Deserting the Empire
“Where are you from again?”
I’m having lunch with a new client and his staff in a swank neighborhood on the west side of Oslo, Norway. I know exactly where this conversation is headed the minute I respond.
The brows jump, the smiles grow; ‘the foreigner’ has immediately piqued their interest. One person was “just there!” while another goes once a year to “get away from it all,” whatever that means.
The conversation will then go like this: the people who have never been to New York will ask me what it’s like. These Gotham Virgins will then join the seasoned travelers among us in asking how the hell I could have left a place like New York City. When I justify my existence and reason for leaving, they’ll immediately ask me if I’ll ever go back.
By the power of Miss Cleo, my prediction comes true.
Eyes wide with interest, one of the crew asks, “What’s it like?”
I love this question because it conjures up so many odd things that people associate with New York City and her natives. I went to college in Wisconsin from 2000 to 2004, partly as an experiment, partly out of having fallen in love with the Midwestern farm country and incredibly cheap food. I will never forget the first day of freshman year, when I introduced myself to my classmates. Afterward, a girl from small town Iowa came up to me and said, “You’re from New York! Wow! Is it true people never sleep there?”
She was dead serious.
That’s when it first hit me: I was from a place that is actually mythical to some people. There’s a very ‘anti-bubble bubble syndrome’ that happens when you grow up in a city like New York. I grew up thinking it was all pretty normal. I knew New York was famous, but then again the States seemed full of famous cities. What was the big whoop? And there I was thinking that being from hood-era Bushwick, Brooklyn, was nothing special.
As I explain to my Norwegian client and his crew, New York City feels like an organized mess of every kind of person and experience possible. No one gets bored in the Big Apple. I regale my entourage with details about our transit system, our nightlife, our curious habit of walking around for hours and engaging in conversations with strangers. New Yorkers know few limits and are rarely encumbered by the pressures of the daily grind.
But I have a confession to make: Living in New York was like being in a bad relationship. I loved it, yet felt rejected by it when I was living there, because I was one of those weirdos who did get bored. I was born with a wanderlust that prompted my mom to sing Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” whenever I told her I was moving again.
Describing my hometown is like remembering former lovers. I feel relegated to short details about their finer points. Delving into my past, I relive the complex feelings that led to my departure. I never related to the kid-off-the-bus-with-a-dream, or the Europeans who’d visit to “get away from it all.” Once, when I was still living in New York, I saw a woman riding on the second level of a tour bus through the Flatiron District. She had one foot up on the guardrail, a soda in her hand, and a wonderfully happy look on her face. There was no wide smile, no cartoonish laughter. Watching the city burbling around her that hot evening as the bus pushed up toward the Empire State Building at sunset, she seemed like she must have wanted to do that for years.
Telling this anecdote to the Norwegians brings about the next question: “Why’d you leave?” How does one turn one’s back on the epicenter of the world? How could I desert such an empire? I have often said native New Yorkers are divided into two camps: those who grow up there and never want to leave, and those of us who grow up there and go, “O.K., so what else is going on?”
The only times I’ve felt like that tourist on the bus were while watching documentaries about the Nevada desert or while learning about New Orleans’s rich musical history or looking at pictures taken from the streets of London, Rome or San Francisco. I fall in love with names, temperatures, sunsets. I’m intrigued by a city’s position on a map. Many people treat New York like the center of the world, fascinated by how many different kinds of everything there are. But I never really looked at it that way–I was more interested in where all these different kinds of everything were coming from. Were these things unique simply because they were all lumped up together, or was there an intrinsic wonder to that Indian silk store next door to the Dominican bodega?
Growing up, my favorite books were atlases and short story collections, so off I went to explore. My fear of flying in my 20s had me traveling mainly throughout the states by train or taking long, aimless car trips. Luckily, these creative aversions to airplanes introduced me to wonderful people in places I may not have chosen to visit intentionally. In the U.S., telling someone I was from New York brought up all sorts of reactions. People think we’re self-righteous, in-your-face, aggressive, brave, inventive, or some kind of expletive or another. I once had a Texan stop talking to me mid-conversation when I told him where I was from. This was because sometime in the 1840’s, a New Yorker had cost his family a fortune in a business swindle. The anti-New York ire was passed down through generations of that family.
