I must admit, as much as I like the concept of living an uncomplicated life in “the country” someday, I absolutely loved New York City. And from this week-long encounter in The Big Apple, I’ve begun to let go of the notion that I’d thrive away from a big city. I am at heart, I believe, a city boy.
I was intending to write up a loose diary of sorts for my wife and my first visit to New York City over Christmas, but a) I can’t remember everything we did to the letter, I mean, I have some notes scribed from a less distant memory, but there were so many little places, nooks, experiences that defy a quick description on this blog, and b) it’d take donkey’s years. Instead, I’ll ramble about a selection of places, nooks, and experiences worth your time.
Working with our AirBnB hosts, we made our way from the JFK Airport via the subway to the Upper West Side (of Central Park). We were a little early to meet Doug, so we dropped into our first “little Italian” place for a coffee on the corner of W86th and Columbus. Good — but expensive1 — coffee, and a great experience after travelling many ours.
We met our host and were shown the apartment. Once we’d settled a little and unpacked a few things, we were off to experience New York. First stop, Central Park. Within the first few minutes it was obvious why it’s world famous. It’s enormous! 2 Despite it being winter-arily nippy and for the most part deciduous, it was breathtakingly beautiful. I can only imagine what it would be like to stroll through in spring, summer, or
autumn fall. Perhaps because it features in so many films I’ve seen over the years, Central Park feels so …New York. It’s hard no to quietly murmur out a rendition of Sinatra’s New York, New York. Which we of course did.
We wandered south through Central Park into the heart of the city where we spent the afternoon and evening visiting the famous Apple Store (awesome but crowded), FAO Schwartz (famous for this), the Rockerfeller Christmas Tree, and a free show at Radio City Music Hall. Say what?
Radio City Hall + The Rockettes
I don’t even like the theatre, and especially dislike musicals. Sue me. Anyway, while we were in the are, we decided to drop by and see what was going on at the venue. The Radio City Christmas Spectacular was what was going on (to my disappointment). Kelly wanted to find out the cost of tickets so we joined the end of the long line. After a long day’s pounding the pavement this is the last thing I wanted to do, and it probably showed.
As we got closer to the counter one of the ladies came out (yes, we were waiting in the line outside the building and around the corner) and asked who wanted to see the show. Seeing it as a fast track up to the counter to get ticketing info, we put our hands up and were promptly pulled inside. Just as Kelly began her questions, the lady gave us two passes, pushed us toward the theatre door, and said “spend you money on a nice dinner.” And just like that, we were seated and watching the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular! “At least my feet are getting some rest”, I told myself, heh.
Turns out it was pretty damn awesome. And I mean that in the true sense of the word. To add to our luck our seats we right in the centre of the audience. The show is very geometric and symmetrical, and centre seats made a huge difference to my perception of the show. From here, you could really see how perfectly the show is choreographed. Extremely impressive! Equally impressive were the effects neatly combining live stage props and digital background projections. The scene/song featuring a 2.5D bus ride through the city was very clever. To top it all off, there were real camels in the nativity ending. Camels!
All in all, I was blown away by this theatrical musical experience. Who’d’ve thunk?
We also bought tickets for Wicked (another musical). Now, I wouldn’t call myself a convert to the musical, but I really enjoyed this one as well. Not so much for the singing or acting (even though I found Chandra Lee Schwartz as Glinda (the good witch) hilariously well played — the best performance of the show by far), it was for the concept of the whole show: that backstory to the witches (and other characters) of Oz and how they became who they are in the classic film. Very clever writing.
I recommend seeing Wicked, even if you hate the theatre ;)
Lower East Side
We spent a few evenings in the Lower East Side, popping in and out of the the freezing street and boutique clothing stores, taking photos of the streets and apartment buildings, and drinking and people watching in St. Marks bar during half-price cocktail happy hour. The Lower East Side felt like the New York streets we’d come to know and love on the silver screen; a mix of old and new buildings (mostly old), Jewish bakeries, bars, shops, and cold, cold rain. I’d like to spend more time in the area next time, perhaps staying somewhere there, even if just to get some canolis and hope James Gandolfini comes in to that exact canoli store (as one handwritten sign proclaimed). I’d’ve got him to sign the shit out of our Wallpaper guide to New York. The Lower East Side is a good place to go if you like to walk around with your neck cranked back while admiring the architecture.
