Day 10: 9 hours on a train

I ate leftovers and Ben & Jerry’s for breakfast this afternoon whilst listening to a podcast on Spotify: The Foreign Desk’s ‘Democracies and the monuments of their past’. It was a particularly fitting thing to listen to right now and put forward some pretty solid arguments, as you’d expect when the guest speakers are all historians. What was particularly interesting was the way in which it looked at the current situation here in America within a wider historical context i.e. by comparing it to the tearing down of statues of Lenin and Saddam Hussein.
After eating my last meal of pad gra prow (Thai Basil Beef) that evening, I said goodbye to Greg and Hee Yeon and headed out the door. They were great hosts and I can’t thank them enough – it was the experience of meeting such kind strangers that led me to fully consider extending my trip. If they were horrible people, which they weren’t, then I’d have had second thoughts.
I walked to the T in the dark, not at all worried as by now I was accustomed to the route. My 7-day Metro pass had expired so I missed the train waiting at the platform by a matter of seconds whilst I paid for a single journey ticket. I probably could have run and caught it but by then I was sweating like mad simply from having a jumper on. I tend to travel in the heaviest clothes and boots I have in order to reduce the weight on my back but even at 8:30 at night, wearing more than 1 layer is foolish. Time was getting on and I began to worry about whether I’d make it to South Station on time – I’d spent about 4x my average daily spending on a non-refundable, non-transferable ticket so this train really wasn’t something I wanted to miss. It was all fine in the end though – I ended up with about 30 minutes to spare.

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After a disinterested Amtrak employee gave the briefest of glances to my ticket, I chose to get onto the ‘Quiet Carriage’. “I’m bound to get some sleep there, right,” I thought. “Not much but more than in other carriages”. Wrong. I got about 4 hours of fractured sleep that night, partly because I sat in the worst possible seat I could have found. It turns out that seats with the most leg room aren’t always the best places to sit on overnight trains. Seats in the middle of the carriage, where you’re not constantly being disturbed by people coming and going are. Regardless of where you sit though, none of the seats have blinds so it’s always a good idea to bring an eye-mask.
I finally got to sleep at about 12:30, as the train sat at the platform in New Haven (CT) for what seemed an age. An armed policeman walked through but that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. I later realised that we’d stopped to wait for a freight train travelling in the opposite direction. It seems this is always the case simply because freight companies own the railroads. I guess business has priority over people here…
To be continued… 

Day 9: 44% Sugar Chocolate

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…

Day 7: The Best Tex-Mex Food in Boston

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.
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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.
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The Old State House
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…

Day 6: $10k to have a baby?!

I woke up to find quite a weird text from my brother. He seemed to think that I was considering marching for the KKK as opposed to against them. I’m not really a big fan of bigotry so I’d just like to emphasise the word countermarch here, in case anyone thought I was a closeted racist.

I wasn’t that hungry for most of the day, so kept nipping into supermarkets to buy snacks, as opposed to buying lunch somewhere. I was led to believe that the food here is considerably cheaper than in the U.K. which is weird because almost everything I found on the shelves seemed to be $5.99 or higher. I thought about it for a while and came to the conclusion that everything probably is cheaper. The prices only seem higher because food tends to be sold in packets 2 or 3 times larger than the UK equivalent. I’m curious to know why that is. Is it because people eat more, or do they have larger families, or go food shopping less often?

I’ve got a habit of looking at Google Maps, going “Yeah. Yeah. I know where I’m going”, putting my phone away and then ending up in completely the wrong place. Oftentimes it’s a bad idea but occasionally it pays off. I stumbled across the Reading Room of Boston Public Library, which it turns out is a really nice place to write in. The wifi’s a decent speed and the air-con’s not on at a stupidly cold temperature. More importantly though, the room feels like it could be used as a location for films like Harry Potter and the Riot Club – it’s got those green desk lamps that you only really see in old libraries.

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I kept getting distracted so it took me about 4 hours to write 800 words but I finally got it posted. About a 10-minute ride on the T from the library is Faneuil Hall, one of the main attractions in Boston, so I thought I’d take a look. I instantly regretted it. Not because it was overhyped or boring but because I didn’t realise that it’s split into two parts. The whole of the ground floor consists solely of souvenir shops. That closes at 9. The, arguably more interesting, Great Hall upstairs closes at 5. I arrived at 5:25 so all I could do was endeavour to come back another day. Quincy Market’s next door but it wasn’t really anything special – it’s just food you can get elsewhere but with inflated prices. Personally, I wouldn’t even bother but hey, who am I to say?

 

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Just a sign outside Quincy Market. Poor monks.

 

Later on, I met Greg at Porter Square and headed to a ‘cookout’ with some of his old MIT friends. I’ll be honest, these guys (and girls) were ridiculously clever; like Big Bang Theory kind of clever. When large chunks of the conversation are on doctorate-level conditional probability, all you can really do is smile and nod. I did get some really useful advice though: because I’m only 18, I’m too young to get bar work here in Massachusetts, where the minimum age to do so is 21. In Pennsylvania, however, I’m old enough. I can serve alcohol but not legally drink it, which is a bit silly really. It’s never a bad thing to know where you can find work though. I spoke to a guy who’s taking a Post Baccalaureate in neuroscience, which is essentially a two-year course taken in preparation for grad school. Apparently, in America, it’s perfectly normal to declare your major at end of your sophomore year. So, unlike in the UK, where you know in advance which degree you’ll come out with, you don’t need to know here. You just need to be accepted into a college. To me, that seems like a better system.

Speaking to Hee Yeon on the way back, I learnt quite a lot about the American healthcare system and really got a sense of the sheer cost of being ill. Just seeing a doctor for an initial consultation is about $175. If you’re ever considering having a baby, don’t do it in America – the cost of it, when you factor in prenatal and postpartum care is about $10,000. Sure, your insurance will cover a lot of that, but I was told that you still have to pay a deductible before any claims will be paid. For a lot of people, that’s about $2,000 a year. It really does add up! Like most Brits who’ve visited America, I’m now just so, so grateful that we have access to a nationalised health service.

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.