A lot of you probably made your parents dance with joy when you decided to go to Harvard. But do you want to make your parents really happy? Tell them you're going to a college that's only 12 miles away. When my parents calculated the exact distance from our house to Harvard, the burden of an empty nest suddenly seemed a lot lighter.
I was also pretty satisfied with the proximity of Harvard to my lifelong home. While hundreds of my classmates frantically book plane tickets to get between home and school, my only transportation cost is the $1 toll on the Tobin Bridge. I hang out in the same Harvard Square shops and restaurants I visited in high school, and a home-cooked meal is only a T ride away. When I moved into the Yard two years ago, I figured that the transition from suburban Boston to urban Cambridge would be an easy one. But culture shock hit harder than I expected it to.
My first-year roommates from the four corners of the U.S. immediately ordained me as the local expert. Classmates hailing from Hartford, Halifax and Hong Kong bombarded me with questions: What's a good place to eat in Somerville? Where's Warren Street? Why doesn't everyone here talk the way Matt Damon, Class of 1992, does in Good Will Hunting? After much shrugging and referencing boston.com, I realized just how much I didn't know about my city.
This bothered me tremendously. Both sides of my family have lived in and around the city for about four generations, and half the people you bump into in the North End are most likely related to me. I don't drop my "r"s, I hate Duck Tours and I can never remember what those flashing lights on top of the Hancock building mean. The city I had grown up in and around suddenly seemed foreign to me. How could I call myself a true Bostonian if I couldn't even give people directions to Allston?
So, in typical Harvard fashion, I set out to know it all. I studied up, I quizzed relatives, and I ventured into the city weekend after weekend in search of my hometown. It's been a long and arduous process--and a fun one. Exploring your own city like a tourist is a way to see it through fresh eyes and abandon the jadedness that creeps in after residing there for 20 years.
But those of you who come to Harvard from more foreign lands may be a bit apprehensive putting your fate in the hands of a cabbie and a AAA street map. So, for the uninitiated, a short guide to Boston and the surrounding area:
*Regardless of your sense of direction, you will get lost in Boston. Thanks to the Big Dig, even the locals get lost in Boston these days. Accept it as a chance to explore and just hope that you find a T station somewhere. For those of you who are foolishly confident that you can navigate the city, here's a primer: Southie means South Boston. Eastie means East Boston. The North End is east of the West End. The West End doesn't really exist anymore. Got it so far?
*Public transportation is your friend. It may not run all night, but the T is by far the cheapest, easiest, most entertaining way to get around. Learn to love the Red Line and the Green Line, and even the Orange Line has its own special charm. (The Blue Line is worthless. If you're traveling from Logan, take a cab instead.) The best buskers are at Park Street, and the Harvard station gets its fair share of talent too.
*Repeat after me: BU, BC, MIT. Don't bother calling them by their full names. Don't make fun of them either--the Greater Boston area is one big college town, and Harvard snobbery has no place in it. Every Massachusetts school is better than us at something (usually hockey) and finding friends on other campuses is one of the best parts of going to school here. Save your superiority for the people at Yale.
*Bostonians are passionate about their sports teams. We worship Larry Bird, we tolerate Drew Bledsoe and Red Sox Nation holds true to the belief that every year is "The Year." In a world where professional sports are increasingly corporate and commercialized, the Boston faithful still shed a collective tear when icons leave the city for retirement or for playoff contenders. If you must be obnoxious about your devotion to the Yankees, do so at your own risk.
*Regional differences even extend themselves to desserts. For example, those candy sprinkles that go on your ice cream at Herrell's are called jimmies. Frappes have ice cream, milkshakes don't. And even though Mike's Pastry is the biggest bakery in the North End, it's nowhere near the best. Locals in the know get their canolis at Modern Pastry on Hanover or at Maria's on Cross Street--if they can navigate around the Big Dig to get there.
Above all, don't just be a Harvard student--become a Bostonian and a Cantabrigian. Embrace the Boston culture and it will hug you back with all the warmth of an Italian great-aunt. We may be cruel to tourists occasionally, but we're generally pretty nice to our fellow locals who know the city's best-kept secrets. Get over the ivy-covered walls, get off campus and explore your new home.
And if you figure out what the flashing lights on top of the Hancock Building mean, do me a favor and let me know.
Jonelle M. Lonergan '02 is an English concentrator in Winthrop House.
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