The Malta Independent 9 May 2021, Sunday

Sant in spanking form

Tuesday, 27 April 2021, 09:34 Last update: about 12 days ago

In Alfred Sant’s latest book, Confessions of a European Maltese – The Middle Years 1975-1992 the author chronicles 17 years of conflict and transition, starting with his experience at Boston University. Enjoy the introduction to these unusual and uninhibited memoirs.

The Boston experience

Boston in January can be cold, very cold. That grey late afternoon when I arrived on Wednesday 8 January 1975 at Logan Airport from Zaventem, Brussels, via Heathrow with British Airways, indeed it was very cold. My luggage failed to arrive. Probably, the airline had not transferred it in time at London. Not in the best of moods, as an early dusk settled, I went by taxi to the Eliot Hotel, on Commonwealth Avenue, in that part of central Boston labelled Back Bay. When your luggage goes awol just as you arrive on a continent where nobody knows you and you know nobody, life feels dismal. Actually by next morning, the airline had retrieved my bags and delivered them safely at the Eliot. The hotel has been greatly refurbished since those days when it was run down and dreary, but still comfortable. For me its location was perfect, half way up the avenue to where Boston University stood.

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CommAve as the name of the avenue is popularly abbreviated, is a major artery of the city. It runs along the area where the American revolution was fomented, at least in Massachusetts, and ends at Boston Common, another historic site, a park climbing slowly to the downtown area. In the mid-1970's, the avenue looked like the Eliot, rather the worse for wear. In later years, it was given the major upgrade that its status deserves.

Next morning under a clear blue sky - but it was freezing - I walked up the avenue towards Boston University at the other end from the Common. Brittle layers of thin ice covered parts of the pavement. One could not help noticing how some houses seemed to have been empty for quite a while. A few others carried notices on their ground floor windows advising they had flats for hire. That I liked, since once I had completed enrollment procedures at BU, I planned to find as soon as possible, somewhere to rent. This area was a good place to start the search from.

Entering Boston University

Soon enough, a brown-greyish block of towers loomed on my side of the road. They could only be the BU buildings indicated on the city map that I had carefully studied. The surprise though was that they immediately reminded me of the squat towers I saw on a main avenue of central Moscow the previous summer when I visited there with a group tour from Brussels. Thinking over it, the resemblance was not surprising. Both structures were probably built in the 1920's and 1930's. Building technologies and fashions at that time regarding highrises must have been similar across continents, independently of ideological fractures.

However, when in later months, during chit chat with faculty and friends from BU, I would jokingly mention the first impression I got walking towards the University main edifices, the overall reaction was cool to cold. So I stopped referring to how my first approach to BU in Boston reminded me of Moscow...

I was looking for the Management School, a longish three storey structure on the other side of the road from the older main buildings, next to the students' club and restaurant, themselves next to Mugar, the central University library. Before registering for courses, I wanted to make contact with professor David J. Ashton, the director up to December 1974 of the BU campus in Brussels. I followed his economic macro and micro economy courses in the BU masters of business management (MBA) programme there. I had discussed with him my decision to go finish fulltime in Boston, the MBA degree I was doing part-time on the Brussels campus. It turned out he too would be transferring to Boston by January. He was wary of expressing a clear opinion about my intentions, though I did not ask for one, just told him about them. Still, he pointed out that leaving a good job in diplomacy, which he considered prestigious, and going for an open ended study stay in the US, funded personally, carried risks. That's as far as he went.

I found him in his School of Management office on the ground floor and he immediately asked me in. The return to the US had not changed his avuncular, deliberate, sometimes grandfatherly style. Ashton was a tall, well built man, getting elderly, who in his prime must have had a commanding presence. I reported on what I had done, and spoke about my study plans. We agreed I would be taking another class with him, this time on international business. We could discuss my study plans some more when I had registered for the BU programme and settled in. He gave me tips about how to deal with the University bureaucracy and advised me where to locate Gary Watzke, another tutor at the Brussels campus who had migrated to Boston.

I liked Watzke, a relaxed Californian who looked younger than his early middle age. In Brussels he liked to play the part of a naive American genuinely trying to understand European ways but without total success. He gave me a cordial reception and described amusingly his own resettlement glitches. Just like Ashton, he seemed perplexed about the situation I had made for myself but quite prepared to take it for what I presented it as - an attempt to rewire my "intellectual" and "professional" background by doing fulltime studies in US managerial lore.

Already, during my short interview with him, as well as with Ashton, I sensed I would be needing a clear description of what I intended doing. This I could repeat like a mantra in order to make others I met understand where I came from and where I wished to go. What in the managerial jargon of later years would be called a "mission statement".

