That Summer: Cape Cod, 1990 - Bowled over by Boston

New England was just a stepping stone between California and England. But it was also a kind of coming home

IN 1990, I was looking for "old" America - Henry James, white clapboard houses, picket fences and steepled churches. I had just spent a year at the University of California, Berkeley, as part of an exchange programme with St Andrews in Scotland, and had decided to stop off on the way home to visit my friend Elizabeth on Cape Cod.

Taking classes with titles like Women and Silence (an unsurprisingly vocal and totally female course) and Shakespeare and Film (the Bard in Technicolor for surfers and frat boys) and lodging with an erratic divorced psychiatrist, her disturbed daughter and their enormous, slobbering St Bernard, Hildie, had left me in a state of irreversible culture shock. I'd survived a major earthquake and fraternity parties and was suffering from daytime soap addiction.

Reeling from a last-ditch tie-dye assault in Berkeley's hippie haven, Telegraph Avenue, the names Sandwich, Barnstable, Yarmouth and Falmouth conjured up images of sleepy coastal villages and lured me away to the Cape.

I felt that I needed to escape to a place where the answer "England" didn't automatically meet with the question: "New England?"

Elizabeth had studied in St Andrews for a year and was now a reporter for Cape Cod Newspapers in East Yarmouth. Her apartment was over a shop, optimistically named Antiques of the Future, in the tiny village of Cotuit. A traditional New England building painted pale grey and white and surrounded by trees, it had a separate entrance up a wooden staircase at the side, leading on to a sunny deck.

While Elizabeth was at work I pottered around the flat with Corretta, her schizophrenic cat, or wandered along the lane to the beach. The good hour it took to walk, shaded by overhanging trees, and passing overgrown hedgerows and the large clapboard holiday homes of wealthy Bostonians, fed my Henry James fantasy.

Stopping off at the grocery store, I would buy ice-cream and listen lethargically to local gossip before continuing on to the beach - small, golden and fringed by swaying grasses and smooth dunes. The water was clear and cool, and the air scented with a strange mixture of sea salt and wild roses.

They were lazy days of soporific solitude only occasionally disturbed by a pack of screeching children in fluorescent swimming-costumes.

In the evenings, Elizabeth cooked pasta with fresh ginger and yoghurt and we drank champagne with strawberries on the deck, as I explained the varying merits of television shows such as The Bold and the Beautiful, The Young and the Restless and, my then favourite, General Hospital.

But one of my most vivid memories is of speeding down country lanes in Elizabeth's dark blue Honda Prelude past salt marshes, long stretches of beach and woodland.

We stopped off to wander around picturesque villages and towns, such as Falmouth with its old sea captains' houses and craft shops, and Sandwich, the oldest settlement on Cape Cod.

Dating back to the Pilgrim traders of the early 17th century, Sandwich has a picture-perfect village green, a white church with steeple and is overflowing with pretty colonial houses, many of which are now B&Bs and antiques shops. Searching through the local art galleries, we bought a watercolour of a Cape Cod seascape for a friend who was getting married in Ohio later that summer.

One grey, blustery day we took a ferry across to Martha's Vineyard. I expected exclusive and was greeted with tacky. As we arrived in Oaks Bluff after a rough crossing, feeling decidedly queasy, a light drizzle fell on the brightly coloured gingerbread houses. The waterfront was a mass of hotels, souvenir shops and bars. We consumed vast quantities of seafood in a mock spit'n'sawdust bar as we sheltered from the rain.

Martha's Vineyard may not have lived up to my expectations, but another day-trip far exceeded them. Catching a Plymouth & Brockton bus to Boston I fell in love.

San Francisco had had an almost surreal magic and New York a frenetic buzz, but Boston felt like coming home. Stumbling upon the sign for the Cheers bar. I crept down the steps and lived another fantasy.

I had gone to the Cape to catch my breath. It was a stepping-stone back to Europe, a whistle-stop on the way. My memories are of a place full of light and water and wood and the greenest greens.

Thinking of all I was leaving behind and all I was going back to, I wrote in my diary that I had even enjoyed the sour cream and onion chips, Haagen Dazs, (I never did get into Ben and Jerry's) and Oprah.

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