It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these Unhelpful Guides. Yes, I know, I’m sure dozens of you have been tearing your hair out, trying to plan a trip without my help! I could practically hear you wailing and gnashing your teeth, crying ‘Oh GOD! I’m going to Morocco in two weeks and there’s NO GUIDE?! What will I DO? Guess I’ll just have to buy the Lonely Planet instead, but I’m telling you, it won’t be the same…’
Well, yeah, sorry about that. Hope you made it back in one piece. If you’re still there, can you please pick me up a rug?
But happily, the wait is over. Because towards the end of last year I went on a three-week filming trip down the East Coast of the USA for the Science Channel’s number one TV show. And let me tell you, it was educational! I saw none of the popular tourist sights, but I saw a bunch of other stuff, and learned one or two things that won’t be remotely helpful to anyone planning a holiday, but might be mildly entertaining to those of you currently waiting on a cold platform at London Bridge for yet another delayed Southern Rail train.
So here, for the benefit of absolutely nobody, is everything I did not learn about East Coast USA during my trip. Starting with my Unhelpful Guide to Boston.
How To Get To Boston
Answer: on a plane, of course. Well, you could probably sail there, or even row the Atlantic if you’re feeling energetic, but my advice would be to fly (sorry, I’m aware that might actually count as helpful. My bad; I’ll try not to do it again).
We are British, so we flew with British Airways, because apparently that’s The Law. And when I say ‘we’, I mean my glamorous, good-looking film crew. And when I say ‘film crew’, I mean me and the cameraman, Orlando. Just the two of us, and nine bags and cases of equipment. And before you ask, no, that wasn’t all my clothes and hair products. There was a camera and a few lights in there too somewhere.
As you all know, telly is extremely glamorous. So glamorous, in fact, that we got an upgrade!
Disclaimer: in 15 years of working in TV this has only ever happened to me once before, after BA were dicks and bumped us off our flight because it was overbooked. Which I really don’t recommend if you’re on a tight schedule and due to start filming first thing the next day, and thanks to the later flight you end up arriving at 4 am and then have to pick up a car and drive on the wrong side of the road for an hour after almost no sleep and then fall into bed and then have to get up about 4 hours later to do a 12-hour filming day. Yes, telly is super glamorous!
But I digress.
The reason we got upgraded this time is because as a cameraman Orlando flies a LOT, so he has the mythical BA silver status (me, I’m a pleb, I’m still only on blue). This means we got to sit in fancy Premium Economy (basically like cattle class, but with slightly bigger seats), and we got to have breakfast in The Lounge!
Of course, none of this is useful information for you, because when you fly to Boston you will probably NOT get upgraded and you will have to buy your own breakfast from Pret like a f*cking animal. Sorry about that.
The other non-glamorous thing that happened was that due to the excitement of getting upgraded (or possibly an aneurysm from eating two pains aux raisins AND a bacon sandwich) I ended up leaving the work iPad on the plane.
Cue frantic calls to BA Lost Property, Boston Airport main switchboard, BA Customer Services, the Foreign Office and Homeland Security to try to get it back before my boss realised what I’d done and fired me on the spot.
And guess what. No one ever returned my calls.
So here’s an actual useful tip: don’t ever leave anything on a BA flight to Boston, because you will never get it back. I don’t know what the people in the BA Lost Property office actually do all day, but it ain’t reuniting owners with their possessions, that’s for sure.
All The History of Boston I Cannot Remember
Any good guide to a place will give you a little bit of history to set the scene. This is not a good guide, so here instead is all the history of Boston that I’ve vaguely gleaned over the years.
I’m pretty sure Boston was settled by the British in, what, the 17th century? I came to this conclusion because when I looked at the map they gave us in the car rental place, lots of the names on it are British. Look: there’s Reading, Winchester, Cambridge, and Chelsea on here, to name but a few. I actually grew up near Chelmsford in Essex and currently live in Acton, West London, so I found this map both enjoyably reassuring, and deeply bewildering.
The other thing I remember about Boston was that they had a tea party (well they were descended from the Brits, after all). Though as you may know, it wasn’t an actual tea party, but some sort of protest against the British, where the protestors dumped a load of tea into Boston harbour. I remember this because my parents took us to Boston for a holiday when we were small, and dragged us round the Boston Tea Party exhibition. All I can remember is that I was very disappointed because even though it was supposed to be a tea party there was no cake, and although there was tea, there was no milk to put in it.
All of this was rather prophetic, because it turns out that even in the 21st century getting a decent cup of tea in Boston is surprisingly difficult, as you will soon see.
Where To Stay In Boston
Any good guide to Boston will of course tell you where to stay. I’m sure Boston has plenty of lovely hotels you can stay in – and if you want a hotel you can certainly find one on Expedia or Booking.com or somewhere like that. I can’t help you with that because we didn’t stay in a hotel.
