(I know, I know, the Europe By Rail series isn’t complete, but I have notes for that, this needs to be written before it fades from my memory).
JFK AKA WTF NYC I-95
The weather was good on the day I arrived, giving me excellent views of NYC as I landed, and of the USA-Canada border before that (at least, I assume that is what I saw, an avenue of cut down trees in right sort of place). America is a place of wide roads and detached houses, of on-street parking/turning circles that would contain entire blocks of flats (and associated parking) in the UK.
Also golf courses. Lots of golf courses. What is it with the New York area and golf courses?
When I landed at JFK airport, I spent ages waiting to pass through border control. I didn’t need to, but the explanation of why I didn’t need to happened while I was exhausted near the end of a 7 hour flight. Still, it didn’t matter much: thanks to NYC traffic, my partner Sadie arrived at the airport about 30 minutes after I’d collected my bags.
The hotel was pleasant enough, but unremarkable. Small gym, serve your own breakfast, waffle maker, breakfast hall had a TV — just what I’ve come to expect from my first two trips.
Connetiquet Conneticut Connecticut
My first two trips to the USA were to SFO. Those times, I wasn’t used to how vast and empty states could be, but this time round I wasn’t used to how small they could be. The trip through Connecticut was slow and dull, as the morning gave us torrential rain which left pools of water on the I-95 large enough that the freeway was, in several places, reduced down to a single lane: the hard shoulder. Despite that, by the afternoon we had crossed two state borders (NY-CT, CT-RI) and were half way across Rhode Island.
We stopped for a pizza for lunch near the middle of Connecticut. One of the things that continues to surprise me about the USA is how expensive food is. Petrol and diesel may be cheap, but… wow, that doesn’t make up for the food (let alone big expenses like the USA’s infamously overpriced medical insurance). For restaurants and supermarkets both, American food feels twice the price for half the quality of the UK equivalent — the quality of Lidl and the price of Waitrose. (Nothing against either of those stores in the UK, one’s very cheap and the other is very nice, but the combination is not one that reflects well on the USA).
The only really noteworthy thing I realised in (or was it near?) Connecticut was understanding why the whole area is known as New England: its green foliage and slightly mossy rocks are very familiar to anyone from England.
We met up with Sadie’s aunt and uncle in Providence, Rhode Island. They lent us their car (well, her mother’s, Sadie’s grandmother’s), the quality of which also surprised me: ancient, falling to bits. Not as poor a condition as the “friend of the family” taxi in Nairobi, but still shockingly bad by British standards. This is not a poor family, yet the car had multiple warning lights every time it was switched on, and the key literally fell apart one time we tried to take it out of the ignition. Still, the car got us around and didn’t break down on us.
Providence seems like a nice place. Poor, but nice. Everyone was cheerful and friendly, despite the slightly run-down look of the Federal Hill district and of the street we stayed in just on the other side of the Woonasquatucket River.
Despite the outward similarity of New England to
Ye Olde England, the temperatures are much higher. In the UK, there might be two days in any three years where the weather is hot enough to benefit from air conditioning in your home, every day in New England was that hot. (Of course, in winter it normally goes below freezing, which is rarer, although not unheard of, in the UK).
In Boston, we stayed with Sadie’s grandmother. The house was an old wooden structure, three floors including the occupied roof area, and elevated from the ground around it by about half a story. There was almost no lighting, and as with the car, it felt very run-down for someone with her wealth.
Central Boston is a lovely place. Didn’t go into the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum because it was too expensive, and unfortunately forgot to plan a trip to see the USS Constitution despite meaning to. I had planned to buy a teabag and borrow a fishing rod and a teacup and film my own Boston Tea Party, but in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t — such a cliché.
We did get to see the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which was crowded and very American: lots of sugary baked goods, not much sign of fruit or vegetables.
The subway line between home and city centre (“so that’s what ‘downtown’ means!”) felt as if it was used by rough people, and I didn’t feel safe on it, although how much of that is just culture shock I can’t tell. (As an aside, for all the complaints I hear about the London Underground, it is joint top with Paris and Berlin as one of the nicest metro systems I’ve used; Boston, BART, and NYC metros all feel like nice people aren’t supposed to use them, while Budapest sits between them, stuck in an 1890s time capsule).
We met up with one of Sadie’s Green Party associates, and he walked us around Cambridge MA. As I’m living in (close enough) the original Cambridge, it wasn’t too impressive. Still, I did get a few curious photos of American Cambridge and first noticed a Greek motif that kept popping up throughout the trip.
When the friend brought us back to Boston (i.e. across the bridge), we went to the oddly named “Legal Sea Foods” (what’s the alternative, illegal sea foods?)
Tappens Beach and the closed rock
Rhode Island has a lot of coast for its size. Sadie’s family took me to Tappens Beach, a perfectly good beach with some large rocks (shown in photo; watch out for the poison ivy), and one of those rocks has two diving boards bolted to it. Everyone except me jumped in. I almost miss being that fearless.
Manomet seems to be a place for rich people to have their holiday homes, and for poor people to service their
tourism holiday needs. I had fun, mainly because I was staying at Sadie’s aunt’s holiday home. That side of the family joined us after we’d been relaxing there a few hours, playing on the trampoline and preparing dinner for everyone (not at the same time).
When we saw Manomet bay, it was wonderfully foggy. We could see an arch of beach, a few fishing boats anchored in the bay, but no horizon.
