Nice to Meet You, New York

New York City, and pretty much the entire East Coast, is currently being besieged by a brutal winter storm dubbed a “bomb cyclone,” so I suppose there’s no better time than now to look back on (or look forward to, if you’d prefer,) warmer, happier times: my first-ever trip to NYC during a sublime spring week last May.

Whether I’d like New York — the Emerald City of digital media, a place I’d for years been told I’d inevitably have to try at some point in my life — always seemed like something of a crap shoot. On the one hand, I was enamored by the energy of cities; it’s the reason I’ve found Los Angeles such a hard habit to kick. On the other, even the thought of an East Coast winter sent a shiver down my spine, and the logistics of life in New York City – unreliable public transportation! A cutthroat competitive atmosphere! Housing so expensive and elusive I’d have to shell out a year’s worth of rent in Los Angeles just to find it! – always seemed daunting to me. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for New York City. But maybe no one really is, not until they’re actually there. 36423062253_bebb2abd7b_o

There’s something about the nature of this place that seems to hyper-charge your ability to adapt; kickstarts resourcefulness, sharpens survival skills. I was visiting for a week for work, but was mostly solo in my hours off the clock, outside of visits with a couple of close college friends. Almost instantly, from touching down at JFK and being mistaken for a local by my Uber driver to learning to navigate the Subway the next morning, a city that had always seemed so out-of-reach on paper, so foreign in photos and movies, a world belonging to everyone other than myself, became as familiar a place as I’d ever been. The streets became my own daily routes, the parks my hidden spots, cafes my usual haunts. I quickly came to understand that New York is as user-friendly as you make it to be, it is a city that beckons you to experience it, in its entirety.

There is so much of New York that reminds me of Europe, specifically London, a home I’d loved with all my heart. The streets, the parks, the markets, the sidewalk cafes. The hum of daily life. The unspoken assurance that we all, dearly beloved and strangers alike, are gathered here today for the express purpose of living. This is both the end and the beginning, the very center of the universe as we know it.

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Stumbling out from a sterile office into the late-spring twilight of a city I’d known for less than 24 hours, somehow it felt as if my feet knew just where to take me. I forewent the Subway for a brisk walk through the balmy evening, with no particular destination in mind. From Union Square, the city’s pulsing digital publishing heart, south toward Washington Square Park, where people were gathered in couplets and groups to revel in the good luck of such glorious weather.

A golden glow was burnishing the park, crowning rooftops and skylines and seeping through tree branches. So much life, and everyone around me a stranger. But something about it felt so familiar. The college students calling to one another as they trekked from classes at NYU, the couples locked in embraces on sunkissed benches drenched in warmth, the children tottering around as their parents followed. I had been them once, and I would be them again. New York City is hardly shy about its central thesis; that life is a full circle, that everything and everyone is connected somehow.

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While a powder-blue night fell around me, I pushed further south, past my hotel in TriBeCa, all the way down to One World Trade Center. I had seen its spire rising above the city skyline, beckoning me to see this piece of history for myself.

I have no doubt that its reverence is not lost during the daytime, but there was something about seeing the World Trade Center Site illuminated at night that quite literally took my breath away. I was seven years old when 9/11 happened; like many in my generation, it’s the first news event I have any memory of, towers falling on a TV screen, and it quite literally changed the world I grew up in.

What was once Ground Zero is now a sunken pool ringed with golden light, the depths of which seem endless, as if you are standing at the edge of a portal to the very center of the Earth, or perhaps to another world. Maybe Heaven, maybe an alternate version of this life where such tragedies never occur, but certainly an existence that is not this one, a place that is beyond the pain and suffering of here. And yet, for somewhere quite literally built upon sadness and grief, I was not overcome with a sense of despair, the likes of which I’d felt visiting Holocaust museums and war memorials in Europe. Rather, I was enveloped by a calm like I’d never felt, a sense of peace bathed in this blue and gold half-light that fell after the darkest day of so many peoples’ lives, at this shrine to those who were once a part of this resilient city, and would now live on in it forever more.

