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Destination: Here

I 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 talking-about-the-food-and-wine part.

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 Denver.

And 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 house—in Niskayuna.

My friend laughed. It wasn’t a very kindly laugh, either.

“What 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.”

“Don’t 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.)

“I mean, come on,” she asked me, “why would anybody want a postcard from Schenectady?”

She’s 17. What does she know?

“Apparently you do,” I said. “Because after all, you said it: ‘Schenectady is the Provence of New York state.’”

—Jo Page

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