Saturday, June 27, 2009

Day Four - Thursday

We often look at Germany or England as being the capitals of the world as regards rules and regulations but over here it's almost as bad. A friend of Donal's was caught underage drinking in the university he was studying in over here despite him not only being legal to drink in Ireland (as he was/is Irish) but also only a week from his 21st birthday which would make him legal over here. Getting caught is one thing but when the book is read to you and threats of prison ensure, then things understandably get a little more tense. America has the moniker of "land of the free" but sometimes you really have to question this and ask is that true because there are so many laws that govern what you can and cannot do and looking at things, the police really don't seem to be ones to mess and joke with - they stamp the law and they stamp it good. Good like a boot sole in the face with your hands in cuffs on the, the, er, sidewalk. Why can't they just say footpath?!
My own take on the rules concept occurred Thursday night when, while exiting a subway station, there was an automatic announcement made reminding travellers that they were the subway police's "eyes and ears" and "if you see something, anything, suspicious, report it at once". They use the slogan, "if you see something, say something". While this may make sense in combating the threat of terrorism, it also gives us an insight into the American mind which seems to be in a permanently paranoid state. Not that paranoia means it ain't there but really at times it goes a little far. This Friday morning (I write this a day behind) I was talking to one of the hostel staff who insisted China had a hold over the US but then I explained it didn't really because the Chinese wouldn't loan money to the US if it did not trust Washington, which it does in this matter and anyway the main streets that line Beijings shopping districts are full of US stores and Chinese people enjoy US film and material goods too. The US is still on top, the paranoia just seems all a tad more bizarre. Actually come to think of it, in the subway stations there is almost always a guard near the entry point where you swipe your card to get into the system. I've yet to see a guard on the train itself or strolling around a platform. Maybe terrorists will show themselves by hopping the barriers so as not to pay, which would get the guards attention but I doubt it. It all seems a little topsy turvy to me.

Thursday wasn't a good day for barrier hopping anyway because of the heat. We woke to a heavy air, the sun belting down outside, no threatening clouds and an air that seemed to want to smother us if were not for the breeze that restrained it. After trekking to the JFK museum using the subway, we met up with Steve, a friend of Donal's who is studying in Maine, north of Boston. Our plan was to see the museum before meeting Steve but this was a plan and what happens to plans? That's right....don't work do they?
The museum is a fair walk from the JFK Museum/University of Massachusetts's subway stop but there were bus services that would shuttle you down there at no cost. We didn't think much of the distance though and walked from the subway, following not an Interstate, but what they call a Route, it was Morrissey Boulevard and pretty quick and busy so it was. You could probably say it's equivalent in width was the South Ring Road in Cork. The walk was long, broken only by us going in to a supermarket called Shaws to buy water and despite people telling me before that supermarkets over here are huge, I really think that this was no bigger than a 'big' supermarket in Ireland. Still, the water was cheap and Icelandic funnily enough.

The outside of the JFK Museum is a sight to behold,m simple geometric lines sculpted on clean white concrete with black glass as contrast. The beautiful Boston harbour and a pale blue sky providing the perfect backdrop for it. It's out from the city in Dorchester so from the waterside you actually end up looking over the water towards Boston so it was a stunning view whether you looked toward the city or instead towards the water and the peninsula's out West which, if one went further south, ended up being Cape Cod. There was drama as we approached though because I had received a voicemail message on my new US mobile number (I bought a sim card on Wednesday). To access it though I had to talk to a machine to set up my account and this proved very frustrating, almost as much as when I tried to enter call credit to this new sim while looking around Harvard the day before. Maybe the machine could not understand my accent but I sure as hell couldn't tell where the 'pound' key on my phone was leading to much gesticulation and language until I realised that I was actually getting angry at a machine. Now this is normal enough, people get mad at PC's all of the time but in this case I was getting angry by talking to it on the phone. Surreal. And it just talks back nice and calmly as your blood begins to bubble a bit, then pump and boil and all the while the machine says "I'm sorry, I didn't get that", doing its best to sound human. By the way, all of this anger cost money too as every call and every text costs dosh, even if you receive one! You can understand the anger then surely, even if the machine didn't.

