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Ever the dutiful Canadians, we returned to Nova Scotia for the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday this year.  If you haven’t read any of the posts I have written of late, you can read about why and when the holiday is celebrated in the great white North in “First Frost.”

It is very different down here in Durham.  There are great piles of golden leaves scattered across the lawns, but there are colorful leaves still clinging to the trees.  Fall is a beautiful time of year here and it seems to last forever. American Thanksgiving has come upon us like a Macy’s parade, with much fanfare and advance publicity.

The day after Thanksgiving triggers the frenzy of Christmas shopping, of course, but Thanksgiving itself celebrates family gathering and food.  We seem to think the holiday is a license to stuff ourselves after we have stuffed the turkey. In the days when our Nova Scotia house was built, the holiday itself would have required a great deal of food gathering. Those days are long gone and the entire holiday season can now be weighted with the freight of gourmand guilt.

The turkey is an indigenous animal, although the wild turkey is so wary and elusive it seems like a distant relative to the huge birds in the supermarket.  Barbara Kingsolver spent months trying to interest her young turkeys in sex.  The miracle referred to in “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” is the natural insemination and hatching of a handful of chicks. Now that artificial insemination has become the norm, the species seems to have lost all interest in sex.  The male who showed the most interested in reproduction imprinted on her husband’s leg. I have never eaten a wild turkey, but we did have one that was capable of walking in the farmyard.  They are not such a rarity in Nova Scotia.

For the last few weeks here in Durham, the temperature has been fluctuating a fair bit, but yesterday it hovered around 60 degrees F in the afternoon (15.5 degrees C).  I’m going to risk the wrath of my Canadian readers by admitting to a luxurious indulgence that will be hard to come by up North.  My wife and I went swimming– in an outdoor pool. The water temperature was 80 degrees F (about 26.6 C).  The Duke Faculty Club lap pool open stays open until the middle of next week, so if any of you are desperate…..

The long Fall here in North Carolina is absolutely lovely, but the days are getting short and we are running out of our allotted time.  The blog should pick up steam again in January.  We’re heading for a place I haven’t been in forty years, back when bell bottoms were in fashion, the Beatles were breaking up and the Rolling Stones did free concerts.

Stay tuned for your ever faithful reporter, writing from London.

I got an invitation the other day to re-visit Biltmore.  My sister and I made a pilgrimage there in the Spring, but I never got around to writing it up.  The leaves will be turning now, and I’m sure the parkland is very beautiful.  Pretty soon they’ll be decorating for Christmas.

If you’ve been to Washington, DC any time in the last couple hundred years, you’ve undoubtedly wandered by the White House and been astonished at how small it is.  How could the First Family of our country get used to living in such a confined space?  For the Texans, especially, it must have seemed a very tight squeeze.  But then they had their other homes, their ranches, Camp David and a private jet to get out of DC.

Families like the Dukes, (who made a fortune with an addictive, but entirely legal weed), built their mansions in Durham or bought townhouses in New York and lived very well, thank you.  Unfortunately, the tobacco mansions in Durham were torn down to make way for office buildings or freeways.  Durham is very big on freeways.

The one man who made up for the lack of ostentatious palatial splendor in this state was a non-native.  His name was George Vanderbilt.  He was the youngest son of Cornelius, who, according to family legend, took a $100 loan from his mother and turned it into a fortune with a shrewd investment in a ferry service across the New York Bay.  He turned that ferry service into a fleet of steamboats, then invested in railroads when they were a license to print money.  Like James Buchanan Duke, Cornelius was a born money maker.

His youngest son, George was not particularly interested in the family business, but by the time he came along the family fortune was substantial.  George was an avid traveler and collector.  And he had a real nesting instinct.

When George visited Asheville with his mother in 1888, he fell in love with the natural beauty of the mountains of North Carolina.  He promptly began buying parcels of land and hired two of the most distinguished designers of the 19th Century to create his house and grounds.  It would be called Biltmore, from Bildt, the Dutch town where his ancestors had come from, and “more,” the old English word for open, rolling land.

