Posted in Life, Writing

Snow, Massachusetts style

I started this piece on February 18th, 2014 and it’s now time to post it. I wanted a reminder of all the ‘fun’ of snow in Boston for when we’re no longer living here!

I’m writing this as snow is pouring, wait, is that the right word?  Does snow pour? Does it lash?  Whatever it does when it’s falling hard, that’s what it’s doing now.  It’s the third snowstorm for Boston in the space of a week, and frankly I’m getting a little sick of it.

Coming from two countries where snow is uncommon, I was captivated for the first winter. It was fun to see snow falling, to put on my snow boots and crunch through it, and to see the buildings and open spaces transformed.  In February 2013, when Boston had its snowpocalypse, two feet of snow fell.  Cars were buried, and you could sink up to your hips in the drifts by the side of the road.   It was very exciting for us Boston newbies.

Now, after suffering two Boston winters, I’ve noticed some customs and challenges Bostonians face when it’s snowing.

Firstly, The Weather gets top billing on the news. The Storm Team is there to tell you all about it, to show gratuitous images of cars slow-motion crashing, people with umbrellas tilted against the wind, and children sledding and making snowmen.  The forecasters can barely contain themselves as they give snow depth predictors and estimated length of the storm.  This occurs as soon as the word ‘snow’ features in the long range forecast.  “Are you sick of the snow? Well, there’s more on the way,” they say with glee. “Say it ain’t snow” was one of the more amusing headlines I saw.

Aside from entertaining weather reports, the main good thing about a snowstorm is the prospect of a snow-day.  The city managers will not hesitate to pull the shutters down on schools and offices if it looks remotely like the commute will be affected by the weather.  Native Bostonians seem to live for snow days and the school calendars have contingency for a certain number each year.

The next thing that happens when it snows is that everyone forgets how to drive. There are two types of drivers in the snow (not including the ones that refuse to drive).  There are the people who insist on going at 10 mph everywhere – the hybrid-car drivers, those without four-wheel drive, for example; and there are those who insist on still going at the speed-limit (+10 mph of course, this is Boston after all).  The latter group includes the larger vehicles: buses, trucks, articulated lorries, utes, and snowplows.  The faster drivers spray sheets of brown muddy slush into the windscreens of the slower drivers, and so the roads become a battle field.  Drivers in this state are not known as Massholes for nothing.

Bostonians also never clear their cars of snow.  It’s apparently illegal to drive with any snow on your car but that doesn’t stop locals only scraping off one half of their windscreen and part of the back window and driving around with inches of snow covering the rest of the car.  It’s common to see mail vans with six inches of snow on their roofs all winter.  It’s when the snow suddenly dislodges and falls into the path of the car behind that it gets interesting.  Massholes indeed.

There are rules in Boston and surrounds about clearing the snow in front of your property.  It has to be done within a few hours of the snow stopping or by lunchtime if it stops snowing overnight.  This highlights the next custom of Boston snow – the tools people use to move it. There are your standard snow-shovels – with a much bigger scoop than ordinary shovels, and often made of plastic.  There are your machines that suck up the snow and shoot it out of a funnel to the side.  There are the bobcat snowplows to clear long footpaths, and the machines that look like a roadsweeper with a brush from a carwash at the front, which somehow brushes the snow aside.

And then there are the snow-plows proper.

It never occurred to me that plowing the snow as it’s falling, rather than waiting for it to stop, was a good idea.  In Boston, the snowplows work continuously – once the snow is about an inch thick.  The snowplows are not necessarily custom vehicles; they are often just a ute with a plow on the front.  They race (see above) up and down the main streets, sometimes in convoys of up to three, pushing the snow to the side of the road.  You can easily find yourself under a shower of snow, slush and grit if you’re on the footpath when they go past.

Snowplows, while a great idea, have some drawbacks.  Because the road is covered in, well, snow, it’s impossible for the driver to see potholes, manhole covers and any other dints or uneven places in the road. This means unless the road is billiard table smooth (i.e. never in Boston), the plow blade regularly crashes through the tarmac.  You can hear the characteristic rumble of the plow approach – followed by a bang as it hits a bump.  As a consequence the roads are completely ruined each winter.  If you’re unlucky, like us, and live opposite a parking lot, you will also find yourself listening to a chorus of reversing-beeps day and night as the plow tries to get into every corner.

