New York – Thoughts and Observations

1. I have never seen so many well-insulated canines in my life.

Almost all the dogs in New York wear sweaters in the cold weather. It’s good to know they are well cared for, but I wonder how dogs managed back in the day, before Legally Blonde and Paris Hilton sparked the dog sweater craze. Back then, did dogs freeze to death? What about other animals? Do they not feel the cold, too? Muci goes out every day in winter, and he simply refuses to go out wearing even a scarf, despite my pleas. He says it’s a choking hazard when he’s climbing trees, and the magpies just laugh at him and call him a dork.

2. I could never tell how cold it really was outside, and therefore had no idea how many layers to wear.

Everything is in Fahrenheit, which is completely alien to me and other Celsius users (basically the rest of the world). During the trip, I would stare blankly at the thermostat every morning, trying to figure out what 72 degrees Fahrenheit meant. Is that cold? Warm? Hot? Freezing? Do I need to wear tights underneath my jeans? The only solution was to stick your head out the window to feel how cold it actually was outside, and to see what people on the street are wearing. If your window looked out onto an abandoned back alley, you’re screwed and destined to either stew in your many layers of Uniqlo Heattech, or freeze to death in your t-shirt and cardigan.

3. A lot of buildings use revolving doors. 

I love it. It’s full of old-world charm and romance, like one of those black and white movies you see on telly. In reality though, they’re pretty heavy and I normally had to lean forward and push with both my arms outstretched like ancient Egyptians pushing the huge blocks they used to build the pyramids. Not very romantic.

4. Everyone seems to have an interest in how you’re doing.

“Hi there! How’re you doing?” seems to be the standard greeting of New Yorkers – especially those in the service sector. I would always take a while to respond; I didn’t know whether to just reply with a smile and a standard, “I’m good, thanks”, or to actually delve into the actual details of how I was feeling at that particular moment. “I’m good, but my feet are aching from all the walking I did yesterday”, or “I feel a bit bloated – I think I had too much to chicken on rice last night”, or even “Awesome! We watched Book of Mormons last night and I LOVED it!” may be a bit overwhelming for the poor sales assistant. Having said that, all of the sales assistants I encountered were very friendly and helpful, and made shopping such a pleasure. There are exceptions… (please refer to no.5)

5. Everyone is very friendly and starts chatting as if they’ve known you for years, unless you’re at a security check. 

Then, you’re assumed to be a bomb-carrying terrorist until proven otherwise. Gone are the smiles and friendly greetings. Voices are terse and instructions are curt. Jaws are set and eyes are steely. Guilty until proven innocent. And after your things have gone through the X-ray machine and they let you through on account of your proven innocence, people start being friendly again. The lift operators smile and ask how your day has been so far. The people at the ticket counter wish you a nice day. People actually smile and treat you like a respectable human being. Not like the scum of the earth. It’s somewhat schizophrenic, to say the least.

6. The coins were a source of constant confusion for me. 

When the ancient Arab mathematicians invented the decimal number system and introduced the numeral “0”, it made people’s lives a lot easier. Roman numerals were confusing and and took up too much space. Suddenly, the tongue-twisting and eyeball-crossing MCDLXXXV could be written as the much simpler “1485”, which probably saved a lot of space on calendars back then. Thanks to the decimal number system, kids in school learn how to carry when doing their sums. They learn how to round up or round down numbers to the nearest ten or thousand. And thanks to the numeral “0”, we can print coins in 10 cent, 20 cent or 50 cent denominations. Nickels, dimes, and quarters confuse me. Ok, maybe not quarters – that’s self-explanatory. But nickels and dimes – they were the bane of my 10 days in New York. “Nickel” to me is a metal. A chemical element in the Periodic Table. My mind doesn’t automatically define it as 5 cents. Even harder was trying to read the small print on the coins. Approaching the cashier to make a payment was always a stressful moment; I was worried that the people behind me in the queue would lose their patience and start a riot as I squinted at each coin and slowly counted them out.

7. New Yorkers must be pretty good at mental arithmetic. 

Shelf prices or menu prices are never the full price; you have to add tax to it. So when the bill comes at the end of the meal, that pasta dish or fish main isn’t as cheap as you initially thought it was. And you know how, at the airport duty free, you buy a bag of chips or a packet of sweets just to use up your spare change before you leave? Haha. Good luck. Tried doing that and miscalculated the tax. Ended up having to use notes and accumulating more spare change.

8. Shopping in New York is FANTASTIC. 

My credit card bill came in three leather-bound volumes.

9. The food in New York is FANTABULOUS. 

I still dream about the bagels and the cream cheese we had for breakfast every day. And sometimes, as I walk down the cobbled streets of Basel, visions of food trucks appear before my eyes. Hallucinations of chicken on rice dominate my senses for a few seconds before I realise that the “food truck” is really a kiosk selling bratwurst.

