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Tea, My Dear

A Welshman in New York

Filters

A filter, at its best, is a useful tool for refining something, concentrating it and removing impurities. Good writing needs a filter, an editor to pare away the rotten cliches. This post isn’t like that. This post has a filter in the Instagram sense of the word: an overindulgent gloss added to mundane observations to make them seem profound. Don’t blame me, though; I really enjoyed writing it and no one’s forcing you to read it.

On my less charitable days, I am sometimes nearly tempted to be almost a little bit annoyed by some aspects of life in New York City (sobs over copy of subway map!). Then I remind myself that the reason for my discombobulation is that I’m viewing life here through a London-themed filter. The process of learning to live in a new country involves changing the filter and it is a slow and confusing process, like trying to do something in Photoshop.

New York is a city that prides itself on the directness of its inhabitants. A native colleague asked how I was fitting in and I said I wasn’t quite a fully-fledged New Yorker yet. He said, “you’ll be pushing people out of the way in no time!” and made a sort of ‘whaddya gonna do?’ face. Although people here don’t enjoy being treated harshly, they are proud of surviving in a city that doesn’t pull any punches. If you can make it (through the day without throttling someone) here, you’ll make it anywhere. I listened to Start the Week on BBC Radio 4 last week and Andrew Marr and Phil Redmond said something similar about Liverpool: it prides itself on being a bit ‘stroppy’.

Londoners will often complain about the rudeness of people there (think of bus drivers) but it’s rarely a source of pride. This got me thinking about what does signify London and I think it’s that people leave each other to get on with things. In NYC, people cajole, shout, laugh and give advice, to everyone and no-one, all the time. In London, I would never tell a stranger how to use the Tube unless they made some sort of request for help. Just today, however, two different people guided me to successful navigating the Lexington Line. I would have been fine without their help, but they wouldn’t have been fine without helping me; that’s a New Yorker’s way. In London, if you are breaking a social convention, a resident might tut, roll eyes, or share a smirk with a third party. Here, a resident will tell you what you’ve done wrong and either punish or assist you, depending on how lucky you are.

None of this is new, of course. Kate Fox’s great book, ‘Watching the English’, makes the point that British politeness is passive whereas American politeness is active. If I want a fellow Brit to have a nice day, I’ll leave him to have it without interference. If an American wants me to have a nice day, she orders me to do it and forces home the affirmation with a smile and a nod.

The filter metaphor helps me remember that people aren’t doing anything wrong when they treat me in a way that surprises me; they’re doing what’s normal but I don’t understand it yet.

So, in Starbucks today, when the server (yes, that’s a word here) continued starting at his phone, raised his hand, beckoned me forward and intoned “following customer!”, I was able to remind myself that this is a very normal way to behave and it’s just my London filter that expects the cashier to look up, smile at me, and maybe just say “next!”

My London filter makes the weather here fascinating. In the past few weeks, I have been freezing, sweltering, rain-blasted, wind-swept, and sun-burnt, often all in the same day. Before I came here, my mother-in-law amazed me by telling me New York is the same latitude as Madrid. She’s right; and you sense it in the long summer days and the intensity of the sunlight. Even now, as the days shorten, the sun feels intense and bright because of its height in the sky.

I was lucky enough to go to a reception at the residence of the British Consul last week. It is an extremely luxurious penthouse apartment with mid-town views and artwork borrowed from the National Gallery. While sipping champagne and overdoing the free canapes, I got chatting to another newly-arrived British chap who introduced himself as Ross. We shared anecdotes about the way the city has shocked us and he joined me in marveling at the glitz and glamour of the setting. It was only when he went to chat to another group that I found out he was the host – the deputy consul. A native New Yorker would never leave that unsaid. As the fabulous choreographer and director Kenn Oldfield told me once… in Britain, if you tell a funny joke people laugh at it; in New York, they bellow “THAT’S FUNNY!”

Finally, the one thing that doesn’t need filters here is photography. My husband took the attached amazing shot of the sunset from the Central Park reservoir. When the complexity of booking a doctor’s appointment becomes overwhelming, or the lack of any normal-sized chocolate bars gets me down, or yet another person thinks that a blaring horn is an effective communication tool, views like this still make me delighted I’ve moved to this unusual island.

