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Excerpts of Virginia Travel Diary
State 42 - VIRGINIA 14 FEB 00 - 18 FEB 00

 

Trains keep a'comin' all night long

Every campground we visit is located near railroad tracks so that we frequently go to sleep to the ryhthm of the muffled sounds of trains rattling on the nearby rails. But this is the first time we actually have a train running right through the campground, right past our window. Just about every hour or so we're treated to views of passenger trains, coal trains, and freight trains whistling by the trailer park. And I love it. I really do. Whenever I hear a train coming down the tracks I rush to the window to watch the passengers or the loads of cargo ride by -- right before my wondering eyes -- and I fantasize for a moment about their destinations. Are the passengers going to work in Washington D.C.? Are they traveling on vacation? Are they going to visit relatives? And, where is all that coal going? What contents to those other boxes contain? Trains . . . they're so much fun. I hope they'll always be around, always be a part of American culture. They're so romantic.

A cultural study in produce

There are several grocery stores here in Williamsburg but I choose to shop at a place out of my way because it has a "Natural Food" section (what food products are in the other aisles surrounding this section?) The store bears the unfortunate name of "Ukrops." Is it a family name or a cute spelling of United Crops? -- don't know. Don't like the name. But I'm shopping here because of the Natural Food section, which means I can get organic tomatoes, eggs, butter, milk and other things unlaced in pesticides, hormones or antibiotics.

One of the excitements of living in each new state is my first visit to the grocery store because I get a genuine insight into the people of the area . . .the foods they like, the way they do business, and they way they shop. The manners and temperament of the local people are baldly revealed at the grocery store. And in this case, Virginians get an A+ in manners. Their manners are impeccable. Not only do Virginia shoppers make room for other cart-pushers, but they do so kindly, politely and with a pleasant smile. It's one thing to be polite, quite another to be happily polite. In previous grocery store experiences, shoppers leave their carts carelessly blocking the aisle, forcing me to say, "Excuse me, may I have room to pass, please?" And when I have to ask, people respond quite rudely to the intrusion. But not here in Williamsburg. In fact, I don't even have to ask. These shoppers are aware of others around them and -- gladly -- move their cart before it becomes a problem. Even at the competitive tomato bin where rival shoppers scrutinize the tomatoes and elbow out other shoppers from getting the ripest, plumpest tomatoes. Not here. Even at the contested tomato bin, Virginians politely make room for the newcomer. It makes shopping much more relaxing because the other shoppers are so pleasant. Their manners are so fine, so refined, that I feel rather inadequate and go home to brush up on what Mother taught me years ago. I'm painfully aware of my rusty manners, my rushed, brash behavior. My Northern practicality has usurped my politeness. Here in Virginia, at the onset of Southern graciousness, I find myself calming down, I feel more placid in the presence of this polite society. It's wonderful.

There is one thing about this grocery store, however, that I don't like and that is that they assign employees to take the carriage to your car for you. They did this in San Antonio, too, and I didn't like it there either, because the task is usually assigned to retired people who are working part-time to "get out of the house." I'm uncomfortable with an old, thin, frail man helping me with my cart and loading my groceries. To me it's very awkward, when it is I who should be helping him. Today I decline the offer for help with my cart, but the man will not take no for an answer. In fact, he seems insulted at my refusal. Now I have mixed feelings. I don't want to put him out of a job, but I find the whole situation uncomfortable, uneasy, unnecessary. Reluctantly I agree to have this old man push my cart. He walks slowly, so I walk slowly beside him a painful, awkward silence. Out of the blue, (as if I'd been talking for an hour and now he feels it's his turn to speak), he says to me . . . "Yea. I want to marry a woman who already has children." Huh? Where did that come from? He continues, "That way I'll have an instant family I can raise. I'm looking for a woman with young children, mind you, not teenagers. I want to experience their growing up." I don't know how to respond to this elderly gentleman so I mumble something weak, like "that's nice." Yet I'm engulfed in sadness for him. Does he have no family now? How did he live this long without every marrying? Or did he marry, but have no children, and now his wife is dead and he has no one? (Could this be Ken many years from now, when I'm dead?) I look at this man's sad, worn, wrinkled face, rimmed with thick eyeglasses that make his eyes seem abnormally tiny. Gosh, he's awfully old. Will he really meet someone at this late stage of life? Sad. I shuffle sadly beside my wife-seeking companion. Bundles are loaded into the truck. Ruby is weighted down with groceries and I'm weighted with a heavy sadness for this man's unfulfilled dream, and the unlikelihood of it being realized.

