Curiouser and Curiouser…

So let’s just say you’re out walking your dogs in the neighborhood one day when you happen upon a lean, older fellow with a weathered face and broken jeans, lounging on the curb in the afternoon sun.

He’s smoking a cigarette, go-cup in hand.

Based on that description, one might be tempted to make the assumption that you have nothing much in common, and pass on by.

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But if you happen to be feeling somewhat curious that day, you might slow down, smile and say hello…

Which might lead to a conversation and the discovery that this gentleman has lived in your neighborhood probably longer than anyone else around here.

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You might learn that his parents found him in a foster home just down the street when he was only a handful of months old, and here he has lived and here he has stayed for close to seven decades now.

You might be surprised to hear that the street corner you’re standing on was where, back in the day, he and his friends used to build bonfires on the nights when it snowed,

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before sledding down the hilly streets of your mountainside neighborhood –

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back when the poh-leece turned a blind eye to both the bonfire and the street sledding.

If you can spare just a few more moments to listen to his stories, the ghosts of the former denizens of your neighborhood will begin to be revealed to you — people his pale blue eyes squinting in the sunlight tell me he still can see in the streets and houses around us.

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And you may also discover (much to your great surprise) that the house you’re living in is the house his ex-wife grew up in.

And if you’re having an especially magical Appalachian day, his ex-wife, who hasn’t lived in the neighborhood for decades, may just happen to drive by while the two of you are talking, and slow down to say hello.

And then she might just take a moment, on this busy day before she flies to London and Paris with her new husband, to tell you the story of what happened to the little girl

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who’s buried in your backyard.

But it’s a sad tale and one that can wait for another day….

A Little Ghost in the Garden

And so, I moved into “the city.”

Even by Asheville’s idiosyncratic standards, my new neighborhood has a lot of personality.

Perched on a mountainside overlooking the north end of town, it is laid out in a maze of rather narrow and hilly streets – perfect for long, rambling walks with dogs.

It is home to musicians, artists and artisans.  Dancers and dreamers.  Builders, renovators and carpenters.   Massagers and missionaries.  Realtors and retirees.  Genealogists and historians.  Fishermen, restaurateurs, and coffee shop owners.   Mountain folk, half-backs, snowbirds, and urban-flighters.

It even has a ballet conservatory and an electronic music factory.

Yes, this is Appalachia.

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Some folks have been here most (if not all) of their lives.

And some, like me, have only just recently found their way into the neighborhood.

Some have built their dream retirement home here,

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while others are just trying to get through the mountain winters without central heat.

In addition to the home for retired Methodist missionaries, our street has a random assortment of Arts & Crafts bungalows, Victorian and Queen Anne-style homes, a little church,

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and one Dutch barn – my own Casa Mia.

 And, co-existing in a rather bizarre juxtaposition,

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 there is also a women’s shelter next to two lovely and historic B&B’s.

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A crazy eclectic mix – and that’s Asheville.

Each house in the little ‘hood holds a unique cache of stories of the generations of people and families that have lived and died there.

Like this one down the street, where wedding initials and dates, etched with a diamond ring decades ago, are still visible in the glass of the window panes.

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Or this overgrown lot around the corner, where you can still see the ruins of an historic home that crack-addicted squatters accidentally burned down nearly twenty years ago,back when this neighborhood was the working turf of prostitutes and drug dealers.

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And, until recently, there was this old farmhouse dating back to 1910.

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These photographs, taken just a year and a half ago, seem to illustrate the bewildering and poignant displacement of old Appalachia.

But it’s actually just a photograph of my former neighbor, Donna Sue, getting irritated with me for taking “so durn long” to grab the shot, while she was busy trying to pack up and move out. (But not too busy, it bears noting, that she couldn’t indulge in a lengthy discussion on flowers and the best place in Tennessee to get moonshine.)

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A few months later, after Donna Sue and her family left and only the stubborn old cat remained, the farmhouse was torn down to make way for something new.

Even my house, it turns out, has its own ghosts – one of which belongs to a little five-year-old girl,

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whose gravestone we discovered unexpectedly while clearing away some underbrush in my back garden one day.

Because Asheville

There’s an expression friends around here have been using recently – “Because Asheville.”

I like it. In only two words, it explains what is completely unexplainable about life in our town.

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 Like the unexpected magical randomness of walking down an alley and finding a scattering of yellow flower petals next to a door that says “Imagine Inventing Yellow.”

Or, discovering a mini galaxy hovering over a collection of antique bottles in the window of an old building in a dark alley late one night.

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There are many happenings and serendipitous occurrences I could give you to illuminate the meaning of “because Asheville.”

Here’s one a bit closer to my heart.

