Episode 1 - A New Dawn

Trip Start May 10, 2001
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Trip End Sep 28, 2001


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Where I stayed
Irish Embassy International Tourist Hostel

Flag of United States  , Massachusetts
Thursday, May 17, 2001

"Are you flying business or economy?" 6 words that had the string unraveling from the already less than robust pre-trip planning. "UA999 (should have known) has been cancelled" the United Airlines' Head of Passenger Discrimination continued. "However the good news is (money? upgrade? private jet?) we will get you to Boston today. At some point." This good news actually translated into getting to Boston 6 hours late - via Washington - and with a burger voucher thrown in to keep me quiet.
Fortunately, my disorganisation came to the rescue. Once I pointed out I was attending a wedding, and that I had no way of contacting anyone at the other end, then as if by magic a confession appeared. "We could get you on an American Airlines flight leaving at 11.30am" came a voice from behind the desk, and with that I was whisked off to stand in a queue for 40 minutes.
Such early chaos proceeded to set the tone for the whole day. Having taken the rollercoaster out over the Atlantic, our pilot then chose to use the stairs for his descent into Boston, provoking a ripple of applause when he finally reached the bottom (the poor lady who's head and arms were still glued to the headrest in front chose not to join in). However he did make all his announcements in a humourous array of accents - arguably a more important skill for the modern international airline pilot. Between these fairground rides, the trip became even more comical with the following announcement: "Due to the foot & mouth outbreak in Europe, please make yourself known to a US Customs Officer if you are carrying hard cheese or have visited a zoo, farm or bed & breakfast...". Hello? Anybody home?
The flight did see one notable landmark (unfortunately I wasn't able to confirm whether the queue for the toilets was the longest in aviation history), as I overcame my dislike - phobia even - of talking to strangers on planes. Lisa, a middle-aged lady from Richmond, Virginia was on her way home to see her 2 day-old grandson. Nothing unusual there, until she told me she was travelling from Qatar where she teaches Art History at the girls-only Doha campus of Richmond University. Many interesting insights followed, but the one I've treasured is that when offered 'chicken or meat' at a restaurant over there, don't get confused. Chicken meat would come under meat, while 'chicken' refers to its organs!
3,727 miles later...
Although a leading member of the 'Small, Stark, Uninteresting Airports' group, Logan International did introduce me to America's National Tutting Champion, 1999. A tall, dark-haired lady, she didn't appear to speak English but nonetheless treated me to her championship winning performance when I offered a $5 note in return for a $1.60 coffee. "Welcome to America!" she frowned as my turning circle required tripping over the man behind and spilling coffee on his suitcase.
With still no way to contact Marc, I arranged a bed for the night at The Irish Embassy - an apparently raucous hostel above an Irish pub - and headed into town. While navigating (wandering aimlessly?) through the evening rush hour, I witnessed a horrific outbreak of white tights & sneakers - with the worst hit suffering simultaneous affliction. Fortunately my sunglasses covered up my stares of disbelief. And on the subject of disbelief, 'The Irish Embassy' pub turned out to be the only empty bar in town - I know, I was so shocked I checked back at 60 minute intervals before losing my battle with jetlag at 10pm. So despite the rare treat of sitting outside enjoying a warm bustling evening - remember I've come from London's wettest winter since rain began - I was seen crawling into bed just as my roommates were heading out for the night.
Next morning, despite still betraying my nationality by looking the wrong way when crossing the road, I started the day in true local fashion - breakfast at Dunkin Donuts. Mind you, despite the hoards no-one else appeared to order my combo of hazelnut coffee with a bacon & cheddar omlette in a cinnamon & raisin bagel. I didn't stay long to enjoy it though, heeding the sign that said 'No Loitering. 15 Minute Limit. Police Take Notice'. Instead, back at the hostel I got chatting to my roommates, a South Korean who lives in Vancouver & an Italian musician who's moved to Boston to study at Berkeley College. Having pulled the pin out of the 'Popstars' grenade I lobbed it into the conversation and stood well back. "Hear Say, Spice Girls, Take That, Britney Spears, N'Sync, they are all bullshit" ranted our Italian expert. "And The Beatles? Very sucks". Apparently the true artists are The Jacksons and Deep Purple. The mind boggles.
