A place for pics/observations from my various adventures to destinations such as Italy, New York City, Panama, New York City, Amsterdam, New York City, Ireland, New York City, Hong Kong, etc, New York City...
My first solo NYC adventure. I had spent a few days in New York City just 3 months earlier, but already ached to get back.
My first night alone in New York City was such a rush. In more ways than one. After arriving 2 1/2 hours late at LaGuardia (of course) I had precisely 92 minutes to deplane, cab it to Midtown, check in, Subway it down to the LES, and walk (run) a few blocks in time to see a rock n’ roll band I adore called Wyldlife kick off a 3 band bill at the Bowery Electric. Made it with precisely 4 minutes to spare. After taking in a few hours of adrenaline-pumping gutter rawk, and getting the chance to chat with a couple dudes from the band for a few minutes, I headed out into a gorgeous October Saturday night to wander up to St. Mark’s Place to finish my evening.
I frigging love St. Mark’s Place, especially at night. The rambunctious crowds. The gaudy light emitting from stores selling even gaudier merchandise. The fine folks at Gem Spa watching you like a hawk in case you decide you can’t afford a $10 pair of sunglasses but still must have them. Brilliant scene.
It’s not too tough to find a New Yorker who will write off the street because it’s “not as cool as it used to be” (“used to be” always conveniently meaning whichever era they grew up in, regardless of how old they are), but that’s a criticism that basically every noteworthy area of the city suffers. Even though NYC is one of the most forward-thinking cities on Earth, many of its residents also love to pine for the past. And, I get it. Because guaranteed the era of the city that an individual is pining for was an incredible era, because that’s what NYC history is, one incredible era after another… So it’s perfectly understandable that lifetime residents would hold the era in which they grew up in high esteem… But it would be awesome if those people could appreciate that they’re also currently living in incredible era for the city. Because they are. The rest of my week reinforced that truth again and again.
And they’re also most likely living in an incredible area of the city. My previous NYC trips were almost entirely Manhattan-centric, save for a ballgame here or a club show there, but this time I made a point to spend a lot of time getting to know some other parts of the city. I made it up to the Bronx twice, the first time getting to take in the first annual New York Pizza Festival, the second being shown around by none other than Hip-Hop pioneer Grandmaster Caz.
The Bronx has had a rougher go of it than any of the other boroughs, but the borough I saw was one that is yes, scarred, but also one that is healing quite nicely. And as someone who grooves hard on multiculturalism, getting to watch the many different people of the Bronx carrying on with their day-to-day alongside each other was good for the soul.
Then there was my day in Brooklyn, specifically Bushwick and Williamsburg. I went to Bushwick specifically for the incredible display of street art known as the Bushwick Collective, and for a pie at one of the current “it” pizza restaurants in the city, Roberta’s. Both experiences lived up to expectations.
Speak of “it” places, I’m not big into hipster culture, so I was not expecting my afternoon in Williamsburg, considered the current epicenter of the NY hipster scene, to make as big of an impression on me as it did, but I loved my time there. I dug the vibe, the unique shops, and the pure urban grit of Broadway – a stretch that keeps getting more compelling the further east you venture. I ended up well out of Williamsburg, walking as far as the Halsey station, before deciding to head back west. Williamsburg is high on my “must do again” list when I return to New York again.
As far as Manhattan goes, I spent most of my time hanging in my favourite area, the Lower East Side. One can argue the virtues and pitfalls of gentrification until they’re blue in the face but no matter how much that neighbourhood evolves, I will always be able to feel the energy of my punk foremothers and fathers on those streets. Being quite familiar with the history of the immigrant experience in New York City also helps me appreciate the specialness of that slice of the city.
I also made it to the heart of Harlem for the first time, which was an absolute highlight. Seeing the Apollo was awesome, and two killer dining experiences, the historic Patsy’s Pizzeria and a great soul food place at the corner of 135th and Malcolm X Blvd called Manna’s made it all the better. Manna’s was particularly cool because the cafeteria style seating gave me a chance to chat with some locals. I love NYC architecture. And NYC food. And NYC arts. And NYC entertainment. But there is nothing I like more about that city than getting to chat with its residents. As far as I’m concerned, NYC is home to 8.5 million Gods.
And travelling alone, one naturally has more opportunities to converse at length with these deities. Be they the owner of a leather store on Orchard, or the guy standing next to me at the bar of a club as we waited for The English Beat to start, or a dog walker resting on a bench in Washington Square, or a fellow Velvet Underground fan waiting in line for the just-opened exhibition about the band, or a person sitting on a sidewalk holding a Sharpied cardboard sign in Chelsea, they all have something to say that I want to hear, and I think that is apparent to them as we speak, and appreciated.
Getting to know locals is a big reason why travelling alone always rocks, however there were a couple hours of this particular trip that I wished I wasn’t alone. That’s never happened before on any previous solo adventures. It was during my time underground at the 9/11 Museum. I’d visited the memorial twice before, and that is a heavy enough experience, but the museum is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. My grasp of the English language isn’t masterful enough to properly describe it, nor is anyone else’s, so I won’t try. If you’re ever anywhere close, please make a point to go.
Other than those experiences, the most note-worthy (pun totally intended) part of this trip was the insane amount of great live music I got to take in. The aforementioned Wyldlife and The English Beat, and also The Jackets, The Woggles, Lykke Li, Jessie Malin, Radiant Reveries, Eagles, Demob Happy, Nothing But Thieves, and especially grandson – whose set opening for NBT at Irving Plaza I ended up naming the best I saw in all of 2018.
Not bad to pack all that into a 6 night stretch.
And then, it was time to return home. My 4:45 PM flight out was delayed 2 hours at LaGuardia (of course). Delayed flights out of LaGuardia don’t usually shake me as they’re fully expected, but this particular time I had a gig to play at home the next night, and 2 hours late out of LaGuardia = missing my connection in Toronto = not being able to get back until who knows when the next day = a really stressed out/frazzled/sleep deprived frontman at that night’s gig.
Then, a miracle. A call from WestJet. Turns out the flight to TO that was supposed to leave at 2:30 PM was also delayed 2 hours (of course), and there was an empty seat on it if I could get to the gate right away. This trip to NYC ended as it started, with some impromptu cardio.
I ended up taking off 15 minutes before I was originally supposed to. Miracle.
The gig the next night was awesome too.
The day after that, planning for #RYC2019 began. See ya 10/12/19, New York City . <3
The buildings were still tall. The lights were still bright. The people were still gorgeous inside and out. The pizza was still delicious.
The New York City I found in July of 2018 was about the same as the New York City I left behind in September of 2016, but with a few extra of those tall buildings. So I won’t blah blah much about what I saw or did this time around. Aside from a Yankee game, the Museum of the City of New York, and quick trips out to Queens and Brooklyn for concerts, most of what I did in Manhattan last week was a repeat experience. (But I will say that those repeat experiences were just as good if not even better than round 1.)
When I return to the greatest city on Earth for a full week on October 6th almost everything on my agenda is something I haven’t done yet, so I’ll have plenty to write about then.
What I want to do with this piece, is shout out three people that played a vital role in making #RYC2018v1 the wonderous trip it was.
1. David Byrne
The entire reason for this trip was to see The Killers. They were ridiculously excellent, delivering a blistering performance and near flawless setlist that made every penny spent to get to them worth it. In other words, they met my expectations exactly.
David Byrne though, blew away my expectations like they’ve never been blown away before. (On that topic, side shout out to Culture Club who the night before at Forest Hills Stadium also exceeded my expectations by a decent margin. I went to that show more for the B-52s, and they were really fun, but musically/vocally they were a bit… lacking. Culture Club on the other hand sounded brilliant, and Boy George is one of the more charming frontmen I’ve ever seen.)
Back to Byrne. Now, I was pretty jazzed to see a New York music icon performing in the city that made him famous, but honestly if you had asked me my opinion about the Talking Heads as recently as a few days ago, the answer would’ve been something like “I very much respect the role they played in developing the early punk scene, and they have a handful of songs I really dig, but I’m mostly kinda meh on them… and “Burning Down the House” and “Once in a Lifetime” are annoying as hell.”
