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Travels in Japan

There was certainly more to Japan than the fabulous loos. In fact, during the two weeks we were there we had only one day of complaint, otherwise everything was perfect.

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I had a few days on my own to explore Yokohama. The clear skies and spring temperature meant that it was walking weather so that’s what I did. From our hotel I could walk undercover to Queen’s Square shopping mall and beyond.

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Yokohama

I discovered promenades with colourful newly planted bedding plants and blossom trees just beginning to burst into flower. I went back in time to the 1930s as I walked through the first and third class cabins of the Hikawi Mara, a luxury vessel carrying the wealthy and the poor looking for a new life across the Pacific where, from Seattle, they could continue east to New York by train.

I gazed up at the Grand Hotel where I knew through reading Edith Wharton’s ‘The House of Mirth’ that New York’s society used to frequent.

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I spent a morning in the Port Museum, tracing the history of this now gigantic port from when it was a lowly fishing village before the Europeans were allowed to trade. I sped up 69 storeys to the top of Landmark Tower and gazed down onto Tokyo and beyond to Mt Fuji.

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Yokohama port with the shadow of Landmark Tower

I ambled through Monomachi, the popular foreign shopping area of the 1930s, and into China town with its crowded streets and numerous restaurants. One day a Japanese friend took me to Kamakura, the capital of Japan in the 13th century. We went inside the body of the enormous statue of Buddha, visited Zen and Shinto shrines, washed our money in a pool to ensure us wealth and enjoyed the spring flowers and the bamboo forest.

Before coming to Japan we had bought a rail pass which gave us a week’s travel on most of Japan’s railways, including the fast, efficient and smooth Shinkansen with its speeds of up to 320 kph. For each journey you get a ticket with a carriage and seat number. Carriage numbers are written on the platform so when the train stops there is no dashing up and down the platform looking for the right carriage. The door is right there in front of you- so easy.

We travelled to the island of Kyushu, stopping first at Nagasaki, almost a day’s journey from Yokohama. We visited ‘ground zero’ where the atomic bomb vapourised everything and everyone in the area below where the bomb exploded. In the museum we saw horrific pictures of the effects of radiation. Hanging from the ceiling was ‘Fat Man’ – the name the Americans gave to the bomb. It looked small and rather harmless as a few young soldiers, stripped to the waist, loaded it into the plane that would carry it from the base on the Pacific island of Tinian. IMG_6997

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Remains of the cathedral

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A very different side of Nagasaki is Dejima, the historic fan-shaped trading station in the harbour. For 200 years from the mid 1600s only Chinese and Dutch ships were allowed into Japan and Dejima was the only port. Although Japan was effectively closed to foreigners, books, scientific instruments, knowledge and new ideas filtered in through the port, while goods from all over Japan were exported.

We took the train south to Kagoshima the ‘Naples of Japan’ with its sunny climate and puffing volcano.

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We spent a morning in the Meiji Restoration museum. Watching a reconstruction of the journey of the 20 young Japanese men who went to Europe to learn about industrialization and bring back the information to Japan was fun. They left Japan wearing kimono and sporting top-knots and arrived in London looking like English gentlemen. One of the group never returned to Japan, but went to California and became an oenologist. The Meiji period was more than bringing European ideas to Japan. It was the restoring of the power of the emperor and the end of the Shogunate rule.

We trained up the east coast of Kyushu for a night in Beppu, famed for its onsen, thermal springs. Our traditional hotel had two, one outside looking over the bay and another inside. We were extremely clean and refreshed when we left Beppu, having sat many times on tiny stools and scrubbed ourselves and then soaked in the hot mineral water. It was a memorable experience and made more authentic as we had a room with tatami mats, paper blinds and futons. We were provided with elegant yukata, which some guests, particularly men, wore to breakfast.

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We were sorry to leave Kyushu, famed for its fruit, vegetables, succulent pork and delicious shochu made from sweet potatoes.