In a city seeped with such history, both celebratory and sad, one of the newer attractions New York has to offer is the High Line, less than a decade old and completed just a few years ago. It’s a sort of urban boardwalk flanked by greenery and stunning skyline views, and from here, one can see straight down avenues for miles in one direction, and the Statue of Liberty towering out in the harbor in another. Cotton candy sunsets are truly spectacular in New York, and I could hardly drag myself away from the twilight down to the Chelsea Market just below, though it’s really a can’t-miss. There are dozens of food vendors offering up just about every cuisine imaginable, as well as delectable desserts, beer and wine, and shops filled with trendy trinkets and souvenirs. It reminded me again of one of my favorite parts of London — the markets — and offers this communal space through which tourists and locals, friends and strangers alike can call this city their own.

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I found it rather remarkable how, within the span of a week, I’d gone from being ambivalent about New York City to falling head over heels in love, becoming hopelessly entangled in its glimmering, golden embrace. I had these wild thoughts of dropping everything on the West Coast and fulfilling my millennial destiny, doing the damn thing and trying my hand at New York. I saw the entire course of my life shifting, ran through scenarios of just how I might make it work. Was I prepared for a cross-country move, for East Coast winters, for starting all over, again? I fretted and frantically attempted to recharter the rest of my life in a hotel room, until over drinks with a friend, I received just the talking-down I needed to soothe my mind. “New York will always be here,” she assured me.

And now, I know when the time comes that I’ll be ready for it.

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How to See (Most of) Scotland in a Weekend

Given that it’s well under a fifth of the size of both the physical landmass and population of California, it isn’t difficult to see why Scotland is a perfect weekend excursion for those living in and traveling from England. It doesn’t even require a passport to travel through our fair neighbor to the North, and despite my initial skepticism, it really is possible to see (most of) Scotland in just a three day weekend.

As budget-conscious students, the overnight bus from London to Edinburgh was our best bet for transportation, and though my almost complete inability to sleep much on buses and planes made the experience less-than-restful, it was at the very least convenient to leave London on a Thursday night and arrive in Edinburgh the next morning, ready to hit the ground running.

After a pit stop at our Airbnb rental on the outskirts of Edinburgh, we bused back into the city center, situated around Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street Gardens, and Princes Street, which is lined with shops and restaurants. Also popular, and easily my favorite area for exploring, is the Royal Mile, which leads straight to the castle and is a windy, cobble-stoned street lined with pubs, cafes and gift shops.

Edinburgh is certainly a compact city, and it’s definitely doable to hit all of the main sights and attractions within a day. Though its admission proved too pricey for our budget, Edinburgh Castle is an impressive fortress, and it’s hill top lookout offered stunning panoramic views of the city. The National Museum of Scotland was a free and fun alternative to the castle, offering up everything from a cast of Mary Queen of Scot’s tomb and a real-life guillotine to dinosaur skeletons and clothing, art and jewelry from around the world.

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Just across the street from the museum is Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, which I recognized as a popular stop on many of Edinburgh’s ghost tours. It’s said that the churchyard’s alleged poltergeist, the “Mackenzie Poltergeist,” is the most well-documented instance of paranormal phenomena in the world, and is known for biting, scratching, and even causing visitors to black out in the churchyard. We decided this experience sounded a bit too extreme for our liking, but Greyfriar’s Kirkyard still makes for an interesting daytime visit. It’s the resting place of many notable Edinburgh residents, and with burials dating back to the 16th century, it’s certainly worth a visit to marvel at mausoleums and headstones that are hundreds of years old. And situated in a quiet valley between Edinburgh Castle and the towering St. Mary’s Cathedral, it definitely has an eerie sort of beauty.

Also worth a look is Victoria Street, a winding incline of colorful (literally and figuratively) shops and restaurants. Here, we stopped for lunch at Howies, and I sampled the traditional Scottish soup called Cullen Skink, which is basically clam chowder with smoked haddock (delicious!) Other Edinburgh eats and drinks of note included coffee and scones at Love Crumbs, cocktails at the Whiski Room, and hearty pub food at the Royal Mile Tavern, where we dined with dozens of jovial locals as Scotland took on Wales during the 6 Nations Championship game being played in Edinburgh. Wales was ultimately victorious, but it was a real treat seeing the city streets come alive with revelers and people of all ages decked out in fan gear, and even in the face of defeat everyone still seemed to be having a good time.