Richard Morris Hunt and Frederic Law Olmstead designed an estate that would become the largest private residence in America.  It remains so today despite the Silicone Valley billionaires.  Work began in 1889 on a 375 foot, four story stone house modeled on the architecture of the French Renaissance.  The interiors were inspired by English country estates.  Setting an example that William Randolph Hearst would follow, George went on extended buying trips to Europe for art and furnishings.

photo courtesy of Duncan32205

Limestone was shipped down from Indiana, marble from Italy.  A private railroad spur was laid from the town to the Estate.  A kiln churned out 32,000 bricks a day and a woodworking factory sawed oak and walnut for floors and panels. Olmstead started terraforming some of the 125,000 acres that Vanderbilt accumulated, creating a 250 acre pleasure park and a series of gardens around the house.  He had a nursery created for the millions of plants he required.

After six years of construction, Biltmore was opened on Christmas Eve, 1895.  Three years later, George married Edith Stuyvesant Dresser in Paris.  Their daughter, Cornelia, was born and grew up at Biltmore. The  Vanderbilts  had a large staff, which is handy if one lives  in a house with 250 rooms.  There are 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, 65 fireplaces, three kitchens and an indoor swimming pool. There is a priceless collection of furnishings and art.  All the modcons available at the turn of the century were incorporated into the house– even an elevator.

The Estate is now managed as a private, for profit, family-owned enterprise by William Cecil, Jr.  great grandson of George Vanderbilt.  There are 1700 employees, which makes it one of the largest employers in the area.  The Biltmore has its own hotel on the extensive grounds, a winery and farm.  It is a pricey place to visit, but it still has over a million visitors a year.  Unless you are very lucky, you’ll be rubbing elbows with some 3,000 fellow “guests.” It’s no longer a place where you wander around with a glass of sherry, enjoying the amenities.

You are not allowed to take pictures inside,  so if you want to see the rooms on view you will have to plan your own visit.  You could always make me an offer for my souvenir book. It’s a hard cover, and it has William Cecil’s signature.  I’ve only got the one copy, but it you make it worth my while, I’ll scribble my name, too.  The pictures are really, really nice.

We are wrapping up the first phase of our stay in Durham and we have barely scratched the surface.  I’ve visited Chapel Hill twice, and I have yet to visit Raleigh, the state capital, which is only thirty miles from here.  I feel I may be failing to educate my readers about the Triangle area of North Carolina, but  it takes time to settle into a new place, to find a new doctor and dentist, to discover the things worth doing and seeing.  It is a process with which I am long familiar.  One step forward, two steps back.  It is the price one pays for geographic variety, the cost of being a nomad.

The two parts of North Carolina that attract tourists in droves are the mountains and the sea.  The state has been blessed with attractive proportions of both landscapes.  The Appalachians run up through the western part of the state and the barrier islands, the Outer Banks, maintain a tenuous foothold against the waves of the Atlantic.

In the last ten days, I have been to both areas, for very different reasons.  The first trip was easier in terms of distance and the driving, although the route finding was a little tricky.  I have invested in yet another GPS to replace the one I lost to the smash and grab man.  This one should help keep us on track. I am tempted to call this the land equivalent of the Bermuda triangle, since I discovered that I am not the only one who finds it impossible to get one’s bearings here.  I have adjusted the voice of the GPS to guide me in Italian, rather than English.  Silvia’s voice is pleasant, far gentler than her American counterpart, and if she does anything to bring back my Italian language skills I will be grateful.

The destination for our first significant outing was the coastal town of Swansboro, some three hours away by car.  The village lies about half-way down the North Carolina coast, below the bulge of Cape Hatteras, tucked in underneath the old town of Beaufort.  You can place it by its proximity to the Croatan National Forest and Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base.  Marines and marine life are the main focus of the people who live in Swansboro.  Camp LeJeune is home to some 40,000 Marines, so they have a significant impact on the economy and the lives of the local population.   Swansboro is home to boat nomads and fisherman as well.  The shrimping season will start soon.

A long lost relative had sent me an unabridged CD set of a book by Arthur Upfield, which made the drive pass very quickly.  Roger was astounded to learn that I had spent three years Down Under and never read any of Upfield’s books.  The author of the “Bony” books grew up in England but settled in Australia in 1910 at the age of twenty.  After the War, he immersed himself in the aboriginal culture and life in the Outback, then wrote a popular series of mysteries with a half-caste hero as the protagonist, a man with the unlikely name of Napoleon Bonaparte.