Our final destination was Himeji in Kansai prefecture. We chose this historic city as we had been to Kyoto on another visit and Nara would be exceptionally crowded as it was cherry blossom time. The white walls and upturned roofs of the restored 17th century Himeji Castle dominate the centre of the city. Our hotel was well outside the city so we travelled in for the day. Here were our only disappointments in Japan. The gardens and buildings were stunning in the spring sunshine but I had left the camera in the hotel so there are no pictures to show. The other disappointment was the crowds of people in the castle. The five-storey building is made entirely of wood and to reach the top there are narrow wooden stairs going from one floor to the next. It was crowed to the point of being unsafe and we were just pushed forward by the crowd surging behind. When we were already inside, the number of people coming in was limited, but that was too late for us. However, we did enjoy the relative calm of the princess’s palace and the lake and gardens. We spent a good couple of hours wandering through Himeji’s interesting covered shopping market and made a few purchases.

What made our time in Japan so enjoyable?

The people who were always so helpful, smiling and welcoming. Language wasn’t a barrier as most signs are in English and Japanese, and many people speak some English.

The Japanese pride themselves in being efficient and orderly. For a traveller this is a boon. It is easy to find ones way around a station or city as signs are everywhere. It is easy to walk in a city and to cross the road as the traffic is well-ordered. The trains leave and arrive on time. The cities are clean. Japan is a safe and easy country to travel in.

Food does not make my world go round, but the food we had in Japan certainly did. We had noodles far and wide – from lowly ‘one man’ restaurants to ramen in a café in the Sangan Gardens of Kamakura, where the pork broth was divine. We had boards laden with fresh sashimi and plates of spicy dumplings. We enjoyed Japanese breakfasts with fish, meat and pickles and sweet Castella cake in Nagasaki, from a recipe brought by 15th century Portuguese traders. We bought  bento on the station to enjoy on the train.

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The gastronomic highlight was the dinner we had in our hotel in Himeji. We ate ten courses, each a very small amount, beautifully served, sometimes on china, sometimes pottery, sometimes lacquer.

I believe this kind of meal is called kaiseki (kaichu – kimono pocket, seki – stone). We finished this delicious meal with a tiny scoop of strawberry ice cream and green tea.

Now it’s time to plan another trip to Japan – perhaps to the northern island of Hokkaido.

Beijing and Surrounds

In the past months I have had three memorable travel adventures. The most recent was to Beijing. Staying with a friend, I felt like a visitor and not a tourist. At every opportunity we avoided the popular spots, thronged with harassed tour guides marshaling their groups with waving flags, and found the quieter, more atmospheric places. Spring was in the air and the blossom was out.

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A night camping on the Great Wall was the start of an action packed week. A two-hour drive from Beijing city took us to the Badaling section of the wall. If you have been to the Great wall you may say, “That’s where everyone goes,” but we passed the places crowded with tourist buses and arrived at a village. Here our camping gear was loaded onto Donkey and our group of 6 set off with a guide. We carried rucksacks and fortunately I accepted the offer of a hiking stick.

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The Great Wall is not one wall, but (rather like the routes of the Silk Road or the Ho Chi Minh Trail) a series, the earliest dating back to 8th to 5th centuries BC. The walls were a barrier against the wilder tribes to the north, but also a roadway stretching in an east west direction and trade routes. The section of the wall that we walked on was built in 16th century during the Ming dynasty.

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The three-hour hike to where we camped was rugged and fairly tough going with steep inclines and sheer drops. The rewards were the magnificent panoramic vista, the spring blossom, the feeling of achievement, a sense of a depth of history and the awareness the human cost to build such a structure. We only saw two other people on the hike: photographers waiting to capture the sunset.

 

We did put up our tents, but did not have to cook. Faithful Donkey had brought us some beer and G produced a bottle of wine from her rucksack. Supper, cooked over charcoal, was tofu and vegetable kebabs, dainty pieces of lamb on long skewers, potato cakes and corn on the cob. We are hungrily and shared the (vegetable) remains with Donkey. G and I climbed into the tiny tent and slept head to tail. The sleeping bags were labeled as good to -10C but we were cold all night even though the temperature was nowhere near freezing. As a result the night was long, but compensated by a bright moon and a stunning sunrise.

