Category Archives: Travel

Feelin’ Great In ’08

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Manhattan as viewed from the departures lounge at Newark Airport, Christmas Eve, 2008.

I just got back from West Virginia, where I spent the holidays, my first ever Christmas away from home. Arriving at Pittsburgh airport I was surprised but delighted to find Hillary there to greet me. She’s made the smart decision to abandon ship, leaving her short-lived but action-packed Carribean yacht experience behind her. After a week staying with Hillary’s family in Morgantown, we arrived back in New York on New Year’s Eve. The plane flew right over Times Square before we came into land. The light really is brighter. So I guess we’ll be staying for a while. I don’t know where we’re going to live or what we’re going to do, but it’s a pleasure to be here.

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Connecticut

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My MoMA internship ended on Friday. Three months have flown by, and I have no idea what I am going to do next. I have a return ticket booked for Europe in January, but I’m actually hoping don’t have to use it. Anyway, I’m not the only one in that predicament, and in an attempt to celebrate our time at MoMA Sefra invited a group of the now-former interns to her home in Connecticut for the weekend.

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So after work on Friday we boarded a train at Grand Central Station on the Metro-North New Haven line and bound for Greens Farms, near Westport, CT. A giant painted mural of Jerry Garcia greets you at the front door of Sefra’s family home, giving only a glimpse as to the decorative eccentricities which await inside. If this house has not yet featured in Architectural Digest I can’t think why. The place is a beautiful example of New England artsy-liberalism befitting its quirky baby-boomer owners. The rustic kitchen gives way to a comfortable living area into which sofas and chaise-longues seem to have been dropped almost liberally. A giant clock face acts as a coffee table, while original artwork hangs on every wall. Sefra’s mother’s home office is like a little piece of South Beach with its pink-stripey floors and Venetian blinds.

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Sefra took us on a tour of the garden, from where she pointed out another house closer to the beach. This is owned by Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein, who had erected a huge white marquee for the reception of his impending wedding to fashion designer Georgina Chapman. After a long evening of lounging, we went to bed (I slept on the couch), and in the morning we drove into town to buy ingredients for breakfast, which we cooked back at the house to the sound of Bob Dylan’s Modern Times. Cat made scrambled eggs, or uova alla Rossi as they soon became dubbed, while Sefra initially refused to eat my “raw” bacon, something I put down to Americans’ habit of overcooking it to the point of brittleness. After breakfast everyone went for a walk on the beach, but I stayed behind so I could wash the dishes and give Bob another listen.

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On the train back to New York, I realised I will miss MoMA, but definitely not as much as some of the people I met there. Together we formed a fast and quite unexpected bond, simply through shared experience I suppose, plus a conscious effort by most of us to get to know one another. Even Larissa said it was the first time this had happened amongst her interns, which made it feel like some kind of special achievement. I guess now all that’s left is figure out what to do with the rest of our lives…

Weekend in South Beach

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Last weekend I flew down to Florida to visit Hillary. She is staying in a crew-house in Fort Lauderdale, until she gets a job aboard a yacht. It was my first time in Florida, and what hit me most was how wild it seemed. Cars speed along highways with a recklessness I’ve never seen outside of Italy, with little or no regard for the laws of the road or other drivers. I felt less safe than I’ve ever done in Manhattan, even after dark. Everything felt older than in New York: Hillary and I went in a laundromat across the street where nothing had appeared to have changed since the 1970s — even the magazines. We rented a Chrysler and drove down to Miami. Arriving in Downtown Miami, we eventually parking for lunch in Little Havana. After a ridiculously large portion of chicken, rice, beans and plantains, we elected to hop back in the car and cross the water to South Beach.

