I thought I'd be landing in a snowy landscape. We flew in over Canada, you see, then headed South. I had a window seat and I could see the land below covered in white. It was really pretty. But about 5 minutes before we landed the snow went away and the landscape around Newark was really just brown and gray. I wasn't paying too much attention, though - I was too busy pointing Hubby's camera out the window at the skyline in the distance.
Customs was tedious - it seems there are a lot of people who want to go to America. After a minor glitch where the fingerprint on my right hand went missing for a short period, we were waved through. We travelled into Manhattan on the Newark Express coach, which took us safely from the drab, flat landscape of New Jersey through the dark, narrow Lincoln tunnel, to emerge onto a different planet; one of towering buildings, neon lights, manic traffic and crowds of people always on the move. Bring it on, Baby! The energy of this place is palpable.
After checking in and freshening up we headed out to a nearby diner, where we met Anne for dinner. The steak was juicy and the company was excellent :-) For those of you who know Anne (some of you may remember her from her old place), you will be pleased hear that she looks great - living in New York obviously agrees with her!
Our stomachs full, we took a stroll in the rain to Times Square which is not, as one might be forgiven for thinking, a square. It's more of a very large intersection of indeterminate shape. There's not a lot to see there, at night. That is, there are lots of lights and people and traffic and neon signs - flashing and not - and some shops... perhaps I was beginning to tire, or perhaps it was the fact that it was freezing cold and raining, but I had no desire to hang around there for very long, so we retraced our steps and went for a couple of beers in a pub instead.
It was cosy inside the bar, with Salsa music leaking out of the jukebox and a bunch of young men speaking Spanish with the gorgeous, busty barlady who brought beers to our wobbly round table with a smile. The lighting was reminiscent of that '80's classic movie "Cocktail" (way back when Tom Cruise was still, uh, sane) and all in all it was a pleasant, mellow evening.
I thought we did quite well to stay up until 11pm, considering our bodies were still on Irish time which would have made it 4am the next morning!
Fortunately we had the most comfortable bed in the world in our hotel room so we slept a solid sleep and awoke refreshed and alert. OK, perhaps alert came after we'd had coffee from the dinky little coffee machine in our room.
Tuesday was my birthday and Hubby announced that we would spend the day exactly as I wanted to. What more could a girl ask for??!
So after breakfast we picked up a pamphlet in the lobby that contained a map of Manhattan, including subway stops, and ventured into the murky depths of public transportation. Considering we got on the right train heading in the right direction - uptown - and got off at the right stop, I thought it went pretty well. On exiting the station we asked a policeman which direction we should head in, having emerged into daylight with absolutely no sense of direction between us. It turned out he was in the same predicament but fortunately one of his buddies (for some reason there was a whole herd of cops hanging around) knew exactly where he was. Our first stop was the Lincoln Centre, home of the New York City Ballet, where we purchased tickets for that night's performance.
From there we wandered a block or so east and crossed the road to enter Central Park. I would like to see it in the Summer months; in January all the trees were bare and dead-looking and even the grass didn't look too happy, unlike the squirrels, who seemed to be enjoying the dry weather immensely.
We walked, and took photographs, and enjoyed the peace and quiet, and eventually found the Wollman Rink, situated in a slight depression and thus sheltered from the wind, which was quite icy when it blew.
And there, we skated, and I had the most amazing time...
For one thing, the boots were comfortable - they were of the leather lace-up variety as opposed to those horrible plastic moulded ones you find in Dublin that make your feet cramp and blister within seconds.
As for the rest of it, it seems the Gods were smiling on me on my birthday because no sooner had I strapped on my boots than the sun came out, revealing a bright blue sky and removing the cutting iciness from the air. Being mid-week, the rink was not terribly crowded so I had plenty of time and space to get my balance without being pressured to move along quickly or get out of the way or get run over. The music echoing over loudspeakers was happy music - old stuff like the Buttercup song from the 60's, or that classic ice-skating song, Wham's "Last Christmas".
And so we spent about 2 hours at the rink, me on the ice for most of it. By the end of that time I was whizzing along like a pro (well, it felt like it anyway) and there have been few times in my life when I have been as unconditionally happy as I was then.
Luckily for Hubby the rink closed around 2pm, so we had to leave then. We walked around the park a bit, past the pretty but rather smelly horse-drawn carriages, and bought hotdogs from a street vendor. Without wanting to offend anyone, I must be honest and say I've tasted better... also, they were not terribly filling so after walking a few blocks down 6th Avenue we found a place to get lunch, where we could sit on chairs, inside, at a table, and choose from sandwiches or subs, or pizza or pretzels or sweet things.
It was a long walk back to our hotel in Midtown Manhattan, but we enjoyed looking at all the people and the giant buildings and feeling the general buzz of the place. Once back at the hotel, though, we were feeling tired so we settled in for a short nap that lasted over 2 hours.
We awoke with just enough time to freshen up and take the subway all the way back to the Lincoln Centre to catch the NYC Ballet's final performance of Romeo and Juliet. The ballet was beautiful and our seats were spectacular - front row center on the first tier. I was quite pleased to see that Hubby seemed to even enjoy it a bit, not being a huge fan of the ballet while I, of course, simply love it.
Afterwards it was sort of too late to go out to dinner but not yet late enough to go to sleep. Neither of us were particularly interested in clubbing or going out on the lash either, so we picked up some fruit salad and an enormous muffin, plus a smoothie each, from a deli near the hotel and sat on our giant, comfortable bed munching what turned out to be a really tasty ad-hoc meal and catching up with some world news on the big flat-screen TV.