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In the morning, I decided to forgo another 3 hour wall clamber, and instead followed Donkey back to the village through the blossoming orchards. While waiting for the others to arrive back I wandered around the village. There were small brick houses built in rows, a temple and a simple guest house, where we would have stayed if the weather had been too foul to camp. Many of the houses seemed empty. Perhaps people came for the fruit picking season as there were many orchards in the area. There were signs that the remoteness of the area would soon change as a resort was in the making. Before returning to the city we enjoyed a delicious and very local lunch eaten outside. The dishes were soon emptied as the lazy Susan was spun around the table.

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The following day we visited the Summer Palace, travelling there and back by Didi, a local Uber type service. The price was good, the drivers excellent and the cars comfortable. Getting around Beijing is not difficult for a city of 24 million people. The city is built on a vast flat plain and set out on a grid system with 6 ring roads surrounding the city. Where I was staying was near the 5th ring road. It took, by subway or road, well over an hour to get to the centre of the city. The subway is signed in Chinese and English and an inexpensive way to travel. One rush-hour journey was something I would not want to do every day; the carriage was packed and people pushed their way on and off. City bikes can be pick up and dropped off anywhere and are popular. Out of the city electric tuc-tucs are a cheap and practical way to travel short distances. Walking is easy as the pavements are wide and uncluttered. I went to two large parks – one popular for sports, ballroom dancing and thai chi; the other a pleasant wander through pavilions and gardens representing the 22 provinces of China.

 

IMG_7134Although we had reached the Summer Palace by 10.00am the place was heaving with people. We bought tickets to see all the main sights but went to none of them. Instead we bypassed the crowds (30,000 that day and 43,000 the previous day of mostly groups of Chinese people and a smattering of foreigners), and took a boat on the Kunming Lake to the Seventeen Arched Bridge. From here we walked through gardens along the West Causeway and in the Garden of Harmonious Interests (based on a South China garden of the Qing dynasty). Flanked by mountains, the Summer Palace was built by Emperor Qianlong in 1750 to celebrate the birthday of his mother (lucky mum). It burnt down but was rebuilt by the Dowager Empress Cixi in 1886 as a place for her to live. Some of the trees date back to the original gardens, but most are more recent. The new leaves of the willows blew in the breeze, the fruit blossoms were at their best and the soft perfume of lilac filled the air. It was a perfect spring day. I had been to the Summer Palace over 20 years earlier and remembered there was a long corridor. We walked along it again and once more I admired the delicate painting on the wooden beams and ceiling.

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A shopping stroll through the hutongs was planned for the following day. Hutongs are narrow streets, originally family residences with a front door leading into a courtyard. Now they are mostly shops, restaurants or small hotels but there are still some family homes. The original houses were built without loos so there are communal bathrooms on the street. To fortify us for the afternoon we had lunch in a tiny noodle restaurant – delicious. We then walked and shopped, strolled along a lake and finally refreshed ourselves with a pint of craft beer.

G and I then continued to our evening engagement: a visit to the opera. We sat at tables, drinking tea and eating snacks, for an hour of real Chinese entertainment, starting with one of the performers putting on make-up and costumes on the stage. Of the three short performances, my favorite was the story of the boatman who took a young nun across the river to her lover. She was frightened of getting in the boat so he poled it close and cajoled her on. The final story was a battle between a king and queen. The queen wore a headdress with long peacock feathers, which she twirled and twisted as she outmatched her opponent. The performers were part of the Peking Opera Company, started in 1780 for the Qing court. The costumes and makeup were stunning and music on traditional instruments added to the atmosphere.

*****

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The Ming Tombs are deep in the countryside. Well north of the city 13 of the Ming emperors (1368 to 1644) and their 23 wives are buried on the slopes of the Tianshau mountains. We walked the Sacred Way lined with white marble animals and then picked up taxis to go to two of the tombs that are open. The Changling tomb houses Emperor Chengzu and his empress. In the vast hall above the tombs is a glittering display of clothing, head-dresses and jewelry of the time. The Dingling tomb was built for Emperor Shenzondg and his two wives. These tombs are sealed with red lacquer in an underground chamber.

