Day four, Stateside – brunching, shopping and good old-fashioned boozing

The novelty of waking up without a pancake or alcohol hangover got day four off to an excellent start. Jen had booked a table at her favourite brunch spot in Manhattan – The Park – for midday so we took the Path train to 14th street and walked there in glorious sunshine. The Park is a stunning restaurant with a large outdoor conservatory area where diners can sit and enjoy their meals as birds tweet and fly around above them. The food is as much of an experience as the setting, with The Park famed for its delicious brunches and complimentary banana bread. We had Mimosa cocktails (the same as Bucks Fizz) and I tried French toast with vanilla maple syrup for the first time (which was absolutely heavenly).

After brunch we crossed the road to the High Line, a raised walkway that runs across several blocks allowing visitors to take in the city from a different viewpoint. We walked up and down for the best part of an hour, stopping to bask in the sun and chat to a couple who were taking their five month old baby out for his first experience of spring weather (particularly poignant when you consider in his short life he’s already lived through a hurricane ripping through his city).

With the High Line ticked off we strolled the few blocks to Jen’s workplace where I left her and carried on to the central shopping street of Broadway. Within minutes of walking into Bloomingdales I felt overwhelmed and hastily beat a retreat back out onto the street. Captivated by a top in the window of Guess I wandered in and was promptly attacked on all sides by overbearing shop assistants asking if I needed any help. My stress levels rose instantly and, far from feeling assisted I actually felt more stressed than I ever thought it possible to feel in a clothes shop. Fortunately I managed to hold my nerve and resist most of the purchases suggested by Edwin, my flamboyant assistant, but I did succumb to three little tops that will be oh-so-perfect for Glastonbury in June….

I emerged from Guess feeling thoroughly drained and desperate to get off Broadway, so started making my way to Jen’s restaurant for a drink and something to eat. Unfortunately en route I was distracted by a Calvin Klein sample sale and somehow coerced into buying two dresses (neither of which I could really afford, but they were half price and designer…)

The restaurant Jen works in is a lovely little French bistro called Vin et fleurs. I settled myself at the bar and ordered a glass of Chardonnay and a cold plate of vegetables with a side of the famous mashed potato with truffles that Jen had told me I had to try. I got talking to JD, a friend of Jen’s who works locally and regularly comes into the bar for a drink, and the lovely bartender Daniel, and before I knew it the evening was drawing to a close and Jen’s shift was about to end. Barry, who was in the area, popped in for a drink and when Jen finished the three of us headed down the road to M’Ladys bar for a nightcap.

When we walked into the bar, however, we saw JD, and half an hour later Daniel walked in so rather than having one drink we ended up having quite a few and not leaving until 3am! It was such a fun evening and I’m so glad I got to experience a typical night out in downtown Manhattan with the locals. 

One thing’s for sure: I’m really going to miss this place and all the people I’ve met here. 

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Jen and I on the High Line in Manhattan

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Day three, Stateside – revenge of the pancakes

Day three brought with it an unwelcome hangover from the evening before, but it was nothing brunch at a traditional American diner wouldn’t cure. Once we’d managed to pull ourselves together and get ready we walked ten minutes to the Brownstone Diner. Settling into a booth, we ordered coffee, pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausages, French fries and smoothies and sat back and waited for our massive haul to arrive.

When the food did arrive I was taken aback by the sheer volume of pancakes before me – three plump doughy pillows half an inch thick and almost as big as the plate upon which they sat. My sausage, bacon rashers and two poached eggs sat on a separate plate beside them and the strawberry and banana smoothie was topped off with lashings of whipped cream. Suddenly my confidence in being able to finish everything on my plate vanished. And, sure enough I was defeated with one and a half pancakes still to go, my dreams of being a competitive eating champion shattered all around me.

Wonderful as the Brownstone Diner experience was it left us desperate for a lie down, so we headed back to the apartment for an hour’s rest before getting ready to go back out. Jen was working a shift at a restaurant in Soho so I went along with her and settled myself in a lovely little place around the corner called Sanctuary T, where I whiled away a pleasant few hours sampling speciality teas, writing and watching the world go by. When my appetite finally returned I treated myself to a delicious kale salad with truffle oil, hazelnuts and Parmesan accompanied by a glass of Malbec (which, I have to admit, made me feel terribly grown up).

On the walk back to the Path train I couldn’t resist popping back into Patisserie Rocco for a post-dinner cappuccino and mini pastry, where I proceeded to read my book by candlelight and do a spot more people watching. Afterwards, caught up in the sights and sounds around me I walked a block too far and had to retrace my steps to find the train.

When I got back to the apartment I was horrified to find a two-inch long centipede on the bathroom floor. Immobilised by fear, I backed out of the room to find my phone and Googled it to see if they were dangerous. Fortunately the answer was no; apparently ‘house centipedes,’ as they call them, are commonplace in the New York area, and whilst they’re not particularly pleasant bedfellows they are harmless and they even help control other pests like spiders (given that spiders are my worst enemy in the insect world, I suppose that means centipedes should really be considered friends?).