Son of Thunder

Today at Colonial Williamsburg we attend somehting called "A Private Audience" with Patrick Henry. Each week the historic town of Williamsburg holds different daily events . . . governor's balls, demonstrations of 17th century crafts, a walk with Thomas Jefferson . . . stuff like that. There are also "private audiences" with famous Williamsburg figures such as the last British governor, Thomas Jefferson and today, Patrick Henry. An actor who has studied Patrick Henry, "The Son of Thunder" is scheduled to give a speech and the audience is invited to ask questions. I'm thrilled. I had a schoolgirl "crush" on Patrick Henry, and in the sixth grade when we read his "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech, I cried. Sobbed, reallh. Tears streamed down my embarrassed, prepubescent face. I recall saying to myself at that time, "That's the kind of man I want to marry." Not so much a man who defies death, but a man who is full of conviction. Today I get to meet my hero -- and ask him questions too. At the appointed time we take a seat in a room at the Governor's Palace and wait. "Here he comes," Ken whispers to me, pointing to the side window. I peer through the old-fashioned window panes and see my hero walking across the lawn, cape blowing in the wind and rain. I'm as excited as if I were meeting the President of the United States. Stupid, really, cuz it's not Patrick Henry at all, just a guy who's dressed like him and has studied him. But that's good enough for me. Throughout his speech I'm spellbound. Breathlessly, greedily I grasp his every word. After his speech we ask questions. The crowd asks some great questions, everyone pretending to be an audience in the year 1775. Fun, fun, fun. I ask a few questions, too, about his meeting with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. The question I ask is "What is the temper of the men now that the meeting is over and all viewpoints have been heard? Are they hopeful or are they more inclined to go back to their respective colonies and prepare for war?" He answers diplomatically, like all politicians, saying that one always hopes to avoid war, but must be prepared. Anyway it was fun to meet my hero. And I learned something, too. I had always heard that Patrick Henry was "great at tearing down governments, but not very good at building them." This can't be true. After all, he served as the first governor of Virginia (during wartime, mind you) and was re-elected five more times, having turned down the sixth offer. So he couldn't have been too bad at governing. After the crowd dispersed Patrick Henry stayed a bit longer talking to a small crowd. I went up to congratulate him on a good performance and to tell him how, in the sixth grade I cried over Henry's speech. The Patrick Henry actor replied, "Yes. He had that affect on people. I've read accounts of meetings where the clerk, so taken by Henry's words, forgot to take note. He he just sat there gawking." Then the actor portraying Henry said, "You know, Patrick Henry was different from his contemporaries, like Thomas Jefferson, who seemed conscious of the historical importance of the events and the importance of their words, and kept careful records, journals and diaries for posterity. But Patrick Henry never saved anything. Nothing. In fact, he wrote a beautiful letter to his nephew, giving him advice about the future and then instructed him to burn the letter. The only reason we know about his speeches is because other people who were in the audience kept records of them." So, it wasn't that Patrick Henry was careless about his keeping his words for posterity. No, he intentionally destroyed them. I wonder why? Was he humble? Or was he a coward, afraid Britain would retaliate some time in the future and persecute the rabble-rousers? Who knows? But thank God that other people kept track of this remarkable man's speeches.

Tour Guide versus Bore Guide

There is something quite annoying about some of these tour guides in Williamsburg -- or, as I'm often corrected, "historic interpreters." They're supposed to play the part of being in the 1700s, but some of them take the role playing way too seriously, making the visit frustrating and fruitless. Here are two examples, one good tour guide, one bad.

