Making the Games

For a few weeks this summer, a city and a country came together in a way that few dared to predict. I was very proud to have been able to play a tiny part in this unforgettable fortnight as one of the 70,000 games makers, and was incredibly lucky to find myself in a role that gave me some amazing stories to tell in the subsequent months. It’s time to write these stories down, before they become so exaggerated that I start claiming I won the 100m gold myself. Unfortunately, brevity is not one of my strengths, so a gold medal to anybody who reads all 3000 words…

My first games maker shift was a full week into the Olympics on Friday 3rd August, but I didn’t waste those first days. My dad and I watched with disappointment as the anticipated dream start of a Cavendish gold on day 1 failed to materialise, then I saw handball in the Olympic Park on day 2. By the following Thursday I’d watched the rowing at Eton Dorney and cheered Bradley Wiggins towards claiming GB’s second gold medal on the streets of south-west London. I was trying to pack as much in before the volunteering started and I’d be too busy to see more sport.

My games maker role was as an ‘Olympic Family Assistant’; essentially, a driver and personal assistant to a member of the IOC, head of a sports federation or president of a national committee. I was appointed to be a support OFA, meaning I had no fixed client and would instead be providing cover for absent colleagues. This meant that my first shift began with a two hour wait for an assignment in the ballroom of a Mayfair hotel (transformed for the Olympics into a transport depot). During this wait I heard stories from other  games makers about what the little ‘ALL’ on our accreditations actually meant.

Eventually an assignment came through for me to take over as OFA to the head of the International Basketball Federation from 8pm. With several hours to kill I jumped on a tube to the Olympic Park and waved my accreditation to get past the security queues. After briefly saying hello to the Lesniak family (in the park to watch basketball), I made a beeline for the velodrome and held my breath as I walked up to the ticket barriers. The games maker on duty took a quick look at the ‘ALL’ on my pass and waved me in. Stepping through the airlock into the warm, sticky confines of the Olympic velodrome, I felt as though I would be kicked out at any moment.

Over the following hour and a half I wandered around the perimeter in a bit of a daze, occasionally being told off by velodrome-based games makers for taking photographs (“not professional” – umm, I’m a volunteer). Within minutes of me entering, the GB women’s team pursuit had broken the world record during a preliminary round (the following day they would break the world record again as they claimed gold). I then saw the men’s pursuit team smash the world record to win the gold medal in their event. The velodrome has a very low, curved ceiling and a capacity of just 6,000, so the atmosphere is simultaneously intimate and roof-raising. As the team pursuiters pushed through 16 laps the terrific roar of the partisan crowd followed them around and around.

Next up was the undisputed queen of British cycling, Victoria Pendleton. This was her final competition before retirement and her disqualification in the team sprint the previous evening meant there was plenty of pressure on her to claim gold in the kierin. She did not disappoint, passing her rivals on the final bend to trigger a deafening roar from the delighted crowd. I abandoned any pretence of being a professional and leaped in the air, whooping.

Within minutes of the medal ceremonies concluding I stepped back out into the Olympic park, my velodrome experience immediately feeling like a hallucination. With half an hour to kill before meeting my client, I tested out the accreditation again by walking straight into the stands of the basketball arena. In the end I spent the next couple of hours sitting on the other side of a thin wall from the arena, waiting for the client to finish watching the match before I drove him back to his hotel.

Day two began much like day one: waiting in the Marriott ballroom for an assignment. A job did come much more quickly this time, but it came with a five hour wait for the car to be returned before I could drive it back over to the Park to collect my next client: the president of the modern pentathlon union. I cruised along the games lanes and parked up in the fleet depot (the car park of Westfield Stratford). The client did not need collecting for a couple of hours, so I tried my luck again by walking straight to the Olympic Stadium.

Again, my accreditation did not let me down as I paced around the middle tier of the vast amphitheatre until I could feel the heat from the Olympic flame. I found a spot to stand just in time to see Jessica Ennis win the 800m, and therefore claim heptathlon gold. The atmosphere in the velodrome the previous evening was special, but I have never heard anything that compares to the roar of the 80,000-strong stadium crowd. It’s difficult to describe; I’ve been in football crowds at Old Trafford and Wembley, and to gigs at the latter, but none of them can compete with the unforgettable roar of the London Olympic stadium celebrating a GB gold.

Erring on the side of caution, I headed back to the car before Mo Farah’s 10,000m gold, also missing Greg Rutherford’s long jump victory. That night is said to have been the greatest in British athletic history, so to have been there when Ennis claimed gold and took her victory lap was incredible.

