Late Wednesday night I arrived home with jet lag, a suitcase of gifts and probably an extra couple of inches around the waist, but having left my heart behind. I was lucky enough to spend a week in Boston for a biology conference, and though much of my time was spent in the conference centre, I did manage to get out to see the beautiful city. But before we get onto that, can I ask why all American food is so…
Don’t get me wrong, I have a veery sweet tooth but all the junk food and soda was getting a bit much for me. Perhaps it was because I was catered through the day at the conference but it didn’t help to diminish stereotypes. That said, I’m going to contradict myself and congratulate Boston on its fantastic coffee culture. Caffeine addicts, the lot of us, we headed without fail for a bakery or coffee shop first thing each morning. First morning we found a Bon au Pain. It seems to be a chain in Boston, though not one I recognize from the UK as with Starbucks. We stumbled in and were immediately greeted by a confusing congregation of stations offering hot food, cold food, coffee in a plethora of flavours and types, and a huge warmed cabinet of a cakes and pastries of confounding beauty. Coffee shops seem to brim over mid morning so we went for a wonder and found ourselves in a lovely, autumnal park. Boston is stunning in autumn; the city is so green and America offers a sight that the UK rarely does: front gardens. The trees were intense reds and yellows and we watched leaves form a glittering cloak behind a guy on a ride-on leaf blower.
As Bon au Pain was somewhat out of our way for the days we needed to be at the convention, we decided to make our way in the mornings with the blind faith that we would stumble upon a caffeine source, and our conviction paid off. Perfectly in our path, we found ourselves at Flour. I’ve added a link for those of you lucky enough to live in the area. The bakery, though small and a little out of the way, was evidently popular and I can understand why. The counter was crammed with delicious freshly baked cakes and pastries of all descriptions. The chilled cabinet offered granola and yogurt, trifles and juice. I would happily eat there every morning for the rest of my life. Sadly, I only had time to sample 3 of their treats: a low fat fruit scone (maybe low fat but glazed in sugar and mouthwateringly good), a creamy yogurt granola pot and a vegan apple and cinnamon muffin. The coffee there too is very good.
With our breakfast sorted, we were well set up for the conference as well as for the two days we had either side for sightseeing. As I mentioned, Boston is beautiful in the autumn and my favourite parts had to be the trips we made to Cambridge to visit MIT and Harvard. Harvard Yard is a stunning little haven in the middle of a city, full of trees and traditional architecture. In contrast, MIT paints a beautifully formidable picture in the centre of a busy district. Both Universities have their own charm and are well worth a visit. The presence of the universities give the city a sense of easy homeliness: something I was amazed to feel, coming from such a safe and tiny city as I do. Everyone I spoke to was friendly and eager to help. It was wonderful always having someone to chat to, ask for advice or directions. Occasionally, it gets a little overwhelming for an introverted English girl when every shop assistant wants to stop and talk but the city felt so open and welcoming.
The absolute highlight of my trip though, was a totally unique chance I got to visit the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, connected to MIT. Due to family connections with one of my travel companions, I had the incredible opportunity to meet the eminent scientist Robert Weinberg. One of the leading scientists in his field, Weinberg was incredibly personable and welcoming. He took our group of 8 into a board room and spoke to us – in relatively simple terms – about the research he was doing, the ways he liked to approach it and the multidisciplinary approach he had to science and education, there and at MIT. He wanted not just to teach, but to inspire and this was a sense I got throughout my trip. The friendliness of Boston seemed to be about encouraging and inspiring the same passion that the locals felt for their homes.
This was certainly reflected in another sight I was lucky enough to see. On our last evening, a group of us visited the skywalk at the top of the Prudential centre and watched the sunset over our host city. On first approaching the windows, I think all our breaths were taken away. We hadn’t expected a view over a city we barely knew to be so lovely. Boston feels like a city with continuity. I love London’s jumbled architecture, representing its equally jumbled history. The juxtaposition of old and new is startling, lovely and jarring in equal measures. Boston, in contrast, has a juxtaposition which seems to hold together: though the buildings vary is style, age and design, they sit together as though they were meant to be. As the sun set, the city sat sublimely, quiet and homely. Then, as the lights came on after dark, it seemed to come alive. In the same way the building’s differences work, the contrast of easy welcoming days and bright, exciting nights made Boston somewhere I wanted to stay.
But back to where we started: the food. We simply couldn’t leave Boston without trying some of what is was famous for: seafood! After only a few days I felt as though I could never face junk food again (then immediately contradicted myself by heading back to Flour for breakfast) but the abundance of sugar in so much of the food was getting too much, even for my sweet tooth. For me, sushi is the ultimate antidote to an overdose of sweets, cakes and cookies. It’s light, salty and oh so savoury. We found the most amazing looking freezer cabinets of sushi in one of the supermarkets and honestly, I could have gobbled the whole thing up.
But what Boston is really famous for is the lobster and the chowder. On our first day, we passed a place called Legal Seafood and joked that anywhere that had to put “Legal” in the name was probably dodgy. However, after hearing only good things, we decided to book ourselves a table as a last night treat. It certainly was a treat. Though most things in Boston were noticeably cheaper than home, the menu here made it clear we were in a classy establishment. The staff were so friendly and patient with us while our table made our first attempts at ordering seafood by weight but when it arrived, it was certainly worth it. I ordered a starter of rich, creamy chowder, and popcorn shrimp (from the appetizer menu) to follow: I would never have managed chowder and a main. The portions were massive but all of the fish was cooked absolutely beautifully. After only a couple of mouthfuls of shrimp, I significantly brought down the classiness at our table by manually de-popcorn-ing my shrimp (don’t blame me! There was SO MUCH batter).
I did steal little bites of calamari and lobster from friends in return for tastes of shrimp and chowder. The calamari was the best I’ve tasted. Lobster, though I’m sure it was perfectly cooked like the rest, may not be my thing. I’m not a fan of crab meat and to me this was similar but with less flavour. Overall, we made our way home on the last evening full and contented. Boston had been a wonderful host and we were all regretting we had to leave so soon.