 

Registering and settling in

The day passed quickly. I scrambled from office to office, to register as a student, get into the MBA course schedules for the winter semester which was about to start the following week, acquire reading lists, and explore the students' house and restaurant. Also, I needed to open a bank account at the University branch of the First National Bank of Boston, situated beneath the squat highrises. Going there, I held hard to a cheque made to my name by my former bank, the Banque de Bruxelles (long since defunct or absorbed by a bigger concern). In it, I carried all the savings made from the salaries and allowances of the previous five years, converted into just under US$10,000 (circa €8,400) from just over 350,000 Belgian francs, inclusive of the money (much less than expected) obtained from the sale of the Ford Capri that I drove in Brussels. 

What must be done with urgency I had been told, was to acquire insurance cover for any health costs that I could incur during my stay in the US. No free medical and hospital services were available for resident non-US citizens. If I understood correctly, the same or almost applied to US citizens. Treatment if health problems arose, would be very costly, and all BU students were asked to take up insurance cover with a system called Blue Shield. I did so, paying hefty dues. Luckily for the duration of my stay, I never needed Blue Shield to intervene.

All this done, I made my sums and considered how to complete the MBA programme soonest. Calculations from back in Brussels seemed still quite valid. At BU, there were two main semesters, covering winter and the autumn (the "fall") and a smaller one in "summer" - June to August. To get through the programme, one needed to acquire enough credits in sixteen courses. Part-time, you could do two courses a semester; fulltime you were expected to do four. Many of the younger students, coming straight from undergraduate school would typically take two years to complete the programme, doing it fulltime over successive winter and spring semesters while taking longish summer holidays.

However, it was possible with permission, to attempt five courses per semester. In Brussels, I had already done six courses, two per semester halftime during the previous year 1974. My purpose was now to finish ten courses, and therefore the overall MBA programme, during the upcoming winter and summer semesters, five each. I would do four courses as per the established schedule, plus a fifth one as "directed study", so it was called.

Today in Europe, MBAs have become run of the mill. In those days they were still almost unknown as educational vehicles. US MBAs were mostly based on taught courses; the European variant that has developed since relies much more than did American MBAs of my days, on "research" and thesis presentations, which had less significance in the American system. A "directed study" amounted to getting a member of the academic staff in a given line of study to oversee work on a topic that the student would research and write up. Academics were careful that this would not be used as a soft option to circumvent requirements for credits in taught, hardwire courses. So I needed swift agreement with a member of the academic body to proceed with a "directed study" as of the winter term.

This I discussed with professor Ashton and he agreed to oversee a "directed study" in international business on a theme for which I would provide him with a proposal. It would be in line with the overall strategy that as I then began to explain over and over to him and others, had led me to go for an American MBA course.

 

Why an MBA?

This was my mantra: Developing countries, of which I believed Malta was one, were launching state enterprises and agencies across the board to bolster economic growth. They did this in competition with local private entrepreneurship, or in collaboration with it, or in its absence, and/or in partnership with foreign private and state enterprises, or completely on their own. Most of these initiatives were ending up in a managerial and financial shambles, both when they were frameworked pitifully, as well as when they were carefully put in place. I hoped by studying how private enterprise in the US worked to get insight about management ideas that, successful in America, could be applied to the (state) enterprises of developing countries, including Malta. 

For the duration of my stay in Boston, this - I believed - provided a simple explanation that could be rapidly understood by academics who had little interest in development or international business studies. Quite content with sticking to US themes, they would not know or desire to know anything about Malta. The mantra worked well. The proposal for a directed study that I made to Ashton took it into account.

I expected to spend practically all the funds I had brought with me on tuition and living expenses to cover the MBA programme at BU. Assuming this could be achieved by the end of the summer (1975), I would be penniless but with an MBA to my credit. Throughout, my idea had been to then try and get into a doctoral programme in business management, preferably in the Boston area. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were my targets on this one, in descending order. I needed to get accepted by their programme, and later see about how to finance it - a tall order by any reckoning. So I believed. Problems were to be expected when it came to retaining residence permits in the US after having expended all funds. In the worst case scenario, if I failed to secure a doctoral placement, the fallback option I could think of was quite vague, almost desperate: go to Canada, where rumour had it that visas were easier to obtain due to the British Commonwealth connection, and spend some time working there.

Frankly, I had little worries about the MBA course itself. I liked much of the material that we were covering, from macro/micro economics to organizational psychology - even if I criticised very frequently the "superficiality" of certain approaches, sometimes making myself a nuisance to both students and lecturers alike. To be fair, most of them took my badmouthing in good part, possibly finding it entertaining or more probably they just shrugged off whatever I said. Anyway, my outturn in the courses completed in Brussels was more than acceptable and I had quickly understood how the teaching and grading process worked. 

