Do I actually live in New York City? My dad doesn’t think so, and he may have a point. Since L1 and I officially moved there in late October, I’ve spent five weeks in London, a week in California, and most recently, almost a month in Florida. That’s a sixty/forty split between New York and other places. So I guess our first six months on this side of the pond would more accurately be described as Our Big American Adventure rather than Our Big New York Adventure.
The Florida part isn’t actually new to me – I’ve been coming here at least once a year since I was seventeen, and the kids have been coming since they were babies, courtesy of my parents having lived here part of the time for the past forty years. But the prospect of coming here never ceases to engender a ludicrous level of excitement in all of us, and particularly in daughter number two. (“We all love Florida,” said daughter number one, “but K REALLY loves it, in an almost crazy way.”). Apparently, during the month prior to their flying here, daughter number two’s boyfriend was subjected to the daily pronouncement that she just could not wait to get to Florida, she thought she might die if she didn’t get there soon, accompanied by much hyperventilating, squealing and hand waggling. Continue reading “Searching for Stephen King”→
I’ve spent the week lying around, doing my best to recover from the debilitating lurgy that prevented me from making the planned trip back to London to surprise our youngest on his nineteenth birthday. Actually, Norwegian Airlines also did its bit to prevent me from going. Four hours before my scheduled departure at eleven am Thursday, they sent me a text informing me that my flight had been rescheduled to three am on Friday on account of the fact that they needed to comply with rules pertaining to rest periods for crew – rules to which they had, presumably, suddenly and surprisingly been alerted. They hoped this would not be too inconvenient.
Thank you Norwegian Airlines. Now we know why your premium economy seats are so much cheaper than everyone else’s. You’re not actually a proper airline, with all that this implies in terms of logistical expertise and professional standards. You’re an illusion, a sham, a fake.
But back to the lying around. While reclined, I did two things, in the main. The first was to binge watch Grace and Frankie. I know I’m late to the party, but what a party. Comedy gold. The trouble is, twenty four episodes in, I’m dangerously close to believing that I actually live in that beach house with Jane Fonda, and that I have access to her dreamy wardrobe of pastel coloured knits by Ralph Lauren and St John. At one point, L1 insisted that I leave the bedroom and come in to watch the news, just so I could regain some perspective on the world. I sat there, forcing myself to take in the latest revelations about how the leader of the free world had been paying porn stars to lie while colluding with the thug who’s in charge of Russia and a dodgy UK tech company and an even dodgier US tech company in order to subvert democracy, but I’m afraid none of it really made an impression. I was too busy longing to be back on one of those tasteful striped loungers on Jane’s deck, gazing out at the Pacific.
Wary of getting lost in Grace and Frankie land, and unable to get out into the city to experience it, I decided that the next best thing would be to to read about the city. I happened to have two books about New York to hand – Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, and New York Stories. And what I read really got me thinking. I thought about the city in the books and the city that L1 and I have been experiencing, and I wondered whether either version is what anyone would call the real New York, or if such a thing even exists. Continue reading “Will the real New York please stand up?”→
When we moved to this great city, we expected to see new things and meet new people. What we didn’t anticipate was that we might become new people.
Please don’t be alarmed. I’m not talking about plastic surgery, or about any upending of character or values. I’m talking about small shifts in what we choose to do, how we opt to spend our time.
Here’s what I mean. Back in London, L1 was not a shopper. If the trend over the past decade has been towards men making up at least fifty percent of supermarket traffic, L1 hasn’t been part of that trend. He’s been the anti-trend. And yet, within days of moving to Manhattan, he transmogrified into someone who positively embraces the supermarket shopping experience. Could he possibly pop into Morton Williams on his way home from work to pick up some milk and broccoli? No problemo. Does he want to accompany me to Whole Foods on Saturday morning to pick up some grass-fed beef for dinner, and the other twenty items we need for the week? Nothing would give him more pleasure. I’m enjoying this new supermarket persona, but every now and again, catching sight of him wheeling the trolley through the fresh produce aisles or testing the ripeness of an avocado, I have the odd sensation of wondering who he is and what he’s done with my husband.