Which brings me onto the next challenge of snow: what happens when it melts.  The snow invariably starts melting to some extent within 48 hours of falling.  Puddles form in several places – in the aforementioned potholes, and in the places where it is backed up by drifts of snow, usually at dropped curbs. The drains of course are all covered with, you guessed it, snow.  So, great lakes form, and when I say lakes, I mean wide areas of slushy, wet, brown water that are impossible to jump and are at least calf-deep.  Snow boots or rain boots are essential.

When the potholes are full of water, walking on the footpath again becomes hazardous.  The roads are narrowed because of the snowdrifts, so cars often cannot avoid the potholes. If you see the characteristic brown spray pattern on the snowbank by the road you’d better wait for the cars to pass unless you want a brown-ice shower.

The sign that winter is nearly over can also be found in snow. According to a long-time Boston resident, when the Storm Team first get their snow prediction wrong – i.e. an anticipated snowpocalypse turns out to just be a light dusting – this is a sign the weather is improving.  Gradually the weather forecasters temper their enthusiasm for snow storms and before you know it, spring is on the way.

Thankfully we’ve had our first false-prediction of the season so I’m hoping winter will be over soon!

Posted in Travel, Writing

New Zealand – November 2013

I know I’m not the first person to say this, and I definitely won’t be the last, but New Zealand is a spectacular country.  We only spent a few days there but there’s no doubt we’ll be going back one day.

New Zealand, to me, is a bit like Australia but with only the good bits.  Everyone seems very happy, the food is fresh and succulent and cheap (three punnets of strawberries for $6? – don’t mind if I do), and everywhere you turn there’s an amazing piece of geology.

We started our week-long trip flying from Boston to Auckland via San Francisco.  Our first surprise came on our Air NZ flight where we found the legroom to be plentiful and the food to be not just edible, but actually tasty.

On landing in Auckland we did what everyone else seemed to be doing, and got on a shuttle bus, rather than a taxi.  Our reward was a sunrise drive through town with the radio blasting.  Our next surprise came when we arrived at the Sofitel at about 7am and were told our room was ready.

I should mention here that both of us were recovering from colds, and my husband had put his back out not 24hrs before getting on the flight.  Despite this, after a long and steaming hot shower each, we decided to walk into the city centre, get breakfast (hot chocolate, coffee, a scroll and some wifi) and have a quick look at the sights.  But about 12pm we were both so ridiculously exhausted that we couldn’t resist our bed.

In the evening we met up with an old school friend for dinner on the harbour.  We both decided on fish and chips and when they arrived we devoured it.  We commented that this was the best food we’d eaten in many months: to which she replied “this isn’t actually that good”.

The next day we collected our hired red Suzuki Swift, fired up the GPS and hit the road.  Our destination was Rotorua, geology capital of the world (in my mind).  Along the way we stopped at a roadside café in the bright sunshine for lunch and a supply of strawberries. Shortly afterwards, back out on the road, we found ourselves in an epic thunderstorm.

The road was almost deserted, but not quite deserted enough to pull over safely and wait it out.  I actually couldn’t see the road at all – but I could see the taillights of a lorry and a car in front (both still going at 100 km/hr despite the conditions) so I tried to keep them in my sights.  We could hear the thunder and see the lightning, and at one point they came together right over the car. The intensity of the noise made my husband think we’d had a quadruple blowout, and it felt to me like we’d run into a brick wall.  Thankfully the whole thing only lasted about 15 minutes.

We arrived in Rotorua shaken but in one piece.  The afternoon jetlag had caught up with us again but after unloading our stuff at the RotoVegas Motel I dragged us out to Kuirau Park to look at the steaming mud pools and get a lungful of rotten egg smell.

With that duly experienced we slumped back to the motel and then I was dispatched across the road to find champagne, bread and peanut butter while my husband filled up the extremely deep spa bath.  And after an hour of hot-bubbly soaking, champagne drinking and strawberry eating we felt much more human.