Well, not live they aren’t. Those songs live, like every other song he performed that day, leapt off the stage and into my new wave heart to take up permanent residence. For one dude in the audience, who I had the pleasure of standing beside throughout that set, those songs were already there, as evidenced by the tears of joy streaming down his face during “Once in a Lifetime.”
The stage show itself was so mind-obliteratingly brilliant and original that any song Byrne chose to perform would’ve been impactful, but the setlist was crafted as finely as the presentation, primarily mixing songs from his excellent 2018 solo album with Talking Heads hits… including my very favourite, “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” which was totally unexpected.
So, I entered my Killers experience already on level 10 of my fandom, and that’s where they stayed. I started watching Byrne on like maybe a 7, and ended on a 10. I’ve been on a Byrne binge ever since. That’s the power of the live music experience, the gift it can give you.
Speaking of New York music icons performing in the city that made them famous, before coming home I’d also get to see Tom Verlaine and the rest of Television in action. Yet another “this can’t be really happening” moment. (Those seem to occur about once every half hour or so when in NYC.)
2. My travelling companion Angelina
New York City is enthralling. It’s energizing. It’s inspiring. It’s life-affirming, and life-altering.
What is isn’t, is easy.
The punishing summer heat, the even more punishing heat in the Subway stations, the constant crowds, the constant noise, the occasional unpleasant odour, the occasional unpleasant sight, the occasional dark deserted street that makes you rethink your walking route, etc… to thrive in or even just survive in New York, you gotta really want it.
I assumed she would do well, her level of interest in the city and the research/prep she did so enthusiastically were encouraging signs… but with New York, you don’t know until you know if it’s really going to be your thing or not. It’s not for everyone.
Well, it is for Ang. Even while nursing a sore knee after day two, she impressively tackled kilometer after kilometer of unforgiving NYC pavement and the numerous staircases one encounters while exploring without ever slowing down. Pop an Aleve and on to the next stop. I appreciated that so much. Oh and she actually cared about and listened to Chris Real’s nearly constant narration of where we were haha, what this or that building is, or what they used to be, who used to live on that block, who was killed on this block, etc etc. Playing tour guide made things extra fun for me. Also, New York City is a place where plans can and do change rapidly, and Ang’s “roll with it” attitude in those situations helped make things run smooth and stress free.
As much as I love travelling alone, and as much as I’m looking forward to my solo NY mission in October, this time it was really cool to have another person - one whose passion for the city now almost rivals my own, along for the ride.
Oh yeah, and she nailed her first Metrocard swipe attempt. Huge props.
3. The Chinese bodega owner in The Bronx who spoke English to me and Spanish to the guy in front of me
Because nothing is more New York City than that.
That was just one of many unforgettable random interactions with random New Yorkers just being their random New Yorker selves I could talk about in this space.
That’s the true magic of NYC - the fusion of all the cultures and lifestyles of the world existing side by side, sharing a walking trail in the park, crammed together in a Subway car, stacked on top of each other in way too small apartments that cost way too much… New York City is globalism’s greatest experiment, and its greatest success.
Tall buildings are awesome. Bright lights are beautiful. And seriously, that pizza = daaaamn. But the very best thing about spending time in NY is being right in the middle of that experiment, and therefore being part of that experiment.
Nothing I’ve ever done, have had done to me, or consumed in this lifetime has ever made me feel more alive.
Bring on October 6th.
I hiked to the top of an active volcano.
If you’ve been a FB friend for more than 10 days you knew that already, but I had to start this piece with that sentence because damn does “hiked to the top of an active volcano” look good on the ol’ resume of life.
The first full day of my Italy adventure ended up being the best. All my previous trips have taught me plenty about the place I was visiting, and about myself, but my day on Vesuvius and exploring Pompeii is the first time I can say that my understanding of our species as a whole was dramatically enhanced. In fact my entire perspective on the current state of humanity shifted that day, learning about life in Pompeii.
Why? Because a day in Pompeii led by an expert guide teaches you that essentially nothing has changed in 2000+ years. Humans have evolved physically of course. We’ve gotten taller, we’re living longer, etc., but when it comes to general behavior, the way humans in 2018 satisfy basic needs, adjust to challenges by inventing technology, entertain themselves and others, seek spiritual guidance, and flaunt wealth, is basically no different than how they did those things in 79 AD. I found an odd comfort in that. We live in times where the present seems so overwhelming and the future so uncertain, but that’s what every era of humanity has dealt with, and yet we’ve always overcome the circumstances of our situation and survived.
Also, it could be easy to take exception to the fact that such a sacred site as Pompeii is flanked by souvenir stands… but when you learn that the original Pompeii had souvenir stands too, you understand it’s not evil modern humans commercializing ancient sites for profit, it’s normal modern humans behaving exactly like normal ancient humans. For profit.
That was day 1. The next six would be spent in Rome.
There are no “must sees” in Rome.
Hear me out. Sure, the thought of spending any time in Rome and not making a beeline to the Colosseum at some point for a selfie seems ridiculous, and in fact that was the first thing I did after checking in. But would my trip to Rome have been as good without doing so? Absolutely. Would it have been as good without seeing the Vatican? Hell yes. Would it have been as good without checking out the Pantheon? Si.
Don’t get me wrong, all of the above are spectacular feasts for the eyes, as is Piazza Navona, Piazza Venezia, The Spanish Steps, etc. Trevi Fountain too - if you can see it through the throngs of tourists. I maybe shouldn’t single out Trevi for that comment because there are throngs of tourists at every famous landmark in Rome, but they’re squeezed into a much smaller space at Trevi. You’ll get your selfie, and if you feel like throwing elbows you’ll get to toss your coin, but don’t expect a quiet moment of introspection.
But the truly remarkable thing about Rome is that none of those sights would need to be visited to have an excellent experience. Literally every street and alley in Rome’s city centre is an attraction as visually compelling as the iconic ancient and Renaissance treasures that dot the city. Whether it’s one of the many gorgeous churches, or old palaces, or random ornate public fountains, or simply an apartment building covered in hanging greenery, I was in awe every time I’d turn a corner.
Those little alleys are also gastronomically compelling. One of the main reasons for visiting Rome is the food, and it’s those narrow streets off the beaten path away from the tourist magnets that provide the greatest rewards - the tiny trattoria, the bakery you won’t find on Trip Advisor, or the bar (what coffee shops are called in Italy) that predominantly caters to locals. These places all have higher quality offerings and often much lower prices as well. I got a piece of advice before leaving that seemed to hold true – if the menu is displayed in Italian AND English, move on. If it’s only in Italian, it’s probably a winner.
There are plenty of “must eats” in Rome. In my posts while over there I’ve already mentioned the carbonara, and the suppli, and the gelato, and the coffee, and the coffee again (because seriously O. M. GAAAAWD the coffee). So I will use this space to instead shout out something I haven’t yet mentioned called Sfogliatelle Ricci, an Italian pasty filled with ricotta cheese flavoured with a hint of cinnamon and citrus. Italian pastries in general are the stuff of legend, but this one is their undisputed king as far as my taste buds are concerned.
Oh right, and pizza. I’ve already talked about that as well, but I’m going to again.
Truth is, Rome might be the average pizza capital of the world. There are just so many pizza options, and so much of it just isn’t all that special. It’s mostly quite good, because all pizza is mostly quite good. But not special.
One place however, is extremely special. L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele. I visited the Roman location of this restaurant first made famous in Napoli three times in six days. It’s that great. They use a traditional wood-fired oven and ingredients sourced exclusively from Napoli and the result is transcendent. I was cautious with my expectations going in because it’s widely considered to be the best pizza in the world, and such a lofty title usually ends up being nothing but a setup for a disappointment, but it lived up to the hype and then some.
It’s also worth mentioning that all these different food vendors help make Rome the best smelling city I’ve ever visited.
And I’ve been to Amsterdam.
So other than the incredible sights and tastes and smells, what else does Rome have to offer?
- Traffic. Completely unpoliced, unyielding, unrelenting traffic. I would go so far as to say that if you’re not willing to jump in front of a speeding bus at least a couple times a day, don’t bother visiting. Those narrow alleyways I loved so much are barely a reprieve either, because smaller cars and especially motorized scooters race down them as well.
