All about shoes


An expat organisation recently stumbled across this blog and asked me if I’d like to be interviewed. The interview was carried out via email, which my journalist friend tells me is common practice these days. I answered five pages worth of questions about my experience of moving to New York: why had I come, what did I enjoy most about my host city, what did I miss about home, what adjustments had I had to make, what was the cost of living like, how was the public transport system, and healthcare?

These were all relevant and interesting questions, but a few weeks after I’d whizzed off my answers I realised that there was one very important question that had been missing from the interview. A question about shoes.

It might have been posed thus: how have you navigated the footwear dilemmas posed by your host city? Or perhaps thus: what is your footwear strategy for your host city given that you have no car and walk virtually everywhere?

It turns out that I do actually have a footwear strategy. I wasn’t fully aware of it until my sister and a Montreal friend came to visit (let’s call them C1 and C2, although C1 also goes by the name Pink Robe). During the course of their three days here we had many fleeting conversations about what shoes would be most appropriate given the activities we were planning for that day. We also spent a lot of time buying shoes. (C1 was in the mood to shop.) And while we talked and shopped, my footwear strategy came to light. I think I said something like the following when we were in Bloomys:

“I’ll have to go back to the apartment for a minute because I’m wearing my five block shoes and I’m going to need my fifty block shoes for this afternoon.”

C1 and C2 had not heard of this block-based approach to shoe choice. They asked me to articulate it. And so I did, and so I will do here and now.

Your fifty-block shoes are the Nike trainers or the white, Fit Flop trainers (a Godsend of a gift from our eldest daughter). In fifty-block shoes you can walk anywhere, for any length of time. North to Harlem. South to Soho. Across to Central Park, around and back again. (I had hoped that my very expensive, chic, black, Zadig and Voltaire walking boots would be fifty block shoes, but alas, the leather is too stiff and they start to torture my feet before I’ve even reached the lift in our building.)

Your ten-block shoes are those pretty flat sandals or ballet pumps. They’ll serve you well for a walk to Barneys to have lunch, or a stroll to Bloomys or the Frick, but anything further afield and they will begin to rub and pinch and make you long to slip your feet back inside those Fit Flops.

Your five-block shoes have heels. Not stiletto heels, but those chunky two-inch heels that have (thank the Lord) come back into fashion . These five block heels will just about get you from East 66thstreet to a dinner at August on Lexington, or Le Cognac on 70th. Or you could happily stand in them at a cocktail party for several hours without wanting to saw your own feet off.

Then you have your one-block shoes, which, if we’re being honest, are really taxi shoes. These are basically anything with a thin, high(ish) heel and a pointed toe (or, it turns out, Zadig and Voltaire walking boots). You can’t walk any distance at all in one block/taxi shoes, not even a block, really, unless it’s the block between the door of the taxi and the entrance to the restaurant. I own one pair of these shoes. I purchased them in London because I thought they would be perfect for my new New York life, whatever that was going to be. They sit on the top shelf of my closet, unworn.

(I should add, however, that you do see the odd woman walking through Central Park in one-block shoes. These women are usually young and hanging onto the arm of a man, and I guess they must either have bionic feet, or be so keen for passers by to liken them to gazelles that any amount of pain can be borne.)

Last but not least, you have the shoes that have nothing to do with either blocks or taxis. They’re your specialist shoes. In my case, they are the black lace-up Cuban heels I wear at the Arthur Murray Studio. They are soon to be joined by a pair of low heeled suede cowboy boots (L2’s will be mid-brown leather) designed to improve our line dancing technique and help us to cut a dash around the camp fire in Wyoming later in the summer.

Left to right: Fifty-block shoes (a bit of a disgrace, I now notice), ten-block shoes, five-block shoes, one-block shoes (unworn, waste of money), and speciality shoes.


That’s a lot of shoes. Because it isn’t enough to own just one pair of shoes in each category. Obviously.

Of course everyone has some sort of shoe strategy, no matter where they live. But I’d wager a bet that if you live in a city centre and you mostly walk rather than drive, your strategy will be more or less block based, even if you’ve not articulated it as such. As for living in Wimbledon, where I drove or took taxis almost everywhere, I could pretty much wear whatever shoes I felt like on any particular day, without giving more than cursory consideration to what the weather was like or where I was going.

As it happens, the shoe theme that coloured the days I spent with C1 and C2 also coloured the days that followed. I flew up to Toronto to spend the weekend with my old college housemates, and as we strolled along Queen Street we found ourselves being lured into one shoe store after another. The best of them, by a long shot, was the fabulous John Fluevog store,

The John Fluevog store in Toronto

which sells colourful, quirky shoes and boots that are hand-made in Vancouver. I very nearly succumbed to a pair of turquoise cowboy boots, but L1 sent me an in-the-nick-of-time text reminding me that we had already purchased our cowboy boots for the upcoming Wyoming trip.

