New York 1997. Part 3.


When we are young children our earliest, hazy notions of geography may lead us to associate iconic sights, sites and buildings with countries around the world, perhaps through a child’s atlas or one of those pictorial, world jigsaws. For me, it was kangaroos and Australia, polar bears and the Arctic and The Empire State Building in America; because for so long, throughout my childhood it remained the tallest building in the world.

When we woke on Empire State visiting day I peered out of the window blinds to see bright sunlight, the previous day’s fog and rain entirely dissipated. My suggestion to find breakfast somewhere around Central Park was futile on this Monday, which, it transpired was a state holiday, hence the quiet streets and shuttered diners. The park was busy with runners, cyclists and roller-bladers, their serious intent written clearly in their expressions. Exercise must not be for fun! We trekked back West towards our hotel area to find breakfast and Husband, who was persuaded into sampling pancakes and maple syrup, declared he was not a convert to this American staple. My disgraceful consumption of French toast + maple syrup + butter, however was delicious.

As there were several hours to fill before our ticket time we walked again-to ‘Columbus Circle’, Carnegie Hall and on to Trump Tower, the exterior of which is clad in gold up to the first floor. Inside the atrium an extravagant decor of amber marble and gold. In the basement, where we got coffee, one wall ran with water. ‘You’d think’ I remarked to Husband, ‘ that with all his money Donald would have ensured he didn’t get all this condensation’. Husband agreed. ‘Obviously the roof leaks’ he replied. To a minimalist such as myself the entire building is an excrescence-but each to their own, as they say.

It was a long walk to the Chrysler Building, a beautiful monument to Art Deco dressed in a cone of silver semicircles, the RCA building [radio and TV], the Grand Central Terminal and, at last, The Empire State Building. We could skip the queue for tickets but smugness was short-lived as we joined the elevator queue, though it moved swiftly. We chatted to the jovial Egyptians ahead of us. ‘I am from Luxor!’ announced one, rotund gent earnestly, ‘it is my town!’

‘Beautiful!’ I told him, ‘Beautiful place!’

‘Did you go to Aswan?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I loved it there. I love hot places!’

We reached the lift and piled in for a rapid ascent, quickly up to 80 floors, where there was a viewing chamber, enclosed and still queuing, walking round in a pen. I was worried that this was it, but Husband assured me there must be more. On upwards and suddenly out into an observation area. Stunning! We strolled around-and around, taking shots, looking and looking. In the gift shop I succumbed to Empire State earrings, an item of jewellery subsequently seldom worn that is now lost.

When I peruse the photos of that day, of the crowded observation platform, the excited photographers, gift shop browsers, the views of Manhattan stretching below in all its geometric familiarity, one overwhelming feature cannot be ignored. There is the iconic view, the skyscrapers, the famous landmarks and there among it all, the dark, twin rectangles of The World Trade Centre, jutting up into the blue sky and dominating the skyline because then, for that short time, these were the tallest buildings. And in our innocence of what was to come we marvelled at them.

Washington Square was alive with street entertainers. Three, small black children were playing chamber music, a group of tumblers, glossy and muscular, a scrappy acoustic band of ageing hippies, crowds gathered to watch, to play, to exercise or relax. On to Little Italy, to Sotto and Chinatown and then to the finance houses and courthouses, until Brooklyn Bridge was upon us, dwarfed by the twin towers but no less breath-taking with the sun beginning to set behind it. We had just enough energy to walk across and back, then sank into seats in an Irish bar, the barman happy to converse.

As the skyscrapers became silhouettes we went to the World Trade Centre, eager to ascend the tower at dusk, for a night view of the city. There were few waiting for tickets or the lift, in which the ascent was lightning fast and my ears popped and popped. 107 floors.

The night view from the top of the World Trade Centre surpassed anything we’d seen thus far, rendering us speechless. In my journal there is a faded, pink post-it note of our plans for that day. On the same page I’ve written this passage:

‘They were somewhat speechless; higher than all the other skyscrapers, up amongst the aeroplanes. The road below illuminated like electrical wires, jewelled with sparkling lights. You could sit against the windows on a metal bench and feel that you were hanging over, a dizzying experience.’

The last page of the chapter bears this John Donne quote:

‘When I am gone dream me some happiness; Nor let thy looks our long-hid love confess; Nor praise, nor dispraise me, bless, or curse Openly love’s force;



New York 1997. Part 2.

