Saturday, 12 September 2009

A Holiday Weekend

Having taken my economic equivalency exam (not that hard, and I was relieved to pass well – I would have felt that I was letting down IHEID and Professor Wyplosz otherwise!), I was free by 10am on Friday... and since it was Labour Day Weekend, we didn’t have anything until Shopping Day on Tuesday! Time have some New England fun! We kicked off in style with a “scavenger hunt” in downtown Boston. For non-Americans, a scavenger hunt is where you have to photograph yourself at a number of sites as well as fulfilling challenges like spelling ‘Fletcher’ with your bodies, fitting into small spaces, and swapping a plastic bracelet for the biggest thing we could. My group was full of insanely competitive people, so we sped around and managed to get everywhere on the list, as well as fitting into a teeny tiny house in a children’s playground (it collapsed when we crawled out – oops!), and managed to swap our bracelet for a carpet, which the boys carried for half a mile. Along the way, we got to see some of downtown Boston for the first time, including the Make Way for Ducklings statue, which I got very excited about, to the amusement of my team, who hadn’t read the book. The results haven’t been announced yet, but we’re quietly confident, and it was enormous fun! We finished the evening in Red Bones, an awesome bar in Davis Square (near Tufts) with around 30 beers on tap, where I met a few new people, and discovered that a friend from Uganda is here at Fletcher – the world of expatriates is indeed small.

On Saturday, it was time for an excursion. On the basis that if you organise the trip you get to decide where to go, I had sent round some emails suggesting a beach trip, and in the end we settled on Plymouth, landing point of the Pilgrims and home of the Mayflower 2, a reconstruction of the original Mayflower. We managed to all meet up and get the train just in time – lucky as there’s only four a day – and walked the three miles into town (there is apparently a bus, but we didn’t know that at the time and didn’t have any taxi numbers). The town was very pretty and classically New England – clapboard houses (many actually made of plastic over brick – cheats!), tall trees, and wide streets. Eventually we got to the sea – the weather was glorious, and I felt miles out of town. We walked along the shore, and found what can only be described as a fast-food seafood restaurant, where we had crab salad and lobster rolls. It was delicious, not too expensive, and one of those classic New England experiences that you have to have.

From there, we went to the information centre to find out about buses and get some taxi numbers; learning that we had 5 minutes until the bus left for the ‘Plimoth Plantation’, an open-air museum, we ran for it – only to get there and discover that it would cost $24 to get in, and we only had an hour and a half till the last bus. Totally not worth it. So we got a taxi back for $10, and went to the Mayflower II, run by the same people, instead, for $9 – much more reasonable, and the Mayflower still had actors in costume talking in old English, which as far as we could work out was the main attraction of the Plantation. The ship was tiny, especially the beds – it was hard to imaging 102 people crammed into it, but the guides were incredibly knowledgeable, both those in costume who conveyed specific characters from the voyage, and those in modern dress who were able to provide historical background.

I learnt all sorts of things about the period; like the fact that the pilgrims actually set off from Holland, rather than England, and that at this time Englishmen were actually rather well-nourished and comparably tall to today (but slept sitting up, hence the short beds), as well as more ‘subversive’ information – like they never celebrated thanksgiving, which was invented in the 1920s to promote family values. We also learnt that the ‘Plymouth Rock’, where the pilgrims supposedly landed, is a myth – no-one mentions landing on a rock. It’s also somewhat disappointing – about a metre square – so I wasn’t particularly upset to discover this! All in all a great day out, and fascinating to see how well every area of this town has been preserved – without meaning to be dismissive, I think if you have less history you have to preserve it better. And it was a great way to learn more about the US and the history of the region.

On Friday, the second years had organised a tour of Boston’s ‘Freedom Trail’, adapted to exclude sites we’d already visited on the Scavenger Hunt, and to take in sections of the African American Heritage Tour, as well as ‘other cool stuff’. We started out in Beacon Hill, one of the rich areas of Boston that also included some streets where many escaped slaves lived, including some who were probably very famous, judging by the way their names were mentioned and most people nodded knowingly, but who I hadn’t heard of because escaped slaves aren’t really a standard element of the UK history curriculum! We also visited the State Capitol, with its golden dome, and saw a statue opposite commemorating the Mass. 54th Regiment, the first black regiment during the civil war – the statue also notable for being the first in the US to depict black Americans in a heroic and generally not completely offensive manner. As Trevor, our guide put it, US race relations are often about baby steps!

From the State Capitol, we carried on into downtown Boston, visiting, among other places, the Union Oyster House, an oyster house older than this country, much beloved of the Kennedys, and what was the oldest bookstore in the country until Borders opened next door and put it out of business. There was also an H&M there, at which point all the Europeans got very excited that we could buy cheaper versions of the same clothes we would buy in Europe! We also saw Nathanial Hall, where Kerry conceded the election, and the Old State House, with a Lion and a Unicorn on the top – the originals were burnt in rioting after the Boston Massacre, just before the War of Independence, but the British gave them a new set in the 19th Century as a peace offering, and they now grace the building. Since the building is in downtown Boston, space is pretty tight – so they’ve hit on a genius method of preserving the building and also saving space. Stripping out the inside, they’ve turned it into a subway station. Amazing. And not sure you’d get away with it in the UK – there’d be a public outcry and the idea would be dropped. There may have been a public outcry here, but it was a sensible solution and they got on with it. The other interesting thing about the Old State House was that it was surrounded by skyscrapers – I’m not sure we get that much in the UK, as the areas with the skyscrapers were generally pretty heavily bombed in the war, but it’s a very striking sight and really highlights just how tall some of the towers are – definitely higher than I’d want to live! Imagine if the lift broke!

From Downtown, we walked through little Italy towards the docks, where we took the boat across the harbour to the USS Constitution, the oldest still-commissioned ship in the world. We didn’t go in as there was a huge queue and it was under repair, and instead we headed to the Bunker Hill Monument, a giant obelisk build to commemorate an early and glorious American victory in the War of Independence... that ended with the Americans running out of powder and having to defeat. Admittedly the British lost more men, but it still seemed an amusing disconnect between the official history and the reality. Then we went to The Warren, a pub that is almost older than this country, built in 1780 to replace one burnt down during the war, and that was popular with Washington and some of the other Founding Fathers... which was pretty awesome! I’d never been in a pub that was almost as old as a country before, unless you count places in Uganda or Kenya that were build before independence – but I’m not sure that most Ugandans or Kenyans would agree that their countries began at independence (will ask fellow students from the region and see what they think!).

On Monday, we went for a change from the beach, and three of us went inland to Concord, home of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott, among others – basically all the Transcendentalists. We had discovered that we could go swimming in Walden Pond, where Thoreau spent a year to try to discover the essentials of life, and walking in the forest. So we caught the train from Porter Square (one every two hours), got to Concord, walked three miles, and there we were. The Reservation was stunning – tall trees, good trails, and the water reflecting like a mirror. The leaves on the trees were just starting to turn – the picture of the end of summer and a promise of fall. The water was cool, but not too cold – I swam for about half an hour, then out we got, walked around the lake, and back into Concord, with just time for a hot chocolate and some food before we got the train back to Boston. A short, but worthwhile outing – hopefully I’ll be able to get out of Boston at least once or twice in the coming semester.

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