I am writing this sitting in the airport at New Orleans. It is not a particularly interesting place, and the city, which I’m sure is extremely interesting, is only a short cab ride away. (NB. I am now saying “cab” rather than “taxi” as I am a seasoned traveler.) However, I have once again done a stupid thing, which I thought was extremely clever and thrifty at the time, and booked a 7am flight from New Jersey. Which entailed getting to the airport at 5am. Which entailed leaving the flat at an hour so early that there weren’t even any rappers on the street. Which entailed spending over $90 on a cab because none of the shuttle buses ran at that time and public transport would have involved leaving the flat the day before and making 3 separate changes with an hour’s wait between each.
My thinking was that an early flight would give me an extra full day in New Orleans. There were flights available at 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock, please note – basically, an almost staggering variety of times – which, at only $20 or so more, would have allowed me to wake up at a respectable hour, enjoy a leisurely bagel and coffee, and take just one subway then a shuttle bus at a fraction of the cost. But no, my plan was clearly much better (and I’m really looking forward to my 6am return flight in a week’s time.)
In the meantime, it is now 9.20 and unfortunately I can’t get into my accommodation until 12.30. I’m also hampered by an extremely large, unwieldy suitcase it just isn’t practicable to drag around. (No, it is not possible to simply drop it off at the place. Yes, I have explored that option, but thank you very much for the helpful suggestion.) Thus, I have been reduced to filling in time in any sedentary way I can for the next 3 hours – hence the protracted stay at the airport. Shortly I will decamp to a strategically chosen café as close to my accommodation as possible, where I will stretch out the consumption of a latte and pastry for as long as the waitstaff will tolerate without getting snooty and making me feel like an unwanted spinster aunt. But for now, I wait.
I am an eternal optimist, however, and am hoping that what seems like poor planning/rampant stupidity in my current situation (numb-fingered and shivering thanks to sub-arctic air-conditioning, haggard and bleary-eyed after 2 hours sleep, craving a bagel), might just turn out to have a positive side to it.
I think I have mentioned that I am very bad at following maps. I’ll spend a good half-hour or so assiduously unfolding the thing to its full size (roughly the dimensions of a giant’s pillow slip) then rotating it around so that the streets align with the general direction I’m facing (NB. impossible to do on Google Maps ). Then, once I’ve pondered over it furrow-browed for another hour or so till I’m satisfied that I’ve got my bearings, I’ll set out confidently towards my destination, which Google Maps assures me is only one tantalising block away – only to find myself 10 minutes later in the middle of a Kansas cornfield or staring in bafflement at the Bering Strait.
Because of a general inability to accurately locate north, I never did find Tom’s Diner in Brooklyn, the subject of the Suzanne Vega song. Or the Alice in Wonderland Statue in Central Park. And I almost missed the Chrysler Building, which, you know, is kind of hard to miss. But conversely, I have learnt that on those rare occasions when I do successfully interpret the map and arrive at the place I intend to, much of the time it turns out to be a real disappointment.
When I got to the Met, I made a point of seeking out William, the museum mascot, who I envisaged with a heft and stature befitting a turquoise-coloured, Ancient Egyptian god. After navigating through a bewildering succession of conjoined rooms, I finally located William, who turned out to be the size of a guinea pig and resembled a child’s money box more than a deity: sure, he was appealing and cute and I kind of wanted to pet him, but it was still a let-down. Katz’s Diner, the site of the famous “I’ll have what she’s having scene” in When Harry Met Sally, was a crowded, clamorous, neon-lit rectangle filled with formica tables, waiters with all the affability of nightclub bouncers and a crush of brassy-voiced tourists queued up for pastrami sandwiches. God knows why I thought it was a good idea to go there. I don’t even particularly like the film. Even the Taj Mahal (NB. this is not in New York) which was splendid and sublime and commendably marbly and all, carried with it a sense of deflation because I found it exactly where I expected it to be, waiting obediently, tamed and diminished. Possibly some things have more power as imaginative landmarks than they do as real locations or objects. Or maybe I’m just hard to please. Whatever the case, if I had happened across the Taj while dawdling along the banks of the Ganges one day (yes, I admit this is a somewhat unlikely scenario), then I have no doubt that it would have thoroughly blown my mind.
Clearly, then, wandering is the best approach to take when exploring a new city. It has less of a transactional nature to it; that feeling that the city owes you a particular experience because you have invested your time and money in visiting it. It also doesn’t carry with it that sense of obligation or necessity, and subsequently, that sense of failure if you don’t find the place you’ve set out for – because, let’s face it, while it’s meant to be a holiday, there is perversely an awful lot of pressure when you’re travelling. This is largely from the expectations of others, from the shame of feeling like you’ve frittered away your time when you have to confess that, no, you didn’t see A, B or C, which all the guidebooks say you should, and don’t really have an equivalent experience to put in its place.
