I’m back in Australia! As you’ll have seen if you follow the blog or my Instagram account, I’ve spent the last 2 months in the USA! I didn’t post too much while I was away, mostly because I was too busy exploring, gawking and eating to spend too much time glued to a screen. I took notes most days, but didn’t get much further than that!
In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing my experiences from New York City, Charleston and New Orleans, but today I just want to share a quick recap of my impressions of three very different American cities.
New York City
New York – where do I begin?! I spent the first two weeks absolutely starstruck, and for a short while it even bumped Paris off its perch as my favourite city in the world (order has since been restored).
It’s noisy, it’s dirty and it’s crowded, but the ambition emanating from New Yorkers is palpable. Surrounded by the towering legacies of big thinkers and doers as you walk down the street, you can’t help but feel that you’re own crazy idea might just work one day too.
We had about seven or eight weeks in the city, during which I visited all five boroughs and was able to return several times to most neighbourhoods in Manhattan. I attended my first ever (and second!) lives sports event, when we saw Federer vs Isner at the U.S. Open. Even though I don’t play anymore I still love tennis, so it was a great first sports event for me. It was also a great first sports event because it had an official cocktail – this is my kind of sporting event.
Who would’ve thought that I’m a huge baseball fan? No one was more surprised than me! we saw the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium and I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. By this logic, David thinks I should also enjoy cricket because they kind of have the same principles, but cricket is still boring. Maybe an improvement in their uniforms would help? Doubtful.
Apart from actually watching the baseball, other highlights were eating yet another hot dog, getting a bucket of chicken and getting given a free LITRE of coke (in a single cup..) and watching some Yankee fans wind up a Red Sox fan, which resulted in them all getting escorted out by the cops. More on this later.
One of my favourite activities was one of the cheapest – a free sunset cruise up the Hudson River with North River Lobster Co. Okay, so it’s technically not free because we bought lobster rolls, oysters & wine on board. It’s basically a floating bar which takes off up the Hudson every half hour or so.
I visited all of the major art galleries and museums and a couple of smaller ones. I am normally pretty slack when it comes to visiting museums overseas, but there are so many good ones in New York, and I had so much time, that I made more of an effort. It was worth it!
I particularly loved the Al Hirschfeld exhibition at the New York Historical Society, which I found really inspiring. In fact, New York inspired me in more ways than one, leading me to set up my own portfolio site, learn more about sketching in order to develop my own style a little more, try my hand at different types of creative non fiction writing other tran travel writing (ie. food & film), enter a photography exhibition in Melbourne this November (I’ve been accepted, yay!), finally enrol in a formal French course, and even take a stab at writing a book ( just for kicks – don’t hold your breath). Although the latter has probably got more to do with the wise words of Elizabeth Gilbert in her latest book, Big Magic, New York was certainly the perfect incubator for creative activity.
I also saw Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, took the free Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, caught up for coffee which turned into dinner & drinks with some fellow bloggers (Ashlea, Katie & Meg), had the happiest morning in a row boat on the lake in Central Park and made the most of the city’s many rooftop bars – and bar-boats!
I was a little disappointed that despite being in New York till mid-October, we did miss out on seeing autumn foliage. The upside to this is that the weather was pretty warm for all of our stay except for a few days when Hurricane Joaquim made the city an icy, wet wind tunnel. After being cold for about eight months in Melbourne, the heat in New York was a dream come true! Except when waiting for the subway.
Finally, the food was fantastic. While I wasn’t sold on bagels, I am a huge fan of New York’s cheeseburgers, oysters and wine bars. I don’t want to know how many cheeseburgers we ate in the city, but some were as close to a religious experience as I’ll probably ever get. In the same way that Paris pretty much ruined me for white bread, which I rarely eat now because it’s just too disappointing outside of France, I think New York has ruined me for all other cheeseburgers. New York is also a great place to eat oysters, one of my favourite foods. I ate an obscene number of oysters, often washed down with champagne or cava. Details on the best spots coming soon!
I’m also a little obsessed with street hot dogs (thank you to my Instagram audience who pushed me to try them!), slices of pizza and New York Cheesecake – I love baking cheesecakes, but an NYC cheesecake is so much better than anything I’ve ever tried at home. I have to admit, Melbournian and Italian pizzas are still my favourites.
The South: Charleston & New Orleans
After the chaos of New York, Charleston was a breath of fresh air (also, literally. The air is so much cleaner outside the city). Pretty much everyone, Americans and non-Americans alike, was confused why we were going to Charleston for a few days on our final week in the states.
We wanted to go to a region totally different to New York, and also stick to somewhere not too far away from the east coast – less travel time, cheaper flights, and more logical since we know we want to return to the U.S. to see the west coast in another trip one day anyway. We also didn’t want to spend our week doing ambitious sightseeing – we wanted to wander through pretty, interesting towns, see a couple of sights, but mostly, just eat, drink and relax. The South appealed to us both, so we decided to check out a couple of towns there.
Charleston and New Orleans are possibly as different as two Southern cities can be.
Charlestonian’s are a little obsessed with their English ancestry and family trees in general. They’re very proud of their city, their region, and put huge efforts into preserving and sharing their history with visitors (although, on a plantation tour, slavery was mentioned in passing once). New Orleans was a French territory until 1803 but for much of the region’s recent history, it was also under the control of the Spanish. French and Spanish influences have shaped the town and are proudly celebrated still today.
