America – YEAH!

Well, I’ve just got back from an amazing two weeks in the USA!

I’d never been there before, so when I got an invite to Emma McNeil’s (now Patterson!) wedding to Gerald in North Carolina, I decided that it’d be really cool to be there for that, and also to discover a bit of America at the same time!

I flew out from Manchester Airport on Tuesday 7th, and got on the plane around lunchtime, but not before being selected for a security check as I was boarding!  I guess it was because I was travelling on my own, but it’s funny how you start to feel guilty when you’ve not actually got anything to hide!  About 8 hours later I made it into Newark Airport – and it was really weird being able to see such iconic views as the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty as we came in to land!  After a bit of a delay waiting for my next flight to Greensboro, I finally boarded what can only be described as a coach with wings!  It was a 50-seater, small 2-engine plane, that was incredibly narrow with just 3 seats across, and an aisle separating one of those!  It was a bit of a bumpy journey – I’m not the most experienced flier, so it doesn’t take too much to make me a bit nervous! But we eventually landed safely at Greensboro airport quite late, although my awareness of time was a bit screwy due to the time difference!

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After getting through the airport, I met up with Emma and her mum, as well as her brother and his family who’d also just flown in, before picking up the car I was hiring for my time in North Carolina. It was a little automatic Chevrolet, and I then had to follow them back to her apartment on the other side of the city – which considering I’d only driven on the right-hand side once before in 1997, and this time it was also dark, it was quite an experience! I was actually quite relieved it was an automatic because it meant I didn’t have to worry about changing gear with the wrong hand!

After spending an hour or so at Emma’s catching up, I then drove back to the hotel I was booked into (although getting slightly lost onthe way there!), and even though I didn’t get to bed until about 1am, I annoyingly woke up three hours later because my body-clock was still on UK-time!

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Next day I didn’t really do that much – I went back to Emma’s and just chilled out with her family, as well as doing a little bit of shopping in Greensboro, and I thought that it was quite funny that I kept getting comments on my accent. In Harris Teeter (a kind-of Sainsburys but with less choice!) the woman on the till said she loved my English accent so much that she gave me a re-usable bag for free and a members’ discount on my shopping! And then when I went to buy some trainers, the cashier thought that I was Australian! I’m guessing they’ve never actually heard a real Ozzie accent then! It’s quite mad, because I don’t think I have much of an accent at all – they were the ones who were talking funny…

On Thursday, I finally got to meet Gerald and his son Josh when we all headed over to a shopping mall in Winston-Salem for the wedding party’s suit fittings.  It took quite a while to sort it all out, and afterwards all the blokes went for a meal at Ruby Tuesday, which reminded me a bit of TGI Fridays (and not just because of them having days of the week in their names!)

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Then on the Friday I decided to drive down to Charlotte in the south of North Carolina, which was about 100 miles from Greensboro. It was a pretty straightforward journey down the Interstate and I arrived there late morning.

Charlotte’s a really cool place – load of public art dotted around the city, and home to two great museums – the MINT and the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art – both of which I had a look around, and I actually felt pretty cultured doing it!  Architecturally both buildings are really bold and interesting designs, and I did find most of the stuff on display really good, although a few pieces of the modern art did go over my head a bit!

For lunch I ended up in a takeaway place called Bojangles – I’d seen them advertise on local TV quite a lot with typically-crazy commercials that you seem to get there – and had spicy fried chicken and what they call a scratch biscuit. I’d not seen them before,  but basically it was a bit like having a savoury scone along with your chicken, which was a bit weird!

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I then drove back up to Greensboro where Emma and Gerald were having a bit of a pre-wedding gathering with a load of their friends, and consisted of food with a couple of speeches and just general mingling!

Then the next morning, it was time for the wedding!

The service was held at Magnolia Street Baptist Church in Greensboro, and I had to get there in plenty of time because I’d agreed to video the day for them, although the kit I was using wasn’t to my usual standard!  I’d taken my mum’s small HD camcorder with me, and also borrowed a cheap NTSC DV camera from one of Emma’s friends, and also filmed a bit of video on my stills camera! Not sure how well it will all cut together, but it was the best I could do really!

