Sunday, October 25, 2009

Orchids and Sweet Tea

So we were on the road to Gulfport, Mississippi, then a night on the beautiful Back Bay of Biloxi and on to New Orleans. I noted down the usual things: how many great white herons we saw, and a fawn that luckily jumped back the right way, across the ditch into the wood. And the wayside signs: Big Daddy's Pawn Shop, Miss Molly's Mobile Home Park, Crawfish Burgers, Fatty's Restaurant, Free Pit Bull. But the states come so thick and fast, it's hard to remember if the signs were in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana. It's all a little overwhelming after Florida, where you're just either in the state or in the water.There is Alabama bearing down on the Florida panhandle, squeezing in next to Mississippi- staking out those miles of seafront (like rival old Great Powers- Russia, advancing south, hungry for a warm water port; landlocked Austro-Hungary, searching for an outlet to the sea.) But of course, when hurricanes strike, waterfront real estate doesn't look like such a good idea anymore.

Saturday night we stayed in a big house in the middle of a hay field near Gulfport or rather, thirty miles away. Thirty miles inland because as our hostess, whose whole solid house washed away in Gulfport, explained: "That's how far we were told we needed to be." She had a greenhouse up and full of great-looking orchids, especially her vandas, so we knew we were in the right place, but almost no trees yet.

That evening as the email had promised: "We will have gumbo and visit." There was a lot of laughter and good company and it was all done on sweet tea. Like many of my moslem friends, the members of the Gulf Coast Orchid Society did not need alcohol to get a good time going. And when I asked if there might be a glass of wine to go with my gumbo, there was that same moment of puzzlement and then a homemade bottle of cherry wine was located in a cupboard. But there was also a big cache of liquor too; wood floated away on the water while bottles sank, we were told, also guns and coins, left like seaweed at low tide.

We were the first to bring up Katrina, eager to show sympathy and understanding yet somehow it kept ending up everywhere with a lot of shaking of heads and sympathy for us and Andrew. But it was on the way to the meeting Sunday afternoon, along the seafront of Gulfport and Biloxi, that Katrina was inescapable. Among the spreading live oaks facing the beach, For Sale signs stuck in the grass, every few yards, like gravestones, mile after mile, marking where one big beautiful home after another had been swept away. But interestingly, the live oaks all were still there. Martin said it showed the contrast to Andrew, a hard, dry storm that took the trees; here the surge of Katrina had sucked away the houses.

After a night on the water of Back Bay, Biloxi, (We choose our orchid trips well!)where I learned the origin of the American pit bull ( brave and courageous cattle dogs) and was glad to hear someone else agree that the only bible to read was the King James version, we took off Monday to savor Louisiana and ended up spending the night at a beautiful turn of the century house at a small town called Hammond. Antique furniture, lamps and pictures, a great live oak, its branches reaching out to us, a fountain playing down below in the dark as we sat out on the broad veranda behind the pillars, with our chips and cheese.

We were proud of having discovered Hammond, and visiting tiny places north of New Orleans, places, unlike the city, that were something new and unexpected and showed that we were not tourists of disaster. We didn't arrive till mid afternoon - too late for our guided tour -driving into a New Orleans of leafy suburbs and botanical gardens the sort of area where orchid societies like to meet.

Taken out for another great seafood dinner before Martin's talk, I felt we were undeserving. Usually orchid people like it when we explore their back roads, not just zoom in for a talk, sell a few orchids and clear out. But this was New Orleans. Everyone had wanted us to see not how bad things were but how well New Orleans was surviving and coming back.

