Monday, June 15, 2009

My briefcase rattled between my legs as a voice in a thick Brooklyn accent announced, “This is the train to New York next stop Jamaica, Queens.” I opened my eyes half asleep, half expecting a British woman’s voice to correct him saying this was really the train to Cockfosters.

Looking out the window at a blur of graffiti covered signs and small houses with bars on the windows I would give up anything to be back on that train to Scotland, passing the rolling green hills, scattered with grazing sheep. Less than 48 hours ago I was riding the London Underground, and now here I am on the Long Island Railroad Road, off to start my new internship.

Billy Joel sang, “I’m in a New York State of Mind,” through the headphones of my Ipod as I pushed past people making my way onto the platform at Jamaica. I looked up and down the platform, realizing I was the only one that had gotten off the train. I quickly did a 180 turn and stepped back onto the train I had just stepped off of feeling embarrassed. Apparently, I don’t change at Jamaica on the 7:53 train.

Sinking back into my seat I quickly glance from side to side to see if anyone had noticed my error. Across from me an older woman sat eyes shut, rosary beads clutched tightly in her grasp, and next to her a man frowned to himself as he read the Wall Street Journal, never stopping to look up as he sipped his coffee.

I sighed in relief. If I can figure my way around the London, than I will figure my way around New York City, I thought.

As the train pulled into Penn Station, (the real platform where I was suppose to get off ) and the voice echoed, “Watch the Gap,” I smiled remembering the night my classmates, professor and I took the tube to the restaurant George’s Inn the night we went to see Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors.

As we stood in line at the insanely crowded station, I watched the doors shut as a voice echoed, “Mind the Gap,” only to realize seconds later that everyone else had gotten on the train except for me. Luckily, everyone was waiting for me at the next tube stop otherwise I would still be wandering the streets of London looking for restaurants that started with the letter G (as I couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant at the time). It’s funny how I spent two weeks comparing London to New York City and here I am being reminded me of London.

Once in Penn Station I decided to just follow the crowd out the nearest exit. Stepping out onto the busy Manhattan streets, I ducked into the entrance of a building to wrestle with opening my umbrella; something I ironically had to use very little of in the United Kingdom. I looked both ways before crossing the street, since London taught me it doesn’t matter what side of the road they drive on or whether the vehicle they drive is black or yellow; cab drivers are never concerned with giving pedestrians the right of way. I guess some things about cities are universal.

For instance, it isn’t just New York City that will chew you up and spit you out. I learned the hard way after waiting in line to be denied entrance to a members only club and being asked to leave the premise of the London Eye or else be arrested, that London can also be tough. I think each city has it’s own rhythm and shows no mercy to those who don’t take the time to learn the tempo.

Making my way up Eighth Avenue, I pass a man who punches my umbrella out of his way. This would never happen in London, I thought. From the English students I met at the London art show to the Scotsmen I met on my birthday, everyone in the United Kingdom seemed genuinely nice and helpful. It was the charismatic people I met that truly made the experience and they are what I will miss the most.

I laughed when Victor, a British student from Bournemouth University had told me everything he knew about New York City he learned from watching Friends. If only it was that simple, I thought.

Walking around it is easy to become intoxicated with the aroma of fresh oven baked pizza or memorized by the rows of skyscrapers, but there are certain things that New York will never have. Here there are no shrapnel damaged buildings baring WWII scars, no remains of a 1600 year-old wall, and no royal palaces.

Reaching the crossroads of Times Square, the white walk sign blinks and a sea of commuters rush across the intersection. In front of me two young girls, carrying large backpacks stand, jaws dropped staring up at the illuminated advertisements. It dawns on me that they are seeing New York City for the first time. I watched them for a moment half reminiscent of my own awestruck of London, half jealous that I will never have that experience with New York City…

I finally make it into the office building and up to the 22nd floor. The office manager greets me, gives me a quick tour of the office and shows me to my desk before telling me that the boss will be in shortly. As I turn my computer on, I can feel the goose bumps on my arms, and butterflies in my stomach. For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to work in Manhattan and here I am. Yes, it’s only temporary, and no I’m not getting paid for it, but this is certainly a start. While I have always wanted to work and explore New York City on my own it was my time spent in London that convinced me that it could be a reality. If I could find my way in a city I knew nothing about than I am going to be okay here.

London taught me that each city has it’s own unique personality and culture. For all the reasons I have always loved Manhattan, I found just as many different ones for why I loved London. I hope London is the first chapter in a series of cities I get to explore.