I was brought back to Earth with a bump an hour or so later when I managed to scrape one very expensive BMW 5 series against another very expensive BMW 5 series in the depot underneath Hyde Park.

A recap: in my first two games maker shifts I had witnessed three Team GB gold medals. I was understandably getting quite cocky about just how far I could stretch my accreditation. Conveniently, the men’s 100m final happened to be on my third shift: could I persuade lightning to strike a third time?

On arriving for the shift in the early afternoon I knew I would have to be selective about which jobs to volunteer for: anything away from the Olympic Park was out for a start. Fortunately, I was assigned to the president of the archery federation, who was ultimately heading to the park to watch the 100m from the hospitality centre. In between, he had business to attend to, including a trip to Lord’s cricket ground (where the archery had been hosted until a few days earlier) and then on to the Olympic Village.

The Olympic Village was one area I did not have direct accreditation access to, but while the client was at his meeting in the village, I went to security to see if I could get in. By giving them my car keys as collateral, I received an upgrade pass and was free to wander in. It was more of a town than a village, with several large tower blocks housing thousands of athletes from almost every nation; the teams had hung huge national flags over their balconies to mark out their territory. Close to the village entrance was a florist, a post office, a gift shop, a salon and a supermarket, provided exclusively for the convenience of the athletes and officials.

Next stop, after inevitably getting lost on the approach roads, was the Olympic Park. I dropped the client at the hospitality centre, parked the car in the fleet depot (aka the John Lewis car park) and made a beeline for the Olympic Stadium. As I approached the ticket barriers I saw another games maker being turned away: he didn’t have ‘ALL’ on his badge, but clearly on other evenings he would’ve been nodded through by fellow volunteers; not tonight. I was allowed in and left him bartering for entrance with pin badges (the unofficial currency of the Olympic movement).

A few moments after entering I saw Bolt and Blake run separately in their respective semi-finals. It was looking doubtful as to whether I would still be in the stadium for the final, as it was scheduled to begin at 9.50pm and my client had asked for a pick-up at 10pm: it was going to take much more than 10 minutes to get back to him. Standing around me were other games makers in similar situations: some dutifully rushed off, while others took their chances. I decided to stay.

At 9.50pm, 80,000 people fell completely silent. At the far side of the stadium from me, the fastest eight men on Earth – indeed, the fastest humans to have ever lived – took their marks and got set. On the ‘B’ of the ‘BANG’, they exploded out of the blocks and the silence was replaced by an unforgettable wall of noise. A billion people around the planet watched as the sprinters ran from left to right across their TV screens: from my vantage point, the race was run from right to left – a minor difference, but one that I will never forget.

9.63 seconds later, Usain Bolt crossed the finish line to set a new Olympic record and retain his title. About half a second later, after double-checking with those around me that it was definitely Bolt who had won, I turned and sprinted out of the back of the stadium. As I did so, I was accompanied by a few dozen other games makers and stall holders who had duties to return to. I ran out of the stadium, across the bridges, past the aquatic centre and out of the Olympic Park, turning left down a high-fenced security path to get into the John Lewis car park. I dashed up the three flights of stairs and jumped into the car, pausing for a few seconds to catch a breath and take in what I’d just witnessed.

At 10.02pm, I picked up the client from outside the hospitality centre. He climbed into my car and informed me that Usain Bolt had won gold in the 100m sprint. I innocently thanked him for the information and drove us back to the west end.

Three shifts, three ridiculous evenings of “I was there” moments. Sadly, this trend didn’t continue, but I do have a few more silly stories from my week as a games maker.

My next shift came after a couple of days off, during which I had watched women’s 10m diving in the aquatic centre, and dressed up as a Roman soldier to watch Greco-Roman wrestling. This was my first early shift, so I arrived at 8.30am and was immediately assigned to the president and secretary-general of the Lebanese Olympic Committee. The president had wanted a lift to the Olympic Park, but had panicked that I wouldn’t be there on time and left without me in another vehicle, so I followed him to the Park, just in time to be informed that the secretary-general was in the west end and wanted a lift. He made alternative arrangements, so I parked up and wandered into the Olympic Park to meet up with my mum and dad, who had handball tickets.

I then drove round to the Village, in the hope of being able to buy some tickets from the athletes’ ticket office. Sadly, they were just as sold out as the public offices, but I then received a call from the secretary-general asking for collection from, coincidentally, the Olympic Village. He didn’t give a timescale, so I ended up sitting in the BMW listening on the car radio as, just on the other side of the fence, Sir Chris Hoy won his record-breaking sixth gold medal in the velodrome. Actually, at the precise moment this happened I was distracted by a Tunisian coach who, not realising my car was occupied, exposed himself and began urinating in my direction.

