City Trips, Housesitting, Tips, Travels
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Christmas in New York

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fter a few months in South America, we were now on the road for a little more than a year and another Christmas was coming up. As last year, we really felt like a cozy Christmas break, where we could stock up on some Christmas cheer and where the two of us could celebrate the holidays in a more homey atmosphere. We chose to do a housesit again, but not just any housesit. Last year we spent our time around the christmas tree in Hong Kong (read about it here) and this year we wanted to find something as memorable.

In the meantime we had travelled intensively in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile and we felt like it was time to leave South America. These countries offer so many stunning sights and experiences that we decided to move on before we started to be too numbed down to appreciate it fully. An extreme case of a luxury problem, we know, but we like to keep our travels challenging and we also have to leave something to come back to. So this time too we quite suddenly decided to move on to something completely different, taking more than a few suitcases of beautiful memories, stunning pictures and dreamy travel plans to further explore South and Central America in the future. Looking back on it, this could even be framed as a sensible decision, as the (at the time still pretty unknown) Zika epidemic might have caught up with us. We will post our South American stories in the months to come.

But where did we decide to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s? A city that breathes Christmas and in which many dream to one day kick off the New Year: NEW YORK!! A few days before Christmas we arrived in Lima, Peru to fly out (very cheaply) to New York on December 23rd. Only on the bus to Lima, it started to dawn on us that three months in South America were coming to an end and the heaps of Christmas presents being loaded into the bus finally made us realise that Christmas was just around the corner. We had seen the Christmas decorations here and there of course, but with the hot and sunny weather, the true spirit of Christmas felt far off. During our grocery shopping in Lima, where everybody was sprinting around to do some last minute Christmas shopping, accompanied by the most sugary sweet Mariah Carey-Witney Houston Christmas mix, it all started to fall into place. These diva’s can sure hit a christmassy chord, when you are far away from home. While seeing the Panettone’s fly by at the cashier’s register, we had to suppress a sudden feeling of home sickness. It was Christmas and again we would be far away from family and friends. It is amazing what “All I want for Christmas” can do to you in a crowded Peruvian supermarket. But we didn’t have much time to think about it. We had to pack our backpacks for the flight and after eating some great ceviche, another adventure was about to start.

We didn’t just fly from South to North, we also flew to another season altogether.  We left sunny summer and traded it for snowy winter. Or at least that is what we thought. Arriving on the 24th of December we still saw people walking around in shorts and flip flops and we could do without a jacket. Where was the white Christmas in New York? Apparently it had some delay this year.

Our housesit was in Hoboken. There are some critics that claim that Hoboken, being on the wrong side of the Hudson, has nothing to do with New York, but we disagree. You have more of those original brownstone houses with Christmassy decorated stone staircases on which Miss Bradshaw wore down many a beautiful shoe than in most of Manhattan. And this side of the Hudson has by far the better view on the Manhattan skyline. Furthermore, you have cozy streets, small family owned businesses, an exceptional local butcher, antique bakers, tons of excellent deli’s and more peace and quiet and square meters for less money. We think it is a sure win, and you are as quickly in Midtown as people from the fancy Upper East Side.

Our little apartment for the holidays is super cozy and even has an authentic brown stone interior wall. On top of that it comes with the most adorable cute little dog with an extremely high energy level. Energy, energy and more energy!! But we like it that way. Our slender little housesit dog with the oversized ears is called Percy,  a Miniature Pinscher & French Buldog mix.

What better way of exploring the neighbourhood than on long walks with this little ball of energy. We walked for hours past the Manhattan skyline, who could resist that? As with every housesit, we fell a little in love. Hoboken is a cozy compact neighbourhood filled with little local stores, coffee bars and restaurants. It still feels like a real Italian neighbourhood, where they still speak English as they do in the Godfather, Mickey Blue Eyes and the likes. Not surprising for the birthplace of Frank Sinatra! This neighbourhood really feels like a set for an old New York gangster movie, just going to the deli or walking past a local social club you can’t shake the feeling that this is were they film all these Hollywood movies, or at least where they hire all their extras.

Foodies will find it easy to love too, great local wine shops and of course Italian-American speciality stores for which even the true New Yorkers will occasionally cross the Hudson. To New Jersey for food? Definitely yes! For the holidays we bought our bread at an antique Italian bakery, and shopped for cannoli at the local pastry shop. We got our meat from Truglio’s, one of the best butchers in the New York area, with its white tiled walls, antique paper meat wrappers and thick accents. We also placed a big order at the justly famous Fiore Deli, between all the local boys getting last minute christmas presents for “la mamma”. Walls stocked with Italian delicacies and a continuous stream of take-away gems coming out of the kitchen in the back. We bought freshly made mozarella (a.k.a. mutz), all types of cold cuts, olives, artichokes etc… For food and atmosphere Hoboken sure is a great place to explore.

Of course Percy happily followed us around while we were exploring. Especially the butcher shop is a big favourite, he continuously tried to push his nose between the door. But also the nice little parks sprinkled all over the neighbourhood were very much to his liking… SQUIRREL!! And he bounces off. Hoboken is a very dog friendly place, with special dog parks everywhere and quite a few pet shops. In one of them he went completely ballistic when we squeezed one of the ugliest squeaky toys ever invented, so we decided on taking it with us as his Christmas gift. The one-eyed squeaker obviously had to die as soon as possible and after about 5 minutes Percy managed to silence it and spread its stuffing all over the couch. Well, who says Christmas gifts have to last long? Our own Christmas present was cooking together and enjoying an occasional glas of wine, while Percy never strayed far from our lap or feet.

