We're Off and Running

Written by Steve - December 30, 2004

As you will find as you read along with us on our journey, you will find no matter what we do it will most likely not be the easiest way. We have some good friends who came to stay over with us and see us off at the airport, and that was wonderful. It was at that moment that it hit me that we will not be coming home for maybe a long time. The plane we boarded was fully loaded and we would have to change planes in Toronto, which normally is no big deal. The only problem was we had someone sitting in one of our seats and he was very drunk. His phone rang just before they closed the door of the plane and he started screaming into his phone, loud enough that the whole plane could hear him. The flight attendant came up to him and told him to keep his voice down and he just motioned her away.  This upset me and my kids because we were sitting right next to this guy and I was not looking forward to the surprises that were about happen on our 4 Ĺ hour flight. My son was next to me and I could see he was very upset, so I went up to the flight attendant and told her I thought this was going to be a very long flight and this guy was loaded. She understood and had the flight crew keep the door open and asked the gentleman to step outside the plane back into the gangway so they could speak to him. I then told my son to relax because that gent was not coming back. All we heard was about 10 minutes of yelling and screaming and then the plane door closed and we never saw him again. We had to wait 20 minutes for them to get his bag off the plane and without any other problems, we took off.
Nice start eh?

We landed in Toronto and cleared customs and hopped back on our plane to New York, no problem. We had a car pick us up from the hotel because we had 14 pieces of luggage and unless the taxi was made by Freightliner, it was not going to happen.
 


 

New York

I had been to New York once before back in October 2001, 3 weeks after the towers fell. I and my fellow Firefighters had joined hundreds of thousands of Firefighters from all over the world to support our brothers from the FDNY. We were greeted at JFK by the National Guard and their massive guns, and we had to strip off almost everything before clearing customs.  From there we were loaded onto a shuttle to our hotel for a bit and then straight to ground zero, well you all know what it looked like so I'll move on.

 

 

Let's just say that I am very glad to be here in New York with my family as a tourist ready to ring in the New Year at Times Square.  We arrived at the Plaza hotel which sat right on the edge of Central park on 59th ave. at Central Park south. The hotel is very old and fully loaded. We had been traveling for more than 15 hours and needed some shut eye A.S.A.P. We were all ready to grab a nap, but Danika and I headed out into the streets, and I don't think I have ever held her hand that hard. We came back to the room and the other two were out like a light and we waited around the room for a couple of hours. We then did the Central Park stroll and took a cab to Time Square, so we could test how long it would take us to go and back for tomorrow night. Everyone we spoke to, told us to go the New Years bash at Times Square, that it will be safe, just stay on the outside perimeter. When you talk to people here, they all say its safe and they thank Rudy Giuliani. I read in the newspaper that the murder rate has plummeted from 2245 in 1990 to 566 in 2004. We feel very safe here. I will let Helen tell you the rest about our first day, but I would like to say one thing. We have done many things as a family in the last tens years, but I can not remember a day that way was any better than today. We were all very tired, but we had a great walk, a fantastic meal and the kids were awesome. I won't forget this day for a very long time.

Helenís Version  

Staying at the Fairmont at the airport was a brilliant idea.  It was very therapeutic for the traveler that hates to fly.  When you sit there and watch plane after plane take off, it kind of takes the seriousness out of it.  I would sit in our room and think, Wow this is just in this city, think of how many planes take off at any given moment all over the world.  We also had some wonderful distractions.  My sister works at the airport so I tried to spend as much time with her as I could.  We went for breakfast and lunch and it was fun.  My mom and my nephew also arrived bright and early on the day we were leaving to spend the day with us.  It was wonderful.  Dear friends of ours stayed one night in the airport with us as well as their daughter was leaving for Hamilton bright and early the morning of the 29th.  We had left a message with friends and family to meet us at the Haida bronze monument at the airport between 3-7pm and the Beaumontís and the Dennisís came and we spent a wonderful 4 and a half hours drinking and visiting and making my nerves feel like jello.  The only downside was that there was a miscommunication with my sister and I ended up missing 2 hours of quality time with her as she could not find me when she came back with her other son after working a full shift at work.  She was not happy with me and made no attempt to hide her anger.  It made my final good-bye with her awkward and nothing how I had imagined it would be and for that I am very sad.  It was really hard saying good-bye to my mom.  Even Nikolas couldnít believe she was crying and I think it bothered him to see that.  I did tell my mom earlier in the day, after she told me how nervous she was that we were going.  I said to her that she should remember back to when she was my age and she escaped a Communist country by running through a dark forest one night with my 5-year old brother.  I told her that the courage she had to do that and then come to a country with no money and no language and make a life for herself and her family is more dangerous than anything I am doing now.  I also told her to feel proud because she told me that she did all that to give her children a better life.  Well, I told her that I probably would not be lucky enough to do this amazing trip if we were still living in Yugoslavia.  She told me that yes, that did make her feel better.  And I truly am grateful for this opportunity of a lifetime.

