Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Saint Augustine - The Joy of Created History

I’m finally back in Florida, but instead of driving all the way south I decided to stay a couple of days in Saint Augustine. I visited this town a couple of years ago, so I was not expecting to be impressed, but I was. The place is even better, or maybe I’m carrying with me a new standard that makes me appreciate it that way. The weather was the one you would expect in paradise. Those narrow streets with charming shops make you feel like in a doll house. And the dolls were walking around too.

Now, I don’t fall for the historical claims of the city. Yes, it’s the oldest continuously populated settlement in the US from the time it was founded, but that doesn’t imply that you are going to find anything that old. I mean, the place was burned to the ground by pirates… twice. So when they point out things like “the oldest school in the country” what they really mean is the place where the oldest school has been rebuilt over and over again. 

But that’s ok. This town had no the intention to be a touristic attraction when it was created, and none of the buildings would have survived anyway. The last time I came, they were holding one single storehouse with the original material, and the place was clearly collapsing. This time I saw construction workers putting it together again and replacing 80% of the wood. After all, history is our present fantasy of the past.

In “Castillo de San Marcos”, a really impressive fortress, they have actors in Spaniard uniforms making tours and demos on how the artillery was used. They try to mimic Spanish, but you can’t understand a single world even if that is your first language. It’s a cute caricature, but tourists from Spain roll their eyes in indignation.

The scripts are written for kids, and they try to portrait pirates as something very Disney and funny, no as the scum they really were. Every time I visit a city surrounded by walls I try to imagine the nightmare of having to go to bed without knowing if, in the middle of the night, a group of bandits will come along, stole your goods, kill your children, rape your wife and burn your house. Certainly, lawyers are a drag, but I prefer that over the law of steel that even now rules some countries. I just think that by ignoring the misery of the past we lost the opportunity to stimulate gratitude for the present.

If you have a chance to visit this fortress, you will never regret it. The second level has walls at the high of the hip, so it’s a matter of time for an idiot to fall and make the city spoil the architecture with plastic panels or something like that. So go now that it’s pristine.

Ok, but the fact that history is used to put up a show doesn’t diminish my experience, the same way that knowing the real name of the actors doesn’t ruin a movie. The place glows at night, especially now with all the Christmas lights and the horses making rides in shiny carriages. The alleys are so lovely that people in trolleys practically high-five those sitting at the bars along the street. The beauty in the architecture of the surrounding neighborhoods makes it worthy to walk every block from one corner to another.   

There is no place for “clubbing” and that’s a good thing because the atmosphere is more for dining, walking and having drinks with live music. I found a couple of lovely red-neck places where I spent the nights. People always look at me strangely when I get in, first when they notice my accent and second when I order vodka instead of beer. But I always end up shaking hands and sharing interesting conversations. I prefer to target old people because I always learn something and also because I don’t have to compete with annoying smartphones. The last night I had a conversation with a seventy years old woman that lives a block away from the bar. She seems to be in the ideal retirement: a couple of hours from the house of her daughter, living in a nice safe neighborhood and making new friends every day. The muscles on her face show a resting smile.

The hostel I used was ok, but I got a rash for bedbugs. This hostel thing has its charm, but after a while, you can grow tired of the drawbacks. It’s lovely to wake up surrounded by twenty-year-old European girls in pink t-shirts, but you may also get a group of snoring bikers.

The good thing is that our minds work like history: over time I’ll start to forget the struggle, and I’ll gradually romanticize the beautiful details. In the end, we finish up with memories of little historical accuracy but huge entertainment value.

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