I sat in the car park for five hours, spotting retired triple jumper (and Van Mildert alumnus) Jonathan Edwards and GB track cycling gold medallist Philip Hindes as they walked past. Eventually, the client emerged and I drove him to the beach volleyball at Horseguard’s Parade.

Day four saw me working with a former PE teacher who had risen through the ranks to become head of his Olympic Committee. Other than him wearing a Venezuelan flag shell suit, nothing very exciting happened on this day.

For my final four days I was allocated to the president of the Ugandan Olympic Committee, accompanied by his wife and baby son. Over the course of these few days it did look like I would return to my jammy form of the previous weekend, but delays meant I actually spent many hours parked on a Woolwich housing estate, rather than witnessing history.

On the penultimate day of the Games, I drove the client and his son to Wembley Stadium for the men’s football gold medal match between Mexico and Brazil. I dropped them at the Olympic Family entrance, parked up and headed for the staff entrance. Unlike the venues in the Olympic Park, Wembley is mostly staffed by professional stewards. Couple this with the sprawling, maze-like interior of the stadium and it becomes very difficult to surreptitiously get into the stands while trying to look like one has good reason to be there.

This is my excuse for why, 8 minutes before kick-off, I found myself walking around the perimeter of the pitch, surrounded by a capacity crowd of 90,000 people. Rather than turning back, I decided to march purposefully in the hope of finding a route into the stands. As I reached the section containing the team dug-outs, I was stopped by a couple of games makers as I didn’t have ‘field of play’ accreditation. They helpfully directed me down the tunnel and into a corridor. Eventually, after a detour through some loading bays and past the rooms where the gold medals were being kept, I emerged into a stand.

I stood at the top of the stand, next to a steward, in the hope of looking official. As the match kicked off, my hopes were dashed when a man in a suit approached. Instead of kicking me out, though, he instead directed me to a vacant seat from where I saw the only goal of the game.

15 minutes into the match, my client called to say that he and his son had been unable to get into the Olympic Family stand, as it was full, so they wanted to leave. Feeling a little guilty that I had got a seat and they hadn’t, I ran 180° around the outside of Wembley to get back to the car.

The next day was the final day of the Games and began for me at 10am as I waited to collect the clients from their hotel. I dropped them on Oxford St for a bit of shopping and when they returned they were excited by news that a Ugandan athlete was leading the men’s marathon. I suggested that we may be able to get to the finish line in time, so drove into Hyde Park.

Hyde Park was mysteriously quiet, which made sense as the actual finish of the marathon was a couple of miles away on The Mall. My cock-up meant that we didn’t get to the finish line in time, instead hearing the result on the car radio. This was Uganda’s only medal of London 2012 and their first gold medal since 1972, so the joy felt by client and his family was incredible. At the time, I said that sharing this moment with them was my most enduring memory of the Games. In hindsight, I don’t think that’s true, but it certainly had a more human dimension than my “I was there” moments from the previous weekend.

I joined the family as they celebrated victory in the enclosures around the finish line, taking photographs for them as they posed with the medal winner – now transformed into a national hero.

From a logistical point of view, however, this unexpected victory was a nightmare. The client hadn’t planned to attend the closing ceremony, and had left his suit in a case at his friend’s house back east in Woolwich. After several journeys shuttling around London (and another prolonged wait in a Woolwich car park), eventually I dropped the client at the Olympic Village from where he could march (carrying his young son) into the stadium with Team Uganda.

As the east end was now in full closing ceremony mode, police waved my Olympic car through red lights and I sailed along the games lanes back to the west end.  I parked for one final time in the subterranean depot, from where I could hear the bass of the concert I had tickets for above me in Hyde Park. The gig (Blur) wasn’t that good anyway.

I think that’s about it. A truly unforgettable fortnight, followed by the incredible Paralympics a few weeks later, for which I didn’t volunteer but did buy a lot of tickets. By the time the Olympic Park closed for the final time at the end of the Paralympics, it was feeling like a second home.

I don’t think even the most optimistic supporter of London 2012 could have predicted the huge impact the Olympics and Paralympics had on the nation. I feel very lucky that it happened in my lifetime and in my city, and enormously proud to have been a very small cog in the huge, well-oiled machine that changed the way the world views Britain and the way Britain views itself. To quote Seb Coe: “When our time came, we did it right.”

