Archive for May, 2011


Today I’ve been back on the renting websites looking for another place to stay again. I spent weeks before I was due to come over looking for accommodation before I found the Queen of Manhattan. But when Mutley comes to join me for a 10 day holiday I need to find another place for the two of us.

It’s a mark of just how expensive accommodation is here, and maybe also of how people are struggling to make ends meet, that a lot of people don’t just rent out floor space, like the Queen of Manhattan is doing, but actually rent their apartments and stay with friends. And because they can make double what they pay by renting out, and normally ask for cash, it’s also tax free. You can’t really rent a private apartment on Manhattan, even a studio – a basic one room place with kitchen/living/sleeping all in the same area, for less than 2,500 dollars a month. So when I saw such a place for $90 a night I jumped. For the 10 days Mutley and I need, that would be around a $1000, but believe me, that’s cheap!

So last night found me heading across town to the Chelsea area, way downtown of my current Upper East Side address, but nearer to the West Village. I walked for blocks and blocks, and the surroundings got distinctly dingier. Finally I arrived on 10th Avenue – way over to the very West of the Manhattan island, almost on the shores of the river between Manhattan and Jersey. Tenth itself is a monstrous three-lane race-track, and although the block was a lovely old building – a walk-up as they call it here, because it has no lift – it was standing pretty much alone in this wasteland of garages and empty lots – not very attractive! The person who lives there, and was renting out, runs an art gallery nearby, and said she would sleep a few nights at the gallery and a few nights with friends – it all seems very upsetting in some ways – throwing someone out of their home so you can have a holiday – but of course you’re paying for the privilege. The flat was actually exactly the kind of place I had imagined staying in before I arrived in New York – old-fashioned heavy iron pipes, high ceilings, mis-matched furniture. The Queen of Manhattan’s place is lovely, but it’s in a fairly souless modern building. This place was, as the arty owner put it, all ‘vintage’! As I noticed a small cage in the corner, she finished the (quick) tour by reassuring me that the hamster wouldn’t be staying – she’d go with her to wherever she ended up staying! I’ve said I’ll get back to her tomorrow – but I’m a bit put off by the noisy road, crummy area and lack of internet connection – so we’ll see.

At the other end of the spectrum, the free paper I now read on my subway commute (I’ve abandoned the buses for a bit as the subway is so much quicker) led today on ‘They’re rich and renting..’ – the story of how the rich Manhattanites, ‘leery’ of buying in the current market, are happy to pay $20,000 a month to rent penthouse apartments. The story however, featured only one couple, and was surrounded by ads for real estate agents and so on, so I’m NOT entirely convinced.

But the paper then went on to to tell us that Jennifer Anniston, clearly NOT ‘leery’ about buying, has snapped up a penthouse in the West Village. Her place only has one bedroom, like most New York pads, but unlike most New Yorkers, she’s reportedly paying just under five million for it…I don’t think she’ll be needing to rent out to anyone!

 

My Mum tells a hilarious story from when she and my Dad first came to America in the mid-sixties, before I was born. She went out to buy Dad some vests (you can tell it was the sixties), and to buy herself a pinafore type dress that you wore over a jumper, that was all the rage at the time. She recalls getting sent from pillar to post in the department store by increasingly confused sales assistants, to whom a vest was a waistcoat and a pinafore dress was a jumper.

Maybe because American culture is now so familiar to us in Britain and Ireland, I haven’t found much of that. I know that trousers are ‘pants’, and no one here has looked at me quizzically when I talk about the ‘bin’ or ‘pavement’. But never-the-less, there is constant translation going on. In some ways it’s the same type of translation I employ in Northern Ireland. My conversation there is peppered with ‘wee’ and ‘grand’ because ‘small’ and ‘fine’ just don’t seem quite accurate. But if I say ‘wee’ and ‘grand’ here, there’s the potential I will be misunderstood.

