Understated New York?

New York doesn’t need an introduction. It’s the Big Apple; the City that Never Sleeps; the Empire State; the home of the One Dollar Slice (I can confirm that)… I could go on. The fact is, the city is so well loved, and people are so well versed in its dazzling capabilities, that there’s no point in giving a written guided tour. Instead, I want to draw attention to just a few of the things that have captured my attention, things that aren’t mentioned on TripAdvisor.

This academic year I have been given the incredible opportunity -through the Queen Mary Exchange Programme- to live and study in the “the Capital of the World”. Regardless of the preconceptions I had as I moved abroad, any International Student can testify that it’s not all fun and games. Alongside time differences (a legitimate issue when it comes to skyping the UK), there are many cultural obstacles that simply aren’t expected from an English-speaking powerhouse country; but even after 3 months, the recurring confusion between chips, fries, crisps, potato waffles and waffle fries still takes place in the dorm kitchen at least twice a week. We’ve also had the same problem concerning pickles, cucumbers, courgettes, zucchini and gherkins (allegedly the best word to come out of the UK).

Whilst the title “New York” brings to mind visions of the elegant Empire State, majestic copper women holding up torches, bustling Times Square with half naked cowboys (he really exists) and 5th Avenue crawling with collagen-filled women clutching quivering dogs, I am privileged to have stumbled across things that only residents of the Big Apple could experience. Only the other evening, I was strolling through mid-town Central Park, when I walked directly into the
middle of a pop-up roller disco; funky 70’s disco was blaring from sporadically-placed speakers, the glow sticks and fancy dress costumes were out in force (after all it was just shy of Halloween), and only Manhattan’s highest quality skate/dance moves were on show. It was a moment in which I was able to appreciate that New York isn’t solely about the tourists and landmarks, in various ways it caters for anyone willing to throw themselves into the world outside their tiny one-room apartment in Greenwich Village.

Another prime instance of an “it’s-the-little-things” moment took place outside the Metropolitan Museum down 5th Avenue’s Museum Mile, where I had briefly stopped to ‘grab lunch’ from a hot dog vendor. At the bottom of the museum’s steps to the right, a saxophonist was performing a selection of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits (accompanied with MJ’s signature moves), whilst a bagpiper (donned in only the finest tartan kilt and sporran) played to the left. Slowly but surely, the volume and flamboyance of the two acts’ performances increased as both attempted to seize the attention and affection of the crowd; this screeching then evolved into a spontaneous musical battle, whereby the acts took turns to play a piece, judged accordingly by the levels of applause from the audience. This debacle continued for 45 minutes, after which time it was concluded that the ability to simultaneously perform Thriller, thrust like a zombie and keep his wig on was simply unbeatable. The thought that came to mind? Only in New York. The hot dog was also phenomenal.

Finally, on a side note, as students living in the heart (Zone 2) of London, we can all recognise a miracle discovered in New York which hasn’t yet reached the shores of the Thames; air-conditioning on the Subway (take note TFL). Since arriving in the city, the journeys of nestling awkwardly into the sweaty armpit of a middle-aged gentleman on the Central line at 5pm seem like a lifetime ago; instead, I now leave the train with the same salt levels as when I entered, an idea that, before, seemed almost impossible.

There is so much that New York has to offer than “simply” the towering skylines and Broadway musicals (although Wicked is spectacular); within this exhilarating “city on steroids”, there’s a charming sense of schizophrenia to be found, hidden in plain sight between the Hudson and the East Rivers.

Times Square, NYC. Image by Sophie Lyddon
Times Square, NYC. Image by Sophie Lyddon

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