On being African, this December

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Nelson Mandela’s death has touched so many people across the world this December of 2013. It has reminded people of that moment in South Africa’s history when the future was a rainbow – symbolic to those of us there not just of a new interracial land, but of hope itself.

In 1990 I was, like my homeland, on the cusp of something new. I was about to become a teenager and was witnessing consciously for the first time a profound shift (the change from toddler to child was marked by a similar change – then, living in Zimbabwe, it was a similar message of hope, but one I was too young to comprehend). I now live in yet another country, a choice made for many reasons, but not because I had lost that hope that we all saw as Apartheid crumbled. There are plenty of South Africans (and Zimbabweans) who have lost hope in their motherland, and who have chosen a new life in a new place for a multitude of reasons, some wrought from fear, some from despair. An English husband, a good job, a lovely home, and many other great things keep me here, although I wasn’t intending to stay for more than a year. But a corner of my consciousness is always slightly distant – a stranger to my everyday existence.

This week, it was expressed most profoundly for me in the sight of one thing: in amongst the many shots of Qunu and the Eastern Cape, my home for more years than than other place, was one of a hillside dotted with aloes, and then, a lingering shot of one aloe, standing as if a sentry at Madiba’s gravesite. I was moved many times in the last two weeks by the footage of the man, memories of him coming to my home town on more than one occasion – once I waited on a hillside with student friends, joining the screams and ululations as he passed; once, before he was president, shaking his hand, cool and dry. But it was the aloe that broke me. Spiky, indifferent to the heat, proudly growing, often amidst the dust and thorns of a barren hillside, the aloe bursts into life in Spring to show a flame of colour visible from miles away.

Sometimes I feel like I’ve been transplanted. Instead of dry, sandy soil, the blasting heat of a berg wind coming down across the Karoo, I am waterlogged, dazzled by endless green, the horizon brought close by the gentle curves of hills, neatly segmented by hedgerows. There are no deep dongas from the last rainfall of endless views, barely punctuated by a spindly, rusted fence. But perhaps I should look to the aloe, and stand proud and blazing red against the greens and greys of my daily existence, and remember:

I am an African.

Even here, even with my pallid skin and Celtic hair, to look at me you might not know, but my heart burns with the heat of my homeland, and I am an African wherever I live.

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West End Girls

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A couple of nights ago, a friend and I hit the West End of London to enjoy the Christmassy vibe and, certainly on my part, remind myself that you don’t always need to travel far to be a tourist.

I popped up at Charing Cross station and walked my way over to Covent Garden.  I forget, sometimes, how different the West End is to the rest of London – while we carry on our businesslike existence, tromping streets to and from work (and occasionally the pub), doing our grocery shopping and scurrying along with our heads down.  The West End is different.  This is what the tourists see when they visit London – bright, trendy shop windows, uber cool markets, excited people with their head’s up and shoulders down.  This time of year it’s particularly glammorous with the swathes of Christmas lights sparkling above everyone’s heads, giant Christmas trees towering in squares and carols tinkling and blaring in equal measure.

We had dinner at Bill’s, between Covent Garden and Leicester Square, surrounded by towering shelves of jams, chutneys, home-made lemonades and ginger-bread women wearing happy smiles and patterned aprons.  Bill’s has the feel of a once-off deli/restaurant, which is impressive for a place which has become part of a brand in its own right.  You could be in a cozy Cotswold village, or an Italian square, just as easily as in the hustle and bustle of London.

But if I were to recommend one thing to do in the West End this Christmas, I would recommend going to see Dickens Abridged.  Many years ago I went to see The Reduced Shakespeare Company performing the Complete works of Shakespeare (forwards and backwards, in some cases) and remember laughing so hard I was worried that I’d ruptured my spleen.  13 years later, Dickens Abridged is the work of (dare I say it?) a more mature group of players – and I call them players for a reason.  Much like the Elizabethan players who travelled around entertaining crowds with their performances, The Reduced Shakespeare Company, lead by Adam Long, don’t just act: there are fast costume changes from a limited wardrobe, clever props, brilliant performances on musical instruments and, above all, wit.  It was extremely funny, fast-paced and so very clever – the bluegrass-style Dickens vs California ‘mash-up’ (as Long calls it) is actually quite breath-taking.  But more than the laugh-out-loud and nudge-your-neighbour hilarity, I enjoyed the light and shade their performance brings – there were moments of unutterably poignancy in between – this is why I thought Dickens Abridged was so exceptional.  You skate along on the aching-sides of laughter until you’re brought short abruptly, your emotions played like the fiddle so ably wielded in the performance itself. 

