Better Than Expected

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.


Central Park

Central Park



Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building from the top of the Empire State Building

The Classy Tourists

as touristy as possible, and mighty happy



What’s that? Okay. Yes. I’ll admit it, and gladly. New York was better than expected.

20 thoughts on “Better Than Expected

  1. I think a lot of people feel the way you do, but like most places I’ve lived I think there is a vast difference between the reality and the myth. New Yorkers aren’t as mean as they are said to be and Londoners aren’t as polite. I think any city will have that gross icky feeling that comes from one feeling wrong footed in a strange place, but I think that by the end most times one tends to find the place was better than expected. (Save Brussels, give that a miss, apologizes to Belgians)

    • Poor Brussels.

      I wonder if living in a place and merely stopping by makes the difference? Living in a place obviously gives you greater insight to a place than just visiting for a week. Of course, that depends again on perspective and attitude — some of my fellow students went to Rome expecting to find it dirty, loud, and disappointing, and after five months of living there, that was their impression of the city.

  2. Having lived in New York for three years, I cant’ say that I think many of the stereotypes about the city are true. However, I’m also not someone who believes that New York is inherently superior to other cities. I admit I have a bias for cities over the country (having lived in both), but, yeah, I don’t think New York is the be-all-and-end-all. Because really, what place could be? If one place had it all, why would anyone ever travel, rather than live in Perfecto City?

  3. As a Chicagoan, I understand. I really do. After my 3rd trip to NYC, just last week, I asked E for a, “I (heart) NY” t-shirt. Will you hate me? I really enjoyed my visit…and visit it was. I do not live there, do know what that is like. But I really enjoyed my time…especially Columbia U and Central Park….and “Billy Elliott” wasn’t too shabby either.

    • Damn, girl, why you gotta be all realistic on my ass?

      Good point. If there were such a bar mitzvah, I’m sure you would’ve been invited, seeing as how you’re the life of the party.

        • Clearly, I never actually went to a bar mitzvah. It was a dark time in middle school for me, when I couldn’t even learn the proper foods displayed at celebrations of major rites of passage, and I thank you for bringing back that painful time.

          Here, have some cheese wrapped in bacon.

  4. Ok, lots on which to comment, and in no particular order I pick . . . . . Liz! Girl, what choo talkin’ ’bout Brussels? All right, all right, I’ll leave the lingo to the lingoists. Anyway, I can tell you never had a Belgian waffle in Brussels. Pure delight! And though there are waffles in other cities in Belgium, none come close to the street waffles in Brussels. Smooth, creamy, hot, sweet waffles that melt in your mouth and put a smile on your face. That sugary glaze when slightly cooled can be chewed like candy. Oh Lordy, don’t eat one before lunch because you’ll get two more that will be the lunch. Liz, perhaps you’re just sweet on the inside and don’t like warm sugar covered carbs. I can’t imagine it, but some people don’t like ice cream either. Hey, THERE’S an idea! Ice cream on a Brussels waffle! When’s the next flight?

    Ok, next it’s Liz again. Lady, you mean you’ve never been to a Brussels frites shop? Had you been there you never would have panned Brussels. I’m not kidding: a store that sells only fries (frites) with maybe 30 toppings! Can you stand it? Frites with goulash was one of my favorites, but frites with fritesaus (mayonaise) is well adored in Brussels. They say the secret of Brussels frites is that they’re double fried. First fried once, and allowed to cool before a second dip. That makes them crunchy on the outside, with soft flesh, and creamy on the inside. Adding ketchup here would be an abomination and to my knowledge has never been attempted. I think the Frites Police would jump out of nowhere and march them off to jail. Finally, did you ever have a “Half en Half?” It’s a drink only served in Brussels: white wine mixed with champagne. They say it’s magnifique!

    I agree with Lisa’s response to Liz. I think you’ll find what you’re looking for in a city. When I lived in Amsterdam just before 1980 I was quite wild and often chuckled at how often I was offered drugs on the Dam (the public square) or any where else I traveled in town. Man, you could buy 5 times a day if you wanted, I used to think. And everybody drank all the time, it seemed to me. On the Queen’s Birthday celebration (April 30th every year – even though the queen was born in January (the previous queen, Juliana, was born April 30th and the new queen, Beatrix, though that her birthday in the dead of winter wasn’t suitable for a day long outdoor festival. TMI?) I was drinking early and so was everyone else.

    But when I came back to Amsterdam several much quieter years later, I lived there 27 months and never once was approached about drugs, and during the Queen’s birthday I wasn’t drinking and neither was (almost) anyone else! I was flabbergasted. Did the city change that much in two short years? No, I did. And I’d bet it was the same today. If you go to Amsterdam looking for a wild time, you’ll find it. But if that doesn’t appeal to you, don’t worry. It practically doesn’t exist.

    Ok, I guess I’ll have to reply to Lisa later. Liz, I agree with you one one thing. Londoners aren’t as polite as advertised. What’s a “wanker?”

    • So where’s my ticket to Brussels? Let’s go!

      (And the info on the queen’s birthday is not TMI, it’s awesome. Way to take into account outdoor reveling, Queen Beatrix.)

  5. Alright, Rog, you got me. I did love the food and almost more so the beer. I think my liking of the city was ruined a bit by going to Bruges first, where food, beer, and beautiful setting knock poor Brussels out of the park.

  6. “…it’s become somewhat of a thing in our family to admit our pessimistic outlook was proved wrong and we were pleasantly surprised.”

    Pessimism! The best prelude to a good time.

  7. Watch yourself when you start throwing around generalizations about “East Coasters” there girl. Especially when what you are really talking about is the overblown superiority complex of New York City residents. and your examples? sex and the city? horrible example of a bunch of self-absorbed rich women sitting around talking about shoe shopping on whatever avenue and their affairs? Of Course They’d have a superiority complex about their city.

    I have, however, met just as many people who flee new york, not because they can’t hack it and not because they are forced to “settle” for Boston, but because they hate that town and they’re sick of the assholes who live there.

    And you think there aren’t people snotty about Chicago? Have you seen the hipster population?

    In my east-coaster opinion, New York is overrated, but I would live there if I had to. Boston is a manageable-sized city I am perfectly happy with and if I had to live somewhere, anywhere, else Chicago would be choice.

    Snotty assholes are snotty assholes whichever city you find them in. In the end, I think we can all agree that we are all thankful we live in lovely cities, and that they are all better than L.A.

    • ACTually, Andrew, I also use Scorcese and Woody Allen as examples — Woody Allen, especially, is just as bad as the SATC women, in terms of media figures who glorify neurotic New Yorkers.

      I didn’t say it was settling for Boston, I was told it’s “settling” for Boston or DC. Told by The Man and his snotty henchmen. And I have met many East Coasters — yes, including some Bostonites — who have told me they aren’t really interested in anything west of the Appalachians. It’s like they believe in America as the 13 colonies or something.

      Yeah, I live in the heart of hipsterville in Chicago, as you saw when you visited. It is very true that there are some super snotty Chicagoans. Your conclusion is perfect — Snotty assholes are snotty assholes no matter where you find them. And for all that I liked visiting LA, good grief do I not want to live there.

      P.S. Visit again soon, please. Also, I am visiting Boston next year. Get excited.

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