Right back where we started from.

Please read the the following using an Anthony Bourdain voice. We’re home from New York and home from the constant noise of a constantly whirring city. We’re recovered from the final 14 hour flight that delivered us to our beds by 3am yesterday morning and Pip is at the point where she was able to answer an early return to work call, not enthusiastically, but she’s at work as I write. From 10C to a balmy 26C; from sirens and trains to birds and quiet.

There is much in New York to miss – the life and the action and the ever swirling activity and waves of noise and life that either ooze out of the grimy sidewalks or lift you up with amazement. There’s the confidence and not-quite-arrogance of citizens who know that their a part of a huge enigma, a city that can change from a leafy, brownstone postcard to a down at heel, rusting, boarded up mess as you round a corner. What a place!

It took us a few days to settle into a routine not coloured by years of consuming TV cop shows that have been busily type-casting New Yorkers as either fearsome gangsters, or fearsome slum lords, or fearsome crazies, or crooked cops. The New Yorkers we interacted with were helpful and polite and appeared, astoundingly, just like us. (Mind you, two folk were shot on the ice rink in Bryant Park only hours after we visited). There were unexpected aspects, like needing to remember our Spanish to buy milk, and seeing and hearing more Hasidic Jews speaking, I guess, Yiddish than we ever have. The diversity is wild – Puerto Ricans, Russians, Cubans… name a culture and I’m sure there’ll be a stronghold somewhere in New York. IMG_4068
On a foodish note, the bio-organic is strong in NYC as is the artisanal producer of just about anything edible or drinkable. There is fine coffee easy to find (despite the myths and fear campaigns). 
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But for now, those things will be filed away and kept for dinner party chatter. We must now re-focus and come back to terms with our tiny City – world capital of the food court and the chain store. Our trip away let the absurd ideologues that run our State Government fade into the background. I remember now, our people, fooled by hollow rhetoric and inept liberals voted en masse to elect a dangerous moron and his henchman to reek conservative havoc upon the very folk who elected them. Not sufficiently convinced of the error of electing such a sterile, unimaginative cadre, the populace upped the ante and refilled the cup of stupid by repeating this faux pas federally and installing an even dangerouser moron with religious fervour and a penchant displaying his manliness by either boxing or emerging from the surf in speedos (a kind of low budget, wing-nutted Putin if you will) to add to his conservative dogma.

Postings to this blog will be rarer now, unless something interesting pops up during a dinner party chat. street

 

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No sleep since Brooklyn

We were ready to leave New York. Two and bit weeks of walking hours and hours a day; the noise; the dirt and grime; all helped us to know we were ready. The noise was a surprise. It’s an extraordinarily noisy place with the sirens and subways and elevated railways and the constant car horns. These drivers hit the horn for any reason – they may see someone half a mile up the road who looks like they might be heading toward the curb to cross – honk!!!! The driver ahead may be waiting for some folks to cross the road – beeeeeep! The car ahead may have hesitated a nano-second before moving on the green – beep beep beep!!! I’m merging – BEEEP!!! It explains why New Yorkers talk loud.

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We had our bags packed and the apartment clean early and decided to walk up Broadway towards Bedford one last time for coffee and a bite to eat. First open place we came to was Marlow and Sons, the place we went to dinner at the other night, so this time, in the harsh light of day, we took it as a breakfast option. I believe we made an excellent choice. We sat inside – too cold outside – and ordered coffees. I chose scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and bacon on a toasted biscuit (biscuit being a scone as we were well aware by now) and Pip the poached eggs served on shell beans with yoghurt, toast and other way yummy stuff. It was a very successful breakfast and we decided, largely because we couldn’t think of anything else to do in the short period of time available and also because we were tired, to grab our luggage, grab a cab and head to JFK, which we did.

This possibly rash decision left us with about 3 hours in the gate lounge before our flight to LA. We snoozed. We iPhoned. We fiddled and got coffees and snacks. We watched planes and passengers come and go. I bought some new noise cancelling headphones, then we boarded and headed off to the west coast to meet our ‘red eye’ to Brisbane.