The bay itself seems to be known as the one place in America where July 4th is celebrated on July 3rd. To quote Wikipedia:
Tradition dictates that these bonfires be extinguished by the rising tide, so depending on the moon, the festivities may extend well into the night, or end relatively early.
I had a chance to try archery for the first time as an adult. While it was fun, bows and arrows are rather less potent weapons than I had been led to believe by fiction: I was
firing shooting into a rotting wooden door that had been taken off its hinges and taken to the back of the garden, drawing the string as far back as I could, from a distance of about three meters, and still a third of the arrows bounced off or just plain missed, and about a third of those that did get stuck in the door managed to go through holes between planks that made up the structure. Also notable, it’s easy to hold the bow mostly drawn, but the last few centimetres have most of the difficulty; they are also the most important for power. Also-also notable, arrows fall off the side of the bow very easily.
Confusingly, going between New York and Newark by train, you get on at New York Pennsylvania Station and get off at Newark Pennsylvania Station.
If you can, use the metro line instead: the PATH red line is about half the price of the rail ticket (the main difference is that unlike the train, the main terminal is the World Trade Center). We didn’t know this, and ended up getting one ticket and then the other.
We went to Newark for an event that Sadie was very interested in and was thrilled by the chance to attend, although it’s probably not one to be discussed on a blog like this. While she did that, I explored the city centre: It’s a nice enough city, although it is really surprising to a Brit like me how clearly racially segregated it all is, and how hurt African Americans are: signs with comments along the lines of “don’t tell me you love my culture when you hate me”, that sort of thing.
It was much easier to walk around Newark city than Cupertino, even though Newark had wider roads, because the drivers were much more pedestrian-aware.
Oh, so much stuff.
(Gee, what a surprise!)
The hotel was tiny in comparison to the one just across the water in Newark. If you’re looking to be a tourist, the Newark Hilton is a) connected to the the station, b) as cheap as the cheapest New York hotel that is actually a hotel and not a hostel, and c) the PATH metro is only a few dollars per person per day.
Central park is huge. I mean really huge. It’s large enough that a third of the way in from the side, you don’t feel like you’re in a city any more.
Oh, and there’s a castle in the park: Belvedere Castle, a folly that’s served as a weather station, amongst other things.
The subway (metro, not food chain) is hot, loud, rushed. The crowding level was surprising: it was more crowded near our hotel (80th Street) than it was in Lower Manhattan.
To try and fit as much sightseeing in as I could with my limited time, I took the subway to the South Ferry station and walked as far up as I could.
I saw the famous Bull, along with the attendant crowd of other tourists also taking photos of it. It’s just a statue of a bull. There’s probably some irony about a loudly (even if not strictly officially) Christian nation like the USA having a statue of a bull as a tourist attraction, but there we go.
Next up was the 9/11 memorial. It’s both spectacular and refined. Two large square holes in the ground, waterfalls on all sides flowing to an inner pool, both which have a smaller square hole in their middles for the water to drain into in another four-sided waterfall. All surrounded by the names of the deceased, carved into stone (metal?) topping a wall around the waterfalls. Of course, being America, there was also a poster next to it advertising compensation lawyers with the text “9/11 isn’t over”.
NY City Hall: There’s a public park that looks like it should connect to the grounds, but the hall is closed to the public. The park has some unusual artwork in it, including a giant cardboard cutout of some bacteria.
Broadway: Not that broad. Lots of shops, lots of roadworks. I got my cities mixed up and thought, for some reason, that Broadway rather than Hollywood had the walk of fame with the stars’ names in the sidewalk.
Union Square Park: Nothing particularly special about this one. Typical American scale, typical American city architecture around it. Big sign that didn’t show up too well on my camera. I totally failed to appreciate the art, and assumed the sign was something financial like USA national debt (although it was too big even for that), and that the only real art was the weird ripple with gold and lines to the right of the numbers.
Flatiron Building: Freaky shape, nice to have finally seen it in person and not just photographs.
Madison Square Park: There was some sort of event on, with food stalls. I couldn’t buy anything, having spent my last $3 of cash the previous day in Central Park.
Empire State Building: Perhaps because it rapidly narrows after only 5 floors, it looks smaller when you get there, despite being enormous and clearly visible from further away.
Bryant Park: behind NY Public Library, it’s a nice, pleasant-looking place. I was in a bit of a rush to meet Sadie for dinner by this point so I didn’t go in, but it had a good vibe to it. It, combined with the surrounding skyscrapers, had a bit of a Singapore vibe to it.
Time Square, Broadway: Surprisingly well lit, given the sun had yet to set. Very crowded. Street sellers of “my band’s latest CD”. Lively, wealthy… and yet, another place that felt like poverty was just around the corner.
Somewhere along that walk, although I didn’t take a note of where, there was a public protest against infant circumcision. Americans reading this may be surprised to learn that quite a lot other nations basically don’t do circumcision: from a British perspective, for example, circumcision is a strange weird custom done by foreigners.
The next day was the day of my flight home, but I had a chance to see a little more before the airport. Just across the road from the new World Trade Center building and the 9/11 memorial is a site, I guess it might be a shopping mall, called Brookfield Place, whose main feature is the “Winter Garden”. The Winter Garden has 16 palm trees and feels neither wintery nor gardeny.