Concrete Jungle

One of my favourite things which would have to be included in my own personal rendition of Maria Von Trapp’s song would have to be: seeing things in real life which I have seen in movies or television.  New York is the setting of pretty much every movie ever.  That’s a fact.  We did a tour where you get driven around Manhattan and locations of movies are pointed out to you.  We saw a lot of “You’ve Got Mail” locations much to my delight as that is another of my favourite things.  We also saw the restaurant front where the Seinfeld gang hung out and the street with the Met where a scene from “I Am Legend” was filmed.

New York has been seen so many times by so many people because of these famous shows and movies, but you can’t really get the vibe of it from a screen.  It’s a special place.  It is a city of contradictions and very busy people.  You walk down the sidewalks trying not to get into peoples’ way whilst dodging the people that are in your way.  It’s like a very intricate game of “Operation” the children’s board game.  At times you smell the most delicious baked goods including those tantalizingly warm, giant salted pretzels you can buy on any street corner.  The next intake of breath and you smell something akin to burning garbage mixed with melting rubber.  It is vast and very cosmopolitan.  It also takes entertainment very seriously.  Everywhere you look there is a chance to be a consumer.  I suppose that statement is true of any place in our time.  But NYC takes it to another level.  Your senses are overloaded with information and things to be seen, tasted, heard, and smelled.  I needed a minute or two just sitting in Times Square to take it all in and not be overwhelmed but rather celebratory that I was where I was, watching people and eating my giant pretzel.  I felt like I was in a movie, acting the part of slightly awestruck girl trying to appear cool as a cucumber whilst sitting in Times Square for the very first time in her life.  Perhaps on the cusp of something new and exciting.

While my little life isn’t much fodder for prodigious cinematic achievement or thespian greatness, we did get to indulge ourselves a bit while in NYC in terms of “the stage”.  We saw three Broadway shows in the six or so days we were there.  There is this wonderful thing called TKTS which is where you can get discount tickets for shows that have seats available for sale the night of the show.  The trick is to go when TKTS opens around 3pm and look at the available shows.  Have two or three in mind in case the one you want sells out by the time you get to the counter.  Our first time was a Saturday and we were a bit daunted by the zigzagging line of people at 3:50pm.  We moved along in short order, however, and were at the counter buying tickets to see “School of Rock” by quarter after 4.  If you haven’t seen the Jack Black movie of the same name yet, have you been living under a rock? Oh my goodness go rent it download it buy it now.  It is also one of my most favourite movies because it is simply hilarious and also heart-warming.  Well.  The musical on Broadway was no different.  We loved it!  And the kids were jaw-droppingly talented at what they do—they actually all play their instruments live.

We also saw “The Phantom of the Opera” which I enjoyed a lot because it was a movie and book I liked in my 20’s and had always thought it would be neat to see the musical.  Callum liked the costumes, sets, and moving people but didn’t really know what was happening.  It was our first opera…and it’s not even really….a true opera.  So, I’m not sure I’ll convince him to go to a real one any time soon.

Finally, we wanted to see “Aladdin” or “Anastasia” or maybe even “A Christmas Carol” but tickets were always a bit too much even with a discount.  Then we heard of this thing called the lottery.  There was a musical Callum very much wanted to see.  It’s considered the funniest show of all time.  It’s called “The Book of Mormon” and it is basically a musical making fun of Mormons.  I felt a bit uneasy about the topic myself, but it was something Cal really wanted to see.  We inquired about tickets but $250 seemed a bit much (per person) so we went back another day to enter the lottery.  The lottery is where you put in your name and how many tickets you need (a choice of 1 or 2 only), and country of residence at 4:30-5pm, then see if your name gets called at 5pm.  If it does, you only have to pay $32.50 a ticket instead of 6 million dollars.  You never know how many names will be called per night.  Sometimes only 6.  Sometimes 10.  There were about 30 of us all standing around hopefully.  Wouldn’t you know it, the guy pulling names calls out “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!”  Callum and I were silent, holding our breaths.  The guy goes “Uh, any of you out there?  Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” and then we were like “Oh, right, OY OY OY!” and Callum’s name was called.  Hooray!  We got front row seats to see this very popular play.  I was so excited I wanted to tell the whole world but I waited until this blog post.

