Ernie goes to Boston & Toronto (May – Jun 2013)

After nearly a week in New York, Ashley and I settled into our seats for the long bus ride to Boston, where Ashley had studied and worked for eight years prior to her move to Hong Kong.  As a third culture kid who moved around every few years with her family, she could invariably lay claim to multiple cities around the world as her own, including Taipei, Denver, and Hong Kong, but Boston is where she had her first taste of independence and adulthood, and Boston is where she was most eager to show me around.  I’d been to Beantown once before, on a road trip with extended family years and years ago, but I don’t remember much about it.  For all intents and purposes, this would be my first real introduction to the City on a Hill, and I couldn’t think of a better person to be my guide.

We arrived in Boston around noon and made our way on foot and public transit to Julie’s apartment in Cambridge.  Of the friendship quartet, only Julie remained in Boston, and she very graciously hosted us throughout our stay in the city.  There wasn’t much time to settle in, though, as we had a wedding to get to that afternoon in Topsfield, a small town in northern Massachusetts.  Katie and Ashley had met in university, and they were part of the same spiritual community at Cornerstone Church in Boston before Ashley moved away.  Getting invitations to Angela’s wedding in New York and Katie’s wedding in Boston, taking place on back to back days no less, was what got us thinking about putting this trip together in the first place.  Though there was a bit of a light rain throughout the day, it was a beautiful ceremony, and it was great to see the reactions of Ashley’s friends when they saw her.  There were too many names and faces to keep track of, but I could see and appreciate the sort of friendships that defined my now-wife for so many years.  We returned to Julie’s apartment that night, physically and socially exhausted from the long day, but looking forward to a new week in a new city.

After attending Ashley’s old church in the morning, we grabbed lunch with Priscilla and Aaron, two of Ashley’s friends from Cornerstone.  Months later, after Ashley and I had returned to Hong Kong and sent out our wedding invitations, we found out that Priscilla and I are actually second cousins – her dad and my dad are first cousins, and her parents had forwarded her our invitation as an example for her own upcoming wedding.  It was and is an incredible coincidence, that one of Ashley’s close friends in Boston turned out to be related to her soon-to-be husband, and we’ve joked about it being a sign of sorts.  Lunch was at Parish Cafe, a restaurant that specializes in serving sandwiches created by some of Boston’s most celebrated chefs.  It’s an interesting concept, and I had the Lumiere, a sumptuous pork sandwich created by Michael Leviton, owner and chef of Lumiere in Newton.  After saying our goodbyes, Ashley took me to Newbury Street to walk off the meal and grab a coffee at one of her favourite hangout spots, L’Aroma Cafe (now closed).

A little over a month before our trip to Boston, the city was shaken by a terrorist attack during the Boston Marathon, as well as the ensuing manhunt.  Ashley followed the news and live updates closely from Hong Kong, the locations and neighbourhoods dominating the international headlines taking on personal significance for her as a former Boston resident.  We came across the makeshift Boston Marathon memorial near the finish line and spent a few moments wandering its avenues of signs, banners, flags, stuffed animals, running shoes, and sports caps.  Fred Rogers, of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood fame, once said,

My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.

In the days and weeks following the bombing, stories emerged of the helpers who, in a time of disaster, were indeed helping and caring and responding with compassion.  There may never be an end to destruction and hatred and disaster on this earth,  but there will always be helpers.

In the late afternoon, I began to feel a little under the weather, though I figured I just needed a good meal to recharge.  Ashley took me to another cafe on Newbury, Trident Booksellers and Cafe, to try their famous mac’n’cheese dish.  Their specialty was making it with a Ritz cracker crumble, lightly toasted on top of the creamy macaroni base.  It was actually fantastic, but it did little to stem the tide of illness.  We went back to Julie’s apartment where I collapsed onto the sofa bed and passed out within minutes.  I woke up an hour or two later feeling a little bit better, so we grabbed dinner at a nearby vegan restaurant and then watched Star Trek: Into Darkness, the second of J. J. Abrams’ forays into the Star Trek universe, at a nearby cinema.  The illness came back in full force during the movie, however, and I struggled to keep my eyes open.  This could have also been because Into Darkness was a terrible movie, and a terrible movie to watch while fighting a fever.  Thus ended our first full day in Boston.

