always think it would be fun to do travel writing. I like
reading what people write about their travels. Not guidebooks
so much, but real stories about people they meet, what they
eat, where they hang out. I like a writer who can tell the
history of a place without being boring, who can evoke the
spirit of the place without being sentimental.
I want to do that kind of travel writing, I thought to myself.
I bet I’d be good at it. I like the hidden corners of things,
the unexplored hinterlands. And I certainly would enjoy the
Then I identified the flaw in my idea: You have to travel
if you want to be a travel writer.
It isn’t that I haven’t. All throughout my 20s and 30s I traveled
to lots of different places. I just happened to be a traveler
who had to then live in that place long enough to get
a job and save up enough money to get out again.
My travel tales would be something along the lines of
Menswear for Loggers: Selling Shirts in Aberdeen, A Shopgirl
in Charlottesville, The Life and Times of an Office Temp in
though I actually have traveled a fair amount (in the genuine
sense of traveling and not living somewhere until I could
afford to leave it) I really haven’t done enough of it to
be a travel expert. Mostly I just pore over maps the way teenage
boys look at the Swimsuit Issue: with more desire than actual
hope of visiting those places.
So I had pretty much bagged the whole idea of travel writing
until my daughter, Madeleine, muttered this now infamous phrase:
“Schenectady is the Provence of New York state.”
She wasn’t serious, of course. (Of course!)
But then again, why not? I read somewhere—probably in some
excellent book of travel writing—that the French have perfected
a kind of micro-tourism that involves getting to know one
small bit of geography so intimately that you begin to feel
you are at one with it.
Despite any of my better intentions, it’s possible that I
am beginning to feel at one with Schenectady.
Now, there’s a bit of background here. A few years ago my
family and I spent a pretty good amount of time traveling
around France. When I got back here (arriving at that Slough
of Despond we call the Schenectady Amtrak Station with its
ghastly elevator), all I wanted to do was go back there.
But how to do it on the cheap? I mentioned to a friend that
maybe I’d do a house exchange for a month; I’d go just about
anywhere in the southern part of France (Provence, Languedoc-Rousillon,
Pyrenees) or the central part of France (Dordogne, Auvergne,
Massif Central). In exchange a family could stay in my
My friend laughed. It wasn’t a very kindly laugh, either.
do you mean?” I cried, “We’re close to all kinds of goods
and services—Starbucks, Target, CVS. And we’re not far from
SPAC and Tanglewood. Plus, we’re only three hours from New
York, Boston, Montreal.”
forget that hour’s drive to Utica!” he said wickedly.
Utica. He had a point.
So maybe Schenectady isn’t the Provence of New York
state. But it is certainly something. It’s up to a
good travel writer to take something ordinary and quotidian,
put a frame around it and call it a destination. Maybe that’s
my maiden voyage as a travel writer: to do that with Schenectady.
Kind of daunting, when you think about it.
On the other hand, who can deny that sitting by the Mohawk
River down in the Stockade, particularly when it is not above
flood stage, is a wonderful thing to do? You get a couple
of panini—I recommend the Green Street—at the 1795 Café and
you go pick a park bench to watch the sunset and the Union
College Rowing Team glide up and down the still, brown waters.
Actually, it’s lovely.
Or why hasn’t the bar at Parker Inn off the Proctor’s Arcade
been widely hailed as the utterly romantic spot that it is?
You can get a great antipasto to split with a friend and settle
in on a sofa with a glass of wine or a dry martini.
Just across the way on the Jay Street Mall, only a few doors
from Schenectady’s independent bookstore, the Open Door, Skinny
and Sweet is a great spot to buy gifts you can only give to
people with senses of humor and candy that you can give to
anybody at all.
It sounds weird to say this, but Schenectady is a nice city
to walk around in. Sure, some of it is ugly and chopped up
and one wonders how in hell anybody allowed those shabby,
boxy 1960s office buildings to be put up.
But Central Park and the Stockade and the Mohawk Bike Path
and the GE Realty Plot all make for pleasant strolling. (And
there’s always a Stewart’s nearby in case you want to have
a cup of coffee or a Make-Your-Own Sundae with the natives.)
Yesterday Madeleine told me that before she moves to Boston
to begin her college studies next fall, she wants a postcard
of Schenectady to hang on her dorm room wall. (Yes, you can
buy postcards with any number of the notable, local sites—Lawrence,
the Stockade Indian, St. John the Evangelist’s phantasmagorical
interior, the big General Electric sign.)
mean, come on,” she asked me, “why would anybody want a postcard
She’s 17. What does she know?
you do,” I said. “Because after all, you said it: ‘Schenectady
is the Provence of New York state.’”