Tag Archives: Northern Exposure

Going Places, Possibly Bodmin

There is a part of me – a big part, actually – that wants to spend my next vacation time in Portwenn, drawn as I am to its picturesque and tranquil cove embraced on three sides by cliffs and plumpy hills, some of which have on them a definition-of-cute British town with narrow, twisty, one-lane roads and quaint shops and stone cottages, and on others green, loamy pastures with grazing sheep and cows. From atop the high embankments, one can spy the fishing boats rocking at high tide in the blue-water bay, and beyond, the ocean off the rocky Cornwall coast.

I could, right now, get on a flight that would take me to another flight that would take me to a car that would take me to this place. I would get there and see everything just described, but I would be touching it, and smelling it, and hearing it. And I would be there. Except, I would not be in Portwenn – I would be in Port Isaac. Because there is no Portwenn, or, at least, not one I can visit, physically. Portwenn is the fictional borough where my current favorite TV show, Doc Martin, is set, but it is Port Isaac that provides the real stones and mortar for it. 

So, I could go there, and see the house where, in the show, Doctor Ellingham lives and practices, and wander down to the store that, in the show, stands in for Mrs. Tishell’s pharmacy, or over to the pub that, in the show, is called The Parrot. I could make my way to all these places, and see them in the “flesh,” and have my photo taken standing in front of them, maybe even assuming and mocking the stiff-backed and scowling stance of the good Doc (minus the blue bespoke suit, and the omnipresent adorable but unwanted dog). I could do all these things, and yet I would not be in Portwenn, because such places – and such placeness – is a state of mind. In fact, the being there, in Port Isaac, might even ruin the fondness I have for Portwenn, because it would not have the part of the place that makes it special for me, which is the part that I bring to the fictional enterprise – my imagination, as well as my past – and the part that the show brings to me – the people who populate the town.

The Portwenn of my mind, which is given its jumping-off point by the series, fills in the blanks: what’s behind those house- and storefronts that are, in the show, simply walked by; what Pauline and Auntie Joan and the others do when I am not in their presence, and how I would interact with them, and if we would be friends; what it would be like to live there, in a community that would embrace me, and suit me. 

Port Isaac is, of course, a place; but it is Portwenn where placeness resides. So, let me dwell there, for 40-some minutes at a time, and not have “reality” taint the experience. It is the same reasoning – if reason has anything to do with such delusion – that keeps me from going to Portmeirion, Wales, because I know I will not bump into No. 6 in what was the setting for The Prisoner’s Village; or Roslyn, Washington, because, despite its exact physical resemblance (there is even a place called The Brick), it is not Northern Exposure’s Cicely, Alaska; or Unionville, Ontario, because, cute as it might be, it will never be as wondrously cute as the Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, to which it donated its terrain. 

One may go to these locations, but one will not find the places nor the element that often makes the places the things we fall in love with: the people of those places. (Although one will find oodles of tourists, looking for those people.) It is an odd thing: You will be in the real-world spot, but it will seem less real, more two-dimensional, more like a photograph than the filmed view of it does. The real and the fiction switch places; you will want to ask to see these towns’ and villages’ ID papers, because they will look like places you know, but there will be something absent behind the eyes. It will seem too big or too small, or too wide, or full of too much detail that does not lend itself to personalization and interpretation. It is what it is, not what you thought it was. To go to see these places might be almost as ruinous as meeting the actors who play the characters who live in these fictitious locales – disappointment is guaranteed.

These towns, imagined as they are, have had a strong influence on this viewer, for, because of them, I have fallen in love with (at least the idea of) small, quirky towns, where before I was a devout city-dweller. Blame Waking Ned Devine and Local Hero, too. No actual town is as wonderful as any in these shows or films, but, because I have put myself in situations in which I have had a chance to look, I have found a place that, I believe, is my Portwenn, my Cicely … and, in its way, very close to them, in style, spirit and idiosyncrasy. I have always been particularly impressionable when it comes to my addiction to screened fiction, on TV, in the movies, on the computer. In many ways, good things have come out of my couch-potato-ness. This is one. What I consider the world I need has changed. What I consider the placeness I most react to has altered. With a growing empathy to all things has come this new relationship with place as reflection of and influence on me. I did not know the name to give this new feeling, but now, having spent 31 episodes in Portwenn, I do. I have ceased to be a tosser; I have gone Bodmin. 

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Phoenicia, N.Y.

How is it that we can enter a place and feel … something: aesthetic engagement, emotional resonance, at times an almost deja vu memory and familiarity, a comfort, a relationship? And in other places, even places designed by smart people to provide those attributes just mentioned, how is it that we feel … nothing? They can be like looking at or being in nowhere at all (see James Kunstler’s Web site, www.kunstler.com).

It has, we’ve learned, little or nothing to do with size, or expense, or even intent. It just happens that, sometimes, fortuitously, out of the blue, you come upon locations that have arisen, mostly organically, that are so redolent of placeness that they practically define the term and rise to the level of art. And they can take your breath away, or insinuate themselves into your memory forever.

Such a place is Phoenicia.

At first glance, it is nothing special. At second and every subsequent glance, it is only special.

Take a look at the terrain-view map reproduced below (click on it to get a better look).

There, amid a canyon of lurking, hovering mountains in the Catskill range – reminiscent, in a way, of images we’ve seen of the Yangtze River and its gorges, both having verdant gumdrop-shaped mountain walls all around, with the New York version including the burbling Esopus Creek rushing through – Phoenicia, a not-so-distant neighbor to the equally magical Woodstock, has set up shop.

We stayed in a funky motel complex just off the main drag in town. Notable – beyond the level of funkiness, which was extreme – was that if you walked out your door you practically walked into a side of a steeply rising mountain. The mountains here are so abrupt and surprising that they appear to be distinct entities rather than part of a chain.

The town as well as the setting, for us, is the draw. It is intentional only in that its site was selected; beyond that, it has grown as it needs and wants to. For those familiar with the revered TV series “Northern Exposure,” this IS Cicely, Alaska – in the flesh. The main street, all several blocks of it, looks remarkably like that of the show. There’s even an eating establishment, Sweet Sue’s, that’s like The Brick, complete with a number of Shellys serving up perhaps the world’s best pancakes (and even a kicking tofu dish). There’s a general store. The bookstore doubles as the town library. And the night we spent there, we stumbled into an art opening at a second-floor gallery that was distinguished as much by the multitude of pot-luck dishes as by what was hanging on the walls. All that’s missing is Dr. Fleischman and Morty the Moose. It is a haven, a vision in the mist, a Brigadoon – and, yet, just a town. And, yet, more than a town – a place that is art by being artlessly itself, and unselfconsciously perfect in its form, suis generis yet representative of something we’ve lost in the rush to be big, and look the same, and set up divisive walls. And it coexists so well with its hidden and unlikely location.

Placeness does not mean, solely, a spot where you feel you belong. But that can be one element of it. It can be a place where hope resides, or highest intentions – even the modest ones – are manifest, or where someone left a soul to be discovered and shared. Or where nature and the manmade complement and determine each other, each underscoring and threatening the other. That placeness – for us, and for many who come there, for Sweet Sue’s or art openings, tubing or as a spot to stay during ski season, or for no set reason – against all odds can be found in Phoenicia.


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