Bluffton to Savannah


On our way to Savannah we stopped for breakfast at Cahill’s Market, in Bluffton, South Carolina. Cahill’s serves up Southern comfort foods for lunch and dinner — waffles and fried chicken, pork chops, oysters and crab cakes.

But breakfast at Cahill’s is all about the chicken, as we realized when we pulled into the parking lot at 7:30 a.m. and saw a large chicken coop out back, filled with several dozen fryers, snowy white in the early morning mist, strutting about and regarding us with chickeny indignation. As it was unseasonably cold, most were clustered around a heat lamp. Life is nasty, brutish and short, for a chicken, but I had the satisfaction of learning these chickens were just for show — a Potemkin coop. As I discovered, their numbers couldn’t possibly sustain Cahill’s business for more than five minutes.

Cahill’s has its own farm and sells its produce next door, where the setup reflects the world’s prevailing food fashion, with labels promising “locally grown,” “organic” and “pesticide free” beans, rice, grits and other Southern specialties.

But the breakfast menu is unabashedly old school, offering heaping platters that promise not so much pleasure as personal injury, such as the Gut Buster and Belly Bomb.

This divided soul is what’s interesting about the South: contradictions and elisions everywhere you look. The anxious desire to move with the times, and a lingering echo from lazier, more carefree times — carefree, at least, for some folks.

In keeping with the chicken-and-physical-mayhem theme, I opted for the Widow Maker — a platter of eggs, grits, toast and chicken livers.

Without really thinking it through, this clueless Northerner somehow expected sautéed livers, as I would prepare them at home: maybe dredged in a dusting of seasoned flour, possibly finished with a dash of balsamic vinegar.

They were in fact thickly breaded, deeply fried and piled so I high I recoiled when I saw them — the way you might flinch before something eats you.

But, abetted with ketchup and hot sauce, I polished them off. I then wiped my face on my sleeve and we drove to Savannah.

General Sherman’s mistress

I’m a champion flâneur, paractically incapable of boredom. I don’t need museums or walking tours of haunted houses. I don’t care to see historic bullet holes or taffy being pulled. Instead, I’m perfectly content spending the entire day on a bench with a book or loafing about aimlessly.

Yes, indeed, countless unproductive hours I’ll never get back. (Of course, these periods of deeply satisfying lethargy alternate with spells of frenetic running, so go figure.)

A handsome Missoni tug, spotted on the river and visible from Vic’s on the River, where we enjoyed an excellent meal in Savannah. Fortunately I remembered to load my Brownie with colour film before leaving Bluffton.

Savannah is therefore the perfect city for me. Its downtown is a compact checkerboard of 21 squares, each one surrounded by great old homes and churches, flower gardens, ancient live oaks and, most important, lots of benches. There’s also the great Forsyth Park to loaf around in (about 1.3 km around, if you’re considering a tempo run or intervals), with its picturesque fountain, spreading oaks and local flâneurs draped over benches.

Wright Square. Note the empty bench, waiting for a flâneur. Note, too, the barrier. We were kicked out of Wright Square because Ang Lee was directing a movie starring Will Smith. Gemini Man, coming to a theatre near you.

Historians are still puzzling out why General Sherman didn’t burn Savannah to the ground, as he did so many other Southern cities. Maybe he forgot. Or, as some suggest, he spared the city because his mistress happened to live there. I think she deserves a statue, even if the story isn’t true.

We had an excellent dinner at Vic’s on the River, where I ordered pretty much the same meal as last time: fried green tomatoes, a salad, and shrimp and grits. If I’m going to eat at Vic’s every two years, and I’m perfectly happy with what I ate last time, I see no good reason to change.

What the Missoni tug was tugging. Apparently the first transatlantic steamship crossing sailed from Savannah and docked in Liverpool.

Shit yeah!

But the most interesting meal in Savannah was lunch at Zunzi’s, a sandwich counter — literally a hole in the wall — where folks line up on the street to order what are reputed to be America’s best sandwiches. Their slogan is “Shit yeah!” Amen to that.

“Shit yeah!” is plastered across their cars, ads and signs. You can ask for half a dozen sauces at Zunzi’s, including Shit Yeah Sauce and Hot Shit Sauce.

