In Boston the Buddhas smile, but were Hippies really that chic?

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Lost on the Boston Harbour Walk

Blissfully aware that it was Friday the 13th and that this was, in ancient times, a power day for women (was it guys, d’you think that spread the rumour of bad luck?) , I selected my route to the Museum of Fine Arts from Aquarium via the Boston harbour walk.  It was my second day in town, and I was thirsting for art.  I’d managed to shake off the bad taste left by the girl in Urban Outfitters the day before:  “CLOSE THE DOOR.”  I did an about turn and, morphing into a snotty Englishwoman snapped “the phrase is PLEASE close the door.”  I guess the heat got to us both.

The harbour walk is intriguing; who owns these fancy boats?  Do they fret over never finding enough time to spend on them like people with holiday homes?  Or is it just one way to splash out their zillions so it doesn’t pile up too much.  Do they wake thinking ‘there’s nothing I really need or want today’ or do they wonder what happiness-trinket they can buy?  There aren’t so many Bill and Melinda’s, I fear.  Boats like these must cost a packet just to park up.  Then there’s the staff, the gold taps, scrubbing brushes for the decks, bikini clad lovelies etc let alone the cost of actually going somewhere.   Still, it’s better than hoarding your pee in jars , or leaving your toenails unclipped and curling like a goat’s Howard.  IMG_5326

I got lost.  I always do.  Some people plan their journeys scrupulously.  I wing it.  Somehow I managed to turn “no problem getting to MoFA, just follow the Harbour Walk and there you are” to a hot and bothered realization that if that were true I should have found it an hour ago.  Sometimes you want to climb up a hill to see where you are, especially among the skyscrapers.  It’s amazing how many Bostonians don’t have a clue where their best asset is.  When I did finally arrive, and saw the size of the museum I immediately regretted my strategy.  I didn’t need a day, I needed a week.  More organised people would have catalogued the art they saw in a little notebook, and be far more informative.  I have to apologise.  All I can do is show you pictures of some of my favourite pieces of art, and hope it inspires you to go to this aptly named museum.

My appetite had been whetted by adverts all around town for the ‘Hippy Chic ‘exhibition currently showing.  I have hippy credentials, but you know how they say ‘if you remember the 60s you obviously weren’t there?’ That doesn’t really apply to me.  I remember them well.  I did my best to conform with the non-conformity, I even inhaled, but only socially, like I might share a bottle of wine with friends now.  It wasn’t a lifestyle choice to live in a fug  of marijuana and procrastination.  I had too many nappies (diapers) to change.  I had my first baby when I was 23, and like to think I was a responsible mother.  I breastfed, but only till they were about 6 months old, not until they could toddle up and ask for it before they went to school.  I thought at one time it would be interesting to try LSD, but only if a responsible person would mind the children for 4 days.  I couldn’t find one.  Then I looked up the effects of LSD in one of my father’s medical books and found it produced a so-called ‘pink spot’ in urine just like they find in schizophrenics. That was enough to put me off.  I don’t suppose a real hippy would have been.  However, it does mean any comments I make about the exhibition are from someone who had a clear perception at the time.  Now, honestly, did any of the people you know look like this?

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IMG_5341See the bag she’s holding?  That’s Biba.  I still have my Biba dress, it’s somewhere in the attic in the grandchildren’s dressing up box.  It was a floor length purple sleeveless vest (that’s an English vest, not American) and it came from the original  shop round the back of High Street Kensington (someone’s front room fitted out with old fashioned wooden hat stands).  It cost eighteen shillings, which at the time was just under a pound.  I wore it bra-less, though I only just fitted the criteria we used then: if you can hold a pencil under your breast without it falling down you are not pert enough to go bra-less.  This dress is very lovely, but it wasn’t on the streets of Gloucester at the time, or even the London  I remember.

Look at the hair on these guys.  All the models in the exhibition had white hair.  Maybe they were appealing to those of us who were hippies at the time, and like me are snow white now – but it wasn’t what we looked like then and the image jars.  Hippies had natural coloured hair or hennaed hair.  Even the bleaching was from hanging out in the sun in parks or the first free festivals getting stoned.  Hair dyes weren’t available like they are now.

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Well, almost unavailable.  Old ladies went in for purple or pink rinses on their  permed grey hair in those days.  Most didn’t even wash their own hair.  They would go for a shampoo and a set to the hairdressers once a week.  (What happy days those must have been for hairdressers.) It would be set like concrete, stiff with spray, just like a pan cleaner with a faint hint of mauve or pink.  Hippies let it all hang out.  We didn’t use hairdressers.  A few went in for frizzy afros, but the rest of us just grew it.  However, I went through a phase of mixing undiluted purple and pink rinse and achieving a maroon streak in my tangle of sun bleached mousey hair.  Being at a ballet school, with access to stage make up I also went in for green eyebrows and lashes.  I used a tin of Caron D’Ash pastel crayons to improvise wild eyeshadow.  Come to think of it, I was way ahead of my time.  I dyed  Aunty Mamie’s old silk stockings magenta and green.  In winter I wore a long white crochet version of an Afgan coat (all the rage) and a tiny shetland jumper that just covered my breasts and left my midriff bare to my low slung loons even when it was way below freezing.  Hippies I knew improvised, but maybe I just mixed in the wrong circles.   I don’t remember smart hippies like these.