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South Beach’s grid system makes it feel kind of like a mini-Manhattan, but with prettier colours and better beaches. I had always wanted to see the architecture of Ocean Drive, but I had no idea there were so many perfectly maintained Art Deco buildings on every street, and not as tourist attractions, but functioning as hotels, bars and houses. The whole experience was a stunning visual, and slightly retro overload. Part Miami Vice, part The Godfather Part II, Miami is like being transported back to the 1950s and 1980s simultaneously. I expected hoards of J.Lo-esque clubbers crawling the streets, Gloria Estefan pumping from blacked-out SUVs, but instead the vibe was extremely laid back and simply exuded an effortless cool.

We stayed in a little hotel between Collins and Washington Avenues, a beautiful little pink and turquoise spot where sand gets walked into the lobby. There was a long corridor on our floor, with spinning ceiling fans and a hardwood floor. I became somewhat mesmerized by that corridor, and still dream about it sometimes. South Beach immediately ranks as one of my favourite towns ever: it’s one of those places where you can’t believe you’re there when you’re there, and you can’t believe you were ever there when you get back. Kind of like how New York used to feel…

No Place Like Home

This weekend I experienced my first trip outside New York (not counting New Jersey, briefly), as I went to stay with Hillary’s family in Morgantown, West Virginia. I flew from JFK to Pittsburgh, where Hillary was waiting for me. There are three things I associate with Pittsburgh: Heinz Ketchup, the Steelers, and the movie Groundhog Day. What a thrill then to step off the plane and see a life-sized statue of ’70s Steeler Franco Harris, and a giant Heinz billboard. Hillary drove me around town, showed me her old house, visited the café where she used to work, before we eventually sat down to lunch at former Steeler Jerome Bettis’ Grille 36, in view of Heinz Field. I’d never seen such devotion to one team in a city before (perhaps Barcelona). Everyone was wearing black and gold, and as we walked the streets we heard the Steelers’ Superbowl anthem blasting from radios.

We were both amused by the new slogan which appears on a giant roadsign as we crossed the state line into WV: “WEST VIRGINIA: Open For Business.” This seems to have replaced the more fun-sounding “Wild and Wonderful” which still appears on the state license plates.

It was a strange feeling to be in an American family home. This felt like America — the country. New York doesn’t really feel like America, it feels like… New York. Morgantown is a very pretty town, and I spent the next few days enjoying the warm weather, drinking coffee at The Blue Moose Café, eating pancakes at Eat’n’Park, and marveling at the spectacular scenery of the Mountain State. On Saturday night we drove to Salem for an Applebutter Festival, possibly the most authentic experience there is to be had in West Virginia. I tasted funnel cake for the first time and admired the novelty license plates and belt buckles.

Last night I arrived back at JFK, where I was struck by the oddest sensation yet. I was now going home to New York, when just three weeks ago the very idea of going to New York at all would have thrilled me with excitement. Now West Virginia was a special occasion and New York was just… normal.

Greetings from Elizabeth, N.J.

Last week I took a bus from Port Authority Bus Terminal at 42nd Street to Elizabeth, New Jersey. This may seem an insignificant event to some of you. After all, many people make this or similar journeys every day. But for me it was the first time I had left New York, ventured beyond the city, and set foot on real American soil (or at least asphalt). The reason for this trip, you will be disappointed to learn, was that I needed to pick up some house essentials from IKEA, a truth which I recognize completely dispels any romantic notion of the occasion I may have had. I certainly didn’t expect my first visit to another state to be caused by the urgent need for cheap lamps and coat-hangers. Instead I had always imagined taking a bus down the Jersey shore, hanging in them dusty arcades and chasing the factory girls underneath the boardwalk. But from what I’ve heard a Swedish furniture store is as good a reason as any to visit Elizabeth, and so off I went. It was a huge thrill to take in those Manhattan views as we crossed the Turnpike, and my head suddenly became filled with Springsteen lyrics and Sopranos images.

