Norm’s Overseas Odyssey 2005 – 2006 – Episode Fourteen

Wednesday 21st December 2005

I left Manchester on the BA shuttle flight to Heathrow on Wednesday morning to catch my flight to Boston. Although I have travelled with BA before, this was my first experience of their so-called “flat-bed” seat. On first sight the cabin looks a bit like a dodgem-car arena after the power’s failed – an impression created by the curved appearance of the seats and the fact that half face forward and half toward the rear. It looks odd, it even feels odd, but, on balance, the configuration works quite well – and the degree of “flatness” certainly makes it feel more like a bed.
Not that it was needed on this leg – a mostly daylight one, but may well make for a good night’s sleep on my return. The meal – by airline standards was very good – and the grilled steak excellent, but the snack an hour before our arrival – a sandwich pack and a dry piece of Dundee cake – would have been outclassed on almost any domestic flight anywhere. The cabin service was efficient enough but didn’t match the “cosseting” I had experienced on JAL.

In addition to the review of travel documents and questions about where and why one was visiting the US, entry procedures now include inkless, digital finger-scans of both index fingers and a digital photograph. Despite this, and the number of passengers from the four planes that had arrived at about the same time, the whole process was much faster than I had anticipated.

Much to my delight, Cynthia and Michael were waiting for me and treated me to a lovely warm welcome – taking me home with them to Medford for a brief tour before delivering me to the B&B in nearby Cambridge which will be my home for the next couple of weeks.
Having wallowed in what I now know to be a faux four-poster at “Jamaica Inn”, I am absolutely luxuriating in a real one here at “Cambridge House” Inn. Apart from its size, – plenty big enough for a small family – it boasts a set of folding steps to help with the ascent to its pillow and cushion-festooned plateau! Fortunately, the heating in the room is such that the feared chill of such an expanse of bed didn’t eventuate. The room itself is quite large (it has to be to accommodate a bed of that size) and is very light, having windows on three sides as well as an enormous mirror on the fourth. This nomadic life really is hard to take!!

Now there’s a Four-poster, Cambridge House, Boston, Massachusetts
22 December 2005

Thursday 22nd December 2005

Thursday was, at my request, a sort of R&R day partly to de-jetlag but also to deal with outstanding e-mails and some overdue housekeeping on the laptop. Later in the afternoon Cynthia picked me up to take me to a local Shopping Mall where I bought a pair of waterproof day-hikers more suited to the melting ice/snow somewhat prevalent here – and anticipated in Scotland.
In the evening we dined very well at one of Cynthia and Michael’s favourite local restaurants, the Scutra Cedrone, in Arlington. The local mussels (surprise, surprise) were small, plentiful and succulent, and the salmon dish that followed beautifully moist and just great.

Friday 23rd December 2005

Friday was “Freedom Trail” day, though not until after I’d been introduced to the attractions of a local diner – something I had not previously experienced. Despite some technical difficulties that restricted the menu more than a little, one couldn’t help but be impressed with what was on offer, the size of the servings or the value.
Appropriately fortified for the day ahead, it was off to Boston Common by way of the T subway to the start of the “Freedom Trail”. Supposedly called after the Massachusetts State Motto “give me freedom or give me death”, it follows a 2½ mile path that leads to 16 of the country’s historical landmarks. Ably guided by Cynthia (Michael’s, and now my, “vagrant adventure tours director” as well) we dutifully followed the Trail’s red brick path (or painted red line).
If they had no direct appeal to this “colonial”, each of the sites on the Trail had a clear connection with events – some pivotal – in American history and as such were deserving of the preservation they are receiving.

The second last call on the Trail was the “USS Constitution”, on which we joined one of the 30 minute tours. Like “HMS Victory”, “USS Constitution” is still a commissioned warship and, as such, is manned by a US Navy crew who also conduct the tours.
Regrettably, the approach of our guide was of the “I wish I was someplace else” variety and coloured our impressions of the tour. The tour itself was cursory, at best, and really underlined the value of audio-guides which can provide as much or little information as you want and allow you to tour at your own pace.

