Part 1 – Airports, New Friends & Drinks With a View

And off we went to explore the East Coast of the US.  Rather an epic beginning to a short vacation visit to friends across the ocean, but I could not resist…  The trip started quite pleasantly with an unexpected and completely undeserved upgrade of both of us to business class. “Undeserved” not on a big moral scale of things (for we, of course, deserve the best!), but on a purely bean-counting one of Lufthansa: we got the tickets for miles, so technically they were free, and we already were happy.  A free upgrade on top was just an icing on the already delicious (and free!) cake.  Well, we sure did not complain…

A short time spent by the gate waiting to board the plane at the Munich airport added some musings to the general collection of people observations and travel memories.  A Serbian grandma not speaking a word of English or German, was trying to reason with two overactive toddlers, aged between 3 and 5, both holding American passports, who she was probably delivering into the waiting hands of the happy parents across the ocean.  The kids were jumping around with esprit of two young kangaroos, and grandma’s efforts to keep them from running away into the depths of the airport deserved every bit of respect and compassion.  She was undoubtedly counting the hours till the happy reunification of the family, and the determination to hand over the custody of the two rays of sunshine to those who rightfully deserved all the joy, and celebrate the happy occasion with a strong drink and a 24-hour nap was registered clearly on her face.  She was in for a surprise, though – the kids’ seats were changed at the gate, and she received two new boarding passes for them, but not for herself.  Grandma started panicking.  A kind passer-by who just happened to understand grandma’s loud wailings in Serbian (you gotta love international airports!), quickly calmed her down, and translated what the gate crew was unsuccessfully trying to communicate to her with the use of the international gestures’ vocabulary.  The visibly shaken and still not entirely convinced grandma and her two springy companions were escorted into the plane and carefully handed over to the flight attendants.  The kids probably spent all their energy in transit, because to our surprise they did not turn the plane upside down, and were not seen or heard till we disembarked in New York.

New York, as always, was a surprise and a happening in itself.  This time, right from the moment of landing.  The free flight took us to JFK, which I last honoured with a visit exactly 23 years ago, when one of the first school exchange programs between the US and the Soviet Union, brought the 16-year old me and a group of classmates to the exactly same “gates to the New World”.  I have to admit that this time’s memories were much more vivid. JFK, being one of the oldest US airports, built as far back as 1948, cannot boast either gigantic size, or very good organisation.  We waited first in the gangway, then at the terminal for at least half an hour, before descending the stairs into the immigration area, tightly packed with a couple of planes full of Chinese tourists.  The next several hours were spent moving at snail’s pace in a zigzagging roped line, observing the TSA and immigration officers trying to communicate with the Chinese, whose English vocabulary covered the bare minimum of fully interchangeable “yes” and “no”, and who cheerfully filled all customs declarations in hieroglyphs.  By the end of the two hours, we felt more tired than after the 10-hour flight.  Heavy leather jackets and helmets that we carried as hand luggage did not add much comfort to the waiting.

On the other side of the ordeal we were welcomed by our friends, Fletch & Jane, who packed us with the suitcases full of beer (what else do you bring from Munich to two people who thoroughly enjoyed the purely Bavarian pass times when they lived here?!…) into the car, and without further delay delivered us to Manhattan. And no, Fletch & Jane do not live on the fabulous island, they live in the middle of nowhere in NY state, called Suffern, in a house surrounded by Hassidic neighbours dressed in black & white. They do, however, have a lot of fabulous friends, two of which, Carol and Joel, had a dubious honour of hosting the four of us for a snack and a drink that evening.