On my last full day we went to the 798 Art District. Named after the number of the 1950’s munitions factory, which was later taken over by artists looking for somewhere to work, it is now an area of galleries, shops, restaurants and exhibitions. Many countries have their cultural institutes in this trendy area.

My impressions of Beijing:

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A vast, throbbing, well organized city. I’m sure there are run-down areas, which I didn’t see, but I did see vast estates of high rise apartments.

Trees: parks, gardens and tree-lined highways throughout the city.

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Polite, friendly and helpful people.

A depth of history to explore.

Great food of all kinds (stomach linings and intestines were not dishes I chose)

Shopping: from luxurious silks to ‘Asian tat’ and everything in between.

The sky was blue and the air clean, but it is not always like that. There are many times when masks are essential and children are kept inside. The AQI (air quality index) is a topic of conversation. Modern buildings have clean, filtered air pumped throughout. Much of the pollution comes not from the city itself, but from the industrial areas nearby.

Before leaving for the airport I was treated to traditional Chinese tea, served in delicate china bowls. A fitting end to a memorable week. My taste of China makes me want to return to this controversial country.

 

 

 

Chicago Illinois

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Chicago Illinois is the epitome of the city gentleman. He strides confidently, always correctly attired in well-cut, expensive suits with a fresh carnation in the buttonhole. His stylish shirts are immaculately laundered, the double cuffs displaying handsome gold cufflinks. He has a wardrobe of ties, all memorable but none flashy. From a young age, his father instilled into him the importance of shoes. He wears nothing except the best leather, which is polished to a mirrored shine. As he finds shopping a bore, and would sooner spend time in expensive restaurants than in shops, he frequents only the most exclusive establishments, which hold his measurements and know his taste. For less visible items of clothing and sportswear he purchases on-line, conscious of the importance of brand names.

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As he roars up Magnificent Mile his head buzzes with thoughts on the nation’s finance and commerce, industry and technology.

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With the music system of his Ford Mustang swirling with the sounds of jazz and soul, he swings past the Chicago Theatre, aware that culture and art are as important as money and commerce.

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From his custom built yacht he gazes towards his skyline, so heavily influenced by the moody Lake Michigan, one day a calm and welcoming friend but the next seething with dangerous anger.

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In his infancy, Chicago (named by his Indian ancestors word for wild garlic) was a humble porter – carrying goods between his mother, the magnificent Great Lakes, and his father, the mighty Mississippi River. He soon grew out of this lowly job as from 1848 it was taken over by a canal. Chicago became a rowdy uncouth teenager, keeping coarse company with companions from all parts of the world. He did show schizophrenic tendencies, and soon showed the sophisticated side to his personality.

An early tourist friend of Chicago, Isabella Bird, sailed from Britain to America in 1854. She was a courageous an adventurous traveller as well as a prolific travel writer.

Isabella arrived in Chicago late one afternoon, having travelled overland from Cincinnati. As the two best hotels were full she booked into an1850s backpacker inn for a dollar a night. Here she was offered a dormitory for four in which “three women were assiduously nursing a sick child …and two were combing thick black hair.” Not liking this she asked for a room to herself and was taken to somewhere pokey and dark. “There was a small bed with a dirty buffalo-skin upon it: I took it up, and swarms of living creatures fell out of it, and the floor was literally alive with them.” Hoping to find more comfort in the lounge she went to the ‘ladies parlour’ – “a meanly-furnished apartment, garnished with six spittoons, which, however, to my disgust, did not prevent the floor from receiving a large quantity of tobacco-juice.”

After eating a meal, which Isabella did not describe as dinner, seated at a table of a hundred people (the one sitting almost next to her had killed a man in a duel that very day) she set out to find the other side of Chicago’s character.

“It is a wonderful place, and tells more forcibly of the astonishing energy and progress of the Americans than anything I saw. Forty years ago the whole ground on which the town stands could be bought for six hundred dollars; now, a person would give ten thousand for the site of a single store.” She marveled at the buildings: “lofty substantial structures of brick, or a stone similar in appearance to white marble, and are often six stories high.” The shops impressed her, particularly the outfitters. “Everything reminds that one is standing on the very verge of western civilisation. … Chicago is a vast emporium of the trade of the districts east and west of the Mississippi … and is supplied with all the accessories of a high state of civilisation” and ‘in everything that contributes to ‘real life and comfort’, will compare favourably with any city in the world.”

