nw3 to nyc

Observations on moving my family across the Atlantic

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When is a museum not a museum?

Now there’s a question. I’ve been to a lot of museums in my life and I can safely say I would know I was in one, lots of old stuff sometimes behind glass, sometimes on the wall, sometimes on the floor, it’s not that hard. But here in New York they have purloined the word museum to mean something quite different. There are two examples of this that I’ve come across so far.

The Children’s Museum of Manhattan. Sounds like it’s full of old dolls, right? Wrong, it’s a giant play centre, guaranteed to induce a headache after about half an hour depending on how hyper the kids are that day. Over three levels, with the toddlers safely ensconced on the top floor, happily building blocks, climbing in and out of the fake bus and fire engine and playing shops with the plastic food. The second floor is an awful Dora the Explorer themed floor of horror that is frequently filled with local school classes, with kids around  6 years old, I’m guessing. Not for the faint hearted. And then the ground floor, supposedly for the older kid, but I doubt E who is about to be 8 years old, would want to spend any time there. It’s $11 a head and filled with bored looking child minders. Somewhere to go maybe once a month when it’s cold outside.

The second example is the Children’s Museum of Arts New York way down town in Greenwich Village. This probably has a greater claim on the word museum, but only just. It has an exhibition space with some stuff that’s mostly ignored by the visiting hoards. This place is much more hands on, with a great under fives artsy area filled with tables covered in play doh, painting, sticking, drawing and funky magnetic shapes. For the short attention span of your average 2 year old, it’s a great haven away from big kids. Beware the ball pond, which where I come from means vastly unhygienic pit filled with small plastic balls that your kids love and you hate. Here it meant a space filled with gym balls where I feared for J’s neck, ability to breathe and survive the whole experience. Not doing that again.

When I was there they had the Beatles playing on the speakers and I was humming away whilst building my magnetic house, which was promptly destroyed by J who had better ideas. I felt rather under dressed as the mums who were there from the neighbourhood are clearly a lot more fashionable than me – but then it is the home of Sarah Jessica Parker, I suppose.

I liked it, but it’s just too far to go for a bit of painting. But a bonus great large Pret a Manger just across the street for that well deserved sarnie and cuppa afterwards.

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Sometimes there’s just no answer

So I go into the local shoe repair shop, where the man behind the counter looks like he has seen a lot of shoes and a lot of polish in his time. I ask to collect R’s black work shoes which needed a new sole. He passes them to me and I look at them and say ‘wow, they look like new’. He looks at me quizzically and responds ‘what? You think I run ‘ot dog stand ‘ere?’ And what exactly am I meant to say to that?

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RIP Avonte

I wrote a while ago about a young autistic boy who went missing in Queens. Months went by and no sign until this week when his remains were found on a beach in Queens. The reporting in the New York Post was shockingly graphic and I don’t think you would ever see such detailed descriptions in the UK press.  I often thought about Avonte, wondering what happened to him. Now at least his family knows and can say goodbye. Rest in peace, Avonte Oquendo.

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The ire of the Upper East Side

It’s been pretty cold again. So cold today that after spending 45 minutes in the local park watching E sledge down the hill I couldn’t feel my nose any more. J wasn’t best pleased either as his hands were frozen, despite his gloves but when you’re 2 years old and getting to grips with the English language, it’s hard to vocalise that, apart from crying that it is.

Unlike my fellow Upper East Siders, who took no time at all yesterday to complain bitterly to the press that the new Mayor was ignoring them. The snow ploughs (plows here) were nowhere to be seen in my bit of the Upper East Side and looking out from our high floor apartment, the avenues near us remained white and the traffic very slow late into the night.

“Getting back at us” screamed the headline in the New York Post yesterday. Mayor de Blasio was not a fan of the Upper East Side and the voters were squarely against him, particularly as he supported the development of a new waste transfer station in the neighbourhood. And the maps that showed where the snow ploughs were nowhere to be seen were pretty similar to the lack of de Blasio votes from 5 November. However today de Blasio turned up on 86 street and Lexington Avenue to reassure Upper East Siders that he was ‘for all the boroughs’ and that the plough maps were missing GPS data, where some of the snow ploughs were faulty. Apparently. Who would dispute that, eh?

Tonight, the roads are clear. It is still bitterly cold, but not even the Upper East Siders could blame that on the Mayor, could they?


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Fabulous Frick

I don’t think there are many people who’d know about the Frick Collection when they visit New York as a tourist. It’s not on the usual tourist trails despite being just down the road from the more glamorous Met on Fifth Avenue. I have to confess the only reason I knew about it was because I read somewhere that the Goldfinch painting by Fabritius was on display there and as I’d read the Donna Tartt book all about it, I went to have a look.

Seems I wasn’t the only one. I went just before Christmas but I read today in the New York Times that by the time the show ends on Sunday over 235,000 people will have done the same. This is nearly double the visitor numbers they had for their last successful exhibition. Most people went to see Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is impressive but doesn’t look that much like Scarlett Johansen. Ha ha. The very small painting of a goldfinch chained to a metal bracket should look cruel but it is just lovely. Set against a dramatic red wall, it stands out beautifully and looks quite different from each vantage point. I was quite taken with it. I even bought a postcard. My photo is rubbish, so I haven’t put it on here, but the New York Times link above shows it well.

The Frick Collection itself is quite a find. Henry Clay Frick  commissioned the impressive mansion overlooking Fifth Avenue at the beginning of the 20th Century with a view to him living there and giving it to the city on his death. He housed his magnificent art collection there and today you trip over Rembrandt, Turner and all manner of well known artists as you walk around the austere interior. It’s a bit like being in Chatsworth House in Derbyshire (or the set of Downton Abbey), he was inspired by English stately homes and it shows.

