New York Adventures: Joining the polar bears

2012 in New York started out on a good note. Or rather it started out on a very high pitched scream.

new york polar bearsMy voice roared as the cold water hit my ankles. I stopped screaming as my toes started to go numb and I lost all feeling in my arse. In mute admiration I watched Jeremy dive under the water for the third time. We had decided to kick, or rather swim, off 2012 with the Coney Island NY Polar Bears. Hangovers and sanity forgotten, hundreds of us had decided to storm the shockingly cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Polar Bear Club founderAccording to the impressively named Polar Bear Club founder, Bernarr Macfadden, a winter dip in the ocean could improve one’s stamina, virility and immunity. The club had been going strong since 1903 and, if I was to believe Bernarr, a quick dip would be a virtual all-in-one new year’s resolution.

I was keen. The weather was on our side, new year’s day was a balmy 55 degrees. We planned to go with friends, bundled up with enough warm clothes to keep us cosy after our dip and were given the incentive of a post swim cup of hot spiked cider. Jeremy and I ran into the water holding hands like kamikaze storming troops.

I would like to say that I emerged in a state of frozen nirvana from under the water. I’d like to tell you that I stayed with our friends and bantered calmly treading water for 10 minutes in the ocean. Sadly none of that is true. I’m much more of a wimp that I would like you to believe. However it is true that I ran out of the water on a high that lasted well beyond the joy of wrapping myself in my towel.

In fact I felt so good for so long afterwards that I’m tempted to give a dip in the icy water another try on a less crowded occasion. Maybe I’ll even get my head under next time. Anyone mad enough to join me is very welcome.

Best of December List

I have been an utterly useless blogger recently. I don’t expect that it worried too many of you but I feel bad about being so rubbish. Suffice to say that by the end of January I will be much better (the manuscript will be in the hands of my editor and out of my late night fevers) and until then I will stick to my new years resolution to write on here at least once a week.

In the spirit of welcoming in the new year (and saying goodbye to the past year) I thought I would let you know some of my favourites pieces of December by creating a list of highlights (I’d love to hear your December high points so post away in the comments section to your hearts content!):

Sending my parents here for a January get away.

Eating far too much of this butter.

Treating ourselves to this restaurant for my mum’s birthday.

Being involved in this charity bash.

The effortless indulgence of this butterscotch sauce.

Popping down to my local for the odd post-shopping cocktail.

Reading her raw, poetic books (inspirational reading for every memoirist).

Seeing this guy in his last concert.

Indulging in over-priced pints here and feeling like I was back in a country pub.

Watching this film with 3D glasses on and not feeling at all embarrassed.

Feeling the rib-sticking goodness of this restaurant’s cavatelli.

Surviving a frigid bike ride to end up at this spot for unbeatable pancakes.

Embracing the joy of an utterly cheesy spa day here.

Speaking to a room full of shockingly engaged adolescents here.

Cheers to 2011 and I hope you all have a fabulous time ringing in 2012 around the world. What’s on your list?

New York City mantra

Jeremy has a cheery little ditty that started when we were facing the nightmare of apartment hunting in the city. He chants it when a taxi driver won’t take us to Brooklyn or when he spends too long at the Post Office. I hear him mumbling it as he manhandles our bikes into the basement, ‘This city will kill you’.

As I said, cheery.

He’s right, of course. All of the stories are true. New York is dirty and cramped and smelly and hectic and expensive. It is not somewhere you come for an easy, peaceful life. It can be a very difficult place to be, a challenging place to carve out a home.

Yet, in between trying to kill you, the city has moments when it is truly magical, when all the hardships seem trifling in comparison.

There’s a guy in Washington Square Park. He calls himself the Crazy Piano Guy. He drags his grand piano into the space between the park’s fountain and its grand archway. He plays amidst the tourists and the homeless and the buskers and the NYU students. If you stand long enough you’ll watch kids dance, lovers kiss, old men argue and young families take their holiday snaps. You can smell the street carts and hear cars honking in the distance. You can see the world unfold to the sound of his keys hitting the notes. It provokes a certain sense of wonderment, a feeling that you can come alive in this city.

