There's always that first bit where you're in the back of a yellow cab (piloted by a psychotic driver) en route from the airport. Clenching the handle that hangs from the ceiling as if it would make any real difference should he collide into the car in front of him/ to the sides of him, as he weaves into yet another lane without signalling. And then, suddenly, you come up and over the rise and that awe inspiring skyline comes into view. It never fails to take my breath away. For that brief moment I forget about my fear of imminent death or mutilation, and a ball of excitement fizzes in my belly as we drive into the magic that is Manhattan.
Unlike most things, where people say 'Oh it's nothing like in the movies', well Manhattan is everything like in the movies. There are always works going on in the streets, with manholes emitting great gaseous plumes from the bowels of the city. The construction workers in their yellow vests and hard hats eating sandwiches and swapping stories. The non-stop police sirens, like there is a crime happening every hour around every corner. The men and women of all ages - impeccably groomed and well heeled on their way to some or other power lunch or meeting, I imagine. The strange and sometimes sad people who seem to live on a different frequency to the rest of us, eccentrically dressed or undressed in some cases, talking to an invisible audience. The fast talking vendors selling hot dogs and pretzels. The flower adorned horse-drawn carriages that unfortunately never fail to remind me of an East End funeral. The suited doormen outside of the large park facing apartment buildings, hailing cabs for beautifully dressed older women, ever so vaguely familiar, wearing sunglasses and clutching Kelly bags. The vast sea of human traffic coming in waves towards you. And that unbelievably green and immense other world that is Central Park.
And the best part of it is, it doesn't change, well for me that is. Even if you find the pace too frenetic, it's a familiar frenetic pace. Somehow, I find that comforting. A lot more comforting than were I to find myself in the middle of the country with only the mosquitoes for company. Give me the city, and more so give me this city, any day.
I had a couple of days with my husband in Manhattan recently, and yes, the kids weren't with us. I see these short breaks together as a necessary move towards each other and ourselves, rather than a getting away from the children. But I don't see these two things as mutually exclusive - ergo, I love my children and the 99.9% of time I spend with them, and I also love time alone with my husband and with myself. There, I said it, and I'm OK with that. And having a parent who generously and lovingly takes care of my children so we can take this time out together is, I appreciate, a blessing and one I'm extremely grateful for.
The occasional mini break, even if it's only an overnight stay just outside of London, has become an enjoyable and what feels like necessary addition to our lives. We turn into different people on these occasions. Instead of talking about our kids all of the time, we talk about them about 80% of the time. Also, instead of the usual boring tautological exchange about stuff we need to do, should have done, bills to pay, school things, the horrible economy, our mutual loathing of the Daily Mail etc, we find ourselves talking about books we have read and enjoyed. Films we like and would like to see, some day. Ideas we have, things we would like to do, may do, if we won the lottery, and even if we don't. And yes, our mutual loathing of the Daily Mail.
And then there are the old stories from our pasts we've told each other a million times before but still relish in retelling and enjoy hearing. And dare I say it, we find each other, and ourselves, interesting again. There is an immense magic that comes from feeling interesting, and not just the kind of interesting people think they are when they've consumed vast amounts of cocaine. But the kind of interesting you feel when your mind is stimulated and firing on all cylinders and you can draw someone into that incredibly tantalising web with your novel thoughts, observations, and charming wit.
OK, so perhaps this is how people feel when they are on coke, and in fact those of us with a very inflated sense of self - so, bad analogy. Regardless, the non drug induced kind, which is my experience of it, even if it is a tad narcissistic, is wonderful and invigorating. This kind of thing happens rarely, and usually when you've had time to rest, refuel, and are enjoying a particularly good glass of wine or a cocktail in the company of someone you find equally interesting and engrossing. What follows is an irresistibly fun and sexy intellectual dance - a kind of oxygen to a long term relationship I think.
We also visit places we've heard about or had recommended and that look interesting, and which don't have to be family friendly or have high chairs. We drink a bit too much wine, we flirt, we laugh, we have fun. It's like the us before all the other stuff. Which isn't to say I long for a time before my kids, but you know, sometimes, for a couple of hours or days, it's nice to get back to that time in our life before we had children. To be reminded, and indeed to feel, that there is still a me in an amongst the me that loves and feels so incredibly responsible for the happiness, health, and basically everything, of two small people as well as a not so small one. And I'd bet my bottom dollar my husband feels the same, but wouldn't feel quite so guilty admitting it.