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Today, Chicago looks after himself. His tall slim body is kept firm and youthful by careful, but expensive, eating and drinking as well as regular time with his personal trainer. In summer he looks unperturbed by the heat and the icy winter wind leaves him unruffled. Chicago knows his future looks secure. He is a fine, entertaining fellow and useful to have as a friend, but be cautious not to be taken in by his affable manner. His darker side is still there. He does not appreciate being challenged and makes a dangerous, merciless enemy.

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Chicago is well summed up in the words of that early tourist, Isabella Bird: “… I fancy that Chicago is more worth a visit than any of the other western cities. Even one day at it was worth a voyage across the Atlantic, and a land journey of eighteen hundred miles.”

Boston Massachusetts

 

Boston may not be young but she is as handsome, bold and confident now as she was in her youth. She is still much admired for her fine features, her bearing and her magnificent attire. Although she is obviously wealthy, she is solid, established money. She takes care never to flaunt this wealth in a vulgar way. Everything about her person and her surroundings is expensive, well kept, maintained and manicured. In her speech she still enunciates words as heard in upper circles of the old mother country. In manner she is polite, soft spoken and courteous to all. Boston is educated and well read, with an excellent knowledge of the classics, art and world literature.

Boston did offer us one of her many informative guides to but my friend and I chose to get to know her on our own. We saw the impressive Massachusetts’ State Legislature in the distance and enjoyed the public gardens with their swan boats, so reminiscent of Hanoi.

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State Legislature

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City Park

 

We discovered the Athenæum built in 1807 to form “an establishment similar to that of the Athenæum and Lyceum of Liverpool in Great Britain; combining the advantages of a public library [and] containing the great works of learning and science in all languages.” Today this ‘Athens of America’ houses half a million books in lofty rooms adorned with white marble classical sculptures and portraits of Boston’s illustrious associates, both past and present. Here she has long enjoyed holding soirees, and these are well attended, even though there are now people who consider these events outdated, or are not interested in coming through the Athenaeum’s red and brass-studded front doors.

Boston has a wide circle of both friends and acquaintances, including presidents, royalty, artists, musicians and authors. She enjoys making them feel at home. For the past 160 years the Parker House Hotel has been her favorite place to accommodate visitors and to entertain her residents. Here she serves fine European cuisine (with the addition of the Boston cream pie) and the best of French wine with crystal, china and silver to match, creating an atmosphere of old world sophistication. Jacques Offenbach Parker so enjoyed the hotel’s soft white bread rolls that he composed and sang a humorous verse in their honor.

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Shaping Parker House rolls

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Parker House rolls ready for baking

 

Charles Dickens enjoyed the rolls when he resided in the hotel for two years, during which time he wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’. John F. Kennedy chose Parker House to announce his candidacy for Congress, as well as to propose to Jackie and hold his pre-nuptial bachelor party. Celebrated people feeling at home in Boston’s elegance.

IMG_1110But Boston doesn’t only associate with the rich and famous. She also has a place for more ordinary folk, or those later to achieve recognition. Ho Chi Minh came here as a young man when he was still known by his family name, Nguyen Sinh Cung. Working on ships he had made his way to Europe and later to the USA. Boston employed him as a pastry chef in the Parker House Hotel for two years. The marble table where he worked is still in the hotel’s basement kitchen and a hundred years later, in 2012, the Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam, Vu Van Ninh visited it.

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The table where Ho Chi Minh made pastries

In the same hotel Malcolm X (then known as Malcolm Little) worked in the 1940s as a humble busboy in the dining room. The hotel has also slept an assassin. John Wilkes Booth stayed there the night before he shot Abraham Lincoln.

Exploring Boston’s streets, we bought fruit and snacks from the tiny St Luca’s Market, where the young John Kennedy stopped to buy a sandwich on his way to school.

