Christ, I’m at Part 6. Well, you can’t say I’m not thorough. As I’m pretty sure on Tuesday I climbed 1000 steps, and of course went back down again, I needed my Wednesday to be reasonably relaxed. Museuming, fooding, catting. When I met Antonio and Valentine on Saturday they had given me a list of places I should go to. One of them was the Convent of San Marco. What could be more relaxing than a convent? Also, it was included on my Amici card. Decision made, I set off. In the 1400s this convent was rebuilt inside and out, each individual cell playing host to a fresco painted by the resident artist monk Fra Angelico. There is some repetition of the frescos though, most of them following a crucifixion or annunciation theme. It’s interesting to see the variations though, some of the monks lucky enough to share a room with the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary, or a nice Palm Sunday scene. I wondered if they got to choose their cell decoration, or if it perhaps signified rank, the grimmer paintings adorning the walls of the lowly novices, to remind them of their oaths. This Angelico dude was quite prolific, being summoned by Pope Eugenius IV to to paint the frescoes of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St Peter’s, later demolished.

Afterwards, realising I was less than five minutes away from the Accademia I decided to walk past and try out my skip-the-queue card. I’d heard a lot of things about Michelangelo’s David in the previous few weeks, from people telling me it was “Meh”, to being told it was unmissable. As I was allowed to skip the queue, I figured I didn’t even mind if it was meh. It wasn’t meh in the slightest, but I had been expecting it to be in a room alone. It’s not, placed as the focal point where three corridors meet. As I entered the room from a mid-point though I turned left instead of right and browsed the paintings along the back wall, had a sit down and even sent a text before looking up and seeing the huge height-of-three-humans David naked and not at all easy to miss. What I had never realised before is that this isn’t just any David, it’s Goliath-slaying David. Some say prior to the slaying, some say after it. His right hand holds a stone, and the sling hangs over his left shoulder. He stands a way out from the wall, so you can get a 360 degree look if you want. And you might as well. There’s an intriguing sculpture room, full of busts, horses, nymphs and goodness knows what else as we could only view the long hall from behind a velvet rope at the door. I’ve no idea if it’s open normally or if this is how it is always viewed, but considering I have my Amici card, I’d be willing to go back and see.

I’d worked up a large hunger by this point, calling into Cafe Toto again for a pizza slice. I’d progressed from “A taglio… margherita” to “A taglio funghi, salsiccia e mozarrella… e uno cecina per favore”. Yeah, I really wanted a sausage, mushroom and mozzarella pizza slice, but I got a cecina on a whim, after Valentina told me it was a really tasty kind of chickpea pancake, which it was. Both of those cost 5 euro altogether. As I was so close to the ice cream parlour Perche No! I had a quick dessert, a scoop of coconut and one of cassata Siciliana, which seemed to be vanilla icecream with little bits of sponge cake and candied fruit. As it was my relaxy day, I decided to walk to Piazza del Ciompi to find the flea market, after a quick stop at the post office to send my Mum a postcard, and trying to figure out their ticket system as you need a different ticket for travel money, information, postal enquiries… The flea market was a bit of a disappointment in the end, just a few rows of antique shops not unlike Smithfield in its heyday. Quite expensive, and good for dealers of such things, but not really for a girl wanting an afternoon out. I headed back to feed the cats.

There was supposed to be a Couchsurfing meal that evening but as I was staying near the stadium on match night buses in my area were delayed, so I arrived at Santa Croce church half an hour after the meet-up time. Birte had been there at the right time and hadn’t seen a massive group, but she found a Couchsurfer called Kirsten who was traveling alone after a recent breakup and hadn’t wanted to waste the tickets they had bought together. We went to a restaurant called I Ghibellini and I had the main of Papardelle al Cinghiale with a desert of Vin Santo e Cantucci di Prato, which is basically almond biscotti dipped in a sweet dessert wine to soften them. Strong wine, but a really nice dessert experience. Then home!

 

You know when someone posts on a travel forum saying that they just have one day in a huge city and asking what they should do there? When all of the regular forum posters stop being disgusted because this is not how they recommend anyone travel, they suggest about three big hitters, must-sees that you could conceivably do in one day. This was my Tuesday. It wasn’t what was planned, not at all, but ended up being so much the better for the lack of planning. I had read online that on 25th March every year there was a parade starting from outside Palazzo Vecchio [the City Hall] at 9am and winding its way to Piazza SS Annunziata where there would be food stalls and a church service, as this was traditionally the Florentine New Year. I figured I couldn’t miss this. 9am seemed a little early though, so I arranged to meet Birte from Germany at 9:30 beside the Perseus-holding-Medusa’s-head statue in the Loggia dei Lanzi, as I thought it would be a cool place to meet. I’m a bit morbid. Anyway, we didn’t see a parade, or hear a parade far away, or see any parade debris. We decided to go around to Piazza Santissima Annunziata to see if there were any stall or if I’d just imagined the entire thing. There were stalls! The obligatory souvenir lot, sweets that it was too early in the morning to even consider and, bizarrely, kitchenware. We gravitated closer to the Basilica, ready to leave again if they charged entry but they didn’t so we entered a place so cluttered with gold and silver it could have been an antique shop. Most striking upon entering is probably Michelozzo’s Tabernacle, at the time surrounded by elderly ladies who seemed to be waiting for the service to begin. Candles reflecting on gold, many ornate incense lamps of different sizes and the general feeling of expectation led to this being the focal point for the exploration. Still, we walked around the rest of the busy church, especially touched by the paintings by primary school children showing their interpretations of several Bible stories. Oh, and in case you were thinking there wasn’t enough gold, the ceiling is gold.

Stopping by the Duomo ticket office quickly as there was no queue, I got myself a Duomo/Campanile/Baptistery ticket for 10 euro. The tickets are valid for 6 days after purchase, but must be used within 24 hours of entering the first building. That was fine by me. You could climb one building late in the day and do another the next morning if you were tired by the first climb. We headed over to the Uffizi as Birte was curious and as my card had skip-the-queue privileges it didn’t really matter when I went! The queue for people who already had reservations was so long it spiralled in the street, as wall space was taken up by the non-reservation queue. It was pretty fast moving but we soon realised it was the wrong one for us, as the Northern Irish couple in front of us in the queue explained. Birte would have either had to spend 25 euro for a reservation right then and there from the wandering clipboard people who circle the queue or join the two hour queue to get a ticket for the normal price. Basically, reserve the day before you want to go. Or earlier. Just go late in the day and there’ll be no queue at the reservation desk. As the Uffizi seemed a bit of a non-starter Birte suggested we go back to the Duomo and maybe begin some climbing as there was less of a queue. We began in the Baptistery, as I was still mentally debating whether I wanted to climb anything at all. Hidden behind scaffolding, we were relieved that it was open, and there was no queue. The main attraction is the domed gold interior ceiling, a smiling Jesus in the centre with tiers around him showing at the bottom evildoers, gradually working through stories of humans [including John the Baptist, for whom the Baptistery is named], the seraphim, Archangels… you get the idea. There are also bronze doors sculpted by Ghiberti, initially winning a competition to do so, one set of doors taking him 21 years to complete, the other set so painstakingly crafted they took 27 years. These were thankfully uncovered by scaffolding, so we had a good stare at them.