- Scam artists. Completely unpoliced, unyielding, unrelenting scam artists. At every tourist spot and at all hours, hawking selfie sticks, phone chargers, etched glass cubes, cheap toys, cheaper jewelry, etc etc. This is something you see in every major tourist destination on Earth, but nowhere else I’ve been would I describe it as an “issue” that could impact someone’s enjoyment of a place. They are a different breed in Rome. Very few take one “no” for an answer. All of them take politeness ie: “no thank you” as a sign of weakness to be exploited. They’re like house flys you need to shoo aggressively and repeatedly before they’ll move on.
- Pickpockets. Again, only really an issue around the touristy areas, and the main train station. They work in teams and they present all different sorts of looks, including wearing priest outfits. Usually when someone runs into you in public, it’s because they’re not paying attention. In Rome, it’s because they are paying attention. To you. It’s easy to avoid being victimized by being aware of your surroundings and playing it smart, but if you’re in a crowd in Rome, you’re being sized up.
Now, these negatives can also be kind of fun too, for a while, but after a few days of dealing with it non-stop the joy wears off.
And when it does, Rome comes through again, in the form of the neighbourhoods mostly ignored by tourists that surround the city centre. The gritty but rapidly gentrifying BoHo blocks of San Lorenzo and Pigneto, and especially the serene Trastevere and Jewish Ghetto offer not only a break from the eternal madness of The Eternal City, but also a truly authentic slice of Italian life. These were my favourite parts of Rome. Another major reason I loved hanging in these hoods is because they were the only places I was able to speak a lot of Italian. In the tourist areas, an attempt at speaking the language is appreciated by a native Italian, but in those areas one mostly interacts with people in the service industry, and a huge chunk of the service industry is made up of Eastern European immigrants who are more comfortable with English than Italian. (Though at my hotel I had the chance to practice Italian with a desk clerk from Bucharest who also wanted to practice hers.)
Other than getting to the outlying neighbourhoods, if I’m ever asked for advice from someone considering making their first trip to Rome, I will make sure to mention taking at least one very early morning walk (6-7 AM). Watching Rome start to come alive for the day, seeing the metal gates of stores being rolled up, the chairs being unstacked outside of bakeries, tarps over market stalls being set up, etc is so cool. (Not to mention scoring the very freshest breads/pastries at those bakeries.) I will also offer the advice that even though it doesn’t feel like one needs to visit any of Rome’s numerous museums because the whole city is a museum, they’re still worth doing, especially in the afternoon. It makes for a great break from the intense midday sun, as well as the crowds, because you have any museum you choose essentially to yourself.
And so, with the sights all seen and the foods all sampled, it was time to return home.
Leaving Rome was different from leaving anywhere else I’ve been because as I left, I knew I wouldn’t be back. Never say never I guess, but unlike say Dublin, where I’d like to get back for a U2 gig, or Amsterdam, where I vowed to revisit before ever leaving, or New York City, where I need to return at least once a year for the rest of my life or else why even go on, when I left Rome I did so with the feeling that as glad as I was to experience it, I’d gotten as much out of my stay as I ever would. So goodbye was truly goodbye.
It’s an amazing place, but there’s a looooong list of amazing places on this planet that I’ve yet to see. Rome wasn’t built in a day… but it was conquered in six. 😉
Again, thanks to Italy for the unforgettable week, and to all who joined me via social media on this adventure. We now have 72 days to rest up for New York.
"They're selling kisses."
According to my Sandemans walking tour guide, that is a common response Amsterdam parents give their children the first time they ask what those ladies behind the windows are doing. "Getting ready to go to the beach" is another one.
If you're wondering why children would be anywhere near there in the first place, it's because at the end of one strip of red light windows in De Wallen, there's also a daycare.
In the middle of another, there's a Dominos Pizza. The Red Light District isn't exclusively that. It is part of a neighbourhood where people live and shop and eat and smoke up. For an Amsterdam rookie it's surreal to be able to buy a slice of Hawaiian and a beej on the same block. Not that I'd ever do that, I respect myself too much to ever eat Dominos.
Kidding. While I did dedicate an evening to a couple different sex clubs including one that featured the actual act of... let's say love making, when it came to the ladies for hire I stuck to window shopping only. That was one part of the local economy I wouldn't have felt right stimulating.
Damn, barely into this piece and already into the sex and drugs.
Every Amsterdam travel book/blog/YouTube clip/etc says the exact same thing "Amsterdam is so much more than sex and weed yadda yadda yadda..."
And that's absolutely correct... but c'mon.
Yes Amsterdam has interesting architecture, fantastic museums, impressive public markets, and beautiful performance venues that attract major touring artists, and it was a pleasure to experience all of the above.
But c'mon. Every major world city has all those things.
Amsterdam may be much more that sex and weed, but sex and weed are what make Amsterdam special on the world's stage.
De Wallen is always thick with the scent of marijuana... and caramelized sugar. There may be a coffeeshop on every other block but there's a bakery on every block - I'm guessing these two types of businesses have a bit of a symbiotic relationship. And De Wallen is always crawling with tourists of all ages/races/sexes who are there specifically to check out the skin-for-sale scene.
They're checking it out for the same reason I was, because we all come from various repressed areas of the planet and can't really believe a place like Amsterdam exists. But it does, and it's glorious.
From the moment I stepped out of the beautiful and frantic Centraal Station, I was deeply in love. Seeing the canals and the crooked houses that line them, walking up to Dam Square and seeing the stunning Royal Palace, and encountering the first of many sparkling Dutch personalities was all it took. The next five days continuously reinforced that love at first sight. The beauty of the people matched perfectly with the beauty of the buildings.
If I had to pick, I think the huge outdoor markets you find in every section of the city were my very favourite thing about Amsterdam. All similar but all unique. Excellent places to strike up conversations with locals. And all of them had at least one booth that sold stroopwafel, which are two very thin tortilla-like waffles with an amazing caramel sauce in the middle, sometimes dipped in chocolate or some other confection. So decadent, and the way the Dutch pronounce the word is adorable.
My favourite of those markets was the Albert Cuyp Market in what became my very favourite neighbourhood, the arty and bohemian De Pijp. It is known to be the largest outdoor market in Europe and it's a trip to keep walking and walking through booths selling produce and cheese and records and clothes and anything else imaginable and seemingly never reaching an end.
Then of course the Anne Frank House experience which I still haven't found the words for and perhaps never will, but the feeling won't ever leave me.
Then there was getting to see a Warhol exhibit on one day and a Banksy exhibit the next - neither of which I knew about before getting there which is ridiculous because my trip research is always intense bordering on obsessive - but that gives an idea of just how much there was to research about this place. The Dutch truly respect the importance of art and are rightly proud of their country's contribution to that world.
Okay now back to the sex and the weed... the weed anyway.
I visited five coffeeshops, though only made purchases in three of them. It is perfectly okay to go to a coffeeshop and smoke stuff you didn't buy there, though it's considered polite to at least buy a beverage while you're there. I can't really say "I like coffeeshop culture" or "I don't like coffeeshop culture" because like bars they all have different vibes and attract different clientele. I liked the ones a little outside of the busiest areas of De Wallen the best. Marijuana is for chilling, not for watching dozens of loud stoned tourists display a lack of basic motor skills.
So is the stuff better than you find in Canada?
Yes. Better than I've found in Canada anyway (including in BC). Particularly a strain I picked up at Grey Area called Silver Bubble. It's a Cannabis Cup winner and after a couple puffs I was ready to cash in my return plane ticket and float back to Canada.
Now the downside to the open prostitution and tolerated drug use is that all this freedom has turned Amsterdam into a dirty and crime-ridden cesspool.
Another fun fact my Sandemans guide let me in on - there are currently more people working in the Dutch prison system than there are Dutch people in prison. The country has shut down and repurposed 19 prisons since year 2000 because they were sitting empty. They've now also started importing prisoners from neighbouring countries to make use of the ones still operating. Amsterdam itself is consistently rated one of the safest large cities on Earth, and that's exactly how it feels. My third night there after a concert in an unfamiliar area in the other end of the city instead of taking a tram back to my hotel I walked without a second thought, exploring a lot of random alleys along the way. Also, I saw literally one homeless person the entire time I was there. Though I did see him twice. Amsterdam also doesn't have random street scammers on every major pedestrian thoroughfare. Like none at all. After spending time in New York and Vegas and London that was a nice change of pace.
