You can often pinpoint, with some ease, the moment on a trip abroad that you miss home. For my most recent trip, the subject of this post, it was about 24 hours before I was due to leave. I was homesick for a home that I had not left yet, missed a country I had not begun to prepare for leaving. Fast forward two weeks and a day and I am homesick for my adopted home for the past fortnight; the adopted home I am yet to leave. After two weeks of majestic views, eye-catching and striking surroundings, wonderful company and generous friends who hosted me, it seems somewhat odd to be writing about it all alone in the rather unmajestic, non-descript airport hotel room that I find myself in. But, as is the mark of any good trip, I never found the time to sit down and begin this post whilst in more scenic surroundings, whether I was amongst New York's famous skyscrapers or the National Parks in Utah. Before I begin, I must thank, from the bottom of my heart, everyone that hosted me, put up with me, fed me, looked after me, took me out, spent time with me and most importantly, made this trip one to remember. I did stress that I will turn up if given half a chance. I will forever be grateful for your hospitality and company.
Once you navigate the lack of free trolleys (which, in a major airport, any Brit will find difficult to understand) and free wifi (which, lest we forget, even Luton and Stansted manage) at JFK, you reckon they could not have chosen a more inconvenient place to put an airport until you realise New York is also served by an airport in another state entirely. Visiting London? Fly to Edinburgh and take the train. Anyway, I immediately found my accent impossible to understand, nearly ending up in a taxi to Brooklyn after I said 'the Bronx' three times. I am also fairly sure those 45 minutes spent in the airport were the most taxing of my entire trip, so I shall leave the complaints there. New York was my first destination, I took the train to D.C. (America, can you sort out your trains? They're awful), flew to Salt Lake and onto Chicago before returning home via New York.
I am envious of people who are able to experience New York for the first time. There is nothing that can be written here that will add anything to what has already been said, but that will not stop me trying. Sometimes we hide behind the idea that everything has already been said, as if the absence of description is sufficient to explain. New York deserves better. Its main airport is in a stupid location, the vast majority of people I have had to negotiate that do not want to sell me something are rude and impatient, traffic is a nightmare, Grand Central Station, impressive though it is, is a poor woman's St Pancras, it's far too expensive but none of that stops it from being a truly superb city. Despite having been here on countless occasions, I still cannot help but walk up and down the streets and avenues with my mouth slightly open in awe and head tilted upwards. No matter how many times I am lucky enough to wander aimlessly, I will always be taken aback by the atmosphere and the busyness that seems to invigorate, not tire. Times Square's lights will never bore me, Central Park's tranquility will never cease to amaze me. I have fond memories of going to the old Virgin Megastore in Times Square at midnight and Starbucks at 1am. The city really does never sleep.
The less said about Amtrak the better. President Trump should stop wasting his time trying to repeal Obamacare and DACA and deal with the damn trains. Maybe he can follow in the footsteps of someone I can only presume is a great hero of his and make the trains run on time. Or just be a bit nicer. But it got me to D.C. and Union Station, which does give St Pancras a run for its money. My enduring memory of D.C. is being sat by the Washington Monument with the wind seemingly intent on ripping the flagpoles out of the ground. I was on a school trip and my History teacher was telling us the great irony of a city built to be the capital of the Land of the Free being built by slaves. The other member of staff on the trip decided this was the moment to inform us of the origins of fried chicken, which was, we were told, because it was cheaper for African Americans in the south to fry their chicken. A juxtaposition fitting for the city of juxtapositions. Many cities have great wealth and poverty side by side. Only one can claim the rather dubious honour of a) being the home of the leader of the free world, b) being built by slaves and c) having double the national average of homelessness all at the same time. Sobering, isn't it? Regardless, the Mall boasts an impressive collection of museums and landmarks. Particularly memorable was the small Supreme Court exhibition on the first female Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, but take a few days and visit the museums that interest you. I guarantee you will not be left disappointed.
