A friend recently spent a long weekend in Newport, RI, and, as one does these days, documented the experience by posting a series of photos on Facebook.
These were obligatory shots for anyone who have ever visited the island:
Sheep in a field at Hammersmith Farm, the childhood home of Jackie Kennedy and the site of her wedding to JFK; the Cliff Walk; a raw oyster platter at a local tavern; the picturesque houses in the historic Point neighborhood; and a selfie taken in a mirror at one of the city’s famous Bellevue Avenue mansions.
Clicking through the album, I was struck by a wave of nostalgia. I lived in Newport for several years in the mid-1990s, having followed my college sweetheart there. He was in the U.S. Navy, and had been assigned to train at the Surface Warfare Officer School located at the very edge of town.
The relationship didn’t last; he moved on to San Diego, California, where he was detailed to a nuclear-powered warship. I stayed behind for another year, before moving on myself to graduate school in New York City.
I loved my time in Newport. The city was quirky, and beautiful and chock full of all sorts of interesting people – blue -blood, old-money aristocrats and the many hangers-on they attract; artists; sailors; athletes; academics; retirees; professionals and, of course, tourists and the massive industry that serves them.
But the photos also reminded me of a funny fact: In all the years I lived in Newport, I didn’t take a single tour of the Gilded Age mansions for which it is so well known.
I attended a number of events held at the enormous rococo piles, many of them black-tie galas thrown during the “season” as the wealthy residents who continued the tradition of summering in Newport called it.
I worked for a weekly newspaper owned by a socialite who often used the publication as a vehicle to showcase the doings of her rich friends. I was the paper’s sole staff writer – earning a whopping $19,000 a year, without benefits. As a “perk,” I was sometimes given tickets to things that I could ill afford to pay to attend on my own.
So, I would put on my one good black dress and my thrift-shop leopard coat, get my hair and makeup done, and go off to rub elbows with people way above my social strata.
Needless to say, I learned a lot. It was almost worth the poverty wages. Almost.
It wasn’t until long after I had moved away from Newport and returned to the city for a few short visits that I engaged in some of its more touristy activities.
I ate seafood at Christie’s, a crowded restaurant on the wharf. I tanned on the beach – something I never had the time nor the inclination to do while I was a resident, though I did often run along the water; and, finally, during a weekend girls’ getaway when I was in my 40s, I visited one of the mansions.
The mansion we chose was Marble House, designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt, and built between 1888 and 1892 for Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt. Marble House lives up to its name. It is gaudy and gilt laden and oversized. It’s hard to imagine anyone actually living there comfortably.
But the history of the place turned out to be fascinating, with its ties to the women’s rights movement. And, ironically, its last private owner turned out to be the grandfather of the socialite who was once my boss – something I never knew while I worked for her, since she had long since graduated to a more modest, and comparatively modern, mansion located at the base of Bellevue Avenue.
I was remembering all this while perusing my friends’ photos, and also thinking about all the things we miss out on when we live in a place and come to take it for granted.
When I moved to New York City, people rhapsodized about all the culture in which I would soon be partaking. But the truth is, I barely ever visited a museum or went to a show or even saw a movie while I lived there.
Part of that was due to the fact that the first time around I was a graduate student, living on shoestring and working long hours toward an MJS in journalism.
My second stint in the city, I was a columnist for a tabloid newspaper – a job that did not afford me a lot of free time. Plus, I was splitting my time between Brooklyn and the upstate home I had decided to neither sell nor rent out.
Outside of work, I more or less restricted my activities to the ten or so square blocks around my apartments, with the exception of the long runs that regularly took me across borough boundaries.
I had MY diner, and MY coffee shop and MY sushi joint and MY bagel place. And I know I wasn’t alone in this. New Yorkers tend to be creatures of habit, seeking out the familiar in an ever-changing and chaotic city. Habits are comfortable, and predictable. It’s nice in a place where there are so many strangers to show up somewhere familiar where you are recognized.
I knew plenty of village denizens who made it a point of pride not to go above 13th Street, and diehard Park Slopers who would not leave the ‘hood unless absolutely necessary on the weekends.
Again, it wasn’t until I moved away and returned to the city for visits that I started to really enjoy all of the many cultural and culinary wonders it has to offer.
In retrospect, this sort of insular lifestyle makes me sad. And I realize there are a whole slew of places I haven’t visited in years – in some cases, not at all – during the almost two decades I’ve lived in the Capital Region.
And so, I am embarking on a project to become a tourist of my own home.
I’m about to make a big change in careers, which might leave me with a little more free time, or, at the very least, more control over my scheduled so as to afford me the flexibility to live a little more and enjoy what this region has to offer.
I have made a list of iconic places and experiences that I would recommend to someone who was visiting the area for the first time, but have never actually visited or engaged in myself.
So far, this is what I’ve come up with, and I will be periodically reporting back as I check things off my list.
If you’ve got ideas of things I should add, please feel free to chime in. And also, maybe consider a similar project of your own.
We spend so much time wishing we were elsewhere, planning our next vacation getaway, or our retirement. And yet there is so much available to us right here, right now. Why not take advantage of it while we can?
Here’s my list:
Indian Ladder Farms.
State Museum. (Of course I have been there many times – one class trips as a kid, for various events, but not as a serious museum-goer in recent years).
Albany Institute of History and Art.
Museum of Dance.
Museum of Racing.
Breakfast at the Saratoga Racetrack.
Uncle Sam’s grave.
Ten Broeck Mansion.
State Capitol tour. (Yes, I worked in the building for about a decade, and covered it as a reporter for twice as long, but never actually took the tour, and as a result, know only bits and pieces of its history).