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In China Town we wandered through a cluttered emporium selling floating scarves, real horsehair paint brushes and sweet scented incense. We queued to slake our thirst and hunger on spicy wontons filled with crab, pork and mushrooms in the boisterous Gourmet Dumpling House and, with our energies revitalized, set off to experience Boston’s more recent accomplishments.

After wandering through busy narrow roads we found Congress Street and the Waterfront. Crossing the harbor at the mouth of the Bass River we admired the tall ships, which once brought Boston so much of her wealth, but also troubles. In 1773 merchants, disgruntled at the taxes their British master was imposing, tipped chests of tea into Boston’s harbor. It wasn’t long before the Colonies were free of the domination of their distant overlord.

IMG_1117It is around the harbor area that Boston shows her more modern side and it is here that she chose to put the Institute of Contemporary Art.

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Here, two current exhibitions were both captivating and diverse. ‘The Visitors’ by Ragnor Kjartansson, filmed in the large mansion of Rokeby Farm in New York State, was a music and movie performance made by a group of musicians from Iceland. Portrayed as a group of squatters, they practice music and lyrics in the faded splendor of various rooms in the house, while listening to each other through headphones. At the end of an hour of engrossing film and music the audience watches the performers come together on the verandah, celebrate their musical achievement, and leave by walking down to the Hudson River.

Jim Hodges’ exhibition ‘Give More than you Take’ was a retrospective of 25 years of his work. Using mostly simple materials – paper napkins, parts of silk and paper flowers, denim cloth, mirrors, paper cutouts, scarves, pencil and ink – he achieves both two and three-D images relating to human conditions, particularly love, death, peace and anger. It was an exhibition to spend time in and to absorb. Afterwards, uplifted, but at the same time exhausted, we sat, both in the glass-enclosed upstairs gallery and then on the bleachers below, watching the harbor activity.

Harbor viewReturning to the Boston of her youthful days, we walked through leafy residential streets, aptly named after their pavement shade. In Chestnut Street we visited a Quaker Friend’s House, with its inviting balustrade from the street and its tree-shadowed back courtyard (where preparations were being made for a wedding). We squeezed into a tiny elevator to visit the upper floors. The faded comfort of the furnishings, along with welcoming olfactory sensations of antique leather, drew us into the library. We resisted lingering here so as not to be late for a tasty shared supper with the residents.

In the soft light of an early autumn evening we said farewell to Boston and thanked her for her hospitality. She will be remembered for her style and grace that elsewhere have disappeared.

City Acquaintances: Memphis Tennessee

I recently travelled in the USA mostly by train or by air so I saw little of the rural areas or the vast interior. My main impressions were of the cities I visited. In the brief time I was there, each city seemed to me to take on a personality and become an acquaintance. These are my impressions of those I briefly met.

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Memphis is fun to spend time with and is one of those people whom when you first meet, you feel you have known for years. He pulls you in and demands that you experience his life with him. He mixes easily with folk of humble origin, encourages those with talent and aspirations and shares their fame and fortune, their sorrows and fears as if they were his own. He is aware that many names that become known worldwide started out being famous only in his backyard. When we met he told me I was in ‘the city of the three kings’, but would not explain why.

He took me on a whistle-stop tour of some of the sights one bright early autumn day. He was an entertaining companion and as we sped from one place to another he filled me on his past. Renamed by his adopting Irish parents after the capital city of ancient Egypt on the banks of the Nile, his youth was spent on and along the Mississippi River, that wide, but apparently lazy, river that gave the city its first life. On a rising bank far above the flood level, Memphis’s early childhood companions were the Chickasaw Indians. By the early 1800s the young boy became part of the United States and was given his present name. He made many acquaintances among those who came from Ireland and Europe, and rubbed shoulders equally easily with both the cotton plantation owners and their slaves. He watched the continual flow of river barges bringing in dark skinned labor and taking out white fluffy cotton. The barges are still there, although the cargo has changed to petroleum, fertilizer, grain and coal.

