May 16, 2010

My American Journey. Summer 2010. A Travel Diary - First Impressions

The people in whose house I will be staying turned out to be really neat couple of a third generation Italian immigrant male and a Chinese female. They picked me up from the airport and were very nice to me. They took me with them to a super market, where I bought some food essentials and made use of their transport once again. They were also very cooperative when I forgot my bag with all my documents in a cafe at the ferry station, but this is another short story.

I am staying in Staten island, about fifteen minutes bus ride from the St.George ferry station. By the way, I flew with Airbus A380 and it is a really huge double decker airplane, an impressive machine. It flew and landed very smoothly, but I don't know why the air condition inside was turned up so low, that I couldn't get a proper sleep even, since I was freezing. The meals were good too and the seats comfortable, 4 out of 5 points for Air France, if it wasn't for the freezing condition. Maybe they should install heaters, instead of coolers, lol, being -40 C outside at 11,000 km. most of the time.

Anyway, when I arrived the first couple of days it was scourging heat in New York, probably the temperature would have felt much more comfortable if it wasn't for the extreme humidity in the air. The worst thing is, that I was told, that in the following summer months ahead, this hot and humid hell will settle to be the norm for the summer. Not good. Just as I was beginning to think that I shouldn't have taken my spring jacket, the weather drastically changed. Strong winds brought thick clouds in the sky, rain began to pour and the temperatures dropped so low, that a few nights I had to sleep with clothes on and still I was freezing in my bed. My room's walls seemed like cardboard with no insulation at all. The wind gusts were not only strong, but really cold too. Freezing ocean breeze just went straight trough my bones. It was tough, really tough. If there are such cold winds in the spring, I can't imagine how people survive here in the winter outside!?

Yesterday and today the weather is improving, being cold mostly during the A.M. hours before noon. The nights aren't that cold anymore too. The humidity completely disappeared and the sun's warmth is very neat and pleasant. Crazy weather shifts.

Let's start chronologically from the first day now. I arrived on Friday and on the first day of May I took a good urban hike around the streets of Manhattan. Urban hiking is one of my favorite activities in new and exciting cities! Riding a bicycle is fun too, but you can't really see as much details and the bike rentals weren't exactly cheap really, especially if you want to rent it, say for a whole day, since it is paid on an hourly basis, something like 10-15$ per hour, helllo?

So, I got up early in Saturday morning and took off to the bus stop, which the Chinese lady showed me the previous day. The buses are well air conditioned (sometimes too well), the fair is a bit expensive tough, 2.25 USD per ride, no matter the distance. Having said that, everything is a bit expensive, too expensive even! And I also heard comments in this regards from other European tourists on many occasions. (Which reminds me about Michael Moore's movie "Sicko"and the part with the 120$ asthma inhalator that costs 5 Cents in Cuba....), but this I will expand in another post. I wen to the St.George ferry station and got on a big, smooth riding orange boat, that had three floors and hundreds of seats inside. The Manhattan - Staten island ferry is free, probably one of the very few free things in USA, apart from public fountains to quench your thirst at. From the ferry I turned left and went into Battery park. I phoned my employer, but they seemed surprised of my arrival, even though my start date was 1st May. So, in all, I had a full free week to just wander around and gradually run out of cash, lol. The organization and cooperation between the different agencies involved in this Work and Travel program do seem very loose, I guess every party is mostly concerned with collecting their taxes, of course, leaving the rest to the student's orientation skills. Luckily, mine are fairly good. So, after I knew I wasn't going to meet the work environment today I just proceeded to the urban hiking part.

I simply took off from the park, following the side walk towards the impressive heights of the buildings around and intuitively found myself on one of the probably most famous streets in Manhattan - Broadway. I took a picture in front of this charging bull Brass sculpture at the entrance of Broadway, which I guess symbolizes the aggressive financial risks people take on Wall street, which was near by. There was a line of people wanting to do the same. Then I just started to walk and look all around me, mostly upwards.

