Month: September 2010

Down and Out in Manhattan

This weekend I went Downtown to take a walk along the High Line, the fairly newly created park and walkway on the old elevated railroad that used to carry freight trains above the crowded cobbled streets of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. The Friends of the High Line have done a magnificent job in creating a peaceful place just a few feet above the bustling streets of what is now one of the trendiest districts in Manhattan, and the views across the rooftops of Downtown and also across the Hudson to New Jersey are breathtaking. I loved looking at the way Manhattan used to be, filled with warehouses and red brick apartment buildings, many of which still have signs painted on them referring to long forgotten products and shops who last saw customers one hundred years ago, as well as the cobbled streets that used to ring with horses’ hooves and the din of many hundreds of workers rushing around the wharves and huge warehouses. This area is on a much smaller scale and feels more domestic and homely than the tall and more impersonal spaces of Midtown, and I very much enjoyed my walk through the district.

On Sunday I took myself off to the American Museum of Folk Art, which has an exciting exhibition of Quilts…opening this coming weekend. So, I will have to go back to see those. However, I did enjoy seeing their current exhibition of folk art taken from the apartment of Henry Darger, who is apparently quite famous, but I had never heard of him before. I found this exhibition very interesting, as his art work was basically torn out pages from magazines and colouring books, made into collages. Not being an art connoisseur, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘what makes this worthy of display in a Museum?’ – they looked like the pictures my nephew draws at nursery that are stuck on my sister’s fridge. In fact, the whole definition of what is ‘folk art’ and what is essentially a child’s drawing, was a bit lost on me, but I did very much appreciate the celebration of the often excellent work of unschooled artists creating beautiful objects and paintings that reflected their experience and used their abilities without feeling pressured to bow down to the accepted rules of the artistic establishment.

Right next door to the Folk Art Museum is MOMA, and I wandered in to see the Matisse exhibition, which was so crowded I couldn’t bear it, and instead I went down a floor to the 19th century room. I am not really a fan of contemporary modern art, but the work of Van Gogh, Klimt, and Cezanne, I particularly enjoy, and it was such a wonderful surprise to round corners of rooms to find more remarkable, famous paintings I know and love and have never seen in the flesh. My personal favourite was the Klimt below, and I know I will be going back to have a better look when it’s not so crowded. However, after having just visited the much smaller Folk Art Museum next door, I couldn’t help but think that some of the work dismissed as simply amateur ‘folk’ art is really a lot better than the abstract sploshes considered works of contemporary genius costing millions of dollars that are displayed on the walls of MOMA. Matisse’s paintings especially had many similarities to the simplistic, brightly coloured paintings in the Folk Art Museum, and I left my afternoon at these two museums really quite confused as to how the art world works, and who decides what is good and worth lots of money and what isn’t. It’s an enigma to me. But I still enjoyed looking at it, and that’s what matters.

I finished my day with a wander down to Little Italy, where I was meeting my flatmates for dinner. I popped into Shakespeare and Co books, where I bought some hilarious Anne Taintor postcards to send home to my domestically oppressed sister, and then found myself caught up in the delicious smells and wonderful sounds of the San Gennaro festival on Mulberry Street, where my friends and I ate and soaked up the atmosphere of yet another lively and warm night in Manhattan. Finally, I’ll leave you with a photo of the view of Manhattan from outside my apartment block; aren’t I the luckiest girl in the world?!

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

As much as I love the hustle and bustle, bright lights and constant amusements of life in the big city, there is a part of me that longs to live a simple life in a small white-washed cottage by the sea, with nothing and no one but the great expanse of the sea and the rustle of leaves to accompany my quiet and peaceful days. Obviously I’d get bored after five minutes, but still, the fantasy persists, and Maine has long been the place I fantasise about living in. Its long stretch of coastline, beautiful forests and serene pace of life that I have heard about from people who have visited, or watched in films, has entranced me and fed my imagination, making me long for secluded pine groves and quaint fishing villages. Sarah Orne Jewett’s lovely depiction of life in a tiny Maine seaside village, Dunnet Landing, in the mid 19th century has done nothing but fan the flame of my desire to visit Maine, and I was charmed and delighted by her witty and affectionate portrayal of the inhabitants of this quiet corner of the earth.