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These were some of my favourite paintings and sculptures

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Someone having a very bad dayIMG_5349

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Probably Paul Revere

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Right sort of wind, wrong sort of weather, Wonderland

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Jane at the helm, trying to steer a straight course

What’s that about a picture being equal to a thousand words?  Much as I dreaded the return trip to Marblehead, with the possible nightmare of another 8 hours throwing up, I discovered that even though we were being tilted almost flat against the sea, it was the right sort of wind.  No churning, just simple rocking courtesy of a helpful tailwind.  Bracing my, somewhat too short, legs against the opposite bench I  was flung intermittently across the boat until I selfishly hunkered down in one corner, semi-sheltered by the awning  from the battering wind and rain, filling up on cheesy goldfish.  Nick or Jane braved it out at the wheel.

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I got to thinking what would happen if one of us were tipped out?  What if both of them were tipped out?  I didn’t have a clue how to use the radio phone, or even how to turn around and fish them out.  I’m not usually one to catastrophize  but couldn’t help remembering a Buddhist friend who was electrocuted on his boat scarcely a year ago, leaving his wife floundering about at sea. Would Jane be able to sail alone if anything happened to Nick on their journeys?  I worried even more when Jane, sans lifejacket,  wearing socks and no shoes, clambered onto the prow to release another sail.  Scanning the ocean for whales made it worryingly obvious how very, well, empty, it is.

Sickness, on the other hand, was well under control.  I’d breakfasted handsomely, toasting on the barbecue (which I was heartened to find is attached to one of the metal rails at the back of the boat, well away from combustibles).  This time I hope I was encouraging company if not any actual use.  The return was shortened by not diverting via the Stellwagen Bank, and that tail wind.  By the time we arrived back at the Boston Yacht Club in Marblehead the weather had calmed, the sun shone and we had an easy time dismantling our stay on the boat.  We hadn’t seen any whales on the return trip, but were satisfied with the sitings we’d had on the way down and from the Dolphin boat.

Jane and Nick returned to work next morning and I had the rest of the week to revisit Boston.  I wanted to take a look at the harbour.  Was I really right that the big international jets, that had thrilled me so much, fly right over the sailing boats?  I last visited Boston with my American husband back in the 1980s, staying with his cousin in a mini mansion in the suburbs.  What I remember most, however, was a lot of mention by his cousin  about what she pronounced ‘boofalow’ mozzarella.  I got the impression that this was a very special mozzarella, only available in Boston and of incomparable taste.  I discovered that like most mozzarella it is more a texture than a taste until it gets melted onto a pizza, when it tastes just like – mozzarella.  This time I wanted to see art.  (Actually I wanted to see his cousin for a coffee, but she was too busy.  I guess looking up an ex’s family is not necessarily such a great idea.)

Catching the Boston bus from Marblehead first thing in the morning I was the only passenger.

 “You from London?” shouted the lady driver to where I sat, half way down the bus.

“No, the West Country.  Nailsworth.”  Why do they always say London?    “Near Bath”.

“D’you remember that series about the hippy guys living in the flat?”

“The Young Ones?”

” That’s right.  I loved that.  Coronation Street?”

“Not my thing I’m afraid”

” Are You Being Served?”  Good grief.  What must she think about us?75c took me all the way to Wonderland.

I had great hopes of Wonderland, who wouldn’t?  But it seems it’s time has come and gone.  Built in 1906 it was believed to be the inspiration for Disney Land.  By 1911 it was bankrupt and was turned into a Greyhound park in 1935.  However it does have the Wonderland Ballroom on the North Shore road.  Sadly that doesn’t  get very good reviews.  GloR says “its the worst venue I’ve ever been too.  Ceiling falling off, security worst in history.  Only place I’ve ever been to where Security breaks up fights and lets the people stay in there…don’t go to this place unless you want to witness fights all night.  Tristan B has a helpful hint “if you’re going to see a show here IT’S NOT GOING TO SELL OUT” and suggests you skip the crappy support bands.

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The Old State House, Boston

All I did in Wonderland was buy a Charlie Card, with some difficulty (is there a Plain American campaign?), to get out, and took a train ride to Aquarium by Boston harbour. The temperature was nudging  90°.  It would have been a very good idea to go to an art gallery and take advantage of some air conditioning. Finding there were free guided tours of the Freedom Trail with a Boston National Park Ranger I ended up speeding through the Quincy Market to the meeting point.  I suppose it’s not the poor man’s fault that the ‘trail’ lasted only a couple of blocks.  It took in the Old State House where the revolution was kindled, and where the declaration of independence was read from the balcony.  After that it didn’t really go anywhere of note.  Every few minutes our ranger would stop his talk,  remove a water bottle from his bag, take a slug and say “hydrate folks, remember to hydrate. Take care folks, walk reeeeal slow and careful.”  A natural fast walker and information sponge, the slow pace drove me insane. (I am guessing Texas would not be my place.)

