Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My highlights of 2012- Part II

Continuing with my highlights for the year.

2. Coming to America

In the movie Coming to America, Eddie Murphy, in his role as Prince Akeem, sets out to find a wife and therefore moves to Queens, New York. While I am not the crown prince of a fictional African Kingdom, I decided to go to Queens too. 
But let's go to the start first. While booking my summer holidays, I found out that it was somehow cheaper to fly to Boston through Amsterdam than to fly direct. I can't even start to imagine how this would work, but it is apparently cheaper for Aer Lingus to fly me to Amsterdam first, then offload me to Delta Airlines and then fly me to Boston from there, interesting flying over Dublin about 5 hours after I left it, and then on to Boston. In any case, I arrived in Boston on Friday afternoon and had a couple of things on the agenda. I set aside 4 days in Boston at the start of my trip, and then 2 at the end of it. Inbetween, I would do some more travelling around the East Coast. One of the interesting thing about Boston, apart from the Irish connection that is very obviously there, is that nearly every bartender in town is very absent minded. In nearly every pub I visited, they would serve me 2 drinks and only charge me for 1, serve me beer and chicken wings and only charge for the food, or not charge me at all. It was pretty cool. Besides the free beer, Boston is in fact a really cool city. You see, I'm a bit of a sucker for American history. I just love to read about it and see things like the Declaration of Independence, the site of the deciding battle against the British government and the Lincoln Memorial. You can keep me entertained until infinity with American history. Boston is a great spot for this. I did the Freedom Trail, a walking tour across Boston that takes in some of the most important sites and happenings in the American struggle for freedom. I saw Paul Revere's house, from where he started his famous midnight ride, I walked across the battlefield of Bunker Hill, had a beer in the Warren Tavern, the pub where the generals of the American army went to discuss strategy, and I did a whole lot else. It was fantastic.

Ofcourse, I went to Cheers!. Cheers! is my favorite tv show ever, and I have watched every episode at least half a dozen times. It's the show of my life. The show is, as you may know, based on the Bull&Finch pub on Beacon Street in Boston. I wanted Cheers! to be pub number 800 on my list, so I decided to wait until Saturday before visiting it. On Friday night, I went on a pub crawl around Boston, taking in, amongst others, a corner pub called The Corner Pub in Chinatown, an Irish pub called Foley's where, believe it or not, you could buy a pint for $2, and a bar in a parking garage called The Bukowski Tavern, which was awesome. But Cheers! was the main thing I wanted to visit, pub-wise.
I was sort of anxious, something that never happens when I go to the pub, as I was making my approach. I had taken a detour through the Back Bay area in order to walk up to Cheers! from the same angle as you first see the bar in the opening credits of the tv show. When I walked around the corner, onto Beacon Street from Arlington Street, I stood still in my tracks. There it was, in front of me to the right. Cheers! It felt like coming home. 
I stood transfixed, on the street corner, for about a minute, taking in the scene that I had seen a thousand times on tv, and a huge smile spread across my face. I walked up, touched the Cheers! sign, had someone take a picture of me in front of it, and then, with butterflies in my stomach, walked down the stairs.
It was brilliant. I loved every second of it, and even though the pub doesn't look exactly like the one in the tv show, it felt incredibly familiar. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. It was served to me in a dimple mug, just like the ones Norm drinks from on the show. I had a ball. I loved every second of it and made friends with the girl behind the bar. Do you ever get the feeling that you belong somewhere, even when you have never been there? I had that feeling in Cheers! I spent a couple of hours there and decided that I would come back at the end of my trip.
I walked out of the pub in the early evening and, while the sun was setting behind the buildings, I had another look at Cheers! I loved it. I had come home.

And so to Queens.
I took a Chinatown bus from Boston's South station. Why a Chinatown bus? First of all because they're cheap, and second of all because everyone I knew said they were horrible and full of weirdos, so I had to try it out.
As it turned out, it wasn't horrible at all. It was actually quite cool to travel across Connecticut by road and to see the scenery. It sure beats the sight of clouds from a plane. I didn't meet any weirdos though, which was a bit of a let down.

