Two years in Rhode Island

It’s not worse. It’s different.

That’s the mantra I tried to force-feed my brain in 2019, my second full year in Rhode Island.

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This time last year, as I recapped the last 12 months, I realized I had few positive things to say about my new Northeastern home. That’s not totally surprising, given the way the year began: When Ian and I moved to Rhode Island in January 2018, we were greeted by a bomb cyclone and bitter cold — not optimal conditions for moving large, heavy boxes on our own! For a few months, we bounced from one temporary housing arrangement to another as we struggled to find a year-round rental. Due to work commitments, Ian was absent for days, sometimes weeks, at a time, leaving me alone with my thoughts. And when we finally found more permanent housing, it was a basement apartment with only four north-facing windows, and its darkness plunged me even farther into a seasonal funk.

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Those first few months had me wondering why anyone would prefer to live on the East Coast rather than in the West. To me, a native Californian who’d only ever lived in the Pacific and Mountain time zones, everything out West was better — the weather, the food, the lifestyle — and everything back East was worse.

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My best memories from that first year in Rhode Island happened in the summer, when I finally thawed out enough to start exploring all that this region has to offer. All the wonderful activities and scenery I discovered made me come around to the idea that New England wasn’t worse than the West, per se — it was just different, and enjoying Northeastern life to its fullest would involve a big mental shift.

And so, by the time the 2018 holiday season came around, I decided that my New Year’s resolution would be to adopt this mantra: Different, not worse.

I’m not going to lie and say that this mantra helped me learn to love winter in 2019. But I will say that the cold months seemed slightly more bearable than the year before. I learned that the New England tradition of hunkering down inside isn’t for me; instead, my personal best remedy for the winter blues seems to be getting outside whenever it’s clear, temperature be damned. I found that even a simple short walk around the neighborhood on a sunny day helped put things in perspective.

A few fun winter outings also lifted my spirits. There was my birthday trip to Salem, where Ian and I took in the town’s dark history and enjoyed a Valentine’s Day-themed ice sculpture and chocolate festival. There was a cozy day in nearby Newport, where we browsed the oldest continuously operating library in America, had afternoon tea and toured one of the island’s famous Gilded Age mansions. And in March, there was a nerdy date night in Boston celebrating Bach’s birthday with a concert and cupcakes.

That said, regional excursions alone couldn’t cure my perpetual shivering. I also needed family and old friends. Oh, and warmth.

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I escaped to milder climes twice over the winter, and it felt good. In February, while Ian flew to a conference in Puerto Rico, I flew west to spend a low-key week with my family in Santa Cruz. It wasn’t balmy by California standards, and it rained quite a bit — yet it still felt like paradise to me. A month later, I caught up with close friends for a long weekend in Las Vegas. I’m not a gambler, but I am a sun-worshipper: I almost cried of happiness the minute I stepped outside the airport terminal and felt the warm breeze on my face.

But enough about the weather. I realized that it wasn’t the cold alone that brought my spirits down that Rhode Island winter — it was also the struggle to find my own friends, something all adults grapple with when they move to an unfamiliar new place. That trip to Vegas, with friends around whom I felt so comfortable, motivated me to work a little harder to forge more geographically convenient friendships. I went out when I’d rather have stayed home with the cats. I invited myself to gatherings without knowing for certain that everyone wanted me there. I conjured group outings from thin air and asked people to go with me. All of this was supremely uncomfortable for this introvert…and worth it.

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With a newfound social life, my perspective on Rhode Island shifted. The people I knew turned me on to neighborhoods, bookshops and restaurants that made me realize it’s not such a bad state, I’d just been spending time in the wrong places. My blanket assumptions about cultural differences between East and West were dashed as I met ever more people who had more in common with me than not — ignoring their strange attachment to Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee, of course.

Another positive shift came in September, when Ian and I moved from East Greenwich to South County. I had long wanted to call this laid-back, beachy part of the state home, but I worried the long commute would wear on me. When we started to find ourselves coming to South County nearly every weekend in the summer, we knew we had to pull the trigger. Now I know that living a 15-minute bike ride away from the beach does wonders for my mental health.

Like in 2018, this summer was one heady highlight reel of bike rides, kayak paddles, ice cream cones and afternoons playing in the waves. The extreme seasonality of Rhode Island bothered me at first, especially in less populated areas where whole villages close up between October and April. Now, I enjoy it: I’ve adopted the New England tendency to save up my energy for summer’s long days. Like the natives, I squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of every waking hour of warm sun through the end of September.

One last major perspective shift I experienced in 2019? The urge to plan big trips closer to home. I’ve only ever longed to take big, elaborate journeys through Southeast Asia, Central America and the Mediterranean. Now, a good portion of my travel bucket list doesn’t even require a time zone change: I dream of a week biking around Prince Edward Island, a kayak tour through the Everglades, a long weekend taking in the spring flower bloom in Charleston.

