Ali Does NYC – On the Cheap

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Today is the tenth anniversary of the Pie’s and my first date. What did we do on that date? Well, we ended up going for a walk. A really long one. And that’s kind of what has characterized the past decade together: we get places, on foot, and we like it that way. We lived for five years in Newfoundland with no car, so really it was our only option for a long time. When we travel, which we do occasionally, we prefer to get around the places we visit on our own steam.

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To be honest, we make terrible tourists. We avoid the flashy souvenir meccas and the ideal place to take that perfect selfie. Mostly, we just wander around and make snide comments to each other about the weird people (usually other tourists) that we see. On the plus side, this ends up saving us a bunch of money that we can then spend on eating local food. Which is a much better experience, for us, than enduring a crowd to purchase some tchotchke item.

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So when we went to visit my brother and his family in New York City in the first week of September, we did it our way (*Sinatra reference, sorry). We calculated that the most cost efficient and shortest travel distance was to drive from Ottawa to Syracuse (crossing the Canada/USA border at Hill Island), then take the Amtrak Empire Service route from Syracuse to Penn Station in NYC. Long term parking at the Syracuse train station is $7 a day so it was only $49 total for a week. Had we driven all the way to Manhattan, our parking costs would have been more like $60-$75 a DAY. The Empire Service route is really pretty because it follows the Hudson River all the way down to pretty much where it empties into the ocean. You pass all sorts of pretty little towns, amazingly constructed bridges, odd empty lighthouses along the river, and even a ruined castle.

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Ando’s family currently lives in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and about a block away one of their friends runs an Airbnb, so we got to stay at her place for free and it was extra convenient. It’s a good example of those studio apartments for which NYC is famous, and we were so grateful that our lovely new friend let us stay there.

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We also got a little snippet view out the window of the East River.

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And if you go that extra distance this is the whole of the East River.

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The block and a half walk from where we were staying to my brother’s place is the classic picture of what you expect in New York, with assorted brownstone buildings, dripping air conditioners, and wrought-iron railings.

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One of the first things we did upon our arrival in the city was purchase a 7-day unlimited ride MetroCard, which cost us $30 each and meant we could travel as much as we wanted on any bus or train in the city. And it was probably the smartest money we spent on that whole trip, because we used public transit ALL THE TIME (when we weren’t hoofing it, that is). New York City is a big place with a crapload of boroughs and it takes a long time to get anywhere. Fortunately the New York Metro Transit Authority (MTA) is really easy to figure out and we had the subway system pretty much down pat after about a day.

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If you’re a baseball fan, then New York is a great place to be, because they have TWO professional teams in the city. Of course, if you want Yankees tickets you’ll have to donate a kidney to afford good seats, but if you’re a diehard supporter of the much-less-successful New York Mets, then being a fan is a little less hard on your wallet (because they’re terrible so seats are cheap). Teedz got the Pie tickets for his birthday, so Teedz, Ando, Tego, the Pie, and myself all trooped off to Queens to see what all the fuss was about.

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We sat in foul ball territory in the blazing sun, enjoying Nathan’s Famous hot dogs and ice cold lemonade. It must’ve been at least 35°C/95°F in those seats. We all got extremely tanned, and that was just the beginning of the hottest week that NYC had experienced all year. I spent much of the game watching the clouds pass overhead and wishing a few of them would stick around and prevent me from being burned to a crisp.

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Just as the Mets game was ending (and after they had, surprisingly, and despite several huge errors, actually WON the game), the skies opened up and it poured rain. There was much thunder and lightning as well.

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All of the fans taking public transport hid out under the nearby highway, with NYPD officers yelling at those who attempted to jaywalk. We were soon joined by fans of the US Open, which was going on right next door. Teedz and Tego made many jokes about how this was a good opening for Sharknado 3.

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Finally our bus came and we took a short ride to Flushing, which is just one train stop over from CitiField and the last one on that particular line. Flushing is basically a giant Chinatown and we grabbed twelve crabs for only $12 and took the train back to Manhattan to eat our spoils. The 77th Street subway stop kind of became our home away from home for the next week, as we ended up here all the time.

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Labour Day Monday dawned hot and sticky, so we elected for a beach day at Coney Island. On the subway through Brooklyn I caught a nice glimpse of Manhattan from the other side, complete with Brooklyn Bridge. You can see the tiny Statue of Liberty just to the left of the large part of the Bridge in the centre of the photo.

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Coney Island was totally nuts.

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But I got a decent picture of the Pie as he hid his pale redhead skin under the umbrella.