Here’s a sentence you probably don’t hear very often: we’ve come back to the city that never sleeps for a good rest. After a whirlwind ten day visit to London, squeezing in more birthday parties, lunches, dinners, and communal dog walks than we’d normally manage in the course of two months, in addition to sorting out a small mountain of post, a rattling oven and a downstairs loo with a lacklustre flush, L1 and I returned to Manhattan happy but exhausted.
“It’s weird, isn’t it,” L1 said as we hauled our suitcases out of the lift on our floor. “Do you feel weird?”
“I wonder when it will stop feeling weird.”
I wonder that too. When does a transatlantic life begin to seem completely normal? When do you stop saying to yourself, as you land in each place, Gosh this is surreal, just this morning we were in …. I must ask my parents, who’ve been spending six months a year in each of Montreal and Sarasota for what feels like forever. Do they experience this kind of dislocation, this sense of weirdness? Or do they take it in their stride, rolling from one place to the other and back again with nary a second thought?
Our eighteen year old son had this advice to offer: really you’ve not been there very long, so of course it’s going to feel strange every time you go back. It’s like when I get back to uni after a weekend at home. Or like that first term at Epsom, when I arrived back at school on a Monday morning after a weekend at home, feeling shell shocked. But it will get easier. You’ll get used to it. Give it time.
So here’s another question for you: when did the eighteen year old son get so wise? And when did our children start advising us, rather than it always being the other way around? Age sixteen? Seventeen? Eighteen? It seems to have happened without our noticing, and now I find I solicit the advice of our three all the time. It’s marvellous not to have to always be the one with the answers. And I can’t tell you how fantastic it is that the two girls have taken over the shared parenting of the boy. Whenever I have some tricky issue to discuss with him, or something to admonish him for, one of the of the girls will say already done that, or got that covered mum. It’s such a blessed relief. And I’m sure they manage to dole out their advice in a far more eighteen-year-old friendly way than we could ever manage.
But back to the business of this transatlantic life. It’s not half as unusual as I might once have imagined. I’ve been befriended by one woman who’s been making the journey back to England once every ten days for the past five years. And this week, thanks to an invite from my friend E (herself an experienced transatlantic hopper), I had coffee with eight New York dwelling women, half of whom spend much of their time flying back and forth across the ocean. One woman spends all of her time actually on the ocean. She lives on something called The World, which is sort of like an apartment building crossed with a cruise liner. The hundred or so residents make a plan for the year, deciding where they want to go and how long they want to stay there. Then they set sail, making temporary homes in their chosen ports. The woman said that this year they’d spent five weeks living in the Antarctic, in addition to doing long stints in India, Australia, and parts of South America. She flies back to New York for board meetings. I wonder if she also flies back for a rest.
The place where we all met for coffee was the wonderfully eccentric Shakespeare and Co, a purveyor of new and second-hand books which is also part coffee shop, part library and part printing press. (Who said the Upper East Side was dull?) The two original Shakespeare and Co establishments were in Paris, the first one opened by the American Sylvia Beach in 1919. It served as a gathering place for the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and James Joyce, but was closed in 1941 during the German occupation and never reopened. The second Parisian Shakespeare and Co, modelled on Beach’s shop, was opened by another American, George Whitman, in 1951, and continues to serve as a purveyor of new and second hand books, an antiquarian bookseller and a free reading library for the public.
The continued existence of Shakepeare and Co on both the Upper East Side and the Left Bank is a heartening reminder that there is, after all, life beyond and after Amazon. The New York shop isn’t related to its Paris counterparts in any way but by name, but I like to think of it as being inspired by them. I also like to think about the spirits of Hemingway, Pound and Joyce wafting around there, lending a small amount of their erudition to all who sit at the little round tables and write, listening to Bach and Mendel, ordering cortado after cortado just to be able to stay long enough to finish a chapter.
On Friday I walked to Shakespeare and Co in weather that can only be described as a mixed up mix of everything – icy cold, gale force wind, rain, snow and slush. Be careful out there, Robert, the doorman, warned when I set out. And he was right to warn me, because I skidded much of the way, borne along the slick sidewalk by a ferocious wind that turned my umbrella inside out within minutes and very nearly blew me into the path of oncoming traffic at the corner of Lexington and 66th. I arrived at Shakespeare and Co looking thoroughly bedraggled, wet hair plastered to my scalp, leather gloves, trainers and trouser knees soaked through. Serves me right for being so smug about the mild weather we’d been experiencing while the UK battled with heavy snow. Spring is not, after all, on its way.
