A weekend of failed flirtations and unexpected bonding (aka U2 @ Croke Park, Dublin)

When you’re standing in Croke Park and the lights go down (as much as they can go down at an outdoor show) and you’re suddenly hearing Sunday Bloody Sunday followed by New Year’s Day on a Saturday night in July you are bound to ask yourself is this some kind of U2 concert?  And, of course, it was.  

The opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest rock bands perform one of music’s most iconic albums – The Joshua Tree – in their home city on the 30th anniversary of its release was too good to pass up and it was an excellent reason to make my second trip to the city of Dublin; a journey which proved to be both one of the feet and the mind.

One of the best ways, though not necessarily the only way, of getting from Oban to Dublin is to travel first to Glasgow, and it was here that I enjoyed a few craft beer refreshments at the Hippo Taproom on Friday night.  It would be advisable not to visit this bar in the expectation of being served your IPA or chocolate porter by a hippopotamus, as the name almost definitely suggests that you might, because you will only find yourself disappointed.  Besides, when you really think about it, how could a hippopotamus pour a schooner of beer with those massive clumsy paws?  It would result in far too much leakage for any business to remain sustainable.

As I supped on a pint of milk chocolate stout poured by a barman with a beard I unexpectedly became the subject of the attention of a silver-haired gentleman who was clearly enjoying a few post work beverages of his own with a couple of colleagues.  He asked me how I decide which beer to drink in a bar like this, as he finds most IPA’s too bitter and acidic to enjoy, and I responded with a series of words which fell from my mouth with no particular reasoning or meaning.  Our conversation moved on beyond beer, as most conversations do at some point, and it was when he took it upon himself to tell me that he is 52-years-old that I began to realise that there was a chance this man was flirting with me.  When he proceeded to speculate that I “must be early forties” I recognised that, if he was flirting with me, his technique of seduction is worse than my own.  Once I corrected him and pointed out that I am actually thirty-three years a man he attempted to make amends for his flawed flirtation by touching my arm and suggesting that his mistake was an easy one to make when I speak with the eloquence and wisdom of a man in his forties, which he certainly would not be saying if he knew me.  Some minutes passed and the first man to have ever hit on me in a bar left with his colleagues to catch the last train to Edinburgh.  I ordered some pistachio nuts at the bar and contemplated if, in the scenario I had just experienced, I was the nut or the shell.

Despite my libations the previous evening I made it to Glasgow Airport in good time on Saturday morning.  Whereas I frequently arrive at railway stations with barely minutes to spare before the train departs, I always get to the airport much too early (apart from two occasions:  the time I was so hung over that I couldn’t possibly make it to London Gatwick and the Monday morning of this trip, when I was so hung over that I arrived at Dublin Airport with around fifteen minutes to spare.)  There is part of me that thinks there is an over-emphasis put on the need to be at the airport hours before your flight to allow time to go through security.  I feel this deceit is probably concocted by Starbucks – and probably other retail operations – because what else are you going to do when you’ve cleared security and have two hours to idle away in an airport other than spend £5 on a coffee from a man who adds four letters to your two letter name?

The moment I receive my styrofoam cup of froth addressed to Jay-Jay (always with a hyphen) isn’t the most awkward of the air travel experience for me, however.  It is far more uncomfortable trying to decide whether to start a conversation with the woman sitting next to me on the plane.  I am not at ease opening a discussion with a stranger at the best of times, but I find silence equally as unsettling.  Others appear to be terrific at talking to new people, even the silver-haired gentleman in the Hippo Taproom, but I have to deliberate over it if I do it at all.  How do you start a conversation with a stranger on a plane?  You can’t ask her where she’s going, because unless one of you has made a hugely unfortunate mistake or there has been a serious breakdown in the process of boarding passengers it should be fairly obvious where she’s going.  So I sit there anxiously processing the various possible outcomes of talking to this unknown woman in my mind:  falling in love with her, making a terrible play on words that ensures the rest of the flight is more awkward than it would have been if we had sat in silence, discovering that she is a serial killer on the run from the law, finding out that she had a deeply disappointing night in the Hippo Taproom when she learned that her beer wouldn’t be poured by a hippopotamus.  And then so much time passes that it would just be weird to speak to her thirty minutes into the flight, and so you develop a fascination you never knew you had with looking at clouds and nondescript land mass from above.

Dublin is a city of many bridges – 23 if you’re keeping score or don’t have access to Google – but on Saturday it appeared there was only one place people were going.  Nobody mentioned it by name, almost as though they were trying to keep it secret, and I don’t think that I heard the name U2 spoken the entire day.  Instead folk would simply refer to “the concert.”  “Are you going to the concert?”  They would ask.  “It’s busy with the concert on tonight,” it was said.  There were U2 t-shirts everywhere.  Mostly the black Joshua Tree anniversary tour novelty shirts, but there were some men who wanted to show that they were of a certain vintage by proclaiming their love of War or the Vertigo 360 tour through sartorial selection.

There was one place in Dublin where the concert wasn’t a consideration, though.  Across the River Liffey in J. W. Sweetman craft brewery, a tall building painted a creamy white like the smooth head of a pint of Guinness and which is dressed with a number of hanging baskets blooming with an assortment of colourful flowers, there were groups of people gathered together watching the hurling whilst a riotous hen party competed with the sounds of whooping and cheering.  The hens were most definitely from Liverpool and some ordered pints of Guinness, which seemed like an especially bad idea at four o’clock in the afternoon.  Some chose to dilute their Guinness with blackcurrant juice, which seemed like an even worse idea and immediately caused me to dislike them.  

In my position at the bar I ended up with two hens, one at either side of me, possibly due to congestion but probably down to poor organisation.  They talked loudly across me and my pint of Barrelhead IPA, the sound of their Scouse screeching still nesting in my memory like a small startled bird which is still too afraid to leave two days after the fact.  These hens became concerned with the gaelic sport which was on the television and one of them asked me “why are they playing lacrosse?”  In my mind my face was in my palm, but as I couldn’t actually conjure an image of what lacrosse looks like I didn’t feel confident in disputing this assumption.  “I think they call it hurling over here, and they’re probably playing it to determine which is the better team.”