What I did on my holidays (part 4)

Wednesday 5th November

Despite Fox’s kind offer of a free breakfast, a 7.30am start at the filming of their Morning Show did not appeal after the late night in Times Square. Instead, we got out of bed an hour or so later and I headed out to the local store to pick up a copy of the New York Times. To my dismay, the news stand was empty of everything but the New York Post (the local equivalent of the Sun, a copy of which I purchased in 2007 when their headline described the Manhattan steam pipe explosion as a “Midtown Volcano!”).

I tried another store, but to no avail. It soon became apparent that we weren’t the only people who thought that a copy of the New York Times on the morning after America elected its first black President might be a nice keepsake. Fortunately, we had noticed the day before that the New York Times had its headquarters just a few blocks to the north on 8th Avenue, so we headed there in the hope that there would be some copies lying around.

We were greeted with the sight of scores of people snaking around the corner of the block, waiting in line to buy a newspaper. In Britain we seem to have an instinct that drives us toward cynicism on occasions when Americans would react with optimism. It’s what makes us good at satire and Americans good at inventing stuff. We have Ian Hislop, they have Google.

Obama’s victory, at least here on the liberal streets of New York, had awakened an optimism that Bush, Cheney and co had worked hard to suppress. This was embodied by the multicoloured queue forming along 40th Street to buy a $1.50 copy of the New York Times on this historic morning. We joined the back of the queue, which moved remarkably quickly, and bought several copies each.

The Matts and I headed north towards the Ed Sullivan Theatre on 53rd and Broadway, where we were to spend a good chunk of the afternoon as audience members for a filming of the Late Show with David Letterman. As we queued outside in the torrential rain, a man came outside and made us practice laughing. He also ran through the rules, which included no high pitched noises and that we should always err on the side of laughter if we’re unsure about whether a joke is funny or not.

This was a useful policy for them, as Letterman is not very funny. Actually, that’s not fair; David Letterman himself is occasionally funny in the kind of way that might ordinariliy make you smile but probably wouldn’t make you laugh out loud. His guests, on the other hand, were both poor for very different reasons. The first, Tom Brokaw, is a highly-respected journalist who chaired the second Presidential debate and was the interviewer when Colin Powell endorsed Obama. However, these facts are not enough to make the man interesting in himself.

The second guest was Vera Farmiga who had recently starred in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. She was heavily pregnant and, by her own admission, a little hormonal.  She was absolutely bonkers and I think they may have cut her interview short, such was her instability,

The rest of the show was made up of the kind of humorous clips that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show does much better, and a bizarre sketch involving planted audience members, during which we were briefly caught on camera.

I think it’s fair to say the British and American senses of humour are quite different. Cutting edge late night satire shouldn’t need a drum roll every time a joke is told; nor should it need an audience indoctrinated to laugh regardless of whether they even got the joke.

I gathered back in Times Square with Neil, John, LJ and Andy. The plan for the evening was to pick up some Broadway tickets from the half price ticket booth built into the back of the tiered seating we had sat on the previous evening. Matt and Matt, meanwhile, would be watching ‘Christmas on Mars’, a film by psychedelic alt rock band The Flaming Lips.

Rather than going to a traditional Broadway show, John had recommended a piece of postmodern theatre he’d seen in Edinburgh called Fuerza Bruta.  It was about as far removed from Les Mis as is possible; for a start, the theatre had no seats and no stage.

We gathered in a dark room with black walls, floor and ceiling alongside perhaps a hundred other people. Loud trance music kicked in and the crowd was parted by stage hands as a giant treadmill rolled into the middle of us. A man in a white jump suit and a ceiling harness swung onto the treadmill and began sprinting. Walls would swing into him and shatter, and at least twice he got shot by an unseen gunman.

That’s how it started. It’s almost impossible to adequately describe the experience, other than to say that about an hour later it had caused scores of sober theatre-goers to rave fully-clothed under a heavy shower of water. At the time, this felt like the absolutely sensible thing to be doing, but only a few minutes later we found ourselves sitting in the bar dripping and shivering. Fortunately, the theatre was on hand to cash-in on our stupidity, selling us promotional tee shirts to delay the onset of our hyperthermia.

What I did on my holidays (part 3 – election night special)

Tuesday 4th November

Since our arrival in New York there had been a low frequency buzz on the streets about the election. It seemed like every conversation we tuned into on the crowded sidewalks contained snippets of “Obama”, “McCain” or “Palin” (poor Biden). It’s difficult to imagine an election in the UK creating such a level of interest, although I suspect this is no ordinary US election.

Despite this level of public interest, there was actually very little in the way of election publicity in the city. New York is one of the most reliably Democratic states on the electoral map, so neither candidate saw the need to waste money on posters or adverts. A good number of people , though, were walking about with Obama-Biden badges on their lapels (almost nobody had McCain-Palin badges).