I decided to pass on the afternoon free tour, and take a ride on a Duck boat round the harbour instead.  It sounded cool and refreshing – rather James Bond, splashing into the harbour in a vehicle that could morph into a boat.  (Little did I know that the news in the UK was that a Duck boat had got into trouble on the Thames,  caught on fire, creating a big panic and a rescue; a second one followed with a sinking a week or so later.)  A  ‘history tour’ around town first was included, so it seemed like it would fit the bill (no pun intended) nicely.

I hadn’t anticipated the woman in the seat behind me.  Here she is, caught in the moment when she’s answering the call from what I gathered was her sister. This, in a very loud voice, so we could all share:

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The woman behind in the Duck Boat

“Well I know, I know.  He’s constipated.  He’s probably impacted. Yes.  Yes.  Well go and get some glycerine suppositories.  Feel his belly.  You can probably feel it in his belly?  Give it a prod.  No, only one.  Just try one and see what happens.  No, I said GLYCERINE SUPPOSITORY.  You don’t want to give him diarrhoea.”  And as if that wasn’t enough, she had to repeat the conversation over and over.  Did her sister not get it?  Or was she trying to tell us all what a burden it was caring for her father and how much more she knew about it than her sister?  If it was sympathy she wanted it was wasted on me.  All my sympathy went to the poor man having his embarrassing symptoms shared full volume on a Duck Boat.

Duck Boat Boston Harbour

Duck Boat Boston Harbour

Having a whale of a time

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The Far Side

The trouble with having a big cup of tea,  healthy bodily functions, and a hesitancy to use the onboard facilities, is that it takes forethought to make arrangements.  i.e. if you see Jane head off in the dingy for the loos in the harbour, and you don’t anticipate your need to join her, you have to wait it out.

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Harbour building from the prow of Judy

When the harbour is a few minutes ride away and involves hooking up, ‘bathroom’ visit and showering too, you have to bide your time.  Nevertheless, once we were all sorted out, we worked out that we’d have just about enough time to take the dingy onto the opposite side of the ‘hook’ for a swim with the harbour seals, and make it back in time for the afternoon  whale watch boat on one of the Dolphin Fleet.  The  advantages being that spotter planes guide the boats to whale sitings and they are much more stable.

The introductory talk on board seemed designed to kill all hope.  The humpbacks, we were told, were feeding further north this year because of rising sea temperatures.  If we saw one whale we’d be extremely lucky.  See two whales and we’d be unbelievably fortunate, but the company did good work monitoring the whales and supported their conservation.  With the $40 plus fee justified we set off with somewhat deflated expectations and the knowledge that we had at least seen a couple on the way down (even if it was so briefly that we couldn’t be 100% certain which type).  Even so, I thought ‘yes, but they haven’t factored in Jane’s whale singing  and my dead father’s skills in making things happen.

As they say in the brochure ‘passengers forget themselves in the passion of the moment’.  We all did try to pay attention to the very interesting talk about whales; the ‘baleen’ display (the giant hairy cartilage filters in a whale’s mouth that sift plankton); statistics to make you weep, and the jar of plankton (muddy looking water), but 200 or so eyes were mostly glued to the sea.  Mine almost hurt with the concentration, and my brain strained from willing the whales to appear.  (Think of the wildlife photographers who do this for a living.  They must edit out 99.9% of the material they shoot for two or three minutes of spectacular tale slapping.)

Jane sang, I veered from one side of the boat to the other squashing into any little gap at the rail.  Suddenly a cry went up around the boat: “DOLPHINS” and a school of twenty or thirty white-sided atlantic dolphins did their thing, speeding along at a lick, slicing through the water, racing the boat, and seeming to share our delight in their sleek antics.  Patrick Leigh Fermor in his book Mani described them thus (and in no way could I better his description): ‘they were beautiful abstractions of speed, energy, power and ecstasy leaping out of the water and plunging and spiralling and vanishing like swift shadows, soon to materialize again and sail into the air in another great loop so fast that they seemed to draw the sea after them and shake it off in mid-air, to plunge forward again tearing two great frothing bow-waves with their beaks…’  and more (he wasn’t stingy  with his sentences).  We were thrilled.  If we saw nothing else, we were still thrilled.

