Here’s a thought: I don’t know anyone in a 3,000 mile radius. Sure, I know Greg and Hee Yeon but, apart from that, I’m completely on my own. It’s a weird thing to think about but it’s not really worrying me – whilst the people I trust are 5 time zones away, so too are the rumours and preconceptions that blight people’s first impressions of you. In that sense, it’s liberating.
As ever, I spent the morning working and catching up on blog posts in bed. Ideally, I would have booked bus tickets from D.C. to Philly a few weeks ago but, as it turns out, not doing so was a better option. It seems that if you book them on the day, or the day before, you save about £10, compared to the advance ticket price. I also signed up for Kindle Unlimited, in order to get unlimited access to the majority of Lonely Planet guides on my laptop. I somehow ended up with a 7-day free trial, no strings attached, and a subsequent 30-days for free when I actually subscribe. I’ve attached a link in case anyone’s interested.
I was just about to post Day 7 when Greg’s friends arrived for his ‘chocolate sub-group’, a sub-group being a group of Church friends who meet outside of services in order to strengthen their faith and sense of community. The thought of not hiding away in my room and the prospect of free food led me to put it on hold. As it happened, that turned out to be for the next 6 hours.
It was worth it though. Jace, the 8-month old baby of one of the couples there took what I think were his first steps. He seemed to love the sound that was made when I flicked my lower lip with my index finger – I wish I was that easily entertained. Another friend, who’s name I forget, was about to begin some post-doctoral work at Stanford. We had a nice chat about the importance of finding an academic discipline that interests you and then just seeing where your exploration of it takes you. That’s the approach I seem to be taking to choosing a degree – if a subject interests me on my travels, as US Politics is doing at the moment, it might be something I choose to look into studying later.
My blood sugar rose so high during those six hours that, at one stage, I felt nauseous and had to sit down for about half an hour. You don’t expect chocolate to knock you out like that but put it like this: a bar of Hershey’s (39g) contains 17g of pure sugar… Whilst my mouth was thanking me for shoving in truffles and cookies and chocolate covered strawberries, my body most definitely wasn’t.
During that time, I also realised just how much I’ve warmed to the American accent; I almost barely notice it now. I think my own accent’s become a tiny bit Americanised as well; it wouldn’t surprise me if I come home in a few months with a full on American twang. I guess we’ll see at Old Boys…
Another lazy day today – I left the apartment at 3:30… I got up late so walked to the Trader Joe’s just round the corner to buy some food. I love that place! The really friendly bearded cashier gave me free food because it wouldn’t scan. I don’t know whether that’s company policy or whether he was just a nice guy?
Walking there, I was the coldest I’ve been in months – it was 19*C outside but that now feels like sweater weather, such is the hot weather I’ve grown accustomed to. I had goosebumps I was that cold… It got me thinking about which clothes I actually need and which I could afford to send home/sell. I can pretty much make do with 3 T-Shirts and one pair of shorts. I could keep a few more clothes but I think my main bag might be small enough to be counted as hand-luggage, at least on some airlines, which would save me a lot of time and checked baggage fees.
When I finally got into Boston, I found myself in the city centre at the same time the terrorist attacks were happening in Brussels and outside of Buckingham Palace. A few years ago I’d have freaked out but I thought about how slight the odds of anything happening here were and so carried on with my day.
I returned to Faneuil Hall about 15 minutes before it closed, just in time to catch the last few minutes of a talk that a National Historical Park ranger was giving. Having never studied American Revolutionary history, the Freedom Trail was starting to bore me – a lot of the signs on the trail are repeating very similar information and I had no other perspective to look at things from. If you ever come to Boston, I’d recommend reading up on the Revolution first, if only on Wikipedia, as it would make the trail a lot more interesting. One thing that struck me though was how steeped in irony Faneuil Hall actually is. Built by a merchant who made his money from the slave trade, it was used in later years by dozens of abolitionists speaking out against federal laws on slavery. The centrepiece of the room is a painting of two Senators debating the Union, with the words “Liberty and union now and forever” inscribed underneath. Whilst the state abolished slavery in 1783, it was still compliant with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the courthouse around the corner housed many runaway slaves before they were returned to slavery. So much for liberty…
Around this time (5 pm) the majority of attractions in Boston close. I aimed to go Old North Church which closes at 6 but realised that, as it was quite a far walk from where I was, I wouldn’t have much time there. Instead, I walked past Dick’s Last Resort, a restaurant made famous by its obnoxious waiters, and on to see the Boston Massacre Site. Most people walk over the large memorial plaque but with the 300-year old Old State House, the site of the massacre, still standing and nestled amongst skyscrapers, it’s easy to imagine the mob surrounding the building and the ‘Incident on King Street’ unfurling.