The Dutch people have some mysteries of life figured out and those of us in other parts of the globe would be wise to catch up asap.
Here's one of the mysteries they have figured out...
One thing you won't find in this city that seemingly offers everything someone could desire is a coffee coozie - or whatever those cardboard things we put around our cups to keep from burning our fingers are called. Their coffee is just as hot as ours but they do the weirdest thing to work around that, they sit at tables while drinking it and enjoy the moment, rather than grabbing it while rushing off somewhere. Most places I went for a java didn't even offer to go as an option. It was a great reminder that multitasking isn't always a virtue. (He typed while drinking a cappuccino)
Some other notable feathers in Amsterdam’s cap:
• Free Wi-Fi basically everywhere.
• The two most notable churches aren’t churches anymore, they’ve been repurposed as art and commercial space. As an agnostic architecture lover it’s always a little weird for me to have to acknowledge that some my favourite buildings in a city are there because of something that contradicts my sense and sensibilities, so feeling really comfortable about going inside these gorgeous structures for a peak was a very cool change of pace.
•The food choices are varied and plentiful and generally a bit less expensive than most major cities. I could fill up at their extremely fast food chain FEBO for 5 or 6 Euro, and did so 3 times because it was really tasty and for whatever reason I really enjoy buying food from a wall.
•The locals are generally so outgoing and friendly. Often quite direct, which for this guy from a country that prizes politeness and humility above all else took a bit of getting used to, but the directness was completely charming, not off-putting at all. Oh except if you’re in the way of their cycling path, then they’ll ring their bells at you so hard.
I know I’ll be going back to Amsterdam. I likely won't make it the sole purpose of a trip again, but I have every intention of getting back to Europe in the near future and when I do I have every intention of getting back to Amsterdam for a couple days, as the first round was near perfect.
Not totally perfect... I guess I should point out a couple negatives, and there are only two that I can think of.
I dig the whole tolerance trip Amsterdam is all about but unfortunately that also applies to smoking tobacco cigarettes anywhere outside. None of this 10 metres away from doors and windows thing there (though you can't smoke cigarettes in the coffeeshops which I always found hilarious and awesome) so walking down any sidewalk means a walk through a few walls of emphysema.
The other negative is the lack of live music in bars. Huge DJ scene over there and it's a good one but trying to find a band to watch or a jam to join proved futile. After getting to make so much music in Ireland I was hoping for the same in Holland but aside from a couple minutes in a guitar store and singing along to Third Eye Blind and WILDES and Sisters of Mercy there was no opportunity... but those are tiny blemishes on an otherwise remarkable and rewarding adventure.
Overall, this journey has probably been my favourite so far, and like all great trips I learned as much about myself as I did about my destination. It’ll be tough finding something to top it.
But trying will be awesome.
I was a homeless man on the unforgiving streets of Dublin.
Okay, it was only for like 9 hours while I was waiting for check-in time at my hotel, but I figured I better pay tribute to the great Irish literary tradition and pen a strong opening line for this thing.
So there I was on the streets of Dublin, with only the clothes on my back.
Okay, it’s because the hotel was kind enough to store my luggage until check-in time… I’ll stop now.
My first morning in Dublin was a Sunday morning. A very early Sunday morning. My first of many very long walks around this storied old city was through nearly deserted narrow streets, and plenty of stray garbage and bottles, and let’s just say interesting aromas. My first impression of Dublin was something along the lines of “If a hangover were a city…”
But I dug it. Even though my brain was exhausted from being awake for close to 30 hours (damn I envy people who can sleep on planes), my heart never seems to get tired and it was joyfully soaking up all that Dublin would give it. The graffiti and metal gates shuttering various pubs, food joints, and stores in Parnell Square, which was my home base for this trip, reminded me of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. After exploring that area and some territory northward, I decided to head down the main drag of O’Connell Street, past the General Post Office that served as the base for the leaders of the Irish rising in 1916 where I examined the bullet holes left in the pillars as a reminder of that conflict, and past the world’s tallest sculpture known as The Spire, and headed down to the River Liffey.
The River Liffey separates the north and south sides of Dublin, and is lined on both sides with shops, bakeries, hotels and hostels, and of course, pubs. There are many ways to cross the Liffey but the most poetic is the Ha’penny Bridge, which when crossing from the north side leads to Merchant’s Arch, which takes you into Dublin’s most famous district, Temple Bar. Walking through Temple Bar at 6am means you have it to yourself, and have time to properly appreciate the cobblestone roads and iconic signs and wall paintings that dominate the streetscape. By noon, Temple Bar is filled with thousands of loud, laughing people speaking/slurring many different languages, and the focus is drawn away from the permanent features and onto the equally compelling theatre of life its visitors star in.
I returned to this area time and time again over the course of my 7 day stay. Seeking the laughter, seeking the theatre, and seeking the opportunity to absorb and participate in the abundance of live music that is heard wafting from several places on each block. Twice I found myself in my natural habitat – behind a microphone. The first time to lend lead vox to a rousing acoustic version of the Killers “Mr. Brightside”, and the second to sing harmonies and the bridge to U2’s “Desire.” Before my trip was over, I would also have the chance to play some guitar on Irish soil, and hallowed Irish soil at that, in Temple Lane Studios where a who’s who of significant artists both Irish and international have spent time making music. I jammed a couple songs as part of a trio, Jimi’s “Red House”, and in honour of one of the men to previously stand where I was standing, Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.” An experience I’ll never forget.
It occurs to me at this point, since I’m several paragraphs in and haven’t made it out of Temple Bar yet, that I’ll never be able to detail or even mention every incredible moment this adventure provided me without turning this word eruption into a full on Mount Vesuvius of keystrokes. So what I’ll do is focus on the 3 most standout aspects.
1 – The Tour of U2 Dublin Landmarks
I tend to keep this on the DL, but I’m a huge U2 fan. In fact they are the sole reason Ireland was on my radar as a potential travel destination. I wanted to see the city where my hero was born and raised and resides to this day. There are a couple different options for U2 group tours of Dublin through various tour companies. I’m sure they’re fine. However I had the great fortune of having the opportunity to do a private tour with Mister Dave Griffith, author of the excellent ‘U2 Locations: An inside guide to U2 places and the stories behind them’ and that was much, much more than fine.
Our day started with a car ride up to Dublin’s northern suburbs to see Bono’s childhood home, as well as Larry’s, which also was the site of the band’s first rehearsal. Then it was on to Mount Temple where the band went to school and met and played their first ever show on a platform outside the school gym. Seeing that stage struck me harder than anything else I’d see that day, and after a quick photo-op, I just stood starting at the spot for several moments. Then it was on to the south side of Dublin to see Adam’s house, and then back into Dublin city centre for a walking tour of the numerous U2-related venue and studio sites, as well as a stop at the top floor of the Little Museum of Dublin – a floor dedicated entirely to the band. At the end of the tour, Dave was kind enough to sign my book, and quote my favourite U2 song in the inscription, and off I went with an even deeper level of knowledge and understanding about the band I love.
Aside from the sights, the conversation throughout the tour was excellent – a couple hardcore fans reminiscing about what drew them to the band, favourite albums/songs/concerts, etc.
It is here I’ll mention something that pleasantly surprised me about Dublin, and that’s the pride the city has in their most famous sons. Perhaps it’s because my own culture is one where we tend to eat our own, but I was expecting to be inundated with a bunch of twerps who think it’s cool and edgy (no pun intended) to hate on U2, and of course I did run into that attitude a couple times, but overall Dublin enthusiastically celebrates the band. The city has two separate museums with dedicated U2 exhibits, several businesses named after U2 songs, street vendors selling U2 merch, and you hear their music, both canned and live, everywhere. It was glorious. G-L-O-R-I-O-U-S.
They are also just as proud, and rightly so, of other local heroes Thin Lizzy and Rory Gallagher.
They also seem to really like Snow Patrol, which is the one musical topic on which I disagree strongly with the Irish people.
