Wednesday, 5 December 2012

"I Live in the Plaza and I Love it. All That History. All Those Stories."

My treat to Mum was the highlight of the weekend, and I treated her to Afternoon Tea at the Plaza Hotel just off of Central Park. Being a huge F Scott Fitzgerald fan (I recently read 'May Day' - the novella - which was brilliant!) I couldn't think of a more fitting celebration of Christmas and our reuniting than to do a Mia Farrow/Robert Redford, and indulge ourselves in finger sandwiches and scones galore. I have always wanted to go here, ever since studying the Great Gatsby in Lower Sixth. To my surprise, my Mother (the sneaky genius that she is) had turned the tables and made it my treat, as a late celebration of my 18th in the summer.

I was serenaded by both the piano player and the whole of the Palm Court and received a personalised menu AND free cake - I was in my element! To top it all off, the Lobby featured a tree in celebration of the new 'Great Gatsby' film that's coming out in 2013, and had dedicated it to their 2nd Patron - Fitzgerald himself.

We walked around Central Park, stumbled across many a Christmas fair, and ate far too much, and it was the perfect way to end my trip - I couldn't have imagined anything more perfect than losing myself in New York city before heading back to Blighty. Despite the price (prepare yourself if you intend to treat your loved one in true Gatsby style...) I would recommend this in a heartbeat for a Christmas present. A truly special experience, but book in advance! I cannot stress this enough - the holidays are so busy and you may need to book up to a month in advance to find your ideal time and date.

Being posh (what one does best)

Merry Christmas from the Plaza!
Amongst the shopping and the soaking in of the city, my departure from the States after 2 and a bit months was imminent, and Sunday night saw us flying back to London Heathrow and landing in rain, fog, and the cold which seemed, well, perfectly fitting. Coming home has thrown a bucket of feelings at me that I am trying to deal with, but I'm mostly trying to process that the first leg of my Gap Year is over!

Being in America was the most incredible experience, and being part of the Bissinger's family down in Houston was perfect. NYC was the cherry on top, and started in Washington/Baltimore was brilliant. I am continually asked what the highlight of my trip has been, and I just don't have an answer - it was all fantastic. My British feet, while they are now firmly grounded in the UK for the next month or so, are definitely itchy and I can't wait to fly to India in just over a month! Thank you for an unbeatable time America, I will miss your pancakes, your politics, and your charm very very much. Maybe see you again soon. But here's to the experiences we've shared, and to the future.

And to a very British Christmas, and India!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

New York and Back to Blighty.

Bye Houston :-(
For the first time, I am blogging from my teeny village on the outskirts of Essex due to my being home in England as of 9.30am yesterday morning. On Thursday I sad my somewhat weepy goodbyes to Houston and its lovely people, its blue skies and unfailing sunshine, and the family that I have lived with for just over two months, and I headed on a plane to Newark. I left behind 70+ degrees F and landed in 38, which was a bit of a change.

Donning my long-awaited winter coat, some thick wooly tights, and my almost-over-the-weight-limit-but-not-quite suitcases, I jumped in a yellow cab and headed into Manhattan like some kind of dreamy halfway point between leaving America for England on the coming Sunday. As the car pulled over the Holland Tunnel, I caught a glimpse of both Lady Liberty and the Empire State and it felt oddly like coming home. Having been to NYC last April, I knew what to expect, yet the feeling of the city can not be paralleled. It's a concrete-and-glass kind of beautiful, and I adored it. Christmas was in full swing in the city with the Rockerfeller Christmas tree having been lit the night before we landed. The shops had their window displays out, only to be matched with ridiculous opening hours for the Holidays; Macy's is open from 8am to 11pm, and Times Square Toys'R'Us is open 24 hours a day without closing. Madness.

I couldn't help but compare my two trips, anyone for another annual trip next year? 16 year old me/18 year old me would be thrilled.
I met my Mum at our hotel, conveniently located opposite Madison Square Gardens and just a ten minute walk from Times Square. Our reunion was emotional to say the least but it quickly dawned on me that nothing had changed, and we headed out for the evening. My main love of NYC is the way that I could happily spend a few days just walking around admiring the city, and for the second time, I found that (for Mum and I at least) most roads lead to Times Square, Central Park and the shopping heaven that is Fifth Avenue. We spent the weekend eating and shopping our way around Manhattan, visiting just a few tourist hot spots (Flatiron Building, Union Square, Brooklyn Bridge) but avoided the rest having done them last Spring. Have lots of photos to illustrate my points - my next post is one of importance (duh duh duh)!

Brooklyn Bridge - the devestation from Sandy was evident on the Seaport sea front. Shops boarded up and smashed in, complete with a 'National Disaster Team' lorry.

Enjoying the walk across the bridge..

Rockerfeller tree!