I decided I was still in two minds about the Duomo, so thought we should start with the less terrifying Campanile, which was about 50 steps shorter. Looking at it from outside, it also appeared to have regular viewing platforms and rest stops, so seemed the wiser choice. There were indeed rest stops inside, but long staircases before you reached them, so a fitness testing walk! I’m not sure why I was surprised to see a me-sized bell inside the bell tower, but I was. We were all jarringly surprised when the bells rang midday when we were inside, and all gritted our teeth and waited it out. It was great to see the gradual ascent through the windows. For the nervous, at the very top you’re enclosed in a cage with fantastic views of the dome and a huge feeling of accomplishment. We decided we deserved some ice cream after that before we attempted another climb, so ended up at Festival del Gelato on Via del Corso very near the dome. It had the largest selection of any gelateria I visited this holiday. I had pistachio with crema fiorentina, which seemed to be cream with mascarpone and honey. Amazing.

We next went inside the Cathedral which you don’t need a ticket for. It’s considered to be reasonably plain in comparison to some others, but from your angle you can’t see Vasari’s paintings on the dome interior, which you need to complete the climb to properly appreciate, although craning your neck to look at a ceiling while standing on a narrow platform hundreds of feet above the Cathedral floor isn’t for the faint-hearted. It certainly nearly finished me off. We also explored the Crypt of Santa Reparata, at which I was actually surprised [I need to stop being so surprised] to see the skull on display in a glass case. After all this I decided that I was enjoying company, and might as well do the climbing when I was with someone as that would give me the extra kick I needed. To explain my hesitation, I recently had a climbing fail at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I made it up to the first exterior gallery and was all set to go up to the top, until I saw that the stairs for the next part of the journey were metal treads, with see-through gaps between, the entire spiral staircase relatively open which means you can see right to the top… and right to the bottom. Not for me. After this I searched Youtube for film of the Duomo climb and found that it was all enclosed stone staircases. So I did it! There was a queue, which lasted about 30-40 minutes. In Florence, land of queues, this ain’t half bad. Like I said, there were more steps than the Campanile, and fewer viewing platforms, but more stops between staircases for you to catch your breath. Enclosed in stone, the only real wobble I had was at the first interior viewing gallery. After that, I was focused on getting to the point where I could go down if I wanted, as an escape route is a reassuring thing. At the second interior gallery there is an exit point but we didn’t have to walk around that gallery as we had the previous one, edging our way round painfully slowly one foot at a time, with too much time to think about falling. After the second gallery, the staircase became hilariously two-way, with much squashing against the wall, thanking and apologising in multiple languages and being told by people on the descent that we didn’t have far to go. We all ended up chatting to each other, reassuring each other and laughing at our mutual breathlessness. A lovely, companionable experience. Finally, the summit! There was a railing, only just above waist height but somehow I didn’t feel too worried. I helped take a photo of a couple on their ipad on panoramic setting, which means if you press the button and then scan the view horizontally for five seconds, the photo will take in the entire area. This amazed me! Argos-camera doesn’t do that…

After the descent which was made easier by the American high school girls singing Miley Cyrus to their nervously claustrophobic friend, we needed food badly so had a bit of a wander, ending up at Tavernetta Della Signoria. I had Crostini Misti as an appetiser, which is basically mixed toasts. One with mushrooms, one with mozzarella, one with chicken livers and one with tomatoes, which I quietly ignored. As primi [first course] I had ribollita, which I’d been dying to try since I’d read about. Described as a vegetable soup with potatoes, cabbage and carrots it’s really more like a stew, as it has bread in too, to thicken it. It was hugely comforting but had a mostly plain, cabbagey flavour. This was fine, but when they brought me a bowl of parmesan to sprinkle on top, it really zinged! Highly recommended. Just after this, at about 4 we heard music and what could only be a parade. We made our way to Palazzo Vecchio to see the New Year’s parade on their return journey: medieval dress, a Firenze flag, lots of yellow outfits for what may have been the military, feathers in hats and what looked to be noblemen in maroon-coloured onepieces, some nobles forgetting their nobility and yawning or looking amused. I preferred those who kept deadpan expressions.

Birte went back to the hostel so I decided it was time to try my Uffizi skip-the-queue card, not intending to stay long. As it was 4pm there wasn’t much of a queue anyway but everything went smoothly. At the Uffizi, you climb the stairs to the second floor, starting with the famous first corridor, moving around to the second and third. After this, you descend to the first floor, which includes the Foreign Painters Rooms, amongst other things. I only managed the first and second corridors before I became so tired I had to go home, but the beauty of the Amici Card is that I could return to do the rest of them. The busiest section was of course the Botticelli  room, with a crowd around the awe-inspiring painting of Venus. I read that on Saturday [my second visit to the Uffizi] a man stripped off his clothes in front of Venus. There’s a picture online of him doing this and my first thought was “Why isn’t there a crowd in front of Venus?” then I realised the crowd probably moved to get away from the crazy naked man. I didn’t see him anyway, that was my first floor day.

Also worth a long look is the Tribune, an octagonal room in the first corridor which you can’t enter, but must view from behind ropes at the door. Covered in red velvet and  designed for the Medicis it was one of the first collections of masterpieces anywhere, a place the favourite works of a family that already owned huge amounts of world-famous art. After all this though, it was time for home and cats. I had discovered that Betty responded positively to me singing Whitney Houston. Maybe because I sounded like a cat, who knows?

Before you start reading this, you should know that nothing much of note happened on Sunday and Monday. Those days were also slightly demoralising as anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. But will I leave them out? No. Samuel Pepys wouldn’t leave them out, would he?

I’d  made up my mind that I was going to have a lie in on Sunday. I felt I deserved it after all the walking. I was meant to meet a Couchsurfing girl at 2:30 and that was early enough for me. Unfortunately just before I left the house a thunderstorm began. Elham canceled and I don’t blame her, as I’d been just about to cancel myself! I spent a little bit more time chilling with Betty on my knee [a breakthrough!] and by about 3:30 realised thatI should just leave the house anyway or it would have been a wasted day. I donned my raincoat and decided to go to the Bargello, having worked out a circuitous two-bus route there. Unfortunately when I arrived it was closed as though I’d worked out that it was open every other Sunday and this was an open Sunday, I’d neglected to check the opening times. It closes at 1:50 every day. As I was already in town and didn’t have much in the way of thunderstorm-worthy socks with me, I decided to go into  H&M and get some. Most of what they had on sale were 5 packs, which I didn’t need but I found a Hello Kitty 3 pack for what I thought was a great price. Turns out I was looking at the wrong sign and they were nearly 10 euro. Oh well. I got them anyway.

