Thursday, January 27, 2011

Road Tripping Florida

Florida: The Sunshine State
 Among the images that pop into your head when thinking of Florida are palm trees; beaches; Brits and booze.  Florida's entire identity is based around the aforementioned, and it still reigns as the top destination to flock to during the winter months.Just like the birds do, I flew south for the winter to escape the brittle cold for a brief yet beneficial week to see both my friend Deanna and a new state. 

It seems that the inclement weather in Europe, namely the U.K. has rubbed off on Atlanta and New York. I was due to fly out from JFK to Gainseville with a layover in Atlanta, Georgia. The day before I checked my flights on and saw the flight status box filled in an alarming red, reading: canceled. Quick thinking was due, and I called my friend explaining the issue. I was able to change my flight destination/time for free; Deanna suggested I fly into Orlando thus we could go to Island of Adventure (Harry Potter Land) first and then we'd have time coursing around Gainseville and Jacksonville. 
At JFK, there were only THREE scheduled flights- and mine was one of them. The terminal was scarce with people, and of the few scattered passengers were holidaymakers perusing a 'Floride' book. Pasty white and swathed in layers, Florida is a great destination for this time of year. 
How can you pass this up?
The View From Deanna's Aunt/Uncle's House
With a smooth landing and a chain of palm trees on the runway perimeters, I knew I had departed the Northeast and arrived in the Southeast.
Now, one may assume that the climes were favorable in this part of the country, but I hasten to reverse your thinking: it was cold. A mere 12' does not sound particularly delightful does it? Still, it's certainly a whole lot better than -10'. 

I was ready to slip into bed after Deanna and I were skirting around the same roundabouts and highways in Orlando- we were a little lost! And with a lengthy catch up session, some chili and a warm shower the day came to a close, as did our eyes.

And we were up before the sun for Island of Adventure. With every minute that ended, the sun would increase in burn and blazed through the windshield. I knew this would come in handy considering it was a chilling 5' that morning!
Floridian Morning
It was 'Island of Adventure' day- aka Harry Potter Land!!I have never been a die hard fan of the sorcery tales, but anything that is recreated down to a 'T' from a movie always sends a buzz. We got up super early to get to Universal Studios in time for the opening- and to push and shove (on my part). Because it was a Thursday, and at the start of the day the crowds were not swelling by the minute; it was far more relaxed and orderly than I had anticipated. I certainly didn't feel relaxed and orderly when I handed over $87 (tax incl.) for my entrance pass however! To be fair, I knew the amount before hand so I didn't get a shocking surprise but it always hurts a tad when you hand over a sum like that! I did in fact splurge even more on goodies and food- so no complaints allowed!

Of course, since the opening of Harry Potter in May 2010 the main appeal of Island of Adventure has shifted from everything to just Harry Potter. People were flocking without a doddle straight for Hogsmeade. 
My aforementioned disinterest in Harry Potter made a sharp 180' when we arrived in this spectacular recreation. The attention to detail, as mentioned repeatedly by Deanna was 'incredibly detailed and thought of'. It's more than just a village or a town, it's a work of art. It really is superb, you genuinely feel like you are a member of Hogwarts and that you should don the ever so stylish cape and scarf. And as you snake your way around the town the film's music score travels along with you. The classic John William's composition tinkles and chimes appropriately as we window shopped and feasted our eyes on the intricate features of Hogsmeade.
This part of the attraction was very funny: when you go to the bathroom, Moaning Myrtle's voice lingers as you pee!! The whole experience mirrors and echoes every last corner of the book. 
Inside the castle, we were fortunate enough to whiz through the entire thing to get to the simulator ride. Normally, it would take you up to 90 minutes to get to the ride. All the rides we went on, had a maximum 10 minute wait. I thought we had totally outsmarted the system, only to realise it was in fact a Thursday and it was still early. 
But if we had to have waited that long, the endless preoccupations along the walls, up in the ceiling etc would have sufficed. Along the walls are motioning pictures of the various characters- they pop out at you and speak. There was one section whereby a wall was checkered with picture frames, and the people were jabbering at you in tandem, putting you in a dizzy spell until you stepped into the classroom! The classroom had a line of chemicals; books and Harry, Ron and Hermione sitting waiting for us. The 3D trio spoke to us in the vernacular, as if you were the only one there. If you are enticed by this sort of thing, you would naturally suspend any element of reality around you and be allured by this fantasy. I didn't pay too much attention to what they were saying (particularly as I didn't have time, I was being rushed by the excited folk behind me!) but they were warning me of something. 
I couldn't get any appropriate snapshots, because the dark lighting would have developed an eerie, murky print- would have been fitting though. 
And right before the ride, Professor Dumbledore offered his luck to us in preparation for the game. 
The ride itself was a simulated ride. We were not out in the open, nor did we cork-screw around the castle. The ride was modeled after a Quiditch match (not sure what team I was on) with evil interventions: Dementors; dragons; snakes and spiders. It was magical to say the least. The 3D aspect of it was phenomenal, you were put right there a part of the action and a part of a massive legacy. I cannot imagine what an unwavered fan would feel in this instance. Deanna had made a key point about the cost of this excursion if you had a couple of kids- ouch and yikes. 