If you’re in London and do nothing else this Christmas, avoid the twee Christmas specials and go and see this play: your gift to yourself.

Chicago, Chicago – my kinda town

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Chicago – our final stop in our two-week adventure – is totally different in atmosphere to New York. Yes, it’s a busy city, with tall skyscrapers and plenty of commerce; but it is a city that bustles along politely, without the frenetic and oftentimes aggressive pace of New York. The streets are cleaner, the air seems clearer and the horizon wider.

We arrived under the deep blue sky of a perfect Fall afternoon and so our first sight of the city was one of low, golden light under a cathedral-dome of immense proportions. Travelling above the sidewalks and streets on the ‘L’ gives an almost surreal taste to entering the city, distant and yet immediate, as we shot out to Andersonville, our home for the next few days. There, just a short train ride away from the vertical heartland of Downtown Chicago, is a neighbourhood characterised by old homes, tree-lined avenues and pretty front gardens (some already decorated with pumpkins, ghosts and spooky graves for Halloween). Our friends’ apartment is the ground floor of what looks like a converted house and has the most exquisite wooden floors, dark wooden shelves, lintels and display-cases – original features which, coupled with the deep bay window, give an air of gracious welcome. It felt like coming home.

This old-fashioned elegance is a characteristic of the city, even when juxtapositioned with the sharp, clean lines of the downtown buildings. Despite wracking coughs, streaming noses and shivering from a biting breeze, the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s boat cruise was easily one of the highlights of our US trip. The guide – a volunteer who begged us to support our local architecture society or group rather than tip him – was informative in the most interesting way possible: no weary droning for him, but a light, funny, and above all passionate explanation of how Chicago’s justly famed skyline came to be built. From sweeping modernist curves, tracing the waterline, to the brutalist giants of Mies van der Rohe and his acolytes, aged Art Deco wonders to the echo Deco of the most recent soaring towers, which speak back to where it all started: the careful planning and architectural experimentation of the decades following the Great Fire of a Chicago in 1871.

Even the two museums we visited were architectural giants (like in New York’s Met, we spent many more hours in both than we had planned because they were just so phenomenal – captured u-boats and boeings contrasting with a huge, nearly complete Tyrannosaurus Rex; real “asflownbyNASA” space suits competing with beaded and feathered examples of Native American dress; the plunging darkness of an Illinios coal-mine with the light-white of the man-eating lions of Tsavo … And of course more than one trip to the souvenir-creating “mold-o-ramas”!). the Museum of Science and Industry is a relic from the 1893 World’s Fair and suggests by its sprawling prescience the sheer immensity of that occasion. The Field Museum, located on the parklands of Museum Campus alongside the Planetarium, could have been transposed from Paris or London quite easily.

Continuing the theme, Chicago is, of course, one of the homes of Frank Lloyd Wright and the FLW Home and Studio in Oak Park is jaw-dropping example of his work, especially when you consider that he was building the house over a hundred years ago! The vaulted ceilings, built-in storage, angular Art Deco lamps, use of light and space are quite literally worth marvelling over and we experienced a tour only surpassed in enthusiasm by that we were treated to in Ernest Hemmingway’s Birthplace, just around the corner. Honestly, I can say that our day out in Oak Park was both enlightening and enjoyable, and was definitely worth the trip.

Alas, though, our time in the States was ending almost, it felt, before it had even started. An advantage of staying with locals is the little treats they bestow upon one. In our case, our stay in Chicago ended on a crescendo: our friends treated us to a drink in the swish and snazzy Signature Lounge on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Centre. Below us, like an inverted milky-way, shone the lights of building after building, layering up into the real sky in steps – the Trump Tower and the Willis Tower meeting our gaze across the city. Although the favoured view from there is up Lakeshore Drive, showing the tidy grid of the city extending along the plain, I think it’s much better to scan from the water and Navy Pier to the dizzy heights of Lady Chicago’s tallest beaus. The story of the city is, after all, right there in its heart.

