Friday, April 24, 2009

Five Years

”We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot. Five years, that’s all we’ve got.” (David Bowie, 1972)

Five years ago today, I moved to New York. Instinctively I tell people it’s ‘flown by', but upon reflection it actually feels like quite a long time.

I had visited the city a couple of times as a kid, back when it was seen as an exciting but dark and dangerous place.

However it was during regular business trips at the start of this decade that I really began to fall in love with it.

On these trips, I devoured every guidebook, and explored virtually every interesting neighborhood.

As a result of this, plus the last five years obviously, I know New York considerably better than I’ll ever know London.

Some of my fondest memories are of waking jet-lagged in the early hours and embarking on aimless walks through the streets, or jogging through Central Park as the lights began to flicker back into life.

Thus once the opportunity to live here arose, I grabbed it with both hands. I quickly proposed to my then girlfriend (how stupid that looks now, given how much fun my single friends seem to have here), and sold the concept to her as best I could.

I figured there was no conceivable downside to the opportunity, and potentially substantial upside. We already had a handful of contacts to tap into, and as it has turned out (and as we had hoped) virtually every one of our friends from London has spent some time here since we moved.

It’s not a city that everyone would enjoy living in, and whilst it might lack say the grand beauty of Paris, or the subtle charms of London, it has a unique dynamism that I will miss deeply whenever the time comes to move on.

It saddens me that very few tourists explore it properly, tending to hang around in ghastly Times Square or linger in department stores, when the quirks of the West Village for example, or the splendor of the Upper East Side awaits.

Many people view New York as an inherently ‘unfriendly’ city, bordering on the downright aggressive. Certainly it’s not a place to live if you appreciate peace and quiet, but behind the hard-driving façade there lurks a brand of humour immortalized by countless comedians and TV shows.

There is an unfortunate tendency to say ‘give me’ rather than ‘please can I have’, but us Brits could learn something from (and would benefit from) their expectation of good service, if perhaps not the manner in which they demand it.

It takes a while to get used to the fact that everyone here is seemingly ‘on the make’, whether seeking financial gain, sexual adventure or potentially both at the same time. It’s not a place one would choose to live if just happy sauntering through life.

The culture here is certainly exceptionally commercial and self-promotional, and to at least a small degree I’ve had to learn to become more comfortable in trumpeting my own (limited) virtues, and liberating it's been too.

During the first couple of years that I lived here, I endeavored to indulge myself fully in the New York experience. I adopted the Mets as my baseball team for example, reading every match report and dissecting every statistic.

Meanwhile the wife and I found ourselves enjoying the type of nightlife we had never really experienced in London, tapping into a network of fellow expats and regularly crawling home at the type of ungodly hour that we were definitely too old for.

The fact that most young people you tend to meet live in Manhattan or on the fringes of Brooklyn, ensures that almost by definition all of your friends are no more than a 20-30 minute taxi or subway ride away.

Manhattan is only 23 square miles after all, or 30 times smaller than Greater London, and therein lay my biggest gripe with life in the latter. It is difficult to be socially spontaneous when friends are scattered all over the city, tubes stop at midnight and black cabs charge the earth.

Having said that, actually using the (24-hour) New York subway is a thoroughly unpleasant experience that always leaves me keen to disinfect myself. Luckily the buses are a more pleasant and seemingly underutilized resource.

The taxi drivers meanwhile are notoriously crazy, their erratic driving and manners outweighed only by the realization from the meter that they’ve taken you half way across town for less than ten bucks. A couple of years ago I got into a cab and asked for JFK Airport, only to be asked if I knew the way.

The city above 14th Street is arranged as an easily understood grid system, which ensures it's hard to get lost, and is good for traffic flow, but after a while it can drive you slightly insane.

In rush hour meanwhile, you soon get to learn where the term 'gridlock' came from, as selfish drivers insist on 'blocking the box' as they fight their way through the slower east/west cross streets. No wonder Jimi Hendrix immortalised the concept of 'crosstown traffic' in terms of a girlfriend who tried to tie him down.

Unfortunately, perhaps as an inevitable consequence of the passing of time, and certainly thanks to the arrival of kids, life here is a much more boring proposition these days.

