For the last few years I have spent my time both on and off the road engaging with other travellers via Twitter. The microblogging site is perfect not just for sharing images, like Instagram, but also for fostering a sense of community through an increasing number of weekly travel chats.
There are only so many travel-related topics to discuss, however, and with new chats being founded almost every week it is inevitable that a few subjects will repeat from time to time, so that you might find yourself debating sustainable tourism or slow travel two or three times a week, if not a day. This most often coincides with seasonal changes and world events, as talk invariably turns to summer holidays or how you might stay safe on the road.
One such subject is solo travel, with discussions often focusing on the advantages going it alone has over any sort of group travel. I have engaged in and enjoyed both types of travel over the years, whether touring Romania with school friends or testing my resolve with a couple of months in Russia, and have found that the best trips are often those that manage to combine the two. In France, for instance, I flew out with friends and flew back alone, having stayed on an extra day to catch up on a few things I hadn’t felt able to with others in tow; the sort of stuff that only appeals to me.
As such, when Paul and I booked six days in the United States of America I did so with the expectation that I would have at least one of those days to myself, for silly things like souvenirs and pick-up shots, that are best undertaken alone. I’m an idiosyncratic traveller — content to pootle about, backtracking and sidetracking as I go, with little sense rhyme or reason — and a downright infuriating shopper for similar reasons, so I suspected I was probably doing Paul a favour leaving him to round off the visit in his own way too. I still felt a little guilty, but I had travelled a long way and spent a lot of money, so I didn’t want to leave with any regrets; and I knew I’d regret not spending some time alone in New York. The last few days had been amazing but I needed to zone out for a few hours if I wanted New York to really soak in.
I knew I’d made the right decision when we left the hotel to find that it was snowing outside and Paul suggested we take a bus to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to save ourselves the inconvenience of walking in the snow. I was stunned; the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind. We had been incredibly lucky with the weather so far — big blue skies; brilliant sunshine — but part of me still longed to see Central Park in the snow. I wanted to play, to dance, to frolic; I didn’t want to watch everyone else letting loose from a bus. Paul acquiesced, eventually, and we carried on into the park. It was magical, like a movie, like every movie, and as we passed statues of the Ugly Duckling, Alice in Wonderland and Balto (the sled dog, apparently) all capped with snow I almost didn’t want to arrive. But arrive we did — only to discover that the Met didn’t open for another hour. Even better: there was time for breakfast.
Until arriving in New York I had always held Berlin’s Pergamon to be the best museum in the world, but between the American Natural History Museum and the Met I was beginning to rethink my rankings. At the box office we were greeted as old friends, perhaps even family, as the woman, recognising Paul’s accent, insisted that she too was Scottish. Well, Scaaathish, as it happened, which isn’t quite the same thing. It’s always perplexed me that Americans, so patriotic and proud of their heritage, flying flags at every opportunity and singing their national anthem with untold sincerity, are in such a hurry to be from everywhere else as well. Upon declaring herself our compatriot she told us that she’d love to visit, effectively admitting that while some distant relative had likely hailed from Scotland she herself had never been. I’d encountered this curious cultural tick before, like when I’d interviewed Mark Andrews, co-director of Pixar’s Brave, and listened to him tell me that, despite being born in LA, he was basically Scottish. It’s bizarre.
We got separated almost immediately after we picked up our tickets, having made a beeline for the Medieval Sculpture Hall and inadvertently browsed our way into different rooms. I was in a hurry to get to the mummies, my number two reason for visiting any museum after dinosaurs, but took my time admiring the collection, which included Byzantine art, tapestries and altarpieces. Although already impressed, I was still unprepared for the spectacle awaiting me in the Sackler Wing. The Temple of Dendur, complete with gate and sphynx, has been recreated in an enormous atrium with a floor-to-ceiling window affording equally amazing views of Central Park. I sat, stood and circled in awe, before setting out on a lap of the upper floors, eventually arranging to meet Paul back in the Sackler Wing. He had yet to venture upstairs, so I left him to the American and Islamic art exhibits while I set off in earnest on my solo adventure. The plan? Well, whatever I felt like at the time.