Chicago: I have been before; I hope I will again visit this golden nugget in the wide mid-western crown of this amazing continent.

Niagara and the Finger Lakes

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I am a country mouse, not a town mouse, and the honest truth is that I was pleased to say goodbye to the noise and bustle of New York City. It was a wonderful visit, but exhausting, and the sight of the green countryside and blue water of Lake Ontario was refreshing.

We stayed in the most amazing BnB in Niagara Falls – Hillcrest Inn – decorated in French country style and probably the most welcoming place I’ve ever stayed. We set off to the Niagara State Park – the oldest state park in America, we were told – and really had such a fun afternoon! We did the Maid in the Mist boat cruise, looking smurf-like in our blue ponchos and enjoying the massive spray from the Horseshoe Falls. It would have been good to see them from the Canadian side, but without a Visa, I couldn’t get there, so we looked up at them from the boat and down at them from the lookout point on Goat Island, as well as admiring the American Falls. But the best fun ever was doing the Cave of the winds tour, which we almost didn’t do because we were feeling tired, but certainly felt invigorated afterwards. There, they give you long yellow ponchos and sandals, but even after rolling our jeans up and tying down our poncho hoods, we were very wet afterwards. The main thing is to do the Hurricane Deck, where you stand directly under the Bridal Veil falls. The buffeting you receive is unbelievable and I screamed my head off while standing there. It was Great! I had such a huge smile on my face for the rest of the afternoon.

In the evening we drove over to Grand Island to find The Riverstone Grill. As seen on the tv programme Man vs Food, we thought it would be something different, and it certainly was. We got the “small” steaks – weighing in at 18 ounces (over half a kilogramme). But the guy next to us, on a night out from Buffalo City, was a real man and got the legendary Bone in the Stone. This cut of beef is usually anywhere between 36 and 50 ounces, and comes with huge piles of potato fries and maple drenched sweet potato fries. He didn’t finish it, to be fair, but he made a solid dent in it (but then, it looked as if he’d had some practice eating large meals!)

We then headed out to the Finger Lakes, watching the leaves get more golden as we drove, and ended up at one of the most beautiful places you could ever imagine. On a flight from Greece to London a little while ago, I met a lovely couple from New York, and when we met up with them in the city, they invited us to pop in to her Dad’s place on Seneca Lake’s western shore. And so we arrived at a gorgeous double-storey wooden house overlooking the lake, with rolling lawns and views of the trellis railway bridge behind; all three were kind and welcoming. We saw around the house, had a drink on the porch, and a tour of the grounds before seeing around Glenora’s wooden jetties and homes backing onto glens and a waterfall. They then took us to Atwater Winery for a tasting. I’m not sure what I enjoyed more: the view of the lake from the tasting room balcony (we could see our friend’s house) or the delightful tasting, guided by knowledgable Patrick. I particularly liked the sparkling white, but the Cabernet Franc got thumbs up from O Husbandly One. Our new friends really made a super day even better – it was so special to be shown around by locals who knew lots about the area and were clearly very proud to be connected to the neighbourhood. I can totally see why their Dad retired out here and even though he’s in his nineties, doesn’t want to move. It’s a breathtaking part of the world.

We said a sad goodbye at Watkins Glen and we went off to hike up the 800+ steps through tunnels and over bridges past the 19 waterfalls. I think we must have taken over 100 pictures, trying to capture the tumbling water and autumnal tones of the trees, but really, nothing can capture what it’s like – all the photos seem dull in comparison to what we saw.

The Antlers in Ithaca was our dinner venue that night – clearly full of parents with Cornell Freshmen and we were lucky to get a table. Lobster bisque, rib steak and baby back pork ribs were just delicious, and I was certainly sad that I didn’t have space for dessert. Aside from the tender ribs, it was a relief to escape for a while from what could easily have been called Bates Motel Ithaca – the suspicious red stain on the carpet and clear “no soliciting” sign on the door was off-putting to say the least!