My plan now was to spend the coming months totally dedicated to study. However, I had convinced myself that I also needed to counterbalance the influences I would be subjected to while living in America and attending its schools. That could be done if I resumed my studies of Russian, started back in Paris in 1968 for the same reason (then to counterbalance the French influence), and if too I perhaps found time for Arabic. I visited a professor at the BU department of Russian studies, told him that years ago, I had studied the language on my own out of the Nina Potapova manual and asked about registering for a course on top of my other management courses. He answered courteously that it could be done but without any waiver of fees, which were as steep as at the management school. Seeing my reaction, he recommended a book I could use on my own, "Introductory Russian Grammar" authored in second edition by Galina and Leon Stilman, and William E Harkins. I bought the textbook and used it assiduously in the following months to perk up what I remembered from Potapova. Similarly, with an Arabic grammar borrowed from the BU library, I made time to follow the rudiments of that language, at which though Maltese is quite close to it, my progress was slow.

The Boston scene

Once I had settled how my studies would proceed, I found it easier to focus on understanding what Boston, a city that was completely new to me, was all about. I took to it immediately and doubt that this happened because it's considered the most "European" city of the US. Actually, at first sight, even the street scenes seemed alien since traffic was dominated by huge private cars, double the size of those being driven in Europe. This was before compacts started to make inroads in the US market, dominated as it was by gas guzzlers.

During the first weekend, still very cold but sunny, I explored the city on foot starting Saturday from the Back Bay area, down CommAve away from BU, towards the Boston Common, up from there towards the downtown shopping area - and on Sunday, back of CommAve to Boylston Square running again to the side of the Common, then forward from CommAve towards the Charles River, up and down its bank to where it reaches out to the sea... The city offered new vistas which were exhilarating. The niggling worries that I had made a fool of myself by launching on this adventure went up in smoke. All my prejudices against the US of a few years back - in the sense that the country was just a hotbed for Yankee imperialism - vanished. I felt that even if I bombed here, I had booked for myself an extremely interesting experience.

On that first "lonely" Sunday, while exploring the banks of the Charles River, to reinforce the feeling that I really was now established in the US, I bought (incongruously) the bulky Sunday edition of the "New York Times". I carried it with me the whole day, reading bits and pieces of the issue when slacking off. The Back Bay side of the Charles provided a sharp and beautiful view of the other bank and beyond.

That was where Cambridge, the sister city of Boston, lay and where Harvard University is located. I went there in the afternoon. The metro system in Boston/Cambridge is easy to understand and convenient. On my first ride on it, I got to Harvard square. The place was empty. Students were probably still trickling in for the winter term but some shops were open. Again, I immediately liked Cambridge. True, the similarities with European sites were there; but for me, it was still an American scene, exactly why I still cannot say.

As I explored the streets around the underground station at Harvard Square, maybe I should have tried to get down the side J F Kennedy Road leading to the bridge over the Charles River, across which the Harvard Business School is located. For that was my real ultimate goal. But on that day, I did not do it. I just roamed the empty streets in the chilly sunlight. Down Massachusetts Avenue which leads back to Boston proper, a cinema poster announced the arrival of the film "Jonas who will be 25 in the year 2000". I stopped to investigate an open air bookstall selling second hand books. Flouting the rules I had set myself, to economize severely, I bought a hardback, my first one in the US. That lazy visit to Cambridge following the stroll down the bank of the Charles River, hugging the issue of the "New York Times" which I never found time to read, remains one of my keenest memories of those early days in the US.

 

Renting for a cold winter

Meanwhile, it had not taken me long to settle on a flat to rent - I made a deal at my first enquiry. It was at a brownstone on CommAve at 230 (close to the Eliot Hotel) which carried a poster advertising a flat available inside. The house looked a bit decrepit, as did quite a number of other buildings on the block. I was led in to see the third floor flat by the caretaker John Cronin, as he introduced himself, a youngish middleaged man, with brooding eyes and a sour look on his face. He explained that the building belonged to an old Boston family, the Allens, who rented apartments. Laid out in wood, the entrance hall and the panelling up the dimly lighted staircase were wellworn. In many places the polish and paint had flaked off, but the place was clean. There were two flats on each landing. The entry to the one I was being shown had a hole punched in the panelling on the side of the door.  Cronin realised I was looking at the hole with suspicion and explained they had been doing some repairs to the stairs and workers had rammed the top of a ladder into the door jamb.

Inside you found yourself in a small hall, more like a corridor, with to the right a skimpy kitchen backed by a bathroom and to the left, another small space with table, like an alcove which I immediately saw could serve as a study. The rest of the flat consisted of two quite large rooms, side by side and opening on each other, one laid out as a sitting room, the other as a bedroom, both with windows opening on a courtyard bounded by the backs of other buildings, to which you could descend via a fire escape. The furniture, sofa, chairs, table, bed, wardrobe were all well into their old age but still solid and again, clean looking.

