Fru Gal

The adventures of a Frugal Gal as she seeks the best that little money can buy.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Liberté, Egalité, Frugalité

On Friday, the SG and I headed over to the French Library to celebrate Bastille Day. Each year, the French Library hosts the hottest dance party in Boston, figuratively and literally. Held on Marlborough street in the Back Bay, the party takes place on the asphalt between Clarendon and Berkley streets. The fenced off area is complete with a stage for live music, street fair food, and of course, port-o-potties.

But when I say "street fair food" you can put away those images of fried dough and corn dogs. Instead, the best of Boston's French restaurants were serving delicious food at Fru Gal prices. For $4 you could sample Sandrine's blueberry creme brulee. For $5, Brasserie Jo offered you pate de foie gras with truffle oil. It was a frugal francophiles fan-tasty.

The music rocked. Instead of the stereotypical French soundtrack of Edith Piaf and Amelie accordion solos, this celebration featured the hottest acts coming out of Francophone Africa.

The show was opened by the hip hop outfit DAARA J from Senegal. They got the audience hopping, quite literally, by refusing to play until Boston "jumped like a lion. Jump! Jump!" They also exposed the true nature of the Bastille party-goers, who stared at them expectanctly during their French stage pater. When the band announced between songs that "Le Rap est née en Afrique!" they got no reaction until they switched to English. "Rap was born in Africa," they repeated, and then the crowd broke out into cheers.

Next DABY TOURÉ of Mauritania laid down some Dave Matthews style tunes and the Malian pop duo AMADOU & MARIAM closed out the evening. Unfortunately, the SG and I couldn't last for the end of their act. We were dancing with our arms waving over our heads in an attempt to pull the cool air, which felt like a ten degree difference, down into the crush of bodies. It was just too damn hot and we had to call it quits.

This raucous good time was $25 - which is cheap for an evening with three stellar world music groups. But that price didn't include extras, like vin rouge or crepes avec mousse chocolat, all of which had to be paid for out of pocket. Which means, we didn't get to sample all that fine French food.

As we were leaving, we realized that there was a separate Bastille Day happening just outside the fenced area in the outdoor ampitheater of Boston's First Church (Unitarian/Universalist). It was an accoustically perfect place to enjoy the concert, and there was plenty of space for the few souls who decided to dance. A few even persuaded event staff to sell them pate de foie gras over the fence. So who knows, maybe next year you'll find this CB with the truly frugal, enjoying the sounds of l'Afrique for free.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Boston Harbor Hotel Hates The Frugal and the Fru Gal

I attended last friday's Movies by Moonlight, a free, free, free, presentation of American film classics at the Boston Harbor Hotel. I've been reading about this event for years, and this past Friday the selection was Roman Holiday, with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. It's a classic film, and I believed the PR for the event when it described it as "a perfect summer date." The PR advised you to "bring a picnic" and "enjoy the ocean breezes." The movie was to be projected onto a screen floating on a barge anchored just off the pier.

What the PR does not describe is that the staff of the Boston Harbor Hotel hates this event, and has nothing but contempt for the frugal who attend it.

I called the hotel earlier in the day to speak with the concierge, to get the inside scoop on what time "sunset" really means, whether I should bring a chair, and what time I should arrive to ensure quality reviewing. I was told 8ish (earlier times for films later in the season) and that it was unnecessary to bring a chair as the hotel provided seating.

That last statement - that the hotel provides seating - turns out to be a Clintonian truth. The hotel provides rounds of 1/2 thick foam emblazoned with the Boston Harbor Hotel logo. That's it. This was just the first piece of misinformation delivered by the BHH concierge.

The hotel's plan is that you place this illusion of comfort onto one of the twenty (20!) spaces available on the stone steps leading to the pier. There isn't room for more than 20 adults on the granite stairs, which are so shallow, that each person has to take up three steps - one for the half of their butt cheeks that fit on the foam, one for their feet, and one for the backs of the knees. To ask anyone to occupy only two steps, as I did in a brash attempt to make the evening work, is to ask them to watch the movie with their nose resting on their knees.