Talking of sneakers (keep up, please), I read an article in the fantastic Boston Metro that a Canadian has just published some very expensive research on the Canadian language. He was delighted to conclude that Canadians have their own language, as they have broken away from English, but haven't fully adopted American. His proof? We say 'running shoes', American's say 'sneakers', and Canadians are unique in calling them 'runners' - not met any Aussies then? Incidentally, the Metro is the paper that boasts "we have as many or more international stories as the other dailies...and who else gives you pissed-off pigs and berserk baboons on page one?". Sign me up!
In the afternoon, I headed off on the 3-mile Freedom Trail that traces Boston's history & defeat of the English. Unfortunately, curiosity regularly got the better of me on the trail and I only managed the first mile. However, in case you never get to do it, I'll run you through the early highlights. The walk starts on Boston Common, which was founded in 1634 and was the site of America's first section of subway in 1897. Despite being only 6/10ths of a mile long, 150,000 people rode it on its opening day - and the Northern Line has been re-enacting the crush ever since. Elsewhere, office workers walked, jogged and picnicked on the treelined grass, while further away the batting cages featured the 'coming of age' scene of a father and young son 'playing ball'.
At the top of the common, and a mere 200 yards into the walk, I shook off the thick red line that marks every inch of the trail and set off in search of Cheers, 'where everybody knows my name'. They didn't, and as I tried to recreate the show-opening photograph, the outside looked more minimalist than I remembered, and even the tour buses only slowed slightly as they passed. Back up the hill, the dome of the State House glowed gold against the blue sky, overlooking a statue of JFK in suitably energetic pose. While I didn't get to go in, I'm told that inside hangs a 4'11" Sacred Cod, a solid piece of carved pine that represents the importance of the local fishing industry and that has twice been stolen by "pranksters". What they did with it is anyone's guess. Answers on a postcard...
But where I really lost time was the Old Granary Cemetery, dating from 1620, and unique in holding 3 people who signed the Declaration of Independence. Of its many notable residents, I decided to hang out with John Hancock, Hon Judge Samuel Sewell & Mother Goose.
Hancock was the only person to actually put a signature on the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. The other delegates subsequently added their own 'John Hancock' a month later (presumably they needed time to practice). Judge Sewell was one of the 9 judges sent up the road to Salem to conduct the witchcraft tribunals of 1692. They hung 7 men and 11 women for the crime of 'coverning with Satan', while the subsequent hysteria saw 2 dogs amongst those hung for witchcraft. The expeditions only ceased when the Governor's wife was accused, and they suddenly became "politically incorrect"!
Finally Elizabeth Goose, who cared not only for her own 8 children, but also for the 10 from her husband's first marriage. Disappointingly she lived 'on a shoestring' rather than in a shoe, and sang songs to her children & grandchildren that were published in 1697 under the title 'Mother Goose's Melodies'. So now you know. That evening, having abandoned the red line at Faneuil ('Fan-yool') Hall, an historic building ruined by wall-to-wall fast food bars inside, I met up with the other wedding attendees. So while the main party rehearsed walking, talking and eating before tomorrow's proceedings, the rest of us headed off to 'The Druid' bar to practice drinking - practice that was to be put to good use next day...
Having forgone breakfast for a trip to a truly tiny hotel gym, I arrived in the hotel lobby right on time (honest) to be greeted onto the bus with choruses of 'Get me to the church on time'. I was clearly in the presence of professionals. Fortunately, unlike the singing, the wedding itself was beautiful. The brilliantly white Catholic Church glistened inside from the gold, red and blue mosaics, while the dome resonated to string arrangements of Bach & U2. Suzanne, of course, stole the show, the isle resembling an international catwalk as she walked down with her father to a barrage of clicks and flashes.
