Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Fairytale of New York - Day 3

Starting the day with a hangover was far from fun, but there was no time to whinge about it – there was a city outside our hotel that demanded attention. So after I'd downed some Alka-Seltzer we shakily made our way around the corner to the Malibu Diner for a much-needed breakfast.

I looked at all the choices on the menu, each description making me hungrier than the last, and I finally settled on scrambled eggs with bacon, potatoes and toast. Unfortunately the menu was not having the same effect on the Yorkshireman. Be it through a hangover-related inability to function, or just misunderstanding the broadly-accented waiter’s attempts to dissuade him from his choice, my poor husband ended up with a mound of chicken in mayonnaise atop a big leaf of lettuce for breakfast. Bless him. My breakfast was perfect hangover food and I felt much better after it. The Yorkshireman conceded that, “for what it was”, his was nice too. We later established that he’d only been reading the brunch menu and didn’t fancy any of the greasy-sounding meals on that, so he’s missed the entire page of breakfasts in the actual menu, some of which were definitely up his street. Oh well, there was always next time, and after tasting those yummy potatoes, there would definitely be a next time!

Breakfast over we headed out into the subway. This was to be our Central Park day and what a day it was, with warm temperatures (17-20°C) and blue skies. You would have thought it was maybe September rather than November. There was something going on with the subway line we were travelling on that morning and we ended up 13 streets North of where we had intended to go, but luckily for us Central Park is kind of huge and there just so happened to be another entrance not far from our unplanned stop.

We entered Central Park at 72nd Street, near Strawberry Fields. We didn’t really hang around here long, neither of us being big John Lennon fans, so we walked on and grabbed a couple of bottles of water from a very surly man at one of the stalls. I may have been equally surly back. New York in general brought out my impatient, city girl side, which I think may have intimidated the Yorkshireman somewhat at times. Culchie ;-)

We walked through the Park for hours that day and we saw a lot of things. The first real scenic views we had were over the Lake towards Bow Bridge. You could even climb on to a massive slab of rock for a better look. It was serene (squawking tourists excepted) and beautiful, yet strange with all the skyscrapers on the skyline. From there we walked into the Ramble, which would be a good place for an interesting walk, but with the heat and our hangovers still hanging around, we cut short our own little walk through the wooded area.

Belvedere Castle was next. We didn’t go into the Castle itself but the views over the park and uptown Manhattan from the terrace area below it were lovely. As we continued our walk we stopped briefly to enjoy a jazz duet entertaining the park-goers and look at the Romeo and Juliet statue outside the Delacorte Theatre.

The Great Lawn was next and, as the name suggests, it was indeed rather massive. We decided to walk up the middle, dodging softballs and frisbees as we went. At the top of the Great Lawn was the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. I’ve seen people jogging around the Reservoir on TV (well, on Sex and the City anyway) and it was cool to see that actually it’s a real slice of real New York life, as we got caught up in a mass of joggers exercising in the sun. Eventually we found a little path that ran down behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art and had a rest on a bench by the Cleopatra’s Needle obelisk, listening to another great jazz musician play the saxophone under a bridge.

When we finally had the energy to move again we walked down towards the Alice in Wonderland Statue, at which point I spied a coffee shop and decided I needed caffeine rightnowthissecond! And so we had a latté (me) and an iced tea (the Yorkshireman) by the Conservatory Water model boat pond, watching people sail their remote control boats and the tiny little pond-dwelling fish fight for the small bits of food people were dropping in.

After our drinks and a restroom break (where I was stuck in a queue behind some crazy woman in a bright pink Juicy Couture tracksuit who wouldn’t touch anything with her hands... seriously, to the extent of opening the stall door with her foot), we headed towards Bethesda Terrace and the Fountain. I’d read online that Bethesda Terrace is often considered to be the main hub of the Park, where there is always something going on, and it really was like that. There were various entertainers and lots of people just chilling out, enjoying the sun and the views.

Next we headed down the Mall, where I couldn’t help but notice from walking among them just how many conversations between groups of women were about men. No offence to the male of the species but surely there’s something better to talk about on a beautiful sunny day? After a couple of detours we wound up watching the ice-skaters at the Wollman Rink, while I enjoyed hot (well, warmish) apple – all very festive!

We had planned to go to Central Park Zoo that afternoon too but time had gotten away from us and our feet were tired, so we decided to walk down 6th Avenue back to the hotel and check out the area. We stopped by at the NHL Powered by Reebok store to pick up a few hockey-themed souvenirs for ourselves and for my sister, who’s been an NHL fan for as long as she’s been able to stay up til 5am to watch it.

We’d been on our feet most of the day by this stage and hadn’t eaten since breakfast (time really does fly in New York!) so we were on the lookout for somewhere cheap and cheerful to sit down and grab a bite to eat. Eventually one of us jokingly suggested McDonalds (we’re not usually fans) but we were so tired we figured why not try out a McDonalds in America – they’re supposed to be better than our rubbish UK ones anyway. And actually we were pleasantly surprised to find that this one was! A later experience in Times Square kind of undid this location’s good work in the end but at the time we had a wonderful Swiss cheese and mushroom Angus burger with a thick vanilla shake – yummy!

After our quick fast food stop we wearily headed back the rest of the way to our hotel. After we flopped down on the comfortable bed it seemed impossible to move very far, so we decided to order takeout to our room for dinner. We used MenuPages to find somewhere that looked good and then SeamlessWeb to order and had no problems whatsoever. We ordered from a place called Noodles 28 and enjoyed our massive portions of Chinese food whilst watching a movie on SyFy called ‘The Lost Future’ (starring Sean Bean), which was so bad it was almost good. Almost.

