For more than three years, I wrote a blog about being an American expat living in Britain. Despite all my time abroad, I never became an expert in “expat stuff.” You wouldn’t want me giving you advice on filing your taxes, absentee voting, or getting an international driving license. So I kept my blog focussed on the little everyday things I did know something about: the differences between biscuits and cookies; how to make tea like a British person; my neverending quixotic quest for a good plate of nachos in a country that just can’t seem to get them right.
The only topic where I could have claimed some useful expertise was the one thing I consciously avoided writing about.
In all those years, I never wrote about my former home, New York City.
People are always comparing New York and London. But these comparisons rarely come from anyone who actually knows both cities really well. I lived 20 years in NYC and more than 15 in London and I still travel between them – this was one expat-related topic where I actually would have had some credibility.
A few times I tried to write about it, pecking out the first few sentences of a BuzzFeed-style “New York v London” post on my laptop. But I would never finish. Something about the whole thing was just too tough to talk about and it’s not easy for me to explain why. It’s like the Matrix. I can’t just tell you – in order to really understand, you’d have to experience it for yourself. Probably that means living in New York for a bunch of years and then moving somewhere else. Sorry if that’s inconvenient for you, but I’m not sure there’s any other way. I’m not sure I can capture it in words – although I’ll try.
Leaving New York is like breaking up with an extraordinarily beautiful partner who treated you badly, but you never noticed until you started dating someone else. It’s like selling a vintage convertible car that everyone admires but is too expensive to maintain and not very comfortable to drive. It’s like getting tickets to a sold-out show that everyone’s talking about, but the seats are terrible and you can barely see the stage and afterwards you regret all that money that you spent.
It’s anything that is exciting and glamorous that feels worthwhile while you’re doing it, but which is ultimately not worth the sacrifice. Like voting for the Green Party candidate. Or petting that cute cat that always scratches you. Or watching an Oliver Stone movie. There’s a lot going on and you get wrapped up in it while you’re in the moment, but you feel a little stupid and used afterwards.
I told you it was hard to explain.
Loving New York isn’t the same as loving living in New York
There was a famous ad for New York that first launched in the early 1980s: “I love New York,” with a big heart standing in for the word “love.” The slogan could be found on posters, billboards and most frequently, on t-shirts that were sold at tourist traps all around midtown. Obviously, it wasn’t particularly clever, but the campaign was wildly successful because it tapped into a simple truth: people do love New York.
There’s a lot to love about New York. New York is amazing.
It’s the avatar of what a city should be and look like and it attracts people from all around the world. The skyscrapers, the endless crush of busy people, the nightlife, the museums. New York really does have it all – it’s the home of the advertising industry, the financial industry, the publishing industry, the fashion industry…pretty much all the good industries.
But New York isn’t just corporate, it’s also quirky. It’s where hip hop was invented and pizza was perfected. It’s the home of bagels and bodega cats. It’s a city of contrasts: from Broadway to the Bowery, Wu-Tang in Staten Island to Wonton soup on Mott Street. It’s a city obsessed with food. When I think of New York, I think eggs benedict, pastrami on rye, matzo ball soup, cronuts, BLTs and babkas… and that’s just the home-grown food. You want udon noodles in vegan broth? Your only problem is going to be choosing which udon place to order from – there’s three in your neighbourhood. And they all deliver until midnight.
New York even looks impressive. Visitors often remark how it resembles a movie set because many of their favourite films have been set there – everything from Annie Hall to the Avengers. And you know those photographs of steam rising up from the ground, giving the city an extra cinematic gloss? That’s not some Hollywood fiction, that’s a real thing – there’s a network of steam pipes running under the city. If anything, New York is more visually impressive in reality than it looks in the movies.
Of course I love New York. You love New York. Everyone loves New York.
The problem is New York doesn’t love you back.
In fact, New York doesn’t give a flying fuck, when it comes to the subject of you. You’re just not that important or special to New York. You’re just another rodent, scurrying around, trying to claim your slice of the pie.
A couple of years ago, someone posted a YouTube video of a rat dragging a slice of pizza down the steps of a subway station. “Pizza Rat” became an online star. Not because people were amazed by the sight of a rat – that’s a common enough thing in Gotham. No – New Yorkers loved Pizza Rat because they could relate to him.
Pizza Rat is just another New Yorker, rushing down the subway steps, munching on a slice of pizza cause he ain’t got time or money for anything else. New Yorkers admire Pizza Rat. He’s got things figured out. He’s doing his thing, catching the subway. And that pizza actually looks pretty good.
And the pizza is good in New York. No, not just good – it’s great. And so are the bagels. You want a perfect bagel with a schmear at 11pm on a Tuesday night? You got it buddy. You want to shop for designer jeans early Sunday morning? No problem. Hamilton tickets? No big deal, if you got the cash. Same with reservations at Momofuku, a bag from Barney’s or whatever other fakakta thing you want.
But all that convenience comes at a price: the pace of New York is relentless and it wears you down. It’s designed for people in a hurry and for people with money. Everyone else is just another Pizza Rat. Grateful for the scraps that they can get.
And it is mostly scraps. In New York, the apartments are too damn small and the rent is too damn high. It’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. The city is full. It’s overfull. It’s got people, rats, mosquitoes, cockroaches, traffic, all competing for the same little patch of concrete.