The cowboy boots that were so very nearly mine

As if we hadn’t had enough of shoes, we then spent Sunday morning in Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, where we took in a Manolo Blahnik exhibit and learned about all the shoes in the world that came before his, everything from Alaskan boots made from salmon skin cured with urine to Tibetan sandals on stilts. It turns out that most cultures have relied upon variations of the block strategy for footwear – the African king who wore the ornate gold sandals with the enormous chunk of metal between his toes while sitting on his throne certainly wasn’t planning to walk anywhere.

Possibly the least comfortable sandals ever invented
Manolo Blahnik shoes at the Bata Shoe Museum


Shoes, as I’ve already said, are very important to dancing. (I should mention here that I am now segueing, hopefully with a reasonable degree of seamlessness, into a new topic. I feel obliged to announce this because I’ve been told by one or two blog readers that they don’t much like it when I change topics mid-blog because they don’t have enough headspace to accommodate more than one topic in something that’s supposed to take all of three minutes to read. So, my apologies to those readers, and to CC in particular, and this is for you: I AM SWITCHING TOPICS NOW. YOU MIGHT WANT TO CALL IT QUITS AND GO BACK TO THAT REPORT YOU WERE WRITING)

So. Shoes. Dancing. You already know about the Cuban heels and the cowboy boots. I do hope the boots arrive before the end of this week, as we’re having our final batch of dance lessons before going back to London for three weeks, and we’d really like to see how much the boots improve our country and western creds. L1 has gone mad this week, booking us three private lessons, and suggesting that we participate in a couple of the group lessons in addition.

The group lessons can be a bit traumatic for me. Participants are required to change partners every five minutes or so, and some of the men are both rhythmically and stylistically challenged. One in particular, let’s call him G, has what might be politely  described as a frighteningly intense look in his eyes, and what would be diplomatically described as only a passing acquaintance with the deodorant stick.  Also an inflated opinion of his own dancing prowess. Last week, when we were dancing the foxtrot together, he insisted that we should be zigzagging across the floor. I didn’t believe him, but it was difficult to argue, what with the forceful way he was pushing me backwards into a zigzag.  After the group lesson, I sidled up to one of the instructors and told her that one of my dance partners had insisted on zigzagging throughout the foxtrot, and was that correct?

“That must have been G,  right?” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Yes, it was.”

“Well you should know that he and I don’t always see eye to eye. And no, you don’t zigzag in a foxtrot. Nor do you start the dance with one leg outstretched behind you at an angle, like this.” (She demonstrated. I recognised the stance.)

I was vindicated. But that doesn’t help me much in group lessons when G is present. L1 doesn’t know how lucky he is. The worst thing he ever has to deal with is a case of flapping elbows or overactive knees, or – as was the case last week – both at once.

The best group lessons, of course, are the ones with people you know. We enjoyed one of these when C1 and C2 were in town and Jacqueline agreed to teach all four of us together. To the accompaniment of Man I feel like a Woman and Sweet Home Alabama, C1 and C2 were treated to a whistle stop tour through the five or six line dancing steps that L1 and I have been practising for months, They picked the steps up in no time, and danced with amazing dexterity, rhythm and flair. It was most annoying.


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Will the real New York please stand up?

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?”

Old Dogs and New Tricks


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.

Continue reading “Old Dogs and New Tricks”

Taste Test

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.

So. In no particular order, we begin. Continue reading “Taste Test”

To be resolved


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”

Notes From Underground

Reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground


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”

Is that a trombone I hear?

 “They’re not shy about using their horns in this city, are they?” L1 said on our first morning in the new apartment, as we craned our necks in the direction of the TV so as to hear Morning Joe over the vehicular argument that was gathering both pace and volume outside, five floors below.

“This, of course, is why a balcony is a complete waste of time in New York,” he added, clearly congratulating himself on having had the good sense not to pay whatever extra sum might have been required to secure an apartment with six square feet of precariously suspended outside space.

It occurred to us then, as it has almost every day since, that Manhattan actually has two great symphony orchestras. There’s the one that plays in the David Geffen Hall at the Lincoln Centre, the NYPO (New York Philharmonic),maxresdefault and then there’s the one that plays on the streets.  The street symphony’s illustrious composer is not Mozart or Brahms,  but the combined comings, goings and inclinations of the millions who live, work and drive in the city.