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Our ‘red eye’ to Brisbane turned out to be delayed 17 hours, which meant we needed to queue for 3 hours, with all the other passengers, to be checked in and directed to various hotels around LA (well, actually around the airport at El Segundo). The fact that we were delayed due to technical problems does not concern us – shit happens (or heppens if your from NZ) – We’d rather sleep in a hotel than fly in a broken plane for 14 hours over water. The way Virgin Australia (a Delta Codeshare) handled the issue was where our issues arose. They chose a version of Tony Abbott’s silent treatment – no news is good news and they combined that approach by ignoring the couple of hundred people with luggage in the queue in front of them. More than once people asked them if they could take families with small children out of the queue – blank stares. They left the queue to make up it’s own Chinese whispers – don’t know how many versions of what was happening we overhead as we snaked through terminal and after 3 hours queuing (after a five hour flight from New York), we were greeted at the counter with a smiling, “Hi, thanks for waiting. How can I help you?”. The staff, who had been appearing and disappearing into a back room where the mother-of-all-queues could see them laughing and snacking, then told us how tired she was… we all three of us gave her our best blank stares, perhaps with slight tinge of “shut up and get on with it”.

Being an experienced customer service professional, I can offer a few options VA might employ when next the technical fairies bless an aircraft full of travellers with an unexpected transit surprise. Don’t let the passengers find out for themselves about the delay – we were “business as usualled” through two terminals before someone mentioned there may have been an issue. If you have a queue of biblical proportions, work it. Go up and down explaining the situation and the delay. Get the families with small children out – no one minds – it’s mid-freakin’-night. Don’t let your staff take breaks in a room in full sight of the queue while you leave a counter with six stations staffed by two. Offer those queuing some water, or a mintie – make them your friend, ’cause it only takes one to go bad… When there is a dick at the counter who is taking an inordinate amount of time and demanding all manner of stupid, take him away to a manager’s office (or take him out – either will work for me). Virgin’s supposed to be different, but let me tell you, Richard, it ain’t.

We were summarily dispatched by shuttle to El Segundo’s 674 room, salsa-dancing mecca, The Hacienda on Sepulveda. Here we were issued food vouchers for a scrumptious 1am meal of chicken over rice, or rigatoni bolognese – both matured in chaffing dishes for a good few hours – and a bread roll.

We used our breakfast vouchers to consume more matured tidbits from the salsa dancing mecca’s chaffing dishes …and here we sit waiting to shuttle back to the airport in a couple of hours to continue our journey home. I did go out to the 7-11 across the road, so I guess I can say I’ve been to LA now.

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Skates, wieners and the importance of climbing stairs

It’s finally come to this, our last full day in the City. More lessons have been learnt, like stay out of the subway if you don’t like stairs, and; stay out of Times Square if you don’t like CD touts and tourists, and; if you see a restroom – use it – there may be no other for hours. Useful lessons you’d do well to heed if New York is on your horizon. The coffee drinkers amongst us would also do well to prepare for the ‘station’, which is the little bench you visit after you get your coffee to do sugaring and milking and lidding (if you’re doing ‘take-out’) and often if you’re going to ‘stay’ – I am not a fan of the ‘station’, neither here or at home.

There are a number of cafés in this town (actually in this world) called, Le Pain Quotidien (The Daily Bread, I believe), whether they are operated on a franchise basis or not I don’t know, but they have mightily impressed – good coffee, good food and they’re thing is the communal table which is also good. Enough of the ad – we went there for breakfast and had bowls of coffee and pastries and the like. No station.

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Fed and coffee-ed, our plan was to head to Bryant Park and check out the winter village/market thing they’ve just opened around the skating rink, but the weather was nasty and rainy and bleak, so we altered course to Times Square to do that souvenir shopping thing one must do. Times Square was also nasty and rainy and bleak, but the added minus of extremely crowdy and filled with dangerous eye-height umbrellas.

20131107-232639.jpg We shopped with great haste and as the skies closed and a blustery, freezing change blew in from the west, we returned to our original course and steered to Bryant Park. BP is a privately managed park with organised activities and a web-site of it’s own and as it’s now winter, the winter village (which is really a collection of tiny shops in quaint huts) around a reasonably sized skating rink. The shops are either cool or folksy or both, with a smattering of food and drink huts amongst them. One of the food and drink huts amongst them bought us our first New York wiener, though I suspect it was of a higher quality than those available in the surrounding streets, which I never felt quite comfortable in investing in. Ours had beautiful sauerkraut and a german sausage and was served on a toasted pretzel bun and was terrifically delicious – not that I’m saying the street dogs might not be filled with their own special charm and flavour, just that ours was.

