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 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!
Posted in Australia, Half-marathon, Writing

Sydney Morning Run

via Mapmyrun.
via Mapmyrun

Sunday, March 10, 2013

At 7.30am I looked at the clock. Too early. Sleepy. It’s Sunday morning.

At 9.30am I looked at the clock … sigh … I’d better get up and do my run.  Of course it was already waaaay too late by then.  Sydney was heating up – it would eventually reach 28C with 60% humidity.

On with the shoes, a gulped breakfast, Garmin set and out the door.  I ran in the shade to start with, along city streets, before thinking to myself: wouldn’t it be cool to run across the Harbour Bridge?

I saw steps up – I ran up them. Mostly.  My legs were jelly by the time I got to the top.  I was in (or near?) The Rocks but I still couldn’t see the bridge. I knew I was close though. The tall buildings were behind me now so there was no shade. So I ran on with the sun baking down passing cafes full of people chugging lattes.

I spied signs to the bridge!  More steps, one wrong turn and then I was on it.  Distance so far: 4km.  Exhaustion: complete.  I ran to the first pillar, sweat and sunscreen stinging my eyes and the asphalt of the sun-baked bridge cooking my legs.  At the first pillar I had to turn back and walk but noticed I was now facing downhill – joy!

Deciding my legs were ok after all, I jogged back off the bridge, down the steps and onto the road.  Next destination: Opera House.

I struggled to find my way out of The Rocks.  I ran past a market – all incense, beads and bags. I ran past more cafes and could smell pancakes.  Torture.  Down another flight of steps then I finally onto the Overseas Passenger Terminal.  It was now perhaps 10.30am and the place was getting crowded with tourists.

It was all harsh concrete and a maze of tourists, cameras, children, prams and other runners as I dodged my way around Circular Quay to a welcome stretch of shade.  It was short lived – maybe 250m before I was back out in the screaming sun by the steps to the Opera House.

Unbelievably there were more steps in my path! It was a temporary bridge over construction work – then no shade, meandering tourists, baking heat, still no shade and a thick hot breeze from the harbor. I ran along the path between the water of the harbor and the grass of the Gardens.

I had now done about 7km and had planned to run right around Mrs Macquarie’s Chair but I was too hot and too thirsty and too exhausted.

I walked a shortcut through the park to the road then walked some more:  maybe as long as 5 minutes before I had the strength to run again.  I got another short break at a crossing before heading through the cool shade of the avenue in Hyde Park.  Finally, desperate, I ran an as-the-crow-flies, jay-walking straight line back the hotel.

Distance: 9km. Time: 1hr. Lesson: learned.