The initial plan for my long-since-planned 6-day break was to visit New York. I must have been the only person in the world who hadn’t visited this must-see of a place – and a real embarrassment for not making a single trip while studying in Washington, DC, for two months in 2004. That was in fact the last time I had visited the US.
Six days were nothing for a megalopolis of the NY calibre. After a bit of thinking, however, it seemed close to impossible to limit my visit to New York and not see the numerous friends who had ended up in DC over the years. Around 340 km apart, the two East coast cities were within tolerable reach, too.
Needless to say that I absolutely had to plan a visit to DC. Being a train freak, I decided to take the Amtrak train and allow two days in the US capital to catch up with buddies. For the rest of the time, New York would set the scene for my exploratory pursuits. I had taken note of a dozen telephone numbers for various US friends and was ready to go. I have to add here that I hadn’t used a single day of my annual leave allowance since Christmas, and was absolutely yearning to get away for longer than a mere weekend. Let alone a business trip.
Let the journey begin!
As slow as the time was passing, the day of my departure did come. Excited beyond words, I showed up at London Heathrow airport – barely believing that I was finally heading somewhere OUTSIDE Europe. My excitement was however briefly dampened as Virgin Atlantic refused to check me in, reporting an ESTA problem. I had to feed a pound coin to one of Heathrow’s hungry internet terminals and resubmit my travel authorisation form online. Apparently, the two letters before my passport number identifying my citizenship (“LV” for Latvia) which I had forgotten in my first application were to blame. I solemnly promised to honour both the L and the V in the future. Sorry, Vaterland!
Bureaucratic obstacles hadn’t finished at that, as I was searched twice before boarding the plane. The second search (just in front of the boarding gate) was particularly thorough. After having to taste my bottled Coke in front of the officer and demonstrate my lens-cleaning liquid in action (the presence of my camera helped), I was finally allowed onboard. My cross-Atlantic journey had begun!
The 7-hour flight went by almost spotlessly. I had applied my secret strategy the night before and skipped bedtime altogether – in an attempt to fall asleep instantly on the plane and reduce the jetlag upon arrival. It worked only partly though, as I was too tempted by the onboard entertainment to shut the systems off immediately. After the “I Love You Phillip Morris” movie, however, the tiredness took its toll. I woke up (almost) fresh in New York’s JFK airport, waltzed through passport control (Heavens be praised for this hip visa-free regime), picked up my skinny luggage and jumped on a shuttle bus to the city. There is a public transport connection from JFK airport to central New York via subway – but, on my first visit, I paid about USD 25 for the more expensive door-to-door service. Just to be on the safe side. I silently swore to take the subway for my return trip.
First steps in New York
In Upper East Side’s East 85th St, I reunited with Irina. It had been seven years since we saw each other last – on a summer programme in Prague – and a lot of catching up was due. Chirping tirelessly, we walked (via Starbucks, of course) to Central Park, my first introduction to New York. I was decidedly impressed by the sheer size of the location and the number of joggers zooming by. I’m not a runner myself and generally do not understand how anyone could voluntarily pack themselves into a pair of shorts and sprint about happily. It seemed that jogging in New York’s Central Park was part of the city’s lifestyle though. Some people were even reading books while walking briskly; others rode bicycles and walked their dogs. It was an active little piece of greenery inside what looked to be a massive city – judging by the skyline view across the Reservoir.