The next morning we were out the door by 9.30am to drive to Wai-O-Tapu for the 10.15am blowing of the geyser (not pronounced ‘geezer’, we were told).  The ranger performed the unceremonious dumping of detergent into the vent which led to a pretty spectacular blowout lasting tens of minutes.

Wai-O-Tapu is not just Lady Knox geyser, however, there is a spectacular volcanic park to explore too. We saw boiling waterfalls and steaming lakes and walked over rocks that made our shoes melt.  It was well worth the considerable entrance fee.

That afternoon we drove to Napier through more thunderstorms, stopping off at Lake Taupo for lunch and an icecream.  Napier proved to be a disappointment – so much for a beachfront town. It turns out there is no beach. However the Art Deco buildings are nice if that’s what you’re into.  We got rained on collecting dinner then spent a night at the inaptly named Beachfront Motel.

In the morning we decided that because we hadn’t seen a beach we’d drive to where the Rough Guide said there’d be one: Ocean Beach, a few kilometers further along the coast.  After getting lost, passing a place where half the road had vanished over the cliff, and descending a steep slope we found ourselves at a wide, inviting looking, and most importantly, sandy, beach.

The carpark, however, looked more like a campsite and it was occupied by a few cars and a campervan. The occupants of the campervan stared at us menacingly through their dreadlocks. We were determined to go on the sand though, and after walking near the water for about ten minutes, disturbing some kind of nudist camp and worrying about if all our stuff was going to be nicked, we beat a retreat, jumped in the car and headed for the road to Wellington.

The drive to Wellington was memorable only because of the massive mountain we had to cross.  We were by far the slowest vehicle on the road and we could imagine the people behind us yelling profanities at us.  We pulled over frequently to let people pass, and when we reached the peak, somewhat unexpectedly, we stopped to take in the view.

We arrived at New Zealand’s capital along the waterfront, giving us a spectacular vista of the city that brought to mind Hong Kong.  It was pre-rush-hour and we had to fight traffic to get to our hotel – the Capital View Motor Inn – which indeed had an excellent view of the capital.

After struggling to get our luggage in the lift, and the lift struggling to get us to the 5th floor, we decided to go to the Botanic Gardens (at the top of one of the city’s many mountains), via the cable car.  We walked into town, found the train stop, and in short order ended up at the top of the mountain with another spectacular view.

Once again, the evening jetlag and general exhaustion from a long drive caught up with us so we decided to just find the rose garden. Of course, this proved to be on the opposite side of the (very hilly) complex.  It was worth it however – a little oasis of fragrant calm and colours.

That evening we had cheap laksa on Cuba Street.

In the morning I insisted that we needed to go to the Mt Victoria lookout before catching our flight to Christchurch.  This resulted in much swearing at traffic and a bit of getting lost but we were rewarded with a quite breathtaking view in all directions.

Wellington Airport turned out to have a Lord of the Rings obsession but the flight to Christchurch was uneventful.  We picked up a much less posh, but much more powerful, hire car in Christchurch and after a stop at McDonalds for lunch (yes, I know) we drove to Ashburton which is an unspectacular little place on a freight train line.

That afternoon and the next day were spent on wedding activities – the whole reason we’d come to NZ in the first place.  In the morning we availed ourselves of the café next to Countdown (aka Woolworths aka the supermarket) and had an excellent hot chocolate.  I was amused to see the signs in the car park referring to “trundlers” – i.e. shopping trolleys.

The wedding took place at the Longbeach Cookshop, which had the most amazing gardens outside of the UK I have ever seen. The air was filled with birdsong and in every direction were flowers and trees and grass and ponds.

The next morning we dragged ourselves out of bed for 10am checkout (why so early?  And we had to miss Doctor Who!) and again, I insisted we go the long way around to the airport so we could have a good look at the mountains on the way.  Ashburton, and in fact the whole Canterbury region, is one big plain with massive mountains towering in the distance. With the mountains duly observed and with the ubiquitous milk trucks getting in our way constantly we still managed to make it to the airport in plenty of time for our flight to Australia.

