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!
And if we were lucky, we would do all of this while actual snow tickled our cheeks and dusted our shoulders . It was going to be magical.
As if on cue, a gentle snow started falling the morning after the kids arrived. We set out for breakfast sensibly attired in hooded parkas, scarves and boots – well, we oldies did, anyway. The kids were in chic bomber jackets and soon-to-be-very-wet Convers – while a gentle snow did indeed tickle our cheeks and dust our shoulders. And while we sat eating eggs benedict and huevos rancheros in the Coffee Shop at Union Square (which, I fear, I have mentioned once or twice too often), the snow kept falling, dusting not just shoulders, but the tops of buses and cars and the awnings in the Square, under which farmers and local traders tempted shoppers with organic vegetables and freshly baked cinnamon cakes and a hundred types of honey, and the air was pine scented from all the trees and wreaths stacked up for sale, and everything was tinted faintly red by the giant poinsettias sitting atop a carpet of crisp, white snow, while somewhere, unseen, bells were jingling.
“This is just perfect, isn’t it?”, sighed H, giving voice to all out sentiments.
It was perfect. Alas, it was also about the peak of my much dreamed of New York Christmas run-up. (I say my rather than our, because to be honest, I’m not sure L1 had been doing much dreaming of New York Christmases, or indeed any other type of Christmases. He’s very much a live-in-the-moment type). For late on Sunday, following a marathon lunch followed by cocktails to celebrate a friend’s sixtieth, I came down with something that was either food poisoning or a stomach bug. Of course, initially, there were plenty of jokes cracked of the food-poisoning-my-arse variety, maybe it was the champagne followed by the Bloody Mary’s followed by the wine followed by the Manhattans? But we soon realised that if indeed it was a hangover, it was like no hangover any of us had ever experienced. Hangovers don’t last four days. They don’t drain you of every ounce of energy you ever possessed, send you into a coma-like sleep for twenty four hours, and make you feel as though someone is tightening a steel belt around your waist every half an hour or so. No. By late Monday afternoon we still weren’t sure if it was food poisoning or a stomach bug, but we knew for sure it wasn’t a hangover.
People generally say two things when you tell them you have food poisoning. First they say oh poor you. Then they utter some variation of think of the weight loss! You’re going to be so happy when you step on those scales next week, L1 said. Just think about all the room you’ll be making for mince pies, an English friend texted brightly. It’s the best diet ever, said another friend. Another friend, E, was not so upbeat. Her poor you, that’s no fun was followed up by a tale of another friend of hers who had recently suffered the same fate and had not recovered her appetite for ten days. Ten days! I wanted to go to Lupa right then, while the kids were in town. And I was due to go back to London and eat mince pies in a week. Ten days with no appetite and feeling weak as a kitten was not something I wanted to contemplate.
Housebound for three days, I did discover something interesting though. New York is not a place you want to be if you’re feeling anything less than a hundred percent robust. Or at least, it wasn’t the place I wanted to be. Even from within the confines of the apartment , the commotion and clamour of the city suddenly seemed too much for my fragile self. All those buildings I’d admired during the previous few weeks became, instead, big, cold, towers of heartlessness. I craved the green of my garden back in Wimbledon, the beauty and quiet of Wimbledon Common, the sound of two sets of paws padding across my kitchen floor. Maybe this was just some sort of food poisoning delerium I was experiencing. Maybe it says something about New York, or about me, or about both of us.
Luckily, my incapacitation did not incapacitate H and C. They’re plucky, independent sorts who are never short of ideas about things to do. They took in Brooklyn one day, Spanish Harlem the next and Soho and the West Village at least five times in between. They chased down famous food trucks, sought out speciality bagels and mac and cheese, and stumbled across the best pizzas in the city, downing more than a few espresso martinis along the way. They even mastered the subway system – I don’t think they boarded a train headed in the wrong direction even once.
