Norm’s Overseas Odyssey 2005 – 2006 – Episode Fifteen

Thursday 29th December 2005

Thursday was an out-of-Boston day or, as it turned out, morning. Rain had been promised and the further we drove up the coast the more the promise was fulfilled. Our first stop was Salem to visit “The House of Seven Gables” rather than the Salem Witch House which, in any event, was closed for the winter. Built in 1668, this is the oldest surviving 17th century wooden mansion in New England, and was the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne to write his novel of the same name.

The House of Seven Gables – Salem, Massachusetts
29 December 2005

Also included in the guided tour was the neighbouring house, built in about 1750, in which Nathaniel Hawthorne was born. While the tours were in their way instructive, there was no opportunity to roam to get a better feel of either house; and the guide’s monotone and rapid-fire recital for almost every room consisting, as it did, of the formula, “Welcome to the…”, “…of interest to you will be…” and “…any questions?” added nothing but the barest information. A pity, because both houses had stories to tell – and were, in my view, worthy of better treatment.
From there, we drove north via Manchester and Gloucester (something familiar about those names!) to Rockport, a very attractive seaside village on Cape Ann, where we braved the rain for a “beverage” stop. With its breakwaters, seafaring links and galleries of one sort or another (many, however, closed for the winter) there was a distinctively Cornish feel about it. With views of the coastline variously greyed out with mist or washed out with rain, it made sense to squish back to Boston – which is precisely what we did.

Later we dined at West Side Lounge in Cambridge, where apart from the calamari starter (which was just great) my choices of the veal medallions main course and ice cream dessert were less felicitous (?) The veal was “ornery” being decidedly under-done, and the “ice-crystalline ‘milk-ice’ ice cream” had clearly been imported especially for me from the “Invicta” in Plymouth! Fortunately, Cynthia and Michael fared better with their selections.

Friday 30th December 2005

On what was effectively my last full day in Boston, we got into downtown mode again, starting this time with a recital by a young organist, Jacob Street, at Trinity Church in Copley Square. Whilst the composers, Buxtehude, Widor and Liszt were familiar to me the works (which were pleasant enough without being particularly engaging) were not.
Accordingly, I could only applaud – as did the quite large audience – his apparent talent as a musician rather than an interpreter. Our plans to explore the church more closely after the recital were thwarted by its closure for a wedding later in the day, so we were forced to advance our plans to visit the Christian Science Complex.
This was, in part, to view what is known as the Mother Church (a striking example of Romanesque architecture), but primarily to view the Mapparium housed in the Mary Baker Eddy Library building.

Mapparium – Mary Baker Eddy Library, Boston
30 December 2005

The Mapparium is a unique political globe of the world as it was in 1935. It is thirty feet in diameter, made of stained glass, illuminated from the outside, and is viewed by walking through it on a glass-walled bridge that allows you to stand in the exact centre of the sphere. In showing national – and imperial – boundaries as they were in 1935, it really brings home the extent to which those boundaries have changed over the past 70 years and is, in its way, not dissimilar to the Mappa Mundi drawn 600 years earlier – a snapshot of the world at that time.
The hard spherical surface of the globe reflects sound, producing striking acoustical effects, as well as forming a perfect whispering gallery, a feature a number of children – and parents – were happy to test. I had not heard of the Mapparium until today but, having seen it, can now understand why it rates as one of Boston’s more popular tourist attractions.

After viewing the world from the inside, so to speak, it was time to view a somewhat smaller world from another perspective – this time from the 52nd floor of the Prudential Tower. The real reason was, of course, that we were in need of a rest-break and the attraction of sitting in comfort with the sort of a view the Boston city-scape we were likely to get from that height AND sipping a glass of something “refreshing”, was irresistible. Blessed with a remarkably clear afternoon, the view on its own was well worth the “climb”!