 Waiting for our flight to Toronto was a long agonizing wait.  But finally we were walking onto the plane, me with my Ativan pill nicely dissolving under my tongue and Gravol working its magic on our children.  Our flight was to leave at 11:05pm but they notified us that they had to delay a few minutes because apparently Toronto instills a fine on all planes that land before 6:30am.  When we got all settled and cozy in our seats a couple told us that we were in their seats.  We realized our mistake and went across the aisle to our seats.  Well, there was a very husky, extremely intoxicated man sitting in my seat.  Steve told him that he was sitting in our seat and he very nicely told Steve to shut up and pretended to be asleep.  At this point, the Ativan and all my positive thinking went right out the window and my heart was beating a mile a minute.  Danika and I took the row ahead of this guy and Steve and Nikolas took the seats right next to him.  I was sitting in the very first row and the plane door was still open and I must say it took every muscle in my body to stop myself from running out of those doors, never to fly again.  At this point the guyís cell phone rang and he was yelling at the top of his lungs into his phone in another language loud enough for the whole plane to hear.  Shortly after he hung up and told my husband a second time to get lost about the seats the flight attendant politely asked him to join her just outside the planes doors.  They had a very loud and heated discussion and much to my delight and I can confidently guess, the delight of everyone else on that flight, the door closed without him.  We were then delayed another 20 minutes while they found his luggage and got them off the plane as well.  I have to say, this is the second time we have flown with Westjet and we were once again very impressed.

The flight was wonderful, very smooth and it went by so quickly.  Danika slept the whole way but the rest of us had only little cat naps here and there.  Yes, I actually did fall asleep a few times, maybe my phobia is diminishing!!!!!  We landed in snow covered Toronto, went through Customs and boarded our flight for New York.  It took less than an hour and soon we had a spectacular view of NEW YORK CITY!  It was a beautiful sunny day and the city is humungous!

 

 

When we landed we had a lady waiting for us with the little sign and she was astonished at all our luggage.  We had rented a limo thinking that we would have more room but she proceeded to inform us that in fact a limo has very little cargo space.  Oh well.  It was fun driving through New York in a limo and the driver ended up giving us a 45 min. tour of the city and we found out that he is a boxer and his trainer use to train Mohammed Ali and George Forman.  His name is John Hill and he was very nice.

We arrived at the Plaza and it was a circus.  There was a line up for everything and it was just crazy.  Our room wasnít ready but with us sitting there with two exhausted children and 14 pieces of luggage, Steve decided to take an upgrade that was offered at an extremely discounted price.  The room is nice, very elegant and grand but I have to say, for the price, I was expecting a little more, until I realized the prices in New York.  We actually have a beautiful view of Central Park albeit through a very small window.  Thatís the thing with some of the Fairmontís; they are grand old buildings with rooms that are smaller and by no means contemporary.  Some people really enjoy this; I on the other hand enjoy the more modern style.

