A filter, at its best, is a useful tool for refining something, concentrating it and removing impurities. Good writing needs a filter, an editor to pare away the rotten cliches. This post isn’t like that. This post has a filter in the Instagram sense of the word: an overindulgent gloss added to mundane observations to make them seem profound. Don’t blame me, though; I really enjoyed writing it and no one’s forcing you to read it.
On my less charitable days, I am sometimes nearly tempted to be almost a little bit annoyed by some aspects of life in New York City (sobs over copy of subway map!). Then I remind myself that the reason for my discombobulation is that I’m viewing life here through a London-themed filter. The process of learning to live in a new country involves changing the filter and it is a slow and confusing process, like trying to do something in Photoshop.
New York is a city that prides itself on the directness of its inhabitants. A native colleague asked how I was fitting in and I said I wasn’t quite a fully-fledged New Yorker yet. He said, “you’ll be pushing people out of the way in no time!” and made a sort of ‘whaddya gonna do?’ face. Although people here don’t enjoy being treated harshly, they are proud of surviving in a city that doesn’t pull any punches. If you can make it (through the day without throttling someone) here, you’ll make it anywhere. I listened to Start the Week on BBC Radio 4 last week and Andrew Marr and Phil Redmond said something similar about Liverpool: it prides itself on being a bit ‘stroppy’.
Londoners will often complain about the rudeness of people there (think of bus drivers) but it’s rarely a source of pride. This got me thinking about what does signify London and I think it’s that people leave each other to get on with things. In NYC, people cajole, shout, laugh and give advice, to everyone and no-one, all the time. In London, I would never tell a stranger how to use the Tube unless they made some sort of request for help. Just today, however, two different people guided me to successful navigating the Lexington Line. I would have been fine without their help, but they wouldn’t have been fine without helping me; that’s a New Yorker’s way. In London, if you are breaking a social convention, a resident might tut, roll eyes, or share a smirk with a third party. Here, a resident will tell you what you’ve done wrong and either punish or assist you, depending on how lucky you are.
None of this is new, of course. Kate Fox’s great book, ‘Watching the English’, makes the point that British politeness is passive whereas American politeness is active. If I want a fellow Brit to have a nice day, I’ll leave him to have it without interference. If an American wants me to have a nice day, she orders me to do it and forces home the affirmation with a smile and a nod.
The filter metaphor helps me remember that people aren’t doing anything wrong when they treat me in a way that surprises me; they’re doing what’s normal but I don’t understand it yet.
So, in Starbucks today, when the server (yes, that’s a word here) continued starting at his phone, raised his hand, beckoned me forward and intoned “following customer!”, I was able to remind myself that this is a very normal way to behave and it’s just my London filter that expects the cashier to look up, smile at me, and maybe just say “next!”
My London filter makes the weather here fascinating. In the past few weeks, I have been freezing, sweltering, rain-blasted, wind-swept, and sun-burnt, often all in the same day. Before I came here, my mother-in-law amazed me by telling me New York is the same latitude as Madrid. She’s right; and you sense it in the long summer days and the intensity of the sunlight. Even now, as the days shorten, the sun feels intense and bright because of its height in the sky.
I was lucky enough to go to a reception at the residence of the British Consul last week. It is an extremely luxurious penthouse apartment with mid-town views and artwork borrowed from the National Gallery. While sipping champagne and overdoing the free canapes, I got chatting to another newly-arrived British chap who introduced himself as Ross. We shared anecdotes about the way the city has shocked us and he joined me in marveling at the glitz and glamour of the setting. It was only when he went to chat to another group that I found out he was the host – the deputy consul. A native New Yorker would never leave that unsaid. As the fabulous choreographer and director Kenn Oldfield told me once… in Britain, if you tell a funny joke people laugh at it; in New York, they bellow “THAT’S FUNNY!”
Finally, the one thing that doesn’t need filters here is photography. My husband took the attached amazing shot of the sunset from the Central Park reservoir. When the complexity of booking a doctor’s appointment becomes overwhelming, or the lack of any normal-sized chocolate bars gets me down, or yet another person thinks that a blaring horn is an effective communication tool, views like this still make me delighted I’ve moved to this unusual island.