I like to keep a record of my thoughts and experiences when I travel, but it’s usually in written form – I love journals with pictures of maps on the front, airmail-style pages and spaces to stick and slot in my tickets, receipts and even currency from the places I’ve been.
This time I am writing an online blog of my visit 1) because I was disorganised and forgot to bring my travel journal with me, 2) because I haven’t written about travelling on here yet and it is something I love to do.
So, New York. I was going to call the blog ‘An English Rose in NYC’ but it sounded too cheesy. The thing is, I do feel VERY English here, I don’t really fit in. That’s OK, I wouldn’t want to live here – it’s too urban, it smells of weed pretty much everywhere and some of the laws and policies that are evident in the culture I just couldn’t stomach day in and day out. I have however had a lovely time, and it’s felt kind of magical to be in a place that I already felt I knew so well from popular culture, to have those preconceptions replaced with memories of real experiences.
The trip actually started in Boston, almost a week ago, for a work trip. I hadn’t been to the US since 2004 and even then not to any New England area so it was really interesting to walk around the vicinity of our hotel, in the time we had when we weren’t at the conference, to take in the contrast of modern office buildings and what I have now learned is Romanesque revival style architecture, mainly reserved for churches. I also sampled some traditional American fare – mac n cheese, waffles and a pizza bagel that well-deserved it’s name. In the evenings we went to a local bar, the Pour House, which sounded slightly off putting until I clicked what kind of pour it was named after. The beer sucked a bit but I felt a bit like I was in a country film, where everything is dark and neon and you expect the bartender to constantly be wiping a glass with a dirty rag. I spent a lot of time in the Pour House, and I experienced more culture there than I did in the Sheraton Hotel, which served steak and fish on the same plate one night but did provide a large supply of caffeine and sugar every couple of hours, which I was thankful for, surviving on very low energy for the duration of my stay.
I would like to visit Boston again because I’m sure it has more to offer than what I was able to take in with my restricted free time there, but the other site worth mentioning is the Boston public library, which is unlike anything I’ve seen in the UK. It’s huge, like everything in the US, and is full of bright, interesting rooms, modern decor and visible from outside, it has a huge café area downstairs including a kind of news room with flashing bulletins which immediately draw the eye and make it more of a tourist attraction than I’m sure most other libraries are. I love books and don’t need a fancy library to draw me in but nowadays when reading is becoming less popular and attention spans shorter, the Boston library is doing a great job of appealing to the masses and particularly young people.
Now, on to New York, because that’s where I decided to take some annual leave and spend some extra time, and what an experience. I travelled from Boston by train in the evening, massively sleep-deprived, and glanced areas of Rhode Island and Conneticut out of the window – New London, West Haven, New Rochelle. I couldn’t see much, but what I did see was distinctive and very different to the UK. I slept for a fair amount of the journey but fortunately I woke up just in time to see my first view of the Manhattan skyline over the bridge, lit up brightly, the Empire State Building standing out clearly in the middle of it all. I was in awe, I had seen this view so often on TV, it felt surreal to be seeing it through just a train window.
When I got off the train I set off in search of food, what else, past Madison Square Gardens and saw the Empire State Building closer up. I always think of James and the Giant Peach when I see it, and I don’t think that will ever change! I got to my hotel about 11pm which could be mistaken for a club with the disco lighting, bare reception and music pumping from the entrance and through the lobby. I got to my room, showered and watched a bit of YouTube and then basketball, loosely watched, as my eyes were drooping and I was in and out of sleep. The sirens and beeping horns are a constant backing track in New York but luckily I’ve never really been bothered by outside noise and I’ve got more used to it in any case.
I slept the best I had in three nights, and headed out the next morning feeling a freshness in the air, not just because it was a sunny and clear day, but because I had five days ahead of me to explore a new city.
We were staying on 7th Avenue, just below Times Square, so just kept walking up until we found a cosy looking deli. I had eggs, pastrami and buttered bread with a large coffee, what better way to start the day?! The next place that required exploration was Central Park, which wasn’t quite what I expected but maybe because it’s winter and the grass is quite parched at this time of year. I also didn’t expect the array of rocks throughout the park, some of them huge and fun to climb on. They were building the Trump ice rink the second day we were there and we also met an industrious gentleman who appeared to have collected a random range of objects, including a newspaper he called the Big Issue, which clearly wasn’t a Big Issue, and was selling them for a profit. He said he was homeless; I’m not sure if he was as most of the homeless in New York seem to have mental health issues and don’t easily socialise, it seems a lot worse than any city in England, but regardless he had a good rapport and I gave him $5. The map he gave us of the park, though a very poor photocopy, did help us navigate to the Met museum.
Food is very important to me, and I have more than sampled some great food here in New York. We had a gluten free diet to cater for but were barely stopped in our tracks as we scrambled to make the best of the culinary delights on offer. The first restaurant we ate in was Friedmans, where almost everything on the menu came gluten-free as standard (the only exception was one variety of soup). They did four different burgers, something most people with gluten and wheat allergies can usually only dream of when eating out, as well as fries, waffles and deep fried coated chicken! The puddings, also suitable for gluten allergies, were amazing too, I don’t need to restrict my diet but I couldn’t tell the difference from non-gluten-free food in either course. It was so good we went back for more a few nights later.