To put our churned stomachs back in position, we went to get some Butterbeer (mistake). This wizarding beverage is, in simple terms like butterscotch- with infused shortbread and other sickly sugary stuff. 
I didn't actually get any, but Deanna did so I slurped a bit of it to test the waters. Hmmmm, WAY to sweet for my liking. It's a kind of creamy soda if you like, but I refused to continue with a candied headache- there were so many rides left! I guess if you have butterbeer with a food type that is at the other end of the food spectrum, thus savory, the butterbeer becomes a natural partner.

In true Harry Potter style, we went to have lunch at 'Three Broomsticks- a big lunch hall to eat the most British of things. A choice of Shepard's Pie with Fish and Chips were two of the many British dishes.  
The Lunch Hall
You'd think that with a belly full of battered cod we would have given the next ride an hours wait. Nope, us Muggles gobbled and went. We literally did an ebb and flow of rides, because the waiting time was a pathetic 5 minutes with each ride. 

Jurassic Park Was Water Ride. Brrrrrrrrrrrr
Because it was a breeze to get on the rides, all that was left to do was to explore the place till our legs gave way. 

In total we conquered 3 major rides, of which we had two servings of each. Six tummy twisting rides. 

Chamber of Secrets Car
Would you believe we left my 4pm? We had circled the park a numerous amount of times, stocked up on food and exhausted the rides. We certainly got our value for money, with the exception of some of our cheeky extras!

This part of Orlando is very much the commercial, touristy side and thus lacking in organic beauty. As Deanna switched from 'park' to 'drive' to begin our 1.5hour road trip to Gainseville we left behind the overbearing tourists (I was one at the park) and entered true Florida. 
The scenes through the course of the drive were not culturally rich- but if you can appreciate a sky imbued with color and feeling, it can be very rich. 
An Overlap of Shades
It was simply fields after fields with the odd isolated house within a radiant sea of green. 
And on our travels, a very fitting car sign passed us by, and I couldn't resist a snapshot:
Floridian Mantra
Approaching Gainseville, the vibe of Florida had done a complete 180'. Gainseville's profile was raised predominantly by UF- University of Florida. The town is dominated by the students, I didn't see one single person beyond the age of 25, even in the immediate vicinity. 
It is so much a student town, that there are sorority's and fraternity's. A stretch of sorority houses are on 'Sorority Row' where the rival houses can be seen from every window. 
Tri Delta

Kappa Delta
These houses didn't fall short of any expectations I had. I knew they were going to be grand and lavish- the interior designs are quite regal and 'proper' nothing is out of place as far as I could see. The girls commit to a 'chapter' meeting every Sunday (as far as I am aware) where they discuss sorority matters, namely events etc. It is very much about empowerment and establishing relationships, I don't think I could ever be a part of a sorority because it would mean being too 'cliquey' and having to live in a 'dorm' style house with lots of girls. I do however think that if a sorority is devoid of gossip and bitchiness and was run the way it was in the past, the value of the experience would still be upheld. 

