￼For me, foreign travel has always been a contentious issue at the best of times but it seems more so now than ever before, what with complex international relationships right across the world developing into an ever-decreasing spiral of animosity and fear. With that in mind and with the constant media coverage of war and terrorism bombarding us 24/7, the prospective traveler might find it difficult to even sum up the will to leave the comfort and safety of his or her front room.
Personally, I have already removed Pakistan, Africa, The Middle East, and most of Eastern Europe from my “Must Visit” list. Self-preservation can be limiting but unless you have a burning desire to become collateral damage in someone else’s squabble, you have to be realistic.
There comes a point though when you have to weigh up the pros and cons of international travel. I was fast approaching fifty years of age. If I waited for the world to settle down before I made any further travel plans, I may well be too old to manage them.
It was with the echo of these thoughts rattling around my brain that I found myself at the end of October 2011, thousands of feet above terra firma heading west over the Atlantic towards New York. A long-held family dream, to experience America at its most vibrant and chaotic was becoming reality and thanks to my wife's hard work and meticulous planning, I was about to spend my fiftieth birthday in the most exciting city in the world.
Now I am not a comfortable traveler by any means and so I had resigned myself, as I always do upon entering an airplane which is about to propel me skyward, to acknowledge that I was content with my life up to this point and if it was all to end now then so be it. I strapped myself in and attempted to quell the alarm bells sounding in my brain.
Two small complimentary bottles of white wine later, with a surprisingly good vegetarian tray meal, and three great movies lined up on the in-flight entertainment system and I was more than happy. In fact, an hour into Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and I was in seventh heaven.
As everyone knows, New York as a holiday vacation is not without its share of troubling aspects. New York City suffered a major personality crisis during the seventies and eighties. A city once famed for the excitement, style, and to pinch a phrase from its Gallic cousin, Joie de Vivre, in the thirties, forties and fifties, was represented in later decades as a city transformed into a cauldron of sex, drugs, and racial tension. You only have to look at the movies from the seventies to see these changes. Watch Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver or Fort Apache, The Bronx and you get a feel for the changes and turmoil that challenged the city. Even the feel-good movie Fame released in 1980 makes New York look tired and done in. America was in the doldrums, uneasy with itself after JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., and Vietnam, it reeled like a punch drunk fighter looking for somewhere to lie down and die.
There was though, a period of rebirth for New York, a re-imagining of itself. The city cleaned up its act, aided by the clear vision and determination of its then mayor, Rudi Giuliani and through the nineties and on into the new millennium New York seemed to get its mojo back.
In the twenty-first century, it now represents a city which resonates with its cultural history and every step you take in New York is a step into the dreams and memories we have all absorbed from its golden age.
So, landing at Newark airport, full of expectation and excitement, we began our week of exploration. The taxi ride from Newark Airport to Penn Station was as to be expected. The driver reluctantly moved his leather jacket and belongings from the front passenger seat to accommodate me while my family piled into the back seat. Placing his leather jacket between us he casually covered the seatbelt catch. I spent the next few frantic seconds trying to root about in the darkness to locate it while he slammed the taxi into first gear and pulled away from the pavement. On receiving a sideways glare and a grunt of “It’s OK” from him I decided to put my faith in the same God that got me across the Atlantic and gave up on the catch, clinging to the belt in a vain attempt to give myself some sense of security.
Newark at night was not as inspiring as I had hoped but as we sped through a dark, brooding sprawl of concrete and tarmac, it did look familiar from the urban crime dramas I had seen on TV. Within half an hour we were at the train station, a little frayed at the edges but safely stationary when the vehicle in front of us unceremoniously reversed into our taxi. As the drivers swapped details and expletives we took our cases and quietly made our way to the train.
A short subway ride later and we emerged blinking like moles into the financial district of Manhattan, one block away from Ground Zero.￼
It was early evening and my sensible head was telling me to get to the hotel ASAP. There we were, four tourists dragging wheeled suitcases in a line through the back streets of New York at night.
