New York vignettes (translation: disjointed ramblings)

Need motivation? Find a view.
It’s two degrees celsius and I’m two-thirds of the way through a 45 minute run, still feeling the bite of cold in my quads as I tackle the final incline of the Williamsburg Bridge towards home base. The word ‘vomit’ jumps out from the other graffiti tags littering the concrete path and urges me to dig deep. I’m hurting, and hoping like hell there’s truth to the notion of perceived exertion as I try to fire up against the cold for one last effort, convinced I’m barely out of a trot. I reach the top of the bridge, and the view is an instant painkiller.
I’ve had a few views to keep me motivated lately, from the New York skyline at the end of the street, to sprawling Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory (tough hill climb!) and the Getty Centre, to quaint Pismo Beach and sassy Santa Monica.
Please, take a moment, and a breath, as you scroll. And then go and hire Top Gun on DVD. Go on, you know you want to!
IMG_2358
Image
P1030356Image
Image
Image
IMG_0799
IMG_0821
Image
Breaking even
Con: Arriving at Heathrow airport check-in to learn that the hurricane-forced cancellation of the first leg of my ticket deemed the return leg from London to New York void.
Pro: Helpful airport staff willing to work with me on this.
Pro: Arriving in New York as planned.
Con: Three-hour wait in line at US Immigration. No, seriously: am I on Candid Camera?
Hours one, two and three documented here. Indulge me, please.
ImageImage
Image
Pro: Luggage still on carousel when I emerge from Immigration.
Pro/Con: Cab drivers are generally risk-takers. We all know that. We’ve all been in situations where we’d like the driver to perhaps slow down a little as the cab approaches stopped traffic, or perhaps weave a little less on a congested roadway. But I have never – ever – feared for my safety the way I feared for it the night I thought I’d be clever and skip the taxi cue at JFK. I’d just spent three hours in line at Immigration and had to get to my accommodation to pick up the keys from the regular tenant before she caught her own flight out of town. Lining up again at the cab rank just wasn’t an option. I needed a ride, and fast. I guess in retrospect, the question I ought to have posed was: am I willing to die for it? I was about to experience ‘dodgy’ at a whole new level (and I’ve had a random dude jump in the back of my car in Soweto, South Africa).
Overpriced fare: check. (Taxi becomes shuttle becomes overloaded shuttle that takes a long freaking time to get me anywhere, despite the speed… and the driver has the nerve to haggle over price!). Unroadworthy vehicle: check. Overfilled boot: check. It wasn’t so much the suitcases stuffed to ceiling height that gave this away, but the road noise I observed mid-trip when I turned around to see occy straps holding said-luggage inside the vehicle and a gaping space where the boot wouldn’t close. Insane driver: certified. This guy’s ‘do not stop, under any circumstances’ policy meant we ducked and weaved our way through heavy highway traffic utilising whatever means possible – be that driving up the road shoulder, or edging in front of ginormous SUVs at high speed, gloating all the way, of course. “Not everyone can do this … you must be African!” (Based my experiences including aforementioned Soweto incident, he’s got a point).
Just in case you think I’m being paranoid, let me advise you that this guy refuelled the car at the gas station with the motor running … while talking on his mobile. I shared a few nervous, eye-rolling glances with the gentle giant sitting next to me in the back seat, seriously thinking he may be the last person I see in this life. Perhaps I have the Jamaican lady in the front seat and her frequent exclamations of “Lord, have mercy” to thank for me being here today. Whatever it was, something or someone had mercy on me that night.
Pro: Arriving alive.
And pro-plus: Coming ‘home’ to my Williamsburg apartment wiped the slate clean. We shall not slum it!
Image
Con: It seemed like the perfect pad until the next day when the toilet overflowed. Lord, have mercy! Have I done something bad in a former life? Are you testing me with these seemingly trivial yet incessantly annoying travel adventures?
Pro: Have become familiar with toilet mechanics and handy with a plunger.
Pro: Have worked out what a boiler is for and have a rudimentary understanding of which fuses need tripping to activate hot water.
Who says you can’t polish a turd?