And so concluded our first NZ adventure: we were both thoroughly impressed with the country and all it had to offer, and we’ll most certainly be back.

My hotel reviews are on Trip Advisor.

Photos of the trip below.

Posted in Travel, Writing

India – the perils of delegation

It was my and Cat’s turn.  We wrote a list (‘feed twenty-five tonight’), grabbed the red handles of the giant green canvas shopping bags and stepped off the truck.  The calls of ‘good luck!’ from our fellow travelers disappeared into the traffic.

Two white teenaged girls, one busy, grubby outdoor market in Jaipur, India.  What could possibly go wrong?  The oppressive monsoonal clouds and vague grumbles of thunder answered our question.

Cat and I were the two youngest members of an overland adventure travel group, who had started in London about three months earlier and was making its way to Kathmandu.  There were two dozen of us on The Truck and every night a different pair of us cooked for the rest, meaning each pair’s turn came around every 10 days or so.  Cat and I, being just teenagers, not having even really left home yet, had no idea how to cook for one, let alone group such as this.  We’d had many disastrous meals along the way, the highlight of which was the burnt rice pudding dessert just outside Damascus.  We’d decided that tonight, since we were in India, we’d do a curry.

By chance, where we had disembarked the truck was by a vegetable stand.  The owner, wearing a once-white shirt and a grin, looked at us.  We looked at him, then looked at the stall.  We pointed, he looked blank; we touched, he became animated; we held up fingers and showed cash, he started packing. Rupees were exchanged, and we crossed a few things off our list.

Evidently while our transaction was occurring someone who spoke English had been summoned.

“Please, I can help you.” It was a statement, not a question.

Cat and I had been on the road for long enough to know that saying “no” to such an invitation would not have any effect.  With an exchange of glances it was agreed, we would use help.

“Please, what you looking for?”

“Chicken,” we said, choosing the hardest thing on the list.

“No problem,” the world-standard answer came.  “How much chicken you want?”

This is where our hard-won experience hadn’t helped us.  Throughout the journey, when it was our turn to cook, we had always chosen vegetarian.  Rice with everything, veggies, and spices.  However, tonight the group had asked, insisted actually, that we cook something with meat.

We had no idea how much chicken was needed to feed 25 people.  So we said, innocently: “to feed twenty five”.

The Market Man understood: here were two girls who had been given a job they were wholly unsuited to.  They had rupees and were clueless.  How could any self-respecting entrepreneur resist?

“Please,” he said, “I help you, show me everything you are needing”

We offered our list, and immediately several small boys were summoned.  Inquiries were made to us, handwriting deciphered; the amount of rupees available was ascertained.  Cat and I were now entirely within their trap.

“Please, how much time you have? One hour OK?”

We agreed. And with that our list and shopping bags were whisked away.  By this point a reasonably large crowd had gathered and were watching with interest.

“Ok, now come for tea.” Another statement.

We relented.  We knew where this was going – someone’s cousin’s carpet shop or the like.  We were not wrong.

We were steered along the main road then into a side street.  In hindsight we should have felt at least a little wary, but, we were road-hardened, world-weary. Plus there were two of us: we knew we’d survived worse.

Our destination was not a carpet shop but a jewelry store.  It was the size of the inside of a car, with a narrow bench counter fixed to one wall and a low table with two chairs in the center of the room.  The walls were lined with cabinets , the shelves just a few inches wide, the glass doors latched with inadequate hooks.  A few earrings were hooked into the velvet lining the insides. It was extremely dark.

Market Man left us to the owner of the shop.  He wanted to know everything; where we came from, why we were here, where we were going, and what we thought of India and Jaipur.  Eventually we got to the business at hand. He brought out all kinds of silver/pewter jewelry – earrings for Cat, necklaces and bracelets for me.  No prices were discussed.  Tea was served.

Cat and I were, of course, not at all interested in buying jewelry. As far as we were concerned, we’d offloaded our shopping responsibilities, gotten a free cup of tea and a sit down, and soon we’d be making our excuses and leaving.

