Tuesday, August 19, 2008

2 Great American Institutions: Pizza and Cars

Tuesday 12th August

In NYC I'm trying my hardest to avoid cliched tourist experiences. So no trip up the Statue of Liberty, no Empire State Building and certainly no WTC site visit. A couple have slipped through the net though, allowed to do so as they're enjoyed by locals alike. The first was yesterday, when we took a trip to Coney Island to check out the beach. Although Coney Island is not surrounded by water as such, it has a long South facing sandy beach. We were glad for the hazy sunshine, but it never quite got sticky enough to need to go for a swim. We couldn't pass up a ride on the Cyclone, a wooden rickety rollercoaster that gives a great view over the bay before plunging into a series of, even for my age, fairly stomach-churning turns.

The second was yesterday, on a food tip. After walking from Union Square to the Brooklyn Bridge to get the water taxi, we discovered that it had stopped service for the night. So, walking 6 blocks back in, in order to get onto the bridge, we crossed the Hudson on foot over the Brooklyn Bridge, as dusk had set in, affording lush views behind us over Manhattan, to the right out of the Hudson Bay and in front over Brooklyn. So having walked solidly for what seemed like 6 hours (okay maybe 3 with breaks), finding a 60 metre queue outside Grimaldis, at 9.15pm on a Monday, we were beginning to doubt the wisdom of our choice of dining experience.

view under the Brooklyn Bridge Southwards

In New York, as I am told by our more-than-gracious Brooklyn-based hosts, the best way to choose your dining venue is to imagine what experience you want. Obviously, good nosh is paramount, but to refine your options down you need to think about what kind of experience you want to go with your pizza. Although queueing for an hour didn't factor highly into the experience I wanted, Grimaldis have been turning out great pizzas for over 100 years. And at under £15 for a flaggon of wine and a 96 inch pizza (easily enough for 2 very hungry walkers - that's actually a litre and 18" for the litiguous amongst you), I felt compelled to try my hardest to convince my very hungry and grumpy girlfriend to stand patiently more than a stone's throw from the entrance. I did it by going of to find somewhere else to eat, and taking a very long time over it...

Was it worth it? Hell yeah! I so nearly bought their T-shirt until my more pragmatic girlfriend vetoed the idea.

If you happen be in New York City, with someone whose company you enjoy enough not to need alcohol to share a meal with, I'd recommend where we ate on Saturday night, for those interested in a less patience-wearing experience (even I'm talking the lingo now, I mean meal). The Bedouin Tent on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn does lush Lebanese food, with a nice back garden to eat in. Again the right side of £15 for 2, and highly recommended.

Wednesday 13th August 2008

What a ballache this is proving to be. From the various sites I'd read, I'd imagined buying a car in the US to be a lot less hassle than this.

I checked it out - a UK driving license entitles you to drive in most States (but check each one out - I know Florida doesn't) for up to 12 months before you have to get a local one. Insurance I thought would be the hardest with only 18 months of driving experience - in addition to being a foreigner - but a call to GMAC showed that I could quite easily be insured. I read on a forum there was only one underwriter that would insure foreigners - and they demand 2 years experience - I forget who they are but this is bullshit, probably courtesy of their PR department. Part 3 is registration...

So for those reading this thinking of doing the same, here's the process. You find the vehicle you want. You get insured on it, doable over the phone. You get the insurance company to fax you the insurance card you need in order to register. Then, you go to a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office (also known by other names in other states of the US), with the title signed over to you and/or a Bill of Sale, the insurance card AND SUITABLE PROOF OF ID.