So that was Saturday. Whilst planning our itinerary, Sunday had become affectionately known as “camp day” (for reasons that will become apparent), so in preparation we took our fabulous asses to bed for some beauty sleep.

Monday, 29 November 2010

There's no stopping to the sound of the NYC beat - Day 2

The Yorkshireman and I like our lie-ins and on our first full day in New York even the promise of excitement and adventure out on the streets of Manhattan was insufficient to entice us out of bed before 10am. That doesn't sound so bad but bear in mind that 10am New York time was like 3pm UK time. Oops.

When we did finally drag ourselves out of bed, we headed around the corner to a little place I had found online called Austin's Café for a cheap and cheerful breakfast. I had an egg and turkey roll and a latté while the Yorkshireman had a BLT and an iced tea. For me it was a nice enough breakfast but for the Yorkshireman it was the start of an addiction, as he declared it "the best BLT I’ve ever had!" and proceeded to order it on the four subsequent occasions we frequented that café, without variation. Iced tea also became his drink of choice for the trip. Clearly he's a man of routine, bless him.

Next we headed down into the subway to buy a 7-day unlimited ride MetroCard, which was a complete bargain at $27 each – we totally got our money's worth with those during our holiday. There was a bit of confusion when the machine asked us for our zipcode ("feck, we don’t have one, we’re British, what do we do now?") but the lady in the manned booth kindly explained we had to put in “99999” if we were from outside the USA. Eureka, it worked! We were off on our first subway journey. We'd soon be speeding around under the Manhattan streets in big metal boxes, just like on the TV and the movies! How exciting!

Actually it was pretty much like the London Underground or the Metro in Barcelona or Paris, so it was a little underwhelming for we experienced city visitors. However, like the other underground systems we've used before, it was a brilliant way to get around – very quick and (once you learn how to use the subway map) easy. It always reminds me of moles actually; you burrow down under the ground in one place and then pop up somewhere entirely different.

So, mole-like, we took the 1 line downtown and popped up again at South Ferry to do the first thing on our New York "Bucket List". The Staten Island Ferry proved to be the biggest bargain of our trip, at the exorbitant price of $0. It's such a strange experience – there are massive crowds of people all swarming around in the ferry terminal and you think you'll never be able to get a good place to enjoy the view on the ferry itself, but yet when the hundreds of people ahead of you all disappear on to the ferry, they seem to disappear somewhere into the bowels of the ship.

On the way back in particular I was getting all antsy about the fecking huge mob of ferry passengers ahead of us in the terminal because we really wanted to stand on the left-hand-side deck to get photos of the Statue of Liberty, and it wasn't looking likely. And yet, as we pushed our way up the ramps, on to the ferry and out on to the deck, it seemed practically deserted! Where did everybody else go? Not that we cared: there could be a ferry-dwelling monster merrily chewing his way through anyone who ventured on to the lower deck for all we knew, but if meant we could take a few unobstructed snaps of Lady Liberty, I would be wishing him bon appétit!

The Staten Island Ferry really was a good touristy thing to do first – you get brilliant views of downtown Manhattan, a sense of the scale of the island and a better idea of how it connects to its neighbouring boroughs (or in the case of New Jersey, neighbouring state) – and it's all for free! I’m glad we did it first.

Next we headed back uptown on the subway and visited the Holiday Shops at Bryant Park. It was basically like our Continental Market in Belfast but with an ice-skating rink in the middle. It was very festive and pretty and they had some cool things, like personalised Christmas tree decorations, A5 art prints of Broadway show posters and what I can only describe as electric wind chimes, which kept me mesmerised for about five minutes solid.

Next it was on to the Empire State Building to check out the views at sunset. There were no queues to buy the tickets but we waited about 20 minutes in line before we could get up to the observation deck on the 86th floor. We'd actually spent an extra $15 each buying tickets to go to the very top (the 102nd floor), figuring if we were going to do it, we might as well do it right, but I wish we hadn’t wasted our money. I hadn't realised that the 102nd floor observation deck was entirely enclosed and, with the dirty windows and not much space to move around, it really wasn't worth it; the views on the open air 86th deck were much better. I had a little tantrum about that actually, since $30 is a lot of money to us, while the Yorkshireman made vaguely soothing noises whilst managing to simultaneously ignore me and try to take a good photograph through the smudged glass.

Eventually even he gave up and we descended back down to the 86th floor on time for sunset. The views were beautiful, first with the sun glinting off the millions of windows on the Manhattan skyscrapers, then with the sky turning red as the sun disappeared over New Jersey, then with all the lights of the city flickering on slowly but surely at twilight. I think the latter was my favourite, especially looking uptown at the Chrysler building twinkling in the darkness. Breathtaking.

Unfortunately we couldn't hang around as we had a time-bound, only-on-once-a-week opportunity to partake of. We descended the Empire State Building (again queuing for an elevator down) and headed back to the subway to make our way to one of the things I was looking forward to doing the most: Happy Hour at the Brooklyn Brewery!

During the few months I'd been haunting the New York Trip Advisor Forum, several of the locals and regular visitors had mentioned this delightful event, which only takes place once a week on Friday night. The Yorkshireman and I like to do things off the tourist trail and we also like alcohol, so it seemed like an ideal activity for us.

