Last night on Twitter someone said to me, “I can’t imagine dealing with NYC and kids“, which made me wonder why we do it. I’m sure lots of people who live around here don’t feel the need to drag their small children up the coast to one of the biggest cities in the world just so everyone can get annoyed about new and different things, in between maybe seeing a few sights. Maybe they’re right. Maybe it should be a magical experience when they’re 12, or 20, like it was for us. Maybe we just want to re-create the wonder of our first trip to New York, but instead we’re making them hate it. Or maybe we go just because we, the adults, want to remember that we can.
The first time I came to NYC was the summer of my second year in university. I was almost 21, and on my way to San Fransisco with my best friend on the J1 exchange scheme that still runs between the US and Ireland. (It enables college students to spend one summer in the US – or Ireland, but it seems very few people take it up in that direction – so long as they can prove they have a course to return to in the autumn.)
So we were on a plane full of students and we all flew into JFK and were put up in Columbia University dorms for the first night, followed by an information session, and then they’d send us all off on our ways for the rest of the summer. Most of our plane was going to Long Island – Idlewild, Martha’s Vineyard – we were practically the only two of that shipment heading on out to the other side of the country. I’m not sure why; we stuck a pin in the map.
There was one guy my friend F knew from college on the plane, and the three of us ended up sharing a dorm room that night. We were pretty excited to be there, but this guy was practically levitating with the thrill. I think he was only 19, much younger than our staid 20-and-a-halfs, and he sat up the entire night staring out the window at the dark and the lights and the sirens and trying to believe that he was really in New York.
I had been to Boston for two weeks the summer before, so I’d broken my American duck and could be blasé about the whole thing – but I’d been almost the same. When you spend your whole life watching American films and American tv shows, it’s uncannily like stepping into the screen to find that it really exists.
We can’t ever replicate that feeling for our children. America is their bread and butter (sorry, PB&J), it’s their standard, their norm, their status quo. It’s never going to be Other for them the way it was for us.
But Manhattan; that’s a whole separate ballgame. Even if you’re American, I’m willing to bet that your first trip to the Big Apple is a big deal. I know I’m more a city mouse than a country mouse, because when I stand on Fifth Avenue, or pretty much anywhere else there, surrounded by skyscrapers or elegant four-story brownstones, seeing the blue sky stretching up in a slice to my left and right, steam escaping from a subway vent, a host of yellow taxis bearing down on me, horns-a-blowin’… well, I just want to take a deep breath (cough, cough) and let it all sink in. It’s my jam, you know.
I always want to take a photo of that perfect slice, the symmetry of the buildings on either side… but I’m always in the middle of the street at the time, so I can’t stop to capture it.
Besides the aesthetics, there’s the sheer vibrancy of New York City. The sense that you’re in a small space with a huge number of people, all living their daily lives, going about their normal things, people of all colours and races and religions and ethnicities. It’s Life, concentrated. I love looking at New York toddlers and thinking about how they’ll grow up right in the thick of it. (Or maybe they won’t, of course. Their parents might move to Brooklyn next year and all the way out to New Jersey two years after that, as many sensible people do. Sometimes you really need the breathing room.) When I’m there I feel like I really am in the hub of the world. It’s the coolest place there is.
So that’s why. We bring the kids because they’re ours and a babysitter for the weekend would be expensive, and because we think they might like some of the things we have to show them, and because travel broadens the mind and makes you appreciate the simple comforts of home. But really, we go because New York City is New York City, centre of the known universe, a place like no other, where – if even for tiny moments in between whine-fests and demands for piggybacks and people getting their ya-yas out by jumping repeatedly from one double bed to the other – we can soak in the Cool and plan the next trip, when it will be easier and better and we’ll do all those things we didn’t get to do this time.