Damn machine has now even made me take up your time and mine too by me typing so much about it. The hold they have over the Americans should be paranoid about that!!! We actually got to JFK library and museum a little late as Donal discovered, quite by surprise that he had given Steve the wrong hostel to book himself into. He was convinced we were in the Prescott International but alas we were not. On top of this Steve would now have to make the extra and for him, unexpected trip to the museum to meet us. Time slipped by though as we gazed across at Boston over the harbour and we called to meet him at the subway stop rather than make him walk out to us which would have meant he could have legally had us up for torturing him. There wasn't enough time for him to get out and for us to see the museum so we went back in, met with him and decided it was dinner time. Dinner time in The Cheesecake Factory. Now this was mighty fine may I say, good value and very filling. The two lads, delighted to have seen each other after not having done so for months (Donal showed this through copious amounts of public affection displays upon seeing him), had BBQ burgers and I had the Ranch House Burger. What they basically did in the kitchen was get a chainsaw, a cow and some plates. Chunks of cow were put on the grill and a huge plate was then filled with stringy chips (not great but they did their job as side actors to the main story which was the beef) and salad. I mean my burger was a slab of beef, with steak pieces on top before onions and mushrooms were thrown in too along with the salad for it. I felt like asking if it would be possible to bring me a vice-grips so I could hold it together.

Of course Nevin had to be the man and go for dessert as well. Remember now that this dessert was for one person but no way could any one person eat it and if they did then a medal they surely deserved. This was chocolate cake with coffee ice cream ,lots of cream, choc sauce and fudge and almonds. Steve assisted in the eating, Donal didn't due to the almonds but really it would have been more appropriate for us to have erected scaffolding around it before hiring people to help us finish it.

We exited behind the Prudential Centre and had a look around the South End, taking in the park around the Christain Science Centre and the hall where the Boston Symphony play. It was all very grand and the fountain that the kids danced through looked very tempting in the early night time heat. Then again so did the long artificial pond that ran the length of the science centre. It really was something though as I walked to the end of it and the view consisted of a long and elegant science centre going the length of the rectangle pond on the left, a 20 foot office building to my left which fitted in nicely with the Prudential Tower and the smaller but much shinier apartment building beside it. We walked after having taken in this view and went down through Kenmore, Fenway Park, up Massachusetts Avenue before crossing Charles Bridge and taking some fine pictures in the meantime. They were all the nicer as they were night shots of the Boston skyline from MIT and the Cambridge area.

Steve, when we got back to the hostel ended up staying with us in the dorm, the staff failing to recognize his will to pay for the bed. To be fair to them this only consisted of a whispered question in the room wondering whether they'd notice. I suppose when you are Irish you just know that rules are there to be broken, or at least modified and twiddled with. And no, no one did report anything suspicious in the dorm.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Day Three - Wednesday

Have you ever seen a peanut butter factory? No, didn't think so. It's not really one of those places that you drive to on a Sunday with the family. Come on, get in the car before the factory shuts down and we can't smell the peanut butter anymore - I can hear the arguments already. This doesn't happen though because of a few small issues such as, even when the factory is closed there is still that smell and there are no peanut butter factories near you. I say that with a certain amount of conviction and 90% of the time I well be correct. Use google maps to prove me wrong along with one utility bill to prove your address is really yours. That's right you couldn't be bothered to and thus I win that round.

What I meant to say was that Donal and I found a new route back to the hostel from the subway station on Wednesday by going past a baseball field where the state Little League champs ply their trade and a peanut butter factory. We exit the road, lined on both sides by houses after the field and factory, on Main Street and then get into the hostel on School Street. Much more agreeable scenery than the cars that rushed by on Route 99. It really must seem to you that Wednesday was a low point but in fairness it wasn't because we went to one of the ten trillion Dunkin Donuts outlets in Boston and we went to Harvard as well. Oh and we had dinner 52 stories up in the clouds. Literally in the clouds.

The weather continued to act up, or rather, play Mr Consistency in that yet again it was dull and misty as our day began. I had breakfast while gazing out a window near the hostel kitchen having used antibacterial soap to wash what I thought was a communal spoon in order to eat my Frosted Flakes. They taste the same as back home by the way but the change in scenery, as Donal succinctly put it, was what made the difference. Not that the Grand Canyon was outside or anything but rather Route 99 and it's masses of cars and jeeps. while Time Magazine lay on the table for me to read through (I'll have 5 weeks of them to read when I get home assuming they'll not be thrown out).