 

 

 

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Skyline and High Line

Working with other Brits while living in New York provides plenty of opportunities to discuss differences between life in NYC and London. The obvious and slightly banal ones come up a lot, especially after a few drinks. We all know the shtick about being ‘separated by a common language’, and many vocabulary differences are well known. Slightly more interesting are conventions on pluralising nouns: ‘Math’ versus ‘maths’; ‘sports’ versus ‘sport’. I only said ‘slightly’ more interesting.

America is much more accomplished than the UK at inventing technical terms that are completely unnecessary. When my debit card was lost in the post, the bank offered me an ’emergency encashment’. On the same day, when I called the bank and they needed to check my identity, I can’t remember the exact wording but I’m fairly sure it was something like “in order to continue to protect the full securitisation of the banking telephonic environment experience, you will be required to undertake a round of check screening at this time.”

A couple of astute colleagues have spotted two more poetic differences between New York and London; both relate to NYC’s tendency to assert itself upon you. Although London is a large and vibrant city, once you move away from Westminster and the City of London, you could really be anywhere. In New York, however, you only need to go up a small hill or a few flights of stairs for Manhattan’s biggest asset – the skyline – to thrust itself over the horizon and tell you, as loudly and clearly as its inhabitants would, exactly which iconic city this is.

Whether I’m walking to work or jogging in the park, very exciting buildings and vistas often pop into view.

The other difference between here and there is the huge effect on life that is wrought by the seasons. Living in London, the idea of a winter wardrobe seemed faintly ridiculous, but here, fall already feels just around the corner as the mornings get crisper along with the leaves. I’m told that the bitter winds and frosts will take some getting used to but I’m rather excited by the prospect.

A few weeks ago we visited The High Line, a former railway line reclaimed as a public garden, completely free to access, that snakes down from Midtown to Chelsea. We were given a free guided tour by resident horticulturalist Nathan, who described the garden as a four-season attraction. They make efforts to plant in a way that will provide variety and interest as the seasons change. It makes me very excited about the year ahead to think I will learn to live in this city many times over as the environment and landscape vary.

I could go on about the absence of furnished apartments and squash, the prodigal overuse of carrier bags, the unfamiliar fashion for double shower curtains, etc. but perhaps that’s better discussed over a few lagers… or beers.

 

Strike up the music, the band has begun…

Some free time between apartment hunting in NYC and starting my new job at the end of the month has been a perfect opportunity to spend a few days in the Keystone State, Pennsylvania.

We started with a quick stop in Centralia. If you’ve known me long enough, you may already have heard me go on about this deserted ghost town and its weird cult fame, which has interested me ever since my husband told me about it perhaps nearly a decade ago. The town was a typical PA mining township until, in 1962, the underground coal seam was accidentally set on fire. That underground fire is still burning today and the damage it has caused to both the economy (as mining no longer takes place) and to public health and safety (sink holes and toxic gases to name but two hazards) has led to it becoming almost entirely deserted.

Where houses once stood there are now empty overgrown plots surrounded by grids of unused roads becoming ever harder to spot as wildlife encroaches.

Ever since I heard about this strange place and its ghostliness (apparently the inspiration for the setting of video game Silent Hill), I have hoped to visit and see the smoke rising from the graveyard, feel the heat emanating from cracks in the abandoned highway.

Sadly, the reality is not quite as impressive as the story. So infamous has this town become that, during our hour-long stop, we must have seen another dozen or so geeky sorts seeking ambiance and mystery. In addition, local whipper-snappers enjoy using the abandoned roads for graffiti, so the clatter of shaking cans was the first sound that welcomed us.

The abandoned highway (once part of Route 61) is still very impressive. Vulcan’s subterranean efforts have bent it into a cracked, reptilian ribbon, at points rearing up to vertical. Since its closure in 1994, the road has been completely covered in multicoloured graffiti, which you would expect to be annoying but actually gives it a strange unearthly quality. (Although, in places, where an inventive tagger has thought of nothing more original than a cock and balls, it is simply annoying.)