New York piano man

Book deal: An ode to Lady Luck

6 months ago I was despairing. I should have been celebrating. Jeremy and I had just launched www.ExchangeMyPhone.com, we were still high on paint fumes (having rolled 7 gallons of eggshell white all over our Brooklyn flat) and were paying our bills.

We had moved to New York with no jobs and no savings and we had survived our first winter. I was proud of us.

And yet my latest rejection from a literary agent was staining my desk. Memoirs were no longer vogue, she wrote. Stuttering wasn’t a subject that had mass appeal. Good luck elsewhere.

I added the last rejection letter to my pile. I knew what she was really saying. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t be an author. I’d never get a book deal. My dreams were foolish.

writing: good luckFortunately when Lady Luck thinks she has trampled on your soul enough times she decides to give you a break. Yesterday I danced around my office, drank a celebratory Manhattan and ate some amazing homemade pasta with friends. I had just received my signed contract from Simon and Schuster.

It took me three years to get my book deal. I’m not sure whether that is a long time or a short time. It felt long. It felt hopeless towards the end. When I left England in October 2008 to research my book I had no idea what a challenge I was setting myself up for.

Writing was no joy ride. I faced far too much rejection, mockingly blank pages, a year of horrendous work and a very sad looking bank account.

Is it worth it? Definitely. I met Jeremy, I met hundreds of people from all over the country, I travelled, I lived in Chicago, I moved to New York and finally, at the end of it all, I ended up with an amazing editor, a highly respected publisher and a lovely agent.

I still have a long way to go. I have to finish the writing, I have to prove myself to everyone who has put their trust in me, and I have to get the piecemeal manuscript on my laptop into a real life book. But, with this book deal, I’m one step further along than I was.

I have no advice, sadly. It seems like there is no one clear path. It is not like becoming a lawyer, or an accountant, or a banker. There’s no clear ladder to scramble up with a pot of gold at the end. You do it because you have to, because nothing else will do, because you have some latent faith that, at some point, maybe, you will see your dreams come true.

New York Living: Pumpkins are making me patriotic

On Monday night I walked into the supermarket and saw a pizza combing the frozen foods, a dinosaur being carried through the bakery section and a slew of superheroes at war in the dairy aisle.

On my way home I walked past houses with giant spiders crawling through their windows, witches swooping over their doorways and impressively ghoulish pumpkins guarding their entrances.

Over the weekend I partied with a host of Sega characters, a giant white swan, Hunter S Thompson and Santa. It was messy. You can imagine.

New York does Halloween very well indeed. It makes me adore my adopted home just that little bit more.

And yet, as much as I love this place, there are still pieces of England that I long for…

I miss the way everyone apologizes for everything. “I’m sorry” or “pardon me” prefix everything from asking where the bathroom is to simply navigating a busy city street. In America I sound perpetually apologetic, in England I sound like everyone else.

I miss the fact that no one claps for the pilot when he lands the plane safely.

I miss the NHS.

I miss rolling hills and a pint at a country pub.

I miss the stiff upper lip. Fall down a flight of stairs in Britain and you are expected to do nothing more than crack an embarrassed smile and limp away, protesting that it is really nothing at all.

I miss Sunday roasts, blackberry crumble and hot cross buns.

I miss taxi drivers who know every address in the city and haven’t learnt to drive by playing Grand Theft Auto.

I miss chatting to friends over a cuppa rather than over Skype.

I realize that England has its problems, there are pieces of the country that I don’t miss at all, and I have no immediate plans to return to the homeland. But those thoughts are much too practical…I’d rather sit in my cozy New York flat picturing the UK as an idyllic land of digestive biscuits and sarcasm.

New York versus London

Travel Writing: The best job in the world?

Not many jobs include taking a holiday in the name of research, snapping some shots, talking to locals and then writing a piece that inspires people to follow in your footsteps. I’ll admit that it may involve quite a bit of internet heavy research before you set off, but we not exactly talking hardships here. It all sounds pretty ideal.

I sense that the NYT’s Frugal Traveler may have nicked my perfect job, but there is still hope for me yet. I have been commissioned to write a couple articles on the wonders of New York State by a very nice editor at Car and Travel magazine.

