October 14, 2007
What Makes New England New England
On New England trips, I try to incorporate visits to Dunkin Donuts, CVS, Boston suburban driving ranges that feel more like the backyards of country inns, and farmers markets that have as many varieties of pumpkins and apples as they do tomatoes and onions.
What I always long for more of are walks, walks of any kind. Walks down Boston's Newbury Street, a visit to the cheese and chocolate store in downtown Concord, fresh fish and margarita's along Newburyport's waterfront, bicycle rides through Marthas Vineyard's narrow lanes, lazy afternoons at various lobster shacks up and down Maine's Route 1, oyster happy hours in Bar Harbor, farmhouse B&Bs in Vermont's countryside, outlet and fireworks stores in New Hampshire and the ever-engaging combined old-world library coffee shop in Northhampton. The list goes on. And on.
It's not just these references that remind us of what New England stands for and IS; its the conservative, intellectual, old-world, predictable culture that surrounds all of these colorful and delicious visual moments.
Some of these cultural nuances which end up being mismatches for free spirits, are of course what drove me to leave New England, the resistance to change being one of those, a natural death trap in the technology industry.
Yet, living day-to-day in an environment that not only welcomes change and spontaneity but proactively encourages it through consistent actions, leaves one longing at times for a society that does honor commitment, loyalty and predictable lifestyles and behavior.
This my friends, is New England.
The predictable presented at times in the most uninteresting and puritanical manner and at other times, in a way that feeds the soul at the deepest and richest of levels. This is why those born and raised in New England who are natural free spirits come back for a feeding as often and quietly as they can, hopefully unobserved by their aggressive, business-loyal, transient west coast pals, who will never quite understand its unsurpassed value, regardless of how many photos and stories you present.
Walking down the street of a small New England town on a late Halloween afternoon, you'll find carved pumpkins on porches and stairways, in yards and gardens. You will also find children riding their bikes amidst a flurry of brightly colored dried leaves falling from the trees.
The same could apply in December with the freshness of the season's very first snowfall. Something in the air arouses and inspires. It reminds us who have endured the harshness of New England's toughest season that we are born to endure more than we are born to succeed and thrive.
It's an attitude not that far afield from post war Eastern Europe and England. Somehow, it trickled across the Atlantic and settled into the walls, cracks and stone exterior of our Victorian townhouses and turn of the century wooden homes, the kind with the wrapping porches, hanging hammocks and potted geraniums.
This, my friends is New England.
When I first moved to San Francisco, I was adamant about finding a place in the city, where I could hang one of my three hammocks that I have collected over the years. While it was a challenge, I finally found a house that not only has a protected courtyard in the rear with plants and herbs that thrive year-round, but a front porch with a view of both bridges, a porch that would finally home my New England hammock.
My grandfather warned me of such shifts. He told me that the sun wouldn't set the same way on the west coast, the moon would feel different, the stars would not be quite so dark, and the air would mess up my sensibilities for years to come.
Yet, as the land of untapped opportunities and some tapped but not yet refined, he didn't ignore the value of heading west, just as they all did in the Gold Rush. The Tech Rush followed a century and two generations later, and the same types of people who had the courage and adventurous spirit to make the journey west for a perceived better way of life then, are making their way west today.
But, these people don't write letters on a piece of handmade paper from some factory in Cambridge or stationary store in Vermont. These people don't send out old fashioned holiday cards, or bake cookies from scratch in beat-up pewter trays that their great grandmothers owned.
These people don't tear up when they read Thoreau or accidentally find an old arrowhead on a walk in the Adirondack Mountains that may or may not have belonged to a Mohawk Indian. OR, recall with passionate energy a time they ran over lilly pads or saw trout in an inviting but flowing river as they made their way down its winding path in an Old Town canvas canoe.
It's dangerous to so wildly exaggerate is it not? Of course there are people country-wide who have had such moments, but that's not the point. My point is about what is consistently conveyed on a regular basis, day in and day out, that formulates a culture. What a culture was, is today and what part remains in years to come.
Hanging onto what was in years gone past, isn't a west coast cultural trait. There, its about change, movement, growth, opportunities, progress in whatever form that may take (entertainment, film, technology, sustainable building and so on).
So in addition to the sameness, which is a positive and necessary part of what creates and maintains a community, is New England air. There is most definitely a distinct New England 'air', not to mention other quirky things you don't quite expect, like a parade of ducks on a lake or pond.
You watch them pass by and somehow you notice that they have a different energy from the ducks you just saw in Montana or Nevada a couple of months earlier.
This trip east leaves me very little time in Boston itself, but not by accident. Somehow I felt the desire to retreat to rural areas near the water, as quickly as possible.