Our first stop on the way to Harvard, a "must see" according to most travel guides (who are actually mostly wrong, read on...) was Dunkin Donuts. Now this was something. Donal asked for half a dozen donuts, which, by looking at it's place on the menu board, wasn't an altogether huge number. The plan seemed solid enough, they were boxed and so could be consumed throughout the day to keep hunger at bay. I suggested we sit down in the food court though which probably scuppered that plan because he proceeded to eat them all. I ate my two and a cup of coffee - I recommend the Boston-something-or-other donut that I got...delicious thing altogether cos there was a light custard in the donut which itself was dipped in chocolate. Zero trans fat was a bonus although the bag and box didn't mention any other types of fats of which there were an awful lot I am sure but marketing them probably wasn't a good idea and perhaps neither is knowing about them as you eat them. The thing about the food court though was just the diversity of it all. Upon looking around, there were different shades of people everywhere with different fast food chains forming the background to what seemed an eclectic, maybe even acidic painting, that moved. There must have been 15 of them, Dunkin (apparently America runs on Dunkin, or so their slogan says but believe me you will not be able to run after their donuts, I mean when was the last time you saw a guy prepare for an Olympic sprint with donuts and coffee?!), a Greek place, a Japanese place...the list could go on. You know the way that a lot of people working in McD's in Ireland are foreign, well so are these guys over here only that each national fast food chain had it's own nationals so if you were to go to the Japanese place to try a Sushi Mac or whatever they were cooking up you'd have a Japanese guy serving you. Same with the Greek place, good old Stavros or Aristotle the millionth was behind that counter dishing out Gyros or another national delicacy. I had to look that up by the way, never heard of Gyros before.

From here it was on to Harvard which is in the Cambridge area of Boston and is a place you should see if you're around for a few days although to be honest I'd quicker tell you go and look around MIT, the buildings are nicer and the place seems more open and it's nearer to downtown as well. Plus I used their internet for free last summer in one of their libraries. They have a hall there that was designed by Eero Saarinen too, not to sound pretentious now, but he being a favourite architect of mine. Not that I know many other architects but his buildings are cool. Harvard you see is all red brick buildings, like town houses with small windows and it really left a fairly cold impression on Donal and I. Ok it was huge, ok it was impressive and sure it's got history and character but there was something missing. It was too sprawling, almost a city in its own right, the buildings weren't all that nice to look at and it just seemed, even for it's sprawl, as somewhat cramped too. Strange. There was a redeeming factor though and this was the Museum of Natural History which I must say was amazing. I honestly couldn't write enough about it only to say that I have never seen plants made of glass before and that I had never seen sulphur or flourite up close and personal. Nor had I ever seen dinosaurs, well their massive skeletons, nor the lions or other animals in there. It was all really well done and my feet hated me for it. A good sign it must be said.

After all of this we were beginning to get a little hungry so we decided to treat ourselves by splashing out in the Top of the Hub restaurant aptly named for its location, 52 stories up, on the top of the Prudential Tower. It's a little expensive, about $55 dollars each for three courses each but really it was top quality. The food was fantastic and neither of us would say that lightly, this really was another level and the lamb was the best I ever had in my life. The waiter was correct in saying I'd never finish all of the cookies for dessert though so he wrapped them up for me. He was also the first waiter ever to be able to talk about toilet paper in a posh restaurant without bringing down the classiness...even for a second. Well, his name was William after all. He said it in connection with the view, or rather, non-view because the clouds had covered over the top of the building which shows you how high we were dining. While the view would have been nicer, it was a novelty to literally be dining in the clouds and so it was. Afterwards we went to the bar there to enjoy the live jazz, drum, double bass and piano and that was mighty fine, as a Texan might say. Not that Texans would like jazz or instruments that don't consume fuel of some sort. Now if that double bass ran on petrol, well that'd be different. We saved ourselves the cover charge of $20 dollars too by dining there. Smooth jazz has a hypnotising way about it though and we were both lulled into a light sleep by it only for me to be woken by the manageress who wanted to seat a couple where my legs were. It ended up with them moving to a booth to the side of us instead which was fine seeing as they would have blocked our view of the band. They wouldn't block the fleeting view of the streets below though for at times the cloud lifted a little only to fall again. Glimpses were all we got but we were thankful for them all the same.