So-New York then; sans car but with enthusiasm and itchy feet.

We walked, we got a sumptuous breakfast in a swanky diner. We took the subway to Penn Station. With no way to drive to Niagara we’d decided to try the train. How hard could it be? After managing, with some difficulty to decipher the timetable, we bought two tickets to Buffalo, from where [in our ignorance] we assumed we’d be able to access the falls. The tickets were for Tuesday morning, leaving us some city exploration in the meantime.

We left the station and went to the pier to get a Circle Line ferry trip around Manhattan Island with tour guide narration, an informative but foggy voyage marred by rain, the sights described mostly obscured by thick mist. The tall skyscrapers of the skyline had their heads in the clouds. Nevertheless the famous landmarks of New York duly appeared-The Empire State Building, The World Trade Centre, The Statue of Liberty, all misty but thrillingly real. We passed the apartments of the rich and famous, learning of outrageous property prices and chugged under the Brooklyn Bridge. A chilly wind sprang up. We sipped hot coffee and leant on the cylindrical outer cover of the engine for warmth. On board we encountered a Welsh rugby team, while the English wife of a businessman confided that she would probably go and see a Broadway matinee that afternoon to escape the weather.

The rain continued as we disembarked and walked towards Theatreland and Times Square then on to Macy’s. It is unthinkable to visit New York without ascending the Empire State Building but with ‘zero visibility’ we were told to buy the tickets and return next day when the weather just might have cleared up.

When we got to Greenwich Village the towering skyscrapers gave way to brownstone terraces decorated with iron fire escapes. By this time my jacket, supposedly impermeable had allowed the layers underneath to become soaked. We found a bar and had beers, punch-drunk from the bombardment of experiences. We had walked for hours. Revived a little by the Greenwich Brewery ales we headed off to find a subway, going via Christopher Street and discovering a whole shopping area of gay shops, sure enough crossed by ‘Gay Street’. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to peruse the wares and we browsed a couple of stores, innocent displays of ‘sportswear’ in the window and increasingly outrageous as we moved through the shop. We exited, passing one or two intense young men and a somewhat older man sporting a luxuriant wig. At last we located the subway and sank down gratefully to be conveyed all the way back to Westside Studios.

We returned to Times Square for the evening and to find somewhere to eat. Times Square is a magnificent overstatement in neon, surpassing all but Las Vegas in trashy vulgarity and is completely wonderful. The Chinese restaurant we selected must serve nice meals, we imagined, because a number of Chinese were eating there. On requesting beer we were firmly shown the teapot on the table. Our selection of three or four dishes to share was rejected by the waiter. ‘You very hungry?’ he asked. ‘Three is enough!’ This provoked much hilarity, as never before had either of us been told we’d ordered too much food in a restaurant-and of course, New York, like the rest of America enables the diner to bag up uneaten meal portions, ‘to go’.

We dragged ourselves back to the hotel. Tomorrow was the Empire State day…

New York 1997. Part 1.

In these times where travel is reduced to pedestrian or armchair varieties, Anecdotage posts will not be related to current travel or even to travel plans, as who knows when or where the next journey will be?

But all is not lost, reader, because travel for this writer began long before blogging. And along the way, hand-written travel journals began to accompany the journeys, so it is to these journals that I am turning for inspiration, with a little modern history included.

To provide some back story, this first set of posts concerns a 1997 trip to New York, taken very early in Husband and my relationship-five months in, in fact. That the idea had hatched during one of Husband’s previous dalliances might have been off-putting was something I set on to the back burner, the exciting thought of a visit to such an iconic city proving a more powerful pull than retrospective peevishness.

We began by booking a ‘Flydrive’, meaning to augment the week’s visit by a drive up to Niagara Falls via Boston-a cunning plan, as we thought. In many ways this only serves to demonstrate that detailed planning of trips does not always lead to holiday perfection…

We packed, we grabbed our tickets, we took advantage of a friend’s offer of a lift to Heathrow airport, then we were underway, a brilliant flight taking us in an arc over Canada and offering some spectacular views below. This is something I’ve continued to love about flying, the fascinating bird’s eye landscapes, but while I indulge in this pastime on flights, Husband will always have taken the opportunity to sleep, arriving refreshed and ready for anything, while I will be wiped out and needing an immediate snooze.

