North America

Mary Beth has become a very special friend. She was a close friend of Mark’s in college but I’ve only gotten to know her well in the last couple of years. On top of this visit through Central Park she & Sven had us out to dinner at their house in the ‘burbs twice. That alone is a good reason to move to New York!

Two weeks in New York City – it sounds like a dream come true. And that’s pretty much what it was; we loved our time there. Great food, great friends, great neighborhoods, great parks, great weather (some of the time), and, as befits Manhattan, great Perfect Manhattans.

All of which is a good thing, as we’re pretty serious now about buying a place there later in the year. We’re pretty much booked solid until early September – 10 or 11 weeks in Africa and then six weeks in Europe – but after that it feels increasingly likely that we will go back to New York and start looking seriously for a place to buy.

Why New York? This shot of Central Park on a perfect spring morning is one good answer.

First we had to get to New York from Boston, so naturally we bought tickets on Acela, the “high-speed” train up the northeast corridor. There was part of the trip that impressed me: the train left exactly on time and was pretty comfortable. I had been expecting the worst, so that was a good sign. The crazy thing about it, though, is that while the train is capable of going up to maybe 180 miles per hour, it only hits that speed briefly. And as you start to get near New York it just crawls, for something like an hour or so. This is the best we can do in the U.S. for high-speed rail and in that sense it’s pathetic.

These two-plus months we’ve spent in the States have made it clear to both of us that we’re ready to be closer to family and friends and ready to slow down the travel. We’ve both noticed over the last year or so that some of the magic has gone out of traveling; that we’re just not as excited about the next new adventure, that we’re more likely to be lazy in a new place than to go out and explore. And if you’re going to have a home in the U.S., wouldn’t it just have to be in Manhattan? After you’ve seen the world, anywhere else just feels a bit boring.

Thus we spent a big chunk of our two weeks working with a real estate agent to figure out what we like, what we need, what we can afford, and – crucially – what neighborhood or neighborhoods we want to live in. Going into this exercise I had assumed that we were wide open in terms of location, anything from Tribeca or even Battery Park in the south to the Upper West Side or Upper East Side in the North. After doing some serious explorations we came to realize that Tribeca is just too far south and the Upper East & West Sides, even Midtown, are just too far north. Now we’re much more focused on Soho, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and the Flatiron district. Downtown, but not way downtown. That’s important to figure out.

That’s me with Mara, our real estate agent, in the master bathroom of one unit we looked at. You can see from the raincoats that the spring weather in New York isn’t always perfect.

I should note that working with a real estate agent in New York is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. First of all, your tour is a walking tour. None of this driving around from property to property; the agent identifies eight or nine properties in one area and you hoof from one to the next. Given New York traffic, of course, that makes perfect sense; there’s no way you could reasonably drive around and it would be utterly impossible to park if you did. And on top of that, the agents know everything about the neighborhood, the history, the building, and even some of the other owners. Our agent was recommended by a friend in Miami Beach who is also a real estate agent and, it turns out, Mara knows pretty much everything you could ever know about real estate in these neighborhoods. We would mention some property that we’d seen online and she would immediately explain why that one wouldn’t work for us. And now that she’s got us figured out she will spend her summer finding our dream home while we’re traipsing around Africa and Europe. Not a bad deal!

Besides house hunting, it goes without saying that there’s a lot to do in New York. First of all we walked. And walked and walked and walked. And walked. My Apple Watch tracks steps you take and translates that into distance; over the 14 days we were there I walked just over 170 miles, so well over 12 miles a day. Much of the purpose for that walking was to figure out the city, where the neighborhoods and “feel” of the city change, and all that. But then there was also long walks along the Hudson River parkway, walks up into and through Central Parks, walks to dinner, walks over both the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges. So yeah, walking and walking and walking.

Walking in New York in May means lots and lots of blooms. The weather can be cold and dreary but when the sun comes out and the blossoms open up it can be glorious.

Then there’s the whole business of finding the right hotel. Mark does a lot of research on this stuff and given the insane prices of New York hotels we chose the Algonquin, a classic old Manhattan landmark up near the theater district that was less crazy expensive than others. There were only a few problems with it. The location was wrong for us, as we increasingly realized we didn’t want to be that far north. On top of that the hotel was pretty run down, very much tattered around the edges. The windows in our room were simply the dirtiest windows I’ve ever seen in my life. One of the two elevators was shut down for repairs the entire time we were there, meaning that everyone – staff included – was limited to a single elevator; waiting times were sometimes significant. And that was before Mark got up early on our fourth morning to go down for coffee and discovered that the remaining elevator was out of order, too. So there we are on the 12th floor – the top floor – with no working elevator whatsoever.

