Sunday, November 08, 2015

Day 355 - 364: New York, New York.....and home

New York, New York, is everything they say and no place I'd rather be. Well, Huey Lewis thought so. For me, it was another city. A spectacular city, no doubt, but a sprawling cosmopolitan jungle with little of the charm of the west coast. I'd been here before, three months after 9/11 occurred, when some of our friends were working not far away. Eleven years on, and the city's atmosphere had definitely changed for the better - there was far more optimism amongst the residents, and the air of almost righteous entitlement ingrained in a lot of the country's residents was present and correct. It may sound pejorative, but Americans handle themselves a lot more differently than the English. If something is wrong - be it in service, food, or just in general - they will make it known to all and sundry. The expectation of excellence is especially noticeable when running into Americans abroad - their mindset is sometimes not shifted to accommodate the change in standards within the country they're visiting, and if anything is not up to scratch then a venue or restaurant can expect a withering review or demand for compensation, or both. Conversely, us Brits prefer to bide our time, giving people the benefit of the doubt...at least until we're seriously pissed off. It is far more apparent in the east coast than the more chilled out west, but once you get used to how the locals think and talk, it starts to become endearing.

We had arranged a night at NY Moore Hostel, where we'd somehow ended up with our own room since the other beds hadn't been claimed. It was comfortable enough and after dumping our bags we wandered up the road to a local bar which we'd spotted had some stand-up on. Two nights in a row? Why not! A few gin and tonics later, and though I can't remember a thing about the quality, I'm pretty sure we had a good night.

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Buried in the depths of Brooklyn, the neighbourhood felt a lot safer than I was expecting. Graffiti abounded, and it was all pretty good. Even the local caf├ęs had jumped on board. It was a bit of colour in an otherwise grey day.


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Our destination was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. En route we met a number of dog walkers who made our UK counterparts look like amateurs. How they managed to keep hold of so many animals is beyond me. Wandering around the Met we found the usual permanent exhibitions (weaponry, statues, busts, etc.) but also a couple of interesting temporary installations. One was a look at how Andy Warhol affected art, whilst the other looked at photo manipulation. Oh, and Gilly found another bear.

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We had some time to kill in the afternoon so we walked up to the High Line, an aerial walkway filled with greenery overlooking the city. It was lovely to wander amongst the flowers and trees, even in a bizarre location looking over a polluted city, and the greyness of the day couldn't detract. Even better, halfway along they had a gelato stall which I can highly recommend.

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Mediterraneo served us well for dinner, before we decided to head over to the PIT in the evening. The People's Improv Theater (or the PIT to locals) has a couple of free nights on each week, and we'd managed to arrive on one of them so we settled into a corner and supped a few beers as compensation whilst waiting for the show to start. It was a little different this week, as in addition to the usual improv (which involved something to do with unicorns and Saved By The Bell), the venue was hosting "Stand up for Obama" all week - an unabashed drive for votes from Democrat-supporting comedians ahead of the election the following month (Obama ended up winning New York by a landslide). While comedians obviously have their own beliefs and values, I'd never been to a politically oriented gig before and it was great fun. I suspect that may be due to my liberal sensibilities, but if people are going to campaign against free healthcare, then they deserve all the bashing they receive. The gig that night was Women For Obama, and they were all pretty good.

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We checked out the next morning and went to our shiny new digs which had been arranged by my sister Lou. My aunt Helen had also flown over to join us and Kathrine was going to come over a few days later, so it was a proper family reunion. The apartment we were renting was in the heart of Queens, and it was fantastic to end the trip in a comfortable private room.

The next day saw us grab a stunning meal at Sripraphai Thai before trawling around malls to snap up clothing bargains (my sister had arrived with a practically empty suitcase in preparation...). Even though I hate clothes shopping, the US is the one place in the world that I have managed to find jeans I like. And once again, when I found the perfect Levis (559s, for reference) I made the mistake of only buying one pair. We headed over to Ground Zero in the evening, where a memorial had been set up at the base of the original twin towers. It was less a place of mourning and more one of hope and resilience.

