Last year in August my own, long-awaited American adventure began. My very first stop was New York City – a city truly one of its kind. It is a city that I’ve dreamt about seeing since I was a child. A city that left a deep mark in my heart that will stay there forever to cherish all the memories that those five days in the Big Apple blessed me with. Memories that I share with one of my best friends, Nóra, who was the perfect mate to explore this metropolis with – one of the perks of travelling with a person with similar interests, passions and dreams.
I cannot even count how many times in the past twelve months I went through the 942 photos (to be exact) that we took in New York. What I pondered on every single time I got caught by nostalgia is, whether those five, very short and extremely busy days spent in NYC were enough for us to make the most out of this maybe ’once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity of being there. Whether we were able to cover all ’the must sees’ of the city. And after a while, I needed to admit that my best memories of this place had nothing to do with the must see attractions and the most iconic sites.
Therefore, in this post I am not going into any detail about the view over Manhattan from the top of Empire State Building, the glamour of the giant billboards on Times Square or God forbid about the bronze, Wall Street bull that apparently brings luck by fondling its testicles. No, I won’t talk about any of that. The simple reason for this is that New York was about something else, something greater than that for me. It was the ineffable feeling that constantly hit me when we got the chance to have a little piece of NYC lifestyle, a real sense of place with its ups and downs, its crazy pace, amazing flavors and its incredible diversity being more than 200 languages spoken in this immense melting pot.
Living on Roosevelt Island
The teeny-tiny Roosevelt Island located on the East River between Manhattan and Queens was our home for five days. Its geographical separation from the main land is a gift for its 10.000 inhabitants. Living in such a safe, peaceful, green spot in a metropolis, that carries millions of people of all kinds, is a real privilege.
He island is easily accessible by subway or the one and only commuter aerial tramway in the city. The Roosevelt Island Aerial Tram connects the island with Manhattan, making around 115 trips every day. It is often forgotten by tourists, the island being mostly residential area. It’s cheap, not crowded, gives a different skyline and not least, it was featured in several movies and TV shows, such as Spider-Man (2002), Now You See Me (2013), Anger Management, White Collar and so on.
Our Airbnb host was a Serbian lady, who left Europe because of the Yugoslavian conflicts and settled down in New York in the hope of a more peaceful, happier future. She was the most talkative host that I ever had. She never ran out of stories and good advice about the city, and it was fascinating to hear an expat’s perspective on USA; an expat, who seemingly became a real New Yorker during the course of the years, but in fact she remained European at the bottom of her heart. It always fascinates me to hear locals’ thoughts about the destinations, where I go. This is why I love Airbnb and Couchsurfing – because you learn so much from your hosts; things that otherwise you would probably never find out about the given places on your own.
Walking the streets of Greenwich Village
Every neighborhood in New York City has its own, inimitable charm. I could highlight at least one front-runner spot from each of those that I visited, but instead I just rather walk you through the couple of hours that we’ve spent in my personal favorite, Greenwich Village. The Village, as referred to by locals, is bohemian but still elegant, fun but still sophisticated. It’s a maze, where you gladly get lost without feeling the pressure of obligatory sightseeing. The streets of the Village are comfortably walkable, lively but not suffocating, unlike some other parts of the city.
After getting off the subway at the Flatiron Building, we headed south towards the west side of Lower Manhattan. Our first stop was Union Square Park, where the regularly organized Greenmarket took place. The history of the market goes back more than forty years, by now hosting dozens of farmers, bakers, fishers and of course a mix of costumers, let them be locals or tourists. Just-picked fruits and vegetables, homemade jams and pickles, soft bread and pastries lured visitors to vendors, offering artisan products that cannot be purchased on every corner in the city. The fresh squeezed juices that we tasted, were certainly some uncommonly delicious energy boosters for the rest of the day.
Walking just a little bit further down the street we stumbled upon the legendary Strand Bookstore, which carries more than two and a half million new, used and rare books. Oh my Gosh!!! It was heaven itself. The comforting smell of old paper mingled with the freshly printed copies was more than enough for me to silently wander around the never-ending rows of shelves for hours. Needless to say, the decision about which novel to buy was time consuming and painful in a way. Finally, I narrowed my options to two pieces, both of them being written by New Yorkers about New York. After all, where is a better place to get a hold of the stories born in this city?
After a quick rest and caffeine refill, we headed towards Washington Square Park, a meeting point for the locals and a popular hub for cultural activities. The park is very close to the NYU (New York University) schools and colleges, and I guess this is the reason, why the area was filled with younger people sitting in the grass in groups or alone, chatting or reading, eating their lunch from take-away boxes, who I assume were, at least in majority, students. Families with children were playing and cooling off in the fountain at the arch, trying to make the summer heat stuck in concrete more bearable.
