Have you ever wondered how New York came to be called the Big Apple? There used to be a theory (now discredited) that it derived from a prominent brothel in New York whose madam was called Eve! The truth, however, is a little more prosaic. It seems to derive from the prizes that were awarded at horse-races, which were known as ‘apples’, and John Fitzgerald, a prominent journalist of the 1920s, adopted the name for the city in his articles. An old saying in show business went as follows: “There are many apples on the tree, but only one Big Apple“, contrary to what Tim Rice proclaimed in his song ‘Eva, beware of the city’ with reference, of course, to Buenos Aires.
The smooth, swift Amtrack service whisked us up the coast from Washington in less than three hours. As we pondered over underground maps on a hastily-caught subway train, we suddenly found four of our fellow passengers giving us interesting, but often conflicting, advice as to which stops and changes to make. We warmed immediately to their friendliness, but we were left puzzled about directions! When we eventually arrived at our lodgings in Harlem, whatever little worries we had about their location, they disappeared in a trice. Despite any notoriety the district carried, we found it pleasant and welcoming, and appreciated why this part of New York had once been popular with the
gentry in the late 19th century.
Arriving in a big, brash city like NY can be a little unnerving, especially if the biggest tower block in your own community at home is no more than a three storey town-house! But to meet up with a former student and his partner, who had only recently moved to NY, made the first few hours of our visit very special. Richard and Rachel treated us to brunch(that peculiarly American phenomenon of breakfast and lunch
together) in one of the nicest restaurants in town, and then we made our way up to The Top of the Rock, on the 70th floor of the Rockerfeller Centre, to enjoy the panoramas of the city. Why not the Empire State Building, you might say? Well, it’s not as busy, the views are equally excellent, and you actually get to see the Empire State as part of the deal! But watch out for the high speed elevator. At 1500 feet per minute (15 mph straight up) it’s quite a shock to the eardrums!
When you are in the Big Apple, you simply have to visit all the iconic venues:
Grand Central Station, Times Square, 5th Avenue, Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island ferry, South Street Seaport, the United Nations building and the New York Public Library. But sometimes it is the little known places, that don’t feature in the guides, that really catch your attention. The High Line, for instance, is an elevated walkway that runs down the east side of Manhattan, which has been developed from the old rail tracks that used to connect warehouses with port-side. You can saunter along, enjoy the views, stop for a coffee, and feel free of the hassle of the city.
And what should the gastronome look out for? Being Halloween season, I had to try a pumpkin latte; brunch just had to include fruit pancakes with maple syrup; and go to any food court for lunch and you will be dazzled with the international variety on offer. But try to buy a bottle of wine in a grocery store and all you will find is a light, fizzy, alcohol-reduced look-alike. To find the real stuff, you need to hunt for a liquor store (not always easy to find), and if the storekeeper likes the look of you, you may be allowed inside the fenced-off area where you will find a small selection of very average wines. The laws governing the sale of alcohol across the US are unbelievably varied, many states and counties preserving a total ban on its sale, despite the 21st Amendment of 1933 which repealed the federal laws of prohibition. In New York, only wines and spirits are sold in carefully controlled liquor stores. If you want beer, you go to the convenience store. To
prevent the development of chain stores, each liquor store must have a single owner who lives within the vicinity of the store. All this is a far cry from the light, airy, inviting environment of a Waitrose or Tescos where you can browse a truly international offering of beverages, and where the labels beckon you….. come on, pick me, pick me!
I enjoyed a long conversation with the landlord of our B&B and, amongst other things, I asked him about American humour
and jokes. He said “there are an awful lot of American jokes. One just entered the White House!”. Then I was ‘entertained’ to a long diatribe about the failings of the Obama administration. I once got chatting to an elderly (white caucasian) male in a museum, and he asked me directly what I thought of Obama. Well, not having any political axe to grind, I said I liked the man: he speaks
well, he’s not short on dynamism, and he seems determined to get his policies through. “Yeh?”, he told me “d’you know what I think?” (whatever I said, he was going to tell me anyway!) “he’s the worst accident ever to happen to America! What d’you think of that?”. If I had been prepared with the facts, I might have regaled him with ‘Well, Obama did win over 52% of the popular vote. Didn’t look like an accident to me”, but he had disappeared amongst the exhibits. There went another lost opportunity!
