Dearest fellow travelers, how often have you been obligated to do something that sounded dreadful, only to find yourself having a wonderful time? Or maybe it wasn’t even going to be dreadful, merely kind of dull, like a coworker’s wedding or your second cousin’s bar mitzvah, but the DJ played MIA and ABBA and other artists whose awesomeness requires that their names be in all caps, and the buffet had those tasty bacon-wrapped dates and slabs of Gouda (none of that cubed stuff), and you spent the night dancing with a highly attractive friend of the family who was very willing to share their hotel room with you at the end of the evening? In these situations, you might look back on the experience and conclude, “Well, that was better than expected.”
My mom is very fond of the phrase “better than expected,” and it’s become somewhat of a thing in our family to admit our pessimistic outlook was proved wrong and we were pleasantly surprised. Why, just a few weeks ago, when I was visiting EL, H and I went to a church party with our parents and had so much fun talking to people we hadn’t seen in months that we stayed an hour and a half later than we’d planned to. Better than expected.
When I went to New York City this past May, it was a classic case. I was, of course, immensely excited to visit my sister E, but that was separate from how I felt about visiting the city itself. See, I’ve had a bias against the East Coast for over ten years now, based on all the literature and movies that assume everyone is aware the Midwest is for uncultured oafs, and the only place to be, if you’re going to be anybody, is New York (followed by Boston or DC if you have to settle). Unfortunately, many of the people I’ve met from New York support this theory, and I can’t stand their smug superiority.
I’ll be damned if people are going to tell me my city is second rate to any other, especially a city as overblown and overdone as New York. People in New York are proud to be assholes to tourists, whereas people in Chicago might get annoyed at having to point out the Sears Tower over and over, but we’re still going to say excuse me when we bump into you on the street. Everyone in theater knows that there are two towns for theater in the US — New York and Chicago. New York has a giant park and a dirty ocean, but Chicago has miles of park running alongside a lake you can actually swim in. Bands might move to New York when they need to cut a record deal, but they’re just as likely to record that album in Chicago. And if you’re a hip hop act, Chicago is the place to be. If you want to eat at one of the hot restaurants in New York, you have to make reservations before the place even exists. In Chicago, I’m pretty sure I could get a reservation at Alinea or the Publican a week or two out, and in the meantime, there’s Kuma’s Corner. Chicago has the perfect combination of Midwestern manners and big city excitement, and I honestly don’t want to live anywhere else for at least a few years.
Oops. I got off on a tangent there. But that’s exactly what I mean — I get so defensive about Chicago when I’m talking to East Coasters, and New Yorkers in particular. Of course I still wanted to go to New York. It’s not that I think there’s nothing special about the place, or that it’s inferior to Chicago, or that I wouldn’t enjoy myself. Not at all! New York has many unique sights and a fascinating history. That’s what I had to keep reminding myself as I prepared to go there. I had a mental block about the people I’d meet and the city’s relation to my city, but if I could just get past that, there was a world class city waiting for me.
Indeed, I had a wonderful time. Granted, E introduced me to her friends, so everyone I met was friendly, but I was kind of expecting to get straight up shoved into the street for walking too slowly on the sidewalk, and that did not happen. I was also fairly confident that I’d get “tourist” hurled at me as an angry epithet when I stopped to take my 400th photo (in five days. not kidding.), but instead, I was twice stopped for directions from other tourists who took me for a native. And the sights did not disappoint. I am a firm believer in seeing lots of tourist sites when visiting a new place, since you never know when you’ll be back, and there’s usually a reason something got famous enough to be a tourist destination in the first place. Accordingly, I packed it in: Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Staten Island Ferry, Central Park, Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Chinatown, a show on Broadway, Times Square (for ten bewildering and terrifying minutes), the Modern Museum of Art, and even Coney Island when my return flight was delayed by several hours.
What’s that? Okay. Yes. I’ll admit it, and gladly. New York was better than expected.