This is the chestnut that we failed to pick up on until we'd gone over to New Jersey 3 times. On Saturday, we went over to check out a pickup truck at a dealer. It looked great at a good price. I wanted a mechanic to give us a second opinion, as without my dad at my shoulder, I didn't feel grown up enough to make an educated judgement. Garages close at weekends, so on Monday morning I went back, another 40 minutes on the New Jersey Transit. Stopping in at the first garage, I spoke to the mechanic. He didn't know the dealer personally (hence more likelihood of an objective judgement), and happened to drive himself a Ford Ranger, the model I was after. Further, he seemed Latin American so I spoke in Spanish to him, explained our plans, and we chatted for a while. He came and had a look at it, and plugging his computer in saw that one cylinder was mis-firing.

But on the way he told me about a friend of his that had a better one, again the same model. So on Tuesday, we went again, another 40 minutes, to have a look at this one. It seemed perfect, so he signed the title over and I gave him the cash. I called the insurance company and got it insured, then got the train back to New York City.

Since 9-11, New York State has increased the stringency of its ID requirements. Without a New York State driving license, a foreign passport and a credit card is only 4 out of 6 ID points. This, I discovered this morning at the DMV office in Brooklyn. My girlfriend has just come back from New Jersey, thankfully with the money back (minus $100 for the day he took off work and to get a replacement title). She says he seemed kind of glad in a way to not be parting with it, and genuinely sorry for us. We're getting on a bus to upstate NY in half an hour.

Friday, August 15, 2008

New York City Gritty Commitee Pity the Fool...

... that acts shitty in the midst of the calm and the witty.

Thursday 7th August 2008

So.... New York City. By sunrise. Quite a sight. And coming up the Hudson sure is a great way to arrive. Cunard should pay me for writing this. Well, after 6 days at sea, it's a relief to see dry land. I'm going to miss this though. The free room service. The ever-clean bathroom. And the evening turndowns.

We're floating in towards Brooklyn, police helicopter escorts like flies in the sky. We pass the Statue of Liberty over on the West Bank (of the Hudson, not the Dead Sea), with New Jersey behind it. In front, the Manhattan skyline glistens with office windows like stars in a concrete sky. The crimson sunrise just to the right sets the scene as I stand on deck in my Elegant Casual wear from last night, jeans, a shirt and my suit jacket. Later, I'll wish I hadn't bothered with the jacket, as the continuous cooling effect of the Atlantic at 20 knots has melted away.


Somewhere out here there's an old skool jungle night recommended by DJ C. Not that we can find it. We're sitting in The Four Faced Liar on West 4th St, and I'm drinking a double Wild Turkey bourbon and cola (thankfully not Coca-Cola). It comes recommended by a couple of students as the least expensive in the area. Love, the club hosting this night we're looking for, hasn't appeared on our radar. In finding the nearest place to its supposed location, we entered a jazz club seeking libation. After dodging the $20 door tax each, we pored over the drinks list, and finding mediocre cocktails for £7 a pop we hastily re-emerged onto West 8th St, collaring the nearest folks for their advice.

Last night, we had dinner at Marlow and Sons. The proprietors also happen to be our truly wonderful hosts. As family of dear friends of ours, they have very kindly agreed to put us up for a few nights while we find our feet.

What they've helped create made me warm inside not just my stomach. My calamari were absolutely fresh and perfectly soft, not slightly chewy and slid down like butter. On a fishy tip, I went for scallops for main, which were served just as I like them - lightly seared on one side - on a bed of greens, served in a bowl. Mmmm mmmmn. Very tasty food, served in the antithesis of pretentiously formal dining environments - cosy, friendly and comfortable. My partner's homemade chorizo was like none other I've tasted (even from The Better Food Company in Bristol), all meat, none of those chunks of fat that really put me off. It reminded me of Bordeaux Quay, excellent food rooted in a strong philosophy. And the waitress explained the whole menu without having to look once. Cool.