We did a mouth-open drive through Cornell on our way out of Ithaca – Ivy League money clearly in evidence – and spent the rest of the day in Taughannock Falls state park. Taughannock puts the gorgeous into gorge. Created by post-glacial erosion, a walk up along the river shows spectacular limestone weathered chemically to form cracks, pits, and layered cliff-faces stretching 400 feet up. With its 215 foot drop Taughannock Falls is 33 feet higher than a Niagara Falls and truly lovely, framed by golden and red maples.

We drove past Critter Run Road on our way out to Ithaca, and were finally rewarded with more than road kill: some real-life critters! A cute chipmunk chirruped and chattered in the forest, squirrels jumped and scrunched on acorns, and we were rewarded with the sight of a deer calmly munching on someone’s lawn as the sun set over Trumansburg. While I’m sure it must be tough to live out here in winter (beware of snowmobiles signs notwithstanding!), it has seemed idyllic in the couple of days we have been here. Whether living on Critter Run Road, Podunk Road or Swamp College Road, huge properties, rolling lawns and massive trees, currently decked out in their warm tones, make this part of the world a very attractive proposition.

Besides, it’s about time we moved house again!

A Short Note on a Long Visit to the Met

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We thought we would pop into the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a quick visit. An hour and a half or two hours, we would be out of there. Five hours later, sore feet and sore backs, bloodshot eyes and reeling with exhaustion, we decided to call it quits, having seen about a quarter of what was on offer. We started in the Hellenic period looking at beautiful marble and golden jewellery and then moved on to Ancient Egypt. It is utterly incredible what the Met has in its collections, whole temples, many mummies, hundreds of artefacts. I was initially a bit uncomfortable with the sheer mass of what looked remarkably like plunder, but felt better when we discovered the millions the Met gave to Egypt to save thousands of treasures from destruction when the Aswan dam was extended.

From there was detoured through armour (from Europe to Japan – incredible watered steel and burnished helms), into the American wing. From our perspective, this was the most interesting area. We saw original furniture, from polished mahogany and glittering chandeliers to plain shaker wooden chairs, sweeping staircases, Vanderbilt’s library, a Frank Lloyd Wright home and so much more in the glass-fronted storage room. But best of all was the collections of Tiffany glassware, lamps, and stained-glass windows, all perfectly backlit. Honestly, I stood looking at it and thought that I’d reached the pinnacle of my experience at the Met.

Until we went upstairs yo the a Impressionists.

Degas, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gough, Degas, Picasso, Cezanne, Degas, Matisse, Seurat, Degas, Manet, Monet….. There really is nothing I can say, except that coming one after each other, circling through the rooms leading in and out, seeing the canvasses building into a crescendo of brush-strokes was amazing in the most original sense of the word. Stunned and struck dumb, especially by the enormous collection of Degas statues which I didn’t even know existed, I ended up sitting in front of Monet’s water lilies in a moment of peace and clarity in an increasingly blurry world.

What a place!

Boom Boom Broadway

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New York nightlife – bigger, better, brasher? Whatever adjective you use to describe it, one thing is for sure, there is something for everyone.

We ate at fantastic bistros – Cafe Cluny in Greenwich Village was hard to find for tourists used to the grid pattern of the rest of the city, but had amazing food. Packed with locals, and turning tables over as soon as they became free, I was impressed with their stellar service and superb New York strip steak and frites. I’ve already mentioned Vin Sur Vingt – also in the West Village – but perhaps skated over what makes this a special night out. Low-key on the outside, inside is exquisitely tiny, a slender room with a little row of booths down one side, and stools at the bar fiend the other. Properly French, not a fake façade (even the people in there were trendy New York immigrants speaking French), the selection of wines is excellent and the food, although a limited menu, equally good. Mmmm. The Creme caramel will remain amongst the best desserts we have ever eaten, anywhere in the world.

