Thursday, 23 December 2010

Merry Christmas everyone!

Yep, I'm a tad early, I know. It's only Christmas Eve Eve, after all. However I'm disappearing off to the land of no Interwebz over Christmas (also known as the in-laws') and so my festive wishes must come early. I've packed my Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas DVDs and my red glittery Christmas bauble earrings are waiting to be put on at silly o'clock tomorrow morning when we have to get up and start our journey. All that therefore remains is to wish everyone a very merry Christmas and a wonderful 2011. And now that's done, so I'm off to bed. Happy Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!

Monday, 20 December 2010

A holiday tradition

BACTERIUM 1: Hey, Martha?

BACTERIUM 2: Yes, Eric?

BACTERIUM 1: What's the date today?

BACTERIUM 2: Um, Friday 10th December. My my, where has the time gone?

BACTERIUM 1: I know, it has flown by! Of course you know what this means?

BACTERIUM 2: I do, but I must admit I do feel a bit guilty. Could we not wait until after Christmas this year? Give her a bit of a break for a change?

BACTERIUM 1: No, a tradition is a tradition, Martha.

BACTERIUM 2: Ok, ok. So, what's it to be this time, Eric? Sinusitis? UTI? Pneumonia?

BACTERIUM 1: Ah sure we can decide when we get there. But why limit ourselves to just the one? We should really spoil ourselves this time.

BACTERIUM 2: No problem Eric - just make sure you bring plenty of supplies - I'm planning on a long stay again this year and of course we're inviting the whole family too.

BACTERIUM 1: Ah yes, it will be a lovely big family Christmas. I can't wait. I do love the smell of infections in the winter... it smells like... victory...

BACTERIUM 2: Indeed. Of course it will be over all too soon.

BACTERIUM 1: Yes but then we will be visiting again in January anyway... and then there's our February break too. Don't worry, darling, we'll be infecting her for many, many winters to come.

BACTERIUM 2: You're right, dear. So what are we waiting for? You grab the resistance to first-line antibiotics and I'll go pack the fever and fatigue!

Friday, 17 December 2010

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, How shiny are your baubles.

You may have gathered that I quite like Christmas. Back near the start of November I felt like it was being forced upon me but since we returned from New York bearing adorable Christmas tree decorations at the end of the month I've been really getting into the festive spirit. I even have red glittery Christmas bauble earrings to prove it.

One of the highlights of the Christmas season, for me anyway, is to decorate the house for Christmas. When we were younger my sister and I spent a lot of time in our granny and granda's house and there would always be one Sunday near the start of December when my granny would declare that the decorations were going up. Her house was like Santa's grotto by the time it was finished - a real children's wonderland. There were a million Santas and navitity scenes and snowmen and snowglobes and (rather strangely) a set of plastic Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (always along the windowsill looking out into the street).

My granny passed away about ten years ago now and my granda hasn't really "done" Christmas ever since - it still makes me a little sad to walk past the house near Christmas and see the living room window all gloomy and stark instead of the warming flicker of an electric candlebra and Bashful, Grumpy, Doc et al. Don't get me wrong, it was all entirely over-the-top, but it felt like Christmas. However the torch has since been passed and my mother's house is now our family grotto, allbeit an entirely more tasteful one. It's hard not to relax into the glow of the blue fairy lights and the stares of the many Santas and snowmen adorning the hearth, enjoying that festive feeling.

As for my own house, well, the Yorkshireman and I like to create our own mini grotto too. We have our fair share of snowmen and Santas and electric window decorations to brighten up the place, not to mention some singing and dancing reindeer (complete with ringing bell!). The Yorkshireman is always calling for more festive bunting and in fact I think we have a paper-chain-making session ahead of us sometime soon, since he came home with some coloured card the other day. But for me the centrepiece of any grotto is the Christmas tree. It's such a weird idea - let's chop down a big green tree, drag it inside where it will surely drop its needles all over the place, and then cover it in shiny things until you can barely see it any more. However, props to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for making them popular because I love 'em!

It's not just the twinkling fairy lights and the shiny tinsel and beads (although they are entirely fabulous), but I think the decorations on the tree add to its charms. Perhaps not if you've just bought baubles in bulk from Asda and are entirely dedicated to a colour theme, but if you go down the route of the little individual decorations that each hold a memory, a Christmas tree can really make you smile. Take ours for instance...

(NB: I'm going to attempt to use photos here - I am not a good photographer like the Yorkshireman and have no idea what a ISO setting is and tend to stick to the "auto" setting, so I can only apologise for what you get!)

The Tree

This is our lovely Christmas tree in all its festive glory: the decision to buy a pre-lit tree was perhaps one of my better ideas!

The New York decorations

The Starbucks red cup decoration I trawled half of Manhattan for.
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The shoe decoration I bought in Chelsea Market - good Crusaders colours!
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I was going to include a picture of the cute little snowman we bought at Tiffany's too but it turns out that amateur photography and transparent crystal decorations are not a match made in heaven, so you'll just have to use your imagination I'm afraid!
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The Honeymoon Decorations

We bought this gorgeous glass decoration in Mauritius when we went there on honeymoon last year. Getting it home in one piece was a challenge but it made it!
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There are two of these plastic glittery stars on our tree (if you can even pick it out against the tinsel). We know that they are the tackiest thing in all of Tackdom but that was their charm when we saw them in the giant 'Jumbo Score' hypermarket near Port Louis and they've been merrily shedding glitter on us ever since.
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The Just Getting Started Decorations

The Yorkshireman and I got our first flat together over in Yorkshire in mid-October about 6 years ago. He was still a student and I was working in a call centre so we were quite cash-poor at the time, especially after having to decorate and furnish the place from the carpets up. However my aunt very kindly showed up, like a Christmas fairy, about a month before Christmas and whisked us off to Morrisons and Woolworths' Big W to equip us with the seasonal basics, like a tree, some tinsel, some baubles and something for the top of the tree. We've never forgotten her generosity and in fact many of those first decorations are still with us...

... like the purple tinsel, the silver beads, the beautiful glass baubles and the little pink bells (that do indeed ring in a very festive manner!). I love putting all these up every year.
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And then there is of course the star on the top of the tree. The Yorkshireman is not a religious man and so a star was more fitting than an angel. This was our very first Christmas tree topper and, even though it's just plastic, I still love its simplicity and shininess!
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I remember, coming up to our second Christmas together, buying a set of 3 of these stained glass ornaments from a friend who was an Avon Lady and feeling so grown up to be buying beautiful and fragile glass decorations for my own Christmas tree. Somehow, despite the Yorkshireman and I each having a somewhat clumsy side, they have lasted 7 Christmases and about 3 house moves, including to another country. Bet I've jinxed myself now and I'll end up crushing one before the night is out somehow!
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I can't even really remember where we picked up the little set of wooden Christmas tree decorations but they seem to have been with us forever. They're so traditional they remind me of the wooden toys children used to get "back in the day" - you could just imagine Santa's elves making them in their workshop in the North Pole, so they always make me smile.
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We of course have loads more decorations and I do have memories attached to most of them - even the red and transparent glass Christmas tree decorations I bought in Ikea last year on a shopping trip with my mother! So for me our Christmas tree is more than just a colourful seasonal centrepiece - it genuinely makes me smile again and again and I look forward to adding more unique and special ornaments to it in future years to help me remember those times fondly too.

That said I'm currently sitting in my dark bedroom, looking out at the neighbours' Christmas decorations glowing in the snow instead, so I'm off to enjoy my own in the living room... there's only so much manic flashing of red 'Merry Christmas' signs a girl can take! Also the seven foot snowman the people across the road built today is freaking me out a little...

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The moral dilema of an online/offline shopaholic

Wow there really is a lot to do for Christmas, isn't there? No matter how much or how little time you dedicate to the cause, the preparations seem to expand to fill it. Then if you're anything like me, no matter how much or how little money you throw at it, the preparations seem to expand to fill your budget too, and then a bit more besides. And there's always those one or two little bits and pieces that you really need to buy before you can officially say you're done. I've so far been on about five separate expeditions to get "those last few things" and for some reason I'm still not finished, even though I inevitably come home with at least three plastic bags.

