As is always the case when I fly to America, I was up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at about 07h00 the next morning, raring to go! (I think this uncharacteristic early rising is a combination of my body not being sure which time zone it’s in, and going to bed at the ridiculously early hour of 10pm!). But this time we were prepared – we simply scheduled an early morning activity for our first full day in New York. The Cosmopolitan Hotel doesn’t serve breakfast (or, indeed, any meals), but there is a Starbucks right next door and that’s where we headed, since the one country in the world where I don’t feel bad about patronising Starbucks is the USA ;-) I was thrilled to find that they were once again selling seasonal pumpkin spice lattes (that’s gingerbread lattes to the Brits – all of whom seem to find the aforementioned name a bit scary!) and that’s exactly what I had, topped with gratuitous whipped cream, of course. Nick also got me a pumpkin scone (you see the theme here?!) which was good but the sweet icing drizzled on top was completely unnecessary in my book…
From our hotel, we walked down to Battery Park, a route which led us directly past Ground Zero. It was quite startling to come upon it by accident rather than setting out to see it, and I must say that even after five years it is still a somber and moving place. Also, it was so early on a Sunday morning that there was nobody around, which gave the place a particularly post-apocalyptic feel. Almost involuntarily, your eyes are drawn upwards, trying to trace the outlines of where the buildings used to be. But more on Ground Zero in a later post – on this occasion we did not linger and made our way down to Battery Park to brave the icy breeze and join the queue for the 08h45 Circle Line ferry – which turned into the 09h30 ferry because Circle Line had changed to their winter timetable but neglected to mentioned this little change of timetable on their website. Grrrr. Anyway, it gave us time to have out breakfast and marvel at how lucky we were with the weather – clear, crisp and sunny. Before we could board the ferry, there was an airport-style security check and metal detector (even watches had to be removed). But at least we got to keep our shoes on! Got a space on the top deck of the ferry outside so we had a glorious view of lower Manhattan receding from us as we pulled out into the bay.
First stop was Liberty Island for the Statue of Liberty – she may not be that big compared to a skyscraper, but she is still impressive and iconic and very cool, particularly as the ferry draws up underneath her to dock. Everyone piled off the boat and sprinted for the next queue (the joys of travel!). The queue was not so much for the statue as for more security. First you have to lock big bags in a locker, then your small bags & cameras go through an X-ray machine and you go through a machine where you stand inside a cubicle and 3 high-power jets of air are shot at you from both sides – one at calf level, one at waist level and one at shoulder level. No idea how it works – but appealing in a vaguely kinky sort of way… :o) Eventually we arrived in the base of the statue and joined a short tour. Find out that the original designer of the statue intended it to be a lighthouse with the light coming out of the crown – the torch was solid metal. But… the Americans decided to “improve” the French design and cut holes (!!) in the metal of the torch to create a metal and glass lattice into which they could put a light. Within decades, this cunning plan had caused water to get into the metal interior which caused the metal to rust & weaken, which necessitated a major refurbishment and the replacement of the whole torch. From there we went up to the top of the base of the statue from where you can look up into its lit interior and see the remarkable way it’s put together – but you can no longer enter the statue since the 11 September 2001 attacks. After a quick walk through the museum describing the statue’s history and a few panoramic views of Manhattan, it was back to the ferry.
Next stop was Ellis Island, immigration gateway to the USA for many years. Nick was particularly keen to visit as his great grandfather actually came through Ellis Island before ending up in South Africa. I wasn’t expecting much, I must admit, but it turned out to be one of the most evocative museums I have been to. The main reception room (pictured on the left) where immigrants awaited processing has been beautifully restored and you can clearly recognise it in contemporary pictures of immigrants waiting to enter the US. In the luggage room below, there was a display of the luggage they brought with them on the long voyage form Europe as well as a fascinating museum about US immigration. There was a great 3D graphic showing where the most immigrants came from in which decades. There was a definite wave of western Europeans, followed by Eastern Europeans, followed by Asians. But the biggest influx of the past decade by far is from South and Central America. Also scattered all around are a series of astounding black and white photos taken in the early 1900s by Augustus Frederick Sherman, a registry clerk and an amateur photographer, who attempted to document all the immigrants that came throught Ellis Island. The photos are extraordinarily poignant and the faces haunting, reflecting both the hardships of the journey and a resolute determination to find a new life in America. I found myself welling up with tears in front of many of the portraits – what a leap of faith to make. From there we moved to the family research section of the museum and I must say it is a very organised set-up. You pay a flat fee for 30 minutes of computer access and can use this time to search their shipping records database for names of relatives who may have passed through there. With a bit of patience, Nick quickly found his great-grandfather’s name on a scanned image of the original passenger manifest of the ship that he arrived on. And of course, he could not resist buying both a copy of the manifest and a photo of the ship!
