Wifi has been down, so I have a couple of posts I wrote as Word docs down at the tavernas by the beach… here’s the first one:
After scrambling and stumbling our way to the 7 am bus to Almiros yesterday morning, we then hopped a cab to the airport in order to hire a car for the coming week. First stop: Volos, the buoyant port city at the base of Mt Pelion. The birthplace of the ancient mythology surrounding Jason and the Argonauts, modern day Volos is the closest (smallish) big smoke to little fishing villages like our own Mitzela. As well as being curious to see what lay further afield, we were specifically on the hunt for several things: a new cossie (bathing suit) for yours truly (since 4 swims a day, every day, quickly makes shabby even the snazziest bikini); some beach sandals for the Touring Toddler; a replacement zip-up 3/4 length swimsuit for the TT to replace the one we lost (a failed bid, since they don’t exist here); some remotely drinkable wine (all six bottles we optimistically bought at the Almiros supermarket proving badly corked) and some English-language periodicals, since holidays just ain’t holidays without (in addition to books, naturally) a few fat newspapers and glossy magazines.
It was a very successful mission, not least because we struck the motherlode at what has to be Greece’s best stocked news-agency. It felt like they had everything; Llew went a bit crazy. He may not read fiction, but he is mad for mags, and this was undoubtedly the most promising set of shelves he’d hungrily perused since leaving London (I’m sure this is one of the reasons for his deep and abiding affection for London – it is a city that also appreciates the humble periodical). Every time I turned around another title was being added to the pile by the cash register. I chose The Sunday Times and Vanity Fair, very satisfactory loot as far as I was concerned, the Times beating the Guardian by a whisker due to a banner across the front page promoting A. A. Gill’s New York piece inside (and as it happens he’s in VF too, writing about the opening of Über London Establishment club, Loulou’s).
A. A. Gill’s acerbic writing amuses and pleases me. Sometimes I think he’d practically top my most-like-to-have-to-dinner list, but I also suspect he’s capable of being an insufferable shit whenever the mood strikes – and you can imagine, reading his withering critiques, that it strikes with Big Ben frequency and volume. When compiling my fantasy guest list, I see dear Adrian glowering at other guests at table, silencing them all with a single vicious flick of his entree fork. And since this is my most-like-to-have-to-dinner list, presumably I’d be quite invested in putting on a good show for the likes of Jeffrey Smart and Renzo Piano and Simone de Beauvoir and John Kennedy Toole. I wouldn’t want my A. A. Anxiety to result in a burnt beef wellington. But I think I’d still have to chance it, because I love his work. And this extract in The Sunday Times from his latest book, The Golden Door: Letters to America, not only illustrates why but makes me want to reflect a little more on our own recent time in New York.
Gill rightly identifies the new safety of New York as one of the transformational changes to the city. It now feels almost entirely lacking in criminality; certainly where we were staying in Chelsea, I did not detect even a minor mood of menace, nor did I encounter it elsewhere. That classic New York schtick of impatient abuse is conspicuously absent too, so much so that Llew and I talked about possible reasons for its widespread demise. When Llew finally overhead someone dishing up a loud serve of old school NYC invective, he sighed happily and said, “Ah, there it is,” as though he could at last rest easy in the strangely comforting knowledge that the apple was still a little sour at its core.
We expected the Touring Toddler to have the new experience of being ignored, dismissed and even actively disliked once we hit the Big Apple, so much so we laughingly warned him upon leaving Hong Kong that this absurd condition of being universally adored was about to come to an abrupt, violent end, whipped to ribbons by the famously sharp tongue of your average New Yorker. But that is not what happened.
“God bless your child” is the comment I most clearly recall. I was standing outside Whole Foods attending to the TT’s hungry crazies (a condition he has unfortunately inherited from his mother); the woman who spoke to me was just another ordinary mother going about her day. I looked up and thanked her – what else could one do? – and she paused just long enough to tell me her own son was grown, had just graduated university, and that it all goes by so, so fast.
“Enjoy him,” she added, before going on her way.
I looked down at the TT, feeling unexpectedly choked, and promised that I would.
The words may have differed slightly along the way, but that same spirit echoed right throughout our fortnight stay in what used to be a cruelly indifferent, roiling metropolis: God bless your child. As you know, I am not a believer, but I warmly embrace the sincerity and basic goodness driving such unsolicited invocations. I am talking about people stopping us in the streets, pausing to speak to us on the subway (and help us get our pram back up to the street just for good measure) and turning to us while we stood in shopping queues. God bless your child. And you have to wonder about that, don’t you, about that kind of seismic shift in a city’s emotional scaffolding? It was extraordinary.
My own theory, pieced together following innumerable exchanges like the one outside Whole Foods, and following the TT’s blazing welcome everywhere we went – places I kept expecting to be hostile to children – is that possibly this is just what New York post-9/11 looks like.
“Think about what an experience like that would do to you,” I said to Llew. “Then imagine this entire city experiencing it with you. It definitely didn’t defeat them, but maybe… maybe it humbled them.”
From what I read and understood at the time, New Yorkers united in that horrible grief the whole world (with a few very sad exceptions) shared with them, and I don’t know that you ever get over it. We visited the WTC site and the NYFD Museum, and you’d have to be especially hard-hearted not to want to weep all these years later at those names and, in the museum, the faces of all those guys who bravely went running in. So many names and broad smiling faces. It makes me want to howl sitting here by a beach in Greece. The two memorial fountains (which are really, really beautiful and haunting) include the words ‘Unborn Child’ after the name of every pregnant woman killed that blue sky day, and I defy anyone to see those two tragic words and not want to run back out to the street and place a hand on the innocent head of the very next child they see. God bless your child – it all makes so, so much more sense to me now that I think about that.
Of an event like September 11, I honestly don’t know that you could avoid asking yourself a few hard questions, and I don’t know if you’d ever again feel like you could afford to ignore the answers you had for yourself. I think something so awful strips away everything else, so perhaps New York simply ended up starting again with its better self as the first block in the rebuild. Whatever happened, I still think it’s the greatest city we have – and now it may well be one of the kindest too.