The next day we were on the road again, but this time to Jacksonville- Deanna's hometown.
Before we did head out though, we stopped to devour a fatty American breakfast. 
Cracker Barrel. Cracker Barrel is very much a Southern thing, the whole restaurant/shop is a representation of 'Old Country' style living. It is a Southern chain that sells comfort food to typically hungry drivers who have been on the road. You can find them located on the interstate highways, much like the rest stops we have in England, and everywhere else in the world. The added country feel comes in the form of a checkers game provided at each table, and lots of produce that come packaged in a homey style, with homey contents, notably classic food and home items.
A Gun And A Deer's Head.

Nostalgic Merchandise
 Honestly though, it is 'eat heavy' at its heaviest. A hollow stomach filled with heavy duty food. uuuuuff. What made it worse, was that we had a 2 hour drive. Sitting down of course.

The road to Jacksonville was similar to that of the road to Gainseville from Orlando- pockets of beauty and ghetto. In all, it was really scenic with the typical palm trees, cop cars hidden to catch you out and a few lakes thrown in here and there. Upon our arrival in Jacksoville, Deanna's dad: Robert (Ned Flanders) gave a lovely show of hospitality as we meandered their beautiful home while he introduced me to each room.
Beach Houses in Jacksonville
Deanna's Gorgeous Home
Sunset in Jacksonville
For the entirety of our time in Jacksonville, we simply laid low and had a chill out and recuperated in true southern style. 
There was one day, where the typically sunny state was dispelled with an atypically cloudy gloom.But that was OK, it was the Golden Globe Awards evening, so the misty glaze outside had no effect on my excitement!  

And on the following day, the weather was in our favor to go and simply explore downtown Jacksonville, where we went to a yummy cafe: 'European Street' and went back in time to Deanna's school: Episcopal High School. Peering through one of the classrooms, I saw a sign that read: 'Homework is due at the start of the period. PERIOD' I teeheed at the wonderful thing, that is the American Educational System. .....And then back on the road we were...

Different Routes
On our travels, I found this superb 'interstate' section. These to me, are very 'American' as the highway system elsewhere in the world do not follow the same pattern. I love seeing these around, especially since in Manhattan, we don't have them.

On a change of track, we had our lovely companion: Beckham, touring Florida with us. Beckham is a gorgeous, lovingly devoted companion who showers you with love and kisses. 
He is the best man in the world. And the best part is, you can say whatever you like to him, and all he will do in return is kiss you. 

Deanna Feeling The Love

He really is a wonderful dog, honed with charm and loyalty. I am a big doggie fan, so a loving dog always makes me happy.

And before I knew it, the end of my Floridian holiday was here, after one full week. 
I primarily went to see my good friend Deanna, whom I met in London last year on her exchange! And being a resident of Florida, she was the perfect tour guide to a self-proclaimed newbie. 
Thank You.

Best Wishes,

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ferry Go Round

Staten Island makes up one of the five boroughs of New York City: Manhattan; Brooklyn; Queens; Bronx and Staten Island. Out of all five, Staten Island is the most out of 'touch', therefore a ferry is available to and fro Manhattan and Staten Island.

The Downtown Dock
The Ferry
Part of the novelty of riding this 20 minute ferry is that it is free. What one typically does is go to Staten Island, disembark and gets on the return ferry immediately.

Here is my 40 minute journey:

Arriving at the South Sea Ferry, my directionally challenged self went the complete opposite way to the right way. But I sniffed out the dock- it was in fact blatantly in front of me.

As I pile up with every other Staten Island bound passenger, I observe the passenger demographic in an attempt to pin point the general type of rider. But it was simply an assorted kettle of fish so to speak- commuters; tourists; Staten Island residents etc.
I waited with my nose pressed on the window for the next available ferry while little children were scurrying around itching for their ferry adventure.

