Many of my readers might remember Jeremy from my days as a student in Durham. Well, he’s still in the picture and as a matter of fact, he went all the way to America with me to visit my friends and family for Thanksgiving. While he was travelling he kept a diary of what we did and some of his thoughts about my native country. What follows in this and the next blog post is an edited version of his travel diary (edited mainly for length as Jeremy is quite the writer). It’s important to keep in mind while reading that we visited very soon after the election had taken place and so many of our thoughts and discussions while we were there were political. Despite politics, my lovely friends and family (and ferrets!) gave us a beautiful ten days and welcomed my delightfully English boyfriend with open arms and lots of food!
On the first day of our holiday, we woke up at 4am GMT. Our arrival time in New York was 12:30pm EST. Somehow, within that space, we needed to fit a six-and-a-half hour flight. Jetlag, on first experience, is a bit rubbish.
Upon our bleary-eyed arrival at JFK, we made our way through customs, onto the airtrain and into the subway relatively painlessly. We were staying in Astoria, Queens, with Erika, one of Jen’s friends from her undergrad days.
Awaiting us was food, wine, and a surprise party of sorts, with more of Jen’s friends gathered to welcome us in. I had a wonderful afternoon/evening (no idea) with them. As a first experience of the USA, being surrounded by five old friends, drinking and chatting in a cosy living room, was nothing short of joyous. I’m wary of stereotypes, even positive ones, but the concept of Americans being more open, brassy and brimming with life than other people (Brits, particularly) was almost instantly validated by them. For the first time, I drank more quickly than Jen – if anything shows how happy I was, this does. It was good wine.
Today started with a gentle awakening from about 12 hours sleep. Erika sent us on our way with detailed instructions and a light breakfast, which we immediately topped up with a massive cream cheese bagel at a place on Astoria Broadway. We weren’t dissatisfied with first breakfast. I enjoy tradition and eating, so a New York bagel was not to be missed.
Next we caught the subway to lower Manhattan. We boarded the Staten Island Ferry to get some tourist snaps of the Statue of Liberty, and after three very exciting minutes on the island we took the ferry back. Our next stop was the 9/11 memorial, via Trinity Church Wall Street and a crowd of bollock-fondlers at the Charging Bull statue.
The 9/11 memorial comprises two deep square pits marking the footprint of the towers, each running with water. I found it simple, strong, and fitting. There’s a sense of a gap having been cruelly cut out of the city, but filled in and restored in due, fair time. The city has moved on, even if world history and American civic religion has not.
We returned to the subway. From the moment of our arrival New York had hardly felt foreign to me, and the subway was integral to this feeling. It is almost exactly like the Underground. The mix of languages, clothing and senses of purpose is identical. When we made our way to other places through the pricey shopping districts, this sense became even clearer. The two cities, London and New York, felt more culturally close than London and, say, Leeds or Birmingham. Borders in the modern west aren’t at airports, but at the point beyond the eyesight of the tallest skyscraper.
After passing on the climb to the Top of the Rock for $$$ reasons, we made for Central Park. It’s a quietly remarkable place. Given that it’s surrounded by towers, it might have felt under siege, but not in the slightest. It’s like nature has learned to live happily, though separately, with the city, rather than being at odds with it.
The tourist part of the day was over – now came the secret stuff known only to locals. Erika took us to a piano bar in Greenwich Village called Marie’s Crisis. It was terrific; the sort of place I wouldn’t dare to step in alone, not out of fear, but because that’s not my world. That night, though, it was, and I could see how it could be in future. We sat round the piano singing showtunes with strangers and drank a merry amount of booze.
We returned to Astoria for dinner and bed. I’ve never had a day quite like it. That city lifestyle of do, do, do, where doing is your rest, and you relax by fiercely enjoying activity and drinks and bars after work, where your apartment is a pit stop as much as it is a home, was made so clear to me.
A few last thoughts on New York:
I didn’t think much of Astoria when we got off the subway. I think it’s something about the chain fences and shutter doors. However, once I had an idea of the character of the place, that shabbiness changed. Instead of indicating a run-down, depressed place, it became more like an architectural shrug. ‘Eh, everything works – why waste time making it look fancy?’ That’s my lasting impression of the area – lively, vibrant, at ease with itself, all heart with no need for surface shine. ‘City life’, it says: ‘get on with it, and have fun.’
Thought 2: hearing familiar ringtones certainly makes you realise how small 3,500 miles is in 2016.