It just so happened that I came across a battered little hardback copy of this book in an Oxford Oxfam bookshop just before I left for New York, while I was visiting my dear Naomi for (sob) the last time (though it didn’t turn out to be the last time in the end). I had just posted about my Reading America list of books, and I had picked this for the list after reading Nicola’s enticing review, but I thought it would be tremendously difficult to get hold of. Not so! In an incident of book serendipity, I happened across it in a dark corner of Oxfam, and was delighted to be able to take it in my suitcase with me. It has been a wonderful companion over the past couple of days and transported me far from the sweaty subway and the sweltering, muggy streets of New York.

The story opens with the narrator, a young author, coming back to Dunnet Landing after a break of a few years, to spend the summer concentrating on writing her novel. She stays with Mrs Almira Todd, a warm and generous sixty something sea widow, whose garden is full of fragrant herbs and door always open to sickly locals after one of her ‘potions’ made from these herbs to cure their ails. The pair strike up a firm friendship, though the narrator soon begins to get annoyed with the constant flow of visitors trickling through the house to seek Mrs Todd’s wisdom and take home a concoction. Seeking solitude, she rents a secluded schoolhouse with an unmatched view of the sea in which to write, but the locals won’t leave her alone, and before long she finds herself effortlessly absorbed into the lives of the villagers, eventually falling in love with all of them.

Everyone in Dunnet Landing knows each other, and no one has a bad word to say about anyone else. Families have stayed in the area for generations, and friends, once made, are never forgotten. Neighbours look out for each other; ‘family reunions’ attract whole communities who are related by blood and marriage to common ancestors. People are long lived on the Maine coast, and many a story is told to the narrator about life generations before, when sea captains were ten a penny and many had sailed the world before the age of thirty. In a community where many men were lost at sea, including Mrs Todd’s husband, women stick together and support one another. Marriages are affectionate and strong; men hard working and dutiful, women supportive and caring. There is a wonderful sense of togetherness, and of love and appreciation for one another, throughout the small community that is scattered across the Maine coastline.

Mrs Blackett, Mrs Todd’s wonderful, indomitable mother, lives just off the coast of Dunnet Landing on tiny Green Island, where she has lived most of her adult life. Mrs Todd’s sixty something year old brother Will lives with her, and the small family see each other as often as they can, depending on the weather conditions. Mrs Blackett was one of the most wonderful characters in the book, and her good, gentle heart and delight in her family and friends was magnificent to read about. Will is also wonderful, and there is a beautiful story for him that unfolds in this novel that shows it is never too late for love to blossom. There are so many tales that are told in this slender novel, I can’t even begin to tell them all to you, but what runs through each of them is the pure heartedness and simple good nature of the locals. Though there have been tragedies in all of their lives, and there are plenty of sad stories to tell about the often hard lives they have experienced, the general joy taken in life and stoic determination to make the best of their situation demonstrated by each and every one was inspiring and endearing.

Finally, of course, there are the beautifully written descriptions of the scenery Sarah Orne Jewett saw around her every day; the crystal waters of the Atlantic, the vivid green of the pine forests, the gentle hills, the rolling farmland, the rugged cliffs, the pretty islands; they all came alive in my mind, leaving me desperate for cool sea breezes and peaceful coves. Who could read of a little whitewashed cottage on a green hill by the sea without longing to sit on its porch and watch the tide come in and out, completely at peace? This book tells of a style of life, a gentle, community based existence, that is no longer the norm, but the good heartedness of the characters and the beautiful scenery are still there, for us all to have and enjoy, and that is what makes this book so timeless and charming. The Country of the Pointed Firs is a real American classic, and a marvellous snapshot of New England, and of the unique character of its inhabitants. I’ll definitely be going to Maine now; perhaps I might even make it to the Sarah Orne Jewett House; I hope so!