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The carnies are now gone but the remnants of the olden times still remain. Even the people fishing off the pier have been doing so for decades.

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Plus these kites were pretty nifty.

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We left the beach just as the thunder was rolling in and decided in a fit of grownup bravery to ride the Cyclone ($9 each with free bag check), a wooden roller coaster built in 1927. Teedz was a good sport and went along with it even though she’s terrified of these things. The Pie and I sat in the very front car, and it was truly terrifying to approach those apexes and not be able to see the rest of the track in front of you. I may have a few additional gray hairs after that adventure.

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The Tuesday we were in Manhattan was the hottest day the city had reported in well over a year. It was humid as could be and well into the 40s Celsius (over 100 Fahrenheit). And this is the day that the Pie and I chose to trudge all over Manhattan. Because that’s how we roll. Fortunately, the middle of Central Park was not too far away from where we were staying, so we started there.

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It was cool to look at the iconic landmarks in the Park that often appear in movies.

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The Pie was particularly taken with the super nice baseball diamonds within the Park.

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From there we trudged down Broadway to Times Square. One thing I have learned about Manhattan is that if you want to find anything, the chances are really good that you will find it on Broadway. Everything is on Broadway. It’s a very long street.

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Anyway, Times Square was nuts. We went into the three-storey M&M store but didn’t buy anything because we don’t like M&Ms.

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Naked Cowboy!

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Buzz Lightyear, some reporter, Mickey Mouse, and Spider-Man!

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This Minnie Mouse accosted me asking for a hug after I took this picture. I may have run away.

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Even the NYPD gets their share of neon lights in Times Square.

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As we continued to trudge we ducked into Bryant Park for free WiFi and a chance to sit in the shade for a few minutes. It also gave us a view of the Empire State Building, which you can see from pretty much everywhere.

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In Bryant Park you can sign up to play ping pong on your lunch hour for free.

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We didn’t intend to see all those famous and important buildings on purpose, but as we trudged along Broadway, we ran into them all. The New York Public Library (FROM GHOSTBUSTERS MY FAVOURITE). We ducked in here as well for air conditioning and WiFi. It’s lovely.

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Its iconic lion statues.

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The Chrysler Building. Because it’s my favourite.

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The Flatiron Building. Very skinny.

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After this we were completely exhausted and looking for a way out. Fortunately the 14th Street Union Square station will pretty much take you anywhere you want to go.

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On the Wednesday we decided to visit the 9/11 Memorial. As we approached the area, we were blinded by the light reflecting off the new World Trade Center tower. Say what you will about American imperialism and capitalism and all that, but this building was like a giant middle finger aimed at those who would dare to crush the American spirit. It was quite brilliant.

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The memorial itself is absolutely beautiful. The museum was too crowded for us that day, so we walked between the footprints of the two buildings and read the names etched into the borders. Volunteers at the memorial place white roses on top of the names of those who would be celebrating birthdays on a particular day, which is sweet.

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This may be one of our favourite spots in the city, because despite the crowds and the heat it felt so tranquil.

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We filled our water bottles at a fountain on the grounds. The water tasted like freedom (or was just really good considering how hot it was).

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That night the Pie went to a Street Fighter thing in Brooklyn so Teedz and Tego and I went out to dinner with an acquaintance of mine from long ago. We had some delightful and affordable Indian food in Murray Hill, affectionately nicknamed Curry Hill for its abundance of Indian cuisine.

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On the way back we got to see the Chrysler Building at night.

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And the UN, though they take all the flags down at dusk. Boo.

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As the days progressed and the Pie and I got more and more tired, we went less far in our travels. On the Thursday we hit up the High Line, an old subway track turned into pedestrian path. It was very crowded and pretty touristy (and I had to shove aside a few European tourists who were shoving me right back to get through) but it was nice to see the city from a different angle.

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I really like the odd mix of new and old.

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From there we wandered through the Meatpacking District and looked at all the fancy things in stores we couldn’t afford. Of course the Empire State Building was waving at us.

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And the Chrysler Building.

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I took a picture of this window as we walked past the central post office, just because I liked the metalwork. After I did, a million tourists behind us stopped and stared up at the window and snapped pictures, trying to figure out what was so important about it.

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We ended up at Grand Central Station. We’d been through the underground part of it countless times at this point, but we wanted to see the rest of it. It was definitely one of our favourite spots.

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Just like the 9/11 Memorial, this place was a busy hub of activity, but it also gave you such a sense of space that you can’t really get elsewhere in the city, and that made it peaceful.