Once we were hailed to board, I scrammed through the eager ones and beat them to the best spots. HA. Take note: the best spots are on either side of the ferry where you can go out on deck.

Like A Scene From The 'Love Boat'

Sunset Serenade
I cannot begin to describe to you, the magnitude of the raw, bone-chilling -5' cold. Of course the cold is immediately exaggerated and fortified once you step out on deck; but the dramatic views dispel any conscious feeling of the cold- until you cannot feel your face, as it has been battered and whipped until you're blue! However, the sight of the sun fanning out her strong, elongated arms, spilling her glow onto the crest of the waves is heart filling and provides with much needed warmth.

As the ferry cuts through the undulations of water, the soft sea ripples into wrinkles, yet still seems smooth. The blue veins glisten and shimmer and the orange foam sparkles- the richness of the water surface ebbs and flows, but the scattered clouds drape a few sun rays turning the sky into a subtle frown.

In the moment of enjoying this sublime serenity the wings of the 15 knot breeze graze and scrape my ears; and the spray of frozen mist prompt me to wrap up my photography session and take to the views from inside. Even though I was cold to the bone, the experience of letting the wind cascade through my hair and the solar streaks blind my vision was somewhat a kind of out of body experience- there is no grasp on time or the likes, the magic of mother nature swept me away from reality.
And whilst the forward sights were special in their own right, I went out again to see what we were leaving behind in Manhattan.The sun was sinking across the skyline, dripping light on the sides of iconic architecture, but as we further distance ourselves, the skyscrapers assume postcard dimensions until they become building blocks used for children's Lego.
Majestic Manhattan
Once we docked at Staten Island, and I got a 5 minute brief glimpse of the topos, I returned back to the ferry to experience the views in reverse.  Now the skyline appeared as a chain of jewels with the sun dipping further and further into setting.
I had both the above image of Manhattan in the Northern direction and the image below of Staten Island in the Southern. On both parts of the journey, you glide past the most enduring symbol of the city: Statue of Liberty. We were however, at a distance from Lady Liberty but with a gentle squint you capture the ant-like worshipers surrounding her, with what I would assume to be admiration.
There Is A More Modest Feel To Staten Island
With just but a few miles between these two islands of stark differences, New York City simply confirms the gorgeous diversity it encapsulates.

As we arrive back onto my island of residence, my legs were darted with needles of the Winter cold, but that didn't matter, I just breathed in the air of pollution and beauty.

I Am In Love With New York.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears

Happy New Year All!

Having failed to make my way to Ellis Island during the melting season of August (when I first arrived), I thought I'd fill my January days with a long over due visit.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ellis Island, it is the island in which 12 million immigrants between 1892-1924 past through in order to come to America. After disuse and disrepair, the island now serves as a historical landmark that chronicles the immigrant experiences. It is an integral part of America's existence: Americans can trace their ancestry through the catalog worth of records that are stored on the island, even if the immigrants dispersed to all points of the country their arrival was recorded and documented.

The very essence of the United States of America stems from Ellis Island. Ellis Island if you like, is the bedrock of Modern America. The fabric of American society was enriched with the plethora of nationalities merging together to carry out the sought after American Dream- this dream was essentially freedom.
The exhibit now stands to give voice to each and every immigrant whose story bares witness to unwavering strength and willpower.

"Freedom Means The Opportunity To Be What We Never Thought We Would Be"
 - Daniel J. Boorstin

And it is with the above school of thought, that propelled hopeful immigrants to Ellis Island, to disembark the past and to embark upon prosperity. But it wasn't as simple as just arriving and thus gaining admission- the process of approval was fraught with angst, fatigue and uncertainty.

I wanted to try and experience as much of the real thing as possible. Granted, this is now a museum and therefore the experience of passing through the building bares little resemblance to the reality of what it was like then. But knowing that I was to trace over millions of footsteps would provide me with the appropriate poignancy.