You know you’ve landed in Hipsterville when you pass a guy going for a jog wearing a stussy hat. And you know it’s cold when you’re about to leave the house looking literally like a giant crap, but you don’t care enough to change.
I’d accepted the fact that I would need a puffy jacket to face the approaching New York winter, but in my efforts to avoid black, I opted for a rich brown, three-quarter length number. Filled with down and a cushiony collar to keep my neck snug, it was as stylish as necessity would allow, and perfect for achieving the predominant ‘not trying’ vibe of my Williamsburg neighbourhood. I was actually rather chuffed with it … until the mercury dropped enough for me to christen it and a quick mirror check didn’t so much hint at recognition as slap me in the face with three words: “Heidy ho, neighbour!” I was Mr Hanky, no question (and just in time for Christmas!). I stepped trepidatiously onto the street wearing my turd-coloured sleeping bag, convinced that everyone who looked my way was about to ask where I’d left my Christmas hat. I consoled myself with the thought that if you’re going to look like a poo in public, you may as well be a toasty warm one. I had no choice but to own it.
Image
Subway: As easy as A, B, G
“Got it … thanks a lot,” I lied to the helpful Metro staff officer whose instructions I couldn’t even begin to comprehend. New York subway workers have a language of their own, and this guy’s heavy speech impediment wasn’t making matters any easier. But I’d already had a few transit women get snippy with me when I couldn’t obey their instructions and had to revert to following their exasperated finger pointing like I was some sort of village idiot, so I was determined to crack this. Goddammit, if I could get through Paris and Barcelona on a handful of mispronounced words, I could fight my way out of a few redirected services in Brooklyn! I pieced together elements of the man’s directions and eventually figured out that all he was trying to tell me was: “Take the G to Hoyt Schermerhorn, then take the Blue to Jay Street. From there, take the R to Atlantic, then the the 2 or 3 to Grand Army Plaza.” So simple … and yet it all seemed disproportionally complicated for navigating an area the size of a postage stamp on my  pocket map.
The New York subway is a fantastic, finely-tuned labyrinth until you need to be somewhere on time. Hats off to those who co-ordinate it, even though sometimes ‘express’ means making every stop, and there is a tendency for updates to services – usually a cancellation – not to be made until you’re on the train and then forced to depart at the next stop and sort yourself out.
As the sun disappeared and a frosty breeze whipped up outside, I kissed the Prospect Park greenmarkets goodbye (later I would miss a swing dancing class and several shopping excursions due to what was becoming a habit) and tried to look on the bright side. What had I learnt today? Don’t trust anyone or anything. Don’t get your hopes up. Leave more time. Leave more time! A friend back home advised me to avoid the ‘G’ train, which is colloquially referred to as the Ghost train because of its unreliability. And now I had firsthand experience of why. I purged myself of the negative feelings and focussed on getting to the Brooklyn Museum. If I was going to make it to church on Sunday (a day usually reserved for sleeping in), I would have to be super-organised.
Sunday best
In an effort to encourage the Lord to have mercy (but really, to get some heavenly gospel in my eardrums), my friend Nicole and I donned our Sunday best and headed for Brooklyn Tabernacle, a huge church that overflows each week with regular worshippers and the odd impostor or two hoping to get clap happy with the Grammy Award-winning choir.
I tried my best to fit in by belting out a few tunes along with the rather talented assembly, but it’s not easy when the screen showing the words to all the songs is half covered, and consequently you can only praise the Lord for half of the service. I had a brief moment where I considered accepting Christ into my life, but that was more through guilt implored by the pastor than anything else. “We’re not here to spectate!” he insisted (yes, we were), before expressing his disappointment in having people in the church who attended in body but did “not have Christ in you” (which to my mind, sounded slightly inappropriate). Hopefully my generous donation at collection time went some way to assuaging this disappointment. Is this how Catholic people feel all the time?
Crack that lobster