Then, amazingly, it happened: “WHALE” came the cry, and the boat emptied out on one side and we crammed over to the pointing arm.  And that’s when we saw the rarest whale on the planet, critically endangered, one of only around 320 left: a North Atlantic Right Whale.  So called, poor thing, because it has just the right sort of oil, just the right sort of blubber, and it’s easy to kill.  There it was, right next to the boat, all 60ft of it, head full of  callosities, looking like a bad case of barnacles, but these are what makes individuals easy to identify.  She was miles off-course, unexpectedly around on the Stellwagen for that time of year, and alone.  It was a deeply poignant siting, and brought tears to my eyes.  I felt very humbled, privileged, and I understand this is a common experience.

In the distance we saw another Dolphin boat turn back and speed forward purposefully.  We followed and soon heard a blow.  Two blows.  It sounded like an air ballon firing up directly overhead, only these spouts shot up from the sleek heads of two enormous whales, pushing 90ft long, characteristically slithering in and out of the water right by the other side of the boat.  These were two Finback Whales, not prone to the spectacular tale slamming of the humpbacks, barely mentioned in the Dolphin Fleet leaflet, but awesome in a different way.  Bigger: Finbacks are the second largest animal on earth. Faster: these are the Formula Ones of the Atlantic.  They have asymmetrical markings on their sides; their left sides having a darker swirl of colour than the right, sleekness emphasised by white lower jaws.  I tried to get a picture, they put on a bit of a show for us, but they were so fast, most of my pictures came out like this:

Footprints of Finback Whale

It took me a while to spot these calling cards.  So huge are Finbacks that for a few moments after they surface and plunge they leave these ‘footprints’ behind on the surface.

I could return home happy.  I’d seen whales.  I’D SEEN WHALES.  Who knows how long we’ll have them?  I would hope enough people are interested to protect them and enjoy them like I did.  I’d like my grandchildren in Wales to see whales.  I’d like my grandchildren in Germany to see whales.  (I can’t wait to show them the footprints to prove that Granny did.)

First, though, there was that 8 hour return trip to Boston to contemplate.  Would I be hideously sick like I was on the way down?  Should I sneak onto one of the fast ferries that plough back and forth to Boston from Provincetown?  I have to admit I faced the prospect of the return sail with great trepidation. But am I one to take the easy way out?

ps Francis.  I know you are itching to hear about the incident in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where I didn’t see a single picture, but I did have a unique experience lying on the floor in the middle of the snail staircase with a charming man, but you’ll just have to wait.  There’s a couple, maybe  three more blogs in this series until we get there.

Provincetown, Queen of Cape Cod, with knobs on

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Oh my.  The phallic tower of the Pilgrim Monument announces Provincetown appropriately.   Arriving there is like being launched into a gay pride march, only, thrill of thrills, the day we arrived happened to coincide with the Lambda Car Club rally.  Not just any vintage car rally, a rally of the cars of my dreams.  Since I was  about eleven I have swooned over Elvis and I dreamed of owning a car with wings, preferably pink, but anything pastel would do.  The closest I got was a series of Morris Minors (which are not really a car for a soggy country; I know of a man who wrote his thesis on the flora and fauna of a Morris Traveller, the half timbered variety) but they have a particular charm, a certain smell, and an unmistakeable voice of their own.  This rally of 50s American cars made me almost weep with envy.  Pink, sky blue, orange – winged, bedecked with rainbow flags, and fabulous guys dressed to match.  If the drivers of the orange car with the blow up model in a headscarf in the backseat wish to replace her with flesh and blood, I’m your woman.

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My only beef was the beef who kept getting in the way every time I tried to photograph these gorgeous hunks of metal.

I play a ‘which would I steal’ game in galleries and museums (though in truth I could no more actually do it than steal a paperclip).  This sky blue one is a strong contender, closely followed by the pink winged.IMG_5184

These guys were having such fun.  My friend says ‘every mother should have one’ (about her gay son) the pride is all hers.  I can see why. Nowadays, since most straight people have grown up and got over themselves, gay men are having a blast.  It was not always thus (I recommend Stephen Fry’s excellent documentary on the history) and Provincetown seems to be their mecca.  The population statistics are telling:  3,562 residents in winter, 30,000 summer visitors.  Not all of them are LGBT of course.  We all want to have fun.

The accessory du jour In Procincetown is what I call ‘armpit warmers’.  Little dogs that once upon a time would have snuggled into arm pits clothed in mink, downing cocktails with ‘mummy’.  Pampered pooches  have reached new heights of indulgence in the gay community.  Cooed over, beribboned, collars a-sparkling, you wonder if some of their little paws ever reach the ground.  I saw several being wheeled around in dog carts, some even had prams,Image

see the green one in this picture?  It might contain a child, but that’s not what’s in there.  All I can say is that I wish them walks.  Mud.  Waves to splash in, and bones as big as a fist.