Thankfully I think I have actually finished the braving-the-shops portion of my shopping and am now just awaiting delivery of some things I bought online. They were apparently dispatched on 4th December though, so I am a little wary about where they might actually be at present; ten days seems a long time to get from Jersey to Belfast! I shall continue to assume that last week's snow is to blame for another few days and then get on the phone to ask where my carefully selected Christmas gifts be at, bitches.

I have to say, I have done a lot of my Christmas shopping online this year, which was much easier than traipsing round all the shops. However I do feel somewhat guilty about taking custom away from the shops in Belfast. I love that our wee city is growing up and has a lot of the "good" high street shops now, but I know that a lot of them won't stick around for long if people aren't spending their money there. If that happens we'll be left with lots of empty units on our main shopping streets, which looks awful for visitors and potential investors, and also gives you less choice when you do want to go shopping.

That being said there's just something so quick and easy about buying from the likes of Play, Amazon or eBay and it's pretty much one-stop shopping. An hour of browsing and hey presto you have gifts for about ten different people. It tends to be cheaper online too. I went on Amazon on my afternoon break a couple of weeks ago after an office discussion about favourite Christmas movies and ten minutes later, four Christmas DVDs were on their way to me for little over a tenner. Two days later and they'd arrived. No need walk around town, browsing in different shops for the best price, being elbowed or stamped on by rude people or standing in queues - they were just waiting for me on my doorstep when I got home.

Then again, it's nice to walk around the city centre, especially when it's all festively decorated, and have a look at things in real life. You might be able to buy colourful, chunky knit jumpers online but the experience doesn't quite compare to looking at them at the Continental Market, with the delicious smells of mulled cider, fudge and grilling meat in the air. You can browse the stocking fillers section of websites but it doesn't compare to the thrill of wandering through the shops and catching sight of that fun little thing that would be perfect for so-and-so. You can sit at home, nice and warm, on a comfy chair, merrily adding things to your virtual shopping basket, but there's something to be said for walking through the frosty streets, amidst the crowds, catching the refrains of various Christmas songs playing from the different shops, with the Christmas decorations lighting your way.

I think what I'm trying to say is that I like it both ways (trying so hard not to "that's what she said" myself right now). I like the thought that, all being well, when I get home tomorrow evening I might have some parcels waiting for me, which I didn't have to track down and then drag around town in plastic bags that might break at any moment and then manhandle them home on the bus. Yet on the other hand I had great fun yesterday evening, wandering around Cityside Mall looking for "those last few things", eyeing up the bargains and amusing myself looking at some of the more gaudy items for sale, then taking a breather to enjoy my book with an Americano in the café at Asda Living.

What I'm really looking forward to though is the January sales. Well, ok, in this day in age they're more December sales, since they seem to be creeping forward somewhat each year, but to me they shall nonetheless remain known as the January sales. I know that shops pretty much have sales all year round these days (summer sales, winter sales, end of season sales, refurbishment sales, warehouse sales, we're-not-making-enough-money-so-we're-hoping-you-buy-these-horrible-clothes-if-we-reduce-them-to-a-tenner sales...) but I like the January sales the best. It's not just that things are cheaper than the other mundane sales, or that there's more choice, but it's also the atmosphere: every shopaholic is out there looking for a bargain and won't rest until she (or he) finds at least one. Have you ever seen the queues for the Next sale on Boxing Day? People are standing in line from about 4am, I kid you not!

There are of course sales online too, and they really can be very good, but for me the January sales are all about the thrill of the chase. It might be harder work rifling through racks of unorganised clothing, hoping that there's something nice in your size for a reasonable price, than it is to simply filter the products on a website and look at each of the results one by one, but then excitement of the acquisition is somewhat diminished.

Plus when you're shopping in the sales in person you often come across things you didn't even know you wanted, whereas online it's very much a case of, "I need a new coat" … *click on 'Coats and Jackets'* … "oh look, coats". But what about that DVD boxset of that TV show you used to love and have forgotten all about? It's only £7! Or what about those black trousers that you would wear to work a lot? They're only £5! You just don't even think to look for them online but in town they're shouting out to you, "buy me, buy me, buy me!" As the Yorkshireman would no doubt agree, this is not always a good thing, especially when you have already overspent at Christmas and so should most definitely not be spending money on things you didn't even know you wanted, never mind needed. But then isn't that what the sales are all about? The shops get a little pick-me-up for their profits and we get to go home, pleased as punch with all the awesome things we've just procured?

I already have a mental list of places I want to shop in January. I'll probably only be able to budget about £50 for random spendsies (which means I'll no doubt end up spending closer to £80), but I can't wait to get bargain-hunting. I suppose that's why I don't feel that guilty about buying most of my Christmas presents online this year: the real shops are still managing to tease a little money out of me every time I head out to buy "those last few things" and they'll make even more off me when the sales start. Somehow I'm sure they'll get by until then. But if not, I hope they at least have the decency to hold a good closing down sale!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

All I want for Christmas is some festive chick lit

I can remember, back when I was only about 8 or 9 years old, visiting Skegoneill Library in North Belfast (since replaced by the Grove Wellbeing Centre) on a regular basis with my granny or my father. My sister (two years my junior) and I were avid readers from a young age and the librarians had encouraged us in our literary endeavours by increasing our book borrowing limit from the standard 3 at a time for children to the adults' 6 at a time. Our favourite shelf in the children's section was the one that housed the Sweet Valley Twins books and we eventually read every one of those books that the library had, hooked on the adventures and dramas of twins Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield.

As time went on my sister's tastes started veering more towards my mother's Dean Koontz thrillers and whilst I was partial to the odd Stephen King book myself, I mainly progressed to Sweet Valley High and The Saddle Club series (even though I had, and still have, zero interest in horses). And thus our tastes have remained. My sister enjoys autobiographies, psychological thrillers and what I would consider to be boring serious books. Meanwhile, much to her bewilderment and contempt, I have remained very much a fan of the "chick lit" genre, or as she calls it, "candyfloss".

I feel I should apologise up front to anyone who takes offence at the term "chick lit" but I'm afraid that if the kitten heel shoe fits, it must be worn. I personally don't mind it, mainly because I'm glad to have a more contemporary term for my genre of choice than "women's fiction", which reminds me of Mills and Boon bodice-rippers and the stories my granny used to read in the back of The People's Friend magazine.

There is a lot of scorn out there for chick lit, with people saying that it tends to reinforce gender stereotypes and that the plots are transparent and predictable. I'm the first to admit that I do tend to guess who's going to end up living happily ever after with who from the first chapter, but that's not the point for me - it's more about how it happens and what else happens on the way. I'm always interested in people's thoughts, opinions and stories, which is effectively all that the chick lit genre really is.

I might know from page 7 that terminally single Alice will end up marrying her new, shy, widowed neighbour Ben, but how do they get to know one another? Are there other people involved? Does anything thwart their burgeoning romance? How do they overcome these difficulties? How does the big "finally getting it together" scene happen? Is there a wise but snarky friend dishing out advice? Is there a love rival? Is there a big misunderstanding to be resolved? Are there children to be won over? These are the things that keep me entertained on my bus journeys and sometimes keep me up well past my bedtime.

I must admit I'm more of a fan of the more humorous chick lit books than the warm and fuzzy ones, but the ones that manage both are the real winners. Marian Keyes' books for example, especially those involving the Walsh family, have had me literally laughing out loud one minute and swallowing an emotional lump in my throat the next. I've reread Watermelon and Anybody Out There lots of times and, even though I know exactly what's going to happen, the way the story is told keeps it fresh.

Recently I've discovered a new sub-genre of chick lit, namely Christmas chick lit. I'd seen (and read) a couple of Christmas-themed paperbacks last year, but this year it really seems to have taken off. My mother also reads a lot and, although she enjoys a lot of different genres, she regularly has a good chick lit book or two to donate to me when she's finished with them (thank you mummy!). Her most recent offerings included Twelve Days of Christmas and Angels in the Snow.

