Some cities are whores. They open up to anyone. Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Shanghai. With certain cities, armed with a Fodor's guide or travelocity.com reviews, even the most inexperienced of travelers can quickly feel that they've developed a certain intimate knowledge of the rhythms of a place.
But then there are other cities that don't PLAY hard to get. They ARE hard to get. New York and Beijing, for example. You need an introduction to these cities. And even then, it's not often easy. Certain cities, like certain people, require work and patience and a level of commitment. Sometimes, it SHOULD be difficult.
With every city I have lived in as an adult, there has always been that moment when it becomes mine.
After college, I moved "back" to NYC for work and graduate school. I was also a shoe model for 5 minutes. (The dogs are a perfect size 6, thank you very much, and that is the only requirement for modeling shoes). One night I had dinner with my photographer friend, the owner of the modeling agency, and a few of their friends. The discussion revolved around ex spouses, alimony, and step-children. Having had no direct experience with any of those things at the tender age of 21, I contributed several charming stories about my childhood pet - a near-feral Siamese cat.
I was struck by the incredible beauty of one of the women at the table. Ten minutes later, I was struck by her utter lack of warmth. Ten minutes after that, I was struck with the notion that perhaps she had died and no one had noticed. But she wasn't dead, nor was she cold and unfriendly. She was a former model and so terrified of aging and laugh-lines that she had trained herself not to smile and to move her mouth as little as possible when she spoke. I was skeptical of the efficacy of this approach, and thought that she would have been far more beautiful with a few laugh-lines. There's a quote I can't attribute correctly, but it goes along the following lines: that we can't take credit for our beauty (or lack of it) when we are young. It's only after decades of living that we can take credit for our faces - because whether we've spent those years laughing or scowling will, only then, be evident on our faces. Of course, in the age of botox, this is less relevant, but the truth of it still applies. After that dinner, I took a taxi home and asked the driver to drop me off several blocks away from my apartment so I could walk the rest of the way. I was feeling terribly sophisticated and glamorous and the city was humoring me that night and that's when NYC truly became home for me all over again.
In Beijing, it took a full year. One night, I was working late and alone in the office. And outside my window, I could see the lights of Guo Mao and The Kerry Center. In the dark that night, suddenly Beijing seemed beautiful and familiar to me, and reminded me of... New York.
New York surprised me last night. I found myself in a club where I am fairly certain there were only 3 people over the age of 30, and their initials are CK, SK and MT. It was a club I had been to just once before, 20 years ago. I was too young then, too old now, and interestingly enough, it felt... the same - so odd and ill-fitting that all one can do is shrug and join the dancing throng. It was a side of NYC I had completely forgotten and it was lovely to see it again.
Just goes to show, even after you think you understand a place and can categorize it, predict it, you can be surprised. The same goes for people.
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