2 – The Belfast Black Taxi Tour
As I stood on Bombay Street in a group of about 10 listening to a lifelong Belfast resident describe how the now houseless stretch of road was burned to the ground by British loyalists at the onset of The Troubles – the decades long conflict between the Protestant British loyalist majority in Northern Ireland and the Catholic minority advocating a united Ireland, I noticed 2 people tearing up, myself, and our guide that was describing the events of the conflict.
I was hearing these stories and seeing these sites for the first time, and as someone who would prefer all humans get along at all times, I wasn’t surprised by my reaction.
But what struck me in that moment was thinking about how many times this man must have given the same account of these events he was now giving us, how many groups of people he’d stood in front of and described the situation he’d lived through. He’d probably already done so a couple times that very day… and it still brings him to tears. Then he revealed that he was in fact, a Protestant loyalist himself. He was standing in “enemy” territory, describing what his side had inflicted on the other. Crying.
Friends, our sometimes erratic, sometimes irrational, too oftentimes divided species has a chance.
These Black Taxi operators are the real deal. Our group would hear from 3 of them throughout the course of the tour of the famous political murals and “peace” walls throughout Belfast. The drivers bring with them powerful and disturbing pictures of the conflict to show their passengers, but they’re not pictures on an iPad or printed off the internet. They are actual pictures they took or had taken of them, on actual faded and worn photo paper. Pictures of themselves holding firearms on patrol. Pictures of their mates from inside a prison. Pictures of military helicopters lifting in food to the top of an apartment building.
These men describe in vivid detail what life in Northern Ireland was like just 20 years ago, and the roles they themselves played.
These men express undying gratitude to the architect of the relative peace they currently enjoy – Bill Clinton.
These men cannot hide their trepidation that this peace could prove fragile and end at any moment.
These men become visibly moved telling each other’s stories.
I’m not Irish, British, Catholic, or Protestant. I have no skin in this game, besides as a human being, but that’s all the skin you need in this particular game to be shaken to the core from being in the heart of The Troubles.
3 – A Day in London
I expected to like it. I wouldn’t have decided to dedicate a day of my trip to it, to wake up at 4am and invest 10 hours of bus/airport/train time toward spending just 7 hours in the city itself, if I didn’t think I would like it.
I didn’t expect to fall in love the second I stepped out of the Liverpool Street Station, and continue falling deeper and deeper as I made my way through.
London is the most classically beautiful city I’ve ever seen and I’m almost certain ever will, no matter where else my travels take me. Seeing all of London’s famous architecture, monuments, city squares, and parkland in pictures, on TV, and in the movies my entire life did nothing to prepare me for just how stunning it all is in person. The gold detailing on Big Ben alone was worth 7 minutes of staring. (and I’ll send a thanks to Big Ben for providing that specific information regarding the duration of my gawking)
The frantic scene around Piccadilly Circus, the Brit version of Times Square, got my blood pumping as well.
Side note: Many will tell you to avoid areas like Times Square and Piccadilly Circus and even Temple Bar, slapping the derogatory “tourist trap” label on them. Don’t avoid them. Don’t make the mistake many tourists do on vacation and focus solely on “touristy” things either, but definitely take them in. There’s a reason certain places/buildings/attractions/etc are “tourist traps” and that reason is that there’s something about them that a lot of people have identified as worth doing/seeing. Like everything else in life, it’s all about finding the right balance. When it comes to visiting new places, the balance that needs to be struck is between being “touristy” and getting into more local areas to see how the people live.
With that said, it’s time to talk about SoHo.
SoHo to me has always been “the area south of Houston Street” in New York City. It’s an area of that city I adore, and I was aware its name was in part an homage to its London counterpart. I was not aware that London’s SoHo was so similar in culture and vibe to NYC’s SoHo, and NYC’s Greenwich Village, and NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen. When I hit SoHo, I had 4 hours left of my day in London. I could’ve checked out the neighbourhood for a bit and then went to Buckingham Palace, or Abbey Road, or Hyde Park, or any number of other iconic London sites. Instead I would spend the next 4 hours in SoHo, experiencing excellent coffee places and funky restaurants and uber-cool punk clothing stores where I spent entirely too many Pounds on t-shirts. The bohemian, hypersexual energy of the area put a stranglehold on my imagination, and it was here that thoughts earlier in the day of “I should maybe consider coming back to London for a longer stay” turned into “I am definitely returning to London as soon as possible.”
Those were the three most standout days over a stretch of 7 standout days.
Before I wrap this up, here are a few other aspects/observations of my journey that deserve a shout out:
- The beauty of the Irish countryside
The rolling hills, the rugged coastline, the turf, and the fields full of sheep were all a pleasure to see. I love big cities and prefer to spend my time in that atmosphere so getting out and seeing nature is never a high priority for me when visiting new places, but I’m glad I was able to this time around.
- The friendly, helpful nature of the Irish people, and not just those in service industry roles
Laid back. That’s the best way to describe the vibe of nearly every local I encountered. I always got a kick out of every time I had a ticket to get in somewhere or for ground transport… all those tickets had a barcode, but not one ever got scanned. A quick glance and a gesture to come in. Whether it was a bus, a club, art gallery, Kilmainham Gaol, etc. I’d chuckle and think to myself “The Key to Dublin is a piece of paper with some random words printed on it.” But it speaks to the casual mindset of the Irish. These are a people with an intense, difficult history. They’ve had real problems and real worries for centuries, right up until relatively recently. The minor things our somewhat repressed and completely uptight North American society chooses to get worked up over just don’t register as a big deal. It’s a pleasure to be immersed in.
- Travelling solo
This isn’t specific to Ireland, but this was my first trip entirely alone and let me tell ya, it is where it’s at. I can see how it wouldn’t be for everyone but it is awesome for me. Not being held back by someone else’s sore feet or frustrated by someone else’s indifferent attitude toward doing/seeing something is so freeing. Also it allows/forces this introvert to socialize more than he would if he had a travel companion, and it’s in those random interactions that the most lasting, important memories of a trip are made. Of course there are advantages to travelling with others as well, and I look forward to future opportunities to do just that, but this trip confirmed for me how good travelling by myself can be, and I’m excited for many more solo adventures in the years to come.
And that was #Irealand2017.
My last morning in Dublin was a Saturday morning. A very early Saturday morning. My last of many very long walks around this storied old city was through nearly deserted narrow streets, and a cold rain. A poetic way to say goodbye to such a poetic place.
I don’t have a strong enough closing line to pay tribute to the great Irish literary tradition so… Sláinte!
Panamanians love chocolate cookies and loud, bouncy music.
Not all of them, of course... that’s what makes stereotypes dumb... but I’m not stereotyping, I’m generalizing because generalizations are sometimes important for the purpose of story telling and my story of Panama involves the observation that Panamanians (generally) love chocolate cookies and loud, bouncy music, and the reason I made note of that is because I love those things as well.
It did not take me long to fall in love. That was guaranteed to happen the second I stepped out of Tocumen Airport and into sticky, sweet +25 air after beginning my journey in unforgiving, violent -25 air a mere 21 hours earlier... but there was much more about Panama to fall in love with besides the weather.
The countryside is gorgeous. I was expecting palm trees and beaches and rainforest and jungle - and that was there and was a feast for the senses. I spent hours and hours just sitting on the deck or beach with my wonderful hosts watching the waves of the Pacific and listening to the tides roll in and out - but what I was not expecting was an incredible mountain range showcasing that jungle landscape on steep slopes and tall peaks all along the Pan-Am Highway. Stunning.
The people are also gorgeous. I’m not meaning physically, though certainly the voluptuous features of the Panamanian female on both face and frame could easily hold this red-blooded Canadian boy’s attention, but spiritually. There (generally) is a fierce national pride, a friendliness, and a love of life that is felt instantly and it’s infectious. Must be all the chocolate cookies and loud, bouncy music.
The story of the country is riveting. A long, complicated history with a very recent chapter involving an invasion by the most powerful army on Earth out to capture military dictator Manuel Noriega - a man who rose to power in the first place with help from the invading nation. If you find yourself as a passenger in a vehicle in Panama and your driver speaks English, chances are good they will be happy to share their opinion about that chapter. If you’re an American citizen with delusions that your country is an agent for global stability, maybe steer the conversation to something else. I suggest baseball, particularly the New York Yankees. Panamanians (generally) don’t care for anything American except the currency, but a Yankee player named Mariano Rivera has ensured that the famous NY logo is displayed on the streets of Panama City almost as much as the Panamanian flag.
