Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Harvard Square: glass flowers, indie bookstores, ethnic food, ice cream and warm memories

I know Maine is called “Vacation Land,” but I need a city fix to unwind. Nature can be too harsh. In late February my coastal paradise was glazed in ice and buried under two feet of melting snow. (It still is.) Harvard Square is only two and a half hours south . . . well, six hours if it’s stormy on the way back.

It was still worth a return to my old home. After growing up in NYC, I went to college and graduate school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My husband and I met at Harvard (left), and our two kids were born in Boston. Our teenaged daughter must have inherited my urban genes because she loved our trip to Harvard Square. Her brother stayed back to compete in the Maine State Championship in Nordic Skiing, and her sad dad had to work. It was a girls-only vacation.

We stayed at the Charles Hotel. Our room overlooked Harvard University and the Boston skyline. Henrietta’s Table served the best Belgian waffles and fresh tropical fruit. There’s a glass-encased lap pool and an outdoor skating rink in this luxurious hotel. We were well pampered, but we didn’t spend too much time in our comfortable room.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History has the most amazing exhibit of glass flowers (above.)  They were made in 1887-1936 by a father and son team in Germany and have been used ever since to teach botany. My daughter, who inherited my glass animal collection, could not believe the flowers were not real. We also loved the gorgeous gemstone exhibit. I got nostalgic walking around campus, but my daughter is too young to be thinking much about college yet. If you ask her, she'll say she wants to go to Oxford University in England after our sabbatical there. Oxford was also her dad's alma mater.

Catering to many international students, Harvard Square has a broad selection of affordable ethnic food. We had lunch at Chutneys (right) in The Garage Shopping Center. A nanini (nan bread+panini+curry+rice) is the best idea ever! The paratha wrap was tasty too. Our meals with samosas and a fresh mango lassi came to less than $10/person. It was not so much fast food as good food fast.

My beloved Herrell's had just shut, but a friend recommended Lizzy's and JP Licks for homemade ice cream. Steve Herrell founded Steve's ice cream in 1973 and sold his first name chain. He then reopened under his last name on a smaller scale. Both local chains still exist but not in Harvard Square. My daughter liked JP Licks, but it wasn't the same as sitting inside an old bank valt painted like a fish tank while spooning salty-sweet malted vanilla ice cream with Heath Bar - Reese's smoosh-ins, laughing with a friend. That was the flavor of college for me.

For dinner we had delicious Korean and Japanese food at Shabu Ya (above), the former Shilla. Their specialty is Shabu Shabu, a one-pot meal of thinly cut beef and vegetables that you cook in a savory broth at your table. It was a good sign that most of the clients were Asian. Another good sign: my husband and I have been dining there for over two decades. Two locations ago, Henry first met my parents for dinner there. My parents also met and fell in love in Cambridge 50-something years ago. It's a special place for me.

A friend treated my daughter and me to tea at Café Algiers (left), another old college haunt of mine. At the table beside us, two women were chatting in French. Sipping fresh mint tea and nibbling baklava, we felt transported to Algeria. It has the best atmosphere if not the best tea. Still, nobody rushes you and it's quiet, a  great place to catch up with an old friend.

Afterwards, we found terrific sales on clothing and browsed in bookstores. The Harvard Book Store, featuring new and used books, has been there since my college days. Several other independent bookstores were long gone, sadly. The adorable Curious George store is all that’s left of the old WordsWorth. Tween/teen chapter books were in the basement along with some adult crossover fiction. I was pleased to spot Ellen Booraem’s Small Persons with Wings sparkling (silver glitter letters!) on a display shelf.

We ran out of time to do everything on our list, like making earrings at the Boston Bead Company, sipping hot chocolate at Burdick's or scoffing cupcakes at Sweet. Sure beats mud season in Maine.

Happiness Watch: The 2010 Gallup poll rated American congressional districts by national well-being, looking at indicators such as emotional status, work satisfaction, eating habits, illness, stress etc. The NYT reporting last Sunday, tracked down "America's Happiest Man" and shared a fascinating map of national happiness.

Theater Watch:

Al Miller at the Theater Project in Brunswick, Maine has adapted Shift by Charlotte Agell to the stage.  I'll be attending the opening on Friday night, March 11th. The play runs on weekends through March 20th. Charlotte has been advising this teen production based on her dystopian novel for young adults.

Lots of Shakespeare in NYC this spring.


Les said...