There’s a line-up all day, but it moves quickly. Behind the counter, in an impossibly narrow space, nine surprisingly happy kids scrambled to keep up. Meanwhile, on the street, two greeters talked up passers-by, explained the menu, handed out “Shit yeah!” stickers and directed eat-in customers to tables set up in the adjacent parking lot.

The young African-American woman wrangling customers at Zunzi’s bubbled with energy.

“How y’all like my city?” she demanded, clearly proud of her hometown, its booming trade and street life.

“Shit yeah!” we said.

She gave us a sticker.

I read somewhere that, in the wake of slavery, Civil War, a failed Reconstruction period and the Civil Rights struggles, African Americans have adjusted better to the national trauma than have white Americans. They’re not in denial about what happened, they understand there is no road leading back, and they’re ready to move on, if given the chance.

Well, I can’t vouch for the truth of what I read. I’m just a know-nothing Canadian passing through. But it’s an interesting notion to think about.

I think, too, of the many contradictions and ironies I sensed at Cahill’s and just about everywhere we went — and not just the free-range basil plants cheek-by-jowl with deep-fried moon cakes.

In nearby Savannah, for example, Zunzi’s is owned by a husband-and-wife team from South Africa named DeBeer. Irony upon irony.

• • •

Back home now and struggling with a short story. I know…about time.

Statue of a famous Savannah flâneur.

Gator country

It was a moonless night and we had been driving in the dark for some minutes, following the unclear directions they gave us at the gate, so it took a while to find the cabin. The first thing we saw when we switched on the light was this sign above the kitchen sink.


I thought it was one of those jokey kitchen signs people put up, like: “We only serve the finest wines. Did you bring any?” But the next morning we realized the cabin sits on a narrow strip of land between two ponds in which alligators do, in fact, float like half-submerged logs, their dead-seeming eyes peering just above the surface. They’re everywhere on the property, like squirrels are back home, although with less frantic energy. Driving around, we saw several that had dragged themselves onto the bank to warm in the sun, the largest of them a seven-foot monster. Folks say gators can run surprisingly fast, when they have a mind to.

Advice from my sister-in-law, when she phoned from Montreal: If an alligator gives chase while you’re out running, immediately start zigzagging, as alligators can’t easily change direction.



We’re staying in a gated community in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, near the town of Bluffton. The place is so vast — 20,000 acres, encompassing the lands of 21 pre-Civil War plantations — that they recently hosted a marathon entirely on site.

They call it low country because it’s just about at sea level, give or take a couple of feet, which explains the wetlands, the alligators and the many miles of riverfront at your doorstep. We’ve arrived just in time to witness great masses of pink and fuchsia-coloured azaleas in bloom, a visual tonic after months of colour-starved Canada. The live oaks are just coming into leaf, too, and the roads are like dripping tunnels, as the oak branches meet overhead and trail long wreaths of Spanish moss. Strangely ghoulish at dusk, the scene becomes spectral in the early morning light, the limbs like crooked bones clothed in shimmering green ectoplasm.

It’s so picturesque as to seem like a parody of of the South. But it’s real and the residents appreciate what they have and want to share it, which is why our gracious hosts provided us with a waterfront cabin, or “bunkie,” as they call it here.


On the first day, we made sure to visit the new community centre, comprising art studios, conference rooms, upscale restaurants, pools, bowling alleys and other amenities.

It’s quite easy to find: turn right at the first corner, then go past the equestrian centre (173 acres) and the shooting club (40 acres).

Y’all come back, now. Hear?

We were here two years ago, and enjoyed the same southern hospitality. Each time, we learn a little bit more.

Like many places in the South, the adjacent town, Bluffton, was put to the torch during the Civil War, although eight homes did survive, most of which are now restored and occupied by professionals, as the gleaming Volvos and Acuras in the driveways suggest.

The sea-facing bluffs, for which the town is named, catch the distant Atlantic breezes and make Bluffton comparatively cooler and less plagued by mosquitos. In antebellum days, it was a refuge from malaria during the blazing summer months. Plantation owners packed off their families here for their holidays, so the town grew fairly prosperous before the war, but entered a long decline immediately after.

