(There are two types of people in this world: those who have seen Killing Zoe and thus understand the title of this post, and those who have not. It’s entirely okay if you’re in the latter category; Killing Zoe, truly a lesser effort for all involved, isn’t really worth the bother of seeing just so you can get the joke. To explain quickly: there’s a running gag in the film about Eric Stolz being in Paris and having people telling him they’re going to show him “the real Paris”. In the main, this does not work out well for him. That’s about the extent of it.)
I’ve written a bit about the experience of seeing some of the world’s major cities for the first time in my late 20s and 30s. I’ve also talked about the struggle that I have with a sense of rootlessness. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, we moved to the eastern part of Washington state when I was four years old, then moved to the Seattle metro area after another four years, and my parents moved back to Alaska after I graduated high school. This effectively meant that our paths diverged somewhat, and then my parents’ respective paths diverged from each other a few years after that. I stayed in Washington state, living in Bellingham for four years while I made an unsuccessful initial attempt at school, then moving back to Seattle when I got a job in the software industry. I stayed in Seattle for about five years, and then we moved two thirds of the way across the country, heading to Indiana for school, and we thought we’d be there for three years tops. Eleven years later, we finished the cross-country move, and now we’re in Boston. My mom and stepdad are still in Alaska; my wife’s family is mostly still in Washington state (save for a brother in Chicago) — as much as we love New England and are seriously thinking that putting down roots there would suit us very well, a major concentration of the Barrett family is not happening there any time soon, save for that which we generate for ourselves. And, you know, we may wind up doing just that.
On the other hand, let’s be honest about something. Being in Boston has been terrific, but as somebody who is by training something of an urban historian, I’m acutely aware that our experience so far has been strictly on honeymoon terms. We’ve been in a bubble to say the least — a seminary campus in a nice part of town where we haven’t had to pay rent. Yes, it looks like Boston is someplace where there is a market for the Barretts and the skill sets we bring to the table. Fine, it’s been great to live someplace, finally, where it’s at least possible for public transportation to minimize the amount of driving we have to do. It’s been wonderful to have a density of Orthodox churches in the area and to have the luxury of figuring out what’s a good fit, and for it to be normative for me to be paid relatively well as a cantor. It was awesome to go to a Red Sox game at Fenway stadium and to have it be a night when they won. I love that a decent Cuban sandwich is a hop, skip, and a jump away. Yes, it’s been genuinely soothing to our souls, after eleven years in a landlocked state, to live in a city where we can go out on a harbor cruise. Tasty Burger.
At the same time, these all amount to floating from one self-selected tourist experience to another, and a hot dog at Fenway followed by a ride on the T to the Museum of Fine Arts does not an informed denizen make. We haven’t really been through the ups and downs of everyday life, not by a long shot. Although, the end of the academic year has brought a little bit of that; it has meant that our time as residents in the seminary community is rapidly coming to an end. Holy Cross is truly a wonderful place to feel like one belongs, and when you don’t anymore, it feels like the sun has suddenly gone behind a cloud. Relationships will have to be re-cultivated and community will have to be re-defined. That’s okay; we won’t be stumbling-distance from our friends on campus, but we’ll still be in nacho distance, let’s say, and things will be fine. Previous friendships will be strengthened, and we’ll actually start to get to know a neighborhood in Boston, not just an enclave.
The urban historian in me wants to know more, though, and I want to know more by way of people who have stories to tell, and who can refer me to other sources. I may be a Byzantinist, but Boston is here right now, and I’m right in the middle of it, so why not?
So, here’s the plan — I’m going to pick the brains of 10 people, 5 whom I know in advance, 5 whom I don’t know and will be selected from, and approached in, crowds in public places. To the extent possible, these 10 people will represent a diversity of views, stations, geographies, life experiences, etc. I will ask them about Boston, their experiences with the city, and so on. It will be a conversation that I write about, and then at the end, the key question will be — who should I talk to next? And then I will go and talk to that person, asking them as well for a reference to another person. It will go on like this until somehow it all terminates with one person, or I run out of people. Both are, I think, unlikely, so we’ll see if another logical stopping point presents itself. I will be curious to see a) what directions the social connections go in, and b) if they ever cross.
For the moment, I guess I should start with myself. Boston first appeared on my radar when a friend of mine from my first stab at undergrad went out to Boston University to study voice and opera with Phyllis Curtin. I talked to him once or twice about coming out to visit, but it never happened.
After starting to hang out in Orthodox circles, of course I started hearing about the seminary, as well as Holy Transfiguration Monastery. While I was in Greece, I heard rumors about the possibility of the Byzantine chant position at Holy Cross coming open; when I brought John Boyer out to Bloomington for the first time in 2010 he confirmed that that was the case, and he said he would probably be heading out that to Boston himself starting that fall. It came to my attention that my teacher from Greece, Ioannis Arvanitis, was a finalist for the chant position; suddenly I started wondering — wow, if he gets the job, could I find a way to spend a dissertation year there? I wanted to go out there for his campus interview, but I didn’t find out when it was happening until after it was already over, alas.