I managed to stumble accidentally into the Mercato Nuevo, characterised by the bronze statue of the wild boar near the entrance. Rubbing his snout is meant to bring luck, or ensure that you will return to Florence or something so I did this. Other people were feeding pennies into the snout. I didn’t. I hope this doesn’t cancel out the snout-rubbing good luck… Still, I managed to get a picture taken with him, which was one of the things I wanted to do over here. Yeah, my ambitions are small.

That day as I’d left the apartment I’d noticed market stalls in my street [because it was football match day in the nearby stadium? Who knows?] but it had been raining so heavily I hadn’t stopped to browse. Luckily for me they were still there when I got back at about 5:30 and the weather was dry so I had a look round, taking a few free samples of bread and buying what I thought were small sugared dough balls, but turned out to be rice-filled as well. Win! I then nipped into the local rosticceria and got myself some toasted bread with garlic, cheese and mushrooms and took my bounty home to eat. The rest of the night was cat-time, with a little blog-time.

 

On Monday I had agreed to meet Lucyna from Poland to go to the Leaning Tower Of Pisa. A girl called Marina had posted up on CS saying she wanted to go, and then just never replied. Another guy called Jonathan messaged me, then vanished. So it was myself and Lucyna for better or for worse. Figuring out the take-a-number train ticket buying system, we were a little surprised that returns to Pisa were 15 Euro, as I’d mistaken the single price on the website for the return price. We went anyway though. Just as we’d worked out where our platform was – through some sort of hidden door – a guy came over and asked us if we were going to Pisa. We were already heading towards the platform but he came with us and I realised he might be one of the beggars I’d read about, even though he seemed well-dressed, in an expensive-looking leather jacket. I knew to validate my ticket but he showed us the machine [which, to be fair, would have been helpful if I hadn’t known] and when we got on the train it turned out I was correct and he wanted payment. As we had already worked the system out for ourselves and resented the fact that he hadn’t expressed his desire for money before ‘helping’, we didn’t give him anything. I wonder does that actually work though? I wonder do people give him money? When we got to Pisa we spent a jolly half hour taking the obligatory ‘holding the tower up’ shots, me angling the camera so it looked like it was leaning a little more than it actually was, as the lean in real life wasn’t looking too impressive on camera. We enquired about prices as there didn’t seem to be a big queue, but it was 18 euro to climb it, and the unexpected train fare meant I didn’t have this amount with me. I decided it was a lovely building, but probably not high enough for an amazing view worth locating a bank machine for. We got the train back and ate outside at the Osteria Santa Spirito, which had blankets on the chairs if the outdoors got a little too cold. I was too embarrassed to use mine though, not to mention that eating spaghetti while trying to keep a blanket on my shoulders would have been hilariously awkward. Yep, I got spaghetti all’aglio, olio e peperoncino which is spaghetti [just the pasta, not to be confused with spaghetti with bolognese sauce] with olive oil, garlic and chili peppers. Hotter than I expected [why didn’t I expect it to be hot?] and a huge portion for 7 euro, I was delighted to see full cloves of garlic in there. Must have been an entire bulb in the meal. I consider this a good thing.

We went to Boboli next where I was able to explore the parts I hadn’t seen, moving into Bardini as Lucyna faded and went home. The Bardini Gardens are a puzzle, connected to Boboli by first the walls of the Forte de Belvedere and then a residential street that makes you think you’re lost, except there was no other way you could have gone. All of the artwork and grand staircases of Boboli are here on a much smaller scale. Almost homely, really. After looking at the view for quite a while, I decided to go back to Boboli and work the perimeter so I wouldn’t miss anything, making it all the way to the Green Of The Columns, a green surrounded by imposing statues, seeming even more intimidating on this chilly day. Imagine the Hall Of Kings And Queens in The Magician’s Nephew. Proud faces towering over you.  I also found Cyprus Alley, this time with trees towering over me. I stayed until closing, but never found the Limonaia [unless it was one of the closed, unmarked buildings]. Perhaps you will have more luck.

That evening I decided to try to be useful and get some water for the cats from the water-cooler-type-thing at the park. I tried to take the bike, which was a mistake as realistically I knew it was too big for me. I fell off the bike, although I don’t know why people say “fell off” when usually they are still on the bike, but fall over, with the the bike trapping one leg and the other leg trapping the bike. I flapped around like a gasping fish for a while, eventually managing to lift the bike off me and by then being too embarrassed to put it back so just wheeling it round the park with me. Where I found the wrong gate that the bike could not fit through, so tried to lock it to the fence. Then could not operate the lock. I eventually figured it out, hoping the teenage boys watching me didn’t decide to try and steal the bike. When I got to the machine I noticed one tap had no queue and after trying it – incorrectly – decided it was broken and that was why no-one was queueing there. I stood for a horribly long time as a strange elderly man filled his bottles one by one then realised this was the sparkling water line [who would queue for sparkling water?!], so had to go back to the other, in shame. I filled my water bottles quietly while people speaking Italian giggled at me. I hid in the apartment for the rest of the night.

First off, I need to stop being so long-winded. I originally intended each of these entries to detail two days, but so far I’ve written about two days, and had two entries. I don’t want to end up with ten blog entries! Even the most hardcore won’t read them. Friday morning brought a Spartan breakfast. It was no-one’s fault though. The day before I’d had Daniela’s home-made bread with jam, and as she’s a vegan I decided to try soya milk. All was fine until my lips started tingling. And swelling. I looked in the mirror and it looked like I’d been punched. I started to panic a little, as having an anaphylactic shock in a country where the hospital doesn’t speak your language wouldn’t be top of my list of things to do. I went out and tried to forget it though and the swelling started to go down. It took a few hours though. Note to self: I’m allergic to soya milk. So, on Friday I had the bread and jam with water. Later Daniela took me to the local Lidl [they have Lidl!] and I stocked up on supplies of cornflakes, non-soya milk and other groceries to take me through the week. I made a friend too! Grimmy began to sit on my knee. Shame he was the one cat I wouldn’t be sitting. Sod’s law.

Friday was going to be a little different from Thursday as I was meeting my first couchsurfing sightseeing buddy. I met Jay from London at the outdoor leather market Mercato San Lorenzo which is outside the indoor Mercato Centrale, the main produce market in Florence. We were fascinated by the fish stalls, splayed-out octopi on display beside chopping boards dripping with fish blood. Not enough to put us off our food though! I got battered calamari and chips. We worked up our appetite in the Capelle Medici though [yep, them again], their Chapel Of The Princes a cold, awe-inspiring room of blue marble, belying its humble exterior. The New Sacristy shows work of Florence’s darling Michelangelo. In fact, he built the darn thing. Worth 6 euro. Or nothing, with an Amici card. Icecream from a non-famous gelateria followed, as I was unable to remember exactly where Grom was. I don’t think we suffered though. My one scoop of raspberry and one scoop cinnamon was perfectly pleasant.

