A fresh look at Boston through a tourist's eyes
Boston — She was on her first visit to Boston - to the United States, in fact -- and was commenting favorably to her husband on just about everything the city had to offer, including the syrup-smothered french toast in front of her.
I had taken up a seat alongside the two tourists at Zeke's breakfast counter and we quickly struck up a friendly conversation about Boston and things Bostonian. After all this was the city's Jubilee year -- the 350th since its founding!
But within minutes I was being gently scolded. "I believe you don't know Boston as well as I do," she chided, "and I've only been here for a weekend!"
Her husband was an engineer whose business contacts frequently brought him to New York. But Boston quickly became his "weekend town." So it was automatic, when his wife accompanied him on this occasion, that he should show her Boston at the first available opportunity. She appeared to be nothing short of delighted. New York was just another city to her; Boston was something else.
"Why it's beautiful," she enthused. "It's a wonderful walking city; so much to see in such a small area. The students [she was surprised at the number of colleges in Boston] give it vitality; the quaint streets [they reminded her of European cities] have such a fascinating variety of shops and restaurants. There's history around every corner, too [she had walked the Freedom Trail]."
She would have continued but there's a limit to how far you can stretch a French toast and bacon breakfast. "I must get Lars to bring me again," she added as they rose to go.
Lars (his was the only name dropped in conversation), added one piece of advice at this juncture: "Perhaps your trouble is that you live here. Try looking at Boston through a tourist's eyes. You might get a totally different perspective."
It was a great idea, so my wife and I booked in at a downtown Boston hotel to become weekend tourists in our own backyard. Come to think of it, didn't Will Rogers describe Boston as one of four "unique" US cities?
Our stay was, as the visiting engineer had suggested, as interesting and enjoyable a weekend away from home as we had ever spent.
Boston is, indeed, a walking town to a degree not found in many US cities. The Freedom Trail with its 16 sites is only some 1 1/2 miles long. We began our visit with a midafternoon stroll through Boston Common and adjacent Public Garden en route to the Hancock tower. From 60 stories up the view of the surrounding city and countryside is superb. In addition, its several audio-visual displays on historical and modern-day Boston make it the ideal start to a tour of the city.
It is difficult to appreciate that the Common, now in the very heart of the city, was once on the very outskirts, the edge of the wilderness, so to speak. Here every upstanding citizen could (and still may, at least according to law) graze his cow. Here, too, was the site of the ducking stool (for minor misdemeanors), the whipping post and hanging tree often used for only moderately worse misdemeanors. The militia of the day conducted such exercises as were needed to stay battle ready and from here, too, British troops mustered before the march on Lexington and Concord.
On this late February day, the Common is not the restful, attractive place it is when summer breezes blow. But it is interesting just the same. People, muffled against the cold, make it so. So do the scampering squirrels, the pigeons, and two dogs racing and sliding uncontrollably on the very frozen pond where once nagging wives and those given to foul language were ducked to rid them of their unpleasant dispositions.
Where the Common slopes down to Charles Street, the tidal marshes began in Colonial times and for 75 years thereafter. Now the Public Garden (among the earliest of the landfill operations that doubled the original size of Boston's land area) adds attractively to the city's green space. It is more formal than the relatively natural Common -- something of a botanical garden. Every tree that grows in New England is represented here, each with its brass name tag. But what catches our attention is the young woman eating an apple as she walks. She bites one hunk and flicks it away from the path where a nimble squirrel grabs it on the bounce and proceeds to munch an early dessert. It's an act of sharing that warms the heart on a cold day and it is repeated in one form or another by many who walk through the park.
On the frozen pond where swam boats glide in summer, a mother introduces a snow-suited little one to the intricasies of skating. Soon the little one can let go the supporting hand and venture a little unsteadily on its own. You don't need to be a parent to find the scene delightful, but it helps. If you care to notice -- to pause, look, and listen -- life can be interesting wherever you are and particularly so in Boston.
Back when nature was left to shape the area, Boston was a pear-shaped penninsula connected to the mainland by only a narrow neck of land that during very high tides was underwater. The Indians called it Shawmut and it boasted some of the best spring water around. The surrounding waters of the bay were rich in cod and lobster, in all an ideal spot to settle. To this area came William Blackstone, a Church of England clergyman who, with no flock to minister to, settled in splendid isolation on the land in 1626. Four years later John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, arrived with other colonists, many of whom hailed from Boston, England. Blackstone sold (some suggest he was coersed into doing so) his rights to all but six acres.
In those early days wagons moved wherever the topography was most suitable and the twisting trails they made became the narrow, winding cobblestoned streets of Colonial Boston. Boston soon assumed the same picturesque characteristics of many English towns. Today you can readily tell the original heart of Boston by the twisting, narrow streets. Newer Boston was laid out in more rectangular fashion. It is, then the twisting heart of the city with its boutiques, antique stores, book shops, and many intriguing restaurants that provides some of the most interesting city walks.
The Freedom Trail takes in this area where colonialists and early post-colonialists went about their daily affairs. You will want to take in all the stops. But two, in my experience, are paramount: the home of Paul Revere and the Tea Party ship.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made Revere internationally famous but the poem also narrowed public conception of the man to that of an adept horseman who carried some important news to the farmers and minutemen of the hinterland. The Boston silversmith was also an industrialist who, besides making Liberty Bowls, cast many a thundering cannon in his founderies and also some of the sweetest-sounding bells. It was his copper sheeting that clad the hull of the SS Constitution.
On his father's side he was of French Hugenot stock; on his mother's side he was descended from a long line of English sea captains and shipbuilders. To a cousin on the English Channel Island of Guernsey he wrote expressing his disenchantment with the British. "The barbarians of Europe," he called them.
Built in the Tudor style of medieval England, there is more to the Revere home than just its most famous occupant. The Reveres lived there for 30 years ( 1770 to 1880) but the house was built almost a hundred years earlier. Today it is the only Boston building that dates back to the city's founding century. As such it has tremendous architectural significance for the city.
Boston's most notorious protest was its famous tea party in which several thousand dollars worth of tea was thrown overboard. As a relatively recent arrival in the US, I had long regarded the tea party as a high-spirited event that was incidental to the revolution. In fact it precipitated it, as the visit to the Tea Party Museum and ship makes clear.
Apparently I was not alone in my misconceptions. According to the museum staff, thousands of visitors, American-born as well as those from overseas, do not fully appreciate the significance of the party which did more to unite the colonies against British rule than any other single event.
One other misconception is also cleared up by a visit to the museum. The patriots involved in the raid were hardy, vigorous men, but they did not lift the tea-filled chests above their heads and throw them 20 feet from the side of the ship as some paintings suggest. Each tea chest says an official, "weighed about 300 pounds!"