Global Greenwich (2) Greenwich Conneticut, Part One
I’d always wanted to actually take a train from Grand Central Station. It’s the stuff of movies. Of romance, Of adventure. Yeah, yeah – so I was only going 35 minutes into Suburbia, but – well – you know me.
I bought my sixteen-dollar ticket and trotted off to Platform 113 (Platform one hundred and thirteen, guys…) coffee and bagel in hand, hope in heart. For the full effect, I added a copy of The New Yorker. Well – it’s not every day an English Phantom gets to play on an American train.
Like commuter trains here, the ones arriving were jam-packed, but going out of Manhattan, it was empty. Just me and a couple of guys in business suits behind me, talking loudly about hedge funds.
The great thing about travelling on rails above the city is the sense of geography – just how damn big Central Park is; just how far up north Harlem is; just how cool it all is when the sun’s out and the sky is blue – even if the temperature is somewhere around zero.
My conductor, a cross between Ned Flanders and Tom Hanks in Polar Express, punched my ticket and I settled back in my seat, waiting for some countryside. Of course it never came. New York is exactly like London – a big old sprawl – even leaving the state and entering Conneticut. The only bits that hasn’t been built on seem to be the gigantic cemeteries. With mile upon mile of close-boarded houses, each with attendant Stars & Stripes flying proudly outside, I turned back to the train map and idly wondered what lay beyond my destination, just a single stop away now.
Two Greenwichs? Hmm. Greenwich and ‘Old’ Greenwich. Not next to each other, as in East and West or something – but with another stop, called something totally different, in between. Surely they weren’t so short of names when naming towns here that they called two just a few miles apart the same thing? Which one was the real Greenwich, CTT? The first was perilously close now. I needed to ask Hedge-Fund Guys.
“Excuse me – but which is the main Greenwich station?”
Do you know? In all my years of visiting America, I have never before met what they so charmingly call “an asshole.” Now I was about to meet two. The pair nudged each other and smirked.
“What do you think, Al?”
“Shall we say?”
“It depends on what you want.”
“Just the one where the main town is, really.”
The stop was getting closer.
For Dog’s sake. All I wanted to know was the difference between the two stops – whether they were part of the same town, whether they were reachable on foot – simple questions, I thought, from a simple traveller, who had, admittedly, neglected to notice that their destination had procreated into two different towns.
The pair giggled like schoolboys, turned away from the English weirdo and prepared to leave. I decided that if these two were getting off, it must be the main station, and followed them. As they disappeared around the corner, I heard a burst of laughter. Hilarious. Lost tourists. They make me die too.
Sorry folks – just had to get that off my chest. A timely reminder, perhaps, though, that we live in a tourist town here in Greenwich, England. We ARE all kind to visitors, aren’t we…
I tried reading up about the place before I went, but the information I gleaned from their official website made it clear they’re not used to tourists, though they claim that visitors have been coming since 1642, when the town was founded. It told me how to pay a parking ticket or get a birth certificate and warned me not to use a picture of the town’s seal without permission, but not what the town’s about. I was going to have to try to work that out for myself.
It’s well-heeled, that’s for sure. The first thing you see as you leave the station is a 1930s sports-car showroom, and the shops along the main street consist of branches of Saks and Tiffany’s. Eurochasse sells an eye-popping array of hunting equipment, and Te Amo sells imported cigars. A lot of banks, cute-clothing-for-kiddies-with-cash shops, jewellers’ stores and, er, Claire’s Accessories. The only food shop I saw was a wet fish shop (Now. Let’s not start that discussion again, eh, guys…)
There are some great buildings – public and otherwise. I’d guess that the Ginger Man bar is the oldest shop, wooden-fronted and heavily over-painted,
but most of the buildings seem to be 20th Century. Lots of fine civic buildings and powerful obelisks, quirky architectural styles and curious detail. I particularly liked this Tudor-style American bald eagle:
It’s a neat town. Tidy parks, litter-free streets and – and I’m not kidding – a policeman at every crossroads, directing the traffic – of which there’s virtually none. Click on the image below to see what I mean.
The streets were deserted, so I went looking for people to talk to. In the glorious post office (the Americans just do post offices really well, don’t they? Fabulous buildings, complete with brass 1930s PO boxes, and a real feeling of service, unlike our pitiful efforts, though I’ll give us the delivery-speed prize – for now…) a sensible-looking middle-aged woman looked just the ticket.
We didn’t get off to a good start. She was almost disproportionately shocked that, given that the stamps I had left over from my last visit needed extras to make up the new price that would totally obliterate my postcard, I chose to buy a single new stamp. “But that’s money you have in your hands,” she protested.
I changed the subject. What was it like to live in this town, I wondered?
“It’s very nice.”
I tried again. Was there anything I should be seeing?
Well…she thought for a bit. “There’s the museum, I guess.”
A museum. That’s good. “What’s it like?”
“I don’t know. I’ve not been. I don’t go out.”
This is in a town where there doesn’t appear to be anything else. Ok…
“What about this ‘Old’ Greenwich? Is it part of this Greenwich? Is it far?”
“I don’t know. There’s a bus, I think. You need to wait at one of the crossings.”
This was like pulling teeth. Still- at least there was no one waiting behind me. Was there a guidebook to the town, perhaps?
“I don’t know. You might find one in the newsagent.”
Grand, clean buildings. Scrupulously clean. Not a weed, not a piece of litter. Tidy. Two churches. several iconic-looking public-buildings (including a couple of inexplicably tatty vintage buildings – one a deserted art deco cinema, the other a very sad-looking ex-antique centre, in wooden shingle – clearly very old and very unloved, a surprise in this country where they actually give a damn about their history.) I poked my head around one of the big buildings – possibly the library – which boasted an art exhibition, but was given a Paddington-hard-stare by various old folk having lunch in the canteen and beat a hasty retreat onto the deserted streets.
In fact I saw practically nobody the whole time I was there. It’s a pretty town, full of Public Art – just everywhere – bronze statues of children – cycling children, running children, tree-climbing children. Just no real people.
The woman in the post office had mentioned the newsagents, and when I went in, I began to get a little more of an idea of this insular community. The magazines on sale were very much of the glossy variety, and, perhaps more telling, there were European imports in all the major languages. Sadly, for a town that is over three hundred years old, no guidebook – the nearest thing being a directory of services. The newsagent himself was chatty, but claimed to know nothing about the town. This didn’t stop him trying to sell me souvenir teaspoons and shot glasses with a Greenwich coat of arms on them. I am still kicking myself that I resisted the temptation.
So. A sunny, beautiful visit to a lovely-looking town about which I cannot say I know anything more now I’ve been there. But this was only the half of it. There was still that other mysterious ‘Old’ Greenwich. There was nothing to do but get back on the train and seek it out…