I had read in the in-flight magazine that for your own safety, you must try not to look like tourists and as we walked in line like four lost ducklings waiting for a fox with our necks craning to look up at the towering buildings surrounding us, I knew we were failing. The reassuring thing was, that as I looked around I noticed we were by no means unique. Everywhere I looked, I saw tourists with necks craned or cameras pointing skyward. We were passing the new Freedom Tower construction site, lit up like a half-formed Christmas tree. People stared in awe and we joined them. This is what New York had decided to replace the Twin Towers with, one even taller tower. I took the city's decision to create this one new tower as a single unapologetic middle finger raised in defiance to anyone who thought New York had been demoralized by 9/11.
It was at this point that I realized just how useful Google Earth is. We had already visited downtown Manhattan and walked these streets, albeit virtually, to locate our hotel and familiarise ourselves with the surrounding area. So as we rounded the corner of West Street I recognized the buildings immediately and began leading us with confidence in the wrong direction. A slight adjustment of my internal sat-nav and a prompt from my daughter who spotted the Marriott sign and we were upon the hotel steps in seconds.
I should mention before I go on that my family doesn’t do the poolside; lie around in the sun type of holidays. Wherever we go we try to explore the place, meet the people, and experience the culture. This means that I usually prepare for a holiday the way an athlete prepares for a sporting event. Before going to Paris a few years ago, I spent the preceding few weeks limbering up and strengthening my legs with a regular morning exercise regime. This pays off when faced with an ascent of the Eiffel Tower on foot, believe me. This holiday was no different and I felt I was up for the challenge.
We had planned our holiday based on the City Passes we were to purchase and the past experience of dragging ourselves over every square inch of other cities trying to see all the attractions therein. This time it would be different. We knew in advance the sheer scale of the city and resigned ourselves to not being able to do it all or see it all in five days. Our plan was to head for one major attraction each day and if possible see some satellite attractions in the close vicinity. Research is a must and so the time spent pawing over maps and guides, in the comfort of our home, was well spent.
Our main attraction list included The Statue of Liberty, The Empire State Building, The Rockefeller Centre, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, and The American Museum of Natural History. Along with these sites, we also wanted to take in Central Park for the romance, The East Village area for the cool music and literary links, and the major shopping destinations including Tiffany's, Bloomingdales, Abercrombie and Fitch and Macy's, (that was for the fashionistas and big kids in all of us). Now that sounded feasible and in our innocence, we thought that we could manage it easily. The reality was, in fact, quite different. A week of 12-hour days constantly on the move and using all forms of public transport and our feet which were worn down to the stumps by day five was what lay ahead.
Now don’t get me wrong, this holiday ranks up there as one of the greatest experiences of our lives but it came with a price. We queued for the Ellis Island ferry, we queued for the Empire State Building and we queued for the Top of The Rock. But in saying that, it was all worthwhile. My planned half a day in each of the museums on my list ended up being a hasty catching of the last hour or so before they closed. Our trip to see The Statue of Liberty was realized from the snowy deck of the Ellis Island ferry. The Statue was closed for refurbishment that day and we were experiencing the earliest and most severe snow storm in New York’s recent history. We stayed on board the ferry and looked on from a short distance away.
That same evening we stood stranded at a bus stop trying to catch a bus back to our hotel. It was freezing and our feet were wet through but the scene in front of us was magical. Steam rose from a vent in the road in great thick white plumes which wafted back and forth as the buses passed. Yellow cabs glided by like ghosts disappearing into the night. Across the intersection, the neon-lit night reflected in the black, mirror-like wet tarmac. The experience was intoxicating.
Jazz suddenly makes sense when you are in New York. The pulsating rhythms reflecting the mix of cultures stamping their identities on the city, horns punctuating the beats like impatient taxis vying for space in the streets, snare drums tapping like rain on windows. Bass lines softly thumping out a heartbeat holding the music together. Modern jazz was born here.