Travelling alone has its advantages, often relating to food, as it generally allows you to walk straight into a seat at even the most popular restaurants. Besides, unless it’s absolutely necessary (Immigration, for example), I have better things to do with my time than stand in line. I walked straight into a bar seat at Prune, a sublime cafe a few doors down from me when I stayed in the East Village, and didn’t have to contemplate the notorious queues at Egg, a renowned brunch establishment in Williamsburg, which despite not having an espresso machine (they serve French press), offers its breakfast menu until 6pm.

Travelling alone also means you can enjoy lobster with your dignity intact, as no-one of consequence witnesses you make an utter mess of yourself. To be fair, eating shellfish is universally acknowledged as one of those activities where manners go out the window. I usually try to find someone else to peel my prawns or remove the flesh from my Moreton Bay bug, but sometimes you’re forced to go it alone. Much like spectating at a football match, enjoying a seafood platter more or less requires you to leave decency at the door and resort to your base cave-man – or woman – state. It’s not uncommon on any given day to walk past the window of The Lobster Place in the upscale Chelsea Market and witness what could only be described as an eye-rolling, grunting lobster orgy as customers enjoy their no-frills pick-and-eat deal. I first walked past on a visit to the market with a vegetarian friend and felt that immediate wave of recognition for my own kind, vowing to later return and eat my fill.
So, here I was, elbow deep in melted butter and tabasco-covered lobster that I had hand-selected, thankful not only for the flavour explosion, but equally for not having to be polite in front of company. There really was shit going everywhere as the poor little crustacean got pulled apart. Flecks of meat sprayed the window separating me from the women at the outdoor table opposite enjoying their shell-free crab rolls as I pulled at the creature’s joints to access its sweet flesh. It flicked into the knitted holes of my cardigan, and lodged in the hair of the demure Japanese lady sitting beside me (I don’t think she noticed … and anyway, anyone who can look so tidy and feminine while eating a sizeable crustacean the way she did could do with a shellfish perm.)
Sometimes, seafood really is a metaphor for life, I contemplated as I wiped my hands with a refreshing towelette. Sometimes, a woman just has to crack her own lobster.
Image

Rome-ing

Where I come from, the real estate at the end of the street is reserved for pokey shops stocking bottles of milk and loaves of bread. I will never get over ducking to the corner of the street in Rome, for a bottle of inspiration or a loaf of awesome:
Meet you outside gate 52?
Though I had to laugh when I passed the Rome Museum en route to the Pantheon. What do you put in a museum in a city built on ancient ruins? I briefly contemplated the museum, but decided my limited time was best spent soaking in the surrounds outside.
FEATS, eats and observations
1. Ability to eat plenty and often (I had an all-American Thanksgiving feast to prepare for in a few weeks’ time). A no-frills slice of fresh tomato, chilli and spinach pizza, found in a street behind the  Campo ‘de Fiori open-air markets, and eaten in the sunshine, was just what my body was crying out for. Followed by a walk along the river and a stop-off at Tiberina Island for biscotti and pistachio gelato: perfection.
2. An entire day without going to the loo. That’s a mighty feat when you’re filling up on sparking mineral water and surrounded by the persistent tinkling of fountains at every turn. Considering the number of water-spouting monuments in this town, there is a seriously short supply of public toilets. Not to mention, I’m the sort of person who does a ‘preventative wee’ before going into the cinema, just to make sure I don’t have to dash out during the movie. An entire day (sporting a limp, no less)? Medal-worthy.
3. Maybe I’ve been on the end of a few too many expletives from the mouths of disgruntled footy supporters, but sometimes it’s just nice to be appreciated by a random chap, however un-PC it may seem. A friendly ‘Love’ or ‘Darlin’ (‘Sweetie’ if you’re in America), can go so far as to make your day, particularly if it’s been a shit one. In Europe, it’s no secret that they raise the bar a few notches in the self-expression department.
So I tried to view Pablo, from Barcelona, as earnest and romantic rather than creepy when he chased me into the streets of El Born from the train station exclaiming, “I saw you and I had to know you.” The beauty of not speaking the same language means things come out sounding disarmingly honest, sans the padding of etiquette existing within a common culture. Back home, Pablo would have been some jerk at a lame bar, the offer to get to know each other in the 20 hours I had left in the country coming across as dirty and desperate. Yet our interaction, although strange, was kind of heartwarming. I still went (politely) in the opposite direction after thanking Pablo for his honesty and wishing him well, all the while tightly holding my wallet inside my jacket, unconvinced the experience wasn’t a ruse to pick my pocket.
I thought of Pablo a few days later in Rome, when, as I limped my troublesome foot over cobblestones toward the banks of the Tiber in search of gelato, I was approached by a suited-up man wanting to buy me coffee after the meeting he was dashing off to. Perhaps it was the ‘lame duck’ vibe my bruised foot was capturing, and he was the rescuing type. I guarantee it wasn’t my daggy tourist dress sense. I guess the fact that I was too concerned people would think we were father/daughter to accept his invitation means we will never know.
Alas, one particular fellow did make an impression. A bit wooden, not sure I trusted him …
4. I suppose the men have always been quite amorous in these parts. I was initially appalled on learning that the worst seats in the Colosseum – the ones behind the slaves and prisoners – were reserved for, you guessed it,  the women (see below fuzzy text of tour guide booklet). But apparently it was for their own good, to protect them from tempting the men. Right. The ‘raw meat’ argument. Been around a while.
NO WAY! Space Invader shows me the path to enlightenment and brilliant views.