There were a hundred adults jockeying for space on the stairs when I arrived, an hour early, as suggested by the concierge. The crowd continued to swell for the next hour. I would be hard pressed to say who was in a worse mood, the people crowded onto the stairs, or the staff designated to keep them from straying into the hotel's money maker, tables for two set up between the free seats and the edge of the pier. These tables were reserved for dinner only - as I learned when my friends and I decided to splurge on some over priced and under powered beverages in the cause of saving the nerve endings in our bottoms. We were rejected from the tables. When asked where we could sit, our questions were met with "I don't know, but you can't stand here," from the hotel staff. At the best, the hotel staff was merely rude, at their worst, they behaved like cowboys sending cattle into a slaughter house.

My attention was caught by the fact that chairs, clearly drawn from some banquet room in the hotel, had been set up in four rows on the screen's barge. I asked the hotel staff if those chairs were available to the public. "I don't know, why don't you just put your name down for a table?" was the unhelpful and petulant reply. In other words, "why don't you spend some money, you cheap bastards?" One of my friends conjectured that these seats were reserved for paying guests of the hotel. Too late, we learned that they were open to the public. By that time, the seats on the barge were filled with other frugal Bostonians, bobbing slightly with the drift of the water.

That's when the folks with the chairs began arriving. Here were the true cheap bastard cognoscenti, with their folding chairs and picnic baskets. They lined up along the right of the stone steps, with clear, albeit off center, views of the screen.

My friends and I had had enough. They were taking my word for it that Roman Holiday was a can't miss film, a classic romance that would cause them to run away to Rome and fall in love with a dissolute American journalist. But it just wasn't in our bottoms to last. Before the credits began, we abandoned our hard won steps and hit the road.

I'm guessing that the Boston Harbor Hotel receives some kind of tax break from the city of Boston for hosting free events. And they certainly spent enough money advertising the event. But just because the frugal movie lovers were their guests, they clearly have told their staff that they don't have to be kind to every guest, just the ones who pay.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Rockets Red Glare

What is the best of the Boston cheap bastard activities? Definitely the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Fourth of July extravaganza, with fireworks choreographed to the music of the 1812 Overture.

If you want a seat for this free event, you need to show up at dawn, and be prepared to guard your territory all day. On a day like yesterday - with two violent thundershowers in the afternoon - the prospect of this CB camping out for the BSO was non-existent. After all, sometimes being a cheap bastard isn't about money, it's about that other precious commodity - time. Is it really a free concert if you have to sacrifice twelve hours of your summer to it?

That being said, the SG and I both love fireworks and Boston's are world-renowned, thanks to annual prime time broadcasts. So, how to enjoy the event without sacrificing time or money?

The cheap (and dirty) method is to take the MBTA Redline inbound to the Charles/MGH station. Perched above the Charles River, the subway platform offers an unobstructed view. But time it carefully, the hundreds of Boston cops on patrol on July 4th won't allow two hour loitering on the platform in anticipation of the fireworks, although they will let you stay if you arrive just in the nick of time.

Looking for something more romantic than the T, the SG and I rented a Mini-Cooper convertible from Zipcar from 9:30 to 11:30. Zipcar is a members only car sharing service that allows you to rent cars by the hour. They have cars scattered all over the greater Boston area, from BMW's to Hondas. A Mini-Cooper convertible is a premium car for this service, so we paid a premium price of $11.75 an hour (which includes gas and insurance).

We picked up our Mini at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square, a red hooded cutie named Myles. With the push of a button, the roof slid down. I tied a patriotic scarf over my hair, climbed behind the wheel, and we set off in search of a prime viewing location.

We cruised along Memorial Drive, listening to the BSO on AM radio. We crossed the BU Bridge, which on July 4th is a hairy experience. Staring at 9:30 p.m. cars start to park on the four lane bridge, which has no breakdown lane. By ten p.m., cars are double parked.

