This Time Last Year

This time last year I was enjoying my first morning in Manhattan, the beginning of a holiday I’d dreamed about for years. After years of being obsessed first with Law and Order: Criminal Intent, then with Person of Interest, with a large side of CSI:NY, of course I had to see the place for myself. I’m writing this post mainly because Laina wanted to see my holiday snaps ;), but it might be interesting to look at the way someone who hates going somewhere new copes with travel.

I hate travel, that’s a fact. I hate packing: what if I forget something important, what if I pack the wrong thing, or not enough of a thing, and will it all fit into my suitcase, and will it all come out totally creased? Making a list doesn’t help, because I could just as easily forget to write something onto the list. You just have to grin and bear it.

I also hate going to an unknown place. I even hate driving to next village, if that is a village I haven’t been to before, or been to once, last year. So how could I cope with going to New York? My biggest worry was actually going from the airport to the hotel. Cabs are out of the question, I’m scared of cab drivers – not because I think they’re going to do something bad to me, I’m just scared of the interaction with them, being taken for a ride (not just literally but figuratively), and then there’s the whole thorny issue of tipping which has me quaking in my boots. So, how to do it?

Thankfully, we live in the age of the internet, and following a tip in my travel guide, I looked up the airport and the Airtrain, which connects the airport to the Subway. The internet provides a map of the airport, tells you exactly which stop you need for which line, and also has a Subway map. Together with the address of the hotel you can figure out at which stop to get off, and you’re sorted. (Of course, I got lost on the way between the Subway stop and the hotel, but I always get lost even with the map in my hand, so that’s nothing new. I got there eventually.)

The flight itself was not a problem. I know the airport in the UK pretty well, since I use it about twice a year. The most awkward thing was that I can’t use the onboard entertainment system. That is because, while you can adjust the earphone volume of the music or TV or whatever to your liking, you can’t control the volume of the announcements coming through your earphones, which is always set to “earsplitting”. So, earphones are out. Luckily, I had a big fat book, and otherwise just dozed off.

(tangent) Incidentally, one online autism test I took recently asked “When you are flying, do you think of the aerodynamics?” Answer: yes, all the time. That’s why I’m not afraid when the plane suddenly “sags” or is buffeted by the wind a bit, because I know how flying works. (\tangent)

So, here I am, finally arrived at the hotel, super excited to be in New York (New York!! For real!!).

Empire State Building from Bryant Park

(Bryant Park with a view of the Empire State Building)

How am I going to make this holiday a success? There are two things for me: one, I have a plan, and two, I’m on my own. This is important. Let’s talk about the second first.

I’m single, with no children, and no friends I would go on holiday with. (Let me be clear: I do have friends, but I would not go on holiday with them.) Mostly I go with my parents. Either I go to them and then we go away somewhere in my home country, or they visit me, and we go somewhere in the country where I live. This works very well and makes me happy. Every so often, though, I visit a destination that I absolutely have to visit on my own, with the freedom to go where I want, when I want, and to spend as much time there as I want. In New York, what I wanted mainly was to visit museums, and to sit in parks reading books. I couldn’t be tethered to someone who might become bored with one or the other before I did. I would be constantly on edge, thinking I’m forcing them into something they don’t enjoy and end up submitting to them, doing things that I don’t really enjoy. No, I need the freedom to spend four or five hours in the same museum, to pick out the sights I want to see, to sit down doing nothing much, to mooch around a bookstore for an hour and not have my purchases scrutinized. Also, because this visit to New York was bound up with a special interest, I needed to go about in my little special interest bubble, and not have that bubble punctured by a companion. I needed to be alone with my thoughts and daydreams.

