Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

My family and I spent five days in New York City last week and on Saturday we woke up to find lots of armed men surrounding our building, although we were back in Herefordshire then. It was a pheasant shoot and they were about to flush the birds out of our small wood.

In Manhattan we weren't once surrounded by men with guns, not unless you include every museum and most public buildings. It's only in cities that you're reminded you're in a post-9/11 world, and in New York above all. I even had to take my shoes and my belt off going into the Museum of the American Indian, which seemed excessive, but perhaps offered a hint of what it was like to be a white man entering a Commanche stronghold, back in the time of Alan Ladd and John Ford.

At least nobody tried to scalp me, not unless you include the waiter at the restaurant in Little Italy, who did that really annoying waiter thing of saying, when I chose a bottle of Chianti, that if I liked Chianti I ought to consider number 63. Naturally, number 63 was $20 more expensive than the one I'd ordered. I stuck to my, erm, guns. Then he handed us a list of specials without prices and it turned out they were all up to two-thirds dearer than anything on the regular menu. I hate that. It means that, however good the food is, you leave with a nasty taste in your mouth.

We'd gone to Little Italy because the children liked the name, and I hoped it might evoke the scene in The Godfather Part II when Robert de Niro, as the young Vito Corleone just off the boat from Sicily, wanders through a lively, colourful ghetto. In fact it was just the extortionate attitude of the restaurants that evoked The Godfather. But we had a happier experience the next day when we went to Ellis Island in New York Harbour and saw where Vito, or his real-life equivalents, got their first taste of America.

You have to take your hat off, as well as your shoes and your belt, to the people who run museums in America. Maybe it's because they have relatively little history that they treat it with such reverence. About a third of all Americans have forebears who had to pass physical and bureaucratic check-ups at Ellis Island before being allowed into the land of opportunity, and the buildings have been meticulously restored so that you can easily imagine what it must have been like. The vast arrivals hall was itself a source of wonder to many of the immigrants, who'd come from small rural villages and had never seen a building remotely that big.

We paid an extra $6 each for the audio tour, in which you hear some of the original immigrants describing the Ellis Island experience. One old woman, talking in 1986 and doubtless long dead now, recalled seeing her father for the first time in three years. He had gone ahead from Poland, to prepare a new life for his family. She sobbed at the memory of seeing him kneeling down with his arms outstretched at the foot of the stone steps, and Jane and I stood in the same place with tears running down our cheeks, while the children wondered what was the matter with us. It's odd, how children cry so easily in some circumstances, and adults in others, with such mutual incomprehension.

However, we were all well and truly united in excitement when we found out that our neighbour in New York was Harrison Ford. A friend had generously lent us his trendy apartment on the edge of Greenwich Village, and had casually mentioned that Harrison was a regular in the convenience store on the corner.

Now that we live in Herefordshire, celebrity sightings are few and far between, and even when we lived in Crouch End the best we ever did was Peter Capaldi or Bill Paterson, or on a really good day, Neil Morrissey, Alison Steadman or Victoria Wood. So the kids were agog at the prospect of seeing Indiana Jones in the flesh, even though I had to remind them that he wouldn't arrive in the store by abseiling through the window.

As it turned out, and much as we lurked outside the store, we didn't see him at all, and I couldn't help wondering whether he was perhaps on another of his barge holidays in Shropshire. There's nowhere like New York to make you yearn for a dose of English countryside, and vice versa.