Oh, and the show?  Yes, it was very entertaining.  I kept waiting to feel offended but I didn’t.  It was hilarious and (a bit sad to be honest) and the musical numbers were very catchy not to mention the superb acting done by all.

We also saw a few sights…you know, Liberty and Ellis Islands.  Those were great to see.  The Statue of Liberty is such an iconic site but we were surprised to see that she isn’t as big as the movies portray.  She’s not that tall—the pedestal she stands on makes it so that she is tall, but I expected something twice as big.  Ellis Island would have been very interesting if we hadn’t already spent a huge amount of time at Canada’s version in Halifax.  Neither of us being American, we weren’t that interested or emotional enough to fully appreciate what it was like for immigrants back in the day.  We cut our self-guided tour short to return to Battery Park and see more of Manhattan.  We also went to the World Trade Center memorial and the One World Observatory.  The former was very touching to see.  I got a bit choked up looking at the deep black impressions in the ground where the twin towers used to be.  It was one of the most emotional and thought-provoking memorials I’ve ever seen, and yet it was so simple.  We didn’t feel the need to go to the actual memorial museum they have nearby as we both know a lot about the events of 9/11 and were reminded of them while touring the Newseum in Washington D.C.  But it would be a great visit for anyone who wanted to learn more about it.  The One World Observatory was a bit of a let-down to be honest, which is also in the same location.  I thought it was supposed to be a tower that kind of rose up in place of the fallen twin towers.  I thought we would get a lesson inside about why it was built and what it now symbolizes.  But no, it is just sort of another place you can spend your money to go high up and see a good view of Manhattan and beyond.  At every turn there is a chance to spend more money.  I liked the view but wanted to learn more about the building of the tower and what it means to Americans to have it mere metres from the place the twins used to stand.  Maybe they don’t want the ghostly reminder, but the One World Observatory seemed a bit vapid and consumerist to me.  We also went to the Empire State Building, because, well.  New York.  It was good but man oh man if you want to feel like cattle being herded then go to the ESB.  I wished we could’ve been higher up to see Central Park from a height, but we weren’t quite high enough.

We went to three art galleries in New York—the big ones: The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) and The Guggenheim (the Goog….just kidding….but hey, it could catch on.)  The first we went to was The Met and we were blown away at how vast this museum is.  I decided ahead of time that I was just going to see the wing full of art I actually like and care about rather than trying to see it all.  My favourite time period is roughly 1860-1940 European art, namely, French Impressionists and beyond.  I saw so much art that made me excited and gave me heart palpitations that I had to sit down a lot. Callum loves seeing me in art galleries because he thinks I am very cute as I flit and flutter to every piece, snapping pictures of the painting and of the description, running back to wherever he is sitting or standing, giving him mini art history lessons on everything or huskily whispering in his ear how very famous that piece is, gripping his arm for emphasis.  I’m an art teacher after all.  It is gratifying seeing things in real life which I have myself studied or made my students study.  And it is validation to me that I know just a bit about what I’m talking about and know which pieces require dialogue.

The Guggenheim was not so exciting for me because it is a modern art gallery and had a display that I wasn’t that keen on.  However, the building itself is worth a visit because of its innovative architectural design.  You may not visit the Goog to appreciate art (unless modern stuff floats your boat) but you go to the Goog to experience the building.  The architect (the famed Frank Lloyd-Wright) designed it so that you begin at the top and wind your way down the gently sloping floors to the bottom.  At the very top looking over the edge I felt a bit woozy because of the inward curvature of the walls.  I didn’t like the art, but I liked being able to see all floors at once (there are 6 of them).

MoMA was also full of weird stuff but the 5th floor was the art I care about again and I saw even more Van Gogh, Pissaro, Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Matisse, Picasso and more.  The most exciting was seeing Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in person.  Wowsa!  That might be my favourite painting of all time.  And the best part?  Getting to take pictures of it.  All three museums allow photography as long as you don’t use a flash.