“Oh,” replied the hen.  “It looks like it would hurt.”  I nodded in agreement with this observation, as it does look like hurling could be quite painful.  The hens took their pints of cloudy Guinness and rejoined the rest of their flock in taking photographs with novelty inflatables.  The barmaid remarked that I would be featuring in all of the pictures the women were taking.  I told her that they would be appalled to find that in the morning and confided in her that while the situation of being surrounded by a large hen party would be the stuff of dreams for many men, I was finding it utterly terrifying.  She laughed wildly, presumably out of acknowledgment of my ineptitude.

I hadn’t really researched how I was going to get to Croke Park, believing – rightly as it turned out – that I wouldn’t be the only person attending the concert and so shouldn’t have any trouble finding the stadium.  Still, after four or five pints of beer it wouldn’t usually be advisable to blindly follow a large group of people in the hope that they are going to the same place you are.  It worked out for me on this occasion, and the whole thing felt like a procession of sorts.  Thousands of people in uniform marching slowly, if not solemnly, towards the same place with a single goal in mind.  The sky was blue, like in the U2 song Bullet The Blue Sky, though a quartet of rain drops splashed my face as I lined to enter Croker, lending to a fear that my decision to leave my jacket back in my hotel would prove to be foolish.  Fortunately there was no rain to follow and the only wetness I would experience would be from the sorely overpriced bottles of Carlsberg on offer pitchside.

A lot of consideration was taken over the question of tactical use of the toilets prior to the concert.  Urination is not always easy to predict in ordinary circumstances, but you can generally get a feel for when it is going to happen.  One of the downsides of drinking beer – or any form of liquid, really – is that your need to expel urine is bound to increase in line with the quantities you intake.  So when you are drinking bottles of beer at a concert, even terrible beer like Carlsberg, you are going to need to get rid of that shit at some point – or usually points.  You don’t want to find yourself in desperate need of relief just when U2 are about to launch into the rarely played Red Hill Mining Town, so you forensically plan your toilet breaks and hope for the best.  

My strategy after going from (and going at) J. W. Sweetman was to make immediate use of the facilities at Croke Park and then pee again around the halfway point between Noel Gallagher finishing his set and Paul Hewson and the lads taking to the stage.   Naturally I wasn’t needing to use the toilet at that moment.  Only an hour or so had passed and not enough beer was requiring to pass through me when I strode up to that urinal with a mask of confidence.  I stood there hoping for something to happen.  Anything.  I just wanted a drop to justify my strategy.  But I was met with the same sound of awkward silence that I had experienced earlier in the day on the plane.  Then the guy to my left spoke to me, his thick Irish brogue distracting me from the task at hand.  I can’t remember what his opening line was, but I recall admiring his ability to start a conversation over the urinal at a U2 concert when I struggled with the issue on an airplane.  He noted that I was a fellow ‘shy pisser’ – which I suppose I am, really – and we bonded.   He expressed a sympathy for the men waiting in line behind us, acknowledging that they were likely cursing us and the refusal of our genitals to perform their natural function.  I said that what I found especially frustrating about the situation was the sound of urine cascading from every man to our right, as if mocking us.  How do they do it?  How can they walk up to this urinal and just piss like there’s nothing to it?  It felt like we were there for at least fifty-three minutes exchanging tips on how to convince our bodies to pee in pressurised social situations and discussing the strategic need to urinate now rather than when The Edge would be belting out those glorious opening chords from Where The Streets Have No Name minutes from now.  Then it happened.  That wonderous thing of waste water trickling from your system.  I apologised and left.  It was the first time I had ever been sorry for peeing, and certainly the only time I have ever felt comfortable talking to a fellow-man with my penis in my hand.

The U2 show was a triumph.  It is difficult to recall such peace and love and harmony at a gig and the set was worked perfectly around The Joshua Tree.  I can’t compare it to the Innocence + Experience tour two years ago.  That is still my favourite gig experience, but there was something very special about seeing the band in their hometown and to be in the place that moulded these songs.  You know that with U2 you are going to get a visual and musical experience that no other act in rock can provide, to the extent that when an aircraft flyover painted the sky with the colours of the Irish tricolour it somehow felt understated.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to spend a Sunday in Dublin without U2, but as it turns out U2 has a way of finding you in Dublin.  After spending an afternoon taking the enjoyable tour at the Irish Rock ‘N’ Roll Museum – which obviously is laden with artifacts related to Bono, The Edge + Friends – I embarked on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, which is something I was greatly looking forward to after my experience of the New York City version last year, despite having a limited knowledge of Irish literature.  As it turned out I had been drinking beer since one o’clock on Sunday afternoon, so when the literary tour began at 7.30pm I was in little mood for enlightenment and had greater interest in the pub crawl aspect of the event.  As individual groups of people began to assemble upstairs in the Duke pub on Duke Street two things became evident:  almost everybody on the tour was both older than I am and American and I was the only solo attendee.  

I remained unperturbed, however, and continued to nurse the Jameson’s on ice with a slice of lemon which I was becoming fond of.  Straight whiskey isn’t something I normally abide.  I am typically a lover of Jack Daniels and coke, but someone who should know about these things recently advised me that whiskey is best consumed sour and without sugar, and this trip to Dublin convinced me of the merits of that argument.  The only trouble with my enjoyment of this tonic – other than a single measure proving to be so small that I soon decided to double up – was that I found myself drinking a lot of it.  And more frequent visits to the bar resulted in my wallet becoming choked with coins due to my inability to tell the separate pieces of currency apart by sight.  I always found it easier to hand over another pink note rather than force a barmaid to watch me attempt drunken mental arithmetic as I fished around the coins in my wallet for the correct change.  

