A rapid but never vapid retrospective of what on earth this is about: I leave the United States in two days time and I am giving a little alphabetic eulogy to my time here – time I’ve loved with a piquant sprinkling of things I have loved a smidge less and a dollop of the things that have given me joy.
Today, a pugilists dream … K-O which is, surely, a knockout but just in case it isn’t, I’ll simply present you with my Kilo to Oscar of what has floated my kayak-O during my New England sojourn.
K. K is for Kennedy a name of particular significance to me because it is the name I was born to. In fact as a child, I used to claim that the road in our village called ‘Kennedy Drive’ was named for my father. My school-friends fell for it for years. They fell for the fact that I claimed my Uncle in New Guinea had gone native and stuck a bone through his nose too. I was always a little fanciful. I need hardly tell you that the Kennedy’s of Massachusetts are, and were, a compelling family. Whatever your politics, that much is undeniable. The very first time I entered the USA at Boston Logan Airport the immigration official carefully examined my passport (it was before I married) and said ‘your name is royalty here’. That covers it. Quite naturally, therefore, we set off to lay eyes on splendid Compound at Hyannis Port a few weeks ago and equally splendidly failed having left the address on the kitchen table. But I can report that the curious curled arm that is Cape Cod is absolutely alluring out of season (I’m sure it’s lovely in season too but I’m a bit antisocial when it comes to sharing beaches) and it must be wonderful to pass summers safely cocooned on your estate on Nantucket Sound breathing the clearest air seasoned with a good pinch of seasalt, the lullaby of the ocean and the winds, gentle to brisk, relaxing you from what must surely be such a taxing life. I shall go one-day and present myself as a significantly overlooked ‘Ugly Head’ relly. That’s what Kennedy means, by the way – Ugly Head. Which was a source of extreme embarrassment when it was discovered at school and probably served me right for my earlier misleadings vis-a-vis the road and the Uncle’s nose.
And K is for Kiss. I, most recently come from the land of bisous. To faire les bises in France is the customary greeting. It involves touching cheeks (from 1-4 times depending on where you are geographically not your social standing) and making an air kiss, but crucially not planting lip on cheek. Unless you know the person well, when you can actually kiss the cheeks if you are both of the same mind. Children will present one cheek to be kissed. Here, people recoil in horror if I look as though I am going to kiss them. They seem to favour a sort of bear hug but not a hug as I know it. This is the hug of a flapping bear who is cringing at the dread idea of any physical contact, even through layers and layers of goose-padding, mittens and salopettes. Handshakes work just fine but I find it uncomfortably formal with people I know reasonably well. I fear I have left a trail of the scarred. New Englanders who thought I wanted to Kiss them. I didn’t – I simply wanted the most featherlike glance of cheeks but that, I think, is enough to make them shudder. And K must be for Kindness because it would be quite wrong of me not to mention the kind nature of most people here. And this is New England were the reputation is for brusqueness and a lack of warmth. As a rule the people are certainly direct but once you get accustomed to the bluntness it is not rude at all. ‘The kindess of strangers’ as breathily extolled by Tennessee Williams’ tragic Blanche Dubois is bounteous here, just not at all frilly or frou-froued up.
L. L is for Liberal, Liberatarian and (flinty) Lobstermen … To explain – I was listening to a radio show called ‘Wait, wait – don’t tell me’ which I am a slave to and it was broadcasting from Rhode Island (more later) and the presenter ran through the traits of the various states that make up New England …. Vermont, he declared is full of Liberals (Bernie Sanders is their Senator as a clue), New Hampshire full of Liberatarians, Maine has a population of flinty lobstermen and Massachusetts is full of smug jerks. I couldn’t possibly comment. Really I could not except of course to graciously disagree whilst noting that a term often used for Massachusetts by outsiders is, I’m rather afraid to share ‘the masshole’, so skipping smoothly on I will tell you that L is assuredly for Lobster. The often rugged coastline of New England is a haven for seafood and lobster is the unabashed monarch of revered crustacea. Even MacDonalds trots out Lobster Rolls in season (and has the decency NOT to call it a ‘MacLob’) and there are little stands dotted liberally on the roadside where you can chomp a freshmade bun bulging with lobster meat. Or you can eat in any one of a multitude of restaurants maybe gently lulled, maybe mildly grated by a percussive symphony of crunching claw-crackers. Lobster is part of every gathering at home or away. In Maine they doubtless feel theirs is superior and I shall just smile beatifically and remember that this is my KO and I don’t want a right-hook to blot my lobster pot this late in my stay. L would not be L without three references to Lights. Holiday season has descended and the lights are beginning to blaze. And this is a blue-chip five star blaze. Most get it just right … sparkling but not too showy – subtle with a just the right amount of glitz to remind us all that this IS the season to be jolly. But the few just don’t know when enough is too much and I cannot begin to imagine what the electricity bill is like in January for the homes with not just a light on every corner of the inside and outside of the house and every bush and tree and inch of picket fence but also the seemingly compulsory blow up santa, snowman, reindeer, snoopy, spongebob, minion AND christmas tree. Some are actually bigger than the house and I genuinely kid you not. The other L for Light which it would be wrong of me not to mention is the traffic light. Now call me old fashioned and a little naive but I really do think that there is a value in putting the things on a pole (particularly in the French way which is to have minature set at eye level as well as the big bazookas atop the sturdy stick (or indeed high above the road on a stonking beam). Here, they are strung like cumbersome fairy lights on strings across the street. And when the wind blows they dance scarily above you and in any event if you are first in line it is impossible to see what colour is beckoning you without sitting with ones head cocked sideways like a curious parakeet. And when they change it is straight from red to green with no amber to help you compose for the off, so the next thing, if you have foolishly decided to rest your aching skewed neck for a moment is a rude blast of the horn from the vast truck behind you almost certainly driven by a person who would come up to my navel but who, on account of the sheer beef of the vehicle, truly scare me. This maybe designed to get me moving but is tragically likely to produce a magnificent kangaroo-leap of a stall. And it doesn’t end there. I’m used to turning right on red now but for the first couple of months my nerves were so frayed that my hair started to shed …. red means STOP where I come from but here, unless expressly forbidden by a sign you are free to turn if the road is clear. And let me be very clear. It works REALLY well once you get over the fear factor but the road to being comfortable with it is extremely anxious. And the third L for Light are the lighthouses that dot the coast of New England. And mesmerically lovely they are.
