Walden Pond

A replica of Thoreau's hut, with a statue of the man himself
Another thing that surprises me about Boston was how close the wilderness is. In New Zealand all the accessible land near cities tends to be farmed, but in Massachusetts there is so much reasonably flat land that tracts can be left fallow all over the place.

A trail near Walden PondWalden Pond was the site of Henry David Thoreau’s experiment in simple living and was made famous in Thoreau’s book. The park is pretty much a shrine to Thoreau, you can visit the original site of his cabin and view a replica cabin built near the car park. Near the replica is a sign with Thoreau’s original itemised list of expenses. He spent 28 dollars and twelve and a half cents for his freedom living near the pond, whereas I spent a fiver just to park my car there. I am not sure if that refutes his larger point or proves it.

The pond is not large and the park is only slightly larger, but it is a very peaceful and pretty spot to wander around the delightfully unkempt paths. Apparently people swim in the lake in Summer, but today there were still patches of ice in the more sheltered corners of the pond.

I didn’t see any of the promised birdlife, but I did come across a small pond half covered in ice and half filled with noisy frogs.

An icy pond containing frogs (not shown)

Walden Pond

Boston 4 – Shopping

Moving to a new country is an interesting experience. You suddenly need to buy almost everything in your life at once, from furniture to spices, but now you live in a world of unfamiliar brands and strange stores. Here are my impressions of the brands I have encountered.

IKEA
I take back everything I have ever said about the Swedes. Famed in legend and not-entirely-serious song, IKEA bucks the trend of furniture stores by actually allowing you to buy the stuff that you see there straight away. You go around the massive showroom with a card and a golf pencil, writing down the ID number and bin location of anything you like the look of. Then you eat some meatballs in their café before going downstairs to the stockroom to hunt for the bins you need. Their furniture is not incredibly flash, but it is functional and OK looking. And putting it together is remarkably like playing with Lego.

Target
This is basically a slightly more middle-of-the-road version of The Warehouse, possibly with less absolute junk but also fewer crazy bargains. Maybe Farmers is a better comparison.

Whole Foods
Or Whole Wallet as the locals affectionally call it. A chain of very large, very upmarket, very expensive supermarkets. They sell some amazing stuff – the produce section and salad bar is incredible and the butchery has all sorts of great stuff.

But you have to be careful. My first weekend in my new apartment I visited Whole Foods to stock up on basics and get some food. “You are getting paid in US dollars now,” I said to myself, “treat yourself, don’t look at the prices.”

So I bought things like laundry detergent, soap, breakfast stuff, a roasting dish, plus a few days worth of food. Nothing too fancy.

$300!

Three. Hundred. Dollars.

And I had to go shopping again a few days later because I didn’t get enough stuff.

On the other hand, the laundry detergent is the best I have ever used, and that $25 steak was very tasty.

Trader Joes
Basically the equivalent of Nosh – a smaller store with fewer lines of generally quality stuff. Speaking of Nosh, I used to occasionally buy Cracker Barrel cheese there. I was amused to find that the Cracker Barrel brand is the cheap stuff you find in Target.

There are other Supermarkets that are more affordable. Prices are generally cheaper than in New Zealand but not hugely so. I was surprised by the quantity for fresh fruit and vegetables available – the stereotype of Americans only eating processed food does not seem to be correct. I was expecting beef to be cheaper, what with the factory farming, but it is more expensive than in NZ. Chicken is cheaper, but a funny orange colour. And pork is ridiculously cheap and sold in massive quantities. I am not sure if this is a seasonal thing. I have seen some “NZ/Australia” lamb (seriously, that is how it was labeled), but lamb as a foodstuff is not mainstream here.

Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream
I scoffed at the idea that the US would know much about ice cream when friends back home raved about Ben and Jerry’s, but Reader, I was wrong. I had some just before, and I might just have a little more after I finish writing this.

Comcast
Cable providers have a terrible reputation in the states, none more-so than Comcast. Think everything you hate about SkyTV combined with your loathing of all things Telecom, with an added monopoly in many areas (including mine). They are the sort of toads to charge you $8 a month for a modem that costs less than $100, or will quote a price for a cable TV package not telling you that it only includes an ancient set-top box with composite out. Their website won’t even show the prices of the plans until you enter a zip code, which they look up to see if they have competition in that area. If not, you get charged $10 a month more.

Why? This video explains it in more detail:

Having said that, I didn’t bother with cable TV and went straight for the not-particularly cheap but decently fast Internet package. Read’em and weep:
Comcast Internet Speed
Netflix
Instead of cable TV I went with Netflix. $8 a month for unlimited access to all sorts of streaming TV and movies. They don’t have much in the way of new releases, but the back catalogue is decent, the streaming is of high quality and they don’t show ads. Brilliant.

Boston 3 – Museum of Fine Arts

Spring keeps sending us free samples in the mail, but refuses to actually arrive for good. It actually snowed again on Thursday with temperatures well below zero. But today was sunny with a barmy 55°F, a perfect day be out and about.

I went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (the fine and artistically lowercase mfa), a huge multi-gallery affair on the south side of the Charles River. It is packed full of very impressive works and well worth the $25 entrance fee.
Watson and the Shark, by Copley

ART!

As a celebration of american culture, the museum is certainly well laid out to showcase local artists. The galleries of valuable but rather ugly medieval european art and the impressive but dead Egyptian stonework give way suddenly into vibrant new world paintings and antiques, easily the equal of anything you saw on the way through and much more exciting and lively. If intentional it is a pretty nifty piece of rar-ra-ameri-ca spirit, but the gallery doesn’t suffer from it and what else is an art gallery for anyway?