One big difference with the Frick Collection is that they ban the under 10s. I was unimpressed by this initially but having visited it I can see why. There are no barriers anywhere, nothing to stop grubby hands and curious toddlers from leaving their mark. So for a child free zone and some respite from busy New York, take a look, even though the Dutch masters will be on their way back to the Netherlands very soon.

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Not everyone in England lives in an abbey

There has been much excitement here in the US at the prospect of a new series of Downton Abbey. The New York Times devoted an entire broadsheet page to previewing the new series. It shows on PBS here, which is a peculiar public channel that I think pretty much everyone gets. On our RCN cable package it shows up as something called Masterpiece, so when you search for it on TIVO (our version of Sky+) it doesn’t show up. It was only by chance I found it on the listings. I have been asked so many times whether I am watching Downton Abbey. I am very glad to say that yes I am, because I had already seen the first three series in the UK and was peeved to have to wait until January to see series 4 when it had already finished showing in the UK.

I do have to remind people that not everyone lives like that – it is set nearly a hundred years ago, for a start; and I am not landed gentry. Well, I grew up on a  farm, but that’s not quite the same. I have to say though, seeing it now after being here for over a  year, it is lovely. I even find myself talking just a bit posher afterwards. And they show Sherlock on the same channel. Now that’s good TV and you don’t need the BBC iPlayer to see it. Bliss.

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Nelson Mandela slept there

So in the cold wastes of New York, I find myself in the same bedroom that once saw Nelson Mandela and other dignitaries who visited the Mayor of New York. The official residence of the Mayor is called Gracie Mansion and it’s only a few blocks from our apartment. It was built in 1799 but has only been the home the Mayors of New York since 1945; prior to that was mostly in private hands.It’s pretty fancy inside, having been lovingly restored under Bloomberg’s watch, but he never lived there, preferring his much fancier town house on 79th Street by Central Park. The new Mayor, Bill de Blasio, is moving in soon, so the tour that I went on today is unlikely to continue much longer. Good timing from me, then.

I did wonder why de Blasio would want to move from super trendy Park Slope in Brooklyn to Gracie Mansion. It’s right next to the FDR, which is a really busy road running down the east side of Manhattan. It does have great views of the East River, but then so does our apartment and we don’t have to look at cars racing by all day. It’s basically a creaky floored old museum, stuffed to rafters with old furniture and fittings either on loan or given by previous residents.

It’s amusing to see the graffiti in the glass made by the children of previous Mayors, when everything else looks so perfect. Good job de Blasio’s kids are in their late teens, because I wouldn’t put a toddler anywhere near that place. Even the tour guides made us cling to the bannister when going up the grand staircase, as health and safety went safely mad in there. Not sure it would be a comfy place to chill out and watch the telly, but then again, if you’re the Mayor of New York, maybe you’re just a bit too busy.

Take a look for yourself at the Gracie Mansion website.

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We appear to be in an episode of Star Trek

Yes, that’s right, we are in a Polar Vortex. No, I hadn’t heard of it either, but according to ABC News this morning, the reason it is so bitterly cold here today is because of a weather condition called a Polar Vortex. There’s a funky video of this on their website showing this loop of cold weather that normally hangs out in Canada but has been pushed down to the northern parts of the US by the Gulf Stream and we are not doing well as a result. Of course the news here talks in Fahrenheit, so I have to keep translating to Celsius. At the moment in New York it is minus 15 Celsius which is about 5 Fahrenheit. But there’s a wind chill so the temperatures on the streets feel much colder. The only consolation is that it’s much colder elsewhere in the US. Brrrrr. Wrap up warm today.

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The prawn hierarchy

In the UK we say ‘prawn’, in the US they say ‘shrimp’. Fair enough. I am used to this. In the UK they generally come in small plastic boxes with cellophane lids and cost about 3 quid, depending if Sainsbury’s has an offer on at the time. Occasionally you see them raw and grey, but mostly people buy them cooked and pink. In New York, in Fairway’s of course, they have fresh shrimp, cooked or raw. They aren’t the same size as those in Sainsbury’s, they are huge. The smallest ones are called Extra Large; the next size up is Jumbo. Normally that’s it, there’s no medium sized, or just right sized, or small (nothing is small). No, today, we were offered Colossal shrimp. Colossal? Really? I mean they were quite large and I would have been terrified to cook them, but colossal? Honestly, what’s wrong with small, medium and large?

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A different kind of familiarity

Returning to the UK for Christmas and New Year proved to me how much I love the UK. Even though it was mostly wet, mostly grey and dark, it was home. The familiarity of language, accents and culture all came flooding home. And in the most peculiar places. The services on the M1, where the woman behind the counter in Starbucks just said ‘hi, what would you like?’ No asking me how I am, having to ask back and them move on to the transaction. No standing in line, no being called  ‘a guest’, when I am a customer. And lots and lots of ‘cheers’ when concluding any  transaction. Ah, how nice.

I never thought I’d say this, but going into Marks and Spencer was great! Even though the one I went into was a bit rubbish and small, it just felt so British, so familiar. Given that practically every British person owns some M&S underwear, it seemed rude not to get some. And then there’s the classic M&S Cherry Genoa Cake. I love fruit cake and this is the best. Having devoured my mother in law’s one, I went to find another and was sadly disappointed. All gone. So I consoled myself with a packet of 6 mince pies, reduced to 50p (about a dollar). Bargain. I love mince pies too. I should start a new business importing them into the US to replace their obsession with cup cakes.

I had such a lovely time catching up with family and friends, I almost didn’t want to come back to New York. But the funny thing was when we got here (in a treacherous taxi journey in the driving snow from  JFK airport), it all looked so familiar, so normal, that it was good to be home.

Happy New Year to all my lovely readers. Only 18 months to go!