That’s thanks, I think, to Ian’s and my blissful few days in the tiny town of Sorrento, Maine, in August. It was here that I discovered my ideal vacation: One with no internet connection, no heat or air conditioning and very little on the agenda. Except for one fun day spent biking through Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor, we had no plans for our time here. We whiled away the hours lazily canoeing from one tiny island to another, reading and collecting shells, boiling lobster, talking about music and reading up on local history. It was a reminder that, not unlike many New Englanders, I derive happiness from simple things — sun, saltwater, seafood. It was my favorite memory of the year. It was the moment I realized I might finally get this place.

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Lifeguard posts at Bonnet Shores, Narragansett

A year in Rhode Island

A year in Rhode Island

Almost exactly a year ago today, two humans stuffed two cats, three plants and countless boxes of junk into an old Camry and drove 2,000 miles east into the eye of a bomb cyclone.

One of those humans, of course, was me.

Sunflower field in Providence

On the long drive from Colorado to Rhode Island, I spent a lot of time wondering what exactly we were getting ourselves into – fretting about the harsh winters we might encounter, wondering whether we’d make friends, hoping I would land a job quickly (Spoiler alert: I did!). Mostly, I wondered whether we’d just made a huge mistake.

As a lifelong resident of the West, I never thought I’d live on the other side of the country. Aside from the occasional daydream about moving to New York City, I had spent little time wondering what life on the East Coast looked like.

Then, in the fall of 2017, my husband found an oceanography opportunity he couldn’t pass up. Suddenly, I was spending tens of hours researching housing costs, scanning climate reports, and generally musing on what it might be like to live in a state whose biggest claim to fame is its minuscule size.

South East Lighthouse, Block Island

Countless friends, most of whom have never lived in or visited New England, have asked about my experience here. “Do you like Rhode Island?” they ask. And I reply that I hate it and like it in equal measures. “Is it different on the East Coast?” they ask. And I reply, yes, completely, but also not at all. My split-personality answers illustrate how utterly confounding I find my adopted state to be.

Now that I’ve lived here a year, I wanted to share a few delightful, frustrating, absurd and strange things I’ve learned about the Ocean State. Maybe they’ll explain why I’m often enraptured one day and exasperated the next.

The beaches

Napatree Point, Westerly, Rhode Island

Beavertail Point, Jamestown

Any conversation about the best of this state begins and ends with its beautiful shores. Rhode Island boasts 400 miles of coastline – not too shabby for a state that’s just 37 miles wide and 48 miles long! There are so many places to lay your towel on the sand come summer that investigating all the options could take a lifetime.

Rhode Island’s beaches were a pleasant surprise to this snobby Californian. The pristine white sands you’ll find here make the beaches in my hometown seem grubby and gross by comparison. The Atlantic is substantially warmer than the Pacific, reaching 70 degrees in August and September, which makes long stretches of swimming a bit more feasible. And I love the windswept pines, roses and tall grasses that grow on the dunes and line each sandy pathway to the water.

East Beach, Charlestown, Rhode Island

Beachgoing in Rhode Island is practically perfect, which is why Easterners from New Jersey to Maine flock here for coastal holidays. The only flaw, in my mind, is the lack of free beach access. In Santa Cruz, it’s possible to park on the street for free within walking distance of nearly every beach, lock your valuables in the trunk, and take along little more than a towel and a frisbee. In most of Rhode Island, you really have no choice but to drive to the beach and pay $20 to park in the official lot, as there are usually no sidewalks, street parking spots or even bike paths nearby. As a result, a trip to the beach is often a bigger production out east: To get their money’s worth, families will fill up the car with full-sized coolers, tote bags full of games, and even wall-height windscreens and camp out all day.

The beverages

My husband and I moved to Rhode Island from one of the healthiest places in the U.S., so we were confounded to discover Rhode Island’s preoccupation with sugary drinks. Order a “regular” coffee at Dunkin’, the Northeast’s answer to Starbucks, and you’ll receive drip coffee that’s been rendered unrecognizable by the addition of large quantities of cream and sugar. Here and at other coffee shops around the state, it’s de rigeur to order a 20-ounce iced coffee year-round. Usually, you’ll be asked to choose from a dizzying array of flavors, from thin mint to blueberry to banana bread. Ask for unsweetened coffee, hot or iced, and you’ll often be met by a blank stare.

I suppose this is to be expected in a state whose national drink is Coffee Milk – which is not, as it sounds, coffee with milk, but instead a glass of milk with sweet coffee syrup mixed in.

That’s not to say all Rhode Island beverages are too sweet. My favorite state specialty is Del’s Frozen Lemonade, a summer treat dating back to the 1940s. It’s the perfect balance between sweet and tart.