And retreat I did of course, after a visit to an old friend's place on Marlborough (which parallel's Newbury Street), where I recall countless summer dinners on his deck.
Having dinners outside on the top floor of his Edwardian-style brick building meant that we could easily see everything and anything that the general public has come to know as Boston, i.e., the Hancock Tower, and the CITGO sign in Kenmore Square, where on my first night in town, the Red Sox playoffs were stopping traffic on both Memorial and Storrow Drives.
I found myself on Charles Street for the first time in years where I discovered a new bistro called Bin 26 Enoteca (formerly Torch). The term enoteca has several definitions— wine shop, wine bar, and wine library, among others.
They extend all of these meanings into their restaurant with a flavor of all things wine that encourages you to sample styles you wouldn't normally try. The ambiance is also eclectic, exemplified in one room by hundreds of open wine bottles hanging top side down from the ceiling. Along Charles, Todd English' Figs remains a regular fixture.
Boston, like Newport, Providence, Portland, and even Portsmouth, has their fair share of great restaurants, but what is really magical about New England is not its urban centers.
A relatively unknown gem not far from Boston, is a small pond in Pembroke where my friend Mark completed a home restoration in the past year. It is a rural town on the way to Cape Cod that may not be a destination choice for anything other than a place for a peaceful read in an Adirondack chair on a summer day or a walk through the woods pretty much anytime of year.
Here, in what was a small boxed wooden home that resembled a fishing shack in rural Maine, we created feasts and drank wine with such vigor and attention to detail that even the finest chefs in a trendy urban restaurant would smile with approval and delight.
Whether it was a late summer barbecue where we all gathered outside to grill various kinds of fish, chicken and steak, or huddled inside by the old stone fireplace, the lack of refinement of the place went entirely unnoticed by anyone who was fortunate enough to be invited.
Sometimes Mark, who divides his time between writing about wine and teaching classical guitar, would bring out something to surprise and further our senses, like Francisco Tarrega's Doce Composiciones.
Fabulous wine from various parts of the world would continue to flow and it was a salon like no other I've ever attended. This was because it wasn't trying to be a salon - it had extended beyond what we have experienced of such events in a 'trying to re-establish' salons world.
The fisherman's shack that I had grown to love, had recently been demolished, and in its place, a natural wood shingled house twice its former square footage, was built.
It is now draped with long slender windows, has a front and back door, a square wooden deck laced with potted herbs, and a 'made-to-entertain' kitchen with stainless steel appliances, perfectly facing the pond while you cook.
No classical guitar came out on this most recent trip and we didn't start-up the fireplace. While larger in size with what would appear to be cold Italian tiled floors, the place warmed up quickly between the active oven, the incoming crowd of people, and the heated tiles which rose through the floor boards, and up through your stocking feet. It was the kind of warmth that accompanies a child's smile on Christmas morning.
This kind of day and evening in late October could only be experienced in this way in New England. The air, the pond, the ducks, the pumpkins, and the homemade squash and bacon soup was all a reminder that it was so. And that we were here.
The quivering leaves that were aching to drop held on tightly to their branches. Because of the drought, they still rose above us, greener than I've ever seen this time of year with no sign soon that they were on their transitional journey into reds, oranges and mustard yellows.
Ask any New England child of their what appears to be a mandatory school project of ironing their favorite colored leaves between waxed paper and how long their works of art hung proudly on their home refrigerator or on the whiteboard of their dad's office.
This, my friends is New England.
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Renee: You captured vividly what makes New England so special. I came here in '75 and have had many opportunities to move to California and elsewhere. Something always draws me back here, though. The winter weather sucks, but fall is so wonderful that it more than compensates. The people can be narrow-minded and insular at times, but they have passion and personality and respect for their roots. The traffic is horrible, but you have the T! And right now we've got the Red Sox and the Patriots, so there's plenty to cheer about!
Walk down the streets of any small New England town at this time of year and you'll see porches decorated with pumpkins and squash and corn stalks. There are country fairs happening everywhere, with their scent of baking apples and spiced cider. It's a wonderful time to be here, and you captured its essence splendidly!
Posted by: Paul Gillin | Oct 28, 2007 5:13:05 AM
Renee: Your eloquence served to remind us New England lifers of the beauty sorrounding us -- bravo!! What I love about NE is its elegant blending of tradition and dynamism. There are no natural resources in New England. We have had to innovate our way to wealth -- from Lowell textiles to Whitehead genomics, to Belichickian defenses. And as you aptly state, "...a society that does honor commitment and loyalty..." is a perfect crucible for business. I will always travel, but I will always return.
Posted by: George Colony | Nov 2, 2007 1:12:51 PM
Wow Renee - this was superbly written.
Makes we want to live in New England.
Hold on - I do:)
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