I hadn’t quite realized what a large area New York State covers. The project feels akin to researching the entire country of England. I had thought about taking one very large trip but it turns out that taking two weeks off work is slightly impractical. So I’m doing it in long weekend stints and I’ve asked Jeremy to come along for the ride. This past weekend I sold it as a fun-filled road trip to the Adirondacks. I may have forgotten to remind him about my car-induced narcolepsy or irrational fear of merging.

travel writing in the adirondacks

It turns out that road trips are fun if both people can stay awake long enough to keep each other company, there is a radio station that plays something other than organ music, you can sneak in some exercise so your legs don’t seize up and you end up at a very nice cabin in the woods at the end of the day.

Being a travel writer seems to mean experiencing the good, the bad and the ugly on behalf of your readers. They don’t need to face the same navigational hysterics or drive through the multitude of disappointing towns. Instead they can eat at quaint cafes, take some glorious hikes, pack the necessary plasters and end their peaceful day at a cozy cabin in the woods.

Because even if you fall in the mud on your hike, drive for miles in the wrong direction or find yourself screaming at the radio, a rustic cabin and a fireplace can do wonders to make it all seem like the glorious adventure it was supposed to be.

Are you a stranger? Excellent. Please come and stay at my home

Do you know about Airbnb? I had barely heard of them until a few months ago. Then suddenly they were all over the press like a bad rash. The company that lets anyone rent out their apartment or spare room was in some slightly hot water. Apparently a San Francisco blogger had her apartment demolished by a guest who had rented it for a week. Not only had she come home to a nightmare but the owners of Airbnb were doing precious little to help, commiserate or compensate her for the substantial damages. The trust they had built their company on had been eroded a wee bit.

Finally they helped the poor woman out, apologized for their less than gallant behavior and created a comprehensive insurance policy for their renters.

In the wake of the publicity, anyone who had heard of Airbnb was divided into two camps. On the one hand there were those who saw it as a teething problem, a glitch in an otherwise brilliant business. On the other hand, there were those who tutted and shock their head sagely. Wasn’t she being very irresponsible and courting disaster by trusting these strangers? Wasn’t she practically asking for something to happen?

Five years ago I imagine that I would have sided with the latter. I would have ranted about personal privacy (the only child in me rearing its ugly head), and what happens when trust merges into blatant stupidity. However, I suspect even then I might have doubted what was coming out of my mouth. This was coming from a girl who thought nothing of staying with friends of friends of friends abroad, whose home was always welcome to anyone growing up and who had stayed in numerous hostel dorms alongside teeming masses of backpack-clad strangers.

So what changed? When did I become an Airbnb convert? When did I become the sort of person who rents out my home to a total stranger? I blame my new liaise-faire attitude on two things: the cost of living in New York and my short but sweet experience of couch surfing.

So New York is expensive. We all know that. We all have a few hustles going and we try to earn whatever extra money we can. Renting your apartment in this city is as good a gig as any.

What about couch surfing? In essence it is the dreadlocked, touchy-feely sister of Airbnb. With couch surfing no money changes hands. You are simply welcomed into someone else’s house. You are offered a couch or maybe a bed, some potentially good conversations, a taster of a different culture and an insight into neighborhood secrets.

trust behind couch surfing

Jeremy and I couch surfed for 6 weeks across the American South West. We stayed in communes, in ranches and in one-bed room studios. The experience was revelatory. We were essentially total strangers but we were trusted with a spare key, welcomed to family dinners and taken on tours of wherever we ended up.

There was a little bit of faith but we also did our homework. We checked out our couch surfing hosts online, we chatted to them on the phone before we arrived. We made ourselves experts in judging what sort of person they were before we turned up on their doorstop. It became a habit and it turns out that Airbnb is no different.

So I may be fool hardy renting out my flat and if my place is trashed I’m sure there will be someone ready to tell me I had it coming. But, for the moment, I’ll use my judgment, make my rent payment and choose to trust people a little more.