I did go to one more museum on my own.  I saw an advertisement by chance while on the subway one day showing a portion of another one of my favourite paintings: “The Woman in Gold” by Gustav Klimt.  I wondered to myself “is that painting here, in New York?”  I was surprised to find this out because Klimt is an Austrian artist and I assumed one of his most famous works would be in his home country.  I did some research and found that the painting is in the Neue Galerie in New York and that it’s in its permanent home there.  The entrance fee for the small gallery is quite high for what you get to see.  The gallery itself is rather small as it is housed in an old residential building on the corner of 5th Avenue and 86th.  When I walked to it I wasn’t sure I had the right address.  There were only two small floors of art to look at and to be honest, the top floor wasn’t really “art” to me, it was full of admittedly beautiful objects, but objects are not what I hope to see when I pay a $20 entrance fee.  I loved seeing “The Woman in Gold” in real life but the experience at the gallery was not a completely positive one.  They are very strict with how many bags you can carry in, there is to be no water bottles in sight, and you weren’t allowed to take photographs.  What?!  I thought.  I was taking close-ups of “Starry Night” and Monet’s famed Japanese bridge paintings just the other day.  No photos of “The Woman in Gold”?  They did have a full-sized reproduction in the basement just outside the toilets, but of course you don’t see the gorgeous luminosity of the gold-leaf in a reproduction.  I did also get to see some Egon Schiele but after only an hour I was ready to leave.  If you go, just be aware of the rules as I wasn’t and therefore my enjoyment of Klimt was lessened because I’m the kind of person that gets a bit miffed over rules I don’t understand or agree with.

I have to mention Central Park.  Callum was insistent that we spend a couple hours there just walking around.  I am so glad we did and it wasn’t any hardship either since the part we walked through was parallel to “museum mile” where we wanted to go afterward anyway.  Central Park was everything I imagined it would be.  The autumn colours were beautiful and we really were very lucky to have sunshine every single day we were in New York.  We meandered slowly through the park and stopped long enough to listen to some musicians singing under an ornate bridge where the acoustics showcased their talent.  We stopped to eat a hotdog from a cart, threw some leaves in the air and watched an artist work on her painting.  We laughed at the squirrels and I bought some unique wooden earrings from a vendor which he makes from branches he finds on the ground in the park.  We walked down a path that we’ve seen in many New York based movies too.  Central Park is kind of a magical place.

Callum arranged for us to have a tour at the United Nations.  This was an important stop for him because he teaches about it to his grade 10 students and he is really interested in it.  We had to register our arrival at a kiosk across the street and get ID stickers before going back to the visitor’s entrance and through to security.  It was like going through security at an airport.  Our tour was very interesting and was led by a Korean woman who spoke very good English.  She talked about what the UN is and what they do.  We got to see a couple rooms where meetings take place like the Economic and Social Council meeting room and the General Assembly, but only for a moment as there was a meeting taking place.  I learned a lot while there and Callum liked seeing the physical chambers rather than just photographs.

No visit to New York is complete without a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.  It is kind of a thing to do…there were heaps of tourists doing the same.  We were planning to do it anyway but our buddy Dan told us not to miss it.  Speaking of which, we got to catch up with Dan for an evening which was cool.  We met him while doing the Inca trail in Peru because he was in our group.  We have tried to visit others from our group but it hasn’t worked out.  Dan lives in Manhattan and it was cool to experience the city for a couple hours with a local, going to a great pizza joint and drinking delicious wine.  Anyway, back to Brooklyn.  And speaking of pizza.  I had heard that the best pizza in all of NYC was in Brooklyn at a place called Juliana’s.  The misconception is that Grimaldi’s is the best pizza, but I had the inside scoop: the guy that started Grimaldi’s did make the best pizza but he sold the business and with it the name.  Then, he decided to start making pizzas again but had to call his new restaurant something else.  He named it after his mother and it is located literally next door to Grimaldi’s, in the original Grimaldi’s building.  So while all the tourists that have read their Lonely Planet guides are lining up outside Grimaldi’s (the newer building), just walk a few more steps to get a table at Juliana’s.  It was SUCH good pizza, like OMG wow.  And the cannoli for dessert was amazing too.  So, do that thing where you walk across the bridge, take a jumping photo, and get a large margarita pizza (keep it tradish) and a refreshing gingerale from Juliana’s and your visit will be complete.

