Month six: Pretending to live in New York

Places visited: Washington DC, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), New York (New York!), Massachusetts (Boston)

I’m squishing Boston into this post, even though technically it happened in Month Seven.

Favourite things: Spy museum in DC, Eastern State Penitentiary, seeing Manhattan for the first time, meeting Tom at the airport, the High Line, Brooklyn Botanical Garden, the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, cycling around Central Park

Worst things: My credit cards. Bane of the trip.

Modes of transport: Car, taxi, bike, ferry, bus, metro, plane!

Books read: A little house binge! Little Town on the Prairie, Those Golden Happy Years, The First Four Years. Also Dark Tower 4, 5 & 6, The Circle, A Walk in the Woods

Best/weirdest food: Knish! Love it. Also more exquisite ice cream flavours, pretzels, roasted vegetables (I was so pleased with this that as I sat eating it, watching Masterchef, I was smugly convinced that it would beat any of their creations).

Things lost:

Things bought: Books! Presents, deoderant, magazines

Injury/illness: Mild nausea, mild sunburn, stomach pain.

American restaurants/shops visited: Dunkin Doughnuts, Pats (philly cheese steak staple), Wendy’s

So that’s that! Although, not quite. I’ve got so much more to say about this trip, and there are a fair few more list – type posts in the pipeline. I’ve always enjoyed writing more reflective pieces than the typical ‘this was Place A and all the things I did there’ ones, and what better time to reflect than after half a year away from home?

Books on location

It’s not often that I read books wih locations I’m familiar with; more because I don’t seek them out, not because they don’t exist.

But New York is the setting for so much popular culture – I recognise things I never knew that I knew. Streets, shops, even the way people walk.

This also includes books, and especially the series I’m currently reading, The Dark Tower. Large parts of these novels are set in New York and there’s a whole host of references which I know would have gone completely over my head before.

Now, I feel like I understand the story more completely, like I am sharing an inside joke with Stephen King. One of the central elements of the story is located really nearby; I walk down the same streets and it seems almost as if I could wander into the fictional universe.

This might be particularly enhanced due to King’s tendency to use regional brands, slang and businesses within his fiction. Anyway it’s definitely something I’ll look for in the future when choosing books.

Downsides to living the American Dream

There’s countless things I love about America (although I am trying to count, I have a list) and a few that drive me crackers. Here’s the downsides:

1. Tipping culture
If you ever want to see me enraged, just ask me about tipping taxi drivers

2. Being rushed out of restaurants

3. Widespread fervent religion
Sometimes this is quite nice, but often it is a tad scary

4. The gun thing
For most of my time here I have managed to consistently and deliberately forget that guns are common and in use. But it still sucks

5. Obsession with cars
But that’s a story for a whole other post

6. International ignorance
Not always true, but I have been asked if Wales is actually its own country, rather than a suburb of England

7. The range of ready meals available
I like to cook, okay?

8. Border control/security
My experience wasn’t even extreme, but it was unpleasant and very unwelcoming. The level of security and paranoia is downright ridiciulous – I’d known that was a stereotype, but not that it was true.

9. Cockroaches
*shudders*

10. The tendency, nay, prediliction, for oversharing
Too much! Too personal! Too soon! I don’t want to hear about your sister in laws’ sexual health problems! I don’t know you!

Museums of Manhattan

This week has been a big shift from traveller to tourist – Tom and I have been visiting famous attractions from Times Square to the Public Library, taking pictures and eating ‘New York’ foods (hot dogs, pretzels, bagels and frozen yoghurt).

image

I’ve actually gone above ground and seen the sights I’ve been travelling beneath on the subway (Grand Central Station, for example, is gorgeous.)

Art, both modern and ancient, has taken centre stage. We’ve seen both the silly (lego exhibition) and the serious (I forgot how excited I was when I discovered Futurism as a teenager).

image

Discovering great restaurants is more fun with someone else, as is trying to decide which is the Chrysler building and which is the Empire State.

Seeing the UN headquarters was a particular highlight. ..

image

And getting to play with the sailboats in Central Park seems like something straight out of a film.

There’s still so much left to see, but not so much time. I’m beyond glad that I left such a large chunk of my trip in this city.

The cultural significance of cars

As I was writing that title, it occurred to me that this is a slightly odd topic for me to be interested in. I certainly never thought I’d write a blog about it, but I am interested. Here’s why.

Most American households own a car. Quite often, more than one. Driving is the primary mode of transport; so much so that people give estimates of distance in terms of the time it will take by car, not by foot.

Comedians make jokes about having their licences taken away and being reduced to dependence on public transportation. Films showcase the ‘loser’ character as the one riding a bike everywhere. Funny, right?

Maybe this is true all over the world, but I never noticed it until travelling here. People simply love their cars. That joke about Americans driving to the gym? Pretty true!

To not own a car here (or, shock horror, not have a licence) signifies a lack of responsibility, success, even the status of adulthood. It is uncool in a way I don’t think it is back home.

There are no doubt multiple reasons for this. First of all, it’s a huge country and buses and trains are hardly as efficient as they could be. This is quite the catch 22, because until they do provide a viable alternative to driving, the number of people relying on the car will continue to grow.

Secondly, I think cars hold a certain place in American culture. What do people associate with the USA? Road trips. Cadillacs. Route 66. The American Dream comes complete with a ride.

Cars act as a signifier of social status. For people who don’t drive, it’s often not a choice – they simply can’t afford it. Poor people take the bus (this isn’t an insult, after all I include myself in that statement). The people I met during this trip who didn’t have cars were certainly less mainstream. They fall outside the bell curve on more than just their vehicle choice, and that’s my point, really, that cars are the norm.

Owning and showing off a car demonstrates certain things about your lifestyle, your bank balance (even if the payments are getting you into debt…but that’s another story); your reputation.

While I find this fascinating, it’s a reason why I couldn’t/wouldn’t live here. I hold a drivers licence, I’ve owned cars in the past and I certainly accept their practicality. Having access to a car would have made this trip easier.

But still, I don’t want to have to drive. I like and respect cycling, I’m a huge bus fan and writing about trains for three years will rub off on you one way or another. I am interested in how we can create smarter ways of travelling; systems which carry more people faster at a lower cost (to the environment as well as the passenger), that provide access to crucial services and bring communities together. Transport which could genuinely change the world. (Okay, more than merely interested.)

In the past six months I’ve used seven different metro systems. While working these out gives me a certain geeky pleasure, it’s also allowed me to form a lot of ideas about what makes a system good. What makes it user friendly? How do you get people to use it? How can public transport fit into wider society for both tourists and locals?

I’m starting to get a bit carried away, so I’ll leave it there. Any other perspectives would be very welcome – is the car craving only an American thing?