On the 8th of October 2015 at 6:30 P.M local time, I finally landed on the runway of JFK airport, in New York. It was my first time on the American continent. After 34 years, I had finally made it to the country that began to fascinate me when I was a teenager and has never, ever stopped.
It was all in all a great experience, and I want to share with you the impressions that I had of the New York City, its culture, and its inhabitants.
I present to you the ten most notable things about New York City, and the life lessons I’ve learned from them
1. Cost of living
New York is incredibly expensive.
I had always heard that New York is expensive, but I honestly didn’t expect it to be so expensive.
A single ride on the subway costs $2.75 without a Metro card, and even with a seven-day card, the ticket price can be quite hefty.
Eating out at restaurants is also a costly practice, probably more so even than Paris, a city notorious for expensive eating. I remember that the first time I ate at a New York City diner, the meal was $18 . Another time, a plate of chicken with a bottle of beer and a glass of wine ended up costing me a whopping $60. Truth be told, there are also much less expensive restaurants, but if you’re intending on going out to eat to a decent place with a group of friends, it is difficult to avoid spending less than $20-30.
Normally the price of a meal can cost up to $25 in a diner, for example. But that’s not what you are going to spend. In fact, you are going to spend more. The quoted price doesn’t include the tip, which is around sixteen percent or more of the final bill. And not being satisfied with the service would be the only time it is permissible to leave a lower-than-normal tip here, or to not leave one at all.. In the US, if you don’t leave a tip, that’s considered extremely rude and inappropriate, because waiters and waitresses generally make their living off of tips. So, after the meal you have to start doing the math. Sometimes, when four people sitting down for dinner have all ordered different meals, sorting it all out can be a bit frustrating.
But there is one thing that I found seriously frustrating.
In supermarkets and shops, most of the goods on the shelves have a price that doesn’t include taxes. So, you see a price and go to the counter to pay, only to discover that the price is not what you originally expected. It happened to me more than once, since, as a foreigner, I kept forgetting about it. Once, at a grocery store, I went to the counter to pay for a piece of bread. I was prepared–or so I thought. I had brought with me a number of coins to pay with, but had forgotten about the whole “tax ordeal”. When the cashier gave me a completely different total for the transaction, I was tired and hungry, so, clumsily, I tried to look for other coins–and ended up spilling them all on the floor. One one hand, I felt like an idiot for forgetting about the American sales tax system yet again, but on the other I was also kind of frustrated at a system that (at least to me) seems over-complicated and practically incomprehensible.
Having said all that, even if prices were high and certain customs were sometimes a bit difficult to deal with, I didn’t complain too much. I thanked every day to be in New York and to be able to experience every single experience, be it good or….not so good.
They call New York “the city that never sleeps”–and for good reason. You can find and do everything in New York, no matter the day or time.
At least, this is what I heard before I got there.
To tell you the truth, I still haven’t seen much of the famous nightlife of New York, even after my travels there. It might have been because of the jet lag and the frenetic pace of the conference, but by the time the day’s activities came to an end, I was completely exhausted; all I wanted to do was head back to where I was staying and rest up for the day ahead. So, I spent more than a few evenings just chilling at Paul’s place (Paul is the Spanish teacher who was kind enough to host me in New York), or trying out a new restaurant for dinner and then going home to finally sleep.
Of course, I did go out a few times, even if those nights weren’t exactly like the crazy nights I spent in Budapest in 2013, when language enthusiasts met for the first time at the first-ever Polyglot Conference.
One of these nights, I met several other conference-goers in a Bulgarian bar called Mehraba. The scene there was quite lively, and I very much enjoyed myself. The next night, after the conference had officially ended, we met again at a rooftop bar located just in front of the Empire State Building. As my trip went on, I also had a chance to check out several bars across the five boroughs of the city, each time sharing a few laughs and a few beers with other conference attendees.
Each time I went out in the evenings, I could definitely tell that there was a lot going on around me. There were always people out and about, and I often came across groups of young people screaming and dancing, cheering and laughing in a happy, alcohol-induced fervor. Even in the subway, underground, there were often college-aged kids singing and playing the guitar, attempting (often in vain) to liven-up the tired or inebriated hordes awaiting the arrival of the next train.