Cat-things followed, with me learning how to put the harness on the cats and take them into the garden for walks. Ever tried to put a harness on a cat? Give it a try. It’s an… interesting experience. That evening I walked around the exterior of the football stadium, Stade Artemio Franchi as it was between myself and a couchsurfing party which I wasn’t sure if I could be bothered going to or not. I’m glad I did. People who can cook [not me, then] had brought dishes representing their nations and about 40 people showed up, sharing food, stories and some bizarre party games, one in particular involved 30 of us in a circle, facing the back of the person to your left, and slowly sitting down until the entire circle was sitting on each other’s knees, supported by the circle. It actually worked! I got a taxi home at around midnight, as I had house-stuff to sort out at 8 in the morning before Daniela embarked on her week in Germany!

On Saturday I was relying on the kindness of strangers when I met up with Antonio and Valentina; friends of friends. Or friends of friends of friends. When I told my friend Sarah I was going to Florence she put me in touch with her friend Jason, who knew Antonio. Hey presto! Another tenuous internet connection is born. It was a great day, with Italian advice and historical context for a lot of places and buildings, Antonio being the type – like me – who retains odd little pieces of information about things and can wittily recount them, not unlike Thursday’s tour guide! My research in advancealso helped, although I must find out more about Savonarola… Anyway, they suggested we start our day in the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi, one I hadn’t really heard of mainly because it wasn’t on my Amici card list. People say you only really go to this place to see one room, but honestly, the place was so stunning I’m not 100% sure which room the main room was. We began in the tiny Chapel Of The Magi covered – and I mean COVERED – in frescos painted by Bennozo Gozzoli. Brightly coloured images of the aforementioned Magi but with hidden details that deserve taking some time to study. A man with a pet leopard, for instance. A hawk savaging a rabbit, revealing its intestines. Brightly coloured odd stockings on folks. And a disgruntled Pope, painted looking gloomy as apparently he disapproved of the Medicis, so they decided to immortalise him looking a fool. If you would like to know more about the paintings, there’s actually an interactive feature downstairs in which you stand in a booth and point at characters in the paintings, and a voice explains who they are, or what their typical counterpart would have done. Impressive tapestries follow, and a gold room which may be a ballroom is exactly what it says on the tin – painted gold, with chandeliers and mirrors for added effect. The chadeliers and gold reflected in the mirrors have an effect close to sunlight, and the only thing spoiling the room is the fact that it was set up for a conference, with a projector and microphone. The chairs for the conference guests, however, were transparent, which camouflaged them nicely. A puzzling exhibit of modern art in another room was probably amazing but somehow seemed laughable after all the frescos we’d seen. Sorry, modern artists.

A stop for food in Pallottino helped keep us going. I had the Crostini i Toscana and the waiter was concerned I should understand it was toast topped with chicken livers, in case I was another damn fool tourist who ordered the wrong thing. We split a plate of artichoke fritters between the three of us and I dipped them in the liver, not caring if this was the done thing. Valentina had Pappa con Pomodoro which was described in guidebooks and a cold soup of tomato stewed with bread but she let me try a little and it was warm, thank goodness, and hearty although as tomatoes are my mortal enemies, I probably won’t ever order a whole one. Antonio had Pappardelle al Cinghiale which translates as thick ribbons of pasta with wild boar sauce. I tasted a little and all I can compare it to is the tinned spaghetti I ate as a child, except nicer, and not tinned.

Duly fortified, we moved on to Santa Croce Basilica and museum, a surprise for me who begrudgingly paid expecting to find only one room. There were many rooms, although even the ‘one room’ was worth it. Michelangelo’s tomb, a monument to Marconi, and an empty grave for Dante who was exiled and fined – which he did not pay – by the Florence Government. Later pardoned, after his death the Government requested his remains but because of their shoddy treatment of him during his life, his remains remain in Ravenna and Santa Croce keeps an empty monument. Plaques on the walls show the water line of the 1966 flood which was high above head level and the Opera Museum shows pieces of art under process of restoration because of flood damage, most famously Cimabue’s Crucifixion. More graves are in an underground crypt, and a bizarre series of modern sculptures inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, showing winged beasts torturing humans, a parade of hooded skeletons, people being supended by their feet and a father eating his son. Kinda makes you want to read the book… Or just watch the Baz Luhrmann film.

We parted ways and a cat-trip home followed. Later I crossed the bridge to meet Robin [Florida] from Couchsurfing who really wanted to try Cuculia, a restaurant she had read about. A friend one told me that if the waiters bring you an aperitif you didn’t ask for, it’s going to be expensive. They charged us just for what we ordered though, the puzzling green and yellow soup with what may have been walnuts just a pleasant extra. The whole thing was a little more sophisticated than we were expecting though, the menu defying logic even when translated into English. In the end I ordered a kind of pasta with zucchini and buffalo mozzarella and Robin ordered truffle ravioli which was fine, but she was a little confused as to why they felt the need to top it with blood oranges. No matter, food was had, and bed was calling!

 

I woke up on my first morning in Italy with a real excitement, knowing I had a whole city to explore. My reseach had taught me that a company do free walking tours twice a day, starting at Santa Maria Novella Church, where my bus oh-so-handily leaves me. Not being sure whether we were meeting at the front or the back of the church, I briefly joined a group of American college students on a tour, realising my mistake when their teacher started talking to them about which coach they were getting. Melting away from them and hoping nobody had noticed me there in the first place, I walked to the front of the church where I saw twos and threes of confused-looking oddly-dressed folk with large cameras. I had found my people. So this company run a tour at 11am and one at 2pm, loosely titled the Medici tour and the Renaissance tour. I went on the Renaissance one at 11, mainly because that was the time I woke up at. I wasn’t sure if I would really learn a lot, but I figured it would help orient me in the city, locating places of interest, maybe meeting people and, well, it would be better than a kick in the head, right? It turns out I did learn quite a lot, not least where Vivoli, Perche No! and Grom were located [the top three gelaterias in Florence, according to my cross-section of guidebooks and websites]. When we finished up in Santa Croce Square at around 12:30 I fully intended to do the second tour after a light lunch, but life got in the way. Already tshirt weather by 11:15am, the tour group shedding layers of clothing rapidly, I figured I could do worse than attack Vivoli, paying at the desk before ordering my flavours at the counter and enjoying the shade of indoors as I reached the end of my stracciatella and mango tub far too soon. Consulting my map, I realised I was right by the river so a sunny day’s walk along the water was required, and when I got that far I decided I might as well go the whole hog and cross the Ponte Vecchio. Tourists – of which I am one, I totally own that – thronged around the bridge, posing for photos and giggling. Being on holiday alone means you don’t have anyone to take photos of you but you get resourceful, picking your victims with care. Elderly couples taking photos of each other are usually willing to take one of you if you ask politely. You have to play down the wacky shots, but it’s a small price to pay. I got photos taken by all nationalities. German, Italian, Spanish, English… Only one lady refused, barking “No!” at me aggressively. In French, in case you were wondering.