Arriving in New York is always a pleasure. New York, as you all know, is the most exciting place in the universe. Somehow, we managed to drive into Manhattan across the Brooklyn bridge. I have been working on it with Google Maps for about half an hour now, and I can not really see how this would have worked, but there you are. The only possible route that I can see would involve driving down passed Scarsdale (no, I did not see Ross and Rachel) and then down through the Bronx and in to Queens on Long Island. In any case, the driver dropped us off in Chinatown and so I found myself standing by the side of the road on a swelteringly hot Monday afternoon. New York never fails to impress you. The city always goes on at a breakneck pace and that's why it is so awesome. I got a week long subway pass (24 of the best dollars you will ever spend in your life) and set off to find my hostel. The hostel I had stayed in the previous time had closed down unfortunately, which meant I had to find alternative lodgings. I found a hostel in Queens, just across the East River, only 1 subway stop from Midtown Manhattan. As you may have guessed by now, I am sort of a fan of the Ramones. The Ramones are from Queens, so I felt a ping of pride when I realised that, like the Ramones, I would be resident of Queens for a couple of days. I got off the subway and looked at the address of the hostel. I then proceeded to circumvent Queens Plaza in the wrong direction, as I always do. After 20 minutes of walking around, I found that the hostel was about 50 yards from the subway station I had earlier come out of, but then in the other direction. The hostel was great. It was in an old bank building and the common room was downstairs in what used to be the central safe. 
Having unpacked, I set out for my favorite neighbourhood, the East Village. I had stayed in the East Village the last time I was in New York and had instantly fallen in love with the neighbourhood. It is so vibrant and happening and has all amenities that you could ever wish for. It has loads of bars, hundreds of restaurants, is very well connected to the subway and has a great mix of people. It is, in my opinion, perfect. I spent most of my nights in New York in this neighbourhood and had a great time on every occasion.
The Continental, my new favorite bar in New York

If you want to read details about  all my whereabouts, you'll have to wait until the complete story of my trip is finished. I did some more Ramones sightseeing in New York, and eventually I went to Rockaway Beach. No matter what they sing in the song, Rockaway Beach IS far and it IS hard to reach. It took me an hour and a half to get there, on 3 different trains, but it was worth it. 

It is a really nice beach that looks out over the Atlantic Ocean. The weather was great, the sand white and it had a bar called The Sand Bar. Like all American beach side bars that I ever went to, it was a great place for meeting Class A weirdos. First I ran into 3 guys with matching Almand Brothers Band tie-dye t-shirts. As it turned out, they had nothing to do with each other. Then I met a guy with Fighting Irish tattoos on both arms, who said he was a cop but, judging from his tan, he had been spending more time sitting in the sun on the bar’s terrace than in a squad car. I had a great time in New York. One of the great things about New York is that you can just get off the subway somewhere and wonder around waiting for something to happen. And something always does happen. 
I also walked through the scariest neighbourhood I’ve ever been in. I was planning to visit a bar that had been mentioned in The Road to McCarthy, one of my favorite books, and it was mentioned as being situated in Red Hook in South West Brooklyn. I set out on Saturday afternoon and planned to make some stops on the way over. As I was getting closer, it started to dawn on me that the neighbourhood wasn’t exactly prosperous. I have been in the South Bronx, The Mission in San Francisco, where I was witness to a stand off between the  police and a Mexican gang, and in Redfern in Sydney, but that was all child’s play compared to Red Hook. The moment I crossed under a highway overpass, I could see that this wasn’t exactly a place where you’d want to walk around alone at night. I was alone and it was starting to get dark. Nearly all windows had bars covering them. Burnt out cars were a regular feature. Groups of black teenagers sat in doorways drinking beer from paper bags. It looked like a scene from Boyz in the Hood, and the soundtrack matched, I heard angry hiphop from every car. When I finally got to the bar, and told the bar man about  my walk, he strongly advised me to take a taxi back to Manhattan at the end of the night. I followed his advise, and I’m glad that I spent 10$ on a cab back to the subway. I really didn’t want to walk those streets again.

I also visited Katz’ deli, one of New York’s most famous eateries. It was a circus. There was a queue halfway around the block. When you finally gained entry to the deli, you had to queue for food, then for a drink and then for a table. But boy, was it worth it. I had a pastrami sandwich and it was easily the best sandwich I ever ate. Just thinking about it now makes me drool. I also went out to dinner with my friend Jessica from New Jersey and ended up on a wild pubcrawl through the Lower East Side that included a couple of Japanese bars (one of them wouldn’t serve us) an Italian wine bar, where we got a free drink, and the Double Down saloon, home of the bacon Martini. (Yes, I had one). I also went to visit my friend Robert on Long Island, who moved there around the same time that I moved to Ireland. As I hadn’t seen him in 4 years, we had a lot to catch up on, we had a lot of beers and we had a barbecue and I was still in time for the last train home.

As with everything, my stay in New York had to end at some point, and after 6 days of happily enjoying my favorite city, I went to Philadelphia. This is where I first got word of an enterprise called Megabus. The Apple Hostel suggested this as the cheapest way to get to the hostel and, in general, to get around America. I checked the Megabus website and found, to my surprise, that they were even cheaper than Chinatown buses. For 6 dollars I could travel from New York to Philadelphia. I was amazed.  I arrived in a Philadelphia that was even warmer than New York. My hostel was great, the staff fantastic and there was a great bar next door called Rotten Ralph’s. I set up shop there, after spending an afternoon happily entertaining myself again with American history. I stood on the spot where the Declaration of Independence was first read out, walked through George Washington’s house and saw the Liberty Bell, amongst much other stuff. Philadelphia is literally packed with it. I loved Philadelphia.

