Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Volcano, the Big Apple and Me

I am back after an American adventure. As I was flying over Iceland a fortnight ago I had no idea that the volcano was stirring and that I was on one of the last flights to leave the UK. So I merrily watched the in-flight films and tried to digest the, frankly frightening, plane food.

I arrived in Denver for a conference and had a fabulous time visiting the Tattered Cover bookstore which is reason alone to go to Denver. Floors of books and delightfully the secondhand books are mixed in with new books. Comfy armchairs and sofas are provided for people to spend time relaxing in. I wanted to go to Molly Brown's house but, I did have to get on with some work whilst I was there! Denver is a huge city but only has a population of half a million so it feels strangely empty. Coming from a crowded little island I felt overwhelmed by all the space.

I then flew to New York where I was supposed to meet my mum for a holiday. Her flight was cancelled and she couldn't make it out in time so I ended up spending a week in NYC on my own. If you spend anywhere alone it should be New York. I had never been before and it was fantastic. I spent so much time wandering the streets, going to museums and galleries and generally soaking in the city. I also spent a lot of time comparing Manhattan to central London.

I have lived in London for eight years now and I love the city as it has so much to offer. But, I just felt that New Yorkers were 'perkier' somehow. Manhattan felt upbeat and hopeful whereas recently I have been feeling that London has become more cynical and ground down. For example, I actually witnessed people in public places leaving their belongings as they went to collect drinks - this would never happen in London or if it did, your bag would not be there when you returned.

This could be a one off of course but I did feel safer from petty crime - and the major difference was just walking down the street. Fifth Avenue is as busy as Regent Street but walking down the latter renders you bashed and bruised. Not once did someone barge me out of the way, or refuse to move for an entire week! I was flabbergasted. And I think it boils down to this, manners.

I don't think us Brits have the same level of good manners. Our customer service is practically non-existent and if you dare ask a sales person for help in a shop then you almost get openly accused of being unreasonably demanding. If there is a way for us to have no human contact in a store then we will try it, just look at the rise in self-service checkouts.

I was alone in a big city and the number of people who offered help, advice and just conversation was staggering. I have never been anywhere so friendly. In London people are wary of starting a conversation with strangers and I cannot think that so many Londoners would have offered me their spare room if I had been stranded here. I don't think I would. But I had complete strangers offering me a place to stay if I found myself in need of it. I was even offered a place to stay in Tennessee - and I admit, I quite fancied the idea of running away and becoming a country and western singer in a honky tonk bar!

So, my holiday taught me something about human nature and also about myself. How charitable am I? How many people do I barge out of the way when I am pounding the streets of London?

The only criticism I have of New York is the number of toy dogs. I have to declare that I am a cat person so am destined to think this way but I saw a ridiculous number of teeny tiny dogs and some of them were in outfits! I actually saw a dog with sunglasses on - sheer madness.

I have promised my mum that we will go there together as soon as possible. Volcano permitting of course.


  1. Interesting the comparisons that you made between the two places. Am glad you managed to have a good holiday despite being on your own - I can imagine that there would be plenty to keep one occupied!

  2. I don't know if everyone was just happier because the weather was so gorgeous! I had a really good time but obviously I was looking forward to a holiday with my mum!

  3. You must feel so proud of how resilient you were; travelling on one's own is great for independence.

    I am so pleased that you managed to The Tattered Cover! Did you also make it to The Strand in NYC and, more importantly, did you buy anything?

    London is a great city for feeling relatively alone in, for anonymity, and NYC despite its density and bigger population, I imagine more welcoming.

  4. I did go to the Strand and it was amazing but I didn't buy anything - the thought of a heavy suitcase put me off! It was a good week for independence especially as it was the first time I had travelled alone!

  5. This is why I like escaping to the countryside, I find the streets of London to be either bleak, unfriendly and isolating, I'm so glad that NY offered you solace when you were alone.

    Fantastic comparison!