We mused about visiting some dear friends in Michigan, and calculated the distance from Banff. Little more than an inch on the atlas (I surmised), but Googlemaps shattered our illusions with a more accurate calculation of over 2000 miles, and would require 35 hours of driving (which for us would translate into 4 days, at least). So much for atlases! So the idea of a rental car was quickly ditched, and the services of Delta (aka Air France) were called in. But before I go any further, I have an issue regarding merged companies. Let me share it with you.
When you rely on yourself to do all the research and bookings,
you have to watch out for companies not masquerading as themselves. Take this as an example: I booked our outward flight to Vancouver with Air Transat, at the airport Canadian Affair handled our check-in, and
we found ourselves flying with Thomson Airways! Given that the deal was struck through Lastminute, I have no idea who I was actually doing business with. For our flight to Detroit, I booked with Delta and Air France made the deduction from our credit card account. So, if you are ever puzzled by a possible fraudulent transaction on your credit card, it may simply be a merged company that hasn’t declared all its credentials.
But our ‘diversion’ to Michigan was a priority for us. Reconnecting with friends from the days when I did a Fulbright teaching exchange back in 2005 was going to be a highlight of the trip. (See Letters from America here). With a very warm welcome from my former hosts, Ed and Libby, we were guaranteed a weekend of many delights and surprises: from the history of Motown music to the buzzing energy of a Motown revue as
we dinner-cruised along the Detroit River (check out the Prolifics here); from a journey through American history at the Henry Ford Museum to an all-embracing tour of the beautiful laid-back liberal city of Ann Arbour (with our dear friend Olivia, who bravely exchanged jobs with me back in 2005); from a brisk 40 mile cycle ride with Vince (a former semi-professional roadie) along the beautiful Hines Drive to a relaxing dinner with old friends from Stevenson High School. Four days were far too short a time to be with such good people, but they had their work schedules, and we, on the other hand, well………………what can I say? Retirement is, indeed, a privileged status.
Next stop Washington……………but how to get there? Believing we are never too old for such things, we took the
plunge and booked overnight tickets on the Greyhound Bus, despite the looks of astonishment and words of caution coming from various quarters. That’s the “peoples’ transport” we were told, and a New Zealand couple gave us the worrying details of an experience they had had a few years back. The outcome was, to our relief, far better than our expectations. In fact, one of the coaches was evidently new, air-conditioned, with wifi and leather reclining seats. What more could you expect for $49? And it meant that we entered Washington DC as the dawn was breaking…………
Being retired teachers, we have spent many summers contemplating the arrival of September, and the return to classes, with a certain unease. Of late, however, as students and teachers are reluctantly dragging their heels, as they head for their first meetings and classes of the autumn term, we mysteriously find ourselves holding plane tickets, with bags ready packed in the hope that the last vestiges of summer will linger a little longer in the places we might visit. I spent many hours this last summer piecing together the complex jigsaw of an adventure trip across the American continent, starting in Vancouver and ending up in the city which bears the historical tag of being the cradle of the europeanization of the Americas, namely Boston. The journey was to last a month in total, and we were to make extensive use of most of the available means of public transport to get us from one side of the continent to the other. And although this was not intended to be a cycling holiday per se, we did rent tandems and solo bikes in many of the cities we visited, giving a measure of speed and flexibility as we toured the sights.
The following posts are not intended to be a monotonous catalogue of places, events and activities in the usual travelogue style, but rather reflections of a personal nature about people, places and idiosyncrasies that either moved us or simply caught our attention. The journey was a venture that had absolutely no input from any travel agent other than me. Everything I researched, planned and booked had few ABTA and ATOL guarantees, and certainly no travel companies that we could complain to if anything went wrong. So as we headed for Gatwick airport on September 12th for 30 days of travel, Jenny could detect a hint of nervousness on my part as I fingered through the file of documentation, doing a last check that all was in place. And the final result?……….. Well that would be giving away the punchline before the story has been told. So read on as the posts evolve!