The 20th century high rise architecture of Manhattan is truly impressive with gorgeous masonry details, packed with symbolism in the form of sculptures, ornamental elements and esoteric allusions. And esoteric symbolism in the New York architecture is plentiful indeed. It seems that NYC is full of masons and their signs are just everywhere. Which adds up more to the experience of the mystery-minded adventurous traveler, who is looking up to read the signs. Hermes/Mercury and his Caduceus are just everywhere, being a favorite figure of architects and traders alike. Walking further along Broadway I passed by a 300 year old church made of brown stone with Gothic design and an old graveyard. There were a few masonic graves there as well, along with many other 18th century inscribed grave slabs. A bit further northwards there is another old church, where George Washington used to pray and some 100 meters behind it is the site of the 9/11 WTC twin towers, now a big construction lot with huge cranes working.

As I was walking and enjoying the grand scale and masonry of the buildings a negative trend established, that was the last thing I expected to see and this were the dirty streets. The pavements were stained with some kind of spots and greasy-like spills and also there were these black spottings all over the sidewalks, not only on Broadway, but on every street I have walked on so far in Manhattan and Staten Island alike. Do they wash the streets? The commercial garbage was also not lacking, mostly cigarette ends, candy wraps and papers. I mean, in my country - Bulgaria - we have been recently having some troubles with the garbage disposal company taking care of my city - Sofia - and yet the streets are cleaner than the streets of New York. I really completely didn't expected to see that and I was truly surprised. The verdict is that the streets of New York need to be cleaned and the people should learn to dispose their garbage and cigarettes in the trash cans, not on the pavement. In many European countries there are fines if you trow your cigarette on the street.

When I reached Union Square, there was a modest protest of working unions for Labor Day. I passed by them and continued straight on Park Ave. Guided by a huge, plain and ugly corporate building in the distance with a big "Metlife" logo (which reminded me of "Sicko"again) I reached the Grand Station terminal. There was this big and gorgeous stone sculpture of masterly craft with Mercury, standing on top of a beautiful clock with roman numerals, in symbolic composition with a man, holding tools on his right side and a scribal woman on his left side. I will dig deeper into the meaning and interpretation of the architectural symbolism of different statues like this one in another post! Inside the terminal was very impressive, the masonry decorations above the sealing windows, the huge chandeliers and zodiac sky sealing - a real beauty of human creativity indeed. The Mercury's caduceus persists almost in every decorative element, along with an old-style ship steering wheel with wings (which I presume are the wings of Hermes). Later on I will include photos as links to the posts where appropriate!

From the Grand Station I continued on, passed the Rockfeller building and finally reached Central park. In all I walked about 2.5 hours from the ferry station to Central park. A walk that I really enjoyed and recommend to every tourist who really wants to experience Manhattan close up. You should hike the streets, forget bus rides, bicycles or cars, you will see nothing from a window! Central park was a pretty fresh green spot amids the skyscrapers surrounding it. A beautiful piece of phytodesign and landshafting. I hiked a little bit along the alleys and went on the other side, which is the east side. Then I took the street next to the park back, which was the 8th Ave. The grid is a bit confusing to navigate initially, but when you get the hang of it you can orientate well in it. So, I passed by Times Square and I really kind of almost missed to notice it. There was nothing too impressive about the place, the pavements were dirty, but the excessive number of blinking commercials on the buildings finally caught my attention and I recognized the popularized place, where teen fans of MTV Total Request gather to scream and wave to the cameras. In all, I was really left with the impression that those famous landmarks of Manhattan are simply overexposed and overadvertised, so that when you see them live you just can't help it but remain somewhat disappointed with the difference of what you have expected and what you actually see. This is the negative effect of too much populism I guess. Or maybe, New York has kind of a lost its former glory, for a complex of reasons leading from the past and the build-up of mistakes and negatives.