14th – 20th July 2014 (Graham)
A solo side-trip
This week I’m striking out west. Some time ago in an idle email I mentioned to my ex-colleague and friend Dirk that we’d be in Europe in the northern summer. He equally casually suggested we head over to New York City, where he has created an exciting new life that pulses somewhat faster than a shared office back in Western Australia.
With limited funds, but my 40th birthday fast approaching, Prunella and I toyed with the idea, and finally decided that I should take this opportunity to visit a place I’ve always been intrigued by; a place my father always wanted to visit but never did…
Way back in Bucharest I bought the tickets, flying Aer Lingus over the Atlantic from Dublin, which is itself a worthwhile destination and a mere skip across the Irish sea from Liverpool.
So on a bright, fresh Liverpool morning, I slung my bag, and headed off to the bus. A short trip, and I’m at John Lennon International Airport, among the throng waiting for my Ryanair flight, and cursing that I’ve left my camera battery charger back in Gloucestershire. Newer, more arcane travel restrictions hint that electronic equipment will be tested for charged batteries on pain of being held and sent on later. Fortunately, my gadgets have enough juice for now, but it’s another headache to deal with in the next couple of days.
In short order I arrive at Dublin, and with a 3-day public transport Leap card in hand, I’m on the Airport express bus. It’s a short trip, with enough free wifi to let me discover the bargain bag storage at the Tourist Bureau, and stride out into town. In half an hour I’ve solved the battery charger problem and can enjoy the bustling town – OK it’s a city but it really feels like a large town.
Soon I discovered the ancient and tiny precinct around the 13th Century St Kevin’s Church, a ruin now, but which nonetheless has punched well above its skeletal weight in Dublin’s history – the burial-place of the sixteenth century martyr Diarmaid Ó hUrthuile, a place of riots, bodysnatchers and siege. Now it’s a quiet corner to reflect and enjoy a picnic lunch.
Moving on my circuit around Dublin, I pass the tiny red brick cottages of Long Lane and then across into the precinct of St Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s an impressive building with a nice square beyond it. I content myself with reading the history information boards rather than entering. The same goes for nearby and equally grand Christ Church Cathedral – for my sightseeing euro I shell out for the Dublinia a Viking/Medieval Dublin “Experience”.
I normally shy away from “Experience” attractions as they err on the side of the dramatic and bloodthirsty as opposed to the ‘stodgier’ history of museums to which I must confess I tend. This one was all that – there were some impressively posed tableaus and a great model of medieval Dublin. It did seem to attract a variety of punters – which is good – god knows there are too many of us stodgies about and ‘living history’ is the way of the future. And let’s face it, the vikings are pretty incredible – not just the mythical horn-helmeted axe-wielding raiders, but the traders, explorers and artisans who really put Dublin on the map. I emerged into the daylight somewhat in two minds – I’d not got the rich flavour, but I got what it said on the tin.
By now I was getting weary, so I sat in the watery summer sun by the Liffey, wandered to a cafe, and finally headed off to meet my couch host Cynthia. Cynthia is, like many in Dublin, from out of town, but she’s studying hard here and making a go of it – we enjoyed a pleasant Guinness or two and swapped some ideas and conversation.
…another St Kevin’s
I had one more day in Ireland this time, so I decided that I’d head out on the bus to Glendalough, a mystical place in the Wicklow Mountains where I hoped to get a taste of the wilder side of Eire. Before the bus left I took the Luas tram out to the Point, and strolled back along the Liffey shore. The city seems to be recovering well from its GFC tribulations, with business creating a bustle to take up the slack of the property bubble.
I made it to the bus for one of the last seats, and soon it heading off, through the Georgian quarter, and into the suburbs. We pass through Bray, and then cut inland, climbing into the green mountains, which are softened with a palette of summer colour. The bus arrives in Glendalough, and we are given a friendly warning that the bus leaves at 4pm – “whether you are on it or not!”
Glendalough, (from the Irish Gleann Dá Loch, meaning “valley of two lakes”), is a special place: a steep glacial valley where the deposits of a river flowing from the south side have divided the lake into two, the Upper and the Lower. It is a mystically beautiful place, calm and majestic, and attracted the early Christian hermit later known as St Kevin as a place of quiet contemplation. Doubtless many others appreciated the tranquility of the place, long before Christian monks left their mark here. For most of its history Glendalough was far from any other significant settlement, and thus remained largely undisturbed by the squabbles and struggles of early medieval Ireland.
