Saturday, 25 April 2015


We arrived in Boston and it was cold. Really cold. Waiting for the bus, we blew on our fingers and stamped in place, trying to keep warm. Oh, would that bus ever come to take us to the hotel?

Boston was our split city - we had been divided into Raleigh (North Carolina), Atlanta (Georgia) and Boston. The Boston buddies were me, Alberto, Paul (Uganda), Abdallah (Palestine), Felipe (Columnbia) and Yasmeen (Saudi). Our liaison was Norman.

(Waiting for the bus)

Finally, our bus arrived. Our bus driver, Bruce, was what is known in local parlance as a "character". A native Bostonian, thick with the accent which I would come to imitate in the next few days, then promptly forget, he seemed to have imbibed a whole bunch of books to be able to reel off obscure facts about the city (like the fact that the bricks used to make the houses in Commonwealth Avenue are smaller than modern bricks and so if you want to make any repairs or renovations to any of the houses here, you have to have your bricks cut down to size. And other stuff, which I wish I had taken down but I don't remember now.

Of course to me Commonwealth Avenue was famous for just one thing. Pollyanna stayed there in the first part of "Pollyanna Grows Up". She said there was a "yard" in the middle of the street. There was:

It had been designed by a Frenchman and was thus, very French. I did get a chance to go into one of those posh houses on the day of my departure for breakfast with my friend Kate Sweetman. Wow, the interior (which I didn't take pictures of) was simply stunning. There was a gracious old world charm about the place, residue from ages past. Kate's business partner (who is actually from San Francisco) lived there. And it was their office. Oh my, what an office!

Although it was nearly April, it seemed that Boston had not left off snowing. It had experienced a record snowfall of eight feet that winter. The sidewalks had been heaped with the piled up snow and there was barely room to walk. The Saturday before we arrived, it had snowed from dawn to bedtime. When we arrived it was not so bad. But snow was piled up everywhere, not having quite melted yet.

This was our view of the Boston Common, which we passed, but I didn't (to my regret) walk through although it was so near the hotel you could see it out of the windows.

And then we arrived at our beautiful, very centrally-located old-world hotel, the Boston Park Plaza. It's huge and there are more than a 100 rooms on each floor. Unfortunately, it was in the throes of renovation. Apparently there is a saying in Chicago about there being two seasons: winter and construction. Apparently, the same applied to Boston too.

OK that is a file shot I extracted from the internet, not having taken a picture of the hotel. You can tell because there was not all that construction and upgrading going on around this picture.

After we settled into the hotel and dumped our stuff, Norm proposed we take a walk to take in the sights and get our bearings. So we crossed a few streets, came upon the shopping/historic part of town, where I saw and immediately wanted to go to the Old South Meeting House (it was already closed at this time on Sunday and it was uncertain as we would not get off our meetings in time to make a visit). I enjoyed the walk and taking in the sights (Bruce had pointed out a below the stairs bar which the Cheers (sitcom from the 80s) bar had been fashioned after and I was dying to get there.

Anyway, Yasmeen asked me to go with her and Abdallah to some place that let you smoke the hookah. Apparently, in Saudi she did it every day and here, she was craving for a hit. I didn't really want to go. It was not my thing. I would have rather gone on with the other guys to find some dinner...but I said yes. She identified a place and we took a cab thinking it would be close by. It turned out to be clear on the other side of town. I was beginning to regret coming. It was an expensive ride for a place I didn't even want to go to. Well done, Jennifer, this is what you get for not being able to say no.

And when we got to the place, it was dark and dingy and underground. I hadn't brought my passport (not having expected to need it when I left the hotel) so there was some trouble about letting us in, initially. I don't think Abdallah wanted to be there either. We had Arab finger food which was nice enough, but not substantial, and a sweet tea...while Yasmeen smoked her vanilla-flavoured hookah and relaxed.

We talked and got to know each other a little better. She told us how her husband had courted her and how they ended up married. It explained why she wore the pants in the family and was the bossy boss. But she seemed to love him in her own way, nonetheless. I told her about some of my psycho boyfriends and she looked stricken. You know, for all her princess exterior, she had a warm heart. And this was to be the only bonding sessions I had with her throughout the entire trip.

Anyway, we left at past 10 and took the long ride back to the hotel. The next day, our first meeting would be within walking distance of the hotel and our second would be at Harvard. Abdallah left us at the hotel door. Turned out that he was starving and he went off to look for some food, an exercise in futility, we learned later, so late at night. Oh for New York, the city that never sleeps. Boston, it appeared, did sleep, like a normal human being, and not a manic, frantic, insomniac one.