I won't go into plotlines since there are summaries on the Amazon links I've posted anyway, but I enjoyed them both. They were both a little mushy for my taste but then again they are based around Christmas, so you have to expect a little heart-warming slush really. Twelve Days of Christmas was very good, if a bit gentle. It was fairly predictable in some ways but there were some twists and turns to keep it interesting.

Angels in the Snow was a bit more dramatic and actually you got two stories for the price of one, which was a nice touch, although it was a bit romance-centric for me - surely there's more to life than just a man, no matter how sexy he may be? It had managed to cleverly hide its Mills and Boon connection from us until we noticed the small M&B logo on the back, although in retrospect we agreed that the doctors and nurses theme should really have given it away!

I'm now making inroads into another Christmas chick lit book called Falling for Christmas and so far I think it's actually my favourite. The product description I've linked to actually has the plot for the second story wrong, since it's actually centred around a department store and a young woman looking after her nephew while his dad is off fighting for his country - there are better descriptions in the customer reviews anyway. Funnily enough we watched a movie based on that second story earlier this week, called Miracle in Manhattan, and really enjoyed it.

I have another book waiting in the wings too, called The Secret Shopper Unwrapped. I actually read its prequel (not Christmas-related) called The Secret Shopper's Revenge quite a while ago and so far as I remember I quite enjoyed that one, so I'm looking forward to another good read.

So there we have it: Christmas chick lit is taking over. Between Christmas books, Christmas movies, Christmas music, Christmas shopping, Christmas cards and Christmas decorations, I might be quite Christmassed-out by the time the big day itself finally arrives! That said, it only happens but once a year and there is really only about a 6-8 week period where you can get away with reading books with glitter on the front on the bus, while listening to Dominick the Donkey on your mp3 player, so I'm going to make the best of it. Hope you're all enjoying the festive season too. Only 15 more sleeps until Santa comes!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

And it was New York, New York - Day 9

On Friday morning we woke up feeling sad because it was time to go home. Hotel check-out was at noon, so I immediately began the age-old ritual of trying to fit far too much into my suitcase. I did eventually fit everything in but the scales at the airport check-in desk later confirmed that it was only 200g under the airline’s weight limit – phew, that was close!

All packed we headed back for breakfast at Austin’s Café one last time for the usual BLT and iced tea for the Yorkshireman and French toast with a white chocolate mocha for me. I was going to miss these little breakfasts in cafés, discussing our plans for the day with hubby and not having to cook or wash up.

After breakfast we had one last walk around the area, partly just to look at it more closely in the daylight (since we had always been somewhere else in the city during the day) and partly because I was on a mission to get hold of a Starbucks “red cup” Christmas tree decoration before we left. I’d bought one for my mother a few days before and shortly afterwards regretted not getting one for myself too – after all, it’s officially approaching Christmas when the ‘Bucks turns red! Sadly none of the Starbucks around our hotel seemed to have any left. I did procure another pumpkin and cream cheese muffin though – yum!

We got back to the hotel room to pack up our final bits and pieces and I made one last cup of coffee in the awesome coffee machine to enjoy with my muffin. Then we went and checked out (the easiest and quickest check-out ever) before walking the seven blocks or so to Penn Station to start our long journey home. There was yet another Starbucks just beside the station so I figured I would give the decoration hunt one final try. Success and joy! I tucked it carefully away in my hand luggage, pleased as punch to have finally gotten hold of another one, and we made our way down into Penn Station.

We followed the signs to the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), got our tickets from the machines and then headed on to the train. There was loads of room onboard so we spread out along two rows of seats with all our luggage. A short journey later and we had arrived at Jamaica Station, where we made our way to the AirTrain to JFK, buying tickets at yet another machine first. The LIRR/AirTrain combo really was a good way to travel – it was cheap, quick and easy – so I think I’d use that next time rather than getting a cab.

The journey to JFK was, in fact, so efficient that we ended up arriving about five hours early at the airport. Even the check-in kiosks were still asleep and there was no sign of any Virgin Atlantic staff anywhere, so we headed down to the departures hall to kill time at a café. We settled for Peets Coffee & Tea, which was overpriced and had really bad customer service, but I got my caffeine hit and the Yorkshireman got one last iced tea, so we couldn’t complain too much.

About an hour later we thought we would give check-in another try. Aha! The kiosks were now operational and we checked in without a problem. Unfortunately there was then a queue to stand in for the bag drop, which would ordinarily be fine, except that there were still no staff there to actually check us in. Ho hum. Luckily we were first in the bag drop only queue – either everyone else had problems with the kiosks or didn’t realise there were two lines. Laters, suckers! After half an hour some staff finally showed up and soon we were leaving our bags off and wondering how we were going to kill the next three hours.

We started by getting some lunch and ended up going for some Chinese food at Wok & Roll, which was far from the best we’d had on our trip but was pretty good for airport food. Next we walked around the shops in search of a New York souvenir fridge magnet (a tradition when we go anywhere) and, having finally decided on a nice, non-tacky, sepia tone one, we headed through security to the gates.

It was kind of boring through there though, although that may have been more to do with having run out of money than a lack of facilities. We technically still had over $50 left on my pre-paid Mastercard but, thanks to an error on the part of the Marriott Marquis View Lounge, all but $7 was it was being held in limbo (and in fact at the time of writing still is, despite lots of emails back and forth to them – highly irritating). Pity – we could have had more fun in the bars. Instead we passed the time transferring photos from the camera to our laptop and having a look at them all on the bigger screen.

Looking at the pictures of everything we had done really brought home what an absolutely amazing trip it had been and made me feel ever sorrier that we had to leave this amazing city. But, a couple of hours later, leave we did. On our flight back we got the awesome on-demand entertainment systems so, between that and the free red wine, we had a great time and didn’t even try to sleep.

We finally arrived back in London Heathrow at 6am UK time the next morning and made the long trek between the terminals for the long wait for our flight back to Belfast at 10.45am. After check-in I grabbed some breakfast (the Yorkshireman wasn’t very hungry) and then, giving up on finding anything else to do, we headed through to our departure gate to stretch along the seats there and try to rest our eyes a little. Eventually our flight was called and before we knew it we were back on the Emerald Isle. By 8pm that night we had been up for around 40 hours straight, so the adrenaline finally ran out and jetlag took over. The Yorkshireman headed to bed then and there and I managed about another hour before I finally stumbled upstairs too.

So that was that: the trip to New York was all over. There are still so many things I would love to do there and didn’t get the chance this time, and there are things I would like to do again, so I guess we’ll just have to go back again. What a pity, eh? Unfortunately New York is one of the most expensive places I’ve ever been and so we’ll need to start saving again in the hope that we’ll be able to afford to return at some point in the next couple of years. I know it’s a cliché but it really is true: I honestly do ♥ New York.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Looking for fun and feelin' groovy - Day 8

We woke up on Thursday morning with the sort of melancholy that afflicts those who are all too aware that their wonderful holiday is fast approaching its end. This was our last full day in New York and we planned to make the most of it. Consequently, this entry will be a long ‘un – apologies in advance!

Our first stop of the day was Port Authority Bus Terminal. Wow that place is big! I managed to buy return tickets from the machine but the question of where our bus was departing from stumped me. I looked at the bus timetable for our route, the departure signs and everything, but still I was confused. I ended up joining the queue in the NJ Transit enquiry office behind people who had lost stuff on buses and an irritating Englishwoman who just did not seem to understand (or care) that the NJ Transit office was not the right place to enquire about the MTA buses. Eventually, when the Englishwoman had pottered off muttering about things being “too confusing”, the nice lady told us where to go and so we made our way to Gate 204 to board the 126 bus to Hoboken, New Jersey.