It’s likely I would not have met Tom had I not purchased the house I am currently living in, the house I affectionately call “Casa Mia.”

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I called it Casa Mia just because it’s mine, even though I am living in Appalachia and there is nothing even remotely Italian about the house (or me, for that matter.) I just like the cosy way it sounds.

I would not have met Tom because I would not have met Jo, the German rugby-playing- architect-turned-landscape-gardener-for-missionaries across the street from Casa Mia.

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And I would not even have bought Casa Mia – had it not been for yoga.

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Ten years earlier, the kids and I picked our first home in Asheville for its views –

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a little ranch house, perched on an acre of hillside

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overlooking a lake, a bird sanctuary, and the mountains.

Much as I loved it, after the kids had graduated and loved on, I decided I wanted to move closer into town.

I soon found – and lost my heart to – an old Dutch barn style house in a funky little neighborhood, just blocks from downtown.

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The realtors told me I couldn’t buy it because a contingent contract was not permitted. But I was in love and already living there, at least in my head.

I began stalking the house.

I detoured all of my trips into town so I could drive past it and gaze at it longingly. It was so charming, I fretted, surely it would sell before I could unload my current house in an uncertain real estate market.

A few days after I first saw the house, I walked into my local yoga studio. Ninety minutes later, lying on my mat in a post-Ashtanga state of savasana, a thought made its way into my somewhat blissed out head.

The heck with the realtors, I thought happily –

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why not just knock on the door and ask the owners if I could buy their house? At the time, it seemed like an entirely rational idea.

Within moments, I was on their front door-step, disheveled, sweaty and still wearing yoga clothes. I told them I was passionately in love with their house and felt inexplicably drawn to live there. And then I offered them their asking price.

The owners – a heavily tattooed Frenchman and his American wife – said okay.

As simply as that.

But, of course, it wasn’t that simple.

I arranged to pay them monthly not to sell it to anyone else while my realtor and I energetically worked to sell my house up by the lake. Seventy-two showings and seven months later, there we were, sitting at the settlement table.

And then, an hour later, the little Dutch barn house was mine.

The next spring, while working in the front yard, I met Jo –the German rugby-playing- architect-turned-landscape-gardener-for-missionaries across the street.

Jo introduced me to Tom in a blind date.

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Because Asheville.

A Very Appalachian First Date ~ Involving a Bull, a Beggar, a Dinosaur, and a Pig

My first proper date with Tom was also the first (and only) time I have ever had a pig’s tongue inside my mouth.

I’ll explain how that happened in a moment but first, let me say that it was a very Appalachian first date, involving interesting characters, layers of history, craftsmanship, and livestock (of course) – interwoven in a uniquely contemporary way.

It took place along the banks of the French Broad, one of the oldest rivers in the world,

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under the watchful eye of a dinosaur.

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Where it flows through Asheville, the French Broad has for decades been lined with a motley assortment of old warehouses and industrial buildings held together by not much more than lush green ivy and many layers of graffiti and spray paint.

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Back in the day, this stretch along the river was the epicenter of produce and livestock distribution for the surrounding Appalachian farms.

Over the years, however,

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with the retreat of the farmlands and the changing ways of handling livestock, the buildings were gradually abandoned and fell into disrepair.

And then, decades later, something magical began to happen.

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Slowly and quietly, first just a few, then hundreds of creative souls moved into nooks and crannies of the old industrial buildings that were even somewhat inhabitable, creating a much treasured warren of artist’s studios along the river.

And pretty soon, art was cropping up just about everywhere.

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One of those creative beings was John Payne, kinetic sculptor, self-professed time traveler, and founder of the Wedge Studios.

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In 2001, Payne purchased a three story classic warehouse adjacent to the railroad tracks, which he transformed into affordable studio space for himself and other artists.

Known as the Wedge for its shape, the building originally functioned as a produce and livestock cooperative for Appalachian farmers back in the early 1900s.

A few years after Payne moved into the building, the Wedge Brewing Company, a craft brewery, opened up on the back loading dock, overlooking the train tracks.

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Gradually, the area that had once been home to chicken hatcheries, tanneries, livestock yards, an ice house, and a flour mill,

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became a home for breweries, eateries, and artists – and is now known as the River Arts District.

One of the many things Tom and I had already discovered we have in common is a love for grabbing a pint

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down at the Wedge.

It was, therefore, a logical starting place for our first real date.

After Payne’s death in 2008,

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one of his fantastical creations, the Utahraptor, was purchased by the current owners of the Wedge Studios. It now stands guard above the entrance to his old studio on the building’s backside –

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next to what has recently become The Bull and Beggar, a restaurant that Modern Farmer – a magazine and website “for anyone who cares about where their food comes from” – declared to be among their top ten global (yes, global) picks.