Before we’d even planned anything for New York, I had researched where to go for the best bagel, and the best pastrami on rye. If you’ve ever done this yourself you’d know a) this is an extremely heated debate that’s been going on for decades, and has been written about by brave journalists in many publications including the The New York Times, and b) there’s no “best” place. Well, the true answer is “it depends on how you ask”.
Our bagel was had at 72nd St Bagel (on our side of the city) and was just ok. I wasn’t all that impressed; I’ve eaten plenty of bagels in my time, zero of which were made in New York, and I’ve enjoyed all of them. 72nd St Bagel was actually great, but with the reputation placed on New York bagels I was expecting incredible. Life-changing even. In hindsight I can say my expectations were probably too high for something as rudimentary as a bagel, even one from New York. We enjoyed our brekkie, but we’d try another place next time we’re in town. Don’t know where — more research is needed.
Pastrami on rye
On the Upper East Side there is a place called Pastrami Queen. My research indicated this as being one of the places to go for your pastrami sandwich. So go we did. I won’t lie to you, I was getting more excited (and hungry) the closer we got, and because we were on a mission and hunting the place down, my expectations grew with each step.
My initial thought upon entering was “Where are hard-core New Yorker guys talking trash and cutting up mountains of meat?” The shop was small and somewhat bare, and staffed by foreigners! This was surprising at first, but after half a thought made sense. Why should NYC be immune to migrants from Asia and Africa?
We ordered our pastrami on rye dinner — to share — with a side of garlic fries :) When it arrived my previous concern for the hard-core New Yorkers disappeared completely as I stared at a sandwich consisting of 90% pastrami, 8% rye, and 2% pickle. It was pretty ‘New York’, and pretty tasty.
As with the bagel, I’d probably try a different deli which serves a mean pastrami on rye, but this time not because I wasn’t impressed, but because there are other ‘best’ pastrami on rye places in NYC. I’m already looking forward to the next visit.
We ate at several “little Italian places” during the week of our visit. Most were great; simple and rustic, with fantastic service. A particular favourite — if only for the proximity to where we were staying and somewhere we ended up a few times after a long day pounding the pavement — was Osteria Cotta. A semi-upscale, but warm and welcoming place, we had delicious meals and happy times sitting at the bar drinking a nightcap or two. Recommended.
Empire State Building
Incredible views of New York City, but a picture tell a thousand words:
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This is a must visit on a good weather day.
On a particularly beautiful day, we toured The Highline in the Meat Packing District. The Highline is a disused railway line which runs a story or two above the streets. Sitting and rotting for many years, it was destined to be pulled down. Some clever people had the idea to turn it into a walkway — a way in which to see the city from a unique angle. And it does just that. I definitely recommend this if the weather is good, and for us on this day, it was crisp, but clear.
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We tried to fit in a reasonable amount of time looking at art, which is probably one of the things you should do when in New York. It’s a weird feeling staring at actual artwork you’ve studied in art class from art books, but it shouldn’t be. You’re looking at an image of the same thing, just one is printed and the other is painted. They both ‘look’ the same essentially. Scale — or expected scale — might contribute to the weirdness, but for me, I didn’t feel the need to be in the artwork’s presence more than 10 seconds or so. There were more people having their photo taken in front the art than admiring it, and I was admiring these people and contemplating their motives. I guess you could say I left with a provoked mind, just not provoked about the right thing.
Matisse, Munch, Van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol.
Decent bragging rights at least.
We walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and into Brooklyn on Christmas eve. Kelly and I are lucky when it comes to Christmas; my family celebrates the eve, Kelly’s the actual day. We usually see both families over this period, and even when we were living in Malaysia we’d fly the eight hours home at the end of the year. Being in the US, however, things are different. Knowing we’d miss the family for 2012, we decided to pay a 10355 mile (16664 km) homage to the traditional Christmas eve dinner, and find a Polish restaurant in Brooklyn.
It just so happens there’s a “Little Poland” in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and we found our dinner in Łomżynianka.
The food was delicious and tasted of home (although my mum’s pierogi are better, of course). For a change, my expectations for the food were met! Which was the good news. The bad news was they were run completely off their feet that afternoon and we had to fend for ourselves for service and cutlery. From the conversations overheard with other customers, I felt for them; they were trying their best to keep on top of things but due to demand, especially for take out orders, they were outmatched. It’s a small family restaurant after all. I’d go back again, just not on Christmas eve. Actually, I probably would. I have to eat Polish cuisine somewhere…
Our experience in Brooklyn was pretty brief and I’d like to spend a bit more time there. We had a good hipster-to-the-max coffee at Blue Bottle Coffee. If you’ve ever seen Portlandia, you’ll know what going into this store feels like. A comment from Yelp:
Blue Bottle is such a parody on smugness that I want to barf a little in my mouth every time someone drags me there.
A little harsh perhaps — I got a good vibe from the people there, but our coffee did take several minutes to be made which was disappointing (those damn hand pours take a looooong time). As an aside, if you want to really feel uncomfortable when having a coffee I recommend Black Hole Coffee House in Houston. Pretty aptly named. If you cross Portlandia with the opening screen from Inland Empire, you’d get a feel for the place. But I digress…
Greenpoint is similar to the Lower East Side with boutique stores, restaurants, and cafés. Good to experience if you like putting birds on things, or looking at other crafty stuff. We were in hurry to get to the Polish restaurant so under-explored this area. Next time.
Oh man, if you like kosher delis — and I mean kosher not only in the true sense: conforming to the regulations of Jewish dietary law, but also in the colloquial: full on! — this is the place for you. It’s the supermarket deli section scaled up to supermarket size! Along with a whole bunch of ingredients to make a fancy ploughman’s dinner with, we bought a Zabar’s bag. Just ‘cos of how awesome it was. Zabar’s. Rad.
It snowed in New York City. Not beautiful, lush, fairytale snow, but snow nonetheless. This made me quite happy. My toes and fingers weren’t as happy as my mind :(
Natural History Museum
If you’re not a robot, that is to say if you’re a human being born into a world full of life in all it’s eclectic forms of animals and plants, go to the American Museum of Natural History. You will not be disappointed. Set aside at least three or four hours, or better yet, visit for a couple hours over several days. Really, really great. Take photos of bears!
Yes, I writing about it again because a) It’s that good, and b) we took a walk on Christmas day which was one of those ‘perfect moments’ you have only a coupe dozen times throughout your life.
Walking through Central Park this day was simplya way to get to my surprise Christmas present from Kelly. It was such a beautiful morning: the sky was clear, the air crisp, and the sun was out. There were more people than I expected in the park at that time given it was Christmas day. There was just a great peaceful vibe. We were enjoying it so much that we forewent my surprise Christmas gift3 in favour of the bigger surprise of such an awesome day in Central Park, New York!
There’s so much more I could write about: MoMA, China Town, Grand Central Station (and Michael Jordan’s steak and cocktail bar), Firebird, introducing New York to Frangelico and Lime (thank me later), Staten Island Ferry and the Statue of Liberty, the day I replaced my Crumpler messenger bag with a better one from New York City (even though it was made in Canada), 9/11 Memorial (I’d skip this unless you feel you ‘should’ go see it), Times Square, French Roast (minus Matt Damon), The Met, and many others.
I’m still a little bewildered at why I loved New York so much. I’ve travelled to many places (not in the US) and there are only a few which made such an impact on me. Each of these places I must visit again, but most are holiday away; planning a trip, lengthy and expensive travel time, passports, currency exchanges, and languages other than English. New York City? A few short hours away.
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