20131107-232756.jpg Our time in New York seems to be petering out precisely as our appetite for further exploration is. Two and a bit weeks was good, but we’re happy to head home tomorrow. We have not purchased any ‘I Heart New York’ paraphernalia, not just because it’s cheesy and lame, but because we don’t ‘Love’ it – we ‘Like’ it and find it fascinating, but Love is a strong word. Venice, we love. Barcelona, we love. New York, we like. Williamsburg, we could love, but none of us could find an I Heart Williamsburg t-shirt.

We packed this evening then chugged off to Bedford Avenue for a cheap final night’s chow down and plonked into Fornino’s, (best brick oven pizza in the City 2006) and had, surprisingly enough, pizza and beers and the pizza came and it was good. Good like italian pizza in Italy good. And the beer came and it was good. And the salted pretzel and caramel sundae came and it was wicked and shared.

We needed the pizza and beers etc to give us extra oomph in getting the lids of our suitcases down and zipped.

There’s a scorpion in my lollipop.

I’ll see how I go with this update post a bottle of Beaujolais and some other red wine… gulping sweet orange soft drink seems to clear my mind.

There was a shop we read about that sold skeletons and bugs and crystals and weird stuff in Spring Street, just off Broadway. We made for that one first up today. Evolution is certainly filled with all manner of bugs in resin (and in lollipops if you’re so inclined), skeletons of humans and of creatures, taxidermy-ed (I know it’s wrong to say,”stuffed”) creatures great and small, crystals, rocks, and cane toad wallets. There are skulls crafted from pool balls, tiny skull beads, big skull beads, skull earrings, skulls, skull t-shirts, and things in goopy blue stuff. There are freeze-dried bats to hang in your room and a moose’s head to hang in your cabin, It’s an Alladin’s cave of ghoulish gifts and Victorian wonder. We lingered a while and left with only a card of paper crafted from elephantine poo, before heading off on a return trip to Eataly.

Pip was intent on acquiring a Chef Mario Batali salt grinder to grind our salt and we both wanted Number Big Son to experience the Eataly Experience. Eataly sits in the narrow shadow of the Flatiron Building on Fifth Ave, where it meets Broadway, a fact that slipped by me the other night when Pip and I landed there for dinner. The location didn’t elude me, just the Flatiron Building. I’ve said before that my usually solid navigational skills are shot in New York – it’s the subway I blame – it’s like when you put a blindfold on and they spin you around and then point you at the donkey with a tail and a pin in your hand, except they don’t point you at the donkey. Eataly also sits beside the Marimekko store, which required intense scrutiny, but which came up short because the Tokyo version was much better priced. Eataly again blew our minds with its sheer size and scale, so much so that we needed to heed Anthony Bourdain’s advice and head to the Shakeshack in Madison Square Park across the road for lunch.

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I’m sure I read somewhere that this was Anthony’s pick for burgers in New York and if that is as true as I think, he was right – excellent burgers and in a chilly outdoor setting beset by squirrels behaving like ibis do at home. The little grey buggers were harassing people and climbing on tables to steal fries. Furry seagulls.

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Critters left behind in the park, we decided to walk five blocks east through Chelsea to the Highline, a park that has been created on a disused elevated rail track starting in the Meatpackers district and heading north for a couple of miles. I was momentarily sidetracked by a barber for an NYC haircut, which was a pleasant and stylish experience, though quite expensive at $40, before we climbed the stairs at 23rd Street and headed south along the Highline.

20131106-234936.jpg It’s an impressive achievement with beautiful gardens and places to sit and a path to traverse with scattered artworks and photo opportunities laid on with spades. We took an hour or so to stroll along and through before heading back down to earth and home on the subway.

Pip and I rested up some, before heading off up Broadway (Williamsburg) to a restaurant called Marlow and Sons. The regular readers among you may recall a butcher shop we loved last week called, Marlow and Daughters, well this is across the road and they also run a well known menu-less establishment called, Diner, between the two. What a great place. Dark and loud and crowded and hip. This was where the Beaujolais I mentioned earlier came from, along with some freshly shucked oysters, tortilla, pork loin chops and beef shanks with radishes – all served beautifully and delicious and only three blocks from home.

Vivarium. Planetarium. Sneakerarium

We’ve learnt things about New York and I guess that carries over to the US. Important things, like the light switches work backwards – down is off and up is on; like the strange predilection Americans seem to have for toilet bowls filled to the brim with water, and; like 5¢ coins are larger than 10¢ ones. It’s all relative, I know, but for any readers intent upon coming down to Australia you can now not say that you weren’t warned, at least about light switches. We’ve learnt about the NY subway too, finally able to work out changes and stations without (too much) reference to apps. We subwayed our way to the American Museum of Natural History in the midday’s early light and took advantage of some comps that our kind host had left for us, courtesy of her role in the preparation of an exhibition.