Back at Duke Street, when my wallet was still relatively light, I spied that three of the American visitors were female and approximately of my age, if not younger.  One of the ladies caught my eye in the sense of being physically attractive to me, but in reality all three were pretty pleasant in comparison to how I must have appeared to them.  I made it my goal that by the time we reached the next bar on the tour I would have imbued myself into their company.  After a stop at Trinity College where we discussed Oscar Wilde we walked to a pub the name of which has completely escaped my memory.  It had multiple rooms and the group dispersed to explore this bar; I simply wanted to drink Jameson.  As I stood at the bar watching the barman inexplicably pour a single shot of whiskey into a large glass I became aware of the fact that the American who appeared physically attractive to me was standing beside me waiting to be served.  This was my opportunity.  The question might be asked:  how could I possibly talk to this attractive American woman at a bar when I couldn’t bring myself to open a conversation with a woman on a plane?  But I could, for two reasons.  I was still in admiration of the confidence of the shy pisser, and I was drunk.  So I feigned ignorance and asked her if she was on the literary pub crawl.  It was an abysmal opening line, but it was an opening.  In a few brief moments I learned that she and her friends were from Boston (I speculated that she must have a little Irish in her, which was another horrendous line) and that one of her friends had also attended the U2 concert the night before.  She wasn’t a particularly good conversationalist, but by the time we reached the next bar on the crawl it didn’t matter.

I drank another two double Jameson’s at that third bar, which again remains nameless in my mind although it was the subject of a quiz question at the end of the night when we learned that its former name was ‘The Monico’.  The Americans sat at the far end of the bar and didn’t acknowledge me and I didn’t feel any haste in wanting to talk to the poor conversationalist again.  So I drank my whiskey and waited for the cow bell that would signal the end of our allotted twenty minutes in this particular bar.  As I rose to my feet and left at the sound of the ringing of the bell one of the Americans asked me if I was the Scot who had been at the U2 concert the previous night.  I looked around and was fairly sure in deducing that she couldn’t have been talking to anyone else, so I engaged with her.  We talked all the way to the next and final bar on the tour, Brendan Behan’s.  We made a pact that seeing as we had a limited grasp of what was actually going on, literature wise, on the tour we would not take the end of tour quiz seriously and instead offer joke answers to the questions in the hope of winning the booby prize of a miniature bottle of whiskey, as opposed to the star prize of a t-shirt.  Unfortunately she betrayed me and answered a question seriously, though I maintained her favour by insisting that Oscar Wilde excelled at ten pin bowling and Bono was one of only four Irish men to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature (that wasn’t so much of a joke answer as Bono was nominated for the Man of the Peace prize in 2008.)

By the end of the tour I was invited by the three Bostonians to sit with them and join them for a drink.  We discussed U2 – a little, at least – how it might feel to discover that you have inadvertently turned up for dinner at the home of a couple of swingers, the Claddagh ring which the American I was most enjoying talking to was wearing and the Scottish accent.  I walked them back to their hotel, which was far, far away from where I was going, via a stop at the statue of Oscar Wilde, which one of the Americans had to climb over a locked gate to get a photograph with.  On the way to their hotel the American with the Claddagh ring who attended the U2 concert and I walked several paces behind the other two Americans, talking shit and making each other laugh.  She gave me a guided tour of Dublin whilst putting on the worst Irish accent I have ever heard and we both discovered the only bar in the whole of Dublin which sells Guinness.  Even though I had no idea where I was it was the finest walk I have taken.

As we reached this hotel in the middle of nowhere in Dublin 2 I suggested to the American with the Claddagh ring that we take in a drink together at a nearby bar.  She seemed enthusiastic and tried to convince her friends that one more drink wouldn’t be a terrible idea, but they were travelling to Belfast by bus the next morning and she ultimately decided that it would in fact be a terrible idea.  It was just another example of the north taking from the south of Ireland, yet this failed flirtation didn’t seem quite as bad as some of the others experienced over the weekend.  Instead I walked a few feet to another nameless bar and indulged myself in a few more double Jameson’s on ice with a slice of lemon as I contemplated the night and the weekend I had just been a part of, which truly was a terrible idea on account of the fact that I reached the airport with around fifteen minutes to spare this morning.

The night I packed a bag

As far as I can tell there are only two ways to pack a bag.  You can either pack too much, or you pack too little.  There is no in between.  Nobody has ever packed a bag with precisely every item they required for their trip.  I know this because I have never seen a self-congratulatory post on Facebook praising someone’s perfectly stocked luggage; and there are always people on Facebook who are taking a holiday.

My own packing tends to fall under the category of too much, though here I believe there are different extents in which a bag can be overloaded.  I can remember dating a girl who would insist on filling a suitcase with at least four pairs of shoes for an overnight or a two night stay.  She would never stuff them in either, like one imagines you would have to convince four pairs of shoes to fit into a small suitcase.  Each pair was placed like they were handcrafted crystal glassware.  Every time I would ask her why she needed four different pieces of footwear for a visit to Brighton and on each occasion she would reiterate that it is impractical to decide what outfit she would be wearing days in advance.  As a man who will often plan his attire from shirt to socks for work or an event weeks in the future, like some kind of mental pill-box, I found this argument difficult to swallow.

In contrast, I find that my own over packing tends to be a little more subtle.  Regardless of where I am travelling I will always take a small packet of pocket tissues, even if I have not blown my nose for weeks and am not being threatened by the common cold.  I think I must have sneezed once as a child and suffered the trauma of not having a tissue at hand and having to scramble for a suitable paper substitute before my face became completely overwhelmed with mucus, because I purchase a fresh packet of pocket tissues before every trip, often going to put them into my bag only to find that there is still an unopened packet from my last journey.

Another thing I find myself with more of than I need in my baggage is the notebook and pen.  I like to carry a notebook and pen with me most places, because you never know when you’re going to have to remember something for future reference and I find technology isn’t nearly as reliable as paper and ink.  A recent example of this would be when I text a friend to inform them of a tasty looking recipe I had seen in The Times Magazine for courgette fritters; the trouble being that I had intended to store the gourmet reminder as a note on my phone.  On the plus side my friend enjoyed a delicious dinner.  Instead I have always enjoyed the simplicity of a small notebook and a pen and the way that you can read back a note you have made and remember exactly where you were (which bar you were in) when you wrote it.