10. There’s always a helicopter flying around.

Always. I have no idea why.

11. Every New Yorker has a cup of coffee welded to one hand. 

In fact, based on my non-scientific observational and data-collection methods, you can differentiate a New Yorker from a tourist (such as myself) from how the person walks and what he or she is holding; a New Yorker – head down, quick steps, coffee in hand. A tourist – head up, staring wide-eyed and gaping-mouthed at the skyscrapers above, slow steps, camera in hand.

12. Given the love affair with coffee, I find it surprising that the stuff doesn’t taste so good. 

Let me put it delicately: the coffee is pretty c*%p. The only way to get a decent cup is to go to one of the nice, swanky, hipster-y cafes, of which there are quite a few littered about. The only problem I had with that was that they were usually a bit pretentious as well. We went to one such cafe which was nicely decorated and pretty cozy. It had no menus, however. Nothing written on the wall, no chalkboard, no list, no nothing. I suppose their regular patrons are coffee “connoisseurs” who walk in with an air of nonchalance and order a cup of coffee with detailed specifications as to where exactly on Google Map they prefer their beans to be sourced, to which shade of glistening brown their beans are to be roasted, and exactly how much crema there should be on their espresso. Yeah, whatevs. To be fair though, their coffee was pretty good.

13. The concept of private conversation is somewhat absent. 

People seem to be constantly talking on their phones (or just talking in general) – and loudly at that. Some of the conversations can be very private in nature. In my short time there, I was privy to relationship problems, housemate problems, girlfriend problems, and tricky family situations. There was: 

  • the girl who was complaining to her girlfriend about a mutual friend, who was about to get married and couldn’t stop talking about her upcoming nuptials;
  • the sales assistant who was bitching about a colleague to her other colleagues;
  • the girl who was pouring her heart out to her friend about her boyfriend problems; and
  • the lady who was fixing a psychiatrist appointment for her mother – unbeknown to, and without the consent of, the unsuspecting mother.

I didn’t eavesdrop on these conversations deliberately; they were just so loud I couldn’t block them out.

14. New Yorkers are a fit bunch of people. 

You see a lot of joggers and runners. Again, based on my utterly non-scientific observational methods, I reckon New York has one of the highest runner-per-population densities in the world.

15. I have never seen so much corn syrup in my entire life. 

The walls of any given drugstore or supermarket are lined with rows and rows of sweets and candies and soft drinks. The variety of sugary treats available for purchase is astounding; but as you pick up the items and read the ingredient listings, you find that they are all one and the same; nothing but High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup, and Sugar. Diabetes in a shop. And yet, I succumbed… (please refer to no.16)

16. Dylan’s Candy Bar has magical powers. 

Oh, how weak I was…. I had no choice. The store is like every childhood fantasy you’ve ever had. It’s as if Willy Wonka had bought the rights to Candy Crush and made it come to life. The pretty sweets and candies were just calling out my name, like abandoned kitties at the animal shelter. How could I possibly say no to cute little abandoned kitty-sweets? You can’t, I tell you. You just can’t.

17. The Coke bottles are larger. 

Instead of the normal 500ml bottles, they’re 630ml (or 690ml? I forget). Mineral water comes in the regular 500ml bottles though. Heh.

18. The people who designed and implemented the New York grid system are geniuses. 

I love the grid system. It’s like drawing a map on quadrille paper. Everything is sectioned off in neat vertical and horizontal lines, and finding an address is like working out coordinates. Walking through the streets makes you feel like Pac Man, navigating the maze and chasing (or running away from) ghosts. Genius.

19. Hipsters know how to spell. 

At the outdoor Brooklyn Flea Market, I bought a grilled cheese sandwich from one of the vans. They have a system where they write your name down on your order sheet. When your food is ready, they call out your name.

“Can I get your name, please?”

“Alma.”

“Elma?”

“No, Alma. A-L-M-A.”

He looked up at me through his black-rimmed glasses, his view partially blocked by his massive quiff, and gave me a withering stare.

“I know how to spell.”

Ooohhh. Touchy. Needless to say, the grilled cheese sandwich was delicious. Not only do hipsters know their way around food, they are also formidable spellers. Watch out, world.

20. The vibe in New York is energising and invigorating. 

As you walk along the streets and take in the sights and sounds, your mind is working in a million different directions. I understand how the city can inspire you to write or perform or paint or sculpt or invent a new dish or sell your soul to the wolves of Wall Street. Everything happens all at once, everything happens quickly, and everyone is close to the pulse. The city is very cosmopolitan; more so than London, I feel. It allows you to be a foreigner and blend in at the same time; an astonishing feat. There is always something to do in New York; a play or a musical or an art exhibition or a new restaurant or a flea market or an historical sight; or just a quiet stroll through the park. You won’t get bored. You may not even have time to catch your breath.

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