15 June, 2013

Peace, Salem

It’s funny how you only start to truly appreciate something (someone, a place) when you are about to leave it. You manage to overlook all its faults, the things you found infuriating just a few months ago. (Like the fact that nine months out of the year this place is so cold your extremities are in constant pain and you miss the sun so much you forget what it’s like to be hot. But that’s beside the point, for now.)

One thing I’m going to miss about Northeast America is its oozing-character towns where anything goes. God bless America, land of free (as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s) self-expression.

Each time I’ve come into the city of Salem – and I regret it hasn't been too often – I’ve wished I lived here. If I was going to settle in this this part of the country, it would be in Salem. The place has so much character; it’s overcrowded with delicious unexpectedness.  

I rode my bike in through Beverly this morning and what a contrast! You go from neat, family-filled Beverly, all kids in prams and dogs walked on beaches and in parks, to Salem; a place with ship shops and advertised "tarot readings by Shirley upstairs" and people with Eastern-European accents listening to pink ipods in hipster cafes. The bubbled redbrick sidewalk starts just as you leave Beverly and you ride over a giant-bellied bridge over the harbor. Driving in a car, you miss the beauty, it’s over too quickly; you don’t see the gold sparkles on dull green water, the shirtless Asian men catching fish off the edge of the pier, the sea going far on the other side. And when you reach Salem there are girls in carpet-patterned skirts and tights, a group of children in tie-dyed shirts climbing over the Pickering Wharf rocks, a bright-costumed troupe of people standing in the gazebo in the park, dressed like characters out of a pirate animation movie. Everyone has an iced-something attached to their arm – this is America, after all, and a hand is incomplete without a paper-or-plastic-cupped drink in it.

I think some of what I like about Salem is that it doesn’t apologize for its differences. Here, you can be different, you can be imperfect – wearing thrift-store clothes, or talking to yourself, or old and listening to music on an ipod as you shuffle along, or young and a little on the pudgy side but in bright, tight clothes – and still be normal. Beautiful.

Part of that might have something to do with Salem’s history. Its first white settlers named it Salem from “Shalom” (peace in Hebrew), a lovely name for the fishing, farming village. Now, however, it is most famous for the terrible Salem witch trials of the 17th century. Tourists that visit can see a dramatic reenactment of the first of those trials, the trial of Becky Bishop, in a play called Cry Innocent. I am ashamed to say I’ve never seen it, doubly ashamed because it was written by one of my all-time favourite professors, Mark Stevick, once described by an unnamed source as a cross between Dr. House and Jack Black.

Salem was also a key maritime trade point (hurrah for ship-building and codfish), is apparently the birthplace of the U.S. coastguard and (definitely) the birthplace of novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne (Scarlet Letter, anyone?). The city was also devastated by a terrible fire in 1914 which destroyed 400 buildings. There's your brief history lesson.

And here I sit in Salem. 
I'm drinking my green tea bubble smoothie from Jaho's Coffee, all this history beneath my bum, the largest wooden, Coast Guard-certified, New England sailing vehicle (in about a century) just outside the door. 

God bless America.  

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