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23 July 2014 Last updated
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Travel

Empire state of mind

Self-confessed TV addict Elizabeth Elphick has grown up on a diet of sitcoms and films set in New York. She finally gets the chance to experience the city for herself, but could it possibly live up to her expectations?

By Elizabeth Elphick
2 Jul 2013 | 04:25 pm
  • Times Square stretches for blocks and is becoming increasingly pedestrianised, with plans to turn it into a piazza in a few years.

    Source:Supplied picture Image 1 of 2
  • It’s a good idea to check out The Met online to narrow down which of the two million artworks to see.

    Source:Supplied picture Image 2 of 2

“Sitting in a JFK Airport lounge, Elizabeth was feeling cheated. After six days in New York, she had yet to encounter a smart-mouthed waiter, a snobby or impatient shop assistant, a taxi driver who couldn’t speak English and drove like a maniac, or even anyone vaguely rude or hostile.”

OK, I am not a character from Sex and the City, but after watching countless reruns I sometimes hear a Carrie Bradshaw voiceover to my life. Perhaps it was because of a lifelong diet of TV shows where New York is not only the setting but practically a supporting cast member – think Night Court, Seinfeld and Friends – that I had formed definite opinions about life here. I wondered if perhaps I hadn’t visited the right areas. Had I not made the right choices? I pulled out my New York bucket list and thought back...

People and their pampered pets

First, a few perceptions and misperceptions. Some things in New York were as I had imagined – it is indeed incredibly loud, especially in Midtown. The constant sirens, traffic and the sounds of the subway made it very difficult to sleep. And while street sweepers constantly worked to clear up trash, it felt like there was a thin layer of grime over everything, from the buildings to my own skin. What I wasn’t expecting was to find the friendliest people I had ever met striking up conversations with me – a stranger – in any queue or any time I stood still for a few minutes. Also, gentrification – restoration of run-down areas – had completely changed the face of the city I was brought up to believe was dangerous.

Despite constant assurances of how safe New York is today, I couldn’t help clutching my bag as I strolled down the street. It was on my second day that I had the closest brush with crime I would have on the entire trip. Walking in Midtown, absorbed by the sights and sounds, I suddenly felt a rope from behind encircling me from both sides. I was being caught and tied up! Jolted back to reality, I heard, “Sorry, he’s such a nuisance,” and realised it was just a tiny dog that had escaped from his owner’s side and run around me, trapping 
me in his leash.

I later realised that dogs on leads are almost as ubiquitous as the yellow taxi cab. New Yorkers love their dogs, even sharing taxis with them. In fact, that night while looking through the room-service menu at my hotel, I found there was an entire page devoted to pets. The list included gourmet cat and dog food ($10 or Dh36.70) or, if you really wanted to spoil your furry friend, an “8oz burger lightly cooked with Iam’s kibbles”($15). This was my kind of place!

Bright lights, great grid

I don’t know how anyone living in New York could ever feel down – they just need to head to Times Square where every night feels like New Year’s Eve. Despite jet lag and not having slept on the long flight, I headed there as soon as I arrived and found the enormous neon signs, flashing lights, colourful characters and energy from the crowds were the perfect antidote to exhaustion. Amazed that it stretched over five blocks, I wandered through throngs of tourists and the Goofies, Plutos, Elmos and Statues of Liberty who earn a living expecting a few dollars from everyone who has a photo taken with them. It must be a lucrative career as I found my initial excitement at spotting the famous Naked Cowboy was misplaced. The original character – a guy wearing a cowboy hat and boots with his briefs covered by a guitar so as to appear naked – has started a franchise and there are now quite a few Naked Cowboys wandering around.

I needn’t have rushed to the Square though, as I accidentally found myself there so often on my trip as it’s within walking distance of the likes of MoMa, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Terminal. I soon found, too, that I needn’t have taken a taxi; Manhattan’s grid system was made for the directionally challenged like me. With the streets running east-west numbered and getting higher towards Uptown, and the city clearly divided into east and west by 5th Avenue, which runs north-south, it was impossible to get lost.

Seeking Strawberry Fields

I should have listened when people told me Central Park was enormous, but I had only one mission – to visit John Lennon’s memorial garden, Strawberry Fields. I have always been fascinated by The Beatles, not so much for their music, but for the mysticism that surrounded them and their relationships. 
I was sure I could find the memorial without getting side-tracked, I mean, a park is a park. How wrong I was.

From my first visit I fell in love with it. At the Great Lawn I was surrounded by families picnicking, couples on blankets sharing the enormous weekend newspapers, fathers playing catch with their sons, parents cheering on their little ones in baseball games and groups of pram-pushing mums chatting together. There were hotdog and snack stands everywhere and the spring sunshine seemed to perfectly reflect the generally wholesome feel – I felt like I was in a movie. A further walk, dodging cyclists, joggers and skaters, past buskers and 
the lake, and I found myself on the quieter tree-shaded paths with splashes of cherry blossoms and daffodils all around me.