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Graffiti Highway
If you Google pictures of Centralia, you will see smoke rising from cracks in the ground. Sadly we saw none of this. Perhaps rather than smoke, it is steam in the pictures, rising from damp ground being heated by the fire. Given the extreme high temperatures here at the moment, the chances of such an effect are low. Some say you can feel the heat from the coal in the soil and tarmac, but I’m not sure one would tell the difference in this weather.

Our base for this brief visit is Wellsboro, a delightful town in Tioga County. The Penn Wells Hotel boasts a proud history as one of the area’s foremost ‘European Style’ lodges and, according to the restaurant menu, was once served by a bus from the Waldorf-Astoria and was considered a must-see destination in the 1920s. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s still worth a trip and has everything a film-loving Americanophile would want from a country town, especially if he’s freshly arrived and still finds diners, motels, and drive-through banks exotically charming.

Wellsboro is at the head of Pine Creek Gorge, ‘Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon’. The facilities at the Leonard Harrison State Park are excellent: it’s free to get in, free to park, and the views of the gorge are breathtaking. It must be even better in the fall, when I imagine this place comes to life with foliage tourists. The shop window displays here are already set up with Halloween, Harvest, Thanksgiving and even Christmas themes, and I expect the streets, very quiet at the moment, become quite busy when the leaves start to turn.

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Pine Creek Gorge
A special reason for liking this town so much is that it reminds me of the portrayal of Punxsutawney in Groundhog Day, a film I watched over and over again when it first came out on VHS (and yes, I’m aware of the irony). When we knew we were coming to PA, we considered a visit to Punxsutawney, the real home of Phil the groundhog who seeks his shadow every February, but I was disappointed to learn that the film itself was actually shot in Illinois, so that although many people are delighted to go to Punxsutawney for the annual Groundhog Day events, film-lovers are disappointed not to recognise any of the locations.

Wellsboro and the surrounding area is a worthy substitute and a great place to spend, if not the ten-thousand days of Phil the weatherman, then at least two or three to enjoy the views and sample the very welcoming hospitality.

 

 

An Orderly Queue of One

“Write a blog!” they all said, “We’ll love reading about what you’ve been up to!”

Well, blame them, because here it is.

At the moment I’m playing a slightly frustrating waiting game. My very exciting new teaching job in NYC will start in a month. No doubt they hired me because I am a dynamic and organised person. I currently have heaps of free time on my hands, ideal for organising bank accounts, social security numbers, work permits, etc. But Uncle Sam doesn’t do things that way. None of these things can be organised until we’re actually in the country; we can’t even start filling in the forms.

It’s only in periods of change like this, when big admin jobs need to be done, that you learn how much is still not really as streamlined, global and electronic as we like to tell ourselves it is. For example, closing a bank account still requires you to attend in person, as does opening one. HSBC, the world’s local bank, require 30 days’ notice to set up an account overseas and the foreign account requires you to undergo a complete new set of security checks, even if you already have an account with them in the UK.

Speaking to other Brits in NYC, I learn I should expect much more of this. Apparently the Big Apple is notoriously stuck in the past in comparison with the UK. Take the use of cheques (or checks!) for example: one chap told me that he pays his rent by online banking but recently found out that what actually happens is that every month his bank write a cheque and post it to his landlord. He only discovered this when, one month, the landlord didn’t cash it.

I consider myself at least moderately intelligent and focussed. There must be people less adept at paperwork than I am. How, then, do they manage when you can’t get somewhere to live without a bank account, you can’t get a bank account without a social security number, and you can’t get a social security number without somewhere to live!

Friends, Family Guy, and The Simpsons have all based a lot of jokes on the infamous queuing, bureaucracy, waiting, and unfriendliness of US institutions such as the DMV, the IRS or the Post Office. I can only imagine that being an immigrant same-sex  couple will make that even worse. Part of me is looking forward to it as an exercise in cultural immersion. And, of course, queuing (waiting in line!) is in the blood.

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