So here I was, Oltrarno side and probably a bit late for my tour. My map told me how close I was to Pitti Palace and I got out my Amici Degli Uffizi card and prepared for the free entry it provides. Not really free, of course, as you had to buy the card, but it saves you carrying cash and unlike the Firenze card, it lasts for one calendar year [as opposed to 72 hours] and you can enter each place as often as you want, whereas the Firenze card allows you one entry in each place. So, should you want to take in the Uffizi a little at a time, day by day, you can! Which, according to the rumours of how large the Uffizi is, isn’t a bad idea. I haven’t been there yet, as I have another 5 full days to go here! Er, I digress. So at the Pitti Palace you can choose one of two tickets. Slightly more to it than this, but I’ll call them ‘indoors’ and ‘outdoors’ for ease. As it was 25 degrees, I chose outdoors. So, like, the Medici family were rich and stuff. They had palaces all over Florence. This one is different, as this one includes their garden. Sculpted hedges, countless water features, heavily ignored ‘keep off the grass’ signs and the occasional tiny lizard running too fast for a camera to catch make this the perfect place to spend a sunny day. It’s far too large to take in in one go, so after finding secret grottos, the Porcelain Museum with its views of San Miniato and the half-submerged statues, I decided to find Cypress Alley and explore the ‘little sister’ park Bardini Gardens at a later date. Needing some shade I went to the Galleria Del Costume which has some nods to the Medici family but really is simply a fashion museum, dresses donated by fashionistas in Italian history. I wonder did they ask if the Museum wanted the dresses or if they just assumed? It’s an aesthetic dream, the current exhibition of hats through the ages getting a little samey after a while but still imagination-firing. It’s only when you forget yourself and look up at the ceiling, seeing the frescos that you remember this is still a Medici Palace. It was nearly cat time again, so I refound a little cafe I’d spotted on the tour that sold pizza by the slice, and a few doors up got a rice pastry from a pasticceria. I would be back. To all of the places.

For all the blogging I’ve done, I’ve never actually been able to blog an event as I’ve been living it. Because this is my first ever holiday with internet, I’m going to try doing just that. Of course, it won’t quite be blogged minute by minute as things get in the way. Sleep gets in the way. As do cats. But I’m still here in Florence, less than halfway through my stay and I’m going to try and update a little at a time.

First off, I probably need to explain the cat thing, right? Well, I’ve never really had an awful lot of friends. As a teen I was never invited on holiday with groups of giggling girls, and I probably wouldn’t have wanted to go anyway. I didn’t have the travel bug. I didn’t care. In the past two years or so I’ve made friends who share my interests and who actually invite me on holiday. I know I can go with them and it won’t be Ibiza Uncovered. It’ll be civilized, maybe even educational, and it will involve food. All that time alone as a teen takes its toll though. When I began to get travel-addicted, I realised my friends didn’t necessarily want to go away as often as I did, to the places that I did. I began to explore solo opportunities, as I was used to my own company anyway. A few internet searches for volunteering opportunities abroad led to dead ends as they were only available to college students, or Americans. This was especially the case in Europe. Most websites seemed to think that only Americans wanted to volunteer in Europe. Who would want to go there if they already lived there? Well, I did. Volunteer opportunities also fairly racked up the prices. Paying thousands for the privilege of helping people was quite the done thing, it seemed. I decided to look elsewhere. Quite by chance I found a website called helpx, where people didn’t have to pay for the pleasure of helping, and didn’t get paid. It was a straight-up labour exchange, ran by the people themselves who needed the labour. I browsed the ads for days, seeing au pairing opportunities in the Swiss Alps, farm work in New Zealand, hostel receptionist positions in Reykjavik… Some positions I ruled out right away. I’m not the type for heavy farm labour. The farmers would find me totally useless. I also didn’t really want a rural post as I wanted to see cities and culture. Other posts sounded good, but you needed a driving license, or to be fluent in French. I saw a post looking for a catsitter in Florence. Having no real knowledge of Florence or Italy as a whole, but liking the sound of cats and a city, I marked it as a possible.

Eventually, in December I sent an email off asking if the post was still free. Emailing back and forth occurred and relying heavily on my internet-serial-killer-detector, I booked flights for March just before Christmas 2013. I researched Florence heavily. Bus routes, castles, menus, customs, maps. So heavily that certain things are second nature to me now I’m here and some streets were already bizarrely familiar. My faltering attempts at Italian have been mostly understood and the only sour language note is when I asked for a bus ticket in Italian in a newsagent, and the server asked me something I didn’t understand. I had to ask what she meant and she sneered at me; “You shouldn’t try to speak Italian if you can’t speak it fluently.” I thought what I was doing was called learning, but what do I know?

Day 1 was fairly functional. Up before 6am, taxi at 7 for flight at 8:40. Window seat. Got to Bristol at 9:30 and had quite a tedious time waiting for my 12:20 flight to Pisa, finding discarded newspapers and doing the crosswords. I had an aisle seat but when we flew over the Alps the lovely English mother and daughter beside me suggested I lean over and have a look. It was stunning. In a few weeks they’ll start running lowcost flights from Ireland straight to Italy – maybe even Florence itself – but unfortunately this is the very end of off-season. The summer flights start in about two weeks. Killing time before my bus to Florence city centre I called into an airport cafe and used my first word in Italian: “Questo” or “that one”. Turns out that one was a sfoglio di riso, a sweet sticky pastry dusted with icing sugar and filled with rice. They’ve followed me around all this trip, and I’ve obliged them by eating them. Eating them ALL. Daniela, my host picked me up in Florence city centre and we battled the one-way system in rush hour on a Wednesday, getting back to the apartment after 6. I was introduced to the three cats: Betty, Blanco and Grimmy but I’m only minding two of them as Grimmy deteriorated medically after we made the initial arrangement in December, now needing daily injections and special tube feeding at times, so he is staying with the vet this week. I was shown the things I need to know, like where the bus stops are, how often the cats get fed, how to empty a litter tray and which recycling goes in which bins, and I headed to bed in my own room at around 10pm Italian time, knowing Daniela would probably already be in work by the time I woke the next morning.

Lungs [NYC Day 4]

March 18, 2014

I am going to Italy tomorrow and have a very real fear that once I get there, I will be so busy thinking about Italian things [food] that I won’t be able to remember what happened in New York, nor have any inclination to finish the New York blog. Only one thing for it then…

I allowed us a small Sunday lie in today, I think almost until 10am. Gosh, I’m a kind and generous travel partner. Lying in too late would be folly though as we hadn’t seen any ART yet, and while not being hugely interested in ART, it seemed a shame to miss it all. The best kind of ART, I find, is free ART so after I looked at all the prices of all the modern A** museums I found a small, private museum based around a collection of old masters owned by a dead rich man. Or a rich, dead man. One of those guys who buys things just because he wants to own them, you know? And the best thing about The Frick Collection? Pay-what-you-like Sunday mornings! After a photo stop at Grand Central Terminal [calling it a station marks you out as a tourist], taking time to look at the ceiling of constellations, we made our way to Frick. Scores of tight-fisted tourists queued to see the Rembrandts, Titians, Vermeers, sculptures of men battling hydras and my personal favourite, a room filled with clocks, showing the development of timepieces through the ages. Yes, it’s a little terrifying when the staff bark at you for leaning too close to a picture showing a fly on a bunch of grapes, but I suppose they do have a job to do, and the pictures are gorgeously uncovered. The Frick Collection also wins the award for best gift shop of the weekend. See a picture you like? Why, have a postcard of it. We have a variety of sizes. You can also buy the picture on a tin, as a notebook, as a bathmat*…