Talking of fists, bend your arm and take it out to your side.  Now make a fist and curve it right over.  This is the shape of Cape Cod, sticking out of the East Coast of America somewhere between Boston and New York.  Provincetown sits in the curve of the thumb where it joins the palm.  Behind it are rolling dunes; pure Edward Hopper landscapes, with lone lighthouses, and windswept clapboard houses.  (That is, Edward Hopper in his beach-time holiday mode, not his peeping-tom city mode

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Now I haven’t cycled for quite a few years, though my last bike did have gears (rather inconveniently placed somewhere low on the frame).  It rested in the shed, a promise of a fantastic arse and super-fitness, but really just a rusting guilt trip.  However I was up for a bike ride on the dunes, as long as I could walk up all the hills (but probably best not to tell the surgeon who hoovered out my knee a few months back).

What better way to cool off after a long ride through cranberry beds (Nick: yes, they’re cranberries.  Me: are you sure?  I survived, so I suppose they were) than a dip in the ocean on the north side of the fist.

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Then Jane saw this sign.  But why would we let a silly little thing like a Great White Shark spoil a lovely dip – especially as I’d missed out on one off the boat in the middle of the atlantic.  Besides, I didn’t think a Great White would mistake me for a seal considering my neon-bright costume.  (Thank you Sandra Dee, it was a good exchange for the scrape on my new car.  She does mail order lingerie by the way, and for all those trannies among you, she can accommodate all shapes and sizes).

Funnily enough, there were very few other swimmers. Do you hear the music?
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Back in town, knees intact, butt intact, and relishing the thrill of once again defying death (Vee: I’m not coming on holiday with you, you court danger)  We loaded up on pizza and chilled beer with a slice of lemon (bet that’s making a few englishmen cringe)  and planned a fun night out.  Would it be Lip Schtick ‘One Boys Journey to Fabulous and Back’ or Electra ‘Living the Legend’ at the Post Office Cabaret? It’s obvious now, but I hadn’t realised Bette Midler was a gay icon.  Electra did a very fine job of impersonating her, though it would have been a lot more electrifying if I’d known some of Bette’s songs, been a little less straight, and the seats a little less hard for a saddle sore bum.  However we particularly liked the bit at the very end when Bette morphed into Elton John.  How clever, we thought, then remembered he was a man. Watch a drag artist long enough and you forget.

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Lip Schtick

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Electra, Living the Legend

Wrong type of wind

We slipped  (quietly as  was possible when you motor) out of Marblehead harbour.  It was 4am and we were fuelled by hot tea and enthusiasm.  The sky did a   spectacular show of stars – not that we needed them.  Nick’s boat has instruments, unlike the Daily Mirror kit boats I sailed at school.   Instruments to show you how deep the water is, and how fast  you are going.  It can even drive itself, though I’m not sure it can detect huge ferries or buoys in the water, or even boys in the water.  There is room below deck to sleep six very friendly people, to pee and cook.  There is a fridge for the wine and I believe you can shower in the loo, sort of.   As we passed out of the harbour,  into open waters,  Jane pressed a button, and hey presto a sail unfurled, Nick killed the engine and we locked onto the wind.  The wrong type of wind.

Seasickness can be more or less controlled if the boat dips and dives up and down.  You know what’s coming next, and with eyes fixed on the horizon it’s doable.  Pitching side to side is also doable. (I once survived a rusty tub in the gulf of Thailand that did this, disappearing between enormous waves.) What I couldn’t cope with was a combination of  those movements making the boat do a corkscrew motion, despite wearing  a sea-sickness patch behind my ear,  acupoint wrist bands, and popping homeopathic pills.  The earl grey tea churned in my stomach.  I  tried to put a brave face on it, if not a pink, healthy one.  ‘Eight hours’, I kept thinking, ‘eight hours and there’s no escape’.  ‘There better be bloody whales’, I thought.  Eventually ‘I’m going to be sick’ predominated.

By 7 am my bladder dictated the course of events, just after I’d tentatively enjoyed a bowl of muesli and felt a tiny bit better.  I may be very close to Nick and Jane, but not close enough to pee in a bucket in front of them, though it was kind of them to offer.  Besides sitting on a bucket in the small space between benches, where, because I’m short, I could barely steady myself against the opposite bench,  seemed an impossibility.  I don’t think even a penis would have helped.  (Yes, yes, I have penis envy. How could I not with four brothers boasting about how they could make their pee foam?)  ‘Down below’ was where the worst of the churning happened and I’d put off the moment for three hours.  Things were already banging about in the cabin, and I joined them reluctantly, zig zagging my way down to the loo at the bow end. There’s that moment when you think, shall I sit on it, or put my head down it?  And then there is no choice.

Crashing into my berth, clasping the bucket kindly presented by Nick, I wanted to die.   I’d been looking forward to this?  Nevertheless I shouted up “I’m coming up” heave “if there’s a whale” heave, “I don’t care how bad I am,  call me.  Bleauch”.  My vision of a quiet sail in glorious sunshine, lolling on the bow in my cozzie, taking the occasional dip and coming up laughing couldn’t have been more deluded.  I was right, I wasn’t much use on the boat.  In fact I must have made the trip very unpleasant for them too.