I woke up the next morning feeling fantastic, all traces of fever and discomfort having melted away over the course of my evening’s slumber.  The morning sun shone bright and beautiful over cloudless skies, and Ashley’s itinerary had us taking a trip out to her old alma mater.  First things first, though, we needed to eat, and Ashley had just the place in mind.  Anna’s Taqueria is a local Mexican fast food joint with several stores in the Boston area, and the first thing Ashley eats whenever she’s back in town.  The burritos are built like bricks, packed to the gills with meat, rice, beans, salsa and hot sauce, similar to Burrito Boyz in Toronto.  The meal sits in your stomach like an anchor, and I have a love/hate relationship with food like that, though it’s mostly love.  After devouring our food tubes, we ambled out the door and headed for the green quads of Tufts University, a place I’d never heard of before I met Ashley.

As a young, ambitious, high school student on the perpetually humid, tropical island of Hong Kong, Ashley dreamed of attending a liberal arts school in the frigid Northeast.  Thoughts of brightly-coloured autumn leaves, comfortable woolen sweaters, and mugs of hot tea sipped indoors on a chilly, rainy day danced in her head as she filled out her college applications, and when she received her acceptance to Tufts, she would consider no other – this was the place she had dreamed of, and here she would find her contentment.  We have a lot of fun talking about our different university experiences.  I don’t expect her to have heard of where I got my undergraduate degree (University of Western Ontario, now simply Western University), and I simply wasn’t aware of liberal arts schools across the border.  If it wasn’t Ivy League or hadn’t ever participated in March Madness, chances are I’d never heard of it.  It wasn’t until Ashley came into my life that I became aware of this place called Tufts, with its Jumbo the Elephant mascot, and that it was a well regarded school in its own right.  Ashley took me around the campus, showing me her the dorms and apartments where she once lived, the library where she spent the majority of her time studying, the impressive school buildings where she sat in lectures and seminars, and the giant cannon that is covered in thousands of layers of paint.  It was an eye-opening day, and I felt like I was getting a glimpse of Ashley that had previously remained hidden behind word and description.  I could listen to her describe her college experiences all day, but walking in her footsteps and retracing her paths as she walked to and fro, taking note of the sights she saw saw every day on her walks through campus, revealed an insight into her school days that can only be gleaned through the other senses.  I see what you see.

The next day, Ashley brought me to Pho Pasteur in Chinatown, her favourite Vietnamese restaurant in Boston.  If it seems unusual that she took me to have pho here, or that I took her to Pho 88 in Toronto the previous summer, it is only because the quality of pho in Hong Kong is, by and large, completely awful.  Ashley wasn’t much impressed by Pho 88, though it’s understandable given the quality of pho at Pho Pasteur.  To my mind, they seem to be more or less on the same level, and, in any case, miles ahead of what we were used to back in Hong Kong.  After lunch, we took a long walk along the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, a thin strip of green parkland running down the length of what the locals call Comm Ave, stretching from the Boston Public Garden to the Fens.  It was a pleasant walk, especially in the cool spring weather, the path dotted with beckoning benches and austere statues.  Once we reached the end of the parkland, we took a quick oyster break before heading to El Pelon for their delicious fish tacos, a dizzying blend of crispy cornmeal and spice-encrusted cod with Arbol chill mayo, limed onions, and pickled cabbage and cucumbers.  Stomachs full of oysters and pescados, hearts full of gladness, we were in a worshipful mood that evening, and what better place to spend the next few hours than in one of the legendary temples of the Great American Pastime?

Fenway Park needs little introduction. Its presence in the national American consciousness goes beyond the sport of baseball, even as baseball has come to represent more than just a game.  Together with Wrigley Field, it is a testament to the longevity and the (perceived) unchanging nature of the game, despite the decades of change and modernity in the world outside.  The Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, Forbes Field, the old Yankee Stadium, and other hallowed fields where legends once stood may be gone, but at least we still have Fenway and Wrigley.  Growing up in Toronto, I was and am a die-hard Leafs and hockey fan, but the history and longing of baseball just sucked me in.  Like the Pevensie children in the Narnia series, many baseball fans look back with a sort of nostalgia on a lost golden age, when the game was played the right way and heroes roamed the field like gods – perfectly encapsulated by the 1989 film, Field of Dreams (which featured Fenway in a pivotal scene).  Ashley and I took our seats on the first base side of the field and watched as one of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing threw out the first pitch.  The crowd gave a big cheer, before settling in for the game under the lights.  It was an interleague game against the Phillies so I wasn’t so much concerned with the result as I was with just taking in the experience of being at Fenway.  I honestly don’t remember anything about the game itself all these years later, but I can say that I’ve attended a real live ballgame at Fenway, complete with a Fenway Frank.