In fact, the great news to report is, if the New Orleans Orchid Society is anything to go by, New Orleans is doing more than just fine. We have been to many orchid societies from Southern California to New England and one of the usual problems you see is the age factor - too many old folk - and the feeling that quite a few of the older members are there primarily for the cookies and the raffle. Not so in New Orleans. The only addition to sweet tea was decaf coffee but the place was humming like a cocktail party. It was dark outside and inside there was a large cake with strawberries on top that said: WELCOME MOTES and nowhere could I see more than one or two who looked ready for Medicare. Since Katrina there's always been talk of people leaving New Orleans; well, certainly not the orchid society and for anyone wanting to join a young society this is the one- I'd even suggest moving in. And not just for the orchids.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Andrew and Katrina: Hurricane Talk

This Friday we're leaving for Mississsippi. Martin, Dr. Motes, is speaking to the Gulf Port Orchid Society on Sunday afternoon, New Orleans on Tuesday night and in between we've been invited to spend a night in a lovely home in Biloxi. Those three names immediately conjure up a fourth, Katrina. Here, just north of Homestead, it was Andrew. For the longest time "Andrew" bore no relationship to the naming of male children and over half the sentences in South Dade began with either: "Before Andrew" or "After Andrew." And many times they still do: "Wasn't Turkish Ambassador hit on the road before Andrew?" (one of our dogs) or "Didn't Carlos start just after Andrew?" Or "Hasn't this mango chutney, old shirt, been around since before Andrew?

Andrew came through on August 22, 1992. Martin, that old South Florida hand, (together with all the other experts,) said it would never hit: "Too early, too fast, too straight. They always slow, they always turn." But it didn't. The big new houses round us popped open, the old ones crumbled like sand castles and you could see to US 1 and for miles around; any tree left standing was stripped bare, a broken stick. We were in our old house that hunkered down like an old turtle behind the trees Martin had planted to the north-a wind break, indeed. Those big gumbo limbos were torn in two and lay like fallen soldiers alongside the walls. They did, in fact, die protecting the house: seeing them lying there made me cry.

So, my children, trees are GOOD. Don't ever let anyone convince you otherwise! Don't listen to your parents, the cops, the insurance peddlers or FP and L. You are more likely to die from a falling beer bottle in a bar than a falling tree! (That is, when you get older.) Remember: Trees Are Your Friends!

This is what can start when you just say "Andrew" to a long term South Dader- I resolve not to mention hurricanes in New Orleans, Gulf Port or poor Biloxi- (Like Fawlty Towers- "Don't mention the war!') They've all had enough. We will resist trading war stories or, heaven forbid, give into hurricane-envy. Because our hurricane, until Katrina, was the biggest and the best.

But this will be difficult because we are going to be staying with orchid people who sound absolutely delightful but I know that even in non-hurricane areas, orchid people, however delightful, have a tendency to stand around contemplating trees and bushes in their yards, often until it is almost too dark to see. And this is even if there are no orchids on them, even if no devastating storm has come through in the last year or two or there is no Dr. Motes standing there to be asked where would be a perfect spot for a vanda or an ailing cattleya.

If there is a yard, there will be new trees to discuss and bare spaces to mourn where once a great family tree stood and it will be hard not to trade so many great stories about trees. Our old mulberry tree got such a shock to its system after Andrew that it fruited the very next month, in September. Our big beautiful sapodilla finally keeled over in Andrew- I watched it go, watching the storm through the gap between the planks we'd put up over the french doors in the kitchen. It fell slowly against the bamboo and the bamboo fell against the kitchen wall on the north side and the two of them we are sure helped hold the roof down. And, with great difficulty, (it was a big tree,) soon after, we propped it up again. It survived Katrina (minimal) and Rita (nothing at all) but when Wilma arrived the old sapodilla had had enough. I saw it once again from my spot, as I looked through the gap in the planks- (Martin, the old hurricane hand, asleep- saving his energy for the next morning.) It swayed to and fro while I called out "No! Hold on!" and it keeled over gently down towards the kitchen again, like an elephant sinking to its knees.
-(Note: We've, trimmed it back, propped it up again and it's fine. Children! Never give up on a tree! Especially in Florida!)
Probably no-one in Mississippi even remembers Andrew, the hurricane that made Homestead famous: the hurricane that destroyed the little town. For several years we enjoyed instant recognition and respect when showing our driver's licenses.( "From...? Isn't that where....? And how are you doing?") We were on the national news every night for a month or so but of course no-one had power and few had generators back then, so we never saw our brief moment in the spotlight. But if Andrew made Homestead famous, with Katrina it's the other way around. It is New Orleans that has made Katrina famous and infamous forever, the hurricane that destroyed so much and almost destroyed the fabled city of New Orleans.

