Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ever since Haz and I decided, almost on impulse, to go to New York for christmas, we'd been touting for Must-Do recommendations. So huge thanks to all of you who helped us compile a brilliant wish-list so we could fill our four days and three nights in Manhattan with dazzling highlights, cultural gems, and unforgettable experiences. Thanks to Mike McIlya for recommending comfortable shoes as we'd walk miles (we did) - to Owen for adding 'try & remember to get some sleep' (ignored I'm afraid) - to Steve for picking out 'I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change' as a super-stylish & hilarious musical (it was) - to Rod for summing up our mission: go anywhere, do anything. We absolutely did.
And to everyone who warned us how exceedingly cold it would be - well, actually it was milder than England and I never even got to wear my new thermal tights.
Flying on Christmas morning was a great idea - champagne and movies all day, and with the time delay we still arrived in Manhattan mid-afternoon. Our hotel was just a few minutes walk from Times Square, though waiting for crossings doubles the time getting anywhere, as Manhattan appears to practice a random-directional urban evacuation on a daily basis.

The energy in the city is amazing - there's never a time of day or night when shops and diners aren't open, lights aren't flashing, and yellow cabs aren't streaking past. New York exceeded and confounded all my expectations, often simultaneously, and 'rollercoaster' came to seem a sluggish sort of word. So many paradoxes and anomalies. That flamboyant skyline is as familiar as Big Ben, but from the top of the Rockefeller building at dusk it's impossible not to be awed. Those now-familiar iconic builders on the skyscraper girder are anonymous as they grin out from mugs and merchandise while their rich patrons are lauded for these monstrous monuments. Show me the money, is the message.
'There is never any embarrassment here about overt consumerism' a columnist in Independent had written the day before we left, but despite the opulence there's elegance and even simplicity in this festive decor. We saw no plastic santas, blow-up snowmen, moulded bells, or any of the ugly narratives of UK xmas tat. Instead, huge pine trees, everywhere, lavishly illuminated, and tiny strings of gold and silver lights on all the street trees too. Admittedly a small country could probably have powered a year's supply of energy on the wattage complacently squandered here, but the city is humble about its profligacy too. On our bathroom door there's a message from PROJECT PLANET: "We invite you to join with us to conserve water by using your towels more than once." You don't have to, though. You can throw them on the floor and they will instantly be laundered.
Preconceptions don't survive here. In four days I've learned about tax and tipping, and that you don't queue for the loo, you make a line at the rest room. No one, not even friendly policemen, will use your city map to show you where to go - they reckon it by blocks. You won't necessarily meet anyone all day who speaks English as a first language, or even at all. With more than a third of its people born outside the US, there's no such person as a typical New Yorker so this melting pot culture has incredible vibrance. We saw classical painting at the Frick collection and hiphop dancing on the street; walked the Literary Mall in Central Park by day and to the Bowery at night, found famous names like Bloomingdales and Barnes & Noble and cheap healthy eateries like Pax and Hale & Hearty; we marvelled at modern architecture like the Grace Building and at the profusion of art noveau motifs. Some of the best things were free - the Kerouac exhibition at the central library, the people we spoke with in delis and diners, and most of all the place itself, with all its dilapidating ostentation and yearning flamboyance.
Kerouac wanted to examine his life by writing it, not autobiographically but as an act of radical creation. In this city it almost seems every journey is somehow engaged in that.

(Haz's words & pix here)

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