I'm people watching in SoHo right now. I've been in New York for a week now, and I'm wondering, why did I ever leave?? Yes, it's incredibly crowded and often noisy, fairly dirty, and there are no majestic mountain ranges or lush wild forests running through the middle of Manhattan (only a great park). But besides that, I can't think of what's not to love.
It feels so young, vibrant and electric. You eavesdrop on the dramas of life unfolding at tables next to you and see it on the street corners out the window. Budding relationships and meetings being described, hashed out and turned over in the Williamsburg cafés and on Washington Square benches. Mirrored sunglasses, late summer dresses, over-sized tunics over leggings and chunky boots pass you on the street. The promising screech of your subway as it rocks into the station to whisk you away. Seasoned 'locals' with attitude; students 'fresh off the boat' from far parts of the country or world, trying not to look bewildered, like I was eight years ago today when I moved to New York from Oregon, by way of San Francisco. Wow - today is the day I moved to New York in 2002, with two over-sized checked and two carry-on bags, an air mattress and a post-it with an address where I would be sleeping on the floor until I found my own place. I left from Portland, Oregon and cried hard as I looked out the window, feeling like life was moving too fast. But the next morning, I came out of the F train station at 24th street and headed three blocks south and one block east to my acting school. I still felt completely overwhelmed but was starting to feel that it was worth it. It was a warm, clear, bright sunny day - just like today. Everything was new. I stayed for four years, until I missed the west enough and had several good reasons to leave.
Life has been an adventure and quite a learning experience since then. I have no regrets, but it's amazingly good to be back. Some of the same people still work at the places I used to frequent: I walked into the Park Slope Tea Lounge and there was Rex; he even remembered me. Apparently the market for actors and artists is very poor since the recession, and people still have their day jobs. I recognized three of the bus boys at Morrell's, the wine bar where I worked for a year when I was 23. If I'd had more time, I would have gone to The Harrison as well to try and track down Nathan, the Maitre'D who taught catwalk models how to strut and made gowns from safety pins and rubber bands.
There's only so much we can do in 5 and 1/2 days, and all those subway rides can eat up a lot of time. We're doing this trip on the cheap (mostly), so we tried airbnb.com, which worked out great. We stayed in Williamsburg, on the street I dreamed of being able to afford when I was 22. We were half a block from the L train stop at Bedford Avenue, in the master bedroom of a tiny apartment. Its main occupant, a friendly NYU student, spiffed up her bedroom for us and slept on the couch. The New York Times has a great review of AirBnB that explains how it works, as well as giving great examples of what to do in Williamsburg, so check that out for more info.
On day one, while I napped, Colm worked in Verb Cafe across the street, and proclaimed their espresso to be 'the best ever' when he woke me. We had breakfast there the next morning, and everyone was incredibly friendly and down to earth, as good Brooklynites are. The cranberry orange scone was like a 'welcome home' (I haven't seen any cranberry orange scones since I left the US) and the black tea, hand-selected and packed in tea bags by the baristas, was almost floral, not bitter or overpowering. They've been roasting in Williamsburg for over 10 years, apparently, and are obviously passionate about it. They also have these little brown-glazed porcelain cups, which is how you know that your coffee is going to be good.
I'd recommend going to Williamsburg if you want to explore Brooklyn. I also highly recommend Park Slope, Prospect Park, Carroll Gardens, Fort Green, DUMBO ('District Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass') and more. Within the same stretch of Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, you can find a 24-hour bagel shop, one of best pizzas in the city, the delicious and affordable Wild Ginger, a vegan pan-Asian cafe, also affordable and tasty Tai Thai next door (with calorie contents listed on their menu, which you don't usually see), and much more including clothing boutiques and many bars. I adore Brooklyn in general: the art cinema and top-notch performances at BAM, 5th and 7th avenues in Park Slope, the Co-op, and more creative, local, artistic, green, delicious, punk and chic enterprises than you can shake a stick at.
We ate many of our lunches at Whole Foods salad bars. I think it's an excellent way of grabbing a quick, healthy, affordable (£7.99/pound) way to eat and you know what's going into your mouth. I ate a lot of kale, roasted broccoli, mixed bean salads, baby arugula and spinach, olives and walnuts. Between a bagel for breakfast and dinner out, all those vegetables helped us stay grounded and well nourished while wandering. Plus, there are many locations all over Manhattan.
New York looked healthier than ever. There's a yoga studio on every other block, which was a big surprise: I didn't realize it was such an industry now, and I hope yoga studios aren't turning into factories. But I'll assume it's a good thing. I forgot how much walking you do if you live in or visit New York. It takes a couple weeks for your energy levels to adjust. We had no trouble sleeping at night, especially with some good earplugs.
I fully indulged my nostalgia, going to Balthazar for breakfast and snapping non-flash photos of the interior on the sly, trying not to look like a visitor (dare I say Tourist). Colm's almond croissant was stale, unfortunately, and it was overpriced as usual but I don't really care when I'm there. It's Balthazar's, it's where I took Colm for an elaborate Sunday brunch on one of our early dates and drank champagne at 11:30am (I don't remember this but he swears it's true). It's where Katy and I had our farewell meal before I left. It's where my best friend from Uni and I went when she visited in 2003, because she heard that Johnny Depp was a regular.
We also ate at Rosa Mexicana by Union Square. Café Pasqual's is definitely more authentic and, I hate to say, more interesting and creative but Rosa has things that Pasqual's doesn't have, like tequila flights, and it was my last chance for table-side guacamole before returning to Leamington. There was also tasty Middle Eastern nosh at Zerza with our friend Masha who had moved to the Washington Square area just a week before, and affordable delicious sushi and vegan food in Park Slope.
There are zillions of great places to eat in New York. It's also pretty easy to find food that's fairly cheap and very tasty, due to the plethora of restaurants. Hopefully this has given you some ideas of how to get around the city while feeding yourself healthy, affordable fare and also feeling like you're on top of the world. Because in New York, that's exactly where you are...and I miss that so much.