First, though, I wasn’t quite finished with Central Park, and with the Ramble still to explore and everywhere else to revisit in its new snowy state I spent another couple of hours meandering my way along its network of paths. I ended up back at the zoo, beneath the Delacorte Music Clock, and keen to see how much it resembled the iteration featured in the Madagascar series I paid the entry fee and made my way inside. I was a little disappointed to find that there wasn’t a lion, zebra, giraffe or hippopotamus in residence, and that most the animals they did have seemed to be hibernating from the cold (even, inexplicably, the snow leopard), but I still had a fine time watching the sea lions, penguins and snow monkeys doing whatever it is sea lions, penguins and snow monkeys do. My camera steamed up the moment I entered the Tropic Zone, but the birds — free to flap about of their own volition — were so unperturbed by my presence that there was hardly need for a zoom lens.
I spent the next hour shopping for souvenirs, darting down Fifth Avenue to the Rockefeller Plaza in the hope of picking up a small memento from Nintendo World or any of the other novelty shops I encountered. Old platforms were on display in glass cabinets while new games were available to play via more contemporary consoles, but after fogging the glass of the Nintendo 64 exhibit I realised I couldn’t see anything I wanted to buy — for myself or anyone else — so I set off in search of more traditional gift shops instead. Considering I left the plaza after an hour with nothing more than a fridge magnet for my mother it was categorically a waste of time, but I had enjoyed the simple act of squandering it immensely. I stopped for a slice of pizza and some coffee, siphoned some WiFi from Starbucks and shopped for pretzel-flavoured M&Ms. I was amazed at the variety of flavours on display, perplexed by the signage outside instructing passers-by to raise their plows and refrain from standing, and once again aghast at the number of flags lining Fifth in particular. I still couldn’t believe I was here: in America.
I had done everything that I most wanted to do, from climbing the Empire State Building to scoffing pancakes for breakfasts to people-watching in Grand Central Station. That said, I felt that there was one more place I should visit before I called it a day; somewhere I felt I needed to go. We had already visited Ground Zero, where we surveyed the One World Trade Center from below, but we had been forced to skip the 9/11 memorial that lies beneath. I took the subway, doing my best to ignore the man openly urinating in the corner, and found my way back to Lower Manhattan. As emotive as the North and South Pools might be, they pale in comparison with the physical descent into the Twin Towers’ foundations, past mangled bulkheads, crumbling staircases and disfigured fire engines. Beneath what was once the South Tower lies In Memorium, an exhibition featuring portraits and electronic profiles of everyone killed in the attacks, while across the hall visitors can follow a timeline of events that started with the attack on the north tower but which are still being felt today. The images, footage and audio recordings still shock, with an “oral remembrance” hitting particularly hard.
I would have liked to stay for longer, simply to watch the sunset reflected in the facade of the One World Trade Center if not necessary climb to the top, but I had arranged to meet someone across town at six and wanted to give myself plenty of time to find the venue. Nicolette hosts CultureTrav, one of the travel chats I most enjoy taking part in on Twitter, through which we had arranged to meet while I was in the area. I had never partaken in a tweet-up before, but after years of trading answers and anecdotes online I was looking forward to meeting face-to-face, IRL. Originally from the Netherlands, I was eager to see how another European had adapted to life Stateside, albeit over a considerably longer time. We met at Argo Tea Cafe, where she introduced me to her friend, an Albanian, who had lived in America for even longer than Nicolette. We ordered tea (hibiscus, in my case) and got down to talking. Both had lived elsewhere in the States too, so it was great to hear their thoughts not just on New York but the US as a whole. It was a pleasure and a privilege to spend time with them, and I thanked them both profusely for coming along to meet me.
I picked up a wrap and another slice of cheesecake and returned to the hotel, satisfied that I’d found a perspective on New York that I could justifiably call my own. We had an early train to catch the next morning, an Amtrak leaving PENN Station at the crack of dawn, so I was ready for an early night. I was still buzzing, however, restless as I fought the urge to go back outside and see, experience, learn some more. I had to raise my plow to New York; it really knows how to get under your skin. Instead, I caught up with Paul, made a halfhearted attempt at packing, and surprised myself by going straight to sleep. Needless to say, the city that never sleeps featured heavily in my dreams.