And then there were the daily returning ‘visitors’, playing chess with their buddies or curious strangers, who seemingly spend a significant part of their time in the park. It was fun to sit down on a bench under the shadow for a couple of minutes and watch this lighthearted, idyllic image of the outdoor chess community.
We continued the day in a quieter environment, when we entered the residential area of the Village. Speaking of idyll a second ago; this urban peace is another type of it. Living on these streets could be fantastic; with their tiny green spaces in front of the blocks, the beautiful staircases leading to the front doors, the people enjoying their coffees on their balconies – all away from the hustle and bustle, and yet just a stone’s throw away from the heart of Manhattan. I won’t lie, I could get used to this.
The true reason why we came to Greenwich Village in the first place was to check out two buildings very close to our hearts, both of them being key scenes in our beloved TV shows. I am talking about the Friends’ apartment, where Monica, Rachel, Joe and Chandler lived (theoretically) and Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment from Sex and the City. Actually, in case of Friends, the actors were never filmed in NYC. The show was made in California. This specific building was used just for the exterior shots. Still, it made me really happy to see both of these spots in reality. They kind of authenticated the characters and the plot lines, making the stories more this-worldly.
Watching Chicago – the Broadway Show
This was without doubt my number one. Even though, I was never a theater-goer. Maybe because I haven’t seen a musical before Chicago. This show is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history with its 20 years of unceasing fame. No wonder why. The perfect combination of jazz, dance choreography and talented cast on the stage alone was worth the visit to NYC. It humorous, sexy and covertly critical about our society, which made the scenes not just enjoyable but also real. I could watch it again and again and again.
Broadway, as a street in itself, is remarkable with its 40+ theaters showing world-famous stories 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The audience is entertained non-stop and there are really great deals on tickets. While we were standing in the line in front of Ambassador Theater, we were scanning the crowd around us (another thing that we are very good at :D). It was so great to see, how the street brings together New Yorkers and ‘outsiders’- because believe me, you can distinguish them just by appearance. This place is the hotbed of fame, entertainment and absolute amalgamation: a MUST experience.
Eating up the world
Some say that there are so many eating establishments in NYC that in theory it would take around 23 years to try them all. But in practice I am not really sure that it is possible to eat your way through this city. The choices are enormous, sometimes overwhelming, but at least everybody can find suitable for their taste no matter what culture they belong to, where they are from, what they can or can’t eat by choice, religion or any other reason. It is a paradise for foodies and for all those, who want to try unexplored flavors every time they go out for a meal. Since we both love to eat and taste foreign cuisines, we were constantly on hunt for some promising local spots, where we could get at least a small bite of the New York food culture.
And now, enough said: let the pictures speak for themselves!
Rolling around Central Park
Yes, Central Park is a massive tourist attraction. And a lot more than that. It is the green heart of the city, where you can easily spend an entire day. I wish we knew that before we went there. We rented two bikes in advance for three hours, with the naïve idea that a forenoon is more than enough to roll around the park and see all what we want to see. Well, to our disappointment, the hours flew away like seconds and I can just hope that one day I will return to NYC and then I can catch up with everything that I missed.
And I’m not referring just to the sightseeing part of it, but to the whole ‘Central Park experience’. I was fascinated about its multipurpose nature and the numerous different ways people benefit from it. Some use the park for doing sports individually or in bigger groups, others for picnics, or playing, dating or walking their dogs, or the more creatives for drawing, painting, singing and the list goes on and on and on. When we arrived, we sat down for a while, having a couple in front of us, who were sunbathing, a woman behind doing yoga, a man on the side reading the daily news while we were enjoying our cream cheese, salmon bagels in the middle.
The truth is that the traffic in Central Park is heavy. Hundreds of skaters, runners, cyclists pass by on a daily basis, making the roads of the park extremely busy. But when you turn from the path and merge more into nature, you realize what this green oasis could really mean for those living in this loud and accelerated city. Probably because of its role as a shelter from the craziness is why I liked Central Park so much.
It’s one thing to visit New York City, and it’s another to understand it. I gave myself one year to digest what I saw and what I experienced and believe me, I am still not sure how I feel about this place. But what I know is this: try not to be an obvious tourist. Walk a lot and with open eyes, observe, keep the pace, eat local, live with a local and suck it all in. You might get confused and overwhelmed, but this is a part of it. But what you get in return is an experience of a lifetime.