There’s a little secret I keep to myself, roosting here in the Hudson River valley among migrants from Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx: I don’t like New York City.
There, it’s out. Such a relief! But it’s not something I can say out loud among my neighbors. Most of them have never been anywhere else but Florida. Most of them will probably never have a reason to apply for a passport. To New Yorkers, life in New York City is the zenith of existence. I would say it’s the nadir, but I reserve that for Boston.
People tend to think of New York as one of the most — if not the most — cosmopolitan places on the planet. And it is, it is. In a way. Or maybe it was, once, and now the Little Italy and Chinatown districts just feel a little too much like a theme park. Little Russia (or Little Odessa, depending on where you’re from originally), I admit, still feels authentic. I go there to practice my Russian because English gets me nowhere. But when critics use the term “navel-gazing New Yorker,” you have to understand that they’re not just being caustic. New Yorkers — and yes, I generalize here, but I’m only talking about my experience — have an astounding lack of curiosity about the outside world. It baffles me. When I came back from two months in Moscow a few winters ago, my acquaintances (educated people who’d actually traveled a bit) tried really hard to be interested. I could see their brains working at it. Clunk, thunk, what can I ask that will show I am not only interested, but educated and aware? They meant well and I let them off the hook.
Everything here is seen through a prism of New York City, the center of the known universe. For an independent-minded person (read: crotchety snob from the rural Rockies), it’s frustrating. I am a writer. I live near New York. So obviously I came to New York to become a writer. Nope. I came because my husband’s company transferred him here. Truth is, I wish I could get away from New York to be a writer. There’s something stifling about the place, its self-feeding creativity, an endless loop crushed under the weight of writers and musicians and actors past, who all came to the city to release their creative juices. Nothing in the art world ever seems to be new here, just endless variations on the old, the shocking, the absurd.
It’s a weird feeling, being a Westerner on the US’s East Coast. It’s a different world. When I moved to Boston, the culture shock was such as I’d never experienced in any other country. It felt far more foreign. In New York, it’s more as if the rest of the country is just a vast rolling wasteland, as if I and the place I came from don’t exist except in panoramic Hollywood shots about cowboys.
The East/West US divide isn’t something people write about much, maybe because West Coasters really do migrate to New York because they love it, and the ones who don’t either stay put or migrate further West. But there are big differences that shouldn’t be boiled down to city versus country platitudes. New Yorkers really don’t know how to slow down, not the ones I’ve met. If they do relax, it’s with the feeling that they’re ticking an activity off a list: “Relaxed by beach this week; will get back to nature by visiting an organic farm next week.” All the time holding themselves, slightly tense for the next expected movement — to a new gallery opening or visiting their favorite soon-to-be-closed restaurant. It’s a lifestyle that evokes pity in me whenever I go home, to a place where life really is a little slower and people have an interest in where you’ve come from and where you’ve been because they assume that their back yard doesn’t hold it all.
I’ve lived here, sixty miles northwest of New York City, for over five years. And while I’ve visited many other countries in that time and bonded with new places and run either home to Montana or to the Scottish Highlands several times, I have to drag myself to the nearby metropolis because I’d really rather stay home. People who love New York to the point of cliché baffle me. Yes, it’s a big city, with diverse people from all over the world. But Sydney is a better melting pot. Moscow and Tokyo are more vibrant and energetic. London is more cultured. San Francisco has better food. Almost anywhere is more attractive.
But this is my role as a traveler, right? To understand the people of a place, to understand the place itself. I’m on a mission for the next couple years: to discover a love of New York. If I can’t make the effort to fathom the fascination of outsiders and the navel-gazing of my neighbors, I can’t call myself a travel writer.
I’ll start next week with revisiting the few places in Manhatten I really do like: the Public Research Library on Fifth Avenue, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Grand Central Terminal. But after that it’s time to branch out. I’m going to figure out what makes this bloody place tick if it bores me to death.