Actually, it was a blessing; there was no way the hotel management could deny our request to cancel the remainder of our reservation and move to a new hotel. This time we moved way downtown to Public, a new and very buzzy hotel developed by Ian Schrager in the Lower East Side, right near Soho. Much nicer but not really worth the money we were paying and this time too far south. In this case we only reserved four nights and then decided to move up to the W Hotel at Union Square, and that turned out to be perfect. Nice hotel and great location; I really loved being right next to Union Square, so it was just what we needed. And as a bonus on our last day there, just before heading to the airport to catch our flight to Africa, there was a big union rally at Union Square. And as we walked past it I looked up and realized that just then the speaker was no less than Gov. Cuomo. I’m not his biggest fan but I kind of worshipped his father, so it was still pretty cool.

Wayne Brady, the star of Kinky Boots, after finishing his last performance. And we were right in the front row to drink it all in.

And there are shows to go to. On our first night in the city we had dinner with our old graduate school classmate Ajay and his family. Ajay is a native New Yorker and knows pretty much everything that’s going on; he suggested we go to Kinky Boots, the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Musical. But, he noted, we had to go soon because after a couple years the lead, Wayne Brady, was ending his run. We got tickets for two nights later and there we were in the front row for his very last performance. It was a great performance and you could easily see why it would win a Tony. A week later, this time at the suggestion of Mary Beth, we got tickets to The Play that Goes Wrong. This was a crazy slapstick comedy that normally wouldn’t be the right cup of tea for either of us but it was genuinely a riot. As Mark put it, the sillier it got the funnier it was. After those two experiences our thought was that once we move here (if we move here…) we’re going to see a lot of plays.

Mary Beth and Sven invited us to a dinner party for 12 out in New Rochelle. Sven in particular is a genuinely accomplished chef and the meal was incredible. Here he is building the salad course plate by plate, literally one piece of lettuce at a time. Wow.

And on top of all that lots and lots of friends. Dinner parties out in New Rochelle with our friends Mary Beth and Sven, with whom we’ve spent time in Italy. Lunch and dinner and walks with Ajay and Ann and little Lucia. Dinner in Brooklyn with Monica and Esha, two former VAN staffers both of whom now work for a nonprofit that was holding an all-staff meeting there. Another dinner in Brooklyn with an old friend from my tax policy days. After dinner drinks with our friend Dan, also in town for work. Dinner and drinks with Les, an old friend of Mark’s from college. Even a quick photo op with a friend/former staffer who I just ran into in Central Park, the first time in five-plus years on the road when we’ve just run into someone unexpectedly. When we first started talking about getting a permanent home again I suggested that we move to someplace where we have family or friends: DC, Boston, Minnesota, Michigan. Maybe even San Francisco. Mark explained that if we have a place in New York people would come to us and this two-week social whirlwind suggests maybe he’s right.

Apropos of nothing in particular, you always need a cat picture, right? She was the house cat at the Algonquin Hotel, our first stay, and the only redeeming quality of the hotel.

Two strange observations about New York City. First, while it’s known as “the city that doesn’t sleep,” we were more likely to think of it as the city that doesn’t get up. For most of our stay breakfast wasn’t included with our room so we’d go out hunting for breakfast. Not crazy early but like 8:00 AM or a little later. We’d seen one restaurant at night that advertised breakfast so we went there only to discover they don’t open until 9:00. For breakfast! Another restaurant was supposed to open at 8:00 but when we got there at 8:05 they explained they wouldn’t open for another 15 minutes “or so.” Crazy.

And then there’s this thing where at least some of the hotels seem to be making their lobbies into hangout lounges for college-age kids and their laptops. We saw it first at the Ace Hotel where we had lunch; the lobby was just packed with kids, coffee, and laptops. Later, when we checked into Public for four nights the lobby was again a lively, buzzing place. I can’t believe that many 20-somethings were shelling out that kind of money for a hotel. But I suppose from the hotel’s perspective if you take what is usually a big empty space and fill it with life – and sell some coffee on the side – that’s not a bad thing.

So now we’re done with the States for a few months at least. First Africa, then Europe. I think it will feel good to go somewhere exotic again. And if Africa isn’t exotic, nothing is.

Time with friends: out to dinner with Ajay & Lucia on our first night in New York

Later in the week we walked across the Williamsburg Bridge with Ajay, mostly just because walking in New York is so cool

Dinner in Brooklyn one night with Esha, who had a great run working at NGP VAN until just recently she took a new position

We didn’t get all four of us in one picture, but Monica – another former staffer – was there for dinner too. Neither Esha nor Monica live in New York – they were in town for a work meeting – but as Mark assures me, if you live in New York you’ll see your old friends because everyone comes through at one point or another.