I woke up early the next day and felt a sudden craving for Starbucks. I tried to remember the ones we had passed along the way on our walk and ended up getting lost, looking here and there. The snow was coming down pretty fast which didn't help. Oh, for a cup of joe and something nice and warm to eat. It being Lent, I would have to avoid their delicious sandwiches, but surely I could find something.

(can you see the snow?)

I saw the famous mermaid sign and stumbled into it, thankfully. It was crowded to the overflowing as others had the same idea. But the line moved along quite efficiently and in no time at all I was ordering my tall cappuccino and chocolate caramel muffin (I became addicted to these, and the ones in Boston were by far the best!)

Or maybe it was the effect of coming out of the cold to these. I tried and tried to take pictures of the snow coming down, unsuccessfully. Finally I settled for the flakes that had been caught in my gloves.

See? Gloves were not optional.

Then fortified by my coffee and muffin, I made my way back to the hotel. It was still snowing hard. But lucky for us, it was only an hour of snow, after which the sun came out. We walked to the building (ironically, the building which housed the very Starbucks I had visited that morning) for our first meeting. Government offices, security checks, signing in...and then we went up to the fourth floor to an office shared some film promotion outfit...which is why there were movie posters all over the walls.

The meeting went as meetings do...and then it was time to take the bus to Cambridge for lunch. We could lunch anywhere we wanted and then meet in front of the Harvard University gate to go in. Felipe, Alberto and I headed straight for the Harvard bookshop. Yasmeen and Abdallah went to buy Harvard jerseys. Am not quite sure what the quiet Paul decided to do, but it was neither to go to the bookshop or with the others. Norm went off quietly to have his lunch and maybe, walk around.

The Harvard bookshop was a dream come true. I loved it! I picked up so many books that I realised how ridiculous I was being and set to cull my selection. Alberto laughed at me and insisted I take it all. I put two back. Two of the heaviest which I had deemed not essential.

And then I sat down to start reading. One of these books that I bought from the Harvard bookstore: "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee" I was to finish in San Francisco and send off to my friend Katherine. The others, well, they are here with me now. I am in the midst of reading a book I bought in San Francisco (How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea) which I am absolutely enjoying. I bought Annie Dillard and Kurt Vonnegut and I can't remember who else. But oh my, I am going to enjoy reading those books.

Anyway, we overstayed at the bookshops which meant that we had almost no time at all for lunch so we rushed through a Chinese meal...and ran to the gate we were supposed to meet Norm at. Turns out we could have taken our time over the food. The absent-minded professor we were supposed to meet had just come back from China and consequently a little jet lagged. He had forgotten about the meeting. So we sat in that famous room in that famous building and waited. And waited. Finally one of the ladies there came out and told us about the building's history (as you see, I can't even remember the name of the building, much less it's history, and gave us the opportunity to take a picture with the famous portrait).

She kept us entertained while her assistant who was in charge of us, frantically called and texted the professor we were supposed to meet. Finally, he showed up and gave us his rollicking opinions about everything to do with the TPP and the TTIP. It was an entertaining hour and we left the place a lot later than we had planned because of this delay. Our host (the lady) took us around the Harvard Yard to give us "the tour", telling us strange and interesting anecdotes about the university that had been there before the American Revolution.

Took my turn rubbing John Harvard's toe:

which apparently, is supposed to bring good luck if you're going in for an exam.

Anyway, we stayed at the yard as our host proceeded to explain a whole host of things. I don't know if you can see it from these pictures but it was a cold day. It proceeded to get colder and colder as our host chattered away merrily. The guys didn't seem to mind. Yasmeen was so cold she covered hard of her face with her scarf and was jumping up and down in place. I was supposed to meet Kate this evening, but it didn't look like I would be back at the hotel to meet by our agreed time. So I was texting her to tell her I'd be late. When we finally left the yard, almost frozen solid, I texted to say we were finally leaving. She was picking me up from the hotel an we would be going for dinner around there. As she was coming from Commonwealth Avenue, it would not be too far for her to come get me.

It was cold. Very cold.

But finally, we were back at the hotel. I dumped my books on the bed and proceeded to remove my fancy red coat that had been a mistake. It's OK when a thin person wears red. I looked like a whale. But no time to worry about that now. A quick change and I ran down to the lobby. Kate was waiting at the wrong door. It was confusing...what with the construction and everything. This was to happen again.