Our filming mostly involved doing sit-down interviews with various historians, scientists and other assorted experts, for which we needed a quiet space. So the office decided that rather than put us up in a hotel and hire a studio for the interviews, they’d just get us a large house off AirBnB, which could double up as both and would therefore be much cheaper. No 5* hotels and hot and cold running butlers for us!
Large houses not being easy to come by in downtown Boston, we ended up in this random remote suburb. It was quiet and pretty, with streets of big clapboard houses painted in pretty pastel colours. I’d suggest you go check it out, but I can’t actually remember what it was called. Sorry about that.
Here’s our house. Not bad, huh?
If you’re anything like me, the first thing you do when you arrive in a new AirBnB is put tinfoil on all the windows.
Wait… what? You don’t do that? Just me then?
Thing is, if you want to turn a house into a studio, you need to block out all the natural light. And the easiest way to do this is with tinfoil. So while Orlando unpacked the equipment, my glamorous job as hotshot TV Producer was to cover all the windows with foil so that we could feel like we were living in a cave for the next three days. Because who needs daylight anyway, right?
Here’s what it looked like from the outside. I’m pretty sure the neighbours must have thought we were either setting up a crack den, or preparing for an alien invasion. Both of which are completely normal activities in parts of USA suburbia, so of course no one batted an eyelid.
And here’s our finished studio. At a fraction of the price of the real thing. Bargain!
How To Live Like A Local In Boston
One of AirBnB’s slogans is ‘Live like a Local’. What they want you to think this means is that if you stay in a house rather than a hotel, you’ll have an authentic experience really getting under the skin of a city.
What this actually means is that you’ll spend the first three hours of your holiday wandering in circles round a foreign supermarket trying to figure out which colour top means semi-skimmed milk, or which brand of washing powder won’t destroy your clothes.
And so while Orlando carried on setting up lights, I drove to the nearest branch of Walmart, and spent half an hour sobbing in front of this display of peanut butter as I tried to find one brand – just one! – that wasn’t about 95% sugar.
Because one thing I learned very quickly about Americans is that they just LOVE putting unnecessary sugar in stuff!
I had the same problem with the bread too. Why do they need to put so much sugar in it, FFS?!
So here’s another helpful tip: stay in a hotel. That way you won’t end up spending the night in a cell after destroying an entire Walmart aisle in a fit of frustrated rage.
Assuming you do manage to buy bread, however, there’s another problem. All I wanted when I got back to the house after my traumatic supermarket experience was a cuppa and a slice of toast, but Americans don’t seem to do toasters. Or kettles.
Instead I was confronted with this thing.
Apparently it’s a toaster oven. Which is obviously not a toaster at all, but basically a grill, meaning you have to stand over your bread and watch it like a hawk to make sure it doesn’t burn before manually flipping it over to toast the other side.
Who has time for that? And why have Americans not woken up to the wonders of a machine that will do it all for you?
As for the lack of a kettle, don’t even get me started on the depths I was forced to stoop to.
And not only did I have to boil the water for my tea in a saucepan like a Neanderthal, but there weren’t even any mugs, meaning I had to drink the damn thing out of a cup the size of a thimble.
So if you come to Boston and stay in an Air BnB, I recommend you bring your own mug. And your own proper tea bags. And your own kettle.
Getting Out And About In Boston
If you’re following all the advice in my excellent guide to Boston so far, you’ll have found a nice AirBnB in a random suburb of Boston, done your supermarket shop, and then spent the next two days shut indoors with all the windows blacked out. Good times! And by now you might find you’re craving fresh air and the chance to stretch your legs. At least, I was.
So at the end of the second day we wrapped a little early and went off to hunt for somewhere we might be able to go for a short run before the sun set.
One of the things I like about going for a run in a foreign city is that you can often end up discovering places you’d never normally go to. In this case, we searched on Google Maps for a nearby patch of green space that looked runnable-round, and ended up here.
The Arnold Arboretum is a small park with a couple of paths running through it and a Very Steep Hill in the middle. Because it’s small you can run round the entire thing in about eight minutes (and I’m sloooow, so from that you can deduce that a full circuit is only about half a mile). So I ended up having to do laps, and forcing myself to run up and down the Very Steep Hill. Well, I ran down it at any rate. Going up was more of a stagger. It was worth it though, for the view from the top.
Isn’t it pretty? And look! There’s actual Boston in the distance (in case you were in any doubt that I actually went there).
Though why you would think that, I don’t know. Clearly I know LOTS about Boston!
Doing What the Locals Do in Boston
Since you are fully embracing the ‘living like a local’ thing, the next thing you will probably want to do is find some things to do in Boston. Not for you the touristy attractions like visiting historic sights or going whale watching in the Boston area! Here are a couple that we did, that I can highly recommend if you want the genuine suburban American experience.
Go To Best Buy
The eagle-eyed amongst you will immediately spot that the thing in the photo is not, in fact, a branch of Best Buy. I was too stressed in Best Buy to remember to take photographs, so you’ll just have to imagine what it looks like. Hint: it looks a bit like Bob’s Furniture, except it says ‘Best Buy’ on the front instead.
