Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Real NYC #40 - Walking around New York City means finding surprises everywhere you look

I love walking around a city. It is the only way to really understand its life and rhythm. You see how people live. You feel the passage of time, both in the changes in architecture and in the passage of people on the street. When I travel I spend days walking neighborhoods, both touristy and homey.

I also have pleasure of living in one of the most walkable cities – New York. It goes beyond cliché. Manhattan is the center of the city, and it is a compact collection of neighborhoods. It is where I grew up. And I still spend hours walking around its streets. I walk in all weather, because New Yorkers don’t let rain or snow stop get in the way of what they want to do.

On the streets of New York, my eyes are often captured by signs. Not the new flashy LED signs with words and pictures moving around, changing images faster than you can process them. My eyes settle on the old signs. Some are for businesses that have been in the same place for decades. They still have their original painted signs up over their windows. They may even have phone numbers with no area code or even with letters in addition to numbers, showing their age.

Often, my eyes are entranced by signs that hang perpendicular to the buildings. On a good block they can layer the view, different colors competing for my attention with words in different styles. One of the worst things to happen in New York was when landlords decided that all of the businesses in their building had to have uniform signs, all the same color and font. They blend in together and nothing catches the eye.

But my favorite time to walk the city is at night. The distractions fade away and light gets to dance at the center of the stage. Once again, my eyes dodge past the LEDs, those new kids, moving fast. Like break dancers, their moves are too hard for me to follow. I search out the slow moving signs. There, over a diner – NEON!

Neon is a sensuous slow dance. Red light in the basement for a house party, it invites you in with a promise of more. Today neon promises an authenticity earned by age. Some new diners try to mimic the style, but you can tell the new from old in an instant. Old neon has a certain dingy quality, not quite dirty, but not clean either. There is a comfort level that it promises, whether in front of a diner, where you know just what comfort food to order, or over a dive bar, letting you know that there will be no frou-frou drinks, just beer and whisky.

You learn a lot about a city when you walk its streets. You see the people who live there. And you see how they live. So put on your walking shoes and take to the streets.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Explore life in Mérida Mexico by walking its neighborhoods

There is really only one way to truly get to know a place, and that is to walk its streets. If you want to know what is happening, or see how people are living, walk the neighborhoods. The city of Mérida, on the Yucatán peninsula of México is a beautiful place and its colonial center is a great place to walk.

The Doors of Mérida

Maybe it was my coming of age in the early 1970’s but I have always loved the old Aer Lingus and The Irish Tourism Office advertisement “The Doors of Dublin”:


When I walk around any city I am entranced by the door ways. I look to see if they are old or new. I notice if they are being maintained or allowed to decay. I feel that I can tell something about the condition of a town by looking at its doors. A family might not have the money to paint and plaster the outside walls, but if they are doing well their door is in good shape. If they have extra money it is special. The door to one’s house is their face to the world.

Mérida Markets

Another way to learn about place is to visit its market place. Mérida has a huge central market. A short walk from the Plaza Grande or Zócalo, the Mercado Central occupies about 6 square blocks. You can read a little of its history here. This is not a place to go if you are claustrophobic. Its tight passages are filled with stalls selling everything from soup to nuts, from clothes to furniture, just about anything a family could want or need.

The market can be hard to walk through, especially when it get crowded, and I quickly lost track of  where the exits were. But it was a feast for the senses. Clothes, food and goods of so many colors were everywhere I looked. The sounds of sellers and buyers fill the space, and the smell of spices for sale and of cooking food made my mouth water. I could have spent hours in the market, and plan to when I return.

Centennial Zoo (Parque Zoológico Del Centenário)

Family life is very important in Mérida, and the Centennial Park Zoo is a favorite place to bring the kids. The zoo has a significant collection of animals. Giraffes and zebras meet you at the main gate, and there are three Bengali Tigers. I can also say that I have never been as close to not one, not two, but three hippos. There are many types of primates and birds. But there are most of all are little kids with smiles on their faces, running from cage to cage, while their parents try to keep up.  There is a small gauge train that rides around the edge of the park, and a cable car ride across the park.

If you are used to modern zoological parks like the Bronx Zoo, you might find this zoo disappointing, sad or maybe even abusive of the animals. But if this is the zoo that you have you come and bring the kids, and everyone visiting was having a great time.

Walking around a city is the best way to get a real feel for the lives that people lead. So take the time to leave the tourist areas and explore where people live. You will have some fun and learn more about the day to day experiences of those whom you are visiting.