Charleston has one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods per capita in the America. New Orleans, on the other hand, is one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the U.S., in one of the poorest states. Charleston was mild-mannered, clean and manicured to perfection. New Orleans was loud, proud, bawdy and at times, pretty dirty. It lives up to its legendary party-loving reputation, which we had glimpses of when we saw trees in the Garden District still decked out with Mardi Gras beads, insanely enthusiastic Halloween decorations decking out houses and businesses, and on our last night in the U.S., when we had less than two hours sleep because the Saints won at the Superdome, and the partying didn’t stop till about 6am. We had three flights the next day, starting at 7am and ending more than 24 hours later when we got back in Melbourne, so sadly we weren’t awake because we were out partying, but because our hotel had thin walls.
New Orleans is probably one of the most overly-romanticised cities by travel media, which take a very rose-coloured view of the cities. I really loved visiting New Orleans, and it’s harsh realities are not a reason not to visit – it is what makes New Orleans the city that it is, for better or worse. I’m not going to gloss over the sad or ugly elements of the city that I saw, because both the good and the bad are inseparable when talking about New Orleans. This is true about all places, but it’s particularly relevant in New Orleans because even if you’re in town for a day it is impossible not to notice what most travel media purposefully ignore. More on this later!
While they’re very different, Charleston and New Orleans also shared some great Southern qualities, each in their own way.
Both cities have beautifully preserved architecture, making the historic neighbourhoods perfect for wandering around. In both cities, you’ll experience the legendary Southern hospitality which was a welcome change after the hostile service in the Northeast. Accommodation was not cheap in either town, but food & drink prices were much lower than in New York. Both also are proud of their Southern cuisine, which is slightly different in each place.
In Charleston we spotted dolphins in the bay, spotted our first un-ironic cowboy hat, went a little candy crazy in one of the many sweet shops, took photos for a guy as he proposed to his girlfriend in a pretty park and at the city’s Second Sunday street party, we saw three dogs wearing bow ties. Three!
Most of the buildings are painted in pretty pastel shades, and despite being the inspiration for cutesy, old-timey architecture in expensive resorts and theme parks around the world, the impossibly pretty streets didn’t feel contrived or cheesey. In Charleston, this is just the way things are.
During a nature tour on Magnolia Plantation, I couldn’t take my eyes off the beautiful scenery. Lowcountry swamps and lakes might not be as majestic as mountain ranges or as idyllic as white sandy beaches, but I think it has a beguiling beauty all of its own.
In New Orleans, we enjoyed live music in piano bars and a killer brass jazz band for just $15 at Preservation Hall (top travel experience alert!), tried a few too many cocktails in the city that invented them, ate a silly amount of delicious Southern food including fried shrimp po’ boys, sweet beignets, catfish, gumbo, jambalaya and the muffaletta sandwich. We spent some time on bawdy Bourbon Street, but also enjoyed escaping to Frenchmen Street, away from the crowds of drunk, cocktail-toting tourists!
Other notes from visiting the U.S.
My trip confirmed my suspicions that the U.S. is hard to summarise in one simple sentence. It’s an incredibly diverse country, which I think makes it fascinating. I love Australia, but despite having a multicultural population, culturally most of the country is pretty similar. In other words, you could be in any mid-size or major city and you’ll find the culture to be pretty similar – modern, multi-cultural, friendly and hard-working yet strangely laidback, is how I’d describe Australian culture more generally.
In contrast, New York, Charleston and New Orleans felt like different countries! The country has regional cuisines, accents and cultures. I’m really excited to return one day and see more of the states. I absolutely loved visiting.
Tipping me over the edge
Tipping and not including tax in the price of menu items drives me insane. It excuses an unethical minimum wage under the guise of providing better service, but the reality is that it very rarely translates into good service and only benefits the C-suite. It made it awkward, especially when waiters had a really entitled attitude about the whole thing. It also really slows down the process when you’re trying to pay your bill, which is a back-and-forth dance of receipts.
At times I felt a little anxious about gun violence in certain situations. Fortunately, my fears weren’t realised while I was there but with 294 mass shootings this year alone, they were not unfounded. I found it pretty funny to watch a television personality claim that Australians suffered from a lack of freedom because we weren’t allowed guns. No words, right?
One funny thing about being an Australian in America was how often things were “lost in translation.” Despite speaking the same language, there were so many occasions where I may as well have been speaking Mandarin – and this is even though I made an effort not to use Australian phrases or slang. More on this later!
“Do you have shops in Australia?”
Americans have a reputation for being a little insular, and although this is definitely not true of all Americans, a conversation I had with a photographer in New Orleans really lived up to the stereotype.
When she heard my accent, she asked me if Australia was boring, and if there was much to do there. I explained that Australia was a great place to live, with lots of stuff to do. Bars, restaurants, skyscrapers, the usual stuff. She looked skeptical and asked if we had shopping malls and daiquiris in Australia (interesting metrics). I told her that most people live in a major city, all of which have a population of more than 1 million. When I told her I lived in a city of 4 million people, her eyes nearly popped out of her head. It was an interesting conversation because I got the impression that until five minutes ago she thought Australia was a big, boring dustbowl.
I’m not sure what she thought Australians do all day, but I was surprised to hear her ask if we had shops.
No country is perfect and so I even though I try to be upfront about things that I see which I find strange, unethical or illogical, I want to be clear that overall, I think the U.S. is a pretty incredible place, full of incredible people. A big thank you to the U.S. for having me! I am already looking forward to my next visit.