The ‘Big Apple’ of my eye

I have wanted to go to New York for as long as I can remember. I tried to go when I turned 30 but I spent all of my New York savings on a divorce instead (hands down the best reason to not go to New York).  This year, I’m turning 40 and as a generous early birthday gift, Brad took me to the Big Apple.

We flew with Norwegian Air, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you’ve tried to get into a tight fitting suit in January after eating 27 Chocolate Oranges and three blocks of cheddar over Christmas and would like to experience this phenomenon in travel form. It was proper pile ‘em high and price ‘em low budget airline travel, with a pilot who genuinely seemed to be asking a question when his last words prior to taking off from Gatwick were “Right, erm, off we go then?”. However, we did land safely at JFK airport, much to everyone’s surprise (including, I think, the pilot).

New York is crowded, raucous and vibrant. Like all big cities, there are elements of seediness but there is also something very charismatic about the place. The architecture is phenomenal and you spend most of your time looking up, fascinated by both the overwhelming height and exceptional designs of the handsome buildings.

At one end of the spectrum you have calm, serene, nature-filled Central Park which is enormous and reinforced how good Brad’s sense of direction is. I can’t even tell left from right so when words like north and east start being bandied around, I go to pieces. It’s a good job the two of us didn’t separate whilst navigating our way around or I think I’d probably still be in there.

In contrast you have Times Square, the real life version of a migraine; hectic, bright, colourful, crowded, noisy and confusingly not a square. It’s enough to send you off for a lie down in a dark room with a cheeky little Valium.

They call New York the city that never sleeps and it has the vibe of a strung out insomniac surviving on coffee and Red Bull. Shops are open 24 hours a day and the subway system never stops. Workers just do their thang whatever time of the day or night; a fact we discovered quite awkwardly when a man in a cradle (heavy plant not baby bed) started doing maintenance* on the outside of our fifth floor hotel window very early one morning whilst we were still in bed.

*at least I really REALLY hope that’s what he was up to

Drivers in New York are obsessed with their car horns. Brad and I started playing a game where we had to try to work out whether there was a legitimate reason for a driver to beep. I estimate that the drivers had about a 95% fail rate. In America you can turn right on a red light, but only if your path is clear. We honestly witnessed a driver blast their horn because the person in the car in front of them did NOT turn right onto a  zebra crossing filled with people.

Despite their yearning to mow down innocent pedestrians, outside of moving vehicles, we found the New Yorkers that we met to be friendly, polite and fascinated by our accents. One man in a supermarket wouldn’t put my items through the till until I’d said “Cup of tea” to him a good number of times. Of course, I hammed it up more and more each time. By the final ‘cup of tea’, the words were so plummy, I’d have made the Queen sound like Danny Dyer.

Two New York residents did not win us over quite so much; we encountered a couple in the room next door to us who considered the early hours of the morning to be a jolly good time to have blazing rows. Let me tell you, nothing will startle you into consciousness as alarmingly as a piercing broad New York accent (a la Janice from Friends) at 4am. Luckily for us, the noisy neighbours only stayed for two nights. Luckily for them, us Brits are both notoriously polite and very aware of the fact that Americans can carry guns. Conflict avoided.

On our last day, we took a trip to the top of the Rockefeller centre. The views take your breath away, although that might be the altitude, and you can’t help but reflect and marvel at how so much concrete can be so incredibly beautiful (and also just what the hell WAS that dude in the cradle doing at 7.30am?).

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Anyone who knows me, in fact, you don’t even need to have known me, anyone who had any contact with me, no matter how small, during the past few weeks will know that I went to Paris last week. Seriously, the fact that I was going to Paris is genuinely recorded in the notes of a grievance hearing.

So great was my excitement about my forthcoming trip that my Facebook status on Monday looked like this:

“ParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParis”

despite this over-sharing on social networking providing an excellent opportunity for my friendly neighbourhood burglar.