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

One thing I’m aware of in New York is that this city is not representative of America. I can’t hope to come to any sort of understanding of what it’s like to be American just by staring at skyscrapers and going to Museums. After spending a good amount of time in Europe and also in New York, John Steinbeck also had this realisation and decided to reconnect with both the people and the landscape of his country by going on a trip across America. He wrote Travels with Charley to record his experiences over the three months he spent with only his dog, Charley, for company. I thought it would be a great starting point for my year in America, and I wasn’t wrong. I was charmed on every page by Steinbeck’s warm, generous, and non judgemental voice, and by his affection for his country, as well as his little Parisian born dog. By the end, I felt like I had developed an understanding of not just the wide variety of peoples across the expanse of the United States, but also of Steinbeck himself, which I think will greatly enhance my reading of his novels.

Steinbeck’s journey began in New York, from where he drove up to Maine and then worked his way across the East Coast and through the middle, and up to California. He did the trip in the early 60’s, in a converted station wagon called Rocinante, which he fitted up with all the food and supplies he would need. In every town he stopped in, he met locals who shared a little of their lives with him, and Steinbeck makes very intuitative comments about the differences he noticed between states and regions. One observation I particularly enjoyed was the language of road signs; in New York state, Steinbeck notes that the road signs are commands: Stop! No turning! etc, and in Ohio, the language is gentler, with friendly advice rather than curt demands. I also greatly appreciated his sensitive and non judgemental approach towards the people he met. Their lifestyle choices and ways of speaking and behaving may be completely opposed to his, but Steinbeck treats everyone with appreciative respect, curiosity and understanding. Only one incident, watching white people heckle tiny black children attempting to go to a newly mixed school in New Orleans, disgusted Steinbeck, and it also sent a chill down my spine. To know that there were people like that in his country deeply disturbed Steinbeck, but he was also big minded enough to appreciate that those brought up in the Southern states had been exposed to a culture of deeply engrained racism for so many years that they knew nothing else, and had not been educated in a way to develop the more liberal views Steinbeck held.

As a beginner in this great land that dwarfs my own home country, I was fascinated by the contrasts Steinbeck describes between neighbouring states, some with dry, desert landscapes, others with lush green wooded hills and valleys, other with terrifyingly high mountains and deep canyons, others with rolling fields and gentle pastures. Steinbeck captures effortlessly how truly big and varied America is. Each state has its own flavour, its own preoccupations, its own pace, its own unique approach to life. However, throughout the whole journey, Steinbeck notes that there is an ‘American’ identity that ties each of these diverse peoples together; a spirit of ingenuity, of tenacity, of hope, of faith. America is a nation of pioneers, of travellers, descended from those who were brave enough to leave all they knew behind and start again. As such, everyone who Steinbeck met expressed their own desire to travel, to see the world, to get out of their corner of the country, on hearing about Steinbeck’s journey. This restlessness was a very interesting observation to me, and made me wonder whether England is very restful by comparison, as those of us who come from that green and pleasant land are descended from those who stayed put rather than ventured to the new land of opportunity in previous centuries.

What I loved the most about this travelogue, overall, is how Steinbeck found that in rediscovering America, he rediscovered himself, and what he found important and meaningful. In understanding his country, and its people, he grew to understand more about why he felt the way he did about many things, and he also developed a greater appreciation and love of his own home, its comforts, and his wife waiting for him there. In the midst of beautiful landscapes, Steinbeck would find himself going through moments of crushing loneliness, and so would Charley. Despondent together, Steinbeck would soon perk himself up by going into company again, but that feeling of needing companionship was very poignant for me, as though I am greatly enjoying my own little adventure, my home will always be where my heart is, and my heart will always belong in the little corner of England where my family and those I love most are. Steinbeck’s realisation of this, and his renewed love for the land of his birth was touching and heartwarming to read about, and I felt I really got to understand him as a person, and I admire him even the more now for it.