His books depict life in the forties and fifties, but the Outback changes slowly, so much of what he depicts is probably accurate to this day.  The “Bushranger of the Skies” had us both hooked.  Tony Hillerman credits Upfield with some of the inspiration for his own series of mysteries starring Jim Chee of the Navaho Tribal Police.  At a rest stop, my wife was so absorbed with the narrative that she felt we were back in Australia.  Everything around us was out of place.

Our journey to the North Carolina coast had a simple mission–  to enjoy a little rest and relaxation on the water.  Lamar Hudgens launched Barrier Island Kayaks fourteen years ago.  He offers kayak rentals, guided trips and instruction out of a building right on the water.  He is one of a handful of Americans qualified by the British Canoe Union with a five star rating, but we had not come to take advantage of his expertise on this particular trip.  We were there for the scenery, the paddling, and the zen-like calmness that comes when you are out on the water and into the rhythm of self propulsion.

The Waterway Inn is literally right next door, so we were able to check in, change clothes, grab some lunch and get out on the water by mid-afternoon of the same Saturday we departed from Durham.  With Bob Patterson as our guide, we paddled through the marsh lands and hunted for sharks teeth on one of the islands close to town.  We learned to identify birds and get a feel for the tide.  We learned to dodge the maniacs on jet skis.

Sunday morning after breakfast, Bob led the way toward Bear Island.   The trip out to the uninhabited barrier island was mesmerizing, offering us a variety of birds and seascapes, and we were fortunate in our timing, having the benefit of a returning tide on our way back.  It is like being carried on the back of a giant whale, being pushed by the sea.  Green turtles, loggerheads and even giant leatherbacks lay their eggs on the island.  I am glad there are no lights to distract them, that their offspring will be able to make their way easily back into the ocean.

I hate to visualize them making their way through the black muck that is spreading like cancer in the Gulf, but I have no doubt it is happening.  Bear Island is beautiful.  Like the turtles that come back year after year, we too will return.

Most North American cities have been decimated by the surrender of public space to the automobile, the rise of suburbs and the spread of the big box stores.  Durham,  North Carolina is no exception.  You can walk the downtown in the middle of a working day and wonder if the city is inhabited.  There are no people in the streets.  Then you spot a restaurant with patrons inside and it dawns on you that all is not as it seems.  There are signs of life, signs of urban renewal.  There are condo conversions in the works and people are moving back to the city’s core.  Thanks to the tobacco business, Durham was always a blue collar town, but those jobs have all moved on.  Ironically, the spectacular redevelopment called the “American Tobacco Campus” doesn’t allow smoking.

To learn a little more about this revival and sample some of offerings of the restaurants that have sprouted in the city in recent years, we signed up for a Taste of Carolina walking tour of Durham.  Joe and his partner, Lesley, are unabashed food junkies who are enthusiastic about the restaurants, farm markets and food makers in the tri-cities area.  On this particular Saturday, they are assisted by Dean, director of training for a wine distributor.  We meet nine other foodies from North Carolina and elsewhere outside the old Bull Durham building, adjacent to the new Performing Arts Center and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

We are soon on our way to “Toast,” a cosy, Italian inspired sandwich place.  It’s packed on this Saturday afternoon.  We squeeze around a handful of empty tables and are soon enjoying our first repast, a spicy lentil dish and goat cheese on toast.  It is delicious.  Our next stop is a spacious, combination gourmet food store/ cafe called “Parker and Otis,” jam- packed with foodstuffs and wine.

It is not far from Brightleaf Square, the first successful renovation of a tobacco warehouse complex in the area.  From there, we make our way down to a lovely restaurant near the farm market called “Piedmont”, named after this particular part of North Carolina.  Shrimp and minced clam on the half shell arrive at our tables, an introduction to their Mediterranean-inspired menu.

“LocoPops” is an intriguing start-up, launched four years ago by a Southern girl named Summer looking to escape from the corporate world.  She was inspired by two women in a Mexican craft shop to go south of the border, where she learned to make popsicles.  That was the beginning of a gourmet popsicle business, which has expanded rapidly, now boasting five locations in the tri-city area.  The popsicles come in water-base and cream-base flavors, and mind-bending combinations.  Wasabi and chocolate chip would seem to collide, but when you allow your taste buds to override the critical left brain, it is amazing what flavors can work together.

