New York: The Cloisters

A couple of days ago we spent a lovely (albeit freezing) day seeing the Metropolitan Art Gallery, starting with its smaller and less visited gallery at The Cloisters. The Met is divided into two properties, the enormous building in Central Park and the much, much smaller Cloisters, located at the northern end of the Manhattan.

Many of the ‘Top Things to do in New York’ articles I’d read mentioned The Cloisters but didn’t really describe it in much detail. Our friend Sean wanted to go so we agreed to meet there at 10am.

It really was a long subway ride north – by the time we got to the right stop pretty much everyone had gotten off except a bunch of old ladies. There’s an elevator specifically for the Cloisters and Tryon Park from the station platform and it goes a surprisingly long way up through the hill. We walked out and into Tryon Park, a truly gorgeous stretch of landscaped gardens that was glowing with colour in the morning sunshine. We really picked a good time to see the city – I can’t imagine any other season being so visually impressive.

See what I mean? Beautiful!

The Cloisters building is relatively new, but is built to resemble a medieval cloisters and contains many elements that are genuinely antique. Old doors, stained glass windows, alter pieces and furniture are built into the structure and compliment the quite impressive collection of medieval art and artefacts. Impressive in terms of quality, not quantity – but I quite liked being able to peruse in detail a small but excellent collection.

The effect of the building somewhat spoiled by the bus stop and street lights.

They have some astonishingly well preserved tapestries – in fact you may well recognise this one, which is part of a set that tells the story of a unicorn being hunted and caught.

Poor, sad unicorn!

There were some really incredible books that were about 1000 years old, hand written (obviously) by monks and the writing and illuminations are so perfect that it is no wonder their art was preserved for holy subjects almost exclusively.

Another charming aspect of the building was the medieval garden, in which grew medicinal plants and edible herbs. It was arranged and tended beautifully. There were quince and fig trees and even the remains of hops vines.

My garden dreams of gardens like this.

There was a special exhibit there when we visited. The choir from Salisbury Cathedral in the UK had collaborated with an artist to record a special musical piece where the artist had recorded each member of the 40 strong choir individually then each voice was played at the gallery through an individual speaker. This meant we could walk between the speakers and hear what each voice sounded like and how the rest of the choir sounded to each member. It was amazing. The song was written in the middle ages by one of the most famous composers of the genre (don’t ask me who) and was very complex and extraordinarily uplifting. You could see everyone in the room being overcome by the beauty of the music.

The music was so right for the setting. A shame I can’t really convey it in a blog.

I’ll leave you with one last image, from a tapestry that was ancient. However I couldn’t help the fact that, because it looked rather cartoonish and I was surrounded by American accents, I could almost hear the two other characters saying in sad, Californian teenage voices to Jesus “OMG… you’ve got like… holes in you,” and Jesus, equally bewildered, replying “Like, yeah, god, I know… bummer.”

Or is it just me?

New York: Days 1 and 2.

Our first morning in New York we wandered out into the street feeling, as we’ve said many times now, like we’d wandered onto a movie set. Yellow cabs! Yellow buses! Brand names we recognised but have never eaten/shopped at! People in Halloween costumes! It was all so new and yet so familiar. Actually, apart from the iconic stuff, the area where we’re staying looks a lot like Melbourne – hipster cafes, vegetarian restaurants… it’s like a giant Fitzroy but with stoops and subway stations.

Beep beep!

Our apartment even has one of these retro/racist dime-store Indian statues out the front. Reminds me of Seinfeld every time we arrive home.

We had breakfast at an old-style deli, replete with an entire staff of old men. Since that meal I’m yet to see a woman doing anything more than cashiering at a deli. What’s with that? The meal we had was ok and the establishment was charming – swivel seats along the chrome counter, booths etc. Next we acquired a phone card. This was probably the highlight of our service experience in the first three days. All the staff were smiling and having fun and were very polite and pleasant. I cannot say the same for most other places, particularly eateries. You’d think smiling at customers cost money here. Then we walked north. We found the Flatiron Building, which looked great but the sun was in the wrong spot to get a decent photo. Then we walked through the library. We got up to Times Square, which was pleasingly gaudy and over the top. So many flashing signs – it was more Tokyo than Tokyo.

We bought comedy tickets from a guy on the street as seeing a comedy show was pretty high on our list of things to do. After escaping the rain in a slightly grotty deli we walked back down to Greenwich. Lots of people were on the streets dressed in their Halloween costumes. I had a secret hope that this was actually a normal New York day but sadly it was not, and the following day everyone was back to their all black uniforms. A bit like Melbourne, really. Anyone with a bit of colour really stands out in the crowd.