I probably don’t need to mention where Mister Rivera comes from.
My time in Panama was a perfect mix of time spent relaxing in the sun, and time spent exploring local villages and Panama City. Time spent relaxing in the sun doesn’t make for the most interesting writing so I’ll focus on the exploring.
Home base for the week was a luxury high rise called the Bahia in the small fishing village of Nueva Gorgona - a great place to walk around to get a feel for authentic Panamanian life and culture. The barbed wire lining almost every fence serves as a constant reminder of recent troubled times, but also stands in contrast to the openness of the village residents, who never let a passerby go without an enthusiastic “Hola” or “Bueno.”
From Gorgona, a couple 30 cent bus rides will get you to Playa Coronado, a gated resort community with some local businesses, fruit stands, a shopping centre, and a couple casinos along the highway. A decent way to spend a day.
But it’s a $2.50 bus trip that will start the ultimate Panama adventure. $2.50 will get you to the Gran Terminal - a huge transport hub at the biggest shopping centre in Panama, the Albrook Mall on the outskirts of Panama City. From there you can get anywhere in the city with ease, including where we spent the day - the Panama Canal, and the old quarter of town called Casco Viejo.
The Canal is worth seeing in action. Watching the huge ships being brought in and through to the other side is quite the experience. The museum is very well done too, particularly the simulator that puts you in the control room of a cargo craft going through the locks that is so realistic I don’t recommend it if you are at all prone to seasickness. Made for a great morning.
Then it was off to Casco Viejo.
“This is not the prettiest route” said our Uber driver, “but most intriguing.”
He was taking us through an area called El Chorrillo - the city’s most notorious slum. An area ravaged by the ‘89 US invasion and, still very much under the control of the drug gangs that the invasion was supposedly going to eradicate, has been slow to recover. It was the most graphic urban scene I’ve witnessed in my life, like something out of a movie. I was entranced. As the car was exiting the area and into the much more well-appointed and tourist friendly UNESCO world heritage site Casco Viejo, I knew my plans for the afternoon had just changed.
Now, I still wanted to see Casco Viejo of course. he beautiful ruins from the 1600s, the plazas and cathedrals, the quaint shops and restaurants, the Roman Catholic artifacts that I assure you don’t require one to be Catholic or even religious at all to stand in awe of, and the list of worthy sights in that district goes on...
Oh, and the $170/lb coffee. It’s called Panamanian Geisha coffee, and it is very rare. There is one place in all of Panama City that sells it, and we happened to be in the neighbourhood. Bajareque Coffee House in the old quarter will brew you a cup for $9. No free refills (haha). It is glorious, the most flavourful black coffee I’ve ever consumed. Fruity with a hint of… honey? Its flavour is not easily describable, but this coffee snob was in ecstasy.
After some more wandering, and checking out the Palacio De Las Garzas (Presidential Palace), and a delicious lunch of frijoles/pollo/queso tacos, it was time.
I set off on my own down the same street we drove into Casco Viejo, toward El Chorrillo.
“It’s the daytime, it’ll be safe” I said to myself.
“I’ve walked through some of the poorest neighbourhoods in New York City, this won’t be that much different” I said to myself.
“I’ve lived in North Central Regina, I can handle anything” I said to myself.
And just as I’d worked up the necessary amount of courage to enter…
I was turned away.
“No, no, muerte!” the Policia said to myself.
At the time, my white male privileged ass thought they were trying to protect me, but it was brought to my attention later on that the more likely possibility is they were trying to protect the rep of the country. Keep the tourists in the tourist areas. That made much more sense.
So, I turned back. For about a block. Then found an alternate way in.
I never felt like I was in any danger. The next day I would read more about the area and I understood that though I never faced any problems directly, the potential was all around me, but the ugliness of the surroundings never seemed to extend to the attitudes of the people. Sure, you get the occasional stare down, and some funny looks, but there are also plenty of smiles and holas. The only confrontation I had to deal with was being yelled at, a couple times. Once in Spanish by a very old, very drunk man. I of course didn’t know what he was yelling but chances are with the slurring I wouldn’t have understood even if he was yelling in English.
The second time was by a very young girl, in English. “No photo, no photo!” followed by an extended hand that let me know that her demand was up for negotiation. I had taken a few photos up until then, but I would take none after that moment. I hadn’t gone in there to exploit, I had gone in to explore, to experience, and to extract knowledge about a people and a way of life so very different from my own… I had gone in, to connect… But at that moment it sunk in that my pure intentions meant nothing. All that those people, who didn’t have the luxury of viewing the horrid conditions they call home as a place to “learn about” saw, was a person who clearly didn’t belong, documenting the tragedy of their existence.
I gave the little girl a Balboa - a Panamanian dollar coin, and put the phone away for good.
But I continued my walk, deeper into the neighbourhood, keeping to well-populated streets for the most part. Earlier in my walk I’d come across a tightly packed open air marketplace, a decrepit K-Mart-like department store, and plenty of tiny bars and stores. Now I was among many residential buildings in various states of disrepair. Some made me wonder how they were even standing. Most of the sights, smells, and sounds were not pleasant to my sheltered Canadian senses. In fact some of the sounds coming from a couple of the residences were down right chilling. There were plenty of stray dogs as well, but I had gotten used to that in Gorgona, where humans, dogs, and chickens alike share the streets.
Then eventually I found myself on a street that my Spidey senses told me was “one block too far” and I turned around and headed back.
I didn’t like much of what I came across during those couple hours of course, but I am so glad to have done it, to have had the opportunity to experience that scene and those conditions and that vibe in a real, human way. As a follower of current events and world news since I was very young, I’ve spent a whole lifetime seeing the images on TV and in magazines and online of places like this, and Panama City specifically in the late 80s/early 90s, and every time I did, I’d note the sadness of the situation, and assume I was properly empathetic to the plight of those stuck in zones like that.
I was not properly empathetic. I am still not.
I have much more empathy, and a much deeper understanding of that existence, but I will never fully understand. I could walk out of that situation and get on a bus to head back to a beautiful condo overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and then fly back to a country where the very worst examples of urban poverty and crime would be a Heaven to the people of El Chorrillo.
We are so very lucky. The -25 weather I wanted so badly to escape suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.
And so, as the most incredible of days was coming to an end, it was time to hop a bus back to Gorgona.
Panama public transit is a story and adventure unto itself. The most infamous conveyance are the Diablo Rojo (Red Devil) busses. With huge smokestacks and covered in spray paint murals, they are easy to spot.
Very little of the public transit is government ran or regulated, and the regulations that are in place are not enforced at all, so that makes for some interesting rides.
To start, the quality of bus you’ll be riding is like a lottery. Some are quite new and nice. Some are as old as from the 60s and somehow still running (though not always consistently so, a bus on the side of the road is as common a sight on the Pan-Am Highway as a fruit stand).
The busses typically have thick tinting on the windows… including the windshield. There are no regulations preventing this. The drivers get around the lack of visibility at night in the most logical way possible – by having their high beams on permanently.
The busses also don’t have a set schedule, or official route, as they are privately run. The good news, that leads to plenty of busses along the Pan-Am to choose from. The bad news, that means busses are competing for riders and will race each other to the next stop to get them first. That maniacal practice of course ends once the bus is full.
Or so you’d think.
The bus we caught out of Panama City was a 30 seater. Before we were at the outskirts, we had 42 on board, not counting the driver and the fellow who handles the door and the money.
And so, off we went into the dark of the night in the way over capacity bus, speeding into bumper to bumper traffic on a shoulderless highway. Loud, bouncy music blaring. Some of the busses have large flashing lights on top. Ours didn’t, but we passed a few – or possibly the same one several times, over the course of the 2 hour ride.
All that for only $2.50.
The all too brief remainder of my time in Panama was spent in full-on chillout mode, watching the waves and spending the most quality of time with the people that helped make this whole adventure possible in the first place - I could never thank them enough. They informed me they’ll most likely return next winter. I informed them I’ll most definitely be popping down again if they do. Yhey said that’s cool. So my last night in Panama, I celebrated that plan the best way I know how.
Chocolate cookies and loud, bouncy music.
