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Rhode Island, USA (North America) — January 2017 — “How many people live on that island?” I ran into a number of people in the Midwest who thought Rhode Island really was an ISLAND. They would snicker a little, as if Rhode Island were some kind of joke because it is the smallest state. I grew up in Rhode Island in the 1960s and 1970s, but went to college in Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1980s.
Not only were they wrong about Rhode Island being an island, they were wrong in assuming that the smallest state is small in population. In fact, Rhode Island is very densely populated, much more so than Wisconsin. Eight states have smaller populations than Rhode Island, including Alaska, the largest state in land mass, according to 2013 U.S. Census data. “Did you live near the ocean?” I didn’t think so; I was on the other side of the state, in a rural town called Foster. But some of the people I met in Wisconsin had never seen an ocean – and that blew my mind! Rhode Island does have nice beaches. My favorite was Scarborough Beach in Narragansett because it had big waves. Rhode Island has the ocean; Wisconsin has lakes. In Wisconsin, people annunciate words clearly without, to me, any noticeable accent.
People in Rhode Island talk funny. They eat chowda and drink cawfee. The state is never pronounced “Rhode Island,” by natives; instead the two words are slurred together: Ro Diland. The inhabitants are “Rodilandas.” People in Wisconsin had no idea what a “bubbla” was (translation – water fountain). Midwesterners sometimes drive hours to get from one city to another. The land is much flatter, and country roads are surrounded by prairie so you can see far in every direction. Country roads in Rhode Island have lots of curves and hills and are surrounded by woods. Most of Rhode Island is developed; more of the state is city or suburb than country. “Did you live on a farm?” That is what the Wisconsinites always asked me when I told them I grew up in the country. They did not understand the concept of someone living in a rural area and not being a farmer. We had some farms in Foster, RI, but many people wanted to live there for other reasons: privacy, peace and quiet, to escape from the crime and pollution in the cities. Rhode Island has four seasons.
Wisconsin only has two seasons. Unbelievably cold winters in Wisconsin quickly turn into unbearably hot and humid summers. One time it did not go above zero for three weeks. I remember waiting at a bus stop in Madison while the temperature was 11 degrees below zero – that was the high for the day. Really bad cold spells sometimes forced us to stay inside for several days – exposed skin would freeze quickly outside. Coming home for Christmas one year, I left Wisconsin in 14 below weather. I arrived back in Rhode Island to hear family members complaining about the cold when it was in in the 20 degree range. New England winters can be harsh; Wisconsin winters are brutal, and they last six months. Of course, this raises the question: Why the hell would anyone live in Wisconsin? Or, as one of my New England relatives asked me, “HOW can anyone live there?” To survive the cold in Wisconsin, I forgot about fashion, wore a long, heavy down coat and bundled up with hat, scarves and gloves. I enjoyed living in Madison and being a student at the University of Wisconsin.
The enormous campus, with 40,000 students, blended into the downtown. After growing up in the rural town of Foster, RI, I was delighted to live in Madison where so much was going on. I never owned and never needed a car in Madison—I walked almost everywhere, occasionally taking a bus. I particularly liked State Street with its shops, coffeehouses, and restaurants. And people in the Midwest were friendly; Rodilandas are cold and unfriendly, sometimes downright rude, at least with strangers. But after I graduated from the University of Wisconsin, family ties brought me back to New England. I appreciate Rhode Island a lot more now than I did when I was 19 and eager to “escape” from it. In fact, I view Rhode Island as a vacation spot – the beautiful beaches, the clamcakes in Narragansett, Waterfire in Providence, the mansions in Newport. Too bad the people I met in the Midwest were so ignorant of its charms. No, Rhode Island is not an island, and it should not be a joke, either.