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We couldn’t help but think of ‘that’ movie as we entered the dimly lit hall of North American mammals in their glass cases and immaculately presented dioramas and we spent time in a number of similarly dimly lit rooms filled with all manner of fascinatia (now there’s a word I’m claiming!). The history of mankind; the native Americans of the North East; the hall of minerals and meteorites, and so much more. We also visited the hot and steamy Butterfly Conservatory, with over 500 of the little flutterers flitting about, though ‘little’ is a bit insulting to some of the beefier inhabitants.

20131105-232331.jpg Aprés flutterbys we found our way to the Hayden Planetarium inside an awesome, spherical building for a program entitled, The Dark Universe, narrated by the equally awesomely named, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who Number Big Son reliably informs me has a YouTube channel and who the electronic interwebz reliably inform me is the Director of the Planetarium. Rows of seats in-the-round leaning backwards facing up to the huge domed screen provided a perfect opportunity to sleep, BUT, the show was entirely wonderful and sleep was never an option, despite the warm, dark room and the comfy recliners and the soothing music.

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We left the museum some 5 hours after we entered and made our way back down the island to Broadway and Prince for a quick breath of Dean and Deluca’s deli atmosphere and an early evening coffee, before Number Big Son collared another pair of sneakers and we a few items for Number Young Son. Pitch black by now and streets and subways crowded with commuters, we naturally chose this time to wrangle our parcels and tired limbs onto the J train and home to Marcy Ave. Sadly, our home-cooked dinner plans were ruined by Mr Piña’s lack of chicken (chicken shipment hadn’t arrived) and we reverted instead to the pasta back-up. Two days left in this town and so much to see and do…

Empire State Humans

This is a city of popular culture icons and none said more about the city than Seinfeld (or did it say nothing about anything). Regardless of it being or not being about anything it had influence and it seeped into Australian popular culture just as much as it seems to have done here in New York. That’s why we followed Number Big Son’s lead to Tom’s Restaurant on the upper west-side for breakfast this morning. Tom’s being the Restaurant sign featured in the show whenever they met in the diner. Breakfast has been a concept on this holiday – starting point. It’s lucky to be underway by 11am, unless we’re having it at home when 10 seems to be the preferred time. Today, we made it to Tom’s by 12 and got our table by 12:30 and got our food by 1pm, so while breakfast was the aim, our orders were a mix enabled by Tom’s promise to serve breakfast all day and his extensive menu of items that were not in the breakfast chapter of the menu.

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Tom’s time ended and we lurched out the door (Tom’s is almost surrounded by Columbia University) and set out for destination 2 on todays menu, Harlem. We chose a walk in the park, as you do, which we managed to turn into a 28 block hike through and across Central Park, which was beautiful, past the Mt Sinai Hospital, which was impressive, by the Graffiti Wall of Fame, which was locked in a school yard, and on up to 116th St, which was through housing projects. 116th Street was supposed to provide us with an African Market of wonder and exotic amazement – it did not. It provided us with an African/I Heart New York Souvenir experience.

20131104-222559.jpg We got to Malcolm X Boulevard and nipped into the subway to 125th Street, which was supposed to provide us with a lively, exciting street scape – now we may have been in the wrong bit, but we found a down-at-heel area with phone case vendors lining the streets and Maccas and Burger Kings in numbers hitherto unseen in New York (nice work junk food corporations – hit the low s.e.s parts and hit ’em hard!). We were intrigued by the number of street scent vendors with their stalls lines with hundreds of little bottles of mysterious oils, but we weren’t after perfume or $2 shops or McNuggets and we were a little unprepared for the number of, how can I put this… Baptist Churches, in the area. Oh, and the loud, maniacally gesturing, folk with kiddies named Isis and the like we had to snake through up the sidewalks. Harlem was an interesting place to visit, but as I said, we might have been a little under-researched and in the wrong part. We did see the famous facade of the Apollo Theatre, though.