What these guys are famous for pioneering in New York is the resurgence of the grass-fed cow movement. Yes, that's where the address of this blog comes from, in case you were wondering. Ecologically speaking, it promises many things for the States. Coming from a background where veganism is a radical political ecological solution to our carbon problems, part of me feels uncomfortable advocating solutions that involve the subjugation of animals for human consumption. But while many of my friends are, I'm not vegan. If it's local and organic, I'll eat it. I object wholeheartedly to factory farming, and make every effort to avoid buying such meat or dairy products. I try to only eat meat a few times a week, and at home cooked 90% vegan.

So, grass fed cows. It's about ecosystems. Grass pastures put carbon back into the soil. They support species that break down cow dung faster and better. Pastures support ecosystems of worms, insects, and birds. A crucial part of the argument against dairy herds is that such a huge proportion of the carbon helping cause climate change comes from cow farts. Corn fed cows fart more than their grass fed friends. Ergo, less farts mean less climate change.

Now this isn't just some trendy, marketable label to greenwash us into happy and healthy consumerism (or is it?). For Marlow and Sons, along with this goes the whole philosophy of raising consciousness about what we eat, and understanding every step of the process from calf to cappucino. Calves separated from their mothers at 12 weeks simply have not developed the stomach linings in order to properly digest their food. Hence the farting, from improperly digested food.

I think it is the duty of every food industry proprietor to know and have seen the farms and met the farmers from which their food is sourced. Of course, the catering industry itself can be argued to be fundamentally unsustainable. I think that the economies of scale also weigh in though - it's better than prepacked TV dinners. And it's more sociable. Either way, I found the whole experience fascinating - to see food politics approached radically, in a very cool way. Their journal, Diner Journal, is a beautiful piece of art lapped up by New York coffee bars and coffee tables. I want a subscription for my birthday please.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Like Dolphins Out Of Water

5th August 2008

Oh yeah. Sitting alone in a hottub. There's something decadent about it. Mmmmm Hmm. Deckchairs to my left. Glass of bubbly to my right. Actually, a plastic flute, for the Scottish waiter has just decanted it from the glass because apparently before Southampton they had to close the pool for 5 hours because someone broke a glass. And in front is the deck below. In front again, the deck further below, with its pool and 2 other hottubs. Then below that, the Atlantic Ocean. As far as the eye can see. 1500 miles away lies Britain, Europe and Bristol. 4 days ago we left Southampton on the Queen Mary 2.

15 minutes ago, we saw about 12 dolphins skimming the surface. Well, my girlfriend reckons they're dolphins. I think they look like seabass, they're just not big enough to be dolphins. But she thinks the incredible proportions of the ship makes them look so small. I still reckon they're fish. Maybe not seabass, but fish nonetheless. Tuesday, we saw whales stopping for breath.

It's all a bit too perfect really. It is raining though. Which, in a hottub is quite refreshing. I feel a bit like a dolphin out of water on this ship, the average age here is about 2.4 generations above mine. And the luxury makes me feel a little queasy, even if the ship doesn't. At 148,000 odd tonnes we just glide through the water on this celebration of modernity, a triumph of human over its natural surroundings. The bubbly is The Co-op's finest Cava, fiver, smuggled on board. Nice. Bit of an 'edge' though.

The proportions of this beast are incredulous. With 14 decks; 4 stairways, in each of which a symmetrical double stairway flanks either side of a bank of 6 lifts; 1500 crew; 2500 passengers; 8 restaurants; 2 cocktail bars; a Champagne bar (apparently for I've not found it); a cigar lounge; a Boardroom (in which Masons met yesterday at 12.15pm); a gym; a Health Spa; 3 pools; 7 hottubs; a dance hall (the "Queens Room"); a 400 seat theatre to rival the Old Vic in Bristol; 'Illuminations', a 400 seat lecture theatre that doubles as a planetarium; and, of course a pub, The Golden Lion. We cruise at 24 knots, below the maximum speed of 29 knots, and at night we go even slower. Apparently, we could cross the Atlantic in 3 and a half days...

