[Wanderlust Tips April 2019] New York through my eyes, is a sparkling city of finance, chaos, and so many legendary romantic American love stories.
JFK airport is big, but not so different from other major international airports like in Melbourne, Auckland, Taipei or Tokyo. Everyone is fatigued from long-haul flights and the stress of border control sorting everyone and everything into a ridiculous order. It is midnight during New York’s winter, and there had been a snowstorm not long ago here, only just over a week, I guess. However, it does not have the feel of the biting cold of a freezing night in Melbourne, and it is quite warm actually. After a long while, I finally drag my suitcases out of the airport while trying to push a reluctant smile onto my face for all the heavily armed officers wandering around. I call a cab, yes, a yellow cab – the icon of New York City to take me to my hostel in Brooklyn, which is not too far from here.
The back seats are separated from the driver’s seat by a glass wall, this is a new experience for me as I have never seen that anywhere else, and of course, at the end of the trip, I have to use whatever is left of my brain cells after the flight to figure out how much to tip my driver. Tipping is absolutely American as there is nowhere else that tips are a way of life like here. It is starting to rain.
Differences aside, I am in New York – the sparkling city of finance, chaos, and so many legendary romantic American love stories.
It is past midnight, but the hostel’s reception is still open. I’m taken to the room I’m sharing with four people, the other three are sleeping already, leaving one bed empty next to the bathroom wall. I try my best to open my suitcase, take out my pyjamas without making too much noise, and after a quick hot shower, I am in bed, ready for a good night’s sleep in New York. 1:19 am. It is raining hard.
I wake up early even though I got to bed so late. The rain has not stopped yet and has even gotten heavier since last night. Outside the window, I see red-brick walls and uneven rooftops in the rain. This has an unfamiliar feel. To me, a winter’s morning rain is a combination of green bushes against a grey sky outside of my little room in Point England, south-east of Auckland Central in New Zealand, or a window looking out at an old wooden fence covered with bright pink camellia flowers in Carnegie, south of Melbourne, Australia. However, this cold reminds me of those winters, all that is missing is coffee and some jazz.
Brooklyn is notoriously known as an “unsafe” borough due to its large population of struggling immigrants, a poorer area especially when compared to the riches of Manhattan just across the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. However, I prefer Brooklyn over Manhattan, as in a way Manhattan is too shiny, too industrial for me, packed with its straight and crowded streets, mixed together with old and historic buildings, where people are rushing to catch their trains at one of its dirty and cramped stations. Manhattan lacks the artistic feeling of the supposed dream city of so many. Brooklyn, on the other hand, reminds me of Melbourne, the most livable city in the world as voted for many years. The streets of Brooklyn are smaller, quieter, especially in the winter’s rain, making you, or at least me, feel its calm, chilled vibe which I value far more than the noisy stations underneath Manhattan. I remember Carrie Bradshaw, the main character in the popular series Sex and the City once told her Russian artist boyfriend in shyness and embarrassment after the man read her a poem, “I write a column based on the assumption that romance is either dead or just phoney”. Romance, it is what New York is lacking: a French kiss on Fifth Avenue, perhaps.
The following night, at 3am, it starts to snow. In the morning, I hop off at Pennsylvania station, Midtown Manhattan and am stunned by the scene that is in front of my eyes on the corners of West 33rd Street with 7th and 8th avenues. It is beautiful, like in a movie, but which one? Ah yes, “Enchanted” it is. When Giselle rises from a manhole in Manhattan after being pushed through from a fairytale land. Despite being at night in the movie, I believe that she would have felt the same as me: stunned by the beauty of Manhattan in the snow.
Snowflakes are falling softly and silently on the city of New York, covering all the roofs, the old gargoyles, and the green tarnished bridges between the city’s mighty towers. Everybody is hurriedly moving to their places of work or simply running away from the harsh coldness of this moment. I have been living in cold climates for years; however, snow is still new and exciting for me. My experience with snow is brief and limited to the few days that I spent in Kyoto and at Mount Fuji some years ago, though the beauty of it still amazes me in many ways. When it’s snowing, it gets warmer, similar to Melbourne’s winter rain – when the water stops pouring down, the true coldness will come, as the humidity starts spreading and clinging to your hair, your clothes, your socks, like an old ghost who never leaves.
