Monday, 20 April 2015

Dear Big Apple

      Dear Big Apple,

      I’m not quite sure what I was expecting before I met you. I think I imagined all the numerous scenes from films I had watched take part across you and imagined my experience to be like a blown-up, live viewing of all of them in one brief 10-day period. In many ways this was true. I am writing to tell you about just that. About experiences I had, things I did and saw, places I walked and people I met. About the fiction come true: New York.

      I’m finding it hard to explain how I feel about you. You appeared like a place I knew well, that I’d seen before but yet at the same time filled with the new and unexpected. Yellow surrounded me: cabs, buses, even the little green man waving me across the road wore a yellow fringe. Why yellow? This is a question I asked my family several times throughout the trip. I guess I’ll never know. Perhaps Google will. Every time a school bus drove past I was filled with images of The Simpsons and high school scenes I’ll only ever experience through a screen. It’s weird but somehow those pictures I have never associate themselves in my mind with work anxiety or exam stress. Of course I know that’s not true but American High School is one of those places that has only every been placed before me as a social place. A place of noise and shouting in corridors. A place of paper airplanes in classrooms and bells calling pupils from their desks and out of the door whether homework, or permission for that matter, has been given. That world is far from my image of school. A place where pupils are questioned for leaving their desk without permission let alone the classroom. Where stress is the key and hard work is the answer. I’m sure this is true in America too but if films were life…

See...yellow bus 

      Grand Central Station was the same. Walking in and seeing a mass of suits and suitcases swarming to and fro. I almost expected to see someone running through the mass calling a name, a slow motion turn and a passionate embrace to the crescendo of some overly-cheesy music. Of course I did not. Everyone was just minding their own business except us. Did you know there’s a food hall IN THE STATION? A room entirely devoted to every edible item you could possibly want. Hot, cold, cooked, raw. Butcher, baker, candle-stick…ok, too far. A chocolate stall, a cake stall. A tea leaf and coffee bean stall. It was amazing. We spent a good 10 minutes just walking up and down and admiring the variety available. The number of items you could hop off your train and go and get before you’ve even stepped one foot out of the station. Now they don’t show that in the movies.

Grand Central food hall

Grand Central Station
      That – the use of the word ‘movies’ - leads me nicely onto my next point of interest. Vocab. Now I don’t mean that terrifying moment when your homework involves learning the long list of 50 types of animal in French for tomorrow’s test. No, I mean the way that despite the fact we supposedly speak the same ‘language’, English and American are not the same. I feel I could easily be given a test on American vocab and fail. At the end of a night out with my brother as we stood to pick up our bags and jackets, being approached by a girl asking, in an already loud room, whether this was the ‘coat check line’ I just went for a nod and a vague ‘uhuh’ and left her to it. I mean, it seemed obvious once my brother explained this all to me - how it’s perfectly logical to call it this because it is the line for the coats which at the beginning of our night, we checked in, as we do ourselves to say, a hotel. To me it just seemed odd. It’s obviously much more logical to call that place a cloakroom – you know, because I’m always leaving my cloak there.

     Yet while my response to these new words is bafflement, confusion and frustration (how many uses does the simple work check…or indeed cheque…need), the responses I received during conversations I got into was excitement, humour and more conversation. I had people telling me how ‘awesome’ my accent was. I was asked to repeat the word ‘trousers’ just because it’s a funny word – because it’s obviously better to call your bottom half your underwear…I mean honestly, pants??? I was told by several people that they’d actually been to England once. They’d then go on to name a place I’d never heard of or even once, a person. As if I’m supposed to know everywhere and everyone in England. I mean, I know we’re small but not that small. Don’t get me wrong though. I loved it. I found it very entertaining and flattering that my ‘very proper accent’ and my cold and rainy home country (I say as I type with blue sky and sunshine blazing through my window), are of such fascination to so many people.

      Not that we needed our accents to show that we weren’t natives. All we needed was to order a ‘short’ stack of pancakes and be unable to finish it to make it clear that we were not Americans. The first night we arrived, jet lagged and plane dirty, we went out for a delicious Italian. Making a point of only ordering half the quantity of food versus us, we had one large pizza between my brother and dad and a bowl of pasta between my mum and i. The pasta halved was just the quantity I would cook for myself at home and the pizza could have fed a small country.

'Short' Stack of pancakes

      If we’d been driving we would have very quickly made it clear of our nationality too. You see, it was obvious very fast that there are two ways one must drive on the roads of New York: fast and furious. One must dive between lanes and through gaps in traffic. One must overtake on both sides, skip queue’s and, above all else, honk one’s horn very loudly almost routinely every few minutes. As soon as a light turns green, that central button on the steering wheel must be leant on. That sound must be produced or else you’re clearly not doing it right. Impatience is key. I tried to imagine on several occasions what the questions must be like on a driving theory test:

     When is it appropriate to use your horn?
     A) To let other cars know you’re there
     B)Only after dark?
     C) Only in an emergency
     D)All the friggin’ time.