But who cares about someone robbing the telly when you’re going on a city break? Anyway, I live with a man. Everyone knows that men amass televisions the way women covet cushions. Televisions for every room with screen sizes to rival Odeon, so had the goggle box been nicked, we would have been alright, we’ve got some king-size spares lying around.

Our Parisian adventure began with a trip on the Eurostar accompanied by coffee and a pain au chocolat courtesy of a lovely little French style patisserie Costa.

After boarding the magical international train, we somehow managed to offend the passenger sitting opposite us; an old lady who appeared outraged that we dare sit in our assigned seats and share the same carriage space with her. About five minutes into the journey, she stood up, picked up her luggage and vanished, never to return. I think perhaps we overdid the Fox’s Glacier Fruits.

The Eurostar journey is pretty straightforward and to my surprise, because I hadn’t really given it much consideration, the time in the tunnel is very short. It’s only about twenty minutes. When we emerged from the tunnel into the decidedly grey skies of France (easily confused for English skies) and Brad said ‘Hooray, we’re in France’ I gave him a withering look and said scathingly “Don’t be so ridiculous”. Excessive provision of Fox’s Glacier Fruits aside, I am an absolute joy and delight to travel with.

We arrived in one piece at Paris Gare Du Nord and successfully negotiated the Metro to reach our hotel. The Metro is exactly the same as travelling on the Tube apart from the announcements. It’s much nicer to hear a softly spoken, twinkly voiced French lady telling you that you are just arriving at Champs-Élysées Clemenceau than a sweaty man in a high visibility jacket named Bob angrily yelling at you to “LET THE PASSENGERS OFF THE TRAIN, FIRST” or having to get the Docklands Light Railway to a station called Mudchute.

Everything just sounds nicer with a French accent, even my own name. When the hotel receptionist said “Here is your key Zhjolyn”, I wondered why I’d been pronouncing it incorrectly for 36 years.

Hotel positives were that it was clean, quiet and friendly. Negatives were that the lift visibly dropped about three inches every time anyone stepped into it and there was a very threatening message on reception which warned that food must not be eaten in any of the rooms for “hygiene reasons”, this is despite the fact that they offered a room service food menu. Were you supposed to eat in the hallway? Who knows? Plus, I can think of a number of other less hygienic things that people may do in hotel rooms, particularly in the Montmatre district of Paris.

Our first day of sightseeing involved the Arc de Triomphe. As we headed towards it from the Avenue de Wagram, or Avenue de Wigwam as I preferred to refer to it, I was decidedly underwhelmed. “Look, it’s at the top of the road” Brad exclaimed. “Is that it? It’s not as big as I thought” I replied with not a hint of double entendre. Turns out I was looking at it from the side.

When I finally viewed it face on, it was indeed as big as I had imagined and quite staggering. Not least because of the ten terrifying lanes of traffic surrounding it; you can admire the majestic structure honouring those who fought during the Napoleonic wars and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War whilst carbon monoxide fumes engulf you.

We took in some culture with a visit to the Musee D’Orsay, although I counteracted this by childishly taking a picture of the Rhinoceros sculpture by Alfred Jacquemart, which is situated outside the museum, just because Mr Rhino had large testicles.

We saw the Moulin Rouge where a French man pinched my bum and Brad was offered “the best pussy in Paris” which I’m pretty certain was fille de joie and not feline.

We visited the breathtaking and spiritual Notre Dame and climbed the 300 steps to marvel over the views across Paris from the Sacré-Cœur. Then we sat down for quite a while, relieved that we’d made it to the top without dying.

We drank, considerably. We walked, considerably and we spoke some considerably pigeon French. “Parlez-vous Anglais?” Being a popular phrase.

Of course, no trip to Paris would be complete without seeing the Eiffel Tower. It’s an amazing landmark and quite magnificent. Although maybe I shouldn’t admit this but it does remind me somewhat of an electricity pylon, a beautiful pylon but a pylon nevertheless. That said, when it is lit up at night, even the most cynical of visitors could not fail to be entranced and captivated by the charming grand iron lady of Paris. I know I was.

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“Paris is always a good idea” – Audrey Hepburn