After what seemed like hours, Nick called down “we’re just about at the Stellwagen Bank”.  This treasure of a marine reserve, just north of Cape Cod is apparently one of the best places in the world to watch whales.  Protected by a submerged shallow bank, where mastodons once trod, whales now feed in the abutting deep waters.  If there was a chance of seeing Humpbacks, this was it.  Excitement is surprisingly reviving.  So is fizzy orange juice and cheesy goldfish biscuits.  My eyes haven’t worked so hard since I lost a contact lens in the main square in Marrakech.  I scanned and scanned the sea around us.  Jane sang whale songs.  Nick used his binoculars.   Hope was palpable; possible disappointment, the other large mammal in the boat.  The tension was unbearable, though fortunately the sea was much more bearable.  We had the right sort of wind at last.  Then I had an idea.  My father, dead some 48 years, regularly finds me parking places.  I wondered if he did whales too?  And he did!  Right by the boat.  Two of them.  They can’t have appeared for more than a few seconds, but believe me that is enough.  It’s the hugeness of these mammals, when most of the time you just see gulls on the sea or the odd fish.  To know they are there.  That they exist.  It’s impossible not to be awed. We couldn’t positively identify which whales we had seen, maybe Minkies, maybe Finbacks?  Whatever.  I could die happy.

We sang more whale songs and celebrated our luck, scanning all the while.   “Fin”  I shouted.  A large black fin, unmistakable in its pointyness, but surprisingly floppy cut through the waves right beside the boat-  a basking shark, passing us and passing us, and passing us;  meters of the thing.  (A basking shark can grow  14 meters in length.)

Cap'n Nick

Cap’n Nick

The sight of it made me very glad that I wasn’t having a little dip.  Even though they don’t eat people, I didn’t relish the idea of meeting  a thing that big swimming along with it’s  mouth agape.  It might just want a proper meal for a change.  Plankton doesn’t look particularly filling, it’s hard to believe it can nourish a creature that large.  However it was satisfying to imagine entertaining my grandsons with tales of the great-big-enormous-shark by the boat.

“There’s the tower” said Nick.  Most Americans get the answer wrong when asked where the Pilgrims first set foot in the New World in 1620.  Those who have visited Provincetown can’t fail to clock the 252 feet high Pilgrim Monument that marks the spot.  It also marked our final destination.  We’d taken just over 8 hours and put 55 miles of heaving sea behind us.    There was Provincetown, Queen of the East Coast, or should I say ‘Drag Queen’.

Over there they do it in wood

IMG_5124Our family have never been close.  Not particularly alienated, I just get the sense that we couldn’t be bothered.  There was a natural division, four boys then a girl.  Obviously, with bedrooms and all that, the boys went in two by twos.  My mother used to introduce me “This is Mary, my P.S.”  And I was, if not exactly an afterthought, a change of sex in the family, born four years after the last boy.  ”The first  girl born for 60 years”, said my mother through gritted teeth,  when I pulled on my favoured dungarees.

At some point, looking after her in her 80s (when, demented, she became a sweet old lady) I realised one of the reasons we were not close was she operated on a kind of divide-and-rule system.  She was a fantastic grandmother however, the sort that you find on all fours behind the sofa, or flipping pancakes in a sweat.  One that the grandchildren wanted to keep in touch with even when they grew up.

Which brings me to Nick, my nephew from the north, who escaped far west, and beached in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  Nick who diligently visited Judy whenever he came back to the UK,  and dined me finely.  Being the eldest son of my eldest brother, we are almost as close in age as I am to his father, and feel like mates.  When Nick married his long-term partner Jane in the summer I thought I’d go.  Then I revised this plan (how much do you actually see of a couple on their wedding day?) to visit a respectful time afterwards.  I didn’t really know Jane and I wanted to.  Now I do, and am the richer for it.

Coming from an area full of stone houses with walls a meter thick, and strange prehistoric bristle-tailed hopping silver fish, it was homey to see these early settler houses doing a good impression of villages round here in the Cotswolds.   I don’t know if Marblehead has weird silverfish, but they do have cockroaches, or, as Nick pointed out, Palmetto bugs.  (Which is what you have if they are in your house; in your neighbour’s house they are cockroaches.)  I examined the map before I left.  There was a Gloucester, Worcester,  Essex and Truro…hundreds of English names. Did the settlers land, and think “goodness me, this looks just like Gloucester” or did they think “know what, lets call this place after the old country” and wiped away a tear.  Maybe it made them feel less lost in a New England.  I think of them whenever I use a cup for measurement, carefully unwrapping little tea cups from protective cloth and examining them for chips after their journey across the ocean.

Marblehead is a little-tea-cup kind of a place.  Houses preserved in ‘revolution’ style by assiduously applied planning rules (even ones built in a later era).  Made of  clapboard, they are painted a gorgeous palette of colours (which I found to be rather more subtle without my sunglasses).  Much be-flagged and neat as a pin, it would be picture postcard perfect if  only they’d pick up after their dogs.