I stood in a queue in a shop (or line in a store!) the other day and listened to a Eurasian woman on the till talking to a Spanish customer – both of them clearly speaking a foreign language – but both talking in English. It’s not like those amazing waiters in Spanish resorts who can switch between English, Spanish or German at will – all New York requires of you is English.

In the office, like I was at the BBC World Service, I am surrounded by foreign languages. I hear my colleagues in the Russian service speaking their beautiful gutteral tongue – further down the corridor is the Portugeuse section – next to us the French. But at the morning meetings everyone speaks in English. And at home there is multi-lingual Queen of Manhattan – singing along in Italian with Pavarotti on the TV, chatting to friends on the phone in Romanian, lapsing into French when she wants to make a point.

In this city of immigrants, everyone can converse in English, but everyone is speaking their own version.

It’s been a very strange experience watching the elections in Northern Ireland from this side of the Atlantic. First of all it’s been difficult to do so, as, for various reasons, when I’m not at work, it’s tricky to get constant access to the internet (hard to believe in NYC I know, but true). But also because the delays in the count meant the time-difference was even more marked for me. And then there’s that sense that you want to exclaim to someone here about this or that result, but of course it doesn’t really mean anything to anyone here.

The Queen of Manhattan is wading through application forms for all these consultancy jobs here, which use phrases like ‘determine the level of capacity building’ and ‘monitor the gender balance in democratic governance’, and I suddenly realised that that’s what I’ve been doing – monitoring the democratic governance in Northern Ireland! It looks, as I think we all suspected, like a fairly un-spectacular result in terms of changes to the status quo. It seems a shame that in an campaign which had so many independents, so few were elected. And that also meant some casualties among the more established MLAs – it will be a great loss to the Assembly that Dawn Purvis lost her seat. In terms of the number of women MLAs, it’s good to see some new faces, but 20 or so women out of 108 MLAs is still not ideal.

One small aside, one of my colleagues is called Gerry Adams, which still has me pricking my ears up every time someone says her name, but she is very different to the bearded President of Sinn Fein – she’s a statuesque black African-America.

I have to tell you about the dogs of New York. They say the British are dog lovers, but New Yorkers take it to a whole new level. Forget all the advice you ever heard about owning a dog – like, ‘you need lots of space’; ‘you need a garden’; ‘you need time to exercise it’ – because here there are literally hundreds of dogs, living in tiny flats, with owners who work 50 plus hours a week – and judging by the look of them, they’re faring pretty well. I have never seen such a pack of glossy-coated, healthy wet-nosed, well-fed looking animals – and yes I am talking about the dogs! And they’re not all tiny rat-like handbag dogs – I saw someone with a Great Dane the other day. I mean if that ‘poops’ in the ‘apartment’ you’ll know about it. I’ve even seen a greyhound – not nearly as beautiful as our Blue, but I almost ran after the owner to introduce myself!

But the best bit is meeting these dogs in the lift on the way out of our building to work. I stumbled in the other morning, half-asleep as usual, and there was a huge fluffy Golden Retriever, sitting behaving himself next to his owner. I was amazed – I have never seen a dog in a lift. But the best bit was when we reached the ground floor, he knew! And straining at the lead, he pushed his nose against the lift doors waiting impatiently to get out. As it was clear he and his owner were going to exit before me and the other woman in the lift, his owner, who looked a bit like an updated version of Columbo, fairly chunky, in a suit and long trench-coat, shrugged apologetically - “Sorry guys, his manners aren’t so good.”

 

I’m a bit behind, but day two in the Big Brother office was not good. It started with a brush with the law enforcement authorities – or at least, a bus ticket inspector. New York is piloting a new scheme with ‘express’ buses on Manhattan. It’s a bit of false advertising really, as the fact these buses don’t stop at every stop doesn’t really make any difference in the rush hour, but you get the idea. So with these buses, you verify your travel card at a machine at the bus-stop, and it gives you a receipt – which like normal bus tickets, I tend to drop into my bottomless bag.