One source of these badges revealed itself on our way to Macy’s (the world’s largest department store). A middle-aged black woman had set up a table on a 7th Avenue corner with an enormous selection of pro-Obama merchandise. She was so excited about the prospect of an Obama victory that she told us how she had voted at 6.30am; the Democratic campaign’s message of hope and change had genuinely become ingrained in the desires of people like her.

We bought some badges and headed to Macy’s. It’s basically just a big John Lewis, but it’s worth a visit just to ride the ancient wooden escalators on the upper floors. OK, it’s maybe not worth a visit just for that, but if you happen to be there you should at least take a look.

Realising that we didn’t really have any shopping to do, the Matts and I parted company with Neil, Andy, John and LJ. We headed towards the Rockefeller Center to check out the planned NBC election night party taking place around the ice rink. We’d been tipped off about the party by a news bulletin on one of the LCD screens that have been fitted into the back of apparently every taxi cab in the city.

A map of the country had been drawn onto the ice, which they would somehow illuminate state-by-state in either red or blue as the election results rolled in. NBC had set up a temporary studio next to where we were standing that appeared to be broadcasting live on the big screens above us. On our way out of the plaza, a man with a Blackberry stopped us and said he was looking for good looking young people to sit on the front rows of the following morning’s Fox Morning Show. Clearly, there was a shortage of good looking young people, so he handed the tickets to us; we’d have to be there at 7.30am, but breakfast would be free.

Another option for election night festivities was in Times Square where CNN had set up a big screen in front of the tiered seating that forms the roof of the half-price ticket booth. It was still mid-afternoon, but we took some seats and watched some CNN. They were showing off an artist’s impression that they had commissioned of what the candidates would look like if McCain were black and Obama white. McCain looked a bit like Bill Crosby, whereas Obama looked like a used car salesman.

While sitting in Times Square, a young man approached us with a clipboard and asked if we wanted to watch the Late Show with David Letterman being filmed the following afternoon. We said yes, and he said they were ours if we could answer two “simple” trivia questions. I cracked my Itbox-playing fingers, only to realise seconds later that the trivia was Letterman-related. Despite none of us having ever really watched it, the Matts were able to answer a question each to win us the tickets (for future reference, the bald band leader plays the keyboards and Letterman likes to throw his pen).

Later that afternoon we returned to our vantage point in Times Square and settled down for election night. As the clock ticked towards the first polling stations closing, the steps and the square below filled and the atmosphere began to crackle with anticipation. At 7pm, America reached the beginning of the end of this epic two-year long election when Vermont and Kentucky were called for Obama and McCain respectively. Not a single vote had been counted in either state (the polls had been closed for just a few seconds), but CNN used exit polls and common sense to put the first electoral college votes on the boards: McCain leads by eight votes to three.

Despite McCain’s early advantage, things were looking good for Obama who was neck-and-neck with McCain in Indiana (where votes had started being counted at 6pm), which had not voted for a Democrat in decades. At 8pm, ten more states were called without bothering to count any votes, eight of them for Obama, but it was the Pennsylvania result about half an hour later that reassured the crowd that they’d be going home happy.

McCain’s chance of victory was dealt a huge blow by Pennsylvania staying Democratic, but the celebrations couldn’t formally begin for some time yet. Times Square went wild when New York was called, and indeed every time the CNN coverage switched to our crowd. Ohio also fell to the Obama surge, meaning that it was now just a matter of the world politely waiting for the solidly-Democratic west coast states to close their polling stations so that the networks could push Obama over the magic 270.

That moment came at 11pm EST. The giant CNN screen moved from one of its many commercial breaks to one of their now-hourly countdowns to the closure of the next polls. The crowd in Times Square counted the last ten seconds out loud and, instead of calling any individual states, CNN immediately projected that Barack Obama had been elected the next President of the United States.

To say that the crowd went a bit wild would be like saying that Sarah Palin is a bit thick. All around us was cheering, crying and hugging; if there were any Republicans in the crowd at the start of the evening, they’d either slipped off or converted to Obamania by eleven o’clock. It was beyond anything I’ve ever seen at a football match or a rock concert, this was absolute elation among people who genuinely believed that things would now be different.

Cars around Times Square began honking their horns even more than usual, with Obama-Biden signs held out through their sunroofs. Eventually, the big screen cut to Arizona and John McCain’s concession speech. McCain’s audience looked uniformly unpleasant, a bunch of handlebar moustachioed rednecks and not a single non-white face to be seen.  The speech itself was gracious and humble, reminding the world of the McCain that used to command cross-party respect before he lowered himself to the level of the very worst elements of the GOP. These elements, however, were alive and well in his bigoted crowd who booed every mention of President-elect Obama.