Walking over to the window the city’s sounds are quieter. From here the skyline looks different than anything I have ever seen. Perhaps I can’t see Times Square for the first time like those backpackers, but in this city there are many things that I still have yet to see.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The crashing of waves against rocks was silent from the top of the cliff. From here even the sheep looked no bigger than small balls of cotton. I slowly inched closer to the edge, but it was still impossible to see straight down. The wind whipping the hair in front of my eyes made it difficult to see the bluish-gray outline of mountains against the bright blue cloudless sky. I took a few steps back and sat down on a soft patch of lush green earth.

Here I am on top of a mountain, on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. As I bit into my chicken sandwich, staring at the spot where the ocean touched the mountains I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my birthday. It’s funny how only 12 hours earlier it seemed like my birthday was going to be a disaster…

I climbed the creaking steps to the top bunk to sit on my paper-thin mattress in an effort to make space for others. The tiny hostel room was already too hot and too over crowded. It had an overwhelming smell of campfire smoke and feet. Rachel, Michelle, Ashley, Ryan, Seth and I all wished to be next door at the local pub, but our hostel’s 11:30 doors lock curfew simply didn’t allow it.

The hostel keeper had already yelled at us for being too loud after she informed us that the main water pipe broke and there was absolutely no running water. Staring out my window into the darkness home seemed to be worlds away from this tiny town of Ullapool, in the highlands of Scotland. The town was the second stop on our week long tour.

Up into this point I had been quite pleased with my journey through Scotland. As we drove through the incredible picturesque scenery our tour guide told us entertaining stories of epic highlander battles, and sightings of the Locke Ness monster and other creators of the lake. I found it fascinating that everything from their distinctive Scottish accent to their customs and history was so different than that of London or even England.

“Thirty minutes to your birthday,” Michelle said with a smile.

Fantastic, I thought as I rolled my eyes. In the United States turning 21 is a major milestone since it marks the age when a person is legally allowed to buy oneself an alcoholic drink.

The occasion is usually celebrated waiting outside a bar with friends till the stroke of midnight then going inside and drinking until you physically can’t drink anymore. Instead I was about to celebrate my 21st birthday trapped inside a tiny hostel that had a busted water pipe. I stared at my half empty bottle of water, the only thing I would have to drink for the next several hours. It was only the night before, we were in Fort Augustus eating delicious haggis and watching a live show educating us on the historic ways of the highlanders like how to properly wear a kilt. If only I could have celebrated my birthday there.

As I pulled off my dirty sand covered sweatshirt, pretending it wasn’t going to bother me that I couldn’t shower, I heard a knock at the door.

A short man with a gray beard and eyes as blue as his shirt waltzed into the room followed by a younger dark haired girl.

“So the party’s in here,” he said with a smile in a thick Scottish accent and then introduced himself as Brian.

“It’s her 21st birthday at midnight,” Rachel said pointing to me.

“Trapped in this dump, with no alcohol is no way to spend your 21st birthday,” he said, as I nodded in agreement, “I can’t allow Scotland to be represented this way.”

Grabbing Ryan he disappeared, leaving behind the dark hair girl who shyly introduced herself to us as Layla.

“I’m sorry I don’t have a gift for your birthday,” she said, a sincere smile in her eyes.
Before I said a word she pulled the silver necklace off her neck.

“Happy birthday, this has always brought me good luck,” Layla said she placed the necklace in my hand. I looked down at the silver Celtic triquetra surrounding a single amethyst stone.

I didn’t know what to say to this stranger who had just given me the jewelry off her neck, to ensure that I had a special birthday. No one had ever done anything like that for me before.

“Th- thank-you,” I stammered.

Suddenly the door burst open and in walked Ryan and Brian with a case of 21 Stella Artois beers. Brian handed them out as Ryan explained the stealthy way he snuck Brain in with the beers past the angry hostel keeper. As the clock struck midnight, everyone sang happy birthday and drank the beers with me.

Brian explained that he was staying at hostels throughout Scotland because he planning on opening up his own out of an old church soon. He assured us that his hostel would have much bigger rooms and definitely no curfews. We continued to laugh and drink and swap stories for hours. In fact I barely noticed when they told us that the water was working again. Here in this tiny Scotland hostel, with my newfound friends, I didn’t feel far from home…

Rolling over I saw the first rays of sunlight hitting the deep green waters of Locke Broom. As I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, I could see it was the reflection of the giant green mountains engulfing the lake that gave the waters a green glow.

Reaching into my bag to grab my camera, I instead pulled out the necklace that Layla had given me. Perhaps this is the only country in the world where the landscapes are as enchanting as the people.