Arriving at Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, we made our way to the Brewery via a kind of deli shop thing called Khim's Millenium Market to line our stomachs with a quick bite to eat. It was kind of expensive (all organic and vegan specialty stuff) but my turkey and cheese sandwich was really good so I can’t complain. Then it was off to join the queue that had already formed outside the Brewery 10 minutes before it even opened. I worried we might not get a seat but it turned out to be plenty big inside. We bought our beer tokens from the little stall by the door, went to the bar to procure our first Brooklyn Brewery beers and then settled ourselves on the malt bags in front of the big brew kettles to enjoy them.

I loved everything about that place. The atmosphere was brilliant since everyone clearly had that Friday feeling and there was good music playing. The beer was awesome too. My favourite was the Detonation Ale (10.2% vol!), which was worth the 2 beer tokens each one cost. A few hours (and a few strong beers) later, having watched a veritable stream of pizza pies come through the doors all night, we were feeling kind of hungry so we figured it was time to make our merry way back to Manhattan and search out some dinner.

Somewhere between the subway station and our hotel we found one of the restaurants I’d found online, a cute little Italian place called Restivo Ristorante, and we had a lovely meal. Crazily we also ordered a 1 litre carafe of red wine, forgetting the old adage about mixing the grape and grain. Sated by our yummy meal, we stumbled, drunk and giggling, back to the hotel and went straight to bed, happily forgetting about the inevitable hangover the next morning. Ouch.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

New York, New York, it's a helluva town - Day 1

I forget when the idea first popped into our consciousness but by January this year (with the massive expenses of the wedding, honeymoon and Christmas over and done with) we had started saving for a big first wedding anniversary celebration trip to New York. We saved hard, knowing how expensive it would all be, and although our bank balance took a hit a couple of times when just-past-their-warranty appliances decided to give up the ghost (sod's law), in June we were finally able to book the hotel and the flights – how freaking exciting!

I then spent almost every day between then and mid-November trawling through the New York Trip Advisor forum for ideas on what to do and the best ways to do them, scanning Menupages and Yelp for good restaurants in our budget and generally researching and planning our trip. I think my dedication to cause may have concerned the Yorkshireman at times (he's much more a "wing it" personality) but the more I researched, the more I found I wanted to do, and the fuller our itinerary grew. It became clear that if we wanted to see even half of what we wanted to see, we would need to plan with almost military precision. There would be no time for our usual half-assed "I don’t know, you decide" moments on this trip!

By the time we were finally packing to leave I felt prepared: I knew to give the yellow cab driver the cross streets of our hotel instead of the name or address, and how much to pay the driver including tax and tolls; I knew where our closest subway stations were and how to use the subway; I knew where we might get a nice meal for dinner and a nice breakfast in the morning; I knew how close we were to Times Square. I also felt so excited that I could hardly get to sleep the night before our flight, which is never a good thing when you have to get up at 4am again!

Finally the morning (if you can call it that) arrived and we left our house in Belfast at silly o'clock and made our way to Belfast City Airport, then on to London Heathrow with BMI and then on to JFK with Virgin Atlantic. We travelled with Virgin on our honeymoon too and really enjoyed the experience. Well, they have great seatback entertainment (sometimes on-demand) and a free bar onboard, so what's not to love? We certainly enjoyed the free red wine and actually the food was pretty good too. I watched a few movies during the flight, namely The Other Guys (which I quite liked), Dinner for Schmucks (again quite good) and The Kids Are Alright (which was just meh).

We landed at JKF mid-afternoon and we had caught a quick glimpse of Manhattan out the window so I was pretty excitable and couldn’t wait to just get out there and start our holiday already. Unfortunately the queue for immigration was insane and we were there for almost an hour and a half. By the time we finally had our fingerprints scanned, our photographs taken and received the stamp of approval, the carousel with our bags on it had long since stopped rotating and they were just sadly abandoned. Poor suitcases, it's okay, mummy and daddy are here now.

We claimed our deserted luggage and found an ATM to withdraw some cash and visited a news stand in the arrivals hall to get some change. I bought my first white chocolate KitKat here – man do we need those here – so yummy! Then we headed out of the terminal to join the 20 minute queue for a cab outside. Eventually I was giving the cross streets to the driver (all proud of myself for sounding like a pro) and we were off, noses pressed to the window as we made our way down the Van Wyck Expressway. I couldn't help but notice how the houses kinda looked like those in Ugly Betty – I’ve always loved those houses.

Before we knew it we were going through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and suddenly we were in Manhattan! I eagerly watched the street signs pass so I would know when we were at our hotel. And then there it was! 26th Street and 7th Avenue. We got out at the corner of the street and walked the 50 metres or so to our hotel, Fashion 26. Check-in was a breeze and within 10 minutes we were up in our room with our cases, hooking up our laptop to the free Wi-Fi, while I oohed and aahed over the awesome coffee machine we had.

It was still only early evening by the time we got settled in, so we decided to make the mile-long walk up to Times Square and see what all the fuss was about. I really liked the area we were staying in – it was quiet enough not to give you a headache but busy enough to keep you interested. Not so for Times Square, which was just plain crazy! Still I'm a city girl at heart so I quite like big lights and crowds... in small doses. We checked out the JumboTrons (and waved at ourselves on the Forever 21 one), figured out where the TKTS booth was for later in our trip and took a few photos.

