I moved to Boston from the overtaxed shores of California on an icy Thanksgiving day in 2020.
My new address was North End, a historic neighbourhood in the city and, on my first day, the streets were deserted and my apartment felt like an ice box. As I hauled many suitcases up several flights of rickety stairs with the help of a friend, I noticed a plaque outside my building that said that John F. Kennedy’s mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, was born in the same building. “And looks like it hasn’t been renovated since,” I joked to my friend, as I tried to make the old stove in the apartment work.
North End is among the oldest residential communities in Boston, swarming with European inhabitants, especially Italian -Americans, who have made it their home since the 1630s. The next morning, I spied older Italian gentlemen half-hanging out of their windows, watching the garbage truck closely, a routine that would repeat every Thursday and Monday mornings. My apartment stands on the Freedom Trail, a 5.95 kilometre-long path in Boston that connects 16 significant American landmarks. Down the street is the house of Paul Revere, hero of the American Revolution and eminent silversmith. As I settled into life within my Boston pandemic bubble, Thanksgiving blew past and Christmas was here; vaccines were still months away but my house was now chiming with regular visits from old friends and new faces.
Winter in Northeast America takes some getting used to. I lived in California for a year and all through the winter of 2019-2020, I was grateful for missing the snow. Before California, I spent two winters in New Hampshire, right on the border of Vermont, during my years as a Dartmouth student. While winter was a rollicking time in my college (think of a pond party with skates, marshmallows and polar plunges), my overwhelming memory is that of waddling through many feet of fresh, powdery snow, or mucky heaps of ice and a slippery pavement, with my eyes barely peeping out from under my thick layers of clothing. Boston at wintertime wasn’t very different. When it snowed, the world became quieter, lulled into a cosy embrace. I watched tiny tots outfitted in tinier coats from my window, trudging through snow behind their parents. During the week I limited my time outside to grocery runs, but come the weekend, I would go on short breaks to escape the city.
As the months rolled by, I picked up new routines. Every weekend I shopped at Haymarket Square, a decades-old produce market in my neighbourhood that came alive every Friday and Saturday. Haymarket has two streets crammed with cheap, colourful produce, and stall owners, whose sales pitches can sometimes be pithy (“dollar, dollar, dollar”) or my favourite, droll (“Take my vegetables, I’m going home”).
Sometimes I felt, and still feel like the only Indian living in Boston’s Little Italy, ambling about in my white, fluffy winter jacket. Daily, I resisted the urge to slip in a ‘ciao’ as I strode through the one square mile of the North End, which has nearly 90 restaurants. Eventually I became attuned to the rhythms of my street, knowing exactly how to dodge past waitresses carrying plates of pasta while I tried to get to the drugstore.
On my birthday in February, I walked over to my local florist with a friend to buy a house plant. After some small talk, the woman, in her expressive Italian manner, confessed that it was her birthday too. She was exactly 50 years older than me and full of sagely advice: Life is long but youth is short, she offered, so celebrate with gusto. “And get yourself a rich boyfriend,” her thick Italian voice rang out, as I walked out the door with a golden pothos plant to hang by my window.
By now I was savouring more and more of Boston with each passing day. I sampled cannoli from a few of the iconic bakeries nearby, including Mike’s Pastry and the local favourite Modern Pastry, which were both over 70 years old. I became a regular at Bova’s, a smaller, more obscure bakery one street away from me, established in 1926, open 24 hours of the day. Bova’s Florentine cookies were so delightful that I often served my house guests by the plateful.
The city’s subway, the oldest in the U.S., was now home turf. I would sometimes travel beyond my neighbourhood, exploring the hallowed streets of Harvard and MIT, empty of students, still learning via Zoom. As the weather got better, we received our second vaccination shots and suddenly all we saw were the possibilities. Even Bertie Bott’s famous flavoured beans couldn’t capture the smörgåsbord that was spring in Beantown. One day was damp with a sprinkle of snow, the next day was warm and sunny, and the day after featured cold, grey rain. I tried to make the most of the warmer days by going for long walks by the Charles River, head bowed down from the wind, still very much masked. But I also made sure that I had fresh flowers by the window during the colder ones to brighten up my tiny apartment.
As summer dawned, during the long weekend of Memorial Day, I took off to Acadia National Park with a couple of friends, just a few hours away from Boston in Maine. We hiked up a rocky trail to get breathtaking views of the Jordan Pond and trudged an almost 6.43 km-loop around the water in a drizzle, with my friends arguing over the flavour of Maine lobster.
As it got hotter, I bought a red and white checkered picnic blanket and walked to Chris Columbus park, with its clean grass, views of the Atlantic, and red and yellow tulips all around, ready to lay down and nap. The first time I sat on the grass by myself, I was self-conscious. I plugged in my earphones and listened to music, fidgeted with the new Yaa Gyasi book and took frequent sips of water to appear casual. I watched couples entwined on their blankets, sunglasses pushed up their noses, wearing too much flannel, and older couples holding hands as they walked by the water. Before the end of summer, I mastered the art of sprawling on my picnic mat to people-watch as I sipped my oat milk cold brew.
Summer had finally returned my life to me. That Fourth of July, I travelled to New York, where I loafed about the city with friends, landing at front-row seats in Comedy Cellar to be expectedly mocked by comics, caught an off-off Broadway parody of The Office, and scarfed down cupcakes from Magnolia bakery in Central Park.
But each time I left Boston, I couldn’t wait to come back—to the city and to my apartment. I loved watching my quintessentially European street, which had red brick and brownstone buildings with green circular windows, from my house. In summer, I threw open the windows of my apartment, waved to hourly hordes of tourists stopping for a glimpse of history outside my apartment, and yelled, “Not a Kennedy.” For the first time in my life, I went kayaking up and down Charles river, terrified that the kayak might topple over despite repeated reassurances. Each time I went back, I enjoyed the lull of water a little bit more as I paddled at different locations of the river. I went to the zoo and spent many hours reading the information boards out loud to my friend, and watching the giraffes walk about, with a big, salty pretzel in my hand. I went whale watching, on a boat with an extremely enthusiastic guide from the New England Zoo, whose voice trembled every time we spotted a whale or heard the gush of a blowhole. I saw five humpback whales up-close and I wondered if they’d upend our ferry.
In peak summer, the west beckoned. I closed up my apartment to spend a week in Seattle during August. I saw rainbows under waterfalls, emerald green alpine lakes, and watched Mount Rainer play peek-a-boo with clouds. It felt like the world that had shrunk over the last sixteen months expanded again. Seven days later, I came home to Boston and the old city was unchanged.
The one constant theme in all my time outside of Boston has been long conversations about the city and my neighbourhood. Instead of telling people Boston has a unique charm, I tell them about the curly-haired, Italian violin player that walks up and down the streets of the North End, zigzagging between restaurants, refusing money from raptured diners. Instead of telling people that sometimes Bostoners can be intimidating, I describe the first time I walked into Mike’s Pastry, and fumbled as an irate, overworked cashier pointed a cash-only sign at me. And instead of telling people I love Boston, I prefer to channel my inner millennial and wax about how it “gives me the feels” every single time I step out. It is my absolute favourite part about going anywhere—knowing that, at the end of the day, I always get to come home to my city.
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India November-December 2021.
Satya Kandala is a writer, journalist and a storyteller. She has two Master's degrees—one in Journalism and another in Creative Writing, which is to say that she loves hard facts and fiction equally. In her free time, she can be found working on her podcast Nicely Done.