Our three-year posting to New York from London began in January 2007 and somehow our return ticket has not yet been forthcoming. I have, I hope, already weathered the worst of the storm and am now just swirling around in the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
I suppose I was a rather unsuspecting émigré. My situation made all the more difficult as I was not escaping any hardship nor looking to improve my already happy existence. Apart from a brief visit to this city four months before the move I had no experience of American life except for what now seems to be propaganda put out by the film industry. New York is a city that everyone seems to love… for a long weekend without children. The reality for the real housewife of New York City is far removed.
My husband, our then two-year-old son and I landed at JFK on the 13th January 2007. We were carrying two suitcases jammed with winter clothes and my husband’s suits and a third allocated to toys and books. The picture at immigration was a modern day interpretation of those entering the country via Ellis Island decades before. My son had been sick on the plane and the one thing I had omitted from our hand luggage was a change of clothes. So there we stood, in front of border control, with a young sleepy boy wrapped in a pashmina wearing my socks, and me without socks and my coat buttoned up to the top lest I bear too much. It did cross my mind that we might not pass the initial entry requirements in this guise.
Our temporary home was a three-bedroom apartment in a hotel on West 52nd Street in Manhattan. We were a stone’s-throw from MOMA, The Radio City Music Hall, The Rockefeller Ice Rink and Central Park. The apartment, while having only three bedrooms, had four bathrooms and four televisions but the teeniest of kitchens – a microwave of course – and one saucepan. Despite all the outer walls being windows we only had ten minutes of direct sunlight each morning during which time I would be occupied putting a beaker of milk in the microwave and making tea in our saucepan. If the clock were wound back by three or more years to our pre-child life it would have been a dreamlike situation.
In an attempt to retain some sense of normality, as much for myself as for my young son, we continued in a routine as best we could. One of our bedtime rituals was to gaze out of his bedroom window and I would describe and point out things of interest. On January 12th I had noted the comings and goings in the communal gardens of the flats we backed onto in South East London. We now looked into the emptying offices of the skyscrapers directly in front of us. We watched the cleaning staff beginning their work as the desk workers headed off home. We counted computer terminals and learnt the letters U, B and S. Twenty-six stories below us the Avenue of the Americas stretched out into the distance, as straight as a rule with red and white lights blurring up and down. The cacophony of sirens from emergency vehicles would punctuate the night. It felt, on this first night, as though we had been catapulted into the next century.
We would no longer wave my husband goodbye at our front door in the morning but out on the landing as the elevator doors closed. Inevitably, our son being so little, the elevator button would be repeatedly pressed and my husband would often re-appear moments later for a second farewell having picked up some unsuspecting passengers from one of the twenty floors above us. While my husband went off to the office to earn our keep, my boy and I were charged with finding a proper home. My expectations were not huge. I had requested that our relocation agent select and show us Brownstones in Brooklyn with three bedrooms. A simple task given that parts of Brooklyn are saturated with them. I was however more than taken aback with what we were shown. Even in my student days I had not expected such conditions yet here I was with a young child and good grasp on the bones a house needs in order to be turned into a home.
I would spend these early days with an agent traipsing through the snow pushing a buggy with a cold and generally unwilling child in it. The streets of Brownstone Brooklyn were a sweet relief from our life in Midtown Manhattan. The air gave some indication that we were in a coastal city, the architecture an idea that people had moved here 100 years before us, the blue sky was clearly visible and despite being bitterly cold you could feel the sun on your cheeks. However, it was the pavements that quite literally struck me first: the wheels of my son’s pram kept ramming up against the cracked, uplifted paving. You had to keep one eye on the terrain and another up ahead, ready for any hazards caused by the roots of the very lovely, but unkempt trees that line Brooklyn’s streets. Not only was I new to the city, I was also once again a novice pram pusher.
I also recall being surprised at the decorations which still adorned houses despite being well into January – I even saw the odd frozen pumpkin left over from October. For some households decorations are kept until new ones take their place. Santa Claus can hang around until St Valentine takes the baton. Then St Patrick and all things green appear and are followed at some point by the Easter Bunny and so the festivities roll into each other.
We saw many very undesirable properties. Some were still under renovation, the dust settled and not a construction worker in sight. One had a bedroom that an adult could not stand up straight in – the eternally optimistic agent suggested it could be the child’s room. A particularly memorable one had the washing machine and dryer plumbed in the Master Bedroom. I now realise how fortunate it was that it even offered laundry facilities in a city where the majority still make weekly trips to the Laundromat or send the washing out. We had allowed ourselves what we thought to be a pretty generous housing budget, but my search was arduous. Our expectations really were so far removed from what is readily accepted here.
Luck was not far off and scouring the realty offices by ourselves one day (having explained to our relocator that my son was in need of a day of play and a proper afternoon nap). My small companion and I called into an office to hear that they had one “rather shabby” place we had not yet seen. It dawned on me that what we had been shown so far I had considered shabby and the realtors had not. Therefore, perhaps what they described as shabby was exactly what we were looking for. And it was…