Someone very smart once said that, when you boil things down, the world has only two basic stories: "You go on a journey." Or: "A stranger comes to town."
We travel journalists and travel bloggers are forever writing and re-writing the first kind of story. We do it online and in newspapers and in magazines. We do it until we are blue in the face. And we do it until readers are dozing. Check out this exotic-cool-and-distant destination, we say. Get a load of where I've been.
It's high time, I think, that we stopped forcing everyone to pore over our own vacation albums and, for once, take a peek at theirs. For example, what do tourists from abroad think of traveling here? Are they keen on American food, comfy in our hotels? Do they find it tricky getting around?
Of the millions of overseas visitors who come to the United States annually, most head for California, Florida and New York. Do they think we're friendly -- even in these crowded destinations? Do they like our style? And, oh yeah, the unvarnished truth: Are we Yanks really as loud as some say? And as out of shape?
To help produce some answers, two Londoners on holiday in New York agree to let me trail around with them during a long-weekend February stay. Both in their 50s, Naomi Sutcliffe and her friend, Jayne Steele, are dressed like you'd expect from a pair of mid-level execs: good wool, leather shoes. No sneakers or track suits here.
I meet them outside the lobby of their hotel, the Algonquin on West 44th Street. Sutcliffe is about to take a step off the curb. She's talking and not really looking. It's an icy winter day in New York, and inches in front of her left foot is a frozen slab.
There's an angry-looking line of taxis that's about to blast past. And just as the light starts blinking "Don't Walk, Don't Walk," Sutcliffe is blocked by a guy shouting the words to some song and shoving along a metal handcart.
"Watch it!" warns Steele, snatching her back to the curb in the nick of time.
Sutcliffe and Steele are Englishwomen in New York. And they are intrepid. "I've been feeling the need of a nap at teatime," says Steele, who's now gotten her friend past ice and pushcart and is piloting the way. "But you can't succumb."
As we slide into a booth at the Red Flame Coffee Shop, Sutcliffe and Steele order what they call "big boy American breakfasts." This means stacks of pancakes, syrup -- "maply enough," says Steele, "to be absolutely sure it's real" -- and a supersize plate of bacon. Our bacon, not theirs.
"I quite like American bacon," says Steele to the waitress. "I like mine well done and frizzled." When it comes, it looks like cigarette ash shaped into strips. But there aren't any complaints. "Extra crisp," says the waitress, plopping plates down. Steele pops open a tiny plastic tub of butter and squeals. A pat of Land O' Lakes has shot onto the floor.
"We think American portions are too large," says Steele in the middle of her big boy breakfast. "At the Union Square Cafe on Saturday, I ordered calamari for an appetizer. It was monstrous. It just put you off." Sutcliffe's right on top of this theme. "When I've been to Minneapolis or Chicago, I've avoided steak. You get a slab hanging over the edge of your plate. I'm not surprised there are so many big people out there."
"We call them waddlers," says Steele.
Sutcliffe and Steele have other dining gripes:
- Americans drinking Coke with meals.
- Our fascination with bright orange and fluorescent cocktails (like a vodka and pomegranate juice they saw).
- American waiters grabbing your food away before you're done.
"It's like eating at a trough," notes Steele. "Although we were at the River Cafe in Brooklyn and had something close to a real European meal. They got it right. They even asked if we'd like to have a bit of a break before our pudding."
For illustration of Point No. 3, the waitress flies past and, though we haven't asked, slaps down our bill. "My God, I can't read any of this!" says Steele. Sutcliffe says she'll deal with it and will catch up with us as we walk.
Out into the cold again, Steele looks as if she's trying to retract her head down inside her wool coat. London's average low temperature in February is about 10 degrees balmier than New York's. And today it's down in the teens.
"I'm glad I didn't have to deal with a tip," she says in a muffled voice. "When my husband and I first came to New York, we were at a diner on Lexington. I suppose we didn't get it about tips. Anyway, we didn't leave one. We were chased into the street by an elderly waitress shouting, 'Shame on you! Shame on you!'"
Sutcliffe catches up. We're off to look at paintings. The Museum of Modern Art is packed, and the pictures -- what you can see over people's heads -- pass by in a blur. In fact, some of the paintings are blurs. "Oh, no," says Steele, "around the next corner there's going to be this massive all-white canvas with pink spots."
Neither really minds the crowd. "It's the French and Italians that step in front of you, not Americans so much," notes Sutcliffe.
But some of the museum's more experimental works of art don't impress. We stop in front of Philip Guston's "Moon." It appears to show a mound of scattered garbage or possibly a close-up battle scene.
"I don't like the dismembered bits at the bottom," says Sutcliffe.
"Also," says Steele, "it looks like there are bugs in it."
TO BE CONTINUED...
Peter Mandel is an author of picture books for kids, including his read-aloud bestseller: Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook), and his newest about zoo animals passing on a very noisy sneeze: Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House).