Live oak

The last time we were here, we arrived directly from Savannah (we’re finishing up in Savannah this time), so I was struck by official and unofficial attitudes toward the South’s troubled past. Our Savannah tour guides, for example, maintained a neutral tone about the grand homes we toured: about the families that lived there, their rising and falling fortunes, and where they fit into the larger society. For the most part our guides stuck to the script.

But the moment we entered the slaves’ quarters, the guides lost several degrees of coolness. They made plain where they and the local historical society stand: slavery remains an unregenerate abomination, without palliating conditions, explanations or context.

I remember, particularly, a child’s room with an enormous high-canopied bed topped with bolsters and feather pillows. At its foot was a large chest for toys. On the floor beside the bed was a thin mat where the playmate curled up.

Back in Bluffton

Several days later, I wandered through Bluffton to admire the old homes. Among them is the Heyward House, built by slaves in 1841 for their white masters, and now run by the local historical society. For a few dollars you’re permitted to walk through the cramped rooms and feel like an interloper, peering at the household belongings of wood, leather and iron, ivory, bone and glass.

Out back, more belongings: a one-room shed and a patch of dirt indicates the slave quarters.

I was the only visitor, and the young woman who greeted me, a volunteer, was clearly proud of her town and its past. I don’t know what kind of training she’d had, and whether she was expected to follow any official line. But I did ask some questions, and when she saw that I was genuinely interested in the town’s history, and clearly not from these parts, she informed me that, contrary to what I may have heard or read, the Civil War was primarily a clash of civilizations — a largely rural, agrarian and communitarian society (the South) coming up against a mercantilist, industrial and urban one (the North).

Somehow, in her explanation, slavery got misplaced. Never even came up. Yes, there were slaves. Of course there were! Why, their quarters are right there in back, if you care to look. But that’s hardly the whole story…

I think of the alligators and their inability to change direction. But I remain hopeful.

The loneliness of running


Long distance running once had more purpose — say, chasing an enemy across the savannah to jam a spear into his throat, or being chased to have that thing with a spear done to you.

Then again, you might be running after food, and that’s definitely more useful. Animals run faster than we do but can’t run as far, so you will eventually catch one if you keep it up. Messengers also ran long distances in the old days, but that was their job. We know of at least one who, after gasping out news of a victory over the Persians, died on the spot. Or so the legend goes.

At the ancient Olympics, foot races were strictly sprints, so forget about the Greeks: no staying power. Some native peoples in the Americas, however, did run long distance races, and I suppose that was for glory.

I’m still trying to puzzle out why I run. The ancient inducements — vengeance, hunger, news, glory — no longer apply. My moods are under control, my fridge is full and I have a phone. As for the much-discussed runner’s high, I’m still waiting….

The compulsion is a mystery.

Cross-country gulping

I had a high school gym teacher who was a devotee of cross-country running. Close-cropped silvery hair, lean physique, pointy nose: he actually looked like a greyhound. A Brit, of course, as the Brits pretty much invented and excelled at cross-country running for generations.

Since our school was at the foot of Mount Royal, there was simply no escaping his mania. At least once a week, we’d be forced to jog along Park Avenue and take the urine-drenched tunnel at Duluth, emerging from the other side dopey with low-level ammonia poisoning. We began our ascent beside the bronze lions of the George-Étienne Cartier Monument, taking the sloping path to the right, then up the 400-odd steps, past the cross and on to Beaver Lake.

Here we’d pause, gulping air and hating our lives. By this point our lungs were on fire and the bones in our trembling legs had dissolved.

Shamelessly, I tried to weasel out of it by claiming bronchitis. Others produced dubious doctor’s notes. They feigned injury, wept openly. The greyhound wasn’t buying it.

“Up we go, lads!”

Of course, a few of my classmates were naturals, with lean muscles, massive hearts and lungs, and arteries like garden hoses. They held a steady pace all the way, effortlessly loping along and out of sight within minutes of our start.

Paul was one of these gifted boys. He had a Montreal Gazette route and persuaded the paper to sponsor him on a bike ride to Vancouver, literally cross-country — more than 5,000 km. This was long before such feats were common, so he did the distance, quietly and alone, and took the train back, paid for by the Gazette. Not a penny was raised for cancer, the homeless or universal understanding.