-Of course we'll be talking about Katrina -who am I kidding?

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Woman's Page

I was thinking a quick way to do a blog was the list - Ten Favorite Dogs, Ten Favorite Books -but on books I got stuck. I can dredge up thousands, looking back - all the way to Five Go Adventuring - but I'm not reading books any more. It's not a short attention span. I can spend hours with The Times Literary Supplement, re-examining the origins of the First World War, checking out "Tupai - A field study of Bornean tree shrews" or "Can We Have Our Balls Back, Please? How the British invented Sports" and, by the way, the best review of one of the greatest Westerns ever: Kevin Costner's Open Range.

But thinking of favorite reading right now, People magazine comes to mind, the movie reviews, the fashion, the gossip. I only buy it once a year, after the Academy Awards ("Hits and Misses on the Red Carpet!") not because I'm a snob but because it costs too much. Standing in the grocery line and comparison shopping - it just can't compete. A slim People magazine, even full of George Clooney kidding around with Brad Pitt, is not worth three pounds of oranges or four heads of lettuce or almost five cans of sardines. In fact, three People magazines would pay for a year of The New Yorker, introductory offer.

But I think something about the layout, the nice slightness of it, fills in for something missing since my youth, the Woman's Page. Not a Women's Magazine, that's too much and gets stuffed with filler like Getting ready for Spring! and What to do with left over potatoes. Too much of anything doesn't work - it's like three pages of the Automotive News, and you're ready to move on.

I know women escaped and stayed wary; it was the Women's Cage. And I should know. When asked what did I want to do, to be, ("Back in the day,"indeed!) my answer was "journalist" - even, in my wildest dreams, "foreign correspondent!" Answer came from all the battle-scarred and weary teachers (all women) at my all-girls' school: "Oh, Mary, they'll just put you on the women's page."

Unless you wanted to fight the whole world you could be a teacher or librarian, a secretary or a nurse. And if you were very pretty you'd be one of those snapped up first, to be a housewife.

So I should be the last one to hanker after the old days but I miss not so much just what the Italians are doing for spring but the inside stuff, the fun stuff - like the beauty tip from Princess Di's godmother's daughter. Boot polish, she confided, was better than mascara. Black boot polish. "Stays on forever- doesn't run! Waterproof!" Or the comment from one of the grand dames of Palm Beach on finding bargains. She had just scored with some great socks she'd bought at K Mart. "I don't shop. I hunt."

I would like A Page of One's Own again- We are now lawyers and judges and astronauts and we should be frivolous too and lighten the mood especially for poor expectant mums who need to forget the solemn mother load: playing Mozart to your belly button because unborn babies need to sharpen their mathematical skills.

Not many of us are going to change course because the dominant color for Fall is mustard or one of those colors with names that only Home Depot seems to have heard of in their paint department but it's fun to relish, for example, the ongoing saga of Michelle Obama and the Humble Cardigan. Dear Michelle Obama - who singlehandedly, in spite of the whole arms thing, has brought back the cardigan. Together with the raincoat, the cardigan has been England's traditional dreary, droopy national costume -the American Express card of our national wardrobe- don't leave home without it. But Michelle has shown us the way. In fact, wasn't she wearing a good old cardy when she met the Queen? And they got on so well, that if she wasn't, I bet the Queen said as she left, like all English Mums do, "It's going to be cold, dear, so don't forget your cardy!"

And as the man says, reading about things like that -"I don't care where you're from- that's just fun!"