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It was a really nice service – and since I was videoing it, I was up on a balcony overlooking it all. Apparently, it was different to a normal American wedding because they’d incorporated some British stuff into it, which also meant it was longer than people would be used to, but to me I didn’t really notice much different to weddings I’ve been to before.

Then after all the photos were done on the steps outside the church, it was off to the reception which was quite different to what you’d get in the UK!

For a start, the layout of the tables was very different. Whereas here we have a top table where the bride and groom sit with the best man and the families, here there was just a small table at the front where just Emma and Gerald sat, with everyone else just spread over tables around the room.

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And the wedding breakfast was exactly that! It was a buffet with a selection of cooked stuff like waffles, hash browns, bacon and scrambled eggs, as well as fruit which you had to put on the same plate! That’s not right!! Also, I don’t get the obsession with pouring maple syrup over a cooked breakfast – I made sure I gave that a miss!  But it was a good meal apart from that!

Then there were speeches as well as cutting the cake, and that’s something else they don’t normally have in the US – traditional wedding cake. As a back-up they had some kind of sponge cake for the less adventurous!

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It was all wrapped up by about 4 o’clock, so after nipping back to the hotel to get changed, I headed back to Emma’s apartment to spend the evening with her family (Emma and Gerald were staying at a hotel somewhere in Greensboro and are taking a proper honeymoon later), and we watched a DVD and ate takeaway… I went out and bought some food from Chick-fil-A, which is just like KFC but without the good old Colonel! Actually, they also didn’t have gravy either which was a big disappointment!

Sunday morning, and I decided to go over to Winston-Salem which is the next big city to Greensboro, about 30 miles west. Emma’s church is there – Morningstar Winston-Salem – and I’d met a few people from there over the last few days, so thought I’d check it out, even though Emma herself wouldn’t be there.

When I arrived, there weren’t many people there at all, but it soon filled up. It wasn’t being held in its usual place – for some reason they were in the Millennium Center in downtown Winston-Salem.  I sat near to some other visitors, so had something in common with them(!), but Emma’s friend Wendy (who I’d met at the wedding) came over to say ‘hi’ so I didn’t feel a total loner!  That morning they’d got a few guests doing stuff in the meeting- the music was by a visiting couple who I’m assuming did quite a few of their own songs, and I didn’t recognise any of them at all! As well as that, they had a visiting speaker – Bob Jones – who I’d heard of, but don’t really know much about other than he has links with Morningstar, and some of the guys from Reach met him in America on a trip a few years ago. To be honest, I didn’t really connect with him at all… I found his manner a bit weird, and some of the stuff he was saying and got people to do I very much disagreed with, so that was slightly awkward!  But apart from that, I was glad that I made the effort to go!

Then on the evening, I went to the cinema with Emma, Gerald and all of Em’s family to go and see the new Narnia film – Voyage of the Dawntreader.  It was alright, but deviated from the book a little bit, and just didn’t have the epic scale it really should have with the story that it’s taken from.  Not sure whether they’ll continue to make the rest of the series because I can’t imagine this one will do that well to be honest.  Afterwards, I went back to Emma’s for a short while, before heading back to the hotel to grab a meal in the bar, and then sorted out my packing and tried to get an early-ish night.

So Monday morning, I said goodbye to North Carolina and hello to New York City!

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I got into Newark Airport around lunchtime, and took an Amtrak train into Penn Station on Manhattan, where I then took a subway train to 51st street where my hotel was.  I stayed at The Pod Hotel – a really cool and relatively cheap hotel which was walking distance from most of the main places in central Manhattan.  It was pretty basic, and there was a shared bathroom, but it was really modern and clean, with a TV and sink, and to be honest you don’t spend that much time in there!

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After dumping my bags, I set out for a bit of a wander to check out the city.  It was so cool being there in the run up to Christmas because the place felt really festive.  I went up by the Rockerfeller Center where they’d installed an ice-rink beneath a massive Christmas tree, and then made my way to Times Square and Broadway. It’s so crazy actually visiting somewhere that you’ve seen on countless films and TV shows, and it was so buzzing and hectic there, but in a really good way!  It even started to snow later on in the evening as I was making my way back to the hotel, although there wasn’t really enough of it to settle, but it really added to the Christmassy vibe.

Next day, I decided that I needed to be a proper tourist, so I bought a ticket to go to the ‘Top Of The Rock‘ – the observation deck on the 70th floor of the Rockefeller Building.