The North End is Boston’s oldest residential neighbourhood, dating back to the 1630s.  As a result of its early establishment, this tiny 0.36 square mile crop of land has twelve places on the National Register of of Historic Places alone.  By the 18th century, it was one of the wealthier addresses in the city, though successive waves of immigrants throughout the ensuing decades changed the demographics of the community permanently.  At the turn of the last century, the North End was largely a Jewish and Italian neighbourhood, resulting in a plethora of Italian cuisine along its streets and alleyways that remains very much a part of the North End landscape to this day.  We’d return to the Italian bit later, but our first stop in the neighbourhood was a seafood restaurant called Neptune Oyster.  One of Ashley’s friends had recommended it, stating that their lobster roll was a must-have while in the city – and it was!  The size is what you notice right away – this is not a dinky scrap of lobster in a breakfast roll.  No, what we have here is what appears to be an entire lobster stuffed into a massive, buttery loaf, drizzled in more butter and served up with a plateful of piping hot fresh fries.  Amazing.

We spent the rest of the morning and the early afternoon walking off the lobster roll on the Freedom Trail, an educational walking path that passes by sixteen historically significant locations in the history of the United States. This includes the site of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere House, and the Old North Church, where the American Revolutionaries implemented the famous “one if by land, two if by sea” lanterns. The success of the American settler colonies in wresting independence from the British Empire in 1783 marked a dividing line between the First British Empire, largely focused on the Americas, and the Second British Empire, which shifted focus to Asia, Oceania, and Africa.  While the British Imperial Century that followed resulted in the largest empire the world had ever seen, the 20th century saw the rise of the United States as the preeminent world power. It’s awfully reductive to say that the fates of two of the world’s great powers in the last couple centuries spun off entirely from events happening along the Freedom Trail, but an argument could be made for its significance in disrupting European continental and imperial affairs for decades to come, and it all started in a church in Boston’s North End on a cool, New England, springtime evening.

All this history on foot got us hungry, and after following the Freedom Trail out of the North End, Ashley brought us back for dinner at Giacomo’s Ristorante, her go-to place for heaping portions of Italian food.  After living in Hong Kong for the last seven years or so, I’ve grown resigned to the fact that pasta dishes will be tiny affairs, barely enough to make a dent in one’s appetite.  There were no such concerns this time around, and there were more than enough tasty, saucy carbs for the both of us.  In our post-meal stupor, we walked along the nearby waterfront, watching the evening blues and magentas wash over the darkening night sky.  We would have one more full day in Boston, visiting Harvard Square and the Harvard Book Store, before whiling away our last afternoon on the serene Charles River Esplanade.  It had been an exhausting two weeks in two of America’s great cities, and I left having gained a greater appreciation and understanding of Ashley’s college and young adult years, as well as the friendships that had kept her afloat while she lived abroad on her own.  In particular, I finally met her three closest friends, Sunny, Julie, and Michelle, and all three of them would be flying into Hong Kong later that year to be a part of our wedding party.

As an epilogue, we spent our last week in Toronto, seeing friends and family.  Karen, an American expat friend of ours in Hong Kong who had moved back to Michigan the year before, was in town to see family, so we went downtown with her to wander the vibrant lanes of Kensington Market.  There were other games nights and dinners with university friends and extended family, the usual sort of catch-up activities expected from expats coming home, and it was nice to have some down time on holiday, even if it wasn’t terribly exciting.

One final note, and its a disappointing one.  A few months before the trip, I had bought tickets to a concert in Ottawa featuring Boyz 2 Men, 98 Degrees, and New Kids on the Block.  Ashley is a die-hard fan of the first two, and she was ecstatic about seeing them in concert.  So we made the 4-5 hour drive to the national capital, only to find out in the parking lot of the venue that the concert had been canceled!  One of the tour buses had been delayed at the border, and there wouldn’t be enough time to put on a show that night.  We tried to make the most of our unexpectedly free time in the city, but there wasn’t much energy left in us by this point, and we drove back home to Toronto that night, defeated and deprived.  It wasn’t an ideal way of capping off our holiday, but, with our wedding coming up at the end of the year, we had a lot to look forward to on the flight back to Hong Kong.  The next time Ashley and I would get on a flight together, it would be as a married couple!  The next time I would get on a flight, however, it would be as a kidnapped prisoner to five friends intent on putting a groom through the ringer.

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