I got happy again because Chris came back since Jack left although I was still sad about Jack, and well can't you see how this is taxing on a person such as myself? I really need a good Santino or a Wendy to break up all the love. I guess I'll just have to keep watching with a box of tissues next to me for now, until one of them reveals his or her evil side (Christian I'm watching you, you're tiny and your hair defies logic).

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