Tag Archives: diversity

Travel, expectations and reality

Today’s been a dreary day, and I eventually summoned myself out of my bed at about a quarter past two in the afternoon after some eleven hours of sleep and a period of just lying in bed, phases of sheer motionlessness. I did manage to rouse myself, though, and brought myself to send out some emails and messages and so forth, but on the whole this weekend has been a quiet one indeed. For this I’m mildly grateful in one way, as today marks the end of a complicated fortnight: seven doctor’s appointments, two rounds of blood tests, a hospitalisation, an alternatingly ecstatic then painful rollercoaster of romantic emotions, helping two friends through breakdowns, another two through breakups, and the disintegration of plans to do a test-run of moving out of home… not a torturous fourteen days, to be sure, but certainly one that’s taken a physical and emotional toll. This weekend has become a time of rest, then, and yesterday I was moved to spend some of that time in writing. What excited me to this feeling has been a reflection my dear friend recently wrote about her perspectives on visiting and travelling in England, a reflection that transported me back to some of my own travels – never as far west in Europe as England (more’s the pity, though I hope to reach western Europe one day soon), but the feelings she describes as having been stirred in her reminded me of my own emotional responses to some of the cities I’ve visited. What surprised me, I suppose, is that my friend found herself sensing genuine distaste for London, a distaste she described in no uncertain terms and in a manner that’s utterly foreign to my experience of international travel. Of the eighty-odd cities I’ve visited in eight countries, never has my feeling been one of dislike or discomfort; although there are places I’ve liked moreso than others, of course, none has been an experience that I could ever use the words regret or hate to describe. Even when there have been particular events that haven’t been so pleasant (losing my camera on the last day of my visit to Tbilisi, for instance – I had to purchase a new one in Athens – or being screwed out of thirty lira by a street shoe-shine hustler in İstanbul), I’ve come away from every place that I’ve visited with a sense of enjoyment, and satisfaction that I did.

New York is such a place (and I mention this primarily because I can’t speak to the experience of London, but I have visited New York, twice). Like my friend’s dissatisfaction with her London experience, my two brothers have been to New York and both found it overwhelming, noisy, crowded, oppressive; as one of them puts it, it was too much of the big smoke and too little of the open sky. I can counter none of these assessments, primarily subjective as they are, but when they told me about their trip and noted that they wouldn’t go back if given the option, I was – there’s no other word that’s as apt – gobsmacked. For me, New York was a unique and brilliant experience. It was a world apart, every bit as different and exotic and alien as if I’d been whisked off the surface of the Earth and teleported Star Trek-fashion into the centre of some Asimovian metropolis on the other side of the galaxy. The explorer in me was enthralled by the microcosm that the city represented, the stupendous diversity of humanity crammed into this one urban concentration. Some linguists believe that native speakers of as many as 800 languages may reside in the city, perhaps the most concentrated hotbed of linguistic diversity anywhere on the planet, and each gives their own unique spin to what it means to be American; that diversity is bleeding out of the Five Boroughs’ every pore. Every day I went walking I felt like I was entering a new town of sorts, a new locale, able to experience something starkly different from whatever it was I’d done the previous day. Strangely, I never felt crowded by people; even in Times Square it was easy to navigate around clots of tourists, and the area of Upper Manhattan I stayed in the first time it was positively peaceful much of the time. Meandering along the streets I’d read signs advertising all sorts of goods and services – Jewish delicatessens, Russian bakeries, Korean laundries. I heard more different languages spoken in one day in New York than on any other day before or since. Look here; see vaulting skyscrapers sparkling with thousands of mirror facets, white-gloved security staff calmly alert under canvas awnings that arch over brass-fitted foyers. Now look over there; see low two-storey red brick buildings, a graffiti-covered roll-a-door protecting a family-run convenience store with “Se Habla Español” on a handwritten sign in the window. On one day, I might see the frescoes of a reconstructed Pompeiian villa, the world’s largest collection of shrunken heads, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s planetarium, and come out of one of the city’s best pizzerias to see a two-time Academy Award nominee leaving the theatre opposite. (Jude Law, for the record.) On the next day, I might eat a pretzel and tandoori chicken with rice and salad from street vendors, then spend three hours discovering bronze statues, bench dedications, and wildlife in the surprisingly peaceful vastness of Central Park. Even the hostel I stayed at the first time – in the bottom levels of a brownstone in the middle of Harlem, a dodgy little place with rips in the vinyl of the couches, vegetation overgrown in what passed for its backyard, and a spanner kept in the shower so that you could actually turn the water on (the faucet head had long since been stolen) – was an experience that, while I maybe mightn’t stay there again, I enjoyed greatly nevertheless. My stay there gave me both richly memorable experiences and deeply treasured friends; two aspiring career musicians I met there, Grace and Kenny, I still keep in touch with. They brought me to a fun Mexican eatery not far from the Museum of Modern Art that I made it a point to go back to on my second visit; another night, we bought fountain sodas in a fast food place and spiked them with vodka while we wandered the streets of Harlem. The mixture of brazen wide-eyed camera-wielding tourism during the day and relaxed enjoyment with knowledgeable locals during the evening was the perfect way to experience the city, and I suppose that these reasons are what influence me to find it striking that one might visit New York and come out of it disappointed.