Yoko Ono and I made eye contact. Probably. We were both wearing sunglasses in a dark club but I'm pretty sure it happened.
And if not, hey, New York City is all about creativity.
It was my second night in a row at the legendary Irving Plaza, and Yoko and I were watching her and John's boy Sean do his thing in his incredible psychedelic rock band The Claypool Lennon Delirium, the music becoming clearer with every whiff of second-hand NYC marijuana I was ingesting.
The night before I was watching a former and now current song writing hero Butch Walker and thinking "Gawd I hope I look and sound that good when I'M 46!" before coming to the sad realization that I don't look and sound that good at 30-something.
But hey, New York City is all about finding and accepting your true self.
I’ve been home for a week, I’ve had some time to reflect and will now submit one last blast of language into cyberspace about #RYC2016.
On Saturday August 27th at 4pm EST my WestJet plane from Toronto landed at LaGuardia, and thus began my first visit to The Big Apple, and the greatest 116 hours I've ever lived.
A quick drive through Queens into Manhattan was the most thrilling taxi ride I've ever had, and not just because of the several near misses during lane changes executed by a gentleman having a rather intense conversation in Arabic the entire time he was chauffeuring me to my destination. Taking the RFK Bridge made for some great views of the Bronx, and cruising past the modern ruins of a borough brought to its knees by the forces of bad economic policy and Robert Moses while approaching an urban Heaven on Earth, the two separated only by a narrow strip of water and an $8 toll, was purely amazing.
The paradox can be upsetting but hey, New York City is all about extremes.
The cab dropped me off at the corner of West 45th and Avenue of the Americas, and as I stepped out it took approximately .0006 seconds of standing on Manhattan soil (well concrete but soil sounds much more poetic) to understand why nearly every major writer/artist/philosopher of the past several centuries has either been from, or done time in, the City of New York. NYC air changes the chemical composition of your blood, I’m certain of it. So, out of the cab suitcase in hand I walked past the first of approximately 18,392 street vendors I'd see (sidewalk stands selling hats/tacos/t-shirts/halal meats/sketches/pretzels/handbags/fresh fruit/etc/etc/etc dot the Manhattan grid like trees dot Central Park) and into the lobby of the Hotel St. James to check in.
Then it was out to explore. First stop – Times Square.
I was told I’d hate Times Square. I was told I have to hate Times Square. Every one of the numerous NYC-related publications I read, particularly Gothamist, describes Times Square as a Hellish landscape overran by chain stores, chain restaurants, Disney everything, and families of clueless tourists from Indiana that think the NYC experience involves patronizing said establishments.
But Times Square is so, so much more… to me anyway. I’ve spent years learning about the area and when you have an intimate knowledge of the history of Times Square, the hordes of fanny packs and sandals with socks pushing strollers don’t in any way distract from the magic of walking those streets. Sure, I can scoff at Forever 21 or The Lion King theatre as well as any overtly pretentious individual can, but I know what those and the other buildings in the vicinity used to be, and that’s what I chose to focus on, and it made for a fab experience.
Many would disagree but hey, New York City is all about forging your own reality.
After exploring some side streets of Times Square a street fair popped up seemingly out of nowhere on 8th Avenue. Street meats and crafts and ice cream as far as the eye could see. And bargains. Fridge magnets 6 for $5. Sunglasses 3 for $10.
Supper that evening cost me $3.00 and consisted of two huge greasy slices of cheese pizza and a can of Coke at a little place called 99Cent Fresh Pizza on the corner of 9th Ave and West 42nd in Hell’s Kitchen. (Not to be confused with Fresh 99Cent Pizza or 99Cent Pizza Fresh or Pizza 99 Fresh Cent that you may find on surrounding streets) This joint’s primary clientele appeared to be people that had come into NYC via the nearby Port Authority Bus Depot. If you’ve been, you know. If you haven’t, words can’t explain. But clientele aside it would prove to be the best pizza I had the entire trip out of many, many pizza meals. 2 Bros was good too while I’m on the topic. Both go well with a slice of cheesecake or a cookie from one of the numerous bakeries on and around Broadway.
Speaking of cookies, a black and white from a deli is a great snack to end the day with, which is what I did 3 of the 6 nights I was there. The other three nights were either cupcakes or gelato.
It’s not a super healthy diet but hey, New York City is all about decadence.
Y’know, I intended this piece to be a point by point, place by place summary of my visit. I was planning to list the museums, the famous buildings, the parks, the stores, the restaurants, etc and my take on all of them... But I just realized that the way too many pictures I’ve posted already tell that story so I just deleted about 10 paragraphs.
Yes, it was important to me to see my first Warhol in person, and it was super fun to have lunch in the Seinfeld restaurant, and seeing the place Sid and Nancy spent their final days was trippy, etc… but the true story of New York isn’t in the buildings, impressive though they may be, and the best art in New York isn’t found in the museums. It’s all found on the streets, or under the streets, and in its people that flood them 24 hours a day. So I’m going to write about that.
Calling this stream of consciousness audible will probably make for an uneven read but hey, New York City is all about switching gears quickly.
My MetroCard (the MTA Subway pass) will forever be my favourite souvenir from my first visit to NYC. So much of what I’d read on the Internet about the NYC Subway was very negative. Apparently it’s hard to swipe the card correctly, the stations/express trains/maps are confusing, too many schedule changes without notice, it’s overcrowded at rush hour, yadda yadda yadda… Well, all those comments I’d read online only taught me that a lot of whiners who lack critical thinking skills (and basic motor skills) like to express their opinion online.
I’m proud to report I got the swipe on the first try every time. Also got on the right train going the right direction every time. I did take 10 steps in the direction of the wrong platform once, but that was in Penn Station and there are lifelong New Yorkers that still get turned around in Penn Station so, yeah. It wasn’t even that bad the one time I rode at rush hour. The beauty of New York is in the conversations and observable idiosyncrasies of its residents. Rush hour just means more to hear and observe.
The encounters you have with New Yorkers going through their day to day New York experience teach you more than any trip to the top of Empire State Building or walk across the Brooklyn Bridge ever could.
Be it a shirtless “certified crazy person” (his words) in Washington Square Park who swore he’d been to Regina and Saskatoon years ago to go to the Thompson Fair (??), before going on about his real mother and his adopted mother and which owes the other money, before asking for money himself… or a kind, soft spoken fellow you see holding a Butch Walker poster in the Union Square Subway who after a two minute conversation on the platform intentionally gets on a different train than the one he wanted just to keep chatting (he wanted the express train to his home in Astoria but grabbed the local that I needed to take which increased his travel time by a significant stretch), each encounter is important.
My favourite conversation during my trip was with an employee at the John Varvatos store, which used to be CBGBs. He asked if I’d ever been there when it was still a club. I told him no and that this was my first visit to The City and that I needed to see it because it was hallowed ground to me. We spoke for a few minutes about the history of the club and punk music, each of us surprised by the other’s level of knowledge. He told me people come from all over the world just to take a look inside but not many know the full story of the club and how it came to be what it is and that it was great to talk to someone who did (and I don’t think he was just sucking up to a customer because this was AFTER the sale was made haha).
But even if he was just sucking up because that’s his salesman nature, hey, New York City is all about making a buck.
There were less than positive encounters too, of course. Walking out of a Subway station to be approached by a team of aggressive panhandlers shoving their change containers in your face can be unsettling, but that only happened once, on West 23rd in Chelsea. The presence of homeless people in Manhattan is basically nothing compared to say, Vancouver. Not that NYC doesn’t have a significant homeless issue because it does, it just also happens to have some of the best support systems in the world in place to help address the issue.
There are a lot of hustlers to avoid too. In Times Square especially, there’s a con on every corner. Aspiring rappers that want to “give” you blank CDs or costumed characters trying to bilk tourists out of $5 for a picture… but again there’s not near as much of that as you find in say, Vegas.
And even that incident on West 23rd was merely a bit uncomfortable. I never once felt legitimately unsafe the entire time I was in The City, any time of the day or night, whether alone or with someone, and I made a point to go into some relatively unsavoury sections of town. The Lower East Side may be gentrifying but it’s not there yet, and some of what I wanted to see in that neighbourhood bordered on some notorious housing projects. Same with the aforementioned Chelsea neighbourhood. Same with Alphabet City. But there’s usually many people around or if not, they’re around the corner, so you never consider the possibility that you’d ever be in any danger. I get much more nervous walking home from Casino Regina at 9:30pm than I ever did walking in the East Village at 1:00am.