I ended up at the marina, sat on one of the piers, watching super-yachts and occasionally steamboats come and go. Street performers seem to be actively encouraged in Boston, so the sounds of a busker playing the guitar and the chatter of restaurants nearby made for a really pleasant evening.
A few hours later, I’d arranged to meet Hee Yeon and Greg at one of their favourite restaurants and so got the T back from South Station to Harvard. By this time it was, naturally, fairly busy but I was still got the feeling that I was about to be targeted by a bag snatcher. A guy in a do-rag was giving me weird looks on the platform. He got on after me and then walked back and forth, up and down the carriage. I was sitting in a seat closest to the door and, eventually, he decides to sit on the opposite side of that door, on the same side of the carriage. It wasn’t a problem; I just walked back down the train to another door when getting off so as to keep some distance from him. It did make me realise just how much of an easy target I likely am though – being a baby-faced white guy with a distinctly British accent really does mark you out.
After nipping into one of the Harvard buildings to find somewhere to fill up my water bottle, I met with Hee Yeon and Greg at the Border Cafè, which is popular with students for its Cajun/Tex-Mex food. On a Friday night, the queues are literally out of the door but for good reason. The chicken bandera I ordered was well worth the wait, as was the chimichurri steak, although it wasn’t the best I’ve ever had. That accolade goes to Abi & Eliav, some family friends of ours. One thing you don’t get in the UK are drinks served in 32oz (1 litre) cups which are constantly being replaced, even if you only about a quarter of the way through one. It doesn’t really make sense – why allow people to fill up on water and therefore order less food? – but I guess that’s American hospitality. Another thing I don’t really understand is how a large proportion of restaurant workers end up living below the poverty line. I know their take home pay is largely composed of tips, as opposed to wages paid by the restaurant, but even with people tipping 10-20%, they still don’t earn enough. I’m sure there’s a reason for this, I just don’t know what it is.
We stopped by CVS on the way back, to get food for a hike in the Appalachians tomorrow, at which point I was freezing cold again. I think it was probably tiredness reducing my ability to control my body temperature. Hopefully, I’ll be well rested before spending a night on an overnight train and then 3 nights in a hostel in D.C. next week but we’ll see…
I was told by Reddit that you can get into part of the Harvard Law School Library without being a student. This morning, I planned to write my blog in there, just to be able to say I had. But, since it was 28℃ outside, I decided I’d write for a few hours under the shade in one of the courtyards instead. It was quite an interesting time to be in Harvard actually since it was move-in day for the Class of 2021. I could have been walking amongst future US Presidents without even knowing it.
Close to the law campus is a supermarket-cum-deli called Market in the Square. What I didn’t realise is that just around the corner is Harvard Square. You’d have thought the name would have given it away, but I was so hungry by that point that I gave in to prices way outside of my budget. Put it like this: I paid the equivalent of 7 Gregg’s sausage rolls for half a sandwich. It was, in fairness, a Philly Cheese Steak.
I booked a Hahvard tour for 3:30pm online, largely because they’re run by Harvard students. I thought I’d missed it but in the end, I somehow managed to blag a free tour. Presuming that the one I came across had just started, I slipped into its ranks as subtly as I could. As it turns out, I’d just barged my way into a private tour. The Mississippi-born tour guide called me out on it, and rightly so, but the Hawaiian tourists who’d paid fairly large amounts of money for it kindly let me stay. I learnt a fair bit in that tour. Did you know, for instance, that Harvard tuition is completely free, for all 4 years, if your household income is less than $60,000 per year? The best thing though was hearing about the Harvard students who mugged off Trump so badly that he went on to sue the university.
It was as we were grouped around the Harvard Lampoon’s office building that our tour guide suddenly pulls out her phone with a text from a friend: “OMFG! I’ve just seen Malia Obama!”. For those who didn’t know, Obama’s eldest daughter is starting at Harvard this autumn, having taken a gap year in South Africa last year. Like everyone else, she was somewhere in Harvard, moving into her dorm with her parents. So, technically, the title is only semi-true but hey, it could have happened! I could have turned any corner and bumped into him. As it happens, I didn’t.
All Hahvard tours are valid for any time slot – you book in the morning and turn up whenever you feel like it. On the basis that I technically hadn’t used my public tour ticket yet, I decided to join the 4:30 tour, in order to see the bits I’d previously missed. My tour guide, Cormac, a rising senior i.e. he’s going into his senior year, made 70 minutes fly by and was extremely clued up on Harvard-related anecdotes. I always thought that the Naked Mile in American Pie was rooted in fiction. It’s not. Each December, as the bell chimes at midnight for the beginning of finals week, hundreds, if not thousands of Harvard students strip and run laps around the Yard, as part of a tradition known as Primal Scream. I can see why that would be good stress relief.