Frugal Living: Limbering up for the extreme sport of penny pinching

An article I wrote recently went ‘viral’. I have yet to decipher the magical workings of freelance writing but somehow over 1000 people decided to comment on the piece. A couple weeks ago I would have thought the subject for such heated debate would have to be war, or health or even the sad story of Rupert Murdock. No no, 1000 people decided to voice their opinion on the controversial subject of ‘Extreme Couponing’.

frugal living

You may ask yourself what extreme couponing is all about. A month ago I had no idea. The title arrived from my editor who clearly feels that penniless writer = frugal living expert. Fair enough but I was sadly in the dark on the subject of extreme couponing.

After a foray into the world of TLC reality programming and some internet research on the subject, I quickly realized that serious couponing translated to penny pinching as an extreme sport.

The experts are not haphazardly cutting coupons from the Sunday papers. No, this is an organized, cross-referenced art form. In the spirit of research I looked into internet coupons, newspaper cut-outs and supermarket handouts. Laziness quickly overtook my impulse to save and I realized that it takes a stronger resolve than mine to make a go of it. I’m competitive by nature but I know which battles I can win and I know I would quickly be put to shame by the televised image of a women buying a shopping trolley full of goods for a handful of nickels and dimes.

I think my failure to really embrace the joy of extreme couponing may also have something to do with the fact that I live in New York. Despite the fact that I live in one of the most expensive cities in America, New York living does not translate well to dedicated coupon cutting. I bike to our local supermarket and our pint-sized apartment is not well equipped to handle bulk purchases of any kind.

So extreme couponing may not offer the way forward for frugal living in the city that never sleeps but there are other ways to live the NY high life on a shoestring:

1) Finding a great apartment. Don’t be shy. The topic of rent is as synonymous with New York as chat of the weather is in London. Tell everyone what you want and ignore anyone who tells you it can’t be done. Ask around…who has a rent stabilized apartment, how much are your friends paying, does anyone know someone with a great apartment who is moving out? Give yourself the time for the proper hunt, it may take a while.

2) Eating. I love eating out and we treat ourselves more often than we should but I will chuck my chopstick at the next person who tells me that eating out is as cheap as eating at home in the city. If it is then I want them to tell me which restaurant they eat at and where on earth they do their food shopping.

3) Partying. Embrace happy hours and free events in the city. In the summer, something fabulously free is happening every day of the week and you can always mingle with the after work crew or the late night stoop-outs for some cheap off-peak drinking.

4) More eating. If you have a hardy stomach and a penchant for meat and rice, street vendors are your ‘go to’ in the city. Look for the ones with high turnover and long lines. If you are close to Union Square skip the lines at Whole Paycheck and pay a visit to the guy with the big smile on 14th and 3rd.

5) Getting around. Dust off your old bike. It may be steamy and hot in the city but you will arrive at your destinations ‘glowing’ and basking in the knowledge that you have saved money on either subway riding or taxis. Just watch out for those pesky car doors, keep your biking excursions to under a few miles if possible and pack deodorant or an extra top for those 90 degree days.

For all the same reasons that I failed at extreme couponing, I regularly fail at living as frugally as I would like. Finally I have realized that it is a balance and all the mea culpas are unnecessary. Saving here and there makes spending the money when we want to all that much more of a treat.

In that vein I am off to ride my bike to our favorite seltzer and breakfast spot in Brooklyn. More on that next time…

New York Living: City by the beach

I learnt two things about myself this week. First, my rose-tinted memories of childhood summers all involve time idyllically spent by the ocean. Second, when the stress of life as an entrepreneur/writer gets too much for me I am all too tempted to escape. The combination of these means that, when the going gets tough in New York, I look longing towards the beach.

Fort Tilden New York

Shockingly this is a part of New York

On top of minor things like money and failure worries, I spent last week worrying that I was missing the summer. I spend most of my days working from home, looking at the blue glow of my computer screen. The window is normally cranked open and I can hear the old Italians shooting the breeze on the stoops below. It is not a bad way to spend my days but it is largely an indoor-bound affair.

So this weekend we decided to embrace the spirit of July 4th, take the day off work and feel the sunshine on our skin. We toyed with the idea of heading out to the Hamptons but it felt too industrious for a Saturday morning so we decided to check out one of the city beaches less than half and hour from our apartment.