After a 3 hour nap we decided to take a stroll through the streets of New York.  We walked across the street to Central Park and this sounds easy enough but noooo, you put your life at risk just crossing the street.  This city is crazy.  I have never been here before but I have watched my fair share of Sex in the City, NYPD Blue, and Third Watch and I can honestly say that the way it is portrayed in the movies is exactly the way it is, if not worse.   As you walk on the street all you hear continually, and I mean NON STOP is the beeping.  And everywhere you look you see yellow.  Yellow Taxis.  Everywhere!!!  And everyone drives like maniacs and the streets are so full of people you can hardly walk.  I thought it was like this because of the holidays but everyone we talk to says itís actually quite quiet right now.  Oh my gosh.  It is unbelievable.

    

 

We then decided to hop in a cab and see how far our hotel is from Times Square.  Well, once we jumped in at our hotel it took the cab 20 minutes to make a full circle in traffic and we were right back where we started but going in the opposite direction.  All the while he is talking or should I say yelling, on his cell phone in a different language.  Danika, Nikolas and I were in the back seat behind the security glass and Steve was in the front seat.  We finally arrived and as we walked towards the lights of Times Square it was just getting dark and the experience was mind boggling.  Itís just so happening!!!  Does that make sense?  The lights are so bright and busy, moving and changing and you are pushed along by hordes of people and the beeping and the smells of the hot dogs and pretzels on every corner.  Itís just such a sensory overload.  I even said to Steve that it reminded me a little of Las Vegas but grittier and busier.  I wasnít even sure if I liked it all that much, I think I was so overwhelmed.  But as we walked I started to take it all in and I realized that it is the coolest thing Iíve ever seen.  We took the kids to the gigantic Toys R Us store and they were in awe.  There is this huge t-rex in there that is very real looking and every so often it lets out this incredible roar.  Danika was in her glory in the Barbie World section.  We wanted to go to a little restaurant somewhere and not a real commercial place like the Hard Rock Cafť.  We came across this pizzeria that looked good and clean and there were lots of people inside.  It was called Angeloís Pizza on West 57th Street and it was excellent.  Steve and I shared a pasta dish and a cheese and proscuitto pizza and the kids shared a plate of Fettuccini Alfredo.  The food was delicious and Nikolas begged us for a New York cheesecake and it was fantastic too.  With full bellies we walked back to our hotel and are now getting ready for our first nightís sleep in this amazing city.

 

 NEW YEARS EVE

(Written by Steve)

We headed out for a little walk around the city and and we found a little deli and sat and had a few snacks. We saw thousands of Police taking positions all over the street corners and putting up barricades. We asked one what was going on and he told us they were getting set up to block all the streets. It was only 2pm and the crowd was already down at Times Square, and on the next corner about 2000 police were lined all the way down the block. I asked one of the NYPD gents how many members they were bringing for tonight's event, and he said that they had brought 10,000 off duty police back to work for Times Square and Central Park events. 10,000 WOW! Well, I started to wonder, what the heck am I doing here, never mind bringing my 2 little kids. We walked around and ended up at FAO Schwarz toy store. I felt safe there, but was certainly wondering if going out with our kids tonight was such a great idea. We had spent a couple of hours in the Toys r Us store yesterday, so why not spend an hour in this one today. After talking to the police, I had no problem spending our New Years in the store. This store was the most amazing store I had ever seen, it was 3 floors with everything from a vintage Barbie collection to a 50k Ferrari go cart . That's right 50,000 US for a go cart with a Ferrari shell and a Honda engine. When I asked if it was only a display, the cashier told me, they sold 3 of them just before Christmas. I guess the building and the crowds are not the big thing here, the Christmas trees and presents appear to be a tad larger too. What else was nuts, is we spent all afternoon in this store, and loved every moment of it. If you come to N.Y. City make sure you go to FAO Schwarz, with or without kids.  We went back to the room so Danika could sleep for a few hours and we could make a plan for tonight.