Times Square is one of my fave places. Fact. And not just because I almost walked into Snoop Dogg on Thursday night.
Ice Skating in Central Park.
Flat Iron building.
In Grand Central.
We frequented 'Andrew's Cafe' for breakfast on our mornings, as well as grabbing a Starbucks coffee to go, and I have never had such a wonderful breakfast - apple and cinnamon pancakes, complete with maple syrup and bacon. The breakfast of (British, middle-class) gap year-ers, right? The price was definitely affordable for even the more budgeted travellers. 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Turkey, Guns and Giant Armadillos.

The Elementary School Science Fair!
The Scout Troop cake auction.

Woops, I guess I haven't been great at keeping this blog up to date (or at least not as consistent as I hoped I would) but the past two weeks have been even busier than the last nine weeks combined (I'm incredibly prone to hyperbole, sorry readers) due to a change of plans which means I am flying to the Big Apple this coming Thursday instead of next Friday, and I will be home from America for Christmas early next week.

I cannot believe that my time has gone so quickly; as I start to pack up my suitcases with the soundtrack of 24hr Christmas radio, it feels like just yesterday that I was unpacking in my new home in Hunter's Creek. I've been tying up loose ends and preparing for a second trip some point in the near future, as there is so much I have yet to do. Places to go, people to see, restaurants the boys are so eager for me to try...I can't believe I didn't fit it all into one trip (especially one two months long...) but I can safely say that my time in America has been an experience which I have enjoyed thoroughly - I can't wait to come back, and I'm planning to investigate the West Coast too so keep your eyes peeled for forthcoming plans involving San Fransisco, fingers crossed!

The last two weeks have seen my fourth and final Houston birthday, Meg's, and we celebrated with cakes, presents, and a visit to the local Italian. The following week was filled with Kindergarten, cycling, and Starbucks (as ever) and marching on through my reading list. Meg and I went for a girl's day out in Houston last Saturday which was fantastic, and featured the relaxation that we both needed. Food, shopping, dessert bars, bookshops, cowboy boots and drinks at sunset, all in midtown Houston. It doesn't really get much better than that. Amongst this, I also attended a cake auction which was, yes, as yummy as it sounds, and an all-american Science Fair. But at the end of the week came the climax of my trip: Thanksgiving.

Drinks in the evening sun.

How is it that I just happen across beautiful book shops? It's a talent I swear.
So, I've learnt the story of the pilgrims. I got my 4 days off. I've eaten the turkey, the sweet potato salad, the dirty rice, the Gumbo, the pumpkin pie, the pancakes and the bacon. I've attended the Pilgrim Festival and bought homemade jam. I played Airsoft (which I am brilliant at, may I hasten to add). I ate marshmallows by the creek and the campfire under the crimson Fall trees. I posed for the family photo. I watched the Thanksgiving Macy's Parade and the football game.

I slept lots, walked lots, and met extended family that I didn't even know existed. And I can now say, hand on heart, that Thanksgiving is all it's cracked up to be - it's a fantastic holiday that brings people together for a wonderful time. Oops, I'm getting all sentimental. We, as a family, congregated in Mansura in Mid-East Louisiana and spent the holiday together, eating and laughing like I'd known everyone for a lifetime. It was a fantastic weekend, undoubtedly the best American holiday I've encountered. See photos below!

Thanksgiving football.
"I don't understand the obsession with shooting..." "We're from Texas!"
Autumn by the cabin in rural Louisiana.
Meg and I!

I can't believe I'm heading home so soon, but I am so excited to be hitting New York city again on Thursday, just in time for Christmas shopping, ice skating, and High Tea in the Plaza - my treat. I also worked out that I'll have touched down in six states before I head home to Old Blighty which, in my opinion, isn't half bad.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

I Will Never Be An Art Critic.

Today's city trip was a little different and while I went with good, cultural intentions, I ended up exploring the underground tunnel system, getting some breakfast, then walking around Hermann Park for the majority of the afternoon, discovering the Japanese Gardens, the Tiffany's Bridge, and the lake. In the Houstonian sunshine, it was flawless. It's hard to believe that such a beautiful place can exist in the 4th largest city in the States. I headed into a new area of Houston too, heading into Montrose to the Rothko Chapel, the Menil Collection, and an opening at the Sicardi Gallery (owned by a friend of the family).

The Rothko Chapel, whether you're religious or not, is a feature of Houston's art scene which is not to be missed. When the Menil collection was established (a gallery with art donated from a private collection owned by two philanthropists - the Menils), this particular part of the gallery was commissioned and completed by the artist Mark Rothko. It is an electronic device free zone, and is completely silent. Religious texts are provided if you feel so inclined, and the atmosphere is impenetrable and sobering in the centre of the city.