Washington Square Park

(Washington Square Park – the park closest to my hotel, I spent quite a bit of time sitting on those benches)

Now, the plan. Of course I had made a plan, just going there and deciding things on the spur of the moment wouldn’t do. I had bought tickets for a range of attractions in advance, plus a weekly pass for the Subway. I had planned to visit one attraction each day, and spend the rest of the time walking around and sitting in parks. There was some flexibility in the order in which I wanted to visit the sites. For example, I wanted to visit the Guggenheim first thing, but when I arrived I was told that the famous rotunda was closed for a week and would reopen on my last day. So I went to a different museum instead. I also let myself be guided somewhat by the weather, but after the first drizzly day it was hot and sunny all the time.

Guggenheim rotunda

(The famous rotunda at the Guggenheim – featured in Season 1 of Person of Interest, and therefore a must-visit for me!)

The plan worked out perfectly well, and I had an amazing time. I loved the museums I visited. I spent time in Bryant Park, Washington Square Park, Central Park, Union Square Park and Madison Square Park. I bought a pile of books at the Strand Bookstore (famous secondhand bookstore and quite amazing – I visited twice!). I had equipped myself with a copy of “Eastern Birds”, but I only saw two kinds that weren’t familiar from Europe, the American Robin and the Gray Catbird. I walked up and down famous streets and along the Hudson, sauntered round the Village eating ice cream, enjoyed the view from the High Line and shopped at the Chelsea Market. I like to think that walking around with a bag full of veg from the Manhattan Fruit Exchange made me look like a local! By the way, despite having written about how I need a huge gap before I can cross the street safely, jaywalking in Manhattan was easy. It’s mostly one way streets, so you only have to look in one direction, and cars don’t go very fast.

It was all highly enjoyable, and exactly as I had envisaged it. I thought this would be a once in a lifetime holiday, but I enjoyed myself so much, I want to go back! There is still so much to see.

The only thing I didn’t enjoy was Times Square – too crowded, too hot, too noisy – I quickly turned round and fled.

And one thing I had wanted to do but didn’t manage was to eat in a diner. I just couldn’t bring myself to go into one. It was the fear of the unknown – what to do, what to say, where to go when you enter, everybody staring at me…too many possibilities of getting it wrong. I tried to force myself, but then I thought: it’s my holiday. Why should I do something I don’t enjoy? Besides, I was able to buy food from a truck or little shops selling takeout soups, or Murray’s Bagels – “Are you, like, a regular here?” asked the two girls behind me in the queue – so I was hardly starving.

So, to make this post about something a bit more than just me bragging about my holidays: what lessons can I draw from that experience?

  1. Sometimes you have to take a slightly bigger risk for a big payoff. Going to New York was pretty nerve-wracking, but I had wanted that trip so much I was prepared to go through that. And it was totally worth it.
  2. You can minimise the risk by planning beforehand. Book your hotel in advance, so you know where you are going. Research your transport options. Look up maps and guides and schedules. Check out the locations and opening times of the attractions you want to visit. The internet is your best friend here. Have a plan, so you don’t have to think and agonise every morning where you want to go and what you want to do. If you know already, all you have to do is think about getting there. Also, research the culture of the place you are going, so you can avoid the most obvious and dreadful faux pas.
  3. Know what you want and what you don’t want. If you want company to share your experience, go with someone else. If you need to keep all the experience for yourself, go alone. If there is something you think you should do, somewhere you think you should go, but can’t bring yourself do to it – relax, it’s your holiday. Let yourself off the hook. You decide. And don’t be fussed about “What, you didn’t go to Macy’s?” type reactions back home. They can go if they want to. It’s not like you have to go on their behalf.

All in all, for me the trip was a dream come true, and I’m so glad I did it. It also went well enough for me to want to go on a big trip again. It might take me a few years of careful preparation and planning – not to mention saving – but when I’m ready, even I can be a world traveller – in my own, special, idiosyncratic way.

Bench in Central Park

(A book, a coffee, a bench in the park – in this case Central Park – the ingredients for a perfect holiday afternoon)

(Featured image: View from the Empire State Building – I got there early and beat the queues!)

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