Suddenly not owning a car has been restrictive, rather than an unnecessary burden. Meanwhile having the ability to walk to literally 200 restaurants has lost some of its charm, when the extortionate cost of babysitters enters the equation.

Frustratingly it’s also clearly been a very transient place, even for Americans and certainly for the expats we made friends with. For most people it’s a city to indulge in for a temporary period, not to settle long-term.

Notably I no longer read local newspapers, instead choosing to have The Times delivered, and generally watching BBC America or English football on the rare occasions I am in front of the box.

My following of the Mets meanwhile has deteriorated to a cursory and only very occasional glance at the current league standings (Answer: P15, W6, L9....wish I hadn't bothered.)

I will never tire of the convenience however. Dry cleaning is collected and returned within a day, whilst every restaurant will deliver ‘take-out’, from the cheapest Chinese to the smartest bistro.

The sight of thousands of bicycle delivery men furiously pedaling the wrong way up the city’s streets, is thus one of the quintessential images of New York.

Most people live in so-called ‘doormen’ buildings meanwhile, apartment blocks with full-time staff to collect deliveries, and provide peace of mind. Our own building houses approximately 350 apartments (all rented), and includes on-site garden, pool and health club.

A friendly atmosphere is deliberately engendered by management such that some residents have rightly described it as a ‘village within a city’. I’m sure my older son’s outgoing nature is a function of having such regular interaction with so many different people.

My mind isn’t yet made up about the weather, although about two months after moving here, I distinctly recall commenting to a friend that it’s “…awfully sunny here…”. Not something I'd ever had to mention growing up in Hertfordshire.

Indeed, by my estimation approximately 70% of days consist of bright blue skies all day, even if the temperature can be rather extreme (90 degrees forecast for this weekend for example, and we're not even in May yet).

The weather in London had never really bothered me, and indeed I believe it is generally misunderstood by Americans who comment on the greyness. It's mildness is a virtue in my view, although the appearance of clear and recognisable seasons has been refreshing here by contrast.

Surprisingly perhaps, New York experiences greater rainfall than London, although it generally comes down in sudden short bursts rather than during long periods of drizzle.

The winter tends to drag on, and the presence of the skyscrapers tend to emphasise the wind chill. Proper snowfall in New York is undeniably romantic, and the city does not grind to a halt, but within days it is reduced to a grey sludge which dampens the spirit.

Summer here can feel like the Tropics at times, but being able to go out on almost any evening from May to September in a t-shirt and shorts, offers the relaxed feeling that most Brits only experience on holiday.

During the first couple of summers we experienced, I had an unstoppable urge to strip right down to my pants the moment I got home from work each evening. This was certainly a surprise to the wife when she walked in, though it may help explain how we got to have kids.

Without Central Park, the city would be totally uninhabitable but instead seemingly every inch of its 843 acres is mobbed on every summer weekend.

It’s a wonderfully designed park, surprisingly bucolic in parts, and I’m rarely less than happy and relaxed when I’m somewhere within it. There can’t be many better urban spaces in which to run for example.

We clearly have big decisions to make in the coming months, as the reality of having two young (American) kids in an apartment begins to impinge upon the attractiveness of life here.

However regardless of how much longer it continues, the entire experience of living abroad (particularly in a city as alluring as this one) has been fantastic. Despite its occasional frustrations, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

10 Comments:

At 11:33 PM, Blogger Kings Hill Addick said...

'Please can I have?'

Surely you meant 'Please may I have?'

I've only spent a week in New York but spent it in the tourist places you describe.

I cannot imagine how exciting and frightening it must be to move abroad, even to an English-ish speaking country.

As usual your prose is both pleasantly easy to read and captivating, even though you didn't mention the most pants football club in SE7.

I'm still waiting for my invite to visit.

 
At 12:02 AM, Anonymous SLC Red said...

Funny the way that single event strikes people. I still remember being in a Manhattan bar in the late 80's. My polite "Could I have a beer please?" was met with a vicious stare and a snapped "You want a beer or not? Here you say Gimme a beer" Still I fell in love with the place and moved to the US, I hope never to return. Stiil read the Times, Guardian and BBC Footie site every day. Good to hear about something other than CAFC. However, I will flying 5000 miles to be at the Norwich game - somehow when I booked the trip I'd imagined it would determine whether we stayed up or not!