One of the highlights of the trip for me was walking through Greenwich Village, my favourite district of New York without a doubt. I am a mega Friends fangirl, so I had already made note of the famous junction which was used to film the external shots of Monica’s apartment, and when I found we were walking nearby, I had to check it out. The whole neighborhood was really lovely; a clear sunny day helped with that impression. The blocks were pretty and well-kept (there’s actually hardly any litter in NY in general) and there was a sprinkling of little green spaces and charming eateries. It absolutely made my day to take a picture in front of the Friends shot I knew so well and although it would be well out of my price range, Greenwich is the place I would want to live in New York.
I wanted to visit the site where the twin towers fell. Trade Centre One immediately grabs your attention as you head downtown through Tribeca. There is an observatory there which we were informed Jay Z had booked out for the day (raises eyebrows). It was also quite funny to be asked if we knew Jay Z (being British and living across the ocean is obviously considered by some to be quite a cultural barrier).
As we got to the original site of the twin towers I couldn’t help but be struck by the memorial pools that have been built right into the footprints of where the buildings stood – vast, square and dark, with thousands of names streaming round the edge and water cascading from a great height into the cavernous hole in the centre. I took some time to appreciate all the nationalities that were represented in the names I read, with a renewed sense that this wasn’t just an American tragedy but a truly global one. I said a prayer for an end to be put to evil and greed in men’s hearts once and for all, and then was quite happy to stroll through Liberty Park, which wasn’t much of a park, and away from there.
My favourite trip was to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, partly because I got to go on a boat (exciting, I love being on water) but also because it was the activity most crammed with history. The Statue itself is iconic of course and although from a distance it isn’t as imposing as many of the buildings on the New York skyline, close up and on the approach it is still amazing, especially in the sunset as we were fortunate to see it. Ellis Island was more interesting than I thought it would be; there was a lot to consider about the founding of America on the labour of migrants and the experiences of people that left their homes and families for a mysterious new world and put their lives in the hands of the colonising settlers. We stood in the cavernous registry room where the papers of immigrants were vetted and saw many photographs of the island in years gone by. Although the history of the United States is relatively recent, I felt a closeness to the stories I heard as a result of this, whilst also appreciating how much the world has changed and been shaped by what happened in places like New York’s Ellis Island.
After we had been down to Battery Park and Castle Clinton to get the ferry to Liberty and Ellis islands we took a long walk back through Downtown, up to the Brooklyn Bridge and through the west side districts. These had a different character again to Greenwich or Midtown Manhattan. They were louder, dirtier and at risk of sounding like a middle class white girl, edgier. There was lots to look at, people shouting and bright lights, big billboards like in Central Manhattan but also cool graffiti and a tighter network of streets.
Another restaurant we ate at was Sans gluten and as the name suggests, everything was gluten free. Everything was also delicious but the food didn’t have the wow factor of Friedmans, although the candlelit setting with crowded tables and the heightened dress code of the staff (black with white shirts all round and bow ties for the men) created a cosy and elegant atmosphere.
On the last day we walked The Highline, which allowed us to take in some of Chelsea, an area we hadn’t yet seen, and to appreciate the innovative development of an old railway line into a public park with various art installations along the way. My impression of the US in general was not an environmentally-friendly one, but this was a really smart example of cool regeneration. It was sunny but breezy and the plants were sleeping, it being January, but the walk was pleasant, I enjoyed the views of the Hudson River and little microcosms of café and restaurant districts, and got a flavour of another side of New York – we hadn’t even really got round to much of the East side.
Wandering away from Hudson yards at the end of the Highline, we walked along 8th Avenue, busy with garish, flashing signs and burger bars (reminiscent of how I imagine the US to be in the 70s, 80s and 90s), grabbed a shake and then we reached Hell’s Kitchen. This is where the restaurants take a more diverse turn, although the immigrant influence has spread much further throughout the city now – there’s not only a China Town but a Korea Town. I can imagine what it was like in this area of the city when waves of Italian and Mexican immigrants were establishing themselves and their communities, sharing great food and helping build the cultural blend that still permeates most big cities.
We ate pizza (what else) and wended our way back towards Madison Square Gardens and our hotel, to grab a last coffee and sample a slice of New York cheesecake, which I hadn’t had a chance to do yet and was so glad I did, Andrew’s Coffee did not disappoint.
New York really was a place to tick off the bucket list, and five days allowed us to do plenty of tourist stuff but also take a couple of days at a more relaxed pace, and do plenty of what I like best when I go away, exploring on foot. The people of New York were mostly friendly, stepping in when we looked like lost tourists on the very confusing subway, and although there is a bit of relief to hear cynical, complaining British voices again, I am glad that a work conference meant I visited the city sooner than planned.