What’s so special about Hoboken in New Jersey, you ask? Or perhaps you didn’t ask if, like me, you’re a fan of the show Cake Boss. Yes indeedio, we were off to Carlo’s Bake Shop! We got off the bus at 2nd Street on Washington Street in Hoboken and there, across the road, looking exactly like it does on TV, was the bakery itself. When we were planning our trip, I’d figured, hey, we like Cake Boss and we like sweet things, so why not visit?

We went inside and got in line. The queue was pretty short, which apparently is not always the case – there were reports in the summer of queues right around the block! We stood in line at the counter, mesmerised by the ornately decorated cakes and delicious looking baked goods, trying to simultaneously spot people we recognised from the show and decide what we wanted to buy. When we got there, Frankie was having his photo taken with a birthday girl visiting the bakery and I think it was Madeline we saw serving behind the counter.

Everything looked really delicious. We knew from watching Cake Boss that Carlo’s specialises in traditional Italian desserts and so we bought lobster tails.

I also bought a cupcake (to continue my quest) and a Carlo’s Bake Shop mug, whilst the Yorkshireman bought a Napoleon. After a few posed photos outside the bakery, I insisted on walking around and checking out the alleyway behind the shop, which features a lot on the show too. Yes, I was being a total fangirl.

I finally dragged myself away and went in search of somewhere to buy a takeout coffee. Oh look – Starbucks, yay! I’m evidently a fangirl of the ‘Bucks as well! It was another iced tea for the Yorkshireman and I ordered my new (new) favourite New York drink: a caramel apple spice. Basically it was warm apple juice, cinnamon dolce syrup and then cream with caramel drizzle on top. Healthy? No. Festive and yummy? Yes!

Next we walked down towards to Hudson River and decided to enjoy our goodies in Pier A Park in the beautiful sunshine. We really liked the lobster tails (especially the filling, which was a sort of cross between frosting and ice-cream, if you can imagine that) but the cupcake and Napoleon were just ok. The views of Manhattan however were spectacular and you could see the whole length of the island and how the skyline changes from area to area, for instance the Empire State Building towering over midtown and the tall, modern buildings crowding into the Financial District downtown.

After the Yorkshireman took about a million photos and we dusted the remnants of our flaky breakfast off our clothing, we headed back to Hoboken Terminal to get our bus back to Port Authority Terminal. A quick bus journey later and, before we knew it, we were on the subway heading for 59th Street / Lexington Avenue to check a few more “must see” and “must buy” items off our lists.

The first thing we stumbled upon when we emerged from the subway was Dylan’s Candy Bar. We hadn’t planned to visit, since you can get candy pretty much anywhere and I figured it would be overpriced, but we thought we would have a look since we were there anyway. It was like a sugary wonderland – kids probably love it - but after our sweet-filled morning we didn’t buy anything.

Next, finding our bearings, we headed across the street to Bloomingdales. I wanted to buy my fellow shopaholic mother a Little Brown Bag and also wanted to check out their clothes and Christmas stuff. They had some very nice clothes actually but they were a little out of my price range. I was quite disappointed with their Christmas selection though – Macy’s was much more impressive. In the end I left with only the Little Brown Bag and a grumpy-looking Yorkshireman: department stores are not his natural habitat, bless him.

He soon cheered up though because we were both really looking forward to our next shopping spot. A short walk later and we arrived at FAO Schwarz. We had great fun petting the stuffed animals, pressing buttons to make the toy NYPD and FDNY vehicles’ sirens wail and flash and posing for photos with a Santa made entirely of Lego. Awesome. And, of course, there was the ‘Big Piano’, as made famous by the movie Big.

At first there were only small kids running up and down the giant keys but, undeterred, I was soon whipping off my shoes and joining them. The Yorkshireman, like all the other adults standing around, was unwilling to join in at first, but when they all saw that there was already one adult nutter eagerly stomping up and down the keys, they all figured it was ok. I clearly started a revolution, or else they were all just sheep! Then of course two nerdy teenage boys took over the whole piano and started re-enacting the “heart and soul” scene from Big:

When they finished, clearly very proud of themselves, a rather droll employee said, in the flattest, driest tone imaginable, that it was the best version he’d heard all day. The boys looked crestfallen. I laughed. Serves them right for trying to show off.

Unfortunately after FAO Schwarz, we knew the time had come to once again brave Times Square and the queue for the TKTS booth. This time the line was horrendous. We queued for an hour, watching and hearing the same leaflet-pushers advertise to us over and over again. No. We do not want to go see Mary Poppins. We didn’t want to see it when you offered us a leaflet ten minutes ago and we still don’t want to see it now. Go away. Eventually though, we had obtained our objets du désir: two tickets for Avenue Q that evening. Yay!

Our feet were pulsating with pain and fatigue at this point, so we figured we would give the McDonalds across the street from the TKTS booth a try. We ordered the same thing as last time but these meals were pretty yucky. The burgers were greasy and salty and the fries just tasted like fried cardboard dipped in salt. At least the vanilla shake was the same. The New York themed art on the walls upstairs was pretty cool though.

It was probably around 4.30pm by that point and, since we had a bit of time to spare before Avenue Q started at 8pm, we started thinking about what other places or activities off our NY “bucket lists” we could fit in beforehand. It was time to make a plan… a cunning plan!

Our first stop was the Nintendo World Store so that the Yorkshireman could geek out again and buy some merchandise this time. I sat on some kind of silicone seat on the first floor to rest my feet, attempting to play something called Starfy on the DS, and left him to it. One huge bag and one huge grin later, he was ready to go.

Next we jumped on the subway and across town to the Chrysler Building. I absolutely love its art deco architecture and wanted to see it up close and personal before we left the city. We emerged from the subway and made our way up through black and white art deco corridors until we eventually found our way out on to the street to take a few photos, looking up at the lights.

It was only a short walk from the Chrysler Building to Grand Central Terminal. The Yorkshireman had wanted to see the building itself and I had wanted to take a look at the Holiday Fair in Vanderbilt Hall ever since I’d seen it advertised on a subway ad on our first full day in the city. We entered close to Vanderbilt Hall so we checked that out first. Unfortunately by this point our feet were really sore and we were tired and getting a little fed up, so we didn’t really pay much attention to what was on sale in the Holiday Fair, with me muttering things like, “doesn’t matter, couldn’t afford it anyway, harrumph…” under my breath.

We spent a little time in the main concourse so the Yorkshireman could take a few photos and then we headed into the food court. There was a lot of variety of food and drink but inevitably we ended up just buying an iced tea and a cup of milk from Juniors. It was sort of a pity we weren’t that hungry after our yucky McDonalds earlier because another thing on my “bucket list” was to try some proper New York cheesecake, and where better than Juniors? Alas, it wasn’t to be. Perhaps next time!

While we sipped our drinks we did some more planning. There was still about an hour left until Avenue Q started and we weren’t sure what else we should do on our last night in the city. However it became clear that the Yorkshireman was regretting not getting a photo of the frontage of the American Museum of Natural History while we were there the day before and so we decided to head back there under cover of darkness and take a few snaps.

We emerged from the subway, walked across the street and looked up at the Museum... to see that the entire frontage had been covered by some kind of massive sheet (presumably due to some renovation work or something). Crap! Ah well, sod’s law strikes again. The Yorkshireman took a few photos of the Museum anyway (well the sheet was designed to look like the Museum’s frontage I suppose) and of the Theodore Roosevelt statue outside and then it was back on to the subway. We were off to see Avenue Q at last!

Or at least we would be after a quick coffee stop. We’d arrived outside the New World Stages with still about half an hour until curtain-up and I didn’t want to sit in a theatre for half an hour when I could be out enjoying the city on our final night. That said, I was so totally not in the mood for walking any more and so declared to the Yorkshireman that if we couldn’t find a suitable alternative within the next block, we would be visiting the Irish bar straight ahead of us. Luckily for us both there was a little café called The Coffee Pot just around the corner and I had a lovely white chocolate mocha and, suddenly peckish, a bagel with cream cheese. The Yorkshireman had nothing to eat or drink but I think he quite enjoyed sitting down for fifteen minutes or so.