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As he grew up, music became a passion in Memphis’s life. He bubbled with excitement as he explained how he, an insignificant young man, gave a cultural identity to the American south as a center of African-American gospel, blues, jazz and soul. He absorbed the rich music of the workers who came at weekends from the cotton fields. It was not long before the music of B. B. King and his electric guitar became a great favorite. B. B. (Blues Boy) King was the first of Memphis’s “kings”.

Next my companion took me to Sun Studio – so much part of Memphis’s musical fame. It was here that his young friend Elvis made his first recording, a gospel song as a present for his mother. The studio recorded Elvis’s early hits and soon his silky voice was heard not only in America but also across the world. Jonny Cash was another of Memphis’s friends. Sun Studio is the same as it was in the 1950s: the microphone, the sound proof recording room with its window looking down at the artists, and the machine that created the vinyl recordings are all there. Memphis is proud of his success and is still very much involved in the music scene.

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We listened to gospel and soul from the local radio station as we sped in an elegant, if ostentatious, turquoise 1960s limousine on the highway to visit Graceland, the house of Memphis’s still missed friend, ‘The King’.

2014-10-04 02.14.44He told me of Elvis’s simple upbringing within the Assembly of God community where he learnt his earliest music. He reminded me of Elvis’s early close family life as an only child, his rise to fame, the adoration of his fans, the happiness of his marriage and the birth of his daughter Lisa Marie. His eyes clouded with tears as he went on to tell of the stress and temptations of The King’s music tours and movie making, the breakdown of his marriage and his dependency on drugs leading to an early death.

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Graceland has not changed since Elvis and his family lived there. It is not a large house and has a homely atmosphere while reflecting Elvis’s life style, fame and his flamboyant taste in both décor and clothes. The rooms of the basement are where he worked and entertained his friends. Here the jungle room was his recording studio, and in the bright yellow TV room he could watch three TV simultaneously.

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The tent like effect of the billiard room was created with hundreds of yards of fabric. Outside the house is the Meditation Garden, where Elvis often sat. His family and buried here and this is the last resting place of The King himself. Perhaps it is at Graceland that the true Elvis can be seen and this is what brings thousands of people, mostly the age or older than he would be if still alive, to Graceland.

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On the return journey to the city is was The King’s music we listened to but suddenly the sounds of Jail House Rock were cut short. I was about to be told about the third, but the most eminent, of ‘the kings’.

Memphis hung his head in shame as he recounted the last hours of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King, in the troubled days of the 1960s. We stood looking up at the balcony where King spoke his final words to the group of colleagues standing just where we were then.

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A single bullet from a room across the street hit the civil rights leader, and silenced the great orator and champion of rights for all African Americans. Behind the wooden balustrades of the balcony we looked into the simple bedroom of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel where King had been staying.

In subdued tones my companion explained that as a memory to Martin Luther King the National Civil Rights Museum had been built. This was where we would go now. It was a humbling experience to see events in large images on the walls, and to listen to the voices of marchers, orators and individuals. It was impossible not to feel the emotions that raged in all those involved in the struggle, whether they came from the underprivileged and oppressed, “the establishment” or the churches. These people’s fears, their setbacks and their successes become yours.

We read the words of the Rev King’s last sermon:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Walking out into the open and looking up once more at that wooden balcony of the Lorraine Motel was a reminder of both the past and the present.

The sun was setting as Memphis walked me to Beale Street, his favorite spot for whiling away an evening listening to aspiring young musicians playing in the numerous bars and nightspots. From the pavement tables outside the B. B. King’s Blues Club we watched African American boys doing acrobatics and break dancing to earn a few coins. Memphis has not lost his arty links and every month hosts a festival or event.

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I left my newfound friend as he continued reveling late into the night. When I commented to my taxi driver on the sizable police presence at both ends of Beale Street, he told me that the law allowed people to carry guns, but guns and alcohol were not a happy mix. I later learnt that Memphis is known for crime and violence. Thankfully he hadn’t shown me that side of his character. Perhaps if I’d thought more carefully about that slight bulge on his right hip, only partially hidden by his light seersucker jacket, I wouldn’t have thought him such an agreeable fellow.