Previously on “Simon Says”…
OK, my brain’s still a little fluffy from the jet-lag, but here goes.
We arrived at the airport, as instructed, three hours before departure (which is to say, at 0630) anticipating stringent security measures. We were asked for both our passports and our national identity cards, asked whether we had anything that looked like a weapon, and whether or not we were guilty of attempted genocide.
There were no decent in-flight movies (“Alvin and the Chipmunks”? No thanks), but the Sky Mall catalogue kept us entertained (I’ll dedicate a separate post to this bible of tack in the very near future), and we managed to almost get a couple of hours’ sleep. We took a taxi (we didn’t want to waste any time on this first day) from Newark airport to Hotel Mela, a claustrophobia-inducingly-small compact and bijou place just off (I mean, about 50 meters off) Times Square. One nice touch – in the basket in our room containing an assortment of nuts, chocolate and drinks was a small black velvet bag containing 2 condoms and 2 breath mints. This so-called “Intimacy Kit” was priced at 11 dollars. Luckily we didn’t have to pay any such outrageous price ourselves: my lady wife always travels prepared, and never leaves home without a packet of mints.
Keen to get the business aspect of the trip out of the way as soon as possible, we headed straight for 42nd St Photo. Funny thing – all the camera shops I spoke to are closed on Saturdays, and many of them on Friday afternoons too. A friend theorizes that this is because the majority of them are Jewish-owned. Anyway, I’d been in contact with a friendly and helpful guy called ‘Rafi’ at 42nd Photo in advance by phone and email, so my package was waiting for me. For the camera geeks: I bought a Canon 40D with 28-135mm lens, plus a Sigma 70-300mm lens, 4gb Compact Flash card (I appreciated the fact that he talked me out of a more expensive 8gb card). He gave me a discount on a set of 4 filters, and threw in the adaptor for the battery charger for free. I took a deep breath and paid. There was an audible whimper from my credit card as it was swiped.
The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering the midtown area. Manhattan was in some ways more open and less claustrophobic than I’d imagined. It was also pleasingly ramshackle & dilapidated in places. I noted many of the visual features I’d unconsciously associated with it, like the fire escapes, the water towers, and the siamese sprinklers. It was also weird to finally be in a place that I’d seen in so many movies and tv shows, as if it were a shock that it was actually a real place with real people living their real, everyday lives, and not just a sort of film set. It started raining pretty hard, so we went to the restaurant we’d booked – the Oyster Bar, underneath Grand Central Station. I was pleasantly surprised by the star-strewn ceiling of the station, which wasn’t something I’d been aware of before I got there.
We had an early night, obviously. I slept, on & off, from 8pm – 6am. We headed straight to Katz’s Delicatessen for breakfast. This was the first time I’d ever eaten pastrami, and I wasn’t disappointed. Why can’t we get this stuff in Europe? Or can we – any know of a supplier? I also had some pancakes which were enormous, thick and fluffy. I couldn’t finish all three. The restaurant itself, in the East Village, is wonderfully old-fashioned and full of character (i.e. dirty and cheap-looking), which is all the more surprising and heartening considering how famous and successful it’s become. My wife luckily hadn’t seen “When Harry Met Sally”, otherwise she would have been tempted to re-enact its most famous scene, which was shot in Katz’s. I’m sure people do it all the time, and I’m sure the staff are heartily sick of it, but then again it brings in the tourist trade. Being myself a stupid tourist with more money than sense, I bought a souvenir t-shirt.
Feeling stuffed and sated, we wandered across into Chinatown, where we ogled the fish stalls and the inevitable barrels full of live frogs. Again, the rain started. Perfect weather for the foodie walking tour we’d booked in advance. Oh well. The tour was very interesting, taking us around the Village and part of SoHo, with a mixture of local history and culture (i.e. lots of Bob Dylan anecdotes), and frequent tastings of great food from many of the ethnic minorities who live in the area. We were about 9 people of various ages, but I think we were the only non-Americans. We got absolutely drenched.
We walked up to Times Square, which was actually more impressive than I expected it to be. I know it’s basically Piccadilly Circus on steroids, but I found it oddly thrilling. We had a nice meal at a place called Red Cat in Chelsea, walked back down 7th Avenue to the hotel (the rain had stopped), and retired early once again.
Whereas on previous days Manhattan had been dull and grey, the tops of the skyscrapers shrouded in mist, on our last day we finally got to see New York in the sunshine. We took the subway to Brooklyn Bridge and walked to the middle to see the view of the skyline. Then we headed back uptown to the Rockefeller Centre, because I’d read a tip on Been There that the view from the Top of the Rock was pretty much as good as that from the Empire State building, but with the added advantage of no hour-long wait. We waited no time at all, and it was worth it. Crystal clear visibility gave us spectacular views across the whole state (I think…) and beyond.
After a burger lunch we wandered around Central Park a little, and then it was time to check out and head back to the airport. We had a little more time on the return journey, so we took the train (although we almost missed it, due to the confusing layout and lack of decent signage in Penn St. station).
We used up our final few dollars at the airport. Can I just moan for a second here? Firstly, what’s the deal with this “sales tax”? Is this like VAT in Europe? If so, can someone explain why they don’t just include it in the price displayed? I’m mental arithmetically-challenged – don’t expect me to be able to add 8% to a figure in my head. Just display the full price from the outset so that I know what I need to pay. And the coins? Could they be any harder to read? When trying to dispose of some loose change I had to scrutinize some of them with a magnifying glass before I could read the denomination. And are foreigners expected to automatically know how much a “dime” is? Would it hurt you to put a big “10 cents” on it, like they do with the Euro coins?
OK, rant over. No complaints otherwise. The film on the flight back was “Enchanted”, which was fun in part because it was full of recognisable New York locations, including, bizarrely, Katz’s. I slept about an hour on the plane. We arrived in Brussels at 6:30 on Monday, were home by 7:30, and I went to work at 8:30. I somehow managed to stay awake for the rest of the day, although my productivity may have suffered somewhat.
A full set of photos can be found here. Please note – none of these photos were taken with the new camera. I want to be able to sit down with the camera, the manual, and a nice cup of tea and take my time to learn about it first, and this weekend was far too hectic for that kind of thing. Also, taking something that had just cost me a month’s wages out into torrential rain didn’t seem like the best plan…
Big thanks again to Erik for inspiring this trip in the first place, and for lots of help and advice regarding the purchase.