On this white Friday morning I arrived at Battery Park to the ferry point to commence my trip to the island. It was snowing a fair bit, so I appeared to have been suffering from a severe case of dandruff- it wasn't a good look.
Stark Naked Trees
Because Ellis Island is such a prominent feature in the U.S.A, one has to endure airport style security before you board the ferry. Luckily, the peak season for Ellis Island tourism doesn't fall in the winter months, so I escaped long, snake-like lines and proceeded through to the waiting point. Having said that, there were big clusters of tourists who bunched and crunched together eagerly awaiting the ferry. It was as if we were subliminally adapting to the conditions of that epoch, where you were stood shoulder to shoulder with little breathing space.
A 15 minute ferry ride to Jersey City, and there I was: The Gateway To America. 

This Was Just The Beginning For Immigrants
Once the boats/ships docked the immigrants would pile up outside the entrance to the building. Rain, snow or shine- the immigrants were at the mercy of the elements as they stood outside waiting for their impending fate to be delivered.
Flocks of Immigrants Ready For A Journey After The Journey

Try and place yourself in this position: after days of traveling on a boat filled with disease and determination; squeezed in to occupy every last square meter, you are subject to legal and unethical examination. It just goes to show what America stands for in their eyes: happiness and success. They were willing to undergo anything to put bread on the table and a few notes in the kitty.

As I stepped inside this grand building, I bought an audio guide to assist my own journey into this journey. As with any audio tour there were several stops to mark each significant stage in the process of entering America.

1. Baggage Claim
Each Piece Has A Story
Every immigrant would come with luggage that had their whole lives packed inside. Some carried their own (small enough) baggage, but those that were too big were taken off and thrown into the entrance space for the exhausted people to identify. Tensions ran high as misplacement and confusion of baggage were mounting; officers reportedly threw some luggage aside if they were not attended to quick enough- compassion did not exist.
As the immigrants awaited to go up to the famous Registry Room, they stood clenching medical forms between their teeth with all their possessions wrapped around them- the imminent emotional hardship was just a staircase away.

2. Registry Room

The Great Hall
It Has Been Beautifully Restored
As the flags hang ever so prominently, one felt overpowered by the American opulence, the American stature and the American 'system' as it were. This hall is the pulsing heartbeat of Ellis Island.
Even as the people were shifting towards the staircase, the scrutiny was undergone in full, the doctors and officers would prowl around them waiting to receive an indication of poor health. In a way, I can imagine they were hoping to pounce on someone for ill-health because the scores of people waiting to enter America was so overwhelming they needed to weed out the unfit. Even the movement on the stairs was so key to the officers because it signified whether they were physically healthy or not- the inability to walk up with a healthy and strong stride signaled a physical fault. However exposing this prelude was, the immigrants wholeheartedly endured this humiliation to secure their advancement to the Gateway of America.

Once they arrived at The Great Hall, small groups of people were motioned to sit momentarily on the benches to wait for their legal and medical examination.

The Discomfort Continued
100s of languages echoed off the ceiling tiles and 100s of questions were fired at unsuspecting victims. The officers treated them with the same respect given to a criminal. As people were called up to carry out the various inspections, the start of the rejections began.....

3. Medical Inspections

The most vitally important stage that one desired to pass with a clear record was the medical inspection. At a time where disease was easily contracted, immigrants were at a great risk especially from the boat journey where a simple uncovered cough and sneeze transmitted deadly illnesses. 