Ordinarily it’s the string section that reigns supreme, with the leading first violinist being the undisputed concertmaster. But in the street orchestra, it’s the brass section that takes centre stage. The constant honking of horns by taxis, cars and giant SUVs forms the very core of the score in this city – mostly trumpets, French horns and trombones, with the occasional stupendously loud report from a tuba. (That would be a super-sized truck making its impatience known.) Continue reading “Is that a trombone I hear?”

On perspective

They came. They saw. They went.

Daughter K (all housewarming-party-sins forgiven) and her boyfriend M departed on Sunday, leaving our spare room looking extremely forlorn, ivory petals falling like tears from the weary looking roses on the window sill. But they remembered to strip the beds and leave the sheets in a neat pile, so there was one reason to be cheerful.

What superb company they were, during a whirlwind week that saw us taking in our  favourite local for dinner, strolling through Washington Square and Greenwich Village (highlights: the Fresh Store, and the Friends building), watching our flatbreads baking in an open oven at Dizengoffs and then eating them with scrummy hummus and bits and bobs, walking the Highline and most of Fifth and Madison (14 km, according to M’s iPhone), scoffing scallops and sliders at the Central Park Boathouse, nuzzling horses in the park,  shopping at Stella Dallas Living in Brooklyn (for vintage t-shirts and hats we will almost certainly never wear) IMG_0315and sampling the hospitality and delicious apple and walnut pancakes on offer in Toms diner. We welled up at the 9/11 memorial site, shot to the top of the One World Tower, peered through the half-light and pretended to be in a scene of SATC at Buddakan, and queued for forty minutes for a five-inch-high pastrami sandwich at Katz deli. We capped it all off with another viewing of The Orient Express (where it was me who fell asleep this time) and a classic all-dressed pizza at home.

In other words, we continued to experience the chronic hemorrhaging of money that is life in New York City. (I’m not going to lie to you. I pinched that phrase from Jonathan in Jonathan Unleashed. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing a treat.) Continue reading “On perspective”

Top Tips


Everyone knows that the US is the tipping capital of the world. Right? And that New York is the capital of the tipping capital. You probably know this even if you’ve never been to New York. If you have been here, maybe you’ll recall falling off your chair the first time you realised you were about to sign away another 20% on top of the not insignificant sum you’d already paid for dinner, or how tedious it was to be constantly rummaging around for dollar bills to give the guy who opened your cab door/ took charge of your suitcase/ brought that bottle of San Pelligrino up to your room.

But nothing prepares you for the tipping culture that engulfs you when you actually live here. I’ve already mentioned Jennifer and my Whole Foods delivery. Then came my encounter with the merry crew of supers who run this ship called Manhattan House from a labarynthine arrangement of offices in the basement. A nice Irish guy named Terry came upstairs to replace two ceiling bulbs and identify the source of the annoying beeping noise that we’d been hearing every ten minutes or so for the previous week. (It wasn’t the smoke alarm on the blink, after all, but the Verizon wireless router thingy needing a new battery) Being new to the building, I wasn’t sure what Terry would be expecting in terms of compensation. Was his work carried out part and parcel of the rent we were  paying? Did he send invoices to the landlord? Did he expect a tip? Continue reading “Top Tips”

At your service

Can I tell you about the amazing service ethic in this city? This seemingly inexhaustible willingness to give you anything you need, just as soon as you have the idea that you might need it?

My first happy run in with this super-service mentality came after we discovered that the previous tenants were cat owners. I’m severely allergic to cats, and cat dander ( the definition of which, if you don’t already know it, is deeply unpleasant and something you really don’t want to hear) was apparently everywhere in the apartment, so I spent the first four days crying 😥 and sneezing and generally feeling rubbish. JV, the amazingly nice and efficient managing agent, sprang into action. Within a day of my reporting the symptoms, she had amassed the names of three professional firms who could help. A day after that they all showed up to see what they were up against. An hour later they delivered their quotes. When we chose one firm, they arranged to come and do the job on the Monday (this was a Friday), bending over backwards to rearrange other jobs because they could see I was desperate. They came –  three no-nonsense women armed with with mops, buckets, vacuum cleaners and a huge extractor fan with a HEPA filter – spent eight hours tearing around the apartment like whirling dervishes, and left. Job done. And all in a third of the time it would take just to get someone to turn up for the initial site visit in the UK. When I marvelled at the speed at which they operated, the fellow in charge of the winning firm gave me a bemused look. “Well if we don’t do this, we know some other guy’s going to do it and then he’ll get the job.” It’s that simple. There’s this fierce desire to work, to get the job, and to stop someone else from getting it. And they all spur each other on. Continue reading “At your service”