This was such a beautiful, warm and illuminating book; Steinbeck’s voice comes alive off the pages, and the character and the spirit of his little dog are also wonderfully endearing. Read this and enjoy it; it’s a perfect starting point to access Steinbeck’s oeuvre, and it will also open your eyes to the landscape and peoples of America. I couldn’t have started my ‘Reading America’ project in a better place!

Finding My Feet

New York continues to amaze me afresh every day. I notice new things constantly, even in places that have started to become familiar to me. One thing I love the most about New York is the attention to detail shown to the city’s architecture, and it is so wonderful to spot mouldings, ghost signs and lovely old lettering on my daily walks around the city. I especially enjoy looking at structures built during the Art Deco period; invariably there are metal inserts with lovely designs etched on, intricate stonework, magnificent sculpture and clean, sinuous lines that rise high into the sky. Good design is not hard to find here; of course, there are plenty of featureless concrete blocks too, but they are far outweighed by their majestic neighbours, built to reflect New York’s fast growing status as the Greatest City on Earth in the early part of the 20th century. Contrasted with these streamlined, eminently fashionable structures are the beautiful and more humble Brownstones and red brick buildings that are dwarfed by their loftier neighbours. These quiet treelined streets Downtown and also in Brooklyn remind me of my beloved England, yet the web of fire escapes and ‘stoops’ are quintessentially American and add a very metropolitan feel that the quiet white stucco squares of London don’t have.

I am fortunate in that I get to go to Grand Central Station every day; such a beautiful, lofty hall dedicated to the mere milling about of men and women waiting for trains I have never seen the like of elsewhere. Each time I walk into its cavernous, blue tinted space lit by floor to ceiling windows that reflect the majesty of the city it serves, I spot something else to be delighted by. On Friday it was the tiny strip of blackened paint in the top corner of a section of the ceiling, which was left as a reminder of the damage cigarette smoke does after fairly recent renovation work that restored the magnificent paintwork, previously obscured by tar built up over decades. Smoking kills artwork too!

My favourite place so far has been The Metropolitan Museum of Art; a truly magnificent museum that will take me months to explore properly. This sprawling building contains a collection somewhere between my old workplace, the V&A, The British Museum, and The National Gallery, from what I have gathered , and I spent a very pleasurable couple of hours there on my fourth day in New York. From a Temple lifted from the Egyptian sands to its current resting place in a glass pyramid surrounded by Central Park, to the recreation of a genteel parlour of the highest fashion in mid 19th century New York, the Museum showcases a fascinating array of objects that made me feel like a child in a very lovely sweet shop. I particularly enjoyed the airy glass atriums that offer a terrific view of Central Park, as well as the rooftop, whose panoramic view of New York is quite something to behold. What I found of real interest was how similar yet also how different British and American art history is; many objects looked very familiar to me, and the period room recreations didn’t look overwhelmingly American, apart from the Shaker one. However, there is a definite influence of Native American culture, and also an overwhelming incorporation of immigrant cultures, in the art and design of America, which English design tends to lack. I like the ‘melting pot’ style very much, and I also love American Folk Art; the American Museum of Folk Art is still on my hit list, and I can’t wait to visit.

On Sunday I went to Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market; I am drawn to old and largely unnecessary objects like a moth to a flame, and I was in raptures as I wandered down the small stretch of 39th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue that was filled with every kind of random tat you could ever wish to see. Trays of costume jewellery sat alongside fur coats and vintage cameras; boxes of records jostled for supremacy over stacks of video tapes that have apparently now become ‘retro’. I was tempted to pick up an old suitcase for my planned weekend trips away, but the thought of carting it around with me all day in 30 degree heat was enough to put me off. A slice of pizza from a hole in the wall pizza parlour and a cup of watermelon later, I meandered down 8th Street, where a market filled with palm readers and tat from off the back of a truck was taking place. At 5o something street I hit Columbus Circle, where I shopped in Whole Foods, saw a movie being filmed, and then entered Central Park for some peace and quiet. My friend and I chatted while lying on a shady spot of grass, before making our way to Strawberry Fields, where we listened to a Beatles Tribute Band and tried to work out which of the huge buildings outside the railings was the Dakota Building. Then we caught a subway down to Union Square, student hub of New York, where we melted at puppies in a pet store window and did some more shopping, before catching our subway home. Yet another busy day, filled with random and exciting things only New York can provide. Can you believe that in two short weeks I have seen two movies and two TV shows being filmed? And been shouted at by a film director for attempting to cross the street in front of his shot?! That’s New York!

