Three years after my move to the US, I have now returned to Europe for a mixture of personal and practical reasons. Not without some lingering regrets. Living in New York was the sustained highlight of my life, a late opportunity I never dreamed would be possible, and one which has enriched me on so many levels. But the downside of being a migrant – because that’s what I have been for a good part of my life- is that you always miss people and places, and that sadness is always there in the background, just as it was when I moved to NY and left family and friends behind.
This sense of dislocation and sorrow has been elegiacally captured in the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, or more recently in the adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, and anyone who has lived in another country will recognise it well. Some cultures have a word for it.
Someone * once said it is important to travel so that you can look at your own country from outside. So that is what I am going to do now that I am back in Europe. And because I am in Italy, I will start with something foodie.
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton
The popular image of New York is that of glistening skyscrapers, high end stores, fashionable theatres and chic eateries, and of course, it is all of these things.
However, the city has another side, not the shiny one shown in Sex and the City, but the grittier one of Law and Order, rawer and sometimes primitive, and all the more fascinating for being so. This is the New York I love, the one of coffee bars with 1970s décor and formica tables, Thelma Ritter look-alikes having lunch at the counter in cosy anonymity. You will need to go a few blocks above 59th street to find it, but it is well worth exploring.
One of my favourite blocks is on Broadway between 123rd and 125th, an area which I call The Strip. Here you will find a row of independent restaurants overlooked by the last stretch of overhead subway remaining in Manhattan. Your dining experience is enhanced by the atmospheric clickety-click of the 1 train passing overhead, a gentle pink in the setting sun.
Walking down from the Liquor store on 123rd, you will find a row of Chinese, Italian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Mexican bistros, bustling places where you can eat with dignity for less than $20 a head. My particular favourite is an American restaurant, Toast , which provides casual dining at honest prices. The waiters here are friendly, efficient, and attentive without being overzealous. It has a magnificent wooden bar where real people while away the evening over a few beers.
Chatting with friends outside Toast with the subway train passing overhead, I felt like the world was my oyster.
I am carless when I visit the UK, but this has never been a problem for me. To my mind, travelling by train offers the perfect combination of pleasurable solitude with potential for interaction if I feel so inclined. Not the kind of intense conversations between strangers I was up for in my younger days, like the time I met a gentle Vancouver guy en route to Paris, where we spent the day before moving onto our respective connections and futures. These days I value my privacy more as travel has become an opportunity to catch up on reading and writing, or simply recreating myself before the next microscopic identity shift between one culture and another.
Using public transport also allows me to tune in to my home country and small details in everyday life which have changed over the years. Things like the way language is used. Changing trains in Reading Station I am soothed by the carefully–enunciated train announcements. Recorded of course, and less personal perhaps, but much more accessible than the unpredictable live delivery of train managers reminding us that we now are arriving into rather than at Swindon.
In the UK, as long as you are prepared to walk to the end of the train, you can still reserve a seat in the Quiet carriage, where you will be spared tedious telephone conversations of people recounting the daily minutiae of their lives in loud detail. I remember a woman doing this on an Italian train, and as she finally said goodbye, a blind man sitting behind her quipping ‘ Signora, please do give your friend best wishes from the rest of us’
My most frequent train journey in the UK is from Paddington to South Wales, long enough to do some productive work, with time for a trip to the buffet for coffee and Kitkat,reassuringly still available alongside fancier refreshments. This route also has some stunning skies with changing light and cloud formations.
In the not so distant future I will qualify for a railcard (how did that happen?) but am excited by the opportunities for train travel that it will bring. I’ve got my eye on a sleeper train to Scotland and a few days in a remote pub in the Highlands. I might even take a John Buchan novel with me.
I am now officially my mother. Its been coming on gradually over the last few months, which makes me think it might be a developmental thing connected with a significant birthday I have coming up. Or perhaps my new status as a grandmother.
Whatever the reason, these days I sometimes find myself coming out with my mother’s sayings, mini homilies of morality, wise woman stuff which was layered onto my mind during my childhood and after years lying dormant has started to pop out unexpectedly in my conversation.
Some of the phrases are connected with childrearing, such as ‘he can’t grasp his sleep’ to describe a wakeful child. Another favourite of hers is “you wouldn’t stop a galloping horse to notice that”. – a common sense response to dismiss problems of a trivial nature.My mother has always been intensely practical.