This lady is out to prove even New Yorkers aren’t immune to fashion faux pas. Double denim? Sister, please!


That evening we met up with Luke’s friend Sean, who has come down from Montreal to see the city and hang out with us a bit. We had a drink at the bar downstairs from our apartment and then walked a few blocks over to watch the Halloween parade. It was not at all what I expected. I’d thought, this being America, that it would be all glitz and glam and big budget. But it was quite the opposite. There wasn’t even much co-ordinating of dance or costumes. Mainly the parade consisted of people in their home made stuff walking along between floats sponsored by radio stations or local businesses. The best group was the first lot, who had done a Pink Floyd arrangement of mechanical rabbits and flying clocks.

One of the less blurry photos.

After an hour and a half and a whole lot of blurry, hand-held photos, we fought our way through the crowds and found a table at a nice restaurant and had a chat over dinner. Then Sean made his way home and we collapsed into bed.

The first thing we did the next day was meet up with my friend Robert who was, fortuitously, in NY for a couple of days, visiting from Oakland (and hopefully we’ll get to hang out some more there). I’d never met Robert in person before but we’re friends through blogging and other mutual friends… it’s a long story. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t have friends online how you manage to stay in contact with people for over a decade and yet never meet in person – you’ve either done it or you haven’t. Robert turned out to be just as lovely in person as online and we all got on very well. We had breakfast at a place he’d found and I tried ‘corned beef hash and eggs’. Corned beef hash is basically chopped up silverside that is then fried in a big mess. It tasted fine but looked kind of like it’d already been chewed. We were given complimentary orange juices but they were the tiniest juices I’ve ever seen – only slightly larger than shot glasses. It was weird.

After food we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge.

All the perspective lines!

Somehow, after drinking more coffee than I thought was possible, Robert seemed to grow increasingly tired. Then after we had a sit by a fountain and a chat and said goodbye, Luke also felt really tired. He’d had four coffees, so obviously he’d gone through the point of super awakeness and out the other side. He did say he felt NQR.

We caught the subway back and had a rest. It’s a bit sad that I need so much rest time but I feel that it’s better to just face it and have lie downs rather than burn out. Besides, we had a comedy show to get to that evening.

We walked up to the comedy show, getting a bit confused by the directions the guy who’d sold the tickets had given us. He’d pointed north west from his spot in Times Square and saying ‘just over there’. In actual fact it was 10 blocks further north. We’re staying further south than 1st Street and the comedy show was on 53rd street. It was quite a walk. Fortunately the north-south blocks are pretty short but it was still about 5kms away.

Before the show we met Sean for dinner. He’d been ticking off the sights he wanted to see but warned us against the Guggenheim, saying it was pretty boring. He wanted to spend the evening planning and declined a free ticket to the show – possibly a good idea as it was not at all what we’d been led to believe. The guy we’d bought the tickets from had said it was a taping for Comedy Central but it turned out to be four stand up comedians who were ok – one was pretty funny and looked kind of familiar. One of his best bits was about toilets. I laughed a lot but I’m starting to think I’m developing some kind of weird toilet obsession because everywhere we go the toilets are the thing I want to write blog entries about. I wished I’d been tagging all the posts where toilets are mentioned so I could check on whether it’s getting to a disturbing level.

Anyhow, the show! It was a small stage in a basement and you had to buy two drinks, which were pretty expensive. The ticket to get in gave you an extra entry for free but with drinks it worked out to be about $30 each. We looked online afterwards and the reviews for ‘Broadway Comedy Club’ weren’t great. We’re going to try to find somewhere different and hopefully see something better. Annoyingly, it’s ‘Comedy Week’ here right now but we didn’t know so we didn’t buy tickets to any of the really great shows that are on. D’oh!

We caught the subway home. It was packed – I stood next to two guys who’d just been to see an MIA concert and were covered in coloured powder. They were very friendly, unlike the people who sounded like they were about to punch on at the other end of the carriage. Despite the subway stations here looking like entrances to hell’s prison (bare concrete, everything looks dirty and there’s bars up to the ceilings to stop people getting on for free) it seems like a pretty easy system to navigate, even if the numbered and lettered lines are a bit sad after the elegant (Angel, Victoria) and hilarious (Cockfosters, Mudchute) names of the London underground stations. Plus here you don’t have to swipe your card upon exiting the station. How eminently sensible. We tumbled into bed, once again exhausted.