But this morning an inspector got on and clearly took my panicked scrabbling in my bag as a sign of guilt. She made a bee-line for me and stood in front of me. I handed her a receipt. She continued to stand there staring at me impasssively. “Is that not today’s?” I asked, dying to say, ‘I’m not a fare dodger, I’m just British!’ The impassive staring continued. I scrabbled some more, and finally found the correct one. She glanced at it and her manner completely changed. “Ok, thankyou Ma’am”, and off she went.

On arrival at work I was again overwhelmed by the string of bureaucratic things that still had to be done before I could really do my job – not to mention the whole get-a-US-bank-account-or-won’t-get-paid stress. Suddenly felt a bit like crying and I think my lovely manager had a sense. He put me in touch with an assistant who actually seemed to want to help and as of today I can now get into the office with my pass, I have an email account and log-in and an American bank account – but that’s another story.

So, the day continued – I read the lunchtime news programme – badly – but everyone seemed impressed. And I got more and more tired. This was the night myself and the Queen of Manhattan, my flatmate, were supposed to be attending a cocktail party organised by the brilliant new company Off The Sidewalk www.offthesidewalk.com/ – set up to help people re-locate between London and New York. (I wish I’d known about it before I tried to move over) A former colleague works for them, and I really wanted to catch up with her, and drink a cocktail in the Ava Bar on the penthouse suite of the Dream boutique hotel. But I was soooo tired.

However, once I had met up with the Queen of Manhattan, I think I absorbed some of her bountiful energy and I suddenly perked up. Then along came her delightful friend – a very American foil to her Romanian exoticism – calm, be-spectacled and from Missouri. What an international team we made as we tried to persuade a taxi to pick us up.

When we arrived we were fashionably late – but that made it all the more exciting. As we steped out of the ‘elevator’to the penthouse, what a sight greeted us. It was amazing – we were literally on the roof, looking out over the skyscrapers and the teeming road so far below. I wonder when the views of this city will start to pall. So we sat and chatted, and drank g and ts, and generally felt like something out of ‘Sex and the City’. And it was the perfect end to a potentially dicey day.

 

 

Well, what a day to start work in New York! Woke up (again!) at 4.30am to a text from the UK telling me about Osama Bin Laden. My first thought was, ‘why couldn’t Obama have waited till we were up?’ So snoozed until I DID have to get up and then got ready for first day of New Job, listening to National Public Radio – very lively special programme about the Osama news – a lot more lively than I remembered from the first time I was here. And then I set off for work. I know people were celebrating outside the White House and at Ground Zero, but everyone waiting for the bus on 2nd avenue just seemed to want to get to work.

I bought coffee from a little shop by the bus stop, and bananas from a fruit seller on the street and joined the zillions of other commuters, all plugged into their headphones, in their own little worlds, doing what they do every day – but I was quivering with excitement at the newness of it all.

The building I’m working in is called – wait for it – ‘the Innovation Luggage Building’. Only in America. And after being given the first of several temporary passes I finally met the lovely man who’s been helping me get here. He’s the boss of the section I shall be working for, and he’s British, very courteous, and a former BBC journalist – which all made sense when he told me, because he has that World Service air about him. However, (Miles) he also worked for BBC Radio WM in Birmingham – so we had a moment of reminiscing about that city while listening to the clamour of New York.

And then the day began in ernest. Never mind that the biggest story for years for America had just broken – I had to go to three different departments, in three different buildings 15 mins walk apart, to fill out and sign dozens of forms, and to be told that I can’t be paid unless I have a US bank account. It was like something out of “1984″ – or Little Britain – an American version of “compu’er says naaw”. It took literally 3 hours, and by the end of it I was knackered, starving and not a little pissed off. I did at least have my pass (so I could stop collecting temporary ones) but, when I got back to my building it transpired it didn’t actually let me into my office, because the ‘locksmith’ had to set that up for me. I also need a authorisation code to dial overseas, and a chit signed in triplicate to go to the toilet – ok I made that up, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.

But everyone was really friendly, even the people I stopped on the street to ask directions. And as I was stumbling along peering at my map, at one point I looked up and there was the stunning Chrysler building – so gracefull and elegant, and I was struck yet again by just where I am.

