One if by Land

One if by Land

So, we went up to Boston, my husband and I, about three months after the Boston bombings and found the city to be…absolutely normal. Exactly so, the two Israelis we met for dinner the first night said. They had been living in Boston for over a year and been only blocks away from the bombs when they went off on April 15th. That’s how you have to do it. No matter how awful it is after one of these events, you have to clean it up and go on as if nothing had happened. If you change your whole way of living after every bombing, or indulge in never-ending handwringing, then the bombers have won. They’ve gotten to you.

Though one of the days we were there, the surviving Tsarnaev brother appeared in court and pled Not Guilty to the charges against him, other than it being reported in the Globe with a certain amount of incredulity and disgust, no one seemed to be wringing their hands over it. Most of the victims didn’t even go to court to hear this. The city seemed determined to go on.

Now I’ve never been to Boston before, not really. I’ve only ever been through it on the way to somewhere else. So, when we arrived in the middle of a hot July afternoon, we unpacked quickly and then plunged off into the city down Charles Street toward Boston Common. By the time we were standing in front of this green oasis on Beacon Street, we realized we were horribly hungry and that our dinner date with the Israelis was too many hours away. We started looking around for somewhere to eat.

“What’s that building over there with the entrance awning and a whole bunch of people standing in front of it?” I asked my husband.

He went over to investigate just as a bright blue military-style amphibious vehicle with Boston Duck Tours emblazoned on the side stopped in front of this very building. I could hear the driver inside the bus start his spiel.

“It’s the ‘Cheers’ bar,” my husband came back, grimacing, to tell me.

As he said this, a bright green tourist trolley pulled up behind the “duck.” Inside, its driver began his talk as well. Surprisingly, not that many people got off these vehicles. They all stayed glued to their seats staring out the open windows at the “Cheers” sign and listening to the drivers tell anecdotes about a television program they’d all seen hundreds of times.

“Is there a line?” I asked. I was starving.

“There doesn’t appear to be.”

“Then it’ll do.”

We descended down the stairs Norm made famous.

Now the “Cheers” bar is an unadulterated, unmitigated, unashamed tourist trap. The only Bostonians in there are working, making money off sweaty, overweight, overheated tourists from around the globe taking pictures of themselves on their cell phones. The music is horribly loud and the wait staff is excessively friendly. Despite this fact, they actually served us some respectable pub grub and were polite when we declined to buy two ‘Cheers’ mugs to take home with us as we left.

After lunch we wandered around the Public Gardens and then out to the Esplanade that runs along the Charles River. The sun was shining, the runners were out dodging flocks of waddling Canada Geese and the smell of the sea made you feel like you’d traveled a lot farther away from home than you actually had.

The next day, we did the thing that you have to do the first time you’re in Boston as a tourist. We walked the Freedom Trail. Now we started out on this trail from our hotel which was appropriately named The Liberty Hotel even though up until 1990 it was the town jail. It’s a huge granite hexagon plunked down next to Massachusetts General (where Fox News was camped out reporting on the condition of Teresa Kerry) at the busy intersection of what seemed like at least a dozen roads with a large T stop in the middle.

It’s really at the Common you pick up the trail though. You know you’re in the right place when you see guides dressed up in Colonial outfits and sensible shoes.  We decided, in the spirit of intrepid American individualism, however, and despite the fact that one of us was a Brit, not to take one of these guided tours, but to boldly go it alone along the 2 ½ mile “trail” that is marked with a large red line of paint or brick on the sidewalks that snake through central Boston and up over the Charles River to Charlestown.

There were some parts of the Freedom Trail I liked better than others. I have to admit it was hard to imagine the events of the Boston Massacre standing on a raised median in the middle of noon-day downtown traffic. I was also a bit disappointed to see the Old Corner Bookstore, where I foolishly thought I might buy some books, is actually now a Mexican fast-food restaurant.

The Old North Church was better, quiet and more conducive to thoughts about the momentous events that began the American Revolution in April 1775. I also liked looking back at it from the Charlestown side of the Charles River where I was sufficiently inspired to recite the parts of Longfellow’s poem that I remember to my husband who I fear had to endure a lot of joking about “those British bastards” at several points along the way that day.

To get to Old North Church from Quincy Market is the longest part of the journey and is a walk that wends its way through the North End of Boston which is Italian. As we marched, knees stiffening, past one alluring trattoria after another on our way to see the church where Paul Revere watched for the lantern lights, I reflected upon the appropriateness of the route. I reflected upon the Italians who started immigrating to America many years later, seeking the same things the early patriots fought for: freedom, liberty, and the opportunity to try and make something of their lives without ancient restrictions holding them down. I thought about all the other immigrant groups who came for the same reasons, who keep coming.

Finally, perhaps inevitably, I did come back to the Tsarnaev brothers, who also immigrated to America to escape war and conditions of misery in the Caucasus that had prevailed for centuries. I wondered how all the possibilities America had afforded them could have gotten so twisted up in their hearts and minds that they decided to try to wound the country that had taken them in. I don’t understand it. I can understand being upset about the wars that America has waged since 9/11. I can understand being troubled by the plight of Muslims in countries which are struggling. But I cannot understand blowing people up over it. I don’t want to understand this.

And Boston doesn’t want to understand it either. They just want to go back to their normal lives, to their jobs, their past times, their families. They also want to go back to the times when no one thought twice about going to watch a marathon on Patriot’s Day. We all want to go back to that time, of course, but unfortunately, you can’t go back. The only thing to do, as our Israeli friends told us, is to clean up the mess and go forward, even if your knees are stiffening up, even if it’s a long way between stops.