Our brains seem wired to get a rush out of novelty. Whether it's entering a new relationship or buying a new gadget or visiting a new place, there's something about that feeling of initial trepidation followed by the stimulation of new experiences that leaves this glow around the New Thing. But, as time passes, that glow fades and we're left with all the little warts and smells and quirks of the actual realities of the thing.
I was reminded of this on a recent overnight stay in Manhattan.
We don't usually create this association with vacation-type trips, since we tend to choose exciting places and go once. I lived on Long Island for a few years, so I was already passing familiar with Manhattan on once-a-month visit terms. But this trip has forced me to reconcile myself with the fact that I just don't much care for visiting New York anymore.
As a first time visitor, it's easy to miss the warning signs. There are so many bright lights and museums and restaurants and famous locations that you're overwhelmed, put on the blinders, and stick to some preconceived super-efficient point-to-point itinerary. But if you freestyle your itinerary a little bit, and linger in the less-toured areas, you start to see some of the problems with New York vis-à-vis a nice place to be.
The most obvious problem is simply the muchness of it all. It's an enormous city with many, many people and things to do. The many things to do can become overwhelming, and, like a restaurant with a thirty page menu, you end up unable to make any decision at all. This is a relatively benign problem until you end up circling for half an hour unable to pick a place to eat. No big city is immune to this problem, but New York's density and size exacerbates the problem (is the Starbucks on this block or the one on the next block better [the answer is that the coffee is identical, but one of them smells like pee]).
Then comes the more distinctively New York aspects. This is a loud city, and the natural sound track is cars honking at nobody in particular. I have, on occassion, paid quite a bit to go into a museum and get off the street just so I can sit somewhere sorta quiet. The only real way to navigate the city is walking and subways, what with its atrocious street traffic.
But the walking spaces are a mess. The sidewalks are covered in both literal and figurative shit -- on my last visit I saw a woman let her dog take a giant dump next to a car on the sidewalk then just leave it there. I've become proficient, over many visits to Manhattan over the years, of getting excrement off my shoe using the various standing water puddles at the cross streets and the uneven concrete that makes up the sidewalks. Whole blocks of the city will smell like garbage or urine without warning or discernible origin. Older buildings are surrounded by the characteristic scaffolding that makes open sidewalks like a postmodern dungeon.
The mass transit is not much better. The subway cars range from reasonably comfortable to outdated with much screeching and rattling and no air conditioning (and those tunnels get warm in the summer months). If you see an empty car during rush hour, it is not because you are a perceptive genius, and it likely has more to do with some appalling thing or another -- the possibilities are legion.
And everywhere, everyone pays a premium for Being In New York.
New York's boosters would argue that these are problems facing all large cities. But not necessarily. I didn't find Paris to be particularly expensive, certainly not Manhattan expensive. Chicago doesn't have the atrocious scaffolding enveloping its buildings. The sidewalks in Tokyo are devoid of dust, let alone gum, waste, and garbage. The subway system in Munich has air conditioning and comfortable, quiet modern cars, and the inter-city trains in Europe give no impression of speed -- no noise, no rattling, no banging about -- despite sometimes touching 200 mph.
This seems like I hate New York. I don't. I frequently take long layovers in Manhattan on my way to Europe because New York is one of the rare places where you can do Literally Anything. On a recent trip I visited the Rubin Museum of Art near 17th and 7th and learned an awful lot about Himalayan art and the regional variations of religious symbolism on the Tibetan plateau for about $15. I still haven't visited the Whitney yet (and it is a sign of the fame of New York's museums that they get the article 'The' combined with a short name: The Whitney, The Met, The MoMA, The Guggenheim, The Frick, and these are just the super famous ones, with dozens of other very good museums well worth visiting), despite wandering up and down the High Line after it first opened. There is just so much to do there. If I start writing Idyll Travel Guides (and I'm thinking about it), NYC would be the first place to get the treatment.
It's classic it's-not-you-it's-me. I've been there so many times, lived nearby, visited after I moved, that the novelty of being completely overwhelmed for choices in museums, bars, high end dining, low end dining, haute couture, Juicy Couture, flash mobs, Persian Pride Parades, &c. has worn off and I'm left seeing nothing but the hairy wart in the middle of New York's forehead. If you've never gone, you should go, and stay away from Time Square, and see for yourself how much is there. For me, I may need a year or so. After New Year's Eve this year, which I've never done in Manhattan. And probably a layover on another trip to Europe.