For an experience unrivalled by anywhere I’ve been, certainly, we booked a table for sundowners at The Top of the Standard. A hotel towering above the Highline, The Standard’s eighteenth-floor bar is spectacular! Known also as the Boom Boom Room, you can see why: the hostesses in their barely-there gold dresses, expensive cocktails and designer snacks (kale crisps, anyone? Or would you rather have the caviar?) are perfect accompaniments to the sun setting over New Jersey, the pinks reflecting on the towers of glass in Lower Manhattan. As the sky grows darker, you have views over the whole of New York – even in the bathrooms, where you can look out over Midtown from the comfort of your toilet seat. The bar itself is overshadowed by great golden colonnades reaching to the ceiling, and too-cool-for-school jazz wafting over the patrons as they try to snap photos (strictly not allowed) of the views. It was certainly too cool for me, as I managed to knock over my (luckily nearly empty) glass of wine. No City slicker am I!

As our finale to New York, we did Broadway. A long-time aficionado of the West End, I wasn’t disappointed. We went to see Wicked and I’m glad we chose that particular show. I think it is, in many ways, an embodiment of American showmanship and played on American humour. I’d be curious to see how this translates to the London show. Glinda was brilliant, using her voice not just for singing, but for twisting words to irony, and her physicality played perfectly into the role. Elphaba was, like her golden friend, a spectacular singer (naturally), using her voice incredibly emotively. What I loved was the commentary the story makes on society and on the nature of good and evil (sadly something we struggled to communicate to the man from Minnesota sitting next to us). Ultimately, though, it was a very moving production and I can see why Mrs Minnesota had been four times: I defy anyone not to leave with goosebumps and a little lump in their throats.

We walked home via a Times Square – a heaving, horrible mass of humanity basking in the rays of thousands of lights. Too much for me, thank you – I’d rather have a quiet glass of wine somewhere where only a few people can gather.

On Brooklyn

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New York is not Manhattan, as much as London is not the Square Mile of the city and the West End. So, we took the subway out to Brooklyn to see what we could find.

We emerged at Grand Army Plaza, hungry and ready for some breakfast. We have had some really good food at the type of diner which would be called a ‘Greasy Spoon’ in the UK, and we staggered into the closest one for a Lumberjack Special. Frankly, I’m not sure why we did it – our track record with American portions has pretty much been plate-of-food 1, us 0. But we ordered and soon had in front of us juice and coffee while our breakfast was cooked to order. When it arrived, I was worried the china plate would crack in two under the weight of it all: 3 huuuuge, fluffy pancakes bigger than my face, slice upon slice of ham, crispy bacon, sausage and two eggs – over easy for me, sunny side up for the Hungry Husband. Dripping with maple syrup, this was indeed the type of breakfast only a lumberjack could digest!

In a vein attempt to work off about 10,000 calories, we walked along through Grand Army Plaza into Prospect Park. The plaza itself is oddly European, the grand arch and statues reminding us of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. The park was quite pretty with little arches and swathes of green filled with tiny tots and their moms – one set running after the other, leaves starting to crunch between their feet.

We walked down Flatbush to the Barclay centre, home of the Nets basketball team, and mostly felt like we could have been anywhere in the world. Large cities (and Brooklyn is one in its own right, even without the rest of the New York City megalopolis) seem to have a generic flavour in many ways – shops, street vendors, traffic, people.

Brooklyn Borough Hall was, however, a very pretty moment of Gothic revival architecture in the middle of a generic mass of buildings. Nearby, we saw a little boy holding a certificate with gold lettering which seemed to be a record of citizenship. A few people were posing for pictures, bursting with pride. Although America’s immigration policies are notoriously tough these days, that was a reminder to me of how this country was built, right here in New York, for generations of people.

The main event for us, though, was the walk along Brooklyn Bridge. The wide arches of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges are as much a part of New York as any skyscraper. Certainly, it’s what binds Brooklyn to Manhattan: a short walk from Brooklyn to Manhattan over the famous bridge shows up the financial district in all its glittering glory. Brooklyn Bridge is an amazing feat of technology, particularly for its time, and I suppose we can forget what these bridges – Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, Queensboro – have meant for the greater city of New York.

Looking back, looking forward, upriver and downriver, you cannot help but be awed by the immensity of this man-made creation: New York City, in the Empire State.

Art and Architecture

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With the promise of rain, we walked up Fifth Avenue (coffees in hand like our American friends) and gawped up at the Empire State Building. It doesn’t look as impressive from below as it does from far away, but I still like the design of it.

