Everyone who had ever been there told me the same thing:
“New York is AMAZING!”
“Greatest city on the planet…you’ll love it!”
New York had never been on my to do list. I’ve travelled all over the world, but, well, I’d just never fancied it. I’m not a city person. I don’t know how to order an Uber and I know everyone in my village by name. I’m a country girl at heart. I’m at home in the wide open spaces, clambering over streams and wandering through woods, up to my ankles in mud. I say hello to everyone I meet and I expect them to say hello back.
I like silence. I like space. I like nature. I don’t like “Other People”.
When the chance came to attend a friend’s wedding in Manhattan with my family in July 2016, I accepted with some trepidation, persuaded with the sweetener of a week in the lakes and woods of New Hampshire tagged onto the end of the trip.
“Honestly, you cannot fail to be impressed, you’ll have a fabulous time! Just think of all those shops!”
“ I hate shopping”.
“But the skyline!”
“It’s just buildings. Lots of buildings”.
“But Central Park!”
“It’s a park. Surrounded by more buildings”.
We arrived in New York in the middle of a late July heatwave. The mercury was touching 94 degrees, and it was probably 10 degrees warmer than that on the subway. The atmosphere was suffocating and oppressive. I felt like Crocodile Dundee except I knew what the bidet was for and wasn’t carrying a foot-long knife.
I knew I’d hate it and guess what?
Go ahead, judge me. (I also hate gin, leggings and the X-factor, but that’s another story). I’m sorry if you live there, I’m sorry if it’s your favourite place on the planet, I’m sorry if you love it deeply.
I loathed everything about it – the relentless traffic, the constant noise, the endless anonymous streets of skyscrapers, and the miserable looking people commuting to work every morning.
Here’s the thing: nobody wears makeup or high heels, they don’t smile very much and kettles don’t exist. That’s right. Kettles. That one essential item that every Englishman (or woman) immediately seeks out upon arrival in his foreign hotel room.
I enquired at the reception desk of our smart newly-opened hotel in the flower market in Chelsea district. “Could I have a kettle for the room please?”
The receptionist looked at me as if I had questioned his parentage.
“A what ma’am?”
“I’m sorry ma’am, I don’t understand what you’re saying”.
“A kettle. An electrical device in which to boil water, for the purpose of making tea. Would you like me to write it down? Perhaps provide an illustration?”
“Oh. There’s a coffee machine in your room and an ice machine down the hall.”
Every day, we walked miles, seeing the sights. And I mean, miles. Around 12 each day. So far, so Statue of Liberty.
“You must see Times Square!”
Take my advice. Don’t bother. It’s just lots of adverts and bill boards and tat and is filled with tourists taking photographs of adverts and billboards and tat. It’s everything that’s wrong with the world and America in particular. Awful.
“But Trump Tower!”
I went into Trump Tower for a wee. That tells you all you need to know. It’s horrific. Filled with red marble and gold fittings, it is the very triumph of money over good taste. It looks like a giant bordello as imagined by the set designer of Star Wars. I spent a penny (that is a euphemism, I wouldn’t give that bugger a single cent of my money) and left as quickly as possible.
It’s a department store. I prefer Fenwicks in Newcastle. I know where everything is and can navigate it with my eyes shut. I hate shops. I hate shopping. I hated Macy’s. I don’t care that they put your purchases in cute little bags. I was so appalled that I bought a very expensive pair of purple Ray-bans and lots of makeup.
The wedding was scheduled to take place in Central Park late on the Thursday afternoon; that morning we made our way on the subway to Lower Manhattan, and headed to the World Trade Centre memorial. Nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of the site, the enormity of the tragedy and the horror of the individual stories.
I cried all the way through, from beginning to end. Some sections of it I couldn’t deal with, and I avoided them, guiltily. The memorial and visitor centre itself is vast and wonderful and beautiful and terrible, in equal measure. If you go to New York, you must see it. I insist. It’s important that you do.
Later that day we gathered with around fifty other people from the north east of England, in the shade of the little arbour at Cop Cot in Central Park, to celebrate the wedding of Rachel and Paul. It was quite magnificent, an afternoon filled with sunshine, colour, love and laughter.
My last day in New York was spent throwing up in my hotel room, after I had finally succumbed to the heat and humidity. How apt.
On the Saturday morning I said good riddance to New York and hello to my sanity as we picked up our hire car and headed away from Manhattan into upstate New York. I love maps; I can spend hours perusing them, exploring every back road, contour and remote settlement in my imagination. I was particularly pleased to note that the town of Climax isn’t too far from Surprise, although it’s perhaps no coincidence that neither are too far from Coxsackie. Endless interstate highways took us through Connecticut, Massachusetts, a tiny corner of my favourite state, Vermont, and finally into New Hampshire.
Chalk Pond could not have been a greater contrast to New York. It felt like a different country. Nestled deep in the woods a few miles away from the pretty little town of Newbury, with its typical New England white church and picket fences, and within hiking distance of Lake Sunapee, the large cottage which was our home for the next week overlooked the pond ( a small lake to us Brits).
From the verandah outside my bedroom, I could look down through the trees to the water sparkling in the late afternoon sunshine, the scent of pine heavy on the breeze, to the little wooden dock where a small rowing boat was secured with a length of old nylon rope. The only sounds were the wind in the leaves, and the occasional bark of a distant unseen dog.
In the course of the subsequent days, I would spend hours sat on that dock, toes dangling in the water, with a cup of tea in hand (made with boiling water in a pan – still no kettle), perhaps with a book, perhaps without, watching the sun sink behind the wooded hill opposite as the sky turned golden, pink then lilac. The peace was disturbed only by the splashing of ducks and the call of loons (loons are a sort of duck. Not to be confused with loonies, which would’ve been worrying).
Invariably my thoughts would drift back to New York, and in particular to that incredible Thursday, full of conflicting emotions, the juxtaposition of tragedy loss and remembrance, with love, celebration and hope.
Life is short. Seize the day. Pursue every opportunity, accept every invitation, and don’t die wondering. Take that leap. Say yes to everything, take risks, laugh, love, cry, dream.
Follow your heart, not your head, always.
And for God’s sake take a travel kettle and your own tea bags with you.
We stayed at the (excellent) Cambria Hotel and Suites, in the Chelsea district of Manhattan.
If peace, nature and seclusion is more your thing, you might just enjoy life at Chalk Pond… https://www.vrbo.com/260231
MY BOOKS (NON-FICTION/HISTORY)
Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command -The Wireless Operator’s Story (publication date Summer 2020- now available to pre-order).