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The view was absolutely amazing… you could see for miles, and one of the advantages of going up the Rockefeller instead of the Empire State Building, is that you actually get to see the Empire State Building on the New York skyline!

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It was so windy and cold up there – around the edges you could see snow that had collected and not melted away, but the view of the city totally made up for that!

Before that, I went exploring more of midtown Manhattan, and came across Grand Central Station which is just an amazing building – I don’t think any railway stations in the UK quite match it for its grandeur!  And then in the evening, I went to see ‘The Addams Family‘ at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway, and it was an excellent show!  I’ve since discovered that most of the reviews by critics in New York have been pretty negative about it, but I can’t understand why!  It was a fun show, beautifully staged, brilliantly acted and sung by the whole cast, and the audience reaction was amazing. I overheard people around me saying it was one of the best shows they’d seen on Broadway, so it makes you wonder what planet reviewers are on sometimes!  The girl playing Wednesday (Krysta Rodriguez) was particularly outstanding – she had a beautiful voice, and it helped that she looked pretty good too!

Then on Wednesday, I started the day with a tour of the NBC studios. It was really interesting seeing around some of the studios, but it was quite funny the way the tour guide would tell us we were standing in a particular studio where some presenter does the news or a talk show, and everyone would get really excited, whereas I had no idea of who they were talking about!  I was more interested in the kit they were using in there!

After that, I took the subway down to the south of Manhattan to look around Battery Park and the financial district.  I visited Ground Zero and saw the site of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.  It’s pretty much hidden from view, but I managed to get on a raised walkway to get a better view of the area, and could just about see the new layout.  It’s crazy to think that’s where the attacks happened back in 2001, and I guess it will always have that day associated with it.

Then in the afternoon, I took a boat trip to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. I’d managed to get a ticket to go all the way up to the crown of the Statue of Liberty – apparently only 250 people a day are able to go all the way to the top, and often have to book months in advance, whereas I bought my ticket the day before and managed to get a cancellation!

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You have to walkup the whole way – there is a lift to the top of the plinth, but they don’t let you use it if you have a crown ticket because you have to be physically fit to be able to climb the 354 steps to the top – equivalent to a 20-storey building!

It was quite a strenuous climb, the majority of it on a spiral staircase that goes up through the body of the statue.  You can see the interior of the copper body-shape, and you really do get a sense of how high up you are as you’re climbing. I’m not too bad with heights generally, but there were moments on the way up when I did freeze a little bit, because the staircase was so narrow, and you knew there was no turning back!  But when I eventually got to the top, the view from the windows in the crown was stunning – it’s just a shame it doesn’t actually point directly back to the skyline of Manhattan because then the view would then be perfect!

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After walking all the way back down (and spending about 10 minutes trying to get my breath back!), I got onto another boat and made my way over to Ellis Island which is where the immigrants wanting to get into America arrived in the first half of the 20th century.  I could just feel the history of the place as I stood in the Great Hall, where people would have queued up to try and get into the country, being able to see the skyline of Manhattan out of the big arched windows running down the side of the room. The museum was really interesting as well, and really captured the sense of those times.  Then, as the sun was setting, I took the ferry back towards Manhattan, and the view of the skyline lit up was amazing.

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For my last evening in New York, I met up with Dan – an old mate that I used to work with back at MUTV years ago. He works as a cameraman for ITN, and is based in New York along with a reporter producing content for ‘Daybreak’ on ITV. We grabbed a coffee in Starbucks, and then he showed me round the studio where they broadcast from inside the Reuters building, which has a great backdrop overlooking the neon and bright lights of Times Square. It was really great to catch up – it must be nine years since we worked together, though we have kind of kept in touch on Facebook over the last few years!

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Then, on my final day I got up early and took a walk up to Central Park, just to say I’d been there! It’s amazing that there’s such an expanse of space with grass and trees amongst such a build up area, and I only managed to see a fraction of it in the time I had. Then at lunchtime, I checked out of my hotel and made my way back to Newark airport for the long journey home.

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It was a fantastic couple of weeks and I definitely want to go back sometime soon and experience much more of New York, and the USA in general! Anyone want to come with me…?

Check out all the photos I took in North Carolina and New York on Facebook – here and here.

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