I had wanted to call this post: "What to do with a day in Providence" or some other sleek title that makes life seem simple. Well, guess what. Sometimes travel, like life, is messy. A little of this, a little of that. A hodgepodge of disparate experiences that don't fit nicely in a convenient box. On September 2, 2023, the day's explorations were as diffuse as a herd of cats.
As a last hurrah for summer vacation, I had suggested returning to the WaterFire display that Alyse, Julia, and I had done once before, in November 2017. While six years may not seem like that long to us old folks, it was approximately half of Julia's lifetime ago.
Julia was lukewarm to the fire idea, so we sweetened the pot with a historical site. Wait, what? What 12-going-on-18-year-old is interested in history? Well, when that history involved a grisly murder mystery, she was immediately on board. Those familiar with late 19th century slayings may have heard of Lizzie Borden*. The house in which the murders took place is located in Fall River, MA, a stone's throw from where we'd be in Providence anyway. So, off we went.
*Rather than rehashing the whole infamous series of events here, I'll refer you to the Wikipedia entry if you'd like to learn more.
When it came time to purchase tickets for the house tour, I balked at the (what I consider) ludicrous fee of $30 per person. Therefore, while the girls learned more about the property and the heinous history therein, I was off on foot to Fall River's harbor area - for free.
To be frank, Fall River is not a pretty destination. It seems smaller than its population of 94,000 would suggest, gritty and somewhat bewilderingly arranged. Other than a slightly more downtowny-looking strip, the area was largely a mix of shabby, low-slung buildings and way-too-wide streets, uninviting for pedestrians like me. Let's call it hardscrabble, shall we? I-195 and its massive ramps tore like concrete tentacles through what might otherwise be a decently walkable area.
Making my way downhill, thankful for cool breezes under a very warm sun, I arrived at Fall River Heritage State Park. The boardwalk area by the harbor provided an inviting respite from the constant din of traffic on a hulking overhead bridge. There was a maritime feel to the area, despite being nearly 20 miles from the open sea by water.
Resting at a shaded picnic area I stared out, noting the nonbelligerent bobbing sailboats and retired war vessels. Since this was Battleship Cove, I contemplated the meaning of the word battle. Its definition encompasses far more than wartime combat. While the word might bring to mind Nazis or North Korea, it can also refer to the inner turmoil a person with anxiety faces every day of her life, putting on a brave veneer to mask the pain. It could be family drama. Illness. Addiction. It could be the endless strain of cognitive dissonance that cripples the deep thinker. It's entirely feasible - maybe even probable - that most battles taking place at any given moment are unbeknownst to the casual observer.
For the rest of the day, I paid closer attention to passersby, wondering, appreciating, empathizing with their unseen struggles. Perhaps the harbor is our innermost self, and we're capable of gliding out to sea under tranquilly billowing sails or manning our battle stations. We're fully capable of both, but I wonder what the world would be like if we did more of the former than the latter.
It was time to enter the largest city in the smallest state. With a population around 190,000, Providence ranks as third-largest (and second-largest metro area) in New England, just behind Worcester and of course Boston. It flirts with a big city vibe, including a fairly robust skyline, snarled traffic, and disturbingly, more sirens than I've heard in a long time. We probably heard 12-15 in our few hours there, more than I hear in a week in Manchester. Similar to Fall River, Providence possesses a grittiness that's softened somewhat by park space and a tremendous amount of historic architecture, especially on Benefit Street.
Our first stop was Roger Williams Park Zoo, hardly a major one when compared with Cincinnati or the Bronx, but pleasant nonetheless. I was less impressed with the restroom that was perhaps 1/5 the size it should have been given the crowds, or with the many shuttered animal enclosures. Dear Zoo: if 10% of the exhibits are closed, shouldn't ticket prices be 10% less? Yours truly, a curmudgeon who likes getting his money's worth.
In any case, we all enjoyed seeing a mélange of critters on such a beautiful day, including a rare elephant feeding and a flock of vibrant scarlet macaws flying overhead. Julia's favorite animals were the giant otters, spinning and diving through their tank with glee.
Since we'd had an early lunch, we were already beginning to get hungry upon departing the zoo around 4:00. It was time to visit Federal Hill, the scrappy and quirky Italian neighborhood just west of downtown with an embarrassment of authentic dinner options.
We landed at Angelo's, a culinary institution since 1924. The delectable food came as no surprise, but what was delightful was the reasonable prices, uncrowded atmosphere, and excellent service. The company was alright too.
Stuffed, we meandered to the neighborhood gathering place, De Pasquale Square. We reenacted a couple of silly photos with giggle-worthy rooster statues from 2017.
As the sun began to sink, we strolled the piazza, reminiscent of Italy with a bit of squinting.
Hundreds of patrons sat at umbrella-ed tables, chatting contentedly while sipping drinks or waiting for their calamari to arrive. An ornately carved fountain sloshed softly, providing liquid white noise before the live music started. The air had cooled but remained early-September pleasant.
We still had a bit more time to kill before WaterFire, so upon parking closer to Waterplace Park, I quickly huffed it up a steep hill to Prospect Terrace, a pocket park surrounded by historic residences and offering sweeping skyline views. Alyse and Julia waited below, resting their tired legs.
Finally, it was time for the main event. When I had told people beforehand we were going to WaterFire, I had mentioned there being live music, food, and the other hallmarks of an outdoor public gathering. However, the blunt reality is that you basically sit on your butt and watch pretty flames reflecting on water.
Sounds a bit underwhelming, but thousands of people gather every summer for fireworks shows that are much louder, shorter, and less unique. There was also the lighting ceremony, whose multifarious world music selection mirrored the scattered nature of the day's travels. Individuals in slowly advancing boats twirled flames, an impressive, circus-esque act of derring-do.
Dusk bled into night. We spread our picnic blanket atop a hill with commanding views of the spectacle. Surrounded by young families, furry friends, seniors, and students arriving on foot from Brown U., we absorbed the evening's aura. Ten thousand people, ten million stories. The contrast of fire and water was simultaneously dramatic and calming, a perfect end to our family day of togetherness.
Perhaps the day's theme was the lack of one. Fine by me. With the patience and humility to recognize there is always more than we can conveniently put in a box, our lives are made richer. More importantly, we can better understand and empathize with our fellow human beings despite our inability to see their struggles. Battleships and sailboats. Fire and water. Everything in between.