Just wandering through Montrose, I found a local record shop where I treated myself to Simon and Garfunkel's 'Wednesday Morning 3AM' vinyl for all of $3.00, and a bakery who had served George Bush, Sarah Palin, and Bill Clinton, among others. I was very impressed, especially when I bought a cookie for just $1.00. I was similarly impressed when I quite literally stumbled (damn my two left feet) upon a huge Obama Murial! Needless to say, I stopped the first unfortunate passer-by I could find to take a photo.

After navigating myself half successfully from the Muriel to West Alabama Street, I had a wander around the Menil Collection which was really great. I have seen more art in the past two months than I have maybe ever? So much art. There was a great exhibition to celebrate the gallery's 25th birthday that featured letters of gratitude from various artists (all of whom seemed farely eccentric) including Andy Warhol, which was surreal to read. To follow this, in the evening, we went to an opening of Gabriel de la Mora's work at the Sicardi Gallery in Montrose, which was lovely and I really enjoyed. Modern Art is something that I struggle to understand, and it's safe to say that I have seen enough modern art recently to help persuade me further to never, ever be an Art Critic.

Looks remarkably like Washington..
Hermann Park - stunning.

The Japanese Gardens.
Rothko Chapel - unfortunately photos are not allowed inside.
Forever stumbling across cool shops.
Who me? Politically biased? Don't be silly.
Obama needs you to fight racism, homophobia and the econmic crisis.
In the Arcadian Bakery.
Outside the Menil Collection.
In the Sicardi.
Between city visits, I've been helping lots with the kids and taking up residence in the local Starbucks, cycling the 5 miles there and back with ease. I also returned to the Elementary school to help out some more, and attended the Veteran's Day concert which was great. But, being British, you can imagine how awkward I felt when the audience were asked to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance AND the nation anthem. Safe to say I mouthed what looked like words and tried not to look to shifty.

Veteran's Day, which takes place on Sunday, is the American equivalent of Rememberance Sunday, and while we don't have poppies or wreath laying, it's still a well respecetd day on the American calender. Anyway, my cycle ride is beautiful and gives me time to appreciate where I am and how this is all really happening. I'm becoming more and more nostalgic about my time here as it progresses, as I realised that I have only three weekends or so left.

Plans have been finalised for NYC and this time next month we'll be back in Baltimore after our long weekend in the Big Apple. I am comforted by the knowledge that I will always have a home here and am welcome back, but I will miss the family so much. But hey, I'm thinking too far ahead and not focussing on the exciting things at hand, such as our weekend away next week where I am going to Austin and San Antonio, and how soon Thanksgiving and our trip to Louisiana is! I still have tons of exciting things to look forward to, including Air Soft guns and Paintballing. Yes, you did read that correctly. Me. Paintballing.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Houston. No, Not Whitney.

This week has been manic, and I think I've almost ticked everything off on my 'to-do-in-Houston' list which I compiled last night. Last weekend, with the weather being as pristine as always, I was able to go swimming in the local open-air, non-heated pool, and I couldn't believe it! Sitting on a sun lounger, at 5pm, in 28 degree heat, seemed all too good to be true and whilst I was hearing about the truly Winter weather back at home, it was a true wish-you-were-here moment.

Happy November.
Monday saw me heading to the Mall to survey the now-up Christmas decorations and head to the Three Brother's bakery where I treated myself to some pre-election baking. On both Tuesday and Friday I went into the city for a day to myself, rattling around on the MetroRail (an overground, cheap, and 10000x smaller version of the London Underground that goes back and forth on one straight line through Downtown/Midtown) and seeing all the sights I could cram in. On Tuesday I finally went up to the Sky Lobby (the 60th floor of the J P Morgan building in the midst of the Houston skyline) and sat on the floor looking at the city for an hour, becoming maybe just a little too existential but such is my style.

J P Morgan building

On a clear day, like it was, it's said that you can see 20 miles and I could see so far, both around and down. It was beautiful to watch the people and cars moving around in the blocks and avenues and it was perfect. I found Discovery Green and sat reading in the afternoon sunshine before heading back to the Museum District and Rice Village, and visiting the Holocaust museum which was sombering but a must-see in its own way. I also walked with a Doctor who gave me directions as I apparently just look lost when I walk around with my nose buried in my Texas: A Lonely Planet Guide.

I've encountered the nicest people since being here, with people who have said I look nice or help me when I am too shy to ask, Baristas who talk to me for half an hour about England, people who let me share their table at Starbucks then continue to chat to me for an entire hour, Baristas who give me sellotape to fix my poor 50c 'Farewell to Arms' copy with a broken cover - it all adds to the southern welcome.

Sky line!

Top tourist photo taken by other tourists.
Discovering Discovery Green.

The Holocaust Memorial which is well worth a visit.