But, the idea of trying to get out that way had been planted, and when I saw that the Patristics professor of Holy Cross was presenting at the Byzantine Studies Association of North America conference in Chicago fall 2011, I made a point of getting up there so I could talk to him. I finally paid a visit in March 2012, where mostly I saw the school, followed by another trip that fall for the Byzantine Studies conference. On that visit, I got to do a bit more sightseeing, although mostly in a context of food — I went with John and his family to Union Oyster House on the Freedom Trail, which claims the distinction of being the country’s oldest restaurant, and this experience was also my introduction to raw oysters. John also took me to Tasty Burger next to Fenway Stadium, which set a standard, and ordered Sicilian-style pizza from Pino’s one night as well.
After our godchildren Lucas and Stacey and our friends Bryce and Elyse left for seminary fall 2013, the Barretts paid a visit to the Holy Hill as a family over MLKjr weekend. We got to stroll around Cambridge and Harvard Square a bit, had dinner at Grendel’s Den, had some lovely bagels in Brookline, ate an awesome breakfast at Martin’s Coffee Shop in Brookline Village, and once again patronized Tasty Burger (“What a nice little hamburger! No, that’s fine, you’re great just the way you are“). I was back a few weeks later for a grad student conference, but it was mostly an excuse to hang out with my friends there. This time, I got to go downtown a bit, spending a decent amount of time in Copley Square and at the Boston Public Library, and also eating some good sushi.
Since we’ve been in Boston, two of the major things that we’ve loved have been easy access to water and boats, and — to continue a theme — the food. We went on a harbor cruise in a tall ship almost as soon as we got to town; something about seeing the city skyline at sunset from the water brought a lot of peace, particularly after so many years of feeling like we were being slowly strangled to death in Indiana. In terms of food, I don’t mean lobster rolls and clam chowder (although the lobster rolls are pretty darn good); I mean, overall, we can find what we’re looking for in a regular grocery store, including good seafood. Specialty grocery stores are a few minutes away if we need one (as opposed to five hours away in Chicago). There have been some things that we’ve had a harder time getting — raw milk we have to go way out of our way for, unlike Bloomington; bulk sausage just doesn’t appear to be a thing here; Gehl’s Nacho Cheese Sauce is not marketed at retail in Boston — but in the main, the variety of what’s available is unbelievable. Same goes for restaurants; the North End alone is a treasure trove for Italian food.
Churches and public transportation have also been really nice. Yes, okay, the T isn’t perfect. It’s really useful regardless, and it has enabled us to avoid parking downtown. I’m able to get to my contract gig via the T pretty easily. Getting to and from the airport is mostly reasonable, depending on where you live. As for churches, I’ve gotten to chant for a lot of different parish communities in the area, and they’ve all been lovely and welcoming. One parish pulled Theodore in for their Christmas pageant at the last second, and whenever I’ve subbed there since, they still ask me about him. I’ve also had the opportunity to sing in my friend Spiro Antonopoulos’s choir a couple of times, and that’s been great — just to live someplace where there’s enough of a critical mass that there can be a Byzantine choir in the area is mind-boggling.
Yes, it is not cheap to live in Boston, and it was a bit of a punch to the gut to have to internalize a price range of $1600-2200/month for what we were looking for. On the other hand, the incomes and opportunities go a long way towards making up the difference, and Flesh of My Flesh made an excellent point — it’s an approach to living that sees the city itself as your backyard. That certainly has its benefits. It has its downsides as well, to be sure, but I’m willing to deal with those, and among other things, I’m really looking forward to taking Theodore to a Red Sox game some time this summer.
Okay, so, looking at my story, wow, is it boring. I can’t really get out of my own head telling it, and clearly I’ve missed a whole bunch of things that would actually make it interesting. I’m simultaneously myopic and over-general when it comes to what’s caught my eye; I couldn’t tell you where my favorite drink in Boston is, I couldn’t tell you what I think the city’s most pressing issues are, and I can’t really articulate clearly why this experience is significant to me. I don’t have a story with a beginning, middle, and end; I’ve got some bits and pieces of a premise, not much more. Some of this comes from having developed a pretty strong bunker mentality in Indiana, where, in absence of the things that we wanted on an external level, we came up with reasonable facsimiles at home. “Where’s your favorite restaurant?” “My house!” “What’s your favorite drink?” “A Manhattan I’ve made!” etc. I think I had a pretty good understanding of Bloomington’s issues by the end of our time there, but I have to acknowledge that a lot of what I think I know about Bloomington’s issues comes from theorizing around my own anger at and resentment of the place. Anyway, the point is, there’s still some of that going on, and it’s going to take some time before all of that breaks down and lets in new perspectives and experiences.
In the meantime, I’m going to be listening to some other people’s stories in the hopes that they can educate me about this city that we’re hoping will adopt us, and I’m going to try to tell them to you. I hope you’ll find those stories interesting, at least.
Oh, and who am I talking to next? You’ll see. All in good time.