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In Providence: The Biltmore

Biltmore Hotel, now “The Graduate” Hotel. Providence, Rhode Island.

If you live in Rhode Island, you’re used to defiantly referring to things and people by their old names.

I was once at a party where the person I was talking to rolled her eyes when a gentleman from across the room began calling out a name.

“He’s calling to me,” she said.

“Oh,” I replied. “I thought your name was _____?”

“It is,” she said. “That’s my maiden name.”

“How long have you been married?”

“Twenty-eight years.”

I wouldn’t say this tradition is unique to Rhode Island. I’m sure there are other places where people like to call back to what was rather than what is.

But here, we seem to take a special pride in our stubbornness when it comes to the ghosts of our architecture.

For example, if you’ve heard lately of anyone staying at the Graduate, chances are you thought to yourself–

You mean the Biltmore. You’re staying at the Biltmore.

The resistance to changing the name of Providence’s most famous hotel led to its new operators keeping the Biltmore’s iconic signature on the side of the building — something that is sure to only confuse future guests and please longtime residents who see it as some sort of pre-nostalgic victory.

Around 15 years ago, if you were living in Providence, you might have bumped into a traveler to the city who came all the way from Lisbon.

“He didn’t speak a word of English,” the woman at the party told me, the gentleman who got her name wrong having moved along after exchanging a few pleasantries. “He came up to me at the bar — this bar that’s not there anymore — and he started talking to me in Portuguese like it was the most normal thing in the world for me to know Portuguese.”

Strangely enough, she did know Portuguese, but her Portuguese was a mix of old-country and a suburban Pawtucket dialect spoken exclusively in her home.

“I didn’t know that my parents were mixing up words and getting things wrong. I thought I was fluent in the language, but I never had a chance to really test it out because we never went back to Portugal. This man must have looked at me and assumed that I was Portuguese — and he was right — and that I could speak the language — and I assumed that I could too, but once he started talking, I could only make out every other word.”

The two spent a few minutes trying to communicate, and then gave up.

“And when I say we gave up, I mean, we went back to his hotel room.”

They spent the night together, and she woke up alone in a lovely room at the Biltmore to a note that she couldn’t read, because the handwriting was bad and her issues with the language were still as bad as ever, not helped at all by a hangover.

She got dressed and left, wondering if she’d ever see the man again.

I remembered that story this week as I was walking by the Graduate and I thought to call up the woman and see if she could tell it to me again so I could write about it for this column.

But although she remembered talking to me at the party, she didn’t remember telling me the story of the man from Lisbon staying at the Biltmore.

“I did meet a man once and go back to that hotel with him, but he was from Paris, not Portugal.”

The story doesn’t make sense then. Why would a Frenchman approach a random woman at a bar that doesn’t exist anymore? Did he think she was French?

“I can speak a little French, but not much, and it didn’t matter, because he spoke English, just with a very heavy accent.”

None of this added up to the story I remembered her telling me at the party.

Was the man gone the next day when she woke up?

“No, he was still there. We had breakfast together. I’ve spoken to him a few times since then. He’s married now. I wish I could tell you his name.”

Didn’t she just say they still speak?

“We speak all the time. I just got an email from him a few years ago.”

How many years ago?

“It was 2008, I think? He was emailing me to say how happy he was that we elected President Obama. So just a few years ago.”

Where had I gotten Lisbon from?

“My first boss lived in Lisbon and then he moved here and then he moved to Boston and then back here again. Was I telling you about him?”

No, she hadn’t told me about him. Did he speak Portuguese?

“I’m sure he did, but never to me. Wait, did he? No, he never did.”

It seems that you can insist on memory markers wherever you can put them, but memory remains evasive.

You can remember what a hotel used to be called, but does it matter if you can’t remember why we still call it that? Why we didn’t want it to have a new name? Why we like the old name better. Is it just because an old name makes us feel less old?

Years ago, I was at a party and a woman told me a story I thought I remembered, because it was one of those wonderful stories about a chance encounter, miscommunication, a little bit of romance, a good amount of sex — minus the details — and a hotel that stands in the heart of Providence.

“It was a nice room. You’re right about that. He must have had money, because the room was beautiful. Just beautiful.”

Around 15 years ago, if you were living in Providence, you might have bumped into a traveler to the city, who came all the way from Lisbon — or Paris — or who knows where.

Chances are, you wouldn’t remember it.

But it wouldn’t matter if you walked by the Graduate and saw its previous moniker still hanging proudly for those who want to believe you can hold onto anything you like.

After all, times change, but signs of the time changing can always be negotiated.

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