The wigmaker, (the good guide.) We enter the wigmaker's shop on the main thoroughfare. Like the other artisans in the shops that line this street, she's dressed in 18th century clothing and practices her craft with tools of the period. She warmly welcomes our interruption, invites us inside her shop and begins telling us about th wig she's working on, who the customer is, and why she's making the wig a certain way for a certain gentleman's taste. As she weaves the wig, she weaves in and out of the 18th century and the present so that we can see the differences in time. It's easy to see what was needed at that time, and why. She shows us her tools, and hair samples for different wig styles. We walk out of her shop, thoroughly enlightened. Our brains contain a hatboxfull of information on wigs: how they are made, where the material comes from, who the wigs are made for, and why. The wigmaker is a wonderful storyteller, weaving historic figures into the picture, recounting what kind of wig Jefferson wore, and why, compared to the wig the British Governor wore and why. She also throws in some humorous anecdotes about lice, "flipping one's wig" and going to the "powder" room. The visit is truly enjoyable.

The milliner, (the bad guide.) I'm interested in fabric and sewing, so I can't wait to see the milliner's shop. But the person guarding the door tells us that a tour is already in progress and we'll have to wait outside, "just five minutes, they're wrapping up now," she says as she motions to the people inside that others are waiting to come in. We wait 10 minutes. The guard at the door advises us to wave in the window so they'll know we're still waiting outside, which we do. "It doesn't usually take this long,"she apologizes. Another 10 minutes goes by. The door opens a bit as if someone is coming out then closes again. Another 10 minutes goes by. (Did I mention it's freezing cold and raining outside while we wait?) Finally we give up and tour the public jail instead. We come back an hour later and there is no guard at the door so we enter the shop to meet the milliner. Like the other artisans and tradespeople, this woman pretends she's a real milliner from the 1700s. She also pretends that I'm a colonial customer who just walked into her shop. So I'm forced to play along. (Oh, okay, I'll try to act Colonial.) She greets me and asks what I want. What I want is to learn about the fabric, where it's made, what it costs, who her customers are, etc. What I want is the same wonderful experience we had at the wigmaker's shop. But in order to get any information, I must pretend to be a customer wanting a dress made. And when I step out of my role and ask a question in today's terms, the milliner just stares at me, perplexed. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she says in a fake British accent. (Actually, I'm not sure what the accent is. A lot of the tour guides, er, excuse me, Historic Interpreters, put on this weird accent, kinda British, kinda Irish. I don't know if it's supposed to be the way the colonists talked. And I'll never know, because these people won't step out of character -- not for a moment, not for anything -- to tell me why they talk the way they talk! It is so frustrating. And they act quite snobby too, putting on airs along with their fake accent. So, in order to find out any information, I have to play this silly game where I pretend I'm a colonial customer interested in having a dress made. I'm not an actress. Never was. Never want to be. Can't carry the role, because I lack imagination, and quite frankly, I lack the knowledge about 18th century milliners (which is why I'm here, in the first place, by the way). But the only way to get information from this woman is to struggle with the role playing. She is steadfast in her 18th century thinking. I want to shake her into the present and say, "Look! This is not a movie. It's real life. And I came here to learn. I don't want an Academy Award, I want to know about 18th century fabric and sewing techniques. For Education's sake, can you please step out of character for a moment and tell me what happened in a milliner's shop in the 1700s?" That's what I want to say, but I don't say anything. I'm too annoyed and frustrated with this obstinate woman. We leave the shop without any information about the milliner of Colonial Williamsburg. However, we do know lots about the woman who portrays the milliner . . . she wants to act, not teach.

The Miss Manners contest

I meet a tourist from New York City today and I remark about how polite people are around here. "Polite?" She asks in surprise. She pauses, reconciling her own personal interactions. "Polite!" She says again with a quizzical expression. "Do you really think so?" (Yes, I do.) But this tourist has had a different experience. "If they're polite," she remarks after considering the examples I provide as proof of polite encounters, "It's only to show off their manners." She explains. "They show off how well-mannered they are to make you feel bad about being improperly raised." I stop and recall all the polite people I had met at the grocery store. Yes. It did seem to be a contest of who could be the most polite, the most well-mannered. A bit of a rivalry as to who can showcase the best manners. Perhaps this tourist is right. But, even if she is right, so what? Even if that's the case and this is a contest of manners -- hey! -- count me in as an enthusiastic contestant, because I like the end result. It sure makes for a better shopping experience, better driving experience, better society all around.

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