Carol and Joel, the nicest people you can imagine (so nice, in fact, that it was downright impossible to hate them, or even be jealous of them for their good real estate fortunes) welcomed us to their place, and made us feel instantly at home.  Through a combined luck of birth, inheritance, smart investment, and clever design Carol and Joel became the owners of a penthouse apartment on lower East Side Manhattan.  The apartment, tiny by the standards of the really rich, but humongous by the standards of upper-middle class New Yorkers, was, in fact, a little house, that just happened to find itself on the rooftop of one of the mid-sized sky-scrapers of the most fabulous islands of all.  The place was a project in progress, and represented a construction site, cleverly integrated into the living space, every square inch of which was organized and utilized for the needs of the inhabitants.  Carol cheerfully shared that they have been re-building the place for the last several years, so they no longer paid attention to the chaos.  Her architectural background obviously helped with organizing this disorder to levels unimaginable to mere mortals.  Tiny kitchen, where even the ceiling was optimized for holding some of the cooking utensils, smoothly turned into a study/library with bookshelves, tightly surrounding an ergonomic desk and chair that somehow managed to combine solid classical reliability with weightless modern design.  A tiny door that looked like it would lead to a broom closet, surprisingly opened to a compact bathroom, containing enough space for a toilet and a shower.  The skylight over the upper-level bedroom opened up the area, giving it a deceitful impression of a much larger space, and a concrete roof terrace surrounding this little oasis completed the picture of urban self-sufficiency.

Sunset over the Hudson – view from Carol & Joel’s place

The wine and conversation flowed freely, the company was great, the food from downtown deli was delicious, the sunset view over the Hudson was to die for, and all these perfect components together created an ideal and extremely welcoming feeling of home and belonging.

Well past midnight, having expressed our profound thanks, we bid good-bye to our hosts and newly-found friends and drove upstate to Suffern, where we fell into a comatose sleep in the “Victoria suite” (yes, after 5 years of friendship I can boast my own digs in New York State!).

Part 2 – Bikes, Rivers & Cemeteries

The main item on the next day’s agenda was picking up the rental bikes. After breakfast we threw our gear into the car, and Fletch delivered us to a New Jersey dealer, where two enormous but cheerful women introduced us to our bikes.

The Soft Tail and the Road King were at least twice the size of our not so small Sportsters at home, and at first glance looked way too big to manage. Based on my memories of the Redneck camporee of two years earlier, I knew that this first impression was deceitful: the clumsy-looking Soft Tail that I rented in North Carolina back then turned out to be an extremely graceful and easily manageable bike. His twin-brother in New Jersey (even the color matched – it was again white!) did not disappoint either. It took time to get used to it, and for the first couple of days I definitely felt too small for the bike. By the end of the second day, though, it was the easiest and the most agreeable vehicle to ride. The weight added to stability, and contradictory to expectations, it was much easier to throw the big bike into turns, than it was with the much lighter Sportster at home.

Nic’s Road King was even bigger, and although he handled it with the proficiency I still feel ultimately jealous of, he did not seem to enjoy it as much as his Sporty at home. Well, life would have been boring had everyone been the same… By the end of the trip I sure was ready to trade my Sportster in and get a Soft Tail instead!

After a brief stop for coffee at home, we ditched the car, and already on three bikes (Jane had to work), went to explore the area. Our main destination, that I accidentally stumbled upon while studying the East Coast maps in preparation to the trip, was the village of Sleepy Hollow, NY. Yes, that very same Sleepy Hollow, immortalized in the works of Washington Irving and Tim Burton! Logically thinking the place should have been on the East Coast, but somehow I have never given enough thought as to the exact location. Turned out, it was within a 30-minute ride from Fletch & Jane’s house.

The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow
Replica of the Headless Horseman Bridge down the creek

The village started with an old cemetery, stretching over an impressive 5 acres (2 hectares) of hilly land, and looked like a landscape park with centuries-old trees and architectural monuments in the form of vaults and tombstones. The 17th century Old Dutch Church proudly presided over this peaceful magnificence, looking over it from a hill at the entrance. A tree-covered brook with a wooden Headless Horseman bridge (unfortunately, only a replica of the original one, moved from where a new road intersection was built) added to the artificial atmosphere of a quacker fairy tale. I am not sure if the original literary piece was meant to be scary or not – I remember it (probably more due to Tim Burton, than Washington Irving – but, hey, any artistic medium counts!) more as a mysterious and foggy tale, than a horror story, and Washington Irving was definitely not Edgar Alan Poe. Seeing the area on a bright sunny day with big puffy clouds in a blue sky over the white-roofed church, only added to the positive impressions from the original story.