The rent being asked... some 170 dollars monthly... was slightly above what I had budgeted for. Still, despite that ugly hole to the side of the door (which Cronin said would be repaired - it never was) I was tempted. The flat was very suitable for my purposes, centrally located, close to BU, which would cut on my transport costs. The caretaker was impressed, then suspicious when I told him I would take it and occupy within two days, at the end of my Eliot booking. Quite soon I noticed this tendency of his, to shift in mood from almost pleasant to sour. He asked me what I was doing in Boston and then confided he too was studying - having fought in Vietnam, he had been given study grants available to veterans who had served there. Meanwhile apart from doing caretaking for 230, he also held a part-time job though he did not say what it was. In the end he asked me to wait while he went to speak to Mrs E Allen, the landlady, and came back to say it was OK. I could return in two days, sign the contract, pay by cheque and move in the premises. Which is what I did.

All in all, it did not turn out to be such a bad arrangement for the year and a half I spent there. To be sure, Mrs Allen came to inspect. She was an elderly, white haired, well groomed lady, obviously upper middle class. It was my turn to be suspicious since I had had mixed experiences with people of her sort in the past, like the landlady of the flat I once rented in Athens during the autumn of 1969. She had been very nice when she met me, but quite unpleasant when she happened to meet my flatmate, Vanya Prashimditt from Cambodia...  Mrs Allen  had a dry quiet style which I liked; she seemed intrigued by my accent at that stage of my stay in the US: a jumble of European English, with some French accents thrown in and no doubt the remnants of Malta speak.

The biggest problem that came up at that stage can be summed up in one word: drains. They were old, badly laid out and blocked easily, especially at the kitchen end. Worse, the kitchen drain fed into that of the shower as the bathroom was adjacent to the kitchen. The first time there was a blockage, I went down to the apartment at ground floor where Cronin lived and complained strongly. He came up growling in his surly fashion, accepted there was a problem and promised to clear it. However, the repairs he carried out did not last long.

The next time, when taking a shower, I discovered I was standing in a growing pool of the tomato sauce I had washed down the kitchen sink the previous evening; it was now coming back out of the blocked drain into the shower. This time I really made a song and dance. Cronin called Mrs Allen. She came to visit and I noticed how true to her type, she would try not to make any quick commitments, looking coolly sideways at whoever was talking to gauge what should be taken at face value. However, there could be no doubt the drains needed a proper repair job. She inspected them, promised to correct the problem and kept her promise.

For me, the location at 230 was ideal. To one side of the Boston Common - Boston University axis constituted by Commonwealth Avenue which I had explored well during my first three days, there were the Boylston Street and Copley Square areas. On the other side of the axis, one quickly reached the banks of the Charles River. Copley Square and its surroundings had a European dash, even if some restaurants there specialised in clam chowder which I had never sampled before.

Already dominating the skyline in the beautiful spaces around Copley Square was the Hancock Tower, a slim skyscraper encased in mirrors, at the time almost finished. When I was settling down to life at CommAve, I did not know about the problems its construction was giving rise to. Hancock's glass covering was very impressive, transmitting a completely optimistic feel about life. Its upper floors reflected the blue skies and thin clouds, and would frequently light up the bleak winter mornings, as people scurried to the Copley underground before the cold penetrated to their deep core.

Throughout, I remained surprised at how cold Boston could be. There had been big snowdrifts in Brussels during the years I lived there. On short trips in winter to the German foreign ministry then at Bonn with the Malta embassy chauffeur Pierre Driessens, we had driven along snowdrifts and roads that were like frozen glass. Still, the weather had been nothing like Boston. For the first time in my life, I accepted that I needed to wear gloves. Without them, during the short walk from say the Copley underground station to my flat, my hands would freeze. On arrival at the flat, in the warmth there - for with all its defects, the apartment was always well heated - the extreme pain that one went through as the cold retreated from one's bones was atrocious. In Boston, the Atlantic it fronts raises the worst storms that carried by huge winds make the cold even colder - the so-called wind chill factor. Previously I had thought it was just a good title for a thriller. Now I understood it was something that could really make one suffer. 

However, once you tooled up to fit into the new conditions, life could be organized in comfortable ways even on a tight budget. During the months I lived on CommAve I had some unpleasant incidents. Once I was mugged late at night with no prior warning as three men passed by me. Another time I was burgled by someone who entered the apartment through the fire escape, for a meagre haul since all he/she could steal were a rather old coat and a small calculator that I had brought from Brussels. On the whole though, my recall of all that period is of a pleasant if tough time during which I was able to do what I had set out to do: study.


Another instalment will be published on 9 May 2021


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