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Friday we mostly just ran around with Ando and Teedz. We went to the Chelsea Market which was kind of neat, but again pretty touristy. Krystopf and his family were stopping through NYC on their way to Europe, so we got to spend the evening with them and we managed to capture one of the few photos of myself and my brothers all in the same room that wasn’t taken at a wedding. We are all dorks. But we’re dorks as a family, and that’s what matters.

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The next time we go we will probably go in the winter, so we’ll skate at Rockefeller Center and go to all the crazy toy stores and do all those sorts of things. I’ll keep you posted!


The Un-Cola

The Un-Cola

I saw this recipe on Freshly Pressed this past summer and was inspired by Krista and Jess to make this recipe from the New York Times (thanks ladies!).

My brother Ando has always been a fan of carbonated beverages.  Specifically the cola variety.  The more caffeine the better (he used to be a bit of a night owl).  Sodas aren’t that great for the teeth, of course,  as they contain a lot of sugar.  The colas especially so.  Ando’s tip for strong dentition: drink sodas only in conjunction with food, and use a straw.  When I saw this recipe, I thought he’d like it.  It’s made of all natural ingredients and contains significantly less sugar than your average can of Coke (which has 39g of sugar in it, the same as 10 sugar cubes).

The Un-Cola

These sorts of natural syrups are a sign that we are trying to return to simpler times, and the creators of this recipe, Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, are doing just that (so you can go visit them Ando and tell me how the recipes compare — it’s just over the bridge after all).

So this is his DIY Christmas gift from his little sister (SURPRISE!), which, together with all the other presents for the Manhattan Crew, I am trying to get completed and mailed out before the end of the month — how’s that for organization?

The recipe itself is pretty straightforward, but does require a certain attention to detail.  I also had to do some serious sleuthing around St. John’s to find all the appropriate ingredients, though if that means puttering around Food for Thought and Fat Nanny’s for an hour or two then I really don’t mind.

The Un-Cola

You’ll need to grate the zest from 2 medium oranges, 1 large lime, and 1 large lemon.  I doubled my batch so that the Pie and I would have some to try, and then made up an extra set of dry ingredients so that Ando can cook himself up a refill.  Each batch makes about 3 cups syrup.

The Un-Cola

So I grated a lot of citrus.  I’m going to save it and make a fabulous beverage soon.

The Un-Cola

For the extra dry ingredients, I used a zester, which gets the peel without the bitter pith.

The Un-Cola

Then I heated my oven to 150°F and spread the peel on a baking sheet to dry.

The Un-Cola

It probably cooked for about an hour while I was doing all that other stuff.

The Un-Cola

Take some whole nutmeg and a fine rasp and grate yourself about 1/8 teaspoon of that stuff.  Mmm, smells so good.

The Un-Cola

Crush one section of one star anise pod with a spoon.

The Un-Cola

Cut a vanilla pod so you have a 1 1/2″ section (that’s almost 4cm for you metric folk).  Use a knife to split that section in half lengthwise.

The Un-Cola

You’ll also need 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon dried lavender flowers, 2 teaspoons minced ginger, and 1/4 teaspoon citric acid.  You can get citric acid at stores that sell canning supplies, or try specialty or health food stores.

In a heavy pot over medium heat, bring all those ingredients to a simmer in 2 cups water.  Reduce the heat to low and let it simmer for about 20 minutes.

The Un-Cola

In a large bowl, mix together 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon packed brown sugar.

The Un-Cola

Plop a colander or strainer on top of that and line it with a double layer of cheesecloth.

The Un-Cola

Pour the contents of the hot pot over the cheesecloth and gather the ends of the cloth together so that all the solids are in a nice little package.  Use a spoon to squeeze out all the liquid from the package against the side of the pot.

The Un-Cola

Stir the syrup occasionally until the sugar dissolves, about 10 minutes.  Transfer to a container and keep it in the refrigerator.

The Un-Cola

In order for this to last the trip over the sea and land and a river to Manhattan (from one island to another) I decided to can it.  You can see my tips on canning with a stove top canner here.

The Un-Cola

To drink, pour 1 part syrup over ice and mix with 4 parts seltzer or soda water.  It tastes FANTASTIC.  Not like a commercial soda, but one where you can taste all the flavours that went into it.  AMAZING.

The Un-Cola

And here is the little container with the dried peel and all the other dried ingredients (minus the sugar) that Ando will need to make his own batch.

The Un-Cola

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