Is it possible, though, that in the aftermath of the tragic shootings in Florida, some sensible and long overdue gun legislation might finally be on its way? I hardly dare to believe Trump when he says something must be done and talks the language of age limits and strong – very strong, unbelievably strong – background checks being implemented. If he manages to beat back the hard-core, gun-loving Republican base and deliver on his promises, we might be persuaded to forgive him one or two of his many sins of the past year.
Nah. You’re right. It’s not going to happen. A man who just launched an ill-considered tariff war to deflect attention from the facts surrounding Hope Hick’s testimony before Robert Mueller’s investigative team and her subsequent resignation, and the increasingly damaging allegations about his son in law – a man who is today reported as being unglued in the face of the unravelling of his administration – a man who thinks a good use of his presidential time is to engage in a Twitter spat with the actor Alec Baldwin – cannot be counted upon to follow through on a few disingenuous and hastily made comments about gun control.
Our only hope is Mr Mueller himself. Was there ever a man who exuded more calm strength and integrity, whose Mount Rushmore countenance you could trust more? Even if I didn’t see in him a striking resemblance to my father, I’m sure I would feel that way. To echo the words emblazoned above Mueller’s photograph on one of my favourite placards at January’s Women’s March: HURRY UP.
L1 and I watch with interest, along with all of America. Meanwhile, the novel writing is going reasonably well, thank you for asking. Twenty-one thousand words down. I feel sure that Hemingway – whispering sweet encouragements in my ear while I sip on my third cortado – is at least partly responsible.
Still dreaming of those verdant hills and robust cabernets in Napa, and inspired by the story of the Valley’s triumph in the 1976 Judgement of Paris, I’ve decided to conduct my own taste test. I won’t be judging wines, but countries. No prizes for guessing which two. My test won’t be blind and the criteria will be a little more random than those used to judge wine – things like flavour, bouquet, tannin levels, acidity, and my personal favourite, legs. But I will be awarding scores out of twenty, just as the judges in Paris did.
I fully accept that judging entire countries on the basis of some randomly chosen factors, using a sample of one (me), and incorporating data from just two cities (London and New York) is in no way fair or scientific. I ought, at least, to try to get some data from some places like Virginia Beach and Birmingham. But I haven’t got time for a scientific methodology, and neither have you. So I’m counting on you good people to indulge me in a harmless game of compare and contrast.
My apologies, loyal blog followers. This post is (a) late, and (b) not about life in New York. L1 was called upon to fly to Northern California for meetings, so I tagged along, as indeed I’m tagging along, L2 like, on this entire year’s adventure. So this post is about California. But perhaps you’ll be pleased to take a break from the intense cold, manic pace and expense of New York to spend a little time in the Golden State.
It so happened that in the week before we left I met several people who knew the San Francisco area well. The consensus seemed to be that the city itself was not what it used to be.
“San Francisco is the new New York,” said A, a management consultant who travels there often. “It used to be kind of an alternative, creative place, but now it’s full of hyperactive, money hungry techies. They’re the only people who can really afford to live there.”
“The traffic is diabolical,” said another friend. “Really, you don’t want to drive anywhere near the city.” (This rather put the fear of God into L1, who had booked us into a hotel in Half Moon Bay, thirty miles south of San Francisco, and was planning to drive in for meetings every day.)
Another woman, who moved from San Francisco to New York six months ago, said “It’s all over for San Fran. The weather isn’t great – it’s almost always foggy and a little chilly. And the only people who live there are the fabulously wealthy tech players, or the desperately poor and homeless. There’s not a lot in between. Plus any day now there’s going to be a huge earthquake and the entire place will fall into the sea.”
On this cheerful note, L1 and I boarded our American Airlines flight to SFO. We then hired a car (which L1 described as a giant sitting room on wheels) and made the half hour drive to Half Moon Bay, a little gem of a place (and the pumpkin capital of the USA, no less) perched on the west side of the San Francisco Peninsula directly across from Palo Alto. Continue reading “Golden Days”→
One bitterly cold afternoon this week I received a visit from K, a Lithuanian woman in her early sixties who’s lived in New York for some twenty years. K had made the long bus journey from North Queens to uptown Manhattan to collect a package I’d brought over from the Lithuanian angel, R, who is the linchpin of our transatlantic life, looking after house, dogs and twenty somethings back in Wimbledon.
