Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Art of the Belle

Every endangered species deserves its day in the sun. We know the pandas are dwindling, sea turtles are fewer and far between, and the poor polar bears are on some very thin ice. But there is one rare creature near and dear to my own heart that deserves a little recognition today: the Southern belle.

When you hear the term Southern belle, more than likely the first image that springs to mind is Scarlett O'Hara, and things like fluttered eyelashes, coy giggles, and gentlemen callers. We've obviously moved out of the age of corsets and hoop skirts and ruffled parasols, but there are still a few Southern belles left walking among us. For some famous examples we all know, think of beguiling actresses like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and Reese Witherspoon. These women all possess a certain charm, exude a special warmth, and have an ease about them that sets them apart from the rest of the Hollyweird crowd.

I suppose some of you are going to tsk, tsk, and take issue with Reese Witherspoon being knighted a belle, considering that unfortunate incident last year when her hot temper introduced itself to the Atlanta police. While this is definitely not a belle on her best behavior, I am willing to forgive and forget Reese's drunk and disorderly moment in the spirit of Southern sisterhood and put it behind us. I think we have all been in danger of being overcome by mint juleps or champagne cocktails in the hot Southern sun at least once in our lives. Evidently, even our dear Reese is not immune.

What is it that makes a girl a belle? While charm is certainly part of the equation, what else does it take to earn that promising title? Simply being Southern, while it is a blessing in and of itself, is not enough. Let's take the ever-barefoot Britney Spears or the twerkingly talented Miley Cyrus into account. These "ladies"--and I use that term loosely--are in a league of their own, and it is not belle territory, I can promise you that.

Times have changed, and the art of being a Southern belle is different than it once was, but there are certain fundamental characteristics of this creature that will always ring true. The recipe for a true belle ultimately consists of equal parts tradition and good manners. It's not the Southern drawl that makes the belle (although that certainly never hurt, and if you've ever heard me talk you know I have a smidge of a drawl myself); it's the quality of her traditions. Around here, it's not so much what you do, as how you do it.

In the South, we mind our manners. We bring hostess gifts, we RSVP in a timely fashion, and we don't chew gum in public--because we avoid any risk of being tacky. A Southern woman would rather be called fat than called tacky. You see, a fad diet can probably help whittle your waist, but except through an act of divine intervention or a fairy-good-taste-godmother, tacky is forever. Think about that if you ever find yourself tempted to wear cheap white shoes (especially before Easter, Lord help your soul) or show cleavage in the daytime (never, evah, ladies).

Even though I am now well into adulthood, I still say ma'am and sir. Quintessential words used by belles include please, thank you, and excuse me. If and when a belle forgets someone's name, she gracefully covers herself by using terms like "sugar," "darlin'," or ""sweetie."

A good belle understands the importance of being charming and flirtatious, in a coy and innocent way. It is never belle behavior to throw yourself at someone, but Southern women know that there is no crime in being feminine. Just last month, I managed to bat my eyelashes, smile sweetly, and apologize my little way out of a speeding ticket. According to the officer, that was about $450 worth of Southern charm (perhaps having a lead foot is also a Southern belle trait). Never let anyone tell you that it doesn't pay to make eye contact, keep your cool, and be nice. After all, everyone knows you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

This next one, especially in my book, is a biggie. Southern belles send thank you notes. Let me stress this: handwritten thank you notes. It is never too early to send a thank you note, and it cannot, should not be done via email, or--heaven forbid--text message. I was horrified several months ago when a new neighbor texted me a thank you for a pie I brought over as a welcome gift. Not only that, but at the time I had not yet been forcibly shoved into the world of the iPhone, so she unknowingly sent it to my landline. The answering machine in our kitchen was blinking, and I pressed play only to hear a robotic voice stammer in broken phrases: "Thank you...for the...peanut butter pie. It was...great and we appreciated...it...so...much." It was horrifying. The experience scarred my psyche and I haven't been able to make a peanut butter pie since. If you have moved into my neighborhood recently, I apologize for my lack of hospitality; I am suffering from PTTD--Post Tacky Text Disorder. I would rather have been ignored or insulted, because that is certainly no way of being thanked.

Southern belles know that it's important to look the part, and that means dressing up. If you attend a college football game and there is a chance you could be mistaken for a member of the coaching staff, you are not a Southern belle. You may be a lovely, wonderful person, but not a belle. Mind you, it doesn't have to be an actual dress; Southern belles know how to harness the power of lip gloss and a cute pair of shoes. My mother won't walk her dog in clothes that don't match her sneakers. I, personally, have been taught that an ear without an earring is naked. You will not catch a belle in Walmart in her pajamas. Some of us still enjoy the phenomenon of big hair (I know I certainly do), while others prefer a more simple look. No matter what her personal style, a belle always makes sure to put her best foot forward.