New York’s Central ParkAfter a quick drink at Central Park’s Boathouse Cafe (great location) with Irina, I rushed downtown to meet Maria for dinner. This was to be my second big reunion of the day, but this time “only” after six years. After some great Cantonese food at Phoenix Garden, we spent a while wandering around New York’s Grand Central Station and the magnificent Times Square. I was absolutely silenced. New York was shining, stunning and inspiring! It was nearly 11pm, and it didn’t look like anyone was planning on sleep at all. The shops were open, yellow taxis were zipping past leaving the glow of their red backlight trails, tourists were crossing the streets in every direction – and massive adverts were waving, winking and making themselves seen to us in every possible way. Wow! I had not seen anything like this in my life – and decided to move to the city as soon as possible. With this thought in mind, I went to bed that night. London was no match to New York at all! Grand Central Station
The bustling Times Square
Fifteen hours on foot in New York
My jetlag prevention strategy seemed to have worked, as I woke up at my usual hour – around 7am – the next morning. My stomach was rioting though. It was well into lunchtime in London, and I ran off to town to get some food. My plan was to try a different typical-ish US breakfast for every day of my stay. It was Thursday morning, and I started off with a mini salmon bagel from Agata & Valentina chain – and a latte from Starbucks. The latter coffee chain is generally my utmost pleasure in life. I am known for saying I would never move to a city which didn’t have a Starbucks. I am also known for rating Sofia (Bulgaria) higher than Belgrade (Serbia), only because the former had a Starbucks and the latter didn’t. Yes, my coffee standards are very low. May my Italian friends forgive me.
I could barely believe when I summed up my breakfast bill. It looked at least 20-30% more expensive than its London equivalent. New York was not shaping up to be a low-cost city break. What I as a European found additionally confusing was that prices in most places were quoted before tax. The rates in the US differ by state, which makes it sensible to headline them pre-tax. I never quite figured out, however, why some establishments (like supermarkets) still chose to quote their prices AFTER tax. In the end, I got entirely disorientated how much I actually owed to pay – and relied on the honesty of the establishment instead. Naïve, I know, but what can a European do.
My mission for that Thursday was to walk myself into oblivion and take as many outdoor photos of New York as physically possible. I had not really planned much other than spending some quality time with Nikie. For everybody’s benefit, Nikie is what I call my precious photo camera.
Compared to the overwhelming emotions of the previous night, daytime New York made a slightly different impression. That of a massive, noisy, battered and uncontrolled city bursting at the seams with life. The urban noise was simply impossible to get away from. The same yellow taxis were diving out of every direction, as were private cars, cyclists, skaters, tourists, bankers, buskers, beggars, traffic lights, neon signs, subway stations, pigeons, warnings not to feed the pigeons, Sex And The City 2 posters, “I ♥ NY” t-shirts, Chinese cornershops, hotdog stalls, bridges, ferries, Irish pubs, NYPD boys (and girls) – all melting together with growing intensity, like a snowball rolling downhill. I could hardly keep up with the activity around. The three-odd years of living in London did not seem to have prepared me for the New York experience in the least. This beast was something utterly new – and I was not sure I preferred it to my cosy old London.
I had a fantastic time hanging around the city and absorbing its steaming life, though. During the fifteen hours I spent on my feet, I covered a good chunk of central Manhattan. Having started with Greenwich village, West village, the World Trade Center site (aka Ground Zero), the financial district around Wall Street, Battery Park and South Street Seaport – I proceeded to the famous Brooklyn Bridge, walked across, spent some time observing New York’s skyline from Brooklyn – and walked all the way back to Manhattan along the Manhattan Bridge. Brooklyn Bridge
New York’s ethnic mix was generally something unprecedented. I came across Jews, Irish, Afro-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Chinese, Koreans, Greeks, Indians, Italians, Russians and Heaven knows which other nationalities – within a short walking strip. London was certainly very similar to this, with one difference. Somehow I have noticed a lot more Arabs in London than New York – with Edgware Road firmly in the front rows. Perhaps I simply wasn’t fortunate enough to come across a truly Arab area in New York. Or they had chosen to settle elsewhere in the US. Or they had just chosen to settle elsewhere.
By early evening, I could only confirm the presence of my two feet by bending down and touching them. While every next step seemed more difficult than the previous, my programme for the day wasn’t finished – and I headed off to the Empire State Building. After the destruction of World Trade Center towers on 9/11, the Empire State Building is once again the tallest construction in New York and was hopefully going to offer some breath-taking views.