As any good flaneur will testify, wandering is intrinsically far more pleasurable, liberating and exciting. You can go where the fancy takes you; straying down little alleyways, spying something intriguing in the distance and heading towards it, following the crowd or distant music or simply a person with an interesting face, and more often than not, chancing upon wonderful things – chocolate shops and cafes and parks like hidden ring boxes – which carry with them the genuine thrill of discovery…
One day, in a quagmire of existential despair brought about by an hour of bootless searching for Tom’s Diner (NB. bootless as I was wearing sandals, which were more appropriate for the weather), I turned into Prospect Park. Freed from the burden of a destination, I strolled along whichever path appealed to me. Three young Jewish men walked ahead of me. They were orthodox, with thick black beards (the type a sparrow could comfortably nest in), sombre black coats over white shirts and broad-brimmed hats. They each carried a shopping bag with the packings of a picnic and one strummed a guitar as he walked. It was as though the Beatles had joined the cast of Fiddler on the Roof for the afternoon. I started to follow them, enchanted by the lovely, carefree spirit of it. (Stalking admittedly, though can it really be considered that, if it’s a lone woman following three grown men?) They spread out a rug on the outskirts of a busy lawn, rid themselves of their heavy coats, untucked their shirttails and sprawled out. A huge tub of bright pink gelato emerged from a plastic bag – it must have been a good 4 litres at least – and was set reverently in the centre of the rug with three silver spoons. Nearby, barelegged children called and ran in a circle, people dozed beneath trees or sun-baked and dogs flopped in the shade. Spring and greenness infused everything.
I left the men to their picnic and continued through the park. The trees were tall and leafy on either side and the lampposts like something from Narnia. Sunlight slanted in dappled veils through the branches. Birds twittered and flit across my path. They looked subtly different to those in Australia: neat and well-groomed and designed to an entirely different colour scheme; an autumnal palette of chestnuts, grays, moss greens and deep apricots. I passed lakes and stone bridges and wildflowers. Shy crofts of violets made me smile in delight. A whole flooded hillside of them was almost too much wonderment to take.
A trickle of music wound through the trees and I followed it, feeling like a character in a fairytale. I half expected to find Orpheus strumming a lute or an old woman with a spindle. Instead, I found myself at a carousel encased in a wooden rotunda. I couldn’t help thinking of Holden Caulfield and “old Phoebes” and smiling. A triumphant version of “Top of the World” was playing, with cymbals clashing and victorious drums. Coloured lights whirled while the painted horses slid up and down in slow ceremony. It was like a benediction…
I find, too, that often while meandering about in this way, you come upon places that you had intended to visit later. The New York Public Library. The JFK memorial. The Strand Bookstore. Strawberry Fields. All of these were places I chanced upon while seeking other destinations and appreciated all the more as a result, their unexpected discovery prompting a feeling of childlike delight – grace even – rather than the relieved, good-girl feeling you get as you dutifully cross off another item on your must-see list.
Strawberry Fields, in particular, I would not have been so struck by if I had concertedly set out to find it and done so. It’s really just another group of shaded lawns, fairly common in Central Park, a paved gray courtyard encircled with wrought iron benches and the “Imagine” mosaic so modest and unprepossessing that you would miss it if you weren’t standing on top of it. It was the way I arrived at it that again imbued it with that magical sensation of serendipity.
I was walking aimlessly through the park when I heard the nearby strains of a guitar and someone singing “I’ve just seen a face”. This is a wonderful song, so I headed towards it. (NB. Contrary to the impression given in this post, I do occasionally engage in pursuits other than hunting down distant musicians.) I rounded a corner to see a sign, “Strawberry Fields”, which elicited that shivery frisson of recognition where you think, “Oh, I know this place, I meant to come here.” There was a busker in the middle of the courtyard playing Beatles songs, and people were having their photos taken on the mosaic, doing peace signs, twirling daisies plucked for that express purpose, pretending to strum guitars. A little girl in a colourful sundress was drawing flowers and rainbows with chalk on the pavement. It was a lovely scene, and while a part of me still wishes that “Strawberry Fields” was not a geographical location (because, let’s be honest, it’s more resonant as a symbol of dreamy escape from the flatness and busyness of life), if it has to exist in the world of Google and smart phones, then I’m glad I found it in this drifting, roundabout way rather than through the diligent following of a guidebook. The obvious conclusion to draw is that no matter what you do, sooner or later you will find yourself somewhere you are meant to be. And I think John Lennon would probably agree with that.
Anyway, I am now going to leave the airport. I have no doubt that my procrastination will have had some positive effect. I will stand beside a famous jazz musician at the cab rank, or possibly some dashing and rich New Orleans gentleman who will invite me out to dinner at some quaint little Creole restaurant, fall in love on the spot and propose. Or I will not get into a cab with a driver who will rob and stab me. Or I will be the millionth person to leave the terminal. A cloud of balloons will be released upon my exit. A glamorous woman in a sequined gown with teeth like gleaming refrigerators will hug me and a truck packed full of hundred dollar bills will pull up at the kerb, making me feeling slightly less embittered about the cab fare from Brooklyn. Or maybe I’ll just get a driver who’ll know a really great cafe where I can idle away the next few hours – somewhere cool and shady with a table on a cobblestone pavement and a friendly cat winding around my ankles – and by coincidence, just around the corner from where I’m staying. Who knows? But I’m sure it will all work out brilliantly.