Everyone works long hours and most people only get two weeks of vacation every year. Many New Yorkers don’t even take their full allowance of days. Those that do, often escape from overcrowded New York via overcrowded trains heading out to the overcrowded Hamptons. Have you ever endured the two and half hour train ride out to the Hamptons? Scrapsville. But it’s what you do.
Maybe you want to fly somewhere further afield instead? Good luck with that, because New York City is served by the three lowest-rated airports in the country. They are so bad and so hard to get to, and so plagued by delays and cancellations that they make leaving the city nearly as stressful as staying there.
So mostly, you stay in New York and you convince yourself that all those other places aren’t really worth going to anyway. And this makes you insufferable. All New Yorkers are insufferable. They say things like, “New York is the Greatest City on Earth™” and they believe it. Because living in a hot/cold/expensive/overcrowded place like New York City wouldn’t really feel like it was worth all that hassle otherwise. So you just buy deeper and deeper into it. New York even has it’s own 24-hour a day news channel just for New York City. Why would you want to know what’s going on anywhere else when New York is the center of the world?
It’s common for New Yorkers to boast about just how “New York” they are, like it’s a contest worth winning. I once went six months without ever setting foot anywhere off the island of Manhattan and I remember bragging about it to everyone I knew, as if it were a major triumph, rather than a minor tragedy.
New York is all about competition. Discover a great new cafe? Enjoy it, because by next week you ain’t getting a table once the reviews hit. Want your kid to go to a nice pre-school? You better book that shit before you get pregnant. And once those kids are born and they want to go ride on the swings in the tiny little park, they’re gonna find that they gotta wait in a big old line with a bunch of other kids. You’re lucky you get half a dozen swings in. After all that, you want to buy your kid a five-dollar cronut? Fuck you. Wait in line again, along with everybody else.
New York is an asshole. It’s an asshole where you can get cronuts. And great pizza. And great pretty much everything. But it’s still an asshole.
I would have never moved away from New York if not for my wife. She is the Morpheus in my Matrix story. She wanted to become a veterinarian and New York, despite being The Greatest City on Earth™, doesn’t have a vet school. So 15 years ago, we left New York to move to a city that did have one – London. And just like that, the spell was broken.
At first, I felt like Henry Hill at the end of Goodfellas:
And now it’s all over. And that’s the hardest part. Today, everything is different. There’s no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food. Right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.
It’s nice here in London. London is nice. They got pretty much most of the big city things here, but the winters aren’t very cold and the summers aren’t very hot. There are rats here too, there’s no getting away from them, but there are no cockroaches and virtually no mosquitos. The rent is about the same as in New York, but now we have a dishwasher and a washing machine. Most everyone here does. In all my years in New York City, I never knew anybody with a washing machine in their apartment. I knew plenty of people with bathtubs in their kitchen, but nobody with a washing machine. That was luxury.
Yeah, the food here ain’t nothing special. Especially the pizza. If you’re from New York, you don’t even bother with the pizza. You just kind of try to forget it ever existed. But there’s parks. Lots of parks. And it’s really easy to get out of London. 15 minutes from King’s Cross and you see sheep out the window. It’s nice to see sheep out the window. And the airports are mostly okay, so if you get bored of the bad pizza, it ain’t so hard to just fly to Italy, where the pizza is just about nearly as good as you get in New York. So I’ve got that going for me now.
Until I left New York, I didn’t know that I needed green parks and a washing machine and trains with sheep that you can see out of the window and all that other stuff I got now in London.
Everything here is easier and everything here is slower. I’ve got a kid and easier and slower is good when you have a kid. Sure, all the stores close at 4pm on a Sunday, but I didn’t know until I left New York that I don’t want my stores to be open until 10pm on Sundays. It’s not necessary to be out shopping on a Sunday night and it’s kind of stressful. Now my Sunday nights are relaxing. I watch TV like everyone else does here. Relaxing is nice.
And it’s quiet outside, even in the city centre. There’s no couple from New Jersey in front of your window shouting at each other about how he’s stupid for not remembering where he parked the car and she’s a shrew because of the way she’s always yelling at him. In London, the equivalent of that couple is home watching TV, just like me, cause it’s Sunday night and everything is closed. They don’t even have nobody with guns here in London. No guns is nice too.
I guess I found all of this hard to accept because you want to think you’re the kind of fella who is very much a New Yorker – comfortable living somewhere that considers itself the center of the world and the Greatest City on Earth™. So it’s not so easy when you discover that you’re actually the sort of chap who prefers a more quiet place to live, that definitely ain’t the center of the world. So you settle down and you’re happy in London or wherever it is you landed when you escaped from New York. And it makes you feel a little guilty. Like you gave up a good thing. Even if that thing wasn’t good to you.
So here I am in London and I really do like it here. Did I mention that it’s nice? You couldn’t really fairly call London boring. No, not really. It ain’t boring, it just ain’t New York.
I’d go so far as to say that, by almost every measure you could think of, New York is a better, more vibrant and just plain greater city than London and pretty much all the other cities. But I’d rather live here where it’s nice. By a long shot. There ain’t no five-dollar cronuts but at least my kid don’t have to wait in line for the swings. And I’m just a little bit less of an insufferable asshole too, now that I left New York. That’s the nicest thing of all.
It took me a long time to admit to myself that I’m happier now as a schnook than I ever was as a pizza rat.
But still, as I sit here in front of my TV on a Sunday night, sometimes I wonder if New York would ever take me back.
I knew you wouldn’t understand.