After multiple security checks, I finally reached the top – only to be told that, due to adverse weather conditions, no-one was allowed to the open-air viewing platform. Wondering which “weather conditions” could cause such drastic measures, I glanced outside. The blackened skies all over New York were shivering in uncontrolled thunderstorm, criss-crossed with dramatic lightnings. Intensely scarlet sunset was fighting its way through an opened patch in the clouds. The end of the world never looked so near!
As scary as it looked at first, the apocalyptic scenery soon yielded to a more subsided rain and eventually cleared up. We were allowed to walk out. I spent over an hour at New York’s highest point, listening to love confessions of a teenage couple who had only met that night and were promising each other to stay “together always”, watching a Jewish father catching his youngest son’s kipa, blown away furiously by the wind, convincing a security guard that I wasn’t actually hitting on him (he wasn’t even my type; what gave him THAT idea?!) – and taking endless pictures of the bustling city. Finally I understood what U2 meant in their 1988 “Angel of Harlem”: ‘New York like a Christmas tree, tonight this city belongs to me…’ New York was at my feet, shining, blinking, breathing – with a myriad of multicolour lights. A Christmas tree – I haven’t heard a better comparison to date! View from the Empire State Building
Off to Washington, DC
Inspired by the same U2 song, I started the next day with a walk via Central Park and Columbia University to the famous Harlem – New York’s utmost Afro-American residential and cultural area. I was too much of a chicken to venture out too deep, but spent a good hour around East 125th St. Overall, Harlem left a positive impression. The place must have gone a long way since being a hotspot of crime as recently as in the 1980s (Bill Clinton even has an office in Harlem these days). In the streets, people were generally talkative and easy-going; very few objected to being photographed. I was particularly impressed by the number of hair – yes, hair, not hair-dresser – shops everywhere, selling anything from hair care materials to wigs. As famously described by comedian Chris Rock, hair is rather an obsession among Afro-Americans, who spend hundreds of dollars trying to make theirs straighter and silkier. All smiles in HarlemHaving left Harlem, I headed straight to New York’s Penn Station to take a train to Washington, DC. Rail travel in the US is not as popular as in Europe – but I could not miss an opportunity to take a train on the other side of the Atlantic. While I had paid around USD 50 for a ticket from NY to DC (a Chinese bus would apparently get me there for less than half of that), the price for a 340 km rail journey was still acceptable by European standards.
Penn Station turned out the direct opposite of Grand Central Station I had visited two days before – more of a rundown labyrinth of platform exits with ceilings hanging closely overhead, and massively overcrowded at that. I fled to meet a friend outside the nearby Madison Square Garden, and returned briskly to jump straight on the Amtrak train. The latter looked well kept and pleasantly old-fashioned. The 3.5 hour journey went by in a flash, and there I finally was – back in Washington, DC, after six long years! It was worth waiting for.
I headed to Bethesda to join my kind hosts, Sarah and Fred, for dinner. As much as I had wished to start exploring the forgotten streets of DC right away, I had absolutely no strength left even to think. Fifteen hours of uninterrupted walking in NY the day before were partly to blame, too. I shamelessly went to bed at 9pm, aiming for an early rise the following morning – and numerous rendezvous with friends duly scheduled throughout the day.
A reunion day in DC
Up at 6am, I set off for central DC. The city’s contrast with NY was nothing short of striking. Unlike NY’s subway, the DC’s metro was spacious, with even a kind of carpet covering the train floors. The automated door-closing message was amazingly polite (“Please step back, door’s closing”, followed by “Please step back to allow the doors to close”). Besides, unlike NY’s subway on weekends, DC’s metro was just empty, period. I felt like being in the countryside, not in the US capital – and could barely believe DC seemed so rushed and fast-paced to me – a green East European teenager – six years ago.