Speaking of old friends, I was walking through Central Park and heard someone call my name. At first I almost didn’t recognize Benjy; when we hired him some years ago he was too young to drink legally and now he’s all grown up with a beard and everything. And yes, after five years on the road this was the first time outside of Boston that we just randomly ran into someone from our old life!

One night we learned that our friend Dan was in town for work, so we met him at the Blue Bar for a late after-dinner drink. Can’t for the life of me figure out why it was called the Blue Bar.

But no, this wasn’t called the Red Bar. That’s another old college friend, Les, who has lived here for nearly 30 years. It would be great to live near him, too.

One last fun friend to visit. Jennifer is another NGP VAN staff, a woman I hired more than 10 years ago. These days she lives on Long Island and works remotely, so she came into town on Saturday for brunch with us.

Looking for property was our top priority so when we just happened on this building it got our hearts racing. A boarded up building suggest someone is going to renovate it, we thought. That’s our perfect scenario where we can get in at the start, as we did in Cambridge, and design our own space. I suspect there aren’t a lot of people who would walk past this and say “My dream house!”, but that’s what we’re looking for. Sadly, Mara said that it’s highly likely a developer has air rights for this and the neighboring building (also boarded up); they’re likely planning to tear it down and put up a big glass building in its place.

We also toured a couple of those big towers that are still under construction. Again, the opportunity to design our own space in something like this is pretty appealing, too.

This was one of our favorites, a good-sized unit in a classic old department store building. If we were ready to pull the trigger (we’re not) it would have been really tempting to put an offer on this one, the top floor on the right, including that turret as a great sitting room.

One more of our favorites. This was a nice unit on 5th Avenue down in the Flatiron district. High ceilings, tall windows, on a corner so lots of windows. And if that wasn’t enough, immediately above a Banana Republic!

Yet another unit we looked at had this great view of a very French building right across the street. This would be the view from the bathtub!

There are lots of townhouses available and while we’re not likely to want one – we’re not crazy about that kind of vertical living – we toured this one. Someone already has all the plans to turn this into something fabulous, including making this into a roof deck. That’s Mara, our real estate agent, poking her head up into the space.

Admiring the classic architecture is always a highlight of New York. Here we, have the Flatiron Building, One World Trade Center (sometimes known as Freedom Tower), and the Empire State Building.

The World Trade Center Transportation Hub, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Among other works, we’ve enjoyed, even been amazed by, his Turning Torso in Malmö and the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia.

Hudson Yards isn’t yet a New York landmark, but it will be. It’s a massive development $20 billion project at the end of the High Line (our favorite elevated park outside of Paris) that will add 16 skyscrapers and nearly 13 million square feet of office, retail, and residential space to the city. Wow.

Speaking of landmarks, here we are walking across the Brooklyn Bridge for dinner over there with our friend Jean

Then I turned around and Mark took this shot with the downtown skyline behind me

Speaking of the High Line, we walked on it a couple of times during our stay. This is the very beginning, approaching the Standard hotel. While the building is really not aging well, the High Line certainly is. The trees and plantings and flowers and all are so much bigger and more lush than they were when we first saw it maybe eight years ago.

Another shot on the High Line, here with Hudson Yards looming

One more shot from the High Line. This is a new residential project by Zaha Hadid, a Iraqi-British architect who died two years ago. The building is cool, but a number of the units just open up right next to the High Line. Not a place for someone who likes a little bit of privacy.

Along with the High Line and Central Park I’ve come to love a great bicycle and pedestrian parkway along the Hudson River. It runs from Battery Park at the very southern tip of Manhattan a long way up the west side of the island. Here I am on a gorgeous spring afternoon lying on Pier 45, and old work space they’ve turned into a thriving park.

Mark showing off some of the cherry blossoms bursting out

I was dressed perhaps somewhat more appropriately to show off another cherry tree

Here Mark is sitting at Piccolo Cucina, a Soho restaurant that TripAdvisor made sound good. Instead it was great – a perfect afternoon when we got there at exactly the right second to get one of only two outdoor tables. And half the people around us were speaking Italian, making it feel pretty authentic. On top of all that I just loved the view of those very New York buildings behind him.

A week after the big dinner party Sven & Mary Beth invited us out for a quiet family dinner of lamb burgers. Always the chef, Sven insists on grinding leg of lamb himself since nothing else would do, of course.