M. M is not merely for moving swiftly on, M must be for Massachusetts (or Massive Chewsets as I amusingly call it when on my own in a darkened room). This is where the Pilgrim Fathers landed in the Mayflower in 1620, this is where Paul Revere rode through the night to warn that the English were on their way to quash the rebellion, this is where the Boston Tea Party took place and this is where the M for Minute Men mustered and lay in wait, a lethal militia fired up and ready to take unfettered ownership of the land they had colonised for their very own and let no faraway King tax them. And M is for Maine where we spent a blissful few days in May and where I experienced not a single Flinty Lobsterman but rather a population of hardworking, decent and laid back people who live in a corner of Heaven in my opinion. If you are British think Cornwall, if you are French think Brittany …. it has the strongest echoes of both on it’s coastline and we didn’t even begin to explore inland. And it has Acadia (which sounds very Greek and necessitates images of Pan posing with his pipes on little cloven feet with those rather muscle-bound furry legs of his) which is a small but perfectly formed National Park where you can climb a mountain and look over the sea all in one piece and the granite is pink and I could lose myself in it forever. In early Autumn I was confused by signs popping up everywhere for large or small M for Mums … being a mum myself and probably on the
larger taller side of mumkind I was disappointed that my retail value was a paltry $5. Eventually the predicatably slow penny dropped in my pint-sized brain and I understood that they are crysanthemums and they adorn porches and entranceways and verandas alongside plethoras of plump pumkins and their entrancing tiny baby cousins and really do herald the change of seasons. In France crystanthemums are put on graves for tousaint and I wonder how such different meanings became attached to the flowers beloved of batallions of Grannies in England and only recently revived as retrotastic there.
N. N is for New York. When our youngest daughter was staying in the last gulp of summer we breezed down and back for a weekend. Taking the Greyhound from Boston (and yes I do know it should be Pittsburg) gave me the opportunity to tire my travelling companions with endless dronings of ‘America’, the Simon and Garfunkel classic. Given that we set out at 4 a.m one day and got home just 45 hours later, it’s unsurprising that I was a split hairsbreadth from the upper cut to KO me on Broadway. We did what we set out to do. We mingled in Times Square, we marvelled at the Empire State (though my Sleepless in Seattle moment will have to wait for another day), we ate monumental and complicated sandwiches in a steaming, noisy deli and I revelled in yelling ‘hold the mustard, extra pickles on the side’ just because I could , we stayed in a tiny appartment in Hells Kitchen, we took the Subway to Harlem, we strolled in Central Park and we took the ferry to Ellis Island stopping to nod to Liberty herself and note that unlike most extremely large statues I did not get my usual creeping feeling of anxst driven unease but rather I found her gentle, unyielding gaze to be comforting. Ellis Island is levelling, moving, disturbing and hugely evocative. And I cannot close our speed-dating moment in the Big Apple without mentioning the 9/11 Memorial. I do not have the words in my frail armoury. It steals your breath in that silent lightening way that only the most iconic places can. I have my memories, I am sure you do too of where you were the day the horror show played out and our lives changed forever. This is a beautifully worked, utterly fitting remembering of those whose lives permanently transformed in the worst way possible either by their own deaths or through their own loss or by being there. And do you know what it really speaks of? It speaks of hope. Which resoundingly smacks the trivia of life into perspective.
O. O is for Ocean State. The Ocean State is Rhode Island, smallest state in the Union and not actually an Island. Go do your own research … I’ve taken far too much of your time already. We visited very briefly a few weeks ago so that I could say I’ve had a foot in every State in New England and I can report that the diner we visited was top notch. We popped into Providence (the State Capital) and took the compulsory foolish-grinning picture of self in RI. I mostly know it, though for the joys of Ocean State Job Lot (Strapline ‘A lot more, for less) … these discount stores are a little like pound stores in Britain. They have what they have and when it’s gone it’s gone in general though some things, including many groceries remain. I buy teabags in Ocean State. Proper Tetley red boxed tea. Strong tea. Tea you can add a dash of milk to, in a sturdy mug and have your spoon stand to attention. Tea to put hairs on your chest. Tea that we proudly call ‘Builders Tea’ where I come from. Not that insipid almost transparent scared of it’s own shadow fake tea that is generally called ‘black tea’ here and ‘thé noir’ in France and is very nice with a slice of lemon or indeed stark naked (the tea, not the drinker – though who am I to stop you except to caution against scalds) as are the ‘infusions’ beloved of the French and the various fruit and flavoured and green teas equalled revered here. But first thing in the morning, when my life-skills only barely stretch to kettle-teabag-mug-pour-milk-drink it is the toothcurling tanin of a British Teabag that I need.
And on that note, I will finish today’s jog through the alphabet and go and brew a proper cuppa.
PS: I couldn’t possibly leave you without a rendition of the song that nearly had me butchered in Hell’s Kitchen by Two Brains and the youngest bratling. And by the way, the man in the gabardine suit was certainly a spy …
The top and bottom pictures were taken in the Minute Man National Historical Park very close to where we live. In summer – the third season I passed here