Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The New England Diaries

Eugene and I spent 3 glorious weeks savouring the delights of New England, this north eastern corner of the United States.  We ate the most superb clam chowder, enjoyed the delights of lobster in all its incarnations and, of course, homemade blueberry pie.

We visited quaint seaside villages and huge bustling modern cities with such tall skyscrapers that one fears that they will topple over.  We saw houses built hundreds of years ago and museums and galleries with art that made one weep with joy.

Join Back Chat's New England Romp and experience the wondrous sights and sounds of the cities and the villages; the mouth-watering tastes of food in dockside restaurants and grand food in grand establishments.  Love it as much as we did. 

This first story is about our introduction to New England, Massachusetts to be precise.  I tell of our visit to the home of the poet Emily Dickinson in Amherst and of course our immediate love affair with the food of New England.

I would love to know how you enjoyed your first taste of New England.  Do write to me at or leave a comment on the blog.  I look forward to hearing from you.

We arrived at  Boston Logan International Airport, relaxed, excited and blissfully untroubled by the inescapable excesses of security precautions in an age of fear and paranoia.  Robin, Eugene's son and my wondrous adopted kin, scooped us up and whisked us away to the beautiful home that he shares with his life partner, James, in Seekonk, Massachusetts, a suburb of Providence, Rhode Island.   For the next 22 days, Eugene and I were treated to the ride of our lives.   Robin and James wove an astonishing tapestry of experience and sensation that warmly and snugly enfolded us.

            The First Baptist Church In America

James transforms cooking, even the simplest and most basic foods, into one of the finest arts.  On our arrival as weary travellers, he prepared a meal that made our palates and our hearts sing.   Cioppino with Mahi-mahi!  This extraordinary seafood dish, much like a seafood soup, was made even more unctuous and delicious with the inclusion of Mahi-mahi.  For the uninitiated, as we certainly were, mahi-mahi is a superb sweet tasting firm white fish much enjoyed in the United States and beyond. What a meal!  We ate every last bit, mopping up any remaining soup with delicious homemade bread and washing it down with a crisp white wine from our cousin's vineyards faraway in Paarl, South Africa.   Perhaps it is more traditional to drink red wine with this dish, but our hosts gallantly indulged my penchant for a good sauvignon blanc.  In the days to come, we would discover that whenever we ate dinner at home, it would always be a special eating experience; a party of our very own.

We soon settled into a pattern of striking out during the day and then returning to Seekonk in the evening to rest, refresh our minds and bodies and to eat James' wonderful food   Distance seemed to leave our hosts completely unfazed, so occasionally we packed overnight cases and spent a night away from Seekonk as James and Robin drove us across New England and beyond.

Oh the excitement when it was decided that we would visit the town of Amherst in Western Massachusetts! The wonderful American poet, Emily Dickinson,was born in the family homestead in Amherst and spent most of her life there.  I had just read Lyndall Gordon's definitive work on Emily Dickinson, 'Lives Like Loaded Guns'.  A visit to the home of the poet would be something of a pilgrimage.  Robin is scheduled to begin a PHD programme at the University of Massachusetts Amherst or UMass Amherst as it is popularly known  and we were looking forward to seeing his student world.  We would stay the night at an hotel, entirely run by students of the Hotel School on the campus of UMass.   What a catalogue of  excitements!

The day of our visit to Amherst dawned with heavy rain and oppressive humidity.  Undaunted, Robin and James hurried us into the car and we set off with Eugene and I somewhat bemused by the ease with which they just take off.   First a detour to visit the Paradise City Fine and Functional Arts fair in Northampton.   Beautiful scenery, a comfortable ride and fun company made for a very easy journey.  We wandered around the stalls at the fair enjoying all the diverse cultural contributions.  We came away with a glorious hand painted wooden salad bowl.  I loved the design and the colours; green with lovely plump purple plums luring one's eye to the centre of the bowl.    

Onwards to Amherst.  This lovely university town was peaceful and quiet.  Soon the students would return from their vacations and reawaken the town with the sounds of their bustling lives.  Meanwhile, we enjoyed the stillness and grabbed the opportunity to drive around the sprawling campus.  We visited Robin's student digs, a quaint flat, beautifully arranged to allow him the perfect place to immerse himself in academia.  Then the much longed for visit to Emily Dickinson's home.

We presented ourselves at the doorway of the Homestead.  There was a genteel slightly musty atmosphere and immediately I was transported with delight.  Everything was as I had imagined it would be. We arranged a guided tour with a charming young female docent.  She was soft-spoken and slightly fey and in my opinion,  just enough of a blue stocking to preserve the illusion of that other time and season when Emily Dickinson lived and worked there, sequestered from the outside world in her second floor eyrie.

There was Emily's white dress in a glass case on the landing, her bedroom and the small table near a window where she wrote for hours on end.  Her books, some papers and anything that remained after most of the memorabilia and papers was sent to various university libraries and archives, were strategically placed to create the atmosphere of a sanctuary.  I felt a tangible presence and sensation of her.  It has been told that a ghostly figure in a long white dress has been seen wandering the halls.   I wonder if she would stop and talk if one encountered her.

In the same grounds as the Homestead, is 'The Evergreens' a home built by Emily's father for his son, Austin and his wife Susan.   A path, "just wide enough for two who love" links the two homes.   We strolled across to The Evergreens, a fashionable Italianate building, that had seen so much life and drama.  Austin and Susan  led very public lives.  Stalwarts of society, they had immersed themselves in academic, cultural and civic affairs.  Until  Austin met and fell in love with Mabel  Loomis Todd!  The saga of that love affair and of the havoc it wrought, coloured the lives of the Dickinson family for generations.  The house is silent now.  The path is deserted and the feuds are buried with the antagonists, but the history remains.

When we emerged from The Evergreens, our docent bade us farewell and we went off to sit on a stone bench in the beautifully landscaped garden.  My gentlemen companions were distinctly underwhelmed by the whole experience.  They found it dusty and musty and not at all magical.  Perhaps a stop at our hotel to refresh and change and then on to dinner would improve their jaundiced view of the world.

                                                   The Gardens At The Homestead


Michael Olivier said...

Well - what does one say? Yet another lovely warm piece with super pics. Winner winner winner. Again! Luv Mxx

Anonymous said...

I have just read your blog and was transported to another time and place. A wonderful read.

Leslie Back said...

Dear Michael,

Thank you for the trouble that you take to read another pesky email and for the generosity of spirit that allows you to make such kind and wonderful comments. I am greatly encouraged that you enjoy the pieces that I write.


Leslie Back said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for the lovely comment that you left on Back Chat. I am so pleased that you enjoyed the story and that just possibly you felt the magic of Emily.

Best wishes
Leslie Back

Lyndall Gordon said...

Dear Leslie,

You always write so well about your travels. It's lovely to read of your visit to Emily Dickinson's Homestead, the Evergreens and the family feud.

With thanks,

Leslie Back said...

Dear Lyndall,

Your wonderful biography of Emily Dickinson was much quoted by our gentle docent and has provided the inspiration for a new and abiding fascination with the poet.

Thank you for your most gracious comment on Back Chat