Manhattan as viewed from New Jersey

On Friday morning I achieved a lifelong ambition as New Jersey came to New York, in the form of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band. Bruce and the boys were appearing on NBC’s Today Show in Rockefeller Plaza, and I had to be there. Hillary had arrived from Italy the previous evening, but I left her in bed to make my way up to Midtown at seven in the morning. From a young age Bruce’s music has influenced my perception of and fascination for American East Coast life perhaps more than any other artist. The characters that colour his earlier albums with their romantic optimism and almost naïve aspirations richly evoke a world where a girl, a car — or maybe just a guitar — are all you need to go out and make it. The band’s heavy influence of ’60s soul bands, it eccentric, jazz-tinged playing, and Bruce’s mysterious allusions at passionate street crime lead me to forever associate that music with a hot and gritty New York City, despite the group’s inexorable links to New Jersey. Now suddenly here I was, feet away from these Jersey boys, the same men (almost) who posed barefoot on the back cover of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle over three decades ago.

I never expected to one day see the same guys performing outside a Dean & Deluca on daytime television, nor did I ever imagine witnessing a concert before breakfast, but it seemed both were happening right now. Through the crowd I could make out drummer Max Weinberg’s Late Night quiff, and before I knew it Bruce was on stage — the same trademark beat-up Telecaster slung over one shoulder — as the band broke into a perfect rendition of “The Promised Land.” They then performed several tracks from the new album, Magic, including ubiquitous single “Radio Nowhere” and “Livin’ In The Future”, which Bruce introduced with one of his typical rambles:

“There’s a lot of things we love about America. Cheeseburgers, transfats, motorcycles, divorce, and cheating on your spouse. But over the past six years, we’ve had to add another picture. Therapy, medication, counseling, catholicism, HIV tests, anti-depressants, sleeping in barns, and botox. These are things happening today that we never thought possible.”

Between songs Bruce cracked jokes at Today Show host Matt Lauer’s expense, gave hugs to Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, and even found time to speak his mind on the state of the nation. Springsteen is one of few people left in the entertainment world whose political opinions aren’t greeted with derision. The crowd was then treated to “Night” from Born To Run and an extremely moving “My Hometown.”

An overcast morning had now given way to bright sunshine as Bruce sang repeatedly: “This is your hometown, this is youurrrr hometown…” I’d been in New York just two weeks, but I couldn’t help think and hope and feel that there could be something prophetic in the man’s words.

Dedicated to the memory of Danny Federici, 1950-2008.

Welcome To The Future

It was a humid evening when I arrived in New York last Friday night. Aching and weary having spent most of the day aboard a Lufthansa jet, I was immediately awoken by the series of advertisements which greeted me at JFK Airport. As I made my way through the endless maze of corridors leading to immigration, my eyes were bombarded with the repeated image of what appeared to be a sort of executive Etch-a-Sketch, but which upon closer inspection was in fact a device they’re calling the Sony Reader. Some very clever people in Japan had figured out a way to compress multiple hardback books into one small tablet of brushed metal, allowing an author’s life’s work to be slotted into a holiday-maker’s carry-on luggage.

Upon learning of this revolutionary product for the first time, two thoughts immediately struck me. 1) If the Reader is a success – which means within a year or two we will be adding it to that cluster of gadgets we all believe we can’t leave the house without – what will it mean for the future of the printed page? Will books become obsolete? It certainly won’t help reverse the youngest generation’s already concerning preference for electronic screens over pens and paper (though could go some way to correcting posture among schoolchildren). 2) How long had I been on that plane?

I first came to New York City as a wide-eyed, highly impressionable 20 year-old. It was the sweltering summer of 1999, and I was achieving an ambition which had stood firm since childhood and throughout my teens, one which for some reason I had never imagined possible. As a boy, New York City may as well have been another planet, so remote seemed the possibility of ever visiting. The few people I met who said they had been left me in awe. Though apparently unattainable in reality, thanks to television New York was accessible daily. What I saw was a tough, gleaming city crammed with the tallest buildings and coolest people, where danger, excitement or something else entirely lurked on every street corner, and where the traffic and the music never stopped. I become all too aware of it, and the attraction was something not even my overworked imagination could fathom. It was the city for me.

