bostonian days and cambridge nights

There are two things I’ve learned these past few days:

  1. Overnight train rides are the absolute worst, particularly when you try to curl your entire 5’8 frame on a seat designed for one adult butt. Anachronistic update: Even better when a 10-hour ride ends up taking 14 and you’ve wasted half of your final day off, but I mean, who’s counting.
  2. There’s nothing quite like being in the city during autumn.

Really though. Towering buildings, bright lights, the sound of boots clacking against cement footpaths, jackets and scarves blowing lazily in the breeze created by long strides between rows of shops and busy streets, lines extending to doorways of cramped cafes and coffee shops, seeking refuge from the cold in dusty old used bookstores. I love it all.

This is also, incidentally, Arfa’s glorious view from her dorm room window, so safe to say that I am mad jealous.

Cville is lovely too, of course. I really adore fall in town, because it’s unbelievably peaceful and equally as gorgeous. But it’d been quite some time since my last visit to a bustling city, and I figured it was about time I did it again. Plus, you know, I’m one of those people who likes to spend her break off from uni, exploring other uni’s. It fits in spectacularly with my love of spending my free days walking from one eating establishment to the next. And a weekend spent doing both of the aforementioned activities in the heart of Boston was absolute perfection.

And so, here I am, bundled up in the most wonderfully cheap men’s peacoat I dug up at a thrift store in Cambridge, plopped on one of my oldest friend’s couches at her dorm at MIT, listening to countless cars drive across the Harvard Bridge into a brightly-lit city. It’s half past seven here, pitch-dark out (save for the city lights), and my train back to VA leaves in 2 hours. This post probably won’t see the ‘net until tomorrow evening, but I figured, with a tummy pleasantly full of incredible local ice cream and a few hours to spare, I’d get to writing. (Arfa also wanted me to mention the fact that I am live-blogging straight from MA itself, so I figured I’d oblige.)

I initially decided to come to Boston because I’d never been to Boston. But having finally accepted that this my last real ‘fall break’ and that this time next year I may be busily writing grad school applications, it might be in my best interest to actually think about where I’d like to go. And, to be quite honest, I think Boston is where I’d like to be.

The majority of the weekend has been spent exploring the actual city, which I find unbelievably charming. It’s a really pleasing combination of urban and European, and wonderfully diverse without all of the high-stress and crowdedness of Manhattan. Cobblestone streets and narrow alleys to get you from the very Italian North End to colorful Chinatown and stereotypically Bostonian Southie, and perhaps a detour along Newbury St to remind you just how little money you actually have. It’s a fun city, with its laid-back, hipster-chic city goers and good eats on every corner. Kind of what I imagine would be a combination of Portland and NYC on a smaller scale.

My main purpose of visiting was to check out some of the uni’s around the city, but arguably more importantly, to visit two good friends. Kev and I met up the morning I rode into the city and started it off with what can only be our collective personality summed up in a 30-minute ordeal: tea and shopping. Mostly, me drinking coffee and picking out clothes for him to buy (but Kev took it upon himself to haul my luggage around, so it evened out spectacularly). In any case, it built up quite the appetite for an incredible lunch of hot pot at Q Restaurant in the heart of Chinatown. It also was, incidentally, one of the spiciest meals I’ve ever eaten, so Kev took quite some amusement in watching my slow descent into perspiration and internal torture at our waitress’ inability to refill my glass with water at the rate at which I was devouring it. The jackass.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent perusing Newbury St and the Prudential Center with frequent coffee breaks thrown in for good measure. More shopping for Kevin, more scrutinizing of Kevin’s shopping for me, and a bit of ice cream and excellent conversation for both. Dinner was had at Joe’s American Bar & Grill back on Newbury, and was by far one of the best dining experiences of my life. Our starter – seared ahi tuna – set the stage for what would be an excellent meal, and dim lights and pouring rain set the stage for us more-or-less screaming across the table to be heard. All in all though, it was wonderful. Close to two hours of catching up with one of the best friends one could have over plates of chicken piccata (and gluten-free pasta!) and sirloin steak tips, rounded off with some excellent coffees (because I don’t think 4 cups in one day is enough) was quite possibly the best way to spend a Saturday night in the city. From there, we departed; him for a bus back to New Hampshire and me for a cab over to MIT campus to meet up with an even older friend.

Arfa and I have known each other for about 10 years now. The last time we spoke in person was about 9 years ago. A few months after our fast friendship began, her family moved a couple hundred miles north, and I figured we’d part then for good. Some school grades later, we reconnected over Facebook, exchanging an odd ‘hello’ here and there. Over the past few years, our mutual interests have given us more room for conversation, from anglophilic interests in scones and BBC Sherlock to a general love of traveling and photography. So when I booked my tickets for Boston, I immediately got in touch with her and she very graciously allowed me to spend my weekend crashing in her dorm room.

Our first full day together was spent exploring the entirety of the Boston Freedom Trail, which is more-or-less 2.5 miles of unbelievably patriotic descriptions of monuments, cemeteries, and historic buildings scattered across downtown Boston. It’s actually a pretty lovely way to spend the time, and was a brilliant reminder of how very little I actually learned in grade-school social studies classes.

