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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 27 April 2018

Big Apple promises great times as long as you get through the blizzard of bad stuff

The lights of Times Square and shopfronts of Fifth Avenue; the yellow cabs and packed delis; these are all imprinted on your subconscious, so wandering the streets of New York feels like being in a constant state of déjà vu

A woman takes pictures during a snow storm at Brooklyn Bridge Park on March 21, 2018 in New York City. AFP
A woman takes pictures during a snow storm at Brooklyn Bridge Park on March 21, 2018 in New York City. AFP

Travelling from the UAE to the United States can be a jarring experience. It’s not just the jet lag, or the immense food portions, or the fact that, by American standards, I’m sometimes a size medium. There are plenty of other surreal aspects to any trip Stateside.

For me, it starts at the departure gate. Every trip I make to the US begins with someone pulling me aside to carry out “additional security checks”. Something, somewhere, in some system or other, has me marked down as a person of interest. The letter S, printed four consecutive times across the bottom corner of my boarding pass, lets airport staff know that I warrant extra attention.

Without fail, I am taken to a dedicated area and treated to a pat-down, as someone vigorously rifles through my belongings and tests for traces of who-knows-what. My fellow passengers look on with a mounting sense of suspicion.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for stringent security measures and erring on the side of caution. I just wish that there was a way of finding out what those four Ss mean, how they got there and what I can do to clear my name, so to speak.

And so, as is now standard, I started my journey to New York last week racking my brains, trying to work out what I might have done over the course of my largely unremarkable existence to raise the suspicions of the world’s most powerful nation. I am utterly perplexed – and, as far as I can tell, destined to stay that way. For someone who has long been spoiled by the benefits that come with carrying a British passport, this is all new.

Another disconcerting thing about being in New York is how wonderfully familiar it feels, even if you’ve only visited a handful of times. The city is so much a part of popular culture, you immediately imagine that you know it intimately. Its skyline and world-famous sites; the lights of Times Square and shopfronts of Fifth Avenue; the yellow cabs and packed delis; these are all imprinted on your subconscious, so wandering the streets of New York feels like being in a constant state of déjà vu.

But even if it feels familiar, the city’s ability to surprise is infinite. On my second day here – a clear, bright morning that suggests that spring has well and truly arrived – I stumble across the annual Easter Bonnet Festival, a New York tradition that dates to the 1870s. Every year, a sizeable portion of Fifth Avenue is closed to traffic and New York’s outlandish residents take to the streets in extravagant Easter-inspired costumes and bonnets – hats of every hue piled high with flowers, fruit, butterflies, eggs and all manner of other paraphernalia. One lady ups the stakes by bringing a live rabbit along as a prop, while a trio of gentlemen wearing bright pink, neon yellow and green suits are also to be commended for their creativity. Meanwhile, a lone protestor holds a sign reading “Mark Zuckerberg = Evil” (I would tend to agree). It’s like the Dubai World Cup, but on steroids.

The following day, I wake to find the city buried under a blanket of snow. Central Park is smothered in 5.5 inches of the stuff – the highest amount on record since 1982. The streets are transformed as enormous flakes tumble from the sky, settling on cars, pavements and stoic commuters. While its residents lament the fact that winter is seemingly never-ending this year, New York is transformed into a magical winter wonderland. You forget, when you live in the UAE, about the constant torment of dealing with unpredictable weather. Yes, temperatures can be extreme but, barring the odd rain shower, at least in Dubai you know what to expect from one day to the next.

As I write this from my hotel room in Downtown New York, the world outside is shrouded in fog. It’s early and the city is only just beginning to stir. While not too severe, my jet lag means that I am waking up long before my alarm goes off. The streets below are quiet and still. And in the city that never sleeps, that may just be the most jarring thing of all.

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Read more from Selina:

Four lessons learnt as a dog owner in Dubai

Writing Dubai off as one-dimensional only shows your own blinkered view

Why ageing in Dubai is a particularly painful process

Maybe the sisterhood does exist, after all

After years of ridicule, my Facebook-free status is now a source of envy – like it or not

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