Retiring to the hostel at about midnight was a great idea as were going to get some sleep immediately or so the plan went but as you know plans never work as we engaged in conversation with a lovely lad from California who asked us to speak some Irish and who's friend asked us did we know the Maloney family. I need not go on. They were lovely people, very interesting but I was asleep after five minutes. I tried to finish the cookies from the Prudential that William had wrapped up for me but I gave up. Donal is still trying to confuse me about the number of them I ate though!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What happened on Day Two???

That's a good question in fairness and there's plenty to say about it too. There's also plenty of observations after being made and you'll have to forgive me now for this diversion but there are directions on the soap bottles over here. Directions. I assume they are for those of us who don't know how to use soap and really I hadn't realised that there were very many of these people. The chain shop Family Dollar, and stick with me because there is a story coming up here, have directions on their own brand soap and even a tagline that compares the soap to a leading brandname but then follows this by saying that the soap in the bottle is in no way related to the mentioned brandname. Do you follow? No, well its on the bottle for the lawyers to follow in case there is a court case.

The story behind this bottle was that, being hungry, Donal and I decided that we needed to get some breakfast. I had been up before Donal and looked online before thinking that maybe we would be better off simply walking into the centre of Everett and seeing what was around. The short walk took us past the typical American suburban houses on the street side. You know the ones, flag on the lawn, white wood walls, big car in the driveway. Walking through a residential area gives you a taste of what the place is really like and the only person I met myself when I returned along the same route later to get that soap was a postman - everybody was at work or asleep and seeing as it was midday, I guessed they were at work. Unless unemployment really is that bad and they've chosen to sleep through a recession. Not a bad idea either I suppose. The centre of Everett was lovely though and seemed to be a real look at what small town America could be despite it being a suburb in Greater Boston. We looked at some menu's before deciding that we were walking aimlessly in a hungry state and fell into Dempsey's Muffins and Bagles. This was not built for tourists and I did notice one or two old folk look with curiosity in the direction of myself and Donal, not in a threatening way like a stereotypical Texan but rather in a way more similar to a dog who has discovered that new food has been put in it's bowl. Not that I am comparing elderly folk in Everett to dogs although they both seem as friendly.

I order the Dempsey Special, two eggs, two sausages, two bacon strips (rashers in proper English), two pancakes and then a choice of toast or English muffins and a coffee as well. I began eating it at about 11am. Even at 4pm I wasn't just 'not hungry', I was full, still full. And they did free coffee refills as well. My Dad would love it because he wouldn't even have had to ask, they watch and they come with a new cup before they can see the bottom of the first cup. I believe at some point in time philosophers will debate whether this indeed means that a bottomless cup has been found. The breakfast was utterly American but so was the place itself, local people who got on well with the three staff who seemed to know everyone who came in and it was laid out in a diner style. You know the type, benches and tables for 4 or for 2. That breakfast cost me $8 by the way - very good for what I got I think. Upon paying I couldn't help but ask, after some banter with an old guy I left go ahead of me in the short queue, was the place ever frequented by tourists. The waitress, who must have been in her fifties, explained that it wasn't really, that it was very local as I could tell myself from the interactions between herself and the other two staff and the handful of people in the place. On top of that, you don't call an elderly customer a ''cheap ass'' with a smile if you don't know him.

We got a taste of shopping after that, but not in the way tourists normally shop. Donal forgot to bring a towel so we went into a place called Family Dollar and got one there. It was while he showered later, thanks to that same towel ,that I made the short walk back to that shop in order to get cereal for the next mornings breakfast. Not only could I not monetarily sustain $7 breakfasts every morning but neither could my stomach. My taste buds might have but when have they ever cared about body weight or cholesterol - in fact they never have for anyone! If they did they'd not like the taste of sweets and sausages and all of that stuff.