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After a quick walk around St Paul's Chapel nearby, we ended the evening at Tu Do Vietnamese for some pancakes. Not on a par with Hue, but a decent effort nonetheless.

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The following day was the start of a NY greatest hits tour that would carry on for the next three days. First up - the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). These places can often be hit and miss, but we enjoyed MOMA for its colourful displays, weird goats, and its ability to make Gilly look really small.

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The TV show 30 Rock was set in 30 Rockefeller Plaza, which is the home of NBC Studios (who also produced two of our favourite comedies - Parks and Recreation, and Community. It's also got a viewpoint named The Top of the Rock, which offers fantastic views across the city. There is obviously some debate about whether to go up the Empire State Building or not - I'd already been up it previously and you can't get it in photos if you're inside it, so the choice was obvious for us. Before we went up though, we had to check out Nintendo World nearby. I'd never played on the 3DS despite it being out for over a year, but I found the remake of Ocarina of Time very odd to play with 3D turned on. I still haven't got around to buying one three years later. Nintendo was also demoing the soon-to-be-released Wii U, which was far more fun to play.

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Kathrine joined us the next day for a trip to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Another tourist haven, for me this was another trip down memory lane. You know when you get to somewhere and think "this is smaller than I was expecting"? For me, having been there before, it felt even smaller than I remembered first time around. It was definitely a new experience for Gilly, Lou and Helen though. The ferry over allowed for more photos than one person could ever need of Lady Liberty.

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In truth, Ellis Island is far more interesting than the statue. The main immigration checkpoint to the US has detailed documents of the people that arrived in the country, with over a third of the population able to trace their ancestry back to the people who arrived there. Only 2% of the immigrants that arrived were sent back, which would have given the US equivalent of Nigel Farage an aneurysm.

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I don't remember taking in as much of Ellis Island's history the first time around - I was only 20! - so it was great to get the opportunity to appreciate it a bit more. Dinner came from Chelsea Grill via a tube ride. A more American dinner you couldn't find - a steak and cheese melt with lattice fried potatoes...delicious.

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A walk into Times Sqaure was in order, to burn off the carbs. It's essentially a hub of advertising. I remember being here, stood in the freezing cold on New Year's Eve 2001, waiting for the ball to drop. We'd been shepherded into what were essentially human pens, and were unable to move, let alone leave. Snipers were placed on the rooftops, and we were stuck looking at the same buildings flashing up the same adverts over and over again. It was so cold that when we finally managed to leave the area eight hours later, none of us could feel anything. As New Year experiences went, it was one of the most disappointing, but the Irish bar we stumbled into at 2am had felt like the greatest, warmest place ever. This time, it was slightly warmer, slightly less busy, and they were advertising shows we actually watched rather than just banks. Progress! There are also loads of people dressed up as cartoon characters, for yuks. After a brief wander around, we headed back to the apartment. The weather was definitely getting chillier.

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The following day was SHOW TIME! Lou and Helen were both keen to see a Broadway show, and the cheapest way to do that is turn up on the day and see what is available at the TKTS stall. Granted, you might not get to see what you're after, but you're pretty much guaranteed to find something on that takes your fancy. We tried to get tickets to see Rock of Ages but unfortunately they were all sold out so whilst the other ladies went off to watch Jersey Boys, Gilly and I nabbed two tickets for STOMP off-Broadway. Before though, we obviously needed to eat - and since we were in New York I felt obliged to get a slice of pizza. The famous Famiglia Pizzeria seemed like a good choice. Al Pacino had eaten there, amongst a wall of other celebrities. Verdict - pretty tasty!

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Gilly had seen STOMP before in London, but I'd only caught snippets of it when they'd appeared on various shows. It was fantastic - the lighter scene in particular was a highlight.

