Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities

I had wanted to leave my mark on the fabled streets and avenues of New York, but dry-heaving on the corner of Park Ave. and 50th not 10 minutes before my first day as a Big Kid (lowly intern) proved just a tad too literal. Disembarking from my 9-hour flight into JFK the afternoon before, I had marveled at the facility of navigating a city when you share a common tongue—New Yorkers! I wanted to shout with glee. They’re just like Us! 

Yet as the flow of 8:30 AM Young Professional pedestrian traffic surged onward, and the well-tailored suits and sharp blazers barely deigned to break their gait to glance over as my body revolted against me, I began to revise my headline. Alright, so it’s entirely fallacious and just plain bratty to blame a metropolis and its 8.3 million people for my trans-Atlantic jetlag. 

But, as I slumped over the garbage can that morning, I felt somewhat betrayed. Two months earlier I changed my plane tickets faster that I could receive approval from my program or my professors, envisioning 10 weeks in New York City as the serendipitous transition from 8 months studying in Paris back to the Real World (I’m willing to acknowledge I might be the only misguided soul who has ever referred to this self-contained anomaly of a city as the “Real World.”) And though my Manhattan surroundings boasted familiar stores and brands—Best Buy! American Eagle!—I felt no sense of home. Three weeks later I’m still adjusting, though I’ve had the time to reflect on some comforting—if unprecedented—parallels between my two surrogate cities.

The Metro Card: In our introduction to New York orientation session, we were told: “It’s not the underground, it’s not the tube, it’s not the metro, it’s the subway. Don’t call it otherwise.” Um, guilty. Before I mount a campaign for the brevity and practicality of the word “metro,” I’ll rest my defense with the fact that in New York—as in Paris—we swipe our metro cards. You can’t have it both ways, NYC! Pick your public transportation poison, or at least chill out if some of your newest residents are taking the metro to work.

A Dire Lack of Quality Cuisine: Forget everything you’ve heard about the gastronomic excellence of Paris and New York’s restaurant scene. Michelin stars? Ha! I’ll give three to the first place in either cultural capital that serves decent—nay, any—queso. While Mexican food purists argue that queso isn’t authentic, my taste buds don’t care. The spicy, creamy elixir of the gods is a staple at all mediocre Mexican places in my home-state of Alabama. And I did not suffer 8 whole months in the culinary black hole that is Paris only to discover that New York is just as lacking! Sigh. Still accepting offers of FedEx-ed queso.

Pride: Americans and French share more in common than either would like to admit. More specifically, Parisians and New Yorkers. Two particular breeds that tend to believe that a world beyond the Seine or the Hudson just doesn’t exist. Yet, for me, the coolest thing about large cities is the fact that every single person in them has to really fight to be there, meaning they have to really want it. Apathy isn’t an option. With its uneven streets and notorious lack of elevators, Paris isn’t exactly handi-cap friendly. That’s why I was struck by the number of elderly residents, often chic, fabulous women in fur coats, who each have their own reasons for thinking Paris still worth the effort. New York, meanwhile, is a notorious “make it or break it” city, where only the strongest, most ambitious survive. I like to remember that most of its inhabitants are each struggling with personal challenges on days where I’m trying to make—push—my way through Times Square, cursing humanity.

If Times Square makes me lose my faith in humanity, there are a million other tiny interactions with New Yorkers that restore it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Even in three weeks, I can feel the warmth and goodness of these city slickers, sometimes hidden beneath grumpier exteriors. Parisians get a similarly icy rap, one that’s amplified by their supposed dislike for Americans. Besides never encountering this abroad, I have so many counter-stories attesting to their openness and generosity. Basically, people are just generally really, really good. I may never quite be able to locate this amorphous feeling of “home” again, but who needs a home when you’ve got a community?

--Russell Willoughby, University of Alabama, This Old House

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