All in all another eventful day in the U, S of A…

Day Two, Stateside – the adventure continues

Day two of my New Jersey adventure dawned bright and clear. After our enormous dinner the previous evening we opted for a tummy friendly start to the day with some granola and yoghurt before walking the short distance to another of Jen’s favourite coffee shops/writing spots, the warehouse coffee shop. The sun hit the decking exactly where we sat so we basked in it for a while as we sipped our coffees before heading to the Path train for another river crossing to Manhattan.

Today’s activities, we had decided, would begin with a traditional tourist activity: A jaunt up the famous Rockefeller building to see the amazing panoramic views over the city. We didn’t get off to the best of starts after spending a not insignificant amount of time circumnavigating a building that we thought was the fabled Rockefeller looking for the entrance, before realising with some embarrassment that the actual Rockefeller centre was a block further along.

Fortunately we took a last minute decision to visit Dunkin’ Donuts before ascending the tower, as what we’d anticipated would be a quick up and down visit inevitably turned into a tourist honey trap full of inescapable opportunities to purchase bits of crap (a t-shirt with a metro map on it – really?) and have your photo taken in front of ridiculous backgrounds for the price of a small condominium. The views more than made up for the tourist crap, however.

By the time we were done at the Rockefeller we were ravenous (obviously), so immediately sought out the nearest Two Brothers pizza joint for a slice of one dollar (one dollar!) pizza. Seeing us struggle to eat our giant slices of pizza a British hedge fund manager sitting next to us handed Jen a napkin and said he hadn’t realised eating pizza could be so funny. We told him he should see us eating donuts, which shut him up.

After Two Brothers we decided to walk off the pizza and head to Soho on foot. But not long after we set off it started to rain so we ducked into Grand Central Station, where we saw posters advertising an art installation by Nick Cave comprising brightly coloured horses made of corn husks that twice a day are ‘brought to life’ by human performers. We spent some time wandering around the central concourse looking for the horses before realising (again with some embarrassment) that they were in fact located in the next room, and would not be performing for the rest of the day.

After the non-performing horses we walked the 30 or so blocks to Patisserie Rocco in Soho where we had the most delicious peanut butter cheesecake I have ever tasted and a cup of coffee before continuing on home to Jersey City. After a rest we walked (surely all this walking is offsetting all the food consumption – surely?) along the waterfront, taking in the glorious view of the Manhattan skyline by night, until we reached Teak restaurant in Hoboken.

Teak is a stunning sushi restaurant and bar with theatrical statues of lions on the walls and a giant fish tank running the length of the bar. As it was the start of Easter weekend the place was heaving, but after a half hour wait we managed to procure a table and settled in for some serious (and I do mean serious) sushi action. Afterwards we met Barry, a friend of Jen’s, who took us to a traditional American bar for some post-dinner drinks (cider beer’s a new one on me). Another all-American dream day 🙂

Day One, Stateside

My first full day in New Jersey began in Jen’s favourite hangout, the Beechwood Cafe, for bagels and coffee. Once fortified we walked to the Hudson riverfront to look at the amazing view of the Manhattan skyline before jumping on the Path train under the water to Manhattan.

After disembarking at 33rd street by Macy’s we walked through Times Square and almost 30 blocks (!) to Central Park, picking up cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery and blonde roast coffee from Starbucks along the way (naturally).

By the time we reached Central Park the sun was shining and the clouds were fluffy white puffs in the sky. We sat and sunbathed on a rock for quite some time before walking off our cupcakes around the boating lake. Then, greedy as ever (!), we bought a bag of sugar coated almonds for the walk back to 33rd street (what? It was a long way!) and got the Path train back across the water.

We had a rest and a snack (are you sensing a theme here?!) before catching the train back over to Manhattan, this time heading to West Village in the meat packing district to meet Jen’s friend, Erin, at Jane Hotel for drinks in the ballroom (where we had the most incredible rose wine) and dinner (a cheese starter followed by a tower of cous cous with vegetables and warm chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream rolled in crushed pistachios to finish-heavenly but utterly, utterly gluttonous, and a stretch even by my capacious standards of eating). Afterwards we rolled ourselves back to Jersey City and into bed. A perfect first day 🙂

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Me and Jen by the boating lake in Central Park.

Good Moining New Joisey!

I have woken to bright sunlight streaming through the window; something that’s been all too scarce of late in the UK, and which reminded me instantly (as if I needed reminding) of yesterday’s transatlantic journey.

Thus far it feels very much like Belle 1 – Jetlag 0, as I took the advice of my Twitter friends and managed to stay awake for the duration of the flight and for three hours afterwards before hitting the sack for a respectable (if somewhat punctuated by excitable jolts of consciousness) eight hours’ rest.

So, after months of planning (well, I booked it months ago, can’t say I’ve actually done a lot of planning given all the other stuff I’ve had to contend with lately) I’m here in New Jersey, ready to explore all that it – and New York, naturally – have to offer. My friend Jen’s managed to wangle a couple of days off work so will be joining me in typical tourist pursuits and I cannot wait to get going. We have the whole City at our fingertips and it’s a wonderful feeling – there’s nothing quite like being a tourist in New York!