Being on the coast, Marblehead is all about boats, the Boston Yacht Club predominates.  Nick has a modest boat and we discussed plans the next morning over breakfast at the Driftwood Diner.

Blueberry pancakes at the Driftwood Cafe - child size portion

Blueberry pancakes at the Driftwood Cafe – child size portion

We would sleep overnight on the boat and make a 4 am start for Provincetown, Cape Cod.  I wondered about the wisdom of sharing a small boat with a honeymoon couple, but assumed they’d be past the heavy rocking stage having been a couple for ten years.  I worried about my usefulness on the boat.  The last time I sailed was at school on Frensham Ponds, where the limit of my technical lingo was ‘duck’, or ‘watch out’ or ‘oh shit’.  I wondered about the wisdom of having a barbecue on the boat.  I worried about my propensity to sea sickness, combined with jet lag.  But most of all I thrilled at the thought of possibly seeing humpback whales on the Stellwagen Bank.IMG_5121 IMG_5147 Continue reading

Excitement – Fever Pitch, Whales and shrinking New York

Boarding pass printed, let the trip begin…but not until I’ve picked a thousand plums that rain down on my writing cabin, and feed the farty badger each night.  Why, I ask myself, am I leaving during harvest?  Not just any harvest, bumper harvest: courgettes pushing to become marrows in a blink, green beans looking like Jack could climb them, blueberries double netted (hah, birds I don’t love you that much) and suitcase bulging.  That needs revision for sure, or where will my shopping go?  From my memories of Macy’s Americans do a  pretty good show of stuff for short people – oh delight – and narrow feet. ( Thank you thank you for your hispanics, who know what size people should be.)

My nephew tells me that we sail this weekend to Prospect, Cape Cod.  And if we go in a banana shape instead of straight, we just might spy humpback whales.  How can I contain myself?  Memories of a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, hanging over the side of the boat in a storm all the way out and back, trying not to be sick on my daughter who was hanging beside me….So I have patches to put behind my ear, bands to wear on my wrists and homeopathic pills.  Packing yesterday I felt quite sick.  Which just goes to show how much of it is psychological. (As a child I went through different phases.  Magic chocolate with the crunchy middle never worked, but for a while ice cream did the trick, and then I went through a crisps/ potato chips phase.)  I think what might work on this trip is adult pride.

Got myself in a right old state about New York.  Look at tourist information on the net?  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  With an ever growing list of things I want to do, it all seemed too vast, not to mention the expense and the queues. Then I discovered hopstop, a brilliant app that gives walking distances and times in Manhattan.  No problemo.  Finding that I can walk from Penn Station to the Whitney Museum in 45 minutes, and cross central park in 15 has shrunk New York down to a size that I can understand.

The insight that I am not that person who buys a pass to 10 attractions and tries to see them all and do them all in 3 days, a comfort.  As long as your buildings don’t burn me up (did you hear the news in the UK today that a new glass sky scraper/high rise is melting cars parked nearby and setting fire to carpets in offices opposite) I shall be just fine.  Crick in the neck I expect, hot to trot to a couple of cool bars I’ve heard of, and blissfully happy to just visit.  Be there.  Because when you are ‘there’ you find you are ‘here’.

Knowledge of the Land

IMG_5042Jay Griffiths in her intriguing book Wild tells of an Inuit man who got lost in a blizzard and died.  The Inuit elders worry that young people  don’t know the land like they used to.  They are concerned that when knowledge of how the land lies and where they stand within it is lost, it can become a frightening wasteland.  Is New York my frightening wasteland?

On Monday my grandchildren went home to Germany.  The house is deathly quiet – and sticky.  But I found my snow scene of New York under the sofa when I was clearing up.  I’ve had it for many years and it still has twin towers.  I heard the news driving back from the dentist, put on the TV and saw the second plane hit.  How often mundane events pair with the momentous.

I saw New York once in the distance, driving from Boston to Bear Lake.  An unusual view across fields as I remember it.  Tantalisingly close, and extraordinary, standing proud above the fields, and somehow weird that it too had an edge, a place where city turns into countryside.

Boston I know, and my trip begins with a stay near there with one of my nephews. Marblehead looks to be a cute little town, clapboard houses and more than a whiff of the sea.  As my American ex once said, ‘the west coast is like England but moreso’. The summer more summery, the fall – well everyone knows about the hot palette of a New England fall. The winter is a certainty with a depth of snow worth having, and spring simply explodes.  I will be arriving in the extra season the Chinese call late summer, which in England carries the hint of all the other seasons.  One day you sniff the air and think, ‘oh it’s just like spring’, another you shiver and think ‘brrr, winter’s coming’, others shimmer like full summer.

