Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Boston

Good to be home.

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The experience of going from new york to boston was unseasonably dramatic. The clouds parted, the sun shone down and all of a sudden it was spring.

It had been 5 years since the last time I visited and things had changed quite a bit. And really, the last time I spent any significant time on my own here was probably 8 years ago, so you can imagine my disorientation. They've been pretty busy, what with the bridges and tunnels and all that. Still, it still held the same charm it always has. Boston is by a huge margin the prettiest city I know. It was nice just to be there.

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There was also some novelty in revisiting places from my childhood. The science museum, the aquarium. The bunker hill monument, 100 yards from the house in which I born. The USS constitution, silent now but my memories will always be of it's cannons. So many memories of so many places. (Everything looks a bit smaller.)

A family friend generously let me stay in her house while she is out of town, which meant I had the place essentially to myself. With the exception of a few meals with old friends, this was my first real taste of solo travel. While the positives and negatives are pretty obvious, one thing I didn't anticipate was how comforting the constant monologue that loops in my head at all times can be. Introspection and thoughtfulness can be a perfectly valid way to spend your time and I'm glad I convinced myself of that.

In the last few years my attention span has been absolutely decimated by the constant stream of stimulation. Typical: email, chat and 2 phones demanding my attention, all the while wearing headphones invariably playing the most frenetic music I could find. As these days go by, I can feel that slipping away. Restoring some sense of serenity was among the biggest reasons why I left.

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In one other area, abject failure thus far. I need to learn to talk to strangers and not be so aloof. I need to lose the unapproachable demeanor when the circumstances call for it. I'm no schmoozer and never will be, but it'd be awful nice to strike up conversations. Amusingly, it's less to do with shyness than it is a constant assumption on my part that people just don't want to be bothered. Which is probably true, but believe you me by the end of this experience I will happily make a pain in the ass of myself for no reason other than feeling like it. Or I'll just start (keep...) talking to myself. (Shut up.)

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So yeah, Boston.

I was off the bus maybe 20 minutes when these two kids with molasses-thick accents come up behind me on the subway platform. They look me up and down and one goes, "yo that bag look fuckin' serious." I turned around and smiled politely. (Aloof, right?) The train arrived and as we start boarding the other one says, "just push on in there, I got your back." Not a threat, really, just hassling me. I guess I must look like a tourist. Who knew.

Typical Boston. I got so many weird looks walking around with that huge pack, way more than I did in New York. But that's the city, deeply conservative in many ways. Full of earnest, hard-working people in fleeces. Disdain for the irrational, the superfluous. I'm far from an expert in the demographics, but there is something palpably different about the relationship between economic classes. It isn't the same efficient tolerance I saw in New York, but a more deeply rooted tolerance and respect. Despite all the academics and bankers and entrepreneurs, the soul of Boston is in it's working class.

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Or maybe that's just my read, showing my white middle-class guilt again. But I see it in myself, that conservative new-england work ethic. Really, I'm laughing at myself in the backpack too. But I have my reasons. And moreover, I break ranks with my fellow Bostonians in believing that people should be allowed to do whatever they want and not be judged.

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People here are also obsessed obsessed with old shit, especially architecture. I had a conversation on the bus (progress!) with a woman in her late 50s who turned out to be a couchsurfer. She lamented not having the funds to travel more since her daughter was in a private college. She then went on to describe how her and her husband (who, ironically, works on microsoft's 'cloud computing' solution, but has too many meetings to take time off) are painstakingly and expensively restoring an old Victorian mansion. I'll never understand that compulsion. (See? Judgment. I am from around here after all.)

But really, everyone seems to want to live in Restoration Hardware. And how could you not? Boston is the genuine embodiment of that aesthetic. It's so completely antithetical to Los Angeles's ugly sprawl.
The North End, for example, hasn't changed in 300 years and is still an authentically italian neighborhood. You would be forgiven for thinking that the curmudgeonly old men sitting outside restaurants smoking cigarettes, drinking espresso and yelling at traffic were bussed in every morning by the chamber of commerce for effect. (Note to Los Angeles: do this.)

But no, they're real people. As most are, without the pretense and theater I've gotten so used to in the west.

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Speaking of couchsurfing, I hosted a guy and his friend at my place right before I left. They were walking across the country. Rather than raising money or using it as a platform to raise awareness for a cause, they were doing simply for the sake of inspiration. I didn't really understand it at the time, but I think I do now.
Just, that there's value in irrationality for it's own sake. To push us out of the grooves we've worn in the path. Tempts us to try the unknown, to open ourself to the unfamiliar. Fall in love.

Boston is impossible not to fall in love with, for these reasons. Nothing makes much sense in maddening and frustrating ways - the roads, the subway, the weather. You can't help but appreciate the paths it sometimes forces you down. When you run into a friend on the subway, the serendipity is a sweet, lasting bond. When the skies finally clear on a spring day, it seems the entire city finds a plot of grass and falls asleep with a book in the shade.

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In my small way, I feel a part of this. To travel for no practical reason, it's tough to be less rational. But it moves people. And that feels worthwhile. I hope that when I reach places like Syria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, I hope that my story carries that much more weight. For now, it’s just nice that people will interrupt their lives to share a meal or a drink (or a lot of drinks) with me because I’m on my way.

I'll put it this way: You can paint a wall white and leave it be, or you can paint a mural. You could get up, go to work, cash your paychecks and tick off the days, or you can go do something different. If we draw the timeline of our lives, then travel is a work of art. Know what I mean?

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