The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down

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.

 Grand Central Ceiling


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.


11 thoughts on “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down

  1. rasman1978 March 11, 2008 / 1:50 pm

    Excellent write-up! Sounds like you had a blast. I had to pick my tongue up off the keyboard after viewing that pastrami picture.

    The deal with sales tax is: 1) Yes, it’s like VAT (in that it’s proportional to the value of the transaction), and 2) Why isn’t it included in the price? Well, duh! Because then the prices would look higher! No vendor wants to do that!

    I’m completely in agreement with you on your sales tax and coinage griping, although the latter isn’t really a problem for me since I grew up in the culture.

    By the way, nickels and pennies are worth more as metal than as coins, so maybe you shouldn’t have spent them all. 🙂


  2. paola March 11, 2008 / 3:09 pm

    Yes, Eric, thanks for inspiring the trip! It was great!


  3. Di March 11, 2008 / 11:42 pm

    I can only drool, wetting the keyboard over the camera details …

    Sounds like you guys had a fabulous time!


  4. sgazzetti March 12, 2008 / 7:10 am

    It’s a pity I didn’t see your “I go in America” post, as I used to live in Manhattan, but it sounds like you packed as much you possibly could have into your blitz-visit. I guess I missed the change-over to WordPress, and I assume it’s now safe for me to delete the LiveJournal feed from my reader?

    If I may, I’d like to throw out some camera manual advice: make it a POT of tea or several, and plan to devote plenty of time to the manual — there will be lots of complicated stuff this camera is capable of, and you are correct that it’s well worth learning as much about it all as you can right from the start. Your time will be well repaid with better pictures, more control over them, and more affection for your new toy. Also: it’s very convenient to download a PDF version of the manual (always free from Canon’s website) as it’s more readily searchable than the paper one, which often has a rather sparse index.


  5. simonlitton March 12, 2008 / 10:38 am

    sgazzetti: yes, I think it’s safe to delete the LJ feed, as I haven’t used it since October 2007.
    Thanks for the advice about the manual. I started flicking through it last night, but I was too tired to take it in properly. The plan is to grasp the main functions as well as I can before we go to Japan at the end of April…


  6. simonlitton March 12, 2008 / 11:28 am

    Erik & Di: That I have made two separate people dribble on their keyboards is a source of immense pride and joy for me.


  7. V-Grrrl March 12, 2008 / 6:05 pm

    Ah, that the sales tax is only 8 percent is a point of pride for me after paying the 24 percent VAT.

    Why don’t they show it in the price? I imagine it’s because of accounting and inventory issues related to bar code pricing. They need to be able to break out price from tax. Some products are exempt (sometimes groceries and services). Sales tax not only varies from state to state but also from locality to locality and are often raised a half-cent at a time. Some states don’t have any sales tax, such as New Hampshire and Florida.

    Anyway, glad you had a good time in the Big Apple. Did you try an NY bagel?


  8. simonlitton March 12, 2008 / 6:10 pm

    V: We had a bagel, although we didn’t have time to go to any of the nice small neighbourhood bagel shops we would have liked to.
    Next time…


  9. Peter March 13, 2008 / 3:34 pm

    Amazing how much you managed to pack into your NY blitz-visit Simon. I once saw NY briefly in the rain, on a short stop-over.

    I need a new camera too, but the inflated Belgian prices (often double the US price) make me hesitate to spend this much on a camera.

    You know V-Grrrl, Belgian VAT tax (21% on cameras, 6% on food) is mainly used to balance the Belgian state budget (well, someone has to pay for our ‘almost-free’ healthcare-for-all), but still,
    it doesn’t explain the 100% price difference on selected items.

    Apparently Japanese electronics manufacturers are cashing in by making us poor Europeans pay through the nose.

    Loved the photos Simon.


  10. Karen MEG (Pomtini) March 17, 2008 / 3:48 pm

    Simon, a fantastic trip report, I love all the photos. You sound so excited about your new camera; I’m looking forward to seeing pictures from that once you get the hang of it.
    You did pack in a lot into a weekend! We also bypassed the empire state building and went to the Top of the Rock last time we were in NYC too. We’re hoping to bring the kids back maybe later this year. It’s a great spot for kids too.
    If you think the NYC tax is confusing, be warned before you visit Canada; we have a different sales tax in each province (Ontario is 8%) and a goods and services tax across the country (5%). Calculating the 13% is like mind gymnastics for geriatrics like me LOL!


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