  6. You will never forget that adventure...or that volcano! So glad that you had a great time in New York. I travelled alone in London last May and really enjoyed it but I did laugh at everyone reading those Metro papers on the Tube. I wondered if they were just a shield to avoid making eye contact or speaking to one another. There was a lovely woman in Selfridges who did tell me her life story in twenty minutes though!

  7. Oh wow, what an adventure! That bookshop in Denver sounds totally charming. I went to NYC for the first time last year, and also had a fantastic time. It's a shame you couldn't meet your mum as planned, but all the more reason to revisit! I'm glad you had a good time in spite of the problems. I agree with you about the difference between the streets in London and New York -- I noticed that the New Yorkers seemed to be very good at not bumping into one another as people are prone to do in London ... there seems to be a good crowd rhythm of some kind!

  8. Lovely post. Was waiting to see when you were going to write again. Its nice to know about the lack of crime in New York because I always thought it was full of gangsters with holsters ever ready on the draw as it were. Nice to see how things are.

  9. Zehra - nothing beats escaping to Sussex. Rolling downs, pub lunches, church bells - wonderful.

    Darlene - I think it was to avoid any interaction! I always have my head down! It was a real adventure and good for me to be on my own for a bit despite feeling sorry for my mum.

    Sophie - NYC is amazing but I had to run out of Saks because I was 2 seconds away from buying a pair of gorgeous Christian Laboutins which I will never be able to afford!

    Mystica - Yes, the blog has taken a back burner for a while due to various commitments alongside my adventure! I did look for 1920s style gangsters but there weren't any! No shotguns in violin cases or anything!

  10. I'm glad you had such a good experience of New York and New Yorkers! The general cliche is that New Yorkers are very cynical and abrupt but have hearts of gold. I'm never very trusting of those geographic cliches though, as they also tend to hold that people from my part of the country are all gun-toting rednecks. :P

  11. Bad timing versus good experience. You will never forget the infamous volcanic ash cloud!!

    Some interesting comparisons with London here. These days, I visit London in small doses for 'culture fixes' and visiting friends but always long to get back to the peace and open spaces of Suffolk! Never been to NY but would enjoy the experience. My nephew has said the same thing as you - people seem friendlier and more polite. But I think London is still a great city, perhaps our perceptions are just different when we are in unfamiliar cities? What a shame your mum couldn't make it out there though!

    Good to see you back.


  12. I'm heading to NYC for the first time in three months and I'm glad to hear that you felt safe because that's one of my fears about going there.

    And I think the little dogs are everywhere -- very big here in Seattle too. At least most people here try to have them walk on their own though ... and no sunglasses that I've seen yet!

  13. My husband is from Denver and we lived out there for a while when we were first married. And I loooved The Tattered Cover! The old location in Cherry Creek was still open then. So gorgeous. Flour floors of dark woods and extreme bookish comfort. I could have lived there. The present incarnations are great too.

    So glad to hear you had a wonderful time, and that us Americans were so hospitable to you. New York is an amazing city but I think that London is too. Always think of London as not unfriendly but just a little lonely for a gregarious me. But I love it all the same.

  14. Lot of fun to read about your adventures in the US. The one time I was in Denver I was lucky enough to come across The Tattered Cover as well. I think NY and London are both such fantastic cities with endless possibilities and so different from each other. Your customer service comment does make me think of my first trip to Paris. I had just spent 6 months working in London and had the American bias that the French are rude, and the UK bias that France is, well, France. So I was dumbfounded when I walked into a shop in Paris for the first time and the sales clerk actually said "bonjour". They could have been as rude as the day is long and I wouldn't really have known given my French language skills, but after 6 months of being ignored in English shops that simple 'bonjour' was like manna from heaven. Now if you want to experience really bad customer service, you need to visit DC.

  15. Well obviously I'm glad you're back and glad you had a lovely time! I do agree with you about London v NY up to a point but as a Landaner born and bred I do have to say that it does depend on what part of London you're in. In the burbs and more residential spots like Hackney, Islington, etc, people are friendly and chatty. I think central London can be a bit cold but that's because it's full of people trying to get somewhere else and it's so crowded - no one wants to be nice, they just want to get from A to B! The silence on the tube in the morning is hilarious though - but I think that is a British thing rather than a London thing- we are a race of reserved people by and large.