I missed doing all of that with them. But let’s be positive. In being laid low for those few days, I did at least avoid being caught up in the sales juggernaut that is New York generally, but is particularly New York at Christmas. Sales people on high alert, ready to pounce the second you step through the door. Perfume sprayers stepping forward to douse you in the latest from Nina Ricci or Chanel. Handbag salespeople doing their utmost to lure you towards their collection of three thousand dollar leather totes. Gadget vendors leaping out to persuade you of the merits of their hair clipper/nose trimmer/ super duper roller brush. Our friend J, over from London for a few days to promote her new book (she’s very big in jewellery) put it thus: when you enter Bloomingdales at this time of year, you’d better make damn sure it’s with a suit of armour and a battle plan. You need to march, head down, directly towards your intended department. Don’t look up, left, or right, and don’t make any gestures that might suggest hesitation or confusion. If you do, you’ll be a sitting duck for someone one making super human efforts to sell you something.
J knew all this ahead of time and she still got caught. Having successfully launched her new book on one of the upper floors of Bergdorffs, she made the mistake of wandering past the Trish Mcevoy counter on the way out. Wandering.
“I just looked,” she said, “One tiny little glance. And suddenly, this charming young man was there, persuading me I needed this and that and the other. And before I knew it I’d walked out with four hundred dollars worth of product.” Bear in mind that J would never, ever allow herself to buy jewellery retail, and you’ll have some idea of what she was up against. New York may be the city that never sleeps, and it never stops selling either.
J says the moment the Trish Mcevoy man clinched the deal was when he talked about her skin. “You know, they can talk about eye pencils and blusher and all of that. But when they say your skin’s showing signs of age and dryness and that they have just the thing for you – well, we’re all suckers for that aren’t we?”
Back in November, I’d been caught in exactly the same way as J. Week two in the city, I was browsing though Bloomingdales. Browsing. Akin to wandering. As I wandered off the up-escalator a nice young woman spoke to me.
“Oh gosh, I love your scarf.”
“Where’s it from?”
“Oh wow. I love London. Listen you look so nice I want you to have something.”
At which point she grabbed me by the hand and led me into an area that turned out to be full of Clarins products and Clarins salespeople.
‘You just sit here on this stool and I’m gonna go get you a special gift.”
Away she went, and there I sat, waiting, on the stool (quack, quack). She returned a few seconds later, not with a special gift, but with a special person. A woman called Laurie. Fifty to sixty years old, immaculately made-up, with great skin and what I picked up as bulldog-levels of drive and determination.
“Oh boy,” said Laurie, tilting my chin and touching my face all over, pulling back my hair so as to get a better look. “ Oh boy. Your skin really sufferin. Your skin need me. Let me help you.”
Reader, you’re ahead of me. You know that when someone points out to a middle aged woman that her skin is sufferin, she’ll be a gonner. And I was. Just Like J was a few weeks later. Before you could say you’ve been had, cleansers, tonics and exfoliators were being wiped on and off, creams and serums were being patted onto my cheeks and around my eyes, and I was being transformed with concealers, blushers, beauty balm flashes and miracle eyebrow pencils. And afterwards, like J, I bought the lot, only my bag of goodies came to six hundred dollars rather than four.
Still, I do love my new Clarins skin care regime, and it only takes up about twenty percent of my day. Honestly. L1 says my new skin looks just great. Not sufferin anymore, anyway.
All of which has led me full circle, back to Clint. I wanted to go back to London with spiffing hair as well as six hundred dollar skin, so I’d booked to have a trim and a sprinkling of highlights on the day before our flight. What with the food poisoning/stomach bug issue, it was touch and go as to whether I would make it. But I dragged my sorry self over to the SCK Salon, on what was possibly the coldest day in living history, with a feels-like factor of minus twenty, and a wind that could blow you off your feet (and very nearly did, twice). And I’m glad I made the effort, because Clint gave me not just a great haircut, but another slew of invaluable tips. (I’ve since awarded him the official title of Vice President – New York Operations.)
