Tourists in our (former) hometown

by Laura A

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Lower Manhattan with the new World Trade Center, which is taller than it looks here

This week our family (and our Italian guest Lara) have been staying in New York City.  It’s Sarie’s and my second trip back to NYC since we moved from here to Italy, but the first in which we have stayed in our old neighborhood on the Upper West Side.  Last year we stayed in a friend’s apartment in the West Village.

This week we’ve mostly been showing Lara around the city, since it’s the first time she’s ever been to the US and she’s excited about seeing New York.  So we’ve done a lot of touristy things that I usually wouldn’t do–like walking around on Fifth Avenue and going into famous stores–and some things that I would do anyway–like going to the Metropolitan Museum and the Morgan Library.

On Saturday we toured Lower Manhattan. It has been very hot, so we mostly thought about how we could be comfortable and see a lot at the same time. We decided to get a good view of the Lower Manhattan, the newly finished Freedom Tower (or One World Trade Center), the Statue of Liberty, and the neighboring boroughs by riding the Staten Island Ferry. Lara had a great time taking photos to send to her family.  But I couldn’t help but notice that even after twelve years, the World Trade Center makes me sad. I chide myself about this, thinking I’m being maudlin, but the feeling doesn’t go away.

After spending the morning in Lower Manhattan, we went to the West Village for lunch.  Lara was feeling homesick for pizza, and the Village has a good pizzeria.  The minute we entered the restaurant we heard people speaking Italian, and the television was tuned to RAI.  The pizza proved to be quite close to what you’d get in Italy.  It had the desired effect.

At the table next to us, the waitress was chatting with a man who was obviously Italian.  He was wearing a white linen shirt and hat, and next to him sat a little white lap dog.  I took the dog as an indication of how Italian the restaurant was, because New York City has an ordinance against dogs in stores and restaurants, but most Italian establishments have their own dogs. (And it would be very Italian to ignore the ordinance.) We may have spoken a few words with the man early in the meal, but towards the end he realized that Lara was Italian and we ended up having a thirty-minute conversation about all sorts of things, from his life in New York to the prospects of young Italians. Lara noted later that most of the time, Italians from one city don’t feel that much kinship with those from another city (the man was from Rome). But when they meet somewhere else, they’re all Italians.

Meanwhile, Sarie made friends with the dog, who ended up licking her in the face.

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Lara speaks Italian mostly, so she, Sarie and I spend whole days speaking almost nothing else.  As a result, I have had a tendency to turn to whomever we’re speaking to in whatever shop, restaurant or museum I’m in, and not make the language switch. I’m sure this is because I’ve gotten used to speaking Italian to all strangers. But it’s still embarrassing, especially since I’m in my own country. I have a new admiration for the many New Yorkers I know who are completely fluent in two languages and can also switch.

During the week, we’ve had some conversations about what it would be like if we could combine the best of New York and Italy.  I like New Yorkers’ sharp wit, talent, and the “you never know what will happen next” wackiness of living in Manhattan. But I like Italian warmth, elegance and hospitality.  If you could have both in one place, it would be ideal. But we finally concluded that these traits may be mutually exclusive.

Meanwhile, a couple of nights ago, I asked Sarie what she thought of New York now that she has been away for almost two years.

“I never realized before how weird the people were,” she replied immediately. “Of course, I knew it, but I was so used to it that I didn’t think about it.”

I burst out laughing.  I had just written in my journal: “There are a lot of truly eccentric people in this city.  I did know that already, but that’s what strikes me after being gone for two years.”

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