Charleston. A Whirlwind Visit.
Charleston. Raina. Spoleto.
I’m told that it’s always best to start at the beginning. So, without being too sentimental, as “the beginning” makes this trip bittersweet indeed, here I was in Charleston to spend a few days with my friend Raina Rubin, and for us to enjoy the Spoleto International Music Festival together.
As luck would have it, flying out from LGA was an utter “you know what” show. The driver of the car service that took me there said that he calls it “La Garbage” – which I thought was odd and funny, until the drop off lanes for departures were closed, backing up the arrival pick up lanes, so he had to find a place to “dump me,” and on it went for at least 40 extra minutes. Thunderstorms prevented arriving flights from coming in, and then the thunderstorms got ahead of the planes, and prevented any planes from taking off—so no planes in and none out—you know how that goes.
Yet, just as we knew it would, the skies cleared and 3 hours later off we went. I was one of the first to disembark, and I was rushing ahead to meet Raina outside. I glanced behind me as I felt someone walking up close. I smiled and said, please walk ahead, and he said, “You’re in Charleston now. Relax, I don’t need to get there ahead of you.” OH, I thought to myself. (Those of you that know me, please stop laughing so hard about me relaxing … in an airport.)
Let me tell you something. He was right.
Raina was outside waiting for me. She had changed our reservation multiple times. Spoleto was officially starting the next day, and Raina had picked out a special place where we could talk, eat delicious food, and officially start our time together. Just a touch more of the back story, last time we went to Spoleto together was also wonderful. We attended with our husbands who had been friends since 10th grade, when Phil reportedly pushed Barry down a flight of stairs for apparently no reason, which was reciprocated we are also told. This was my first trip to Charleston since Phil passed away last Thanksgiving time.
And off we went to Zero George.
The restaurant at Zero George was fantastic and both Raina and I highly recommend it. We enjoyed their tasting menu, which is comprised of small plates. There are multiple options, including two different wine pairing choices. We chose the house recommended option—the food was eclectic, innovative, freshly sourced and divine. The wines were matched well, and were all selections that were new to us. Some of the exceptional dishes we sampled included the shrimp toast, pictured below, hamachi, grilled and glazed cobia, a beef Wellington with mushrooms and foie gras, oysters, and desserts that were sensational. Each small plate included a wine selection for tasting. Over the course of our meal which was about 2+ hours, the wine expert who introduced each wine told us we each drank about 2.5 glasses. We had asked because one of us, not mentioning any names, is a bit of a light weight in that regard, but we all did just fine. Photo credits to Zero George. All of these first photos are theirs, because, well, I forgot to bring my smaller camera from Brooklyn last time I was there. More about that in a moment.
Please click on the photos to enlarge. Clockwise from top left, sign at entrance, shrimp toast, fish of the day, egglplant mousse + caviar.
Spoleto begins each year on the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend and runs for 2 weeks. It is truly an “arts celebration,” incorporating music (all genre), theater, comedy, fine art, fine crafts, lectures, and much more. It’s spectacular. Its offerings include top “headliners” and the festival is unique in the way that it incorporates the “cutting edge” avant-garde as well as the classic. One thing I became very aware of, as I believe we met at least 15-20 people that were friends of Raina’s or her parents, or siblings, or people she has worked with… is how the people from Charleston love this festival, and there were generations of families there, with family members who have moved away coming home to attend with their parents and their children. It was wonderful and heart warming. Just a mention, the long term local families comprise a close community in Charleston. There are those that attended the Citadel, those that attended a specific church or synagogue, those that attended College of Charleston, etc. All were interwoven and seemed to know one another. Then, there are the people that locals call “from off.” (I loved it!) Those are the newly (under a decade) Charlestonians, many from Ohio, which seems to be some kind of inside joke, because there are signs that say “Go Back to Ohio,” but I think they are meant in jest. No doubt about it, Charleston is HOT real estate, and it is understandable as it is a gorgeous City that is walkable, with ocean beaches just 20 minutes away from City-center, a beautiful Harbor, fabulous food, and for the most part, great weather (I’ll tell you about the 100+ heat wave later!) I do digress—but I thought you deserve to know if you’ve read this far.
Back to the camera. Okay, I tried not to make this a big deal—please no eye rolls friends and family— but I asked, alright begged, Raina to make a quick stop at the Best Buy on our way into Charleston—it was right on our way from Raina’s which is just across the Ashley River, and I knew I could find an inexpensive functional camera there. I KNOW, I could use my iPhone, and I did when the new camera battery went dead and needed to be recharged, HOWEVER, I wanted to share Spoleto with all of you. So Raina did her job in prying me away from the only slightly smaller (read also only slightly less expensive) Canon. Between Raina and the “Best Guy at Best Buy,” pictured here, I landed a Fujifilm camera that fit in my pocket or smallest pocketbook, and I think was “decent.” “Best Guy” was charged with having me walk out of there with a battery with some juice, the sim card installed, and ready to go—all within 15 minutes and we made it. He was the best!
