I realise, by the way, that this blog really ought to be renamed americanclaire, seeing as that's where I spend so much of my thinking time these days, but anyway...
People often say that when you first arrive somewhere new and exciting like Delhi or Beijing or Phnom Penh, what strikes you is the noise or the smell or the busyness... Not so with New York. The first thing that I noticed was its reassuring familiarity. JFK Airport looked and felt like any other airport, complete with the greyness and drizzle outside. Apart from some posters on the wall reminding me where I’d landed – as if I could forget, after counting down to this trip for weeks – I could have been almost anywhere, or at least anywhere English-speaking.
That’s perhaps the key to why I felt so at home in the US during my stay: as an expatriate Brit, living in Belgium, there was something so pleasant about being in a country whose language and whose customs I at least thought I understood (even if that did turn out to be somewhat of an overstatement). Call me a heretic, but I miss the simple London things, many of which I have spent years railing against - things like Starbucks Coffee Houses (and there is certainly no shortage of those in New York City, though they are perhaps less omnipresent than I had been led to believe by anti-American propaganda). Things like big chain bookshops too. And oh, how I loved that things are open whenever you need them to be. Yes, even on a Sunday. Granted, I have no need to buy an iPod at 3 am (the futuristic Apple Store on Fifth Avenue really is open 24 hours a day), so some of the commercialism is perhaps over the top, but a pair of (so excitingly cheap) Sketchers at 11 pm on the way home from a Broadway show? Why not?
I was, in fact, quite surprised that JFK Airport was not the temple to capitalism that I expected it to be. There is just one little shop in arrivals where you can buy drinks and things like Newsweek, which has a different cover over there despite containing the same articles. That was perhaps the first difference I noticed (what can I say? I am a geek); immediately followed by the odd shape of Coke bottles. Unlike the UK, which has been officially metric since 1965, though in everyday life most people speak – and, crucially, think - in imperial measures, America puts up no such pretence: my Coke was 20 fluid ounces, or 591 milligrams, hence the unfamiliar size. Paying for that, then my bus ticket, was the next obstacle: I’m used to banknotes whose colour varies depending on their value – a 20-euro note is blue for example, whereas a ten-euro note is red, and a similar thing applies in the UK. I’m also not used to tipping anyone and everyone 20%: it seems almost no price can be taken at face value, since it often fails to include either the tip or the tax, and probably both in some cases.
Yellow taxis outside the airport confirmed that I had arrived in the right place. After navigating the various complications of getting on the bus, I settled down, ready to say “wow” every five minutes on my way into New York City for the first time ever. As it turned out, I saved my “wow” moments for a few days later, when walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, admiring its famous views on a beautiful sunny day. From the bus, I took in more mundane sights such as those famous yellow school buses (it turns out that Bart and Lisa Simpson aren’t the only ones to travel in one) and brands like Staples which in my British imperialism I had assumed were English.
But then we turned down 42nd Street and suddenly it looked like the films. I’d arrived in New York City. This, despite my jet lag, was very exciting indeed.