Thursday, December 17, 2009

New York on my mind this Christmas



The first time I visited New York, I didn’t like it. I found the people rude and the city dirty and dark. Moreover, the city’s focus on conspicuous consumption was so overpowering that it unnerved me. Shopgirls sized you up as you entered chi-chi boutiques, waiters and bellboys forever had their hands out for tips, and people competed for everything - from the better seat on the subway, to the table with the best view in a trendy restaurant, to the dress with the largest discount in the Barney's sale. This unsatisfactory experience encouraged me to postpone another visit for years.

Then something happened on my next and very long overdue trip to the city that considers itself the center of the world: I fell in love with it. Like any major capital, New York has its share of good and bad points, and I learned to gloss over the negatives. Of course, the museums, theaters, restaurants and inexhaustible shopping venues made it a very attractive destination. But there was so much more. Suddenly, the pace of the city coincided with my own rhythm, every neighborhood offered a stimulation of all senses; and the variety of cultures and flavors provided endless entertainment that made up for the dirty, sunless streets.

Even the aggressiveness of taxi drivers and pedestrians stopped bothering me, while New Yorkers’ ambitious energy and go-getter attitude inspired rather than repulsed. I loved being among people who woke up each morning fiercely determined to be better than they were yesterday – it was and still is incredibly intoxicating. And since then, New York has been a must-visit destination every year.

For a time, I had my regular two-week New York routine comfortably down to pat. Back in the good old days when Japan Airlines offered WiFi on-board, the fourteen-hour stretch between Tokyo and New York was literally and so effortlessly a day’s work. I’d be catching up on emails, sending drafts and manuscripts, and even surfing U.S. shopping websites for books and bargains that I’d have delivered to my New York hotel room. I'd literally order six months' worth of reading from Amazon.com from 40,000 feet above sea level. (With so much online shopping being delivered to my hotel room, you can imagine what my luggage situation on the return flight was like. Twice I've checked in at JFK for the NY-Tokyo flight with about 105 kilos of luggage!) Once I even ordered my dinner online from my favorite New York delivery service and set it to be sent up to my hotel room the evening of my arrival in New York, knowing I would be staying in to rest that night.

And because I liked to cook and host parties in Manhattan, I usually took a suite with a living room and a kitchen, figuring that the not inconsequential savings on restaurant meals and drinks at bars could instead go to a room upgrade.

New York probably has the most number of restaurants per square kilometer in the world, but there was really no better place to catch up with friends in this claustrophobic city than the quiet of my hotel living room with double views of the Upper East Side and the Hudson River. So I would order groceries and foodstuffs for entertaining from Freshdirect.com from the comfort of my airplane seat as well.


Practically every meal during my stay was booked with a friend, including my all-time favorite meal when in New York: breakfast of leftover dry aged steak from dinner the night before, reheated and served with scrambled eggs and garlic fried rice in my kitchen at 8 am almost everyday.

I never tire of dry aged steak when I'm in New York because it’s just impossible to get really good versions in Asia. I'll happily eat it thrice a day. And thankfully, most of my friends are willing to indulge me for a few days and join me for leftover steak and chop-chop rice in my hotel, with the leftover steak I took home the night before. Occasionally, we would break the steak and rice habit and try some hot new restaurant since the New York dining scene is so cutting-edge and a fantastic source of ideas for everything from food to design. But frankly, leftovers in my New York kitchen were my favorite meals.

Any spare evening or afternoon was always joyously devoted to the theater. I’m not really a fan of musicals, but there’s always a wonderful drama or comedy to see on any day. One of the most interesting plays I've seen in New York was The Vertical Hour, a heavy drama on the Iraq war by David Hare and directed by Sam Mendes, starring Julianne Moore. The play was riveting, but Julianne Moore was a disappointment. I expected her to be just as good on-stage as she is on the big screen, but on-stage she was wooden and uninspired. I guess it's the difficulties of transitioning from tv or movies to theater. Most tv/ movie actors are used to acting sparsely because so much is caught on camera, whereas it's exactly the opposite on the stage, where every movement or sound must be slightly exaggerated.

In London, I'd seen Minnie Driver, Matthew Perry, Rob Lowe and Kevin Spacey on stage. With the exception of Kevin Spacey, all were disappointing. (PS: It's interesting to see how the plays in London that star all these American actors, with the exception of Kevin Spacey and a handful of others, are basically filled with American tourists visiting London rather than British theatergoers. Whenever I go, it's American English I hear all around. One of my London friends told me she loves the theater but she usually avoids plays with American movie/ TV celebrities because they simply can't act in the style of the theater.)

What I love most about New York, though, is that it’s a walking city with a fantastic park right in the center to break the monotony of blocks of buildings. I hardly walk 300 meters in Manila, but in New York I almost never take the train or taxi as it’s such a joy to window-shop, people-watch and just admire various buildings along the way. Several times, I even strolled from my midtown hotel to the Metropolitan Museum via the Upper East Side – that’s a good 27 blocks one-way – and back without hesitation.  


One ritual my college best friend Angelique and I have is to host a drinks party at my hotel. We choose a theme based on the month of my visit -- Halloween, post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas and even just to welcome spring – and invite an interesting mix of friends. The party itself is great fun, but preparations are equally enjoyable, especially as it’s quite a challenge to successfully create decor and coordinate food outside of one’s usual comfort zone. But with a dash of creativity, lots of help from the hotel concierge and dollar stores nearby, we’ve always managed to pull it off well enough.

Once, I arrived in New York just before Christmas. It was simply freezing but the entire city was blazing with holiday cheer. Christmas carols wafted in from stores, holiday wreaths and ornaments decked every window, and happy people passed me on the street on the way to and from parties and get-togethers. I remember standing on a corner where I could see Rockefeller Center awash with holiday lights and also Saks Fifth Avenue’s nightly illumination show, and thinking what a truly magical place New York is.

This appears in the current year-end holiday issue of Travelife Magazine. Happy Holidays to all our friends around the world!

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1 comment:

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