Other than a few initial boos, McCain’s speech was well received in Times Square, receiving the applause it deserved. We did not show the same respect to his running mate: when Sarah Palin’s face filled the big screen, the boos echoed off the skyscrapers. We can only hope that she fades back into the obscurity that she emerged from in August, but I fear we haven’t seen the last of Palin and her brand of anti-intellectualism.

 After what felt like forever, the CNN coverage switched to the massive gathering in Grant Park, Chicago where Barack Obama and Joe Biden walked onto the stage accompanied by the new first and second families of the United States. 800 miles away in New York, our crowd was again going wild, anticipating a fine speech by a great orator. Sadly someone had alternative plans for our evening and as Obama opened his mouth to speak the CNN screen went dead. Thousands of people strained their eyes towards the Fox screen at the far end of the Square, but the subtitles were too small to read.

After several minutes, police began clearing our tiered seating, telling us to go home as the party was over. We followed the deflated crowds down the steps, but as we reached the bottom the screen flashed back into life and we were treated to the final five minutes of a great speech. When the 44th President left his Chicago stage the applause continued in Times Square for several minutes, as much of the crowd blinked tears from their eyes.

Our walk back towards our hostel was slow as we moved through the dense crowds. People were literally dancing in the streets; we saw spontaneous hip hop dancing on a street corner and a man moonwalk across a pedestrian crossing. It remains to be seen whether the world changed on 4th November 2008, but it was certainly a night we’ll never forget.

What I did on my holidays (part 2)

Monday 3rd November

After an overdue lie-in, we headed out into Manhattan in search of a hearty bagel and John’s friend LJ. LJ had survived the marathon on Sunday and would be transferring to our hostel for her last few days in New York.

Filled up with eggy, cheesy, Canadian hammy, bagely goodness, we once again made the long walk to the southern tip of Manhattan, this time to Castle Clinton in Battery Park. The fort was built in the early 19thcentury to defend New York from the British during the war of 1812, although now it is a ticket booth for the Ellis Island Ferry.

The ferry takes a bizarre route into the Hudson river between Battery Park, Liberty Island and Ellis Island, spiralling about in the process to allow the passengers a spectacular view of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skylines.

We had arrived too late in the day to be able to take the ferry to both Liberty and Ellis Islands, but through experience in 2007 I was aware that there is little to do on Liberty Island except pose for photographs in the stance of Lady Liberty. Had we been really early birds and got to Battery Park by 8am we could’ve booked tickets to actually climb the statue, a novelty that until recent months had been forbidden as an anti-terror precaution.

While the majority of the tourists disembarked on Liberty, we stayed aboard for a few minutes more as the boat spiralled into the dock at Ellis Island. Last year, we visited the immigration museum here, but I somehow entirely failed to find the upper levels of the museum, thus limiting my experience to essentially just the entrance lobby. This time I was determined to actually see some exhibits.

First things first, though; five hungry boys needed a snack. We headed into the cafeteria and the smarter kids bought punnets of fries. The fools among us, myself included, ordered cheesey fries. Americans don’t do cheese. We were reminded of this fact as we saw the caterer use a ladle to scoop his liquefied yellow gloop from a vat and onto the unfortunate flesh of our innocent fries.

They were inedible and the foul taste lingered in our mouths right through the hurried visit to the immigration museum. On this occasion I successfully visited the second floor exhibits too, which is certainly an improvement on the last time, but it seems I’ll have to return once more if I ever want to visit the third and final level.

As we queued for the last ferry back to Manhattan the sun dropped below the horizon, allowing the glittering skyscrapers of Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey to cycle through our field of vision as the boat drunkenly looped back to Battery Park.

Legs still swaying, we walked up the east coast of lower Manhattan towards the Brooklyn Bridge. When it was completed in 1883 it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at 1.825km long. It may not hold that record any more, but a night-time walk across it remains a must-do for visitors to New York. Looking at that glittery cityscape never gets boring and, alongside the Empire State Building and the Ellis Island ferry, the Brooklyn Bridge is just about the best place to see it from.

We took the subway back from Brooklyn to what we hoped was Little Italy. Unfortunately, we were thwarted by the New York underground’s system of Express and Local trains, ending up about ten blocks north of where we planned. Never mind, a good walk would drum up some hunger, we thought.

