July 2006 Firestarter column
by Collie Collier

I recently spent a long weekend in the not-really-uncharted wilds of the Northeastern US, for a family gathering. This was a very mixed event for me, interestingly enough, as the family was thrilled and I had a great time. On the other hand, I managed to spend much of the weekend and the next two weeks struggling with being quite sick. Also, I am seriously not happy about making a trip on my credit cards — having to pay that interest annoys and worries me deeply. However, once again my anthropological fascinations got the best of me, and I've written down some of the interesting things I noticed while there.

Keeping in mind I saw only parts of Connecticut and Boston, Massachusetts, and that generalizations are fraught with peril, I shall nevertheless throw myself on this grenade for the fun of it. Avast, ye lubbers! Generalizations and mixed metaphors off the port bow — man the torpedoes and full speed ahead!


Boston Public Gardens,
looking towards Logan Airport

There were several differences from what I'm used to (here in California) that I found in Boston, or at least those parts I was in. For example, the non-commercial houses appeared to have lots of brick, oddly shaped wood siding, and building stones incorporated in their design — frequently with several of them being used all at once. The really curious effects came from the ones where you could see differing levels of skill in their application — it was always a bit disconcerting to see professionally laid stone or brick side-by-side with sloppier versions of the same thing.

Inside the Boston buildings were all kinds of wonderfully weirdly shaped little rooms, all with much higher ceilings than I'm used to. Their water is different too — very "soft," with a low mineral content. I know that's a good thing overall, but when you're used to hard water effectively stripping soap or conditioner out of your hair, you plan accordingly. Needless to say, my realization of this occurred when it took quite some time to get all that damn conditioner out of my hair.

It was nice to see more complete, multi-story private homes and buildings, though. Out here in Silicon Valley you tend to see lots more single- or double-story buildings, instead of three or four story ones, and no brick at all. I know they're a liability in earthquakes, but still, I enjoy the visual variety. Admittedly, in San Francisco there are multi-story apartments, but they're all cheek-by-jowl, not discrete buildings with little surrounding yards.

The commercial signage I noticed had a more 'antique-y' feel than you'd find out here, with lots of curvy topped, free-hanging signs in dark colors with gold trim and lettering. I found this understandable, though — 'antique' in Boston doubtless means something very different or older than it does in California. Also, for some reason my brain thinks of the Irish when I think of Boston, so I was fascinated to notice a lot of Spanish — even Arabic — on some of the commercial signs.

I noticed a lot more aged-seeming things too, like old, un-repaired damage or massive rust on street signs and fences and such. Being next to the ocean might have something to do with that, but I think there's also a general feel of things being older — almost tireder, in a way — in Boston than in Silicon Valley. I should check San Francisco, as another port town, to see if the appearance of slow disintegration and rusting is indeed more related to the ocean than to age.

Then there's the Boston road signage — or rather, the lack thereof. I was frankly astonished to realize it was impossible for me to use a MapQuest printout to travel a less-than-5-mile route on my own, due to the lack of road signs. Amusingly enough, when I called my friend in Boston for help on how to reach his place, I realized I had to give him two parallel roads instead of a crossroad — because I couldn't find any signs for the intersecting road! As my friend put it, Boston roads are what you get when you allow the cows to determine where the roads should go. My aggravated reply was that it was clear the responsibility for the signage was left up to the cows as well!

Swan boats in the Gardens,
by the suspension bridge

Fortunately for my sanity, I soon figured out how to safely and calmly navigate the uncharted wilds of downtown Boston — always take along a native guide! Doing so gave me the peace of mind to watch how folks navigate Boston, which is an interesting experience in and of itself. For example, I noticed the Boston roads have very little in the way of painted lane markings, let alone signage. This means, interestingly enough, that Boston drivers are constantly politely challenging and re-negotiating who goes where on the roads. Thus at one point (when I was driving on the outer edge of a traffic circle) I had a car on the inner part of the circle speed up a bit and drive unexpectedly in front of me in order to leave the circle.

As an out-of-stater I was initially quite annoyed, but over the weekend I noticed this sort of thing repeatedly. Basically the drivers seem to calmly move wherever they want, whenever they want, and whomever is already there simply makes room for them, regardless of whether the road is marked for two cars there or not. It was… a bit odd but curiously friendly seeming.

As a city, Boston seems to have a veritable ton of wonderful schools, which makes me envious. Another source of envy for me was the excellent, clean, well-marked underground train system — I think it's called the T? All the stations I saw were really nicely decorated with random bits of art too, which was neat.

Curiously I noticed very little of the vaunted Boston accent amongst the students riding the T at the same time I was, although the incoherency of official announcements over the train's intercom seems to be a standard across the nation. I also noticed the clothing on the folks I saw there had far less 'rap' influence than you usually see here in Silicon Valley. It was actually rather nice to not constantly have folks' undies showing as attempted fashion statements.

And now for the more generally northeast…

Altering states

On the whole, my entire 'driving experience' was not too bad — and I did a lot of driving that weekend. The entrances and exits to the toll roads were bottlenecks, of course, but kept the vehicles moving pretty smoothly, and the roads themselves were quite nice. The lanes were a little narrower in places than I was used to, but that could be mostly my imagination, considering the incredible, constant, driving rain — good heavens, do you ever have sunshine on the road out there?! ;)

I rather liked the really nice roadside areas they had too: clearly and repeatedly marked with what facilities were available and how far to the next one, and with easy access roads. The drivers were generally pleasant, usually wandering around the road and yielding with the same calm tolerance I noticed in Boston. There wasn't too much cutting-off of other vehicles that I saw, and even in horrific, rain-blinded, stop-and-go traffic everyone seemed to be more tiredly accepting than steaming. Also, when it got too hard to see through the rain, folks actually slowed down! Radical.

A random side note regarding my driving experience: my borrowed Neuros rocks! Wow, the ability to have a huge bundle of songs of my choice playing any time I wanted is just wonderful! Okay, the machine isn't as white or skinny as the iPod — so what? Homogeneity is boring, and if I wanted nothing more than skinny whiteness I'd solicit Michael Jackson. Also, since my weekend in the Northeast I've learned yet more about the Neuros as compared to the iPod, and I must say I'm quite impressed. If you want to know more about the spiffness that is Neuros (or if you're dying to hear about my flying experience, which I didn't include here), e-mail me! ;)

So, to return to the Northeastern US: the countryside was incredibly, lushly green, which was nice, and thronged with trees, trees, more trees! There was also a lot of stone of a different type than I'm used to; I think it was granite? I don't know for sure, but I did notice it had very different striations and 'shear patterns' than what you tend to see here in California. Also, during the summer here the grass turns gold like a lion's mane when it scorches in the heat, and while it's pretty, I still miss the green and the trees. I really like trees — we need more of 'em in California. On the other hand, I do like the longer horizons we get out here.

There were two things I noticed in common to both CT and Boston as well as CA: they have just as much of a nifty mix of ethnicities as we do; and they also have lots of cool statuary in public places, just like we do here too. Those are both aspects of life which I enjoy, and it's nice to see in some ways people are people no matter where you go.

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