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Wednesday, August 5 News

Woog’s World: Westport, through the eyes of a newcomer

It can’t ever be easy moving to Westport. We’re not the kind of community where neighbors notice a moving van, and rush over with fresh-baked pies. We don’t chat over the back fence. The wheels fell off the Welcome Wagon long ago.

It must be infinitely tougher to move here during a pandemic. How can you meet people if they’re holed up in their homes? When they do come out, how can you see who they are behind those masks? How do you shop if the stores are shut? How do you make all those daily discoveries — the library, your kids’ schools and teachers, restaurants — when the entire town has been turned upside down?

Don’t tell any of that to MaryLou Roels. She and her husband Chuck moved to Westport this spring from the Seattle area. They’d been there 20 years; weeks before the coronavirus hit, a hedge fund recruited him here.

They left one hot spot, and arrived in another. It could have been discouraging, daunting, even cause for depression. MaryLou had an active life out west; now she was here without a job, without the school foundation many newcomers use to make connections (their three children are all grown), without any sense of what her new home town was really like.

No friends? No routines? No problem!

MaryLou walked up and down Compo Beach. Early in the spring, she was the only one there. She got to know its beauty, sense its rhythms. As she walked along her street, neighbors waved behind masks. She admired the stone walls, read about Westport’s history, began feeling at home.

MaryLou loves Westport. And she still has no idea what our town is really like. We’re still recovering from the pandemic. We’re nowhere near the lively, everyone’s-involved, always-something-happening community we were just a few short/long months ago.

Just wait, MaryLou. If you like Westport now, imagine how you’ll feel at our Memorial Day parade and July 4th fireworks. You can’t believe what the beach looks like, with swarms of people barbecuing at dozens of grills, mobbing the concession stand, gathering for Shabbat and Sunday morning services.

You don’t know how crowded our restaurants can be: bartaco with families, Viva’s with young people, the Duck with “real” Westporters. You have not yet squeezed into a Pop’TArt gallery opening, attended a fundraiser for a worthy cause like Homes with Hope or A Better Chance. You have not settled into your seat at the historic Westport Country Playhouse, or been awed by the astonishing array of activities and action at the Westport Library.

In other words: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

But as exciting as it will be for MaryLou to discover the true, non-COVID wonders of Westport, it’s important for us to learn from her. Her impressions of Westport — despite the many limitations and restrictions — is instructive. If a recent arrival can appreciate all that we have — even if we don’t have it all — that should be a wake-up call to all of us who have been here a while.

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Think, for instance, of those stone walls. Actually, I never do. Stone walls are part of our New England scenery — and our history — but because they’re so ubiquitous, they’ve ceased to exist for me. They’re the visual equivalent of a New Yorker’s car horns and police sirens.

After MaryLou mentioned them though, I started looking. They are everywhere — and they are very cool. I’ve always known (sort of) that they’re result of farmers clearing land; that they were used to mark property boundaries and town borders, and that they are well designed to stand the test of time.

But now that I’m actually seeing them: Wow! And what a contrast to the 21st-century faux stone walls that have popped up in so many places. You know: those high ones, so meticulously level they might be designed by a computer. How unappealing — particularly when they’re topped by an even higher fence. On behalf of all New Englanders, I apologize to MaryLou.

Thanks to her, I’m also seeing Compo Beach through a new lens. When Parks and Rec announced a “50 percent capacity” rule, and removed every grill and picnic table, I worried that this summer’s beach experience would be diminished. Without crowds and cookouts, what’s left?

Plenty. Families still spread out towels (while spreading out themselves). They bring their own food, instead of cooking it. Kids still climb the cannons. Everyone still enjoys spectacular sunsets.

Compo Beach was here long before the coronavirus. It will be here long after it — and we — are gone. Our restaurants will someday (soon?) sizzle. The curtain will once again rise at the Playhouse. The library Forum will be packed once more.

Then MaryLou will really love Westport. And — thanks to newcomers like her — all of us oldtimers will appreciate it even more too.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog’s World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.

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