Then, would you believe it, it was dinner time again. Of the fish restaurants in Boston, one, the “Atlantic Fish” in Boylston Street, is highly regarded for the freshness of its seafood rather than its creativity in preparing and serving it. I for one have no problem at all with quality fish being cooked simply and well, and the Steamed Mussels Dijon starter and small Maine Lobster main course were just beautiful. Cynthia and Michael seemed just as pleased – and “repleted” – with their selections. Atlantic Fish joins Norm’s “Hall of Fame”!

Saturday 31st December 2005

Saturday saw us heading south to Hartford, where Cynthia and Michael would drop me off to spend a couple of days with Chris and Pamela Wakem, while they attended a friend’s wedding elsewhere. Snow had been forecast for the afternoon but arrived at Hartford at about the same time we did. These early snow showers were not heavy enough to hamper our arrival there, but became heavier as the day progressed, making Cynthia and Michael’s drive somewhat more hazardous than they would have liked.

Chris and Pamela, originally from NZ but who have lived in the US for 35 years or more, have been friends since our days in Epsom in Auckland when, as Pamela described it, “Michael was in diapers”! We couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome which included an equally welcoming lunch for the three of us. I deemed it a privilege too to be asked to join Chris and Pamela at a New Year’s Eve dinner with long-standing friends, who went out of their way to make me welcome and share their celebratory evening. It was a memorable evening – and would have been so even without what was a new experience for me, the drive there through driving snow and home again through the aftermath.

Sunday 1st January 2006

Elizabeth Park, Hartford, Connecticut
1 January 2006

New Year’s Day started, as you might have expected, in a leisurely fashion, but fortified with one of Pamela’s breakfasts we ventured out for a walk to and through neighbouring Elizabeth Park. The morning was fine, cool rather than cold, and ideal for my first outing after a fresh snowfall.
At the expense of sounding “over-the-top”, I thought the brilliance of the white, the contrasting darkness of trunks and leafless branches, the overall softening of hard outlines and the sense of quiet peacefulness all this seemed to convey, just gorgeous!

Our later drive to and around West Hartford helped me get a better feel for this most attractive and doubtless prosperous part of Hartford itself.
On my last evening with them, Pamela did Chris and me proud with a really lovely roast dinner accompanied by a “red” that Chris had been saving for such an occasion.

Monday 2nd January 2006

This morning, Cynthia and Michael picked me up for our drive to New Haven to catch the train to New York for our joint three-day adventure there. Fortunately, the forecast rain held off until we had booked into the hotel soon after 3:00 pm (after our walk from Grand Central Station) and, later, wasn’t heavy enough to deter us from undertaking my introductory expedition around Times Square.
Convinced that an early night would not do any of us any harm we decided to dine relatively early. Cynthia and Michael had sampled the desserts at “My Most Favourite Dessert” on a previous visit to New York and, as it was more or less under our noses when the decision to eat early was made, seemed an ideal opportunity for us to try their dinner menu.
The service was prompt, friendly and helpful, establishing an expectation that, apart from the dessert, regrettably was not matched by the meal itself. My asparagus salad entrée though beautifully fresh was decidedly short of the asparagus component, and the slightly over-cooked and over-sweetly-sauced salmon was not improved by the seriously over-cooked kipfler potatoes. The dessert, a hazel-nut confection was terrific but not sufficiently so to lift my overall assessment much above the “It was OK” rating.

Tomorrow, we’ll start our closer inspection of New York – in preparation for which I really should take my own advice about that early night…and now will!

Tuesday 3rd January 2006

Tuesday morning was wet, wet, and wet and just the day to be indoors. The rain did not seem to deter New Yorkers on the sidewalks from maintaining their normal frenetic pace or, as we discovered later on our way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from our cab-driver demonstrating how fast he could drive in these conditions. As a result of this fast and furious trip, we were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art soon after 10:00 am and, although we had to queue briefly to obtain tickets, the early start worked to our advantage as later in the day the queues were horrendous.
I know I have used the phrase “feast for the senses” before, and am now challenged to try and find a word or phrase that would better describe the scope, quality and quantity of the museum’s collections. I may just have to settle for multiple “Wows”!
Having luxuriated for an hour or so in the European Art galleries from the Renaissance to the Impressionists, we used a lunch break to catch breath and rest the mind and senses before going back for more.
After a brief look at the Frank Lloyd Wright room, the Temple of Dendur, and Egyptian art, we sampled sculpture (and Rodin in particular), modern and contemporary art, and ended with a visit to the special exhibition of architect Calatrava’s work. The fluidity and simple lines of his sculpture pieces appealed to me as did those of the architectural models.