But our hosts had seen our kind of traveler before.  Not your usual European or American tourist, flashing money and complaining about the noise and the smell.  Our kind of traveler was one that wanted an ‘experience’, a story to tell their friends, something to show for it.  Show us an experience, and we’d be willing to buy something for the trouble.

Despite our road-weariness, our self confidence and our safe knowledge that two white girls would be missed if anything befell us, our lack of sense was plainly irresponsible.  No-one knew where we were, this was 1998 so had no internet, no mobile phones, and we didn’t have the phone number of the accommodation where our group was staying. At this precise time we had no idea where we were in the city, and we had a big pile of money in our pockets.  Our group didn’t know where we were either.  It took me about ten years before I got the courage to tell my mother what happened next.

With our disinterest in his range of jewelry obvious, the owner informed us he and his brother would take us to another jewelry shop where the selection was better.  Again, glances were exchanged, and an agreement was reached.  We would go to the next jewelry shop.

What we weren’t expecting were the motorbikes.

I had never ridden on a motorbike before, as passenger or pillion and I’m pretty sure Cat hadn’t either.  But no matter: we were thinking YOLO before it was even a thing.

We each got on a bike behind a brother.  There were no helmets of course, and we were just wearing cotton trousers and T-shirts. We were about to experience Indian traffic up close and personal.

The sky rumbled.

We inched along the back alley until we came to the T-junction with the main road. From our low vantage point it seemed that everything on the road was bigger than us. Trucks thundered past, buses honked and spewed diesel smoke, bicycles rushed in every direction and taxis zoomed in and out.

My driver took a run at the traffic into an imaginary gap and I reflexively recoiled.  This had the disastrous effect of putting the bike off balance and we nearly both ended up in the street.

“Please, don’t do again.”

Cat was already ahead on the other bike.  With an arm outstretched we merged into the traffic. It was terrifying, and exhilarating.

When we finally arrived at the next jewelry shop and the usual round of introductions, questions and viewings, Cat bought some earrings.  Then we asked to go back to the market.

Another hair-raising ride later we were deposited at the market, which was now strangely almost deserted.  Our helpers were waiting for us, bags bulging.  We made a cursory inspection, mainly to check they weren’t just filled with bricks, checked the receipt, which of course had been extremely inflated, paid up and grabbed a rickshaw back to the accommodation.

We had just made it through the gates when the heavens opened.  The rain was intense so we set up the cooking tables under an outdoor shelter near the fish pond in the grounds.  A couple of our guys had stayed behind to help us cook and they opened our bags as the rain sheeted off the roof and splashed our feet.

“What the **** is this?” shouted Allan over the rain. “Is this supposed to be chicken?”

In fairness, it was chicken, but the best that could be said about it was that it was rotten chicken.  Utterly.  Not only that, it had soaked all it’s rotteny goodness through the canvas bags, making them rancid as well.

The boys were not happy.

The rest of the group were also not happy, having been caught in the monsoon, soaked to their waists in the flooding streets and then coming back to find that dinner was going to be a bit thin on the ground that evening.

Cat and my reputation for being the worst cooks in the group was safe.  We didn’t care. We’d had an adventure. Not that we told anyone exactly what happened that afternoon.


True story – fine details added where memory failed. More stories to come.


Posted in Resolutions, Writing

Film Night with John Williams – review

What could be better than hearing the Boston Pops, conducted by John Williams, playing classic movie themes?

John Williams walking on stage to conduct the Boston Pops.
John Williams walking on stage to conduct the Boston Pops.

Williams was in fine form on Friday night at a packed Symphony Hall in Boston.  The performance, and the first half, started with The Cowboys Overture and over the next hour Williams led us through three pieces from Lincoln and onto Marion’s Theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Random youtube clips of music in this post — not taken by me.  This one – Marion’s Theme.

The highlight of the first half was the flight-themed movie-clip-coordinated Flight to Neverland from Hook. Williams directed the Pops with precision as we tried to name all the clips – our tally was: ET, Harry Potter, Toy Story, Star Trek, Up, Wall-E, Superman, Iron Man, Star Wars, Hook, and Dragonheart. There were, of course, many more. Looking over his shoulder, as we were able to from the second balcony, we were given a glimpse of how Williams operates: he has his own personal screen of the movie with an added sweeping vertical line to count down when the picture is about to change.