Though, like with paper tissues, I have a serious problem when it comes to buying more notebooks and pens than are even nearly necessary, which is partly born out of a severe dislike of standing around a crowded train station waiting for a platform announcement.  That’s when I will seek the comforting familiarity of a railway WH Smith – usually for a bottle of water, or a newspaper if I haven’t already got mine – and be met with their promotional offer of a Dairy Milk bar the size of a tablet (in the Biblical form, rather than the kindle.)  I always panic in these situations.  I find it very difficult to say no, usually out of fear of disappointing someone, and so usually I will turn down the £1 slab of chocolate and instead offer to pay £5.49 for a small notebook and a pouch of ten black biros.

There are also the less manic habits, although equally contributing to my conviction as a subtle over packer.  I will take my stubble trimmer with me whenever I travel, even if only for one night and even if I have shaved on the morning I leave home, in the event that I am thrust into a situation where I feel compelled to have exactly 1.6mm of stubble on my facial features.

I always pack a book into my bag.  That isn’t wildly absurd, even if I rarely read when I am in transit.  Typically if I am on a train I will be listening to music and drinking beer from a can, but I do like to keep a book in my backpack in case I feel the need to place it on the table beside my Innis & Gunn in order to convince my fellow travellers that I am not a complete social vagrant.  Leaving a copy of The Times open at the crossword page can also have the same effect, but to be efficient that method requires at least some of the clues to have been solved.  The Times, naturally, serves the dual purpose of becoming useful should I suffer some sort of sneezing incident.

All of this surely pales into comparison with my worst habit when it comes to packing a bag, however.  That habit being procrastination.  I am travelling to Glasgow tomorrow night, en route to the U2 concert in Dublin on Saturday.  And all I have done to prepare for this trip is write 900 words for my weblog on packing a bag and buy another packet of tissues.

A weekend in London (aka Wilco @ O2 Academy Brixton)

When the 12.40 from Glasgow rolled into London Euston at 5.05pm it meant two things:  1) Remarkably for a Virgin service it was arriving several minutes early, and 2) we were heading straight into rush hour on a Friday evening in the capital.  Within minutes I was telling myself that I hate London as hundreds of commuters were fleeing in every conceivable direction around me.

That was a very rash statement to be making in my internal monologue and I immediately accepted that I was being foolish.  I’ve been travelling to London for nigh upon fifteen years, and while there has been the ocassional falling out it is easily the longest relationship I have ever been in.

All it ever takes is one ride on the Tube and I know that everything is going to be alright. Even a simple journey to Covent Garden (changing for the Piccadilly Line at Leicester Square) is enough to set my loins ablaze.  Maybe I just have a fetish for underground transport systems, but there is little makes me feel more alive than planning out a journey from A to B via C (and sometimes D and E) and then completing it.  The tap of an Oyster Card, the stoic announcements asking you to “mind the gap”, the rush of an oncoming train; it’s all so exhilirating.

My purpose in London this time was fourfold:
1)  To see Wilco play for the first time since they played Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall far too many years ago (that is to say that I can’t remember how many years it has been)
2)  To attend the Fulham vs Sheffield Wednesday game at Craven Cottage
3)  To have a beer at The Harp, the best bar in London and maybe the world
4)  To find a suitable bar to watch the Celtic game

In a manner which is absolutely contradictory to the way in which lists traditionally work I completed these tasks in reverse order.  The abforementioned trip to Covent Garden was a means of striking #4 off my list as it had been recommended that Philomena’s was the ideal location to watch the Kilmarnock vs Celtic match.  This turned out to be the least Irish “Irish pub” I have ever drank in, and despite the fact that there were three or four different games showing on various screens I’d venture to say that it barely qualified as a sports bar due to the constant assault of nineties disco classics on the ears at the expense of commentary from any of the sports on TV.  It was almost as though they were trying to appeal to three different audiences at once:  the drinker, the sports fan and the dancer.  As The Killers might ask:  Are we sports fan or are we dancer?

[Sidenote:  I’ve never been entirely clear on what qualifies a bar as being ‘Irish’.  Is it the name?  The decor?  The content?  ‘Irish pubs’ are everywhere, in every big city, but I’ve never found out what distinguishes them from any other bar selling Guinness.  I’m not saying that they should be filled with dancing drunk leprechauns cheerily greeting you at the door, but you know, maybe for a little added authenticity?]

It’s difficult to be too harsh on Philomena’s, however, because their table service ensured that I always had a pint of Peroni in hand and that I didn’t have to miss a minute of Celtic’s arduous 1-0 win against Kilmarnock.  So thanks for that.

The Harp, now there’s a bar with an Irish sounding name that has no pretences of being ‘Irish’.  I’ve enjoyed many a good night in here and it was my pre-game boozer of choice on Saturday, with it being a short walk to Embankment station and the District Line train to Putney Bridge (see how exciting planning can be?)  This place is a classic old style pub with no loud and overbearing pop music, no distracting televisions and loads of old men discussing world affairs around pints of Suffolk ales.  Though in this bar, given its proximity to the heart of London’s theatre district, they were likely discussing all things thespian, but the point stands:  These old dudes know what’s going on, and they talk about it over pints of fine English ale.

It was with a bit of a heavy heart and a hint of a stagger that I left The Harp, however I had underground stations to travel through, lines to change and a journey to Brixton via Craven Cottage to navigate; an opportunity to truly engage my love for planning transport routes.  This was tested even further by the suspension of the Circle Line.  And while I had no intention of riding on the Circle Line on Saturday anyway, I felt it was worth celebrating my success in travelling from Putney Bridge to Brixton without the use of the yellow line on the Tube map by dropping in to The Craft Beer Co. for pre-gig beers.

This chain of London bars is a haven for hop lovers with 30 keg and cask taps of various beers (the Covent Garden branch has over 45.)  Though with hipster craft beer enthusiasts comes procrastination, and it is often the case in these bars that bearded beer drinkers will take as long deciding what to order at the bar as they will drinking their pint.

Saturday was a night for bearded, plaid shirt wearing hipsters in Brixton with American alt. Rock band Wilco playing their final show of 2016.  The Chicago sextet churned out riffs like the Craft Beer Co. poured pints, and the Academy audience drank it up.  Their set was as unpredictable and powerful as a citrus infused IPA, from the wild drum assault on Via Chicago to Nels Cline’s imperious showcase of the electric guitar on Impossible Germany.  Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than Jeff Tweedy and co’s command of the stage was the sight of a mass brawl breaking out in the stalls – twice.  I can only speculate as to what middle-aged men have to fight over at a Wilco gig, and if I had to guess it would be combover techniques or tweed.