I can't discuss the Southern belle without also adding that they are undoubtedly feisty. In the South, there may be times when we are down, but we are certainly not out. Belles possess a self-confidence that allows them to be spunky and assertive (notice I did not say aggressive). Southern women aren't shy about going after what they want, but belles know that it doesn't have to come as a winner-take-all prize. We keep our heads held high and avoid rudeness at all costs. Because of this confidence, this Southern strength, the true Southern belle also feels welcome to break the rules, and does so with a sense of good humor (and a quick glance that her mama is not around to see). There is no cookie cutter for creating a belle--just a world full of gracious, endearing, fiery women with a drawer full of good stationery and a purse full of lipstick options. Now, put on a little color, suck your stomach in, and go out there and give 'em belle!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

St. Thomas: Patron Saint of Foolish Travelers

I want to tell you a story. A tale of madness and macabre, of tragedy and terror. Oh, wait. It's just our St. Thomas vacation. Let me preface what I'm about to say with this: we are laughing about the trip. Both Clint and I realize that this is a luxurious problem to have, and I don't expect any sympathy. After all, being able to say, "We spent six days in on a Caribbean island and kind of hated it" isn't really a hardship. But it did sort of feel like one while it was occurring.

To get from Charlotte to St. Thomas, I knew we would fly first to San Juan, Puerto Rico and then take a second flight over to the island on a smaller plane. What everyone failed to mention is that the "smaller" plane was a 10-passenger Cessna with me in the co-pilot's seat (literally--they have to have short people up there). Before you can board this little model airplane, you have to tell the airline what you weigh. I am bothered by this for the obvious reason--um, rude, much? And also because they must be aware that everyone lies about their weight, right? I prayed they would know to add in extra vanity pounds to compensate. All of our carry-ons and bags had to be weighed, and when we boarded, the guy on the tarmac had to tell everyone exactly where to sit to make sure the weight was evenly distributed. I have never actually been hang-gliding, but I imagine it has to be very similar to the Cessna experience. I spent the entire flight wondering when a gust of wind, or--God forbid--a bird, was going to send us plummeting into the ocean.

A harrowing half hour later, we landed in St. Thomas and got a taxi to our hotel. The taxi situation there is a bit different; a private taxi ride will cost you an arm and a leg, so the economical route is to take one with other people. Which means you not only get to enjoy scintillating chit chat with strangers every time you need a ride, you also get to stop every place the other tourists on your van wish to stop. There is also a nifty option called a general taxi. This is essentially a flatbed truck with benches welded on, covered in a canopy--just to make the experience really luxurious. Things are fairly spread out among different areas of the island, so you can expect a good half hour to get from point A to point B for most places you will go. And since St. Thomas is mountainous, the rides include hairpin turns, narrow passes, and steep climbs up and down hills. If you love motion sickness, you are going to love riding around St. Thomas.

We arrived at the Ritz-Carlton a little weary from a day of travel, but excited about finally being in paradise. We were shown to our room, which was fantastic and had a beautiful ocean view. The bellman did explain that September is a slow month in St. Thomas, so a few of the hotel restaurants were closed or had limited hours. Sure, no problem, right?

We found out the next morning that we had one option for breakfast--the only open restaurant at the hotel that offered food that time of day. I guess that made the decision easy. We walked into the room that housed the breakfast buffet and immediately noticed flies. Everywhere. All over all the breakfast foods that were out for our dining pleasure. Deep breath. We decided to put away our diva attitudes and just choose from the foods that were in covered dishes and get on with our day, although this was not exactly what comes to mind when you think of putting on the Ritz (Carlton).

After our delicious(?) lukewarm breakfast,  we went back to our room to get ready for some time by the pool. I hopped into the huge shower with the rain showerhead, and that's when I saw it. "Clint?" I asked. "Have you been in the shower since we got here? Like, maybe to shave or something?" The hubby assured me that he had not set foot in the shower, since we had barely been in our room for twelve hours at this point. That's when I had the gag-inducing realization: I was staring at a soap dish and shower wall covered in hair. Apparently, the previous guest had shaved what I am fairly certain was their nether regions--and it was still in our shower. A stranger's discarded bikini line was staring me in the face. Ew, ew, horror. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. Clint called and specifically told housekeeping about our situation and that our bathroom needed to be cleaned thoroughly ASAP.

We changed into swimsuits and soldiered on, ready for some rest and relaxation poolside. Funny thing though: the hotel was doing some construction to the facade of one of their buildings, conveniently located right beside the pool. We spent the afternoon trying to talk over the soothing, constant sounds of jackhammering and skill saws. But it's when we left the pool and went back to our room that the final straw came.

Thankfully, housekeeping had been to our room and it had been cleaned. We were willing to try and forget that whole hairy (pun very much intended) shower incident and put it behind us. Except that, when we checked the shower, the hair was still there. Unbelievable. We spoke with the manager and checked out less than an hour later.