By then we were pretty knackered, having been up for around 22 hours, so we walked back to our hotel via Gingers Restaurant and picked up some yummy Chinese takeout to bring back to our room. I took great but sad delight in the dinky little rice containers ("just like you see on TV!") and the fortune cookies, while the Yorkshireman humoured me. After that it was straight to bed - we had a city to see the next day after all!

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Giving thanks for the memories

So today is Thanksgiving in the USA. People all around the States will be spending time with their loved ones, eating yummy food and relaxing, happy not to be at work, and generally, well, giving thanks. So it's pretty much the same as how the Yorkshireman and I felt every day on our own trip stateside, from which we returned at the weekend after nine awesome days in New York (well, seven full days and two half days).

I don't think I can truly describe how much fun we had, although I will be giving it a try and will be writing a series of trip report style blog entries in the coming days. I just need to finish going through our photos, itinerary, scribbled notes and credit card records to try and figure out which wonderful thing we did on which wonderful day (seriously, I think we managed to fit about two weeks' worth of activities into just the one and they're all a delightful muddle in my mind). I'm about halfway through at the moment so I'm aiming to start posting at the weekend.

It was just so utterly fabulous but even thinking about it now, as I sit in my living room waiting for it to warm the feck up already (the room temperature is currently 13°C thanks to a lack of timer for our central heating), looking out at the rain and thinking about how much I don't want to go to work tomorrow, it makes me sigh deeply as I recall happy, carefree days doing whatever the hell we wanted to do, whenever the hell we wanted to do it. It was absolute bliss and I shall treasure the memories forever, somewhat aided by the 747 photos we took (mostly the Yorkshireman because he's a good photographer and also cannot walk more than 50 metres in a new place without whipping out his camera).

But nothing lasts forever and there's a good four weeks left of working, life commitments, Christmas shopping (eek!) and general mundaneness before our next break from it all. We're visiting the Yorkshireman's family for Christmas this year and I'm planning on rocking up with a good supply of warm pyjamas and taking full advantage of the squashy sofa and the wood-burning fire. Gosh it even sounds cosy and relaxing.

In the meantime there's plenty to be getting on with (for example figuring out what to buy your mother for Christmas when she hates flowers, doesn't like chocolate, doesn't wear perfume or make-up, already has enough toiletries to rival Boots and owns enough handbags to make TK Maxx nervous) so I best get on with it.

But first... fleecy pyjamas! £6 in Primark if you're in the market for some - such a bargain I bought two pairs. If it doesn't warm up in here soon I may also need to track down my very attractive red duvet slippers from last year's Ikea line. Yep, I'm so totally stylin'! It was clearly fitting that we stayed in the Fashion District of New York. Ah New York... *deep sigh*

Friday, 12 November 2010

The wee city through the eyes of a tourist

The Yorkshireman and I are off to pay hommage to another of the world's great cities and it was whilst thinking about that on Wednesday morning on the bus journey into Belfast City Centre that I wondered how my own wee city would look through the eyes of a tourist.  It's a thought I often have actually, mainly because the city centre has evolved so much since I abandoned it temporarily to go and live in Yorkshire back in 2004 and my view of it now, especially since the Yorkshireman and I returned to live here a few years ago, is constantly changing.  We have most of the big high street stores already and new ones are opening every day, alongside cute little cupcake and coffee shops, converting a once dreary and somewhat-left-behind UK city into an interesting and attractive place to be.

After years of carrying around the tourist-scaring ghost of "The Troubles", Belfast has finally spent the last few years trying hard to shed its past and has been coming into its own as a destination for weekend breaks, history buffs and even hen parties.  We even made it into Frommer's Top 12 Destinations List for 2009, amongst Istanbul, Berlin and Cape Town, which is no mean achievement!  I am a Belfast girl through and through and so seeing my city finally leave behind its ugly past and really beginning to shine fills me with pride.

So every now and then, just like I did on Wednesday morning, I put on my imaginary "first time visitor to Belfast" glasses and try to really look at the city centre as the bus weaves its way through the city centre.  When you were born and bred somewhere, you tend to take things for granted - you know where that building is, that shop is, that restaurant is, without even having to think about it - so you never really stop to actually look at everything through fresh eyes.  I personally find it fascinating.

I live in the North of the city and so the first real "landmark" I pass on the way into the main city centre is probably the University of Ulster.  In the past it was just a little outpost (the main campuses are in Jordanstown and Coleraine) and seemed to house nothing but ever-evolving, strange and wonderful pieces of art in a sort of run-down building on one side of the road.  However a few years ago they developed the campus and the old building is now connected to a new, shiny campus building on the other side of the road by an over-road tunnel.  They also now even have a student bar, which given the cash-poor experience of my own university years, makes me happy for them.

Just as you pass the new campus on the left-hand side, St Anne's Cathedral suddenly appears beside it, set back from the road behind an open garden featuring three navigational bhoys (well, we are a maritime city).  The Cathedral is well known in the city and many of our more famous inhabitants tend to have their funeral services there (most recently Alex Higgins).  It is also home to the infamous (in Belfast at least) figure of Black Santa at Christmas, which I think is a wonderful tradition.  The cathedral building itself is interesting.  It's built of white stone and features what the Belfast tour bus operators claim is "the biggest celtic cross in Ireland" on the side facing Royal Avenue.  It's a beautiful building, but it still mystifies me why they decided to put up a massive stainless steel spire (called the Spire of Hope) when it looks so strange against the old white stone.  I thought I would get used to it with time and although I don't really notice it any more, I must admit that when I do really look at it through my "tourist eyes", it does look a bit odd!