The Old Dutch cemetery of Sleepy Hollow

Somehow, I have never found cemeteries to be creepy. True, I have never been on premises at midnight, or any time after sunset, which probably adds special charm to the grounds. I have, however, always found a day walk through a cemetery to be very peaceful and relaxing. The only exception to the rule was an old cemetery in Buenos Aires, where due to the lack of space the rich were buried in multi-storey vaults that left an unsettling and lasting impression of a hectic necrophiliac self-storage, rather than a place of dignified calm. But to hell with Buenos Aires – wrong continent for this story.

The Sleepy Hollow Cemetery definitely confirmed the notions of beauty and peace. We walked around a bit, admiring decorated tomb-stones, some of which sunk so low into the ground, that the names on them were barely visible over the edge of the grass. The vaults were all locked down, but looked impressive enough from the outside.

Getting used to the bikes, we took a ride along the Hudson River, the one that New York stands upon. Outside of the perimeter of the Big Apple, where the grandeur of Manhattan skyscrapers blinds you to the charms of nature, the Hudson‘s waters turned out to be surprisingly wide and beautiful. Our next stop was at the overlook of the Bear Mountain, rising 1,400 feet (~400 meters) over the river. Why the mountain got its name remained a mystery, at least to me, for nothing in its shape either close-up, or from a distance, resembled any kind of animal. Maybe the forests covering it were swarming with bears, I don’t know, and I did not have a slightest inclination of finding out. What I personally remembered the mountain (or, rather, the scenic overlook over the Hudson) for, was an almost blind turn into the parking lot.

Beautiful view over the Hudson from the Bear Mountain

Turning on a motorbike is not as comfortable as in a car, where you can sit and wait, and move an inch a minute, waiting for a break in traffic until you see a clearing and hit gas. On a bike you risk losing balance if you do that, or stalling the engine if you are not used to handling the bike. The idea of being hit by a car suddenly appearing from the turn in the road, when you are trying to turn across two lanes, is not a very appealing one either. Turning has never been my forte, and even though I somehow managed to get into the parking lot, getting out of it and back onto the road after we finished admiring the curves of the Hudson, definitely added grey hairs to my already not so colorful head. The cars seemed to be coming from both directions in a non-stop line, one of the lanes cannot be seen properly due to a sharp bend of the road, and as if this was not enough, the exit lane was at a rather steep rising angle, meaning that the bike had to be in full brake in order not to roll backwards, but in gear and ready to move as soon as we could see a clearing in traffic. Finding a clearing big enough for three bikes seemed like an impossible dream. I sweated like a pig in midday heat in my full biking gear, and swore under my breath, damning the big bike and the steep road. The 2 seconds of getting out of that parking lot were among the scariest of my entire life. We did make it, though, which made my self-respect rise to sky-high levels.

After what turned out to be 6 straight hours on the road we arrived home to the all-American dinner of steak and corn. Which proved “Feed the Tourist” to be a national pastime in every country regardless of how well you know the hosts. Fletch & Jane are normal people, and cannot by any stretch of imagination be taken for stereotypical 200-pound Americans, nor do they normally eat humongous size portions, that have regretfully become so popular in the US. Yet, the dinner they prepared for us, was big enough to feed a small army. Together with them and Andy, their handyman-turned-friend, a decent-size fellow, originating from the land of Shakespeare and ale, we gave the dinner a really good go, but there was still enough left for us to eat for the next couple of days. Nobody complained, as the food was delicious. However, the feeling of an overweight pregnant beach wale that started after that steak dinner followed me throughout our whole stay in the States.

I had to be rolled into the bed in the “Victoria Suite“, and could only lay there gasping for breath, cursing myself for gluttony, and waiting for the horrible bloated feeling to pass. On this greedy note we’ll stop and wait for The Road Trip to begin the next day. But this is a whole different story.