We had heard that Edinburgh was somewhat known for its nightlife, but, and perhaps this is a matter of being spoiled by London’s offerings, we were a bit underwhelmed. I would recommend researching some pubs and whiskey rooms for the best taste of Edinburgh after dark, but if you do decide to check out the nightclub scene, at the very least you won’t be out too much money for the experience as covers and drinks tended to be relatively inexpensive.

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DSC_4204_retouchedThe second day of our three-day weekend (Valentine’s Day, in fact!) was reserved for a much-anticipated coach tour to Loch Ness and the Highlands. This is a popular tour route for visitors to Scotland, and though it’s offered in some variation or another by most coach operators, we decided that the Timberbush Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands tour was the best fit for what we wanted to see. It’s certainly an ambitious undertaking; we arrived at our pickup location at 7:30 am and returned to Edinburgh at just after 8 pm, but it’s definitely the most economic and efficient to see the most of Scotland in a short time. Our tour guide, Dave, was informative while still being entertaining, offering us tidbits of information and staggering our stops in such a way that the tour didn’t feel nearly as long as it was.

We wound up the west coast first, stopping for photos in Kilmahog and Glencoe, where the dormant volcanoes covered in patchy snow and deep blue lochs and rivers were simply breathtaking. Other highlights included Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain, Sterling Castle, and a necessary pit stop to feed (or attempt to, anyway) some adorably shaggy Highland Cattle. After a lunch break at Fort Smith, we reached our destination; Loch Ness. I have to admit, despite the hordes of visitors pouring from the coaches, the “Official Loch Ness Gift Shop,” and even the silly looking dinosaur-green Nessie statue, it wasn’t quite as touristy or commercialized as I was expecting. Loch Ness is also far larger than I had anticipated, stretching 24 miles from end to end, and it’s easy to see how this vast body of water could have spurred so many mysterious sightings and tales for so long.

The optional 1-hour Loch Ness boat tour wasn’t included in the price of the bus tour, but it was well worth the extra expense, as it provided an up-close look at the ruins of Urquhart castle, and standing on the bow of the ship as we cruised between mountains and rolling green pastures, with rays of sun shining down through the clouds, the water rippling and sparkling as it caught the late afternoon light, I felt so at peace, so captivated by the beauty that I didn’t even mind the late-winter cold.

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After two hours at Loch Ness, we passed through Inverness, the capital of the Highlands, and began our journey south again. We made it about halfway home before it began to get dark, as unfortunately tends to happen quite early in winter, especially so far North, but falling asleep to light fading over the snow-covered Scottish Highlands was truly an experience to remember. Though I certainly could have spent longer in the Highlands, and if I were ever to return to Scotland, would head straight up north again, a day tour was definitely the best way the most of Scotland in the shortest amount of time. A third and final day in Scotland, so as to see even more of the country, could easily be spent taking a short bus or train ride from Edinburgh to Glasgow, about an hour each way, to see the country’s largest city and more modern counterpart to the capitol.

We opted for a slower-paced Sunday and exploring a few more sights in the city that we hadn’t yet seen, including Calton Hill, which offers some of the most scenic views of Edinburgh and is home to numerous monuments including Governors House, the Nelson Monument and the National Monument. Facing Princes Street, Calton Hill provides a panorama of the city, from towering cathedral spires dotting the skyline, to the majestic, jutting  Arthur’s Seat, to the beautiful Palace of Hollyrood House. And in the opposite direction, a swath of houses and churches tumble into the bright blue of the North Sea, glistening in the golden afternoon sun.

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Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetProcessed with VSCOcam with f2 preset Having clocked 24-plus hours on a bus over the course of a three day weekend to and from Scotland, I can say with confidence that I was able to cover a fair amount of the country, and though, if I were to return, I would be more eager to further explore the Highlands and more rugged regions up North, I would wholeheartedly recommend the trio of Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Highlands if you ever find yourself with a weekend to spend in beautiful Scotland.