Salt Lake City was next. Utah was the part of the trip I was least prepared for, mainly because I had little to no idea what I would be doing. As it turns out, bringing proper shoes to walk in, a bathing suit and slightly more comfortable shorts would all have gone down well. None of that, however, mattered or detracted from what was a spectacular four days 'glamping' (I am assured that is the correct lingo for glamourous camping) in various national parks. I wrote a small note whilst taken aback by a waterfall on the last hike we did. It could easily apply to everything we saw. "Nature is awe-inspiring. The idea that something as mundane as water or wind has made the stunning rock formations or arches that we can see is difficult to comprehend. Our minds are not able to understand or even begin to put into concepts we might have the slightest of inkling about the sheer scale of what we are seeing. It is, literally, incredible. It makes you question your relationship with reality and the nature we think forms it. When we think about what nature, unguided by humans, has achieved, our arrogance is almost as breathtaking as the waterfalls we see almost erupting from nowhere and the views that in 100 years could look different as nature continues to take its course. It puts everything into perspective and humbles you."
Utah is stunningly beautiful. I have no more words for it than that. Go and see it for yourself. I cannot recommend finding a week, a tent, some friends and a local who knows their way around more. I felt privileged to be able to see it and to see it with such wonderful company. Camping with (some) people you have never met sounds like the start of a bad Adam Sandler film that ends with the food going missing and someone (let's be honest, me) burning down the tent just as the sun sets. That could not have been further from the truth. Snoring, my own included, aside I thoroughly enjoyed the company and am thankful for the good humour and thoughtful debates we shared. And, I never got to see where High School Musical was filmed, so I suppose I might just have to go back again. Adam Sandler films always have sequels, right?
Last stop: Chicago. Chicago is one of those places I always claim to have gone to despite being much younger and having little to no memory of it - except it being called the windy city, which I learnt the hard way when I visited the first time. It was, in many ways, the perfect way to end this trip. Chicago's botanical gardens are remarkable. I was envious of the couple lucky enough to get married there, the backdrop was something special and am envious of anyone who lives close enough to drive/bike there, lie on the grass reading amongst the trees and plants. I had the experience of a lifetime in The Aviary, a cocktail bar, where I was served a ship in a bottle that via setting something on fire ended up as a delightful drink. No, I am none the wiser either. I wandered aimlessly through downtown Chicago and along Lake Michigan, grateful to be alive, grateful for the opportunity to study at a university that attracts so many international students, grateful for being part of a religion that makes friendship easier, grateful for every damn thing that brought me to that moment.
As with any trip, lots of it remains personal. I have so many more photos and memories than those shared here. Things have been left unsaid not because they were not noteworthy, but because their beauty lay with who I was able to share them with. I am lucky to have friends with a claim on my heart in so many places, all of which I can be homesick for. The end of this trip just means I can come back again. To everyone that I spent time with on this trip, to those that hosted me for Shabbat, especially, and to everyone that put me up and put up with me in general, I am truly grateful. I always promise that if I say I am going to turn up, I will turn up - I hope I have left you under no illusions about that - but I do so knowing that I am always available to host you in return. You made my trip.
The boring stuff:
Staying with friends, if you have them, is far more fun than staying in a hotel or an AirBnB. I recommend making international friends.
Pizaza remains the best pizza in the world. Please do not believe the FAKE NEWS media that may try and convince you otherwise. Ben Yehuda, Maryland offers worthy, but ultimately futile, competition.
Flying in and out of JFK proved to be the cheapest way of doing this trip, worth looking into if you want to do multi-city visits in the US, where many airlines charge absurd fees for travelling in and out of different airports.
I have not exaggerated how awful the trains are.
The Bronx is not Brooklyn.
There is only one Kosher restaurant in D.C., but plenty in the surrounding suburbs as far as I am aware.
Second Story Books and KramerBooks (both near DuPont circle) are excellent bookshops. FYI: the former is a secondhand bookshop.
I cannot recommend The Aviary for excellent drinks enough.