Anyway, she picked me up and I was safely in her car and we drove around trying to decide where to go. She had planned for seafood but I told her I would really rather see Cheers. So that's where we went. She got parking quite close by at a metered parking lot (which tells you something about the weather) and we walked the short distance to the pub.

It was cheerful and touristy and the guy at the bar, after carding us, told us about the gift shop on the premises. So apparently, they got their priorities right. The bar was different from the one in the sitcom. It was only half the bar rather than one that formed a square around Sam and the bartender.

The other half of the bar, we discovered later, was had to walk round to the gift shop and you would come to this quieter, less touristy side of the bar, which was probably favoured by the native Bostonians to the tourist trap on the other side.

I didn't mind. In fact, I loved it. Not many from our group had even heard of Cheers. It was past its sell-by date. But I would remember it, not to mention, its most famous spin-off Frasier.

We had a great time catching up. We both had fish and chips and a lovely chocolatey dessert and the setting (noisy as it was) was just perfect.

We left to drive around a bit and then Kate sent me back to the hotel. It would be a full day of meetings the next day but I was up half the night as a protest was to be staged outside our office and I wanted to "be there" in a manner of speaking, with my colleagues. Dropped off at 2am to find when I woke up that the protest had been "hilarious", a joke, so to speak, the protesters brandishing ridiculous signs and not even knowing who they were supposed to be protesting against. Clearly, members of the the rent-a-riot squad.

I was groggy the next day, but managed to go for my daily dose. I met Alberto at the Starbucks. When I got back to the hotel, Yasmeen called my room to say she was sick and had thrown up twice the previous night. Clearly, the cold and street food (she had a habit of buying nuts on the street) had got to her. So Norman stayed back to take her to doctor and we went on ahead.

First meeting, same place. Then the bus picked us up and took us to Faneuil market to get something to eat. I got a fish steak. (Yes, Boston is all about the seafood). We sat and talked for a while, then got up to make way for other people (there were crowds and crowds pressing on us - a busker was playing, some people were fooling around on the piano in the performance space, disrespecting him, which drew the ire of some military guys who were sharing our table) but on the whole it was a scene of benign chaos.

We finished early and decided to take a walk along the pier. There was slush all over, the remains of snow mixed with dirt.

But it was a beautiful day, nonetheless.

Finally, it was time to catch the bus opposite Hard Rock Cafe. There was time for a quick bathroom break, first. This was on the door of the ladies in Hard Rock.

The afternoon meeting was OK. More of a discussion really with the professor from the University of Massachusetts that we had come to see. Norman joined us after this and proposed we go visit the newly opened Museum of the Senate, which was made possible by a legacy left by Ted Kennedy. To be honest, I was not so keen. But it turned out to be one of the best things we did there. It was a very interactive museum, which meant that we got to see the arduous process of democracy in action, how bills were made. As Paul said, it was a wonder that anything ever got passed at all.

Then, back to the hotel. I was so tired, that although I agreed to meet the guys downstairs at 7.30pm so we could all go for dinner, I fell fast asleep instead. And stayed asleep till past 9. It had been an exhausting day and with my disturbed night, well, I just wanted to snuggle in the folds of my warm, warm bed.

The next day, I made my daily trek to Starbucks. Was I becoming an addict? They had run out of my favourite caramel muffins. A message? I heeded it not and ordered two substitutes instead, neither of which were half as nice.

I noticed this sign outside the Starbucks:

Today, we would be visiting Port Authority. There was some initial confusion at the beginning (we couldn't find the floor or the person we were supposed to meet) and ended up being given a tour of some meeting rooms by a woman who thought we were from Boston Consulting and looking to rent some space for a meeting.

Anyway, Lynne, the woman we were supposed to meet finally showed up and all was well. She gave us a brief overview of Boston's port activities and the improvements that were taking place and the different markets they hoped to reach...and then, using our bus, she took us on a tour. We were given hard hats to be on the site...

It was another cold, pristine day...and then it was time to go. We had a meeting with another government office (this one took us through a very stringent security screening and we were late) and the guy had only a few minutes to spend with us before he had to go off for another meeting. It seemed to be a repetition of the two government meetings we had had so far but nobody minded and the view from the window was quite spectacular. After this, we had a choice. Either we could go back to UMass and listen to the professor we had met yesterday, interact with his class of multi disciplinary graduate students or we could have the time free to do as we pleased. We opted for the free time.

Yay. That meant I would be in time to see the Old South Meeting House. And maybe an art gallery.