What I deem relatively mild, the doctors of the time would deem deadly. Aside from the common cold and the expected sniffs, doctors used button hooks to detect Trachoma.
A Hook On The Eyelid
Trachoma, is an infectious eye disease that can lead to ultimate blindness. The doctors were cautious of immigrants coming into the country and becoming visually impaired and thus passing it on. Any detections of Trachoma or any signs suggesting it will develop was reason enough to deny ones entry. Anyone suspected of the disease was a public health risk.
For those who had indeterminable medical cases were summoned to a separate room for doctors to conduct more tests...
However, the inspections did not only encompass physical health, but mental health too. The officers and doctors would peer with dart eyes onto immigrants who appeared to be harboring a mental problem. Even wide-eyed bewilderment was mistaken for mental illness- a common expression of a deer caught in headlights was very suspicious. But for the immigrants, this whole process was so  immense that they could not mask their astonishment, the language barrier alone manifested confusion! In response to these possible mental disorders, doctors governed the suspected to the same room to carry out visual and oral tests to verify their mental stability. Those who failed were put in a pen to wait for further examination- their coats were marked with an 'X' so that those dealing with them thereafter would attempt to get to the root of the problem.

4. Legal Inspection
The most nitty gritty part. In today's terms this part is what we now call: Border Control. Today, one is admitted with paper work- I have a DS2019 form (student exchange) accompanied with a Nonimmigrant visa with a valid Passport. I must declare these to ensure my (re)admittance to the country. Those entering the country for work must have the infamous green card along with stashes of paperwork. It wasn't and never will be easy. Even if you have all the documents required, in order, all signed, you still might encounter problems. Back then, this legal process consisted of questions- like an interview. There were 29 possible questions, but in the interest of time only a fraction were asked. Here's something that really fascinated me: 
What's your name? 
There is a myth that persists to this day that many names were simplified or changed. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Ellis Island was to trace my own ancestor: Athanassios Nalbantis. He was my Great, great Uncle who entered America in 1918 and left in 1924. With this fresh information at the forefront of my mind, I had a feeling finding him would prove to be a challenge! I did find many Greek/Turkish men who had come from Greece around the same time but the last name was rendered to 'Nalbandi' - maybe he is in the records somewhere but his original name was most likely lost in translation. The audio guide did inform me that names such as 'Koutsoghianopoulos'- a Greek surname were hard to decipher because they were on hand-written manifests; they were then simplified.

For those who met more confusion during the legal inspection, had yet another obstacle on the horizon. They were taken to the court room within the grounds of Ellis Island.
The Room Was Recreated To Appear As It Was Then
The hearing room was for further review of health/legal cases. Some were dismissed for being too poor to enter the country, others were rejected with ample grounds, notably health grounds. But this is why Ellis Island has come to be known as Isle of Hope and Isle of Tears: Immigrants would enter in rapture, only to be reduced to tears gushing out of their swelled bodies.

Those who were detained put their stamp on Ellis Island, even if the Border officers didn't put a legal stamp on their papers. The exhibit has preserved the many walls scribbled with graffiti. The immigrants passed time by scribing their words on walls.
If You Know The Greek Alphabet, You Can See Some Letters
Making Their Mark
5. Free To Land
I know it seems I have pressed on about the 'rejected' and the 'dismissed' but in actual fact only 2% were turned away. But the extra processes to verify an immigrants good standing was prevalent- they eventually left Ellis Island, but in the meantime they were sequestered to a room until they passed examinations.
Cattle Conditions
But once they were freed, immigrants were able to do a money exchange
The Greek Drachma- Before The Godforsaken Euro!
After the immigrants sorted themselves out, they would take a ferry (like the one I took) to Battery Park, New York. Battery Park is on the tip of Downtown Manhattan. They would be met with family members and overjoyed senses- their senses would have be on overdrive from the prolonged process of getting out of Ellis Island, which allegedly could take up to weeks if they were subject to further review.

But, not all immigrants were coming to New York. As I said earlier, they spread themselves across the Nation, and below is the staircase of separation:

Left: To The West. Center: Detention. Right: New York and Further East

6. Hall of Fame

I thought I'd show you some faces of those who set foot on Ellis Island

All Walks Of Life
America Is Still The Recipient Of Thousands Of Immigrants
Even though I am not an immigrant, I still feel soooo fortunate to be here and very proud that I had the opportunity to come. It feels very good to be a part of this country's existence.

I thought I'd have some fun at the gift shop!

Best Wishes,