Thought 3: I must revisit New York.
Tuesday was a day of momentous meetings and sofa relaxing. We bid Erika goodbye in the morning and by lunchtime we were in New Jersey. Arriving at the station, I met Jen’s parents for the first time, as well as her 2-year-old niece who they were looking after for the day. The next meeting was even more important. Awaiting us, at home, were Jen’s ferrets. I’d heard so much about them and Jen had been careful to prep me on their habits, but I was still a little nervous.
They’re amazing. I still wasn’t entirely settled with them by the end of the holiday, and they make me jump very easily, but they’re a near-total delight. If the sight of a ferret bouncing up the stairs and chasing its tail doesn’t make you smile, I’m not sure what will!
Wednesday started with a visit to a great tourist institution – the local vehicle licensing office. After Jen had got her new license the day proper began.
One immediate impression I’ve had of New Jersey is how much infrastructure is built around the car and the highway. In two hours’ worth of driving, I very rarely got the sense I was in a town. The highway is constantly flanked by shops and malls. It was strange, making it difficult to get a sense of place. Communities blurred into one homogenous road-town.
We were driving to see Ollie, a family friend of Jen’s family, and met with her at the Stagecoach Inn. What followed was a stomach-punishing example of US hospitality, entirely good-natured, but too much for even my black hole stomach!
I ordered chicken cordon bleu. Part of me was hoping for a big American-sized portion. What I did not expect was a portion the size of America. It was colossal, enough for three meals: heaps of creamy linguini, paving slabs of ham and a farm-depopulating amount of fried chicken. It was great, but I had to leave a lot of my pasta. I think there’s more of a culture of taking home leftovers in the USA, but still. Phew!
I was pretty full, but not to exploding, so I had pudding. The peanut butter mousse pie took me right to the edge of exploding. I was a little greedy, but I’m on holiday, right?
Bad move. We went to Ollie’s for what turned out to be second dessert: pumpkin and pecan cake with ice cream or squirty cream.
Thankfully I can see the funny side, and besides, Ollie’s welcome and spread was so generous that I can’t help but remember the day fondly, even if my stomach doesn’t. We left with candy bags, hugs, best wishes and ruined digestive systems.
We started helping with dinner first thing, sorting out devilled eggs and getting the turkey prepped after it had been brined in the fridge overnight.
Next, the Macy’s parade from New York. We moaned at the TV show advertising and enjoyed it more when the actual parade got some coverage. The moaning is a much-loved part of Thanksgiving in the Bergevin household.
As dinner and guests came closer, we watched the dog show from Philadelphia (I think it was the big national show like Crufts). The Pekingese looked charmingly ridiculous and a greyhound won.
Dinner! Turkey, mash, stuffing, gravy from a jar and the modern miracle that is croissants in a can. I should have taken some of those home to see my Mum’s reaction.
We were joined for lunch by Jen’s brother’s family. Jen’s sister-in-law had to work a 12-hour overnight shift on Black Friday the next day. General opinion seems to be that Black Friday is a pathetic mess. Where are these people prepared to fight over a discount microwave they don’t need?
Later in the afternoon more family members arrived. Our total number was 13…but nothing unlucky occurred. It was a busy, lively, occasionally tense big family Thanksgiving.
The one moment of contention surrounded politics, naturally. It had been decided beforehand that this was a no-go area for conversation, but naturally it came up. It was quickly quarantined in a separate conversation until the topic moved on.
And that was Thanksgiving. Bring on Christmas.
We picked up our hire car (Dodge Dart, 2016, Alabama plates) on Friday morning and set off for Princeton. We looked around the university campus and went into the enormous chapel where Jen graduated from Westminster Choir College, before walking down to the College itself. It looks like a wonderful place to do a degree. I could see how you might become isolated from the ‘real’ world whilst there – Princeton is very posh and, well, very white – but on the evidence of conversation with other alumni in NY last week, diversity is not something Westminster students need education in. The arts really do make people better.
After picking up some posh chocolates as presents, we set off for south Jersey to meet Dan and Kirsten, two more of Jen’s friends. They have a 2-year-old son who is a very, very bright kid. We watched many episodes of My Little Pony, ate pizza and watched Zootopia. What a great movie. Mandatory watching for the message of diversity and race relations as well as the fun and the comedy.
After Zootopia was done we blew up the air mattress and fell to sleep very, very quickly. It was past midnight and past my bedtime.