Mary Beth came into the city one afternoon just to play with us

One walk took me through Chinatown. The whole street scene and all that really felt like I was in China.

Chinatown has almost completely swallowed up Little Italy (the Italians moved to the suburbs). Perhaps you have to have spent time around all the spitting in China to appreciate this sign on Columbus Park.

Brunch with Randi & Dara – nothing but fun!

I guess when you live somewhere for the better part of 18 years you end up with a lot of friends to see on your return visits. After our Duluth-to-Key West road trip – and after passing from late winter in Duluth to summer in Florida – we flew north to Boston. And almost back to winter, it seemed, with temperatures in the upper 30s on our first day back. Soon though the weather perked up, spring sprang, and we were into a whirlwind of lunch and dinner visits.

The Charles River and Boston’s Back Bay on my first walk into Cambridge. The weather was cold and clammy.

By Saturday the weather had turned glorious and stayed that way the rest of our visit. Who ever heard of the weather turning from cold and wet on Friday to perfect for the whole weekend?

Although Mark was almost dreading the visit – too much scheduled, too many friends to see – it turned out to be wonderful. On our first afternoon in town we checked into the W in Boston’s Theater District and quickly headed to our old office in Somerville. It was a long walk but of course filled with memories. Then it was time to do a little visiting in the office – they continue to expand and have done a much better job than I ever did of insisting the landlord fix things up a bit – and off to Happy Hour with a bunch of the senior staff with whom we used to work. Mark & I both had a great time catching up with people and we had to almost be dragged away to have dinner with our friends Marc & David.

The one regret about the visit is that too often we forgot to get pictures with our friends. We were so busy talking during Happy Hour, for instance, neither of us took a single picture. Then out to dinner with Marc & David and we had so much fun we forgot to take a single picture. (Of course, we’ve traveled with them in Corsica, the former Yugoslavia, and the Dolomites, so there are plenty of pictures of them elsewhere on the blog….) And we didn’t always learn our lessons well; we had lunch late in our stay with friends Janet & Gavin … and no pictures. And then even when we tried it didn’t always work out: we had dinner one night with Deborah & Andy, great friends from graduate school and the pictures were just too dark and blurry to use.

Shayna & I toasting to our return

Whether or not there were pictures, though, it was so much fun to reconnect with so many friends over a few days. Just like our experiences earlier during this trip home in Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota I really get the sense that if I have this much fun visiting with old friends and family, maybe we should spend more time in the States and even get a place to live. So after a week of house hunting in Miami Beach from here we’re going to New York City for two weeks to figure out if that’s where we want to live.

In the office with Torvic & Mark. Long ago we started “decorating” our office with campaign signs from the various clients. Here you can see a sign for Sen. Harry Reid, one of our very first clients; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada; and Marcony, successful candidate for School Committee in the city of Everett. Oh, and he’s also the husband of Mark (in the middle), head of client support.

Here I am with little Victoria, our newest friend

And here we are with Victoria and her parents Alex & Vlad. They made lunch for us and Victoria had the good sense to sleep through most of it so we could chat at length but then woke up long enough to utterly charm us.

Another photo from brunch with Randi & Dara

Dinner with John & Shayna. We hired John initially as a summer intern when he was in college. We recruited him back when he graduated … and now he’s the #2 guy in the company. That’s a pretty nice success story.

Our final dinner with Marcony, Amanda, Mark, and Roger. The four of them make Mark & I seem like political neophytes….

On one of my long walks I decided to walk past most of the places we lived over our total of 18 years in Cambridge

When I worked in downtown Boston we would sometimes go to the Barking Crab after work. Back then it was this isolated crab shack on the edge of downtown; popular, but really on the edge of things. Today there is an enormous amount of development in the area – much of it guided by urban development planning done by our friend Alex; true – and now that funky little place I used to hang out is surrounded by giant new buildings.

Spring burst out all over during our five days in Boston

I used to love forsythia season

You have to love Boston in the spring

And a farewell to Boston with a view of my favorite spot in the city, the Public Garden. I’ve long thought of this as the most beautiful urban spot in the country and after this weekend I’m more convinced than ever.

Who says we’re too cool to be total tourists? Here we are at the southernmost point in the continental U.S., closer to Havana than to Miami. Mark’s not certain, but he thinks there’s a very similar picture of his mother here … from a time when she was considerably younger than we are now!

It’s hard to believe that for all our travels over many years, neither Mark nor I have ever been to Key West. A prime tourist destination in general and one of the great gay destinations on earth … and we’d never been there. A big part of that is that we love Miami Beach so much that when we were working and had a few days off, that’s where we’d head.