Fortunately I wasn’t wearing tweed and so didn’t get caught in the midlife crisis melee and my love of London was reaffirmed by a weekend of rock and roll and trains.

Epilogue – post-NYC thoughts

NB:  This photograph, taken from Top of the Rock, was captured on my first trip to New York in March 2015

In the week since I returned from New York City I have frequently been asked “what was the best part of your trip?”  Or, “what’s your favourite thing about New York?”  And each time I am momentarily struck dumb as I ponder and search for an answer and invariably fail to find one.  It is impossible to narrow NYC down to a single favourite thing:  it is all of your favourite things gathered together into an enormous, exciting, gleaming package.

Before I’d even arrived in New York for the second time I knew that I would be back for a third.  I can’t get enough of the place, everything about it is so incredibly intoxicating.  I keep asking myself if I should see more of the world, or even just more of the great cities in the United States, but then I don’t think I could prise myself away from New York.  The only question in my mind is not if I should go again, but when.  My thinking had been leaning towards a slightly later time of year, when I could experience the city in a different light with warmer temperatures.  But then I landed on the 7th and found myself in an early blossoming of spring.  I didn’t dislike the heat, but it was definitely uncomfortable at times and made me rethink whether I would really want to come back here during the late spring/summer months.  The barmaid at Rattle N Hum recommended that if I enjoyed the MLS at Yankee Stadium then I should really return to see the place during baseball season, so that would require a May visit (right?) and I’m also quite attracted to the Governors Ball music festival, which usually takes place early June, so at the moment I’m leaning towards late May/early June 2017.

So what did I learn from my second trip to New York City?

My favourite bar was by far Alewife.  Great beers, great food, great service.  Honourable mentions to Rattle N Hum and Peculier Pub, where the barmaid took great care of me.

The best beer I found was either the Hoppy Ending at Alewife or the Ithica Flower Power at Peculier Pub.  I dare say those beers can be found at many other craft beer bars. Nugget Nectar was another I enjoyed.

Best wings were found at Alewife (are you sensing a theme here?)  Their buffalo wings had just the right amount of kick and were superior to the overly sticky wings at the Old Town Bar.

You HAVE to eat a bagel from Ess-a-Bagel AT LEAST once!

It’s tempting to think (as I did last year) that the admittedly fantastic view from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade is the be all and end all when it comes to views of the Manhattan skyline.  But the views from Jersey City and Gantry Plaza State Park are every bit as good – if not better.  If you have time, try both (or all three) for different perspectives of the city.  Brooklyn gives you awesome shots of Lower Manhattan; Jersey City gives you a teasing glimpse of Midtown and great views downtown; Gantry Plaza offers phenomenal pictures of Midtown.

I’ve found myself becoming incredibly irritated by slow walkers since returning home to my wee seaside town.  I always have been, but it’s really noticeable now.  People move QUICKLY in NYC!

Free Tours By Foot are a fantastic company and their “pay what you think it’s worth” policy makes for some great tours.  Next time I would probably hope to take some of their tours of the neighbourhoods I have yet to see, such as Harlem and the Bronx.  There’s a cool looking tour of Bushwick street art I’d like to take too.

The subway is a phenomenal feat of engineering (and the 7 day Metrocard is the greatest bargain in the city.  Second is the $1 slice of pizza) and then you take a moment to look around some of the stations and there are wonderful pieces of art which thousands of people zoom past, completely oblivious, every single day.

But just walking with no set plan or purpose is still the best way to explore New York.

Peter Lugar’s is great, but Keens is on a different planet.  I can’t stop thinking about that meat.

Carrying a small bottle of hand sanitiser in your satchel – the type which dries almost instantly – is invaluable.

The best resources I used for this trip:
Trip Advisor – just reading trip reports and other people’s itineraries gave me so much information and some great ideas.

Bowery Boys podcasts – these are fantastic.  I became immersed in the history of New York so much more on this visit than I had the first time around.  Search their archives and there’s bound to be a podcast on just about every item on your itinerary.

Google Maps – place a star on ANYTHING that interests you on a map and save it so you can pull it up whenever you want when you’re in the city.  You’ll never be stuck for somewhere to eat or drink or for a sight you might want to see but maybe didn’t put on your itinerary.  A huge time saver too.

NYC Subway app – self-explanatory.  Very quick and easy to use.

ohmyrockness – as a huge music fan and gig-goer, this is a comprehensive site for upcoming gigs in the city.

Four Freedoms Park and a free afternoon

Day ten:  Wednesday March 16th:
The dawning of a new day brought with it my final twenty-four hours in New York.  It would perhaps be understandable to be overwhelmed by melancholy at such a prospect, a year of planning and anticipation boiled down to one last day, but I was brimming with excitement at the day ahead.  After all, what more could one want than another day in this city?

Perhaps my most vital goal on this radiant Wednesday morning was to fulfil my  year-long craving for an Ess-a-Bagel bagel; a craving which had intensified significantly since my earlier failure to get one.  I wandered hopefully up Third Ave to E 50th and felt fantastically relieved to see a clear sidewalk outside of the Ess-a-Bagel store.  Sure, the line inside was snaking towards the door, but that seemed much more manageable than my previous visit here.  So I waited it out, thinking of nothing but how that Everything bagel with cream cheese and pastrami would feel once it was in my hands and taste when it was finally in my mouth.  Needless to say it was worth the wait.  I wish I could say that I had savoured every bite – or even ordered another one – but that bagel lasted the proverbial New York minute.