Arriving to JFK and getting through we duly found our way to the car hire depot to pick up our vehicle. There it was that we discovered neither of us had thought to bring a driving licence. It was a poignant, wince-making moment. ‘Could my friend fax it through?’ I asked the po-faced staff member, and ‘NO’ was the reply.

Without our own wheels we took a cab into the city and to the room we’d booked at ‘West Side Studios’. The cab cost a hefty slice of our holiday budget, the driver was taciturn and spoke minimal English. Had we been armed with more research we’d have known that the airport is served by a subway straight into the city.

It was late evening and dark by the time we reached the north Manhattan block but having deposited the luggage we gamely struck out into the locale and found a jazz bar where a competent trio were playing live. By this time I was struggling to stay awake and Husband was up for a late evening at the bar. And, remember, we’d not long been an item. There is nothing like travel for discovering compromise.

In the morning we set out to explore Manhattan, using the subway and our feet. My initial misgivings of riding the subway were quickly dispelled. It was safe, clean and easy to use. We were only a few stops from Penn Station so everywhere was accessible. We walked the streets, marvelling at the perpendicular nature of the city and craning our necks.

We’d been recommended a ‘Circle Line’ tour on a ferry that circled Manhattan; a good way to start, except that New York was shrouded in thick fog. It was, nevertheless atmospheric and informative, though cold and damp. We stood by the funnel to catch its warmth.

Meanwhile, as we walked, subwayed and ferried our way around we pondered on one knotty problem. How would we get to visit Boston and Niagara now, without a vehicle?

The Measure. How tourist friendly is your country?

                It must be gratifying to be of a nationalistic disposition. It must be delightful to have your heart swell with pride at the sound of your national anthem or well up when your national team wins a championship. As far as anthems go, the UK would not win any prizes. It is the dreariest dirge ever to be suffered at a sports event. For me, the Welsh would have to take the prize for the most rousing, melodic and enjoyable national anthem, with ‘Land of my Fathers’. Whenever it is performed the crowd, spectators etc join in with stirring gusto like a wall of harmonic sound-most uplifting. But-I am not Welsh, and neither do I possess feelings of nationalism. Of course I am always pleased when England wins something, but I don’t feel moved to hoist a flag over the house roof or paint a red cross on to my face. But the UK has much to offer overseas visitors, such as sites of historical interest, traditional seaside and coastal walks.

                Countries vary hugely in terms of ease of travel and facilities offered to visitors. Take tourist information offices, services that can be a boon for sightseers and essential for map-mad folks like Husband; the bureau may be closed, or it may be manned by a bored, disinterested, diffident moron, or it may be an Aladdin’s Den of brochures, local goods and displays and be staffed by an enthusiastic, helpful local expert who is prepared to engage in conversation, explain how, where and why and provide all the relevant paperwork, like the tourist office we recently visited in Aberaeron, mid Wales.

                One basic yardstick you could use to measure the visitor-friendliness of a place is by its provision of public lavatory facilities. I would rank Wales’ profusion of these services alongside its national anthem. They are everywhere. Aberporth, a tiny cove whose tourist site boasts the post office among its must-sees has two toilet blocks within 200 yards of each other!

                Among other countries, New Zealand caters very well in respect of this basic requisite, as does France, which has improved over the years in that when I first set foot on Gallic shores the only places provided for peeing were men’s urinals on the street-small screens shielding the mid portion, the head and feet visible above and below. Who knows what women were supposed to do if nature called? Perhaps females were deemed to be unearthly beings who were not possessed of such an indecorous need.

Spain falls far back in the rankings. In Madrid last year I fell back on the only option of a workmen’s portacabin when desperation overwhelmed me, relying on Husband to lean heavily on the door whilst I negotiated the hole in the floor that southern Europeans often favour over the comforts of a seat. Other than this the choice would be to visit a museum or a gallery or to purchase a drink in a café, with the inevitable result in needing to pee ever more frequently.

Munich is similarly deprived of public loos, with the exception of the park, where we had to insert lots of euros into a slot but were serenaded by piped piano music once we’d breached the portals-a kind of tinkle while you sprinkle.

Manhattan may have improved, although when we visited about sixteen years ago there was a woeful lack of street bathrooms, necessitating, when desperate, a late night, post beer pee into a darkened doorway, [shielded by Husband], for which I apologise in retrospect. But what is a girl to do? [Answers on a postcard please].