The Rockaways are a strange place. Half looming high rises and half unexplored semi-wilderness. I had been in the off-season and, much like winter in Coney Island, the beaches gave off a wind-sweep melancholy. I had been told that the beaches were heaving with people in the summer. However, I had read about a stretch of pristine, secluded shoreline far to the west (thank you New York Times). So we set off to Fort Tilden, somewhat tentatively, towels and books in hand.

In short it was perfect. The ideal escape. There were sand dunes, only a smattering of people, not a building in sight and the Atlantic Ocean lapping temptingly at our feet. The only people I saw looking industrious all day were two cops and they were riding horseback in the surf talking to a few girls in bikinis…it felt like the whole city was taking a break.

New York beach police

The Rockaways are technically in Queens but they summarize much of what I love about Brooklyn. An urban smorgasbord of ugliness, beauty, chaos and peacefulness.

If you live in New York, go. Go now. Take a picnic. Happy 4th of July!

Brooklyn New York

It hard to be mad at a place with road signs like this

New York, New York: Sinatra had it right

Spring has finally come to the big apple and it is time to forgive the city anything.

Brooklyn New York

When Jeremy and I first arrived on New Year’s Eve, we had sublet a beautiful but miniscule space in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. The snow had formed 4-foot walls down the semi-ploughed roads and we were paying three times our old rent in Chicago. It was a baptism of fire and there were times when we questioned our sanity. New York had been a dream, an east coast adventure and a chance to live in the pulsing heart of the publishing and business world. As we hibernated in our apartment and gave up on any sort of privacy we wondered if the city was too much for us, too expensive, too gritty.

Last Tuesday, teaching my first class on public speaking (here is the next one), I played a spontaneous speaking game with my students. In their own way each of them told us a story about their New York, the city they called home, good or bad. One hated and loved Times Square in equal measure, one told us about a crazy saxophonist on the subway with questionable personal hygiene and one told us about her apartment nightmare living with a dominatrix housemate.

This city is like marmite, you love it or hate it, and sometimes you do both at the same time, but once it gets under your skin it is hard to shake off. Today, sitting in our apartment with the sun shining through my window, I love it. I love the beauty of my neighborhood, the old Italian men who sit on their stoops every day, the morning coffee at my local café, the bookseller down the road who has used tomes scaling the walls and spilling out on to the sidewalk.

Central Park New York

Of all the cities I have been to, nowhere has the sheer diversity of New York. It is hard to beat the experience of all that variation than from the back of the bike. Brooklyn and Queens have great bike rides that I will tell you about some other time, but my New York story, the New York journey that I love the most is the one that takes me from our place in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, to the best bagel I have ever eaten on 107th st on the Upper West side of Manhattan. It is not a short bike ride but it is an ideal way to spend a Sunday in the city.

The rush of adrenaline as cars screech past me on midtown Manhattan’s 6th Ave, the intense gaze at each parked car for fear of a door flying out into my path, the joy ride up central park, the in-line skaters, the table tennis players in Tompkins Square Park, the mysterious Chinese gamblers in Columbus Park. On top of it all is the food. In my mind, cycling 15 city miles entitles me to some treats on the way. There are hundreds of places on route but here are a few favorites:

1. Ted and Honey – fueling up with a breakfast sandwich and an iced coffee in Carroll Gardens.

Ted and honey

Image: Cobble Hill Blog

2. Grabbing a few biscotti from a cart here in Little Italy after rolling over the Brooklyn Bridge.

3. The Pickle Guys – if you like pickles, my favorite is the somewhat controversial pickled pineapple but you’re never short of choice. If you’re not so into pickles and prefer your treats a touch sweeter, check out the lower east side location of the Doughnut Plant across the street.

Pickle guys

Image: Robbie Virus

Doughnut plant

Moishe’s bake shop – anything is good for a pastry picnic in Tompkins Square Park.

Moishe's bake shop

The grand finale of them all is the best bagel I have ever tasted. I realize that some people are partial to H&H but we were introduced to Absolute Bagel by a friend and I think my loyalty may already have been forged. An everything bagel, hot out of the oven, with a thick layer of white fish spread…it gets me on my bike every Sunday.

Absolute bagel

Image: Carnivore and Vegetarian

Tell me a story…do you have a favorite New York place, food mecca or journey?