As The Frick lies at 70th off Fifth Avenue, we were less than five minutes away from Central Park, which was exactly how I planned it, naturally. Covering 843 acres and commonly described as “the lungs of the city” we couldn’t really bear to miss it. Being so large though, it’s notoriously confusing for fifth-time visitors, never mind first. I found a navigational tip on a website though. The lamp posts scattered through the park do more than deliver light, they have numerical markings on them which correspond to the street numbers outside, telling you how far North or South you are and with the help of a map, allowing you to locate the must-see sights in the park [although nobody told me the carousel was inside a building, which meant we nearly completely missed it]. It’s a marvel of hidden sights and unexpected treasures, especially for a child who was thrilled by the tiny undergrowth-covered bridges in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens. It really is too much to go into, but do keep an eye out for squirrels, Shakespeare quotes on little plaques in the rose garden, busking choirs using the acoustics underneath the bridge to boost their sound and Belvedere Castle, which allows a vantage point to see the rowers on the lake, amongst other things. On the Central Park West side as well as a plethora of food vans, you can see The Natural History Museum [amongst others] and as the Strawberry Fields memorial [at which gathered youths were singing the entirely non-Beatlesy ‘Hotel California’] lies just inside the park, outside you can see The Dakota, John Lennon’s last home and the place of his death. It’s not actually marked ‘The Dakota’, mind you, but a guide book told me it was on the corner and had turrets, and nothing else around there was remotely turrety.

Food happened, as food often does and I decided I should take the opportunity to combine being in NYC with one of my favourite pastimes, vintage shopping. After a slightly malfunctioning subway gate split us up, I got the train to the famous Hell’s Kitchen flea market while Andrew had to take a rather more prosaic route. It splayed across the road on what appeared to be a patch of wasteground between 8th and 9th Avenues, an almost neverending stream of oddities. I pottered around, enjoying not only the clothes but the piles of car license plates, broken toys, old knitting patterns and piles of postcards, letters and photos of strangers, which are apparently collectables under the title of ‘ephemera’. I resisted. After Andrew went to his nighttime activity I got the subway back to Chelsea and despite being exhausted, wasn’t quite ready to retire yet so took a long walk around, calling into grocery stores and looking in the windows of coffee shops, eventually buying some crisps and taking them back to my ‘no food allowed’ hostel. I’m a rebel.

*may be a lie

The Lonely Island [NYC Day 3]

February 16, 2014

Everybody knows no-one goes to Coney Island anymore. Even in 1979 the only reason Warriors wanted to go back is that, well, many people were trying to kill them. It would be a safe haven. An empty safe haven. Not exactly a rip-roaringly exciting holiday destination, more a waste of time. Especially on changeover day! If you’re lucky, your holiday won’t have a changeover day. It’s the day you have to pack your suitcases and vacate your place of residence by midday as you couldn’t find one place willing to take you for the whole time as you booked so late. You then have to wait at least two hours until the next place allows you to check in. It’s a barrel of laughs. It’s a little less stressful if you’re going to see Phantom Of The Opera during changeover time and making your friend wheel your suitcase around town in the interim, but it’s still stressful enough and waking up early on the day your nearest subway station is undergoing repairs and delays to go to Coney Island purely because “We’ll never be this close to it again!” seems like a needless hassle. Despite all this, we’re up bright and early on day 3 to go to the beach. And is it a rotting cesspit with creaky rides and a haunted ferris wheel? It’s more a jogger’s paradise than anything else, refreshing sea breezes blowing the sportsters along while elderly couples hold hands and walk dogs amid the seemingly never-ending landscape of terrifyingly scaled fairground rides. Yeah, some shopfronts are closed and have been for a long time, but look at certain areas of Belfast pre-urban regeneration and still in disrepair. The theme parks aren’t open yet but that’s because they don’t open until 12. We’re simply too early, and can’t say that the idea of returning some time when this place is in full swing doesn’t appeal to us. Yeah, they’re missing a trick by not selling Warriors t-shirts but another Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast makes up for this. Maybe it’s coming from a land where theme parks are few and far between, and always a little tarnished and rattly anyway when they do appear but we see nothing amiss here.

The next few hours can be recorded in note form because I ordinarily get free tickets to review shows and gigs, so there’s no way I’m reviewing something I had to pay for, even if it was 50% off.

We went for a pre-theatre snack at Ben & Jerry’s just across from the Majestic. They have flavours we do not have here. They also bake cakes.

Phantom was excellent. One day I will play Carlotta. I can play an annoying person with a voice that angers ghosts.

I’m so theatre-savvy I got to the toilets first at the interval.

Americans say “Playbill” instead of “Programme”.

I had to queue to get my photo taken with the poster because other people had the same idea as me. Jerks.

The New York Central Library does not permit a person to enter if they have luggage.

A quick stop at Murray’s Bagels on 8th Avenue [Chelsea] to purchase from their terrifying array of seeded bagels, different kinds of salmon, varieties of cream cheese and finally finding out what pastrami is more than filled us on our way to our new hostel, the Chelsea International Hostel on West 20th Street [not to be mixed up with Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel]. It’s basic but pleasant; lockers in case you’re rooming with a thief, guest PCs for internet access that you have to feed single dollar bills into as they don’t take coins, tokens to claim your bagel and piece of fruit at breakfast [cereal, juice, tea and coffee are unlimited]. It’s a nice area, pampered pooches are extensively coiffed in all the doggie parlours, psychic-reading-offering tea shoppes rub shoulders with modern sex shops, more minimalist than seedy. Of course, there’s always a PVC nightmare or two in a window display, but it’s more comical than intimidating.

A nap followed, followed by a solo jaunt to find Andrew at the Tribeca Film Center. Building work, scaffolding, encroaching darkness and Tribeca’s reluctance to just make their streets easy to navigate by numbering them made finding the cinema tricky, about three false starts and some step-retracing making me a little anxious but some time chilling out watching Yeast [2008] and identifying with the monster of a main character helped. A low-key party in rain-soaked clothes in the antithesis to every American bar we ever see on TV ended a puzzling night, being battered glasses-blind by a deluge and confused by Tribeca’s maze of a street system led to a slight helpless feeling, mildly eased by the fact we saw tourists who were more lost than we were, and a brief glance of The Avenue Of The Americas. Still though, Tribeca can go fuck itself.

If you’re going to go up the one-time tallest building in the world for the first – probably only – time, you’re going to research it to fatigue point. You’re going to research it a bit more when you find out it costs $27. Yeah, there are travel sites. But there are those oh-so-clever and hidden sites, offering New York advice from New Yorkers. Secret New York, Hidden New York, New York How The Natives See It. Reading about The Empire State Building on these sites told me that I shouldn’t actually bother going up it. Long queues! They said. Separate queues for security. Rickety old elevators! Cramped viewing space above! No view of Central Park! Not allowed to bring handguns or musical instruments? Inconceivable! All the seasoned travelers were telling me to go up Rockefeller Center instead. Negligible price difference, negligible height difference [unless you are an architect, which I am not], an unobsturcted view of Central Park [I wasn’t sure I cared about this, but New Yorkers seemed to think it was important], a 360 view and, most importantly, modern non-rickety elevators. I was sold.