The next-to-last stop was one of the pioneers in the new wave of Durham’s downtown restaurants, “Rue Cler”.  It was inspired by the street in Paris bearing the same name, a market street not far from the Eiffel Tower.  We enjoy a respite from walking, our first glass of wine and a delicious salad.  When we leave, our group threads its way through one of the huge parking garages that litters the city and we gradually make our way back to where we started.

“Tyler’s Taproom” is located in the American Tobacco Campus complex.  Its specialty is tap beer from small, craft producers.  There are sixty to choose from, so a lot of the fun is reading through the extensive menu.  Joe is generous to a fault, and I enjoy a full glass of Belgian beer after the sample glass included as part of the tour.

In our afternoon of wandering, we have skipped over some of the city’s renowned restaurants, but it has been an eclectic introduction graced with southern hospitality.  If it takes restaurants to revive a city, I’ll do my best to help them out. Whenever and wherever I can, I’ll walk or take my bike.

How else can you work up an appetite?

After the long haul flight from Melbourne, Australia to Halifax, Nova Scotia at the northeastern point  of North America, heading down to Durham, North Carolina would seem to be dead easy.  There are no direct flights, but an itinerary through Washington DC was the next best thing.  We were going to need a car in Durham, however, and the only way to get one there was for me to drive down.

At one point we contemplated a rendezvous in our nation’s capital.  I would leave a couple of days before she did.  We would catch up with friends in DC over dinner and sail on down to North Carolina together.  That was before our caretaker told us he was going to be in Acapulco, Mexico so he wouldn’t be there to close up the house.

When Richard is around to take care of things, we can walk away from the old place, but his absence changed things completely.  In January a big storm can knock down the power poles and in no time the pipes will freeze.  To hedge our bets, I would have to drain the plumbing, something I haven’t done in a long time.

It is some 1400 miles (2250 kms) from Grand Pre, Nova Scotia to Durham, North Carolina heading down through the mess of New York/New Jersey.  I wanted to avoid that, so we figured out an alternate route through the hills of Pennsylvania that added mileage but cut out some of the stress.

You can eliminate some of that distance by taking a ferry across the Bay of Fundy.  I decided to shoot for the very last sailing of the year. At noon on the 31st, when my wife and daughter were heading into Halifax for an evening of celebration, I poured antifreeze into toilets and drained a hot water tank.  I had just enough time to drive to Digby and catch the 4:30 sailing of The Princess of Acadia.  It would not be much of a New Year’s Eve, but it would put me in St John, New Brunswick before bedtime.

I had made only one serious “Down Under” driving blunder since returning to North America. I pulled out of our laneway on automatic pilot, heading out onto Highway One in the wrong lane.  The driver coming my way looked up in alarm, breathing a sigh of relief as I made a quick correction. I would have to remember NOT to do that on the long drive down south.  Americans are quite fussy about their cars and they carry guns.

In the end, the journey down the eastern seaboard was uneventful.  I did manage to get stuck in the sloping parking lot of the motel in St. John.  Fortunately, the Vietnamese owner was well equipped to get hapless drivers back on the highway.  I followed a snowplow for miles in northern Maine,
then a sand truck  when the plow pulled off.  Blizzard conditions and sparse traffic made me a little nervous without snow tires or a cell phone.

By the time I reached Marlboro, Massachusetts I was in the road groove.  The lady at the front desk said  there was a decent Italian restaurant at the local mall.  She neglected to tell me that the mall was huge.  I had to enlist the aid of a mall cop to locate the car.  He was smug on his Segway, zipping around like the Prince of Wheels.  I had made his day by looking lost and asking for help.

American road food has to be among the worst in the world, but the hospitality improved as I headed south. My wife’s route route planning and the GPS managed to keep me on track through New Brunswick and all seven states.  It was chilly when I finally arrived, but I left the real wintry weather up north.  There was a new pantry to stock and a new, old house to turn into a nest, a new triumvirate of cities to explore.

I’m in the heart of tobacco land, the home of Bull Durham.  It’s a whole new ball game.

Flickr Photos


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