I was avoiding going to America as a travel destination for quite some time yet I was always truly intrigued by it. A part of me thought that it is too similar to Europe, too far and expensive to make it a worthwhile tourism trip. On the other hand a part of me dreamt one day of finally going to the world’s largest power and see its big cities. I had heard so much about New York from friends and so in September last year I decided to go!
Multicultural 24 Hour City
I was staying in Manhattan and spent most of my time there, so in all fairness my experience is mostly of that part of New York. I was in Brooklyn for a little part so I missed out on Harlem and the Bronx. To make sense of New York, London was a natural reference at all times; both very big cities, multiethnic and with a similar business and social structure. The energy and pace of Manhattan is however way more than that of London. The buildings are bigger and there’s plenty of them too overpowering the view of the sky. There are more people packed per square mile there and they are moving fast.
New York is a very expensive place to live in, rents and property prices are more than that of London. A lot of people have no choice but to work two jobs, and there are far fewer holidays. New York really does not sleep. Even the vibe in Leicester Square London slows and comes to a halt in the middle of the night somewhat but Manhattan is still buzzing with activity any time of night. You could go to a restaurant, bar or wherever any time of the night.
This is helped in part by the 24 hours subway system, which makes travelling very convenient. I did find the subway system one of the dirtiest though (I’ve seen around 20 different subway systems in the world), trains were infrequent and the signs on where the lines were going were very confusing. I found New York dirtier than I expected. Not as dirty as some developing countries I’ve been too but for a developed city it should be cleaner.
So Familiar, you have seen it all on TV already!
Walking around in New York you feel this amazing amount for familiarity with it all, at times I felt I was walking around on a live movie set. The type of buildings, the yellow taxis, the accents and the feel of it has been so well and thoroughly documented that the whole city seems like you’ve already seen and lived it! I remember walking around and seeing a fire engine get out of its station, I thought I was in Ghostbusters! And then at times I felt I was on the set of Police Academy or Friends.
Online to real life friends and the pain of 9/11
I went to most of the major landmarks in New York. Wall Street, Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, High Line and I lived next to Union Square so I saw that regularly. I did miss out on the Statue of Liberty and Central Park however.
I met up with friends old and new, including someone who I last saw when I was a teenager and saw him after 18 years. I met some other people who I’ve never seen before but befriended on social media from the music community and through my band DonkeyBox, this was really cool. Highlights included jamming with Carla in a guitar shop in Times Square and been shown around by Lauren on the Freedom Tower memorial.
It was September and there is still construction work going on in the area after the terrible 9/11 tragedy. While the memory of that event fades for the rest of the world, it was humbling to be at the site where the scars felt very fresh. The place is still silent around the memorial and construction work reminds us that a lot was taken away and is still being rebuilt.
I performed live music in New York!
Talking about music, it was my dream to one day perform in New York as a musician. On my last night there I turned up to an open mic night in East Village and at 1:30am I got to play on stage. I borrowed someone’s guitar and felt energised and alive for performing. I had done it! The open mic scene in New York is something else and I’ll write more about it later in a specific post.
I found New Yorkers to be chatty and expressive and they will generally speak their minds especially in traffic (Western Europeans are quieter in that respect), I’ve grown up in places like India, Kenya, Libya etc., so I’m no stranger to varying cultures. At times there was a bluntness and directness that you usually hear in India. At other times there was politeness and reserve that you see in Europe. The whole variety is there. People in America are proud of where they come from (State/Region) and it is part of their identity more so than regional identity is here in the UK. It felt similar to state type identity in India. In Brooklyn I found myself walking in the Jewish quarter which was like a city in itself, it was pretty cool to learn about Jewish culture through that immersed walk. In London we also have areas in which eg a lot of Indian people live but the areas tend to be small pockets.
The food was dissapointing, it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great. A lot of it lacked natural flavour. Mexican and Chinese food is available in vast abundance, which was my favourite types of food there. My friend who works in the dairy industry told me that it was rare to find any cheese there with more than 20% cheese content! The rest is filler and cheap additive material. This is the only way it can be done to keep good cost low and feed a massive population. But the free market nature of processed food meant that most things there were tasteless and lifeless in a way you can’t explain, even for a fairly well priced restaurant. The portions were big that’s for sure and you would definitely not go hungry there! My favourite meals were from China Town.
All in all it was a cool thing to finally visit New York, I wouldn’t go back for tourism again but if I had to work there or go for business or music reasons I think I’d fit in very easily and I’d feel comfortable. New York has an open and welcoming energy.