Now let the bagels, pastrami and pancakes commence…

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My temporary neighbourhood in New Jersey

Bound for the Big Apple

I’m just about to leave for the airport to catch my flight to New Jersey, and in the unlikely event of not being able to get online when I get there I’m writing today’s post before I go. The last few weeks have been such a whirlwind, I can hardly believe I’m sitting here now, my job and big race behind me and only a week until I start my new job and part time career as a freelance writer.

I never thought I’d say this but being told my job was at risk of becoming redundant was the most fantastic turning point in my life. Granted, at the time it was a bitter pill to swallow, but I’d been thinking of leaving for so long and never had the courage to take action. It just goes to show that opportunity can come out of even the bleakest of situations.

So here I am; suitcase packed and ready to board a plane to America, where I will be spending six days with a girl I met in an Indian ashram two years ago. Life is so wonderfully random. I know I’m going to sound like a raving hippy saying this but it does feel like there’s a reason for my going on this trip. I’ve felt a strong pull to New York and the friend whom I’m visiting ever since she moved there, and I can’t wait to find out what that reason is. And also to eat lots of pancakes with maple syrup, OBVIOUSLY.

Past post: The resurgence of swing

With the introduction of programmes like Strictly Dance Fever on mainstream television, styles of dance from bygone eras have been brought to the forefront of society’s consciousness.  And with so many swing organisations running successfully in the UK and abroad today, it begs the question:  Is the revived interest just a phase, or has the phenomenon been here all along?  Furthermore, is the interest confined to the older generation who want to relive the dances of their youth or a younger crowd who feel compelled to try something new?

Perhaps the best place to start is with the origin of popular swing dances from the first half of the century.  Typically black jazz dances such as the Charleston and The Cakewalk became more main stream in the 1920s and gave rise to the Lindyhop, which, in turn, evolved into the Jitterbug and Jive in the 1940s and 1950s.  Along with developments in the style of dance there were changes in the accompanying music, from big band swing music in the 1940s to rhythm and blues and rock and roll in the 1950s.  Popular artists of the time such as Glenn Miller and Little Richard took swing to new levels, helping to secure its place in musical history.

It wasn’t all about the music, of course.  Swing’s meteoric rise to fame was helped in no small part by the war, when military or civilian service meant people of all social ages and groups mixed on a regular basis.  The Jitterbug spread widely across the country during this period, and its exposure was not limited to the UK.  Swing was soon a global phenomenon, and has remained so ever since, albeit on a smaller scale than at the height of the war.

But how have swing dances survived?  Or more importantly, what has kept people interested?  Robin Weathersbee, who co-founded Maddy’s Jiving School with his wife, attributes swing’s longevity to the power of the music, claiming that “the strong rhythms and ever-popular ‘classic’ tracks, which still get mainstream media exposure today, have kept the music and style of dancing in the public eye.”

Martin Ellis, founder of Swingland, an organisation providing weekly swing dance classes, workshops and club nights, further strengthens the argument that swing’s success lies in its originality; “Over the last hundred years or so we have been able to record music, which means that we can trace the roots of every style of music, making it increasingly harder to produce something original.”

So who actually attends swing classes today?  According to Robin, most of his students are “much younger than the generation who would have danced to swing during the ‘40s and ‘50s.”  Martin agrees, “We have all age groups taking part, from young people in their twenties to older people in their seventies – but the vast majority are in their twenties and thirties.”

This revelation may come as a surprise to many, but Martin explains why younger people find swing classes so appealing; “Although our younger participants enjoy pop and rock music and go to clubs just like anyone else of their age would do, one fairly common theme is that none of them are into the seedier side of clubbing, such as drugs.  They enjoy going to an environment that is not fuelled by that, as its all about the music and dancing.  I suppose you could say it’s more wholesome.”

It would therefore seem that the perception of the swing culture as a safe alternative to modern day forms of entertainment may be another reason for its prolonged success.  This theory is given more credence if we consider the fifties lifestyle.   People had less disposable income to spend on drinking and leisure pursuits than they do today, meaning the emphasis was on cheap forms of entertainment such as dancing.  Society was just beginning to recover from the war, and dancing must also have provided a welcome release from the oppression of previous years.

So are television programmes like Strictly Dance Fever responsible for the recent resurgence of swing?  “Television programmes are not necessarily the reason,” says Martin, “The swing scene in the UK, compared to the US and Europe, is not really about competition, so whilst such programmes do bring exposure they don’t generate a huge interest.  It really comes down to the fact that the music is very good and the dances, although not easy to learn, are addictive once you have picked them up.  There is also such a big scene worldwide that many people see it as a chance to go travelling and meet other like-minded people.”

For many, the interest extends into other areas of the fifties lifestyle.  Robin and Collette Weathersbee are a perfect example.  “Our interest started with the music of the era, but we now collect and wear vintage clothing, own a 1947 Plymouth convertible car and have furnished our home in period style,” says Robin.

Whatever the reason for the interest, it seems the swing culture is alive and well in today’s society, both in the UK and abroad. And long may it reign.

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Writing this post reminded me of when my friend’s band played for my 29th birthday celebrations in a pub in Vauxhall. It was such a fun night!