After his summer ride, Paul showed me his mouldering maps and a curled Hillroy exercise book that contained a daily log. He averaged more than a hundred miles each day (160 km), pitching his tent and unrolling his sleeping bag wherever he happened to conk out.

Running: The Movie

A couple of years ago, I saw a black and white movie from the early Sixties titled The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. It’s pretty raw, in the realist manner of post-war cinema. Angry young men with impenetrably thick accents thoroughly pissed at the upper classes. While North Americans were riding an economic boom, the English were still clearing rubble and struggling under punishing austerity — as were most Europeans.

The movie is about a kid in the North of England, probably about Paul’s age, who’s caught robbing a bakery and is packed off to reform school (Borstal schools, they called them). He discovers cross-country running, which somehow gives focus to his identity and rebellion. It’s a far cry from Chariots of Fire, offering limited uplift, reconciliation or redemption, and certainly no haunting Vangelis score.

But it’s sometimes grimly funny, as when he boasts, “Running has always been a big thing in my family, especially running away from the police.”

At least this kid got something from long-distance running. For me, it remains utterly pointless. No ball or puck to put into a net. No exhilaration, no sense of satisfaction.

But the utter pointlessness is precisely the point — like writing these dispatches each week. They are useful to no one; they offer no information or even informed opinion. And yet I keep putting one foot in front of the other, one word after another.

The queen of Park Ex


Shortly after Greece’s independence in 1821, the Great Powers determined that what Greece really needed, after centuries of arbitrary rule under the Ottoman yoke, was a family of Northern Europeans telling Greeks what to do.

If you know anything about Greeks, it’s that they have enough trouble following instructions from each other, let alone from a foreigner in a sash.

And yet, after some false starts a suitable family — the Danish Glücksburgs — was installed and various dynasties proceeded to fall in and out of favour over the next century-and-a-half. One king was assassinated while out for a stroll. Another king, George II, said this: “The most important tool for a king of Greece is a suitcase.”

After decades in exile, ex-King Constantine II recently packed his suitcase and moved back to Greece because it’s cheaper than London. He’s a first cousin of the Duke of Edinburgh and I’m told he makes a mean mousaka.

History’s long tail

I don’t know how the day began in Catholic schools, but in the English Protestant one I attended in Park Ex, we stood beside our desks, faced the flag and sang “God Save the Queen.”

This is impossible to imagine in French Catholic schools. French Quebecers could never quite stomach, nor understand, the Anglo fetish for royals. (To them, naming Montreal’s flagship hotel the Queen Elizabeth was one of countless “provocations.”)

Just about every Canadian town and city has its Queen and King Streets, its Victoria Hotels and Duke of Edinburgh schools. It must seem odd to our American cousins, whose only titled citizens are Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

In school we also sang “Marching to Pretoria,” from the Boer War, where Churchill made his reputation as a war correspondent and thousands of black Africans perished serving one or another of the white teams. Thousands more perished, black and white, in the innovation for which the Boer War is most famous — concentration camps.

Cheer up boys and sing good luck to all our gallant men
Who fought for the Empire out in Africa and when
They have brought the seas once more we welcome home again
Conquerors of proud Pretoria

Empire was everywhere. Aromas of leather and wet wool, mothballs and fried fish. War memorials of identical boys with clipped moustaches. Photos of ladies knitting socks. It was all very far away, but also at the heart of the world around us.

The long tail of history and of Empire is still with us. I had cause to reflect on Empire and past mistakes throughout this week.

Last Friday I posted a short story titled “The Imperial Matinée.” A reader gently reminded me that the Park Ex cinema where some of the story unfolds was actually the Empire Cinema. I fixed my mistake.

But it also reminded me that Montreal once had two cinemas, separated by maybe a dozen stops on the number 80 bus, both paying tribute to the idea of Empire.

The Empire Matinée — a new story


A couple of weeks ago, on Facebook, a woman remarked that she recognized the street signs on my blog’s masthead photo. They’re attached to the building she used to live in many years ago. She also remarked that across the street stood the Imperial Cinema.

As it happens, I was at that time wrestling with a short story that, in part, takes place in the Imperial. So here is that story. It’s called The Empire Matinée, and I hope you like it.