And downtown we went, to CRU Café where Raina had planned a late breakfast/early lunch for us. We ate outside on the porch, where I also had a chance to play with the new camera. Clockwise from top left, CRU sign, Pinckney House (Inn) across the street, beautiful Raina of inordinate patience with me fooling around with my new camera, railing basket of flowering plants, butter lettuce salad with grilled chicken, fried green tomatoes with pork belly croutons, a light bourbon honey syrup, and feta. Review: YUM!! Service and ambiance, also lovely. The porch was shaded and there was a gentle breeze. Please click on the images to enlarge.
Our first coincidence of the day happened here. As we were finishing our meal, Raina jumped up—her close friend Barbara Baker was waiting for a table with a few friends that also live in her building. They live in an area called I-on, just outside of the downtown area—maybe 10 minutes away and beautiful. We had plans to meet Barbara and her friend Mindy the next morning for breakfast and the Spoleto Outdoor Art Show. All of us, having no idea that they were in fact waiting for our table, continued chatting for a few minutes, when Mindy said, “Are you Sandy Reiner?” I said yes, and she said, “I’m Mindy Rosenthal, from East Meadow!” We hadn’t seen each other in decades!! She had moved to Charleston about 4 years prior from NYC, where we also both lived—but were not connected—although we both worked in banking and communications—well you get the idea. Pretty small world. She owns the apartment directly below Barbara, and they have become friends. And there we all were.
Raina and I gathered up our things and headed over to the Dock Street Theatre for the first Chamber Music performance of the Festival. The Chamber Music at Spoleto is renown. Raina’s Mama, “Te,” used to go every year—for probably as many as 20 years, to the Chamber performances sitting in the first balcony with her friends. In fact, when we got there, it wasn’t a minute before Raina saw a friend of her mother’s—along with her son and his family, and her daughter, Barbara, who Raina went to high school with. I mention the name Barbara because I met 5 Barbara-s while I was in Charleston—I thought unusual. Then there was the next coincidence. Raina and I settled in our seats. There was just one seat empty in our row to Raina’s left. I was sitting to her right. Just before the performance started, the person next to Raina took her seat—it was Libby, Raina’s friend from high school that she hadn’t seen in 15 years, and that had called Raina when she came in to visit her sister (she currently resides in Colorado) to get together with Libby and her sister Harriet with whom Raina has resumed friendship. We had plans to meet them for dinner that night! Small world indeed.
The performances were truly remarkable. All of the musicians were fabulous, with standout performances by Tara Helen O’Connor on the piccolo, Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, and cellist and composer Paul Wiancko.
Costanza’s commentary, personality, and voice— that served as an “instrument” of the highest quality and control— made this program extraordinary. The audience enjoyed the current, non-traditional selections as well as musical selections one would expect to hear. It was exceptional.
Photos, French Hugenot Church originally established in 1687, and now located across the street from the Dock Street Theatre, and the Dock Street Theatre entrance. Please click the images to enlarge.
We had just enough time to head back home to freshen up and change to meet Libby and Harriet for dinner. Just a note, even though Charleston was packed, parking was very civilized in that there is on the street parking, and also municipal outdoor parking lots all over that you pay by credit card, either automated or attended. The rates are reasonable (unheard of-cheap by NYC standards!) It was super convenient. Of course having Raina who knows her way around so well, and knew where lots were located made it even more convenient! Raina chose Fulton 5 where she had been many times for dinner. We had a great time, me meeting Libby and Harriet for the first time, and listening to them all reminisce. The food was again—delicious! Photos clockwise from top left, Fulton 5 sign, my dinner, the best grouper I ever had—sauteed lightly and served with a lemon butter sauce with jumbo lump crab meat over roasted fresh vegetables, Libby, Economics Professor and Author, Raina, with a display of low country baskets which was outside the Gaillard Center, Harriet, Physician. The last photo is the Gaillard Center where we attended the opera. Please click on the images to enlarge.