We have had an exceptional summer here with melting roads, and warnings to old people (who nevertheless insist on wearing a vest and thick stockings and closing windows against drafts).   Wasps are buzzing around me (now that conjures up a bizarre image, I suppose I must say ‘leatherjackets’ though that here would conjure up bikers…so much room for misinterpretation).  English people tend not to pack light.  Why would we?  So often local travel requires clothes for all seasons.  I like to say our weather makes us flexible, but it has burdened me with fat suitcases most of my travelling life, even when the family lived in Thailand.  Sometimes it’s been hard to imagine what hot weather feels like.  This glowing summer should prepare me for a Boston fall.

My nephew is a  yachty kind of guy, and has a boat.  I hope for a repeat of an experience I once had sailing in Boston harbour under the flight path of a jumbo jets barely lifted off the end of tarmac.  Whilst I  dread to think the toxins I breathed as I begged over and over ‘do it again’ it remains one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.  I will also enjoy conjuring up images of crates of tea bobbing about in the harbour.  Spain and the UK are at it again upping the anti over a fake reef off Gibraltar, the need humans have to puff themselves up over territory proves memories are long.  Only the other day two elderly men, both 65, came to blows over a parking space at the supermarket car park in BIggleswade. One of them died.  I wonder if there is still a little edge to relationships with British people in Boston?

Badger, moon and rabbit

The moon was burnished copper and huge when I locked up last night, brush strokes of clouds slicing it from time to time.  I scattered peanuts on the terrace, picked chamomile flowers and a sprig of lemon balm for tea and sat outside contemplating the moon as it turned from copper to yellow.  We see the man in the moon, but in the far east they see the rabbit.  Once you’ve seen the rabbit (cocking your head to the side)  you’ll only see the rabbit.

I heard it first, slurping from the water that sits in the lemon tree pot dish.  Then  tick tick tick of claws on slabs.  

The thrill of that little two tone Chanel face appearing in the half light never fails to send a shiver up my spine, even though the little bugger stole all my currants last week.  (If you ever think ‘I’ll pick those tomorrow’ don’t.  Do it straight away if there are badgers in your neck of the woods)  They have very poor eyesight, so the sniffing was loud around my chair where the badger was hoovering up the scattered peanuts.  They have noisy eating habits, crunching and slurping.  I kept still and quiet, it was right by my feet and it wasn’t till I raised my mug slowly for the third time it did a double take and shot off along the terrace.

What noises will I hear in New York?  What will keep me awake there?  I imagine sirens, hot tires on sticky tarmac.

Sunnyside to New York

This is where I live

Sunnyside

This is where I live. It’s also where I’m from, give or take a few Gloucestershire suburbs.
In September I am going to fulfill a lifelong ambition to visit New York. I want to do MOMA, Guggenheim, a bit of Blues, a mouthful of authentic New York cheesecake, Greenwich Village (I only have 3 days)…but I find myself strangely nervous.
Why? I’ve hiked the Alaskan Wilderness, backpacked all over the world, slept out in the Australian bush, meditated with monks on the top of a mountain in Katmandu… I was even propositioned by notorious Gloucester serial murderers Fred and Rosemary West and survived, surely I can do New York?
How is an English country woman of a certain age (certainly not 60, certainly not 70) going to fare in that city?
I know when a storm is immanent birds sing a different tune. That swallows circuit the sycamore on the opposite side of the valley in the evenings because that’s where the bugs hangout. Beans taste better picked fresh from my vegetable plot. New York on the other hand….
What do I know about New York? A colleague’s son was shot dead on the subway. People are ‘to the point’, and don’t have time for English perambulations (one side), but ‘everyone’s much more friendly than in London’ (says Francis). The streets may look ‘a to b’, but try walking them and you could be going all day. (However I must say the grid system looks a breeze compared to the lanes around here.) As a friend from Berkley (yours not mine, which is pronounced Barkley) once said, when I gave my address as Sunnyside Cottage, “do you mean the postman actually has to know all the house names?” Well yes, actually they do.
I’m not staying in a hotel I want the authentic New York experience. I’m staying in an AirBnB flat (oops, apartment) in Chelsea with a couple of young guys. They seemed nice on the web site.
I’ve been preparing. I’ve read Nora Ephron and ask myself regularly ‘What would Nora do?” I’m having one of my front teeth capped so I won’t arrive with an ‘English Mouth’. I’ve been thinking ‘sidewalks’ not pavements. I watched Desperately Seeking Susan, the other night. I serve salad as an hors d’oeuvre .
My friend Francis educated me on the different areas. I have a beautifully drawn map by Constantine Anderson of Midtown Manhattan (pub 1985) given to me by an American lover but my wise friend Francis has updated my map, providing a laminated one that won’t flap about announcing ‘tourist’ every time I check a route.

Today I checked the little guide book he gave me to art in New York. Much as I love the idea of the ‘Silk Stocking District’ or ‘Sunnyside’ (a rail yard as far as I can tell). I know I won’t find what I’m looking for there. But what am I looking for?