All things considered, I would say that my favorite part of the New York nightlife were the times I spent in Brooklyn. The place had a nice air to it, all at once vibrant, refreshing, and young.
3. Public Transportation
New York City is absolutely huge, and to move from place to the other the fastest means of transport is more often than not the subway.
I wouldn’t say that the New York subway system is particularly complicated to understand, but it does take some time to figure out the quickest way from point A to point B. There is normally both a local train and an express train, the former of the two being the quicker option.
The subway is often very crowded, but not as crowded as I had initially anticipated. Having lived in Paris, and having been numerous times on a subway car at rush hour, nothing scares me anymore–so New York’s crowds weren’t a big deal.
The very first time I jumped on a subway train, I saw three girls making fun of an old woman who wanted to sit down. Instead of letting the woman sit, they remained seated and insisted on making a scene–and an odd one at that. All three were listening to loud music in the otherwise public subway car, and one of them even seemed like she may have been on drugs, standing up and going around, apparently displaying some of her best “rap moves” to the unwilling audience of the subway car. One young girl sitting next to them noticed the scene and started shouting. Completely red-faced, she yelled at the other girls for several minutes, saying things like “Did you say you want to beat me? Are you out of your mind?”
Needless to say, my first time on the NYC subway left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Fortunately for me, it was just a fluke occurrence, as subsequent trips on the subway were generally calm, even in the middle of the night.
Most subway stations in the city don’t have timetables, so most of the time you have to wait at the platform without knowing exactly when the next train will come. Sometimes, as I waited for my train, I would see people slouched over on benches, exhausted, and others even sleeping or snoring. It never took more than ten or fifteen minutes for the train to arrive. So, all in all, the system works. As a native of Rome, of course, punctuality is something I have never taken for granted.
Beyond the standard options of the subway, the taxi, and the city bus, the other major means of transport I took during my stay was the Staten Island Ferry. That was quite a pleasant surprise. The view of the Manhattan skyline that you can see from the stern is just stunning. Many commuters take the ferry to go back to Staten Island after working the whole day in Manhattan.
In New York City you can find people from all over the world and from all walks of life. This diversity makes the city a linguistic heaven for both polyglots and general language enthusiasts. In Queens, there is the Indian neighborhood and when I say “Indian”, I mean that the majority of the people walking down the street, restaurants and shops are from India. So much so that you would often see people walking down the street in traditional Indian dress. The same goes for other parts of Queens, and the entire city on the whole. I even came across “pockets” of Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, and Spanish cultural groups, not to mention my some fellow Italians.
Speaking of which, some of us from the conference even had the good fortune of witnessing how Italian-Americans celebrate Columbus Day. On the night of 12 October, we found ourselves in a veritable ocean of Italian-Americans, celebrating the holiday along a side street in Brooklyn. At the center of this ocean was an “island” in the form of several men, all carrying in unison an immense, well-decorated wooden pillar. It was around this pillar that the majority of the evening crowd was singing, dancing, and generally enjoying themselves.
It was something the likes of which I had only ever seen on Italian TV, particularly when they show saint’s day celebrations in the south of the country.
The funny thing about Italian-Americans, in particular when compared to native Italians from Italy, is that they are probably more proud and nationalistic we are–at least in general terms. They looked and acted unmistakably Italian: the men were sitting around tables and smoking big cigars, faces practically masked by heavy shades. Women in their fifties bringing food to them and chatting with each other. “It’s like we’re in a Godfather movie!” – I remember hearing one of my friends saying, laughing. The whole thing was eerily familiar, even though I had never directly experienced anything like it before. The only big difference between these people and the Italians living in Italy is that these people spoke a mix of English and some dialect from the South, everything seasoned with an American accent. It was refreshing to see how much Italian-Americans care about their cultural origins, and the highlight of the night was probably the mountains of delicious food–real Italian stuff that we devoured with pleasure (and for free, too!)
Now, apart from the ethnical and linguistic diversity of the population of New York, there were a few more things that took me by surprise.