Armed with a pocket fold-out map and my Pentax K1000, I spent every waking minute of that week absorbing the city like a sponge, memorizing every detail, taking in (and photographing extensively) every skyscraper, monument, museum, hot-dog stand and fire hydrant along the way. And I walked everywhere (though there’s nothing quite like the thrill of hailing your first yellow cab). I stayed in a hotel on the Upper West Side, and the greatest feeling of all was simply being on the street, strolling up and down Broadway, eating pizza by the slice, chatting with strangers and briefly living a life that could only ever be make believe. I went home with a case of NY-emblazoned merchandise and eleven rolls of exposed film, a changed man.

A lot had happened in the relatively short period which had ensued. Some would say the world had changed, but had New York? For better and for worse, it had, and it was a different kind of breathlessness which overcame me as Manhattan’s skyline rose into view from my taxi window. Reports claimed that crime had been declining since the nineties, when Giuliani began cracking down on the most minor offences, a trend which was supposedly continuing under Mayor Bloomberg. Meanwhile, the spectacular success of certain businesses had begun to monopolize retail space in Manhattan, resulting in a noticeable effect on the city’s physical appearance. There now seemed to be a Starbucks on every block, even in the traditionally less commercial neighbourhoods. In the Theater District, the vast billboards and blinking neon of Times Square had given way to Disney animation and state-of-the-art video graphics, which succeed in rendering even the Coca-Cola logo unrecognizable.

On the city’s not-so-mean streets, the NYPD’s azure blue Chevrolets, once immortalized by television cop shows, had been traded in for a fleet of nondescript white Fords. Those bouncing Taxi-era checkered cabs were long gone – now yellow minivans with electric doors drove tourists from airport to hotel. I read that all NYC taxis will be hybrid 4x4s by 2012. What next, floral cabs? (Oh, right.) Even more horrifying was that in response to its increasingly international population, every last one of New York’s iconic WALK/DON’T WALK lights had been replaced with a universal walking man/red hand. Now whether crossing Delancey Street or Abbey Road, the experience had become (almost) identical.

Practical types will say that change is inevitable, that cities must continue to evolve in order to survive and stay vital, and I’m sure many locals would have not noticed or cared about such relatively minor alterations to their city. But for reasons however superficial, I was becoming slightly disillusioned. Here I was, finally living in Manhattan, the pop-culture lover’s ultimate paradise, and not a DON’T WALK sign in sight. I began to wonder if even the humble pretzel vendor’s days were numbered. It was as if the New York I had always imagined, the city I’d inhabited in adolescent fantasies, was suddenly being transformed and taken away. I couldn’t help but feel I’d arrived too late. But it’s like when you meet people who say, “You should’ve seen this place twenty years ago.” What am I supposed to do about that now?

Still a little jet-lagged, I woke up early the next morning and crossed Second Avenue (upon orders from the walking man) to the coffee shop opposite. From the other side of the street the Chrysler Building was clearly visible several blocks in the distance, its soaring concrete and chrome piercing the cloud-filled sky like a needle. It wasn’t quite daylight, but inside the diner people were already tucking into breakfasts of eggs and bacon and pancakes. I took a seat at the counter and ordered coffee. Turning to face the window, I stared out and watched as the yellow cabs glided silently through the Saturday morning drizzle. Had I been foolish in clinging to a New York that is no more (or never was)? Maybe it doesn’t matter if NYC ’07 isn’t exactly the city I’d been exalting all these years. What I enjoy most about it hasn’t changed a bit, and what drew me to this place as a child can still be found everyday. Steam rises from manholes, water towers and fire escapes adorn every building, and people really do read The New York Times on the subway. And while there’s space enough in people’s lives for the printed page, there’ll be a place in mine for New York City.