Here’s what Clint had to say: that a diet of saltine crackers, ginger ale, and one teaspoon of apple cider vinegar twice a day would sort out my stomach issues. That I wouldn’t ever have to pay five hundred dollars a ticket to see a Broadway show so long as I planned (months) ahead and was prepared to sit in the back row of the stalls. (Thirty dollars a ticket that way, apparently). That it was okay to be a rebel and wish New Yorkers a Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays – he made a point of doing it and had thus far not been arrested by the political correctness police.
Clint’s last piece of advice had to do with radiators. I told him that L1 and I had been struggling with the heating system in our apartment. There appear to be two settings for the radiators – on and off. Nothing in between. With the temperatures plummeting outside, we’d figured that on was the only option. But on doesn’t mean warm, it means stifling, so we are constantly walking around the apartment wailing its soooo bloody hot in here and going to stand in front of open windows to avail ourselves of a blast of icy cold from the gale force winds outside.
Apparently, we’re not alone. While I was waiting for my highlights to take I overheard at least five other people in the salon talking about what is apparently a common New York issue: you’re always the wrong temperature. You need to layer up big time to deal with the outside, but the minute you enter a room, any room, you practically collapse from the Sub- Saharan levels of heat. It isn’t enough to remove your coat. You feel the need to remove everything else in addition, just to feel something close to normal.
I couldn’t quite get the gist of what these other people were saying about how to solve this overheating problem, but no matter. Clint had the answer.
“I never have the radiators on, and I sleep with my window wide open. I’ve lived here fifteen years, through the worst winters imaginable, and I’ve never been cold. You don’t need the heating on in these apartment buildings – the building keeps the apartment warm enough. Trust me.”
And then he added the clincher.
“And you know how bad heating is for your skin, don’t you?”
Naturally, I went straight home to turn off our radiators, applying a large dab of my new Clarins Anti Ageing serum afterwards to redress past radiator-overuse sins. Then I went to Duane Reade and purchased saltines, ginger ale and apple cider vinegar. I haven’t booked any thirty dollar show tickets yet, but I’ll get onto it poste haste.
I feel much better. The cracker and ginger ale thing really works. I’d like to think the vinegar thing works too, because it’s a pretty vile tasting thing to have to take for nothing. (Though not half as vile as the lurid pink Pepto-Bismol that L1 had picked up on the advice of a pharmacist, earlier in the week.)
The other thing Clint said, incidentally, was that he thought London did Christmas better than anywhere in the world. That made me feel better about having missed so much of New York’s Christmas brilliance. And when I thought about it, I realised he was probably right. It’s hard to beat Christmas in London. Those giant silver baubles at Sloane Square. The shimmer and sparkle all along Oxford and Regent Street. The magnificent shop windows in the centre of the city, and the unsophisticated but endearing, home-made efforts in corner shops, barber shops and cafes everywhere else. Harrods so lit up it could be seen from space. That funny little Christmas tree in the middle of Wimbledon Common. And then there’s the Thames, which looks like Christmas pretty much all year round. We rarely have snow at Christmas in London, but we have so much else.
My heart went all a-flutter at the thought of seeing the Thames at night, and I allowed myself to think about all the other things I was excited about. Spending oodles of time with my family and my London friends. Cuddling my dogs. Opening my copy of Nigella’s Christmas and making menu plans. Cooking something other than a one-pot meal in a kitchen where I would be able to spread out, leaving bowls, chopping boards, and casserole dishes lying around with abandon. Brining the turkey in all those Christmassy scented things – cinnamon sticks, oranges, ginger and cloves. A Christmas pudding steaming away on the stove, sending sugar and spice into the air. All of it to the sounds of Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day and Michael Bubbles singing about White Christmases and Silver Bells.
It was all so close. We just had to get back across the Atlantic. Poor L1 had to get back while coping with the sudden and violent onset, two hours into the flight, of food poisoning/stomach bug symptoms far more hideous than those I had experienced. I was accused of being less sympathetic and attentive than the BA flight attendants, but I’m sure that can’t be true.
But we made it, and L1 is on the road to recovery. How wonderful it is to be here. Bye for now New York, it’s been so much fun, and our adventures will continue in January, but for now, I’m so glad to be home.
Catch you on the flip side, people. Have a very Merry Christmas.