Then it was finally time for the show! We found our way to the Avenue Q stage within the building (as the name ‘New World Stages’ suggests, there are quite a few stages in there!) and were promptly informed about the waiter service that will bring you cocktails to enjoy at your seat during the show. We had a couple of cocktails called ‘Hairy Monsters’ and ‘Fuzzy Monsters’ during the show – not much to them but a bit of fruity alcohol never goes amiss.

The show itself was absolutely fantastic. It’s basically a play on the whole Sesame Street thing, with the moral of this story being that, despite what you’re told as a child, not everybody is special and not everyone does have a special talent to contribute to the world: most people are just getting on with their mundane, sucky lives as best they can and holding out for the good times in amongst the bad. The songs were so funny that we bought the soundtrack when we got home and have found ourselves singing ‘It Sucks to be Me’ and ‘Schadenfreude’ on a regular basis ever since. The UK cast are apparently doing a tour in 2011. There are no Belfast dates on their schedule yet but I hope they do make it across here – I’d love to see it again.

The cast of the show were fundraising for charity the night we were there and were selling signed playbills and posters after the show. The Yorkshireman, on a whim, decided to buy one of the posters but, oh no, he didn’t have any cash and they couldn’t take a card. Doh! By the time we got to an ATM and back they’d all disappeared. Double doh! Luckily the guy closing up the merchandise stall told us to go through some double doors and ask inside about buying the poster. So, a little concerned we might be escorted away by some burly security guards at any point, we did indeed go in through the double doors…

The first thing we saw was a little door ahead of us, just behind the backstage area, where all the puppets were hanging up and where all the cast had congregated and were merrily chatting away to one another. Feeling like we really shouldn’t be there, we finally found a very nice man who was more than happy to sell us a signed poster and even threw in a couple of badges, one saying “It sucks to be me” (which the Yorkshireman wore for the rest of the evening) and one saying “Everything in life is only for now” (which I wore). It was so weird, just hanging around backstage, watching all the cast (and puppets!) we had just seen perform on stage standing about six feet away. It was a brilliant, unexpected ending to the experience.

It was approaching 11pm by this point, so we raced back to the hotel and dropped off the poster and our shopping bags from earlier and then hit the streets again. I wanted to stay up a little later and have some fun on our last night, but I had evidently underestimated just how tired we would be. Nonetheless we bought a bottle of wine from our friendly neighbourhood liquor store for later on and set off to find a Thai restaurant close by that I’d read good things about. Unfortunately when we got there we realised it was due to close at 11.30pm, which would have only given us about 20 minutes to eat. Hmmm.

We hit the streets in search of a nice place to have dinner that was going to be open until at least midnight, but apart from markets, pizzerias and rather dodgy-looking places, we were finding nada. We did however witness a drunken cyclist careen off his path on the pavement into a guy who was trying to manoeuvre some very heavy-looking crates. Both ended up falling over but everyone was ok. New York is crazy!

Eventually, tired by all the walking and a pretty long day, I gave the Yorkshireman a choice: it was Rosa’s Pizzeria again or the Malibu Diner again. He selected the Malibu Diner and so off we went. We sat at the counter this time, for a more authentic diner experience, and looked at the massive menu. Knowing that Thanksgiving was coming I ordered the turkey and stuffing (with split pea soup thrown in to start) and the Yorkshireman had a pastrami sandwich with fries (and chicken noodle soup to start). There was no way we could have finished those massive portions, although the Yorkshireman gave his a good go! All I can say is God bless the 24/7 diner – it was just what we needed and also they serve as much free tea and coffee as you can drink.

I was absolutely shattered by the time we got back to our hotel room, in spite of the three refills of coffee I’d had at the diner. I was so tired, in fact, that I couldn’t even muster up the enthusiasm to open our bottle of wine. The Yorkshireman eagerly set to his packing but I selected the procrastination route and went to sleep instead, thinking sorrowfully that our last real day in New York was now over and that tomorrow it would be time to go home. Woe.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

I've got a ticket for a new adventure - Day 7

When we were planning our itinerary for New York, Wednesday became known as “awesome day”, so we awoke eager to get on with it. After another quick, cheap and yummy breakfast at Austin’s Café, we took the subway uptown to the American Museum of Natural History. We had both liked the movie Night at the Museum and actually had caught it again on TV a few days before we left Belfast, which reminded us of all the cool and funny things we might just see at the AMNH when we visited for real.

We spent hours walking around the museum, just looking at things on a very superficial level and taking a few photos. It wasn’t that we were disinterested in anything but there really is a lot to see; you could easily spend a whole day there if you wanted to read about the exhibits as well as looking at them.

They had some really cool exhibits. My personal favourites were the dinosaur ones – there’s just something quite literally awesome about the skeletons of all these giant (or sometimes tiny) creatures no longer walking among us. The Yorkshireman seemed to take a shine to the gems, meteorites and minerals but sadly for him we didn’t get to spend much time there. It’s a pity – even I was enjoying reading about the massive meteorites on display. We also saw the Easter Island head as made famous in Night at the Museum (“Me no dum-dum, you dum-dum!”) but could not find that naughty capuchin!

Because we’d pre-booked a “super saver” ticket, we also had access to four special exhibits (you have to pay extra to see these normally), namely the Butterfly Conservatory, Race to the End of the Earth, the Journey to the Stars show in the Hayden Planetarium and Hubble in the IMAX Theatre.

The Butterfly Conservatory was hot, sticky, full of children and, to be honest, not really my cup of tea, although maybe I’m just jealous because none of the butterflies wanted to come and play with me.

We actually gave the Race to the End of the Earth a miss, since the Yorkshireman had repeatedly declared his disinterest in the story that he’d “heard a million times already” and I basically couldn’t be arsed.

I really liked the Journey to the Stars show though. I’d been to similar shows at our own little Planetarium in Armagh but this one was narrated by Whoopi Goldberg (always been a fan!) and the effects genuinely did make you feel like you were flying through the stars. Plus, by this point, anywhere we could sit down for a while and rest our poor, tired feet was going to be a winner.

The Hubble IMAX show, narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, was pretty interesting too – I learned a lot more about the Hubble Telescope than I ever knew before and I was pretty impressed by the quality of the images that it’s merrily snapping away up there.

We had lunch at the Museum too, at Café on One. I had thought that the Ulster Museum’s café was expensive, but this place took the biscuit. It was like $11 (about £7.50) for a minuscule panini and don’t even ask how much their teeny tiny drinks were. Also the staff were so rude. In fact all the staff we came across at the Museum were rude. I know New Yorkers are known for being very direct and having a dry wit, but I’m a little bolshie myself and I appreciate a good dose of sarcasm: these people weren’t like the other New Yorkers we came across on our visit – they were just plain rude.

Another AMNH-related pain in the arse was that they had closed off the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda in the afternoon, which meant we never got to see the big entrance or the Barosaurus skeleton. Yes, ok, we are big geeks and basically only wanted to see it because of Night at the Museum, but regardless of why we were interested, we weren’t getting anywhere near it. I could see people still moving around in there and explained to the guard that I just wanted to take a quick photo on the off-chance she would be nice and let us in quickly, but no. “From here only”, declared the brusque and glaring guard. I would have taken it personally but when we walked away I overheard the couple behind us also trying to enter getting the same treatment. Whatever. We didn’t even want to see it anyway. Meanie.

Our last stop at the AMNH was the Museum Shop, which had a lot of really cool things, many of which I wanted to buy and hardly any of which I could afford. Then it was time to force our tired feet to take us back on to the subway and back to Kmart to pick up those other few bits and pieces we wanted to buy. This time they had more sports merchandise and we each picked up a NY Rangers top for 25% off – a bargain and also very appropriate to our evening’s entertainment. We also bought the mandatory bags of Hersheys for our work colleagues and then headed back to the hotel.