The subway, our ever present Alice-Hole, presented itself and down we tumbled aiming to come up at 34th Street, which is a good 30 minute ride from 125th Street. Our next mission was to knock off a big thing. We surfaced at Herald Square, in the shadow of our target, the Empire State Building, this one we had researched enough to know that we should show disdain and ignore the legion of ticket touts outside the door and march purposefully into the building and head to the ticket office. Those who operate the building’s tourist attraction have laid out a circuitous route with huge numbers of velvet covered chains and stanchions largely devised to cram hundreds of people into the ticket queues, but also cunningly laid to lead you through the green screen photographers set, where they’ll pretend that having your photo taken and expertly manipulated to make it look as though you were standing with the Empire State Building behind you, is part of the process. You’re also led through a security check, where belts and jackets must be removed, but shoes are OK. I have real difficulty with the belt thing – it’s hard to get all your belongs into the tray; remove your wallet and phone, and check your pockets while holding your trousers up with one hand, then repeat the process backwards while trying to re-dress and load your stuff back in a space designed for not stopping. Back along the cattle crush and we finally made it to the elevators after being led through a half-hearted exhibition of old photos highlighting the complete lack of any workplace health and safety concerns during the building’s construction. The elevator took us to level 80, so we could be lead through another section of shiny deco flooring and a last minute rest-room stop, before another elevator took us the final 6 floors to the Observation Deck. Now here I admit that even a hardened, jaded cynic such as I was impressed. It was a clear afternoon, cold at about 4ºC and close to dusk. The views were spectacular with glimpses of Times Square and the Rockefeller Skating Rink through the buidings. The Flat Iron building in all it’s glory and those beautiful bridges all the way out Staten Island. Wow.

20131104-222435.jpg We spent about 45 minutes out in freeze before heading back down, with the exit path carefully set to pass through the green screen photographer’s finished product display, and the gift shop and the Walgreens on the second floor before the revolving doors spewed us out onto 5th Avenue into the blustery winds, where the circle is completed by the legion of ticket touts sets upon you again.

The subway delivered us home in crowded rush hour style – we always know we’re on the right train by the (large) number of gents in Homburgs in our carriage. Mr Piña provided sushi and gyoza for our dinner and some Ben & Jerry’s for our dessert.

Near the village, the peaceful village…

New York Marathon Day – time to play avoid the street closures, security checks, sniffer dogs and choppers. Not that there’s anything wrong with Marathon-ing, it’s just that 50,000 runners in various flouro, lycra outfits can make it difficult to cross the street. The race ran through our neighbourhood, about 3 blocks up and the closest we got to it was passing overhead on the J train en route to The Village. The mass of seething, running, sportswear made it’s impressive way straight down Bedford as we sailed overhead and onto the Williamsburg Bridge. I reported yesterday that Winter had commenced with weather for t-shirts and sunburn for Pip. Today, the weather was grey and struggled to reach 9ºC with a chilling wind that insisted we take our heavy coats out.

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Today was to be our serious exploration of the The Villages – West and East. Washington Square and NYU were where we chose to start, wading knee deep through the squirrels and pigeons where we came upon a guy with a sign claiming to sell jokes for a buck – if you don’t laugh, they’re free. Since Pip bought it, I guess it’s fine to relate it to you… It’s a New York joke, so it starts with a “So…”. “So I’m up in Queens and I’m at a gas station and there aren’t any other white people around and I’m feeling a bit exposed and stared at. In fact, I think I’m being discriminated against. So I say to the gas station attendant, “What’s the matter here – you’re all acting like you’ve never seen a guy in a ski mask with a gun before?”. Must’ve been the delivery that made us laugh – anyway, it’s our joke now but we’ll sell it on for $1.50. As well as the joke guy, there was a fellow with pigeons all over him and a busker who somehow managed to get his grand piano into the park to play for loose change. Washington Square Park is beautiful in fall with red and golden leaves, the huge arch (that I sadly admit to having recognised from one of season finales of Glee – I only saw the ad though, really!), the fountain, and the impressive NYU campus surrounding it.

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We travailed the streets seeking respite only in shoe stores, record shops, artists’ markets and cafés, admiring street entertainers, such as a doo-wap group called Groundstone that managed to sell Pip, a long time secret Doo-wap fancier (apparently) their CD, and ooh-ing and aah-ing at the beautiful storesf and people. Café Dante lured us in for a brunch so authentically Italian it required a cannoli to complete. We pushed on and Number Big Son disappeared into a couple of record stores – lured by the sweet smell of vinyl – while Pip and I continued the explorations. Another 6 or 7 hours walking and we returned to the sub-terrain for a train home. Dinner was prepared at home and we found ourselves, courtesy of an extra hour courtesy of the end of daylight saving, ready for bed at a reasonable hour. >

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