We checked in at the only other big resort on the island, the Marriott, which is where we stayed for the rest of our vacation. Was it paradise? Well, not quite. The walls were paper thin and we could hear every conversation taking place on our floor, which meant we got to enjoy waking up to the friendly banter between the hotel staff out in the hallway every morning starting around 7:00 a.m.. Granted, we were semi-awake anyway, since I am fairly certain our mattress was made of cardboard. By night two, I felt like I was part of a sleep deprivation study. Lest you think I am whining, I am even going to omit the details about the sand flies and unairconditioned bathrooms.

Now that you know about the hotel situation, let's talk about the best part of every vacation: the food and the drinks. We did find one awesome place called Pie Hole, which served the best pizza either of us has ever eaten (and believe me when I say we have plenty of experience to draw from on this). We also happened on a place right next door to Pie Hole called Rum Shandy that was amazing. Every ingredient in our shandy cocktails was fresh, housemade, and delicious. Our fantastic bartender made us some freshly squeezed liquid sunshine one afternoon after a round of shopping in downtown St. Thomas (which didn't take long, since it was September and practically everything was closed. They should really post signs that say: Welcome to St. Thomas--unless it's September, in which case, we are CLOSED).

Everywhere we went, we were asked if we had taken the ferry over to St. John for dinner. Multiple people back in Charlotte had told us it was a must-do, and even though we were a little adventure wary at this point, we decided to go ahead and make the trip, which required another half hour of those glorious taxi rides, plus a 20-minute ferry ride to the island.

When we got to the dock at St. John, everyone scattered in all directions. Assuming this was a tourist spot (after all we had been told about it), we looked for signs, or signs of life--and couldn't really find any. Once again, everything seemed to be closed. We found one raucous restaurant with colored Christmas lights flashing that seemed a little scary, and one other restaurant with some guy singing acoustic elevator music. We wandered around several blocks, where at one point I almost tripped over a guy sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk, and finally came upon two policemen shining flashlights into a house where several gentlemen seemed to be um, smoking something. One of the police officers immediately came over to us and confirmed our suspicions that we did, in fact, need to get the heck out of there, and so we gave up our wild goose chase and went back to wait on the ferry. A homeless woman kept us company while we waited by yelling at us over and over again to buy her wilted flowers so she could eat, so the time really flew by. We wound up back in St. Thomas, having bar food at a joint called Caribbean Saloon. That side trip was a total success.

One of our most anticipated dinners was at the hotel restaurant, Havana Blue. It touts itself as Cuban fusion food and has gotten rave reviews from Caribbean Travel magazine and Fodor's. I put on a cute new sundress, but later realized that I was way overdressed. You would assume a certain level of attire at a fine dining (read: expensive) restaurant, however, as I have told friends, the dress code in St. Thomas is clearly a "My First Myrtle Beach T-shirt" and a pair of Keds. Our food wasn't mind blowing, but it was good. I guess. I liked it better before I woke up several hours later throwing up, with chills and the shakes. I suppose you could say I was feeling Havana Blue.

Our last dinner of vacation was at Mafolie Hotel & Restaurant, which is perched high on a cliff and has gorgeous views of St. Thomas. They also have several very friendly cats that roam the dining room and brush your leg while you are eating your meal. After four or five encounters, Clint did ask our waitress if it might be possible for "Barbie" the cat (real name) might go somewhere else while we finished the Mrs. Smith's pie they served us for dessert. My apologies that our kitty companions didn't make the picture from our dinner that evening.

Finally, the day came for us to depart. We were told at the airport that, due to mechanical problems, our flight had been delayed for five hours. Sweet mother of all things holy, we were just trying to leave and were now stuck in the San Juan airport for a grand total of eight hours. In an effort to feed ourselves and kill some of the slowly passing time, we attempted to find a sit-down restaurant and grab dinner. As luck would have it, the only such place in the airport was Jimmy Buffett's Air Margaritaville restaurant. You really haven't enjoyed a dining experience until you've been able to do so while listening to the same six or seven Buffett songs on a continuous loop. I know Jimmy likes his with lettuce and tomato, Heinz 57, and french fried potatoes. I guess when I ordered my "Cheeseburger in Paradise" I should have specified that I also like mine not freezer burned, without brown, wilted lettuce, and not with a patty the size of a half doller on a Frisbee-size bun.

Around 7:45 Sunday night, we boarded our plane and headed toward Charlotte. As a final vacation luxury, we made up for the fact that our dinner was inedible by enjoying some gourmet Cheddar Chex Mix and a pack of Twizzlers. It's hard to give up that kind of pampering, but I think I can honestly say we were relieved to finally get back home. We had thought that a bad day at the beach is better than a good day in the real world. Or is it? I realize everyone has a different idea about what makes the perfect vacation. Personally, I don't want to know what it's like to live somewhere; I want to know what it's like to vacation there. I suppose we like being pampered a bit, feeling indulgent, and maybe not seeing wild roosters fighting on the side of the road across from the restaurant where we're having lunch (yes, it happened). I can truthfully say this year's trip was a real adventure. Bless our hearts.

"You got to be careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there."
-Yogi Berra