At this point on the main road into the city centre you can't really see much else that particularly jumps out at you; apart from a couple of shops, there just seems to be a lot of generic buildings, some old, some new, most probably offices.  However as you advance up the road, you soon realise that two of the generic buildings on your right-hand side are Belfast Central Library and the Belfast Telegraph building.  Perhaps this doesn't mean much to a tourist (after all, who goes on holiday to sit in a library and read a book or bothers to buy a local paper?) but the Central Library has always been a bit of an intimidating institution for me (I've only been in once and nearly got lost) and I spent my evenings as a child speaking to my father through the broadsheet pages of "the Tele'", as he read it every night religiously (ironically for an agnostic), so they're noteworthy buildings to me.  As a tourist they're probably useful as landmark buildings to figure out where you're going ("oh look, it's the Belfast Telegraph office again, so the Cathedral must be round this corner!"), although at the minute the only way you would really recognise Central Library is as “the building completely covered in scaffolding!”  Hopefully its newly restored frontage will be back on display to us all soon.

After a bend in the road, at what is locally known as "the white bank", despite no longer functioning as a bank nor being particularly white any more, is when you realise you're in the city centre proper.  Suddenly you see more coffee shops, high street shops, a shopping centre on the right-hand side (Castle Court)… it's looking a little more like a city centre now, as the shops stretch out in front of you.  In fact you're so busy eyeing up Debenhams, Cult and Republic that you don't really notice what I would consider to be the main feature of Belfast City Centre suddenly appear at the end of the road.

Yet just as the bus approaches the Tesco Metro situated in an impressive former bank building (the only supermarket I've seen with ornately decorated domes on the ceiling inside), there it is straight ahead of you: no, not McDonalds, but rather Belfast City Hall, looming over Royal Avenue, Donegall Place and Donegall Square in all its white and green glory.

I love the City Hall.  I've seen several during my travels (from Leeds Town Hall to L’Hôtel de Ville in Paris and to me, none compares to Belfast.  There's just something majestic and yet beautiful about its green dome, the white stone exterior, the stained glass windows, the well-cared for grounds with the various statues around it.  Even the sheer size and height of it makes it a focal point of the city centre.  Ok so there tend to be emo kids hanging around in front of it after school and on Saturdays but they never bother you (too wrapped up in their own mini dramas I imagine).

The City Hall was previously improved upon by having the Belfast Wheel situated on its East side - its twinkly lights were a pretty addition to the area - but then the Yorkshireman popped the question to me at the top of the Wheel so I'm a little biased!  The Wheel is sadly no more, having been dismantled in April.  However the City Hall continues to become even prettier for visitors to the city when the Continental Market comes to visit.  Usually it's there in the summer and again at Christmas, and indeed we don't have long to wait before the cute little wooden huts and delicious smells of bratwurst, fudge and mulled wine return, as the Christmas Continental Market will be back on 20th November this year, when the Christmas lights will also be turned on throughout the city, creating a sparkling winter wonderland that will appeal to tourists even more.

Getting back to our trip through the city centre, you're now driving up past Castle Place on your left-hand side (with more shops and the famous leaning Albert Clock visible at the end of High Street) and heading on to Donegall Place, towards the City Hall.

Part of the charm of Belfast, so far as I can tell, is the variation in the architecture.  There are red brick buildings, white stone buildings, sandstone buildings, glass and steel buildings, boring buildings, unique buildings, old buildings, modern buildings, and then buildings that have a bit of everything thrown in.  Moving temporarily away from our current position in Donegall Place, the Waterfront Hall and Victoria Square Shopping Centre are great examples of modern buildings that have managed to take some of the older styles (white stone and sandstone) and fused them with the newer styles of glass and smooth, rounded edges.

Heading back to Donegall Place and you can see plenty of different styles of building all around you, most now housing one high street shop or another.  M&S is a bit of a strange but perfect example, in that the Donegall Place side of their store is now entirely glass fronted to fit in with its modern neighbours like Next and WHSmith, whilst the Donegall Square North side is housed in an old red stone building, which Oscar Wilde reputedly called Belfast's "one beautiful building".

Across the road from M&S is the Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau’s Welcome Centre, which is basically the city's tourist information centre.  It's always struck me as a little odd that as soon as you enter the building you have to immediately go up an escalator to actually get to the information centre itself, but the staff have always been very helpful to me the few times I've been in, which makes up for the oddity.

At this point on our journey we're pretty much now at the City Hall itself, which I like to think of as the centre of the centre.  And of course you're really only getting started.  We haven't yet explored Castle Place or Ann Street or Victoria Square or the Cathedral Quarter or Corn Market or Fountain Street or Oxford Street or the Entries or St George’s Market or Great Victoria Street, never mind venturing outside the very centre of the city.  But to discuss all that would take up far more than one blog post.

All I know is that if I were a visitor to Belfast city centre, especially on a crisp and bright morning like Wednesday morning was, I would be intrigued by this compact and traditional yet modern little city.  I would be pleasantly surprised by the good mix of high street stores and little unique shops, by the big restaurants and little cafés.  In fact the only thing that would put me off at the moment is the ongoing improvement works in Royal Avenue, Donegall Place and Castle Place, with the large orange and white barriers preventing you crossing a street without taking a detour, but even all this is to make our wee city even more appealing, so I can't really complain.

In fact the only thing I can think of right now that would improve Belfast city centre to my (admittedly undemanding) standards is a branch or two of Greggs!  One day, perhaps one day...