In terms of having time to myself, this is not so much to finish a meal uninterrupted, to shop, have massages, read a biography from cover to cover, have long deep baths, and catch up with friends. All of which, given the opportunity, I would do, and do so ambitiously. But it's more about having that time to think and write. It's very hard to have an articulate creative thought when your head space is so filled with the day to day details of child rearing. Did I pack the ballet bag? Are his shots up to date? When is his nursery assessment again? Where could he have possibly put my shoe? Mustn't forget the swimming bag that needs packing for Mondays. Must remember the teachers end of year gift to contribute to. The play dates I need to initiate and remember. And on the weekends remembering to diarise the endless stream of kids parties, plus the gifts.
There are meals and snacks to suit a variety of tastes and moods, the emotional plate balancing (their emotions that you have to keep up that is), squabbles to settle, quality parenting time to put it (reading, puzzles, values), preventing serious self-inflicted injuries. Bathing, tidying, laundry etc. Wake up, do all of the above, go to sleep, wake up and repeat.
At the end of a day or week like this and I am exhausted. Literally. Like someone who has woken up at dawn and ploughed fields all day only stopping long enough to gather the cows and feed the hens, but without the great abdominal muscles. Somehow even extreme parenting doesn't give you great abs, no idea why. But it would be a super side effect if it did.
I recently lost a shoe; a partner in a pair of incredibly nice and not inexpensive leather ballet pumps. Three days of playing the whole 'where is that shoe?' not so fun game, and it suddenly occurred to me to check the trash. Usually it's a hassle that our local council only collects the trash once a week but on this occasion it was a blessing. On the eve of collection, there was my shoe in the black plastic sack outside, sticking up, miraculously, without a single rotting morsel on it. It looked as if it was saying, in a relieved breathless tone, 'Ahhh you've found me!' But in retrospect, and as much as it pains me to say it, I probably should have left it in there.
Not unlike the deeply disturbing book 'Pet Sematary,' my shoe looked the same and even fit the same, but following its (what I imagine) deeply traumatic three day stint with the rotting remnants of three barbecues (decaying meat, salads, and a sad polenta which didn't quite turn out as expected), soiled nappies and related household debris, it was different. It had been changed by its experience. And by this I mean that despite not actually having any food marks on it, the shoe stank. Actually stank does not do the hellish odour justice - more so, it reeked of decay - that sweet awful decomposing smell you find on a street corner the eve before garbage collection. I thought it was just newly smelly and a bit of fresh air would soon fix it. But even after a day on the outside, that smell appeared to have penetrated into the very fibre of the leather. I stupidly packed the pair in my hand luggage for the Manhattan trip and mid flight nearly passed out upon opening my bag to extricate my tic tacs.
But I'm digressing...
Even those of them that damage perfectly good footwear by throwing them in the trash, I miss my children when I travel. I think three days is the maximum I can manage before I physically ache for them - holding them and having them close to me. I usually spend an inordinate amount of time on said break in toy shops and kids clothing stores getting them stuff, because I love this idea of getting home and them being excited to see me and knowing, having evidence, that I was thinking about them even though I was away enjoying time to myself. OK, so maybe this is the guilt talking.
It feels somehow fitting that my trip to Manhattan both started and concluded with a psychotic cab driver. Now you would be hard pressed to find a bona fide American driving a yellow cab in NY anymore, and my driver back to the airport was no exception. A large man with great big hams for hands, he hailed from Russia. He told me he had spent five hours that morning contesting a parking ticket, which I suppose went some ways to explaining his mood. He was cynical and brooding, and made a point of telling me I had chosen a really bad time to travel to Newark airport, despite giving myself plenty of time. Yes because what I really needed to hear was that I could potentially miss my flight and not be home in time to see my kids before school the following morning after being away from them for three days.
He drove like a maniac. When I asked him if he had driven in Russia (you know, hoping a bit of conversation might take his mind off of the tailgating, weaving, and general harassment of other drivers at breakneck speed), he sucked the air between his teeth, took a dramatic pause, and said, "Yes, but not taxi," failing to elaborate. I braced the handle, then thought better of it (if he stops at this speed, suddenly, I will break my arm or worse - best just to relax and be limp - and in the event of a sudden collision - less breakage).
The non disclosure and admittedly his terrifying driving style, led me to imagine his previous driving job back in Russia involved working for the mafia or similar criminal types. He was uniquely suited to drive-by shootings, quick get aways, and police chases, or rather, being chased by the police and escaping, but not before creating a 10-car pile up in his wake. When he eventually dispatched me at the airport, I shakenly paid him, and told him to take care and be safe. He looked at me with an amused and surprised expression, laughed and said "OK, sure, you too", before speeding off in a plume of exhaust fumes back in the direction of that incredible city.