The following day I was back, and this time I stumbled on the fairy-tale Belvedere Castle where I found a map (it didn’t help) and incredible views, not only of the park, but of the city skyline. After walking through the Ramble, 
which the map indicated was near Strawberry Fields, I found myself drawn to the Met museum on the outskirts. This meant, after two visits to the park, I reluctantly had to give up my mission to find Strawberry Fields. After all, this is a city with more than 60 museums, not to mention theatres and compelling tours – I couldn’t spend every day in the park.

As sad as it was to come all this way and miss out, I took my hotel concierge’s advice to take a hop-on, hop-off bus to see all the other sights on my list. You can’t imagine how excited I was when I got on the bus and looked at the Uptown loop’s route to find one of the first stops was Strawberry Fields.

I hopped off right outside the Dakota building where John Lennon famously lived and died. As soon as I walked into the tear-shaped garden I sensed it was not like the rest of the park. This might be due to its being designated a quiet zone, or to the birdwatchers and mourning Beatles fans milling around. Whatever it was, the atmosphere was blissfully tranquil. 
I sighed a little later as a tourist group spilled noisily out of a bus into the park, but it turned out for the best as they brought out the garden’s most notable ‘resident’, Gary. Stepping in front of the stone mosaic memorial, whose single inscription ‘Imagine’ he had decorated with strawberries, sunflowers and a peace sign, this self-proclaimed Mayor of Strawberry Fields began the talk he has been giving for almost two decades. While he is seen by some as a nuisance for disturbing the peace and claiming ownership of a public memorial, I felt this long-haired, middle-aged man in his sleeveless jacket, festooned with badges and peace symbols, added something to the experience since he was obviously a serious devotee.

Perhaps Yoko Ono doesn’t like Gary pointing out her exact apartment and whether she is home or not, but I was pleased with the confirmation that she was, as I had been convinced I had spotted her the previous day walking a small dog in a quieter section of the park. Whether it was her who saw me, and quickly pulled down a woollen cap and put on sunglasses, didn’t matter. It’s just nice to know I was in a place it could have happened – Imagine.

A view like no other

One thing I didn’t expect to be blown away by was the buildings. They always seem to be touted in terms of height, 
and coming from Dubai, I knew that wouldn’t impress me. While all the better-known ones appeared striking in photos and on film, I felt I had already seen them. But what you don’t get from images of the buildings is the sheer detail of their facades, or that there is such a concentration of different architectural styles spanning centuries in one area, or that there are so many unsung architectural marvels. I found all this out on the hop-on, hop-off bus tour. The chance to look up from the bus and study all the buildings – something that would be impossible to do from the busy streets – means you can take in all the details.

The bus helped me see so many landmarks in just two days, I was starting to feel smug, thinking I knew Manhattan like the back of my hand, and even though it was just one of five boroughs, I had pretty much conquered New York. A visit to Rockefeller Center’s Top of the Rock observation decks crushingly cut me down to size. It’s only when you are standing on one of the three decks looking out at the whole city that 
you realise just how enormous it is. Each one has 360-degree views but the uppermost is open air and, no matter how many 
times you might have seen the twinkling light show that is 
New York on film, its beauty takes your breath away.

The big picture

Of course New York’s aesthetic appeal is not limited to its architecture. My visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art was just a continuation of the theme that underpinned my journey – underestimating the size of everything. On finding out it had almost two million works of art spanning more than 5,000 years, I realised yet again I should have done some advanced planning. Luckily the security guards knew their stuff and, after a few questions about my interests, they gave me directions to the modern art section, which didn’t disappoint with its collection of work from Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol.

I managed to take in three of the exhibitions in an afternoon, but by far the most memorable was a special show I stumbled upon, highlighting the vital role of fashion in the works of the Impressionists. Each room had glass cases with mannequins modelling genuine clothes from each era, reflected in the series of paintings on the wall by the likes of Manet, Monet, Renoir, Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Zola. I was in awe that they had managed to match the clothes and the paintings so perfectly.

Back at JFK, it was while remembering this last attraction on my New York bucket list, it struck me. The Met was a metaphor for New York. Enormous, with a mind-boggling array of things to see, and constantly changing. It was confusing and overwhelming, but there were always kind strangers to guide you around and, if you wandered off on your own, you were sure to come across an unexpected gem. Not a bad observation, 
I thought, Carrie would have been proud.

By Elizabeth Elphick

By Elizabeth Elphick