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Paul Healy's Week - USA Special

On a recent family trip to America, Paul Healy picked up some bits and pieces for his column…so, here goes… reporting now on… beautiful Boston; meeting a charismatic Batman in Times Square; sightseeing in New York; a be-witching night in Salem; Halloween magic on Beacon Hill… and the dude on the bus…

‘Something for the column’

So there I was, twenty-two years ago, lying in the back of a hearse (I will explain), pounding along the highways and byways of Australia.

Stopping every now and again in the hope of locating a fax machine… That was 1993, and I’ve learnt since then that, when a (so-called) columnist is on holidays, a newspaper can wait for its column… Twenty-two years ago myself and Fiona and my future sister-in-law Sinead had embarked on a wonderful trip to Australia.

At the time, I was writing a column – ‘Hold the Back Page’ – for the Roscommon Champion, and I had, a little rashly, committed to sending home four columns over the course of our month in Australia.

The columns would reflect the highlights of the holiday. Our month in Australia began in Gympie, north of Brisbane, where Fiona and Sinead’s uncle – former Roscommon footballer Coman Reynolds from Elphin – was by then an established member of the community.

Coman and his wife Emma were very successful (they still are!) in the funeral undertaking business, which is how the visitors from Ireland came to borrow an old, retired car/hearse in which to explore The Gold Coast.

Fiona took to the driving challenge brilliantly; at times I actually did have to lie in the back (they have low ceilings). I probably had the best view anyone’s ever had from that position.

Anyways, actually writing the column with pen and paper was merely time-consuming; finding a fax machine each week was a nightmare.

Twenty-two years on and, notwithstanding the mind-boggling technological advances since, I gave no such hostages to fortune when we went to the USA on a family holiday last month.

Writing about your holidays in a newspaper is a bit strange, but no stranger than publicly admitting to being a Leeds United fan; anyways, people usually say ‘sure you’ll have something for your column’, so here it is…something for my column…a column from the USA…without notes, just from memory…and not by fax.

Thursday, October 22

I realise now that I should have taken notes. Let’s see…okay, we flew from Shannon to Boston, an enjoyable flight with a memorable ending for us.

Our five-year-old son, Matthew, was watching as most passengers thanked the Aer Lingus staff as they disembarked. So he too said ‘thanks’ to one of the staff, who was suitably charmed and responded by asking if Matthew would like to see the cockpit of the plane. Moments later he was sitting in the pilot’s seat posing for a photograph.

Thursday-Saturday

Boston is beautiful, friendly, atmospheric, small enough in city terms to feel intimate. If you’re near Boston Common, you’re pretty centrally located. It’s a lovely park, populated by locals, tourists, squirrels and statues.

From the moment you step into Boston Common, you really begin to inhale the magic of this city. We were staying with relations, in a beautiful residence in Beacon Hill, an idyllic area of Boston where quintessentially American streets, quaint shops and stylish houses merge to form a very special place.

Although more than a week to Halloween, residents were busy adorning their houses with extravagant, tasteful and expensive decorations. We were assured that Halloween in Boston would be very special indeed. From our experience (it was our second visit to the city) the people of Boston are extremely friendly and welcoming. They’re sports-mad too, obsessed (from what I could see) with the various sports, especially American Football.

The local team, the New England Patriots, are on a winning streak just now. This is proving very exciting for the locals and it was easy to get caught up in that excitement as they hammered the Miami Dolphins, making it seven wins in a row for the Bostonians.

A trip to the Museum of Science in Boston is recommended. We spent a few very enjoyable hours there, but really a full day needs to be set aside for this particular treat.

Over the weekend we spent some time in Lakeville, a beautiful, peaceful ‘country area’ away from the bustling city. America in ‘The Fall’ is very special and the colours of the trees and the cascading leaves was absolutely stunning.

Most of the houses around Lakeville, and this is typical of rural USA I imagine, are made of timber. The houses, while invariably similar in build, are quite individualistic in design.

Typically the lawns in front of them are ‘open plan,’ with no walls or fences. While we were there, householders were going to amazing lengths to prepare for Halloween, with skeletons and ghosts and ghouls adorning the houses and gardens!

Sunday, October 25

After three great days in Boston (and with more to come) we took a four-and-a-half-hour bus journey to spend three nights in the city that never sleeps.

It was our first ever trip to New York and we were staying in a hotel centrally located in Manhattan, with a good view of Times Square. We walked from the bus station, and within a moment or two found ourselves sucked into the dizzying madness of Times Square. It’s all lights, billboards, people, noise, colour, fun and frenzy.

On Times Square, just about everyone is trying to make a buck. Our children love the hit TV show ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and (in our first highly cultural move) we found McGees Bar in Midtown Manhattan, where the comedy series was created.

It serves good food too! Later that night, we were relaxing in Times Square – paradise for people-watchers – when, seemingly out of nowhere, Batman suddenly appeared… Why he came to our aid I don’t know…it’s not as if we were in any peril or anything.

So, as Matthew (aged five) stared in awe at what I must admit was a very charismatic and authentic looking Batman, the guy himself engaged us with all his charm.

Moments later he had the kids crouching down in the middle of Times Square with himself (Batman) on their tail. He was a nice guy and the pose he set up made for a great photograph, so I certainly didn’t begrudge him the few dollars’ tip, but I do recall saying to the children ‘Let’s get out of here before Superman arrives.’

