Boston couldn’t have been more of a contrast to Havana. Cool, ordered and scholarly, it has a feeling close to home. After the first Uber driver didn’t want to stuff our baggage mountain into his nice car and went away muttering, the second one had an SUV and cheerfully took us to the traditional elegance of the Eliot Hotel on Commonwealth Avenue. The doorman nearly fell over his own feet as he scrambled to take charge of our luggage and, with flourishes and jolly commentary, transport it inside.
The Eliot was built in 1924 as offices for Harvard academics, then turned into a hotel. Not a cheap hotel, I should add, even though our room was minimal for two people and looked down on the hotel rubbish pile rather than the handsome boulevard at the front. All the fawning doorman, now turned bellboy, could say about our room was that it was nice and quiet – as he stood, head bowed, right hand cupped, waiting for the obligatory tip. We appealed to the management for a better room but the hotel was fully booked, so we continued to squeeze past each other and check the state of the rubbish from our window six floors above. Apart from a wounding room rate you pay for everything else as well. Room service food is inflated enough to begin with, and then18% gratuity is loaded on top after which you get charged another $2 for the buggers to bring it up in the lift. If the lift is out of order, they probably charge $10 a step to go up the stairs and a further descending fee.
It’s a corny thing to do, but we like to take a city tour as soon as we arrive in a new place. We found the hop-on-hop-off bus, hopped on, but didn’t hop off until we’d done the full loop. It revealed, with the help of a gravel-voiced, wise-cracking driver, that Boston is indeed a beautiful city, proud of its history and distinctive buildings, its sons (like JFK) and its waterways. Apart from designer malls and supermarkets, Boston street shopping is a delight. Near us there are rows of what used to be brownstone style houses, now turned into shops, restaurants and small businesses.
America is such a huge market that branded products offer more variety than they do in Australia. For instance, the Boston Lindt shop has five levels of cocoa percentage in plain dark chocolate. I’d never seen 99% cocoa before, and had to buy a trial block. It contained zero cholesterol, one miserable gram of sugar and hardly any carbs. Furthermore, its military ration-style sealed packaging carried tasting advice to the effect that you should work your way up to 99% via the lesser percentages to prepare your palate for the final assault on the summit. We couldn’t follow this advice because it was printed inside the wrapping. We had to hit the 99% cold turkey. This chocolate is the closest you can get to eating a ceramic tile. It is bitter, brittle and, although has almost no taste, still causes your cheeks involuntary retraction. The eating advice finishes by suggesting you should let it melt in your mouth, which I doubt would happen in under an hour, if ever, and have coffee at the ready as an antidote.
Still on the subject of eating, the Eliot Hotel has an adjoining Japanese derivative restaurant called Uni. We bumbled in there last night and ordered from a menu without knowing what we were doing. It turned out that the chef, Ken Oringer, is a famous award winner with 16 restaurants now under his control. The flavours of the small-portion dishes we ordered was exceptional, including two bowls of brussel sprouts that were cooked with such imagination as to be almost unrecognisable. The meal, along with a potent cocktail or two saw us, in a state of delirium, booking in for the tasting menu two nights later. The cost will be ridiculous, but at times like that I remind myself that the end of my life is much closer than the beginning, and receding bodily pleasures have not yet included eating.
Another one of my pleasures in visiting Boston was to see my old Murrumbeena and Wesley College school friend, Ross Terrill who, for eight years, was Professor of Government Studies at Harvard University and then went on to write best-selling books on China – among other subjects. Ross has been a resident of Boston for 30 years and I went to visit him in his apartment. A true unorthodox academic, he bought part of a former carpet factory turned into a massive living room, a kitchen and bathroom lined up along the inside wall and one bedroom at the back. His loaded bookshelves could be taken for a school library. He has big, comfortable leather lounges, tables, cabinets and memorabilia scattered around. Downstairs are umpteen filing cabinets holding his written records. His diaries alone run into hundreds of thousands of words.
Ross has a business partner and together they have invested in property and a limo service. They arranged to pick me up in the limo yesterday. I looked for a modest black car as I waited in the street, but along came the latest Cadillac SUV – huge, black and utterly luxurious. I’ve never been in a quieter car. It had been used the previous day to transport a Saudi princess around Boston. She left with 17 pieces of luggage.