On the way we stopped off at the next corner down from our hotel at a little place called Rosa’s Pizza (or perhaps Manhattan Heroes – it seems to have two names!) and grabbed a couple of slices of pizza. I had a vegetable one that was truly yummy and the Yorkshireman had a tomato one, which seemed to also contain a lot of garlic. I bought a bag of garlic knots to even things up in those stakes and also some mini cupcakes to take back to our room (all avenues must be explored in my pursuit of the best cupcakes in NYC – these were nice but not a contender).

A quick change and an even quicker rest later, it was already time to make our way to the event that the Yorkshireman had been looking forward to the most on our whole holiday: we were off to Madison Square Garden to see the New York Rangers play the Boston Bruins. For the uninitiated, it was an NHL ice-hockey game. The Yorkshireman has been into NHL since his teenage years and has forfeited many’s a good night’s sleep staying up into the wee small hours, keeping an eye on the puck and hoping the game might end with one team pulling their goalie. I’ve also been to a few Belfast Giants games in my time and must admit to enjoying the satisfying thud of a man being thrown up against the plexiglass, so we were both looking forward to the game.

It was a brilliant night. When we eventually figured out where the heck we were going (up about a billion escalators in case you were curious), we bought ourselves some Brooklyn Brewery Lager in solid plastic NY Rangers cups (we may have smuggled six of these home) and I ticked another item off my NY “bucket list” by purchasing my first jumbo soft pretzel. It was really yummy – like a big, salty bagel. While I was merrily sipping my beer and chewing my pretzel, the Yorkshireman mysteriously disappeared and came back a while later brandishing a giant foam hand. I love giant foam hands and may have commandeered it for most of the game. The Rangers sadly were not inspired by it though, as they lost 3-2, but it was still a great game. They also pulled the goalie for the last minute, much to the Yorkshireman’s delight.

Before we went back to the hotel we decided to check out Macy's Christmas windows again. Unfortunately we realised we’d left the camera back at the hotel (since zoom lenses weren’t allowed at the Rangers game) but we made an attempt at taking a few photos on our mobiles. We soon realised that the store was still open at 11pm, so I wanted to go in and have a look at their Christmas decorations. It was kind of like Christmas had exploded over the 8th Floor but I was happy as an elf pottering around in the red wonderland, deciding which decorations were pretty and which were fugly. The Yorkshireman and I bought a decoration each, as souvenirs for family, and I nearly had a stand-up row with a woman who blatantly bunked the queue we’d waited patiently in for twenty minutes (how rude!).

We finally got back to our hotel at around midnight and took the opportunity to venture up to the rooftop bar for a quick drink and to check out the view. As expected, the drink was expensive and the view was wonderful, especially of the Empire State Building. With that confirmed, and now feeling hungry, there was nothing for it but to order dinner online again. Another random choice based purely on where was still open and delivering to our area and on online reviews, we ended up ordering from a place called Famous Amadeus Pizza. The Yorkshireman had chicken and spaghetti in vodka sauce, which he thought was nice but very rich. Inspired by my experience earlier in the day, I ordered a slice of vegetable pizza, which would have been nice if they hadn’t covered it in canned mushrooms (eww!), and a cheesesteak hero with peppers and onions, which was nothing special but nice enough.

And so to bed. Only one full day left in the City!

Give my regards to Broadway - Day 6

Tuesday morning dawned and with it came the first anniversary of me and the Yorkshireman getting hitched. Our wedding day was of course a happy occasion but I must admit I was glad to be spending the day completely at leisure this time around, rather than worrying, stressing and rushing around. Instead we got up late-ish and wandered around the corner to the Malibu Diner again for breakfast. I had a bagel with cream cheese and grape jelly (I know it’s weird but it sort of tastes like cheesecake) and a salmon omelette, which came with their yummy potatoes. The Yorkshireman was slightly more successful at ordering breakfast-appropriate food than last time and he had a very enjoyable waffle with fruit salad and maple syrup. Stuffed once again (seriously, the portions in New York were immense) we set off uptown on the subway.

Our first stop was Rockefeller Center since we had planned to start our anniversary by ice-skating there. How romantic! How iconic! How... closed? Hmmm. I think we’d just missed a session, or perhaps the morning’s rain had temporarily closed the rink. Oh well, we thought, we can always come back later. So instead we made our way to a store the Yorkshireman had been chomping at the bit to visit: the Nintendo World Store.

My husband, bless him, is a bit of a geek and has an impressive (and, much to the detriment of the storage space in our tiny house, ever-increasing) collection of retro Nintendo systems and games. Y’know, NES, SNES, etc... or something. I was more of a Sega girl. Either way there was a whole store devoted to his passion so I figured he would enjoy it. I wasn’t wrong. He spent ages in the store, mesmerised by all the merchandise and the displays, while I showed a vague interest. I must admit I did take a shine to a T-shirt with Princess Peach on it, which said, “This princess saves herself!” Neither of us wanted to drag bags around for the rest of the day though, so the Yorkshireman eventually allowed himself to be torn away on the condition that we would return before we left New York.

Having satisfied the husband, it was time to satisfy the wife, and so we headed up Fifth Avenue. For those unfamiliar with Fifth Avenue, it’s one of those streets full of expensive stores selling luxury designer goods, much like Bond Street in London or the Champs-Élysées in Paris. I’m not really a material girl: I appreciate the beauty of some designer stuff but I could never bring myself to hand over so much money for something you could buy for about a tenth of the price on the High Street. However I had a New York-related burning ambition to fulfil and it involved Fifth Avenue.

Before we could get to realising said ambition, we both needed a restroom and I needed something to drink. We soon discovered that cafés and public restrooms are far from prevalent on 5th Avenue, but out of the blue we caught sight of a Starbucks sign from within a building. It turned out to be Trump Tower and also open to the public, so in we went. It was all very exquisitely decorated inside, almost to the point of being a little gaudy, but it’s hard not to be impressed with a water feature incorporated into an entire marble wall. Apprentice fan though I am, I declined to buy a Donald Trump tie in the lobby and we made our way back out on to the street. Then suddenly there it was, right next door. My ambition was about to be fulfilled.

The scene opens with a cab pulling up outside a sleek, expensive-looking building. A woman wearing a long black evening gown, a heavy pearl necklace and sunglasses steps out and looks up at the sign above the door. She walks over and spends some time looking in the windows while sipping a takeout coffee and eating a croissant.

I am, of course, talking about the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s:

Holly Golightly, the protagonist of the story, is famous for saying that nothing bad could ever happen at Tiffany’s and I was keen to find out whether the reputation was true.

Much like Holly herself, the Yorkshireman and I soon discovered that Tiffany's was a little out of our league, price-wise. Not that they advertise their prices; evidently if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. However it was my intention to leave that building carrying one of the famous Tiffany blue bags. Quelle dilemma! Eventually we settled on spending $30 on a very cute Christmas tree decoration: a little crystal snowman with the Tiffany's logo printed on the back. I can’t wait to put up our tree tomorrow so I can put it in pride of place. I also got my little blue bag to carry around so I was very happy.

Next it was back to the Rockefeller Center, where we discovered there was only about half an hour left of the current ice-skating session and the next one wouldn’t start until after we were supposed to be somewhere else – foiled again! And so to the Lego Store, which I loved. What’s not to love? There was a massive Lego dragon snaking around the roof of the store, a Lego replica of Rockefeller Plaza (featuring Stormtroopers and Pirates enjoying coffee by the ice-rink) and a huge pick ‘n mix style wall where you can fill up a little carton with any varieties and colours of Lego you can think of. I bought a little souvenir ‘I ♥ NY’ block for my desk at work.

Inner-children satisfied, we started off back towards Times Square. We called in to a few interesting stores on the way, including Godiva Chocolatier, Pylones and Magnolia Bakery. Having read many debates about which bakery sells the best cupcakes in Manhattan while planning for our trip, I was keen to try out one of the main competitors and so into Magnolia we went. I bought a vanilla cupcake and the Yorkshireman bought a creation called a magic cookie bar, which seemed to incorporate coconut, graham crackers, walnuts and chocolate chips. Both of them were absolutely delicious. The Yorkshireman even suggested that his cookie bar might surpass a Greggs Bavarian slice in the “nom” stakes – high praise indeed!