Monday-Tuesday

We spent most of both days hopping on and hopping off the buses, which offer excellent tours of all the leading sights. And what sights there are to enjoy…Madison Square Garden, the Empire State building, Wall Street, Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty (by boat) and much more.

We visited Ground Zero/9/11 Memorial, where silence reigns, minds weighed down by the overwhelming poignancy. Later, we branch off into a side street and pop into a souvenir shop.

There are hundreds of little items featuring landmark attractions in New York, and, given our location, many mementos relating to the tragic events of September 11th, 2001.

I buy two or three items, hand in a fifty-dollar note and am stopped in my tracks when I glance at the receipt: My change is ‘9 11’ – nine dollars and eleven cent. That felt very strange!

Wednesday, October 28

After a morning spent visiting the Museum of Modern Art, as well as Central Park and a few more attractions, we’re taking a 2 pm bus journey back to Boston.

For the only time on our holiday, there’s rain, and it’s pelting down with a vengeance. At the back of the bus there’s a guy who’s clearly had more than Rice Krispies for breakfast. His head is bobbing back and forth like he’s some sort of demented tennis umpire and next he starts joining his hands to form an imaginary gun. He points out the window and hisses out gunshot sounds.

Then he leans over to the woman sitting in front of him and asks her what day it is. He gives her three options: ‘Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday?’ With the rain pelting down and a five-hour journey to Boston ahead of us, we’re a bit rattled by the behaviour of the ‘Passenger from Hell.’

We’d booked online and distinctly remember not requesting a terrorist. As his erratic actions continued, the woman who had been given the multiple choice question regarding what day of the week it was mouthed ‘He’s freaking me out’ in our direction – and other passengers were also beginning to look around a little nervously.

So I walked up to the front of the bus and conveyed our concerns to the driver. She was at that point trying to navigate the bus through busy New York streets, but at the first opportunity she pulled over, marched down to the back seat and firmly and professionally confronted the ‘dude,’ asking if he had taken any illegal substances and/or if he was under the influence of alcohol.

He looked surprised. “No mam, I’m just enjoying the ride.’ When the driver informed him that other people weren’t fully enjoying the ride and that some passengers had expressed concern about his behaviour, I took a keen interest in the shapes which the raindrops were forming on the windows of the bus.

Next, she frogmarched him up to the front of the bus “so that if you need anything, you can ask me.” We were glad to note that there was quite a bit of protective glass around the driver’s seat.

The ‘dude’ continued to act a bit strange in his new seat but after an hour or so he had calmed down quite a bit.

A woman in front of me would probably have made mincemeat of the young man. She’s chatting to her mother so loudly that everyone hears the conversation. It seems they need to meet a lawyer next week but the lawyer has been messing them about and now he wants to bring their meeting forward by an hour or two…

The woman in front of me is having none of it. ‘Hell Mom, he can kick rocks! If that dumbass thinks we gonna get there early just to suit him, I’ll deal with him…cos I’m gonna have my coffee and muffin and he can sit on the highway!’

Thursday-Sunday

So, after a six-hour bus journey, we returned safely to Boston, where a really special Halloween weekend atmosphere was ‘brewing.’

On Friday night we went to Salem, travelling by ferry. It was a wonderful 50-minute journey from Boston Harbour which showcased the fabulous city skyline.

Salem is where witch trials were held in 1692, with several local people being executed for allegedly practising witchcraft. Now this town has been transformed into an impressive tourist attraction, all themed around witches and all things scary. Even the police cars have witches logos on them!

The former home of the trial Judge is now known as the ‘Witch House’ and most of the residential buildings are evocative of witches and witchcraft.

We didn’t get there until 6.30 pm in the evening but it was the night before Halloween, so a perfect time to be in Salem. The place was thronged with tourists.

There are ‘haunted houses’ aplenty, museums, restaurants and bars, souvenir shops, and lots of witch-related sights to see and things to enjoy. Over 40,000 people live their normal lives there against the background of the entire area being one big witch-themed attraction.

Then on Saturday night, we discovered that all the exciting talk of Halloween on Beacon Hill had not been overstated. It seems Halloween is ‘massive’ in the USA. In Boston there were big queues outside a popular shop containing hundreds of costume options for adults and children.

From about 6 o’clock in the evening, the magic happened. All of the mystery of the much-hyped Halloween celebrations faded as a spectacular experience presented itself. Thousands – yes, thousands – of people descended on the streets of Beacon Hill (all traffic cut off) and began trick or treating in a wonderful atmosphere of fun and friendship.

Just about everyone was kitted out in a great costume, making this a spectacular and heart-warming sight. All doors were open; children queued for candy, reserves of which eventually ran out, such was the extraordinary scale of the crowds. A truly memorable night.

Monday, November 2

Anyone I spoke to about the US Presidential election was mortified at the prospect of Donald Trump winning.

Maybe it was just the people I spoke to… Coverage of the campaign was pretty much wall to wall on television.

Glancing at the newspapers meanwhile really brought home to me that racial tensions are still very much to the fore in the USA – race and alleged discrimination seemed to dominate the papers.

It was the last day of a great holiday, the memories of which we will cherish. A bit of a shopping blitz, (daughters Emma, Alannah and Ciara had to spend their last few dollars), final photographs taken, and then, a cab to Logan Airport, where, in security, a smiling American police officer stuck a security sticker on Matthew and said: ‘You’re in charge.’

Five hours or so later, we were back in Shannon Airport, and there wasn’t a dumbass to be seen anywhere.

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