K refused my first two offers to come up to the apartment for a cup of tea, but finally relented. During the forty minutes we spend together, I learned that K and R are old friends who both left Lithuania in 1996, crossing great expanses of water in search of better lives. K ended up in New York, where she met her American husband in a dance hall in Brooklyn. (When she told me this I couldn’t help picturing the dance hall scenes in Colm Toibin’s beautiful novel, Brooklyn). The husband died eighteen months ago, and K said she was still trying to work out how to live without him.
Ahhh, Christmas. I know it stirs up mixed feelings in some – all that festive fun, yes, but also, all the fuss, all the expense, and the weight of all those unrealistic expectations. But I must confess to being a super-fan. L1 doesn’t call me the Christmas Monster for nothing. And Christmas in London this year did not disappoint.
The sensation of Christmas joy hit me before I went ice-skating beneath the stars at Somerset House, supped champagne with friends in a sparkling Sloane Square, or plonked my turkey into its heavenly scented brine bath of cinnamon, cloves and oranges. The minute I walked into my house I felt an overwhelming surge of warmth. I like to think that it wasn’t just the heat from the radiators (our house is always a tad on the warm side) but the settling of my very soul. For London, and our house in Wimbledon, is still home. One day, when New York has worked its way deep into my system, I might be able to say that I have two homes, like all those celebrities you read about who claim to divide their time between Paris and New York, or LA and Sydney. But for now, New York represents novelty, excitement and adventure, while London is home.
Now we’re back in that place of novelty, excitement and adventure, having expertly timed our arrival so as to miss all the snow and sub-zero temperatures. We came back raring to go and ready to re-embrace our new urban life. We also came back with a slew of New Years Resolutions. Continue reading “To be resolved”→
When we first told people we’d be moving to New York in November, they invariably said how wonderful it would be to experience a New York Christmas season. Christmas is wonderful in New York, said those who’d experienced it. Christmas must be wonderful in New York, said those who wished they had. With every comment I grew more excited, and more conscious of how lucky we’d been with our timing.
I had it all planned. Eldest daughter H and her boyfriend C were going to be visiting for a week from the 8th December, so we would all partake of the Christmas delights on offer in the city. I was going to do all my Christmas shopping, going back to London with a suitcase full of exciting and impossible-to-get-in-London goodies. We were going to go skating in Central Park, look with awe upon the magnificent tree at the Rockefeller Centre, have cocktails at Bemelmans Bar in the Carlysle,
walk the length of Fifth Avenue gazing at the festive window displays. We would marvel at the lights festooned above the avenues, eat pasta at Lupa (Julia Roberts’ favourite Italian restaurant in the West Village) and delight in pushing open the doors of Bloomy’s and Barneys to be greeted by a blast of Frank Sinatra singing Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!
A few weekends back, L1 and I were headed to the Coffee Shop at Union Square, where they do a stupendous breakfast in classic diner surroundings. It was L1’s first foray underground. He couldn’t get over the industrial feel of everything, how it was all – both trains and track – just big hunks of metal held together by bolts and rivets. It has character, sure, but also a whiff of dinosaur.
A few days later, reading the New York Times, I understood why. The New York City subway, loved, hated and relied upon by some six million people a day, has been neglected. “The Making of a Meltdown” screamed the headline. “How Politics and Bad Decisions Plunged New York’s Subways into Misery.” Apparently we’ve arrived here in a year that has seen one subway disaster after another – the derailment of a Q train, a track fire on the A line, a stalled F train that had overheated passengers clawing at the windows – all of them attributed to century old tunnels, and track routes that are crumbling as a result of decades of underinvestment. The accusations were endless: Signal failures are twice as frequent as a decade ago; New York is the only major city that has fewer miles of track than in World War 11; and New York’s subway now has the worst on-time performance record of any major rapid transit in the world. (Though, suspiciously, London’s Underground wasn’t even on the list.) Continue reading “Notes From Underground”→