Out on the Razzle in America

United Kingdom
Freelance writer, literary graduate and minor lad. In America for pleasure, not business. I've never been before, so I thought I should. Should I have done it all at once? Can it all be done at once? Only one way to find out...

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Bye to Boston

Three main discoveries made today. First, my legs are weak. Second, the Vietnamese make a mean sandwich. Third, in certain north eastern cities, 'character' means rough as f**k.
Yesterday was tiring; with my new 'buddies' Arvin and Erik, (two Swedish chaps, one little and blonde, one tall and bespectacled) I trekked to Cambridge, home to Harvard and MIT, both of which are arguably better than Cambridge, Cambridge. It transpires that Arvin loves his evolutionary biology, and Harvard's Museum of Natural History is particularly slanted in this field. The exhibits are standard museum fare, but it easy to forget that it is a university's museum, and they have triceratops heads and suspended whale skeletons. I love museums, especially ones with animals, but Harvard just made me feel very unimportant, and very poor.
On the way to Cambridge we stopped in Toscani's, which, according to the NYT, makes the best ice cream in the world. It probably does, but when it's pissing it down so much that ducks are landing in the intersections, one doesn't feel too much like ice cream. The vanilla rooibos is lovely though.
During term-time, Cambridge must be a fantastic place to be. It is spookily, eerily clean though. Perhaps the students bring the litter back to a normal level, perhaps the street cleaners just get so good at dealing with the hundreds of thousands of students in the greater Boston area that when they leave, the job is easy. I thought the swedes would appreciate this, but they weren't as excited as I was, which was a shame.
Arvin and Erik went up the coast on my final day, but, finances being stretched for two months, I decided to stay local and tick the final boxes I had missed. First on the list was the Bunker Hill monument, just one of many chest-pounding icons of New England's defiant independence and patriotism. A huge, pointed phallus, it has 294 steps to the viewing platform, where you can get a great view of the city's skyline. This is all true, but trying to take a steady picture after scaling its height in 25 degree weather and in flip-flops is quite another matter. Still, good calf workout.
The neighbourhood around Bunker Hill, roughly spreading into Charlestown is lovely: pastel-painted wooden boards front every house, gardens are neat and colourful, roads are clean, streets are tree-lined. Basically, it's a conservation area, and therefore totally unrepresentative of Boston. The Warren Tavern, favoured haunt of Paul Revere (the British are coming, etc), is now an estate agent, flogging hugely expensive riverfront properties. I stopped for a drink in an Irish bar next door: hurling sticks on the walls, two screens showing above the bar, gruff barmaid behind it. The first telly showed, exclusively, adverts for food, in massive, greasy portions. The second showed, exclusively, protein powders, weight loss programs, self-help guides and plastic surgery. Is this representative of America? Maybe I'll know in a few weeks.
Next on the list was Chinatown, for lunch. Skirting past the live poultry store and its noisy menu, I went to the Vietnamese Sandwich House on Harrison Avenue, where a tub of sticky-spicy pork, veg and sticky rice is $3.75. The sandwiches look just as tasty, and are far cheaper. Still, not Irish, not the Boston I wanted.
South Boston, the semi-residential Irish neighbourhood, is in the words of the Boston guide in my hostel, "Jimmy Bulger's (think Nicholson in The Departed) old stomping ground". It continues, the area is "characterful and can still draw visitors in". Perhaps, if you were tied to the back of something heading that way. It's not that the area is really rough, it reminds me of Stevenage, Hertfordshire (for the Americans), but the positives are just not enough to bring you there ahead of the negatives or neutrals. Disappointed, I headed home via streets lined with IRA murals and badly spelt graffiti raving about the Dropkick Murphys.
As a send-off to the city, I went out with a genuine Irishman. And two Aussies. And a Brummie. Popping into a pub in the Back Bay area, we assembled ourselves around a large table and explained to the waitresses why tipping was wrong. Several cheap but totally rubbish beers later, I decided to call it an evening, before, like my new-found Irish pal, I started buying the waitresses shots. I left the city of the Celtics with a celt getting progressively more enjoyable, but with the usual colonials attending the table, I'm still struck by the fact that I have still not met enough Americans. Maybe the capital is the best place to look. Nest stop D.C.

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