On Tuesday the 17th, I flew to Boston for some consulting work. Checked my flight log and determined that I had not been in central Boston (except for a couple of two-hour meetings) for 17 years. Back in the 1970s and early ‘80s, I was in Boston a lot, because a good friend went to MIT and stayed on, and I knew the city quite well then. We landed in perfect autumn weather, and New England’s famous fall foliage was at close to peak color. Hopped on the Blue Line subway and was at my hotel at the foot of Beacon Hill in 25 minutes.
I had about an hour before I needed to leave for dinner with a client, so it was time for some efficient touring. What could I see on a 30-minute stroll? A lot, as it turned out. The hotel was across the street from Massachusetts General Hospital (Harvard Medical School’s primary teaching hospital). MassGen is a massive complex of buildings, but my eye gravitated quickly to the oldest one in sight, a gray stone structure with a dome and cupola. I asked a fellow leaving it if it was the original, and he replied yes, and pointed to what he called “the Ether Dome” atop the structure. He suggested I go up and take a look. In a time before artificial lighting, the many-windowed dome was a perfect place for a surgical theater, and indeed it was there in 1846 that Dr. William Morton used the first anesthetic, which changed medicine forever. The famous 18th Century Boston architect Charles Bulfinch designed that first hospital. The circular operating room, with steeply tiered seating, had been nicely restored, and a variety of old photos and illustrations told the story of the innovation and a little about the institution, which was the site of lots and lots of medical “firsts.”
I ambled back to Cambridge Street to the Old West Church (1806), another Bulfinch design. Dropped my camera and set off for dinner, passing a plaque marking Bulfinch’s birthplace – he was everywhere! Enroute, my old bearings returned: in front of me was City Hall and the massive plaza that has long been the site for various protests; the U.S. Custom House; historic Faneuil Hall; and a rooftop neon sign for the Union Oyster House. I met my consulting client, Danny Williams, for dinner at a venue he knew well, Neptune Oyster, a tiny, sensational raw bar on the edge of the historically Italian North End. A CPA from Dallas, he now lives in the Bay Area; his father is a captain for Southwest Airlines (and his grandpa flew for Braniff), so we yakked a lot about aviation while we tucked into oysters from Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. We shared orders of local fried Ipswich clams and PEI mussels in garlic and red-chili broth, and for dessert, a massive portion of smoked Maine salmon. Protein from the sea! We walked to the Haymarket subway station (Danny was a fellow public-transit fan, another reason to like him), and parted.
Was up early the next morning to prepare for work. There were fine views of the Charles River and skyline from the hotel’s temporary breakfast room on the 15th floor. Grabbed my suitcase and rolled south on Bowdoin Street and up Beacon Hill to another Bulfinch masterpiece, the Massachusetts State House (1795-98). Ambled along the east edge of the Boston Common. At 8:40, I met a former AA colleague, Webster O’Brien, for a coffee; I hadn’t seen him for more than a decade, so the quick, lively catch-up was a treat.
Spent an intense five hours with clients, then hopped on the Silver Line, an express busway that runs under the harbor to the airport. Caught a zippy Air Canada Express flight across New Hampshire and Vermont to Montreal, then the wi-fi-equipped 747 city bus into downtown. I needed exercise, so put on shorts and headed to the fitness center, but the exercise bike was broken and not fixable (it went from frictionless to impossible to pedal in 20 seconds and there was nothing in between). Temporary crankiness, time for dinner.
The stroll west on Sherbrooke was pleasant: after 15 or 20 visits over 45 years, Montreal feels totally familiar. Not only did every Canadian have health insurance, Mitt, but the street ethos was so different from Boston – far less variance in wealth, at least what was apparent in a person’s clothes and look. A few blocks on, near the art museum, the scene changed: more affluence, more style – but all of them had health insurance, Mitt. I sat down at a corner table in Molivos, a Greek restaurant I scoped out online. I had forgotten both the iPhone and a magazine, and when I settled in I felt lonely. The waiter supplied the cure: a piece of scratch paper to jot notes for this journal. That helped, but could not blot out the annoying drunken women at the next table; I was not sorry to see her depart. Tucked into a big filet of sea bream (Dorade in French), curiously presented without accompaniments (and vegetables were not shown on the menu as a la carte, which was weird). The fish was pricey but really good, and laid foundation for a solid sleep with a soft pillow.
Was up early again, prepping for a busy day, five stops between 8:30 and 5:30. Stop 1, up Peel Street to McGill University’s Law School and my annual lecture on airline alliances. My host, a new guy, invited me to lunch, but my schedule was full. After class I walked a mile south with an American student, Jared, yakking and offering career advice. Stop 2, at ten, was a meeting with a colleague at IATA, the International Air Transport Association. Stop 3 was lunch with my winter McGill host, Mary Dellar, back up the hill. Stop 4 was a meeting with another IATA colleague. The final stop was an opportunity to meet a new person, John Illson, Chief of Integrated Safety Management the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, part of the United Nations). John had a fascinating career story, 28 years as a pilot for Allegheny Airlines, and US Airways. He basically walked away after bankruptcy and other woes, worked for IATA for two years, then joined ICAO. It’s always fun and interesting to compare notes on airline careers. I hope to see him again – meeting him was the high point of the day.
Walked back to the hotel, worked my e-mail, and at 6:30, headed by Metro to L’amere à Boire (“the bitter drink”), a brewpub on Rue St. Denis, straight east of downtown. Remarkably, I had never been in the Quartier Latin neighborhood, young, mainly Francophone, and seriously lively (I calculated that I was almost three times older than the average person on the street, but it was friendly and I felt at home). The barmaid offered the beer menu, only in French, but it was easy to translate. Started with a somewhat-hopped pale ale named for the place; it was nice, but the next one, a hefeweizen (no translation needed) was superb. After 40 minutes of reading and writing on my iPhone, I looked up, surveyed the lively scene, and marveled at my great good fortune. I was seated on a stool at a long high table next to the bar, a perfect vantage to size up the animated crowd, and to once again observe, Mitt, that north of the border in “socialist Canada” they had no trouble keeping the lights on and enabling a high standard of living. Dinner was a rabbit burger, really savory. On the homeward Metro, I read New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof, who that day wrote “Compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but of civilization.” It struck me as a perfect summation of most Canadians’ view, which is another reason why for 45 years I have admired our neighbor to the North.
Was up at five the next morning, out to the airport, and home.