Thursday, 8 November 2012

Boston: A Little Bit Magic

I'd wanted to visit Boston ever since I finished watching the fantastic and captivating Martin Scorsese directed film, The Departed, years ago. We arrived in the Massachusetts capital after an epic ten hour Megabus ride across the border from Canada and across New York state.

I expected the city to be chockful of gruff men talking out of the corners of their mouths with wise guy accents, I wanted to see Mark Wahlberg lunging briskly around street corners and Jack Nicholson's superfantastic crazy eyes glinting out from a gap in the window of a blacked out armoured car. I got plenty of the accent but Mark and Jack sadly remained elusive. Luckily Boston and her surrounding areas had plenty to keep us entertained during our visit.

Salem was our first stop, home of the infamous witch trials of 1692. A couple of girls, hungry for attention, started a rumour that a few women in the village had put a curse on them. I'll call the main girl Lindsay Lohan, because this lot were the original Mean Girls. So, Lindsay Lohan experiences a fit one day but tells her dad that their Carribean slave cast a spell on her. The rest of the girls grow jealous of the attention Lindsay's getting and spin their own yarn to compete: 'Yeah, like, we totally had some black magic cast on us too'.
I don't know, maybe they were starting to get their period and got spooked, thinking their innards were about to fall out. Maybe they wanted to be talked about, discussed, achieve a mini-level of fame. Who knows? Teenage girls are nuts. So they point the finger at two women, both named Sarah in Salem Town; one a beggar called Good and another by the name of Osborne, who was an elderly, impoverished spinster. The Carribean slave is also accused. Instead of rationally questioning Lohan and her cronies and cross-examining their stories, the villagers whole heartedly accept their accusations as truth and set about collecting firewood to build the execution pyre. At this point in time, witchcraft hysteria is rife in the Europe and is infecting the New World with the speed of a student pub crawl in Newcastle during Freshers Week. Everyone is scared shitless of the supposed work of the Devil, so without a shred of evidence, they burn the Sarahs (Tituba, the Caribbean slave is spared this fate).

In the space of about five months, the townsfolk and judges condemn nineteen people to crimes relating to witchcraft and issue death sentences. Many more accused die in prison and a 71-year-old man is pressed to death with stones. It was madness. All this pain and persecution borne from a lie weaved by a group of hormonally charged, naive teenage girls. The killings only ended when the wife of a judge was accused of witchcraftery and the judge thought: 'Actually, this is a load of bollocks'.

We visited Salem close to Halloween to find its cobbled streets crammed with middle-aged Goths wearing unsuitably tight velvet and cheap lace corsets, squealing kindergarten school groups and teenagers mugging passersby in the name of Trick or Treat. It was fun, totally Disney. Not scary in the slightest but full of pantomime characters and cartoonishly creepy houses.

Alongside the witch trial stuff, there was a store selling Harry Potter merchandise (wands, Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, Butterbeer, brass Snitches. I seriously toyed with the idea of buying a $15 Deathly Hallows ring before giving myself a sharp and orderly slap) while a psychic convention and fair was taking place in the local shopping centre.

All things magick, weird, Wicca, offbeat, gory, Gothic and witchy lived here, in Salem Massachusetts. For some, all this stuff is just a bunch of Hocus Pocus (an excellent movie which also filmed some of its scenes in the town. Probably SJP's finest role) but the 14-year-old in me, who had tried stubbornly to perform the same spells as in The Craft (starring Robin Tunney and Neve Campbell, 1996), relished being submerged in this ludicrous and fantastic world.

Harvard was next on our list. We took the metro to this globally renowned centre of learning and emerged from the station to find ourselves on High Street Kensington. Harvard is a little way out of Boston city centre, a few stops away from MIT, in a town called Cambridge and it looks discerningly like home.

The plan was to tour the grounds with one of the student-run tour groups but we made the mistake of joining one with over-keen expressions and voices that placed heavy emphasis on random words. Their uniform consisted of straw boaters and maroon t-shirts that attempted to mimic the Boston accent by replacing 'r' with 'h'. Hahvahd. Pahk yah cah in Hahvahd yahd. See? Awesome. What was definitely NOT awesome however, was our tour guide Pritti's ridiculously high-pitched voice, crap jokes and game-show host mannerisms.

