We got up at 4:00 AM on October 11, 2006, packed our suitcase, and headed for the airport to head to the Big Apple, having decided to go, purchased our tickets, and reserved our hotel room only 10 hours earlier.
We flew into Brussels with no problems. The Brussels airport gave us no indication of where to go upon disembarking; it was between either left or right. We guessed right…and correctly, too. In the restroom, I was pleased to find a fly in the urinal. It was one of these urinals that I had heard about on the internet. There was a queue for the urinals, so I couldn’t exactly pull out my camera, but you can see a picture here. What a great idea.
At 8:00 AM, we weren’t in the mood to try any Belgian delicacies (lager and chocolate), so we headed straight for our departure gate for JFK. Of course, flights to the US have an additional extra special security checkpoint (how arrogant is that?). Marga had some lovely-smelling hand cream (that she ironically bought in the US) confiscated from her, but she got to use some before they took it away. By 10:00 AM, we were hopping the pond, hardly able to believe what we were doing.
After collecting our bag at JFK, we headed to an information desk to see about our options to get to our hotel. The lady told us that if we had another person with us, she’d recommend taking a taxi, which would run us about $50 to $55, but since we were just two people, there was a shuttle service that would take us to our hotel in a van for $17 each. So we told the lady at the shuttle desk where we were going, and had to wait for about 10 minutes. A huge rude black dude drove up in a van and we all piled in. Several other couples had arrived in the 10 minutes. We stopped at a few more terminals, once so that our driver could hit on a baggage check-in girl. Eventually we headed into the city, with our driver darting in and out of lanes like a crazy man.
I think that everyone on the van, with the exception of a middle-aged Southern Baptist woman, was at least bilingual (even the driver spoke some strange African or Caribbean language into his cell phone and swore at passing drivers). There was a couple from Belgium, the man was German, and the woman was French. They spoke French to each other and perfect American English to the rest of us. In the back of the van was a Danish couple. I asked them where they were from in Denmark. It turns out that they live in a small suburb just north of Copenhagen very close to where Marga and I lived in 1999, and both their sons went to the university, DTU, where Marga did her research during her time there and all the guys in my dorm attended. Right now, one of their sons is doing an exchange program and is studying at the University of Michigan, a university very dear to my family (my grandfather taught English literature there his entire career). They were planning on seeing New York City for couple days and renting a car and driving to Ann Arbor. As if the world didn’t seem small enough, that Danish couple was staying at the same hotel we were staying at! If we had known, it would have been way cheaper for the four of us to share a cab. As it was, we had to stop at many different places around Manhattan to let people off, and it took us about 2.5 hours to get to our hotel. And isn’t $17/person such a lovely number to encourage 17.6% tip of $3/each! The driver was very rude to us and uncaring with the luggage, and we were quite dissatisfied with the service. But we only had twenties, gave him $40 anyway.
Our hotel, the Belnord Hotel, was the cheapest we could find on Manhattan. It averaged to exactly $250/night after all the taxes and arbitrarily made-up fees. The bathrooms were not attached to the rooms, but were shared. Like the hostel in Madrid the previous weekend, this was never a problem. Unlike in Madrid, however, our room was tiny with the suitcase taking up all available floorspace. We were three blocks from Central Park and 100 yards from a subway station, and right on Broadway (a street which runs the entire length of Manhattan, by the way). Overall, we were quite happy with our hotel choice and would recommend it.
We were excited to get out on the street and start experiencing The City in all its glory. We bought a prepaid phone card and called Marga’s mother and grandfather to let them know that we were okay. They told us that a plane had crashed into a building in Manhattan. This was news to us, but we soon saw a cluster of helicopters forming some indeterminable distance away from us. What we heard when we stopped into a few shops and eavesdropping cell conversations was genuine fear on the part of the native New Yorkers. Although everyone’s reaction upon hearing the initial news was obviously to remember Sept 11, 2001, the New Yorkers had true heartfelt emotion behind their reaction. Until more information was given, people were pretty freaked out. It was, of course, New York Yankee’s pitcher, Corey Lidle, who crashed his plane into the building.
We looked at a few different restaurants, and finally stumbled upon Big Nick’s. It looked, to me, to be very authentic New York City diner. We ordered a couple slices of pizza and a sausage thingy. We sat at a booth with a signed photograph of President Bill Clinton saying, “Thanks Big Nick, for all the wonderful food all these years.”
After eating, we wondered further down Broadway in the direction of Times Square. But it started to pour down rain, and we never made it all the way to Times Square. We ducked into this mall, which I think was the Time Warner Center.
On my 28th birthday, October 12, 2006, we were wide awake at 4:00 AM (having gone to bed at about 8:30 PM the night before) and considered starting our day of tourism. But as we talked about it, we went from sitting up to lying down with our heads on the pillow, and eventually we got up for real at 7:30 AM. The nearest breakfast joint turned out to be on the poor side of mediocre. We bought some subway tickets (6 rides for $10) and headed to Lower Manhattan.
The first thing we saw was Battery Park. And there, we immediately started seeing signs for the Statue of Liberty ferry, so we decided to knock out that must-do first.
We headed up Broadway towards City Hall.