Sunday, November 30, 2008

Southern Crossing: Nashville

We arrived in Nashville early afternoon, the sky iron gray and the wind kicking up. We met my friend John, who long time readers of this blog will know from my time abroad in Kunming, on the Vanderbilt campus, where we would be staying with him and his girlfriend Lisa, who was a senior there at the time. Lisa and her housemates were planning a barbecue for later that night, so we took a few hours that afternoon to go to one of Nashville's coolest /oddest landmarks, a full-scale model of the Parthenon in Greece. I'm told that even the statues inside are perfectly replicated. But you had to pay to get in, so we settled for frolicking in the parkland around the building and buying postcards at the tiny gift shop.

Shots of the Parthe-Non (geddit?)

We returned to the Vanderbilt campus in time for the beginning of the barbecue, which featured at least three or four different sauces from around the region. The food was delicious, and it felt lovely and freeing to meet people going to a school so far from mine, to see how their lives as students were both different and the same as what I was used to.

Vanderbilt campus, early Spring

The next morning we met Lisa after her class and took her and John out for breakfast at a local breakfast joint called the Pancake Pantry, which was insanely delicious. Emma tried out a traditional savory southern pancake style, while I opted for the decadent pancakes with cinnamon creme. Which: oh, man, party in my mouth. Pancake Pantry was a lovely, quirky restaurant with a huge dining room and interesting decorations. This one in particular:

Really, guys? Really?

We spent the rest of the day wandering from landmark to landmark around Nashville. We tried on cowboy hats downtown:

Made a visit to the Grand Ole Opry (sadly you can't go inside the hall without a ticket):

And finished with a historic tour of a cotton plantation. This was new territory for both Emma and me. Growing up in the northeast we had our share of American Revolution education, trips to Plymouth Plantation, Walden Pond, Boston's Freedom Trail, and whatnot. And of course we had read textbooks aplenty about the Civil War and the slavery era. But seeing it up close is, of course, profoundly different. So we drove out to Belle Meade plantation, which is now a museum, outside Nashville. It was late enough in the day that we were able to enter without buying tickets (good for our wallets; admission was a bit pricey) and spend a good hour and a half exploring the several-acre site. The museum has preserved the buildings beautifully and includes lots of information about conditions, as well as a few surprising elements like a great collection of old-style carriages and buggies.

Talk about a contrast in amenities: The main house...

...versus slave quarters

It was actually ideal to come to Bell Meade so late in the day. We had a lot of freedom to walk in the quiet and didn't have to deal with a lot of other visitors. It was a perfect atmosphere for serious reflection, and coming to site of former slavery induces that in a person. We didn't talk much as we made the rounds, but had a contentious discussion on the drive back. Coming face to face with your country's ugly past can be hard and scary but it's also necessary.

We found a lighter way to spend the night in downtown Nashville, putting the rigors of the afternoon behind us. We reveled in the tacky souvenir shops selling "You know you're a redneck if..." t-shirts and confederate flags on bumper stickers, wallets, shot glasses.

Emma communes with Elvis in front of a souvenir shop:
Nashville downtown had a great atmosphere. Homey, exciting, and completely unpretentious. We walked up and down the strip, enjoying ice cream and passing up a bar awesomely called "Cotton-Eyed Joe" in favor of another bar, Lila's Bluegrass Inn. The floor was sticky with beer and we settled in to a table halfway back in the half-filled room, watching a country band play, the singer stomping her high-heeled boots and whooping between verses. Neither of us can be called country music lovers at home, but more and more we found we could enjoy it in its cultural context. It just seemed right.

Outside Lila's Bluegrass Inn

Next stop: Birmingham

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