Monday, 8 November 2010

Ladyboys and the tramps

At lunchtime on Friday I was perusing my emails (as you do), deleting all the ones promising me 20% off sales on clothing websites (mustnotspendmoneyidonthavemustnotspendmoneyidonthave) and casting a cynical eye over any other remaining mail, when I came across a newsletter from Membership Plus.  Basically it's a sort of sports and leisure scheme that employers in Northern Ireland can sign up to so that their employees can get various discounts and offers on everything from museums to hotels.  Somehow I've ended up with one somewhere along the way and they now send me a newsletter every now and then with a new "exciting" offer.  Ordinarily it's something I would never have any need for and, clickety-click, it ends up in my deleted items folder within seconds.  However Friday's offering was somewhat more appealing...

"50 pairs of free tickets!", it proclaimed.  Well "free" anything is always good but I am a pessimistic soul and generally believe that if it seems to good to be true, then it probably is.  "Oh yes?", thought I, "and what ridiculous thing does one have to do to get their hands on said free tickets?  Write in no more than 250 words why I want to go?  Sign up to something?  Give my personal details to some suspicious third party?"

Actually my cynicism was misplaced this time - all I had to do was call a number, give my name to the very friendly man on the phone and tell him what performance I wanted to attend and, hey presto, I was told I could pick up my tickets on the night.  Awesomeness!  I had scored free tickets to the hottest show in town, worth £24 each normally!  And all through one tiny phone call. I immediately rang the Yorkshireman in the hopes of simultaneously making him nervous about attending the show in question and yet pleased by the freeness of the tickets.  I was not disappointed.

And so what was this show that inspired fear in the heart of my husband and manic laughter from my colleagues?  Yes folks, we were off to see The Lady Boys of Bangkok at Custom House Square!

I'd seen them setting up the marquee, box office, etc, both last year and for the few days before I got the tickets, so I sort of knew what to expect.  It all looked very glitzy, with feathers and sequins galore!  Oh, and of course a troupe of "ladies" who were born men.  I think the name of the show kind of gives that aspect away, along with their Thai origins.  I do love a good bit of cabaret and although my experience of transgendered entertainment has been pretty much limited to the Sunday night bingo at Union Street and a drag karaoke bar called Aladins on an eventful holiday to Turkey a few years ago, I do adore the fabulousness.  Plus, most of the "ladies" have a better figure than I could ever hope to achieve without surgery!  Bitches...

And so last night, off to Custom House Square we went ("hobbled" in my case because I cleverly decided to wear heels again - I should know better by now).  We picked up our free tickets with neither muss nor fuss from the box office and then made our way into the marquee.  It was delightful inside - you would hardly notice that you're in what is effectively a massive tent, with the mirrors and pretty lights hanging from the walls and ceiling.  There was a full bar just inside the entrance in a sort of foyer area, alongside a food cart serving fragrant Thai food and a souvenir stand selling a variety of cabaret-themed items, like feather boas and DVDs of the show.  We grabbed a couple of drinks and made our way into the main performance area of the marquee to find out where we were sitting.  I had imagined that, since our tickets were free, we would be stuffed away in a dark corner at the back, but we were pleasantly surprised once again as we took our seats front and centre.

There was another bar in the main section of the marquee and so I went and grabbed another drink before the show started.  I also grabbed a shot of Sambuca (£2.50) for the Yorkshireman to help him relax and embrace the full-on campness that I hoped we were about to enjoy.  I hadn't realised it was aniseed flavoured before I forced it upon my liquorice-hating husband... oops.  No time to worry though, as the announcer declared that the Lady Boys of Bangkok were ready to entertain us.

I won't spoil the show by giving all the details of the performances, but there was a great mix of contemporary hits, retro wonders and cheeky, funny numbers.  The Yorkshireman was very impressed with the impeccable timing of their choreography and I was very impressed by the extremely attractive topless man doing aerial rope acrobatics.  Just kidding (although he was a bit yummy in a George Clooney kind of way), I was quite impressed with the whole thing.  The costumes are spectacular and I really liked their more comical numbers. I do wish they could put a bit more effort into their miming though - it doesn't really look like they're singing along, which is something even the part-time drag queens at Union Street have mastered, so there's no excuse.  All in all it was a good night out, especially for free (thank you kind Membership Plus people!).

Of course as we walked out of the marquee, giddy with a night of cabaret, bright lights and the decadent smells of Thai food, it was completely pissing it down (oh yes, we're in Belfast, not Bangkok, remember?) and we just missed a bus home.  Damn.  In the end, after getting drenched walking through the bucketing rain, we went for a quick drink in Whites Tavern (grateful for their real fire to dry us out and warm us up a little).  We did indeed look like tramps compared to the beauty of the Lady Boys but the occupants of Whites didn't seem to mind.  We braved the rain again to rush home on the next bus and spent the rest of the evening watching NHL.  From men who like to be ladies dancing beautifully, to men who like to be men throwing each other up against plexiglass... it was an evening of contradictions, but I enjoyed it very much.

So would I go again?  Perhaps not at £24 a ticket but if the price was right I would definitely go back and enjoy another evening with the Lady Boys.  It's nice to have fun every now and then, especially when that fun is increased when you tell people what you did at the weekend and watch their eyebrows raise inquisitively!

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Okay, Christmas, I surrender!