As is traditional after a midday wedding, the party (and hence drinking) started early, though not before the coach driver had given us a conducted tour of Harvard on the way. The reception, at the old Comander's residence, featured jazz-accompanied nibbles followed by dinner in the adjoining marquee. While the 'usual' bestman's speach was missing (apparently given the previous evening before a select audience), we were treated to the French contingent leading the singing while the band jammed along.
Joining us at the 'UK table' were several of Suzanne's friends including Mary-Kate one of the bridesmaids and Adam who's currently working in London. He was particularly impressed by my forthcoming 'soccer' exploits in Brazil and Lake Placid, introducing me to the rest of the table as "this is that one I was telling you about". Adam used to play 'soccer' at college, and despite being a Chelsea fan had been receiving text message updates from the UK on that day's FA Cup final.
As the empty dinner plates left the storms blew in, and the open sided marquee was abandoned for the disco inside. YMCA dislodged many from the terraces but it took Van Halen's 'Jump' to get the under 40's bouncing - the oldies having been cutting some serious rug since Saturday Night Fever was spun. From there the party could only go one way. 'Hurt so good' (John Cougar-Melencamp) and 'You shook me all night long' (AC/DC) appropriately accompanied the large tequila rounds and ensured that 'Delilah', 'Molly Malone' and many other favourites made guest appearances on the bus back to the hotel. It was still only 9pm.
The hotel bar, became 'The Field' which in turn became 'The Cantab' as Mary-Kate led an ever decreasing gang of drinkers around Cambridge. By the time the band's huge tamberine player/bouncer had made several circuits of the bar hawking their CD's, it was gone 2am and there were only 6 people left. Heading back to the hotel, we ran into 2 Irish girls that we had met earlier on their way to Polly Esters nightclub in town. They threw out an open invitation to join them and their bottle of vodka, and as they were in the room opposite mine I popped in for a drink & a chat. Gillian lives in Saratoga Springs (of horseracing fame), while Eilleen is still in their native Northern Ireland. Each year they ditch the husbands and meet up for the weekend (this was the 11th such occassion since their plans to run off to Australia were scuppered when "Eilleen found lurve"). By the time conversation, and the vodka, dried up, I had declared myself the winner of the 'International Drinking Competition' initiated 14 hours earlier and went to bed.
Heading north
Next morning, email's swapped, goodbye's said and coffee infused the roadtrip began. Dave & Nic were off to tour around New England before they had to return the hire car on Wednesday, and with nothing else planned I tagged along. Apart from shouting "witch" at a couple of strange looking characters, Salem passed disappointingly quietly, and within an hour we were in Gloucester ("Glouster") the setting for 'Perfect Storm'. Whale-watching was the plan, but once the twin lighthouses of Thatcher Island had become distant dots, the waves across the bow got bigger, and hopes started to wain. After 3 hours came the announcement that the sea of expressionless faces, now below deck, had feared. "Ladies and gentlemen we have now turned around. While there is a chance we will still see whales on the way home, this has been one of the very rare trips where we haven't seen anything". Apparently 99.9% of their trips do see something, making us very special indeed (1 in a 1,000 no less), as well as disappointed and in need of dry land - there was only so long I could avoid the potential reappearance of last night's vodka. And tequila. And Jack Daniels.
"Portsmouth has become something of a 'restaurant resort'" declared Lonely Planet, and sure enough our choice of places to eat was far more extensive than those on offer when the Pilgrims turned up there in 1623. Having decided upon The Stockpot for its reported views of the waterfront, we settled down by the window overlooking the tugboats bobbing on the river, while the sun set between the girders of their very own Runcorn Bridge. Beautiful.
