When my American friends invited us to stay with them in New Jersey, my 13-year-old daughter was thrilled. She’d never been to the States before, and she couldn’t wait to see Manhattan. I had to break the news to her that there were no skyscrapers where we’d be staying. Plainfield, New Jersey, is an easy commute from New York City, but it feels like a world away. Clapboard houses with star spangled banners: this is the real America. You’d never know Penn Station was just an hour away by train.
I took my daughter into NYC, and we did all the touristy things proper travel writers look down on: we went up the Empire State Building; we went for a walk in Central Park. My daughter had a great time and so did I, but our best memories were back in New Jersey. Big cities are much alike — the same coffee shops, the same chain stores. It’s in small towns like Plainfield that you feel you’re really exploring somewhere new.
Plainfield was founded by Quakers way back in the 17th century, but its glory days were 100 years ago when it became a summer retreat for rich New Yorkers. They built their houses in these woods, but wealth adulterates what it covets and Plainfield soon became too suburban. The rich moved on to somewhere smarter and the ‘bridge and tunnel people’ moved in. It’s a snobby phrase for people who work in Manhattan but can’t afford to live there, but it’s no–nonsense folk like these who make places such as Plainfield so friendly. There’s a big pot of coffee in the local convenience store. Just help yourself — no charge.
My friend Brian took us to church, a pretty Lutheran chapel with an amazing preacher. Brian has been playing the organ there most Sundays for 30 years. Brian is Jewish, but that’s no big deal — for him or the congregation. Round here, different religions tend to rub along pretty well.
Brian’s daughter, Karen, drove us out to Atlantic Highlands, a seaside town with a harbour full of fishing boats. We walked up to the old lighthouse where Marconi sent his first wireless telegrams. We drove over the causeway to Sandy Hook, and wandered around the old barracks. Deserted for decades, they’re sinking back into the sand. We walked along the beach, our voices drowned out by the ocean. It felt a long way away from anywhere — we were the only people there. We spent the night in Bayonne, with Karen and her boyfriend and her two daughters. We went to a Spanish restaurant and ate huge piles of tapas.
Next day my daughter went to high school, Piscataway High School near New Brunswick. These American schoolkids loved her English accent. They asked her if she still felt salty about the War of Independence (‘salty’ means angry or annoyed, apparently). Sure, it was a bit of fun, but for me it was a sign that the past is not a foreign country here. Americans know their history, maybe better than any other nation.
On our last day we went to Liberty Park and looked out across the Hudson towards Manhattan. The skyscrapers seemed so far away, a remote mirage on the horizon. In the morning we flew home from Newark. Brian woke us before dawn to drive us to the airport. There was a deer on the front lawn when we left.
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