I wouldn’t say that the mfa was more varied than the Auckland Gallery, they had heaps of neo-classical stuff, some cubist and impressionistic stuff, all the big names and very impressive but without quite the range I was expecting. On the other hand, the Auckland Gallery also contains some appalling cheese which is happily missing from the mfa. The mfa also has a lot more international art on display, which was nice to see.

The mfa had a large section on Asian, Pacific, and Oceania art. I was hoping to see something from New Zealand but no such luck – it was mostly stuff from Japan and Korean. There was also a real lack of Native American art – apparently there was a gallery downstairs that I missed but it certainly wasn’t highlighted.

But there is only so much stuff you can cram in, even in such a large building. I am pretty sure I missed a few rooms at the back. I will have to make a return visit on the next rainy day.

Boston 2 – In Which I Buy a Car

My big achievement over the last few weeks has been buying a car, a process which required more logistics than I thought necessary. Actually finding a car was pretty easy, I liked the Ford C-Max I randomly rented (literally randomly, I walked up to the rental counter without booking and said “Give me whatever you have”) but didn’t want to pay the C-Max hybrid premium. A Ford Focus seemed like a boring but reasonable compromise, so off to the Ford dealership I went.

One of the things I am enjoying about living in the States is that some things are exactly like they are portrayed in the movies. The car yards are just like you imagine, with slightly rumpled men in rumpled suits sitting in cheap offices with faded posters. Cars are cheap in this country, and late model (and even new) cars are easy to find a good prices. You put in an offer and the salesman goes pretends to go into the back office to talk to his boss. You go back and forward a few times and reach an agreement.

But here comes the complicated bit. America runs on credit, and a credit rating is very important. I have no history at all, so I wanted to finance the car even though I could pay cash – your credit rating is not about how much money you have on hand, it is a history of your willingness to pay.

It was the finance company that insisted (among other requests) that I get a Massachusetts state driver’s permit, basically the equivalent of a learner’s permit in New Zealand. I don’t know why they cared, but anyway I studied the road-code for a few hours and went down to the RMV.

The RMV is also exactly like it is portrayed in the movies. First you line up to tell the lady behind the first counter what you are there for. That just gives you a ticket which puts you in another queue to see the person you really need. Some of the queues are hours long, luckily mine the wait for permits is relatively short. The first time I went I was refused because they didn’t want to accept my electronically signed lease as proof of address. Luckily my first utility bill arrived the same day so my return trip the next day was more successful.

The test itself is that same weird combination of incredibly bureaucratic and oddly efficient that I am starting to get used to here. After my documents were examined and a very cursory eye test (much less strict than the NZ one) I was pointed in the direction of a little room with a bunch of touch screens. The test itself is 25 multi-choice questions with an emphasis on what fines you will receive if you break the speed limit with a few questions about stopping distances and who has right-of-way thrown in. It is pretty easy and you only need to get 18 right to pass. I came close to failing because I hadn’t bother to learn the punishments doled out to 18 year olds who speed.

With the finance company appeased I could finally think about insurance. Surprisingly, insurance was much easier than finance, and not stupidly expensive given my circumstances. They did make me drive out to their offices to sign the documents but it was relatively smooth process that got me the all-important stamp on the car’s registration that allowed the dealership to go to the RMV and pick up new license plates, I was glad that they did this for me since I was in no mood to brave the RMV queues three times in a week, but the dealership dragged their feet on it for a day drawing out the process even more.

The dealership was also supposed to get the car inspection sticker done but although it was prepaid they didn’t quite get around to it. It doesn’t need to be done for seven days after the sale and I was so happy to finally get the car that I didn’t quibble. Total time from seeing the car to driving it off the lot: 9 days!

I took the car in for testing this morning to find that the mandatory inspection is about as thorough as the eye test; I barely had time to sit down before my car was returned with a clean bill of health.

So now I have an apartment, a car, and a couch with that reclines at a touch of a button (to be delivered on Wednesday). My life here is starting to come together. The weather is also improving – it was well above freezing for the entire day. Birds have started appearing and I saw a raccoon wandering the streets the other evening. I am looking forward to seeing what Boston in springtime has to offer.

Film Review : The Wind Rises

Jiro Horikoshi is a young boy in provincial 1910s Japan when he realizes that his mission in life is to design airplanes. Becoming a top class engineer just in time to join Japan’s struggle to become a first-world nation, Jiro’s designs will be needed for certain national ambitions.

A frame from The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ) is the latest film from Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki, and it fits right in with the best of Miyazaki’s work. Although serious in tone and completely non-fantastical (except for a few dream sequences), it has the same gentle almost fairy-tale quality as earlier films such as Spirited Away. The the story moves gracefully along and artwork is top-notch, every frame could hang in a gallery. I particularly liked the way that the motion of air was portrayed, almost every scene has waves of grass in motion or smoke lazily drifting, very befitting for a film concerning an aviation engineer.

Viewers expecting a hard hitting film about the build up to WWII will be disappointed, the film doesn’t exactly skirt around the issue as it is just not interested with telling that story. The coming war is alluded to, and the changing nature of Japan’s ties with Germany comes into play at certain points, but the focus is firmly on the struggle to create in the face of great obstacles. That fact that the creation is a war machine is only lightly touched on.

This is not really a criticism, The Wind Rises is about mostly about creating rather than the thing created and it succeeds in its goal. However there does seem to be a large WWII shaped-hole leaving a slightly disjointed tale. But that disjointedness does play into the dreamlike feel that the film seems to be going for.

Moving and beautiful, The Wind Rises is worth watching. Highly recommended.