Day 5: Inside the Massachusetts State House

I was on the T, reading that copy of the Havard Lampoon I picked up yesterday when I realised something. It’s often said that ‘Americans don’t get British humour’ but from what I read, I don’t get American humour. Bits of the magazine were genuinely funny but others just made no sense at all, at least to me. It was almost as if the editors had got high, written the stories and then just decided to go with whatever their frenzied minds had thought up. Here’s a link – does anyone else agree?
Four days after arriving, I finally felt like seeing a bit of the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile route through the city stopping at 16 sites significant to the American Revolution. I didn’t feel like rushing through things so decided to skip the walking tour and make use of the booklet I found on the internet, which I’m presuming is the exact same one they charge $13 for? It’s possible to do the entire trail in a day but since I’m here for another four, I thought I’d space it out.
The trail starts on the Boston Common, the oldest public park in America and the place where, over the years, dozens of pirates and ‘witches’ met their end. Martin Luther King Jr. also held a civil rights demonstration there back in the ‘60s. That all sounds good but it was hot and touristy so I left pretty quickly.
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What I mistook for the golden dome of a mosque a few days ago was actually the Massachusetts State House. I was told that tours needed to be pre-booked but found that you could just walk in through the unfortunately named General Hooker Gates and simply just join one.
Tourists seem to have free rein over the majority of the building. The office doors of Senators and Representatives are often left often, to counteract the heat of the New England summer and the Speaker of the House, Robert DeLeo’s office is in a publicly accessible corridor. In theory, anyone could just knock and enter. That would almost be the same as me strolling into Parliament and turning up on John Bercow’s doorstep…  Whilst such a way of doing things will undoubtedly be politically motivated, as it’s an easy means of proving transparency, it’s quite surprising just how open state politics here is or at least seems to be.
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This same logic applies to the Massachusetts’ political process itself, or at least in the House of Representatives. There’s no division system, as is the case in British politics: Representatives press a button on their desk to vote and their voting intention is instantly made visible, to all those present, on an electronic voting board. It seems there’s no way for them to hide their vote from their constituents or parties.
Having studied US politics last year, the 30-40 minute tour was extremely interesting. You begin by getting up close to the portrait of Lincoln on which the $5 bill is based. You then move through to Nurses Hall. Murals above you depict James Otis, a lawyer who, in 1761, argued against the British Writs of Assistance in a British court – those writs allowed English soldiers to enter private homes/shops in search of smuggled goods and subsequently seize anything they felt like seizing. Whilst Otis was inevitably unsuccessful in his plea, his case was hugely influential in both the triggering of the American Revolution and, later, in the creation of the 4th Amendment, which protects US citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.
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Just down the road is the Old Granary Burial Ground which, surprisingly, isn’t as dead as it seems. Waiting outside the gates is a man named Jimmy Cole, a local historian, who lets anyone who’s interested borrow a guide he’s put together. All he asks is that you return it and pay a donation towards his daily living expenses, if you so wish. Looking at faded gravestones is never particularly exciting but I found it worth thinking about how much the people buried here have shaped US history. We’re talking Samuel Adams’ (one of the Founding Fathers’) and Paul Revere (an organiser of the Boston Tea Party and the man whose famous “Midnight Ride” marked the start of the Revolution) as well as the parents of Benjamin Franklin. I’d definitely recommend going, if only for a quick visit.
That was really the end of my day. The next site on the trail was Faneuil Hall but I was exhausted by that stage so decided to go back home and get some food.
You know when you’re so hungry that you’d eat anything despite knowing how bad it is for you? I was feeling like that so threw a pizza in the oven. “No worries. It’s quick, it’s easy!”. Whilst it was cooking I looked at the box. 2,280 calories. So if you fasted for an entire day and then ate just one 12” American pizza, you’d still be going over your recommended calorie intake. No wonder America’s got an obesity problem…

Day 2: My New Favourite Korean Food

I spent a lot of today learning about the way things are done here in America. Apparently, jaywalking happens all the time and the police don’t really care unless you’re putting others at risk. Sales tax is an extra 6% on top of everything you buy (at least in Massachusetts). Sometimes it’s included in the price, sometimes it’s not, so often times you get caught out. Even the locals agree it makes no sense. It’s only done this way to allow corporations to keep their attractive 99¢ prices.
I’m not at all religious but I thought it would be quite interesting to go with Hee Yeon and Greg to Mass at the Paulist Centre in Downtown. The church is directly opposite Boston Common, the site of the white supremacist ‘free-speech rally’ yesterday, which was reported in most news outlets across the world. Both of the fathers there had countermarched and had a lot to say about the days’ events. What I didn’t realise was that, even in New England, a lot of the statues are in some way related to slavery and its bygone proponents. Like a lot of people, I get the feeling that the tearing down of them, as seen in Charlottesville, will become a common occurrence in the very near future.
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We went straight from the service to lunch at Pho Pasteur, a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown. A small bowl of rare steak pho was only about £6.25 (+ tax) but the word ‘small’ is relative. Eating constantly for 10 minutes barely scratched the surface – I now understand what people mean about American portion sizes! A coconut butter bun at Hing Shing Pastry was then in order.
Having picked up a Charlie Card, the equivalent of an Oyster, at Park Street Station, I tried to top it up with a 7-day pass. My FairFX card was declined, I guess because the machine didn’t accept MasterCard. Thankfully, it wasn’t a problem but I realised that it’s always a good idea to have at least a day’s budget on you, in cash, stored in various places on your person. One thing that struck me about the ATM I went to was that you can choose the composition of the notes you take out: so you can choose 20x $1, for instance, which is useful to have on hand for tips.
Later on, I got the Red Line from Downtown Crossing to Kendal with Greg, in order to see the MIT campus, whilst he went to the lab for a few hours. In fairness, it was a Sunday but there didn’t seem to be much for visitors to do. I ended up in the William H. Gates Building. I don’t know whether it was open to the public but the door was unlocked and no-one seemed to mind me being there. There’s quite an impressive tribute to a man named Sean Collier in the lobby, an MIT patrol officer killed by the Boston Bombers in 2013. Thousands of origami cranes hung from the ceiling, each one folded by an individual wishing to remember his service to the university.
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What I like about MIT is how laid back everything is. People can be found fast asleep in the sun on public benches, something you just can’t imagine happening in the UK. It’s a great place to vibe rather than rushing around to tick off attractions. I spent a good couple of hours just ambling around, seeing if there was anything that took my interest. In the late afternoon, simply walking down the Charles’ riverfront, looking out onto the Boston skyline and the dozens of dinghy’s and kayaks, is a great way to spend time.
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I got back to Alewife just in time to head out to Buk Kyung, a Korean-Chinese fusion restaurant in Sommerville that Hee Yeon and Greg seem to frequent. Though it’s often hard for food in the West to be truly authentic, I get the feeling that what was served here is fairly close to it. I was one of only three non-locals in the restaurant, which is always a good sign. To anyone reading at home, I’d highly recommend ganpoongki – which is essentially deep-fried battered chicken in a sweet & spicy sauce. The same goes for bulgogi or ‘fire-meat’: thin, grilled slices of marinated beef or pork.
It was nice to end the evening to realise that my little jet lag trick seemed to have worked. At 11pm here (4am at home) I was wide awake and planning Day 3. I say planning – it was more a list of things I could potentially do, depending on how I felt in the morning.