(Written by Helen)

After so many years watching this incredible moment on television, I had to pinch myself to make sure it was for real.  From very early on in the day the preparations were in full force.  I can honestly say it was a little unnerving to see sooo many police officers all over the place.  Some were in there regular cop uniforms and there were lots in their full riot gear:  with shields on these huge helmets, the biggest batons I've ever seen and some with machine guns dangling from their belts.  At one point during the day, a bunch of them had gathered in one spot and it was amazing to see thousands, yes I said thousands of police officers in one spot.  In one moment I felt really safe, and in the next moment I thought, "what the hell are we doing here?"  Looking around though, no one else seemed the least bit concerned so I just took a deep breath and tried to enjoy the experience the best I could.  The crowd started gathering at Times Square around noon but we decided that we would wait and kind of just hang out near the edges and be a few blocks away.  Little did we know that we would end up 7 blocks away with absolutely no view of anything except a blockade fence and a row of riot police.  We went to Mickey Mantle's Restaurant for our New Year's Eve dinner.  It was okay, not great but the memorabilia was fun to look at.  When we headed out to Times Square we walked three different directions with thousands of other people and realized that all the streets leading to Times Square were blocked off already by huge blockades and two police officers every 8 feet.  We had to walk all the way back to our hotel and along Park Avenue and to the end of the line.  We had decided to stand and just listen to the crowd because there was no possible way we could see the ball drop or even the lights of Times Square.  We stayed by the blockades and spent 5 minutes discussing our escape plan with the kids if there happened to be a surge of people for whatever reason.  There were a lot of drunken people but I was really impressed that nobody got out of hand and anytime something might erupt, a police officer would pop up behind the fence surrounding Central Park.  You didn't realize they were there until all of a sudden one of them would appear out of nowhere and the crowd would just settle down.  We stood there for about two hours and every few minutes you would hear a wave of cheering and hollering make it's way from Times Square down the seven blocks and then we would cheer too.  No one knew what we were cheering about but it was fun and the kids had a toot of their horns and it would get us all pumped for the big moment.  We started talking to some of the police officers at the blockade and asked them if we were safe there and they said absolutely, although I questioned that slightly as I looked up and saw three or four helicopters hovering above us with their spot lights checking out the tops of the skyscrapers around us.  They were actually very nice and at about ten minutes to midnight one of the officers asked us if our kids wanted a better view.  We said yes and he directed us down the street a bit to where there was an opening in the blockade fence.  He took us through the blockade, across the street that was closed off to the public and to the main street that leads to Times Square.  We were still 7 blocks away but at least now we could see the lights of Times Square and we could see the big screen with the countdown to midnight.  This was actually quite a big deal because as we had been waiting for 2 hours there were hundreds of people asking the police if they could just get across the street because they lived there, they even had i.d. with their addresses but the police would just shake their heads and laugh and say no way.  We thanked that officer profusely and brought in the New Year with a small but fabulous view of Times Square.  The roar from the crowd at midnight was thunderous and you could see clouds of confetti falling from the sky.  Everyone was hugging, even the police officers.  It ended up being a perfect spot for us because right at midnight there was a spectacular fireworks display right behind us in Central Park.  We started walking towards our hotel to beat the rush and everyone was saying Happy New Year as you walked down the streets, it was so cool.  All the doormen were out and every time you walked by they had big smiles and they were wishing everyone a Happy New Year.  I wanted to jump up and down and scream, 'we did it , we survived!' but I thought better of it and just happily made our way back to the hotel. 

 

 

10,000 NYPD Officers were brought in for crowd control, welded man hole covers and enough barricades to block off around Times Square for 8 blocks in every direction

 

 

