A slower pace in the city that never sleeps

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

After joining a rambling tour of New York, Johann Hari sees the city in a new light

When it was first suggested that I go on a Ramblers holiday in New York City, I assumed it was a joke. I had only one mental picture of ramblers. They are eccentric English people who gather in herds to walk very slowly across the English countryside. They look at grass and birds and hills, and then go home to Tunbridge Wells and complain about swearing on television. Why would they go to the most bustling metropolis on earth to do the same? It is only when I arrive at Heathrow Terminal 5 and see them actually standing there that I am finally convinced I am not taking part in a revival of Beadle's About.

Or am I? There are 19 of them, and they look like they have rambled out of the cast of an early 1970s Mike Leigh film. They are wearing brightly coloured woollen hats and brightly striped woollen jumpers and speak in awkward generalities. "Hope it's good weather," one says. "Yes. I like good weather," another replies.

You can go on a Ramblers holiday in 70 countries around the world – and the city tours, like this nine-day New York itinerary, cover as much as possible by foot, taking in the offbeat and the unusual, as well as the must-sees. As we stumble out at JFK, I feel a sliver of genuine concern. What happens when the gentle cast of a Mike Leigh film wanders into an episode of CSI: New York? What happens when pure innocence meets pure cynicism?

The ramblers seem to apply the same principles everywhere they go. You walk wherever possible. You walk a lot. And you walk slowly.

When they see the New York skyline appearing in the distance, one of them gasps: "So it really exists!" Our leader is Nigel, a warm Northern former headmaster – and he should be described as a Leader with a capital L. From the moment we arrive, the group looks to him for guidance on everything. "If you order coffee, they'll bring you coffee," he explains at our first breakfast in a New York diner. "Will they bring juice?" asks one woman. "I won't eat eggs. I never eat eggs!" cries another.

And so we begin to walk. We begin softly, in Brooklyn. We wander along sleepy avenues, through the blossom and the birdsong. The ramblers smile at a scene where the perspective seems to have surreally slipped – there are massive gay men with tiny dogs, massive black women with tiny shorts, and tiny Chinese women with massive umbrellas.

The ramblers are delighted with everything they see. They clap at the architecture. They marvel at the size of the sandwiches. They stand over the grates and feel the steam rising up all around them and gurgle with pleasure. The Statue of

Liberty stares away from it all, as if to say, "Ah, I have to let them all in, it's in my contract."

The ramblers accept every surreal turn with an intrigued grin. In Chinatown, an elderly woman is standing on the corner yelling: "Pouches! Pouches!" One of the ramblers approaches her. "Pouches?" he asks. "Pouches," she replies. "Pouches!" And they smile at each other.

The group are almost all New York virgins, and they keep experiencing that inevitable déjà vu that comes from recognising a scene from the movies. An older man called Bill deals with this by screaming out the name of the film, very loudly. When he sees the snaking fire escapes on the sides of the Brooklyn buildings, he yells: "Breakfast at Tiffany's!" On the subway, he yells: "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3!" In Chinatown, he yells: "Gremlins!"

We walk through every neighbourhood in New York. One afternoon, we collapse in Katz's Deli, where they filmed the fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. It's a huge crammed diner that feels like an explosion of stress hormones, undercooked beef, and lard. The waiters walk past you for hours, and if you catch their attention, they display the worst customer service this side of Guantanamo Bay. Eventually, they slap in front of me what is essentially an entire dead cow on a piece of bread. I suggest to the older women I am sitting with that we leaven the woe by re-enacting Meg Ryan's performance. One of them smiles gently and says: "It's been that long, I'm not sure I'd remember how. If I ever could, dear."

And as we traipse from sweaty street to swanky street, I realise something. These ramblers are so unjaded, so generous, so kind, that I am falling a little bit in love with them. When the cyclists on the Brooklyn Bridge scream at them "Outta the way! Outta the way!" they apologise politely. When they can't get their MetroCards to work on the subway, they ask gently for help. When a screaming maniac on the street announces the world will end on 17 May 2011, one of them stops and explains patiently why this is quite unlikely.

They take joy in the simple, and see through pretence in a second. On Wall Street, we stop outside Tiffany's, and stare at the sparkling rocks. I suggest we go in, and three little English ladies enter with me. The over-surgeried sales staff utter a condescending "hello", as if they were doing us a favour by letting us in.

One of the women – Pam, a retired Job Centre worker in her seventies – gives the goods a once-over and says: "Eeeee, what a lot of tat. You can buy stuff just as good in Salford Market for a tenth of the price. Who can tell the difference?" The look of condescension on the American shop assistant's face – and the unimpressed confidence on Pam's – made me want to spontaneously sing the British national anthem.

At its best, New York City feels like a party for seven million people with no bouncers. I never thought I'd want to crash the party with this group of people – but now, I can't think of anyone better. They have rambled around New York – and into myheart.



The original version of this article appears in the June 2011 issue of High Life, which is available on all British Airways flights and at bahighlife.com

Travel essentials: New York City

Getting there

* Ramblers Worldwide Holidays (01707 331133; ramblersholidays.co.uk) offers a nine-day Big Apple tour, from £ 1,369 per person (based on two sharing) including BA flights from Heathrow, transfers, two-star accommodation at the Hotel Newton, breakfast and five dinners. The next trip departs on 15 October.





PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
videoJapanese prepare for the afterlife by testing out coffins
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford attends Blade Runner at Target Presents AFI's Night at the Movies at ArcLight Cinemas on 24 April, 2013 in Hollywood, California
film... but Ridley Scott won't direct
Sport
Hughes is hit by a bouncer from Sean Abbott
cricketStephen Brenkley on batsman's tragic flaw that led to critical injury
Sport
Dejected England players applaud the fans following their team's 3-0 defeat
football

Extras
indybest
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital