1. You’re met with a stubborn, if endearing, rhetoric.
I had just flown into JFK from a trip that lasted a little over a year. My flight landed at around 11 p.m., and I walked over to one of the four customs officers before heading to baggage claim. The officers were trading jokes amongst each other between stamps.
“You’ve been gone a while. Where you been?” My assigned officer asked in that lovely Italian, New York accent.
“Oh, a few places,” I replied, already feeling my tongue start to pick up the familiar patterns of speech. “Started with Asia, then did a year in Australia, then Israel and some of Europe.”
“Australia! Why were you there a year?” He asked with a smirk as he flipped through the pages of my passport.
“I was on a working holiday visa–” I tried to explain.
“Hey,” he interrupted. “You’re in America now. It’s called a vacation.”
A final stamp and a “get outta here” and I was being ushered into baggage claim.
2. You switch seamlessly back into the slang.
The reversion usually begins when I go to my favorite deli/pizza place/bagel shop and begin my order with, “Hey, lemme get a…” Pretty soon I’m dead ass complaining that it’s brick outside and I’m mad cold, as I wonder aloud why that guy is grilling me as I try to eat my dumb good sandwich/slice/everything bagel.
3. You remember that it’s a bit tougher to crack that hard, New York exterior.
Travel makes you a more outgoing person. You really can’t get away with keeping to yourself because you constantly have to politely ask strangers for help, directions, suggestions, etc. Also, some cultures are just more friendly than others. Australia has a certain “mateship” going on that makes polite chit chat and cheeky jokes among strangers a totally common occurrence.
Not so much in NYC.
I had been trained for over a year to make passing jokes or comments to strangers as I held the door open for them or waited in line for a coffee or bought a ticket to a movie. When I tried similar behavioral tactics in New York, I was mostly met with surprise. Whether it’s because New York is a notoriously hard place to live or because there is simply so much stimulation that people need to find a comfortable happy place in a self-inflicted bubble, getting through that exterior to even make a joke to the average New Yorker could leave them stunned for a few seconds.
When you try to breach the wall that most New Yorkers build up, you’re met with an initial lack of attention, then surprise at being addressed, then awkwardness due to an absence of practice in the etiquette of casual jokes with strangers, then genuine warmth once they’re all caught up. Because the stereotypes that New Yorkers are mean are just not true. Blunt, jaded and self-involved, maybe, but good-hearted, helpful and real people to the absolute core.
4. You remember how damn cool this city is.
It’s one thing to remember that NYC offers infinite choices for lifestyle and entertainment. It’s quite another to be plugged into it. There’s an energy that takes over when you come home, a vibration from all the bodies that echoes under the surface of your skin. You walk the familiar streets that you spent years running away from, and suddenly you see them from the perspective of an outsider with the knowledge of an insider. You’re damn proud to be a part of the hustle and bustle, even if you’re just strutting your stuff down the street to get a slice of pizza. (Because you damn well know that nobody in the world does pizza like New York does pizza.)
When I was last home, my girls and I went out to one of our favorite bars in the East Village to dance to some hip hop. The music was on point and the crowd was right. At around 3 in the morning, we strolled to the car to head home. As one friend finished a cigarette, the other started bumping some Missy Elliott on the car speakers. Within minutes, a crowd of 15 or so had joined our little street dance party. Names were exchanged, song requests were made and joints were passed in a general spirit of youthful camaraderie and liveliness.
It was one of those moments that makes you remember that anything is possible in New York because the odds of something happening are seriously in your favor.
5. You easily reconcile the beautiful with the disgusting…
New York is a place that is at once stunning, nostalgic and kind of gross. You learn to deal with it. You automatically breathe through your mouth as you walk along the brownstones in the Upper West Side in an effort to filter out the smell of garbage cooking in the hot sun. You stroll through Central Park with a sense of whimsy as you shield your field of vision from the bum taking a dump on a rock. And you thank the hot dog or halal man kindly as you trust that their street meat is really a reflection of their Health Inspection grade.
6. You go into a pizza/bagel food coma.
Any New Yorker will tell you that when they travel, they miss “real pizza” and “real bagels.” I wholeheartedly back this up. Growing up, we’re taught that it’s the New York water that makes the difference.
Oh, the sheer wonder of entering a pizza place with 10, no, 20 pizza pies with all the different toppings awaiting the simple point of your finger. Chicken and broccoli, Grandma, Grandpa, Sicilian, Eggplant… Then, with practiced accuracy and swiftness, the angel behind the counter swoops up your choice and pops it into the oven to heat up.
When it’s bagel time, I won’t even look at anything besides an Everything Bagel. Toasted to perfection and topped with anything from in-house made scallion cream cheese to cold chicken salad. I’m not home until I’ve demolished both of these delicious carby treats and feel that loving pit in my stomach.
7. You jaywalk with abandon.
No matter how many countries I’ve traveled to, no matter how many cities I’ve lived in, I’ve never been able to purge my New York instinct to jaywalk. I simply do not see the logic in waiting for the light to flash in my favor before strolling across the street. Friends and other pedestrians would look at me as if I were some sort of maverick, at once awed and fearful of my rule-breaking and death-cheating. As if I didn’t have vision and reflexes that would prevent me from getting hit by a car.
New Yorkers literally stop traffic. We always have the right of way. The pedestrian is very much like the pigeon, in that we are aware of our surroundings but will only move out of your way if we really think you have the balls to hit us.
8. You keep hearing about some new viral culinary concoction.
From Red Velvet Cronuts to over the top Milkshakes to Rainbow Bagels, I simply can’t keep up with all the poor souls that wait in line for hours just to pay for an overpriced accost to their arteries. But even as I roll my eyes at their illogical patience, the FOMO kicks in and I schedule a time to see what the fuss is about
9. You’re entwined in the multiculturalism.
Other cities that describe themselves as multicultural are just dipping their toes in the water. There is always something so startling, yet so comfortable when I’m confronted again with the melting pot that is New York. When you travel in other countries, for the most part, you see a lot of the same type of person. Lots of Peruvians in Peru, lots of Swedes in Sweden. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way it is. I remember when I arrived in Sydney and commented on how white it was, friends were quick to defend themselves against being racist for some reason and say that their city was really very multicultural. Sure it is.
I feel at home in New York when I can weave in and out of languages and accents and ethnicities and food. It excites me to come home and feel comfortable conversing with someone who may look completely different to me, yet is not a stranger by virtue of being a New Yorker. New York is the most magnificent rainbow that embraces, accepts and is enhanced by cultural differences with a zest that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world. Everybody is welcome. Everybody is home.