After that, we made an astonishing discovery. For some reason, nobody had said to go into the New York Public Library. We decide to walk past on our way up to the Chrysler Building and the library was so beautiful on the outside that we decided to try and go in. It was even more stunning inside: chandeliers, painted ceilings, gorgeous wooden desks, soaring stairs and – of course – miles of shelving containing beautiful, beautiful books! I felt so moved by the elegance of it all – what a way to inspire a love of reading and a love of learning!

Another building we worth a visit is Grand Central Terminal. They don’t make stations like this anymore, and it felt like an iconic moment standing inside the main concourse admiring the eloquent arches and star-spangled ceiling. How many bustling commuters, I wonder, stop to admire this amazing tribute to the great age of train travel?

The Chrysler Building is probably one do my favourites. A monument to Art Deco design, it must have been even more staggering to look at when it soared above the skyline so briefly before the Empire State Building overtook it. Certainly, it outstrips the ugly, monolithic block of the United Nations building, which was next on our list (and where I could admire the Zimbabwean flag, flapping in the breeze, as soon as we rounded the corner to the UN – an irony in itself).

Torrential rain left us scurrying to the subway to go uptown to the Guggenheim – which has an architecture totally unlike the solid squares and rectangles of Midtown and Lower Manhattan. The Guggenheim’s curves reminded me of a giant snail, crawling along Museum Mile with its precious cargo. Sadly, the famous ramps were closed, but we started with Robert Motherwell’s early collages. More my scene was an exhibition of Kandinsky. I’ve always had an appreciation for Kandinsky, but (as is so often the case when you see original art, rather than prints), the colours on the canvas were truly luminous and there is just no way to imagine the texture without being able to see it close. Love it! But even better was the collection of Renoir, Cezanne, Degas, Manet, Monet (my favourite artist), Pissarro and some beautiful early Picasso. Breathtaking!

We rounded off the afternoon with the Rockefeller Centre and Radio City Music Hall, viewed from behind sheets of falling water, a total contrast to the dazzling sunlight and deep blue skies of the following day, spent cruising round Manhattan on the Circle Line. Definitely worth it, this boat trip allows you to see Manhattan arguably from its best vantage point. The skyscrapers are so much more impressive from afar as their height becomes relative against the rest of the famous skyline.

More surprisingly beautiful architecture can be seen on Ellis Island. Graceful and, I would even argue, colonial in style, Ellis Island would have been a lovely trip if the Federal Government hadn’t got in the way. Lady Liberty was, funnily enough, smaller than I had expected, but still one of those monuments to Americanness if ever there was one. The symbolism of both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty cannot be denied, although, turning round to face Manhattan this larger island has its own comment on Americanness: this time modern (and even post-modern) America more so than the one of empire. One World Trade centre dominates this cluster of impressive skyscrapers already, and it’s mirrored twisting is, I think, a beautiful memorial to 9/11. When Two and Three are built, the archetypal Manhattan skyline will, once again, shift into a new era.

For many people, New York is the concrete and glass giants of Manhattan, but for me the best of the buildings are those looking down at the city from the Art Deco era. Often you will glance up and be surprised by a facade of gorgeous geometric design, by shell-like curves as a medium-sized city block creeps upwards, or by a pyramid of angles ten storeys up. These are the unsung heroes of New York’s architecture, bringing a touch of art to this solid and unrelenting city.

Giants in the Sky

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An American tradition, familiar to anyone who has ever watched films or a TV, is the Big Game. For us, it was New York Giants vs Philadelphia Eagles.

We were warned it would take up the entire day, but I had no idea. We left the apartment not long after 10 and walked to the Port Authority bus terminal, found some Irish chaps who we’re wearing blue Giants jerseys, followed them around, and got our tickets on the Meadowlands Express to the MetLife stadium. We went early. I was worried about traffic and queues (know as “lines” in Amerenglish). We got there in record time. I was then worried about how we would amuse ourselves until 1pm kickoff. I needn’t have worried at all. On arrival we wandered through the amazing tailgate parties – now THAT’s how to party! Hundreds of people barbecuing enormous T-bone steaks, playing games, drinking and partying in the parking lot.