From there it was a gentle saunter up to the Roosevelt Island Tram on 60th St.  I would have to say this:  Flying at 36,000 feet caused me no worries.  Standing on the observation deck of the 1,776 foot One World Trade Center was thrilling.  But standing at the station watching this tram hang over the Queensboro Bridge?  I felt butterflies.  It’s a smooth ride though and minutes later I was standing on Roosevelt Island thinking how silly I was for even briefly feeling uncomfortable about that ride.  Here I enjoyed a relaxed stroll down to Four Freedoms Park at the tip of the island.  The view from down here was much the same as the one which I enjoyed on the first evening of my trip from Gantry Plaza State Park, but there’s a quaint peacefulness about this park, especially when you are looking across the river at a city bathed in sunshine.  The words spoken by Franklin Roosevelt on January 6, 1941 – etched in stone here – feel particularly pertinent now in 2016.  The more things change…

I returned to Manhattan on the tram and made my way towards First Avenue to check in for my 2.15 tour of the UN building.  One of my favourite parts of my trip occurred here when the guide performed the obligatory routine of asking where everybody has come from and a group of college girls from North Carolina literally swooned at my response.  That never gets old here.  The UN itself is as exquisite inside as it looked from across the river this morning.  There are so many rich artefacts to view here, though the true highlight of the tour is the ability to sit in the Security Council chamber.  So cool.

The Empire State Building peeking out from behind the American Radiator Building

The rest of my afternoon was a blank canvas which I intended to paint with a self-guided stroll through some of the sights around Midtown before the true artistry would commence in some of my favourite bars later.  Not for the first time I went jacketless as the gradually lowering sun beat against the city streets.  I took a casual (sweaty) stroll down First Avenue to 38th St and continued along 38th to Fifth Avenue, where I stopped for a bottle of water (and deodorant – just in case!) and snapped some photographs of the multitude of landmarks in this metropolis.  Crossing over to Sixth I spent a little time in Bryant Park, where I enjoyed capturing the Chrysler Building from many angles.  Those gargoyles sparkled like diamonds in the dying embers of the day – and my time in New York.  I then took Madison, which was bustling with office workers escaping for the night, up to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  I was pleased to see a little less scaffold here than last time and I was enticed inside for a look and some reflection.

Times Square pre-sunset

After a walk around Rockefeller Plaza I decided to *cringe* brace Times Square for the almost mandatory look at the lights.  I loathe Times Square, honestly, and I learned last year that if you HAVE to see Times Square then – if possible – the absolute best time to see it is after last call at the last bar you visit, around 4am, when it is virtually deserted.  There’s something quite charming about it then.  But any other time of the day and it’s just a circus, as it was here.  But I made my way up the red Tkts steps nonetheless and took some photographs of this chaotic New York scene.  I think I’d read somewhere online that Times Square is best photographed in those last moments before sunset, as that is when the lights are best brought out, and that is a great tip.  I got some lovely pictures here before indulging in that other tourist must-do, the hot dog from the street vendor.  $7 for a hot dog?  Seriously??  $7 for a freakin’ hot dog!  I could probably have thrown that hot dog and hit a 99c pizza place with far superior offering for a fraction of the price.  Alas I begrudgingly parted with my cash and at least enjoyed the mustard.

I began my first night in New York City with a few beers at Alewife in Long Island City and the experience was so enjoyable that there was no way I could leave without making a return visit.  Jess, the barmaid, remembered me from that first night and was once again a charming host, asking me all about the days in between.  She seemed particularly enthusiastic about my photographs from the NYC subway tour.  I enjoyed several of the Hoppy Ending IPA, which I think was my favourite of all the beers I can remember sampling in New York, and another helping of those delicious wings.  Again, probably the best wings I ate on this trip.  The sauce had just the right kick.  Alas, I had one other bar I wanted to visit tonight and I had to say my farewells to Alewife.  Jess gave me a hug, I gave her a high five.  She asked me to say hi to the Oban Distillery (I had pointed out the bottle of my hometown whisky on the shelf behind her last Monday) and I told her I would see her in a year.  What a great bar.  The best in New York.


Leaving Alewife I did something I had never done here before and went all the way into the Uptown subway station.  Fortunately I realised my mistake before I had the chance to compound it by getting on a train, and I crossed the street and into the Downtown station I wanted.  The lady behind the window was sympathetic of my drunken plight and opened the gate for me and it wasn’t long before I was on my way to Rattle N Hum.  Once again the barmaid, Rebecca, remembered me and I thanked her for her successful recommendation of Taproom No. 307.  We talked as I worked my way through their list of drafts.  She gave me a prototype of a beermat she’d been working on – it reads “You NEED beer!!  :-)” in biro – and as the bills dwindled in my wallet I ordered my last beer, with which I played Russian Roulette by asking her to select.  I remember the first couple of malty mouthfuls of this 2/3 pint beer…and the next thing I know is that I woke up in my bed at the Club Quarters.  To this day I have no recollection of leaving Rattle N Hum, no recollection of walking back to my hotel – although I do know that I walked home because my phone contains the evidence of a multitude of failed, blurry attempts at photographing various buildings – no recollection of even my last hour or so at the bar and, sadly, no recollection of saying goodbye to this charming barmaid.  I can only assume that was one hell of a beer she poured me.

Best tip today:  Bryant Park is a glorious picture taking spot.  You can get some great shots of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and the absolutely beautiful American Radiator Building (there’s a gorgeous shot of it and the ESB almost cuddled together) as well as the New York Public Library and Grand Central closeby.  It’s great for a quick coffee stop and some people watching.

A day in Brooklyn – how sweet it is!

Day nine:  Tuesday March 15th:
Another cloudy and cold Manhattan morning; this is the New York I was expecting – – although the unexpected spring would return by early afternoon.  Today was the final of my three tours with the excellent Free Tours By Foot and after a quick breakfast at Grand Central I was off on the 5 train to Brooklyn Bridge – City Hall to meet Bob for the Brooklyn Bridge, Heights and DUMBO walking tour.  As was the case with each of the other tours I took I seemed to be the only patron to adhere to the guide’s request to check in 15 minutes before the 10am departure and so there was a lot of waiting around for the rest of the group to show up.  There was at least one other rival tour leaving from City Hall Park around the same time and it was quite amusing observing the other guide try to steal some of Bob’s group as they appeared!  Indeed, this opposing tour set out before ours (partly because a few of our people were much too tempted by the Starbucks across the street) and we ended up welcoming some of their latecomers.  It developed into a large group.