First, I saw very few overweight people during my time in New York. Given the prevailing stereotypes, I expected to see many more examples of the “typical, grossly overweight American”, but I did not. In fact, by the end of my trip, I saw many more people out running, jogging, and generally working to stay in shape than I did their obese counterparts. It was surprising, since I was told numerous times–even before landing in JFK–that New York is different from the rest of the US in many regards, obesity being one of them.
Okay, I’ll admit it. As soon as I land in another country, the Italian in me always compares the cuisine of the new country to the food from home. This time, I was surprised to discover the huge (and delicious) variety of food that New York City offers when it come to restaurants (though I will also admit that I stayed away from Italian restaurants!)
The diversity of restaurants available in the city reflects the diversity of the peoples and ethnicities that live in the five boroughs: you can sample Vietnamese, Chinese, Italian, Korean, Indian food–you name it, you can eat it in the city. I was staying to in a place next to the “Indian neighborhood” and I ate a couple of times at an Indian restaurant. Although I don’t particularly like spicy food, I must say that it was delicious. I also tried Cantonese food when I was in Manhattan, and Mexican food in Queens. I missed my chance to sample the world-renowned American hamburger, though.
For all the diversity available in city restaurants in New York, the food in supermarkets was, in contrast, less than impressive. Although you can find pretty much anything you want, I have the impression that the overall quality of supermarket food is not that high. I have also read and been told first hand by my American friends that the food in the US is often full of preservatives and not as tasty or fresh as one would like.
I always felt safe when walking in New York, be it in Manhattan or Queens, day or night.
That being said, I have never walked in Central Park at night, or wandered around certain neighbourhoods at 3 A.M looking like a tourist who has lost his way, so perhaps it was my decisions that influenced my overall feeling of safety in the city. I am not exactly an adventurer in this regard, and I always ask which areas are dangerous when I go to a city I don’t know.
Also, if I walk at night, I make sure that I am walking with someone.
As a tourist, I was told that there are areas in the Bronx and Brooklyn that are dangerous and should be avoided at all costs, but I had no intention of going to these places anyway, so it was never an issue.
All in all, the city looks safe. I also noticed that there is a massive police presence, and boy, do these guys look intimidating! I never had the feeling that they were people you could–or should–joke around with.
John and Paul–the two people I stayed with, told that the overall crime situation was much, much worse in the 80’s, and that crime rates have been decreasingly steadily ever since.
There are some parts of New York City in which the situation is still difficult (but this is likely true of other American cities, or cities in general). In particular, I’ve heard that in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit, if you walk by yourself at night, you run the risk of assault, mugging or worse. I never got this feeling in New York, but I don’t doubt that such things are possible.
7. Tourist attractions
There is really a lot to see in NY. The city is divided into 5 administrative zones called “boroughs”: Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Each one has its own characteristics and charm, and they’re all huge–the size of a small European city. The only borough I didn’t get the pleasure of visiting during my travels in NYC was the Bronx.
Manhattan is the beating heart of NY: big, wide streets full of cars, surrounded by skyscrapers everywhere. Masses of people walking down the streets, darting in and out of shops, libraries, and administrative buildings. Cars, taxis and trucks racing to and fro. It is both charming and hectic at the same time. If you want to work all day and party all night, Manhattan is the place for you.
Queens is different. The atmosphere changes from one block to another, often surprisingly so. Every corner is a new, small world, with its own rules, its own people and its own way of living. In Queens, the buildings are comparable to those of Europe, at least in size. There are still a lot of people walking down the streets, but the pace seems more calm and relaxed compared to Manhattan’s frenetic, chaotic rhythm. In general, Queens seems more livable than its island counterpart.
Brooklyn is the borough I liked the most. It has a young, “hipster vibe” to it. In some parts, I would feel like I was walking in Europe, but then, all of a sudden, I’d be reminded that I was in the States when I turned my head and saw the strikingly beautiful Manhattan skyline towering in the distance.
I had a chance to visit Staten Island, too, but only barely. This is because a group of friends and I took a round trip on the Staten Island Ferry to get a free view of the Manhattan skyline, and only got off the ferry to immediately get back on, headed in the other direction.
The trip from Manhattan to Staten Island and back didn’t last particularly long. Even so, it was great to get an unobstructed view of the skyline, revealing itself in all its majesty while the ferry pulled out of port. We even had a surprise guest; as we were heading away from Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty practically snuck up alongside the boat, illuminated beautifully against the night sky.
