Saturday, 20 March 2010

#1 Double Dutch.

In 1664, the minor Dutch colony of New Amsterdam was given to the British, in return for a far more valuable, if less accessible, prize: the Banda Islands, a small archipelago of ten islands, 2,000km east of Java.

The Banda Islands - and most famously Run - were the only place in the world where the nutmeg tree grew. In the 17th Century, nutmeg was the most valuable commodity in the world. Two nuts would secure a man's fortune for life on the London markets. A ship at Run could quite quickly fill its hull with tonnes of the stuff; the problem was getting it back.

Besides the general perils of early navigation - storms, scurvy and tropical diseases - the East India Companies of Western Europe fought bloody battles along their trade routes. Boats were ransacked, scuttled and stolen. The bitterest rivalry of the 17th Century was that between the British and the Dutch...but I digress. It's a fascinating story, laid out in gory and jingoistic detail in 'Nathaniel's Nutmeg'; that rarest of books on colonial history, in that the Brits end up looking like the good guys.

Run fell into obscurity with the cultivation of nutmeg elsewhere during the Napoleonic Wars, but New Amsterdam - renamed New York - did not.

I was put in mind of all this by my transfer at Amsterdam en route to New York two days ago. So, I'm finally here! Over the previous weeks and months I had poured over books and websites, planning - accommodation, transport, visas, how on earth I was going to meet people, how on earth I was going to understand people, what on earth I was going to do without my dog, and so on. I have a new-found respect for people who do three-year degrees abroad. How the hell do you manage?

I'm still pretty discombobulated. I'm living on Staten Island, as mentioned, but it's a hella long way out, and my new boss has already said to me I should try and find somewhere more accessible. I went into my first department store today - sweet Jesus they are terrifying. I got a US phone, which doesn't seem to work properly. Ho hum.

The studio is in SoHo - 'South of Houston Street', part of New York's wonderful literal geographical naming system. Many neighborhoods follow a similar pattern: TriBeCa is 'Triangle Below Canal Street', NoLita 'North of Little Italy', and so forth. Coupled with the regular grid road system (with road signs at every block), it all seems almost German in its calming order and logic.

It breaks down below ground. The Subway was designed by someone who, here's hoping, is suffering in hell. Lines are sort-of colour-coded, but in groups which branch into the outer boroughs and neighborhoods. Rather than distinctive names or colours, they have line letters or numbers (1,2,3,J,W,etc.), which are easily confusable with station and street names. There are express trains and local trains, and no one seems to know which is which. The announcements are made, not by a clear pre-recorded voice, but by a hassled driver, so finding your way depends critically on where he hails from, and how strong his accent is. (Mercifully, there is one driver who, if he isn't from Manchester, watches too much Corrie. But my chances of always getting him seem slim.) Oh, finally, there are no maps anywhere in the stations - only on the train.

The whole system makes sense, no doubt, for commuters, who are making regular, long journeys from the suburbs downtown on converging trajectories, and know exactly where to go. For tourists, it is hilariously bad. In London, it probably wouldn't matter - above ground the city is awful for tourists too, with few road signs, confusing tangles of streets, and constant traffic jams. It would fit right in. In New York, a city in so many other ways made for tourists, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

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