I walked the Brooklyn Bridge towards the Manhattan side last year and enjoyed taking many photographs from the Promenade, but I was hungry to learn more about the history of the bridge and the burgeoning DUMBO area.  Bob’s tour did a very good job of that, despite the difficulty of trying to find a non-obstructive part of the bridge to stop a large group of tourists to explain the unique nature of the cables.  It seems a little crazy to walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn with the incredible view BEHIND you, but I guess it better fits the flow of the tour and I can only imagine the difficulty in trying to organise a suitable meeting place on the Brooklyn side.  The tour took in some of the beautiful brownstone buildings, the epic skyline view from Brooklyn Heights (the cloud had slowly lifted to the point where it now only hid the spire on top of the World Trade Center) and a walk through DUMBO (turns out many of the buildings down here bear the name of the Scottish immigrant who invented the cardboard box!) where we were afforded the opportunity to capture that iconic photograph with the Empire State Building standing between the legs of the Manhattan Bridge – – so happy to have gotten that shot!


The tour concluded at Jane’s Carousel, which I can imagine is quite a vision in the summer, from where I ventured towards Jay Street for a much needed hot coffee at the Brooklyn Roasting Company.  Here I was tempted by the only sweet treat of my journey – a melt in the mouth peanut butter cookie – to accompany the wonderful Nicaraguan blend which I enjoyed immeasurably more than any of the regular coffees I had been drinking.  After three hours on my feet this was probably the best coffee I have ever had.

Ideally when spending a day in Brooklyn my impulses would have taken me up to Williamsburg, having enjoyed a great day in the area last year, but that would only have led me down a troublesome path and I had a couple of items to tick off the itinerary later today, so instead I stayed relatively closeby and took the train to Jay St – Metrotech, where I could walk to the New York Transit Museum.  What a place this is!  The ‘upstairs’ exhibits about how the city’s transport system coped with 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy are extremely interesting, but it’s the downstairs level where this museum really comes into its own.  There must be around a dozen trains from various eras of the NYC subway, each in the condition of the time (decoratively, at least, perhaps not scent and cleanliness wise!)  It is so fascinating to see the posters advertising the new “healthy” cigarettes and the formation of NATO and the vote for “Miss Subway”.  Time sped away from me down here and it was 4pm – closing time – before I knew it.  This was right up there with the best $7 I spent in New York.

On the train back to High Street my mouth was already tingling at the prospect of what was to come.  Last year it was recommended to me that the best pizza in NYC was at Juliana’s – but I somehow ended up eating at Grimaldi’s instead, which was fine.  This time, though, I was going to make sure I got my Juliana’s.  Some people might consider that one of the downsides to travelling solo is that when it comes to eating at a place like this – where pizza is sold by the pie and not the slice – you either can’t go or you have to eat the entire thing by yourself.  Personally I view that as a delicious challenge.  So I ordered the “small” margarita with additions of pepperoni and goats cheese and enjoyed a Brooklyn Lager as an accompaniment.  Seated at the bar your appetite is only heightened when you have a bird’s eye view of your pizza being made from scratch.  The thrill when you see your pizza being eased out of that huge coal oven is the closest to heaven one imagines you can feel.  Or at least it is until you get that first slice in your mouth.  Wow.  This is surely what love tastes like.

“Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta!  Stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!” – Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

I was tantalisingly close to finishing that entire pizza by myself, but the last slice defeated me. I couldn’t take any more.  The waitress asked me if I would like it wrapped, but cold pizza doesn’t appeal to me – no matter how shameful it felt to be throwing that delicious slice away.  I took a walk along the promenade to clear a little of my food intoxication before finding my way to Clark Street station (eventually – hidden inside a building, underneath some scaffold) to take the train out to the Barclays Center for that night’s Brooklyn Nets game.  I went into this well aware that the Nets and the 76ers are two of the worst teams in the NBA – if not the two worst teams – hence tickets being available for as little as $10 on StubHub, but it was thoroughly entertaining fare.  The Nets actually won, comfortably, and Bojan Bogdanovic had what was surely the game of his career.  There wasn’t a tremendously large crowd there, but those who did turn up enjoyed themselves.  It was a fun experience.  Perhaps not as fun as the hockey at MSG last year, but something I wouldn’t hesitate to do again.

My plan was to finish the night off at a couple of bars I’d noted in the vicinity of the Barclays Center, but with the subway stop right there in front of me I was enticed into taking the Q train back to Manhattan to visit one of my favourite bars from 2015 – House of Brews out on W 46th.  Having formulated plans in my mind for my last night in New York tomorrow I knew I wouldn’t have another opportunity to return here, and I wanted to tick it off my list.  This place doesn’t have the huge selection of craft beers that many of the other bars I visited offer, but there’s a kind of charm about it that makes it feel like your local back home.  I didn’t manage to repeat the fabulous 4am walk through Times Square from this bar that I experienced last year, but I did enjoy a couple of beers before retiring for the night.

Best tip today:  Don’t be afraid to tackle Juliana’s as a solo traveller!  Also, if you have the opportunity, take the Q train back from Brooklyn at night.  I got an unexpected surprise when I was scrolling through the music on my phone and realised that those trains I was watching travel across the Manhattan Bridge earlier today…well, I was on one!  You can get an excellent view of Lower Manhattan from this ride.  Of course, actually walking the bridge back would be even better – but this has to be the best train ride in the city.

A rainy day at the World Trade Center

Day Eight:  Monday March 14th:
Monday was a morning of revitalisation and reenergising.  This was a day I had been looking forward to since I left New York last year, for One World Observatory was still a couple of months away from being opened when I visited in March 2015 and being something of a skyscraper enthusiast, and having visited both Top of the Rock and Empire State Building first time around, I was determined to see it.  I admired the majesty of the World Trade Center from afar and I HAD to see the city from its windows.