However, I am soooo tired – still on UK time so I’m going to crash – and I walked home tonight – around 50 blocks, so, to bed.

 

I hate to start with a cliché – but it’s been a roller-coaster of a few days. Or maybe more of a yo-yo. One minute I’ve been up – I’m going to New York and I’m so excited I can’t eat, the next minute I’m not and I’m faced with the prospect of scuttling back into the status-quo with my tail between my legs – and I’m down.

 

After my leap of faith in booking flights, I came in, on what was due to be my last day in the job in Northern Ireland, to an email that cryptically said ‘we’ve hit a snag’. My heart plummeted. By the time I got to speak to the Americans, due to the time difference, I was imagining the worst – and it was the worst. It looked like the job was off, due to a bureaucratic interpretation of the rules, which meant I should be paid more, much more, because I was travelling from overseas, but which the department employing me had not budgeted for and couldn’t afford. There then followed a day of nail biting for me, and what I imagined to be a flurry of ‘memos written in the strongest terms’ in America. Suddenly, on Thursday night, as I had given up hope, I got a text at 11.30pm – ‘Julia we have ok for you to come’ – and the yo-yo was back up.

 

So, Saturday morning saw me up at 5am to catch a taxi to the bus station, a bus to Dublin and a plane to New York. It’s so true about familiarity breeding contempt. Suddenly, faced with the prospect of not seeing Belfast for six weeks, everything leapt into clear focus that morning. The dog putting her face up to me, only looking for breakfast of course, the cheeriness of the taxi driver, the curve of the terraced houses at the Markets as we drove into the town, the accent of the bus driver, joking with me about change – and Mutley, getting up with me, dragging my ridiculously heavy bag out to the taxi in his dressing gown and odd slippers, kissing me goodbye and gently pushing me out the door – suddenly I almost couldn’t bear to leave, after all these weeks of pushing to go.

 

And then, after so many snags, the journey went entirely to plan. My bag WASN’T over-weight, the queue for security and pre-immigration wasn’t too long, the flight was long but not unbearable, and then I was waiting to re-claim my bag and looking for a taxi.

 

The thing about New York, you realise as your taxis hurtles into town, is it’s such an old-fashioned city. Despite all the sky-scrapers, this isn’t some futuristic Tokyo or even Sydney. When you’re my age, your impressions of it are all formed from 70s TV movies – but, aside from the monumental change caused by 9/11 – it still looks pretty much the same as the last two times I was here, in 1998 and in 2005. But the charming thing is, it’s still a surprise when you see that things really do look like they do in films – a fire hydrant on the ‘sidewalk’, the armies of yellow cabs, guys playing basketball on one of those city pitches with wires fences all around. And then a little hint of home – a poster on a taxi wishing William and Kate congratulations!

 

My accommodation, secured after hours of searching online, is sharing with a fascinating woman who runs an NGO here, partially aimed at tackling human trafficking. She is Romanian by birth, but has been in the States for a decade or so. She is a whirlwind of energy, petite and beautiful, and very kind – as I started to enter the stupor of exhaustion last night, she fed me an amazing Romanian-style soup made from spinach and fish head, plyed me with a home-made Bellini cocktail, and arranged for us to go to a party. Unfortunately my energy gave out before I could join in – but by the end of that long long day yesterday, I felt completely at home here.

 

Our flat is on the 16th floor of a modern block in the Upper East Side. It has a gym and a swimming pool on site (although I’m going to have to pay to use that) and sun-deck on the roof. We look out up the island of Manhattan – again, what else would you expect to see, but it’s still breathtaking. When I woke (predictably) at 5am this morning, I looked out on a still-dark city, the glow of sunrise just visible behind the buildings, the sea to the right calm and grey. Now, despite the fact it’s Sunday, the city is humming with life, angry horns beeping and construction work continuing on the site opposite. We’re also right near the Metropolitan hospital, so I think my amazement at US style ambulance sirens might wear off pretty quickly!

 

 

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