Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Culinary Round-Up

As we get ready to pack our suitcases and print our boarding passes, it's time to wind up the week in food. Thanks to the recommendations of our concierge and a fantastic book on Boston's restaurants that Kathy got me at the Green Valley Book Fair, we have eaten well. Here are some highlights:

Sasso: Upscale, attentive service, and a fantastic table by the window, whereby we watched Boston walk past. The seared scallops I had were particularly wonderful, as were the crab cakes I had as an appetizer. We'd go back.

Legal Sea Foods: Yes, it's a chain, but it's a family-owned chain, and they do have a commitment to the freshest and healthiest seafood possible. It was fabulous. I had salmon, but the real winner was Hank's lobster. (We can't come to Boston and NOT have lobster, can we?) My only problem here was very inattentive service. We'd go back, but we'd pray for a different waiter.

Fiore: By Italians for Italians in the North End. Fantastic antipasti (with the exception of the pickled eggplant. I think Hank liked it.) Great pasta and original sauces, plus, we ate in the courtyard, watching the panoply of humans and listening to the Italian family next to us. The staff was wonderfully friendly, too.

We also had some great lunch and snack experiences that are worth a note.

Finagle a Bagle. This one came from Kathy's book, and they're right, it's a delicious bagel topped with any one of a number of delicious things (I had lox once and regular cream cheese. Hank had sausage, egg, and cheese on a jalapeno-cheddar bagel. It can get complicated.) I just like to say "Finagle a Bagle."

Au Bon Pain: This was so handy for us that we had lunch here twice. I LOVE their soups and bread. Yesterday's lunch was particularly nice, because it was cool and rainy, and the soup really hit the spot.

Uno: The spinach-broccoli pizza was great, and the wildberry sangria wasn't bad, either.

P.F. Chang's: Fried green beans. That's all I'm gonna say.

The Boston Museum of Fine Art Cafe: Boston Clam Chowder is a specialty, and I had some, and it was great. Clam chowder is easy to get wrong. If the clams are tough, or the potato-onion balance is off, then it is pretty horrible all the way around. This was perfectly balanced, and, like lobster, you have to have some while you're here. (We also had Boston cream pie at Legal Sea Foods.)

A Day in the North End

A lot of people are interested in Old North Church because of Paul Revere. I'm interested in it because it dates to 1723, the oldest surviving Boston Church. Cotton Mather would have walked past it, muttering. It's interesting that an Anglican church, an absolute hotbed of British loyalists, would be the site of the whole "One if by land, two if by sea" thing, but apparently Revere had been a bell-ringer at the church and knew of the unparalleled view from its steeple.

We heard this and a lot of other history today because we went totally non-native and took a trolley tour. This was the best money we've ever spent, because we got to see all kinds of places we would never have gotten to on our own, like the campus of MIT, Charlestown and Bunker Hill, Long Wharf and the waterfront, and, of course, the heavily Italian North End.

The great thing about our trolley experience was that it's a hop-on, hop-off, so we spent the whole day looking at various areas. We walked down Long Wharf, first, and looked at the waterfront and at the view of the financial district from there. A short trolley-ride later, and we got off at the Boston Garden stop, to hike over to the Old North Church. (And here's an aside: We considered going to a Celtics game last night at the Garden, but the CHEAPEST tickets we could get, in the nosebleed seats, were $96. Good grief.) To continue, the trolleys can't go into the North End because the streets are really, really narrow. This is because they're pretty much the original streets. That doesn't mean that Franklin, Adams, and the rest would recognize anything -- Boston has had a lot of fires and calamity in its history. They'd recognize some things, though. Paul Revere's house is still standing, for example.

Let's see. Here in no particular order are some Fun Facts we either learned or experienced on today's foray, with many thanks to Joe and J, our trolley drivers. (And yes, we got off and on more than once, but we kept getting Joe's trolley.)

1. Boston has 290,000 college students living in the city on 88 campuses. We have been, (counting my travels earlier in the week) to Northeastern, Boston College, and MIT. We were in Cambridge, but elected not to take the MTA to Harvard. It's just as well nobody knew that we were from Virginia when the VT-BC score came through. We rolled past dozens more schools, and generally had a fine time.
2. When Franklin and Adams roamed the town, Boston was just the North End, connected to the rest of Massachusetts by a narrow peninsula. (Really narrow, like about 20 yards wide.) All of the Back Bay area, where our hotel sits, among other things, was underwater. The city dumped two of Boston's three hills into Back Bay to transform it into more Boston.
3. As an interesting side note to 2., we learned yesterday that Trinity Church is supported by wooden pilings sunk 40 feet into the fill gravel and kept underwater by pumps, so they don't rot.
4. Today we encountered a jillion cops and SWAT teams just south of Fenway Park. They had guns drawn and were ducking behind cars. We were fairly freaked out until we learned that somebody was shooting a scene for a movie.
5. The religious makeup of Boston is 45% Catholic, which is down from 60% fifteen years ago. A lot of Irish and Italians in Boston, which would, again, make those Puritan fathers scream. They really didn't like Catholics at all.
6. The Big Dig (that project that put all the interstates under the city) cost 17 BILLION dollars and took 16 years to complete. It was projected to cost $3 billion and be done in five years. Oops.
This is me enjoying the breeze on Long Wharf. The financial district is behind me. Boston Harbor is what I'm looking at. We have to note that, as a port city, Boston hasn't really been one in a long time. In terms of shipping traffic, Boston ranks below Huntington, West Virginia. (Coal barges, dontcha know?) It actually ranks below a lot of places, coming in at the 31st busiest U.S. port by weight.

