It all began in the Big Apple. Living in NYC was one of my biggest dreams, and I did everything I could to fulfill it. What I didn’t expect was the “oh-it’s-so-normal” feeling that became familiar after a couple of weeks. Going shopping in the big supermarket around the corner, walking across the Village to go to work, spending my coffee break on a terrace overlooking Manhattan, sipping my coffee on the Fifth Avenue… it was normal. An ordinary life in an extraordinary city. Now I keep thinking about those days, and even the smallest details seem so precious. My personal map of the Big Apple consists of 10 places that I’m going to share with you.
1. Avenue of the Americas/Canal Street
The 6th Avenue was not one of my favourite streets in Manhattan. But I was lucky enough to work in one of the skyscrapers on the the 6th Avenue south of Canal Street, and the view from the top was the best ever. I could see the perfect symmetry of the buildings, almost shaped as a giant temple. And the Statue of Liberty, the simple geometry of the streets and the beauty of sunsets. Over lunch we talked about Italy and the US, while eating our sandwiches or cream cheese bagels and steamed rice. Sometimes we went out and stopped at some Chinese take away restaurants, or at an healthier café where I discovered – and fell for – egg and avocado sandwich.
Like I said, I had to cross the Village to reach my office. I liked its quiet atmosphere, the tree-lined streets, the pastry shops, the cafés which reminded me of Friends. There was another tv series set in this part of the Big Apple – Felicity, created by JJ Abrams. Those who are familiar with the story will remember that the protagonist used to take the underground at Bleecker Street station. And while attending NYU, she worked at Dean & De Luca.
In Bleecker Street I found a small restaurant serving good (if not Italian) pizza. It’s called John’s Pizza and it soon became our favourite place for Sunday nights, after a lazy day spent watching tv or walking (not running – I’m not that sporty) in Central Park. Saturday mornings were dedicated to laundry and comfort food, and that’s how I discovered Magnolia Bakery. I didn’t know it was a renowned bakery; all I knew was that I liked the delicious smell coming from inside the shop. While my friend was at the laundry, I volunteered to stop at the bakery and buy chocolate or oatmeal cookies for both of us. No, not cupcakes: I’ve never been fond of those coloured little cakes.
3. Upper West Side
If you walk past the Lincoln Center and the renowned Juilliard School, along Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue, you’ll find yourself in the Upper West Side. This suburb is home to many culture and art professionals, but it’s also a great place for families and quiet lovers. It was also the location of the film You’ve Got Mail, starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. And this lovely romantic comedy is one of the movies that inspired me to move for a while to Big Apple to begin with. So I couldn’t help looking for the park and café where the protagonists met. And I found it all. I spend a lovely hour at Café Lalo, sipping a cup of coffee and feeling a New Yorker. Walking in the streets of the Upper West Side allows you to discover a different side of Manhattan, more European maybe, and therefore more familiar to me.
It wasn’t hard to picture a new life in this part of the Big Apple, between the park and the sea. Yet it seemed so out of reach. Those apartments belonged to people different from me, more self confident, clearly wealthier, and free from all the fears and doubts about the future that kept haunting me, preventing me from fighting to make my dream come true. It was like watching a movie set – it looked so real, but not for me.
4. Gramercy Park
Next to Union Square, in the heart of Manhattan, there’s a private park which has some kind of magic. A quiet placed where only those who have the keys can enter; if you’re so lucky as to pass by as someone opens the gate, you’ll be able to take a look at the beautiful flower beds and well-groomed paths. Once it was also the garden of Evangeline Residence, where I stayed for a couple of months. From the window of my tiny room I could see the Chrysler. The residence is closed now, but I’m sure that its walls will keep our memories forever.
Every place seemed extraordinary to me then, and so I was in love with Max Brenner, 841 Broadway, the realm of chocolate; with the Morgan Library & Museum, the realm of books; and with Bryant Park with its skating rink. One winter night, while I was skating there, a Spanish girl told me: “If you make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere”. It’s not easy to live in the Big Apple, despite the myth. One thing is to play the tourist for a couple of weekend, another is to actually live there. But I guess it’s hard to live anywhere when you’re alone.