Additional danger comes from the fireworks fans who decide the best place to sit is on the bridge's narrow sidewalk with their legs in the road, or to lie on the bridge's cross beams. And where was DCS when some parents decided to switch sides of the bridge by nosing their baby carriage into oncoming traffic? And where was the suicide intervention for the scads of bikers in black, with no helmets or headlights, wearing headphones?

SG and I pulled into a BU parking lot just across the BU bridge facing the tower of the BU Law School. Never having tried this cheap bastard trick before, we weren't sure if we'd be able to see anything once the fireworks started. The safe rule of thumb in judging the suitability of a watch site is whether you can see the Hood blimp, itself poised to film the fireworks. If you can see the blimp, conventional wisdom says you'll be able to see the fireworks. (Which is nonsense, if you think about it - if you can see me, it doesn't follow that you can see what I see.)

SG and I parked, turned off the engine and left the radio on. In what must pass for diversity for the BSO, they launched into "Dixie" - even the SG was confused by the choice. The blimp glowed straight ahead, a white beacon for the longing fireworks fan.

And then the fireworks began. They were elegant waterfalls of light. They were scatter shots of gold pebbles casting ripples on the surface of the sky. They were phantasms of red and blue. It was spectacular. It was partially obstructed.

If the fireworks were high in the air (about 2/3 of them) we saw them perfectly, framed between the BU towers and the trees along the Charles. If they were low, as many of the exploding smiley face style fireworks are, we saw only a red or green glow fading upward. Still, to sit in the lap of rented luxury, with the radio on and the SG's hand in mine, it was pretty close to heaven.

Or as close as a CB can get for $23.50.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Skating Alfresco

Last January, the New York Times Travel Section ran an article on the truly fabulous places you can skate outside: on the premiere etage of the Eiffel Tower, 190 feet above Paris; in the torchlight courtyard of Somerset House in the heart of London; in front of Vienna's Imperial Opera House; and the couryard of the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you find yourself mentally tipping over as your eyes skate down the list of alluring European splendor and terminates at the Charles Hotel, you're not alone. This teensy rink (just 54 square feet), with it's views of (as you skate counterclockwise), Eye Q Optical, Charlie's Burger Joint, JFK St., the parking garage and the facade of the Charles Hotel, is never going to warm your heart the way spinning towards the spires of MontMarte would.

But the rink does have it's virtues, which I've been exploring for the last week. To begin with, on weekday's it's almost always vacant before three p.m. So if you're a novice skater like myself, unable to turn properly, or stop at all, having no one on the rink means no one to plow into while you scream "I can't steer" or "I can't stop" or merely "Ahhhh!" I'm especially afraid of small children on the ice, anyone under hip height appears to me like a bug ready to be squashed.

At $5 for unlimited ice time, and another $5 for ice skate rentals, the rink is not cheap. Nor are it's selection of adult drinks, Irish coffee and Hot (rum) Toddy's at $6 a mug. But it has one essential virtue, the Charles Hotel is on the same block as my office, which means I've been able to dart out for a half hour rotation in the middle of the day. As the sun bounces back at me from the ice, the cheap bastard in me definitely finds it cheaper than therapy and anti-depressants for fighting off seasonal depression. (I bring my skates, saving $5 a pop).

What the Charles Hotel wishes it were, is the Frog Pond on the Boston Common. Standing in the shadow of the gold dome of the Massachusetts State House, the Frog Pond offers 16,000-square-feet of ice. Where as the Charles Hotel offers convenience, the Frog Pond offers comfort; it's kiosk contains a warming room, restrooms and lockers for your street shoes. Its also cheaper than the Charles Hotel - Ice time for adults is $3, and children 13 and under skate free. Skate rentals range from $5-$7, depending on size. But forget about sipping an Irish Coffee. The rink and the kiosk are run by the City of Boston - no booze allowed.

The Frog Pond can get pretty crowded with care free kids on weekends and school holidays. But at night, its usually couples that dominate the ice. Skating at the Frog Pond is the most popular winter date in Boston, and the location is romantic.