But the thing that probably struck me the most was Ground Zero. When you hear in the news that more than three thousand people lost their lives, you understand that a lot of people died, but you have a hard time visualizing exactly the scope of the tragedy.
I understood the scope a bit better once I saw the names of all those people carved into the stone borders of the two great reflecting pools that have replaced the once greater Twin Towers, each name just a few centimeters apart from the next. All those names, lined up for meters and meters, give you a more complete idea of the immensity of the tragedy. It was so powerful, it hit me like a ton of bricks. And yet, there was a sense of hope enveloping that place, bearing witness of the incredible capacity of human beings to rise again when everything seems lost. I will remember those mixed feelings of death and hope for a long time.
Lastly, one place I wanted to see and didn’t see was the so-called “Russian district”, the one that is shown in the cult Russian movie “Brat”. Unfortunately, it was quite far–on the border of Brooklyn–and it would have taken more than an hour for me to go there from where I was staying. In the end I decided to see other, closer, places instead. Next time I make it to New York, I’ll definitely make the trip.
8. Manners and mentality
Another thing I have noticed about New York City (much to my dismay, I might add), is that people are often rude and not particularly friendly when it comes to small, daily gestures. For example, every time I exited the building where I was staying and I saw someone walking close behind me, I made sure I kept the door open and greet them. It is something I always do, wherever I might be. In some places, like Paris, it is considered very rude not to greet a neighbor or a close passer-by in a shop or restaurant. When I extended the same courtesy to New Yorkers, I was often thrown a short glance, as they walked through the door without even saying “hi”. When the roles were reversed, and I was just behind the person who opened the door, I often ended up with a door in my face, without a second glance. At first, I thought it was just a chance occurrence, but the more it happened, the more I started to see it as a rule, rather than an exception.
Once, I stopped by with some conference friends at a pizza place just next to the venue. The guy behind the counter looked like he was having a very bad day. When it was my turn to order, I pointed to one of the pizza that had a topping I couldn’t recognize. I asked the man: “What is that, meat”? He answered in a short, unintelligible mumble. “Is that meat?” I asked again. He looked at me and said “Yes! Beef is meat, you know?”, as if I were some kind of idiot. I was asking a simple question, and yet this guy reacted so rudely! I kept my calm, but inside I was fuming. Normally, I am a very patient person, but if someone disrespects me I can become very blunt and direct, especially in shops. I limited myself to voicing my annoyance to my friends once I sat down. “He must have been working all night. You can imagine all the weirdos that he has had to deal with every day” someone said. In my opinion, just “having a bad day” is no justification for such an attitude. In fact, I find it funny. It reminds me of the attitude of some employees that you can come across in countries like Italy and Spain, where people have no clue about the concept of customer service, unlike France and England. In these countries, the client is king. You pay for your good or service, and you’ll generally be treated with kindness and professionalism. In Italy, Spain, and –as it seems, in some parts of NY– it seems like customers are an inconvenience to service employees, and so they want to be rid of you as soon as possible.
Apart from the brief interactions in shops and other public places, there were other social factors that served to frequently remind me that I was on another continent. In particular, I noticed that when I talked about politics, religion, economy, or sports, the reactions I could expect from Americans and Europeans would be very different from one another.
For a lot of Americans, time is money. And money is necessary to survive. New York is such an expensive place that if you don’t have a decent salary, you’ll likely have a very hard time making ends meet. And what’s worse, if you get hurt or sick you’ll likely spend a fortune for your care, as the healthcare system is still largely privatized. This, in a way, reflects an uber-capitalistic society, where lobbies (financial, pharmaceutical, etc.), politicians and a larger, national mentality all play an important role. In most countries in Europe healthcare costs very little, and it is sometimes completely free.
“So, let me get it straight,” – I asked my American friends in Rome after arriving back from the States, “If you get really sick and have no money, who is going to take care of you?” “No one will, you simply die” – they answered. “So, it seems like healthcare is a privilege but owning guns is a right”? I asked again, in disbelief. “Yes”, my friends answered, “That’s the way it is”.