I rather like to think that my brothers’ dissatisfaction was at least in part caused by a combination of the time of year (they visited during the unseasonably cold snap of early 2014, and so the city was largely snowbound – by contrast, my visits were made during the late summer and early autumn, a time that’s warm but not intolerably so, when Central Park’s rich verdure is in full flush and the city’s denizens are more outgoing) and the fact that neither of them are particular fans of museums. Much of my New York state of mind came from the rich range of world-class museums they have: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Johannes Vermeer first captivated me with Det Melkmeisje that was on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; the American Museum of Natural History, because I’m a nerdy freak for all things natural history and particularly palæontology, and the AMNH has a wondrous collection of mounted dinosaur fossils; the Museum of Modern Art, where Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night was on display, far more spectacular in person than in a print of any fidelity; and even the Ripley’s Odditorium on Times Square, basically a fuck-off enormous Victorian curio cupboard with probably about as much authenticity about it but still some fascinating exhibits. One of my brothers tells me, too, that he rather fancies a little of the type of culture shock the Japanese call パリ症候群 Pari shōkōgun (in English, Paris syndrome) might also be to blame. This manifests when visitors to Paris (for some reason particularly Japanese tourists) suffer a psychological shock from realising that the reality of the city differs sharply from the received and preconceived ideal version of Paris: the Eiffel-Tower-in-spring, croissantsaveccafé, skinny-Chanel-model-in-marinière-and-beret Paris they’ve been delivered in Western movies and glossy magazine liftouts (and honestly, sometimes the stereotypes  write themselves). Certainly New York is a city that’s similarly widely represented in mass media, and so people’s perceptions of it would, one presumes, be subject to this same kind of unpleasant dissonance – a Stadtschmerz, if you like. This makes a lot of sense to me, particularly as my mental illness brings me to feel a good deal of Schmerz about the Welt in general, and I can objectively wrap my head around the idea that a specific place might trigger such a feeling too. I’d also never even flown in a commercial plane until I was 23, and never overseas until 26, so I suspect that for me the novelty of overseas travel of any sort is still in play. Even now there’s little that makes me feel more like a young kid opening her presents on Christmas morning than the intensifying roar of jet engines outside the heavily-insulated window that seems to dampen the sound not at all, and the heady feeling of being shoved backwards into my chair by g-forces as the pilot puts the hammer down to take off.

And of course, none of this is to say that anyone is at all wrong in assessing their visit to any city as being disappointing, unpleasant or distasteful. Travel isn’t about the objective beauty or charm of a place, and nor should it be; it’s about the way in which a person and a place interact, a tourist’s experiencing of a place within the context of their own past experiences and education and perceptions, both of that place and of all the others they’ve visited previously. From my friend’s description of her stay in London (and Hackney, she goes on to note), I can absolutely understand how the places she stayed would have struck her as being a letdown, an unsettlingly and maybe stereotypically twee self-caricature of a sort she wasn’t expecting. I guess I just fervently hope to continue avoiding such disappointments on my own travels, and I’ve been immensely fortunate that I haven’t been disappointed yet.