5. Upper East Side
The Metropolitan is my favourite museum in New York. Walking among temples, pyramids and Moorish courtyards makes me feel like I’ve left all stress and chaos behind to travel through space and time. I think I spent an entire hour in the Florence and Herbert Irving Asian Wing, enjoying the peaceful feeling that some museums are able to give me. I was almost expecting to find a magic portal to another world.
But the Upper East Side is also home to Alice’s Teacup, the most bizarre tearoom in the Big Apple. Dedicated to Alice in Wonderland, it has cherry-coloured walls and high tea is served in the afternoon. I remember when my colleagues and I stepped out of the underground station, looking for Alice’s Teacup. The wind was chilly and we literally ran to the tearoom. Then, inside, the comforting warmth of a fairy tale.
I know I should talk about the art galleries of Soho, but I confess I was more attracted to Anthropologie. It is one of my favourite shops ever, the mecca for temptations, the place where I could buy anything – without restrictions. The decorated cups seemed to jump from the shelves into my bag. And vintage notebooks, households goods, scarves and clothes… Oh my, I had to force myself to leave the shop before going crazy.
On my way back from work, I often stopped for a late afternoon snack (less expensive than clothes, but equally comforting). After a brief love story with Starbucks, I started to look for other cafés. One of them was Maman, a cozy French-style coffee shop where I liked to order café au lait and pain au chocolat.
7. Central Park
How many movies are set in Central Park? Right now I’m thinking of The Devil Wears Prada, when Andy goes to the photo shooting inside the park. It takes a whole day to explore it – a sunny Sunday would be perfect. I took my parents to Le Pain Quotidien (7th Avenue and 58th St West) for lunch and it was fun sitting at the long wooden table, eating pancakes and salad. There was nothing of that kind in Italy back then. One December morning I saw an ice rink in Central Park. Parents and children were skating together, laughing and stumbling. It was so normal. So why did those people look different to me, only because they lived here? The power of cinema, I guess, that turns places into myths.
8. Madison Square Garden
I was determined to try a Korean restaurant, Hangawi (12 E 32nd St), where you sit on cushions and food is served in terracotta bowls. It was one of the chic restaurants that I stared at longingly every time I passed by. I had a good, if not fabulous, dinner, and I believe it’s still a great and very expensive place to dine in.
But this area is dear to me for another reason. In a movie theater next to Madison Square Garden I met a group of friends, one Sunday evening, and watched The Holiday starring Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz. I loved that beautiful, funny, sweet and dreamy story, but it was the whole situation that made me feel so happy. We came from different cities, we had spend the day doing different things, we had different plans for our future; yet, in that precise moment, we were together, four expats excited to be young and far from home.
My friend and I were the only white people in a church in Harlem, listening to the gospels. The priest asked us to stand and introduce ourselves, and we were met by smiling faces. Harlem is home to the African-American communities, but many Latin Americans also live here, as you can see from the several Latino bars and meeting places. Here tourists go looking for the Apollo Theater and the Abyssinian Baptist Church, famous for the gospel choir. A short visit to this suburb allows you to see a different face of Manhattan, with its colours and personality.
10. South Street Seaport and Ground Zero
The place where once stood the Twin Towers requires silence. Words are useless; only feelings count. It’s a journey through memory, filled with questions that will never have an answer. The name of the project that was selected in 2003 stuck with me. Reflecting Absence. You can breathe absence in the reflecting pools, whereas trees stand as a symbol for life and seem to keep a sacred secret.
In the old seaport, a fleet of historic ships brings us back in time, when the Big Apple thrived on maritime commerce. This lively historic district on the East Side of Lower Manhattan is no longer filled with the hustle and bustle of merchants and sailors, but you can still find the old warehouses turned into flats and shops. In the South Street Seaport Museum there’s a large number of items and documents of the port’s history, but also the old boats. Wandering about, I took Fulton Street and bumped into the Schermerhorn Row block, a series of red brick buildings that once served as warehouse and now is a shopping center.
I like this part of Lower Manhattan. It reminds me of the Titanic survivors disembarking in the Big Apple. It makes me picture a city of old brick houses with outdoor fire escape, a place of so many immigrants’ hopes, plans and dreams. Dream that are also mine.