Stranger in a Strange Land – Returning to my Hometown of Richmond, VA

Itinerary:

  • Thursday: Drive to Richmond, VA from Baltimore, MD (where I was working)
  • Sunday: Drove back

Dates: April 16-19,2015

My Odyssey:

 

Photos from a walk Tim, my brother and I took along the James River Walk in downtown Richmond in the fall of 2011. 

This past weekend I returned to my hometown of Richmond,
Virginia to visit friends and family. I get back to visit about 5 times a year,
and, having spent my entire life until I left for college in the same house
that my parents still live in, I have never before returned to this city with a
curiosity for what is going on culturally and what has gone on historically.
When you’ve spent so much time in a place, you take the surroundings for
granted, and the qualities that make the place unique seem commonplace. As a
kid, it never seemed “special” to me that Richmond was a key city in the
development of Virginia as one of the 13 original colonies of England, the
Revolutionary War, and the Civil War, even though I certainly learned about all
of this history in school (largely thanks to the 3rd grade history
curriculum that focused entirely on Virginia history).

Now, after having gotten in the habit of trying to devour
all I can about the history and culture of a place, I decided to apply this
perspective to my beloved hometown. Part southern, part northern, and
thoroughly Mid-Atlantic (a phrase I’ve recently discovered and believe suits
Virginia perfectly), Richmond is below the Mason-Dixon line, the sweet tea line
and on the northern border of the Bible Belt. It is also ethnically diverse,
home a to a booming hipster/art scene, and has recently developed a penchant
for craft brewing and fine dining. I believe the term “Mid-Atlantic” describes
it better than any word I’ve ever heard. And appropriately, my time in Richmond
this past weekend was a blend of Virginia tradition and reinvention.

When I got into town Thursday evening, after driving down
from Baltimore, my mom, dad, brother and I decided to go out to dinner to a
Mexican cantina called El Patron. El Patron, formerly known as El Paso, used to
be located in a small corner in a small strip club, where they served up big
meals and bigger margaritas. Their success has brought them to their new
location- their own large stand-alone restaurant- and it’s always crowded.
Mexican restaurants are pretty common in the Richmond area (including
Chesterfield, a suburban county south of the city and where my family lives),
thanks to the large Hispanic immigrant population in the area. Forget your
Mexican food chains- Richmond has much to offer in authentic Mexican food.

The next night I continued my frolic through Richmond’s food
and drink offerings. I met up with Lauren, one of my best friends, at an
awesome bar and restaurant called the Southern Railway Taphouse. The food and
drinks were delicious, and they had good music and dancing later in the night.

The next morning, my brother Travis and I went to Maymont
Park near downtown Richmond.  This park
is Richmond’s best public green space, containing a small animal sanctuary with
bears, birds, deer, and farm animals; a Japanese garden with a waterfall; an
Italian garden with a pergola. Naturally it’s a popular spot for weddings, moms
and their strollers, and anyone who wants to walk around outside with beautiful
scenery. There is also a large mansion in the park, which was the 19th
century home of the very wealthy Dooley family. When James Dooley and his wife
Sallie died, they left the home and their estate to the people of Richmond.

I’ve visited Maymont many many times in my life, but never
while trying to put myself in the shoes of a tourist. When I shift my
perspective that way, I can see Maymont rivaling Retiro Park in Madrid and Le
Parc de la Tete d’Or in Lyon- two of my favorite European parks.

That night, I met up with my best friend from high school,
Jon, who was going to be performing with his improve comedy group later that
night. We met up for dinner and drinks and before his show at a Richmond cult
classic- GWARBar. GWAR is a heavy-metal band from Richmond, and GWARBar is
their restaurant/bar. The gritty atmosphere feels like a heavy-metal bar, but
the food is downright delicious, adding high-end spins to typical bar food. For
example, I got a grilled tuna salad with pork belly bits, avocado, popcorn, and
saffron dressing. It was the best salad I’ve ever had.

Jon’s show that night was at a great little community
theater- Coalition Theater. It was my first time seeing him perform in his
comedy group, and he did great! It was a lot of fun watching him take the
stage. The theater itself is a perfect stage for comedy shows like this- it has
a good stage, sells drinks, and has enough seating to accommodate many people
and is small enough to feel intimate- like you’re in on a secret only the cool
kids in Richmond know about.

The next day I spent time with my family, the root of all of my Virginia traditions- going to church
with my parents, grandmother and aunt at a small white chapel; eating fried
chicken and country ham with my Baba. Richmond has evolved over the years into
a foodie and craft beer scene, but the things I remember most about it growing
up remain true.

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