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Weekend in Boston

Saturday morning I took the train from New York up to Boston. I enjoy traveling by train in the States – even coach class compares favorably to first class in most European train services. Power sockets in every seat for those who want/need to work on their computers. This time I’m just happy to see New England through the window and occasionally read the latest Economist.

What’s so beautiful about New England is the elegance of the timber frame buildings, many of which remind me of Norway – and not a few that look like the houses my grandfather lived in.

All up the coast there are small bays, inlets and creeks; clean painted houses set in lawns that stretch to the water and lead to piers and pontoons to which all manner of craft are moored.

The small villages are now weekend retreats and dormitory towns for people working in New York. Even Providence in Rhode Island is only 45 minutes away by train, so it’s easy for people to commute, and probably the best alternative to living in Manhattan. Part of me would so like to live in a place like this. It must be the Scandinavian part of me…

Then I remember in the wintertime it’s like Scandinavia here too – snow and ice. No thanks! Summer living sounds OK though.

I’ve come to Boston to see a school friend of mine (hi Mary!) whom I hadn’t see since she visited me in Mexico in 1992. Houseguested with her and basically just enjoyed wandering around the Harvard end of Cambridge, just like I did 20 years ago when I last visited her here. That time it was wintertime, blustery and cold. The weather over this weekend was an absolute delight – cloudless blue skies, strong sun and a soft dry breeze. Just like a summer’s day in Norway.

We mostly walked around Harvard Square, did a little window-shopping, met up with some friends of hers to eat pancakes, and talked about what we’ve both done these last sixteen years. We went to see a movie too – the latest (I’m sure not the last), Indiana Jones movie. A couple of fun scenes, but that’s it. Silly storyline. See it on DVD rental: it isn’t worth the price of a ticket.

Sunday Mary wanted to go to her church in Boston to attend service. This is St. Trinity’s, an Episcopalian church. Its ages since I went to a church service, let alone a Protestant one. Episcopalians are Anglicans; when I was in boarding school in England (I was 10 at the time) I used to sing in their church choir. The music is always a pleasure, but this day it sounded more complicated and somehow more stilted than the hymns I (very vaguely) remember.

As to the structure of the service, it seems most Christian denominations follow the same pattern – procession, liturgy, hymn, liturgy, sermon, community announcements, liturgy, commercial break for collecting money, hymn, procession. Here the service ends with a flourish. As everyone is still standing a guy goes round and extinguishes the candles on the altar as though to say “store closed, God will be back later”.

The whole episode felt formal and procedural. There isn’t the celebratory shaking of hands and embracing of neighbor as there is in the Catholic Mass. There isn’t the spontaneous sense of community you see in Evangelical gatherings. There isn’t the fantastic rhetoric of the Baptists, though the (female) bishop pitched her sermon in the same style of wonder and wow.

Her sermon was such a convolution of images and logic I forbore trying to follow it. But think – all over the world, the priests of many religions have to come up with a theme to digress on at least once a week. That’s quite a creative challenge. With a deadline too.

I couldn’t repeat the litanies, although they were all neatly printed out. I recalled fractured slices of them, but I looked on them as curiosities from another time. I’ve gone beyond/away from all this, and it would be hypocritical of me to word things I don’t believe.

But I was happy to be there to provide some company to Mary and, just as importantly, honor the US armed forces on Memorial Weekend.

Afterwards we walked up to Boston Common, a most beautiful park with a small lake and many varieties of trees and flowers. With the warm sun, this is a great place to sit and sunbathe, eat a snack, play a game, read a book and watch people passing by. It feels more like one of the parks in London than Central Park in New York or the parks in Paris. Maybe it’s because of the lake and the boats cruising around on it.

Later in the afternoon we walked around Harvard and the Yard. There are many parks and open areas here too; great to lie down on the well-tended lawns, soak in the sun and read a book.

Something about the academic surroundings always appeals to me. Professors certainly know how to create a beautiful environment, even if they earn relatively little and can spend entire lives vainly searching for one insight, one truth, one immortality.

In the early afternoon of Monday we took a ferry to visit one of the islands in Boston Harbor. This one is called Spectacle Island as its original shape looked like the type of specs Benjamin Franklin would have worn. Through the centuries it came to be used as Boston’s trash dump. This was closed down eventually and the ruinous heap of eroding garbage was cased in the earth dug out of Boston’s (in)famous infrastructure project, the “Big Dig”.

Now the island more properly resembles wraparound sunglasses (Carrera Island?) and is a wonderfully tranquil nature reserve. The old buildings that once stood here are long gone, their foundations buried under the island’s new profile.

The wind is stiff and you can feel the salt spray even as high as the top of North Dumbril, where you can sit and see the planes taking off from Logan Airport. From here, the highest point in the bay, you can see nearly all the other islands – skerries left after the ice retreated and seas rose millennia ago. I didn’t know there were so many.

Sailing into the bay must have been a great delight to the early settlers and fishing fleets. Safe home at last. Today it’s a delight to the yachtsmen, windsurfers and parasailers. Wouldn’t it be great if I could ….

We had a late lunch in the square by Faneuil Hall, the place I hang out in whenever I’m in Boston. In the square a street entertainer enthralled the crowd with his performance, pulling people into the show and done in the joking style that has been so popular in recent years. Everyone enjoyed it.