The musical heritage of New York is as diverse as the city itself. Another must see for us was Bleecker Street, birthplace to the American folk scene of the sixties and home to famous and infamous music venues such as CBGBs and the Cafe Wha? where Dylan, Hendrix, and Springsteen had all played. We stumbled upon The Bitter End bar at around nine in the evening. A modest venue which still provides an intimate stage for both new and established acts and makes no apologies for its basic, down to earth atmosphere. The Bitter End has resisted the pressure to become a sterile updated facsimile of itself by cashing in on its magnificent history and glamming up. It remains what it always was and holds on to its authenticity. The list of musicians and comedians who have played The Bitter End reads like a who's who of American entertainment and it was also the venue where Bob Dylan first tried out his Rolling Thunder Revue in the seventies. While we were there we sat at the back of the bar watching a young singer-songwriter Jillette Johnson play piano and sing like a latter-day Joni Mitchell while other musicians stood behind us chatting and waiting for their turn to perform on the hallowed stage. Bootsy Collins, the former sideman of James Brown, walked in looking every inch the funky dude he is and stood inches from us patiently waiting to take centre stage. This was a night to remember.
One extra benefit we received from choosing our hotel in the financial district, apart from a fairly quiet location, and reasonable room rates, was that we passed by the “Occupy Wall Street” protest site twice daily on the way to and from the subway. For an avid photographer and fan of all the great photojournalists, this brought another added dimension to our trip for me. I regularly struck up conversations with protesters and supporters of the causes. Photo opportunities were many and I had to restrain myself time and again, remembering that this was a family holiday and the family in question, were patiently waiting nearby.
There was a great spirit within the camp and a camaraderie that was evident even though there was no one cause uniting them all. The demonstrations were peaceful and were more a manifestation of a general feeling of dissatisfaction that we all share with the way our world seems to be heading. The internet has been a useful catalyst for these global campaigns and it is a great tool for bringing individuals together and giving them a voice but in this case, it struggled to unite people under one banner or one unifying agenda.
I am sure that most people you speak to would say the same thing. When it's time to leave New York it is not the major attractions or the shops that you remember most. Like all good cities and all good holidays, it’s the spirit of the place that you take away with you and the spirit of the place that remains with you long after the trip is over. It was experiences like meeting the two young ladies we chatted to on the subway the night the main line stopped due to adverse weather conditions. One of the young girls explained to us that without this subway line she would have a two or three-hour journey to get back to Queens and tonight was Halloween and she had a party to go to. The other young girl, on her way to a party dressed as Penny Lane from the movie Almost Famous, was eager to assist us as we looked confused on the subway platform. The major contradiction, based on the reputation of this big city is that even though there are millions of people rushing in all directions and from all parts of the globe, if you stop and look lost for only a moment someone from New York will offer assistance. If it happened to us once it must have happened half a dozen times. I have often heard people comment on the stereotypical American, all forced friendliness, big smiles and empty gestures, but on the streets or subways of this remarkable city, we experienced nothing but helpful, friendly, and courteous citizens, ready to assist you, open up, and share their lives with others.￼
It was with a heavy heart that we came upon our last day in New York City. Looking back, we had seen some spectacular sights. We experienced glorious incandescent days when the low autumn sunlight played upon glass-fronted buildings the size of mountains. We saw sun-dappled yellow leaves decorating the trees on the fringes of Central Park. Pumpkins carefully placed to decorate the sidewalks on Halloween. We watched skaters on the ice rink outside of the Rockefeller Centre. We saw neon-lit nights in Times Square, wild and exciting from the street as we looked up at skyscrapers. We watched the city from the top of the Empire State Building. Looking down as the sun set and the street lights took over, we were caught for a few minutes between the stars above and the emerging firmament below. We had experienced biting blizzards out in the harbor as we headed for Ellis Island and a thunderous snowstorm as we battled our way through snow-covered streets, heading uptown on foot to see the Museums.
New York, like its inhabitants, gives you everything. As we left and headed for our plane home we knew one thing. We had experienced the time of our lives and we were determined that we would return.