    I do love NY and I was shocked by the amount of people stopped to help me when I was there - all I had to do was look slightly confused and I had five people stop to show me the way. Service is impeccable and there is more of a community vibe but then I think Americans just are more chatty in public than we are. No?

  16. It sounds like you had a gorgeous trip to the states. I'm so glad, and it's lovely to hear that you had good encounters with people. I've never had anything but really nice encounters with people in London, but I think the general pace of life here in America is a bit slower, so we may just be more chatty.

    I'm smiling a bit in recognition of what you said about all the space. Coming from Texas, I always feel a tad hemmed in when I visit London.

  17. What a wonderful trip - I'm very jealous of the prospect of a week alone in New York, I think that sounds perfect. Although what a shame your mum didn't get to make her trip as planned. I loved NY and all its museums... my favourite was the Morgan Library, hope you managed to squeeze in a trip there yourself, it's a brilliant place.

    I agree with your comments about the differences between NY and London and the people in the two cities. It's always nice to get lost in your own world in a city, I think, but it's also nice to be surrounded by people who would help you out if you needed it. And I guess NY offers both of those things much more than London does, sadly. I actually once offered my spare room to a stranger in London and on texting a few friends to tell them, was told by more than one person that I'd obviously completely lost my mind and should call the police immediately for eviction! The stranger was lovely and we talked enthusiastically about Virginia Woolf, so it all turned out fine and I was very glad I'd done it.

    Glad you had such a great adventure.

  18. Oh, I am so envious! I ADORE NYC! We usually manage to get over once a year (the last time was just before Christmas) - we just want to keep going back even though we've seen all the sights, it's just being there that we love. I would love to spend a week there by myself (no offence to my wonderful husband) just dawdling round galleries and museums and reading books etc - bliss!

    It know exactly what you mean about the difference in attitudes too - Brits are so rude in comparison.

    Oh, and see you next week! :)

  19. Yes, now you know the truth about NYC --it's exuberance and intimacy. New Yorkers will stop whatever they are doing and not only ask you if you need directions, but will take you there if you continue to have a blank look on your face. On your next trip, explore the intimate and cheap or free New York. Take the overhead car to Roosevelt, Staten Island ferry, walk around Sutton Place, the neighborhoods, the Oyster Bar in Grand Central. Walk across Brooklyn Bridge at sunset. Interrupt photographers taking slow night exposures of the moon over the skyline. Most of all read EB White's love letter to NYC, Here's New York.

  20. I'm so glad you had a good experience here as a solo traveler. London remains my "official" Favorite City (can't wait until my trip there next month!!), but in recent years, oddly enough, I have found New York to be the "mellower" location. I imagine this would come as a surprise to most Americans, much less visitors from across the pond -- LOL!

  21. As someone who was born in New York City and loves London, I was heartened by someone else's view. NYC does have an amazing energy. I just wish there weren't so many "cold canyons," as I think of the streets that are so dark because of the height of their skyscrapers. I was also glad to know that someone from the other side of the pond thinks us friendly. I believe we are, but I have often been kidded about that trait whilst among British friends -- as if it were somehow inbad taste. Hope you & your mum have a lovely holiday when you return!

  22. Thank you for all your comments! I am so looking forward to going back to NYC with my mum and showing her around. Speaking of my mum, she read your comment 'anonymous' and has ordered EB White's book with the love letter to NYC in! So I will borrow it off her asap.

    Thomas - you are so right about Paris! Although, a rather romantic and dreamy city!

    Rachel - well, you are from SARF LANDAN - so what can I say? You are just harder than moi from the country!

    Makedoandread - I have always wanted to go to the Southern States and Texas. I have flown over Texas though and it was massive!

    Jane - so brave and admirable offering your room. Amazing that you could chat Woolf - perfect guest!

    Book Whisperer - a week alone in NYC is incredible

    Bookish NYC - yes it is more mellow than London. Interesting that you picked up on that as well.

    Suzanne - not in bad taste at all! Just heartening!