Then, suddenly, there was a beating and hammering above the blasting stereo music as each group of people huddled around their trucks and cars competed with each other for the best tunes: the G-Line! The Giants line-drummers are pretty special. The complexity of the different beats winding up and around one another was as primal as the game we were about to watch.

Armed with cheese-steak sandwiches we climbed to the top of the stadium where we watched the match from the sky. Quite literally, we sat with our heads in the clouds, donning raincoats against the misty droplets as we gazed down at the field. I was struck by the genial atmosphere – although most of the fans were Giants supporters, the occasional Eagle sat amongst them in the eyries of the stadium, and there didn’t seem to be any tension or antagonism. Genial teasing was definitely in evidence (mostly at the Giants’ expense as they lost the game), but it was cheerful and good natured.

So, what did I learn about the game of American football? Yes, it is physical, brutal, even. But unlike rugby, the intensity comes in between long pauses. It is a stop-start game, but when it starts you could almost hear the bones crunching from a mile away (or up, in my case). I also discovered that the game does turn on the performance of the quarterback in a way I hadn’t understood from the iconic football films I’ve seen. I also found out that impossibly good-looking American guys do high five each other in between swilling beer … But only when their team is winning. If you’re far down in the last quarter, your fans will simply go home.

Although that could be because if you don’t, you get stuck in a gridlock trying to get into the Lincoln Tunnel on your way back yo Manhattan.

But another thing I learnt? However tired you are, however damp from sitting with your head in the clouds all afternoon, however weary of lines and traffic and crowded public transport, there’s nothing Jimmy’s BBQ ribs can’t fix. As they say over here, aaawesome day out.

High fives to us.

New York, New York

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They say London isn’t so much a city as a collection of villages. New York – such as I’ve seen, so far – is much the same.

A transatlantic flight is not much fun, especially in economy class, especially seated next to a woman with very sharp elbows and no sense of personal space. Needless to say, the only possible way to survive is to be grateful it’s not a direct flight to Australia, hence only 7 or so hours, and to watch The Great Gatsby – now showing on a tiny, pixelated cinema screen near you. Even nearer if the person in front of you suddenly lunges their seat back.

Our first experience of this great city was, erm, interesting to say the least. Assuming navigating the subway into Manhattan might be beyond our powers at midnight NY time (5am UK time), we staggered into a shuttle bus for our prebooked airport hotel, congratulating ourselves on our foresight and general brilliance when, a mere hour after landing (short pause to discuss gun violence in NYC and Johannesburg, plus the Great Shutdown with our very friendly immigration official) we arrived at the checkin desk. Sadly, we were not at the right hotel. Apparently the tiny differences between Hotel X and Hotel X and Suites or Hotel X Express are vast and unimaginable – and 10 minutes apart by taxi through some of the least attractive areas in the JFK surrounds, that is. Bed never felt so good.

Day One found us in the middle of Manhattan, luggage-free and ready to roam. Aaaaah! We took a deep breath upon emerging from the grimy subway. Aaaaah! The aroma of Midtown is a strange mix of roasting nuts and raw sewage. As we walked down Broadway (quick detour into Macy’s – apparently the largest department store in the world, although I am pretty sure Dubai must have some to rival, if not overtake), we saw some of the iconic architecture – Empire State Building and the Flatiron building – and pushed our way through street markets of overwhelming colour and vibrancy, and the scents became mouth-watering and consequently much, much more appealing. Curving down along 4th Ave after Union Square, we found ourselves on E Houston faced with Katz’s Delicatessen (famous for That scene in When Harry Met Sally). Soon their equally famous Pastrami sandwich was in our faces…. Deeeeeeeelicios! An equally fabulous coffee from a cupboard-sized coffee shop with our friends from London made us question the very nature of the coffee we drink at home. McSorley’s Old Ale House was packed with students playing drinking games to the accompaniment of the obligatory dark or light ale, served in two small tankards.

But, the only way to end your first day in New York? The Husbandly One made an epic choice: Vin Sur Vingt and a bottle of Pomerol, saucisson, French bread and the most incredible Creme Caramel… Tired, sore feet instantly repaired.