Past Perfect: Discovering New England


By Regina Abuyuan

We land past midnight at Newark Liberty Airport, and it is cold. After having spent the past month in the friendlier climes of California, two degrees Celsius is a shock. The kids keep on repeating: It is so cold! I’ve never been this cold in my life! And there is still the walk to the car, perhaps a stop at a fastfood for a midnight snack (there are no drive-thrus on the way), and the two-hour drive to Newtown, Connecticut to contend with. The sights exiting New Jersey are bleak, the I-84 highway is long and dark, and—my fatigue toying with my imagination, owing to the horrific school shooting that happened there two years prior—the drive into Newtown feels sad and heavy. Shortly after my brother-in-law shows us to our room, we crawl into our beds, too tired and too cold to even dream.

Then, morning. Newtown—nay, the whole of Connecticut; wait, make that the whole of New England reveals its beauty in the light of day. During autumn, the beauty is absolutely poetic.

Temperatures have risen overnight, and though still chilly, they’re not as bitter as the night before. One son is basking on a patch of grass, where the sun has penetrated through some still-green leaves. His twin is beginning to explore the woods beyond, and— dressed in a brown moose beanie with ear muffs, camouflage-print sweater and red Nikes—he is almost one with the foliage.

But there is, of course, more to New England— that part of the United States that comprises Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—than the melancholic beauty of dying leaves. There is the history, the deep connection to the sea, the lobster (you must always have lobster when in Maine!), and, yes, maybe even witches and ghosts.

A long and proud history
As early as the 1600s, New England’s first inhabitants, the Algonquian people, had already begun trading with merchants from England, the Netherlands, and France. Thereon followed the first English settlers—the Pilgrims, Puritans, and later, the soldiers who fought against (sometimes alongside) the Native American Indians and French. The foundations of modern United States were built in the New England states.

That sense of propriety and distinction seep the air in New England—it is, after all, home to Yale University and MIT; was vocal and united in the abolition of slavery; and produced many of the U.S.’s literati and intellectual minds, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Edgar Allan Poe.

The respect for history is apparent everywhere: on the corner of Sugar Road and Main Street in Newtown, for example, you pass a historic ram pasture(!), founded in 1705 (the same year Newtown was established), an expanse of green with an old barnhouse in the middle. Squint your eyes just the right way, and you’ll swear you’ll see a shepherd directing his flock towards the pond in the middle, which is still visited by wild geese as a migration stopover.

It’s almost embarrassing that Filipinos consider anything built midcentury as old. Old and decrepit and déclassé.

In the rest of the world, and particularly in New England, it is a badge of honor, a sense of pride. Houses built in the 1800s and earlier are a common sight on roads big and small—you know because some of them have the date engraved on the entrance: “This house was built in 1823 for Dr. So-and-so.”
In Mystic, a short drive around town is like stepping into a time capsule: houses as early as the mid 17th century still stand, their lawns kept and tidy, their frontages neatly painted and maintained.

Connecticut has many places of interest, but like many Gen Xers, I swore to myself that I would visit Mystic as soon as I got the chance, having fallen in love with the place through the 1988 film Mystic Pizza.

Mystic is an hour and a half away from Newtown, and maybe because it is a weekday when we visit, parking is fairly easy (try along the street near the park along the water). From there, walk across the drawbridge to the main drag. Restaurants and cafés feature the best of chowders, oysters, burgers, and booze; shops with items made by local designers and craftsmen can be found on either side.

Predictably, we eat at Mystic Pizza. Established in 1973, the place’s popularity grew exponentially since the sappy Julia Roberts-starrer came out. Pop culture influenced or not, the pizza is decent—not oily, filling, served on a good, crunchy crust.

The plan is to visit Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea—the U.S.’s leading maritime museum, which features a recreation of a “19th-century coastal village, a working shipyard, formal exhibit halls, and state-of-the-art artifact storage facilities, historic watercraft and landmark vessels, such as the 1841 whaleship Charles W. Morgan, America’s oldest commercial ship still in existence”—but my landlubbing side takes over.

A few blocks on the other side of the wharf, where the residents dock their boats, is an antiques store. It’s tended by an old man who patiently waits, reading a book, while guests shop; Coltrane plays in the background. He wraps your purchases, one by one, no matter what they might be—an old Roald Dahl book, a lighter from World War II, ’70s bric-a-brac—in white tissue paper. “You don’t have to,” my husband says, a bit embarrassed that we’re taking up so much of his time. “You can just put it all in a bag.”

The old man pays no heed. He continues to wrap each carefully and lovingly, and hands them over with a smile. “Have a nice day.” He doesn’t just sell us antiques; he’s passing on stewardship.

Antiques stores are part and parcel of the New England landscape. It is impossible to not drive by a few wherever you’re headed. There is, in fact, an Antiques Trail—you can map one out yourself, decide where to end and to begin, and skip the ones you think won’t fit your tastes and budget.

The Mill House in Woodbury, Connecticut, for example, is housed in an old—duh—mill house, and its antiques are a fixture in magazines like Architectural Digest. The house and environs were restored to their former glory to make way for 17 showrooms and breathtaking gardens that will make you yearn to live in a more genteel past.

(read the complete story here. This appears in the Jan-Feb 2016 issue of Seafarer Asia Magazine. thank God we’re finally online! Geez.)


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