On  my second night there, I made 2 new friends (Hi Kristin and Dana!) in a bar around the corner and I had a Philly cheese steak at the famous Reading Terminal market. I also did a daytrip to Washington DC for some more American history. It is only when you travel overland in America that it starts to dawn on you what a vast country it is. I had taken a bus from Bostons to New York, that had taken 5 hours. New York to Philly was 3 ½ hours. And Philly to Washington DC was another 3 hours. That’s 11 ½ hours, nearly half a day of non-stop travel, yet looking at a map of America the size of my computer screen, I had only moved about an inch and a half. I wasn’t even near halfway down the East Coast. So you can imagine that people sometimes think that they can drive from New York to Los Angeles in a week and stop off in Texas for a couple of days, only to find out that you will reach LA by road only if you drive more or less non-stop for 7 days. It’s a big country.

My view from the Lincoln Memorial

Washington DC is a city with 2 faces. The central bit is lovely. All the memorials and interesting buildings are located in the same area, making it easy to see all of them, even if you don’t have too much time. They all sit there next to each other, the White House, The Lincoln Memorial, The World War II memorial and so on. I spent a happy couple of hours checking them out and then took the subway to the Pentagon. As I found out later, the Pentagon is about 400 yards from the Lincoln Memorial, if you know where to go. I also visited Arlington Cemetary, where JFK is burried. It was really impressive.

Other than that, and the areas where the diplomats live, Washington DC is basically a run-down gritty ghetto. I wanted to visit Ben’s Chili Bowl, a place known for having excellent chili, so I set off on the subway. Once outside the city centre, I was the only white person on the train. I got off the train at my stop and walked across the street to the restaurant. Winos where everywhere, asking for change or sleeping on the sidewalk. A guy was standing at the door of the restaurant, offering to help me open the door in exchange for some coins. I went inside and had a big bowl of chili, served with crackers. I must say, it was really good, worth the trip on the subway. After that I went to the city centre and took the bus back to Philly, where I had another good night of fun in the hostel and the bars in the neigbourhood. On my last day in Philly, I saw the last of the sites I wanted to see, saw another couple of pubs and booked an overnight bus back to Boston. As it was the middle of summer, I had trouble booking a hostel, and finally found one on the northern outskirts of Boston. It was a shithole. You can read my Yelp review here:

I stayed there for one night and I will never return. The next night I slept on a bench outside Dunkin’ Donuts at the airport, which was both cheaper and more comfortable.

Other than that, my last 2 days in Boston were great.  I re-visited Cheers! Where I ate the most insane plate of nachos I ever laid my eyes on.  I found that starters were half price on weekdays which meant they were only $6. I ordered them and 10 minutes later found a plate of chili nachos in front of me that was so gigantic that it can not possibly be qualified as a starter. A starter for 10 people, maybe. As I was very hungry, I dug in with gusto and ate non-stop for half an hour. It looked as if I hadn’t touched the food. I ate for a further 10 minutes and couldn’t have taken another bite if someone had put a gun to my head. The plate still looked as if I had barely touched it. I gave up and returned to drinking. A guy and his girlfriend who were sitting next to me at the bar looked on in amazement and then decided to try the nachos too. They, too, had to give up about half an hour later and even between the two of them the plate looked as if only a tiny bit had been eaten. In any case, Cheers! Was great again and I went back a last time the next day to say goodbye. 

On my last day, I also took a second trip to the Sam Adams brewery. It is a great tour, it's free and at the end, this is the best part, all the beer is free too. And they have a really cool gift shop. 
At the Sam Adams Brewery

I also re-visited The Tam, arguably my favorite bar in Boston. It was next to the hostel I sayed in early on in the trip and the place was great. It had a grey-haired bartender who was missing teeth, but still had a lot of interesting stories to tell, toilets with doors missing, christmas lights in the middle of summer, and all walls were completely covered in old pictures, beer signs, police badges, trinkets and even a full sized Pinada. It was a great place, and a pint was only $3, so I really enjoyed it. I stayed at The Tam until midnight on Saturday and then took the last subway to the airport to stay overnight. I flew back to Dublin, again via Amsterdam the next day. It was a great trip. I met old friends and made a bunch of new ones. I saw lots of very interesting historical sites, buildings and monuments and had some awesome food. 

It was an awesome trip and I love America. I will be back many times in the future.

I talked a bit more about my America trip than I intended so I'll leave my last highlight for the next post.


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