Our last day in New York and its our first free time since we arrived eight days ago and we’re flying through the night home tonight, giving back our five hour time difference in one six hour flying stroke. It’s a typical British Autumnal morning and I feel very much the Englishman in New York. Its dauntingly big and there’s too much to learn from in too short a time.
I wander up to the Wholefoods Market on the corner to buy my breakfast as I am up early and debating whether to take off on my own for the day or stick with the group. Wholefoods are the people that Tesco said they were taking on with their Fresh & Easy concept that they thought would capture the hearts and wallets of New Yorkers, but has so far, pretty much underwhelmed them.
Well, I have to report that having not seen the Kensington branch of Wholefoods, the one I saw on Second Avenue in New York was stunning. It looked welcoming, yet urban, the food looked beautiful and the staff members I spoke to were educated and interested, with one of the team on the till having spent time in the London Kensington store, helping with staff training. Can you imagine Tesco sending there checkout staff from Victoria centre being sent across to New York to show the Fresh & Easy staff how to be surly and cause unnecessary queues to wind people up in a hurry. Maybe they could just show them how they can tell customers that they can only use this queue if they’re buying Lottery, despite no-one else in the queue and people stacking the full length of the store at the self service tills?
Okay, that’s me being cynical and comparing the natural service culture we saw everywhere in the US. In the UK, we assume that it is insincere and below us to be polite, helpful and interested. We seem far more comfortable in being snotty or trying to catch our customers out than helping them enjoy their visit. This is a training issue we discussed an awful lot whilst we were away and whilst we don’t want ‘have a nice day’ all over the place, we do want to be able to deliver service staff who do just that – serve. It sounds simple, and it is in the US, but with a few notable exceptions, we make it look very difficult in the UK.
So after my early morning breakfast of orange juice and a parmesan breadstick (pretty healthy huh?), sitting in the park, next to the hotel, I watched the New York morning unfold before me.
There’s lots of honking, despite the signs threatening a $350 fine for anyone who does it and the driving is aggressive, the pace is hectic. It almost seems the opposite of how people behave when they get to work, or maybe those in cars are a different breed who never work in service positions? It’s a magical place to sit and absorb the atmosphere. I’m surrounded by New York Sparrows, (or their close relative, ‘cos I ain’t no ornothologist) and I share my bread with them and seem popular amongst them.
Back at the hotel, the others are gathering for the day and I decide to stick with the Sheriff and Adela as they are planning to go to Liberty Island. I know this is probably the cliché of all clichés, but I’ve never been and I wanted to take in another audio tour and see how the trip across compares to my favourite river trip – The Ferry across the Mersey.
The first stop is the Metro station at Lafayette and Broadway which we follow down to Bowling Green. This leads us onto Battery Park and our first view of the Statue of Liberty across the water. As we walk across the park, there is a huge damaged sphere in front of us.
At first the thought was that it had been vandalised, but when you read the sign in front of it, you begin to understand.
Again, the feelings of anger rise up at how this could have happened, but I love the Sphere’s symbolism. Its an even more powerful reminder than the slightly cold but informative hoardings at Ground Zero and its simplicity paints a far starker image in your mind than a display of what’s coming next could portray.
The boat trip with a full audio tour of Liberty Island and Ellis Island is $20 (about £12) which seems like good value. You then travel through a full airport security style search and scan, with everything X rayed and shoes, phone, cameras, belts ad even notebooks in the trays. Its something that is hard to begrudge as the symbolism of peace and liberty that the statue stands for is one that must be under constant terrorist threat.
The short boat ride across only stood out for the fact that it was a great place to photograph armpits and other people’s hands. It was like a class full of the worlds most enthusiastic school children with every hand up for most of the trip.
The silly thing about these shots, was that five minutes later when you landed, it was easy to get a much better image without the hands in the way and without the crowds around you.
We had a cup of coffee to see off the heavy rain and marvelled again at what exceptionally low prices they charge in these nationally controlled attractions. $1.50 (£0.89) for an almost nuclear strength 3/4 pint of coffee wouldn’t be seen at anything but the lowest of cafes in the UK, let alone with a captive audience on a cold wet island full of tourists.
The audio tour used the exact same digital system as the one at Alcatraz, but was far more dull. The single voice talking you through the history was informative at best, but turgid, if I’m honest. By the time we’d walked half way around the island, it was off and we were reading the signage, which had all the information anyway. But the view close up is perfect.
We had opted not to take the trip up the monument, which was good as the queue was huge and there was yet another scanning scrutiny. One of the previous blog commenters, Christine from Boston had been helpful in her recommendations and warned us that this was simply not worth the money or the queue, so we gladly took her advice.
So some statto facts about the statue itself. Its 305ft tall from the ground to the top of the flame and was completed in 1886 as a gift from the People of France. It was the tallest structure in the Eastern US when it was built as most of Lower Manhattan was only five stories until well into the 1920’s. She has a 35ft wide waist (like many other people in the US) and a 42ft right arm. Even her fingernail is the size of my forearm and she sees 3 million visitors per year to her very own island.
The ferry took us back via Ellis Island for a further (dull) audio tour and then back across to Battery Park.
Time was pressing on and we were leaving in a few hours, so we opted to walk back to the hotel along Broadway to take in some more of the atmosphere. A good three miles or so along a dead straight road, took in Wall Street. The signage is as we have all seen it, but the state of the roads and paths were awful. The police presence was massive and the crowds even more massive.
After collecting a late lunch in an immaculately clean and friendly salad bar, where you can choose what you want and pay by weight, we sat in one of the City parks and watched a group playing chess with a form of winner stays on. Quite a crowd gathered and you got the feeling that this was a regular haunt for city types and students alike. Black squirrels ran around us picking up scraps and the feeling was far more relaxed than any other place in New York I had seen.
The final walk took in the Bell of Hope and St Pauls Chapel, back at Ground Zero. The Bell was a gift from the Mayor of London to the people of New York and was created by the Whitechapel Foundry, who also cast Big Ben and the bell on Liberty Island. It is rung each 9/11 anniversary and was also rung after the Madrid bombings in 2004 and on July 7th 2005 after the Subway and bus bombings. It’s a very sombre reminder.
The chapel itself is where the firemen gathered and rested during the recovery mission after 9/11 itself. To most, it is the spiritual home of those who lost their lives.
It seems like a suitable place to sign off, on what was an incredible trip, full of learnings, stark reminders and world class attractions.
I honestly never thought that the US, would be my thing. I thought it would be too brash. Its big, yes, but it’s so full of genuine people who love our history, curtsey to our Sheriff and respect our country, its impossible to not end up feeling like you’re part of it.
In the words of King Arnie of California. I’ll be back.