Needless to say, when you’re in New York City, you can hear a LOT of languages everywhere, particularly on the street corners and in the subway.
What struck me most about Queens, for example, is that I could often go without saying a single word in English for hours. I went inside a shop and bought food in Spanish. Then, I went to a restaurant and ordered more food in Spanish. I even asked for directions in Spanish, and the people didn’t even seem to realize that a tourist was speaking Spanish to them, instead of English. It was just the way it was; a simple fact of life. The same thing happened in Chinatown, although sometimes people spoke Mandarin with a very thick regional accent, or didn’t speak Mandarin at all, but some Chinese dialect.
Also, the people who were born and raised in the city have a very distinguishable accent. I remember that once I was in a cab with my host Paul, and I listened to a long conversation between him and the taxi driver. The accent of the taxi driver was so strong that it echoed in my head for days, and later I even started imitating him, much to the amusement of Paul, who is himself a “Bostonian”. Words like “talk, walk, water, coffee” are pronounced with a distinguishable, rounded “o”.
Also, it struck me – and this is something I wrote about on my blog and spoke about in Berlin in 2014 – that while one can reach native-like fluency/proficiency in a language, living the language in the place where it is originally spoken is priceless when it comes to understanding some nuances that one would not learn otherwise.
I strongly believe that to reach a level that is comparable to an educated native speaker, it is important to live in-country for at least 5-10 years. In fact, there is a distinction between knowing a language and living it. You can stay in your own country for a long time and read a lot of books in your target language, speak it with native speakers, but living the language in the place it is spoken allows you to understand they way people think, and the culture that underlines the language itself. You learn expressions or name of objects that you would probably not learn elsewhere. For example, when I was out walking Paul’s roommate’s dog Tucker, I noticed a sign that said “Curb the Dog”. “What the heck does ‘curb the dog’ mean?” I asked myself. When I later asked Paul, he laughed and said that it is a typical “New York thing”. It means that you have to make sure not to let the dog poop in the middle of the street, but instead have him do it next to the curb, otherwise you get a fine. These are things that you learn when you live the situation, and they stick in your long-term memory because they become part of your everyday life.
Overall, I think that I “know” the English language better than I do French. I definitely know more words in English. I even use English more than Italian right now, and yet, I think that I am more “native-like” in French because I lived in France for three years and I spent quite a lot of time with a French family and other native French speakers. I didn’t just learn the language, but experienced a lot of things that go on underneath its surface. After some time there, I started feeling more French than Italian.
So, if you want to reach a level that is comparable to native speakers, you should most definitely live in the country for some time. But this is only if you want to reach that kind of level. For most language learners, reaching a good level is more than enough, and you can always reach native-like proficiency by surrounding yourself with the language wherever you may live.
The weather in the States was incredible, especially during the first week. As soon as I landed, I noticed a cloudless, blue sky, with the light at sunset illuminating the buildings around the airport. Although it was 6:30 P.M, it was still warm outside. The following day, the sun was shining again, and it rained only towards late afternoon. After that, I wouldn’t see rain for the rest of the trip. I was pleasantly surprised at this, considering that just a few days before I arrived Paul had told me to bring some warm clothes.
After a week of sunshine and hot temperatures, the thermometer dropped abruptly, and the last two days it was freezing, especially at night. But I was not bothered at all, and a bit of cool weather was actually more than welcome.
I have heard that the best time to come to New York is May and October, when the weather is neither too hot nor too cold, and the sun is shining. I can certainly vouch for October in New York, and if I go to there in the future, I’ll make sure it’ll be in May (or perhaps again in October). I’ve heard heard that in the summer it is scorching, and in the winter it can get freezing, and it often snows in winter.
Spending 10 times in NY was, all in all, a great experience. Seeing another continent, coming in contact with another vision of life and another way of living, helped me realize even more how beautifully diverse humanity is. Every country, every continent has its own customs. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, they say. If you decide to visit New York City, or the States in general, go there with a free and open spirit and try not to judge and compare everything to how things are at home. There is much that can be learned from differences. The world is relative, and every place will enrichen you inside if you know how to accept its beauty .Travelling is one of the most amazing and fulfilling things you can do in life, because every time you do, you become a better person.