Nevertheless, at higher speeds the fuel economy increases by a factor of 2: that means to say an increase in speed demands an increase in power squared, because of the extra drag required and the resultant fuel needed. It's a similar reasoning to why everyone drives at 70 on the motorways at home these days with fuel prices as they are, 4 times what they were when I arrived in the UK 17 years ago - double what they were 5 years ago. This also justifies the slower speeds I suppose.

I am beginning to doubt the environmental reasons that we chose to avoid flying to the States. After a quick review of the 3 sea options available, we chose this as the cheapest. 148,000 tonnes. That needs a bit more than a V8 engine or 2. But, I concile in the knowledge that the carbon emitted at sea level is at least ten times less damaging to the ozone layer than when flying at 30,000 feet. I would love to see the statistics though, for I think it's a close call.

The sea has been, for what I've heard of the Atlantic's reputation at this time of year, fabulously calm. I am tense with anticipation of arriving in New York tomorrow. The other reason for travelling by sea is to savour the distance of the trip. With a 2 hour 'plane journey (or whatever it takes), you don't quite appreciate the miles you travel. And, to boot, Eastbound over the Atlantic, we get an extra hour's sleep every night. Better than having to stay up an extra 5 after the plane journey and waking up at 3 in the morning with nothing to do for the next 4 days, falling asleep over dinner.

We've met some lovely people. In an hour, I'm going to dinner in the main restaurant, the 'Brittania', where we have a table sharing with a delightful Yorkshire couple. I might grab myself a Tanqueray 10 martini with a grapefruit twist from the Commodore Club on the way: other than the pub, it's the only other indoor smoking venue. It's a bit surreal being able to smoke indoors, but then it pales in comparison to being able to see out of the front of the ship from my seat with the Atlantic on the horizon.

I've got into a bit of a daily routine aboard, the only way to apply some rational order in this otherwise flagrantly crazy microworld. After buffet breakfast at 'Kings Court' (waffle, maple syrup, asparagus & cheese omelette, bacon, perfectly chopped mushrooms, beans & hash browns) I head up to the Atlantic Room up on deck 11 at the bow end for 9.30am. This morning was my last bridge lesson there, with our instructor (Jim) who my Australian friends on my table tell me is very good. Then I head straight for the gym - I've never set foot in one before, but with free rein I couldn't resist seeing what all the fuss is about. Afterwards, I head up to the Pavilion Pool (the indoor one) for a shower and dip in the hottub there. Then down to 'Illuminations' for a lecture by an astronomer about galaxies and suchlike, a series of daily lectures, followed by lunch. Afternoons are a bit less structured (phew), normally involving gin (smuggled aboard).

The atmosphere for dinner is determined by one of three dress codes for the journey (formal, semi-formal and elegant casual). We have a reservation as standard in the 'Britannia' restaurant, but last night we reserved a table in 'Lotus', the Eastern fusion quarter of Kings Court. It was a tastings menu, 8 dishes in 5 courses, and rather tasty, washed down with regularly replenished green tea. We had a good natter with the waiter, from Croatia, about how things work for the staff. They work a minimum of 3 months aboard at a time (9 months for Philipinos, because of the higher costs of flying them home), 7 days a week. Bogdan, our waiter, works split shifts, up at 5 every morning and finishing at about 11. Which means that he can't sleep more than 6 hours a night. For 3 months. Wow.

My best night has got to be the night before last, the night of the crew party. Once a month, they shut the late night drinking holes early(ish) and let their hair down in the luggage hold. The Carribean band Vibes did a linkup with the saxophonist and played some skankin reggae / ragga mashup. The sight of the crew members laughing genuinely and having a drink cut the pretentiously stifling atmosphere of the ship that made it so alien, like nothing else could. It was a sweaty, sexually charged air that I hadn't quite experienced before. And it didn't last long. After about 25 minutes, the ship's duty officer appeared behind me at my shoulder, beckoning with her finger. Asking for our key cards, we walked to the hallway, made our excuses and left.