Gut instinct

BARCELONA AIRPORT: I’m sitting next to a rather obese but cute and curious young Italian boy as we wait for strike action at our destination to end and we can take off for Rome. A perfect time, then, to share my first experiences of Barcelona, a city that lived up to all my expectations.

Warning: Vegetarians may find some content disturbing.

I saw my first nude dude within half an hour of venturing from the hotel upon arriving in Barcelona. I’d decided on a run along the beach to find my bearings and get the heart pumping… though it would have had more of that effect if he’d been a little younger and hotter. Ah well, it was certainly interesting to see someone secure enough in their body to go completely buff at an inner city location, and even more interesting that no-one batted an eyelid. I guess they do things differently around here.
Now that I have your attention …
From nude to food.
I’ve eaten a meal so satisfying I feel compelled to write about it. A steak so good it almost hurt – you know, the kind that is so sumptuously tasty you can’t help but verbalise with every mouthful?
I wanted my first meal in Barcelona to be memorable for all the right reasons, rather than the disappointment food can often be when you’re in a strange city trying to identify the true gems from the tourist traps. My gut told me to steer clear of the La Rambla strip, geared towards visitors, and try one of the laneway restaurants in the theatre district surrounding my hotel. I found some glowing online reviews of a hole in the wall called Can Lluis, which was only a 10 minute walk away, albeit through the colourful and potentially seedy backstreets of El Ravel.
My ‘trust your gut’ moment paid off. If you’re into old school restaurants like I am, Can Lluis will be your sort of place. As soon as you enter, you’re greeted by a warm, cosy ambience, crisp white table linen, embroidered napkins and walls dotted with art and photos chronicling the famous performers who have dined there since as far back as 1929. Old Mate, dressed in a pressed white shirt and bow tie, shows you to a table and leaves you to ponder the menu before returning with complimentary olives and bread so fresh and plentiful they are a meal in themselves. The waiter is in his late 50s or early 60s and you get the sense this is the only job he’s ever known. He’s a true pro and it’s a pleasure watching him tend the tables, offering menu suggestions and sharing jokes with the regulars that filter in through the night. Between his broken English and my broken Spanish, we establish a friendly rapport and before too long we’re chatting about which region of Spain my glass of vino tinto is from. The house red is spicy and rounded, and I can’t believe when I later check the bill that it is barely more than two Australian dollars a glass. My salted cod entree marries beautifully with a delicate salad of lettuce, fennel, onion and fresh green olives, a welcome sight after living on croissants and baguettes for the past four days.
Feeling kind of full from the bread and entree, I sit back and enjoy the animated banter in Español at the surrounding tables, waiting for the arrival of the pièce de résistance – a medium-rare sirloin with traditionally Catalan Oporto sauce. It had been so long since my last meal with red meat that I couldn’t wait to wrap my lips around a succulent steak. Well … the Godzilla of all steaks landed before my eyes and instantly reminded me of the 800g monster I used to serve as a waitress at a local Brisbane pub. I decide early on that I would have to forego the veggies to even make a dent in it.
I had nothing to worry about. The meal was such a pleasure to eat, I polished it off with ease, and even had a crack at the tempura-like eggplant chips on the side.
So, I have to run and get on a plane. I realise not everyone is going to get as excited as I do about a good steak. But for the few of you who do – Dad, I know you understand – let me just say that this was one worth travelling to the other side of the world for.

