Tuesday, 9 January 2018

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE OCEAN

My first visit to America.  For almost two weeks I swapped the western edge of the Atlantic for the eastern edge.

I went to Providence, Rhode Island, to visit my American daughter in law's family.  Rhode Island is the smallest state with the longest name (Rhode Island and Providence Plantations).  It's not an island but it has more coastline per inhabitant than any other state.  Rhode Islanders joke that it's 3 per cent bigger at low tide.  And, yes, it's where the hens come from.

My main impressions were that most of my knowledge of America comes from literature and that everyone I met had a story of origins.  And the Cold.

I flew into Boston and as we travelled along the freeway from to Providence I spotted a U-Haul depot.  It brought to mind Amy Clampitt's poem 'Real Estate' with its striking opening lines
'Something is that doesn't
love a Third Avenue tenement'.
The poem describes the run-down area and the demise of a pawnshop -
'... Finally a U-Haul
truck carted everything off somewhere'.
When the conversation turned to baseball I envisioned the poet Marianne Moore in her big hat attending the Brooklyn Dodgers games.  A visitor from Florida made me picture the long Pan Handle ending in Key West, the setting of Wallace Stevens' great poem, 'The Idea of Order at Key West'.

Novels too, came to mind.  Talk of slavery was illuminated by my reading of Toni Morrison's novels and mention of the Civil War and its aftermath conjured up scenes from Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

We visited Newport - in the late 19th century the playground of rich New Yorkers who built huge holiday houses on the edge of the ocean.  We went round the Vanderbilts' opulent mansion, The Breakers.  It was pure Edith Wharton - think The Age of Innocence.  The book Wharton co-wrote with the architect Ogden Codman (The Decoration of Houses) was on display, and Codman had been commissioned to work on The Breakers.

The clapboard houses in the snowy streets of Providence had a Scandinavian look and would not look out of place in Oslo or Bergen.  I  was reminded of the Scandinavian immigrants mentioned in Willa Cather's My Antonia.   In the same novel Cather describes the turf dugout that the Shimerda family lived in during their first winter.  During my visit it was cold in Providence - colder than in Alaska.  Bone-searingly cold, relentlessly cold.

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I was struck by the way that almost everyone I met had a story of an 'elsewhere', either in their own lifetime or in earlier generations.

My daughter in law's family on her father's side had been Christian weavers in Aleppo and had settled in Patterson, New Jersey.  Her mother's family traced their ancestry to English and Irish immigrants.    I met a man who had been born in Seneghal and a woman whose mother had fled from the Ukraine in the time of Stalin.  The wide variety of restaurants in Providence reflected wave after wave of immigrants from different parts of the world.

But the voices of those who had inhabited Rhode Island before the settlers came were silent, preserved only in place names (we were staying in East Side very near to Pawtucket) and in the 1643 book written by Roger Williams, the founder of Providence.  The book was A Key into the Language of America, longly subtitled 'An help to the language of the natives in that part of America, called New-England.  Together with brief observations of the customs, manners and worships of the aforesaid natives in peace and warre, in life and death.'

On Thursday the storm came, shown on the weather map as a seething mass of bright blue, green, yellow and orange.  The blizzard raged all morning and afternoon - fine sifting powdery snow that blew like flour from a mill, muffling everything, rapidly covering footprints and tyre marks.  White seeped into everything, even finding a crack in the attic window frame and laying its trail on the steep stairs.  We were in 'lock-down'.  All flights were cancelled (including my return flight), schools and work places were closed, even the Seven Stars Bakery on Hope Street was shut.  Someone coined a new meteorological term for the storm 'bombogenesis'.

The car was deposed from its rule of the city and the Providence streets belonged to those pedestrians who were brave/foolhardy enough to venture out and to the grey squirrels.   One night the temperature went down to 2 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 Centigrade).

It was the kind of bitter cold Edith Wharton captured in her novella Ethan Frome.  Wales seemed balmily warm when I finally got home - three days late.