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 3: (Almost) meeting Obama. No really.

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.