Friday, October 9, 2009

More (Legal) Fun in Churches

This morning, after breakfast at Finagle a Bagel, we toured Trinity Church, which is quite near us on Copley Square. To say that it is beautiful actually doesn't meet the case. This is Hank's photo of the cross over the altar. The interior glass is mostly European, with a set of windows based on the Nativity designed by William Morris. They look like it, too. Fabulous. The central tower is brightly painted with figures by John LaFarge.

The whole experience was breathtaking, and THEN we scored a free concert in their Friday Concert Series, an organist from Philadelphia who is incredible. She played two fugues, one Bach and one modern by Maruice Durufle. She also played an absolutely charming and playful piece by a composer named Ad Wammes, called Miroir. Oh, and she was 14 years old. We thoroughly enjoyed it, hence this immediate update.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Confessions of a Cathedral-aholic

This morning, as Hank finished his last few classes -- and some very good ones, I hear -- I hoofed it the .7 mile to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. This is a serious cathedral, the biggest church in New England and the seat of the Archdiocese of Boston. We can see it from our hotel room, sitting in a leafy neighborhood to the south of us. Naturally, I was excited about walking down there (c.f. cathedrals everywhere else we have ever been.)

Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find the place locked up tighter than a bank at midnight, despite the celebration of 9 a.m. mass, which must have finished shortly before I arrived. I have never, and I want to emphasize this, ever known a cathedral to be locked up. It's almost unthinkable. The cathedral is the one place you can be guaranteed a hushed, lofty peace in mid-city. I was completely disappointed, but not willing to give up hope.

On a mission, of sorts, I set off around the church, where I found a door ajar. I slipped inside and, well, may or may not have impersonated a nun. I do not think that impersonating a nun is a crime, if you do it to gain access to a cathedral, and furthermore, I don't think God minds. I certainly use my time in cathedrals to talk to Him. I went up a short flight of stairs and found myself in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, alone with one other worshipper, who was saying his rosary at the back of the room. I slipped into a pew, and tried to look sufficiently nun-like.

The chapel is a lovely room, as big as many churches themselves, but for some reason it is painted a deep pink. Its crucifix, at the eastern end, is said to contain a relic of the true cross. I was not about to inspect it, but include the Archbishop's own photo of it here; you can make up your own mind. The cathedral itself has beautiful glass, but a rather forbidding aspect. This could just have been my conscience.

One of the advantages of being fifty, with sensible gray hair and an imperious demeanor, is that no one challenges you if you look sufficiently confident, and so it was that I gained a limited access to the nave of the cathedral, dim and somber in the morning light. It was at this point that I did feel like a trespasser (in so many ways) and hastened away, still endeavoring to appear as nunly as possible. It wasn't until much later, when I was telling the story to a horrified but seriously amused Hank, that he asked me, "So, what did you do with your wedding ring?" I stared at him in horror -- in the heat of the moment, I forgot to take it off.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Under the Influence of Art

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is just a mile up Huntington Avenue from our hotel, but knowing that I'd be walking miles in the museum, I took a cab anyway, even though the rain had stopped. The MFA's claim to fame is its Impressionist collection, which is pretty spectacular: three van Goghs, an assortment of Monets including a particularly lovable one of Camille Monet in Japanese costume, one not very distinguished Cassatt, a Renoir, the obligatory Gauguin, and a number of lesser illuminati.

The museum itself is undergoing massive construction and renovation, so a number of galleries were closed, to my disappointment. It also has that highly disorienting layout that makes so many art museums so confusing -- gallery leads into gallery, which doubles back onto gallery, and pretty soon, you're going around and around the same statue of Buddha, which is why I tend not to visit the Asian art exhibits. (I DID, however, enjoy the gallery of antique Chinese furniture. Very simple and beautiful.)

Anybody who wants to tour the place can start at the MFA's fantastic website, I have some observations to make that aren't exactly museum-specific.

1. Asia, India, and Indonesia must have produced craptons of "art," because every museum I have ever been in has had rooms and rooms of it. One wonders if there are any votive statues, family altars, antique porcelains, bronze Krishnas, or statues of the Buddha left anywhere in Asia. I think I saw all these same artifacts in Seattle, so I skipped through.

2. Why do middle schools insist on bringing three busloads of seventh graders to museums when I am there? Why, in fact, do they do this at all? The middle schoolers run shrieking through the galleries, waving the lists of questions their teachers have given them, and pooling their answers. They're having a blast, but it's so LOUD.

