27 Sept - Boston
We motored to Boston on Sunday morning in a flat calm sea. There are some islands off the harbor entrance run by the National Parks which looked quite welcoming, but your eye is naturally drawn to the city rising above the Charles River. It’s more compact than Manhattan, less ostentatious. We noticed that at night there are many fewer neon signs than either New York or Atlantic City and Boston gives off an air of ‘comfortably wealthy without needing to shout about it’.
We anchored on the east side of the river right opposite the city centre. We were quite close to the airport, but the noise wasn‘t too much of a problem; the area around us was quite run down with what looked like a breakers yard and some forgotten yachts on moorings. By contrast, the waterfront opposite was smart, the river crowded with sightseeing boats, tug/barge combinations and fleets of keelboats racing. Three cruise ships were parked further to the west, whilst upriver you could see the masts of USS Constitution and the Bunker Hill Memorial.
Boston, viewed from our anchorage
We took the dinghy across the river – a ten-minute commute – and tied up at the Boston Waterboat Marina, a smart little outfit hosting a range of vessels from superyachts to day fishermen and bosting all the usual facilities, including some moorings just off the quay. The staff could not have been more helpful and we arranged to pick up a mooring for the Tuesday night when miserable weather was expected. Then we set off ashore to explore.
That afternoon they were running a ‘walk in Jazz festival’ along the riverbank. Basically, in their equivalent of Central Park or St James’, a dozen or so small jazz bands were playing free concerts. Frustratingly we got there just as they were packing up, but the setting was splendid and the whole idea was first rate. We kept going and threaded our way back across Boston Common towards the waterfront, passing various ‘Historic Trail’ sites along the way. Morale was restored in a coffee shop selling good European coffee and French cakes and looking like something airlifted direct from the Old World – full of students eking out a glass of water whilst poring over a laptop – and we reflected on the American approach to their history, particularly here in Boston, Massachusetts.
My friend Billy Nomates on Boston Common. Domestic engineer as a day job? His catch phrase is ‘welcome music lovers – I apologize in advance!’
They take every opportunity to tell the story of the Boston Tea Party and the drive for independence, no taxation without representation and the mantra of free trade (even if the current administration in Washington has a more protectionist agenda) and everyone wants to lay claim to a part of the story. Everywhere you look, there’s something connecting the present to that glorious Revolution and whilst some of the links are a little tenuous, its important, particularly for a relatively young nation founded by immigrants, to understand the journey so far. It’s tastefully done on the whole, the exceptions being where the proprietor knows that there really isn’t much to see, so pads the ‘experience’ out with mindless tat and staff in period costumes.
The Old State House, scene of the ‘Boston Massacre’
After pausing to see where they chucked the tea into the harbor, we took refuge in a lively beer tent-cum-crabshack for beer and some small fried seafoody things and we were joined by our daughter Anna, boyfriend Matt and two of their friends out from England. They had spent the afternoon on a whale watching vessel which had been operating near Gloucester. They saw plenty of humpback whales at close quarters and were buzzing (if a little cold) from the experience. We decided to book a trip!
Later that evening the young people departed and we went in search of sustenance. It was 9pm in a big city with several universities and plenty of disposable income, but everywhere was shut and the place was deserted. Here, they eat really early, go to bed early and get up even earlier. What a contrast with Spain 12 months ago, where nothing starts before 9:30pm and things only get going around midnight!
Nightscene – sorry about the guardwire through the middle – either I need to grow taller or my Photoshop skills need improving!
On Monday I went in search of some new reading glasses, having stood on my last serviceable pair of prescription ones from England. The shop was highly efficient, whipped me in for an eye test, selected some frames and I was promised delivery the following day. The bill was eye-watering. I could have picked up six pairs at Specsavers for the same price. I suppose this is the consequence of a healthcare system that relies on everyone having insurance: very few customers actually pay for the things themselves and the service providers can inflate the prices until the underwriters squeal, at which point the insurance companies increase the premiums and the cycle repeats.
That evening we went to the movies. We took an Uber ride to a cinema near the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge to see ‘BlackkKlansman’. The taxi ride was bizarre: we found ourselves sharing a lift with a couple of other people who wanted to go in quite different directions and the driver dropped us off about ten minutes walk from the cinema in an unfamiliar place. Google jumped to the rescue and we got to our seats slightly frazzled but in time… One of those films that gets you talking quite a bit afterwards and curious about where fact and fiction cross. It’s based on the unlikely but true story of a black policeman who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. The director, Spike Lee, has a reputation for unconventionality and this is consistent with his previous work – part comedy, part documentary, part thriller and with a quite shocking ending when the story comes bang up to date with the Charlottesville, Virginia race riots. I think the film’s message is clear: you may think that the stories about the KKK, about black power and afro haircuts are all quite amusing, but the facts are shocking and the very uncomfortable reality is that in 2018 Race Relations in America are not much further forward…
It rained pretty hard on Tuesday. We pretended that it didn’t bother us and caught the underground train out to Harvard, where we went on a tour of the campus. The weather didn’t help, but suffice to say that it looks like it does in the movies, the Yard is smaller than you might imagine, the statue of John Harvard is not actually of him and he didn’t found the place, and the whole site was just a bit bedraggled. In fairness, the rain was probably to blame for that, but it wasn’t a patch on Oxford or Cambridge for sheer architectural splendour… Our tour guide was a second year psychology student and a fine ambassador for the place – witty, self deprecating and knowledgeable. Amongst many good dits about the place, the one that caught our imagination the most concerns your arrival as a Freshman in your accommodation, where you are presented with a list of everyone who has ever occupied your room. What a great way to inspire a nervous student to excel! Interestingly, both rooms occupied by the late John F Kennedy were ‘recycled’ during various modernisations, but you could be in Teddy Roosevelt’s old room… It’s not as if there aren’t plenty of reminders of JFK’s legacy around the place!
Typical Harvard halls of residence – known as ‘dormitories’
We sought food and found it in North End (that’s Boston, not Portsmouth!). This is the Italian quarter of the city and we had a cracking lunch in a traditional family-run trattoria, eating proper Italian comfort food. The portions were so big that for the first time ever, we were defeated by the volume of food, called for a box and took half of it back to the boat with us. We didn’t need to eat again for 24 hours and when we did, we got another two full portions out of that box – the best Italian meatballs in tomato sauce this side of… the Atlantic. That night we realized that our mooring was directly on top of the subway under the harbor – an unearthly rattle every few minutes more or less equated to keeping an anchor watch in miserable weather!
We thought we were going whale watching on Wednesday, but the operators cancelled the trip an hour before departure and we had a slightly rudderless afternoon doing some light retail therapy. We tried again on Thursday, only for the trip to be cancelled again. Mildly bemused as the forecast was benign, we weighed anchor and headed out to sea. There was a perfect 15 knot breeze out of the north east, blue skies and a gentle swell, so we raced out through the islands, round the corner and headed south towards Plymouth. Our plan was to go whale watching from Plymouth on Friday, see where the Pilgrim Fathers landed and make a bit of ground towards Cape Cod in the process.