The South 2015: Tuesday March 31st 2015: Lithonia, GA

As you drive into Lithonia, very few clues are there to convince you this is much more than a commuter town. A Wal-Mart ungraciously displays it presence and it is joined in its omnipresence by every brand of fuel or motor oil known in America as I am leaving the East Expressway. Tucked away in the soft rolling hills and hidden by the beautiful trees, Lithonia started its heydays with the construction of the Atlanta Augusta Railroad in 1845 to connect the quarries with the world. With the prospering of the local granite industry, the -what is now known as- Lithonia Historic District grew both in size as in local importance. Lithonia, or the city of stone, is home to a number of quarries.

I’m woken up by distant chirping of overactive birds welcoming the day. As I open my eyes I feel the sun gently poking me as if it was telling me to get out of bed. The terrace at the back of the house looks at the high but somewhat bald trees that mark the start of the Arabia Mountain Heritage Site. We’re heading into the woods today and want to save some time using the pressure cooker to cook the rice. The experiment, as it was more than once detailed by my Indian friends at work, was not meant to succeed. Not to blame the equipment, it did not reduce preparation time at all but took the cooking time from 40 minutes to an hour. At last, as Etta James would sing, my rice has come along. Eggs, rice, tomatoes and a mid morning sun provide a heavenly breakfast.

We’re all set for a walk to Arabia lake. The good part is, the trail we’re taking is only instances away from where we are currently residing. We head towards Arabia Lake and leave the big trail for smaller hiking trails. I’ve noticed the sun can hit your hard in Georgia, especially when you’re out walking. It’s a weekday and with most people at the office, the clouds and the distant threat of a thunderstorm, the forest is all ours. A small mob of deer sees us, just as we see them. Some of the young freeze as I search my camera. Other members of the herd just don’t care and keep on going.

We reach the lake as we see a wall partially destructed by time to generate a tiny waterfall and even more subtitle creek. As I turn right I see a landscape abundant in stone but poor in trees, dotted with dark red Diamorpha. Arabia Mountain is a monadnock and was one of the three quarries that were actively exploited until the late sixties, when it was no longer viable to do so. Stone was transported by rail from the quarry to supply the local market and by extension the entire United States. Parts of those railways have been converted into comfortable biking trails. Today, more than 30 miles of biking trails through nature, across historic sites and a monastery as a gateway to this area make this truly a unique experience.

After a long walk, I’m getting hungry. Time to go back and prepare dinner. Tomorrow we’ll visit Atlanta. I can’t wait to drink Peach Juice on Peachtree Avenue. However, I have been warned I would have a hard time finding Peach Juice in Georgia.

The South 2015: Monday March 30th, 2015. Brussels – Atlanta, GA.

Have ever noticed that the week before your vacation is often the busiest and more important week at work? All of a sudden everybody needs you, you are deemed irreplaceable and “who is going to do all the work while you’re gone?” is asked more than once during the daily coffee breaks leading up to your departure. Not that I am not flattered, but through the years I have learned that almost everybody is replaceable. I’ve been “replaced” in the past and so have many of my friends. I also learned that a visit to the doctor was in place to stop a sudden, but not entirely unexpected, infected toe nail that had returned from a long hibernation. The infection seems to wake up every time I am about to leave abroad on a trip where the main activity will be walking. My scheduled visit to the dentist was now to review her previous work as each time I took a bite the filling hurt. With half of my body aching from one or more ailments, a 32 year old octogenarian is ready for vacation.

I got an appointment with the doctor the evening before I took off for Atlanta. She seemed to be in the same kind as hurry as I was. She was about to leave on her annual ski vacation and a colleague had -unexpectedly-  referred the bulk of his patients to her. Different job, same issues. Her waiting room was full and patients still were coming in. She had a look at my toe and looked worried. I was prescribed antibiotics to stop the infection. I was somewhat relieved when I paid her. Her worried look didn’t ebb away as she called in the next patient.

The Atlanta morning flight was ready and after being scanned and searched for thing I do not possess nor should I ever want to travel with –except for a serious bottle of water–, I bought some delicious Belgian chocolates for my friends at the other side of the Ocean. Neuhaus is and will always be my favorite brand as their taste is neither to sugary nor is their chocolate too fat. A tad pricey, but when you compare them to other brands (such as Godiva, Marcolini, etc.) they stand out as the best, believe me. Of course, les goûts et les couleurs ne se discutent pas.