NEW YEARS DAY

Jan. 1st, 2005

We've been getting up really late every morning because, first of all, we go to bed late and second of all, we are still three hours behind on Vancouver time.  We usually get up at about 10:30, have breakfast, shower and by the time we are ready to head out, half the day is over.  Hopefully this will change in a few days.  Today we decided to take a ride on the infamous New York Subway System.  We asked our Concierge the best way to get to Soho and she gave us directions and off we went.  As you head down the stairs into the subway station the odours that await you are quite interesting.  I would have to say that urine is the predominant smell and Steve (the germ freak) drilled into our children's heads that they were not to touch anything!  It is very dark and dingy down there and it feels like there is an earthquake happening as the cars barrel down to your stop.  We studied the map three times before we realized that we were on the wrong side and had to cross over the tracks to head the other way.  The car we hopped on was pretty empty and as you are whizzed along the dark scary tunnel you think back on all the things that can go wrong.  Well, I did anyway.  Fire? Collision?  Breakdown?  Hold up?  I know I'm stretching it but that's just how my mind works.  It took us about 10 minutes and I can say that our skytrain system at home looks brand spanking new compared to this system.  The windows are a little hard to see out of because of all the graffiti on them and the cars are a very dingy grey colour.  It was actually quite a cool experience and we arrived safely at Prince Street in Soho.  As we emerged from the bowels of the subway station we came upon Broadway and this incredible shopping district.  It reminded me of Robson Street but 100 times the size and 100 years older.  The place was packed with shoppers and as I have noticed since we got here the people dress very fashionably, we are definitely underdressed.  Even their casual clothes are cool.  Nothing like our nerdy fleece jackets and hiking shoes.  They all have these very funky jackets on with wildly coloured  scarves and everyone wears high heel boots with their jeans rolled up to the tops of them.  Some of the stores we ventured in to were very funky.  To give you an idea on the pricing I walked into this one store called Lounge because it said their sale was 50-75% off.  Excellent, except that the first little cotton blouse I looked at was regular $395.00US. 

We walked for hours and hours and when you look down any street it stretches as far as the eye can see.  This city is so huge it's unbelievable.  We walked down some residential streets as well and it was exactly how you would imagine.  These old brownstone buildings with iron gates around the front doors.  Each place has a few bikes sitting outside and there is a pile of garbage bags sitting on the curb.  I have not seen one garbage can anywhere.  Even in the really high end sections of the city, every night they put out piles of black garbage bags outside each building.  The mixture of people on the streets is amazing.  There are some yuppie-type people jogging or walking their dogs.  There are some seedy looking people hovering in front of some of the seedy pizza parlours, there are kids here and there and they all go about their business with no problems at all.  The culture mix is interesting too.  Lots of Hispanics, lots of Asians, lots of African Americans, lots of Middle Eastern people and they all hang out together in their separate groups. 

On every street there is about three or four delis, restaurants or pizza places.  It's hard to decide where to eat but we usually pick one that has a lot of people inside and that looks relatively clean.  We found a place called Mary Ann's (yes, the kids wanted to go there because of their aunty) and it was excellent.  It was this very neat Mexican restaurant and the salsa was great.  BUT, the margaritas were fantastic.  The sign outside the restaurant states that they have "killer margs" and the sign was right.  We had a great lunch and then decided to hail a cab back to the hotel.  Again, it is so cool to just stand at the street and wave your hand in the air and within seconds there is a cab waiting to whisk you away.  I'm starting to really like this place.

 

All the shows we wanted to see were sold out, like Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, so we got tickets for The Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular Show starring The Rockettes.  I thought the show was fantastic even though Christmas is over.  Steve said he liked it but I know it wasn't his kind of thing.  Nikolas thought it was okay and Danika liked it but I could tell she didn't love it like I did.  When the Rockettes came out the first time and started to do the can-can all in a row like I've seen so many times on T.V. I almost got choked up.  I know that's silly but I thought it was pretty amazing.  This was the second to last day for the show and they have been doing shows five times a day since early November.  You honestly cannot tell that they are doing the show for the 200th time, they have so much enthusiasm.

After the show we walked to Rockefeller Center and admired the huge Christmas tree and the crowds of people skating on the rink right under it.  It was freezing outside and we didn't bring any big jackets with us because the weather has been so mild.  We then decided to walk to Times Square to see if the Toy R Us was open because we promised Danika that she could use her Christmas money to buy something.  The streets were so packed as we walked that it actually kept us warm.  All the stores (except Toys R Us) were open; now you have to remember it is about 11:30PM on a Saturday night on New Year's Day.  Unbelievable!!