Argos.  Tesco.  Glade.  HMV.  These are the companies who have screened their Christmas advertisements in the last half hour on the tele' while I've been watching.  While I was just typing that last sentence, an ad came on for the DVD of Disney's A Christmas Carol.  This afternoon we ventured into Belfast City Centre to pick up a few bits and pieces and most of the shops were piping out the Christmas songs for their customers to "enjoy" whilst perusing such wonders as reindeer head hats and snowman toilet seat covers (I kid you not, check out your local Poundland).  Harry Corry had a Christmas tree in their window.  And best of all?  There was a man dressed as Santa standing outside Castle Court Shopping Centre.  Speaking of which, whilst tracking down that last link I found out that you can visit the real Santa (yes, the real one) in Castle Court from next weekend.

One question: does the world not realise that it's only the start of November?!

I realise I sound a bit "bah humbug" but nothing could be further from the truth.  I adore Christmas.  I love Christmas music, Christmas movies, buying Christmas presents, spending time with family at Christmas... the whole shebang!  However in recent years my excitement has always faded somewhat by the time we finally get to the big day itself due to over-exposure of all the festivities for the months running up to it.  It was at the stage by Christmas day last year where, if I had heard Fairytale of New York one more time, I would have screeched long and loud (although admittedly the song in question has never been one of my favourites anyway - shameful for an Irishwoman, I know).

I think I just want my Christmastime to be quality time.  Perhaps a month before the big day would be plenty to really enjoy the festive season rather than get sick of it, but unfortunately the commercial world gives us no choice these days.  I may only be nipping in to Asda for some milk but yet I'm confronted with tinsel and, no doubt soon, if not already, Christmas hits over the PA system.  It may be the season to be jolly, but can one really sustain jolliness for two whole months?

That said there are of course benefits to the shops forcing Christmas upon us so early.  The super-organised among us need the time to plan and prepare - how can we know what our Christmas gifts will be and how much they'll cost if they aren't yet being sold by the shops?  Some people I know even have most (if not all!) of their Christmas presents bought and wrapped already - yikes!  I unfortunately am in the situation of living pay cheque to pay cheque and so haven't been able to afford to buy any pressies yet - even buying a couple of cards in the pound shop today was a bit of a stretch - but I have already started perusing many's a website to see what I will be buying people when I do get paid again.  I have even set up a spreadsheet (I do love a good spreadsheet) to record my gift ideas and how much they'll cost compared to my budget for each person.  I suppose if the shops hadn't started selling all their Christmas wares by now I would have a lot less to choose from.

So with two Christmas cards now purchased, my spreadsheet partially completed and the Yorkshireman having purchased the aforementioned reindeer hat (yes, I know, I know...) I suppose it's time to officially give in to Christmas and just accept that, from now until 2011, every time I go into a shop I risk being submitted to pan pipe carols and advent calendars.  Personally I will not be transferring my 300+ Christmas songs (see I told you I liked Christmas!) over to my MP3 player until sometime after 25th November and the tree will not be going up until early December, but should you already be humming Jingle Bells and preparing your Christmas lights, then I give you leave to enjoy the festive season and will not utter so much as a single "humbug" in your direction.  I will also be working on that spreadsheet...

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The joy of a onesie

I should explain before I proceed any further that I have a bit of a "thing" for nightwear, and in particular pyjamas.  I am one of those people who, particularly in winter, spends the last hour of work fantasising about getting home and changing into a nice, comfy pair of PJs.  I often wear one pair of pyjamas around the house on an evening and then a different item of nightwear to bed that night, just to ensure that the comfort and temperature is appropriate to the situation - after all, you would get all sweaty wearing fleece pyjamas in bed all night, but they're lovely and cosy to laze around in on the sofa watching TV.  I have not yet reached the same level of dedication as some of my fellow Belfast women however, as I do not tend to wear my PJs out to the shops (except for that one time with the girlie sleepover and the vodka, but in that instance I was both egged on incorrigibly and also accompanied by fellow pyjama-wearers).  It is safe to say though that I do love my jammies!

It is in this spirit that, a few months ago, I was wandering through Primark in Belfast City Centre and perusing their nightwear selection.  I may not have been planning to actually buy anything but I do like to stay au courant with the latest nightwear fashiosn.  And then I saw them... hung high on a rack in a corner on the first floor.  Was that... a onesie..?  It was!  It was a freaking onesie!

I had been hankering after a onesie since JD from Scrubs awakened me to the possibility that a onesie could actually be made in adult sizes:

However no nightwear manufacturers seemed to cotton on to said ingenuity at the time and so my dreams of owning a onesie faded and I instead moved on to satin pyjamas.

But flash forward a few years and suddenly there they were in front of me, coaxing me over to their corner, seducing me with their fleecey material and convenient front zips.  At the time I had no money to spare and so departed without my objet du désir, although its presence remained on my mind.  A few weeks later I took my sister into Primark and showed her the beloved onesie.  She merely shook her head and clearly pitied her poor halfwit sibling, but yet my onesiephilia continued in earnest, even though my family and friends all deemed the onesie "sad".  I still wanted one even after seeing numerous hen and stag parties wear them during a recent trip to Blackpool and trust me, some of those images were far from pleasant.

Through lack of funds and threats from my nearest and dearest to disown me should I make the purchase, I had given up on onesie ownership.  However this evening I was once again wandering through Primark when what should I spy but a new range of onesies!  And these ones were even cuter!  There was even one with a black body, yellow and black striped arms and a little embroidered bee on the chest... you would look like a giant bee and would only need a pair of deely-boppers to complete the look!  Awesome.

