It’s the middle of the night, the cabin lights are out and everyone is sleeping around me. I’m somewhere in the clouds over Russia, on my way to join my boyfriend in Thailand. He’s been rhapsodising about his ‘secret’ island of Koh Tao ever since I met him. Now I finally get to see it.
Heathrow airport was surprisingly stress-free on a Monday evening; I celebrated with some new perfume, a pair of jewelled flip-flops, and a glass of champagne. Ah, the joys of travelling alone.
After the in-flight meal and some writing, I’m flicking through the movies to kill time. I end up watching Frances Ha. It’s a recent indie flick, shot in black and white, following the fortunes of Greta, an aspiring dancer, and Sophie, a rising editor, as they leave college and face the real world. They fall in and out of love, and struggle with that eternal New York question of how to afford the rent on an apartment. It’s an engaging depiction of Generation-Y life and relationships in the Big Apple, and it has me reeling in bittersweet memories...
I was 17 years old, on my year out before starting at Oxford University. It was the end of 1995, Bill Clinton was in the White House and Mayor Giuliani ruled New York City. My plan was to spend a few weeks in NYC visiting my big sister Katie, before travelling around Europe. Do you remember the blizzards of winter 95-96? I landed at JFK in the snowstorms, and my sister whisked me off on an epic round of New Year parties.
Despite the alcohol and the jet-lag, I have crystal-clear memories of that first night in Manhattan. I remember a lively meal at a Chinese restaurant on Broadway; I remember various cab rides, criss-crossing from the Upper East Side to the Upper West Side; I remember the taste of Jaegermeister (never again); I remember a rooftop party at midnight on Riverside, looking out over the Hudson River, and fireworks amid the falling snowflakes.
There is a line in Heartburn by Nora Ephron that captures New York for me: she describes how the people are always rushing around “looking for action, love, and the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie.” I had planned to stay with my sister a fortnight, and ended up staying a year. I got a job in a French advertising agency, and eventually my own tiny shoe-box apartment on the Upper East Side. I began to learn the layout of the city: how some of the buses go up and down avenues, while others go side to side across the streets. (It’s a good system: British bus-routes are fairly random.) I got to grips with the subway system, I joined the locals running around the reservoir in Central Park. And of course, I ate plenty of chocolate chip cookies.
Food in New York is a serious business, and those flavours are still vivid. On my way to the office, a morning coffee and Danish pastry from the silver street-cart at Lexington and 77th; after work, happy-hour cocktails at Blue Note jazz club; mouth-watering cheese, bread and olives from Zabar’s; micro-brews and live music at the Abbey Pub. There was always more to discover: the New York City Ballet, shopping for vintage clothing in Tribeca and second-hand books at The Strand, meeting friends and wandering around MoMA, or just watching the old men play chess in Washington Square Park.
As one of the coldest winters turned into one of the hottest summers, we had picnics in Sheep Meadow and watched outdoor films in Bryant Park. My flat-mate, a Russian guitarist with long red hair, would come home in the early hours after gigs downtown. He’d make me listen to songs he was working on, or we’d play old Beatles album, then we’d go rollerblading up and down the East River.
It wasn’t all play: I was supposed to be preparing for my English Literature degree too. I spent long afternoons in the New York Public Library deciphering the Anglo-Saxon heroic epic Beowulf, or reading Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in the original Middle English.
As well as capturing my stomach, the city captured my heart: I fell in love with New York, and I fell in love with a New Yorker. My boyfriend was studying at Cornell, so I’d jump on the Greyhound every Friday afternoon and spend weekends in beautiful Ithaca. The end of that relationship was unspeakably painful (leading to the anorexia which wrecked my twenties) and yet I remember New York as one of the happiest years of my life. Maybe it’s true what they say, that the measure of love is loss.
The pilot’s voice cuts through my semi-sleep: we’ll be landing in just over an hour. The flight map shows us passing over Rangoon, heading into the Bay of Bengal. Bright shafts of sunlight flood the aircraft, confusing the body-clocks of its human cargo, as we gulp down cups of coffee. My anticipation overcomes my exhaustion: I’ve never been this far East. I remember how excited I felt, coming in to land at JFK all those years ago. Hard to believe I’m about to arrive in Bangkok.