I am also equally happy tromping through the woods as I am exploring a city, it's the inbetween stuff I'm ambivalent about. Sounds like you had a marvelous time, thanks for taking us partially along.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Sarah

Thank you for sharing your vacation time with your readers. I enjoyed your walk throught Harvard Square(seems to be a fun place)- hope oneday to visit.

Have a great day!

Tracy :)

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

Warm memories revisited and sweet new ones made with your daughter. I treasure mother and daughter vacations and have enjoyed many with both of my daughters - together and separately. Thank you for sharing this get-away with us Sarah!

tina said...

So glad you and your daughter had fun in the big city. Me, I tend to stay away from big cities if I can help it. Two days in NYC is all I can handle so I've learned. The glass flowers are very interesting. How cool!

Sarah Laurence said...

Les, I feel the same way about the stuff in between city and country.

Tracy, you would enjoy the history too.

Bonnie, it was such a treat being able to focus on one child and to go sale shopping without any disgruntled guys. I’ve had some wonderful outdoorsy experiences with just my son too.

Tina, I was thinking about you while touring the glass flower exhibit and how much you and the other garden bloggers would enjoy it. It’s hard to get good shots in dim light and through glass, but it looks fabulous in person.

troutbirder said...

What fun. I have a fond memories of this place. New England and the Maritimes was our honeymoon venue. Of course, to a young history teacher, Boston was a must stop. I'm reasonably certain it was the Peabody Museum (anthropology) that held my fascination for a whole afternoon. :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Troutbirder, that sounds like a fun honeymoon for a history buff. The Peabody Museum and the Natural History Museum are actually connected and you can see both for one admission. I started out college as a Biological Anthropology major, before switching to Government to focus on Environmental Policy, and took many classes in that building. It’s a wonderful resource for students.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the fun reminders of one of the great parts of my life also. You and Colin were a huge part of my Cambridge memories. i was back in Cambridge in May 09 for my Doctoral graduation at HMS and did many of the things that you have listed. My mom came also and we enjoyed a great Street fair in the square. Great memories!!!!! Julia

Sarah Laurence said...

Julia, I wish I could have seen you and your family in Cambridge too. Congratulations on your doctorate! I shall say more in email – yours was buried in my inbox after my time away.

Bee said...

Balance in life is everything, and I can easily believe that you needed a city break (and to NOT have to cook) after working hard all winter. I've loved both of my visits to Boston and I envy you your memories and insider knowledge of such a special place.

I hope that you've returned feeling rejuvenated. UGH about mud season, though.

Kathryn/ said...

I fully understand the need for an urban retreat! Sounds like you beautifully combined nostalgia and a whole lot of delicious eating! Hope you returned to a bit of spring. It's coming!

Amanda Summer said...

what a lovely stroll with your daughter through your old stomping grounds - thank you for taking us along!

(can you share what your graduate degree is in by any chance? i know you are a writer, so was interested that you attended MIT!)

by the way - i love shabu shabu as well -- the next time i'm in beantown i'll know where to go ;-) and good luck to your son in his nordic event!

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, I admit to not ordering the shabu shabu because I didn’t want to cook on my night out. I’m almost looking forward to the mud – it’s all the ice that’s killing me now.

Kathryn, no sign of spring yet but now the snow is only knee deep, sigh.

Amanda, my masters at MIT was in political science. My two subfields were American Politics and Science, Technology and Public Policy. There is some connection to my writing. My (not yet published) novel for adults, S.A.D., is about small town politics and teaching evolution vs. creationism/intelligent design in public school.

Cat said...

Thanks for sharing the lovely weekend you spent with your daughter. There just isn't much better in life than spending one on one time with your children building memories filled with laughter!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I've never spent time in Boston, but you sure made me want to! I'd love to visit all those places. Thanks for the virtual trip.

A Cuban In London said...

Cracking post. I loved the description of the food you had. Broths are definitely on the menu over here with the chilly temperatures we're having.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Elizabeth said...

This sounds a splendid trip with an excellent balance of EATING and CULTURE.
I loved visiting Boston often when our son lived there.
I also have a French cousin in Cambridge.
Your post has whetted my appetite to make another visit soon.
Isabella Stewart Gardner here we come.
Still cool/cold and damp around here with no hint of spring.......

Cynthia Pittmann said...

Absolutely love the Boston area, too. I recently took my daughter there for her first year of college and we both fell in love with the art and intellectual atmosphere. Great photographs...what a treat to view your experience. I want to go back there soon!

