Saturday, September 08, 2007

The People's Republic of Ithaca

John has been working very hard since I arrived in Binghamton, and we really haven't taken the time to "get out" much. For my birthday, which isn't my favorite day to begin with, I was determined to bust out of my Southern-Tier-induced malaise and find a place with a different state of mind. I didn't even care what state of mind, just something different than the homogenous place we find ourselves living.

I had been nearly blind to the fact that such a strange, foreign land exists only 60 miles from us, in Ithaca, New York.

If you've heard of Ithaca, it's probably because the small town (population about 40,000) is home to the Ivy League's Cornell University. Maybe you've heard that it's "really freakin' cold up there," which perhaps makes it (reportedly) the "suicide capital of New York," that it has awe-inspiring natural beauty marked by lots of gorges (inspiring the favorite "Ithaca is Gorges t-shirt- get it? gorges?, and yes, I wear mine proudly), or maybe even that (at Cornell) it is home to the country's first and most prestigious School of Hotel Administration (which is cool because the school's "lab" is a 150-room on-campus, full-service hotel where your fresh-faced or, alternatively, hungover "doorman" is really a sophomore working his way up the school's management-ladder-curriculum.)

I had been to Ithaca a couple of times before- once in 2004 when I first came to visit John (and he wisely and immediately squired me out of town and we stayed up there at a great B&B, thus partially shielding me from the bummer that is Binghamton in February) and once in early 2006, when I had just moved here. But on those visits, it didn't strike me how incredibly different Ithaca is from its environs in upstate New York.

But I've been living here 1 1/2 years, now and on this visit, Ithaca's . . . uhm, unique? culture practically hit me over the head. I guess I've grown used to the rest of Upstate's decidedly rural, somewhat redneck, and extremely conservative ways. You gotta picture this- to get to Ithaca, we drove on 2-lane Route 96B through miles and miles of tiny farming communities that still have road signs indicating that drivers should watch out -not only for deer- but for horse and buggies!

Not so in Ithaca, or, as I like to call it now, The People's Republic of Ithaca.

Not only does Ithaca look and feel like an island full of dreadlocks and same-sex couples amidst the farmland of Tompkins County, but the residents apparently pride themselves on their different-ness. My favorite is that they even have their own currency, called "Ithaca Hours," which is apparently some effort by the hippie-locals to enable people to trade goods and services without using that pesky federally-printed green paper junk. "Ithaca Hours" are a big hit at the local Cooperative Market (along with patchouli oil, environmentally-friendly incense, anything "hand crafted in Nepal" and anything derived from hemp).

My other favorite Ithaca "fun fact" is that the "alternative" weekly newspaper(I'm not making this up- I tried to link to the Ithaca Times website, but I'm getting an error message that says "unable to connect" -how appropriate!)- you know, the freebie that has all the ads for medical marijuana in the back?- it has a larger circulation than the traditional newspaper!!

Anyway, we had a wonderful dinner at restaurant on the Commons (thanks, Mom & Dad!). That one restaurant had more ethnic diversity, I believe, than in all of Binghamton. I think I counted 6 "flavors" of people- so exotic! As a bonus, it was enlightening to spend the dinner observing the mating/dating/PDA habits of college lesbian couples, courtesy of the two young ladies sitting near us. Only an hour's drive and I felt like we had taken a trip to a strange land. Definitely a good change of pace, and a birthday to remember!

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