Our plan was to hit Massachusetts's State Building with the massive golden dome and look around that for part of the day but it took up a huge amount of time. Really though the subway system is a blessing as we can get around very easily and cheaply, unlimited rides for a week for $15 is brilliant value. We got off near Boston Common and walked a short distance to the building and seeing as I had promised myself to bring my camera, I took a few snaps. Once inside we mistakenly found ourselves entering the Governors Office. We quickly backed up and closed the door quietly hoping no one had noticed. It's funny in that we had to go through an x-ray detector upon entering the building, much like an airport, but we could easily have kept that door open and beat up the governor had he been around. Sometimes you have to wonder!
It was a very impressive building though, the flag hall, the history attached to the building - it all just came down like a giant aura. We went and saw the Senate room and the House of Representatives which was decidedly a lot more wooden. Literally wooden.
On the way out, after walking in there for what seemed like miles and miles, we took a look into the bookshop. In here was an elderly gentleman who didn't have a great liking for Texas. He served in the Army, asked where we were from, sold us post cards and generally we had good fun with him. He asked us to say hello to everyone in Ireland for him so here it goes, "Hello". He doesn't want any Texans getting the same treatment; we asked him.

Although the mist was getting progressively heavier before then lightening up and starting it's cycle again, we headed out and followed the Freedom Trail to the old State House were James Otis gave a fiery speech which kickstarted the whole movement for the Americansto get the Brits out. It was interesting but closed soon after we got there. They were kind enough to give us free passes to come back another time. Free passes would indicate that we should have paid to get in but we hadn't paid. We aren't bad at finding a bargain it must be said.
The thing about this area of town, the downtown, financial centre was the sheer scale of the buildings. While not as tall as the John Hancock Tower or the Prudential Tower, there was a higher concentration of them and that just makes the whole thing a lot more awe inspiring. It calmed as we walked along the sea front to Fanueil Hall marketplace where we grabbed tow brownies and sat to eat them. Here the buildings were older dating from the days when Boston was an important trade port and we could see this as we ambled along the quayside to Little Italy where we had dinner in Pizzeria Reginas.

Now the thing about Pizzeria Reginas is that it is famous. Not that you would think that for the place isn't done up, has no airs or graces about it and the manager, the grey haired guy (slicked back...well he is of Italian extractions!) with stylish glasses would have trouble shouting at people if it meant he'd save time. We had to queue to get seats but weren't long waiting and surely this was a good thing, the place obviously has a reputation. Sitting at the small bar in there was interesting in itself. We talked to the bar man and saw the pizzas being made. As Donal said, while the pizza was great, it wasn't this but rather the buzz, the energy in there, that made you want to stay. People talking with their mouths full, the juke box playing some great songs, people singing, the ring of the telephone by the bar, the slamming of oven doors and the shouting of the staff who really were going like the clappers. Fantastic little place.
And yes the pizza was nice although I struggled to finish mine, more so than the 20oz T-bone of Monday night!!! It must have been the brownie. This was a good thing though as Donal then had time to attempt to explain the rules of baseball. While I half know them now, I can't help but wonder how that game is so popular. Americans like fast action and tackles and tough things like that and yet soccer is seen as second rate here. A land of contradictions.

We rounded off the night in the hostel, pretty tired from all of the walking we had done that day and besides the weather wasn't great either. Not that you'd need a reason to stay in, the place has free tea, internet and lots of couches for reading on. It's got a kitchen and pool table as well. All in all it's good as a place to take care of oneself, sleep and just relax. In fact it feels more of a house then a hotel would as there seems to be no formalities which is nice. It'll keep me happy as long as the box of Frosted Flakes (that's what Kelloggs call them here, not Frosties, perhaps because then some people wouldn't know what they are) is still in the kitchen and untouched tomorrow.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

First Night in Boston

Sometimes you can just feel that a place, a town or a city or even a village, is alive. It is living and breathing with the help of the thousands, perhaps millions in Boston's own case, of people who pass through, eat, drink, sell, buy and generally just live around the place. The great thing about our hostel location here is that it is out of the central city area in a city of it's own, Everett. It's not touristy, seems quite residential and yet busy too with the roads being kept busy and last night was no exception. It is alive but then Boston itself is in another league as we found later on.