I have done much and relaxed little; I am reluctant to take subways as I am trying to find my way around on foot as much as possible, so walking fifty or sixty blocks a day, if not more, has become normal. I am also, of course, going to work every day, so I am really quite exhausted at the moment. This week I start classes, and I am also starting volunteer work. On top of this I am planning on taking a writing class, and I also need to find time to explore the city, read, make new friends, and, oh yes, sleep. So life is busy, and full; there is no time for homesickness, and also none for regrets. Of those, I have none. One look out of my apartment window, which shows me a beautiful panorama of Manhattan in all its glory, twinkling from across the other side of the Hudson River, never fails to remind me how lucky I am to be here, and of all the wonderful possibilities there are to come!

First Impressions

New York is everything and nothing like I had imagined.

It is big, brash, LOUD, smelly, heaving with people and the most manic, impatient and frantic place I’ve ever experienced. I thought I knew big cities, but London is a small provincial town compared to New York. Everywhere you go, there are car horns blaring, people yelling, cars whooshing by, people shoving you, leaflets being pushed in your face, crazy people declaring The End Has Come, steam emitting from grates unexpectedly, food carts belching out enticing smells and flashing neon lights from store fronts blinding you, and all this can just as easily be seen at 6am as at 6pm. There is always something to see and do, something to marvel at, laugh at, cry at, point at, gasp at. It is a city that overwhelms every sense and makes you realise how high and wide and deep life can be. I love it.

I feel like I have regressed to childhood, and that’s not just because the skyscrapers and storey after storey of apartment buildings unfolding above my head to dizzying levels make me feel physically tiny. It’s because, for the first time since I was about 5, I am filled with wonder at everything I see. I no longer take my surroundings for granted, or walk along in a world of my own. The world around me has come alive; from sepia to technicolour. I can’t stop marvelling at the feat of the men who risked their lives to build the majestic skyscrapers of the 1920s; at the teeny tiny birds that populate Central Park; at the surging masses of people emerging from Grand Central at rush hour; at the graceful bridges that span the East River. I feel part of the throbbing heart of life in a way I never did in London; filled with possibility, with excitement, with anticipation, with hope. Looking at the sky studded with the pinnacles of towers built to express the dreams and hopes of men who truly believed America was the land of infinite opportunity, I too feel like here, I could achieve anything, be anything, do anything. I feel reborn, almost. And it’s only been six days. I can’t even begin to imagine how I’ll feel in a year.

Despite being further from my family and friends than I have ever been, and missing them terribly, I am so wonderfully happy. New York is going to be the making of me, I just know it. This is the beginning of the rest of my life, and I am sure as goodness going to make the most of it. In these past six days I have been pushed beyond the limits of everything I thought I was capable of, and while it has been scary, it has also been exhilarating, as now I know that I can do infinitely more than I ever dared to imagine, and as such, the world truly is my oyster. I still need more courage, and I know there will be plenty of valleys among the peaks, but I am so glad I took this leap, and I can’t wait to see what more joys lie along the road ahead of me. Thank you all for your wonderfully kind comments and emails; you have lifted my heart at times of real need, and I appreciate your support immensely. I have already done and taken photos of countless things, and will post properly about my adventures as soon as I can; life is a bit of a whirl at the moment and this is the only time I’ve had all week to sit down and write. Hopefully next week I’ll be able to tell you all about my trip to the beautiful Met, and show you some of the favourite places I’ve found so far!