Thursday, 29 March 2012

New Yorkers

I am staying in the New York suburb of Queens with my former BBC colleague, Laura James, and her partner, Rich.
It's a long-established neighbourhood with attractive little wooden houses which have neat gardens and a lot of decking. It could be suburbia almost anywhere, with one notable exception. There can be few countries anywhere in the world who display their patriotism quite as proudly as the Americans. The Stars and Stripes flag flutters proudly outside a very large percentage of the smart little homes.

But I am not quite sure where the residents actually are during the working day. Certainly they don't seem to be running the businesses in the local shopping area. Most everyone seems to be Korean or Chinese and I have great difficulty being understood. Despite knowing how to say 'Hello, how are you' in Cantonese.
I am in search of a micro-sim for my iPad. I will be in the States for three weeks, so a pay as you go card will keep me in touch with emails without switching on the horribly expensive roaming facility on my tablet computer.
I also have to find someone to mend my glasses. I was so tired last night that I fell asleep before removing them. I awoke this morning to discover they'd not taken kindly to being used as a mattress; one of the lenses has become detached from the frame, which has been bent into an unwearable state.
I have a sore ankle and knee so it's a pity that I take the wrong turning and end up walking a mile further than I need. In fact, I seem to be the only one walking; the cars are not hugely sympathetic to their legal obligation to stop.
At the at&t store in Great Neck, Will Chaparro spends an hour trying to get the company's systems to accept me as a new subscriber. But despite Will's best efforts, they are unable to link my US bank debit card with a registered address outside the USA.
I discover that Will is a budding entrepreneur and is keen to take his music business,, into Europe. I promise to put him in touch with my chum Russ Kane so they can help each other conquer their respective countries.
Almost next door to at&t is T Mobile, who get me up and running in just a few minutes. But the fantastically patient Trevor Mercer becomes almost demented (and the session takes him long into his lunch break) as a result of the incompetence of his customer service department who seem unable to understand that the registration process for an iPad is rather different to a phone.
After giving up in disgust, hungry Trevor and I repair to nearby Napoli Pizza where I discover that we are 20 minutes late for the 3pm deadline for the lunch special offer. Owner Coop says I have a great Italian accent. I think it's a joke.
But the slices of buffalo chicken and grandma square are each delicious and Trevor's recommendation is well-deserved.
Interestingly, he has no idea of the derivation of his surname and is fascinated when I tell him what a mercer originally did for a living. Somehow I don't think the tradition of taking the name from your occupation will work in the future Trevor T-Mobile doesn't seem to work at all.
I am in search of a Smoking Loon. It's not a chain-smoking idiot, but a really nice Californian wine which Laura has as her 'house wine'.
Stop and Shop supermarket doesn't seem to have it, but I find a lemon, a lime and some tonic to go with my Bombay Sapphire gin. The shop has the biggest boxes of Matzos I have ever seen.

The lady at checkout asks if I have a store card and despite my assurance that I don't, she types in a code and I receive a discount of $2.23 on my $10.51 bill. Well chuffed!
Almost next door I find an optician (Chinese) to mend my glasses and then almost trip over a Chinese-owned wine shop stocking up in advance of their official opening. There are bottles of Smoking Loon in abundance and an extra ten per cent off to mark the opening.
Even the newcomers learn the American way of how to drive business.

Day One Norwich to New York

Packing for a sixty day trip, especially one that involves many different climates, is always something of a challenge. This one is slightly eased because, in the main, I will be staying with friends, so getting laundry done shouldn't be a huge issue. So I decide to take six days of clothing for hot climates and the same for cold.
Experience has taught me that everything needs to be split between two bags, so that if one goes missing, you always have enough for two or three days. That plan goes awry, of course, if they lose both.
I've got an evening press event to go to in London, so I take the Greater Anglia train from Norwich to the capital. The ticket lady welcomes us aboard the 'National Express Service to London'. Not once, but twice. In her defence, the service has had several re-brands in recent years.

I couldn't find a reasonably priced hotel in the area I needed to be, so I am trialling an apartment. ( It turns out to be a sensationally equipped palace of a place, 16 floors up, with stunning views of the city and east towards the new Olympic Park. It's a steal at £106 per night, although they take a £200 deposit 'in case of damage' which will, they say, be returned to me in five working days. We shall see.

My evening event is the launch of P&O's 2013 cruise programme, but both P&O's boss, Carol Marlow, and her Cunard equivalent, Peter Shanks, give us presentations.

I am joined by my old broadcasting chum, Russ Kane and we leave for a post-event curry each clutching a heavy goodie bag which will give me a bit of a late night packing challenge.
Russ kindly drives me back home, pops up to my apartment, marvels at the incredible views and agrees that I have indeed found a bargain.

In the morning, the taxi to Paddington gets stuck in traffic and costs me twice as much as the official website suggested it would. Fifty quid doesn't last long in a London black cab.
I catch the efficient and comfortable Heathrow Express which whisks me to the airport in just 15 minutes. Despite my detailed planning, I can't find anywhere in my booking details to tell me which terminal United Airlines is using. As always, I can't make a connection to the on-board wireless internet. The ticket collector looks up a BAA list and informs me confidently it is Terminal One.

So I wait until the end of the line, walk with all my luggage to the end of a long corridor, to discover a sign which greets United passengers for everywhere BUT Newark, which goes from Terminal 4. Aarggghhhh.
Luckily, I have left plenty of time for such eventualities although there is further confusion before check-in when a girl carrying out a ticket pre-check can't seem to understand that, as a holder of a Round the World Ticket, I don't have an actual return portion. Aaaargghhhh.
The plane is full and, although I only take a large briefcase on board, the overhead compartment above my seat is full of crew luggage and the attendant is not at all disposed to render assistance to shuffle things about. Aaarghhhhh.

The aircraft is a pretty old 757-200 which, by modern standards, is cramped and lacks storage space around the seats.
But the food is pretty good; I enjoy the latest Tintin film, which I have been meaning to catch for months and I fall asleep enjoying the music to the surprise hit of 2012, 'The Artist'.
On arrival at Newark, Homeland Security is, as always, slow with tourists. But once all the US Citizens go through their area, it is opened up to allow we aliens through. I just cannot understand why entering the US is always such a pain, especially when, these days, you have to pay to be pre-screened before you even board the aircraft.
Newark Liberty Airport has a splendid monorail 'AirTrain' to link terminals and to take you to the New Jersey Transit and Amtrak station.

$12.50 and 25 minutes later, I change trains at Penn Station for the Long Island Rail Road, feed a further $8.75 into a ticket machine and almost exactly 14 hours after setting off from London, I reach my home for the next six nights.

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