The journey over was fairly hard, especially when you consider that there was very little sleep got by either of us the night before we set off from Shannon - 4 or 5 hours sleep really isn't enough to get by on and Donal fell asleep in the hostel last evening which left me wondering whether to wake him or not. I didn't, I was too busy sitting on my own bed wondering what the next five weeks would bring. It's a longer time now than it seemed weeks and weeks ago when the planning of this whole thing was still underway. Five weeks then was the amount of time you completed an essay in! Still, as I wondered I thought of home, all of a few hours into the trip and I was thinking of home , it was time for me to get off my arse and onto the web to chronicle the first few hours of this trip. It's funny how that clears the mind. It's funny also how steak clears the mind.

I woke Donal eventually as I was getting hungry and knew where to get a decent 20oz t-bone steak. I knew he'd be ok with being woken up for that. And he was. It was still dull when we left for Whiskey's, across from the Prudential Centre in the Back Bay (look it up you lazy rat, what am I, google?!). The subway was pretty quiet at this time, around 8pm, but even for a Monday night there was a fierce buzz in Whiskeys as people drank after work aor came to eat. There was a "ball game" on the TV too so people were glued to that as I think the Red Sox were playing (Boston's team). It didn't really matter to us as we were busty eating cow, and lots of it, but not before we tucked into a fine salad too. It came to $37 dollars between us, two 20oz steaks, salads and one glass of pepsi. I reckon that was a good deal for what we got - now convert that to euro's and begin to feel jealous.

It wasn't all food though, as I said earlier Boston was awake, a Monday night and the place was simmering nicely with the bubbles of life hopping near the top of the pot but not overflowing onto the stove. It was only Monday after all. We arrived in Copley Square subway station, or T station as they say here, and climbed the stairs to a scene anyone would be startled by. The John Hopkins Tower slanted off to our left about 60 stories high, the Prudential Tower stretched to the sky over the magnificently grand and beautifully lit Boston Public Library. The street lights were dim, it was like something out of a film. But a good film. And then that is the USA isn't it? A cultural behemoth, a place you recognise without ever being there and when you are there you feel a faint sense of recognition but at the same time you gasp at the scale, something TV cannot really show that well. This was one of those moments.

There was more though as when we walked around a little after the steak, we crossed Harvard bridge, all the while looking back at the skyline of the Boston Back Bay region while to our left along the river was MIT and it's grand and opulent buildings, lit subtly while piano music drifted out of a window. Well actually that was because there was a music class going on but it did fit the mood nicely.

I didn't have a camera on me at the time bu those sort of views really don't leave your head all that easily. That's what really matters I suppose although today the camera is coming with me!

In Boston

Well the day ahas arrived at last. I still remember the day when I came up with this idea to travel through America, or at least a section of it. It is a whole continent almost! It was a grey November day, the weather being much the same as that outside the window of the hostel myself and Donal are staying in right now. Apparently the weather is due to stay like this till we leave this city. And Donal was just saying on the plane how it would be and achievement if we were to get five weeks of rain...did he speak too soon?!

The flight over was fine, we flew in one of the new Aer Lingus A330-300's, St Munchin and it had TV's in the headrests with a remote control so you could flick through about 20 different films, picking and choosing when you wanted to see them and pausing them and all. There was music and games on it and all, it was very good. The food on the flight wasn't bad either it must be said. After arriving at the airport though we queued to go through the exit gate only for Donal to be subject to a random interview and search - just luck. They pulled him aside and asked questions and half heartedly looked in his bag and he said that it actually turned out that the guy was a parartrooper and they got chatting when he saw his D-Day book upon searching his hand luggage!

We took the "T", subway, to the hostel from the airport which was no hassle at all really but we did have to walk a little although not so much that it was a big deal. The hostel is in Everett, outside the centre of Boston and its nice to be a real part of America - I mean, our neighbours live in wooden houses and there's a giant Best Buy store down the road as well. It could only be more American if there were flags flying on the lawns and yes indeed the Star Spangled Banner is flying from a few of them. Yes I did say lawns!

The hostel is fine, clean and basic but it has web access (as proven by this!) and you can be in the centre iof Boston in less then half an hour by combing the bus with the subway, easy. In fact that is just what is about to happen as we need to go and eat.

And so the journey begins. Keep an eye on this site as it progresses to see how we're getting on.