3. And that leads me to my next question: why are we so hushed and deferential in the presence of Art? It's not like we're going to wake it up or something. Certain pieces have left me speechless, for deeply personal reasons, (Mary Cassatt's "Baby Reaching for an Apple," for instance, and Titian's "Daniel"), but I'm not exactly sure why the middle schoolers shattering the quiet should be considered irreverant. The Appreciation of Art is, apparently, best conducted sotto voce.

4. Finally, where is Sarah and that convenient art history minor when I need her? She's better than a museum guidebook, plus, I can make comments to her that I probably couldn't make to anyone else.

Some of those comments are pretty irreverent. For instance, Theodore van Loon's 1620 "Adoration of the Shepherds," portrays a creepy scene where Mary lifts the blanket off of a blond two year old, so a bunch of people leaning over him can have a closer look. Where do we get these ideas? Then there's Aert de Gelder's "Rest on the Flight into Egypt," above, where Mary appears to be wearing a sombrero. Perhaps she was trying to be incognito? In Antonio de Pereda's "The Immaculate Conception," Mary is standing on a disturbing pile of baby heads. I need to stay out of the 17th Century European galleries.


Even though he has gone to his eternal home, Teddy Kennedy is ubiquitous in Boston. He is the reason I-90 runs under our hotel and not beside it. He is the reason John Adams' library is not still in storage boxes. He is the reason the MBTA is one of the best public transportation systems in America. He funneled billions of federal dollars into Massachusetts, which is, I suppose, one of the functions of a senator.

Boston magazine did a surprisingly balanced retrospective of his life that stinted neither his hard work nor his flaws. It also listed his projects in and around Boston, and I have to say, whatever else his legacy may be, he's going to be remembered around here for a long, long time, as one of the city's greatest benefactors. He wasn't, according to people who are supposed to know, as bright as his brother John, or as passionate as his brother Bobby. He was, however, a tireless plodder, and those people can get quite a long way, indeed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

In Search of John Adams' Books

I have, unfortunately, come to Boston and fallen madly in love with the Boston Public Library. I can hear my kids yelling "Dork!" from here, but I don't care. It's an immense building, with a gorgeous central courtyard and fountain, marble staircases, fabulous frescoes, and a reading room that I would cheerfully live in, if I could. I was in heaven.

I went there because it's the first stop on my tour of literary Boston, and it houses John Adams' personal library. Should you ever need to FIND John Adams' personal library, let me give you this easy series of steps.

1. Go into the Boston Public Library and lurk by the main stairs. Watch for an elderly man who looks as much as possible like the late G.P. Winship. It helps if he is wearing an old sweater and a preoccupied expression.

2. Follow him up three flights of marble stairs, through a gallery of some French guy's political cartoons, past two abandoned letterpress printing presses, and through a room full of storage shelves and ancient card catalogues, wherein six men in turbans will be looking assiduously at musical scores.

3. Turn left past the display of creepy marionettes, and go through the book-thief-detector.

4. Stop in the display room, even though your unwitting guide will be waltzing through to the reading room. You CAN have access to any of Adams' books, but you'll have to think of a plausible reason, and that's hard to do on the spur of the moment.

Seriously, the Adams' collection was amazing, if only because it's so easy to imagine him holding those leather-bound volumes. I spent a LONG time at the BPL, exploring the building and reading histories of Boston in the reading room. I may have to move to Boston just so I can be near this place.

After I tore myself away, I bought a DMD at a drugstore, and drank it on the steps of Trinity Church, where I also made friends with a Great Pyrenees named Letty, and her owner. I have found Bostonians surprisingly friendly. The only experience I'd had with people from Massachusetts was in San Francisco, where our little pension also held six cranky and and pushy people from Cambridge. Turns out, they must have been anomalies.

From Trinity, I went to the Public Garden, where I sat on a bench and sketched, while my aching hip rested. Remembering the monster sketchbook that I made Kathy lug through Longwood Gardens, and not having her here to lug this one, I packed lighter. It came in immensely handy, though, for keeping notes and making small drawings. I pretty much wrote out the AmLit blog in it while I was at lunch (pizza at a bar called Uno).

Monday, October 5, 2009

Beat in Beantown

Orbitz has a trap for the unwary traveler -- a phone call three hours before your flight that tells you if it's on time or not. Our flight left Roanoke at 6:40. You do the math. I've had about four hours' sleep, maybe not that much, and it's been a very full day, so this will be a short post with more goodies to follow.

We don't have much of a sense of Boston yet, because this is one confusing city. For starters, its 380 years old, and the streets in the old part of town are unbelievably narrow. Add to that the turns and twists that old streets take, and lay over top of that modern, wider streets that occasionally dive underneath the city in tunnels. It's not a city for drivers. On the plus side, Logan Airport is really close to downtown -- about a ten-minute cab ride -- and the city is very walkable.

I guess I'll find out how walkable tomorrow, as Hank puts in a full day of conference (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and I start my tour of literary and historical sites for the American Lit. class. Photos and other goodies to follow.