The older I got, the more of a map slut I became. I fell in love with the South and started an MFA program there, but that didn’t work out. I went with my then-boyfriend to give the Denver Rockies a try, but I’m not an outdoor person and the thin air was only really good for drinking. When I went back home I felt really out of place, so I rolled the dice and moved to San Francisco. I was a sucker for fog, writing and freaks. Not long after that, I fell in love with a Norwegian man and decided I’d seen enough of the States. I did what any travel-obsessed writer and foreign film aficionado would do—I went to Europe.
Abroad, the treatment of New Yorkers is a different story. Any hostility or fondness toward us for being New Yorkers is much more focused. The haters think that we’re always “looking for” New York; when we complain about the place we’re currently living in, they assume it’s because we think it should be more like New York. Or they think that if we go into business abroad, we’re trying to run things the way they do in New York. Like we think New York sets the standard for how life should be in any city, anywhere, at any time.
I see a vicious cycle here. When you grow up in New York, yes, you’re trained to expect certain things, but if you’re a self-aware individual you know that once you leave, those expectations have to go out the door, too. I won’t lie—sometimes it’s a struggle. Sometimes you wish your fave café in Germany was open past ten p.m., or that you could find clothes on the cheap in Sweden the way you know you can on 34th Street. You wish people would get to the point quicker when they talk to you. And you definitely wish that they’d negotiate with eye contact and peripheral vision what the hell side of the street they're going to walk on and stick to it. Sigh.
But at the same time, a large part of the world looks to New York for inspiration. People aspire to move there at least once, and want to live a life like one from their favorite New York-set movie or TV show. More often than not, though, it’s the people who aren’t New Yorkers who feel it should be emulated.
The Gotham-lovers are much kinder and always love to talk to people from New York. Be it because of their own fond experiences with people from the city or with the city itself, or because they love the sales package of it all, they’re open to conversation.
Being from New York can lend itself to the “card carrier” effect: it helps you get attention. There’s the assumption that you’ve got something dynamic about you, that you’ve seen a lot of the world by just being from one place, and maybe–love it or hate it–you’ve got something to say worth hearing. And if you do, this is a great advantage.
I run into plenty of New Yorkers while traveling. There are a ton of us out in the world making things happen. When we cross paths with each other it’s not like when it happens at home–ignore, carry on. Abroad, it’s always nice to see people from your hometown, and we love to reminisce and listen to each others’ experiences. Plus, the networking that we might forgo back home becomes invaluable.
Will I return? I don’t know–I’ve moved back twice. I’ve learned never to say never. But if given a choice, no, I won’t go back to live there. Brooklyn and Manhattan will forever be my two hearts, I will always love my home, that’s true. But I know that if I went back I’d have to leave again before drowning in my curiosity about the rest of the world.
Maybe people like me don’t belong in any one place. Until recently, this thought had me worried. Would I ever stop floating around? But this was a worry brought on by our culture of formulas. We’re taught that not having a set mold for yourself by the time you’re thirty is some kind of a death sentence. If you have to wonder, I say wander, even if it means leaving an empire behind.
The other day I met a friend for pizza. She took a knife and fork to her piece. After slicing mine, I folded my piece and began to eat. A guy at another table watched me as soon as I did this.
If there’s one thing I miss about being home, it’s not having to explain why I fold my pizza.
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Celeste Ramos is a writer/editor from Brooklyn who also goes by the name Miriam Lee. She is slowly pogo-sticking her way around the world. (Not literally. But she does love to travel.) She is now eying a writing career with a touch of celluloid in London.
Nate Beaty draws comics and codes websites and gulps gallons of green tea in his multi-cat Chicago home.