On the way back to our hotel we stopped at a deli and had some spaghetti and meatballs.  It was alright, not great but we were all starving so it hit the spot.  We walked back to our hotel and were in bed by 2AM.  Another wonderful day in New York City!

 

Jan. 2, 2005

Once again we woke up at 10:30am and had our room service breakfast in our room.  This time it was closer to 1pm before we ventured out.  We decided to take a cab to Ground Zero as I have never seen it before and it's been over two years since Steve saw it.  When we were dropped off there it felt surreal.  There were lots of people there but you could tell that it was a somber mood and there was not a lot of chatter or laughing.  You walk down these cement stairs into a sort of viewing area that is encompassed by a huge chain link fence and a mesh blockade.  It really was hard for me to even imagine the full scope of what happened there as you stare into this huge piece of land that really looks like a building site.  As you look up and around you can still see the damage on some of the surrounding buildings, especially the older ones that are difficult to totally repair.  The newer glass buildings all have their new glass in so they look brand new but the older ones that are made of brick have chunks of building missing and presumably never to be repaired.  All around the site there are pictures of what the towers looked like as they were being built, what they looked like before they were hit and what they looked like after they fell.  There are 4 or 5 signs with lists of names on them with the heading: "Heroes of 9/11".  I was very impressed with the memorials as they are not super fancy or super patriotic like I had expected.  They are very tastefully done and you can tell that what happened to this city is something that hit them harder than anyone can really imagine.  I have to confess and say that I am not a huge fan of the "American way" but standing there I felt a sadness because I realized that the people in this city are innocent hard-working individuals who love their city for what it's worth and are now determined not to feel anger or hatred but to overcome this evil by joining together and rebuilding.

 

  

 

From here Steve wanted to walk to Battery Park and along the way we stopped into a neighbourhood boxing club.  Nikolas thought it was the coolest place and we ended up talking to the guy at the counter who was originally from Toronto.  He told us that there have been quite a few movies filmed there and just recently the contestants from America's Next Top Model had been in to film a segment.  (I saw that one!)  Battery Park is where you can hop on a ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.  We didn't but we got a great view of her and that was very exciting.

From here we decided to go to the Empire State Building and when we got there the wait was two hours so we decided to come back later.  We then walked for hours again in and out of stores until we finally made it to Macy's. Wow, what a place.  Nikolas said it best when we arrived there and there was this big sign stating that it was the biggest shopping store in the world.  He said, "why does New York have the biggest EVERYTHING?"  We laughed as we walked through floor after floor of Macy's.  They even have their own D.J. playing music throughout the store.  From there we took 2 hours trying to find a place to have our final dinner in New York.  We were trying to find a perfect 'New York' eatery but ended up at the Olive Garden where we had a fabulous pasta dinner instead.  From here we walked back to the Empire State Building and went up and watched their Imax theatre show where you sit in these seats in front of a huge screen and when the show begins the seats move and it feels like you are flying over New York City in a helicopter.  A few people in the audience even got a little motion sickness but the kids loved it especially Danika.  After that we went up to the observatory which is 86 floors up and the view is breathtaking.  I kind of wish we had done this the first day because it really does give you an idea where each section of the city is and the major streets that connect them.  You actually walk outside and it was a little scary when a plane flew by quite close, or so it seemed, to the top of the building.  Everyone kind of looked up and you could hear a little nervous laughter here and there.  As touristy as it seems it certainly is a must see and it reminded me of all the movies that had references to this incredible architectural marvel.

 

(Steve's two cents) 

I love New York! I love everything about it except for staying in a hotel, it would be much better staying here with someone who lives here. My favorite thing here is the taxi rides. If you have never been in a NY cab, go rent the video game "Crazy Taxi" and play it, that's exactly what it is like. Like most Americans I have ever met, New Yorkers are super friendly and polite. We have been treated as well or better than in Canada, and people have often gone out of their way to help us with directions, telling Helen she will be pick pocketed when she had some money sticking out of her back pocket, and entertaining our kids. We are leaving today and I hope we come back and see all that we missed like Long Island, Harlem, Bronx zoo, Coney Island and a Rangers-Canucks game.