Today the natural beauty of the landscape is complemented by the ruins of a monastery which date back to the 12th century, and feature several stone buildings and some tall stone towers, which include defensive features such as doors high off the ground, accessible only by a removable ladder.
It’s well worth the twenty euro return bus ride from Dublin, and was for me a complete contrast from the urban landscape I had explored over the previous few days.
Finally the day arrived to head west across the Atlantic, and I arrived at Dublin Airport fully equipped. A feature of Dublin departures to the United States is ‘Pre-Clearance’ wherein US immigration, visa and customs controls occur in Ireland before flights depart.
Presumably Pre-Clearance reduces the chance of anyone arriving in the US from this terminal and being denied entry or (god forbid!) legally seeking asylum. It also had the effect of turning my Aer Lingus flights into a US domestic flight as well, which does speed things up at JFK.
A good flight, which left in the mid morning and arrived five hours later in the early afternoon. On emerging from the airport one is confronted by an effective but poorly signposted public transfer system to get into the city: the Airlink train which connects to the New York City Subway. It’s hot and distinctly humid in New York – a reminder that summer in the city is in full swing.
I make my way through the network – fortunately my trip is quite short as I’m heading to Brooklyn – and before long I emerge among the solid brownstone stoops and iron railings that I’ve seen in so many movies. It’s America, and everywhere are….Americans. After a little confusion I collect the keys to my host’s apartment from the diner downstairs, drop my bags and settle in. It’s not long before Dirk walks in.
Dirk, my host, is an erstwhile colleague from my workplace back in Perth – an energetic twenty-something Gen Y, Software Engineer, Entrepreneur and fellow alumni of both Murdoch University and, (at least ten years after me) Leeming Senior High School. A few years back, just graduated, he took the completely unsurprising and pretty cool option of quitting Perth for the bright lights of New York. In many ways were at different places in our lives, but we get on very well.
The first evening, with my body clock mumbling that it’s nearly two in the morning, and another of me part screaming – “but it’s New York for crying out loud!” we head out to a free screening of Zoolander in a Williamsburg park. The cool and the hip gather for beers and conversation, rugs spread out across the warm concrete, the Empire State catches the light of the setting sun. Wow, I’ve got to pinch myself.
Day 1, New York City
Next day, after breakfast at the aforementioned diner – in which I forget the tip but to my surprise get only a cheerful wave from the proprietor – I head out for a stroll. I thoroughly enjoy exploring on foot, and sketch out a trip from my Fort Greene base to Manhattan. My walk takes me down Myrtle Avenue into downtown Brooklyn. I stop into a supermarket and a deli along the way, picking up what I need for lunch. I climbed up the hill and through to the somewhat prim neighbourhood of Brooklyn Heights, no doubt shored up by the money that must reside this close to the shore.
The view from the promenade is a classic – across the East River, to the ever so familiar glass, stone and steel ramparts of Manhattan itself. Away north, the Brooklyn Bridge stretches across to link the two shores, and the river and harbours are thick with traffic, while a seemingly equally busy highway of helicopters ply their trade up above.
I wandered down to the shoreline, then back up under that colossal cathedral to human effort (and sacrifice) which is the Brooklyn Bridge. On this warm, hazy, cloudy day the Bridge has an ant trail of similarly minded people crossing in both directions. We traverse the wooden pedestrian deck, some ignoring the painted demarcation that separates the pedestrians from cyclists; the latter mutter curses,ring bells and ply brakes. Onward and ever onward, finally reaching the zenith of the gracefully shallow arc, which then seems to plunge into a canyon of Manhattan-ness. A rain cloud looms across the Island.
Fortunately the weather holds off, and I can rest my legs among the trees in the triangular park in front of the Town Hall. I know it’s cheesy, but I’ve set foot in Manhattan, a place which always seemed more of a TV backdrop than a real place, but here I am. I continue on, heading west, cutting across the Island. Inevitably, I find myself in the part of the city most affected by the 9/11 attacks. The new building, One World Trade Center (or ‘Freedom Tower’) is complete, and reflects the brightening summer sky. To its south, the 9/11 Memorial Park is filled with onlookers admiring the frankly impressive monument – a square void with cascading waters that appear to descend into the earth. Signs in the precinct demand quiet, respectful behaviour – for the well-behaved tourists respectfully reflect and take photos.