Apparently I put in a virtuoso snoring performance that night and Dave & Nic had been up awhile when I wandered off in search of breakfast. Once there I got into a bizaar conversation with T.L. - apparently it's an old Virginian thing to be known by your initials, which is odd as he wasn't from Virginia - and Thomas, who was. Thomas, the taller of the neatly-dressed pair was very well spoken, and recounted how he was often mistaken for being English, "even in France, and they should know better". Having heard their stories of visiting Cape Cod, where despite being offered double time, the plumbers couldn't finish their friend's house and they had to stay in a motel (I don't have space to do justice to the drama of the story...); their 2,400 mile, 3 week coach trip around England, Scotland, Wales & Ireland, where Wales hadn't left a single impression on them apart from "that's near Manchester right?"; and finally a trip to England last October when they visited a really small place they insisted I wouldn't have heard of - that they eventually revealed was London. Unable to compete, or get a word in, I left them to pack up their red 2-seater and head north. Back in Portsmouth, having discovered it has as many craft-shops as restaurants, and that many don't open until lunchtime, the shopping trip was brief. However, we did find one shop with the following sign on the counter:
Selected local Fees & Charges
Asking for advice FREE
Asking for directions FREE
Gifting wrapping goods bought elsewhere $250
Asking 'do you make all this yourself?' $500
Asking 'did this used to be a bank?' after
seeing the vault doors $800
In the footsteps of Pilgrims...
In the car down to Plymouth, I flicked through a copy of the New Hampshire Gazette - "The Nations Oldest Newspaper. Once again it was dominated by their campaign against Fleet Bank's 'ugly' sign - as seen outside every other branch in New England, incidentally. This week Fleet's General Manager had written an open letter, to which the Editor had added what he termed "my own smart-alec comments", although they did manage to leave room for a page of President Bush jokes and a feature on the Harley photographed in the town the week before.
Plymouth, famous as the landing spot of the Pilgrim Fathers, didn't delay us too long. The Mayflower replica was impressively small for 66 people plus their animals and provisions, but the rather vocal man in front announced "8 bucks, just to step on a boat? Forget that" so we did. Instead we headed for the famous 'Plymouth Rock', and it was just as well they'd built a Roman-style canopy over it as it was, to say the least, unimpressive. And small. Given the size of the east coast, the Pilgrims did damn well to see it at all, much less land on it.
A raspberry latte later we'd reached Orleans in Cape Cod. The Cove motel delivered on its promised 'bayside rooms', and the gazebo by the shore made an inspiring location for circuit training next morning. Beers on Nauset beach proved a great way to end the day, as fishermen cast from the long sandy beach, geese & seagull squadrons flew in opposite directions overhead and a lone seal dived in the surf. Quote of the day came from the bottle of Buzzards Bay Ale that said "Warning. Map on the front is not meant for navigational purposes".
Next morning the Gods clearly misinterpreted my 'fast-feet' drills by the gazebo, as I'd barely finished when the rain started. On the way to Providence we stopped near Buzzards Bay (not sure where, the map was a bit vague) for lunch at 'Lyndsey's'. Passing on the '50's Diner' (the average age as well as the theme - it even had bingo on the t.v.) we ate in the main restaurant, where the desert menu offered unfocused dieters "Sugar-free jello with real whipped cream".
Later in Providence Rhode Island, we discovered that the State House was shiny, white, marble and shut; and that the other potentially interesting buildings were lost - to us at least - in the general city development. So we missed the canon that had remained loaded for a 100 years before anyone thought to check it, but did see the Fleet Building, or 'Superman Building' as its also known.
Instead we 'did' the mall, buying obnoxiously large slices of multi-flavoured cheesecake and providing cheap entertainment for the staff of 'Rick's Bagel Cafe', who clearly hadn't seen dithering, overwhelmed, apparently indecisive Brits before. However, revenge on shop assistants was swift as a 99 cents purchase of a pack of cards was greeted with "do you need any batteries?" Sensing the imminent response of his customers, he quickly added "for anything? At home maybe?", but it was too late. It turned out that they have a policy that "If we don't ask you if you need batteries, you get them for free" - now that kind of shameless logic could make a trip to McDonalds more interesting...
The night, and chapter 1 of the trip, ended in cheesecake (with free potato salad side dish) while simultaneously watching Cliffhanger and the ice hockey play-offs, such is the wonder of American t.v. advertising. Meanwhile, the wonder of channel surfing on cable enabled us to watch the same episode of Frasier, both before and after the film, on different channels.
Days 1 to 6
London to Boston: 3,272 miles
Roadtrip: 393 miles
Trip Total: 3,665 miles
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