Drinks turned into dinner when Tom and I wandered hand in hand down the loading dock to check out The Bull and Beggar’s “sipid food and sturdy drink” inside their recently renovated portion of the warehouse.

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Accepting someone else’s idea for who to date had so far worked out quite nicely for me.

So when the women seated at the table next to us (as well as the waitress) raved about the pig’s tongue on the menu that night – despite the voice inside my head screaming – No!!! – I said okay, I’ll try it.

Years of trying not to bite the tongue in my mouth, however, was too much experience to try to overcome in just one evening.

Or, possibly ever.

Tom just laughed as he ate the rest of the porcine dish, all by himself.

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And then, asked me out for another date.

[painting of John Payne by artist Ben Betsalel]

© dating appalachia & kristin fellows photography

Dating Appalachia

So, you might ask, how did this blog come to be called “Dating Appalachia?”

Well, for the past 8 years, ever since my move to Asheville, I have been jotting down stories about my transition from city life to life in the mountains on various scraps of paper, in journals that somehow became neglected after a month or so, and in random folders on my computer. But nothing came to mind for what to name this collection of experiences in my new home in a small town in Western North Carolina.

Until, that is, I went out on a blind date.

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I arrived in Asheville as a single (divorced) woman, with two kids – one in high school and one in college. It took me awhile to realize that my prospects for finding a boyfriend here were pretty slim. According to Kiplinger, Asheville ranks among the ten worst cities for singles in the US.

I knew just what I was looking for, though. I had lived in London as a kid, worked in Paris as a teenager, and traveled throughout much of Europe for work as an adult. So naturally I was on the lookout for an international boyfriend, someone to have travel adventures with and learn different languages from. Asheville attracts an interesting mix of people, but eight years had passed with nothing more than a handful of dates and a few relationships that didn’t last past two months.

And then fate intervened unexpectedly in the form of a tall, long-haired, German, rugby-playing architect named Jo. Jo is in charge of landscaping at the retirement home for Methodist missionaries located across the street from my house and for the past year, we had waved to one another occasionally or spent a few moments chatting about gardening. Or house design. Or Germany.

One day, on a whim, I asked him if he had any single friends.

“No,” he said (sort of smugly, I thought) – “We’re all taken!”

I regretted having asked.

Several week later, however, he came striding across the street as I was pulling my car into the driveway.

“Okay,” he said, not wasting any time with small talk, “I’ve thought of someone!”

Surprised, I agreed to meet that “someone” without pondering why it had taken him a month to come up with this guy.

“When are you going to Spain?” Jo asked.

For most of the summer, I had been talking about my upcoming trip to Barcelona, planned strategically with my Chinese horoscope in mind. For a whole week, I would do nothing but walk the city, experience the food and wine and people, and take photographs on the streets.

My horoscope had promised that those born in the year of the Monkey would find true love some time in the last quarter of the year of the Snake. Accordingly, I booked my trip for late September, thinking I might help things along a little by putting myself in the perfect location to meet an adventurous, handsome Catalan.

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Sadly, though, I returned home boyfriend-less (although I did meet a lovely waiter named Pablo on my last night in Barcelona at the restaurant just outside the flat where I was staying, and two glasses of wine later, it might have turned into something interesting, but….)

Re-entry is always tough. And so on my way back to the States, I spent much of the five-hour layover at JFK pondering this upcoming blind date and strategizing excuses for how to get out of it. (Unfortunately, though, I had no way to contact Jo unless I happened to see him working in the missionary gardens.) There was nothing to do but go through with it.

Hours before the rendezvous, Jo re-appeared on my front porch to tell me my date’s name (Tom) and the location of our dinner – he’d thoughtfully made a reservation for us at Curaté, a wonderful Spanish tapas restaurant downtown. (My opinion of him immediately went up another notch.) He also told me I would be able to identify my date by the rugby shirt he would be wearing. (Rugby shirt, at Curaté? Oh well…)

It had been a 23-hour journey back to Asheville and, massively jet-lagged, I dragged myself through my pre-date preparations. Just before 7, headed downtown.

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We arrived at the restaurant at the exact same moment. Even before I saw the rugby shirt under his sports jacket, I knew it was him.

He was smiling at me.

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Sitting side by side, while the chefs provided us with dish after dish of deliciousness, we talked for nearly four hours.

I discovered he isn’t German or European, he is a fifth generation Appalachian. And he has the complexion of someone with Scottish roots, not Mediterranean. He does have an accent, however – a Southern one.

I also discovered the time I spent inventing excuses to get out of a second date …

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was entirely wasted.