I think I overdid it a bit today. Walking 14km in 30℃ heat didn’t seem that bad at the time – the weather’s not particularly sticky or humid so you acclimatise relatively quickly. It does take it out of you though and I got back to Alewife and completely crashed. I think I’ll take it easy tomorrow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Leaving home, I wasn’t particularly excited. Last night I had the pre-trip jitters – “have I forgotten something?”,”Will the airline lose my bag?” (they didn’t but I wouldn’t have minded – being compensated for wearing the clothes you flew in for a few days is hardly the end of the world). This morning all that had gone, almost to the point of me being emotionally void. I was ‘flying the nest’, ‘going walkabout’ for (up to) 3 months and I felt nothing. No excitement, no terror. I guess because this is the trip I’ve been dreaming of since I was 14, there was nothing more I could do but go and see where I ended up.
I got the train to Wilmslow and still felt no excitement. “You’ll feel it when you get to Boston,” I told myself, “you’re not feeling it now because flying’s no longer a novelty.” I was wrong. I stepped off the connecting train at Manchester Airport and it hit me. I walked into the departure hall grinning like an absolute knob.
I checked in and was through to the gates in less than 25 minutes. I was happy that I could waltz through; the tetchy woman sorting trays for the scanner wasn’t. “Take your belt off”, “take your coat off”, “quickly”, “hurry up” “NOW!”. Lovely. Skipping the lines sounded good, but really it meant waiting around to board for longer. Alistair Humphrey’s second book ‘Thunder and Sunshine’ helped but I was still bored in the 2:30 hours I had to wait. Hardly promising for the weeks ahead!
Fortunately, that boredom was somewhat alleviated by the flight. Having been playing music all day, my headphones decided all of a sudden to break before takeoff. So there I was, with no music or in-flight entertainment, repeating the following for the next 7 hours: eat, sleep, stare into space, repeat. In fairness, the food really wasn’t that bad. That said, I ate school food for the majority of my teenage years. A lot went on in my head in that time. I realised that Trump, a man with a nuclear football, is now in charge of my safety for the next however many weeks… What a thought!
I touched down in America at 3:20 EST. Waited for what seemed like an hour to get through customs. Put my fingerprints on record and was waved through with a stamp. Then waited for what seemed like another hour to collect my bags and changed my SIM card – I got 5GB of data free from Three but that’s a story for another day. Took my luggage tag off my bag to appear less of a tourist and then hopped on a Silver Line bus to South Station.
This is the point at which I thought I was going to be robbed. I put my bag on a bag rack and sat down on the back row. I noticed the guy sat next to me and a guy in a snapback & Timbs next to the door were making eye contact in a “we’re in this together kind of way”. Or so I thought. In my head, the guy next to me would block me in whilst the guy at the door would get off with my bag, just before the doors closed at a stop. I was just about to get out of the ‘situation’, by getting off with my bag and catching the next bus (they’re only every 15 or so minutes) when we got to the last stop. Shit! As it turned out, these guys had never met and both got off with their own luggage, baggage tags and all. I realised at this point just how on edge tired, jet-lagged me was. I guess at times like that it’s better to have your defences up too high than not have them up at all though.
After all that I took the T to Alewife (Ale-wife not Ally-wife) to finally meet Greg, my godmothers’ nephew and his wife Hee Yeon, who’ve kindly agreed to let me stay with them at their apartment in Cambridge. The Metro in Boston is great – you can get signal underground and (young) people tend to smile at you if you smile at them, instead of giving you a resting bitch face like you’d get on the Tube. The only bad thing is that the seats are rock solid. Like sitting on bricks.
Greg, as it turns out, is a really interesting guy. He’s just completed his doctorate at MIT and come back from a trip to Japan. His wife, Hee Yeon, is a Harvard grad, who grew up in Pittsburgh then moved to Boston when she met Greg. Both are lovely people and I found myself at ease and eating slow-cooked beef and sticky rice within minutes of getting through the door. By this stage, it was about 11 pm at home. I thought I’d try going to bed at a reasonable local time – apparently, it allows some people to sleep off jet lag within a single night. So I sat up and watched 2001: A Space Odyssey (weirdest film I’ve ever seen) and an episode of John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight’ (how Trump hasn’t had him deported yet I’ll never know).
So, 21 hours after waking up, here I am in the States, tired but well-fed and well. The start of my gap year(s) couldn’t have gone any better!