And what about that New Year’s Eve event of the year that is followed by half the globe? Is the Times Square ball drop really as amazing as they want us to believe? We decided, against the advice of the locals, to try it out. After weaving past police enclosures and fences and wriggling through the impressive crowds, we managed to get into a spot with a good line of view of the whole ball drop ceremony. This ball turned out to be so tiny from down there that Kate could hardly make it out between all the big Toshiba screens and their flashing commercials. But then again, maybe we should have been there earlier as the best spots are already occupied in the early morning.

We only got there by 19:00 and still had 5 hours to go, but based on our experience seeing it on television we figured there should be loads going on to entertain us. Euhm, think again. Every hour there was about 10 to 15 minutes of inane talking, some music and of course more commercials. We managed to see a few “live” shows, but, some of them 4 times in a row, as they try to re-record it just right for the actual TV show. And one of the acts, managed to open up our ears for 2016 by giving one of the worst live performances for a gazillion spectators ever… Just youtube: Daya + Times Square + empire state, but make sure the dog is outside… And then of course more commercials… There even was a wedding ceremony performed in the middle of all this madness, but not before they mentioned the name of the sponsoring company about ten times as much as those of the happy couple of course. Or what would you have thought?

But we remained positive, thinking that the true party would start at midnight. One minute before midnight the ball finally started to slide down and 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1…. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!! Small fireworks and confetti shoot out…and then …. Everybody ran home before the confetti even touched the ground. Was this it? Yep, apparently… We are happy we did it, so one day we can tell our grandkids how incredibly boring it was… Never again!!! It was like we were part of the over 1 million extras gathered for a big 5 hour commercial….

By New Year’s Eve the temperature had dropped considerably and the Christmas decorations started to be taken out to the trash. In Hoboken there might even be more Christmas decoration and lights than in downtown Manhattan. There you did have the typical oversized christmas trees and ice skating rings and matching crowds, but for us it didn’t really live up to the hype of the city so known for its Christmas spirit. By New Year’s Eve almost every Christmas tree had been thrown out on the street, together with all the old stuff from 2015 and the cardboard boxes of the new 2016 replacements, as you would expect from the biggest consumer society in the world. Out with the old flatscreen in with the new one.

We also took our time to get to know New York better. We even stuck around after our housesit and got an airbnb in Washington Heights. From an Italian neighbourhood to a Latino neighbourhood, where you hear and read more Spanish than English. Definitely different! We had been to New York before, so we had already explored quite a bit of the city. Time to spread our wings a bit further to get to know some interesting but maybe less famous parts of the city. This time we walked through Harlem and enjoyed the view from Marcus Garvey park, we strolled through the indoor winter version of Smorgasburg and Brooklyn flea market. At the latter Kate managed to snag up a bright orange vintage coat that just spreads joy and keeps on attracting compliments. It is those little things that get even more exciting because they have become so rare while travelling.

We also finally made it to the Cloisters, a mock monastery built up by mixing together left overs of ancient European monasteries, filled with Medieval art, where you can dream away and contemplate in the old cloister walkways and little gardens with a sunset view over the Hudson. An oasis of calm in the Northernmost point of Manhattan, and the ticket also gave us a free entry to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We also further explored some of the classics such as Central Park, the MOMA, and the more remote hipster havens of Brooklyn, the still very cool High Line, Chelsea Market, Meatpacking District and Bleecker Street where our eyes hurt from all the window shopping.

And of course, we wouldn’t be true to ourselves if we didn’t try to sustain ourselves with the best local food we could find. We mentioned our treasures in Hoboken, but we also did some culinary exploring in New York proper, with a delicious slice of pizza at NY Pizza Suprema, chowder and taco’s at Chelsea Market, snacking away in Smorgasburg including some of the best Japanese ramen in the Ramen Shack, and more outstanding ramen in Naruto Ramen in the Upper East side. Delicious burgers from Harlem Shake in Harlem and Burger Heights in Washington Heights. And for the sweet tooth, Rugelach pastries from Lee Lee’s Baked Goods and by far our favourite american cookies at Levain Bakery. The latter serves some of the biggest and most delicious- and probably most expensive- american cookies ever accompanied with a delicious hot chocolate (and that means something coming from a Belgian).

We haven’t been bored during our housesit with that little ball of energy, definitely didn’t get to lose much weight with our healthy diet and didn’t let the cold keep us from exploring the city. A very successful holiday housesit! And afterwards? We took the train to Maarten’s brother in snowy Minneapolis, for a long overdue visit to him and his wife for more Christmas and family cheer. And Maarten’s brother loves cooking as well, so they jointly cooked many a delicious meal. Luckily we didn’t ask for a scale for Christmas!

A few weeks after our departure from New York, the world news mentioned a blizzard in New York and Hoboken and Percy sure felt it. The little bouncing dog was temporarily grounded and even the car had to be dug out.

We left New York right on time so it seems, right before the real winter hit. But then again we got our share of snow and winter in Minnesota. Snow, snow and more snow, but that gave us even more time to spend with our family to enjoy Belgian and international cuisine and the wonders of a true white winter. We don’t think about it too often, but being able to make time for our family is one of the true luxuries of taking a sabbatical. In the mean time we have flown from West to East and have ended up in Tokyo, Japan. Ready for new discoveries!

For even more pictures, click here.

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