The people

Providence, Rhode Island

West Coasters like to perpetuate the stereotype of the gruff, grumpy Northeasterner. New Englanders, in turn, say the West’s friendliness only exists on the surface, and that many of its residents are flaky and passive-aggressive.

I once accepted the former as fact and assumed the latter was misdirected jealousy. But now, a year into my time in Rhode Island, I’ve been forced to confront the fact that West Coasters are way off base – and New Englanders aren’t.

Throughout Rhode Island, you’ll be met with the kind of small-town charm that’s usually associated with the Midwest and the South. Everybody here “knows a guy” who can fix your broken plumbing, find you a rental house or direct you to the best bars in town. Rhode Islanders will go out of their way to ensure your happiness – even if they just met you five minutes ago, and even if there’s nothing in it for them. Sure, they may not greet you in L.A.-style singsong, but in the end, they often prove to be more genuine.

It seems the only place where comical levels of friendliness don’t exist is in most retail stores, and frankly, for that I am grateful. Walk into a nice department store in San Francisco or Seattle and you’ll be harassed by about five salespeople in as many minutes. Here, store employees let their customers shop in peace.

The driving

Signs on I-95 in Rhode Island

Drive down the I-95 corridor in Rhode Island and the billboards will convince you Rhode Island has major problems with drinking and aggressive driving. I’ve found neither to be true – but that’s not to say the state has no driving quirks.

One of the most aggravating aspects of driving here is navigating the so-called “Rhode Island left.” Imagine coming to a red light at a standard intersection where you intend to go straight and the person opposite you has signaled left. In most other states, you can expect the left-turner to yield to you when the light turns green. But here in Rhode Island, the natives believe it should be the other way around – and if you disagree, you may find yourself the recipient of an angry honk or a new dent in your bumper.

At first, I was surprised but sheepish, believing I was simply uneducated in state law. But now that I’ve consulted the Rhode Island Driver Manual and confirmed the law is consistent with that of California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, I’m just annoyed – and constantly terrified I’ll get in a fender-bender.

The sightseeing

Newport, Rhode Island

The Breakers, Newport, Rhode Island

There’s so much history, scenery and culture in this tiny state that it’s almost impossible to comprehend. I was a total New England newbie when we moved here, so it’s been a thrill to spend my Saturdays walking to picture-perfect lighthouses, strolling through 300-year-old villages and hiking by Revolutionary War-era cemeteries – all of which exist in abundance here.

Church in Narragansett, Rhode Island

I haven’t yet tired of exploring this state – good portions of Rhode Island’s East Bay and northwestern corner are still calling my name! – but whenever I want a change of scenery, I don’t have to go far. Massachusetts and Connecticut are less an an hour’s drive away, and weekend trips to countless breathtaking places are easy to pull off. Already, my husband and I have visited New York City, the Berkshires, the Hudson Valley and Southern Vermont for the weekend, and I’ve explored Martha’s Vineyard, Boston and Plymouth solo. There’s still so much of New England to explore – Acadia National Park and the White Mountains are at the top of my regional bucket list – that I’ve barely thought about destinations farther afield.

The weather

Treaty Rock, Rhode Island

Look, I’m just going to come out and say it: The weather here is truly dismal. Not just in January, when all the trees are bare and the damp, windy air whips through every layer, chilling you to the bone. Not just in August, when the relentless heat and humidity sucks the life out of your hair and your fitness routine. It’s dismal nearly all the time.

Snug Harbor, Rhode Island

I thought I was prepared for the seasons, having lived through snowy winters, record-breaking rain and blistering sun in other states. But I underestimated the power of dampness, something that’s less pervasive out West. Seattle didn’t ready me for the 63 inches of rain Rhode Island saw in 2018. In Colorado, I didn’t learn how to prevent summer mildew from damaging winter clothing while it’s in storage. And office work in Central California didn’t teach me how to dress for two seasons at once – the extreme one outside and the climate-controlled one inside.

Long Pond and Ell Pond hike, Rhode Island

While I would never dream of leaving New England in October, when the trees are ablaze in magnificent colors and temperatures are just about perfect, I think the other 11 months of the year would be better spent elsewhere. There’s a reason why so many Rhode Islanders prefer to summer on the Cape and winter in Florida.

The big picture

While so much about this place has been a pleasant surprise, it’s safe to say I’m not sufficiently in love with Rhode Island to consider it a forever home. But it’s only been a year, and I find that I warm to the the Ocean State more with every passing month. I love that I can eat freshly-caught seafood year-round. I enjoy living a five-minute walk away from a kayak rental shop and a 20-minute drive from spectacular Gilded Age mansions. And yes, even those sweetened drinks are growing on me. Who knows how I’ll feel at the end of year two?

Providence, Rhode Island

Fast ferry from Quonset to Martha's Vineyard

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 Have you visited or lived in Rhode Island? What do you like and dislike about it?

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