Monday, November 23, 2009

Newfoundland, boring? Maybe! Wellfeet, boring? No Way!

Last week I received a comment that deserves more than a cursory answer: “Years ago, when I visited Newfoundland, the lighthouse keeper told me that she entertained herself during the winter by memorizing the 1) dictionary 2) the US states and their capitals 3) the US presidents and their VPs. 

It made me realize that I never wanted to see a Newfoundland winter.” Perhaps the problem was with the lighthouse keeper’s job, rather than Newfoundland in winter? I think I would have gone crazy, too, if I had to guard a lighthouse. (I don’t even like visiting lighthouses, although I know some people do.) This comment gives me another opportunity to explain how glorious Wellfleet is in winter, although most non-residents see the town as merely a summer destination.

The Economic Development Committee has been grappling with this issue: how to attract and nurture a year-round population that inspires local businesses to remain open and brings children to the elementary school. Our committee zeroed in on people who live from the Internet as ideal new residents because they work out of a home office and often can afford housing – real estate is pricey due to desirability; year-round rentals are hard to find since most homeowners opt for lucrative summer rentals instead.

But don’t be fooled. A lot of Wellfleetians are happy with Wellfleet as is and don’t especially want change. At first glance, the town may seem lonely and desolate in the off-season, but that’s precisely what residents prefer. They like the absence of traffic, the laid-back atmosphere, the lack of a line at the restaurants, the quiet and closeness of nature.

Who lives in Wellfleet in winter? There are the service trades folk, the shellfishermen and business owners, the school teachers and local medical staff, and, a smattering of creative types eking out a living from the arts. What makes Wellfleet unusual is the number of talented older folks who also live here, in retirement. They have time on their hands and life knowledge to share. Their energy flows freely through the community, keeping us all on our toes. These people form reading and writing groups. They founded the Wellfleet Forum. They do volunteer work for local charities like Mustard Seed Kitchen or Helping Our Women. They join town committees or work as Selectmen. Most recently, people from both groups banded together to start Preservation Hall, set to open in January 2011.

Wellfleet is a thinking man’s place. Early on Edmund Wilson called it home. Dwight Macdonald and his wife Nancy, my godmother, spent the summer on Slough Pond. There were the modern architects from abroad who adopted Wellfleet as their own and designed houses here. Robert Jay Lifton and his wife BJ still hold an annual invitation-only seminar in September that unites heavy hitters in the brain department to examine the world situation ...

And then, there’s our library and its award-winning librarian. Something interesting is always going on at the Wellfleet Public Library. Once the late Philip Hamburger, of The New Yorker, described our library as “the pulse” of Wellfleet. (He summered here, too!) If the lighthouse keeper from Newfoundland had lived in Wellfleet, at least he/she could have borrowed books through the CLAMS system that allows residents a phenomenal choice of reading material. No need to study the dictionary.

I'm a city girl: Manhattan, Washington DC, Paris, France. When Sven and I moved here, I thought we would be going back to the city once my parents had passed away. My parents chose Wellfleet in retirement because my mother wanted to be close to her friend Nancy, but also for all the reasons listed above. We quickly discovered what a special place Wellfleet is. For the time being, we have no plans to leave.

The Wellfleet lighthouse keeper is long gone, as is the lighthouse, moved to California. All we have left is The Lighthouse Restaurant, a great place for luncheon specials in the dead of winter. While enjoying a plate of mussels and a sandwich, you’ll probably overhear some pretty intense conversations if you listen in, because often the groups that meet at the library move to The Lighthouse for lunch…

I mentioned one word above that’s really important. Can you guess which one? Yes, nature. Wellfleet does nature in a big way. The ever-changing Atlantic never looks quite the same. Regular blog readers know from my photos that winter in Wellfleet offers hungry eyes amazing variety. How could anyone ever be bored here?

NOTE: Coming soon, Chez Sven's new Web site. Stay tuned!