Even though the queues would be smaller, there would still be queues so I was advised by my internet strangers to go early in the morning. As I had complete control over the itinerary [ostensibly because I was best at planning itineraries, in reality probably just to shut me up] I planned a route from our place in Brooklyn on the N train route [20th Avenue subway station], changing somewhere along the way to green and 33rd Street, right beside The Empire State Building. Yeah, I know I wasn’t going there, but wouldn’t it be nice to at least consider it? Maybe walk past it, check out the queue, torture myself with wondering one last time which would be best? From there my plan was to walk right up Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller and on past, looking at Tiffany’s and stopping at the South entrance of Central Park when arriving at my main destination for the day: FAO Schwarz.

We got up early that morning, jetlag be damned as everyone was telling us it was best to get there around 9:30am. Well, before that actually, but that wasn’t going to happen. We were in self-catering accommodation – at least, we thought we were. Cereal was in the cupboards but there was no way of telling if we were allowed to eat it so we decided to get breakfast in New York! Hold on, that’s a song from the past, isn’t it? Never mind… When you have too much choice and excitement however, hunger is the last thing on your mind.  We briefly peeked in the hallway of the Empire State, but that would have been too easy. I was committed to walking up a lot more of Fifth Avenue by now. We bumbled up the street, me trying to act like a native and not stare too much, or at least only look up when I had a safe spot away from busy pedestrians. Andrew had no such fear, wielding the camera at every pointed spire and I regularly glanced behind me and stopped, waiting for him to catch up. I stopped beside things I thought were bins. I nearly put some rubbish in one but realised it just might be a mailbox. Might be. Better not to risk it.

We got to Rockefeller at about 10am, knowing we had the right place because of the huge, tacky gold statue of Prometheus outside. You would think the height of the building would be the clue but no, it’s quite subtle, set away from the main road in quite a low-key side street, the gradual layers of height each farther back than the next and not immediately obvious from the ground looking up. There was no ice rink beneath Prometheus. Instead, this being early Fall they had a croquet lawn in the famous space. We tried to go down and promenade, but you had to be dining at the restaurant. The viewing gallery at ground floor level suited us. Was I surprised that such a large building actually had a purpose? Did part of me think it was just there to… be high? Probably. I could give you a definitive list but I’m not really the type and you wouldn’t enjoy it. I’ll just say they had shops. Lots of shops. Souvenir shops, bookshops, clothes shops, crystal shops, cafes [including a Pret A Manger which I’ve still never tried, and a branch of Magnolia Bakery which I didn’t see at the time, and it meant to be unmissable], a post office, and a shoe shine place where rich men or giddy tourists sat at a full-length window and got their shoes shone by lower mortals, while even lower mortals [including myself] watched, horrified. There were also some offices and some sort of TV station thing, but I don’t watch 30 Rock, so don’t care.

We got in the short, fast ticket queue at about 10:30 and I was delighted when the man behind the counter asked where I was from, and gutted when I realised it was his job to ask and that he didn’t really care. From there we took the first elevator and I was terrified to look out the window, only to realise that I was about four floors up and just looking at Radio City Music Hall, which is quite lovely and blue. This is where you can pose for a picture beside the men on the beam, you know the beam, and you can buy it if you want. That beam is in Rockefeller Center. There you go. After that you go in the real elevator with the light show and the neon-lit cables and come out at the first viewing gallery on the 67th floor. You’re not just thrown out into the elements, you come out at a[nother] gift shop and have to make the conscious decision to go outside, which is safely guarded by plexiglass. This achieved, we decided to go up the escalator to the 69th floor where we accidentally stepped into Breezeway, a room where the floor lights up in a terrifying fashion if you’re not expecting it. There’s also some buzzing. You haven’t set off an alarm. It’s meant to happen. There’s a narrow staircase to the 70th floor, although it maybe only seems narrow if you, like me, aren’t sure if you want to go up. I gave it a try though. It’s strangely peaceful at the very top with nothing above you, just a few contemplative tourists sitting and looking around. It’s quiet up there, looking down at things you half-recognise and I think we may have spent almost an hour just… pottering. It got busier as the morning went on and we still needed breakfast so I made a bid for Dunkin’ Donuts and we ate food outside while watching the croquet, me deciding that a New York Giants [sports team, innit?] donut was a perfect first meal of the day. At the end of the evening I discovered I’d got the icing on my shorts but if there’s anywhere you can have a red, white and blue icing handprint on your shorts and not be conspicuous, it’s New York. Not so in Belfast…

There’s a Lego shop right outside so we lost ourselves in Lego Gondor for a while, spotting the deliberate in-jokes in the Lego Rockefeller Center and avoiding Lego dragons. We then carried on up Fifth Avenue as we had been doing, counting branches of H&M, deciding not to go into Trump Tower and being disappointed that the Plaza was mostly obscured by scaffolding.

You would think if you worked in one of the most famous toy stores in the world in one of the most famous streets in the world in one of – you get the picture – that you would be tolerant of tourists. Even looking upon their childish behaviour as adorable, even if that’s extremely patronising. I got the shop assistant who complained loudly to their colleague at all these adults coming in and having fun WITHOUT CHILDREN. I’d like to see children pay $490 for a poster, honey, whereas I could. I didn’t, but I could. Undeterred, I forced Andrew to photograph me in a cuddly toy jungle, with a gummi bear the size of my head, patting a unicorn and admiring a set of plastic animal skulls. I Tom Hanksed on the floor piano and tried my best to enjoy the experience without a child, because we’re all just overly emotional messes at the mercy of our body clocks, right?

A need to conquer overground transport as well as underground arose next, with the decision to take a bus maybe one of the poorest I made during the trip, even though it amused me to see how difficult other tourists found the ticket machine, when I had just followed the instructions printed on it. How was I to know it would take over half an hour to basically go down one street? What do you mean New York has busy traffic and roadworks? What are these things? The subway may be quicker, but you see nothing and this ordinary M5 bus journey to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal [South Ferry] showed us things we might otherwise have missed, like the Flatiron Building, and the front of the New York Stock Exchange hidden behind lots of building work. In fact, most of the Financial District was undercover, to the point where I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. I didn’t realise why fully until I was home, mainly because if you’ve never seen the spot where a building once stood, you don’t realise when it’s not there anymore. I assumed the World Trade Center had been far away from there, and all tidied up by then. Sure a sticking plaster and a bit of sweeping up would fix it. Except, restoration can take decades, can’t it? Such a disaster in a built-up area affects buildings all around. A look at an old map and the realisation of the close proximity of the two towers brought the whole thing home to me.

