Traveling with Edgar Allan PoeQrisses story about traveling in Edgar Allan Poe's footsteps.
Once being accepted to be a "watcher" at the Edgar Allan Poe birthday celebration in Baltimore, I decided to take a week off from work, and travel from Sweden to the United States. I just could not miss this opportunity to be a part of something so special, and to meet all the people I had only seen in electronic form.
The trip started with a four hour train trip to Stockholm, Sweden, where I spent the night at my uncle's place. The next day, January 13, 1998, I headed for Arlanda, Stockholm international airport, and started the long flight to the United States, via Amsterdam, Holland. When the plane from Amsterdam was over Canadian territory, I tried to fill out the green immigration form, that you need to fill in to enter the United States. I asked the woman beside me how to fill in some of the fields in the form, and when I set the Edgar Allan Poe pen, from the Richmond Poe Museum, down to write the next word, the pen leaked and stained my hand with black ink. I think Edgar Allan Poe knew I was on my way.
As if the transatlantic plane ride wasn't long enough, I had to get on a domestic flight to get from Detroit, Michigan, to Richmond, Virginia, but after 18 hours of constant traveling I finally touched ground, just to go on a ninety minute car ride to Farmville, Va., where I was staying with Martha Womack, also known as Precisely Poe to most internet users. She and I met on the Internet in the spring of 1997, and together with three other Americans we started the project, The Poe Decoder.
The first two days in Farmville, I very much functioned as an ambassador for Sweden in general, and the Artedi School in particular. I answered questions about Sweden for both teachers and students at Fuqua School, the American sister school of the Artedi School.
On my third day in the United States, it was finally time to enter the world of Edgar Allan Poe. Martha and I were headed for Baltimore, Md., with a stop in Richmond, Va., to visit the Edgar Allan Poe museum. When we started the tour of the museum, the lights went out, and it became very cold, Edgar Allan Poe knew I was there. First the pen, now the lights, what more surprises did Poe have in store for me? The rest of the tour had to be done with a modern-day candle, a flashlight.
After visiting USA's finest, McDonald's, in Richmond, we were off to Baltimore. After checking in to our hotel, we headed straight to Westminster Hall, a beautiful church building, however, no longer a church, where the Edgar Allan Poe birthday celebration took place. We met Mr. Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House in Baltimore, and the man behind the Edgar Allan Poe birthday celebration since many years, and among the first things he said to me, was that I was going to propose a toast to Poe - in Swedish! Martha had "warned" me about Jeff Jerome's sense of humor, so at first I thought he was joking, but it turned out to be no joke.
The toast was to be held the next day, so I had to spend the night in the hotel translating the written toast to Swedish, a task that was harder than it appeared. It occurred to me how corny some things sound in Swedish while they sound completely natural in English. I was well aware of the fact that no one, or very few, would understand what I said, still I felt like I wanted to make this right, to honor someone who have changed my life very much, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.
The next night was the climax of the celebration. Actors, dressed up as characters from Poe's work, walked around in the audience, David Keltz performed several of Poe's works appearing as Edgar himself, Gray Seal Puppets made a beautiful performance honoring Poe's life and work, and many other performances were held, all very professional, and Edgar would most certainly have enjoyed every minute of it.
At the end of the night, it was time for the toast. Needless to say I was very nervous. The church was crowded with people who did not even speak my language, in a country almost four thousand miles away from my own. I was determined to just move on if I lost myself in the middle of the toast, but did I? Oh no, the words were completely gone, my head was empty, and I leaned in to look at my notes, which looked very blurry at the moment, and as the Swede I am, I utter a word that has no place in a former church. What word it was is not important, but since I have decided to not use unmotivated profanities on my webpages, it is probably wise not to mention it here.
With a laughing crowd, I realized what I had done, and boy was the rest of the toast finished quickly. At least some good came out of my terrible mistake. 1) I will never forget it, ever. 2) The nervousness went away, the blunder was already done. Even if I messed up, it was a tremendous honor to be allowed to propose the toast, and in my own language. Both to honor my country, and one of the greatest American writers in history. Since Edgar had followed me on my trip, it would not surprise me if he was doing this too. Like he thought the atmosphere was too formal and tense. Edgar always loved to shock people, and what better way to do it, than to curse in a former church?
Maybe it was the first mistake of the evening, but unfortunately it would not be the last. Martha and I were going to see some friends we came in contact with on the Internet. They went ahead of us, to the inner harbor area in Baltimore. Jeff Savoye, treasurer of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, was kind enough to take us there later, and we discovered that the restaurant we had decided on - was closed, at 11 p.m. We searched several other restaurants in the area, but we never found David, Carey, and their friends. So much for night-life in Baltimore.
The Sunday was the last day of the Birthday celebration, but also the day what we had all been waiting for was about to take place. The Poe Toaster, was to come and put the three roses and cognac on Poe's grave. One rose to Edgar, one to his wife and cousin Virginia, and one to her mother, Maria Clemm. In the daytime, Jeff Savoye took us to the Poe House, and to the Edgar Allan Poe statue in Baltimore. Late that night we then returned to Westminster Hall. After Jeff Jerome had showed us around in the eerie catacombs beneath Westminster Hall, we found our positions, and the lights were switched off. Around twenty watchers were scattered out around the building, in strategic places to keep an eye in all directions, since there is no telling where and when the Poe toaster will appear.
The night was beautiful and clear, and people were hanging on the gates of Westminster Church Yard, to get a glimpse of this mysterious man. Because of the nice weather we prepared for a long night, would these people ever leave? Some of them were reporters, and we all know reporters do not give up easily. Revealing the identity of this man, is in nobody's interest, except for maybe the reporters. But wherein lies the news-value of shattering one of the few mysteries that still remain in the world?
Martha, Jeff Savoye, and myself, were seated facing the backside of the church yard, where the marker of Poe's original grave is placed. Waiting in anticipation, the clock struck midnight, it was the 19th of January, 1998, Edgar Allan Poe's 189th birthday, and as it did, a black cat strolled right across Poe's original grave. Edgar Allan Poe was still with us, trying to make us feel the significance of this event, as if we didn't already.
We waited and waited, I got only one and a half hours of sleep the previous night, and now time kept moving, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m., and then... somebody yells "It's him." The man, dressed in pretty conventional clothes, runs into the church yard, despite the people at the front gates, and he quickly comes and leaves his tribute to Poe, and run away, as fast as he got there.
All the watchers walked outside, to take pictures of ourselves, and the roses and the cognac. My legs are shaking as I walk down the stairs, from excitement or cold, I do not know, but it was most likely a little of both. We take our pictures, like the one of Jeff Jerome and myself that can be seen here, talk to the press, and it is all over for this year. Such a brief moment of action, that results in such a big memory.
Before we left Baltimore later in the day, I wanted to put roses on Edgar Allan Poe's grave, so we visited a florist, and I put three roses on Virginia's, Maria's, and Edgar's grave, one on Edgar's original grave, and one in General David Poe's grave, Edgar's grandfather. As we walk out of the cemetery, we see a man with a TV camera zooming in on our flowers, and when I got back to Sweden, I received an email from a girl in New Orleans, that saw my name on the card attached to the roses. It's a small world...
This Monday was not only the end of the Edgar Allan Poe birthday celebration, but also the day before I was to go back to Sweden. After driving all the way back to Farmville, Va., with a stop at Red Lobster in Richmond, we had a short night's sleep and were preparing for my return to the land of the Viking, good ole Sweden. Even if I love my country, I did fell in love with the United States while I was there, so it was very sad to leave the country behind me. Martha took me to Richmond International Airport, I shed a few tears, and returned to reality. Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?