In the end my resolve weakened... I had resisted long enough.  The onesie and I deserved to be together.  And so I purchased one.  For £8.00.  A bundle of fleecey goodness at a bargain price.  I am now sitting on my sofa in a onesie with a baby pink body, zebra print sleeves and a cute little embroidered zebra on the chest.  I feel so incredibly comfortable and warm; it's like being perpetually hugged.  The Yorkshireman was clearly torn between revulsion, pity and reluctantly admitting it was "kinda cute" and has since spent the evening calling me "onesie".  But I care not, for the onesie and I are now one and happy we shall be on these cold winter evenings.  Mmmmm, snuggly...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Love and marriage (and crazy adventures)

The Yorkshireman and I are approaching our first wedding anniversary.  I remember this time last year I was stress personified, as I endeavoured to organise everything down to the minute detail and keep everyone happy at the same time.  Poor, innocent fool that I was, I had imagined that covering all the bases would ensure we had the perfect day, but there are some things you just can't plan for.

You can't plan the weather, for example, as the torrents of rain that morning proved.  You can't plan for the bridesmaids forgetting to bring their flowers to the ceremony (although you can ask your father and the chauffeur to hoof them into the boot of the wedding car instead).  You can't plan for the groom and his party not being able to find a plug to hook up the CD player in the ceremony room, thereby not having time to play all of your carefully chosen pre-ceremony music.  You can't plan for the Registrar rushing you in and through the ceremony, even motioning to cut your carefully chosen "walking down the aisle" music short the second you reached the end.  You can't plan for the bridesmaid's shoe falling apart in the wet weather (although I think she was happy to put on her Converse instead to be honest).  You can't plan for relatives getting drunk and having slanging matches and crying fits that put a damper on the whole reception.  You can't plan for your new husband's colleagues accidentally setting a napkin alight with a candle.

On the other hand, all our other plans did come together.  Yes, our ceremony was a little rushed and yes, there were family ructions at the reception, but all in all we had a good day.  The most important part, after all, is not the party, but what the day signifies.  The Yorkshireman and I had gathered our close family and friends to publicly declare that we loved each other enough to make it official and sign on the dotted line.  And then we had a bit of a party to celebrate.  Plus any day that ends with a dancefloor full of people doing the Cha Cha Slide can't be bad.

So one year on, how is married life?  Well, the Yorkshireman and I had already "lived in sin" together for five years before we tied the knot.  We returned from honeymoon to the same house in which we had spent many's an evening chugging down red wine whilst making up our wedding invitations and panicking over budgets.  We decorated our Christmas tree with the same decorations we had bought over the years we had been living together.  We even returned to the same old cooking and cleaning routines (cooking in turns, often spag bol; he does the dishes and I do the laundry).  So for us married life really isn't much different.  We've managed to replace our old Tesco Value kitchenware with a few Le Creuset and Joseph Joseph items and we are now blessed with the wonder of a tumble dryer, but our lives otherwise haven't really changed.

I suppose it's different for couples who haven't lived together for long (or at all) before they get hitched, because their first year is probably spent learning about each others' foibles.  However I already know that the correct answer to the Yorkshireman's frequent cries of "Where did I leave that thingumyjig?!" is usually, "At your ass, darling!", and he knows that when I'm in a throwing-things-at-walls-stage temper tantrum, the best approach is to back away quietly and leave me to simmer down in my own time.  I'm sure we still have plenty left to learn about each other over the years but we at least had a good base of knowledge on which to build our first year of marriage.

One year on and the questions have of course started (from colleagues, friends, family and even people I would barely class as acquaintances) as to when we're going to get around to getting sprogged up.  I mean, we've been married for a year and not a hint of morning sickness - what on earth are we playing at?!  Well peeps, if I have anything to do with it, I'm afraid you're going to have to wait.  The Yorkshireman and I are still both fairly selfish at this stage of our lives.  We want to travel to places we've never been, do things we've never done and just generally enjoy this commitment-free stage of our lives.  That's not to say we won't be producing offspring sometime in the next few years, but for now I like my lie-ins on weekend mornings and the option to save my money for self-indulgent trips of a lifetime rather than spend it on disposable nappies (have you seen how much those things cost?!).

So what's on the to-do list for year two of marriage?  Well, I can't speak for the Yorkshireman, but personally I just want us to have fun and enjoy life together.  I want more date nights and a good holiday.  I want to take lots of photos of us doing strange and wacky things, be it here in Belfast or somewhere more exotic, so that we can look back in years to come and think, "yep, we really did live."  If we must regret anything, I want us to regret the things we have done, not the things we only wish we had.  I want us to spend time with our families and friends, while we're all young, free and healthy.

I know (from common sense and not just from the hoards of chick lit falling out of my Ikea Expedit bookshelves) that marriage can be hard; every relationship is bound to have its ups and downs.  I'm lucky insofar as the Yorkshireman and I have always been very happy, but who knows what's around the corner?  I of course hope that we shall always remain happily married and end up one of those old couples who have been married for sixty years and are still as in love as the day they said "I do" but regardless of what the future holds, I want us both to be able to look back on times like these and remember the good times.  After all, what is marriage but a journey together, creating shared memories as you go along?  I have many happy memories of our first year of marriage and I intend there to be even more in year two.

And on that note I must go and nag the Yorkshireman about his Internet usage (I know, hypocritical much?) and encourage him to go to bed sometime this side of Friday, for these are the wifely duties of the modern age!