Hello Stranger

 

October’s blaze of color and crisp air are what Lalia Rach misses most about Connecticut. Or maybe, she says, it’s the road-trip discoveries: tracing the manufacturing heritage of Danbury and Waterbury, or the life and work of Mark Twain in Hartford, or the artists of Old Lyme. Or maybe it’s enjoying the comforts of a little inn or hooting about the Quiet Corner’s history and vistas.  

Or it’s celebrating the vibrancy, culture and restaurants of New Haven, where Rach once had a house in a neighborhood known for a trouble or two, a fact that drew incredulity from colleagues and friends who asked, “You actually live there?”

She’s not sure, obviously, what ranks at the top of the list when she thinks of the merits of our state. “There are a gazillion things,” she told me. Even so, why does it matter what Lalia Rach misses after all these years of not living here? She left, after all, in 1995, for the wilds of Manhattan.

It matters because as a full professor and former longtime dean of the Tisch Center of Tourism, Hospitality and Sports Management at NYU, she’s influenced a great many young people who have enrolled in the study of travel, an industry on which Connecticut depends.

These are students whose vocabularies generally feature proper nouns such as Vegas, L.A., Paris, Shanghai and Rome, not New Haven or Hartford. What could Rach say to them about a “hidden wonder,” as she calls our state, just a short drive away?  

Hereabouts, we may be celebrating our new ($27 million over two years) state tourism effort, “Still Revolutionary,” but in the academy, the title might as well be “Still Between Boston and New York with Sufficient Pit Stops on the Merritt Parkway.” Or, as Rach sees it, “A State That Doesn’t Know How Special It Is and That Needs an Attitude Adjustment.”

But to tell the story of Rach and her potential impact, I should back up a bit, to the day in 1994 when I first heard her speak. She was then the dean of the University of New Haven’s school of Hospitality and Tourism. I remember her verve, but also her analysis, which was both alarming and hopeful.

Her main point that day was Connecticut’s mastery of the art of aloofness. “There is a Yankee persona here—people are leery of the outsider,” she said. She then recounted a conversation she’d had with a man who claimed, “I’ve lived here for 15 years and I’m finally getting accepted as a local.”

As she spoke that day, I thought of the mistake I made the morning after I moved into a home in West Hartford in 1981. When I went out to get the newspaper, I saw the neighbor to my left about to get into her car. I had heard she was a superior court judge, but assumed it would be okay to say, “Good morning. We’re the new people in town.”

She looked at me for a moment, sniffed, and then got into her car and drove off.

The reason Rach raised the issue of coldness is because even with all the natural and people-made wonders we have in our state, we need, in her view, to be much more welcoming, both to each other and to strangers.

For inspiration, she returns often to the warmth of small-town memories, recalling her early life in little Spring Green, Wis., birthplace of Frank Lloyd Wright, and where people say “fer sure,” drink “pop” instead of soda and, Rach says, “will tell you more than you ever want to know about cheese.”

For a very long time, Spring Green was the home of Eulalia’s, a restaurant named for Lalia’s grandmother and role model. She was the cook and business manager of a place that often hosted 500 diners on weekends in an era when eating out was considered a luxury. The proprietor had only a third-grade education but nobody knew more than she did about making people feel welcome.

Rach says, “She was a big part of the reason I did what I did with my career,” which also includes a consulting business, Rach Enterprises. (Her grandmother, interestingly, did not inspire her to become a great cook: “If you come to my house for dinner, we’ll order takeout.”)

In that career, she has lived in a variety of places, including the state that defines itself as being a place for lovers. Somehow Virginia was able to simplify and sell itself well, she says. “Connecticut, on the other hand, sees itself as a stepchild.”  

This, of course, is not a universal truth, and Rach realizes she can sometimes embellish a case. In state agencies and in the tourism industry itself, there are many people who promote Connecticut’s treasures with imagination and passion. Plenty of jobs (about 111,000 in the industry) and investments, after all, are on the line.

But what Rach is really saying is they can’t do it alone—they need our help. “Shout it from the treetops,” she says, referring to the state’s assets. Don’t keep them a secret any longer.

“When I first came there,” she says, “I had no idea what a complete destination Connecticut is.” And how, in a very small state, everything that matters is available, culturally and otherwise. “The state is doable, it isn’t overwhelming in size—you could go from one end to the other in no time. Yet people in Connecticut don’t see it that way. The Quiet Corner, for example, is part of the ‘other part’ of the state.” A place not on most radars except for those who live there.

This astonishes and saddens Rach, who still thinks of herself as an honorary Nutmegger, and still visits, “but of course had to go live where the career took me.”

The reason I tracked her down for a conversation about this was not merely the memory of a speech nearly two decades ago. It was that I have lived and breathed the same contradictory air as she. I have tried to sell Connecticut’s virtues to outsiders and insiders, and often been angered to hear “There’s nothing to do here.”

But she specifically came to mind on a day in August when I used an ATM machine at a bank in West Hartford. I had a lot on my mind that afternoon, and when I got in my car, a young woman knocked at my window. “Excuse me, sir,” she said, “but you left your card in the machine.” She held it out for me to take. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Sierra,” she answered, instantly blotting away my lingering image of the cold neighborhood judge.

That reminded me, in turn, of the time I was driving north on I-95, and a driver motioned to my left front tire. It was nearly flat. I managed to get the car to Fairfield Tire, where the people were sympathetic and welcoming (with free coffee), and applied a patch for $10, and sent me on my way thinking that I live in a state of grace.

Who are we, anyway? Rach would like us to be grateful for the place in which we reside, and for the blessings of one another. It’s a natural, and ultimately profitable, idea.
 

Hello Stranger

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