From there, it was back to Manhattan and a quick subway ride over to the Lower East Side. We walked for what seemed like an eternity (there are some real dead zones in Manhattan in terms of subway stations!) and FINALLY… arrived on the doorstep of Katz’s Deli. For those of you who don’t know, this is purportedly the oldest New York deli, made famous in When Harry Met Sally – where she fakes an orgasm in the middle of the restaurant – and they mark the actual spot with a little sign that says “I hope you have what she had!” Ho ho ho. Luckily we got there outside of the rush (it was like 3pm by then) as the place was pretty packed and I’d HATE to see it at lunchtime! The room was bigger than I expected, but exactly as I had picured a New York deli in other respects. There are slightly scuffed tables and a HUGE deli counter where you can order your food either to take away or eat in (the advantage being that you get to taste the meat before they slap it on your sandwich). As you enter, you are handed a ticket which is what you use to order and hand back when you leave in order to be charged the correct amount. If you are going to order from the counter, hand this ticket to the server behind the counter when asking for your meat and make sure you get it ack once he’s marked it. However, Nick and I we were both tired and hungry and not in the mood to feel ignorant amongst the crowd of jostling New Yorkers at the counter, so we decided to head for the half-dozen tables at the back of the room marked “waiter service only”. Took some time to examine our surroundings – the walls are covered with pictures of famous people eating at Katz or posing with the owner and there are loads of old-fashioned neon signs advertising things like “send a salami to your boy in the army!” – apparently a popular and long-standing Katz service! The waiters were mostly male and mostly middle-aged – not a demographic you usually find in restaurants I’ve visited ;-) Despite the bustle of the room, they all looked unflustered as if they had seen and heard everything and nothing was going to surprise them. The customers seemed to be wall-to-wall New Yorkers – in fact one table near us looked as if they had been meeting here for a late lunch every Sunday since the American Civil War…
We checked out the menu and decided to go for the classics – fries, pickles and sandwiches (pastrami on rye for N and corned beef on rye for me). The fries were nice but oh, the pickles!!! They were a revelation. Some were the usual dill pickles that taste of vinegar and dill, but some were “new” pickles that had barely spent a few hours in brine – they tasted like fresh, salty cucumbers and I fell instantly in love. Yum yum yum. But… there’s more! The sandwiches. OK, your average slice of bread is like 1cm thick, right? Now picture a sandwich where 2cm of bread (a slice at each end) tries valiantly to enclose at least 5cm of piping hot sliced meat. Dear Lord. I didn’t think a sandwich could ever be an epiphany. Funny how wrong you can be. The corned beef literally melted in your mouth. It was hot and sweet and fatty and salty and melting and meaty all at once. The bread gave way after about two bites and you were left with meat juices trailing down your chin and arms… and still you’d tear away at the meat with your teeth. It was everything I would ever have wanted and I’m willing to bet this sandwich is What She Had. Nick’s pastrami was similarly astounding – not the wafer thin and often dry slices you get at supermarket delis, but thick, meaty slices with a rind of pungent plack pepper. All washed down with Dr Brown’s sour cherry soda. Fabulous. I don’t think either of us managed to finish our sandwich but we sure had a good time trying. There’s much more on offer too – traditional Jewish fare like knishes, chopped liver, potato latkes, and matzo ball soup – but we seriously had no more spare capacity. Given that the Jewish deli is apparently a slowly dying breed in New York, I would recommend this place to anyone. Fine dining it ain’t. But an authentic Noo Yawk experience it certainly is.
After eating what seemed like an an entire cow, we decided that a long walk would probably be in order. So from Katz’s we walked down in the general direction of Chinatown. This took us through an area of really lovely buildings unlike anything you will see in Europe. This is not the 5th Avenue skyskraper Hollywood view of New York – this is a neighbourhood of 4 and 5 storey residential buildings facing each other across the street, all homogenous yet subtly different. And my favourite part is that each one has an external wrought iron fire escape, making for a dictinctive and handsome New York look. As we approached Chinatown, you could see that the pedestrians were becoming predominantly more Oriental (see top left) – it was actually noticeable and before long we felt quite conspicuous as the only westerners on a pavement. This is so different to London’s Chinatown where the tourists vastly outnumber the Chinese! The whole area had a vibrant feel to it – the crowds doing their shopping, vendors selling their fresh wares outside their tiny shops, no Enlgish signs… It felt familiar yet wonderfully exotic all at once. Here was a small old man, fighting valiantly with a pair of barbecue tongs to coerce escaping live crabs back into their buckets; there, a stand full of the first real live durian fruit I have ever seen (pictured on the, right); or here a tiny signmaker’s stall totally covered in Chinese-lettered signs. I just wish I’d been hungrier so as to be able to take advantage of the exotic foods on offer… From there we wandered through to Little Italy (which has a far less noticeably ethnic character than Chinatown – maybe this a reflection of the immigration patterns I mentioned earlier!) and then on to the historic cast iron district with its trendy design stores and beautiful old buildings. It was such a totally different impression of New York to the one I’d experienced on my previous visit, where I’d spent all my time in midtown, north of Penn Station. Lower Manhattan is New York on a far more human scale and all the more endearing for it. Oh, and at some point on our ramble I also had the pleasure of running across the Sur la Table store in SoHo – what a gorgeous place! The store specialises in beautiful kitchen and tableware and if you can’t find a gadget there, it hasn’t been invented. Everything looks to be of such tremendously high quality and I was tempted to buy the entire store (hmmm, would this store fall within my airline luggage allowance?). But as is so often the case, I ended up beign somewhat overwhelmed by choice and walked out with… nothing! Damn!
Next, our meander took us over to River Terrace on the western shore of TriBeCa, where there is a little park overlooking the wooden skeletons of disused piers, a reminder of the days when ships docked along this stretch of the island. You also have a view over New Jersey and a great photo opportunity for sunsets – so that’s exactly what we did: sat on a bench, took a couple of photos and watched the river traffic along the Hudson River. It was a little oasis of calm on a very busy island and the perfect antidote to a day surrounded by crowds. When I win the lottery, you are sure to find me in my apartment on River Terrace, sipping cocktails and watching the sun go down
**Coming up next: my search for the perfect pizza leads me to Luzzo’s for dinner!