Flight to Neverland.

The second half was even more spectacular.  The opening piece was entitled A Tribute to the Film Composer, another clip montage with brilliantly familiar themes. It was a little strange to hear the 20th Century Fox theme whilst not sitting in front of a TV. We heard snippits from Titanic, The Great Escape and The Godfather, among many others.

Williams then gave the audience a masterclass on how to score a movie scene.  The clip was The Circus Train Chase from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  He talked us through the clip without music, pointing out where he decided to change the feel of the music, where he inserted pauses and where he introduced the first hint of the Indiana Jones theme.  He then conducted the Pops in the actual score, alongside the clip. Amazing.

The Circus Train Chase – you can see the sweeping line prompt Williams uses.

The Duel, from the Adventures of Tin-Tin, followed — a sword-fighting mélange of epic proportions. In my view this was by far the best coordinated music-clip piece of the evening.  Naturally the piece ended, with second-perfect timing, on the clip from The Last Crusade where Indiana Jones dispatches the sword-wielding samurai.

When Williams introduced the final (minus two encores) pieces – from Star Wars – he noted that since a new addition to this movie set was being planned for 2015 he’d “better eat my wheaties”.  The Star Wars themes Throne Room and Imperial March were magnificent.

Williams left the stage and was given a standing ovation, but of course he came back for an encore.  The Pops played a crowd-favourite: the theme from ET.

Again Williams left the stage and was given another standing ovation. From our high vantage point we could see he had closed his music folder on this stand, but this still wasn’t the end.

Out he came again to what we can only assume is a Pops tradition: Stars and Stripes Forever.

Stars and Stripes Forever.

The audience enthusiastically clapped along and Williams barely did anything as conductor, keeping only a cursory rhythm with his baton.  As the music continued he turned to the audience and suddenly we were being conducted.  He motioned for the audience to cease as they came to the middle of the piece. As the end approached the clapping resumed, and the flag was (literally) unfurled. Williams turned to the audience again and with a flourish signaled the end of the piece and the end of the concert.

We had a fantastic evening and it’s one we look forward to repeating this time next year.

Program and ticket

Posted in Writing

Creative writing :: The Meeting

I wrote this in February 2009 while on a creative writing course at the ACT Writers Centre in Canberra, Australia.

She crouched defensively, under shelter, peering out at the intruder.  The intruder contorted his body to get a better look.  He was tall and his joints creaked.  The slightest unconsidered movement from either would break the spell they had created.

The sun was beating down, the air thick with humidity.  Birds were sheltering in the green-leaved trees, and even the baby magpies were silent, too hot pester their parents.

The man was in the sun.  She was in the shade.  She had the advantage.

He carefully shuffled closer, his kneecaps digging into the concrete.  She silently edged backwards.  He held out his hand, but she did not move.  He knew making a grab, or chasing would not work.  She was quicker and had more stamina.

The man was desperate to make contact and started to make soothing noises, friendly greetings that he thought would help. His voice was as sweet as honey to most, but not to her.  She bared her teeth and spat.  He stopped. Clearly this was not going to work.

They had seen each other, glimpses, most days for the past month, but she was always wary.  What did she have to gain from the meeting?  She knew these situations could go one of two ways.  One way was clearly unacceptable, and therefore, so was the risk.

As a last resort he decided to talk to her in her own language.  He held out his hand and said friendly words. These words sounded harsh to him, but they were as smooth as silk to her.

Her eyes widened.  She was interested.  He continued to talk, not moving, but holding out his hand.  She edged closer, and closer.

Now she was in front of him, out in the sun, cautiously getting an impression of his scent.  He continued to talk and moved to stroke her head.  She could no longer resist this creaky man, his voice no longer harsh.

She knew this was going to go her way. As he rubbed her ears and whiskers she purred loudly, and was no longer afraid.

Our neighbourhood cat - we played but he wasn't allowed in!
Our neighborhood cat in Canberra- we played but he wasn’t allowed in!