America is absolutely littered with places like this – huge sprawling shopping warehouses fronted by vast empty car parks that are like a fantasy world for someone who lives in super-crowded London. Yes, I’m now fantasising about car parks. Don’t @ me.
Best Buy is a giant electronics shop, the American version of Currys/PC World, for my British readers. And the reason we made a special trip here was not out of some weird sense of cultural curiosity, but to replace the work iPad which by now we’d given up on because, as you may remember, bloody British Airways never bloody called me back! Which is also why I was stressed – though you’ll be pleased to note that I did not, in fact, get fired.
As the car park suggests, there was absolutely no one at all in Best Buy apart from a couple of bored-looking staff members. They sold me a Samsung tablet and a case to put it in and the whole thing only took about ten minutes. Unfortunately I later found out the tablet they sold me was slow and rubbish, so my top tip is not to get the one that I did. Since I had to return it to the office at the end of the trip I can’t actually remember what model it was, so that’s probably not very helpful – but you can’t say you weren’t warned about that sort of thing.
Go To Fed Ex
The other glamorous location I got to go on my exciting trip to Boston was a branch of Fed Ex. I’ve never been to a Fed Ex before, and let me tell you, it was exciting!*
*It was not
We went to Fed Ex because we were under strict instructions to ship our interview footage back home every few days. This may have been standard practice, or it may have been because my bosses no longer trusted me not to lose any more valuable items. I can’t be sure.
This particular branch of Fed Ex is quite the design icon, don’t you think? Admire the wooden furniture and charming orange accents! Marvel at the thoughtful use of strip lighting. Learn all you could possibly wish about packing and shipping from Karen behind the counter. Who needs museums and galleries when you have all this on offer – and entrance is free!
Driving in America
After you’ve spent three or four days being thrilled by all the local delights of your random bit of Boston that no one’s ever heard of, you’ll probably be ready to continue your East Coast Adventure. At least we were.
Or, to be more accurate, we had to move on because we were on a tight schedule and needed to get to New York for more interviews. So we got back in our giant gas-guzzling SUV rental car and hit the road.
On the way, I learned one or two things about what driving is like in America.
TL;DR: It’s nuts. And terrifying.
The first thing that got me is that the road signs are incredibly confusing. You can be happily following signs for somewhere, and then you get to the next junction and the boards have entirely disappeared! That’d be OK if you could just follow the SatNav, but American SatNavs are just as confusing, slow to keep up, and talk to you in a patronising tone that makes you want to punch the damn SatNav man in the face.
Next thing: on motorways, exits can be to the right OR THE LEFT! And you get almost no warning of which side it’s going to be on until you are almost upon it. This means that instead of sitting safely in the slow lane as I like to do on foreign roads, and then calmly taking the exit as you come to it, you sometimes discover at the last second that your exit is on the opposite side and you have to panic-cross two or three lanes of thundering overtaking traffic to get to it.
And yes, I obviously missed quite a few, and spent rather a lot of time doing loop-the-loops.
After a hundred miles or so of this I needed to pull off to get a coffee to calm my nerves and use the loo before I wet myself out of sheer terror. This coffee shop, in a small place called Guilford (clearly named after the British town of Guildford by someone who couldn’t spell), served perfectly good coffee, but don’t you think the signage looks a bit familiar? Hmmm…. [insert thinkyface emoji].
Another thing you might want to be aware of when driving in the USA is that the road surface is sometimes not as smooth as you might like it to be. Me, I like my roads pothole-free and nicely marked with fresh white lines (but don’t we all). In America, don’t be surprised if you’re driving along minding your own business, and then something like this happens.
Yes, my friends, that is one mahoosive motherf*cker of a stone chip. Well, technically I think they call that a stone crater. Or maybe even a stone black hole. This thing is so monumental it probably has its own magnetic field. Here it is from another angle so you can admire its record-breaking monstrosity again.
You get one of these on your hire car, you’re probably looking at being slapped with a bill for 2 million quid and having to sign away your house and your first born child before they’ll let you out of the country. Unless, of course, you’ve paid the extortionate ‘damage waiver’ insurance fee in advance.
Which – hurrah! – the office had! Obviously they know what a liability I am. Though in my defence, this one was definitely not my fault and I wasn’t even driving when this happened.
Finally, after all that drama, we arrived in New York, New York. Look, there it is! More exciting drama awaited us there, which you can read all about in my Unhelpful Guide to New York and The Rockaways.
I hope you found this one as unhelpful as you were expecting. If you didn’t, feel free to complain to Management, though since that’s me, I can’t promise anything will get done.
I hope you enjoyed this Unhelpful Guide to Boston. Does any of it ring true? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
And finally please Pin It so I can get millions of readers and quit my day job to become a full-time blogger. Though then I wouldn’t be able to write any more of these posts, so you might not want to do that. Your call.