The next day was ear-marked for Doing Things. Our first stop was the Empire State Building, a block away from our hotel. After being shredded for cash at every turn to get to the 86th floor - and there were a lot of turns along the way! - we braved the clear, freezing skies to view the world from above.
And yes, it was quite a view, although I'm not sure it was worth $18 each plus another $8 for a map of what we were looking at, a map we were told we really should have since there were no guides up top there so we mustn't forget to ask the cashier for one when we pay for our tickets... not realising until after she'd given us the thing that it would cost extra.
From the top of the world we went down to the depths - back onto the subway that took us all the way to South Port at the tip of Downtown Manhattan. From there we hopped on the Staten Island ferry, snapping dozens of photos of Lady Liberty as we passed and yet more of the most famous skyline of them all.
The ferry was free, which made us feel a lot better after our expensive trip up the Empire State Building. We also bought coffee and a pretzel on board, which we ate on a bench in the sunshine on Staten Island before taking the ferry back to Manhattan half an hour later.
We spent the rest of the day downtown, wandering up to Wall Street past the massive bronze "Charging Bull" sculpture, to the site where the World Trade Centre used to be. There is not much to see there, just a big hole that is a construction site, surrounded by makeshift wooden fences. There are no tour guides here, no postcards on sale and no souvenir stands, just thousands of names on a section of wall around a small booth displaying a couple of artists impressions of what the place will look like when it is rebuilt.
It was the only place in the city that seemed quiet, somehow.
In the afternoon we attempted to do some shopping in Century 21 which is a big department store. I found a pretty handbag and some sunglasses but I'm ashamed to say the sheer magnitude of clothes available inside intimidated the hell out of me and we left and went back to our room overwhelmed and beaten.
After yet another nap (I could seriously get used to this lifestyle!) that lasted into the early evening we were rudely awakened by the sound of sirens outside our hotel. I was hungry, Hubby wasn't, so we compromised by going downstairs for a smoke and to see what all the noise was about. We couldn't see much - just a heap of police cars and fire engines blocking the intersection at the end of our block... and not a fireman in sight, much to my disappointment. The only uniform in evidence was one of New York's finest, leaning against his patrol car and munching a donut. I found this particularly funny :-) He must've been the one they told, "You wait here and keep an eye on the vehicles, Chuck..."
Having still not quite decided if we wanted supper or not we walked around the block and stumbled across none other than an Irish Pub. Naturally we had to go in. The place was dark but cheerful, a long, narrow room filled with an after work crowd, the music - of the U2 / Goo Goo Dolls ilk - just the right volume so it would have me humming along but not so loud as to drown out the conversation.
When Seamus, the barman, heard we lived in his home country he proceeded to try to kill us with kindness... a number of really heavy G&T's and Brandy & Cokes (more Gin and Brandy than Tonic or Coke) later we stumbled back to the hotel and slept the sleep of the dead in our wonderful giant bed.
Thursday was shopping day. Our hotel was located smack in the middle of the Garment District so we didn't have far to wander. We shopped, and the shopping was good. It was so good, in fact, that we went back to the hotel half way to drop some bags in order to start again. I could have shopped even more but there was just no more space in our luggage.
Lunch consisted of coffee and donuts. We needed the energy.
That evening we took the subway all the way to Brooklyn where we met Anne, again, for dinner. We met in a South African establishment, the Madiba Restaurant. It was recommended by Dawn, who we had hoped would be able to meet us there, but unfortunately this didn't pan out. I did get to have a nice long chat with her on the phone though. We'll catch up with you next time, eh Dawn?
The decor in the restaurant is distinctly South African - very shebeen-like, with a chandelier made of coke bottles that Anne was most impressed by. The menu contained dishes like bobotie, and samoosas. I had the spare ribs which were simply yummy, and a Dom Pedro for dessert. While we were eating, the snow was cascading down outside and I had hopes that I would see the place covered in white before we left. It was not to be, though; the snow didn't settle. It was just damn cold and wet. Inside, meanwhile, we were entertained by a folk singer (apparently someone famous but I'm embarrassed to say I don't remember the lady's name... 'Mama' something, I think...) and the staff doing some gumboot dancing between the tightly packed tables. It was all very festive and, um, crowded.
I was disappointed to be leaving on Friday. We packed our bags and checked out, leaving the luggage in the custody of the hotel porter and his trusty key. With a few hours to kill, we headed back to Brooklyn. I had a bridge to see in daylight.
Brooklyn is very different to Manhattan - it's quieter, less rushed and the buildings are much shorter too. There was no sign of the snow from the night before so we had a lovely stroll through the streets, along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and onto the Brooklyn Bridge itself. I got my photographs, so I was happy.
Back in the vicinity of our hotel a couple of hours later we wandered around the Manhattan Mall, which was a couple of blocks over. Our hearts weren't in the shopping - we couldn't very well buy any more, since our bags were already packed. But we did have a really good lunch in the food hall on the lower level - some sort of sweet and sour pork dish from a Cajun take-out place. If you asked me what I thought about Manhattan I would say two things:
One: Nobody is likely to starve there. There are eateries every few steps and the variety is just fantastic.
Two: The people are really nice. I was surprised at just how friendly they are. And helpful - you don't even have to ask for help. Just looking lost is enough to prompt someone to stop and offer assistance.
There seems to be a "live and let live" attitude about the place. There are so many people from so many places, cultures, creeds, and walks of life that nobody looks out of place. Yet it doesn't seem as cold or, quite frankly, rude as London, for example. For all the mad traffic and fast pace, it's actually quite a laid-back place, somehow. We were really impressed.
So impressed, in fact, that I really didn't want to leave, although I don't think I could live there either. It just would've been nice to stay just a little longer...