USS Constitution
23 December 2005

Off the official trail but close to it, near Faneuil Hall, is the New England Holocaust Memorial. Comprising six 16 metre tall towers of tinted glass, each is etched with survivor stories and a million numbers – one for each victim. Walking the black granite path through the Memorial, passing under the towers was a moving experience.

We returned to the Long Wharf near the city centre by ferry – an opportunity to rest our legs before a late and well-earned lunch at Boston’s – and perhaps the country’s – oldest restaurant, “Union Oyster House”.
It will come as no surprise to learn that seafood dominated the menu, from which I chose shrimp bisque and deep-fried clams. I’m not quite sure how I came to resist the mussels. The food was OK rather than brilliant but was outdone by the décor of the room we were in, the walls of which were decorated with miniature “Freedom Trail” historic sites – or sights even!

The weather since I’ve arrived has been just amazing. Temperatures around the zero mark overnight but rising to as high as 10° on Christmas Day. So, cold certainly, but windless and clear and, for the most, part sunny. Rain was however forecast for Boxing Day – and, as you’ll read, arrived as predicted!.

Saturday 24th December 2005

Christmas Eve opened with another of “those breakfasts” at another favoured restaurant “S & S” – a name derived from a Yiddish expression “Es and es”, for eat and eat! Which, of course, is what we did – and in case you wanted know, yes, the Eggs Florentine were yummy.

In keeping with what I gather has become something of a tradition for Cynthia and Michael on this day, we took in a movie in the late afternoon and a Japanese/Chinese meal in the evening.
The movie “Syrania” is a politically-charged epic about the state of the oil industry in the hands of those personally involved and affected by it – for which read: a shrinking resource, China’s burgeoning need, the machinations of big US-based oil companies and of the CIA, Middle Eastern interests in their many guises and the conversion of disaffected youths to becoming suicide bombing “soldiers”. While I think I got the film’s message – it would be difficult not to, – I agree with the reviewer who wrote “It’s hard to get passionately swept away by a movie when you’re struggling continually to figure out who’s doing what to whom and why”. A dark movie and not an obvious choice for the season – but like a hairshirt, probably good for me!

The meal at “Sato II” in Stoneham was a welcome antidote. Without trying to compare Italian and Asian cooking, the appeal of the food was that it involved – as it does in Italy – taking quality fresh produce and preparing and presenting it simply and well. We shared vegetable tempura and scallion pancakes for starters and chicken and lamb main courses. All were simply delicious – an opinion coloured not at all by the accompanying sake.

Sunday 25th December 2005

Christmas day started with, would you believe, breakfast, but on this occasion at “CJ’s” – an intimate eating house where Michael and I had a clear view into the kitchen. There the Executive Chef, Cynthia by name, “cooked up a storm” of French toast and crispy bacon which, quite justifiably, she felt entitled to join us in consuming. I can sense another “yummy” coming on – and being called for! Thus were we fortified to face the rigours of “Christmas stocking” de-stuffing – an exercise in which I too, thanks to Cynthia and Michael, participated willingly.

We were later joined – at “CJ’s” – by Cynthia’s father, Simmy, and step-mother, Glenda, for dinner – and what a feast? The roast turkey with all the traditional trimmings was just wonderful and came very close to relegating the crème brulée to being “runner-up”. On the basis that Michael and I left not a crumb of what was a quite sizeable crème brulée, it won – but only just!
Ross and Jan will be pleased to know that the Cloudy Bay was well up to the task of matching what was a great meal, which itself was the highlight of an equally great Christmas day. My thanks to you both.

Monday 26th December 2005

Though relatively mild, Boxing Day was, as forecast, rainy – and, as such, an ideal day to be indoors, a criterion the Museum of Fine Art met admirably. The collection of European paintings was extensive but, in the interests of avoiding cultural overload, we concentrated on the Impressionists, some but not all of the Italian and Northern collections and, later, part of the American collection. Needless to say there were any number in the collections that I found appealing including a couple of Monets, Rouen Cathedral Facade and one of the Grainstack series, and a portrait of Marquis de Pastoret by Delaroche, but my vote for the day would have to go to a bronze sculpture “Turning Torso” by Archipenko. All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable visit to a very good museum indeed, and a great way to spend an hour or three on a wet day.

