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Hacktreks 2

First Chapters


Boston - A Weekend Getaway?
Barry Dunstall in the birthplace of Edgar Allan Poe
and baked beans

Does the leisurely pace of Boston life make a flying visit possible?

Before, during and after a long flight, I always enjoy a good drink. And so I head by fast cab through the night from Boston Logan International Airport to a downtown bar. But not just any bar. 84 Beacon Street. The most famous bar in the world. The Bull & Finch, opposite Boston Common, is the spiritual home of Cheers, the classic TV show. All the external shots of Sam Malone’s beloved watering hole were filmed on Beacon Street. Unfortunately, all the internal shots were filmed in a huge studio thousands of miles away in California. Inside, the tiny Bull & Finch bears no resemblance at all to Cheers which, given that a million tourists like me turn up every year, means everyone is a little too close for comfort. I feel as if I have wandered into one of those challenges to see how many people you can squeeze in a Mini Cooper. I could get back to England quicker than I could get through to the bar.
Having given up on the idea of a drink, I hit Boston’s theatre district for a late night stroll. Lots of theatres, certainly, but hardly any shows or plays running at the moment. I head to my hotel.
As I fall asleep, I can’t help thinking that Boston had better get better. Fortunately, in the morning, Boston does.

The birthplace of Edgar Allan Poe and baked beans, Boston (pronounced ‘Bwoston’ by the locals, as if impersonating Elmer Fudd with a sore throat) is the largest city in New England, with a population of nearly 600,000 people. Once described as "a picnic of contrasts", which is surely among the worst metaphors ever written, Boston has also been called ‘The Athens of America’, which must raise eyebrows in Athens, Georgia.
I take a sightseeing boat trip around the harbour. The gentle ocean breeze from the Atlantic is relaxing but, yet again, I’m denied the drink I crave. I don’t have photo ID to prove I’m over 21 at the on-board bar (I’m 30…) so I have to sit dry-mouthed as we chug around the bay between the city and the airport. The waves chop harmlessly at the boat, mocking my thirst. I shouldn’t complain though because it’s a blessing in disguise. American beer, bland and weak, is really just water that went near a hop once.

Although one of the best-looking, classiest cities in the US, Boston has not exactly been dressed up for show lately. The ‘Big Dig’ is in progress, a massive construction project which basically involves taking the major roads through the city and putting them out of the way, largely underground. Costing £9 billion and stretching nearly eight miles, the 10-year-plus project is similar in scale to the building of the Chunnel or the Panama Canal. Workmen shuffle up, down and around everywhere.
The ‘Big Dig’ will not be finished until 2004 but all is far from lost for tourists in the meantime. If the tastes and sounds of drilling are not your idea of a holiday, you can always head for the serenity of Boston Common, where the people of the city meet to walk, talk and unwind. Stroll around and you will soon be captured by the gentle pace of New England life.

Alternatively, you can take a train across the Charles River to Cambridge on Boston’s so-called ‘T’, the oldest subway in the US. Home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge has the same leafy charm as its English counterpart and, wandering around, there is a similar sense that at any moment you could be walking past a student whose intellect will one day change the world.

I sit among the trees by the river and look back toward downtown Boston. The jabs of early afternoon sun bring out every dash of green and blue Mother Nature has to offer. As I drink a coffee and watch the yachts and rowing boats mingle, before me is a city seemingly without a care. Massachusetts unemployment is under 2.5% and Boston radiates the wealthy contentment of a financial centre. Tastefully merging the past and the present, many of the elegant nineteenth-century townhouses now host prosperous shops and offices.

Lured by the smell of baking bread and pizzas, I head for Boston’s cobblestoned Italian district. The houses may not be quite as charismatic, or anywhere near as old, as the real deals in Italy, but the people are awash with the spirit of the nation. Standing on their doorsteps, they indulge in the traditional Italian pastime of gesturing furiously at the drivers weaving at reckless speed through the narrow, twisting streets. Then again, anyone who slows down or even thinks about parking is screamed at passionately for no reason at all. In the midst of this chaos, a woman who must be nearly 80 sits placidly on a chair on the pavement selling lemonade from a bucket.
In the late afternoon I look around the sumptuous shops and restaurants of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, established hotspots for street performers and tourists with money to spend. Having long since given up interest in a beer, I wander into a café and ask for a soft drink. The waiter says he will happily sell me one, but points out I can buy a bottle for half the price in a store across the road. This small but significant gesture sums up Boston for me. Classy people. Classy city.

© Barry Dunstall June 2003



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