Little Italy is a Little Disappointing. If there was one thing you’d expect it would be some Italian restaurants, but they appeared few and far between. Eventually we found one in the blurry area between Little Italy and Chinatown, where Chinese banners hang across pizza restaurants. The food was OK, perhaps a little too rich, but certainly not what we’d hoped for in the most Italian city outside of Italy (don’t quote me on that fact, I just made it up).

What I did on my holidays (part 1)

Saturday 1st November 2008

At an eyeball-achingly early time, Andy, John, Matt, Matt and I dragged ourselves to Heathrow Airport via seemingly half the tube network. We’d checked in for our flight online the previous evening and only had hand luggage, so were afforded the luxury of minimal queues to board Virgin Atlantic flight V003, bound for New York JFK.

The flight was actually the most comfortable I’ve ever experienced; the food was more than edible (starter, main, bread roll, dessert, wine and even a cheese course), there was actually leg-room and the back of the seat in front contained a wonderful media player. On demand, we could watch movies, TV shows, play battleships with our neighbours and even send abusive messages to John.

We took the impatiently long subway train from JFK right into the heart of Manhattan at Times Square. I had arranged for us to meet Neil outside the neon-signed NYPD station at 4pm. After a journey of 3500 miles, we arrived just 10 minutes late. Neil, however, had given up waiting and gone back to the suite in the Hilton that he’d rented for the previous night. Two phone calls and 15 minutes later we were all reunited under the dazzling lights of Times Square.

We walked a dozen blocks south to find our hostel on 8th Avenue and 30th Street. It appeared to be a little seedy outside, situated as it was above a Subway (the sandwich chain store, not the NYC underground system) and an apparently 24-hour florists. Regardless, the hostel was clean, secure, delightfully cheap and, importantly, very central.

After dropping our bags, we headed directly along 33rd Street towards the Rockefeller Center. Or rather that’s what I thought it was, instead of the Empire State Building which it actually was.  The fact that I (a buildings engineer) had failed to correctly identify perhaps the most famous skyscraper in the world proved to be an endless well of ridicule for my travel companions over the next week. In my defence, it does look a lot different from the photographs when you’re standing at the bottom of it looking east (although I have been up it before, so really should have known better).

We ate in a restaurant at the bottom that Andy, Neil and I had remembered to be very tasty from our previous visit to New York. Unfortunately it appeared that more than two weeks of American food in 2007 had done something to our taste buds that couldn’t be replicated after 8 hours of Virgin Atlantic in 2008; on this occasion the food wasn’t all that great. Never mind.

Up we went in the great elevators of the Empire State Building. I recommend that any visitors to New York save this particular rite until the sun has set; the Big Apple is as beautiful by night as it is loud and grubby by day. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but in my view there are many more attractive cities in the world than New York, but at night it turns into a magnificent array of lights that simply refuse to be ignored. There’s only one downside to looking at this metropolis from the top of the Empire State Building, and that is that you can’t see the Empire State Building.


Sunday 2nd November 2008

After a night of jet-lag recovery, we decided to walk from our hostel down to the financial district. Although we were staying on 30th Street, it turns out the numbering doesn’t begin from the sourthernmost tip of Manhattan, so we were barely halfway there after covering the 30 blocks to 1st Street.

We walked passed a terrifying Orwellian skyscraper with no windows; in fact, the only break in the smooth concrete surface was for a row of enormous ventilation grills about halfway up. Later research established that this was the AT&T Switching Center, filled with equipment that would prefer not to receive daylight and workers who presumably wished that they did.

We visited Ground Zero, the former site of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It is now a bustling building site for the Freedom Tower which is due to rise from the ashes by 2013. We called into the nearby St Paul’s Church which became a refuge for recovery workers in the days and months after the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001. It is now treated as a memorial site to those who died.

From here we headed down Wall Street and to the stock exchange. The turmoil that this area had both caused and suffered over the last few months was absent on this quiet Sunday morning. The area was silent but for the chattering of tourists and the clicking of their cameras. After making appropriately abusive gestures towards these cathedrals of greed, we stepped down into the subway and headed north to Times Square to watch some F1.

We settled down in the enormous ESPN bar and took a table close to screen number two of the twelve on the video wall. Our table had a small LCD screen on it too, so we turned off the American football and tuned it into the Brazilian Grand Prix. Perfect.

Unfortunately, the waiting staff weren’t quite so happy with our seating arrangements. It turned out we were meant to have been seated by one of them, so we had therefore jumped a queue by just sitting down. This was rubbish, as there was no queue and several empty tables. Nevertheless, they actively ignored us until we almost literally waved in their faces. Eventually we were served, on the condition that we spend at least $10 per person per hour; this wasn’t a problem considering the price of the beer.