I took a cab to the meeting house and found it a lot smaller than I had envisioned. And contrary to what I had believed it closed at 5 rather than 4. Yippee! But that meant I would not rush through it but take my time to read each exhibit properly. I was amazed at how it was laid out (not church so much as meeting house) and how significant it had been in the annals of American history.

Phillis Wheatley intrigued me, especially. The first published African American author and poet. I read how she had been kidnapped from her home in West Africa and sold to a slave ship and how she had come over...anyway, naturally when I found there was a gift shop at the Old South Meeting House I went to see if I could purchase the book. And guess what not only could I get that...there was also a biography of Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates, Jr

. Naturally I got both.

Here's the introduction about her in the book:

Phillis was brought from Africa to America in the year 1761, between seven and eight years of age. Without any assistance from school education, and by only what she was taught in the family, she, in sixteen month's time from her arrival, attained the English language, to which she was an utter stranger before, to such a degree as to read any, the most difficult parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great astonishment of all who heard her.

As to her writing, her own curiosity led her to it; and this she learned in so short a time, that in the year 1765, she wrote a letter to the Rev. Mr. Occum, the Indian minister, while in England.

She had a great inclination to learn the Latin Tongue and has made some progress in it.

This relation is given by her Master, who bought her, and with whom she now lives.

Boston, Nov 14, 1772.

And a sample of her poems:

On The Death Of A Young Lady Of Five Years of Age

From dark abodes to fair etherial light,
The enraptured innocent has winged her flight;
On the kind bosom of eternal love
She finds unknown beatitude above.
This know, ye parents, nor her loss deplore;
She feels the iron hand of pain no more;
The dispensations of unerring grace
Should turn your sorrows into grateful praise...

Anyway, she was not the only woman who intrigued me in the meeting house. There was also Margaret Sanger:

She wanted to educate people about birth control and they tried to shut her up.

Some other views from the Old South Meeting House:

I was about to go out to head for the art gallery when I was stopped short by the gift shop. I bought a host of books (including some diaries by young Bostonian girls from way back when) and then I saw there was a secondhand bookshop attached to the meeting house. That was it! I browsed through and found old old Louisa May Alcott out-of-print books (Hospital Sketches and Transcendental Oats) for about $3 an $4 respectively. I lost no time...

But after all the browsing, it was too late for the art I made my leisurely way back to the hotel. We would be leaving Boston tomorrow and I was sad. I had been cold. But I had loved it. And I had never got to walk through the Boston Common. I would need to come back. Definitely!

We had our home hospitality that night. Which meant we went to the house of a local Bostonian, gift in hand, and partook of their bounty. The local Bostonian turned out to be a university student who was also in charge of our Boston leg and her three uni friends. She made delicious pasta and we had a night of it. Lively discussion, warm and friendly. Interesting bunch, all of whom had traveled extensively.

The next day I was going to go out with Kate for breakfast and check out her cool office/apartment on Commonwealth Avenue. I woke up early and packed, had my bags sent downstairs and waited for Kate. Again, we mixed up the front entrances...but since her partner dropped her off, she could walk to where I was. We would be taking a walk to Commonwealth was not that far and she could show me some old parts of Boston along the way, which she loved...most of which was on reclaimed land.

We walked through the quarters...Kate had to help carry my bag which was too heavy...and made it to Commonwealth Avenue. She had left her key in the car and her partner was not answering either phone or email and the downstairs buzzer was spoilt. So we had to wait till a postal worker with a key came along and let us in. In the meantime, we said hi to her next door neighbour who was appropriately French (Commonwealth Avenue had been designed by a French architect, hence the Parisian feel) and drank in the gracious avenue with the "yard" in the middle.

We had to negotiate several flights of stairs to get upstairs...boy did these people live large in the good old days. Kate introduced me to Shane, her partner, then took me to the kitchen to ask how I would like my was a wonderful breakfast and we had this really rich coffee cake to go with it. Apparently you can only get that in Boston (I am sorry I didn't take a picture) and since I was just about to fly off, I couldn't take it with me.

Again, it was lovely to catch up with her. And then she sent me back to the hotel, where I ran in to find Norm waiting for me. My bags were loaded into the bus (why so many bags, Jennifer? Books, Norm, books!). We left the hotel...heading for the airport.

I gave Bruce, our driver, a present because I thought he had been very nice and interesting. He plays piano in bars. Pity he couldn't have played for us.

(Bruce, with his piano scarf, posing with Abdallah)

And we arrived at the airport, my bag was singled out for special scrutiny (this was to happen a lot) and we were off.

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