Kelly H-Y said...

Sounds like the perfect girls' weekend ... how fun to experience all of that with your daughter.

David Cranmer said...

I so understand the need to hit the bigger town on occasion. My view has been pretty much the same as yours these past few months. It is raining today which I don't mind but definitely time for warmer weather.

Wonderful pics, Sarah.

Alyson | New England Living said...

I love Boston and Cambridge too! I will soon be living only 45 miles to Boston and can't wait to take advantage of the urban life there.

Thanks for sharing all of your pictures and recommendations! I will be re-reading this post for sure before my next trip into Cambridge! That would be such an amazing place to go to college.

cynthia said...

Oh, the glass-enclosed lap pool sounds amazing. I love Boston and Cambridge. Did you see the espresso book machine in the Harvard Book Store?

Anonymous said...

I saw your comment on Jeanne's Collage of Life dream home post and couldn't resist looking you up since I totally agree with you about Maine. We are in Rockport half the year, and for us it's living a dream.
I had the pleasure of seeing harvard's glass flowers a couple of years ago and was fascinated.
I look forward to more Maine talk!

Rose said...

A trip to the city sounds like the perfect antidote to the winter blahs. College towns always have their own special charm. Thanks for taking us along to Cambridge; I felt almost as if I was there with you, though I would have liked some of the real ice cream instead of the virtual stuff:)

Sarah Laurence said...

Cat and Kelly, the daughter time was special.

Tricia, Boston and Cambridge are well worth the visit next time you’re on this coast.

ACIL, sorry to hear it’s cold in England too. I’ve been eating lots of soups and stews lately as the temps hover around freezing at night.

Elizabeth, food and culture draw me to cities. I’m a fan of the Isabelle Stewart Gardner Museum and the MFA – actually the topic of another blog post in a couple of weeks. This post was already long enough.

Cynthia, your daughter is going to the best local for college.

David, isn’t it nice to see the sun again this morning? At least the rain has melted some of the ice and old snow.

Alyson, welcome back! It’s nice to see you back in the blogosphere. I’m sure your pending move is keeping you busy. You’ll love being able to explore Cambridge as well as Boston. I’m looking forward to those posts.

Cynthia, my daughter didn’t get why I had to swim in Cambridge when I do that regularly in Maine, but it felt like vacation being in a warm glass enclosed pool looking up at trees, instead of my usual Olympic size campus pool getting passed by the Bowdoin swim team like I’m treading water. I did see the cool book-making robot at the Harvard Book Store but forgot to mention it. It looked like a giant glass encased Xerox machine – very Willy Wonka. I wish I’d had time to ask questions – maybe next visit.

Lulumusing, welcome to my blog! It’s nice to connect with another Maine resident via Jeanne. You’ll find a lot of Maine talk on this blog, ayuh.

Rose, I’m lucky enough to live in a college town, but it’s tiny compared to Cambridge. As for virtual ice cream, why can't someone develop a flavored app?

Anonymous said...

Hey Sarah,
Thanks for the virtual field trip back to Cambridge, where I was a grad student back in the ....(gulp) mid 80's. No naninis then, but I want them now! It also made me recall a great family trip - to the Sox, and to those glass flowers. Also the minerals, and the infamous tapeworm jar!
I know what you mean, re: a city fix.

Carol said...

Dear Sarah, What a treat to see and read about your visit to Cambridge and Harvard. I love those exquisite glass flowers. They are truly extraordinary. I was moved to tears the first time I saw them. I know that sounds so corny but it was true. I was just telling my sister about them for we will visit Boston/Cambridge in June. I too enjoy a shot of city culture once in awhile. I also love the Cafe' Algiers. Sounds like you had a lovely getaway with your daughter. Thank you for sharing!

Donna said...

Wow, you went to Harvard and MIT? You are really smart!
When I was a student at Penn, at football games vs. Harvard the Harvard kids would yell "Safety School" to taunt us. I can't remember what we called back to them, unfortunately, but I'm sure it was something good. :)

I love Harvard Square--I used to go there with friends in high-school since it's only about 35 minutes from where I grew up. I enjoyed reading about your visit there with your daughter.

Booksnyc said...

I really need to spend a weekend in Boston soon - it is such a charming city and so academic! I went often a a child (we had family in the Boston suburbs) but haven't been as an adult except for business trips. Thanks for reminding me to put it on my must visit list!