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Providential Providence

Tuesday I finally took advantage of the New England train network -- not counting my taking Amtrak to Maine for the cruise -- and rode the commuter rail to Providence, RI. I grew up in Chicago, with nothing nearby except maybe Milwaukee and if so I never knew. Then I lived in LA, and San Francisco, both isolated if sprawling metro areas. Once I stayed in Pennsylvania, and we took a day trip by car to Baltimore, which was pretty exotic to me. Taking an hour to another city in another state, and coming back, still feels exotic too.

I didn't have big expectations, which was good, since they would probably have been along the lines of expecting the atmosphere of a Lovecraft story and horribly disappointed. It was an interesting day, though.

* Weird stops like Route 128, with nothing visible but parking lot and trees. 3 girls got on here, probably late high school or early college, 1 one of them from Spain, as I deduce from the others asking her what you needed to get a license in Spain. Plus she had a mild accent and talked like someone having to translate their sentences. And, alerted, I noticed a Spanish-ness to her face.

* Prison visible from South Attleboro.

* Providence itself. To the south is downtown, to the north is a 'park' with state government buildings. I went there first, and found the statehouse and checked it out -- entrance is on the other side, ha ha -- which I've almost never done; I think my previous similar experience was showing Anna from anime club around Bloomington, and we checked out the courthouse. But the guard was friendly (apart from X-ray baggage and metal detector) and invited me to look around, and then this couple asked for a tour, so I hung along with them.

** There's "the Gettysburg gun" with a shell stuck in it; it got struck by a Confederate ball, heated up, and got a Union ball stuck in it during loading. The docent mentioned what the signs didn't: at some point people realized that they were walking to work past a cannon with decades old gunpowder still in it, slowly decaying, aka "a possible bomb", until they drilled to remove it.
** There's a painting of George Washington from the 1800s, supposedly worth millions now. "Because he's standing and not on a horse. Also because there's an optical illusion where his eyes always follow you around." I didn't point out that all 2D images either track you or don't.
** The original state charter in on display, in a heavily locked case; supposedly the key to the core is only in DC at the Smithsonian. "It's written in old English, which we can't read." Old handwriting, yes... To be fair the docent is from Asia, and subbing in for the regular docent. And I'm reminded of the UCSD tour guide who tried to tell us the original Richter scale was located in their geology building. But still.
** Anyway, it's a nice little building, and I got to see the legislative chambers.

* Heading downtown, I crossed a river, with a lower level walk. No waterfowl. A gondola, though. Smells more marine than Boston Harbor does.

* Young Lovecraft would not have approved: lots of blacks and Hispanics around, and the buses clearly do their announcements in both English and Spanish.
** The Roger Williams Zoo is supposedly the best in New England, and has a bus, but it runs every half hour. In general the buses seem to run every 20-30 minutes, though there's one that runs every 10. Providence has about 120,000 people in an allegedly dense area.

* And now we get to the providential bits. Expectations for Providence did not include lots of Spanish restaurants. And okay, there weren't a *lot*. But there were a few right in the tourist guide, and Flan y Ajo turned out to be this very small tapas bar, with four stools and 5 bench seats and generally a standing bar. Somewhat flamboyantly Spanish, with a menu on a blackboard only in Spanish such that you have to ask for a translation. Encourages the regulars to learn, I guess. I felt bad about not getting much, but Blake later commented that words I reported sounded Catalan or even Basque, and intro Spanish doesn't cover exotic food names.

(Also, I later found bilingual menu taped up outside, though not entirely synchronized with the actual menu.)

Anyway, it looked promising, and cheap, or at least offering tapas in the $3-6 range, rather than the $6-10 range; even if the portions are small, I expect low base prices so you can sample a lot. But the star attraction for me was in the cured meat section: jamon iberico de bellota Iberico is the really good stuff, which I never got around to hunting down in Madrid and which I've never found in the US. "de bellota" is the top end, the pigs who are finished eating nothing but acorns. $19 for a serving, I'd guess maybe an ounce, but I tried it, even while wondering about possible food fraud. It looked exactly like photos of iberico online, though; somewhat different from jamon serrano, and nothing at all like American ham.

Was it good? Yes. Was it worth the price? Not so much. Was it worth the $20/pound Blake said you can get it for in northern Spain (vs. $100/lb here)? Not sure. But hey, I got to try it!

Also pa amb tomaquet, garlic bread with tomatoes, and a serving of chorizo, spicy and not as greasy as I feared.

Of the two women working there, and sounding as if they run the place, one looked kind of Spanish and sounded accented, and the other looked like my mother -- Eastern European Jew but passed for Mediterranean -- though sounded totally American. The first said she was from Spain when I asked; I didn't ask the other.

* Just down the street is Tazza, another cafe, which I thought of as Spanish at first but I think was more eclectic European. Menu has gazpacho, but also Venezuelan ganache, Vietnamese sandwiches, brulee and mascarpone based dishes, and udon. I thought most of the waitstaff might be Spanish, but the one I asked said he was Italian, and that the others weren't Spanish. So I guess I can't tell my Mediterranean people apart, but I can ID them as a group.

It had lots of coffee choices, like drip, pour over, french press, and halogen siphon. And iced cold brewed coffee, which is what I had, because cold brewed is neat. Halogen siphon comes from Japan. I was told it and pour-over are about keeping the water temperature constant, vs. the recycling of drip. A different place had also had these options; I haven't seen them in Boston but maybe I don't go to cafes enough.

Menu had a salad with "house made olivewood smoked bacon" and "great hill blue cheese" over... "baby iceberg lettuce". This seems like pouring a great sauce over cardboard.

* Eventually I headed east into Brown University territory. I found the $10 art museum an hour before it closes, and a free anthropology museum 5 minutes before it closes. Found a Greek meze (appretizer) restaurant. Saw blue jays and a cardinal in a garden; I grew up with them at home, but haven't seem them often since. Found $2 BBQ turkey leg in a butcher, which seemed really cheap, tempting but I had plans. Wandered among nice houses and yards in a sparse boring neighborhood. Passed a license plate saying "SPQR 7". Found greenhouses, also closed.

* "Plans" meant a Cuban restaurant not far from the others mentioned. Had a "Cuban Revolution picadillo", pretty good, with cinnamon.

There's a good bookstore downtown too. All in all a fun time, and I could profitably go back for the zoo, and perhaps the museums.

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Damien Sullivan

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