I first spent a few hours exploring DC’s federal sights. From the Capitol to Lincoln Memorial, from Georgetown to White House – everything seemed familiar and new at the same time. I walked over to Georgetown University’s Village A, where, six years ago, I used to wake up, go to work and type my essays during the nights. A lot has changed since. I had greatly missed DC. The Capitol Washington Monument Lincoln Memorial I spent the rest of the day running from one coffee to another. It was difficult to believe that so many people from diametrical parts of my life somehow ended up in the same city! Many thanks to everyone who had time to meet me – with an extra thanks to those who kept me up to date with the Eurovision results. It was the first year I had missed the Song Contest in about 15 (read a related blog story here), but, God knows, I watched it in spirit. My absolute favourites of the night, Denmark, did not win (Germany did), but were inarguably the best and landed in the top 5. Accomplished, I called it a day. Goodnight, DC!
Final days in the US
After catching up with more friends at Union Station before my train, I had left DC (the full Flickr photoset for DC can be viewed here). New York welcomed me with the familiar rush of an oversized city; even more so courtesy of the long weekend. Pushing my luggage through a thickly packed subway, I was thinking about my friend Irina. Having badly fallen down the stairs in Central Park and hurt her foot, she had been staying at home motionless for a couple of days. I helped her to limp slowly to the nearest Starbucks. Irina did not have private insurance and was terrified by the cost of a medical examination. I initially found it odd – until the US medical care system was popularly explained to me. Apparently, most US residents have some sort of private insurance and are not willing to contribute to an all-inclusive public healthcare system. To add to this, most doctors have a frantic fear of being sued for this or that misdeed and barricade themselves with all kinds of insurance from all sides. All of the above makes medical services close to unaffordable for the general population. Needless to say that, after spending almost three years in the Nordic countries – famous for impeccable public healthcare – I struggled to understand the US system. I think no-one really does, anyway.
At that point, I was getting homesick for London and wished I could finally sleep in my own bed. I began noticing the less glamorous bits of New York, too. Take the rubbish in the streets. No, not necessarily scattered around, but neatly packed in massive American-style plastic bags and piled up on the pavement. Maria had told me before that special trucks would go around collecting those during the night. It must be difficult running a massive city New York is, with all its 20 million residents. Mr. Bloomberg clearly has an uneasy task on his hands.
Or take the other bits I noticed. A warning “Rat Poison” sign a few steps from the City Hall. Street drainage pipes opening onto subway rails – the humid smell seemed to be an inalienable park of New York’s underground network. Beggars hopping on and off the subway and telling the same compassion inducing stories. I was secretly ready to make a home run for London but had another day to spare in the craziest – and the most amazing – city on my memory.
It was lucky I had this extra time. After a one-hour boat tour of the harbour, where I had taken some shots of the city’s skyline and the Statue of Liberty, I positioned myself on Brooklyn Bridge in the hope of a scenic sunset. My hopes could not have been better fulfilled! The sunset was among the best I had ever photographed, and I would wholeheartedly recommend the location to other aspiring urban photographers. The Statue of Liberty New York’s skyline from the West Sunset from Brooklyn Bridge
Goodbye, the US!
Off I went to the airport. As promised, I had taken the subway– which ended up being a combination of three trains (4, L and A) and an airport shuttle, altogether taking just over 1.5 hours. The Broadway Junction station will always stay in my mind – I must have been the only white person there. After sitting helplessly on a delayed plane for two hours, I departed for London. The full Flickr photoset for New York can be found here.
What I find surprising is being seen as a globe-trotter by friends. A globe-trotter whose last long-haul flight before New York was in April 2007! It had only recently struck me that my world discovery had been far too focused on Europe in general – and certain European areas in particular. For example, I have covered Greece in fine detail and visited a number of unintuitive destinations in former Yugoslavia with rather irrational frequency. Having lived in Sweden and Finland, I have also frequented certain Nordic locations. Given the size of the rest of the world, there is clearly a lot for me to work on. From now on, I will put more focus on long-haul flights and faraway destinations.
Here’s to the next one! Stay tuned.