Having spent some money earlier, we decided it was time to stop all that and take the free ferry from Manhattan Island to Staten Island. If you’re not a commuter, the main reason to take this ferry is to see the Statue Of Liberty. Not necessarily a close-up view, it’s certainly a fine unobstructed view coupled with the sea air, views of Manhattan and a glimpse of Governor’s Island, which you can apparently visit at weekends. Staten Island itself is worth a look, but with our tight schedule we couldn’t do much more than walk around for a while, sit by the docks and buy a bottle of juice. Back on Manhattan we went on something of an aimless walk past the historic Battery Maritime Building towards South Street Seaport, searching for food, the Brooklyn Bridge, Fraunces Tavern and the South Street Seaport TKTS booth, finding Wall Street instead. After a few detours and the discovery that the original South Street Seaport TKTS booth was in an area being restored after Hurricane Sandy, we followed the convoluted directions to the temporary one which was completely queue-free. It’s the theatregoer’s best kept secret, that In New York and London there are several of these booths dotted around that offer cut-price show tickets for the same/next day, sometimes offering as much as 50% off. The fact that there’s one in Times Square maybe isn’t so secret, but neither is the queue. Go off the beaten track and try for one of the others, it’s worth it. Half-price ticket to Phantom Of The Opera acquired, food had became suddenly very important. Tiredness was becoming an issue, as was time [Andrew had his film screening to attend that evening] we decided to get food at a place near the cinema, killing two birds with one stone. Unfortunately, the cinema was in TriBeCa [Triangle below Canal Street]. As this was to be Andrew’s area, I hadn’t studied it. At all. This wouldn’t be a problem in the rest of Manhattan, which operates the grid system, East to West marked by numbered avenues, North to South by numbered streets. Tribeca doesn’t do this. Encroaching on the South-West side of the island like a diagonal blot on the landscape, the streets dare to have actual names, like Vesey and Bleecker. No numbers. For the first time I felt I was in a strange country, with no block-counting to measure how far I had to go. We found the cinema, handily near a subway station and a sushi place, and fish was had. Unable to even think about cinema-going, I staggered to the subway and had to stand the whole way back to Brooklyn, sleepily leaning wrongly into people. Bed followed soon after.

Neon Jungle [NYC Day 1]

January 16, 2014

Did I say something about writing about my travels? I suppose I did, and it’s long overdue. The problem is it’s so overdue I’m having trouble remembering exactly what happened. I can remember where I was though. Just about.

If your friend suggested that you go to New York, what would be the first thing to come to mind? Apart from saying “yes”, of course. Tourist-attraction wise, I mean. My first thought was FAO Schwarz. His first thought was the Empire State Building. It took us both a few hours to remember that the Statue Of Liberty existed. Nightlife was not on the agenda. Don’t be expecting a sophisticated adult blog. I’m pretty much Macauley Culkin here.

The practicalities: I can’t quite remember why I didn’t book my tickets as soon as Andrew suggested it and booked his. I vaguely recall I was very stressed at the time: working a lot, in a play, temping with a band. In all honestly I couldn’t realistically see myself going as I couldn’t see a way out of the sticky web of rehearsals I’d gotten myself into. Something happened though, perhaps the realisation that the easiest way to get out of a very busy situation is maybe to actually take a holiday? Radical thought process, I know. I booked my flights [getting some sort of last-minute deal £100 cheaper than what A paid, much to his chagrin], tried to learn the subway system off by heart and not think about a 7 hour flight.

Flight-wise, I usually take the easiest route between two lines. Easiest meaning cheapest and cheapest sometimes implying nastiest. I’m a low-cost airlines, hand luggagey kind of chick. The kind of flights where they try to seel you alcohol, perfume and cigarettes, anything to cover the smell of your desperation to escape to Malaga. Flying to America was different. United Airlines patrolled the aisles, offering a selection of drinks in case of in-flight dehydration. It wasn’t until about two hours in to the flight when careful study showed no money changing hands that I realised these drinks were complimentary. They were giving me free water! And orange juice! They cared! America truly was the land of opportunity. They also gave us THREE MEALS. THREE. And there was a wee screen that offered films, music to listen to and computer games. I spent so long browsing my choices that I didn’t watch any. It was like… the future.

Customs and immigration were as exciting as they sound. The man asked me to take my glasses off and I thought he might have been flirting with me, but it was just to take a retinal scan. My eyes are on an FBI computer somewhere. Any crimes I commit in future will have to be blindfolded. He asked me what I was there for and I wittered on about Phantom Of The Opera. I think he guessed I was not a threat to national security. We found the frequent bus from Newark airport to Manhattan 42nd Street [like the song!] and crawled along the spaghetti-like roads, dusty pallets on yellowy roads offset by bright billboards advertising religion and plastic surgery. We went through the Lincoln Tunnel and I was great craic thinking about Larry’s dark journey through there in The Stand, clambering over dead bodies and dead-engined cars. No matter how exciting a neon-fronted McDonald’s is, though, if you’ve been on the move since before 7am all the joy gets sucked out of you. You might walk through Grand Central Terminal but if you’re tired you’ll deliberately stare at your feet and ignore the constellations on the ceiling, promising you’ll be back later. You might be in Bryant Park surrounded by street vendors but with a suitcase you want rid of and no real idea how to get to your destination.

Our first two nights would be in Brooklyn, which isn’t even on Manhattan Island so Manhattan didn’t exist, not right then. It would still be there later. We subwayed to Brooklyn’s Chinatown [not to be confused with London’s Chinatown, Chinatown the Jack Nicholson movie or actual Manhattan-where-Gizmo-from-Gremlins-comes-from Chinatown] and found our guesthouse on a surprisingly leafy street near a nursery school and a shop that sells cats that wave their paws, like these.

Image

After whining about needing to rest for a few hours, as soon as we sat down I decided I needed to go for a walk. Andrew had work reasons for the trip, a film festival he was guest speaking and being a director at so he would get to see some of IT. If I slept and he headed out at 7, not getting home until midnight, I would not get to see any of IT. This would be a wasted evening. So I made him take me to Times Square. Getting off the subway at 34th Street would be perfect. A gradual walk up to the lights of the Square [which is really more a collection of shops and streets] with the added opportunity of seeing The Empire State Building at ground level [after 10 minutes of us being puzzled outside Macy’s, pondering “It should be here. Where IS the bastard?”] They say that at night in Times Square the neon is so bright it’s like daylight. This I took with a pinch of salt, forgetting entirely about that statement and marvelling at the real Bubba Gump Shrimp and the [rather disappointing] Toys R Us with big wheel and Wonka items. At one point though, I looked at my hand and it was glowing grey, the grey not of full sunlight, but of an overcast day, or an early morning. Neon conquered the skies, at least a little. After a calzone-cramming stop at John’s Pizzeria on West 44th Street [just across the street from The Majestic Theater, Phantom’s current home] and a conscience-filled tipping dilemma, Andrew headed to his film night, and I got the subway home, sleepy but not fearful.

Of course, then I realised my phone network wouldn’t send texts so I couldn’t tell him I’d made it back safely so he might think I’d died… Oh well.