Entering New York was a strange sensation and reminded me of when we first arrived in London on holiday in 2012: arriving on a new continent, a new part of the world we’d never been to before. The queue through border control crawled. I felt myself heating up and began to feel nauseous (not unusual when I get too warm, although normally in conjunction with other things like low blood sugar). I stripped off my jumper and rolled up my sleeves, wondering if something I’d eaten on the plane disagreed with me. Fortunately as I cooled down and time passed I improved. I was amused by the videos we watched while in the queue, educating tourists on different aspects of American culture (it’s like they don’t realise we ALL watch American TV!) We entered the US on an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) which, if you are eligible, allows you to enter the country under the Visa Waiver Program. It’s not a replacement for a visa, but it tells the border control agent that you’re allowed to enter the country without a visa. They do stamp a visa of sorts in your passport though, with a maximum exit date. We just told our agent when we were planning to leave and he wrote a date a few days later.
We got a cab from the airport to our guesthouse and were immediately confronted with the issue of tipping. Everything I’d read online disagreed with how much you’re meant to tip. I couldn’t tell if it varied by state, service, or if there was no rhyme or reason. Some said a base of 10%, more for particularly good service. Others said 10% was for bad service, 20% as a base tip for acceptable service. Others said nothing for bad service. We ended up going with a base of 10% but would often round up, more likely tipping 10-15%.
Driving along the freeways of New York towards our guesthouse in Brooklyn gave us a view of Manhattan across the river and I couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated. It was nearly midnight and the city was lit up spectacularly, and all I could think was this was an enormous, strange city in a strange country and, realistically speaking, I knew nothing about it. Travelling between European countries and cities was different. Aside from a bit of a divide between northern and southern Europe, they all do things roughly the same. For some reason, this felt so much newer and stranger than turning up to a new European city. At least we spoke the same language here!
The guesthouse mostly operates without staff and had a self-check-in process with a number pad at the door which I was prepared for. We let ourselves in and found our key and bedroom. The place was a bit old and run-down and the doorknob to the bathroom was dodgy, but the bed was comfortable and the room was very quiet considering we were in the middle of Brooklyn. Going to sleep with the distant sounds of New York outside our window reminded me of another time, a lifetime ago, when we were going to sleep in the middle of another strange and new city with the sounds of London outside our window.
We really enjoyed New York, although I never quite shook the slightly overwhelmed feeling. Brooklyn was fine, but I think the sheer size of the buildings in Manhattan made me feel just a little claustrophobic in a sense. Even in the City of London or Sydney you don’t get many buildings like that, and Manhattan is full of them. We did a great Sandeman’s walking tour on our first day though which did help us get our bearings, which is why we do these walks as often as we can on our first day in a new place. We saw the Trump Building, New York Stock Exchange, Wall St, Broadway, and the hall where George Washington was sworn in (including the bible he swore upon!) and the 9/11 memorial. We didn’t visit the 9/11 museum, although I have heard it’s very good.
We also took the free Staten Island ferry in order to see the Statue of Liberty. Access to the island and statue itself is quite expensive, but the Staten Island ferry passes close by and is totally free. We actually did it twice because the first time was at sunset and the thick pollution in the air combined with the setting sun meant the air wasn’t great for photos, so we did it again the next morning.
One night we ate at the Hard Rock Cafe, which was fun for an experience but expensive so we weren’t going to do it twice! We also took a walk to Times Square (which took us past the Radio City Music Hall), and one afternoon went for a bike ride around Central Park.
Another of our highlights was going to the top of the Rockefeller Center (otherwise known as 30 Rock) – we chose this rather than going up Empire State Building so that we could see the Empire State Building! It also gave us a good view backwards to Central Park, and at the bottom of the tower we saw the famous Rockefeller Center ice skating rink.
We also visited the New York State Library, primarily to see the original Winnie-the-Pooh toys, but they had been taken off display for restoration. I was quite put-out because I’d been checking the library website for months and it said the toys were due to be returned by the end of Fall, and here we were in the first month of winter and they weren’t back yet! There was a Mary Poppins display instead, featuring Mary Poppins items which had belonged to PL Travers. I was also disappointed that the Rose Reading room – arguably the library’s most famous room (it’s the one that always ends up in the movies) was also closed for work. At least we got to see the entrance hall (among other reading rooms and displays) which is quite beautiful and which some people may recognise from some movies (for me, that’s The Day After Tomorrow!).
We also visited the New York Museum of Modern Art – one of the things I’d most looked forward to because we got to see Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night! I was also quite pleased to find works from other artists I enjoy or studied at school such as Picasso, Salvador Dali and Frieda Kahlo.
Also of particular note for me was a Moulin Rouge poster by Toulouse Lautrec and another of Monet’s huge Les Nympheas paintings. Andre quite enjoyed a huge interactive digital piece – basically a walk-through computer game!
Then it was on a bus down to Washington, DC.