I stop at an American-style coffee house rated 5 stars by hundreds of people on the internet after passing by numerous coffee and bagel carts on street corners. After all, I am still a boy from down under, breakfast to me is a muffin and a flat white. The café is packed with people. I sit down and order pancakes with bacon and sausages. The hotcakes come out gigantic in size, nearly filling the whole plate while the crispy bacon rashes and sausages are sizzling hot with their dripping fat fusing itself with the melting butter chunks on top of the pancakes. In cafes in Australia and New Zealand, you pay for each cup ordered and their coffee is Italian espresso, which is different from the machine drip Americano here. When you order a coffee, you can drink as much as you want by just asking the waiter or waitress to top up your cup. Just don’t forget the tip!
I am sitting, looking at my warm coffee and pancakes, thinking about all those breakfasts the ladies from Sex and the City shared together over the six seasons of the series. In a café in Manhattan, over breakfast coffee, the four women talk to each other about sex, their romantic relationships, and all the troubles of living in the crazy city known as New York. They cry when Miranda announces that she proposed to her longtime boyfriend, Steve. They (except Charlotte) mock Carrie for her “cheesy” romantic relationship with the Russian artist, as according to Miranda and even Carrie herself, romance in New York is when a man offers you a seat on the subway. Is romance officially dead in New York City?
I walk along the 7th avenue towards Central Park. On my right-hand side, there is the Empire State Building, its tower iconic of New York City in many ways, especially after it appeared on screen with King Kong grabbing the top of it with one hand while holding Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray) in the other in the 1930s.
The snowing is starting to stop. Times Square appears in front of me, big and sparkling with a million electric lightboards. Now I know why many people want to come here seeking romance as it is the perfect combination of American financial power and American romance as captured by Alfred Eisenstaedt in his picture of the moment when World War II ended on 14th August 1945: the spontaneous kiss between a sailor and a nurse. The famous and iconic scene, as I remember, is also the beginning of the movie “Letters to Juliet” by Gary Winick as Sophie is making phone calls to find witnesses of the kiss. Perhaps, romance just transforms itself into something different for the here and now, without jazz or piano, but with pop songs by Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus?
On my last day in New York, before boarding my flight to the city by the bay on the West Coast where Tony Bennett’s song has been sung since the 60s, “My love waits there in San Francisco above the blue and windy sea”, I decide to visit New York City’s emblematic bridge, as symbolic as the Golden Gate is to San Francisco: the Brooklyn bridge. It is a sunny and windy winter’s day, on the top level of the bridge, people are crossing the river on foot, while on the bottom level, cars and trucks are doing the same. The beautiful view of the bay seems to be taken for granted by both the locals and tourist on this day. A movie scene emerges from my memory of the movie version of Sex and the City. It is when Miranda and Steve both agree with the marriage counsellor that if at a specific date and time, on the Brooklyn Bridge, they decide to come to see each other, all of their problematic past will fade away. Then on a beautiful autumn’s day, on this bridge, they run, hug each other, and kiss.
The sun is setting, and the freezing wind from the bay is howling. The Weather app on my phone says that it is -4oC while I am standing on the Brooklyn side of the bridge, looking across at Manhattan with a chocolate ice-cream in my hand. The temperature is dropping fast, just like the darkness descending on this winter’s night. Romance in New York City might not be far away. It might be just like this: a long walk over the bridge, a chocolate ice-cream on this freezing night, a photo of love to remember – like in a song by Irving Berlin: “What’ll I do with just a photograph to tell my troubles to?
NYC has four distinct seasons. You should check weather information carefully before your trip to pack the right clothes for the right season. Snowstorms are common in NYC and Northern America during winter, which can interrupt transportation services, including flights.
>> Subway: NYC has a complicated subway system. It’s a good idea to learn how to read the subway map, signs, and indicators to avoid getting lost. Google Maps is one of the best apps to use to navigate through the maze of tracks beneath Manhattan. If frequently travelling by train, it is recommended that you buy a weekly ticket, even if you are staying for a shorter period of time.
>> Ferry: From the South Ferry Terminal of Manhattan, you will find a free ferry to Staten Island. This ferry goes past the Statue of Liberty (ferries to the statue are tourists ones and cost money). A one-way trip should take about 25 minutes.
>> Cab: NYC is famous for its iconic yellow cabs. Tipping is also required when taking cabs.
There are millions of things to see in New York City, including a number of museums and galleries. One of the most popular ones is the American Museum of Natural History where the movie “Night at the Museum” starring Ben Stiller was filmed.
NYC is a melting pot of cuisines. One way to explore them is by looking up Google Maps for recommendations.
Tipping is required across the US for all services, including taxis, dining, and room service. The amount of money to tip is about 15% of the bill or a few dollars for room service (placed on the table with a note with “tip” written on it).
Alex Tran | Wanderlust Tips