Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Asheville Twelve Degrees

Asheville is a mountain town, tainted by polluted air that is blown up from the industrial wastelands of the piedmont (pie'monte in Italian, for some reason, which means foot of the mountains), those are the flat lands of South Carolina that stretch off towards Greenville and the sea. However Asheville's status of air quality as bad as Los Angeles is hard to credit when you are in the city of a freezing cold afternoon under a bright mountain sun doing it's best to give you sunburn. Asheville is one of those cities that has a concentration of residents who are far more liberal than surrounding rural areas, and Appalachia is nowhere near as urban, and hippy and faux rugged as the residents of well-to-do Asheville. Unusually High Level Of STDs the banner headline of the local newspaper was screaming last night as we strolled into the grocery store. New Reports of Syphilis Oddly High continued the paper speaking of Buncombe county, of which Asheville is the seat. "Higher proportion of gays," my sister-in-law said laconically, as only a physician can when speaking of something as bizarre as syphilis. I guess that sums up Asheville's place in rural western North Carolina, oddly syphilictic. It is, though a divine city, one of those places whose fame precedes it and is becoming annoyingly popular, much to the chagrin of local residents:

Another, less arresting page of the newspaper proclaimed North Carolina to be one of the fastest growing states in the nation with population growth around ten percent. It's not surprising really as for most people the climate is mild (not everyone I am told is as neurotic as I am about cold weather) and Asheville was plunked down amidst incredible scenery with a University campus, relatively low cost housing, trails for biking and walking, rivers for fishing and rafting and miles of agricultural land to feed the back-to-basics movement that has thrived up here.

House prices have dropped I am told but not plummeted. Roads are being widened and buildings are being built, though they have done a nice job of preserving the past:

And the St Lawrence Cathedral glowing in a mountain sunset in the middle of the hilly city:My sister-in-law (the physician) hankers after a low income apartment in the middle of the city though with some chagrin my brother-in-law (a retired University professor) is forced to confess his income is low enough but he has too many assets. Perhaps the melt down will take care of that. These units are centered where people can walk to almost anything they need downtown:

Pigeons like the old fashioned touches on these splendid brick buildings:

This is a modern city too, and I have to confess this was the first place anywhere I had seen an outdoor climbing wall overhanging a public street:

Asheville has embraced the new/old urbanism of total mixed use with local stores downstairs and residential units upstairs, giving the city a well used, lived in look at all hours:

It was a splendid joke for my brother-in-law when we showed up totally inadequately dressed in sweatshirts and long pants, facing the coldest nights of the year. The air was so cold and crisp my clothes felt ironed onto my body with a sheet of ice. My nose ached and my ears itched until my nephew found me a spare wool watch cap. My wife took to wearing her scarf in the Russian style, wound round her head. You know it's bad when the locals are complaining about the temperatures and everywhere I looked people were bundled up against the biting wind:

I spotted a vendor, badly under dressed selling stuff from a street cart and looking horribly cheerful as frostbite consumed his body:

Of course it's entirely possible he was out of the ghastly cutting wind and by that time the temperature may have risen to a bold 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Some few people lingered on the sidewalks as the sun went down, but my hands were trembling by now and I had forgotten my gorilla pod tripod in Florida.

Others took refuge in any of the wild variety of small intimate restaurants found all over the city. I doubt this place holds a candle to the worst such restaurant in Key West, but I'm sure they do the best they can (sniff!):

We stopped in for pizza and refreshments at a cheerful Italian place where sister-in-law and brother-in-law made a fuss of their newest one year old grandson:

The pizza was excellent but the waitress mistook us for concentration camp inmates and started abusing us so we left (they made a mistake on the check, overcharged us and took umbrage when we pointed out the mistake. Weird) and took to the streets like Bosnian refugees seeking shelter from the increasingly vicious breeze. Asheville by night is decidedly pretty with swooping streets and cheerful storefronts everywhere. This isn't a downtown in decline:

With my sister-in-law's passion for all things Indian it's hardly surprising we ended up in a place called Mule, I think which far from being an obdurate horse was actually a suave and upscale Hindu kind of place with upscale waitresses who cracked obscure Hindu jokes and served us impeccably making me feel like a lumpen prole of the first order. It was good grub though, and we survived the billing process unscathed. I think Asheville is just another of those University towns where the wait staff are all actually lightly disguised artists and waiting tables is just a phase until they are discovered.

My nephew mused after he saw it, that this picture would have come out much better if he hadn't been playing the fool and I couldn't disagree, but we were out of time and the car was out there somewhere turning into an igloo, and we had to run and get into it before the blood froze in our veins. I am nowhere near converting to the religion that requires the stated belief that different seasons are a Good Thing. I just hate being cold, and I know it. I miss Key West.