The SG and I have checked out both rinks. Like me, SG likes the Charles for it's convenience, and that on a Sunday at 7 p.m., you're assured that your only companions on the ice will be adults sipping adult beverages. But for romance, SG likes the Frog Pond. That's where he picked up one of a Northern Gentleman's romantic gestures, kneeling at the foot of his beloved and lacing up her skates. And if there's anything this CB loves, its cheap bastard romance.

And that'll do just fine, until we can make it here:

Ooooh la la!

Friday, December 30, 2005

Drink Your Way to Dallas - Wendy's, Coca-Cola and Air Tran

Between November 1 and December 31, 2005, Air Tran and Wendy’s have been running a joint promotion. In exchange for 32 proofs of purchase, found on the side of Wendy's medium and large cups of Coca-Cola, Air Tran will give you a one-way ticket to anywhere their airline flies. In addition to flying to Akron and Atlanta, Air Tran also serves the Bahamas, so you can guess how popular this cross-promotion has been.

At about $1.29 for a medium Coke, 64 proofs of purchase will set you back $82.56, but can be turned into a round trip ticket to the Bahamas that would normally cost you $618. That’s quite a savings, if you can drink that much Coke.

I’d love to go to the Grand Bahamas, but the cheap bastard in me doesn’t want to “invest” $82.56 to get the tickets. Between now and tomorrow, I can’t drink 64 cups of Coke, and the cheap bastard in me couldn't stand to pour out 64, 12 oz. cups of Coke onto the street.

Which leaves just one option - dumpster diving. The question is, am I ready to scrounge my way to the Caribbean? Can my dignity be purchased for $618?

For those of you will benefit from this promotion, by dumpster or drink, I salute you. Raise a paper umbrella shaded drink to the Caribbean sunset and think of me.

You plucky bastard.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Eat dessert first - for free!

You have to love a restaurant which celebrates desserts, listing them first in the menu and pushing salads and sandwiches to the back under the headings "Pre-desserts" or "Preludes". Finale, a self-described desseterie with branches in Boston and Cambridge, celebrates the carpe diem phrase - "Life is short, eat dessert first."

Butter, sugar, cream, chocolate, fresh fruit - the stuff that dreams are made of - are presented in traditional and contemporary combinations, each appearing at your table like a miniature stage set or a finely wrapped Christmas present.

And once a year, decadence is absolutely free.

Finale offers a customer reward program - the Friends of Finale. When you sign up you receive a gold Finale card. Present it each time you order dessert, or "preludes", and earn points you can spend on more tastes of heaven (as a bonus, just for signing up for the card they'll give you 25 points).

First among the many membership perks of being a Friend of Finale is a free dessert on your birthday. That's right, order the flourless chocolate cake, the personal cheesecake, the creme brulee, the death by chocolate, whatever your vice - for you, for once, it's free.

This customer loyalty reward program also includes invitations to wine tastings and dessert premiers. Yes, you read that right. When the Red Sox won the World Series, Finale got into the spirit with Sox Celebration, a dessert as worthy of a red carpet premiere as any Hollywood starlet.

Finale is located in Cambridge in Harvard Square, and in Boston in the Boston Park Plaza.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

click click click - cheap bastard philanthropy

Every morning when I log into my computer at work I make a point of heading to where with a quick click on the pink cyber-ribbon I can fund a free mammogram for a woman who can't afford one. That and a cup of Earl Grey tea really start my day out on the right foot.

This morning's work day began with a three hour BSR Advance computer training course. Now, I have alot of appreciation for this computer program, but if you have a room of 20 people running the same training scenarios on a training database the progress is sloooooooooow - high school Algebra slow, DMV auto registration slow.

As my computer slowly scrawled through data I considered that can't be the only click philanthropy available. A quick Google search on "click philanthropy" immediately produced a list of websites.

Within 3 minutes I had planted a tree in the rainforest, bought a winter coat for a poor child, and by voting for my favorite NFL team, donated a can of soup to a food bank. The rush of endorphins that these small acts of philanthropy produced made the morning pass pleasantly. That's what I call cheap bastard philanthropy.