So as we started thinking of this U.S. journey and had the brilliant idea of a road trip, we figured Key West should be our ultimate destination. After our week in Miami Beach, then, we picked up a new car for the five-hour drive south. The drive itself was fun; little towns, lots of water, a nice lunch stop at Chef Michael’s in Islamorada, just feeling more and more remote. And then we were in Key West.

Santiago’s Bodega was a big hit with us. Off the main drag, small plates, absolutely great food, and cold rosé: as good as it gets.

After all the years of hearing how great it is my reaction to Key West was … it’s OK. There’s pretty architecture. Some interesting history. A great climate; in April at least the weather was spectacular. Fun people watching. As with our experience in Savannah I love the fact that they’re not freaked out or prudes about alcohol. One night we stopped with a friend for a drink but didn’t really have enough time before our dinner reservation. No problem: the bartender just poured our drinks into plastic cups and off we went.

Mark made an interesting observation on our first day in Key West. He was walking up the main street at maybe 5 PM and it was incredibly lively with the bars full and people having loads of fun. “Wow,” he thought, “this is a lively town!” Maybe an hour later, though, he was walking back toward the hotel and it was vastly more subdued. The end of happy hour maybe? Nope – they had all been ashore from one of the two cruise boats in town and were now back onboard for dinner. In other words the evenings in Key West, in April at least, were a lot calmer than late afternoons.

Speaking of drinks, here’s something to love about being in the U.S.: diet sodas. I know, the artificial sweetener isn’t healthy. But then, neither is sugar. In the rest of the world you can’t get diet mixers, so a lot of mixed drinks are off-limits to us. There’s nowhere else in the world where I can get a gin & diet tonic, but that’s not hard in the U.S. And in Key West they even had diet ginger beer, meaning that we could have sugar-free Dark & Stormies. While walking down the street to dinner. I was in heaven!

Walking down the street finishing your drink? I like that. On the other hand, you can go too far with all that free and easy liberalism. Walking down Duval Street, the main street in Key West, there was a sign for a bar called Garden of Eden. And the Garden of Eden was described as a “clothing optional” bar. I just have to say, given what I saw walking down the streets of Key West clothing should most definitely NOT be optional.

The tropical climate is certainly a highlight here

How did we spend our time in Key West? We spent part of it with Jim Marzilli, an old friend from Boston who had moved to St. Petersburg but came down to visit for a couple days. It was good to catch up and share a few meals (and maybe a couple of drinks…).

Our old friend Jim Marzilli looking as though he belongs in Key West

There were two great sites for us to visit. First up was Harry Truman’s second White House, an old Navy station where he could use the base commander’s house and have both the freedom and security he needed; he spent nearly six months over the course of his seven-plus years as president there. Truman has a special place in my life: I paid for two years of college and one year of graduate school as a Truman Scholar. And then there was the whole Navy connection in the house, so I really enjoyed the tour.

Next up was the Ernest Hemingway House. Hemingway lived here, in the best house on the island for nine years. And while that wasn’t such a huge portion of his live the tour guide says that he wrote some two-thirds of his books here. I’ll admit: I’ve never been such a big fan of his novels. Maybe it’s just that I find him to be such a jerk, and I know I’m not supposed to say it, but I’m just not a fan. On the other hand his house was interesting on its own and then there were the cats. Dozens of them roaming around, most with six toes on at least one of their paws (polydactyl cats, as we learned). What’s not to like about a big beautiful house with dozens of cats?

You’re not allowed to pick the cats up but petting is permitted. So yes, there was a lot of petting going on.

I had expected that one of the main activities on Key West would be the beach, but no so much as it turns out. We spent a couple hours on Smathers Beach, half a mile long and supposedly the nicest public beach on the island. Obviously we’ve gotten spoiled but the beach itself wasn’t that nice. And the water was kind of dingy. And not that warm or deep.

So there you have it. Key West is a good place to drink, a fun place to admire the architecture, and a great place to enjoy summer weather when it’s not yet summer in the rest of the country. Next time we come to Florida though we’re stopping at Miami Beach. That’s heaven.

I spent part of one afternoon at the beach on my own and when I’m alone I head to the most remote spot I can find and make myself comfortable in the sand. This was nice but the tide was low and the water itself was kind of icky.

Key West architecture

Another shot

Hemingway’s kitchen. We’re hoping to do better in our next house.

An attractive fountain in Hemingway’s garden used to provide water to the cats. Somewhat less attractive, though, when we learned that the white basin is actually an old urinal from one of Hemingway’s favorite bars.

I wasn’t crazy about the beach but there were certainly some beautiful vistas in Key West