That might sound ridiculous but hey, New York City is all about making everywhere else on Earth look bad by comparison.
Not to say there isn’t trouble that can be found. Like literally everything else in the world you might crave, if you’re looking for trouble in Manhattan you’ll find it quickly. Sometimes you can even feel it around you, but if you’re not looking for it, it doesn’t force itself on you. The same can’t be said for fake Rolexes and double decker bus tours.
*Stream of consciousness alert*
New York doesn’t smell bad. Everything I’d read and heard told me it would. Garbage, pollution, urine, etc. But New York mostly smells amazing because most of the discernable smells are food-related. The thick smoky smell from street vendors grilling chicken kabobs is the one that continues to haunt my dreams. Not that there are no bad smells, occasionally there are. One place in Chinatown had an odour I don’t care to experience again, and a couple times a random block would smell like a recycling drop off depot, but I was anticipating some kind of constant unappealing scent that one had to grow accustomed to (folks who have spent any time in Dryden, Ontario or Brooks, Alberta know what I mean) and it just wasn’t there… and I was there toward the end of a three month stretch of 30+ degree heat.
But hey, New York City is all about defying expectations.
Speaking of defying expectations, Manhattan is not expensive. I mean yeah it costs a bit to get there when you live in the middle of nowhere, and it costs quite a bit to stay there especially if you want home base to be in the middle of everything, and it definitely costs a lot to live there as a renter… but as a visitor once you’re there, you can get by on next to nothing. Sure it can be expensive. New York can be whatever you want it to be. In my 6 days there I had several meals under $5, and one that was $130. I bought 6 NY t-shirts (yeah I know I have a problem) that totalled $26… and a 7th that cost $98. You can spend an evening at an Upright Citizen’s Brigade comedy show for $5, or Book of Mormon for $300. “In New York freedom looks like too many choices.”
And one other expectation it defied… I assumed before going that a visit there would ease my obsession with The City somewhat. I was expecting to love most of it, dislike some of it, and that after leaving I would start thinking where I wanted to travel next. Well, I can’t honestly say I disliked any of it. Even the “negative” things about The City contribute to the overall vibe and it’s the vibe I’ve fallen in love with. My time there only intensified my obsession, so the answer to where I want to travel to next is… NYC.
I’ll close with this:
“So what was the best part?” A question I’ve struggled to answer at least a couple dozen times since being back. The irony is that before going to NYC, every time I ever found out someone had gone themselves my first question would always be “If you could go back and do just one thing again what would it be?” and usually I ended up frustrated because very few ever had a definite answer. Now I understand why. I’ve been answering the “What was the best part?” question by saying the best moments were the ones when it really sunk in where I was and what I was experiencing. That first Subway ride. Being in the mostly residential Upper West Side/Morningside Heights neighbourhoods watching New Yorkers simply exist. Seeing the Statue of Liberty from a boat less than a football field away. The entire harbour cruise was quite powerful, which was surprising to me. It was definitely my favourite “touristy” thing I did during my visit… but it wasn’t the best part. There was no best part.
If someone asked me my own question I’d be completely stumped. I would gladly do every single thing I experienced again (maybe not Phantom) but the true magic of NYC isn’t in any individual experience, it’s in the total sum of experiences it offers. Just like it isn’t a specific building that makes the skyline special or a specific colour that makes a Picasso hanging in MoMA special, it’s all of them woven together.
“Just walking the streets” is how I’d have to answer my own question, but since I wouldn’t be able to pick a specific street or area that answer essentially becomes the cop out answer “Everything.”
But hey, New York City is all about everything.
Here’s to more everything in 2017.
When I was 16 years old I went on stage with a guitar for the first time. It was in front of a couple thousand people at a festival in Innisfail, AB. I'd been playing guitar for about a year, and was on the road for the summer with my dad. He asked if I wanted to come up and play a couple songs during his band's set.
That was the last time my stomach felt exactly like it did yesterday at 5:40 pm.
We were coral 44, and 43 was just being released. As I stood at the start line I thought the same things I did all those years ago in Alberta. "Am I prepared?" "Will I really be able to do this?". "Will I end up looking like a fool?"
"Holy fuck this is exciting."
I was cold, and damp from a rare desert rain, and getting colder from very strong winds. Not the ideal conditions I'd envisioned when I signed up for this experiment.
Then we were summoned to the start line, the DJ counted us down from 10 and we were off.
The route headed south by the airport for a bit before turning out onto The Strip and we began heading north toward the famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign and Mandalay Bay.
That's where it started to feel real, and where my stomach started to settle a bit.
I started off at a pretty decent pace (for me). 7.5ish minutes a km. My running partner was an experienced runner is used to going faster than that, but she had agreed to pace me even though it meant her sacrificing a much better finish time.
Now, an experienced and fast runner trying to stay at a lower pace is a bit like an experienced juggler pretending they don't know how to juggle. They're going to catch more balls than they drop out of sheer habit. As such, for the first 4 miles I was still mostly playing catch-up, but managing to do it, even as we were increasing in speed, but at 4 miles I knew I had to slow down a bit so I told her to go do her thing. And off she went.
That left a mere 9 miles to battle through.
There I was, alone in a crowd of 40,000.
At mile 6 I was feeling pretty good about being almost half done, but around mile 7 my left foot started to really hurt. Like prohibitively hurt. I had to walk a pretty long stretch there. I got back to a painful slow jog eventuality.
Then I heard a band in the distance.
Along the whole course there were different bands every couple miles or so. Most stages were high up and had some fencing around them.
This one didn't.
Some older fellas had an unfenced stage just a foot above street level. They'd just finished "Wagon Wheel", and kicked in to "Come Together". Something told me this would be my only chance to perform on the Vegas strip so I jumped up, sang a couple lines with them, and was back on my way.
By mile 9 I was in absolute agony and walking more stretches than I was running. Left foot screaming at me to stop. Both knees agreeing. My neck was on fire as well. Even though there was a relatively short distance left I wasn't certain I'd make it, certainly not in the 3 hours I'd hoped for. Somewhere around there my brain took over.
"You came all the way from Regina for this. Run."
My body still said no.
Then I started thinking about how I'd actually come much, much further than Regina for this.
I'd come from incredible depths of addiction for this. I'd come from unbearable levels of depression for this.
I'd come from being a guy who would have to look on the ground outside his crummy apartment for cigarette butts because he'd spent his entire paycheque on booze and there was still 4 days before payday for this.
I'd broken out of a cage I'd locked myself in for over a decade for this.
I started thinking about all the support I've had from family and friends over these past few years, and even casual acquaintances who happened to know my situation and reached out to wish the best for me.
My feet started moving faster. And faster. I started passing people, weaving in and around them like I'd done at the beginning. Faster.
The pain was still there, but it didn't matter now. I saw Circus Circus where grandma and grandpa had taken me for my 12th birthday and thought about how proud of me they'd be right now. Faster. I could see the finish at the Mirage, and it wasn't a mirage. Faster.
Now, I still didn't think I'd be coming in under 3 with the walking I'd done, but I was pretty happy I was going to finish by running. With Elvis no less. The cameras were flashing, people were cheering and high-fiving runners. Very exciting. The music was getting louder and louder.
And then I crossed. And I started tearing up. Then I pulled out my phone to check the time. I had to stare for a minute because my brain was in no mood for math... but then I saw a text from my running partner
. "You were fast! Meet me by the medals to your right". Fast? I Iooked again, it was just after 8:30, and when it clicked in, I went from some tears to a full out fucking Titanic-when-the-old-couple-spoon-as-the-boat-goes-down level bawlfest.
I went limping to get my medal, and found my partner for one of the best hugs of my life.
And that is the story of my journey of 13.1 miles. Or 21.1 kilometers. Or an entire lifetime to this point.
If you're reading this now, besides having a bunch of time on your hands haha, you also have my deep and sincere appreciation, because you are certainly one of the people I mentioned above. Thank you.
Life is a long run, and it's not always a fun run, but it's always a privilege to be running it.