     What should you do when you hear a police/ambulance/fire engine siren?
     A)  Move out of the way quickly (as close to/onto the pavement if possible)
     B)     Stay exactly where you are and don’t move and let the person in an emergency suffer

That last one was a tad bitter but it was one area of New York that really frustrated me. As someone who often ends up in hospital and has been in an ambulance once, I felt so angry for the people that called for help. These emergency services were urgently rung to deal with an issue whether it be flames, a robber or a heart attack banging on someone’s door. Where are these vehicles filled with assistance I hear you ask? They’re sitting in traffic with no one at the front moving out of the way to create a passage for them. They’re blaring their sirens – the sirens created to warn people of their approach so that they can move out of the way – and sitting still. I just couldn’t stop imagining all the people that must suffer every day, month and year because while they’re in trouble, people are too busy doing nothing. Busy sitting on the road.

      Rant over, I promise.

      Although I disliked being on these terrifying roads, it provided a wonderful way of people watching. I saw so many different worlds within one city. I saw tourists photographing everything from the buildings to the pavement (or sidewalk). I saw vendors everywhere selling pretzels and ice cream, water and waffles. Yet these were not that unusual. These weren’t the people who fascinated me. While away for 10 days in New York I saw for the first time a community that I have never before seen. That I have never visited the right parts of London to witness. The Hasidic Jewish communities - Families like mine but with a completely different lifestyle of their own. Living in the centre of New York but also in their own world where Saturdays are the Sabbath. Where young boys are dressed as men and everyone wears black. Where the hats are amazing, a sight of their own, and the women all wear wigs. It was a world within a world and an entirely new world to me.

I     I learnt about other worlds too and other times. The streets where once all the houses were sweatshops and child labour was the norm. Where streets that now carry 10’s of people down them at a time, used to carry thousands. I saw the memorials for the horrific 9/11 disaster. Heart wrenching waterfall features with name after name after name of those who were taken. Flowers places sporadically around the border, a mark of people remembered today by those who said goodbye one morning as their loved one went to work, not knowing that was the last goodbye, the last ‘I love you’  they’d ever have. The names that struck me most however were those of women where written beside them were the words ‘and their unborn child’. A day that took away not only those who had lived and died but those who had not yet had the chance.

9/11 memorial

Central Park

      New York, you are a city of the living. You’re known as the city that never sleeps. You are the city where sitting on a busy train at 11pm, three or four boys jumped on board and started a performance like no other. Who instead of studying or sleeping are spending their nights swinging on subway poles and backflipping down the aisles. New York is a city of excitement, a city where I went to the Facebook Offices and experienced eating Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream and having a salad from the most amazing salad bar I’ve ever seen. A city where when you climb to the top of the Rockefeller Center and look down, it seems as if the entire city is simply buildings surrounding Central Park. No people or cars in sight. A view that is full of beauty and vertigo. Central Park itself is fabulous. Paths leading you up, down and around water, through trees, past turtles and baseball fields and then right back to the reality that you’d almost forgotten about. Back to the roads, the fast cars and the unimaginably tall buildings. The tall buildings which, as we took a boat tour around the edge of Manhattan, only get taller. There amongst the skyscrapers are cranes that small children (or my father) probably dream of being able to drive, simply adding more height to the giant that is New York.

I wrote on the Facebook Wall
Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream:

Even away from central Manhattan, life is everywhere. Where we stayed in Brooklyn, we were surrounded by food and shops. Apart from the Italian we went to our first night, we experienced proper American Diner breakfasts, some delicious sushi (some I did not enjoy so much), an ok ramen and a taste of Southern America – fried chicken anyone? At one end of the road we had a beautiful lush green park where it seemed the norm to run not walk and licra was a must. A train ride to the end of the line and we were at the beach with a full blown fair ground, terrifying looking roller coaster, the original Hot Dog company ‘Nathan’s’ and an Aquarium. The city is different everywhere you look. If it were a dating agency, you could find exactly what you’re looking for whether it be tall buildings, short buildings, thick buildings, thin buildings, lots of buildings, no buildings, parks or sea.

I     It is a city of pure energy and excitement. Where anytime you like, day or night, you could find something to do and someone to join you. I saw friends and family, drank cocktails…shhhh don’t tell, went to the Yale Club for dinner, re-met my Godfather (who if you’re reading this, it was lovely to see you not over Facebook) and had a really, truly, lovely time.

      So thank you New York for having me to stay and for a wonderful visit. I will see you again very soon I am sure.

      Best wishes for now,


  1. Enjoyed reading it Ellie!

  2. Great writing Ellie. Felt I was there with you ordering that short stack. Looking forward to your next entry