Our “itinerary” was a collaboration. Raina chose all the restaurants and I chose the performances. I have to admit that I might have selected another music performance for Friday night other than the opera, but Raina had expressed wanting to go—so Salome was our program for the evening. I was glad we went. We both were totally engaged, and the subtitles above the screen were indispensable. Briefly, the Gaillard is a beautiful, traditional performance space which added to the enjoyment of the program. Our seats were fantastic. Although we were both riveted, I would have to say that I wasn’t crazy about the story. We both felt that the storyline during the first two thirds seemed a bit simple in a not good way. The performers, however were so strong, and the full orchestra was outstanding, providing connection, transition, excitement… everything that is wonderful about having a full live orchestra. The last part of the opera was complicated and moved very quickly. In the Director’s notes, we learned that the story is based on Oscar Wilde’s play and is not meant to depict or signify real world events. So the subject matter was basically, sex, incest, decadence, religion, prophecy, nymphomania—you know the usual. In fact, we knew nothing about the story going in, so I was trying to figure out what it was all about… looking for the symbolism — was it religion, anti-Semitism, #MeToo, political turmoil? I tried out my potential theories on Raina while we were driving home. She said something like, “What is going on in that head of yours?” I think that was exactly what she said, smiling and shaking her head. I was pretty sure she didn’t mean that as a compliment! We were grateful to find out that it wasn’t what I thought after all, just that other usual opera nasty stuff up above. Friday was a great day!
We heard that Saturday was going to be hot, and let me tell you it was so HOT & HUMID, it took the meaning of “summer weather” to a new level. We started out early knowing this and also knowing that it would be crowded downtown. We headed for Marion Square where the Spoleto Art Show is located as is the “Market” where there are food purveyors of every kind – food trucks—and it’s special and delicious. We began by walking through a few rows of “booths” at the art show. The work was mainly of high quality and featured a wide range of artists. As planned we met up with Barbara and Mindy who had arrived before us. Barbara already purchased one piece and was deciding on a second—which was a fabulous, multi-media work with a pop art feel. There were several artists channeling “Marvel” which I gravitated towards, as well as collage, which reminded me of Tina Folks’ current work. One collage artist built his collages onto reclaimed wood. I also liked work by an artist that took his influence from Japanese printmaking. After breakfast we walked through the fine crafts section. Unfortunately, it was hard to imagine handling or trying on any of the fine textiles, and hand-made clothing items in the heat. We took a break to head over to visit Raina’s mom, Te. It was so great to see her, especially because Raina’s sister Diane was also there, and we all got to visit. Then back into the City we went for a “talk” with Martha Teichner, CBS News Correspondant, Joe Miller and John La Bouchardiere. Although it was interesting, their voices were so gentle, and their subject focused on religious pilgrimages. Raina closed her eyes behind the brim of her hat and took a little nap. I was a trooper, but was not disappointed when it was over and could definitely have enjoyed a nice icy cocktail about then. Walking back towards Raina’s car, which was two blocks away, the heat was getting unbearable. It had climbed to over 100 by then. We had plans to have dinner and drinks at the bar on the rooftop at the Hotel Bennett—but we decided that another shower, and some downtime might be just the thing.
Photos above, clockwise from top left, breakfast at a prize table in the shade in Marion Square, booths in the craft section, the platter Raina had waiting for us in the fridge when we got back to her house—that’s Southern hospitality!, and Raina in the black hat with her sister Diane and her Mama Te.
Back into Charleston for our final program. Photo credit for the portrait of Esperanza Spalding to Spoleto. Photo left is the Cistern Yard upon entering pre-concert with approximately half the seats in front (shown), and an equal number behind us (not shown), and then right, lit up for the performance.
Esperanza Spalding is a FORCE! She is charming, brilliant, funny, has great energy and command. Her talent is just beyond the pale, and her voice incomparable in its tone, versatility and expressiveness. Her music is not “classic jazz” for the most part. It is unique, and ahead of any curve. Raina didn’t love the compositions, but did love her voice. I was into where she was going in every way. Unfortunately at 10 p.m. it was still over 90 degrees, and there was not a whisper of a breeze. It just zapped the energy of the audience, which is integral to the performance. I was so sorry for that. I would pay to see her again, any day of the week, and I think it was a disappointing level of audience responsiveness to say the least. Her band was fantastic as well, and boy, can she rock that bass.
And with that, the time was over. I couldn’t believe it. I was leaving for the airport early the next morning. So, from a travel perspective, I say if you have a weekend to take a quick trip, Charleston is it! It’s less than 2 hours from NYC. The cultural, natural, food and events opportunities abound. The people are gracious and welcoming. I would definitely recommend spending some time there—I know I’ll be heading back!
On a personal note, it was so rich and rewarding to experience Charleston with Raina again. Years melt away when you are with “real friends.” Lots of talking, and comfortable silence too. It’s a kind of fun that makes you feel a decade younger—at least—and we really ran ourselves ragged! It couldn’t have been more or better in any way.