Captain Dave entered the plane. He was the Pilot and personally but casually informed us of the “current situation”. Polite and with the charm of a true Atlanta pilot he “could cut some corners” but it “still would take 9 to 10 hours instead of the usual 8+ hours due to a strike at the airport and a heavy head wind”. He and his co-pilot wanted to be home on time, preferable before 4pm, as they commute and didn’t want to be struck in traffic during the Atlanta rush hour. If we were nice and behaved, “they would keep on feeding us”. We all agreed. After all, only so few times a pilot informs personally all the passengers of a delay.

On board entertainment with Delta is absolutely fantastic. Yes, you can see the Four weddings and a funeral movie again should you so desire. So often during my youth this seemed to be the movie of choice during the trip, I now prefer the latest episodes from top HBO series. Today however, I continued to watch the seven part documentary on The Roosevelts. One family, two presidents. From different parties, from different times, they shaped the modern United States. It kept me going for over seven hours.

If there is one thing you have to know about me, it is that I like good food and a good glass of wine. Good food and enough food. The flight Brussels – Atlanta was being operated by Delta and all went perfect, if it weren’t that they offered one meal and one snack for about 9 hours of flying. The onboard entertainment might be one of the best, my stomach kept reminding me it also had a right to decent treatment.

First stop is Lithonia, where I will be staying at the house of a common friend. The first challenge is to find something to eat while driving towards, what can be considered as, an extended suburb of Atlanta. Snapfinger Road could be called “typical American”, with wide lanes crossing smaller entries or roads towards neatly newly built communities or providing access to community centers and churches.  In the most unexpected of places you find the best food. Neither a nice front nor elegant chairs to accompany an oak table. Takeaway Fish steamed and spiced up to perfection. A relief after nine hours of flying. Long live Google Maps and fellow diners’ reviews.

The South 2015: chronicles of the unexpected

Only so few times in a lifetime you take on a journey where you feel a chronicler and an explorer like Pedro Cieza de Leon. Open, inquisitive and with respect for local culture he wrote down his observations of what was then Peru. Not that I am about to detail an expedition with reports of battles, local power structures, fauna and flora, burial customs or observations of a civil war. But I am to share with you my experiences, insights and notions of my trip to Georgia, Louisiana and Florida. An expedition that takes you back into history, a trip that takes you completely off-road and back road to the road less traveled. An expedition, not a reality show, about real people who make today’s society. You won’t read any stories on Snooki, Jenni or Mike “The Situation”. We’ll talk about a thing “the union” seems to have forgotten all about: not the economy stupid, but its people.

The first seeds of this journey were planted less than a year ago in Paris, when I teamed up with a globetrotter and a curious mind like me. Dark brown skin, the delicate dreadlocks accentuate her inquisitive eyes. She is a Lawyer by trade, discoverer by profession. We met in Thailand in Chiang Mai on December 31st, when I saw her lighting her own lantern to celebrate the New Year.

After a delicious Vietnamese meal in one of the lesser touristic quarters in Paris, a kind gentleman with a white beard and a tangle of hair picked us up to go to a local café in the center of the city. Alas, I forgot the name and the exact place, but what I do remember is that the doors of the relatively small venue were all open. No front door, no back door, no window. For once, Parisian weather allowed the otherwise explicit border between the inside and outside to fade away and give way to the sound of blues and jazz mixed with the background noise of a vibrant nocturnal capital. Singer, Musician, Attentive Listener all sat together and shared a large but small table. Chairs were hap hazardous being added. A singer I never heard of, a drummer who had fame and a guitarist who was often in Brussels. I was introduced to a world that was completely new to me.

In the brasserie they had the best of lamb. Tasty, tender and it was shared with all participants. Food was served and I was introduced to Colin. The sound of the blues became a feeling, an emotion we all seemed to share. Colin and I got talking. About Belgium, how he served in the war, about his homeland, about his travels in the world. He spoke French and was from Louisiana. That is, French and the Creole language from his hometown.

The idea of visiting Colin in his hometown, Vacherie, in Louisiana took hold. I liked it, and so did my friend. I was warned though; visiting Colin is not an ordinary thing and I should prepare something. Recite a poem, sing music or play on the piano. I got searching and found “Louisiana Man” back in my music collection. Last February, we started planning.