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Ralph Gardner Jr.: Venturing across the Berkshires/Hudson Valley border


The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington is one of the many cultural jewels of the Berkshires, notes columnist Ralph Gardner Jr. — and well worth the 45-minute ride back to the Hudson Valley.

GHENT, N.Y. — A few weeks back I attended the Berkshire Opera Festival’s delightful Friday night performance of ”Don Giovanni.” It was at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington.

The following morning I was speaking to a bunch of friends at the Kinderhook farmers market — literate, cultured, creative, well-traveled folks — and singing the praises of the previous night’s performance.

They were familiar with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” of course, but not with the Mahaiwe. I didn’t think any less of them. (Well, maybe a little less.) I certainly made no plans to disown them since their ignorance came as no surprise. Until a few years ago I’d have scratched my head if you asked me what a Mahaiwe was, and not just because I have to spell check the name every time I type it.

Pronounced Muh-HAY-We (it means “the place downstream” and is derived from the Berkshires’ original Mohican settlers) the theater opened in 1905 with live performances, including by John Phillips Sousa, vaudeville acts and eventually silent movies and then talkies. It was renovated starting in 2003 and today is the jewel-like equal of any Broadway theater.

The odd name may be one reason some of my fellow Columbia County denizens find it a challenge to remember. But I’d like to suggest that the cause of their ignorance is something more profound. New Yorkers — weekenders as well as full-timers — who don’t live within a few miles of the Massachusetts/New York border tend not to think of the Berkshires as their backyard.

Their gaze is focused on the Hudson Valley and New York City. I don’t mean to suggest the Berkshires are unworthy. Certainly not. You’ve got a cornucopia of cultural and culinary destinations over here. Mass MoCA. The Clark Art Institute, one of the planet’s great museums. Tanglewood. Guido’s. In fact, I suspect there are a few Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox or Stockbridge residents whose attitude toward the Hudson Valley is just as parochial. Why bother, they probably ask themselves, when we’ve got it all here?

Upstate New Yorkers are just as capable of condescension as you are, thinking of our towns and villages as equally charming but perhaps slightly less, well, precious. I once heard somebody observe that Columbia County is where the Berkshires were 50 years ago. There’s probably some truth to that, even though we’re catching up fast.

My confidential sources — or clandestine human sources as they’re referred to in the context of Donald Trump’s purloined top secret documents — inform me that even the most chauvinistic Berkshires denizen will occasionally surreptitiously enter their vehicles, turn over the keys and point their car in the direction of Warren Street; hip Hudson, N.Y.’s main shopping drag.

I’ll do the same in reverse, though I still think of visiting the Berkshires as crossing a psychological divide. When our children were younger we’d make a winter vacation afternoon of visiting the Clark and having lunch in Williamstown or at the Miss Adams Diner. I also found it impossible to get anywhere within range of Great Barrington without paying my respects to Catherine’s Chocolates, these days known as Mielke Confections. But the Berkshires has always been a special treat, a slightly exotic destination, like visiting the British Isles.

It wasn’t until a decade or so ago that I attended a performance at Tanglewood for the first time. The world famous music venue may help to crystallize the reason some Hudson Valley residents might not consider the Berkshires part of their extended neighborhood.

My experience with Tanglewood is mixed. An apocalyptic summer storm typically seems to be brewing as I lay down my picnic blanket and makes good on its threat just as the Boston Symphony Orchestra is revving up for the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth.

And even when the weather cooperates and everything goes according to plan, common sense dictates you best make a beeline for the exits — so what if the “Ode to Joy” is in full swing — if you hope to avoid the hour-long traffic gauntlet the moment the performance ends.

I’m not suggesting that Massachusetts residents are necessarily more Zen-like when trapped in a traffic jam; only that in some spiritual sense they’re already “home.” For those of us over the border you’re looking at a 45-minute drive while turning over this profound existential question in your mind: how serious are the local cops about the Berkshires’ sedentary speed limits?

Part of what prompts these reflections is that I’ve been spending more time in the Berkshires lately, Great Barrington, in particular. The reasons are simple. Friends invite us to great events over here. Also, my favorite sock store, Fluff Alpaca, disloyally relocated from Hudson to Great Barrington.

You may have to pry me from the Adirondack chair on my porch for a concert. But I’m a real go-getter if the reward is cozy socks that comes in interesting patterns and colors.

The night we attended the Berkshire Opera Festival’s performance of “Don Giovanni” we decided to have dinner at the Prairie Whale in Great Barrington; we have fond memories of their resident band, the Lucky 5, who played at our daughter’s wedding.

The restaurant doesn’t take reservations but my wife, eternal optimist that she is, was confident that if we arrived by 6 p.m. we’d make it to the Mahaiwe with time to spare. But here’s the problem. She was on Columbia County time where a 45 minute wait for a table — that’s how long we were told we’d have to loiter — is unprecedented, except perhaps in Hudson on a weekend.

Indeed, restaurant dining on Friday and Saturday nights is a bit of a foreign concept in our bucolic neck of the woods. We prefer to entertain at home.

Fortunately, we scored the last outdoor table for two at Xicohtencatl, a Mexican restaurant on Stockbridge Road.

Don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t be happier that the Berkshires are in my backyard. Upstate New York would be poorer without you as neighbors. You’re certainly preferable to Kansas.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The New Yorker. He can be reached at ralph@ralphgardner.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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