 
At 1:21 AM, Blogger charlton north-downs said...

NYA -A lovely almost poetic piece- I cant imagine how difficult it must be to bring up two children in a flat. Our son and daughter have an age difference of just 15 months and we found it incredibly difficult surviving many sleepless nights but we had the consolation of living in in a reasonably large detached house that meant we could all scream at some point. Good luck NYA

 
At 7:51 AM, Blogger Dave said...

Very interesting piece for me me NYA. I agonised over a decision to move to New York in 1998 and eventually declined. I had been working for the North American arm of our business for 3 years and had spent approximately a week a month in the States (mostly New York). I really loved the City but had already spent a year away (Singapore) and had missed the obvious things far too much. I've never regretted it (work-wise), but I often wonder how it might have turned out. I would certainly have been a New York Addick.

 
At 9:35 AM, Blogger beckenham morris said...

Sounds time to move to Brooklyn or Westport - the latter will suit your literary skills. Lovely piece on a fantastic city. At least you discovered one of life's real delights to balance the suffering following CAFC. Congratulations on that excellent article last year on the global credit crisis. Kind regards to your Burnley supporting friend in NYC.

 
At 10:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are certainly right about the rain in NYC -When we met in Sony Plaza a few weeks ago it was coming down so hard it was hurting my face!
When I first started coming to NYC in the mid to late 80's it seemed a rude and brash place. Now I'm always inspired by the way people seem so much more caring of each other than they do in London. Sure, it's partly politeness in an effort to get some financial reward but the general lack of pushing on the subway and pointless aggression while walking about is liberating.
It's a real 24 hour society with a 'can do' mentality.
It's certainly not perfect but it remains my favourite place on the planet.
One question- the area around the beautiful arch of Washington square. It's all dug up and covered in fencing at present. It's always been a nice lazy place to sit and watch the world go by but at the moment it looks like a building site.
Do you know what's happening?
Marco

 
At 2:03 PM, Blogger New York Addick said...

Marco - they are undertaking a 2-year renovation project of Washington Square - should be finished this summer.

KHA - you're welcome any time - I'll buy the drinks.

 
At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Nug said...

Really enjoyed reading that NYA. I moved to NYC in 1993 and spent 5 years, getting married to an american in the process, before moving on to Chicago. Been back in London now for a while but returned last week to Manhattan for the first time in 10 years with 6 mates all celebrating our 40th's. My trip really brought back fantastic memories, it is truly a great place and your article was very nostalgic for me.

I didn't mind the baseball but my wife-to-be's dad's company had corporate seats to the Rangers the year they last won the Stanley Cup....it was absolutely fantastic....if only Charlton had a Mark Messier type of captain. He guaranteed a win one night against The Devils and single-handedly beat them scoring both goals....brilliant.

 
At 7:16 AM, Blogger Suze said...

I too enjoyed my visit to NYC. We visited one new year, and yes, we stood with thousands of others to watch the ball drop...surrounded by families from around the world, and differing states...
Other than those, we whiled away our time visiting Washington Square. I agree, a beautifully quiet place for contemplation... Found the best chocolate shop ever on Hudson Street, it's called The Spotted Trout, and is a strange mix of fishing and old fashioned hot chocolate and sweets, but the chocolate...oh, the chocolate! We did visit Chinatown and stood on the outcrops of Central Park...
I have a friend who is a born and bred New Yorker...and he loves London...
Good luck with your decisions, it's always going to be difficult.

 
At 11:19 PM, Blogger Chicago Addick said...

Great piece NYA. It hit many nerves on a number of counts. Living overseas is I find a guilty pleasurable experience.

I used to always compare NY to Chicago but on my last visit I got a much better appreciation of the city and particularly the Central Park.

KHA - by the way, NYA always buys the beers :-)

Dave - I almost went in 1998 too, dammit, we could have been the original New York Addicks. I would have worked in the Twin Towers though, so someone was looking out for me.

 

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