We watched Lewis Hamilton win the Formula 1 World Championship on the very last corner of the final lap of the final race of the season, cheering happily in a cavern full of oblivious NFL fans. On a high and with a couple of tall beers inside us we marched up 6th Avenue towards Central Park in order to see the New York Marathon. On the way, we successfully adapted the lyrics of almost every Broadway musical to be about the 2008 Presidential election. Some examples included “Obama Mia” and “Hakuna Obama”. The album will be out in time for Christmas.

We stood at the half-mile to go marker of the marathon and were appalled by the lack of excitement being exhibited by the crowd compared to the London marathon earlier in the year. We attempted to make up for this by cheering the names emblazoned on every running vest that crawled, limped and jogged past us. It roused a few smiles just in time for the bank of press cameras a few metres further along the course.

For the evening we found a southern-style BBQ house a couple of blocks from our hostel. For $22 they offered all-you-can-eat ribs and all-you-can-drink Bud Lite, with a time limit of two hours. It turns out this is made profitable due to an apparent allergy of the waiting staff to serving customers their ribs and their beer. Their incompetency, however, was ultimately to our advantage, as they failed to notice that only three of our party had ordered the all-you-can-drink, yet none of us ever seemed to have an empty glass…

Never mention politics

The cycle into Ithaca, particularly the final incline to the motel, really took it out of the cyclists and prompted a rethink of the plan for covering what should be the hilliest part of the challenge: the stages in New York State. Rather than attempting three further days of roughly 80 miles on a broadly south-easterly approach to New York City, the route was amended to four days of shorter length. The new route will take us south into Pennsylvania and east through New Jersey.

Today, Ed and I drove from Ithaca down to Binghamton, via a second trip to Toughannock Falls where we looked at the lake and walked along the river bank past some smaller falls that we hadn’t seen the day before. An interesting aside about the river here is that due to its east-west direction, the north- and south-facing sides of the gorge maintain different eco-systems. On the warmer, south-facing side deciduous trees grow, while no more than about 20 metres away the other side of the gorge can support only coniferous trees. Another interesting thing is the pun that appears on all the tee-shirts in the area proclaiming that ‘Ithaca is gorges’.

After filling up on gas, we drove the monster truck south following TomTom’s fastest route setting. The outcome of this was pleasantly surprising as it took us along rolling single-lane highways, passing vineyards and farms for most of the journey, only settling for the blandness of the interstates on the final few miles into Binghamton.

Due to our detour north, Andy and Alex had actually beaten us to the motel by a few minutes so we checked into the motel (we’re in a smoking room – it stinks but was bizarrely $20 cheaper than the fresh air equivalent) and watched some Tour de France to put things in perspective. Neil and Leo, once again suffering due to a lack of satellite navigation to guide them directly to the motel, were later picked up by car from a neighbouring town after overshooting Binghamton and finding themselves almost joining a six-lane interstate.

Neil had been having gear problems with his bike, so we drove to a store about 10 miles away where they replaced the offending parts for a refreshingly modest fee. On returning to collect the cycle, Neil and I made the mistake of assuming that the well-travelled, eloquent owner of the store was not a fan of President Bush. I think he may have actually used the phrase “evil-doers” in his defence of Dubya. In a country where only 22% of the population think their leader is doing a good job, and in a solidly Democratic state, what were the chances that we would find a Bush Republican running a bicycle shop?

For the second time in three days, Ed, Andy, Alex and I decided we would attempt to watch Harry Potter at a local movie theatre. After maybe a mile’s walk (partly along the grass verge, and occasionally having to cross the four lane highway) we turned up to learn that the four screens showing the new film were booked up for another hour and a half. Not wanting a late night, we decided to watch the new Michael Moore film, Sicko, which was just beginning on screen 8.

I’m certain it wasn’t Moore’s intent when he made the documentary, but never have I felt quite so proud to be British as when he spent 20 minutes comparing the NHS to the scandalous system that Americans put up with. Beneath the smiley ‘have a nice day’ surface of this country is a rotten, greedy minority who profit shamelessly off the health care (or, more accurately, the lack of health care) of everybody else. It was strangely warming to hear the laughs of exasperation and surprise from the American audience as they learnt of the better healthcare available in Canada, Britain, France and even Cuba. I hope these people go out and demand better from their government, as if I had to give one reason why I wouldn’t choose to live in their country, that would be it.

Having filled ourselves with the smug self-gratification that comes from living in a country other than America, we went to McDonald’s where we ate cheeseburgers and fries and drank Coca Cola.