I now know why people could spend days at this museum – and, someday, I may join them in doing just that! There were far too many favourites to list them all here, but I’ll certainly remember these from the 15th and 16th centuries:

    • “Portrait of a Young Man” (c. 1400s), Jacometto – such fine detail,
    • “Portrait of a Man” (c. 1470), Messina – a thick-lipped, stubble-cheeked tough guy whose smile is both welcoming and threatening,
    • “The Denial of Saint Peter” (1570s), Caravaggio.

Cynthia again demonstrated her nose for a good restaurant. A number had been recommended to Cynthia and Michael before we left for New York but, following a critical appraisal of diners’ reviews and of the restaurant menus themselves, all failed to pass CJ’s exacting standards.
After a walk-by check of any number some of which were decidedly unappealing, we were persuaded to try “Bistecca Fiorentina” on West 42nd Street. This was one of those small, genuine Italian restaurants where, I suspect, the person who greeted us at the door was the owner. Whether he was or not, the service was good and the food better.
All three of us chose courses from the “Menu di prezzi fissi” (Show-off!) and all were rated very good to excellent. My choice included Bresaola dell Vatellina: beef carpaccio topped with shaved parmesan cheese, as an entrée, and Scaloppine di Vitello con Funghi e Prosciutto: thin veal medallions with mushrooms and prosciutto in a wine sauce, as my main course.
If I said that quality of this meal came close to that Denise, Roger and I enjoyed in Rome in November, you will get some idea of how much I enjoyed it. It was a meal worthy of the special day it had been.

Wednesday 4th January 2006

Although chilly and somewhat breezy, Wednesday was (as ordered) fine! Partly to take advantage of this and, in my case at least, counter the effects of so much “good living”, we elected to walk where we could and where the distances were manageable.
First stop was at St Patrick’s Cathedral, East 51st Street – in some tourist guides rated ahead of such New York attractions as the Statue of Liberty. I had heard much about it and the view from across the street was promising. For whatever reason, the interior, however, didn’t live up to that promise. Whilst there are some quite beautiful stained glass windows, I found the cathedral itself dark and rather forbidding, and as such not particularly welcoming.

After a quick look at the Rockefeller Centre and its Christmas tree, we continued our walk down toward East River Drive and the United Nations Headquarters. There we joined one of the regular tour groups, ours being led by a knowledgeable and very pleasant guide from Germany. Lasting about an hour, the tour started with a brief overview of the organisation and its structure with the guide explaining the functions, composition and current actions undertaken by each council, as well as the activities of the United Nations itself.
The main part of the tour consisted of a visit to the chambers of the Security Council, the Trusteeship Council the Economic and Social Council and, finally, the General Assembly Hall. I’m glad we did the tour, and that we did so was as much as anything due to the guide’s skill in keeping her comments, informative, surprisingly un-party-line-like, short and to the point.

General Assembly Hall, United Nations HQ, New York
4 January 2006

Whilst I saw no sign of the so-called “fat cats” who are purported to staff the UN and, for that matter, the EC, it would have been impossible for us to have missed the friendliest and fattest squirrel I’ve ever seen.   “Penny” would look almost svelte by comparison, Carolyn!

Michael and Cynthia, posing as UN “Fat” Squirrel watchers
United Nations HQ, New York
4 January 2006
That UN “Fat” squirrel…
4 January 2006

I had hoped to be able to visit the Statue of Liberty and, whilst that could have been arranged, the prospect of having to be there two hours before the start of the tour to undergo security checks made it a much less attractive prospect. We settled, then, for a viewing from the Staten Island ferry which, whilst not up so close and personal, was, I hope, sufficiently so to survive the photographic culling process.