Sugar levels boosted, we made our way to the TKTS booth and joined the queue. The Yorkshireman and I have a shared interest in musicals and so a Broadway show or two was an absolute must on our New York “Bucket List”; and what better occasion to get all dolled up and take in a show than our wedding anniversary? Unfortunately standing in a queue to obtain the tickets is not the most romantic way to celebrate, but actually it only took about half an hour in all. We had originally wanted to see Avenue Q but it wasn’t listed on the red board (we later learned that Tuesday is their day off – sod’s law!) and so we had to make a spur of the moment decision about an alternative. Before long we were in possession of two Orchestra seats to see the highly-acclaimed Promises Promises that evening.

We were knackered by this point, so we headed back to our hotel to drop off our bags and get all spruced up for our night on the town. We firstly stopped by Chipotle near our hotel. It’s basically a Mexican version of Subway, where you can choose whatever you want in your burrito instead of in a sub. The Yorkshireman had chicken in his and I had steak and guacamole in mine. It was pretty nice and certainly very filling, but I think I would rather try an authentic, one-off Mexican restaurant next time, if only to avoid the stark décor and uncomfortable seats.

An hour or so later, dressed in our finery, we set off to find the Broadway theatre for Promises Promises. What should we find on the very same block as the theatre but Crumbs Bake Shop, another potential candidate for the ‘best cupcake in New York’. In the interests of fair comparison I thought it only right to purchase a Gobble Gobble cupcake (vanilla with sprinkles) for the interval and then we made our way into the theatre. The show itself was very good. To say that the plot involved multiple extra-marital affairs and a suicide attempt, it was fairly gentle, but quite funny in parts. Sean Hayes and Molly Shannon were fantastic. Kristin Chenoweth’s character grated on me but she acted it very well. My Gobble Gobble, however, was amazing. Sorry Magnolia but Crumbs definitely has the edge for me.

As if cupcakes weren’t enough, we had decided to end our big anniversary evening with the dessert and cheese buffet and a few drinks at the Marriott Marquis View Lounge. It’s basically a rotating restaurant on the 47th and 48th floors of a massive hotel in Times Square. I won’t go into details about their frustratingly confusing system of getting to the Lounge (although I will admit I may have startled a guest by loudly uttering the “F word” at one point) but eventually we settled ourselves in at a table by the window, looking out at the pouring rain we had squelched our way through to get there.

The views, in the dark and through the rain and cloud, weren’t spectacular but I quite enjoyed the novelty of a constantly changing view. I also quite enjoyed the buffet and very much enjoyed the rather strong Long Island Iced Teas I had. It was a nice experience but not one I would ever repeat, if only due to price. Between the cover charge, the buffet, two drinks each and the service charge, the bill came to over $120 – I nearly choked but then it was a special occasion and a bit of a one-off, so I shrugged it off and we attempted to leave. I say “attempted” because when we eventually managed to call the elevator via their stupid “type in the floor you want to go to” system, the doors opened and a rather surly member of staff told us we would just have to wait for the next one. How fecking rude! We’re paying your wages, bucko! About ten minutes later another elevator finally arrived – we were free!

And so back to the hotel we went, tired but happy and full of rich food. Overall it was a lovely anniversary, even though it sometimes didn’t go to plan. But then the whole holiday was really a celebration of our anniversary anyway and we were really looking forward to what we had planned the next day...

Friday, 3 December 2010

Journey's end lies over the Brooklyn Bridge - Day 5

We started our Monday in New York with a cheap but good breakfast at Austin’s Café again: another BLT and iced tea for the Yorkshireman and I had French toast with bacon and syrup and my new Manhattan drink of choice, a white chocolate mocha. Then it was off to the subway to make our way to High Street in Brooklyn for the start of our walk over the Brooklyn Bridge back to Manhattan.

I have to say, I really enjoyed the walk over the Brooklyn Bridge – the architecture of the Bridge itself is so interesting and the views were amazing, even though it was a little hazy that morning. After the requisite “look I’m on the Brooklyn Bridge!” photo and one of the Yorkshireman “holding up” the Empire State Building (yes, we are “those people”, sorry!), our Bridge walk was over all too soon and we found ourselves in downtown Manhattan.

The first stop on my list was Starbucks (sorry I’m an addict!) where I had a skinny white chocolate mocha (yes, another one) and a pumpkin and cream cheese muffin (so yummy) while the Yorkshireman had a scone (apparently less like our scones and more like a cupcake without frosting). Next, with the Yorkshireman itching to see all the photos he’d been taking on a bigger screen, we stopped into an electronics store to buy a memory card reader for like $3.99 + tax, which was a complete bargain.

Then suddenly we found ourselves walking past St Paul’s Chapel. Ever since it happened back in 2001, I’ve found myself tuning in to lots of the documentaries and movies made about what happened on 11th September. It’s a sort of sick fascination, partly because it’s interesting to see just how events unfolded throughout that day and also because you have to wonder just how zealous one would have to be to commit such an atrocity against fellow human beings.

While planning for our trip to New York, I’d read about St Paul’s Chapel and its moving tribute displays for the World Trade Center and so, feeling a bit like I was trespassing but still wanting to see what was there, we read the timeline outside (what happened when in relation to 11th September) and then went into the Chapel to look at the tribute displays. Having watched so many documentaries about what happened at the World Trade Center, I thought I had a good grasp on the horrific events of that day but somehow those displays of personal tributes really bring it home just how devastating it was on a human level.

I insisted on taking a few photos (I felt a bit insensitive but I figured the displays are there to be seen and shared so I don’t think it was wrong) and then we walked out into the Chapel’s churchyard. Straight ahead of us was the World Trade Center site itself. I knew it was very nearby but I hadn’t realised it was literally across the street, so the unexpectedness of seeing this massive construction site right in front of me, having just looked at all the tributes inside about the lives lost right there, made it all the more harrowing.

There were signs up around the construction site telling passersby to check out the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site, so we thought we would go and visit since it was just across the street anyway. I thought the plans for the Memorial Site were very interesting - I especially like the idea of the memorial pools on the sites of the two towers – but it was so strange to be in what is effectively a shop selling souvenirs and memorabilia about a tragedy. I didn’t really like it and we left before too long.

Sad part of the day over, we decided to stretch our nerves even further and so off we went to Century 21 Department Store. It seemed like a bigger, slightly posher version of TK Maxx (or TJ Maxx as it is in the USA) and it was a little overwhelming, with stuff everywhere, but some of the stuff was admittedly very cute. Unfortunately I had hardly any spending money so the cute stuff remained unpurchased and we found our way gratefully back on to the street.

We wandered around looking for somewhere nice for lunch but the noodle bars and markets we passed weren’t really inspiring the Yorkshireman’s appetite, so we actually ended up in Subway of all places. I have to say, I think our Subway sandwiches are actually better than these ones were – I couldn’t even finish my Meatball Marinara and usually I’m a big fan of the balls o’ meat!

Mediocre lunch over, we decided to walk uptown along Broadway a little. We did a bit of window shopping en route but it was all a little expensive for us, especially in Soho, so we bought nothing. We were pretty tired from all the walking we’d done on our trip so far and our legs finally gave up at Prince Street, where we gratefully jumped on the subway up to 34th Street. When we got there, we had a quick look at Macy’s Christmas tree and their holiday windows and vowed to come back and take a few photos later in the week. I’ve always loved Miracle on 34th Street, so the big “Believe” sign and the “Believe-meter” underneath the tree made me feel like shouting “I believe in Santa Claus!” repeatedly. I didn’t though. Just thought I should clear that up.