Tuesday 27th December 2005

Cynthia and Michael picked me up after lunch on Tuesday for our planned visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – now there’s a mouthful. The Museum’s unprepossessing building exterior gives no hint of the feasts for the eyes it hides.
Designed in the style of a 15th-century Venetian palace, it houses, paintings, sculpture, tapestries, furniture and decorative arts on three floors of galleries surrounding a garden courtyard (on the day we visited, resplendent with Poinsettias) that is just breathtakingly beautiful.
Opened to the public in 1903, the museum is the legacy of Isabella Stewart Gardner, who formed the collection, designed the building, and then arranged that collection within its walls.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – Courtyard
27 December 2005

The collection, spanning 30 centuries and many different cultures, is particularly rich in Italian Renaissance paintings, with works by Titian, Raphael, and Botticelli, some important works by later French, German, and Dutch masters as well as more modern works by Matisse, Degas, Sargent, and Whistler.
The collection is not arranged chronologically and seems haphazard, but is I understand just the way Isabella Gardner left it when she died.
I would strongly recommend to anyone visiting to hire an audio guide as only a small portion of the collection is labelled and reading these let alone viewing some of the works themselves was a challenge in the low levels of light that are maintained to preserve them.
In what was for me one of the most pleasurable gallery visits I’ve ever made, there were, for once, just too many favourites to list here. Suffice it to say many of them – and that glorious garden courtyard – will stay long in my memory.

It was perhaps appropriate that the meal at “Salts Restaurant” in Cambridge that evening provided a dining experience to match the museum visit. I found the descriptions in the menu over-long in that my rabbit pasta entrée was described as “Agnolotti of artisinal Robiola Due Latte with braised Rabbit, summer truffle, lovage, and sweet peas” but was scrummy, as were the salmon in a potato pancake wrap (my description) and caramel ice cream (a description that undervalued both the quality and the flavour) that followed. That’s not to say that the meals were perfect – the delicate flavour of Cynthia and Michael’s sea scallops losing out to a surfeit of citrus ones.
Having said that, it was a meal to savour and one that would put “Salts” in my top five thus far.

Wednesday 28th December 2005

In a boy’s only outing on Wednesday morning, Michael and I visited Harvard University’s Museum of Natural History, a relatively small museum but famous for its “Glass Flowers” exhibits. This unique collection of over 3000 models of plants was created by father and son glass artists Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka between 1887 and 1936 to satisfy a need for life-like representatives of the plant kingdom for teaching botany. At the time only crude papier-maché or wax models were available.
The models are amazingly detailed and, although the colours may have faded a little over the years, are wonderful examples of the Blaschka’s observation and artistry.
As a matter of interest, the glass flowers constitute the largest single public attraction at Harvard University, drawing over 100,000 visitors a year.

Harvard University – Blaschka Glass Models of Plants – Maple Leaves
28 December 2008

A bonus attraction was an exhibition entitled “Rare Places in a Rare Light” of large-format, richly detailed landscape and flora photographs by US photographer Robert Turner. They were just stunning!

After the previous evening’s gastronomic “elegant sufficiency”, it seemed appropriate that we sample more plebeian fare – and did, at “Dali”, a Spanish restaurant in Somerville. The contrast couldn’t have been greater; it was crowded and noisy, with an earthy peasant feel that the food matched perfectly. We shared what seemed like an endless list of tapas which included Marinated Fresh Anchovy Fillets, Scallops in Saffron Cream, Boneless Pheasant w/Mushroom & Serrano Ham, Farm Trout w/Red Wine Sauce all complemented (rather than complimented) by a house red that could only be described as “robust”! Another memorable meal of ample sufficiency but somewhat less elegance!