Part two: English lessons (retrospective)

Part two: English lessons (retrospective)
How to make the most of a whirlwind tour of London:
*Umpire a game of Australian football at The Oval
*Visit Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral
*Sunday roast at The Champion in Notting Hill (recommended fare: pork shoulder followed by sticky toffee pudding; recommended attire: maternity)
*Whizz through Harrods to see what a $5000 jacket looks like
*Eat great Mexican
*Develop appreciation for well constructed ‘Old Fashioned’ cocktail
Image
Image
Image
Image
Image
Image
Image
Image
Image
Image
Image
Image
lesson in not giving up
And to think, all of the above almost didn’t happen. As I thanked my lucky stars to have made it to London, the city that never sleeps was blanketed in snow care-of yet another storm dubbed the ‘Nor’easter’, and 400,000 New Yorkers were still without power in the aftermath of Frankenstorm.
It was miraculous I even got out of New York for the AFL match in London, with all transit services out of action indefinitely and Toronto airport presenting my only viable option for getting to the UK and then on to Europe.
If I left New York by midnight, I could drive the 10 or so hours and still have plenty of time up my sleeve to make the flight. Simple! Accessing a rental car was another story. I worked through a list of companies, prefacing each phone inquiry with ‘I know it’s a long shot, but …’ to avoid being laughed at by the person on the end of the line. It seemed I was a step behind every other schmuck trying to escape the city. Flooded subway systems and road closures had put trains and buses out of action until further notice.
The cliched gamut of emotions in grieving for Europe surfaced as I trawled the internet for solutions (thank goodness for a friend who took me in and had access to electricity). Denial came first, as I tried Amtrak rail, Greyhound buses and a range of lesser-known tour companies on the off-chance of finding a lift. I considered ride share options through Craigslist, carefully scrutinising head shots of the drivers to weed out potential psychopaths. Hope emerged with each new lead, followed by despair as every door slammed in my face. There was short-lived acceptance followed by gratitude … after all, in the grand scheme of things, I was very lucky to have escaped the downtown district without having to endure the hardship that many New Yorkers were now experiencing. What will be, will be, I reminded myself. Alas, hope re-emerged with the news that buses were scheduled to start up again in the next few days – enough time to get me to Toronto – but no bookings were being accepted. It was first in, best dressed when the offices reopened in the morning. I had a day up my sleeve to secure a bus ticket and get to Canada, but the inevitable backlog of passengers with pre-purchased tickets whose services had been cancelled had me preparing to kiss London – and beyond that, my first trip to Paris, Barcelona and Rome – au revoir.
After a restless night’s sleep, I headed down to the NYC  Port Authority at 5am on Thursday morning and was pleased to secure a spot at the head of the line. But things looked grim as 6am rolled around, and then 7, with no sign of the promised Greyhound staff showing up to sell tickets. The ‘Happy Halloween’ sign hanging in the abandoned office beyond the corrugated security screen only fuelled my annoyance at being lied to the day before when I was told buses would be on the road by now. (Note to major organisations with the power to impact thousands during times of duress: honesty can provide useful information and generally be good for business. Duh.)
When policemen alerted the anxious queue that ticket offices were closed until 12, I steeled myself for the inevitable bladder strain I would endure over the next five hours when leaving the line to use the bathroom would be too great a sacrifice. News of the delay bonded strangers desperate to reach Philadelphia, Connecticut and Buffalo, who tried to stay upbeat in the face of growing dissatisfaction with the pathetic customer service they were receiving. Pacts were made that if the circulating whisper was true – that a ticket booth had opened upstairs – whoever got there first would mind a spot for the others.
When the announcement came, confirming the booth upstairs was indeed opening, allegiances were cut with the deftness of a guillotine and an Amazing Race-style sprint up the nearby stairs ensued. I had the advantage of not being weighed down by luggage, and in the end, after the expectation of a long, difficult wait in line for a large part of the day, getting a ticket turned out to be easy. By 8.30 I was dancing out of the station, excited by the prospect of a shower and breakfast before having to be back on deck for a 10am departure. By 9.30pm, I would be in Toronto.
Not even bus-related trauma from a 36-hour trip to Adelaide (wait, there’s more) could dampen my spirits. It was 15 years ago, but the smell of broken toilet still being used to full capacity and permeating confined cabin space via the air-conditioning still assaults my nostrils like it happened yesterday. The freezing midnight transfer in Griffith – normally a punishment for the damned – was a breath of fresh air on that journey. Ah, if I could live through that, 11 hours heading through upstate New York, rejoicing in the sounds of Moby’s Destroyed blaring through my headphones was nothing. In fact, for the first time all week, I felt relaxed.