Before we left Belfast, requests had been made from family and friends for specific types of American confectionery and, in the absence of a Walmart in Manhattan, our next stop was Kmart. We spent some time checking out their NY sports teams stuff (Yankees, Giants, Rangers, etc) and then it was down to the bottom floor to gawk at all their Christmas stuff and buy some of the aforementioned confectionery. I ended up buying a NY Rangers scarf and some Twinkies (which we’d never tried before – they taste horrifyingly unnatural but strangely nice) and we decided to come back for some more stuff another time.

It was quite late by then and we were exhausted so we decided to head back to our room to watch some late night TV and order dinner online again. We also took an urge for some wine and so wandered the streets trying to find a liquor store that was open. Eventually, after buying some lovely fruit salads in Whole Foods but still not finding any wine, we gave up and went back to the hotel to do a Google search. We quickly revealed that there was in fact one on the street behind us, where we had been looking in the couple of streets on the other side of our hotel - oops. We dragged our tired feet back out, obtained a couple of bottles of wine and were told by the cashier at the liquor store that they deliver (what an amazing idea!). Then we returned to our room to search online for dinner.

This time we originally tried to order from Grubhub but it wouldn’t accept a British postcode in the zipcode field and nothing else we tried worked, so we ended up back at SeamlessWeb and ordered from the Hollywood Diner. The portions we received were absolutely huge and you get a choice of soup or salad with your main meal, which made it even bigger! The Yorkshireman had chicken noodle soup and chicken pasta primavera, which he enjoyed so much that he retrospectively “deducted a point” from the pasta primavera he’d had the night before. I had a chilli burger that was delicious (and which I dropped on the crisp white bedding – oops!) and I’d also ordered a slice of strawberry shortcake for us to share for dessert, since I’d never had it before. Turns out I had had it before, since it’s basically strawberry gateaux, but it was yummy anyway. The wine was also delicious.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning - Day 4

While we were in New York, I wanted to spend Sunday morning the way I had always imagined that a real New Yorker would. However we don’t really read the Sunday papers and it seemed like a lot of hassle going out for a Starbucks, bagels and lox to bring back to our hotel room, so we went for another seemingly-native alternative.

We slept in a little and then headed off to Chelsea Market to start off our day. Everything looked and smelled absolutely delicious. There were cupcakes and cookies and bagels and flatbreads and all sorts of wonderful things. The Yorkshireman, although he thought it was very cool, decided to forego buying a cupcake where the top had been frosted to look like a Teenage Mutant Hero Turtle and just made do with snapping a photo of it through the window. I bought a Christmas tree decoration in the shape of black and red shoes, which I thought were the cutest out of a whole range of cute decorations a store had on display. Although we were tempted by all the yummy-looking baked goods, we decided not to indulge, as we were planning to do another typically New York Sunday morning thing next: brunch!

We ended up at a little place across the street from the Market called Zemi. We arrived a little too early for the chef (who hadn’t clocked in yet) but were happy enough to consider the menu and watch a Chelsea match on TV whilst making conversation with the Arsenal-supporting waiter.

Eventually, when the chef had arrived, we ordered lychee belinis and some truly scrumptious food. The Yorkshireman had a waffle with a side of toast and bacon, while I had the yummiest breakfast I think I’ve ever had, which took the form of a bagel with cream cheese and grape jelly to start with and then brioche French toast with stewed apple and caramel sauce. Between the champagne and the deliciously rich food, I left stuffed to the brim but in a state of floaty happiness.

With the weight of brunch on our stomachs we headed across to check out the High Line, which is a park they’ve built on an old, converted elevated railway line. To be honest I wasn’t greatly impressed. For one thing, only part of it is currently open to the public and what was there, whilst architecturally cool, was a bit barren-looking, as all the plants appeared to be dead due to winter.

A little underwhelmed, we then walked up the Hudson Greenway to check out the piers. It was another beautiful day but it was a longer walk than anticipated and we were glad when we finally reached the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum to look at the USS Intrepid and the Concorde they have on display. We didn’t pay in to the Museum, just gawked at it from outside. Then it was another walk towards Broadway to get the subway to the main activity of what had become known in its itinerary-planning stages as “Camp Day.”

The Plaza Hotel was the meeting point for the start of the Sex and the City Tour. If you’re not a fan of the show, you’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking “oh how sad”, but I don’t care what anyone else thinks. I had booked the SATC Tour months in advance because I absolutely loved the show and the first movie (the second one was so-so), so I really wanted to see the locations they filmed at.

They pointed out loads of locations from the show, from the Plaza Hotel (“your girl is lovely, Hubbell”), to the NY Public Library (where Big stood Carrie up at the altar), to the alleyway where Carrie was mugged (“somebody stole my strappy sandals!”). We also had a few stop-off points, including the Pleasure Chest (where the girls bought their Rabbits), Buddakan (venue of Carrie and Big’s rehearsal dinner), Bleecker Street for some shopping and a delicious cupcake in Bleecker Playground across from Magnolia Bakery (à la Carrie and Miranda during their “crush” talk) and Onieals Bar (which they used as Steve and Aiden’s bar, Scout, in the show). We may have also used the “shopping” time on Bleecker Street to quickly nip down Perry Street and take a few photos of the house they used as the front of Carrie’s house in the show (a bit naughty since it’s a private residence but I wasn’t breaking any laws, so tough!).

Another exciting thing that happened was that apparently while we were in the Pleasure Chest (or in the Yorkshireman’s and my case, in the market across the street buying snacks), Sarah Jessica Parker herself appeared at the corner of the street with hubby Matthew Broderick and their son and they all jumped into a cab. Very cool but apparently not entirely unexpected since they live on the next street. Still very fitting given the theme of our tour though!

I had a brilliant time. The Yorkshireman has had to suffer through the box sets of SATC several times and so has an unwilling but decent knowledge of the plots, people and places in the show. I’m not sure he got quite as much out of the tour as I did but even he conceded that bits of it were good (perhaps mainly the cupcake and seeing the city on a comfy coach instead of on our now-tired feet).

The tour finished at Bryant Park and we took the subway back to the hotel to figure out our plans for the evening. I had decreed that the perfect way to end “Camp Day” would be to go to a piano bar or cabaret show but we hadn’t yet figured out which one. After utilising a bit of Googlefu, we eventually decided to check out Duplex Piano Bar in Greenwich Village and to grab some Italian food on the way in a little pizza place near Duplex called Francesco Pizzeria.

It was a tiny little neighbourhood pizzeria and their only sit-in facilities were a few tables and chairs by the door, but having looked at their extensive menu online we figured we’d stick around. I ordered cheesy garlic bread and a Hawaiian pizza pie, while the Yorkshireman went for pasta primavera. The garlic bread was really yummy and the Yorkshireman thought his pasta was nice enough, but I found the pizza a little lacking in sauce and very heavy on the cheese, so I could only manage about half.

Oozing garlic and cheese from my pores, we walked over to Duplex where we settled ourselves in at the bar for a brilliant evening’s entertainment by John (on the piano), Shanna (singing and waitressing) and Poppi (behind the bar). I had some delicious Long Island Iced Teas, made just the way I like them (with Diet Coke rather than regular – I can’t stand “fat Coke”). I had an awesome time, singing along to the music, laughing at Shanna’s jokes and chatting to the Yorkshireman. I was sad to leave but inevitably, with our dwindling supply of spending money in mind, we had to.

We made our way to the subway but when we got there a train was in the station and apparently, due to “a delay” of some sort, it wasn’t going anywhere soon. A drunk guy seemed angry that I couldn’t answer his question of how long it would be and everyone else just looked fed up and resigned to a long wait, so we decided to go back above ground and (literally) try our hand at hailing a cab.

I had never hailed a cab before in my life but I’d read that confidence was the name of the game – hold your arm up, out and proud! So, standing on a corner and seeing a cab with a light on about to turn left (when we wanted to go right), I stuck out my hand, channelling SJP and trying to look like I did this all the time, and to my surprise, the driver did a big u-turn and came to pick us up! I was so pleased with myself, plus we were back at the hotel in about five minutes. A quick and brilliant ending to a long but wonderful day.