Our exploration of the trail was interspersed with strolls through used bookshops (effectively doubling the total weight of my duffel) and restaurants, primarily in the North End Italian neighborhoods. We did lunch at a small trattoria off of Prince St, Artú, where we enjoyed some pretty light fare. Riso con faggiole for me and caprese for Arfa, though the highlight of our lunch must have been overhearing one of the waiters discussing the North End’s supreme pastry shop. Arfa had informed me earlier in the day that critics and tourists widely accept Mike’s Pastry as the joint to get some quality cannoli, but she herself believes Modern Pastry, a little ways down the street, is better. The discussion seemed to be resolved when the waiter emphatically declared,

“No. What?! Screw Mike’s! Modern Pastry is where the real Italians go.”

To be quite honest, I was hoping for more of a Godfather-esque debate to break out over pots of spaghetti and plates of ravioli, but hearing a self-proclaimed “real” Italian advocate the superiority of a tiny pastry shop in the North End as though it were the cure-all for bad hangovers, in a lovely Bostonian accent no less, was pretty damn satisfying.

So, naturally, that was our next stop.

Arfa snagged a box of chocolate-dipped ricotta cannoli for herself and her roommate, and I, a gluten-free whoopie pie. Yeah, yeah, I know, it hurt me not to order the cannoli too, but I didn’t really want to spend my last full day in Boston curled up in the fetal position on Arfa’s futon. And besides, the whoopie pie was pretty damn delicious.

After lunch we continued our trek through the trail, strolling through even more parks and cemeteries, and stopping here and there for photos and chit-chat. I actually really loved the cemeteries in the city: one, because I find something absolutely morbidly beautiful about cemeteries, and two, because the ones in Boston are uniquely charming. They lie amidst tall buildings guarded by these really venerable iron fences, which is both inviting and sort of fancifully foreboding at the same time, and strolling through their neat little rows of tombstones gives off the same feeling of wondrousness that you get when you’re browsing dusty spines on old bookshelves. I don’t know, perhaps you just have to visit them for yourself to understand.

In any case, the trail took up the vast majority of our day, and by the time we were done it was nearing dusk. So we hopped on the T (Boston’s metro system for those of you not in the know) and rode back to Cambridge.

We ended up heading back out into Boston soon after, for dinner in Chinatown at a restaurant called Penang (which is, coincidentally, just a stroll past Q Restaurant) with two of Arfa’s friends from uni. It was a lovely time, full of interesting conversation and delicious Malaysian fare, and I went to bed warmed up, wholly satisfied, and infinitely more comfortable than on the overnight train ride the night prior.

My last day in the city was spent exploring the uni’s in Cambridge (I am, in fact, back at my apartment now, having survived the horrific, aforementioned train ride with little but scarring memories to spare [the rest has been sufficiently repressed, I assure you]). I won’t spend much time talking about them here, save to say that each is supremely charming in its own way. MIT for its creative functionality and inviting campus (and, of course, I’m a bit biased since I’ve now spent some time as a pseudo-resident, and for the record, their dining services cater to the gluten-intolerant and celiac sufferers quite splendidly), Harvard for the air of prestige that kind of wafts about you as you stride between its intimidatingly grand buildings, and Tufts for its secluded sense of calm and scholarly design.

I mean, to be honest, I really should have emailed some profs beforehand and met with them individually to fully discuss the graduate program options and course offerings, but even I’m not that motivated during my academic breaks. I was more concerned with figuring out the best eats nearby, in case I do end up enrolling. And Arfa definitely supplied me with some good ones to tuck away for future use.

Toscanini’s and Andala Coffee House, to be precise. Toscanini’s is this really wonderful local ice cream shop that boasts an enormously unique variety of fresh, homemade ice creams and sorbets. We went on two occasions, upon both of which I ordered a scoop of kulfi and a scoop of bananas foster. I mean, if an American ice cream shop manages to expertly recreate the complex flavor palate of a really perfect kulfi (a really dense, South Asian frozen cream traditionally flavoured with cardamom and pistachio), I am absolutely, 100% sold. Arfa ordered the burnt caramel, which was also brilliantly created. I am telling you, if you are in Cambridge at any point in your life, you absolutely must check out Tosci’s.

Andala was charming in a very different manner, but one that catered to my passion of writing papers in local coffee shops with endless supplies of interesting caffeine options in a really spectacular way. The interior is just about the most inviting and comfortable of any coffee shop I’ve ever seen: Middle Eastern in inspiration with its pseudo-bazaar-like draperies hung lazily across multicolored walls, colorful throw pillows lining circular benches, and sturdy wooden tables large enough to splay out a collection of textbooks, notebooks, and laptops. Ideal, in short, and the delicious Middle Eastern fare was just an added bonus.

Definitely one that I’ll hit up if I’m ever a student in the area. Or, you know, just passing through Boston.

It seems that this post has gotten away from me. Sometimes I wonder how I manage to have so many thoughts about one place after having spent only 3 days there, but I suppose, like Mumford & Sons, I will learn to love the skies I’m under.

And on that note, dear readers, I bid you goodnight, and strongly encourage you to check out the most perfectly constructed album ever written in the history of indie/folk/acoustic/rock music, Babel.

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