So when my eyes flickered to life on Monday morning, the beginning of my second week in NYC, and I heard an unfamiliar sound (at least unfamiliar to this trip) lashing against the window of the 26th floor of the Club Quarters my soul filled with dread.  I wearily turned on the television as I prepared to shower and the news was confirmed:  rain.  And lots of it.  New York City was a washout.  There had been nary a cloud in the sky up until now (and the rest of the week would be good too after a cold start on Tuesday) and yet here they were, congregated en masse around the skyline on the very day I would be soaring to its highest summit.  I briefly tried reorganising my itinerary in my mind, being that I hadn’t actually reserved OWO in case of this very scenario, but I only had another two days in New York and they were both locked down pretty tight.  Plus I was down at the Tribute Center and Museum today anyway; I was going to have to grin and bear it.

I waded down Lexington to E42nd to Pershing Square, where I would enjoy a substantial sit-down breakfast.  The service was smooth and attentive and I wasn’t seated too long before my order of the New Yorker was in front of me and being devoured.  The New Yorker consisted of fresh orange juice, tea or coffee, toast, eggs cooked to your taste (I went for poached), bacon and hash browns.  Very filling for $20.  I had regretted not visiting this place sooner, considering that it was virtually on my hotel doorstep.

One World Trade Center, shrouded in a blanket of clouds


It was around 11.20am by the time I’d made it to the World Trade Center and navigated my way around the various construction sites.  There is a LOT going on down here and the area feels so much bigger than it was even a year ago.  At One World I could walk unhindered to the ticket booth – though I’d imagine that was as much due to the weather as anything else – where I was warned before I purchased my ticket that visibility would only be ten miles (I believe on a *perfect* day it is up to fifty miles?).  I begrudgingly accepted this and made my way through security and to the foundation level, onto the elevators.  I’d read about the video presentation on the walls of the elevator and it is indeed impressive.  It put into pictures the history I had learned about the growth of Lower Manhattan from the various tours last week.  And, of course, that brief moment where the Twin Towers are visible is quite haunting.

The presentation at the top is slick and professional and the slow reveal of the Manhattan skyline is impressive, even on a day like this.  You are then taken down another couple of levels to the observation floor (why tease you with a view from a higher level??) where you are free to explore the city from above.  I got some great photographs of the bridges and the Woolworth Building in particular (which I was especially pleased about considering the green top is largely obscured from the ground by scaffolding) but sadly much of Midtown was cloaked in clouds, and what was visible was difficult to photograph through the rain kissed glass.  As disappointing as that was I knew what I was getting into before I bought my ticket and I was still thrilled to be up there.

The view from the One World Observatory, taking in the Woolworth Building and the Manhattan & Brooklyn Bridges

Having done all three observation decks in New York City over two trips I feel I’m placed to rank them against one another:

Top of the Rock was by far the best experience.  Both in terms of service and, more importantly, view.  Going up there half an hour or so before sunset is the best advice you’re going to get going to New York.  The view is unforgettable.  If you can do only one observatory in NYC, make it Top of the Rock.

I’d rank One World Observatory next, but I’m cheating a little there by imagining what the view must be like on a clear day.  The video presentation is very impressive and I loved the tantalising reveal of the city.

Empire State Building, like the crown of the Statue of Liberty, would be a “bucket list” box ticker.  It’s the most famous of the skyscrapers and I can completely understand why people want to visit it.  The view is excellent too, but it doesn’t have Central Park (unlike TOTR) and it doesn’t have, of course, the ESB (like the others do).  And the glass really hinders the photo-taking opportunities (as it does with OWO).  The lines were worst here, too.

After exiting the World Trade Center I had 40 minutes for a quick lunch before the next scheduled item on my itinerary, so I made my way across to Brookfield Place and the plethora of lunchtime options on offer at Hudson Eats.  This place was crazy busy and there was a lot to choose from, but I eventually ate a very tasty shrimp noodle from [whichever place was selling the noodle boxes]

The 9/11 Tribute Center is a very different experience from the 9/11 Museum which I visited last year.  The artefacts on display and the stories being told are of a much more personal nature.  The first exhibit demonstrating how much of a community there was inside the World Trade Center was very moving and humanising.  Their survivors tour, which was altered somewhat to account for the conditions outdoors, offered an entirely new perspective on that fateful morning.  It was surreal to be standing by the memorial pools having the route of the planes pointed out and hearing the words “you are now standing in what was the lobby of the Marriott Hotel”.  The emotion is still very palpable and the tour was very respectfully and beautifully done.


I had probably gone overboard by following that up with the guided tour of the 9/11 Museum, but despite spending four hours in there last time I felt there was still a lot more to see.  To be entirely honest, I don’t believe that the 60 minute tour offers any more perspective than the free audio guide app which is downloadable from the official website.  And it certainly pales in comparison to the personal stories of the Tribute Center tour.  The guide takes you around the main points of interest in the museum and then leaves you to explore the two larger presentations at your leisure.  After around an hour or so of this I was feeling thoroughly fatigued and emotional.  I had definitely under-estimated how much there would be to take on board doing these two tours so close together.

Upon leaving the World Trade Center site I had no firm plans for the remainder of my evening.  I decided to take a walk in the relentless drizzle and, much akin to tossing a coin, I would take the first subway train I encountered to the nearest bar I was familiar with.  Holding Rebecca (the Rattle N Hum barmaid)’s list in my satchel this turned out to be the R train from Cortlandt St to 23rd St for Taproom No. 307 on 3rd Ave.  This was a great recommendation, with over 40 beers on tap and a very friendly and relaxed atmosphere.  The wings were also pretty decent, although the carrot sticks weren’t particularly crunchy.

Following a good sampling of the drafts on offer at Taproom I left with no real idea of where to go next.  It was on my mind to return to Grand Central and walk out to Hell’s Kitchen for one or two of my favourite bars out there, but the rain was getting on the heavy side again, matching the weight of my emotions after an afternoon spent contemplating 9/11.  So I decided to get a relatively early night and save my energy for tomorrow.

Best tip today:  Don’t under-estimate the emotional turmoil a visit to any of the 9/11 sites might leave you with.  I didn’t feel it so bad last year, but it was definitely too much doing both of the guided tours.  On that note, if you are minded to do one of the 9/11 tours – and it is worthwhile – then I’d highly recommend those offered by the Tribute Center.  These personal reflections deserve to be heard and their memories ought to be kept alive.