Part une: French Lessons

1. The Australian part of my brain says ‘Life isn’t meant to be all Champagne and macarons’, but the French part (well, I do have Jersey Isle ancestry) insists ‘pourquoi diable ne pas?’ (‘Why the hell not?!’ – and don’t ask me to pronounce that).

Observing the smoking habits of Parisians has presented a contradiction that has cliches like ‘Everything in moderation’ and ‘French women don’t get fat’ floating around in my mind. The French may smoke like chimneys but gee, they know how to embrace the concept of living, and I’m convinced they’re better off for it. Actually, for a nation where 23 per cent of the population smokes regularly, life expectancy is rather healthy at 81+ years, on average just a few months less than in Australia, where only 15 per cent of the population maintains the nasty habit. Granted, there are many indicators that contribute to health, but after observing the streets of Paris for four days, I get the sense that maybe, just maybe, the upshot of taking time to smell the roses counters some of the bad stuff, like cigarettes. French lungs may not be in the best shape, but in terms of overall wellbeing, is someone who enjoys everything moderately, including a few ciggies, really worse off than someone who works themselves to death, suffering at the hands of a stressful job, for instance?

1(a). Case-in-point? French women don’t get fat because one, you can’t eat and smoke at the same time, and two, they probably just go for the baby macarons:
Image
2. When you get lost (and you will), just go with it. Between the distracting lure of croissants, crepes and delectable pastries on every corner, an incredible architectural backdrop and a distinct lack of street grid systems wrong-turns are part of the experience. Also, I have sneaking suspicion that French people maintain a secret code whereby tourists are to be ignored or sent in the opposite direction when seeking help. All part of the grander plan to avoid interacting – kind of like doing a bad job of the dishes so your mum won’t ask you to do it in future. But even wrong turns can be great. A slight deviation here and 20 minutes in the wrong direction there, can take you off the beaten track and lead to a far better experience than you otherwise would have had.
An accidental trip through the backstreets of Rue du Renne and Saint Germain Boulevard en route to the Musee d’Orsay led me to a tasty baguette and one of my favourite street artists, Space Invader, among other things …
Image
Image
Image
3. Years of playing sport sans injury counts for nothing when embarking non-stop walking, day after day. After exploring the Saint Germain precinct, Eiffel Tower, Louvre, large parts of the Latin Quarter and Notre Dam, climbing the steps of Sacre Coeur church in Montmartre, the Champs Elysees, Moulin Rouge, Luxembourg Gardens and Musee d’Orsay on foot, too proud to forego fashionable footwear (if you can’t be stylish in France…), I have sustained considerable bruising around my ankle and developed a limp that channels the spirit of the hunchback of Notre Dam.
3(a). Mini-bars can be helpful for assisting with RICE (Yes, there is also blood between my toes.. ew. Not looking so fashionable now.):
Image
4. Caveau de la Huchette. If you like jazz, swing dancing, or being cool, go there. That is all.
5. A good, clean joke: What did the Leaning Tower of Pisa say to Big Ben? ‘If you’ve got the time, I’ve got the inclination.’ – EasyJet in-flight magazine, Paris to Barcelona.
6. And what else? Getting all art nouveau in my handsome new scarf at the Musee d’Orsay, taking in a show at the Moulin Rouge, Obamarama…

Power out: a pictorial summary

Image

One day you’re eating Artichoke pizza …

Image

The next, downtown’s in darkness

Image

Silver lining: multicoloured footpaths

Image

… and falling gas prices

Image

Wind did this!

Image

Cupcakes and dumplings doing a fine trade

Image

Move to midtown isn’t all bad

Image

Though new roomie could moult a little less

Image

Happy Halloween to you, too, Greyhound buses! How about opening?

Image

5am line-up proves fruitful. Bye New York, hello Toronto

Image

Sightseeing in Toronto, Canada

ImageImage