I strike out from these somewhat gloomy precincts, and eventually draw a breath of Hudson River air. The Hudson vista, with its New Jersey skyscrapers across the water, echoes my earlier viewpoint from Brooklyn.
I walk south along the shore finally reaching Battery Park, where I slump in a chair with a surprisingly decent coffee, contemplating my path home. I take the A-train back from Fulton, passing through the dark canyon of Wall Street, with its not so subtle bronze tank-proof barricades and somewhat excessive Stars and Stripes. Sigh. As I said, it’s America.
The High Line
Friday I meet up with Dirk and a bunch of his mates – many of them Aussie expats – at the Brass Monkey, a familiar-sounding pub in the colourfully titled Meatpacking District on the lower west side of Manhattan. A feature of this area is the High Line Park – an urban green space forged from a winding former overhead railway line that stretches for a mile or so along Tenth Avenue.
It’s a very creative use of disused structure, utilising the spaces where the ‘railroad’ passed through buildings for covered cafes, and a bridge where the line crosses 17th Street forms an urban theatre above the road. During my visit, the place was full of people strolling, chatting, and making use of the space, living proof of the original intent of those who campaigned for the preservation and development of the park.
One Saturday in Brooklyn
On Saturday Dirk and I stroll south, grab some brunch and take in the Brooklyn Museum. In many ways it’s more of an art gallery, but it’s a good choice nonetheless. We spent an hour or two taking in a pretty impressive Ai Wei Wei exhibition, featuring a collection the Chinese dissident’s cheeky, subversive observations on life in the modern Middle Kingdom. The guy’s got cojones taking on that paranoid government.
The rest of the collection includes an eclectic display of permanent and temporary exhibitions – the early feminist art of Judy Chicago, 19th century Russian landscapes, medieval religious paintings, design, and a large collection of Ancient Egyptian sculpture to name but a fragment of what we saw.
We emerged blinking into the afternoon light, and promptly took refuge in a fairly hipster bar-cafe – so very Park Slope – where most of the light was provided by a constellation of glowing Apple logos on MacBooks of all shapes and sizes.
Here Dirk and I headed off in different directions. I continued through Park Slope, cutting south and west, past the site of the Battle of Brooklyn (1776 – a defeat for the new Continental Army). Further on, I cross into Red Hook, a part of Brooklyn emerging from a past associated with its role as a port and industry. I passed several parks, filled with Saturday local baseball and football games, supported by family and friends who were in turn sustained from the depths of numerous food vans.
Around the corner – the familiar blue and yellow block of an IKEA store, which perhaps symbolises the reconstruction of Brooklyn as a place for up and coming families and a tide of tenants. My purpose was to take the Swedish furniture emporium’s free weekend ferry to Manhattan (no purchase necessary!), which passes Governor’s Island and deposits the traveller (ahem…customer) with their flat pack on Manhattan’s Pier 11.
I scurried furtively away, empty-handed, along the shore, slowing down after a few metres. My path took me north again, under the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge, through the pedestrian-only blocked off roads of the NYPD Police plaza, and into Chinatown. There I slurped noodles, joined the throng strolling the streets of next door Little Italy – perhaps the most touristic part of the city. Another day on foot finished with a traverse of the Cast Iron district, snazzy SoHo, in search of the A-train once more.
I was determined to rest today, after a few days covering many kilometres. But big cities have a habit of passing on their energy, and leaving Brooklyn, I took an F train to Delancy for a ‘short walk’ in the East Village. My short walk became a medium walk, trending diagonally north through the Village taking in Tompkins Square Park, the cafe strips along First Avenue and East 14th Street, Stuyvesant Square, well-healed Gramercy Park and finally pulling up for a double espresso at Madison Square Park, in the shadow of the Flatiron Building. These are just four of the many parks which are scattered across the urban landscape like green oases in a sea of brick and concrete.
Fuelled up again, I strolled north along Fifth Avenue, then cutting back over to Madison Avenue, the Empire State Building always looming up on the left. Soon I was in the Sunday evening bustle around Grand Central Station, even on a Sunday evening a hub for people coming, going or hanging around on a warm summer evening.
From the vaulted splendour of Grand Central, it is a few blocks east to the monolithic enigma that is the UN Building, which is surrounded by the diplomatic missions to the UN of all nations. This afternoon, the diplomats are off at cocktail parties, getting on with the real business, and the precincts of this much debated institution are quiet as the long evening shadows of Manhattan stretch across them.
It’s been a big week: two new countries, three world-famous cities, and half a hundred lasting memories.