Others reflected a time when money had to be made go round, and were perhaps heard from her own mother in the 1930s. Phrases like ‘to be poor and show poor is damn poor, which always makes me think of Scarlett O’ Hara pulling down the green velvet curtains to make herself a dress. ‘Cheap is dear in the long run’ was another warning against false economies. But the one I dreaded most was ‘swank money’ – extra money you would take with you on a school trip to look flush, but which you would bring home without spending.
Last week I took the dreaded Probability midterm, which was (without even .01% of doubt) the most difficult exam I have taken in my whole life. Anyone who is old enough to remember the Five Boys chocolate bar will remember the five stages of anticipation on the boy’s face until he gets his darned chocolate.
During that two-hour exam I went through a similar process, but in reverse, from delusional optimism at 3.01 p.m that I might be able to scrape through, to sullen resignation as I submitted my paper that this stuff was way, way, way out of my league. The next lesson we got our results, people getting knocked out of the running like a grotesque academic reality show. I did spectacularly badly, so bad that Nancy and I laughed at the absurdly low mark I got. The funny thing is, I quite enjoy the conceptual part of the course – I used to work in a betting shop as a university student- but the more advanced theorems are impenetrable.
I’m doing the resit next week, and remembering the Beckett quote:
People who have any kind of social contact with me know that I am currently grappling with a Probability and Statistics class that would not have been on my bucket list of academic courses to take before I die. It has been thrust upon me as a requirement of my academic program, and I am ( sportily I think) doing my best to understand concepts way out of my intellectual comfort zone. So, as well as attending class twice a week with my regular professor, I do some cramming with some online tutoring classes, and have accumulated a bunch of text books to help me crack impenetrable codes of Conditional Probability and Binomial distribution.
Being a word rather than number person, I have noticed is how both real life and online professors use a particular kind of discourse when giving their lectures at world speed . Phrases which preclude any discussion like ‘and I hope you understand that …’ or I think you would agree ..’ and I want you to understand …. have us all in locked into effortful and anguished attention, trying to do just that. Sometimes our face-to-face prof tries to rock it up a little with interjections Gee! boom! and so thats kinda cool . But he doesn’t fool anyone.
Everyone told me to avoid Trader Joe’s at weekends because it was too crowded, but I didn’t listen to them, just like I ignored people who advised me to take warm clothing to Britain in August because it would feel chilly after Italy. I don’t know if this is down to my delusional optimism or lack of imagination (though that never seems to desert me in a stalled underground train). The fact is, I see such people as naysayers, the sort who always think the the glass might be half empty.
So, a couple of Sundays ago, against everyone’s better judgement, I popped down to pick up a few groceries. It’s fifty blocks down from me, but worth the bus fare for its good, affordable produce in this eye-poppingly expensive city. When I first arrived in New York I was so alarmed by the price of fresh fruit that I bought one pear at a time.
Joe’s is situated just in front of 72nd street subway station with an entrance so small and unassuming you might miss it. Inside an escalator takes you two floors down to the subterranean shopping area. It’s a bit shabby, as a lot of stores outside the main tourist drag can be, but, unlike other retail outlets, it seems to have concentrated all the available bonhomie in the city into its cramped premises. This impressive recruitment policy is for a very good reason: the supermarket is so popular, and space so limited, that almost as they step off the elevator, shoppers have to be ushered into a never-ending line, Disney-style, around the aisles and towards the checkout, choosing their purchases on the way. The movement of people is accomplished by enthusiastic assistants, holding signs saying ‘The end of the line is HERE’ or ‘Not long now!’ or “You are 5 minutes from the checkout’. Assertively, they urge you to ‘move right on down’ or ‘close it up a little folks’ so that the line proceeds in a timely manner. In order for this system to work there is a unspoken agreement that shoppers will cooperate, and apart from the odd abandoned trolley, most people are philosophical.
So, could Sundays be any worse than other days? Reader, it was gridlock. As well as the samples of warm lasagne strategically offered half way along the line, extra lollipops were handed out to reward us on the home run. I exited double-bagged, in the nick of time, just as an orderly line was forming outside the entrance in 72nd street.