'HELLO EVERYONE and WELCOME to HAAAAAAARVARD UNIVERSITY!', she bellowed at us, punching the air with glee. How could she be so loud on a Saturday morning? Was it nervousness, or had she in fact she been popping Ritalin all night? Ritalin is a form of the class A narcotic, speed. I'd read somewhere that it was popular among college students, especially the freshman class. This could explain her yelling like an olden dayz town crier.

'To start us OFF, why don't we ALL say our names and TELL US AS LOUDLY AS YOU CAN where you're JOINING US FROM THE WORLD TODAY?!' She looked at me, smile stretched across her face. If she'd had a tail, it would be creating its own gale force wind from waggling. What an eager pup. Jeeze. 'London, in the UK'.

She seemed miffed I hadn't screamed my answer at the 20-strong group, but did her best to mask her disappointment behind yet more undiluted enthusiam. 'OKAAAAAAAAAAAY! I actually have a cousin that lives in Leicester! GREAT!' Once everybody had identified themselves, she herded us across the road into the grounds of the Ivy League university, yelping out facts, stories and dates about the institution. This wouldn't do. I felt harangued and we hadn't even begun the tour properly. I wiggled my eyebrows at Leah, silently indicating that I planned to escape as soon as possible and she should remain alert and ready.

The opportunity to do a runner presented itself when I spotted another tour group close to ours, facing a different direction. They were being led by a tall student in a checked shirt and beige shorts who looked remarkably like Prince William.  
Hello, sailor. Time to jump ship. We slid behind a forest of camera lenses owned by a flock of Japanese tourists and joined the new tour. In the next sixty minutes, I learned loads about Harvard because:

1. his voice didn't make me want to saw off my ears.
2. he had interesting, funny anecdotes and his explanations sounded unscripted.
3. he looked like Prince William, who I used to have a massive crush on but who shattered my dreams by marrying Kate instead of coming to North Wembley to ask for my hand.

By the end of the tour Leah and I were crushing hard and laughing our heads off like two completely deranged teenagers.
This was wholly unacceptable because we are in fact, worldly-wise women in our mid-twenties who have a proven track record in looking at and conversing with men. Yet here we were, blushing and giggling and shoving each other towards Prince William as though we were 12-years-old and had been asked to be bridesmaids at K-Stew and R-Patz' Twilight-themed wedding. We didn't even know his name. I had to be restrained from following him down the street at the tour end. We had to retrieve our sanity. What would bring us back down to earth?

The answer was a good old-fashioned burger at another Boston institution, Mr Bartley's. The queue was about 20 deep when we joined it, still laughing like a pair of idiots. Mr Bartley himself was perched on a stool outside, notebook in hand, briskly taking orders which we had to shout due to his deafness and age. It was rammo inside, groups squashed right up against their neighbours and elbows tucked in while attempting to devour the juicy, meaty burgers. They came teetering on a plate overloaded with either fries or Kate-Moss-skinny onion rings. It was a damn fine meal. If you ever find yourself in that neck of the woods...

The last memory I have of Boston, which was about a fortnight ago now, is our night out on the razz the last evening we were there. A TexMex teacher called Marcella in our dorm joined us on our crawl of the diviest pubs and bars the city centre had to offer. Outside the streets were teeming with people in costume stalking about trying their darnedest to pin down fun.

We traipsed about ten metres from the Hostel door to the nearest Irish pub and sat at the bar, listening to stories about gangland Mexico while sipping cheep beer from plastic glasses.

At some point in the night, I must have decided to see how far our British accent, so popular with the Americans, could take us. Would it buy us a couple of drinks? Earn us a proposal or two? Diamonds, pearls or a suitcase full of cashmoney? WOULD MARK WAHLBERG FINALLY STEP OUT OF THE SHADOWS AND INTO MY ARMS, SEDUCED BY MY LAIRY LONDON TONES?

I scored a drink, while Leah earned herself an indecent proposal from an extremely incomprehensible and red-faced man. Marcella picked up George Washington, complete with blunderbuss, silly hat and stoner eyes.

Of all the east coast cities we've visited, and there's been a fair few, Boston has been my favourite. The accent, the people, the familiarity and the chowder. Chaaadah. It was all completely fabulous. Thank you Massachusetts.