A word on the subways: it almost takes as long to locate a dang subway, figure out where to go, where to get off and where to exit as it would to just walk to your location.  Sometimes.  I didn’t think the signage was that comprehensive either.  A New Yorker we chatted to for a minute disagreed with me though.  She reckons NYC is pretty good with signs and is very explicit with where to go and so on compared to other places in the USA.  And compared to all the world travelling she does.  I politely smiled and kept my opinion to myself.  The signs (for me) were confusing as they have different train lines written on the same sign as the exits, they don’t tell you which way the train is going when you’re on the platform, and they didn’t have the time until the next train posted anywhere so you never knew how long you’d be waiting for your train.  I was surprised at this—New York is a major city, why wouldn’t they have that feature?  Anyway.  D.C. and its trains were easier to use for us as well as others around the world, even in non-English speaking countries.

Our hotel experience was also not great.  We stayed in two different hotels in order to experience two different sections of Manhattan.  I wish we had just stayed in the first one.  We are trying to economize a bit with our accommodation so we booked a private room with a shared bathroom.  I hate sharing a bathroom but the difference in cost saves us a lot of money per night.  The room we were in was quite small but very clean and trendy and we even had a sink so we could brush our teeth and fill up our water bottles.  We had a TV which was nice to have on at the end of a long day of sight-seeing.  TV kind of has a way of making you feel like you’re at home especially when it has channels you like…like HGTV lol.  I love that channel.  The bathroom situation wasn’t so bad because I don’t think we were actually sharing it with anyone while we stayed there.  We were provided with towels, robes, slippers, and shampoos.  Tissues in the room, and our room was cleaned for us every day.

The next hotel we stayed it, if you can call it that, was so much worse.  It was also a private “room” with a shared bathroom.  I put room in quotations because it was basically a shoe-box with a matchbox for a bed.  There was no walking space.  The door almost touched the tiny bed!  No sink in the room, two small, rough threadbare towels, no tissues.  Obviously no robes or anything.  The TV didn’t work, the bathroom had no soaps, no hand towels, no floor mats to protect against the cold and slippery tile.  The hot water was difficult to find.  In fact, for a period of over 24 hours we had no hot water.  I couldn’t shower and I was very grumpy about it.  The solution we were given by the  management?  Walk five blocks to their sister property and shower there.  Right.  I decided to forgo that “solution” and just stunk for an entire day, which was not pleasant.  All I can say is thank goodness for dry shampoo and deodorant.  The other unfair thing was that when we booked our hotel, we paid the full price online.  When we got there, Cal checked online and our room rate had plummeted.  When he confronted the staff about this, they explained surge pricing and said we just had to deal with it, basically.  He managed to convey our disappointment with how small our room was for what we were paying and what it was currently worth.  He asked if we could at least be put into a room that was bigger.  The staff member he spoke with was actually a really nice guy, but he wasn’t the decision maker.  He had to go to the manager to ask, and Callum overheard her say “Fucking people!” in a really pissed off-audible-eye-roll tone of voice.  Surely she would know her voice could be heard from the reception desk and that this reaction is so unprofessional.  She half-heartedly conceded and we got a room more suitable for what we had to pay.  I mean, we know New York is pricey.  We get that.  But to be charged almost 50% more than if we had just walked in from off the street was a hard pill to swallow.  Especially for such a crappy room.  Our second room was much better and even had an ensuite (which we couldn’t use because of the lack of hot water, but still).  Next time?  We’ll go with more money and stay in something a bit more…how shall I say?  Well-reputed.

Our accommodation aside we had a wonderful time in the Big Apple.  Concrete jungle where dreams are made of (some Alicia Keys for ya).  I can’t wait to go back with more moolah, more room in my luggage for shopping, and more shows!  Also, we would like to see the other boroughs as we were only in Manhattan and we visited Brooklyn for only a couple of hours.  There is still Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island to see.  NYC is a must do for anybody who gets a kick out of big cities.  I like countryside too but a big bright bustling city is a nice change.

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