No prizes for guessing what this is…
4 January 2006

Out of consideration for my younger touring companions, we “passed” on the lengthy walk to and from the ferry terminal in Lower Manhattan, opting to catch the subway instead. And, I wanted to able to say I’d travelled on it anyway!
Dinner was at the “China Grill”, West 53rd Street, recommended by the Concierge and described as “Asian fusion”! It didn’t start well. The restaurant décor was, to say the least, unappealing, as was the noise level – an impression that was not improved by our waiter’s assertive manner and attitude.
Despite this inauspicious introduction – and, for me at least a difficult to resist temptation to “cut and run” – the quality, flavours and presentation of the food were quite outstanding! We shared two entrees and two main courses and Cynthia and Michael shared a dessert.

Those of you who have had a surfeit of detailed descriptions of our “simple repasts” may prefer to skip over the next bit. Our entrees were of Tempura Sashimi and Lamb Spareribs (plum & sesame glazed), and the mains of “Drunken” Chicken (sake marinated with ponzu sauce, sweet crispy onions and Asian slaw) and “Duck Two Ways” (pan seared breast, confit of leg, caramelized Asian fruit salsa & Lychee black vinegar reduction).
What a pity that such a meal should have been served in such a place by someone like “Buddy”!  That was his name, believe me?

Thursday 5th January 2006

We left New York on Thursday morning for the 110 minute commuter train trip to New Haven where the car was parked. I can only assume the drive from there to Boston was uneventful as, for some reason or another, I resumed the “nap” I had started on the train. In any event, I was delivered back to my B&B somewhat refreshed and in ample time to “scrub up” for our final dinner in Boston.

This we had at “Flora” in Massachusetts Ave, Arlington. Regrettably my entrée of pork rillettes, cornichons, apple chutney, toast points didn’t quite draw the accolades that Cynthia and Michael gave to his choice of Black Truffle flan, and the main of grilled sirloin steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, and chimichurri was just OK. Against the advice of our in-house restaurant guide and critic we tried dessert – in my case, peach ice cream. I should have listened to Cynthia’s advice because it was another of those dreaded “milk-ice” concoctions.
Leaping to the defence of New England ice-cream makers, Cynthia persuaded Michael to take us the short distance to Brigham’s to prove that the ice cream for which the State is famed really is that good. And it was. I sampled the dessert sized hot butterscotch fudge sundae but only to keep Cynthia company while she indulged in a chocolate chip ice cream marshmallow combination!

Friday 6th January 2006

On my last day in Boston, Cynthia cooked us all a French toast and bacon breakfast – one to which she had somehow gained the impression I was partial. She was right of course – and the breakfast was just great.

Then back to the B&B to pack and get ready for my evening flight to Heathrow and onward to Manchester. Cynthia and Michael kindly accompanied me to the airport where I was able, I trust, to thank them for their invitation to join them for their Christmas holidays, share with them cultural as well as gastronomic pleasures and have fun together as well!
Thanks again to you both.
On arrival at the airport, I was told that it was necessary to have dinner in the lounge before departure as, being a “sleeper” service, only drinks, snacks and breakfast would be carried. The buffet style meal was not altogether a success and it certainly wasn’t up to the standard of the in-flight meals served on the way to the US.
Be that as it may, the cabin crew were as attentive and friendly as any I’ve come across on British Airways and the flat-bed really came into its own, as a result of which I had the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had on a plane. Landing at Heathrow was slightly ahead of schedule but the time was soon used up with a delayed bus transfer from the plane to Terminal 4 and another from there to Terminal 1. This, and the fact that the flight to Manchester was delayed undid a lot of the benefit of the good night’s sleep, but it’s good to be back “home” again.

On Wednesday I plan to resume my exploration starting in York, where I’ve booked for three nights. After that, depending on the weather and how the spirit moves me, I’ll spend the next two to three weeks heading to the Borders and then Edinburgh to take up again my search for those elusive relatives.