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Whilst not 6 feet away from you at any time like the myth states, New York is still renowned for its rat population - around 2 million - and these can be seen in most subways. It was a suitably creepy introduction to our night ahead at Killers - a haunted house which we'd seen an advert for on the subway. It was an interactive horror "experience" which took you into the rooms and minds of serial killers from the past - both real and fictional. From Jack the Ripper to John Wayne Gacy, from Dexter to Charles Manson, each room was carefully crafted and the actors totally committed to their roles. It was truly excellent and delivered some proper jump scares. For those willing to be more "involved" with the actors, you could opt to have a red X drawn on your head in blood. In for a penny...

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Each year a new show is created, and there are a number of these haunted houses throughout the city. Obviously the quality varies from theme to theme and year to year, but I can highly recommend visiting one if you fancy something a bit different to the normal tourist traps. The ladies didn't fancy it and instead went shopping again, so we caught up with them at the end of the night for a meal in Little Italy where the garlic bread flowed freely and Gilly got inordinately excited by a salad. To me, it just looked like a pile of leaves but then I guess that's what salad is.

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Our last two days were comparatively muted. We headed over to Central Park, but didn't realise that it was actually Columbus Day. The NYPD were out in force and on parade, which involved a parade queen and a president who one can only hope was riding in a car with reinforced suspension...

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After the procession, we managed to get over to the park - which is absolutely huge - for a brief walk around. The day was overcast but it wasn't stopping a determined painter from making the most of the holiday.

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Our final meal together was at Copper Chimney, a lovely Indian restaurant. Of course, there was always room for dessert and Gilly tracked down some key lime pie to take home.

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The next morning, tired and sullen, we packed our bags and headed back to a wet, rainy England.

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And like that, it was over. 364 days of travel which took us to 12 countries, 5 US states, and 2 Canadian provinces was at an end. It was more than an adventure, it was a life-affirming experience. In a year we'd crammed more in than we'd ever thought possible - visited temples; learned to cook Thai food; slept in jungle treehouses; learned to scuba dive; swam with sharks; rode pillion on motorcycles through the Vietnamese countryside; rock climbed, caved and kayaked; island hopped with amazing friends through Thailand; spent a fantastic new year in a street party in Cambodia; ate tarantulas, stingray and amazing crab (and erm, chicken blood); enjoyed the chilled out culture of Ubud and Chiang Mai; visited some stunning beaches in Fiji and Australia; stayed on a diving rig and dived in Sipadan; cruised around the Whitsundays; took three wine tours in Australia and NZ (one of which we are now the promotional magnet models for!); took road trips up and down the east and west coasts of Australia; dived the Barrier Reef; bungee jumped; skydived; walked on a glacier; learned to ski; relaxed in a thermal spa; caught shows in Las Vegas and visited the Grand Canyon; took a road trip up the US west coast; hiked up a volcano; visited Alcatraz; had a fantastic time with friends in Vancouver; visited Niagara Falls, and had a fantastic time with family in Ontario and New York. And this was just a tiny portion of our trip. We met so many amazing people too - people we can genuinely call friends, who let us stay with them further on during our trip and some who we've seen again since arriving home: Lev and Julie from Mountain View, Scott and Hannah from Sydney, Helen and Andrew from the Gold Coast, Raph from Seattle and Patrick and Cayleigh from Toronto. Not to mention the generosity of the CouchSurfing hosts who put us up along the way - Kian and Lin in Singapore, Mark in Melbourne, Bill and Mary-Jane in Santa Monica, Jeremy in Monterey, Laura in Salem, Emily in Portland and Chris and Tasha in Whistler. And of course Colin and V who came out to meet us on the Thai islands, Ravi and Sunny (and Teddy!) who looked after us in Vancouver, and Paul and Fi, our travel/BBQ/beer partners who we spent as much time as possible with when our paths crossed. Each of them made our trip so very, very special.

Coming back was tough, and adjusting back to working life and regimented days was even tougher. My feet have been itching ever since we landed on October 10th, 2012 and after several years of saving, we're now lucky enough to be in a position to do this all over again.

So where to next? 7 months in South America, which kicks off in Rio in three days' time.

Wish us luck!

2 comments:

Unknown said...

Bravo sir, bravo! Luck!

Unknown said...

Bravo sir, bravo! Luck!